Remnants of Hannah is Dara Wier’s tenth collection of poems. Wier has been publishing for over thirty years now, but her most recent work has been her best, particularly her last book, 2005’s Reverse Rapture . In the light of this, Remnants of Hannah is, on first view, disappointing. There are some interesting moments in the book, but there are also a lot of tired-feeling poems, and the book as a whole does not have the impact of Reverse Rapture.
The weaker poems are some of the shorter lyrics, which have either that strained but finished feel that makes for the worst of poems — those in which the reader has a distinct sense of being worked upon — or are attempts at cleverness which read like Charles Bernstein for dinner parties:
For a long time I’d wanted to be in a prose
poem and could find no way to do that
I despaired I’d ever get to but here I am now
The straight-forward Language Poetry like this and other poems in the volume — particularly ‘Some Not So Nearly Apocalyptic Borders in the Antipodes’ — are not among Wier’s best poems, and this is because Wier’s gentle (that is, too gentle) humour grates with the demands of Language poetry. Unfortunately Wier’s overtly political poems are also therefore slightly strained: either sentimental (discussing lost American troops overseas in ‘The Limestone of the Continent Consists of Infinite Masses’) or sententious in the many poems about global warming.
Wier’s best work here is when she reverts to a more congenial influence, John Ashbery. The occasions where the condensed allegorical mode Wier favours comes off are Ashberyan moments. ‘Faux Self-Portrait of You’, for example, and ‘Incident on the Road to the Capital’, are such moments. The latter is a fable which delights with its relaxed but devious suggestiveness — a wolf, having decided to make himself “more vicious” decides to kill “for some other purpose” than survival:
ran into me the other day on his journey to consult the
oracle of escalated suffering we shared a table in the
shade of a parasol tree in whose branches were preening
half a dozen or so birds with gaudy chromatic feathers.
A few of these fell onto the dome of his forehead but he
was too engrossed in his story to brush them away. He
didn’t look like a very serious wolf. I think he was
missing a real opportunity.
There are also beautiful lyrics where Wier enters into a silence reminiscent of Hart Crane. There is the beautifully spare ‘Of Houses I’ve Inhabited Forever Without Knowing’, for example:
There were hallways into quarters I’d never seen.
Rooms behind rooms where no one has ever gone.
Walls with secret panels hiding vast empty realms.
A door leading to a cellar where no door has been
Before, cellar wide open with a skyblue ceiling
Across which a flock of geese is flying over a
Pale glacial lake. Sometimes I can just make out
Someone I love who’s dies sitting on a crate by
Its shore. Once someone was flying by and invited
Me to come along. I hand answered fast enough
& they were gone. Logic had slowed me down.
Logic aside (which rather mars the poem for me) it is this secluded memory and deep mystery, usually equated with love, that Wier does best. There is ‘The Shadows’, for example, which begins yearning
To be like a spider a kid’s captured
In a bug house and forgotten on a bench
Beneath a room inside a hemlock in the far off
Corner of a garden, then it’s raining
‘The Shadows’, the finest of all the poems running through the book that make up its love narrative, is wonderful for its simultaneous self-criticism and moving desire to relive the past. The poet has been inclined to “stay inside the shadows”, and yearns again “To be like a vine finding a fence a good enough home”, whereas her lover is “the one with the knapsack and boat”. Ultimately the relationship becomes one-sided and cruelty emerges, but this can only again helplessly desired and justified:
Now you tell me how sound travels as you throw a
Replica of my head over a rail into a river
It was about time...
I liked how you made my head out of an old cannonball
I liked how you made my eyes look tired
I liked the expression of mild disbelief
You put on my face
Even this becomes once more a reminiscence of ensconced lovers:
I like how you stole the cannonball from a battery...
Once we hid in a gunnery on a precipice far away
Wier’s stronger poems in this collection are the longer, more rhapsodic efforts like ‘The Shadows’, which are generally the poems which contribute to the volume’s unifying theme of lost love. The ended romance theme is convincing because Wier writes so movingly of love:
For you, I’m sawing off a blue grass branch I’d been sleeping on
Ha, will you say when I break at your feet, such is fate
When I break at your feet on a shore in a wave me away
I’m digging a hole for dirt from that hole to go back into
Foggy you and your dark horse have kept up a blistering pace
You were gone to be sure, I checked all the windows and doors.
The theme emerges and accumulates toward the end of the book, where we begin to pick up on recurring images: a horse, dirt, wings and feathers. This accumulation is part of the unified way Wier writes many of her volumes, and the poems here, reading them back, sometimes take on a heightened sense of loss and other times a different meaning altogether. The opening poem, ‘Attitude of Rags’, for example, at first reads like the aftermath of violence, but rereading it in the light of Wier’s love poems gives one a sense of a much more personal disaster. The poems seemingly just about wandering become incorporated and a much more meaningful — and meaningless — wandering of the I-just-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself character at a loose end which emerges explicitly in some of the final lines of the volume: “Finally I got to be / A thread a friend was pulling from a sleeve.” The cloth metaphor which features throughout (“a blue thread”) are what ultimately amount to the remnants of the book’s title.
Like all of Wier’s work, of course, the volume is eminently rewarding, even if only every other poem matches Wier’s previous efforts; for though there is inconsistency here, there are equally moments of brilliance and extreme tenderness, and the volume as a whole finally succeeds in its acute sense of loss and of being lost.