Craig Morgan Teicher’s third collection To Keep Love Blurry calls attention to our formal and confessional roots in giants such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Frost. Teicher’s wife, poet Brenda Shaughnessy (after whom he titled his first collection Brenda is in the Room and other Poems) remains a strong presence in his work. She also released her third collection, Our Andromeda, this September.
Teicher fills To Keep Love Blurry with poems in form, the bane of many a poet’s prosody. Modified vilanelles such as “Action Reaction” appear alongside sonnets, a form Teicher wields masterfully, demonstrating the balance between space and thought accorded in fourteen lines. The book is divided in two—the four parts of “Book One: Life Studies,” which borrows its title from Lowell’s 1959 collection, and the two parts of “Book Two: A Celebration.” Teicher repeatedly proves aware of the linguistic tradition he’s evoking: in his sonnet “Confession,” he calls out Lowell for his persona-building:
Lowell did it best because he understood
that even when his art was saying I’ve been bad,
he had to make himself look good.
The sonnet concludes with the declaration, “True self-haters perform to empty houses, late.” reminding his readers of confessionalism’s performative project. It provides an anchor for Book One, establishing the collection’s thematic interest in real confession vs. the constructed voice on the page, a medium which, as Teicher suggests, encourages thoughtfulness but often falsifies our real admissions and apologies. Poets can aestheticize pain, turning clumsy, complex emotions into a more attractive, better sounding object.
But Teicher seems driven to avoid the affects of his predecessors. Instead, as the title suggests, these sensitive poems explore the “blurriness” in marriage, parenthood, and personhood, unearthing prisms of idiosyncrasy and doubt in order to examine them closely in the light. Part Two’s prose section, “On His Bed and No Longer Among the Living” is at the center of the collection’s thematic and emotional life, giving the book a distinct sense of musical movements, from the fugitive formalism of Part One to the languid adagio of Part Two.
This section relies on italicized passages from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz to explore the poet’s relationship to events surrounding his mother’s death. It offers a poignant, intelligent consideration of the role played by reading and writing in our construction of the past, “Reading and writing are much the same activity: words employed to carry some part of the world or the mind across the divide that separates the two.” and the continued impact of past losses on the present and future, “Like twin ghosts, my father and I aged beyond our lives and seemed to await the inevitable termination of the present, sharing an aloneness like two prisoners in neighboring cells.” This section, a cross between critical essay and literary memoir, proves an evocative meditation on loss and a unique inclusion in a collection of otherwise formal poems.
The mother’s absence informs the collection’s treatment of family and love. In “Layoff,” Teicher writes: “The world is overripe with surrogate moms, / it turns out, and I’m a willing son.” The seeming conflation between the roles of husband and son is an example of the “blurriness” Teicher addresses with humor and nuance. In that same poem, Teicher appears at his most confessional, directly referencing Brenda and his son, Cal:
Most of this poem comes straight
from my life, a record of events set
in rhythmic words. But life’s unpoetic,
and how will Brenda be hurt, and Cal,
by being my excuse to dredge my brain?
This passages reminds us of Keats’ assertion, “A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence,” whom Teicher later challenges on the concept of negative capability. Here again we see Teicher pushing the limits of his confessionalism, drawing attention the the “rhythmic words” employed to poeticize the truth. Likewise, “Beginnings for an Essay in Spite of Itself,” Book Two’s prose-poem draws our attention to the showiness of suffering:
Bragging rights to him who suffers most, to him who suffers most dramatically. The performance of suffering is a social contract between person and pain…
Real, undeflected pain drives this collection, but Teicher’s frequent word-play, rhyme schemes, and acute intelligence keeps readers from feeling pity or despair. “Lines in the Rain,” one of the collection’s most impressive and moving poems addressed to Brenda asks: “Love is the need to escape / the beloved, isn’t it? So you can / Pretend you can’t cause any pain?” before a spectacular image of familial allegiance:
but I will cough something up,
a bloody string of self, to tie
you to me, me to him, him to you,
then we can all go our ways,
separate or not, or nowhere, and pluck
that string, feel each other
tensing, teasing the other end.
Despite uncertainty, the poem ends with the declaration that “Someday shines on families like light,” reminding us of hope’s undefeated place in our codependent worlds.
With these refreshingly human, formal, playful, and heart-wrenching poems, Teicher not only proves that form may be adapted to fit a contemporary idiom, but that he’s built his own “Life Studies” within the confessional tradition, one which pushes against his predecessor’s self-aware and often selfish use of confession, successfully re-enervating the sense of a real life behind the voice.