Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Reef

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Reef

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Arnold. The Reef. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Elizabeth Arnold's The Reef opens with quotes from Heraclitus and Emily Dickinson: two pagans whose gods were capricious, violent and barely real. This debut poetry collection charts the author's struggle with cancer, and it proceeds from the premise that everything worth grasping-in language and in life-is too fluid to hold for long. Arnold's illness does not emerge as anything so solid as a metaphor; rather, it generates questions that are not quite answerable-or, as she puts it, "not quite ice yet."

The Reef is miles away from Jane Kenyon, whose late poems ("Let Evening Come") express the Zen of resignation. Instead, like Dickinson, Arnold maintains an off-kilter quizzical stance, detaching herself from "the body" even as its needs consume her. The language of these poems often recapitulates the mind/body problem as it moves, sometimes jarringly, from the metaphysical ("it's never what / we think ourselves with thinking into") to the just-plain-physical ("Five year post-chemo, a knife stabbed through / my thigh. I fell in the street.")

Arnold eludes the lure of confessionalism-a tough task when one is depicting not just cancer but also a paralyzing depression-and she does so by backing very gingerly into her subject. The first poem, "Introit" (only the first and last poems in the collection have titles) focuses not so much on the self as on consciousness itself:

Tremendous blocks of ice

smooth turquoise-tinted slabs

-not quite ice yet, not even

slabs but only seeming

to be, through the slightly

convex surface of the rushing

(but not breaking) roiling

water of the stream-go past

as blurred or sharp, depending

on how fast whatever duties

the eye can follow...

This first poem is a bit too abstract for my taste but it is a very effective way to begin, creating a "reef" of uncertainty and change that acts as a spine for the rest of the book. How can a reef be a spine? My metaphor is deliberately mixed, because Arnold's book is about the protean human body which both internalizes and resists the "outside" world.

Arnold's poetry is not romantic; her interest in nature per se is minimal, and I find it refreshing that she does not offer up oceans or reefs as cure-alls for the human condition. It is fitting to find a poem here about Francis Bacon, whose portraits evoke x-rays and butcher shops while they linger passionately over the human form:

the 1973 self-portrait, as if the man

were all one piece, holds still,

a yellow plastic watch around the wrist, the face

like it's been smashed but nothing's broken,

its flesh pulled like some putty, up,

and dented. …

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