Looking for Hymns of Seizure

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Katharine Rauk’s collection Basil is emphatically, wonderfully welcoming, like a collection of condensed Alice Munro stories. Reading through it, I never had to guess what was happening or why, to whom. It’s not that kind of poetry. On the contrary, it’s energizing to read these one after another, as many as you can.

The poems speak to each another with similarities without repetition. Rauk’s clarity delivers the aching tartness of her images. In the poem “Blood Orange” Rauk begins: “Slice: swollen flesh/brims red.” Do your hands hurt? Can you taste it? That’s five words, seven counting the title.

Try this one, the start of “The Rapture”

She was ripe
for the plot. Wrapped
in a silk robe, she pleaded
for capture, even a lick
of slim wrath.
she sham fainted. She feigned
corpse. Fed up but not
stuffed, she sacked
scripture on her knees
looking for hymns
of seizure.

Of course I’d like to go on and quote more, but can’t you feel its restlessness? The sexy energy of it? There is some of Rilke’s spiritual longing in Basil, expressed most frequently through agonizing bodies and food.

Aside from the very rare misstep, Rauk’s language is unexpected and exactly right. Look at the section above, the scripture “sacked” on her knees—how right, and how rarely used! Basil rewards considered, repeated reading.

If you’re curious about a misstep, here’s one line that hit me wrong, from “An Assembly of Lit Things”: “a 60 watt Lumalux Double Life dropped/ into my palm like an overripe pear.” The Latinate decadence of the word “Lumalux” and evocative “Double Life” are as pleasing as the poem demands, but “like an overripe pear” seems either trivially true in reference to the shape, or outright false in reference to the brittleness and delicacy of a burnt-out bulb. Later in the same poem, the narrator compares an array of bulbs to “a flock of soap bubbles fleeing south”—an image I’ll enjoy for a long time to come.

Two of the poems take their titles from Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions, which is an ingenious way to acknowledge and continue the work of a poem you admire. Perhaps more to the point than reviews? Rumpus, take note!

The poem titled “In the End, Won’t Death Be an Endless Kitchen?” unites the two stand-out qualities of Basil, sensuous enjoyment of food “like a carrot,/ will our skin be stripped into slick ringlets and tossed/ into the bottom of a porcelain sink?” –and the urgency that the flesh has for everything beyond it: “For chipped bottles, all their jagged edges begging for smooth.”
Are these the concerns of Neruda? My understanding has been that Neruda acknowledges the non-physical weight of things but is more consistently charmed and delighted by the details of the present. Rauk also dedicates a biographical poem to Frida Kahlo (“Self Portrait with Monkey”) and there I see more of a spiritual sister. Rauk’s poems have a lot of Kahlo’s enjoyment of color and specificity, but however representational Kahlo’s paintings, their symbolic and emotional heft is the real story.

I’ll quote one more from Basil:

After Cooking with Turmeric

My stained fingertips trace
your lips, the line
of your nose, one eyebrow
after another. Now
We are opening
vaulted windows
to a sunlight of bees,
a thousand burnished
throats. Now we are smudged
with Gobi sand, its taste
for heat. Now we smell
of freshly split wood,
that splintered moment
when lightning licks open
the heart of a tree.

If you read this collection, it will probably be because you want to spend more time in that kitchen, before you’re dead.

Catherine Nichols lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More from this author →