Through the Past Darkly

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Brian Teare’s second book sorts through the past and charts a new path for the future of poetry.

A palinode is a poetic denial, a poet’s way of taking back what he has said in an earlier poem. And while one of the poems in Brian Teare’s second collection, Sight Map, ironically complicates this denial with abandonment (“Abandoned Palinode for the Twenty Suitors of June”), as a whole, the volume can be understood as a series of palinodes, a complex array of assertions and denials.

Teare refuses to be pinned down in terms of worldview, subject, or poetics. At times, the poems in Sight Map communicate a frustration with language, come up against the limitations of words the same way Oakland’s Lake Merritt is held from its natural flow: “What could have been waves/instead tick—walled, halted—against brick” (“Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus”).

Since words are limited in the work they can do, Teare’s poems give importance to silence. Whole stanzas in “Morphology” are left entirely blank, and phrases are replaced with brackets emptied of their words in “To Be Two.” An apprehensiveness about language is also suggested by the assertion that words trump actual matter with their mattering: “more words for color than tint” (“Long After Hopkins”). However, the work remains hopeful about the possibilities and purposes of language, as expressed in “Pilgrim”: “[T]here is, isn’t there, a language entirely wakeful, you ask : because all you left behind has dreamt of it.”

Sight Map’s mountainous scope of subjects and formal experiments leaves a reader awestruck. The volume encourages hope that a new poetry can emerge from the rubble of postmodernism—if postmodernism has left young poets standing in the wreckage of the past, Teare is kneeling here with reverence, choosing shards from the piles and sewing together new shapes. The book becomes a guidebook to the past and present sources that contemporary poets have to sift through, an excavation and re-forming of our roots. It also functions as a manual for prayer for us poets who’ve “lost our God of tradition” (“Emerson Susquehanna”) but still crave a sense of something larger than ourselves.

Archbishop Anthony Bloom, in his guidebook for Orthodox Christians, Beginning to Pray, writes, “Very often we use words of prayer which are extremely rich but we do not notice the depth of what we say, because we take the words for what they mean in our ordinary speech, while they could have deep echoes in our hearts if we only connected them with other things we know.” Teare writes, “what’s rootless/goes wrong-like” (“Lent Prayer”). University of California Press points out that Teare’s work is rooted in that of San Francisco Renaissance poets such as Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser—yet these poems clearly dig from deeper, older wells. Whole sections of poems (as in “To Be Two” and “Sanctuary) recall primal chanting, Greek choruses, and prayer, demonstrating the calming effects of repetition and the healing power of mantra. This is particularly evident in “Sanctuary,” in which the speaker grapples with the pain of sexual and romantic betrayal.

Apart from Teare’s continual etymological digging, he directly quotes Emerson, Thoreau, Hopkins, Djuna Barnes, a Manichean hymn, field guides, Luce Irigaray, Ludwig Wittgenstein, graffiti from San Francisco’s Castro district, and other sources. He also references, echoes, or responds to work by contemporary poets such as Brenda Hillman and Jorie Graham. “As If from Letters of Surveyor Samuel Maclay” cuts phrases from Maclay’s journals and recalls Lorine Niedecker’s Jefferson and Darwin poems. Some of this poem’s rhythms, sounds, and line breaks are dead-on Niedecker:

                        “concluded the month of May obliged
            to spend the morning baking
                        bread things I admire their industry”

This poem may well also recall Niedecker in the phrase “no geese,” if one thinks of it as a wistful memorial to her first book New Goose. Teare’s exploration of the natural world and descriptions of a river in various seasons also bear homage to Niedecker’s work.

Brian Teare

Brian Teare

If we do sense a wistfulness, it’s because, in comparison with today’s world, Niedecker’s time was simpler and somehow less dark. In Sight Map’s final poem, “An Essay to End Pleasure,” Teare writes, “if ornament could adorn/the worn shore of the ordinary : goose shit on the lake path, a flotilla/of plastic bags in waters.” Though he searches for and hopes, with words, to discover the joy that his predecessors transcribed, Teare comes face to face with the pollution of the city which has marred the natural landscape, and the loss of more innocent times—as well as the loss of God. The sense of a comforting Presence has been lost in the opening poem: “God has always been my mother’s/fingers separating/my sister’s hair, three strands gathered in a braid so tight white at the parted dark/roots” (“Emerson Susquehanna”). God is soon replaced with the lover, the kneeling of prayer and the kneeling of sex conflated in “Sanctuary”: “when//did I substitute the word prayer/for fucking.” When the lover leaves, halfway through Sight Map, the cynicism of the poetic intelligence overtakes any sense of hope.

The volume ends with these lines:

“…a new kind of bird
feeds at the lake : think of weeks the eye will take

to count its feathers; years
the mouth will wait
to drink what small air from its bones.” (“An Essay to End Pleasure”)

The geese of Niedecker or New York poet Joseph Ceravolo (who wrote, in “Drunken Winter,” “’geese geese’ the boy/June of winter”) have been replaced with an as of yet unidentified bird, one that will be consumed as soon as it is named. In this, Teare questions the whole poetic exercise. He writes “birds/without names/fly anyway” (“Emerson Susquehanna”), and “A letter can’t write itself, though/a life can” (“To Be Two”).

For all its complexity, music, grace, and newness, Sight Map stands out from other formally experimental collections because it shows no evidence of trying to impress. Reading these poems, with their deft use of sound, line, image, sensory detail, and pause, readers can’t miss Teare’s simple humility in his craft. The work starts by kneeling, at the feet of language, to discover

“the language of prayer : to disturb
words addressed to where God is is
what writing is : alphabet alive beneath
the alphabet so far into whiteness
each mind to itself creation come crawling
matter out of nothing”


            “. . .what once overheard the talk
            of God became matter” (“White Birch”)

And though the poems repeatedly express doubts about language, they leave us with the hope that there remains “a language entirely wakeful… because all you left behind has dreamt of it.” In Sight Map, Brian Teare offers a new sense of sacredness, new eyes with which to navigate the past and incorporate what we left behind into the future of poetry.


Read “Largo,” a new poem by Brian Teare, published today in The Rumpus.

Writer and performer Dawn Trook teaches in the Program in Writing at the University of California, Merced and plays bass guitar in the band B to B-4. Her poems have been seen in Poetry Flash, Colorado Review, Brooklyn Review, Dust Up, and other journals and anthologies. More from this author →