Tad Richards reviews
Have song and poetry completely diverged? Have the songwriters from Porter to Dylan to DeFranco laid total claim to that area of emotional truth that poets have wandered off from? Annie Finch, in Calendars, suggests otherwise. Known for her formal development, Finch shows here that meter can sing as well as count.
All the things we hide in water
The accentual-syllabic regularity of that poem is a jumping-off point for suppler rhythms to come, but its hymnal solidity introduces the element of song.
Brown-gold with bronze water, broken in blossom,
Part of it comes from just making the meter become right for the most serious of purposes, as in the long poem, “Elegy For My Father,” which begins:
Under the ocean that stretches out wordlessly
...continues through a description of the father losing his grip on life, the family close at hand:
Lions speak their own language. You are still breathing.
...and ends in the moment of death:
Here is his open mouth. Silence is here
One issue that comes up with exquisite formal control: you have to be careful it doesn’t become an end it itself. If the reader finds him or herself reading the poem for the formal delights, then a main purpose of poetry, which is to say something worth saying, gets lost. Frost provided American poets with one solution, which was — in his best work — to submerge form in such an easy vernacular that it was scarcely noticeable. In his less than best work, he didn’t solve the problem, and one hears the silly rhymes and too-regular rhythms. Finch goes with the solution of Tennyson and Kipling — to breathe song into her poems. Song carries its own emotional necessity, which makes it one of the most powerful delivery systems we have.
everything I speak of sowing
...and now we start to get more of a sense of a second voice. Not a different person — they share the same “I.” But a counter-voice, someone who comes in with ideas or emotions that the primary speaker, the Finch-voice, can’t quite get to. Here, it seems to be telling the Finch-voice, “No, no, things are so much simpler than you’re willing to allow them to be. You’re not telling the truth. The truth is basic, emotional — it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t seem poetic enough.”
This is a dawn without a sun
In “Caribou Kitchen,” it seems to again assert itself as the anti-poet:
Most things have vanished
...where it seems to keep saying, “Just look at what’s there — don’t make stuff up.” It’s no easy business creating a down-to-earth doppelganger without allowing it to become a wisecracking Froggy the Gremlin, but Finch remains a strong advocate for both sides, keeping both voices compelling.
belly reaps winter open in one flying charm,
The counter-voice is still offering a different perspective, but has moved a long way from “No, no, you’re wrong.” The counter-voice is female, too, and knows there are some things that women are not wrong about.
Annie Finch’s books of poetry include Calendars (Tupelo, 2003), Eve (Story Line, 1997); and the performance poem The Encyclopedia of Scotland, completed in 1982 and published by Salt Publishing in 2004. She is also known as a translator and librettist; her translation of the complete poems of Renaissance poet Louise Labé is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, Early Modern Women Writers series. Her collection of essays, The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self is forthcoming in the Poets on Poetry Series from the University of Michigan Press. Finch earned a BA from Yale, MA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and PhD in English from Stanford, and is now Director of the Stonecoast low-residency MFA at the University of Southern Maine.
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