Joanna Klink’s newest book is difficult. It opens slowly and heavily, wearing its opacity like a shield – until, suddenly, it lays down the tools of obscurity and disarms itself, leaving a startling emotional clarity. This is the genius of Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy; Klink hands her readers fragments, fraying thread, scraps of wool, but when we lift our eyes, we are holding a tapestry.
The warp of the piece is global; the weft is intimate. Confessional poetry’s traditional concerns – emotion, relationships, the self – are only permitted to exist in a vital context, rigorously balanced against the world’s broader concerns. The doomed lovers live in a damaged nature, alongside forest fires, droughts, and oil spills. A relationship fails alongside a dying earth, parallel but not equal. Klink has a good sense of relative importance, and of the illogical emotional weight we tend to grant our own lives. She doesn’t lecture about this imbalance. She simply rearranges it. Our sympathy with Klink’s personal pains is extended, by this reordering, to nature. And then we learn – with more immediate dismay than any news article or committee report could provoke – that our world has been irreparably hurt, that is decaying, approaching an unavoidable end.
In this collection, the old rules simply don’t apply any more. We learn this at the very beginning, when Klink confesses, “I brought what I knew about the world to my daily life/ and it failed me” (1). We can’t live the way we used to, and we can’t write or read that way anymore either. The new world is “free of constancy,” full of unexpected storms and shifting symbols; we never know where to find ourselves or what our surroundings mean – the hour, the wind, the stars, the birds. These traditional symbols have lost their traditional meanings. We are lost, and not in a romantic world; in this harsh landscape, “being lost/ means not knowing what it means” (42).
Even the “you” in this apostrophic collection refuses to stay steady; sometimes it is the man she has parted from, sometimes a river, a tree, or a partner in an affair, sometimes a divinity or the earth itself. The reader is swept along in the confusion, touring gravesides, forests, small towns, graduate school in Baltimore, a river’s banks, a marsh. There is no stability in this world, nothing to rely on. We don’t even, after so many centuries of determined inward focus at the expense of so much else, really know ourselves: “What you think you live for you may not live for” (42).
The only thing left to rely on in Klink’s vision is ruin. She rejects the easy allure of blindness and inaction, disavowing the privilege of ignorance: “the elaborations of loss run/ parallel to our privacies, a land-in-flame/ we never have to see, whose smoke we recognize – / and only when it is impossible to breathe/ are we prompted to partial fury – our own air!” (43). Our personal pain does not grant us immunity from global responsibility. The closest thing we have to a solution is communication, connection, participation in the doomed struggle to reverse the damage we’ve caused: “There are gestures so small they seem like/ nothing – to catch someone’s eyes and find/ beneath the scorn a maze of need./ What did our lives mean” (45).
It isn’t easy, this ideal of connection, of people living together in a world they care about and care for. In fact, it’s probably impossible – we’re just too late: “we did not notice – the land covered in summer/ then, before we knew it, scored with fire and flood,/ a dream we tried uselessly to squint through” (46). We can only minimize any further damage by holding ourselves unceasingly and uncompromisingly accountable: “Even the greenest city may become a reef./ Take nothing more from each other.” We must try to live fully with what’s left, to be present, to bear witness and responsibility: “If there is a world, let me be in it./ Let the fires arise and pass…If there is a world where we feel very little,/ Let it not be our world” (61).
The individual doesn’t disappear from this world; in the vein of an earlier collection, Raptus, Klink offers a few deeply personal poems. In Stillways, for instance, we learn of her miscarriage and hunger for a child: “inside me a hollow/ chronicle of blood,/ tissue, some formless/ transparency… And who will I have been if, daughterless, if I fill out these remaining/ minutes of my life” (35, 37). But we aren’t allowed to consider this future generation without wondering what world would be left to it. In the title poem, we learn about the early days of the dead relationship, set against “merciless mid-/ Atlantic heat grime on the hot car windows/ and trash-heaps along schoolyards…the books I could barely/ afford twice a day to the library/ homeless men asleep by its pillars” (50). The casual signs of global destruction – heat, garbage, cars – litter the setting of this intimate scene, and the failure of human connection is visible in the homeless men who are not cared for. Her partner, safe in graduate school, “wanting to learn/ reading all day all night,” is following the old paths of progress, pursuing knowledge and reason, but failing her and the world around them both; she is lonely in their dying world (51).
For Klink, in Excerpts, all lives matter, but they can no longer be decontextualized from global realities: “No one knew what was coming miscarriage/ divorce disease the country at war” (51). Any personal loss is one among a great number, whatever number matches “the loss of people in a single minute/ On earth” (56). The world is not built to give us what we want; it is necessary, but it is not generous. And why should it be, when we look only inward and refuse to build outward, to be stewards of our community, of our planet and its future? We are already losing it, and were long before we knew it. Now we have only blank uncertainties, gaps in necessary knowledge that it is far too late to fill, curiosity that no longer offers hope. We can offer only connection, in whatever time is left: “I would sit with you awhile, or walk next to you,/ and when we take leave of each other after so many years,/ the oaks will toss their branches in wheels of wind/ above us – as if it had mattered, all of it,/ every second. If there is a world” (61).