Maryann Corbett Uneasy Feelings: Adam Kirsch's Invasions
Adam Kirsch, Invasions (Ivan R. Dee, 2008)
Try this: a quick Google search on "Adam Kirsch" and "poems." The result set will be large, but it will lead you mostly to prose. As a book critic for The New York Sun, The New Yorker and other publications, Kirsch is much better known for his criticism than for his poetry. His critical essays are famous for their insistence on the value of traditional elements of poetic craft, so it was unsurprising that his first collection of poems, The Thousand Wells, won a New Criterion Poetry Prize. Praised in many places, the book was also criticized in some as lacking unity, as is common with first books.
Invasions, his second collection, is also fully formal, but it is relentlessly unified. It plays the single theme of uneasiness with modern life, and it does so by means of finely focused observations, mostly in a single form. The judgments on view in these poems, like the judgments in Kirsch's criticism, favor the traditional, the disciplined, the old-school. In fact, they give evidence that Kirsch's opinions about poetry are simply part of a larger pattern, a whole world view of valuing discipline and connection with the past. The reason to read the book is to shake yourself up, and to see whether you too find yourself uneasy.
Of the three sections in Invasions, the first and third consist entirely of sixteen-line pieces in iambic pentameter and abab rhyme. The meter is on the stricter rather than the looser end of the iambic range. But a reader who comes to poems in form wanting them to be, above all, memorable—wanting to be struck by rhythms, arrangements of sounds, knockout visuals, striking insights, and clever wordplay—will find some of the sixteen-liners frustrating. For example, the poem that begins "Whether the carapace of reverence" (I refer to first lines because many of the poems are untitled) is about the enormous sociological abstraction of family, and much of its language is correspondingly abstract. It has no arresting visuals. It seems to try hard to keep the end rhymes from calling attention to themselves, not only by keeping them slant but by avoiding end stops and running sentences awkwardly over several lines.
By contrast, poems like "Larkin" give form-loving readers what they came for: lines memorable for sound (in a rhyme like pristine/philistine, for example), sense, and concision. "Opera Night at Caffe Taci" is another poem that delivers, creating pictures and lines that stick to the mind, and it does so by allowing the rhymes to chime and the abab repetitions to satisfy. What these formal effects bring out is razor-edged social observation and judgment:
Whatever third-rate coach she studied with
Could not undo the mannerism that
Half shuts her eyes and splays her lipsticked mouth,
The cartoon mincing of a marionette.
The poems have the skewering accuracy of Pope and Swift, but they're sadder, more removed. It's Kirsch's eye, his observation, and his reacting analysis that motivate these poems and that should motivate our reading.
When poets explore one theme in a series of works in one form, they often choose the sonnet, because its short, set length forces each poem to focus tightly. But Kirsch's sixteen-line form is a actually a more flexible choice. It allows the poem's argument to take any shape: no poem needs to have a turn, so the poems can turn in many and varied places, or not at all. The poem beginning "The tin balls that the planetarium" has a simple, two-part controlling idea and does turn at about the last six lines, disturbingly comparing the place of humans in the cosmos to the role of bacterial flora in the human bowel. On the facing page, "Outlet Mall in Western Massachusetts" somersaults through a sequence of images and ideas: sky and mountains, regional history, the modern mall, the jaded shoppers, the sad social summation that "We do compulsively what must be done / To make ourselves forget....the forest closing in."
These differing construction methods provide the variety a (mostly) one-form series needs. One of the methods, though, sets up hurdles that the poems don't always clear. The long sentence is one of Kirsch's favorite tools, and his favorite bravura performance is the one-sentence poem. Done flawlessly, a single-sentence poem can be as elegant and thrilling as a hole-in-one. (To see an example, look at the final poem in Bill Coyle's The God of This World to His Prophet, another New Criterion winner.) But Kirsch doesn't always help the reader to keep hold of all the grammatical balloon-strings of his sentences. (He also occasionally uses a long word that takes a huge bite of the pentameter line without moving the poem forward much.) The book's last poem seems to have lost the thread of its first sentence; I, at least, can find no main verb before the first period. Still, when his one-sentence poems work, as in IV.3 Vela Neritii ducis from the book's middle section, they end with a punch that delivers the goods—or more appropriately for this book, the evils.
Many of the poems are "I-less," almost impersonal. Their narrator is about as transparent as it is possible to be, present only through his choice of a subject to focus on and his emotions and judgments about it. At his most revealed, he appears as part of a "we" that solidifies briefly and then melts into the universal New Yorker, the universal not-quite-believer, the universal American, as in these lines from the poem "Withdrawal":
...But where did the rainbow come from, pledging that
The flood subsiding wouldn't rise again?
It was just something swallowed with the dose
That fed the brain its missing chemicals,
Coaxing it from its darker purposes
Back to the daylight we assume is normal.
Now as its milligrams decrease, the ache
And sizzle of the synapse slowing down,
Warns that these months of peace were a mistake:
Things were not wrong inside but all around.
The authorial "we" pulls the reader in, subsumes him or her into the shared doubt about any sort of divine promise, the shared guilt of taking those feel-good antidepressants, and the shared payment of the cost.
Large-scale views like this predominate in the book. Many of the books Kirsch reviews are about the history and development of modern culture, and his field of vision is wide, even grand. He can cram all of English literary history into one set of sixteen lines and compare an honor killing in Afghanistan with the plot of an Italian opera. He writes about Wordsworth and Larkin and certain neighborhoods in London, about the medieval past and the imagined and dreaded future. But the book's thematic line is held by the poems that focus on bits of New York City, closely observed—the Cloisters chapel, Disney Hall, a Jewish Community Center, apartments, campuses, shopping centers.
Even turned close to home, the poetic eye is jaundiced. Comparing formal poets to formal poets, we might contrast Kirsch's New York portraits with, for example, Joshua Mehigan's. In The Optimist, Mehigan gives us views of New York that mix pain with pure visual gorgeousness, while Kirsch keeps to the via negativa, focusing on city life in the long aftermath of 9/11. He gives us glimpses from the event's earliest afterword—when we realize that the ash in the air is filled with the remains of the dead—down to the way terror's effects have persisted for years, with present-day air travelers "shuffling along the jetway as into a jail...."
Depicting New York and referring to the entire West, Kirsch can sound at times as though he despises, or despairs of, the relaxed, undisciplined nature of modern life. Even activities we usually see as innocent pleasures—such as a sing-along concert of Handel's Messiah—come under this stern judgment. He focuses on the solipsism, and the absence of faith, of the modern amateur singers who are producing "the less angelic harmonies/Of singers comforting themselves alone" and contrasts that sound with Handel's disciplined choirs. A number of poems patently expect civilization to come crashing down because we have not paid enough attention: city infrastructures fail; religions die out; Western power and values, signified by Whitehall, fall away.
All the changes on the theme of modern decay are rung. The impermanence of the nuclear family, the ephemeral quality of both our high art and our pop culture, and the carving up of elegant old brownstones all get their poems. Literature gets two: one to mourn that nothing written now is written for the ages, another to bewail the great books of a bygone century, now gathering dust in a used-book shop. Arching over everything is the absence of a God we can't entirely part with, but can't quite believe in, either. There's a poem about the discomfortingly kitschy Gallery of Bible Art on Broadway, and one about the unease of a rushed and impersonal funeral, features of the daily face of a religion that does not satisfy. There's also a clear view of the twentieth century's faith-destroying horrors:
Once the first infant's taken by the heel
And swung by laughing soldiers so his brain
Cracks like an egg against the ghetto wall
The name of the Father isn't named again....
Scant relief is offered from these discomforts. One relief is that the rhymes are cleverly slant. True and slant rhyme are mixed helter-skelter, a choice that will bother no one except the strictest formalists—although sometimes, as noted earlier, the slant rhymes are so muted that they fail to do rhyme's duty of bringing out meaning. Another relief is that the book's middle section, while still fully formal, is in an assortment of forms and meters. Its subject is not contemporary life but universal human nature, with some modern and some not so modern illustrations. The poems in this middle section are verse translations of selections from The Consolations of Philosophy, the sixth-century work by Boethius that stands as the last monument of classical civilization. Their ancient judgments complement the modern ones in the rest of the book: fame does not last, the love of wealth moves us to foolish risks, pleasure-seeking leads to hurt. The parallel between the ancient decline and the modern one is impossible to ignore. Described so bluntly, this sounds like another serving of discomfort, but this part of the book helps the reader get in deeper behind the eye trained on the modern evils. To focus on so much that is wrong, the poet has to envision clearly that it could have been otherwise: love and not selfishness could have been our primary reality.
Mostly selfishness comes to the fore, but not always. One poem in the book that seems to be fully sympathetic with another creature is titled "To Marnie," and the dedicatee is an animal, an adopted dog, the one sort of being who can be innocent in Kirsch's world view. Another group of poems in which the narrator's judgmental distance relaxes is the group centered on the Jewish community. In those poems the reader can begin to hear a "we" that shrinks, or concentrates, to something more like a family:
Maybe what saves us is the nervous hum
That rises, like a second, truer prayer,
From the gossiping, distracted congregation,
Murmuring to itself: still here, still here.
And a poem that actually shows us beautiful things—brownstones, late midsummer sunlight, a living room full of friends listening to a piano recital—has its high moment in "the Jewish reverence for each German note." But even in these poems, where the subject in focus is the innocent victim, the sense of evil and damage is not absent. It is the frame for everything inside.
For some readers, the dark view will be too much, just as Kirsch's critical rejection of parts of Modernism is, for some, too much. At some moments and in some moods, the judgmental stance feels like too much for me. Can I really side with the condescension Kirsch shows to the singer in "Opera Night"? Don't I dispute his notion in "Sing-Along Messiah" that Handel's church choirs must always have been superior to present-day amateurs in a secular hall with slanted organ pipes? Are the world and the people in it so starved of beauties as this? I waffle, while Kirsch does not, a difference that keeps bringing me back to the book. A centeredness in the world's good things—something many people come to formal poetry to find—feels absent from Invasions, since nearly everything Kirsch sees as good is in a world that seems to be disappearing. Such a seeming absence may be the necessary risk in trying to write about the uneasy feeling that things are falling apart.