Camille Guthrie reviews
The Habitable World, by Beth Anderson
Instance Press, Santa Cruz, 2001, 80 pages, US$10
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
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’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
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.’
To query the speaker
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.’
When I first noticed my own
‘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.’
I am longing for structure
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.
Jacket 25 — February 2004