“The Fact of the Matter” by Sally Keith

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In The Fact of the Matter, moments are artifacts to be labeled and sorted. The poems are not an attempt to make sense – of time, of history, and of the self and the self in and out of love – but an admission that any attempt will inevitably fail. Science and reason are at odds with the emotional self, rendering the past impossible to craft into equations. Something is always left. The poem “Crane” ends:

Remaindered is the wind.

What is left is a series of questions, left unanswered in a narrative fractured by its homelessness. Time and place are in constant shift, and causality is false. What exists outside of the epic? Is failed love failed from the beginning, especially in the absence of the comforts of physical time? Already, in “Rereading”:

The hand inside the hand
is a ghost.

Keith, in what is ultimately a postmodern lyric, is in the bargaining stage of her mourning. She mourns the very fact of our collective mourning, which is an inevitable part of history, personal and otherwise.

I need some force to deal with time.

This line from “Wedding of the Rails” is not a revelation, but a plea.

The elegance of Keith’s craft and grounding, pastoral moments contain what might otherwise be rhapsodic verse. What is unsaid is often as loud or louder than what is not withheld. The thoughts that remain in the speaker’s custody are simultaneously frustrating – as they enact the speaker’s frustration with history – and stylistically essential. The verse is often as inhibited as Keith’s haunted New England, occasionally allowing itself to relax into a wise but closer-to-unbridled stylistic beauty, as in LULLABY IN THE MARSH, the final poem in the collection:

All of this as if epiphany were not a question—
middle-world, dreamscape
soft voice kept soft—

The questions raised by the epiphanies drawn from recollection – and almost-literal collection of moments as artifacts – are most lucidly raised in WHAT IS NOTHING BUT A PICTURE, which opens with the speaker’s father suspending in a painting. Characters and fauna move in and out of the narrative as ghosts. In this real of constant loss, these ghosts are restless.

Our history was not at all unusual:

intruders versus natives and the hero
whose fate it is to find a new home.

The speaker, too, is without a place to dwell with any promise of permanence. The poem ends:

don’t haunt me: I’m still so far from home.

Keith employs the conventions of the elegy and the epic that appears also as something akin to a character, a sort of personification of the confused time Keith’s artifacts exist within. From “Study in Increment”:

They want to stay.
The pupils of their eyes are very wide, admissive of pain, but so pleased there,
perfect in that, the stillness there is before the epic moves again.

This is one of many moments of joy within this fissured chronicle of loss. Though sometimes elegiac and consistently heartbreaking, there are instances of pleasure in The Fact of the Matter – as well as moments of banality. Though Newton, Kepler, and Achilles all appear within the first four poems, so do a can of Diet Coke, the sound of an answering machine, and a strip mall.

Classical references, and references to great thinkers and even the gods, are given no more weight than the everyday items that frequently materialize. Representations, as well, are as real and important as the figures they represent. Each artifact is treated with equal care. In LULLABY IN THE MARSH, the time and space continue to shift like plates below the speaker, and what can be grasped is held onto.

Knowing the men will carry the haystacks on gundalows
Knowing in winter across the ice on sleds
Imaging the makeshift roofs shielding the loose tops,
        the men tearing across the ice burning rope in their hands
Moment in which Achilles still is stewing, Achilles refusing and refusing to eat
        so again fate might be complete—look steadily—
Moment before the action takes place
Elsewhere light on the edge of a marsh hawk wing
Not a sound, no even a tick
The water’s edge not leaving one mark
The painting propped there, flat
Wordless notes at the hymn end before beginning the next verse
        the fade-out, the unusual shade at dusk—
                        be gentle—
Years pass—
Blue and low the whole of the world almost seeps
Sit back—
        stop thinking—

Centuries of data – sensory information, names and unnamed figures, what is and is not left behind – is deafening in its synchronized existence, in this last moment of stacked moments, to the speaker who, as the poem ends with the sky’s broken promise of sleep, is still only able to answer her questions with further questions.

Amy Silbergeld’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fence, Shampoo, and Gertrude, among others. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of DEATH HUMS and an MFA candidate in Poetry at Columbia University. More from this author →