Twenty-One After Days by Lisa Lubasch
(Penngrove, CA: Avec Books, 2006)
With all due respect to Hemingway, the sun never rises in Twenty-One After Days. The book’s opening line gives us light, sure enough, but not sunlight:
lampshades will admit of the spectacular—are they hosts to other things? (11)
At the close of the first of the book’s five sections, the sun is setting, “in astonishment.” At other points one glimpses it fleetingly, through trees or via the uncertain technologies of vision:
opening in the sun (31)
nonetheless trying/ to escape, as sunlight (35-36)
sunlight filtering (56)
revealing in the trees, where light has splintered— (60)
where the sunlight streaks into visibility (67)
light settles in (75)
The closest one gets to an unambiguous sunrise occurs in this profoundly ambiguous passage:
Lately as the imperative mounts
towards the sun
(morning unchaining itself
it murkily invokes
its own despair:
Could momentum be lost
like a target
shaken from the wall? (37)
It is morning in these verses, but the sun is up there already, awaiting us; it is the “imperative” that rises, or morning itself, “unchaining.” But the acts of “mounting” and “unchaining” are hesitant, conditional. As the imperative mounts, “it murkily invokes/ its own despair,” darkening itself both elementally and psychologically. Murk is, after all, an aquatic term, describing the turmoil of disturbed depths—it is strange and poignant to find it here, in what appeared to be a climbing toward light. Nor is this a singular action, as evidenced by the word “Lately”: this murky invocation, this ambivalent unchaining from constancy, well it’s been happening for a little while now. “Could momentum be lost…?” asks the poem, shaken from its own murky speaking by a sudden flush of italics, like a blush of anxiety. The two stanzas leading up to this question are a perfect poetic description of momentum’s loss. No heroic flight of Icarus for this poetic speaker. This snippet of song—likewise the poem as a whole—is not about hubris, with its brave and silly climb and plummet. It is about the work of staying aloft, about the turbid and beautiful flapping of a speaker with wings.
Twenty-One After Days is Lubasch’s fourth book of poems. In the first, How Many More of Them Are You?, she had already found a voice; each volume since has deepened the complexity and range of her poetic project. Ironically, this deepening has taken the form of an increased focus on the poetics of failure, incompletion, and errancy; a quieting of the speaker; an interest in what falls into the interstices of meaning. The more confident and lyrical the work becomes, the more the speaker “murkily invokes/ its own despair.” The failures of sunlight in this book point to a truth of the larger work: Lubasch’s poetry is most engaged at the points “where light has splintered,” revealing “severance of each thing.” (60) In Twenty-One After Days, poetry is involved in “raising care to the level of error” (13), in observing, patiently, the incompleteness and fragmentation of the given world.
Pursuing the book’s interest in sunlight and its substitutes opens out into several questions. One of these concerns the poet’s relation to the imagery of the natural world. Descriptions of nature are everywhere—the entire lived space of the book seems rural or pastoral, with virtually no hint of urban landscape. But the pastoral geography is kept vague, indistinct. When images do anchor us, they do so only paradoxically:
Becoming very quickly
More quickly than
Barns peaking in error
Leaving all windows to the door (39)
When barns peek into the poem, they “peak in error,” as if it were a mistake for barns to form triangles or to point upward; as if they should know that their role is being, not becoming. The stanza preceding this image offers a kind of koan upon the scene. But what is the status of this adage? The grammatical subjects of the phrase are meticulously evacuated—whose inner resting? a translation of what? how does resting produce something? And the connection between the two stanzas is murky—Does inner resting become very quickly? Does the translation? Or are the two stanzas tangential, touching and then heading in separate directions?
We are used to reading images of nature as encodings of symbolic regimes. In movies, rain at a funeral tells us we should feel sad; when the ground heaves as Eve bites into the forbidden fruit in Paradise Lost, it is because the reader should be mourning. Twenty-One After Days, by contrast, eschews this regime. The fact that nature in the poem produces almost no points of concrete reference transforms those referents into signs unmoored from significations, so that imagery becomes part of an emotional language rather than forming an analogy to it. Weather and landscape constantly interweave with descriptions of writing, reading, and other creative acts: “its lights are brimming—the cursor is dragged—speech is taking” (16); “Hovering there, on the sill,/ as everything/ moves towards revision…” (40); “Then the river recalls itself/ erasing the scheme” (61); “the day is leashed/ to words/ and endings” (68); “So the path of privacy burns out,/ is retraced” (74).
This crossfade of world, writing, and subjecthood reminds one of the great French theorists of writing such as Cixous, Derrida, Ponge, and Edmond Jabès, who writes, in The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion, “For place, all you will have had is the hope of a mild place beyond the sands: a mirage of repose.” Place in poetry for Jabès cannot exist beyond the mind of reader and writer; it emanates from and participates in the topography of existence. Lubasch attempts to capture just this aspect of (dis)location. In the book’s first section, “winter enters fretfully” onto a page and immediately “is diverted” into a mental and verbal landscape, or was always in that landscape in the first place:
winter enters fretfully—is diverted—murmuring—almost without frond […] they were compared—to apprehend the difference—as I recall—and the whitening of the book […] the cat embarrassed—or growing violent, even, in a certain climate—where it sleets more often—
Winter in this passage registers somewhere between a season, a character, and an aspect of language. In fact, winter in this passage is a passage, ushering us through a series of changing states, motioning us toward the poetic speaker. “As I recall”… we do not know who this “I” might be, but the act of recollection becomes the central action of this movement, this passage. We move backward in memory while moving forward in writing. The passage ends “in a certain climate” that both is and isn’t part of the winter where it began. Sleet, that border between rain and snow, constitutes a kind of fretful winter; yet the stinging unpleasantless of sleet seems closer to a violent cat than to a murmuring hesitation. In the midst of what might be called this motion without change, we are led to understand that “winter” is entwined with the “whitening” (the wintering, the erasing) of the book. There is no experience of weather, climate, or season without the experience of writing, reading, thinking. These acts do not mirror each other, but rather are always in the process of becoming each other. The experience of the book becomes “some unknown variable,/ of the climate” (72).
A poem constantly in motion is difficult to form words around. As Lubasch reminds us, “identity fastens—loosely” (60). Elements of the work are constantly moving “toward”—towards revision, beauty, completion, conclusion—but never reaching them. The poem is filled with imagery of interruptions, “a failed recourse to gesture” (60), currents that flow only “to reach an ordinary aim” (19). Movements upward are imbued with heaviness, while the interior is “escaping—unhooked as weight” (18). In one of the many moments that sounds like a microcosm of the poem, the speaker tells us in curt, grammatically torqued lines that “melancholy may be guarded—inwardness as shift—so states renew and become dazzling” (15). Indeed, if such grammar seems almost inert in its slow, patient turns (guarded by or from what? what verb governs “inwardness”? if inwardness is a state, how does it shift? if it is not, then what is the referent of “states”?), we are reminded that “the grammar of the action—could be stalled” (25), or that “The room is unmoving,/ but its punctuation/ is stirred” (40).
Perhaps a poem that both elevates and enacts the virtues of patience, interruption, rehearsal, and even “dreariness” (a word that recurs throughout the book) sounds like a frustrating read. But the genius of the work lies in the fact that it is both dreary and “dazzling.” Or rather, its dazzling and dreary moments are the same. Living in this book is like living in the unmoving room of stirred punctuation: it is simultaneously static and turbulent, a moment-by-moment tracking of the process by which “a meaning disentangles/ from its own philosophy” (59). The result is a work of almost unbearable delicacy and beauty, and one that repays multiple readings by continually opening upon new prospects. Each reading will be an erroneous one, in the ancient sense of the word “error”—a wandering, a non-linear path. To embrace error, to raise “care to the level of error,” is to be willing to stop and listen in strange and difficult places, even when the noise is unintelligible, or silence. For as the poem explains quietly, “the quietness is furnished” (26). It is a quietness into which we stumble, or within which we awaken:
the case of the
waking to a disinterested art (68)
David B. Goldstein is the author of the chapbook Been Raw Diction (Dusie, 2006), and his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel—Second Floor, Jubilat, Typo, Pinstripe Fedora, Epoch, Alice Blue Review, and The Paris Review. He teaches creative writing, Renaissance literature, and food studies at York University.