Monday, November 30, 2015



The Magnificence of Ruin by Sherry Kearns
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, Ohio, 2015)

“Quid Pro Quo”: Sherry Kearns’s Word and Thing

The first poem in Sherry Kearns’s new book The Magnificence of Ruin does the job its position calls for, in signaling the poetics and state of awareness of a now mature poet who realizes she’s standing on the threshold of old age. The two are aspects of something essential, deeply compelling, and disturbing. There is a lack of compromise in this fully orchestrated collection, evident in this first entry. Her fully evolved craft and state of mind both call to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s marvelous phrase “the art of losing"—yet Kearns won't countenance the Bishop poem's residual sentimentalism (despite the older poet’s best efforts to expurgate the Romantic). Kearns's “Quid Pro Quo" sets tone and pace with magnificent understatement and suggests the paradox of the swap: youth's strength and beauty replaced by a dearly paid for understanding, acceptance and thereby, lucky us, harmony, final solace after all.

The poem begins with the deictic “This.” (Look, reader, at this word, this poem—the world!) The delusory Romanticism of nouns and verbs has been traded away. Kearns has learned about inevitable suffering in order that there can be clarity as well as the sheer, and quiet, savoring of the living moment. The book’s very first word, a pronoun, tells all to come. Made real in a surely crafted poetry, the exuberance of what follows that word will show us old age’s unanticipated abundance. A night’s “snow” is

falling in auras
through halos
of streetlamp light

[. . .] dropping as
stars do not in the truly
dark’s ever-widenening
dropping and dropping [etc.].

Harmony, indeed.

Kearns’s longtime friend and mentor, William Bronk, also wrote eloquently of winter, night, and old age. She takes up where he has left off, while alluding to his achievement. Contemplating the vastness of that night sky (in “The Various Sizes of the World") Bronk asks, "What address ever really finds / us in the endless depths the world acquires?” In “Titles and Dates” Kearns answers the question. Her nomenclatures are “ways to compass / fixed locations / in the flood of time / where poems and days / mark passages”; yet “these have washed away,” and what is left is to “remember / simply experience, / evidence of landfall [. . .].” The collection’s title poem comes next. It begins with an observation. The “Feeder Canal” in Hudson Falls, NY where Bronk walked daily, often with Kearns, is “falling apart” (my emphasis); it is being overtaken or let’s say reclaimed by “forces / greater than commerce / and engineering.” The structures of civilization are destined to “tumble […] into / uncreated chaos.”

Kearns’s work has always embodied the rural Yankee experience, as did Bronk’s. Especially in this poem, not unlike in the prior poem's subtle metaphor of “landfall,” we see her roots less in a New Englander like Emerson (think of “The Earth Song” in Hamatreya), more in Dickinson with whom she often vies for supremacy of craft. Particularly remarkable in this regard, comparable with this forbear’s work, is Kearns’s poem "Grey Matter" that is easily as vivid and subtle in its images and sounds:

Grey cylinders of power
upon upright poles
jail the god
and wire-bind his volts.

Such solitary
confinement affords
a captive brain
concentrate capacity
to surge the narrow line.

While the wit, surprising usages of words (for example, “concentrate”), figuration and rhyme here might be reminiscent of Dickinson, they are finally Kearns’s own, along with the color grey (also see her poem "Little Grey Champion" that "crosses / all lines and / breaks all rules / for no reason / but than it goes grey”). Especially to be associated with aging, grey is more in keeping with late Bronk (in a book like The Cage of Age) and yet aging and the qualities of grey are, too, Kearns. In fact, "Grey Matter" is pivotal thematically in her new collection.

Yet Kearns reminds me also of Lorine Niedecker (the Dickinson-Niedecker comparison has frequently been made) whose rural Wisconsin, close-to-the-bone poetry as well as life, and whose somewhat reclusive sensibility comprise a useful parallel. Niedecker’s poems are akin to Dickinson’s but with less obvious reliance on figures such as metaphor or symbol. To my eye and ear more of the poems in The Magnificence of Ruin are in conversation with her nearer contemporary; and Kearns dispenses with metaphor and all figures of speech in a good many of her poems.

In this book the poems are especially gnomic. Moreover, they are quietly wry in satirizing civilized life in order to reveal its illusions. Midway in the book, for instance, we get an astonishing sequence of stripped down, unadorned and brief utterances whose power to overwhelm us develops gradually after an initial reading. Here’s “In the Mix" that, similar to the other poems in this section, plays off the jargon of village life—the idiom of the everyday as we all use it without really thinking what we might be saying—so she'll twist a dead metaphor, but not to revive it:

We are
in the mix,
like it
or not and
like it or
not, we
are mixed.

The chiasmus in this streak of short lines is part of the mix but “the mix” is various as well as multiple (including the mixed-up quality of a threatening senility). The poem following this one comments on the daily patter (of the mix) implicitly. The next poem pulls the ground out from that one:

            In A Manner Of Speaking   I

How we say it
tells the story.
What the listener
hears tells his.

            In A Manner Of Speaking   II

If we don’t tell it
as we hear it, we
no longer have a
say in anything or
have anything to say.

Kearns is not finished. She swiftly deconstructs the prior three poems with a nearly cynical lyric, “In Reality”:

Now that we’re
beyond use,
what’s the good?
That alone,
its ultimate.

The sequence goes on from here in elegant, devastating language that gets to what is not and, surprisingly, does so by using nouns in the way the Objectivists, such as Niedecker, used them—images yet the language itself objectified—so to achieve a clarity Kearns might say she’s arrived at after a lifetime.

The sequences of poems are important in this carefully constructed book. “In a Dead Man’s Kitchen,” for example, the poem has more to say when immediately trailed by “In a Mess”:

            In A Dead Man’s Kitchen

The machine is loaded.
Its motor runs but
those dishes in it
can’t be washed—
no hoses, no water—.
They aren’t ours anyway,
we’ve dirtied our own.

            In A Mess

The mess is real--
weeds taking over,
dust and mold,
spiders and mice.
We have battles
for order though
the war’s been lost.

The fourth of the book’s four sections turns to look back upon what has been done and said in prior pages, with an awareness of the earlier work as prelude. This last portion not only rescues us from the bare given of our later years. It's tempting to fancy that Kearns has been living with Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," particularly the insistence that "old age should burn and rave at close of day." Her poem "The Way We Live Now" begins with the “Burning recognition / that actual is real, / ignition from Titanic / source, ember blown to glow.” Another kind of poem in this section also serves to sum up the conundrum older people may especially become sensitive to as their opportunities grow fewer. Their limited set of options is ruefully satirized in the phrasing of her poem “Choice Cuts" (for those elders who shop in their local, deracinated supermarket?). The first of two stanzas reads as follows.

Choices choose what we conceal
abundance out of view,
absence permits nothing said—
exclusion’s its reveal.

The very act of choosing threatens to belie the authenticity of the living now—which is taken up in the oft used word, the title of the next poem, “Reflection."

Distinct from what is to be found in the work of Emerson, in this poem Kearns's marvelous economies of language and prosody are on a par with Dickinson's or Niedecker's. Are the elderly fully conscious of their existential dilemma and would such a state of mind at last be a comfort to Kearns? She insists, these poems attest, on living with unflinching honesty. Here's how "Reflection" begins:

Eye’s instructed to see
but mind corrects the seen.

“Ah, beautiful” is scolded
by the pedant’s mocking,

“Not for long.” [Etc.]

There is the folly of people who, in their own way fully alive at the height of their powers, do not see through their circumstance to "[recognize] / the paradox of mirror,” given that “[w]ithin looks out and / misunderstands who’s there."

What sets this amazing collection of poems apart from most poetry, and even from a great deal of Kearns’ earlier work, is not merely her fine attunement to language—and this is her own peculiar language; there is also, particularly, her understated though rigorous meditation on language in both supermarket and poetry parlor. To be sure, she enjoys the very particles of language. Through her attention to them, moreover, in the most subtle and telling way, she talks about both her poetics and the language of the elderly—how that language serves and ironically falls short, although in interesting and revealing ways, of what someone might need in order to be fully aware of circumstances and thus to be saved.

Kearns’s poem “An End of Imagery” signals this complex of thinking as well as her aesthetic and psychological departure not just from Emerson but ultimately also from Dickinson—while in these late poems she moves closer to Niedecker, all the time keeping faith with Bronk’s philosophical outlook:

Pretty-pretty’s one way,
they like a saucy minx;
tried and true’s another,
fit for institution praise.

Better be the sybil
with riddles of foretell
which metes a man before
he can think of her at all.

The nuanced rhyme and meter aside, we must ask what happens to imagery when the substantives (which Bronk could abandon) disappear.

The language is enjoyed for itself, contemplated for itself—language as the essence of human existence, for what it is in and of itself. The situation Kearns lays bare may not be so different from our saying that old age offers us, if we are willing to take it, the capacity to reject the fabulations of a life’s events. We are able not to be fooled by them, and instead we may come to live in the present (I can’t help thinking of Bronk’s pointed tautology, “life is life”).

In “Among Pronouns” Kearns gestures overtly toward her own use of language to make both verse and poetry. With panache she tells us something about the essential life lived:

Life’s an it
until it’s ours
then he or she or we
subject tyrant verb
to broad synecdoche

each act a part

and yet a whole
as root or branch
of tree—example
this, the billions of
human, all “to be.”

It is, at first glance counter-intuitively, in a poem like "Among Pronouns" that Kearns takes her place among the American postmodern avant-garde. Yet her poems are easily understandable as far as they signify line by line and sentence by sentence. She is a tough case, however. She offers neither sops nor excuses. I'm wondering what other poet today can be as brutally honest yet write with such aplomb and grace.


Burt Kimmelman has published seven collections of poems, the most recent being The Way We Live (Dos Madres Press, 2011), as well  as four books of literary criticism (with a fifth forthcoming) and more than eighty articles on medieval, modern, and contemporary poetry. Recent interviews of Kimmelman are available on the internet: with Tom Fink in Jacket2 (text), and with George Spencer at Poetry Thin Air (video). More on Kimmelman can be found, recently, at “Burt Kimmelman: A Survey” (critical commentary and poetry samples selected by Karl Young, a part of his Light & Dust Poetry Anthology), and at Kimmelman’s website He teaches at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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