Troy, Unincorporated by Francesca Abbate

Reviewed By

The good news about Troy, Unincorporated by Francesca Abbate, is that though it is a re-imagination of Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde” from his Canterbury Tales, you don’t have to have been an English major or a Chaucer lover to appreciate her accomplishment. This is a book that is deeply American and as steeped in classics as some of the best writing from our heartland over the centuries. Abbate is an associate professor of English at Beloit College in Wisconsin, and though she clearly knows Chaucer well and is fascinated by the subject, her diction is her own, and she has a strong grasp of place, one reason so much of Chaucer is still so satisfying and why his stories can inspire .

Opening with an epigraph This false world alas! Who may it leve? from “Troilus and Criseyde,” she begins her ( Chorus: )

Everything is half here,
like the marble head
of the Greek warrior
and the lean torso
of his favorite.
The way the funnel cloud
which doesn’t seem
to touch ground does–
flips a few cars, a semi—
we learn to walk miles
above our bodies.
The pig farms dissolve,
then the small hills.
As in dreams fraught
with irrevocable gestures,
the ruined set seemed larger,
a charred place
the gaze tunnels through
and through . How well
we remember the stage—
the actors gliding about
like petite sails, the balustrade
cooling our palms.
Not wings or singing,
but a darkness fast as blood.
It ended at our fingertips.
The fence gave way.
The world began.

The epigraph provides a quick sound-flash before we understand that the fence has given way, the world has begun, in tornado country, drama-beyond-our-control country. We remember ballads that have entered us, consciously or unconsciously, from when we first heard music-speech, even without comprehension. The Story Is Out of Our Hands and in this case out of the characters’ hands, set in a place that is unincorporated in real life—as in not officially of the body of land that is mapped, bureaucratized, that shelters and legitimizes citizenship.

And so bifel, when commen was the tyme
Of April, when clothed is the mede
With new grene, of lusty Veere the pryme,
And swote smellen floures white and rede,
In sondry wises shewed, as I rede,
The folk of Troie hire observaunces olde,
Palladiones feste for to hilde.

This is the epigraph to the first section, in its entirety, and while in many cases epigraphs can be pompous distraction, here it is well chosen for two reasons . Readers deserve more of Chaucer’s inspiration-tongue for the sake of the poems to come, but also as more reminder of what English sounded like long ago and how part of us, yet gently foreign, earlier locutions can appear over time.

Abbate tells a piercing love- tale that includes natural and not so natural treachery, of landscape. It’s slippery business anywhere, and Criseyde’s voice, of a woman sometimes rock-solid and other times frighteningly wobbly, is well limned :

Dear (you know I never
rode horses well)
late April, your sinkholes
in full bloom.
The bus bucks,
the windows shiver.

I’ve never seen a street
open a fabulous new crater.
I was walking elsewhere,
eyes small
against the wind.
Was, will be, whatever.

She’s making the story itself part of the landscape, as opposed to the other way around, so what we have is landscape carving the story and a nod —I’m gratefully making this association though Abbate may not have intended it—to C. S. Giscombe and others who approach what is visible in fresh ways that appear on the surface to be both ordinary and spooky. When the poem continues , with the sight of an open tube of lipstick in a snowbank, she does not say it is red, but I believe that with her verbal gash, she wants you to assume that.

All the poems in this story-scape go back and forth between straightforward and blurred, much the way any unincorporated space within a designated area—parts of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, for example— can be mysterious, startling and confining. Every boundary, emotional or geographically, does the same.

None of the poems here have conventional titles. They are called ( “Narrator,”) or (“Chorus” ) as if Abbate wants the whole to be performed, as if she is, like any playwright up against the confines of page/stage, and, in her case, breaking through. The next poem, in the voice of Troilus, is one of many that corroborate my point :

What lean pickings,
the body : like–
           oh, wood-char,
ochre, burnt coriander.

It was never like us.

If someone told you its nice here,
I want to be here always,
would you believe her?

Here : winter lights in the kitchen
when the geese come so close
you think the sky
is passing through.

You think : things whisper
in a gladness beyond us.

Its always a treat to a critic’s vanity when poem after poem illustrate an earlier statement, but do it in a way so immediately new they enter that place within where the gift of translating sight makes the soul sing. Join me in a repeating swoon over the last six lines above.

Abbate’s accomplishment continually rises like an unexpected yet inevitable encounter . Criseyde is concerned with dams that daily give out, in a contemporary flood and in her encounter with it, Abbate mixes newspaper quotes with Chaucer’s line, this litel spot of erthe,’ and here we are again, with forceful scholar and gifted poet mixing it up with perfect balance.

Troy, Unincorporated is the work of an academic/artist making the old new, making contemporary experience into something alive, one would wish, for a very long time.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →