A Beaker: New and Selected Poems
University of Georgia Press, 2002
$14 (paper), ISBN 0-9703672-7-9
Torque means "the moment of a force, " "a measure
of its tendency, " "Turning or twisting." Caroline
Knox knows this, I'm sure. Her poems a tour de force of torque. They
are under pressure. They are pressure, applied to language, applied
to what the mind can do and the senses.
This moment of force, this torquing can make for a challenging read.
Knox's poems are intellectual and quirky, like brainteasers. With
special guest appearances by Kenneth Koch, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen,
Shelley Winters, Agatha Christie, General MacArthur, Harry Truman,
Pelé, Jerry Garcia, Wallace Stevens, Nancy Drew, Lizzie Borden,
and, of course, the Reformed Red Hat Nuns of Tibet, how could they
not be? But the poems are also riveting in other ways, capturing our
attention on many levels at once.
As she writes in "Gorbachev Moon": "Inside this idea/
there is another idea." Sort of like nesting dolls, only with
more import. That is, import in terms of more at stake, more gravity,
and more brought into the poem, foreign goods.
And there is a sense of foreignness in these poems, of physical travel
and time travel. The feeling of hurtling through space, moving so
fast one seems not to move at all. Consider the "snowy globe"
of the poem "Gift." What a better metaphor for the swirling,
shaken quality of Knox's poems?
The snowy globe rotates
in true and short imagist fashion
obviating prosy and secular freight
As we speak, the flakes,
keeping to cold orbits
are grounded ultimately on a
terra firma base
made in China
made of plastic.
The speaker is talking of a snow globe, I know that, but I am thinking
of Knox's poems. Of how they can be shaken and turned over, "righted,"
as it were. But on the underside: a mark of origins and the play of
language, the oddness of "facts."
Elsewhere, too, Knox's poems swirl and eddy, enjoying the silly,
sometimes dizzying, sometimes mystifying twists and turns of language.
Lines such as these from "Famous Bigshots" are not unusual
in this collection:
Famous bigshots of the world unite
in black tie and nutria stormcoats,
omnicompetent, handsome dreamboats
totally snazzy and slightly snobby
exclusive hotshots with prodigious bankrolls
for clandestine bombshells, gaslight
splendidly outfitted armfuls of cashmere
In fact, many of the poems tumble down the page, over themselves,
into our laps, in this same way. And of course, when reading a new
and selected volume, the impression is always one of time, of persistence,
of the poet having kept at it.
Beaker, which includes work from books published in 1984,
1989, and 1994, is definitely evidence of Knox's persistence, her
repeated willingness to tackle the intricacies and intersections of
language and experience. Perhaps this accounts for the number of poems
that deal with exploration, both physical and psychic, including "To
Newfoundland," "Log of the Snow Star," "Railroads
and Newspapers," "Pantoum du Chat," "Nashotah,"
and many, many others. The title poem, "Beaker," is an excellent
example of Knox's capacity for exploration via noticing, particularly
noticing of that which is commonly overlooked. After introducing the
beaker in question, the speaker goes on to describe the vessel's engraving:
Memento John Saffin Junior
Obijt 9 Dec 1678
Memento: the unlooked-for and
Obijt: the death of Saffin's
9 Dec: early, unlooked-for winter;
1678: Boston, a city upon a hill.
These lines illustrate Knox's gift not only for incision and intellectual
agility, but also for emotional resonance. This sort of vitality on
all levels is characteristic of Knox's poems and reminds me of how
bland so much of contemporary poetry is, preferring to sound one note
or maybe two shy ones, while she strikes up the band and leads the
whole gang of instruments down the street.
Or maybe the image is just as magical but quieter, as in "Beaker."
I'm thinking now of a volume of new and selected poems like a trail
of breadcrumbs: I was here and here and here.
Except in Knox's case, the trail veers off in unexpected ways or climbs
a tree or spells out a word on the forest floor.