This full-length first collection of poems must have the most striking title since Kenneth Field’s Classic Rough News. The book, while a bold one, is curiously and arrestingly designed in a way that both cloaks and reveals Meg Withers. For instance, a poem near the book’s end, ‘Santa Fe, Fifteen Zen Stones,’ written in fifteen sections, also lends each of its brief, imagistic segments as epigraph or milestone marking each subgroup of poems.
To hear the poet herself tell of the book’s early reception among friends [disclosure: Meg and I have been friends in poetry for a long time], already people are categorizing Withers as a Buddha-influenced poet. This is to oversimplify considerably, even though Withers has studied with such Zen-worthy mentors as Arthur Sze. The reader will note that Withers cites quite diverse influences in the poems’ titles or contents: Stanley Kunitz, Seamus Heaney, and Ruth Stone, to name only makers of verse.
In truth, what’s often on view here is Withers’ own outsized personality, enough in the life to dominate a hundred roomfuls of poets and power every light bulb into the bargain. Many of her poems achieve equal impact by sheer force of word and wordplay. So the poet writes (in ‘What I Know: Must Be Present to Win 1’):
Venous red liquor insists death
is just the more reason to live,
to love this balding existence,
this sweet, sagging world.
In these lines, Withers reveals a gift for the poetic bon mot, which relies partly on compression, partly on words of multiple meaning. Thus, that ‘Venous red liquor’ connotes venality, the vinous allure of (real) red liquor, and the throbbing conductivity of our veins, all at once. And when mere blood flows through us with vivid color and commingled pressures, we comprehend a bit better why life is so deceitful, and so worth loving.
But subtlety as well as force is at play here, too. Withers’ biographical note indicates that she favors integrating the arts and sciences, so it is logical that she quotes Muriel Rukeyser, another such integrator, in the volume’s front matter. (‘Let us nourish beginnings.’)
One poem that results from this sort of melding is “Object 2003 VB12 aka Sedna,” where Withers skillfully interweaves recent discoveries of planets beyond Pluto with creation myth, celebrating goddesses amidst their painful birthing of offspring at the whim of cruel gods. References to music and musicians (Beethoven, Chopin, Mahler) and visual artists (Rodin) are frequent, but at their best when most implicit: rather than a commonplace apostrophe to Chopin, the ‘Berceuse, Op. 57 in D-Flat’ concentrates on the dancers who must have swayed and glided to the rapture of the composer’s elegant salon music.
And yet for all these subtleties, good earthy fun is at the root of several of the poems. Try reading ‘Dance’ as if to a calypso beat; but then forget that I told you this and just enjoy the uncorrupted poem:
Blind allegiance to samba,
Blood captive to timbre,
Heart thuds need to shred air,
The heat of sensational feet [… ]
Here, too, is an anti-war poem (‘Losing Babylon’) which, instead of preaching, simply inventories the mythic and psychic losses, almost in the way of a curator stunned by American failure to protect Iraqi museums. Effective elegiac poems for Withers’ late father and sister provide just enough observed (not literature-freighted) detail to texture the relationship and orient the reader.
A poem in homage to Kunitz (‘Stanley Kunitz Does the Hundreds (Right Concentration)’) is that rare thumbnail portrait in verse which works as a synopsis of his poetic life. A couple of poems celebrate the Persephone myth in a fresh way; and Withers is among such writers as Czeslaw Milosz when recasting the Orpheus legend with success.
As fine as Withers’ collection is, I have one or two small reservations: occasionally a mass of reference-freighted detail, or a spate of eloquent stray thought, will obscure the subject held in view. Thus, ‘Questions Upon Reading Suzanne Lummis,’ written in tribute to the poet’s mother, attends admirably to the questions provoked by Lummis (no doubt regarding the matter of hospice and the concept of a loving death); but I could wish for more direct remembrance of the poet’s mother herself.
Yet the poem as written posits an intimacy, a privacy which probably should stay inviolate. My concern may be better grounded regarding ‘Tea with Herr Mahler (For J.A. Prufrock and Ardavan),’ where the reader is left in too Prufrockian a state to concentrate on the music of Mahler.
What this impression may indicate is that Withers will sometimes allude, or surf her own fine-grained consciousness, rather than observe or reminisce or feel directly. However, we never sense that the quirk is becoming a real vice, or even a vanity of mournfulness (as in parts of Jorie Graham’s recent Overlord). In fact, although ‘Mid Night with Ruth Stone’ is less about that poet’s work and more a reader’s expression of feeling upon first encounter, that feeling is so frankly, ardently voiced that it sweeps hesitation aside.
We remember, too, the simpler poems, which, like the Rilkean “Pray for Heartbreak,” give us aphorisms of help and hope to cling to:
Why not the small hammer and anvil
of the heart, which will only
continue to build its sheaths
of ridiculous excuses and defenses?
When the sweet, frosted skin,
the meaty flesh of grapes
only upon crushing?
We also learn, in “Spring Tanka,” that
April’s look fools you.
Bloom is just first-degree rot,
and rot, after all
is not death on the hunt, but
just an apprentice to bloom.
But what is that other stir in the April weather? It’s more than apprenticeship and blooming that blows our way, here or in the rest of the book. Again, it’s probably our budding sense of Meg Withers the poet, striding to front and center and taking over the room. Read, O Reader, and be taken.
Tom Goff has written many book reviews for Poetry Now, the newsletter of the Sacramento Poetry Center. He is the author of Field of the Cloth of Gold and truenature, chapbooks available from Poet’s Corner Press in Stockton, California. Tom also plays trumpet, most recently with the Golden State Brass and the Auburn Symphony. He is married to poet and artist Nora Laila Staklis.