A Live Ember: Stephanie Strickland’s How the Universe Is Made

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When I know I want to review a book, I approach it differently than I otherwise would. As a life-long annotator, my margins are always brimming with notes, various words underlined and various lines starred according to my one * = memorable, two ** = haunting, three *** = mind-blowing system.

But with the potentially reviewable book, I’m also on the lookout for what I might excerpt for my own readers—passages I type in a parallel document or highlight in a PDF of the text (though, admittedly, I hate to read this way and do so only in a pinch—the tactile feel of the book matters!). I also love the feel of the uncapped pen between my teeth, the book splayed open in my lap, my fingers galloping along the keyboard.

In the parallel document, I’m transferring language from the source-text, then tinkering with its arrangement. I’m tending the patterns and themes that arise from this language like lovingly repotted plants—not just fresh-cut flowers, you see, which wither and die too soon. I want the source-content, re-homed in my review, to flourish a second time, sending readers back to its roots. (Just think of all those rhizomatic ISBNs!)

A review, after all, isn’t a book report (mostly summative) or an academic treatise (mostly polemical). And to review a book isn’t about mastering the text so much as it is about making introductions at a crowded party (so many worthy books to hob-nob with!), sparking conversations between a single book and its many future readers, its many future guests.

Or a different analogy: I want my review to be like a trap door in the floor of your rumpus room. The book is down there already, geode in the literary cache, waiting for you to find it. My job is to pull back the area rug and expose the handle, shine a flashlight as you descend the stairs. The more exquisite the book, the deeper (I fear) it is buried. Of course, the more exquisite the book, the brighter the light it gives off, radiant there in the dark.

Even now, if you look closely, you can see the long, slivers of light slicing through your floorboards. There are thirty-four years of illumination down there, courtesy of Stephanie Strickland’s new and selected poems. When you finally claim your copy of How the Universe Is Made: New & Selected 1985–2019—not “was made,” for the process is ongoing and (let’s hope) interminable—it may actually be glowing. It may actually burn like a live ember in your hand.

I can’t show you everything, of course, but here are a few salient glimpses:

The first two pages of Strickland’s stunning compendium are what I’ve termed in my margins “literary rain.” The title of this poem is “Lineage-Linkage-Homage,” and the names trickle down the page from Lorine Niedecker through SIMONE WEIL (capitalized), then Xu Bing and Bertolt Brecht and Wallace Stevens (plus many others), then Audre Lorde and Susan Howe and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The final droplet is, after substantial white space, Mother Goose.

I drop everything and turn to the blank page to make my own windowpane of literary rain. I see now how even the names of Strickland’s influences are deftly arranged—from what I presume are her most recent sources of inspiration down to her earliest, formative ones. Remember Strickland’s book-length poem, The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil, winner of the 1992 Brittingham Prize selected by Lisel Meuller? No wonder SIMONE WEIL appears in caps. She hasn’t just influenced Strickland’s work; she has inhabited the poet’s life deeply enough to become a poem in her canon.

But what is a Stephanie Strickland poem actually like? you may be wondering. Like, if I met one of her poems at that party you mentioned, what would it look like? How would it sound?

I’d have to reply: A Stephanie Strickland poem never wears ruffles. Nothing it does is purely decorative—or pretty for pretty’s sake.

In a poem from her first collection, Give the Body Back, Strickland writes:

Desire is a rouge dress
glowing in the dark. Or it doesn’t
glow—but it never comes off

Luminous or intractable—or both.

Notice how she “dresses” the abstraction of desire so we can see what is invisible but charged within us. Desire as noun (“a rouge dress”) but also as verb (“glowing in the dark”). Notice also how the poet invests herself in making a memorable image while also allowing the revision of her image to remain within the poem. Strickland’s is not a poetics of excision, you see; on the contrary, she demonstrates her precision as a poet through the way she lingers on, and pivots from, conjunctions, e.g. small words doing big work.

Here’s another: When the speaker’s mother says, “‘Tell me about writing,” the speaker—I’ll call her Proxy Stephanie—replies:

I could not tell her.

Notice how the conjunction here (But) is given a full line all to itself. The reader’s visual experience is of a caesura that grew too long and became an enjambment. The reader’s emotional experience is that of hesitation, limbo—the speaker ruminating deeply on her mother’s question before she concedes at last that she cannot reply. Not in those terms. She cannot tell about writing. Strickland’s is not a poetics of explication, you see; on the contrary, her poems resist explication in favor of—

intelligence in flashes
that can’t be strung together. Not pearls.

These lines appear in Strickland’s second book, The Red Virgin. Though they refer in context to Simone Weil, the reader will recognize their multi-valence and meta-nature. After all, Strickland’s own writing is comprised of deep flashes of intelligence that refuse the CliffsNotes version of themselves, e.g. no condensing, no consolidating. The fragment, “Not pearls,” is a particularly striking image, perhaps because it is also an anti-image.

Strickland’s poems contain their opposites.

When we think of pearls, we might think of a single strand—simple elegance! We might think of a little black dress and a little pearl necklace to go with it—something sweet and, well, conventional. We might also think of “pearls of wisdom,” especially since the poet is writing about “intelligence” in the preceding line. But Strickland doesn’t do pretty wisdom on a string; she does reckoning—intelligence that wields a shovel, digs a tunnel, tears up the tidy green lawns of the complacent neighborhood.

We’ve seen the image before—it feels archetypal: dirt flying through the air as someone stands in the sub-terrain, altering the landscape above with their tireless efforts below. Strickland is that kind of poet. Her name even suggests “striking land,” and with each successive collection, her poems lay claim to more space, engage with the possibilities of the page more fully.

By her third book, True North, these prescient lines appear:

I began to wonder whether, somewhere in the world, different
thinking existed.

Welcome to Stephanie Strickland’s world—where different thinking (always already) does!

The poet’s lines grow longer, spanning the width of the page. Her white space likewise multiplies. She uses parentheses more often to nest ideas, one inside the next inside the next. Or to make us see the constituent parts of words, the accordion spread of language. More segmentation, more imported text. Her poems invite other/fellow thinkers into the big pit with them—Gibbs, Copernicus, Webster, Whitman, Dickinson—showing how what is known/what can be known grows by accretion and revision.

Over time, Strickland’s lines themselves grow wild, less uniform in their patterns of indentation. Like root structures deep in the ground, they branch in many directions. Consider “Imaginary Numbers,” the fifth section of a much longer poem:

_______(IM (RE (RA (IN (NA ))))

I spell it out—
________________to spell it in; I cast a spell
_______that puts an end
to all distinction: more including, wider flung, closer spun, more pen-
etrant, or more in-
_____fusing, if we only knew what
empty space was

Physically, these poems begin to embody the “more including, wider flung” aesthetic and ideology that Strickland describes here. “Empty space”—more and more of which appears in her work—conjures the holes and gaps in our knowing and even our capacity to know. The poet-speaker seems to be reckoning with the difficulty of grasping even what we don’t know—



that empty space, that vastness.

By her fourth book, V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una, Strickland is writing with fresh permissions from underground:

Gentle reader, begin anywhere. Skip anything. This text
is framed
fully for the purposes of skipping. Of course,



it can
be read straight through, but this is not a better reading,
not a better life.

A poem called “This Is the Void” reminds us where our poet is reporting from. Katabasis: the journey beneath, the deliberate descent into an underworld, an interior. When you meet up at the party, Strickland’s poem will be a wearing a rouge dress (it’s about desire after all—including that most urgent desire to know), dirt on her collar, no ruffles, no pearls. And once you meet her, you won’t be able to pry yourself away.

Remember when I said that Strickland’s poems contain their opposites? Well, nowhere do we see that fact more fully realized than in her fifth collection, Zone: Zero—a poem like “Open Cage.”

The poem, already titled with an oxymoron, begins with this provocative supposition:

To forget what has happened is a sacrament, an access
to power

Reckoning is exhausting; the pursuit of knowledge, ever “more including” and “wider flung,” sometimes is or feels—is there a difference?—futile. Where knowledge becomes the cage, forgetting may be the only key that opens it.

The wind dies down. [Another meaning of katabasis]. Memory

gone ____[this time the caesura-turned-enjambment is amnesiac]
visibly burning in the gold sea of the air
cinders drifting on the black gold of the ground.

The poem wonders aloud if only forgetting can truly free us—from the burden of what we know, don’t know, can’t know—from what we can’t even know we don’t know. My own memory of Strickland’s work flies backwards in time to her first book, a line that has always stayed with me—“She liked amnesia.” And because I know what’s coming, too, my memory soars ahead to the next book, Dragon Logic, where Strickland writes in her signature oracular vernacular:

chance has no memory
so we choose
sealed by amnesia
to undergo the formality of occurring

I loved Strickland’s sixth book so much that I reviewed it for The Iowa Review in June 2014—two months after hearing the poet read from Dragon Logic in Miami. I won’t forget that reading (I hope), but now I’m struck by how I’d forgotten the recurrence of amnesia across the vast acreage of Strickland’s work.

Here again, amnesia saves us from something. We make choices forgetting the randomness intersecting with choice, intercepting it sometimes. Think of the spare insight of this line—chance has no memory. We cannot say, “I’ve suffered enough, and Chance will remember not to wound me again.” Chance won’t remember, so we must forget, if we plan to continue with our lives. I interpret “the formality of occurring” to mean willing ourselves consciously back into the lives we lived, and as far as we know, the lives we have chosen.

When I leap back to the open cage now, I’m struck by the image of what “Memory///gone” looks like. Desire is a rouge dress. The escaped memory (flown like a bird from the cage) is “visibly burning” and its cinders fall onto “the black gold of the ground.”

This image! Here it is. You wanted to know—or I supposed you did—what a Stephanie Strickland poem looks like, sounds like. But maybe you meant, Give me context for Stephanie Strickland herself. How does this poet resist dogma in favor of enigma? How does she describe the absence of something (“Memory///gone”) more vividly than most of the presences we know?

My answer: Stephanie Strickland is a prospector, in every sense of that multivalent word. She is open to all the prospects. Every poem she writes is a prospectus, with room for changes still retained in the final document—not erased or expunged, as with most revisions, but rather enfolded into the poem’s evolving form.

But prospectors also search for mineral deposits in a given place, especially by means of “experimental drilling and excavation.” I called it shoveling before, but I’m not going back to change the choice of implement and verb. I’m evolving, too, as I read and re-read the evolutionary poetics of Stephanie Strickland. She drills and excavates, and her means are, indeed, experimental. This is how she continues to strike gold.

The seventh book: V: WaveTercets / Losing L’una: two hundred and thirty two discrete tercets, growing by accretion, growing by revision. But each one also a nugget unto itself. Is it one long poem or two hundred and thirty two small poems? The answer, like the poem(s), is both/and.

Nugget two hundred and twenty three, my favorite:

Words of others.
Lists and strings are fluid data structures.
The Glacier calving, enormous roar

It is not a recipe. It is not a guidebook. But if one wanted to prospect like Stephanie Strickland, these are three essential elements for the work at hand, the poem-as-prospectus:

Let other voices in. Who have you studied? Who have you learned from? Who did you write that biography of in third grade—and do you still have the diorama? (Strickland’s poems get three-dimensional, too!)

Nothing is static, so allow the poem to evolve visually. Lines are “lists and strings.” You can stretch them, or you can trim them, or you can let them criss-cross and cluster. Arrangement is equal to composition in the end.

Finally, you are small in the scheme of things. Let there be something bigger than you in your poems. It might be a glacier, whether literal or metaphorical, and likely it will be both. But it might be something else all together. The point is, for every cerebral foot, you need a visceral yard. Can’t you see and hear the (bright-white and massive) glacier (so bovine—how did you never notice before?) calving as it breaks apart? Don’t you feel like you’ll never think of a glacier the same way again, now that you’re feeling what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it?

Then, there are the new poems, in a section titled “The Body Obsolete.” These poems strike me as an epistemological umbilicus (we could call it a fluid string) stretching across thirty-four years to the first poems in Give the Body Back.

Enduring obsessions abound, and further innovations with form; more voices harmonizing with Strickland’s, imported visuals in addition to imported text. In the new work, I notice more ellipses, like rocks dislodged from the sub-terrain and placed in the reader’s path. (Every potential stumbling block is also a potential stepping stone.) More slashes, too—forward and back—creating structures like this one:

split \ \ \ spilt / / /silt

domino /   /

\ \ \ \ \  drama / / / / /

Composition as fortification. Arrangement as open cage.

If I were to make an ellipsis to guide you into the newest installment of Strickland’s work, I’d include these three literary touchstones. As I place them here, I realize they are capstones of her current project and also bedrocks of her poetry canon to date:

radical unobservability   a universe all hum: starting tuning in  it’s how I offer my self to you

Or, as a tercet, if you prefer:

radical unobservability
a universe all hum: start tuning in
it’s how I offer my self to you

Tread thoughtfully; the contents are deep.


Literary Rain (abridged)

Jennifer S. Cheng

Layli Long Soldier

David Hernández

Patricia Smith

Claudia Rankine

Ross Gay

Maggie Nelson

Stephanie Strickland

Rick Barot

_________Aaron Smith


Marie Howe
____________A. Van Jordan

Maureen Seaton

James Allen Hall

Brenda Hillman

_________________________________Denise Duhamel

____________________________Stacey Waite

C.D. Wright

___________________Suzanne Paola
______________________Bruce Beasley
______________________________Harryette Mullen

Rae Armantrout
Cornelius Eady

Jorie Graham
Audre Lorde

Mary Oliver

Julia Alvarez

Sharon Olds

____________________________Robert Hass
____________________________Li-Young Lee
_________________________________________Octavio Paz

____________________________Lucille Clifton
______________________Sandra Cisneros
__________________________________________Adrienne Rich


__________________________Walt Whitman

_______________________________Emily Dickinson

___________________________________Carson McCullers

Denise Levertov

__________________________Carolyn Keene
_________________________________Franklin W. Dixon

_________________________________Julie Campbell Tatham

___________________________Peggy Parish

Betty MacDonald
Hans Christian Andersen

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →