Editor’s Note: This is not a typical review, but I think it captures the challenge of reviewing, and it delves deeply into the book it is examining.
I am no student of poetry. Maybe we studied the basic forms during my senior year of high school, read a few major works that I can no longer remember, wrote a handful of poems, but that accounts for the whole of my academic knowledge of poetry. I read poetry on rare occasions but rarely give it more than cursory attention. If pressed to name my favorite poet, I might lie and say Jack Kerouac out of loyalty to my favorite author but I also might tell the truth and admit to it being Shel Silverstein, the only poet whose work I’ve ever memorized.
But sometimes I think to myself that I should learn something about poetry. I’ve written quite a few poems, after all. Most wouldn’t stand up to a fourteen year old girl’s tear-stained notebook but some is readable. So when The Rumpus mentioned that they had more poetry books in need of review than they had time to read, I jumped at an opportunity to dive headlong into the world of modern verse. I sent in an email volunteering my services and was given a list of titles. My selection was based purely on the fact that the author, Ashley Anna McHugh, sounded cute.
A week later, Into These Knots arrived in my mailbox. “Cool,” I thought. “Free book. Most I’ve ever been paid for a writing assignment.” That isn’t strictly true, as I made a bit of cash writing poetry assignments for classmates during my senior year, but that probably doesn’t count.
Reading was simple enough. I finished the collection over a couple of days, then re-read it a second time in a single sitting. I liked it. It was good. Unfortunately, I wasn’t asked to submit a second grade book report, so “I liked it. It was good.” wasn’t quite sufficient. I started to realize that I had no clue how to review poetry. Or maybe I knew that but realized that I hadn’t even the first clue as to where to start. So I read the collection a third time, taking notes on each poem, hoping that would lead to some insight as to what to say.
I figured out my opening. I would acknowledge that I knew nothing about poetry and apologize for not bandying about the information one might normally expect from a poetry review. I would also point out that Into These Knots is the winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, so while I am too ignorant to recognize a lot of the details, one could be assured that the collection “pays close attention to form.” After that, I would remove myself from the foreground because what kind of asshole spends the bulk of a review talking about himself?
But I couldn’t make it beyond the first paragraph. I did start another paragraph that would appear somewhere in the middle of the review, talking about the brilliance of the Cairns sequence. I referred to it as “unquestionably the true star” of Into These Knots. That paragraph started with the word ‘but’, so I clearly intended it to follow something else but had no clue how to get there from the beginning.
‘Cairns’, a seventeen poem sequence that makes up the second section of the book, is a definite gem. If all I had to review was ‘Cairns’, it would be a piece of cake. Maybe it’s because the sequence follows a three thread narrative, two of which are flashbacks. Anyone can review a narrative. But maybe it’s because ‘Cairns’ strikes such a strong visual that one can’t help but react viscerally to it. The sequence follows a young man named Jake as he retraces the steps of a childhood journey he took with his father, while flashing back to that earlier journey as well as the moments immediately before and after his father’s passing.
The cairns are conical piles of stone, in this case used to mark the location of mortar shells and artillery left behind by the army during WWII.
Fifteen bombs have been found, some still live.
These were exploded on site. But keep in mind
there might be more. If hikers find a mine
or shell: mark maps, note any landmarks, minor
and major nearby trails, and make a cairn.
Jake walked the area as a child, checking the locations of these cairns with his father. He walks the path again after his father’s funeral. The stone cairns, the paths, the stars in the sky during their first journey, the storm the night Jake’s father died, their last argument, these are all immensely strong visuals that move far beyond the page. I found myself tracing Jake’s steps, examining the surroundings. My initial thoughts were that these sequence cried out to be adapted as a graphic novel, maybe even a movie. But it may be an insult to suggest it would be necessary, or even possible, to lend visual enhancement to “Cairns”.
So, part of that I wrote and part of that I thought and that was really the only concrete portion of the review that ever materialized. I had a vague idea of talking about how multi-part pieces seem to be McHugh’s strength, citing her five part piece “The Last Man In Prague”, as well as the the two poems about her father’s hunting accident (which, while individual works and not part of a single whole, obviously share a connection.)
“The Last Man In Prague”, a five part sequence, is a wholly different creature from “Cairns”. Whereas “Cairns” is a fully formed narrative, Prague is a sketch and a meditation on said sketch, buffered on one end by an examination of the relation of comedy to God, including a 3 Stooges sketch, and on the other end trailing off into advertising slogans.
The bulk (pun initially unintended but flown gleefully) of the focus is on an elephant, shot by zookeepers to save it from the suffering of drowning as the city floods.
–Did that beast rear, head tipped to dawn-drunk sky?
Did each dark iris shock in the white of its eyes,
skitter like a roach on porcelain?
And when that creature heaped in the dark, warped river,
did those men lift from the ground, rise with its wave
as the water cracked, unhinged jaw and ate,
swelled with that hot weight?
And on the narrator’s experience learning of the happening on television.
We only knew a small electric frenzy
transformed the elephant – airwaves to pixels –
and brought it back to life, then killed it off,
raised it from the dead to die again.
So maybe I could have pulled off that section of the review, but what of the individual poems that make up the bulk of the work? While not necessarily as strong as the longer pieces, they’re still, more often than not, either good or interesting or both. But as I’ve already established, I’m not tasked with writing a second grade book report, so that’s not going to cut it.
I suppose I would have started off by mentioning the various references to other poets. Two to Dante, an epigraph from which the collection draws its title “Tell us how the soul is bound and bent / into these knots and whether any ever / frees itself from such imprisonment,” and a poem that follows after Dante’s “Love and the Lover’s Heart”, with another piece following after “Spleen (I)” by Baudelaire. However, W. H. Auden is the biggest muse, providing an epigraph for one piece, titles for four of the sections in “Cairns” as well as directly inspiring a poem based on Auden’s “Journey to Iceland, A Letter to Christopher Isherwood, esq.”
I would also be remiss not to bring up the treatment of religion within the text. The collection begins with a quote from Philippians 2:12 and the first piece bears an epigraph from Job 1:12. At this point, one might expect the work to treat religion with reverence, a feeling buoyed by an early poem that draws from “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks.” But then one encounters One Important and Elegant Proof in which the narrator speaks of her childhood faith as a thing of the past and “All Other Ground Is Sinking Sand” in which she is unable to pray as her father lies on the verge of death. Then on to “The Last Man In Prague” with its story of the Three Stooges converting for cash and Catholic governors saved from death by piles of (actual) shit
which is in line with what I know of God,
and I’m saying,
God is just hysterical.
at which point the reverence suggested by the earlier pages has clearly been knocked down a few pegs.
But after touching on the references and the religious currents, after acknowledging that while I knew nothing of the subject, New Criterion found the work to be technically strong, what else could I say about Into These Knots? I should probably mention that some of the poems feel almost too technically strong to me, antiseptic, academic, but as I know so very little about the subject, I would only be describing a gut feeling. Maybe I should mention some of the lines that struck me as particularly powerful. “Love’s a rust-worn boat.”, “I shouldn’t want it just because it’s hers.” Becoming meat is so simple.”
It’s all well and good to be able to put together a list of things that should appear in a review but that still doesn’t instill the ability to do so cohesively. And so after staring at two half-formed paragraphs on an otherwise blank screen for too long, I grab a bottle of wine (another subject on which I know far less than I wish I did) and write an exoneration of my ignorance. I wish I were able to give Into These Knots its proper due because it’s a fine work and deserves a better reviewer than I.