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Tad Richards reviews

Calendars, by Annie Finch

Tupelo Press, Dorset, VT, 2003, 80 pages, US$22.95
ISBN 1932195041

You can read a poem by Annie Finch in Jacket 28.
This piece is 1,300 words or about three printed pages long.

Calendars, cover imageHave 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.

Finch’s connection with music goes back to her earliest connection with poetry as a profession: an early form of what became her first book, The Encyclopedia of Scotland, was performed as street theater on New York’s East Village, with a rock group and bagpipes. More recently, she has written libretti for operas, and lieder for contemporary composers. But words for music is a different matter altogether from words that sing. The latter is a good deal rarer, and it doesn’t come simply from pushing words together in alternating patterns of de and dah. Finch, who has described her work process as including the whispering or muttering, shouting or chanting or singing her words aloud as she writes, has brought that song into the words in a way that we associate with poets of an earlier era, like Tennyson or Kipling.

Calendars begins with the cadenced trochaic tetrameter rhythms of “Landing Under Water, I See Roots”:

All the things we hide in water
hoping we won’t see them go —
(forests growing under water
press against the ones we know)

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.

Trochees come in for their fair share of attention in Calendars. So do dactyls, and neither of these meters is particularly associated with subtlety, but Finch sets out to change that. Her dactyls, particularly, take the reader by surprise — first because they’re there at all, then because they’re used in the service of a range of emotions far beyond the higgledy-piggledy light verse one associates with dactyls. Part of this is comes from the variety she’s able to run her higgledies and piggledies through, including some ear-catching melds of dactyl and spondee:

Brown-gold with bronze water, broken in blossom,
they shake as you shine over swans, your wedged bodies


that shadowed clear pools through the kelp-making shade.
When beached sea-foam dried on the rocks, it would sail

(“A Carol For Carolyn”)

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
past the long edge of the last human shore,
there are deep windows the waves haven’t opened,
where night is reflected through decades of glass.
There is the nursery, there is the nanny,
there are my father’s unreachable eyes
turned towards the window. Is the child uneasy?
His is the death that is circling the stars.

...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.
Here is release. Here is your pillow,
cool like a handkerchief pressed in a pocket.
Here is your white tousled long growing hair.
Here is a kiss on your temple to hold you
safe through your solitude’s long steady war;
here, you can go. We will stay with you,
keeping the silence we all came here for.

...and ends in the moment of death:

Here is his open mouth. Silence is here
like one more new question that he will not answer.
A leaf is his temple. The dark is the prayer.
He has given his body; his hand lies above
the sheets in a symbol of wholeness, a curve
of thumb and forefinger, ringed with wide gold,
and the instant that empties his breath is a flame
faced with a sudden cathedral’s new stone.

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.

Finch uses another formal device that keeps snapping the reader back to content rather than form: the second voice, indicated by parentheses. She doesn’t use it in every poem, but often enough to make it a presence. It snapped me back to content because I kept asking myself, why is she doing this? And if counting the spondees in the dactyls might have distracted me from what the words were saying (it didn’t), wondering about the parenthetical insertions pulled me back in.

The device first appears in the first poem of the collection, “Landing Under Water, I See Roots,” quoted above, and in its first bow does not appear to be setting up a significant opposition — what we hope vs. what actually happens? But the same poem ends:

everything I speak of sowing
(everything I try to love).

...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.”

That counter-voice keeps finding its way back in, saying “No, no, no, you’ve got it wrong,” as in “Without a Bird”:

This is a dawn without a sun
(that has no birds)

This is a dawn that will not part
(that will not sing)

In “Caribou Kitchen,” it seems to again assert itself as the anti-poet:

Most things have vanished
while we were talking
(the dents in a pitcher
gleam by the gas lamp),
but nothing is lost
(cups in far corners).
Arms still lean
over the table
(shadows on the oilcloth).

...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.

Later in the collection, when she moves into the intense physical reality of femaleness, the counter-voice still makes itself heard, now more supportive and collaborative, but still conscious of its separateness. In “Belly”:

belly reaps winter open in one flying charm,
tree and belief, heavy fish-rushing spark

of mother and daughter, husband and son,
from deep in the dark,
from deep in the dark.

my own country

(Reaching through agate)

This is the blood that came out of the fullness
that grows in me like a forest
(To narrow)
of trees so strong

(or hold)

so much taller than I am (while spending)

so much dark greener than I am

Here is this fullness.

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 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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