Chris Stroffolino



Tell Me
Kim Addonizio
Boa
$12.50 / 90 pages / ISBN 1880238918

Mercury
Phillis Levin
Penguin
$16.00 / 112 pages / ISBN 0140589287

There are many ways to put these two books in dialogue with each other. A quick look at the blurbs on the back covers reveals the different languages with which these two poets are characteristically written. According to Billy Collins, "Addonizio's poems are stark mirrors of self-examination," while Tomaz Salamun calls Levin "a marvelous architect;" according to Carloyn Kizer, Addonizio's "honesty and self-knowledge will pierce you to the core." Meanwhile, Rachel Hadas praises the "weighty, elusive, versatile…and beautifully authoritative" work of Levin. It would be quite easy to apply other schemas—for instance, if Addonizio is "raw," then Levin is "cooked." But while such distinctions are useful, I find Levin's poems have at least as much self-knowledge and starkness as Addonizio's while there are occasional moments when Addonizio is as marvelous an architect as Levin (even though she's working on a quite different building).

As a first impression, I find Levin characteristically more severe, and even stark, than Addonizio. This is not because Addonizio does not treat harsh themes, or doesn't point to a harsh life beyond (or before) the page, she certainly does—far more, it seems than Levin does, but Levin's harshness is the result of repression and sublimation, an attempt to be the author of harshness while Addonizio more often places herself as a speaker, not always a victim, but one to whom things largely happen. Sure, there are times (often near the end of poems, as a kind of epiphany) where she has to admit her complicity in this harshness, (as in "Garbage"). At other times (in poems like "What Women Want") she'll actually construct an identity that itself is harsh and indifferent, sustaining it through the poem of which it is a premise. But even in these, the placement of these poems in the book is analogous to the epiphany, the moment of sobriety and clarification towards which the book's narrative snaked, and from which it is ultimately designed to deliver us.

Levin, by contrast, gradually lets in more personal poems, poems that in themselves, are usually not as candid as Addonizio's, but whose relative restraint becomes "relatively free" of repressive constraints as the book continues. Yet even if Levin is more of a thinker and Addonizio more of a feeler (more of the body than the heart? To answer this would be to question whether the heart is more of a desperate addictive personality than the body), the distinction is only incidental, secondary, to the distinction between Levin's more characteristic appropriation of the harshness of the external world so that it is subdued to the primacy of her own harshness; in part because Levin usually sees the distinction between inner and outer as a fiction to be played with, while Addonizio sees it more as an earnest necessity to live within the subject as more of a home than a weekend house.

Thus the myth of writing as "therapy" is more important to Addonizio, and in order to approach her work more fully we have to consider why the book is called Tell Me. What does she want to be told? Does she even really want to be told? The title itself may tell us more about the speaker than even these very confessional poems do. There are relatively few examples of variations on the phrase "tell me," in this book, but they are significant. In the title poem, she wants the interlocutor to tell her she won't have any more losses, or children. "The Revered Poet Instructs Her Students On The Importance of Revision," ends with her trying to tell her students (a little too condescendingly) that she doesn't want to be telling them. In "For Desire," the book's penultimate poem, she ends by wanting to be told "just how fucking good I look," while the final poem ends with a vow "to tell them [the others] everything." In all these examples, with the possible exception of the final one, we see a craving for a response, as if it would complete her, a demand to have someone, or something, shut her up, stop her mouth with a kiss, perhaps, or words, or drink, to that effect. It is, in fact, a request that may be a key to her displacement of harshness onto the external world, a ceding of power to a you or a them or otherness, a desire to live in frames and not as a framemaker, a desire for the harsh to overtake her; and eventually, perhaps, become her.

It becomes clear after reading Tell Me from cover to cover that it is loosely organized as a narrative, in which the speaker begins as a psychological mess of drunken desperation, emotional scars, the pains of growing older, and ultimately is able to struggle to quit alcohol and realize she's been looking for love in all the wrong places, as it were. This narrative development may in retrospect vindicate the psychological and formal messiness of the first four poems—for, as the book progresses, so does Addonizio surprise by including poems that take pleasures in sustained conceits ("Target," and "Salmon," for instance) as well as a pantoum ("A Childhood"). Yet, the best poems in this collection are not necessarily the most formal, but the ones in which she is able to step outside of her own obsessive dilemma just enough to be able to tell us (and herself) more about herself than when she is trying too hard to make sense of her life. In "Things That Don't Happen," for instance, Addonizio shows a genuine curiosity for "the not of what is" that transcends vulgar solipsism and the displacement onto the lover (or reader) of her own anxieties about erotic disconnection, to end poignantly:

if you would just let it go on forever this way
you wouldn't have to go out into the nothing where something is waiting
especially for you, though what it is I can't tell you, only that it begins
as soon as you stop listening, and turn away, only that it happens now

This rare embrace of "nothing" that occurs almost despite herself allows the speaker to chastise her own desires for perfect erotic union and, seemingly paradoxically, come closer to her lover even in her very disconnection. Similarly, in "Intimacy," a meditation on another woman who "used to be lovers with the man I'm seeing now," Addonizio's conjecture about her lover's motives reaches a point where she comes to investigate her own:

I wonder if maybe
there were things about her he preferred, things he misses now
that we're together;
sometimes, when he and I are making love, there are moments
I'm overwhelmed by sadness, and though I'm there with him I
can't help thinking
of my ex-husband's hands, which I especially loved, and I want to
go back
to that old intimacy

At such times, Addonizio sheds the mask of victim, and moves a little closer to the poetry of self-analysis, if not quite self-creation. Far too many of the poems in Tell Me don't even go this far into self-analysis, however. Poems like "Therapy," "The Embers," and "Onset" place themselves in such a presumptuous and condescending attitude towards the reader (in "Onset," for instance, she writes, with no trace of irony, "I'm saying I know all about you, whoever you are") that it is difficult to be sympathetic to this speaker who seems to have forgotten the title to her own book.

On the other hand, there is "Collapsing Poem," where Addonizio finds a saving "architecture" of formal detachment that balances its pathos with self-consciousness and humor; I'll quote an excerpt:

…She begs the man, but he won't let her in
Say it matters what happened between them;
say you can't judge whose fault this all is,
given the lack of context, given your own failures
with those you meant most to love.
Or maybe you don't care about them yet.
Maybe you need some way
to put yourself in the scene, some minor detail
that will make them seem so real you try to enter
this page to keep them from doing
to each other what you've done to someone,
somewhere: think about that for a minute,
while she keeps crying, and he speaks
in a voice so measured and calm he might be
talking to a child frightened by something
perfectly usual: darkness, thunder,
the coldness of the human heart.
But she's not listening, because now
She's hitting him, beating her fists against the chest
She laid her head on so many nights…

This poem, with its metadramatic double perspective that teases the mind as well as the more feeling senses, is one of the most powerful in the book. Due, perhaps, to the narrative structuring of the book, we have to wait until the last section to find other poems that are equally powerful, but if the reader is patient enough to get to this point, she or he will be rewarded by the language energy in "Good Girl," the intense portrait of what goes on in the mind of a pornographic voyeur in "Physics," the energy and images of the desire poem "Like That," the self-analysis of "Aliens" and the prose-poem, "Fine." The last two, in particular, show Addonizio's speaker grappling with the burdens of joy in ways that bode well for future poems. "Aliens," begins: "Now that you're finally happy / you notice how sad your friends are…" while "Fine" starts on a similar note ("You're lucky. It's always them and not you") only to undercut it with a stunning trick ending about the necessity of human suffering, "Soon, if nothing happens to you, if your luck holds, really holds, you'll end up completely alone".

Yet, it's not clear what lesson, if any, Addonizio, learns, or teaches, By coming to these realizations—for the final poems in the book, "One-Night Stands," "Getting Older," and especially "For Desire," move from casting a wistful retrospective glance on past drunken relationships to ultimately restating the same superficial desires that got her in such trouble in the first place. This may not be a bad thing on a formal level, for it is able to undo the narrative closure the book had seemed to be moving towards, but on a psychological level, the level with which Addonizio is most concerned, it seems little more than a cry for help.

Levin's Mercury begins with a lengthy quote from Plato's creation myth, and ends by offering her own alternative to (or updating of) such a myth. The shorter, more sparse poems in the first section announce some of her abiding themes—the pathos of illusory individual separateness and the ambivalence toward returning to "the whole," her attraction to what Geoffrey Hartman calls "the romantic afterimage" ("like one of those events/in the heavens/ that happened long ago/ so far away/ it can finally/ be seen"), the way "the clank/ Of an iron gate quickens her heart." and the way the weather asks us "to leave ourselves behind," a question she, in contrast to Addonizio, heeds with much more enthusiasm. In "Instead of a Letter," we see Levin as more interested in self-creation than in self-expression, even as she adopts a more intimate, personal, tone than usual:

V.

If it was presumptuous of me…
To pronounce in the middle of our goodbye
Something that salted the flesh
Of your nouns, as if I could not accept
The lack of irony in your voice
When you informed me of your ardor,
There being nothing more dangerous than passionate
Self-deception, then forgive me now for trespassing
On your sleep, which has lasted longer
Than the type endured by princesses.

VI.

You have no idea how much I held back.
Then again, I have no idea how much you did either


VII.

Your attempt to make things easy as pie for an hour
Only made things difficult thereafter.
I accept complexity, being simple in my pleasures,
And am capable of forgetting almost anything
That gets in the way of joy, for as long as it lasts.
But those projections into the near and distant future
About happiness and all the rest, etc.,
Were really over the top, considering.

The contrast with Addonizio's worldview is striking, even as I wish to avoid the temptation to say that Levin's poems seem healthier than Addonizio's for the same reason they seem colder and less colorful.

Both the title poem and "Archaic Notions," with which the second section ends are good examples of how a richness of speculative intellect can coexist with a modicum of adherence to the biographical memory poem—reflections of her childhood relationship with her father center around her curiosity about the creation of self and world in ways that resemble Riding's "Memories of Mortalities," or Wordsworth at his best more than the 20th century confessional poem—this is especially evident in "Archaic Notions," which is perhaps this book's finest moment (to quote one excerpt):

All children are philosophers. They really have no choice
In the matter, for they do not know the frame of reference
Into which they were born, and so the genuine insight of a query
Turning our preconceptions topsy-turvy originates in a particular

Mixture of ignorance, audacity, and wonder: something
That requires years of skepticism and humility to replicate
Adequately. Notice how sex and the basic forces of attraction
Needn't enter the equation, if the issue is raised in this fashion.

The explanation was impersonal, cellular, and that may disturb
Both parent and child, since a being wants to take some credit
For being. Assuming there was an I before I was born is not far
From assuming that there was something before the nothing

Along with "Elegy for a Magnolia," (which may be slightly marred by its ending), this poem fuses the various interests of this book, from the personal and autobiographical (as in "Dancing With Allen Ginsberg," and "Learning to Count") to the intellectually speculative, most successfully, and perhaps clears the way for the more engaged metaphysical poems of the third section such as the four-part sequence, "Intervals in Early August" and the merciful "The Blizzard," in which we see people "finally stop / To talk to each other…"

There are certainly other pleasures to be found in this book—formal pleasures, such as the rhyming "Face to Face," and the pleasures that may be taken in eulogizing the dead ("Beginning to Count," and "Futile Exercise,"), but most central to this book is the way it accepts and embraces the way "nothing can close the space between us now" and the room for self-creation it helps create, without the desperation with which Addonizio more characteristically confronts disconnection.

The book's final poem, however, is perhaps its best. "Meditation on A and The," these two articles, indefinite and define, take on mythic proportions, in their various oppositions and similarities. Unlike Louis Zukofsky, who in his book-length poem "A," attempted to privilege the indefinite article over the definite one, Levin's ambivalences towards the value that is conferred on these two pronouns is less programmatic and more open to the contradictions that can't help but occur when one attempts to privilege one of these terms over the other.

Especially interesting is the recursive nature of this poem; it does not attempt to avoid using these articles in order to speak about them. Thus, when it begins by announcing its theme, there is also a semi-subliminal level on which it enacts it:

Last night the world reduced itself to a and the
And for a number of numberless hours

Everyone spoke in a language combining
The two…

Yet, why then is it the world that reduces itself to a language? It would seem equally plausible that a world is reducing (or enlarging) itself into the language. However much Levin leaves this possibility open, on a manifest level the poem begins by claiming that the world (or a singular world of shared experience) precedes the specialized languages with which we try to make sense of it—for obviously there would be other languages, other linguistic codes, with which to speak of this allegedly shared reality of the world, even if everybody is speaking in this reduced language. Strangely, in Levin's formulation, the so-called indefinite article, "a," is seen as more specific than the definite article, "the," and it seems the more profound dichotomy these ruminations on, or seeming reductions of, the world into the difference between "a" and "the," establish is the difference between the word and the world, or language and experience.

As the poem progresses, she shows, through examples, how it is a misnomer to call "the" a definite article, because of the way it renders its object more abstract, and in so doing successfully challenges the idea(l) of Platonic essences, an ideal she had to employ to begin the poem. She thus seems to claim it is better to see, or eat, a pear than the pear, and to find a friend rather than the friend. At the same time, however, she points out how a table becomes the table, in the process of being appropriated, and how sometimes it's even better to go beyond both kinds of articles: "mountains are definitely bigger/ Than the mountains, more visible, too." Yet while all of these ruminations may stir wonder by allowing us to see the way allegedly simple, taken-for-granted, units of language may construct a (or the) world, I suppose for some (like Mary Karr in her notorious "against decoration" essay) they could be derided as mere word-play.

Nonetheless, the intellectuality of Levin's poem is such that the wonder it stirs is not devoid of pathos, but rather keeps such emotional involvement with "the world" at bay enough to be able to play with it without the baggage of a pre-existing frame of singularity or "the self." This is most successfully employed in the poem's final movements in which she considers "the way an article behaves/ In the presence of the plural, how the may go/ Before one or many, whereas the indefinite/ Dwells with singular exclusivity…"

Levin is able to make much of this fact, or glitch, of language, this fact that makes it improper to say "a cats," for instance, by applying it, blatantly, to theological questions. This poem reaches its climax in a creation myth that is also a geneology of monotheism:

…and then the the will be
An a again, the a that follows the the way

You want to hear a story, the one
You heard before, the way the gods

Became a god, who made,
It is said, a world, an evening

And a morning on the first day,
Before the verb became

A noun, before the god
Became a god who called the day

A day, and what a day it was,
What a day, what a day."

When "the gods" (of a polytheistic society, whether ancient Greco-Roman, Egyptian, native-American, Hindu, etc) became "a god," which often, of course, goes naked without an article—"God." it became bigger, monotheistically, even imperialist in its assertion of "singular exclusivity." Levin, as I read her, is quite seriously challenging monotheism as well as other forms of singular exclusivity, by showing that our very language cannot reduce itself to such spurious closure—at the same time she's astute enough to know that the "a" cannot exist without, and indeed must follow (in a temporal sense at least) the "the."

I do not mean to suggest, however, that Levin's scope is ultimately more cosmological than Addonizio's. Addonizio, too, offers a revisionary creation myth, which in many ways complements Levin's playful heresy. Her poem "Theodicy," one of her best (perhaps because it starts more abstractly and hypothetically: "Suppose we could see evil with such clarity we wouldn't hesitate to stamp it out like stray sparks from a fire"), moves to its conclusion by questioning whether the monotheistic God (whose existence Addonizio does not question as much as Levin does) has also chosen the wrong path:

Suppose God
began to have this trouble. Suppose the first man

turned out cruel and stupid, a cartoon creature
that farted and giggled continuously; suppose the woman ripped
saplings from the earth all day and refused to speak
or be grateful for anything. What if they decided to torment

the smaller, weaker beasts, and just as God was about
to strike them dead and start over they turned toward each other
and discovered fucking, and the serpent whispered Look at them
and God's head filled with music while the wild sparks leaped

from their bodies, bright as the new stars in the heavens.

If the partisans of Levin who would scorn Addonizio's poetry, and the partisans of Addonizio who would scorn Levin's poetry, could come to appreciate the similarities between them at their best, maybe more such sparks would leap.

 

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