Friday, November 02, 2007

The Beginnings of Conversations

Sage Cohen's new book of poetry, Like the Heart, the World, is out. I've been carrying it about, reading it at lunch, reading it on the bus.

As I tried to write about Sage's poems, I became more and more interested in the way I read them. I am ordinarily a disciplined reader. I begin at the beginning, just Alice's King advises, and go on till I come to the end; then stop. But I don't do that with Sage's poems. I slither down through them, like a man slipping on a hillside, till I come up short on something. There is usually at least one hard bright stopping place, a foothold in the slope. A quotable quote. Sage is a very quotable poet. Take these lines:
I make you a river,
So my love has somewhere to go.

("I Make You a River.") They're gnomic, epigrammatic. I instantly wanted to write a book, just so I could put those lines on the frontispiece.

But when I return to the top of the slope, confident now that I have the key to the poem, I find I have nothing of the sort. It's not the capstone of the poem. It doesn't sum it up. The poem moves away in all directions. It's still slidey, unstable. The epigram isn't an anchor, either; it slides with the slope.
Names the place markers
of what was last believed possible.

The waitress asks me Just one?
as if I were not enough. And yet
the room can barely contain me.

It is too soon for clarity,
too late for truth."


Each of these is so forceful and precise that I guess that I know what each of these poems will be about. But I am half wrong -- at least -- in every case.

In a comment on her blog, when I first read the book in its entirety, I said:

With so many of your poems, I want to sit down with you and say, "so -- tell me about this one." They aren't obscure in a guessing-game way -- I know what they're about more-or-less; you always give enough information, and they're always rich and fascinating. But they also almost always feel like there's so much behind them, like these particular words are just the outermost layer. They're usually like the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

Sage's poetry is thinking poetry, analytic poetry. It strives for precision, makes deductions, lays out arguments. But unlike most thinking poetry, it opens things, rather than closing them.

It is also very beautiful:
But now it is fall and the statues are serious.
A copper horse, back arched, bites her tail.
She is green in her deep places.

as writing weights the hand
but the word is free, we taste

all that was sacrificed
to the clean break

we can hear it in the singing
we can see it in the sheen of things.

("As the Mountain Stands.")

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