Visions, Vessels, Voices

By Blake, Lorna Knowles | The Hudson Review, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Visions, Vessels, Voices


Blake, Lorna Knowles, The Hudson Review


Visions, Vessels, Voices

Often collections of American poetry today are structured around a stock figure, a conceit, or linked into narrative through a sequence of poems. These strategies can pose a challenge for both reader and poet. At worst, a stock figure may intrigue the writer but fail to grab the reader, a conceit may be forced onto less than compelling poems, or a narrative frame flag, even falter, over a book-length collection. At best, such collections provide a rich, immersive experience for the reader; each poem standing on its own merits, yet adding propulsion to the narrative, and developing character and conceit with a sense of inevitability and authority. There is a long list of excellent examples in our contemporary canon, from John Berryman's Dream Songs to Ellen Bryant Voight's Kyrie, among far too many more recent examples to list here. It was a real pleasure therefore to encounter three such satisfying collections among a recent box of review copies.

In Rebecca Foust's Paradise Drive1 (winner of the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry), we encounter a collection of contemporary sonnets featuring a protagonist named Pilgrim. In the poem "Why Pilgrim?," the poet explains

Yes, colonists were colonialist

and for Native Americans, Pilgrim

means genocide. But weren't some of them

-Anne Bradstreet for one-also idealists,

striving and brave? Look how the word

constellates a whole world: girl, glim, imp,

grip, grim, rip, lip, not to mention

the wondrous pi. Also, yes, pig.

Pilgrim holds-good and bad-what I am,

featured here in its radicle form:

seeker, someone who leaves her home.

And so, the journey begins. In temporal and spatial terms, Paradise Drive traces a path from a hardscrabble childhood of debt and despair in rural Pennsylvania to a present of wealth and despair in Marin County, in the shadow of Mount Tam. Foust has written of this journey in her previous work, specifically in the poem "From Altoona to Marin" from her collection All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song (Many Mountains Moving, 2010), but here the journey takes on an allegorical quality: as in Paul Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the seeker is on a moral and spiritual journey as well. In the first section of the book, Pilgrim finds herself trying to navigate a world of almost obscene wealth:

... Lord, how it shines:

the teeth, the pearls, the chefs in white toques,

the blue-smocked valets, the limestone walks

to houses glowing like over-lit cruise boats

docked under old oaks .. .

"The Ones Pilgrim Likes Best"

Contrast this world with the childhood described in the poem "The Prime Mover:"

In Pilgrim's childhood home, the prime mover

was not having enough to pay the bills.

Her father smelled like failure because

he could not pay the bills. At family meals

her mother said they lost the house he'd framed

and she'd laid the floors in, because they couldn't

pay the bills . ..

The chasm between the past and present is enormous and, in her quest to navigate it, Pilgrim hides out in bathrooms at cocktail parties reading "99 Cantos" to stave off her darkest fear: "Her private, pet bête-noire, / the fear of falling / in love with it all. . ." ("Party On").

Across the three sections of Paradise Drive (each named after a poem by William Blake), Pilgrim tries various remedies: yoga, medication, reading, twelve-step programs and contemplates various options, as in the poem "How Then Shall We Live?," which starts:

Escape with serial sex

or exercise, a lot.

Join, while you can, the Cult

of the Child. Get lit

on drugs or booze or religion .. .

and concludes:

Divorce. Kill yourself

in a way that leaves the least mess.

In part two of this poem, Pilgrim rejects these options and wonders, plaintively, if there aren't more wholesome alternatives, concluding "- couldn't she just-love her family? …

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