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Barry Schwabsky reviews

Winter Sex
Poems by Katy Lederer

59 pp. Verse Press. US$12. 0970367287 paper

Katy Lederer’s first collection of poems starts off strong, putting its reader on notice: ‘Not Only Because We Were Wrong,’ reads the first title (which is also the poem’s and the book’s first line), implying that this poetry will at least have the courage of its errors — will not stop to count the small change of propriety when it should be following the larger urgencies of passion.

But that’s not to say there are any vatic posturings coming. Lederer is too familiar with the deficiencies of passion: ‘Not only because we were wrong, / But also because we were deeply unimpressed.’ Still, the right to cleave to one’s error begins to take on downright regal authority. Wasn’t it Queen Victoria who said, ‘We are not impressed’? No, actually, it was ‘amused’ that she wasn’t, but in any case the ‘we’ we have here starts to sound, by its second occurrence, right royal enough, and the reader may begin feeling abashed at his inability to impress the poem. And so when, because of this wrongness and unimpressiveness, ‘Lovers were left at dusk to contemplate being alone,’ we lovers of the poem are faced with the mordantly comical predicament of having landed in a merely stereotypically poetical predicament — though no less universal, I mean in real life, for that. Far from truly being alone, we know there are similarly moony lovers hovering in the dusk around us in their multitudes, however quietly.

So much poetry is concerned with not getting something wrong; and unfortunately it’s usually the same poetry that is altogether too little self-conscious about simply wrapping itself up in stereotypically poetical situations. Lederer works from the realization, hardly new but still accurate after some fifty years of New York School poetry, that while the effort to banish cliché leads most often to a straight-laced poetry whose rigor and earnestness are their own — and only — reward, taking it on in a spirit of amused self-awareness opens up some space for the complexity and play that just might give the poem some life.

Linking up with the New York School tradition this late in the day, however, means accessing it in the shadow of Language poetry — and that makes things more difficult. There’s not enough energy left over for just being entertaining, creating a lively surface, which was always part of what gave New York School poetry its charm. Because if Language poetry has had any effect on poets prepared to take serious cognizance of it without necessarily quite getting with the program, it has been to create a deep diffidence about the reality of the subjective in poetry, and by extension about the efficacy of the lyric mode that is inescapably the vehicle for the subjective voice. Even in the Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath, it can be argued, the breakdown of lyrical subjectivity was rendered as an essentially personal crisis, and therefore as the matter of a new kind of lyric rather than of something altogether different.

All this may seem to be wandering far from the book at hand — which in any case we’ve only entered three lines deep — but really it is simply to indicate the broad backdrop it shares with many others: There are a great many poets now who are trying to reinvent the lyric and to gather up whatever remnants they can of lyrical subjectivity, even after having been chastened by their reading of Language poetry. In this poetry there is an intimacy that is always taking a distance from itself.

As Lederer begins, so she means to go on — encompassing both error and its antagonist, self-consciousness, but containing them within rather narrow limits. Her subjects may revolve around love, loss, and guilt but poignancy rarely tips over into plangency. At the same time one may feel a lack of everyday specificity. A sort of abstract anecdote preponderates, sometimes as a way to kick-start a poem that ends up doing something else:

About this time, we tried our house.
We tapped at the pane and were decorous
in that on our horsebacks
we dressed in darkest suit.
(‘False Light’)

Having scoured his temperament’s face long and loud,
Dead and door-well
He laid me through beheaded morning
Into beaded day.
(‘One Day’)

The ‘we’ and the ‘me’ in such poems, at best, inhabit the sort of uncanny nowhere in which Childe Roland found his dark tower; too often they merely attain the pale surrealism of some of Mark Strand’s work. Lederer is at her best when her verse takes on a more emphatic tone, as in ‘Not Only Because We’re Wrong’ or in ‘Remedy,’ which includes the lines

Then, with your bile at a stand-still
            and your face at a stand-still
Go find a woman
       and drain your semen into her

As in this example, Lederer’s lineation usually coincides with units of sense and syntax — punctuation occurs more often at the end of a line than within it — and syntax within each line is usually more or less conventional. Things get more complicated in the movement from line to line or from stanza to stanza. ‘Mandrakes,’ for instance, starts out with a slightly pixilated version of handbook prose —

These porticoes under the soil
Keep their coolness by keeping their
Branches to seek for the hand shapes —
Their form has the name of the May root.

— which by the third of its four stanzas has transmuted to something that is balladlike in tone though not in its surface form:

Under the soil is a captain — roots
Being the human form if they may. I trim
For to wait for the captain. Trim for to wait —

There are poets around who try to keep their tone moving almost too quickly for the reader to keep up with it. The result is usually a higher order of homogeneity as continuous movement itself becomes the texture of the writing. Lederer’s way of shifting her tone only once it has become well-established, on the other hand, represents the error that is the burden of her verse:

That parts the most vital —
The quickest of sense is
that sometimes

We see error, in the light
upon the vantage rest.
(‘The Wages of Sin’)

As if a sensation, derailed, had found place
              in something it could never be.

Truth is, we need even more of this kind of error or derailment than Lederer is yet ready to give us. She’s more cautious than her best moments, maybe more cautious than she realizes. ‘To make an emphatic claim on / life’ (‘My Life’) is still an objective here, not an accomplishment. But it’s clear that Lederer’s got a chance.

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