Jason Gray
Review of Sarah Arvio's Second Book

By Sarah Arvio
Knopf, 2006. $23.00.

Sono, I am, rings out throughout the book. This is the word's Italian meaning, but in Latin, it is sound. These are the two components of the book, subtitled "Cantos." The canto as a form is nebulous, but it has enjoyed an illustrious history in verse. Most famously with Dante's terza rima, but also serving the rambling thunder of Ezra Pound's sporadic, messy, brilliant epic. "Canto" itself is a tricky word, in that it means both "song" and "part." Both definitions are used here.
        The canto is generally a section in a work of epic length, and though the individual cantos are proportional in size to the work as a whole, length is not important here. More important is whether or not the poems function as cantos or not. Are they parts of a whole? Are these songs a unifying force of the book? There is a story here, though the poems themselves are more lyric than narrative, and loosely connect from one to another, say, as in "Acrolith," which meditates on an old statue with a new head, to "Head," to her own imagining of being decapitated. The story is one of the speaker's sojourn for a time in Rome, and of overcoming lost love and deciding whether her life will contain love again, and what it means to be in this world.
        The tercets of each poem move by sound, bouncing from word to word by alliteration, assonance, consonance, pun. Arvio's effect is to create a poem that lives on an edge of meaning and soundscape.
        Take, as example, "Graffito (after 'Amat qui scribet')":

Would you engrave my body with your hands?
I would be grateful—I would be so glad—
if you would etch me for eternity

with all the vicissitudes of your hand
and some vision and some vulgarity.
Let me lie here now in a dusty box

with all your vim and love inscribed in me,
may I be scratched here, and then gather dust.
Oh let me first be loved, and then be lost.

Who reads is fucked, and I read you right out,
let me read you again all over me.
Who criticizes, sucks—or so he said—

we know it was a man who wrote these things
with a stylus or maybe a stick
on a gray wall—on yellow or blue—

or on Neapolitan red or pink—
with a pocketknife or maybe a pick.
Engrave me also with some gravitas

and some caritas and some veritas.
He who writes, loves—caring, grave and true.
Write me with grit and grace, may I say this,

here where the graph may be the holy grail.
Let's grapple with the beast—that is, the bears
let them tear us—write it!—from limb to limb.

I won't point out all the alliteration and assonance, etc., which is easy enough to hear. Though some poems have indeed more soundplay, and some will end-rhyme, this is how every poem is shaped. What I want to draw attention to is the deftly-handled loose blank verse, the iambic pentameter at work here, and sometimes its ghost, from her (mostly) ten-syllable lines. It's the other frame Arvio uses, along with the sound propulsion and the tercets (borrowing from Dante). She keeps her rhythm regular enough to sustain the sense of it while giving her room for lines like "with a stylus or maybe a stick / on a gray wall—on yellow or blue—[.]" (9 syllables and 3 beats / 9 syllables and 4 beats.) The result is a well-balanced poem whose attention to form doesn't get in the way of the poem's content.
        This is also one of the few poems with direct allusions to other poems. If we remember "One Art" we know the "write it!" and we know that that poem is a poem of lost love mediated through the art of writing. The other reference, and a guiding spirit, is Wallace Stevens' "The palm at the end of the mind" from "Of Mere Being," which is referenced twice, in the first and last poem. Stevens' use of tercets here is to be noted (he uses this stanza in many of his late poems), and it might be worthwhile to think of Arvio's tercets as inherited from Dante via Stevens. For reference, here is the Stevens, in full:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Though Stevens' poem does not employ the generous amount of sonic play that Arvio's do (until the last line—Stevens seems more interested in word repetition), the fact that both put the word up as a significant force is a link. In his poem, Stevens joins the "gold-featherd bird" and the palm tree by a pun (a phoenix and Phoenix dactylifera), a strategy that Arvio would seem to admire. This merged image is "beyond the last thought" and suggests that "being" is beyond any rational limit.
        Arvio's poems struggle for control over her life, with love, with "god," with meaning, and take her to this limit. In Arvio's opening poem, "Traveling," she alludes to Stevens this way:

Was this my world; it might be the oyster's.
Having it all in the palm of the hand
or in the palm at the end of the mind.

A tercet that contains two dichotomies. Is this world of her making, or that of another? Does she have control over everything, or is meaning beyond our capacity for reason? In the last poem, "Pantheon," she writes:

I see a palm at the end of my mind,
swaying like an arm, waving like a hand,

the print of a palm or else a blueprint,
a pantheon or a panopticon,
or the prison or prism of myself,

meaning the one view or all of the views,
or else the one god or all of the gods,
and none of them explained what had happened.

Arvio is of two minds here too, though she seems to be reconciled with it. As she thinks again about this image, look how she moves from "pantheon"—all gods, but also the building in Rome, with its oculis open to the sky and looking out, or light looking in—to "panopticon"—a prison designed in a circle so that one can see the prisoners but the prisoners can't see the guard—to "prison" to "prism"—where white light is split into colored rays, looking outward, again. How nicely done, these oppositional views, inward vs. outward. Though none of these views or gods explained what happened (a similar deflation to the "fire-fangled" feathers that "dangle down"), considering she chose "Patheon" as the title and not "Panopticon," there doesn't seem to be a need for the explanation anymore, as if Stevens' thought of being being beyond reason had satisfied her.
        A strategy of intense soundplay such as Arvio's can backfire, of course. And occasionally Arvio's exuberance falls flat, as when she is led to repeat herself, rather than building upon what's written. From "Chagrin":

[...] Everyone had her shadow life,
her should-have life, the life she should have had [...]

The jump from "shadow" to "should-have" is nice, but the second line is just two ways of saying the same thing. The poet also has to worry about too much of a good thing. Working by sound can create surprising connections, but it can also lead to less-worthy choices. "[A] hundred halos and a hundred hells," she writes, which sounds great, but is a little unbalanced. "Heavens" would be more parallel, though "halos" is not a terrible choice by any means. The challenge of a book like this is, can the mode be sustained? Will the reader tire of the soundplay by the last page? Fortunately, this is not so with Arvio's book. She has found a mode of writing to sustain her meditation on a complex emotional situation, that does justice to its seriousness and its silliness, and does so with vim and, well, vigor.

Columbus, OH
June 1, 2007



return to 1.1