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Camille Guthrie reviews

The Habitable World, by Beth Anderson

Instance Press, Santa Cruz, 2001, 80 pages, US$10
ISBN 0-9679854-1-2

This piece is 1,000 words or about three printed pages long.

Beth Anderson’s The Habitable World, published in 2001 by Instance Press, demands from the start that the reader pay intimate attention to its subtle syntactical and lexical experiments; it alerts the reader to the fact that this world is no simple world. Anderson’s first full-length book is made up of four parts, the last two of which were chapbooks: ‘Evidence,’ ‘Natural Law,’ ‘The Domain of Inquiry,’ and ‘In Residence.’ The opening section introduces all kinds of compelling habitable and difficult worlds whose livability has been predetermined, and thus limited, by tradition, as in the first poem of the book, ‘Arrangements’:

It’s a small dream, that of silence     and dry, how to use
mayhap     Another desert entered the landscape
and left us with this one, asking what remains
aside from a ponderous leaf flying and siren the verb

The silence of the poem is found in its typography and then is complicated by the problem of how to use words after silence, ‘a small dream’; the poem’s silence rubs against the noise of mayhap and siren.

Anderson book cover Anderson’s exacting words, as well as her skepticism with regard to their usage, reflect her editorial work on The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language — a poet’s employment surely. From the very beginning of the book, each poem coaxes the reader into ‘asking what remains’ when one no longer accepts the surface uses of language: just then the ‘ponderous leaf’ of a thinking poetry is flying.

The poems in The Habitable World call up the image of a lexicographer at work, serious and informed yes, but no somber technician: we are often surprised with her questioning and witty imagination. These moments hinge on what seems like a logical syntax that swiftly opens into possibility:

Though disembodied may feel like
a familiar passage it must be observed that singing does echo
both from one mythology of a large rumbling storm and from
a morning opening into a crowded room

The objects and events of this world, seen here in a morning, dwell in a narrative arena that is pictorial and transforming. The pain of disembodiment is relieved by singing, the poet’s traditional act, and the world comes rumbling back into the room. I overhear Stevens’s various singers echoed here: ‘For she was the maker of the song she sang.’

‘Natural Law’ investigates the laws that rule over Anderson’s habitable world, both material and transcendent. The tone is rhetorical and contemplative, but the poet’s conclusions lead us further: ‘Paradise has reopened its portals / just in time to avoid sin, but will close on the rational mind.’ Reading the poems is like sitting down with one’s most reasonable friend — who startles and delights with ambiguous statements. Observe Anderson’s dry irony laced with social criticism in ‘Learning Finds a Place’:

                              To query the speaker
replaces a closed cosmos with evolution, industrial cogs, and
the dry riverbeds that must have preceded the wheel

Her poems are all compelling queries: what does it mean to engage with a world that may sometimes seem like a ‘closed cosmos’? Her lines, especially the similes, recall Ashbery, as their formalism is unpredictable and often self-reflexive: ‘Like scenery awaiting attention, shining / coins underwater round out diatribe and made form new.’

Anderson’s meticulous work as an editor is again abundantly evident in the third section, ‘The Domain of Inquiry.’ This series of twelve queries and comments, each with twelve lines, is a flowing architecture. Each part is like a shortened sonnet or a ruptured sestina with its requisite repeated words. The poet claims a debt to Marianne Moore, but the engagement with Moore’s work is seamless. Overlapping phrases or words allow the reader some comprehensive stability that is happily undermined as each unit reappears differently: ‘Clearly my natural impulse is to choose one hemisphere / or the other, but I’ve been taught to sew and so set to it.’ The poet doesn’t choose ‘one hemisphere / or the other,’ but both; she sows meaning in her puns, ‘so set to it.’ (Write your sonnet with a difference.)

There are deft repetitions concerning landscape, travel, love, faith, stories, and weather, to name just a few subjects. Anderson molds her observations into this unique form and then plays outside the rules of her structure:

When I first noticed my own
Feelings of adventure I formed a V with my arms
Until the subway air came to seem almost floral and the stoop
Teemed with writers, counting airplanes passing overhead

‘In Residence,’ the last section, reads somewhat like a handbook about that persistent tension between the self and world. Her curiousity about the surfaces of the world is evident, but her conclusions about making a place in it are charmingly critical: ‘But I will not be a landlover who moves into the picturesque / as if it were simply a state without victims,’ she writes in the excellent ‘The Royal We.’ The poems are concerned with writing, profession, family, friendship, and are often linked by the scenery of travel. Anderson keeps returning to the problem of finding an adequate and powerful place for one’s vision: ‘When you refuse me stories because of slight variance / I cannot clear a space for lightning.’

Informed by the lyric dislocations of Barbara Guest and Ann Lauterbach, Anderson works in the vein of emotional aesthetics and avoids the pitfalls of sentiment and easy politics along the way. Prizing the surface beauty of the world she describes, she affirms the Modernist determination that perception alters what we see:

I am longing for structure
for your recounting to illuminate mine
Attempts at description linger
alongside heaps of snow

Possibly Stevens’s snow man is evoked here, as Anderson reminds us how our tellings are linked to place, to Nature; the difference, however, is that here ‘the listener who listens in the snow’ longs for shared experience in the world. Her descriptions ‘linger’ in the act of beholding the ‘nothing that is’ — a poetic process not glorified, but beside ‘heaps’ of real snow.

In The Habitable World, Anderson writes poetry that can be heard outside the mainstream lyric preoccupation with self-therapy and beyond any sort of postmodernist dogma. Poetic language here is its own order of reality, intimately linked to other worlds; the poet is the patient, attentive, insightful interlocutor between these worlds, delighting readers with her precision and timeliness.

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