Author: Poems by Elizabeth Spires
Reviewed by Mario Savioni
Such Beauty Must Have a Name
I must admit to a certain pull having seen the picture of Elizabeth Spires in an ad for the “Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference” and wanting to get back into a “definitive analysis” of poetry that I pulled from the shelves of Pendragon Books her book “Annonciade,” which was the only one they had by her.
As all people have these dreams about rough equivalents, we see them in person (or in photographs) and want to know if they can measure up. Our dreams of soul mates, we would rather these dreams be more.
So I look at Spires in black and white, whose most important eyes and hair, the sharpness of her face are the correct insignia for provocation – something below the belt that measures time and love, which is nothing more than yearning.
As I turned the book around, I greeted her, as in another black and white. This time younger, less eloquent and with tousled hair. I am not as impressed with her in youth as I am with her hair of late (or later as I cannot guess). She is better now, stern, less relaxed, and more the bookish maiden with an arm that may have added weight.
“Annonciade,” by the way, does not exist according to “The Random House Dictionary of The English Language.” It should have gone between “Anno Mundi” and “Anno Regni.” And just as it does not exist between these words, nor should I between Spires and her husband Madison Smartt Bell, about which (the marriage, that is) I learn on the first page.
I wrote of Bell, as follows, in a review of “Granta’s” 54th issue:
Madison Smartt Bell’s “Looking For The General” is “Taken from the second novel in a planned trilogy about the Haitian slave revolution of 1791.” The story deals with a nomadic man with scars who seeks a general who has “undertaken to avenge” the slaves of Saint Domingue. He eats lizards, walks barefoot, and wears a “grubby cloth…around his loins.”
The story is also the perspective of the indigenous, who in this case, “Distrust[s] all sayings of white people.” Bell is empathic. He speaks of the journey of this person as it might be.
Bell illustrates the basic disposition of this individual, who has nothing to trade, whereas “The soldiers…alone seemed to deal in money – among the others all was barter.”
This is the strength of Bell’s story. It is a white person putting himself in the place of a Haitian slave. It is also the weakness of the story, for one wonders, as the complaint could be made, why a white person needed to tell the story of a Haitian? It reminds the reviewer of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, March 1992, exhibit: “Encounters With Paradise – Views of Hawaii and It’s People, 1778-1941.” Hawaiians did none of the art (on display).
Let us get back to Spires. She loves Mr. Bell, for whom she dedicates the book: “again, for Madison.”
In Spire’s poem “The Beds,” in London, she writes: “Each day, I take the lift from the sublet down to the ground floor.” From on high Spires descends. “On the street,” she passes a shop that sells beds, “sumptuous beds, made…each morning…/by smiling clerks who please their own moods.” I have seen this too, but more oft in sandwich shops along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, for example. My initial assessment of Spires’ mood-self-pleasing clerks as bearing a “cool” attitude differed from what Spires alludes to when she further clarifies: Her clerks do beds “one day in flaming sunrise and sunset tones,/and the next, in shades of white on white…” Of these clerks, who please themselves, I celebrate with Spires.
Spires is telling us that not only are these beds made up in “expertly threaded…ribbons and bows,/like a bride’s too-delicate underclothes,” (which is reminiscent of the flow of Eliot’s “J. Alfred Profrock”) but she says these beds have no purpose otherwise than to be seen since “nobody sleeps in [them], [or] makes love in [them]. They wait, like a young girl with too much imagination,/to be taken away for a weekend…to a great house where lovers flirt and scheme…[and] know…what beds are made for.” “Anxious clerks,” she says, “stare out at the soiled street…” Of “the passersby,” that the clerks see, Spires has inserted a grammatical complication. Either “the passersby, waiting for money/to stop, walk in the door, and ask to buy a bed,” or the clerks are “waiting for money/to stop, walk…” In either instance, she errors. Money does not come ’round and passersby do not wait, they are moving.
Better is her contradiction of the “anxious clerks…[with] circles under their eyes…[as] beds must make way for other beds…as if [the clerks have] been sleeping badly. All the while, father time ticks in the distance and Spires says eloquently that “the day vanishes,/pulled by an unseen hand through a small hole in the sky/somewhere in the…East End.” Her London “East End” is like the New York “East Side,” which I consider.
“Spire,” by the way, is “the highest point or summit of something,” according to “Random House.”
“Night falls,” she says, “so quickly on this street of Dream Merchandise!.. Now all…reverse [themselves]…/to come home to well-intentioned stews with husbands and wives,/” where she is wrong as to the “all” in her logic and as to where there are no “leftovers made to stretch…economically.” Nor are there “silver tones” at my feet, and I do not recollect change falling “end over end in [a] pocket…”
“Backlighting” is good. Is spire not a synonym of tower, however? The new moon backlights the towers and spires? How can it also “drape itself…across the beds/like a misplaced towel or bathrobe?” And who is this woman, “[who]…can’t be recognized [because of ‘new evening clothes,’ and because she is] made up so carefully?” Saved perhaps, she is, by the mystery of her departure till morning, when she may not sleep even then, “in the perfect bed of her…making.”
We move to Spires’ poem “The Little Boys,” which begins: “The little boys are lined…, two by two/…” [You see I hope that by the “…” you realize I indicate unnecessary words, for this is another problem of Spires’ poetry.] “in short gray pants, white shirts, blue cardigans.” These words are mere descriptive not rhyming or gentle, a list of monotonous facts.
Then an interesting feature: “The bow-tied [emphasis mine] schoolmaster stops them at the corner/by resting his heavy hand on the head/of the first boy.” Still informational, not poetic. Prose formed as stanzas. “The light is against them./A snaking line of twenty twitching minds [which I can’t agree is the case for all twenty]/jostles and shoves as it comes to an unwilling/standstill. [And we are forced to race along informationally as the line continues:] The term has just begun, each fall/a new beginning [redundant] for everyone except the unsmiling/schoolmaster. October always rushes by, he thinks,/but this year his boys have dwindled…/a little even as they’ve grown, [non-sequitur] inch by awkward [Oh, come on]/inch, into a little manhood [And what might this be given the information provided?]. Already the first form/divides and subdivides along Darwinian lines/into bullies and crybabies…[which makes no sense given the implication of evolution and not that the strong survive, etc. as she would hope. There is no division of form to create bullies and crybabies and there is only one division (no subdivision) among the children, according to Spires, into bullies and crybabies.]…trying not to cry, trying/and failing to hold back the hot smart tears [of which they are neither intelligent nor painful (tears) in and of themselves]/that doom them to years of crybaby torture.”
Here however, she writes beautifully with: “Bad dreams, bad words, bad smells, and small moments/of heroism[, which is] a little boy’s life./The line shuffles and shifts, [as] the stoic schoolmaster/…wish[es] the light would [change]. Green to red…, like the season/turning, cars slide to a stop as the no-nonsense/schoolmaster firmly raises his hand[.] As if to push/a heavy door…, [he] marches the boys…/into a manly future. Fearful or brave [there must be more options], all must follow,/all must do as he says or suffer [otherwise]./Chins up, heads high, zippers unzipped [Again the fallacy of “all” implied.], and shoelaces/dragging [Is every shoelace dragging?], they disappear [dragging shoelaces or the quicker ones?], the quicker/duplicitous [As if even one knew the meaning of this word. Wouldn’t you think it took intent to be duplicitous?] ones already plotting an overthrow/where no mercy will be shown, no prisoners taken./There is no turning back for a little boy[, which if you thought by her surmising, this is the key to what might be called a man’s world, or the reason for what men are to women. By her account, she is both oblivious to all little boys and incorrect as to all of their formative influences.
In her poem “Faberge Egg,” she writes: “Dear Friend, ‘Called away’ from my country,/I square the egg and put it in a letter/that all may read, gilding each word a little/so that touched, it yields to a secret/stirring, a small gold bird on a spring/suddenly appearing to sing a small song/of regret, elation, that overspills all private/bounds, although you ask, as I do, what now/do we sing to, sing for? Before the Great War,/I made a diamond-studded coach three inches high/with rock crystal windows and platinum wheels/to ceremoniously convey a speechless egg [This is odd; better words would have implied an egg as a message] to Court./All for a bored Czarina! My version of history/fantastic and revolutionary as I reduced the scale to the hand-held dimensions of a fairy tale,/hiding tiny Imperial portraits and cameos/in eggs of pearl and bone. Little bonbons, caskets!/The old riddle of the chicken and the egg/is answered thus: in the Belle Epoque/of the imagination, the egg came first, containing,/as it does, both history and uncertainty, my excesses/inducing unrest among those too hungry to see the bitter joke of an egg one cannot eat./Oblique oddity, an egg is the most beautiful of all [redundant]/beautiful [redundant] forms [redundant], a box without corners/in which anything can be contained, anything when he set me ticking. Here, among the clocks/and watches of a country precisely ordered/and dying, I am not sorry, I do not apologize./Three times I kiss you in memory/of that first Easter, that first white rising,/and send this message as if it could save you:/Even the present is dead. We must live now/in the future. Yours, Faberge.” On many levels, this poem is beautiful.
In the poem “Josephine,” which begins: “In the big bird-house, questions and answers,/wolf whistles, love songs, and desperate calls for help are batted back and forth like tennis balls./Hellohellohello, cries the mynah to no one in particular,/a white woodpecker tapping, obsessively tapping [redundant],/an arrhythmical line below the scre[a]ks and wails/of black bulbuls, saffron toucanets [which by the way can only be “greenish,” according to Random House], and lilac-breasted rollers/in the cages next to Josephine’s, a great Indian hornbill.
Josephine’s is the story of our lives involving long periods of nothing, and then “a pale green grape” appears. Sheltered, as it were, from the realities, our lives are relatively free from machetes and spears. We have our cages with “walls and ceiling[s]…painted sky-blue,” and within this world, “the big birdhouse,” we make our lives “as old bridge partners.” Bird as a “dowager” in this poem is a powerful image.
In the poem “Victoriana: Gold Mourning Pendant with an Eye Painted on Ivory,” Spires writes: “Who made this thing?/A eye staring/without blinking,/laid down on the dead/white ivory by paint/and and brush, pearls ringing/the pendant’s oval as if/grief could be transformed/into a cold and costly/object. How calmly the eye/contemplates the scenes/put before it: by birth,/a tear in time’s fabric/I crawled through quickly,/headfirst, quickly forgetting/the blood, the pain, the lights.
“Halfway into my journey,/the cold wind of coincidence/throwing my shadow against yours/to meet and marry for life.
“And the deaths in a line/on the horizon, black/silhouettes waving to us,/though we don’t wave back.
“An eye that sees too much/and yet sees nothing./Why do I hate it so,/hate the artist who/would work the body into a relic of hair and ivory,/who, in love’s memory,/would pluck the eye/from the socket, leaving the living/model blind in one eye?/I will turn from the art/of eyepainting, so distant/from hands, lips, heart./Until we die, we live/in an everlasting present/of physicality that feels things blindly, inch by inch,/ by sense, by sound, by fingertips./Let the dead learn from us.”
“Victoriana…” is haunting. It drinks the blood of a lifeless eye and says that as artists our eyepainting is dwarfed by the “everlasting present/of physicality.” Still, her poem is not the angst of Sylvia Plath’s “Winter Landscape, with Rocks,” a poem also featuring eyes. It follows:
“Water in the millrace, through a sluice of stone,/plunges headlong into that black pond/where, absurd and out-of-season, a single swan floats chaste as snow, taunting the clouded mind/which hungers to haul the white reflection down.
“The austere sun descends above the fen,/ an orange cyclops-eye, scorning to look/longer on this landscape of chagrin;/feathered dark in thought, I stalk like a rook,/brooding as the winter night comes on.
“Last summer’s reeds are all engraved in ice/as is your image in my eye; dry frost/glazes the window of my hurt; what solace/can be struck from rock to make heart’s waste/grow green again? Who’d walk in this bleak place?”
You see Plath is far superior as a wordsmith. This beauty has a name. It is emotional maturity. To have lived as a thorn bird, impaled and on her last breath, Plath consumes the reader with such command of the English language.
Perhaps we can learn from the dead.
The strength Spires’ poem “Sunday Afternoon at Fulham Palace” is its ability to respect the insertion of the idea of the woman “passing out pamphlets” later in the text or that she includes an overture: “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines,… Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo,” or other allusions to nuclear fallout or a contrast to it, which is like the opening of the movie Blue Velvet, where high saturation primaries and waving firemen are the opposite of the alleged seediness that follows.
Spires’ is a gentle poem introducing us as we remembered to the difference between what was and what could have been. In the back of our minds, we realized at any time, the view could go up in smoke. She pulls us into the contemplation of the idea and her sentences disappear as does art, whereas it evaporates and we forget its canvas gently shoved us into the direction of these thoughts.
She says so much in the poem “Mutoscope,” a girl’s peep show journey with images “mounted radially on a rotating drum… [from: Random House].” She performs for us the heterosexual woman’s view of the undressing of another woman’s body. This alone is worth the cost of her mutoscope as she has stripped naked and her words that tell us what she thinks…pennies for thoughts, remind us of a place, which is no longer Brighton but dim. “Mutoscope” is a good poem for its personification.
In the poem “Rosa Tacchini,” with exception to an “unreasoning bottle,” which is to say that it is not the fault of a bottle, Spires creates a wondrous personification of a ship (from 1872), weathered like her face as a “daughter of time.”
In the poem “Primos,” Spires appears as the omni-present female viewing a man who survived the capsizing of his boat only to wind up telling stories of it with a drunken voice, and she speculates on his future. The poem is powerful.
In the poem “Profil Perdu,” Spires ends with “the evidence,” which stops the flow of this love story. She should have ended the poem with: “Their life, and ours…”
Given the similarity of “Annonciade” to annunciation in the poem of the former word, and given the context of the poem, I garner a meaning for the former. Is it not disclosure?
In the poem “Glass-Bottom Boat,” it seems petty to be concerned with simple repetitions, like “clear, clean water” [I can’t remember which came first the commercial or the lyric] or “a thousand years,/ten thousand.” And what is a “world-without-end hour?” It seems such a melodramatic mood for a tour of the reef in an commercial craft, no doubt filled with bland occupants, whose mouths form “O”s on their lips “and then again an O!”
Mark Strand, on the other hand, can repeat words because what comes before them, as in the poem, “Nostalgia,” is something so heavy and enigmatic that the repetition of “yesterday,” for example, proves to reassure us that we can understand. What came before “yesterday,” as in: “The professors of English have taken their gowns/to the laundry, have taken themselves to the field./Dreams of motion circle the Persian rug in a room/you were in./On the beach the sadness of gramophones/deepens the ocean’s folding and falling./It is yesterday. It is still yesterday,” melts the mind. This twisting breadth Spires cannot accomplish.
Perhaps I understand why mediocre poems are seldom taken seriously. In the context of a world where existence is so easily the acceptance of what is, someone spending time trying to layer life, where there is nothing more than the room within which we live and the events outside, it you see that a poem as complaint or the making more of something small merely evokes pity. Strand or Plath remind that a poem is not just prose. It is the black hole of language sucking us in and particularizing our minds and then pushing us out having undertaken a profound experience with words. Truth is not the need to layer or repeat. It is caught quickly, not necessarily understood as fact but by impression. Repetition, on the other hand, is used to help those who have lost their way. With Spires, we see a beautiful woman but whose poems are only skin deep.
Publisher: Penguin Books, http://www.penguin.com/usa/usahome.html
ISBN 0 14 058.638 5
List Price: $8.95 (US) Soft Cover
67 Pages (Poems)
Other Books by Spires are: “Globe,” “Swan’s Island,” and “Worldling.” Related pages includes http://www.amazon.com/Annonciade-Poets-Penguin-Elizabeth-Spires/dp/0140586385
Review Author: Mario Savioni.