Center for Literary Publishing, 2001
ISBN: 0-87081-603-9, $14.95 (paper)
“Without wind, description says nothing,” Sally Keith writes in the title poem of her wonderful first book, Design, chosen by Allen Grossman for the 2000 Colorado Prize. Descriptions are one of the many strengths of Design: careful, precise and beautiful descriptions mostly of the natural world—of plants, water, storms, birds, fields, shores. But what makes these descriptions come alive and assume multiple meanings is the movement through and between them.
As Keith reminds us, there is no stasis for living things: something has always just past; something has always just been lost. These losses, however, are the source of great power, of life itself, and also of Keith’s poetic voice. The often-fragmentary nature of Keith’s language captures a world of constant change, and Keith is adept at leaving out just enough to suggest a fertile ambiguity: “turning fern-fronds / examining near-white / paled-green / asks texture/ our language.” For Keith “turning” “examining” and “asking” occur simultaneously.
As the poet examines the world around her, she asks deeper and deeper questions of it. Often those questions take the form of supplication or even prayer. The end of "Note: March 15" (this form of title, that Keith uses throughout the book, suggests that even the most accomplished of her poems are often impromptu observations of a moment) asks: “Let nothing // unopened— / nothing— ." The ambiguity of the fragmentary grammar suggests at once that all things open (let nothing "remain" unopened) and that nothingness itself “is” closed, unopened. Yet these contradictory statements both ask that the world of things, like an open flower, subject itself to time, while the world of nothingness remain in a state of unchanged potential.
Through the near-constant tension in the volume between movement and stillness, things and nothingness, Keith takes on one of the primary subjects of lyric poetry: that tension between the desire in "Ode to a Nightingale" to become like the bird and fully to enter the present moment, thus escaping consciousness of loss, and the realization that the only way to remain in the present is to “become a sod.”
Nothingness becomes perhaps the most powerful and ominously seductive force in Design, in constant competition with the movement of the wind and of the world. In “Migration,” the poem that opens the final section of the volume, Keith imagines what it might like to be “stone. Sculpted and placed”: “This could be assurance. I would / never move. I promise. Will never move.” This lovely and quiet image is also a scary one. But in the volume’s final lines, the stone itself seems to re-awaken into another, more permanent world: “When the time comes / the eye patch (credo ut intelligam) / remove it. She says you will see, again.” Here, as throughout the volume, Keith pushes poetry to its fullest potential. Without being flashy or self-conscious, Design is visionary, with a piercing insight into the nature of the physical world, language, and the self’s interaction with each.