(New York, NY: Persea, 2011)
One blistery spring evening last year, I wandered into the Free Library of Philadelphia for a poetry reading. It was Monday. I sat between a throng of grad students and a pair of office workers, attempting to merge their divergent conversations to create a kind of oral collage while I waited. The poet reading that evening was Kate Northrop, someone I had heard of but whose poetry I’d never read. I’ve never attended a reading without being at least somewhat familiar with the writer’s work. But when you’re in the right mood, the atmosphere alone of a public reading is reason enough to attend. This is doubly true for poetry readings. They have a seriousness, a single-minded intensity akin to Anglican services; once the ceremony begins it’s only sniffles and shushes. And while this grave, intellectualized atmosphere is often rightly mocked, it can be a relief to enter a room where everyone is actually trying with all of their being to listen with care; to really hear someone.
Northrop’s voice is perfectly suited to her own poems. Her tone is even and understated; a servant of the verse she is reading, rather than the poem sounding as if it is there to serve her ego. She began by reciting a strong series of slim little lyric poems from her new collection Clean, the stanzas sharp as haikus. Take, for example, these lines from “Cat”, the collection’s opening poem: “It’s how you walk through the field / Without entering the field / Or how one reads one’s own name / Closed, as a window.” Northrop’s poems are constantly setting up these ontological challenges, constructing analogies and metaphors that seamlessly blur our categories of being. Her poem “Evening” does this, as so many of her poems do, by assigning agency to living things we don’t normally ascribe agency to. More important, Northrop achieves this feat in a deeply resonant way. “Evening” begins:
Then the yard we knew around us
Rose around us.
Then the yellow walnuts
Blue and stripped by wind
Grew taller, darker, like pop-ups
In a children’s pop-up book, although the sky—brilliant
Electric—was not as we’d hoped,
Was not a reader’s eye
Floating over us.
For Northrop, mood drives a poem’s narrative as opposed to the more conventional construction of narrative driving a particular mood. She plunges her readers quickly onto a surrealist path, giving equal agency to all the entities in her world (“the yard . . . / Rose around us”: notice how humans are the object acted upon by the ostensibly inanimate subject in this and many other verse phrases). Unlike so many writers’ singular obsession with strong verbs, Northrop’s poems are equally preoccupied with finding odd and perfect nouns. The things of her poems have a relationship to each other in a very particular manner, as though their composite parts needed to achieve a symbiosis, an unspoken communion. No explanation (oftentimes, not even a simile), just placed together in hope that they will harmonize. Categorical differences are nullified as Northrop constantly cross-invades such boundaries, while still coaxing from the nouns a balance, a lightness. The closing lines of “Evening” exemplify this exquisite quality:
Was still as a scene
At the bottom of a globe
After snow has settled. I saw
It was at heart a document.
As other documents.
The notion of a garden as being analogous to “documents” gives the poem a permanence not unlike a memory, which has been alluded to earlier in the poem (“So that I saw the garden that evening in the future”).
Northrop ended her reading in Philadelphia with a long, hypnotic poem entitled “Detail.” As she explained while introducing the poem, “Detail” involves two voices in a discordant dialogue who often speak toward, away from, around, and past each other so that the term “dialogue” is artistically stretched. To indicate which of the two voices were speaking, she shifted her physical position from one side of the podium to the other. This subtle indicator had the effect of a pendulum, creating a slow rhythm that stretched over the length of the entire poem and seemed to characterize the dislocation couched in the speakers’ tones. Re-reading the poem on the page gives an even more stark picture of the voices conversing across a multifaceted chasm. Here is a sample page from this fifteen-page poem:
You could no more write that poem than motorcycle to the moon—
Afterwards no one spoke of it.
It shouldn’t matter.
Why should it continue to matter?
It’s just a sordid moment
From one life
As little and sordid as my life.
Because I am my father’s daughter.
Outside the maples click to red
And the whole autumn business is
Before you know it.
“Detail” is served well by Northrop’s level elocution since the two speakers, while un-named and decontextualized, are of quite different temperaments, tastes, and (perhaps) generations. The italicized voice speaking in stanzas located at the upper left of every page often has the tone of a bitter mother (see above italicized quotation); while the voice in the lower right hand corner carries a sort of contemplative whimsy (“Entering the room I heard something // Entering their kitchen, I was unexpected—the sunlight / Falling across the wall”). Hence, the two voices are in natural conflict; estranged maybe, but still in proximity to be variously perceived as being in dialogue.
Listening to Northrop narrate the disembodied discussion within “Detail” put me in mind of all kinds of relationships, both personal and general; inter-relational and interior; familial and cosmic. In a way, “Detail” co-opts Harold Bloom’s notion of influence—“that there are no texts only relationships between texts” within the very confines of the poem itself. The poem’s speakers are unnamed and unknown, both to the reader/hearer and certainly to each other. The act of separating their voices on the same page, over and over, embodies Bloom’s idea of “misreading” yet still has a deeply personal resonance. A few seconds later it was just as easy to hear in the speakers’ divergent voices the peripatetic musings of my own mind, of the schizophrenic relationship every person has with themselves. In several instances, the poem touched perfectly on the tone of guilt and freedom that are constantly conversing inside me:
And so you also do not make a habit of discussing
Your dislike for the retarded, for the curdled eyes of the blind
Or for the eyes of the deeply drunk,
Unable to focus, head bobbing, their speech almost a lowing, almost
How a line drawn in a sketch
Is the curve first of a shoulder
Then just a mark again, a line
Traffic, seen from the sky
How snow falling in to the
Then is the lower field
When I read the poem again much later, I discovered what every poet, I think, hopes for in their work—that it can resonate deeply and in drastically different ways with each re-reading. Much of this quality in “Detail” has to do with its rather untethered content being balanced against a consistent structure. Just visually, the mind can absorb more of the chaotic nature inherent in the floating dialogue when it repeatedly encounters the same stanza display on each page.
My fixation on “Detail” does not diminish the rest of the poems in Clean. If anything, they enhance each other. Northrop has a gift for compression, and the poems that make up sections I, II, and to some extent IV (“Detail” comprises the entirety of section III) offer a kind of photo-negative for what occurs in “Detail.” Where “Detail” carries little overarching context or sense of place, almost every other poem in Clean homes in on the specific angle and mood of a place (not a place-name, but the physical characteristics of a landscape): “The house is a lace of stones // A few grown over with earth / And a few smooth / And rigid, as molars.”
If there is a single theme that permeates Clean, it’s how a state of being is never static, but constantly in flux; its transference unhindered by emotional or material boundaries. Or as Northrop intones, “How snow falling into the lower field / then is the lower field.”
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Ryan Romine is the Associate Poetry Editor of The Literary Review. His review of Clean first appeared in TLR’s Spring 2012 issue, Encyclopedia Britannica.