Review

I Want Your Chair
Elaine Schwager

A House of Corners
Bertha Rogers
 

I Want Your Chair
Elaine Schwager
Rattapallax Press, NY, 2000
(112 pp. paper $14.95, cloth $24.95, both with CD)

by Vic Schermer

This is as finely-crafted a first book of poems as one is likely to see. If it is not as passionate or contorted as some of its subjects--the Holocaust, an uncle dying of cancer, a pained relationship with a mother, a suicide--, its measured contemplation of a microcosm of experience, with connotations ranging from the lightly humorous to the tragic, is nonetheless profound, sensitive, and deeply compassionate.

The poems in this collection remind me of a steeple clock I once saw in a small Swiss town. Walking along on a wonderful, cloudless day amid early Summer blossoms, I came to the central square where a "cuckoo" clock presided, beautifully proportioned, mechanically masterful, with interesting objects in motion, stopped, or briefly concealed in the internal workings. Fascinated, I thought of how it must have spent its life at the geographic crux of fateful events spanning European history, now detached and distant, now basking in natureís surrounding bounty. So too, Elaine Schwagerís poems recount everyday and large-scale human events with profound commitment which goes to the edge of suffering, yet always transcends it, manifesting what James Wright called the "pure, clear word." In these poems, subjects and objects pass before us in words, images, metaphors, then vanish into wherever and whomever they came from. We look for their traces in other poems in the volume, sometimes finding them, and sometimes not.

The greatest among the gifts which Ms. Schwager brings to her work is parsimony. Her words and phrases do exactly what they must, with little wasted energy. The voice is constant throughout. It is the voice of gentle compassion in the face of the pain of the human condition: a holocaust survivor seeking to make sense out of senseless horror; a pregnant woman coming to terms with her weighted body (and mind); a mental patient magically making a collage of the moonís ascent in the midst of her breakdown; lovers escaping from the "real" world in the "rose light" of the bedroom, though still aware of the tarnished world around them.

The poet shows an internalized mastery of form, using couplets, truncated lines, prose, in graceful combinations perfectly suited to their subject and sound. Thus, "In the Middle of Dinner" moves from prose poem to tight, stanzaic verse, as the tension mounts around the dying uncleís table. "The Rose Light" redraws, in one- to three-word lines, the narrow passage within which the loversí desire finds fulfillment. Here, the concrete outer world co-habits with the numinous inner; the partners join on the fulcrum of loveís bivalent impulsion/repulsion, the counterpart drive-to and driven-from of rosy and bleak.

The book is organized into five sections loosely related by theme or chronology, each named for the lead poem in the section. In the first, "Was That God Asking Us To Listen?", Schwager revisits scenes and memories of the Holocaust as the child of survivors and cousin of victim, Anne Frank, while the second, "Lost Violin," records moments with the new generation of family and friends. "The Rose Light" examines love and relationships.

The poet is a practicing psychoanalyst, who devotes her fourth section to psychotherapy, mental institutions, and their Diane Arbus-like denizens, whether patients, therapists, or undistinguished supervisors. The title poem, "I Want Your Chair," seems written from the vantage of one who sits, childlike, in a bathtub amid toy boats, each representing a hallucinatory voice. The humor here is both light and dark, a with a gentle, though sometimes unsettling irony, which is characteristic of a number of the poems. The theme of multiple voices could also be taken as a symbol of the fragmentation of the modern world. The helpless challenge by the patient of the therapistís "chair" might be understood as a parallel to Joseph Kís futile struggle with alien and abstruse authority in Kafkaís The Trial. The book is permeated with the theme of the individualís struggle to find islands of intimacy, individuality, and tenderness in a world driven by mindless authority. In "A Wide Range of Pathology," as the therapy intern applies for a position at a mental hospital, her effort to find common ground with an obnoxious interviewer degenerates into a hilarious, encoded attempt to please.

"Free, " the fifth section, groups poems on the fractal aspects of experience, where contradictions, paradoxes and quantum leaps abide. The concluding poem of section and book is "000," an almost Cabalistic treatment of the symbolic significance of the millennial zeros, and an allusion perhaps to the present death-conscious, crisis-laden management of uncertainty, as symbolized by the cipher. The term, "enlightenment," in this poem plays doubly on the lower-case individual and upper-case collective evolution when knowledge of objective reality promised the thrill of discovering its inherent order and purpose. The poet also draws on imagery and metaphor from the unconscious to escort us on a journey to an unknown destination. She ends with a query about the effects of the Holocaust and genocide on the mind, yet with the cautiously hopeful vision of a young girl anticipating life, oblivious to the horror events of a century newly old.

Ms. Schwagerís I Want Your Chair marks the arrival of a first-rate poet. The challenge to her in future work will be to expand the range of her subject matter and technique and to turn up the intensity of her verse to reflect her own suffering, go beyond transcendence to the immanence of her own life and death. But this book is already outstanding, and I recommend it unconditionally.

(Vic Schermer reviews music and literature and conducts frequent interviews. A psychologist in private practice and clinic settings in Philadelphia, he has explored artistic consciousness (see, e.g., Graves, M. and Schermer, V., "The Wounded Male Persona and the Mysterious Feminine in the Poetry of James Wright: A Study in the Transformation of Self," The Psychoanalytic Review 85/6, Dec. 99, pp. 849-870), and presented papers on Eliot, Wright, and Dickinson respectively for the Phoenix Reading Series in New York. His poetry has appeared in Rattapallax (Vol. 1, Issue 1) and his work is among this monthís additions to Big City, Little. vlscher@voicenet.com)
 
 

Review

A House of Corners
Bertha Rogers
(Three Conditions Press 2000,
a subsidiary of The Maryland State
Poetry & Literary Society. 24 pp.)

Shades and Solids
by Diana Manister

Bertha Rogersís poetry owes much to the style of William Carlos Williams, who grandfathered American plain-talk, but she is a visionary such as he was not. The sixth sense is her central subject; all living and material things swim in an unseen matrix, which is imperceptible yet known. Description of this phenomenon would seem impossible, yet Rogers mostly succeeds in making absence present.

Concrete worldly objects are as sharply visible in her poems as is Williamsís famous wheelbarrow, but she senses more:

A bed with round knobs rests inside
the still room; its left profile seen, the right,

perceived (as spring is understood, as widows weep
alone)
("From My Room, Christmas Morning")

Perception of the imperceptible: how is it done? Do we know that Spring will come simply because experience suggests it shall, or do we take it on faith? When you push shut the silverware drawer, you can hear them:

inhabitants of your home far longer, the dead complain about
your

housekeeping; they set the porch rocker going until the telephone

repairman notices. All vortex, they increase when disturbed.
("Crowd")

The absent will always be present. There is no complaint here about the insufficiency of the material world, no sense of conflict between the immaterial and the perceptible. The poems express no longing for something elsewhere, more ideal than what the senses apprehend. All dimensions are present in the moment. Failure to perceive that totality is our limitation; the illimitable remains radiantly true and present in all things. August: the final Sabbath, the cherished
mountain. Against a blowzy full moon,
an array of antlers. Incautiously

I approached. The buck bent
one startled leg. I stepped harder,
summerís grasses riffling and breaking

beneath my sandals. The buck swung
his wild grave head and broke: earth
thundered, dead stems shaking.
[ . . . ]

The next night I tried again; lay

myself on the deerís own slope,
in the moonís steady beam; waking,
waking to the flawless circle. At

times, a star punctured the vault.
The buck avoided the terrain.
Septemberís sky: moonless, with wind,

rain-precursing, percussive wind.
("Buck")

Lying in "the flawless circle" of the buckís absence is an experience of completion. The poem begins with "a blowzy full moon" and ends "moonless." A solid thing depends on its opposite for its existence. But for the absence of moon, how would moon be known?

But for the companion's absence, how would she summon him? The dreamer awakens, shocked to find keen experience ("Bodies on the bed; love cries, / ancient and ecstatic") displaced by an empty room.

If I were Piranesi I would draw splendors
of sun and shadow from our rapture.
Like Dante, she "treats shades as solid things." The absent is substantial and present in her work. But clouds descend and birds quiet and
I add the morning together.
She transcends the paradox using memory, imagination and faith. I live in a house of corners Ė
brief, obscured perspectives.
[ . . . ]
mist skeins the passage. A car
breathes by.
[ . . . ]
Yesterday we two
flexed the broken day to us,
we changed the whole air to suit
our dappled mood. Love, I accept
these waking inversions.
("Out of the Dream")
Unlike Charles Wright, another modern Transcendentalist, Rogers does not brood on the inability to decipher the signs of the absolute in the environment. Wright feels that he is left out of heaven: "a wing brushes my right hand but itís not my wing," he laments in "China Trace". For Rogers, the inversion is as acceptable as its opposite. The "real" world is only part of the truth that can be glimpsed around corners, "then stairs down, / landing that angles abruptly."

Mirrors make frequent appearances in Rogersís poems, as if to point to some parallel universe connected to ours. Which one is real, the solid world or its reflection? For Rogers, they both are.

My body tilts from the mirror. I greet
my image. I bend to Mary, her fated morning:

              Mary, Mary, Mother of God,
              what O what is true?
             After all, really transformed?
("From My Room, Christmas Morning")

"March, Ides," the most explicit poem in this series on duplication, spells out its theme with arithmetic connectives: Perhaps this breach represents
time (x) time; that is, 2 (x) the instant,
2 commencements at once
collided and embraced--
[ . . . ]
Double time. Time folds here,
you can hear the crease--
[ . . . ]
time (x) two-four,
a Gregorian murmur--
[ . . . ]
You say, Nothing (y) makes sense?
Underneath the visible tree ("willows doubled by their roots") is a twin, inverted world through which the roots of being thread. Rogers's poems exhort us to search for the ground of our existence in the unseen.

This suite of poems by Bertha Rogers is worthy of comparison with the work of A.R. Ammons, Charles Wright, the Jorie Graham of A Dream of a Unified Field (though clear, not obscure), and continues the American transcendentalist tradition begun by Emerson and Thoreau. This is not the Platonism of European Romanticism that inspired Shelley to exclaim "Oh Skylark, bird thou never wert!" Rogers does not prefer some heaven of ideal forms to the living earth. For her, a bird is a bird, but her work reminds us of the birdís connection to and dependence upon the realm of soon-to-be birds and non-birds, the paradoxical empty fullness from which birds come, thus, in Emerson's term, the "over-soul."

After Reading Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo"

Winterís last storm moves in and
does not move, buries the year
inside hours.
Lights flicker; somewhere
a hand lifts, turns a doorknob.
In some unshielded room
a chair is sat upon,
a tale is told, is told again.

I have seen, during
the frenzy of seasons,
almost-perceptible figures moving
on the other side of weather.
So towers are reflected
in bedrock,
willows doubled by their roots.

The apocalypse occurs
within your heart--you ache
from a loneliness you canít discuss
while shadow-faces loom
and thunder overcomes nights
sleepless and full of wondering sleep,
dreams sliding past your eyes,
deciding your days.

You hear a step;
the other is there--
perfectly recognized eyes across
an unused path, hand reaching
to hand, mouth speaking
your soul.

There is no louder sound
and yet--the voice dissipates
in the turning of roads, the stopping
of winds.
Your other disappears.

You search shores littered
with another heavenís stars,
oceans whose river beginnings are lost.
You must remember yourself.

In this sequence, Rogers exhibits a poetic sensibility of the first order. To cite the occasional flat line, the interpretation tendered where none is needed, would be mere caviling. Her accomplishments are remarkable. She writes of faith without letting language get airborne. When she describes footfalls in the snow, we hear the crunch, beneficiaries of Williams, who quitclaimed us a verbal homestead on which the American idiom could thrive. (His influence is evident abroad as well, for instance, in the work of Ted Hughes and in Seamus Heaney's Open Ground.*) Rogers's unmannered tone and cadence are elegaic, dignified, the lyrics in a score perfectly attuned to her serious themes.

The spirit of Thomas Merton hovers over these poems, which are spoken from the vantage of a dispassionate witness, a contemplative. But Rogers's gravitas is inscribed in the practical, American grain. Her lines urge moderation; there are no histrionics or grandiosity in this work. She tells us straight what is valuable, as if the life of each depended on the knowledge. Like Ammons in "Easter Morning," Rogers looks at nature, views humans as nature, and looks through nature to something truer than flux. The joy she describes is not happiness, but rather, the paradoxical satisfaction gleaned from a moment of angled enlightenment,

the one you,
at hope and despair's juncture
(overlooking parallels) chose--
[*Editors' note: Bertha Rogers's translation of Beowulf is available from Birch Brook Press (pub. 2000) or send email to editors@nycBigCityLit.com for details.]