CIVILIZATION by ELIZABETH ARNOLDNICHOLAS DOWNING Reviews
CIVILIZATION by Elizabeth Arnold
(Flood Editions, 2006)
I find myself not trusting the poems in Elizabeth Arnold's Civilization. My mistrust developed gradually, incrementally, as I shuttled back and forth in the book, acquainting myself with its voice. Early in the book, I came upon the Poem "Daddy." It runs as follows, in full:
never seeming closer than when wordless,
heavy shape of meaning, prehistoric.
When he dived, he didn't hold his hands in front
so that the head hit first, blunt.
These first four lines are compelling, powerful, and perhaps some of the strongest writing in the book. But then she gives it to us, with the last line:
His whole being like that.
I had actually taken her point without being told. Why else would the poet have devoted half of such a short poem to that description? The word "blunt" suggests that how he dives into water is a metaphor for his whole identity and approach to life. While we are trusted to understand that he is diving into water, and that this isn't a description of, say, how he jumped off the roof, the giveaway of the last line nevertheless implies that the poet does not trust the reader to get the analogy.
Once I felt my ability as a reader was called into question, I began reading with greater suspicion. This one, for example, called "Europe in the Middle Ages." In its entirety:
In Europe in the Middle Ages, just to show fish
flying in the sky, birds under water, was sedition.
It was? The Middle Ages lasted a long time. Exactly when was it seditious, and against which boneheaded monarch? Certainly, I don't know for sure if the sedition claim is true, but I've studied Medieval history for years, and have never heard this before, or anything like it, and anyway, the burden of proof is on the claimant. Where are her endnotes? Hardly a page goes by without some quote or allusion, and though she does indeed have a small "notes and acknowledgements" section in the back, it's three lines long, and does not offer any attributions or provenance for the vast bulk of her allusions and quotes.
However, for the sake of argument, let's assume the "sedition" statement is true. So what? What about it? Are we supposed to feel superior to those Medieval dummies? Is this some little post-9/11 cautionary tale?
Arnold is highly allusive, and often writes about science, cosmology, and medicine. Poetry, even if it is made of bad ideas, must be made of compelling language. Even when her science is not wildly inaccurate, it is often expressed clumsily -- as in this poem, "Nijinsky's Dance," which I again quote in full:
It's been known a long time
that malignant cells can be engendered
by the damage minute particles inflict
as they pass through the body.
Quite apart from its substance, this is just a bad sentence. Is this how she thinks scientists write? The second verse reads:
Earth passing through dead space.
Augustine amid anarchy. Nijinsky saying
just before he veered wide of his
barely ordered mind, stopped dancing:
"Let this be the Body through which WWI passed."
The concluding quote does not ring quite true. Would someone of his generation and nationality really have referred to the Great War as "WWI"? Did Nijinsky speak English, or is this quote a translation, and if so, then what translator would use the term "WWI" in a quote by a Russian-speaking Ukrainian? Again, no endnotes. So I can only guess.
On the other hand, if I had read the slight poem "Solstice" first, or in isolation, I might have enjoyed it. Here is the whole thing:
We laugh to think the Romans lit great fires
to persuade the sun to come back. To persuade the sun!
After "Nijinsky" and "Europe" -- and too many others -- I find myself questioning everything she says. "Solstice" makes me think we are supposed to laugh at those Medieval zealots. Now, of course I can see what she's trying to do in these poems, but at some point, they've lost my sympathy completely.
The lack of almost any endnotes leads me to question whether she is using her allusions -- and there are many, many allusions throughout this book -- responsibly. She trots out such names as Thucydides, Melville, Archilochos, Apollonius, Picasso's Guernica, Pound, and many others. They either feel perfunctory, like garnish in a homework assignment or, worse, they have the parasitic heaviness of borrowed gravitas. But mostly, they just feel like so much name-dropping.
Too much of this work reads like a non-intellectual's idea of "intellectual poetry." Poems help us to see and hear the world anew. The experience of reading a poem transforms language, and transforms the world. The poems of Civilization, all too often, do neither. Take, for example, the pedestrian "Rare Earth," in full:
The biophysicists who think there's little chance
that life (advanced, that is) exists
anywhere other than on Earth
say what I felt last night before I read their book,
in which they state
we're right against it, the abyss
-- a word whose tone had killed it for me
I acknowledge that poetry can be obscure and ambiguous -- indeed, sometimes it must be if it is to explore the ineffable puzzles of mind, language, and the cosmos. But this poem is just awkward. Someone reads a book that confirms what she'd already thought, but which employs a word whose tone had killed something for her until what? Until she'd read the book?
Setting aside whether the poems are factually valid or even interesting: are they beautiful? And if they aren't, then what's the point? I am willing to concede that other readers will find these poems consistently and resoundingly beautiful. If, however, I do not see beauty (or I don't see enough beauty to forgive the poems their faults), and there is little accuracy to be had, then what am I left with? Authorial sincerity is not enough.
Nicholas Downing (not his real name) lives in northern New Jersey. His work can be found in print in The First Hay(na)ku Anthology, and online at the Otolith . He can be reached at newbroom at gmail dot com.