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Chris Murray reviews

Small Works
by Pam Rehm

63 pp. Flood Editions, 2005. paper. ISBN 0-9746902-6-0

This review is 2,200 words
or about 4 printed pages long


Who has not known the occasional long night of wishing away dread over the unknown, its seeming beastliness? — the unknown, its thickening infinitude, its unbounded space where time stretches out of its proportions, beyond clocks (even if one can be heard ticking) through a primitive darkness studded with the amplified sounds of things seemingly never heard before, or not heard with the same details compelling attention. In Pam Rehm’s poem, ‘A Charm for Sleep,’ the unknown looms large in the imaginary, it

on all sides of night

laden with beasts (6)

Grappling with and hopefully overcoming the primitive fear of the void, with its legacy of predatory, animalistic precedents — the Pleistocene stuff of myth — and its indeterminacies of sound without sight (Oh, mama! please leave on the light!), is certainly a classic part of childhood. Except for the persistence of a balancing adult perspective in this poem, one might make it a companion to Maurice Sendak’s radical children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. But where Sendak was certainly radical in freeing the child from fear, Rehm’s poem is profound. Indeed, Small Works is full of wonderment that converges with the spiritual and the profound.

For many, such grappling with the unknown extends in various ways into adulthood (Ah, yes: sleeplessness over tomorrow’s job interview, or that crucial payment missed, or the week lacking enough money for bread and milk) with its own moments and forms of being burdened with uncertainty’s beastliness. Whether for adult or child, ‘A Charm for Sleep’ fascinates as it elaborates exactly this crux in questions of consciousness, coping, and awareness of the unknown in the familiar situations of everyday life, all of which create a quicksilver subject for poetry, moving at once from tentative to meditative, from a voice of diffidence to ambivalence, from mediation to amelioration. It is startling for its particularly accomplished poetic range.

The poem is especially innovative in elucidating both crux and convergence of voice-perspectives between those of childhood and adult:

Fear has an ear
in it
. . .
So small the ear
appears (6)

Although small as a child is small in relation to world, the ear is understood to attract, contain and exacerbate the unknown, the ‘Fear’ that seems to fit how a child might describe it, how a child’s perspective might perceive it. There is the nursery rhyme mode, a Dr. Seuss-like rhyme and meter, underscoring the relation to a child’s perspective. Yet the adult is not too far off in this innovative poetic non-dialogue, a synthesis of the two perspectives joined by the merest of seams:

Your fear is an old snare
. . .
When I was small
I held onto a psalm (8)

Thus the reminiscing perspective of an adult advises the child trapped by the ‘Fear’ to turn to another strategy for overcoming the unknown: to hold, to literally embrace, the tradition of artful, prayerful songs, the psalms. These two, adult and child, are shown then, to be non-competing perspectives combining to form a synthesis. As such, this might be called an innovative poetic hybrid. The synthesizing interaction between what are usually thought of as radically different epistemological perspectives is new to westernized literary arts, insofar as few rhetorical modes have attempted that particular kind of combination, which while not strictly dialogue is just short of dialectical, yet still has a similar effect. The two perspectives remain fluid, open-ended indeterminacies. A synthesis such as here between child and adult positions of enunciation has been mostly unthinkable as a poetics because culturally (as figural definitions) and economically (in terms of publishing genres) we tend to categorize and split these two speaking positions into oppositional genres favoring the (supposedly) more knowledgeable adult rather than attempting to find combinatory ways where the two can perform an interaction that balances one with the other. Why? — adult perspectives dominate children. Adults read and enjoy children’s stories, sure, but usually from a patronizing condescension. Yet in Rehm’s work there is an unassuming concentration on collaboration with the child, about matters of everyday life and artful literacy, thus stretching the traditional limits of both these perspectives into that of being equal contributors to the making of a poetic moment.

‘A Charm for Sleep,’ along with many particularly astute poems in this collection — such as ‘Indebted,’ ‘When Poverty is Unattainable’ (the opening poem), and ‘Saving Bond,’ to name only a few — also fascinates because it is rhetorically performative. The poem enacts the discursive moment of demonstrating how beastliness and the unknown can be confronted methodically by both naming and taming it, as it were. This ‘demonstrating’ becomes so in a very literal sense: that of ‘de’/ ’monstrating,’ of removing from the fearful moment its monstrousness, its looming act of ‘othering’ and dominating. We find that the acts of recognizing and then embracing difference are useful. Rather than fighting or destroying difference and otherness, or even feeling as if it must be succumbed to, it can be managed:

To ward something off
draw it

and it will pass away

Discourse with it

and it will lose its magnitude

You will lay yourself down

Surely your soul will be kept
rescued in the sayings of this book

When rescue is secure
your reward is with you

And you are your own record (9)

The simple act of talking mediates the difficulty, then, and in so doing, equalizes the fraught situation of the unknown, of how

night has a thing in it
that cannot be calmed (8)

That reckoning with the unknown is what the poem elsewhere names as the ‘world’s tribulation,’ an allusion not only to the kind of tribulations described in the Old Testament Psalms, but also right now, our current moment of world with its latest war mongering evolutions into deadly undercurrents and realities, its conditions and conflicts that no child escapes, and which form a large part of what becomes the unknown to be grappled with. Alas, ‘discourse,’ — the meaningful exchange of words, one to another, such as in psalms, or here, astute poems — cannot slay monsters, nor even banish them. But this collection of poems makes clear that there is in ‘discourse’ the comfort and ‘rescue’ of the self from the void of the unknown, a respite from the persistence of that ‘unnamable’ Beckett named, a respite from so many things going bump in the night both inside and outside ones rhetorical and material situations and perspectives. Moreover, this approach to fear of the unknown comprises a way of assuring survival, which is to say, ‘discourse’ takes the form of an action, an act to save oneself. Here ‘self’ is not, as in global capitalism, a narcissistic post-modern consumerist self, but one whose equivalent is, modestly and most seriously, a ‘soul.’ The poem humbly asks readers to wonder: when was the last time you thought of yourself as a ‘soul’? This poem, like the book, radiates with astute possibilities for reformulating spiritual and philosophical awareness in our time of unprecedented U.S. imperializing globalization, a time marked by war and uncertainty for many. Indeed, raising children now, I know from my own experiences is most difficult under the circumstances: how to assuage their fears? Given the constant presence of monstrosities either as lived through in war zones, or ghettos, or as reported in the everyday news, monstrosities likely to escalate in imagination once one is alone to face the void of night, what can be said and in what form? Poetically, few are asking these kinds of questions from the uniquely combinatory perspective that Pam Rehm offers in this book.

Unique in perspective and offering a remarkable range of insight and poetic innovation, Small Works is a thoughtful, provocative, and philosophically profound book. There is an intriguing series of 12 poems called ‘Acts’ that form something of a ritualizing chant warding off the trials and pitfalls of life. These are provocative — in their eclectic range they allude to and are collaged freely out of many sources of traditional wisdom, the remnants of voice and/ or figures found in the Judeo-Christian bible, ancient myth, and in at least one poem, ‘Acts of Vexation,’ the fortune-telling deck of medieval Tarot cards:

The only thing under the sun
I can run to
is Ecclesiastes

for there is nothing gathered into the self
that can be kept

Want is humbled by death
as every purpose manifests it

Feeling this all my life
a piercing fright
gathers in the stomach’s pit

This is it and this is not the end
of the road

for even despair is a kind of goad
to wisdom

The beauty of the world
over one’s own anguish

The day that I lost all feeling

I was both a Fool and a Goddess (58-59)

Other familiar influences abound in the poetics of Small Works where it is especially delightful to hear frequent resonances from Emily Dickinson and Lorine Niedecker, as well as Robert Creeley. Certainly Dickinson’s senses of homage to and conflict with evangelical spirituality, also her eclecticism. The poems often formulate rhetorical elements in ways akin to Niedecker’s astute enthymemes. Add to that something of a precedent set by some of Creeley’s work in the use of a range of perspectives, specifically the child-to-adult perspectives, as well as poetic techniques of resonating figural condensations and rhyme. One poem of Creeley’s that Pam Rehm’s work seems to resonate with is Creeley’s ‘Sparks Street Echo’ from Selected Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991):

Flakes falling
out window make
no place, no place —

no faces, traces,
wastes of whatever
wanted to be —

was here
momently, mother,
was here. (329)

Excepting the sophistication in the phrase ‘wastes of whatever,’ which uses terms not likely to be uttered by a child in that phrasing, this poem could be said to come entirely from the perspective of a young child (or, arguably, from that of a grown child reminiscing, which it was probably intended as, but I am reading here more generically, for similitude of technique rather than for Creeley’s specific context; the point is that it is a child-perspective in a quandary). Then, in how snow will quietly cover and thereby estrange the world, the child notes awareness of the void, the unknown, and addresses the (absent) mother. With the implied angst of the italicized final two words, this poem suggests, even invites, an answer to the quandary of a child-perspective faced with a void not unlike that of the unknown in night-fears. In terms of the dialectics of influence, intertextuality and poetics, then, intended or not an answer can be said to have come from Pam Rehm in several poems of Small Works.

In all, and quite uniquely, we find the child’s perspective in Small Works treated with abundance, great tenderness, and carefully balanced with that of a more knowledgeable and experienced adult. That will not surprise readers familiar with Pam Rehm’s other writings, especially her essay, ‘Beyond Impatience: On Motherhood and Poetry,’ which appeared in The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (ed., Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, Wesleyan University Press, 2003). Pam Rehm is the mother of two children, and the essay comments on the contradictory situation of being devoted to commitments of both poetry and raising children. She writes:

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, I lost my patience. I sometimes think my poems are merely apologies for my impatience. Impatience doesn’t have a care about it. It leads nowhere. Having a child has helped me break down my impatience to find a ‘pace in time’; a pace, stretching between yesterday and tomorrow. A pace that is set by those who are closest to me and that gives me the confidence to keep going. Finding a pace in time, beyond impatience, is what I am trying to do as a mother as well as a poet. However, it’s hardly that simple. (165)… I get my son involved in helping out. At two and a half he is actually asking if he can help me make dinner. Sharing in this way makes me feel equal and I think my son can feel it [equal] too… The more our lives become intertwined in this way, instead of me acting as the powerful mother in control over the helpless child, the easier it becomes to make our own pace. We are both preceptors… I often read my son poems… Niedecker and Dickinson are the funniest to him. He prefers Creeley to Blake and Hopkins… I feel thankful that he allows me to hear poems out loud after a day totally lacking in anything close to poetry’s magic (167)…

Judging from the beautifully wrought poetic accomplishments of Small Works, mothering and poetry for Pam Rehm have without doubt combined to create a productive paradox, an incisive kind of linguistic and philosophical stirring into or mulling over life-as-lived, through commonplace yet uniquely employed forms of rhetorical sharing in soulful, songful contradiction.

Chris Murray

Chris Murray

Chris Murray is a poet and mother of three who currently lives in Arlington, TX. Her work can be found in print and online in such journals as Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics, mem, Shampoo, BlazeVOX, Moria, Black Spring, can we have our ball back? and forthcoming in American Book Review (July 2006). Her 2004 chapbook is Meme Me Up, Scotty!, and she is currently at work on a chapbook of prose poems, Honey Tongue. With poets Hoa Nguyen and Susan Briante, Chris co-curates the new print journal, Superflux, launched in March 2006 at Austin, TX. Since March of 2003 she has been the happy blogger at chris murray’s Texfiles, a poetry+poetics site. Chris teaches writing and literature courses at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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