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Books

Book review

‘You Good Thing’ and ‘Imperial Nostalgias’

Just as wheels need the road to grip and just as the body needs time to grind it back into dust, friction is essential for poems to function. (That is, free verse isn’t free.)

Even with the relative anarchy that animates contemporary poetry, when words don’t rub up against anything solid — be it the architecture of form, the rules of representation, or the silent dictums of tact and taste that guide abstraction — there’s just not a whole lot for a reader to grab onto.

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Two new collections find a pair of poets playing with the possibilities of form and freedom on the page, among other things. University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Dara Wier finds a kind of liberation in the semblance of a familiar form, while the work of Texan Joshua Edwards uncovers a kind of discomfort in the relationship between freedom and privilege.

“I’m weary. I feel as if I were trying to lift from a river/ A span and a cross section of fast-moving water,” writes Wier in “A Shambles.” It’s one of a few instances in her 11th collection when Wier’s speaker telegraphs a piece of her poetics. Indeed, it often feels as if she’s trying to lift from a river — that is, to write a poem.

Wier is a poet concerned with capturing the fluidity of thought and experience — and not diminishing its forward charge in doing so. Wier’s lines have always had a wild whitewater crash to them, overwhelming any vessel she pours them into. In the case of “You Good Thing,” this means 42 sonnets, of a sort.

Beyond their 14 lines and the tidy self-contained logic of each one, Wier’s sonnets defy any set schemes; only one poem toys with end rhymes, and there’s no sigh of resolution at their conclusions. The sonnet form does more to give Wier’s unique poetic solutions observable shape than it does to tame her impulses. If anything, the way Wier’s words flood through the doors and windows of her sonnets tenderly highlights the futile nature of words against the world they try to contain, or keep out.

The first three lines of her opening poem, “Not A Verbal Equivalent,” speak to this idea of representation as excision and offer another interesting glimpse into her gearwork: “You said one thing as a way of not saying something else./ You wrote something so that other things wouldn’t be written./ You drew me a picture of one thing and not anything else.”

Wier’s poems are pulled by the current of their own restless logic, but she’s always in earshot of the banks; her love of a good end stop gives the lines a lulling cadence of authority against a deluge that is too loud to listen, like declarative buoys against the rush of “exploding variables of which we are the oars and the oarsman/ And the anvil and we are the boat and the water it rides on.”

“I’m told I would seem foolish to give a passing cloud a pleasing name,” she writes toward the end in “Preoccupied With a Purpose.” Throughout this book there’s a sweetness in Wier’s devotion to saying what she sees, to writing against the wash of time, to trying. Poetry feels like ever unfinished business in Wier’s hands; language is the material, its inadequacy is the substance, and poems can be gestures of acceptance.

“At home he feels like a tourist/ He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.”

That’s not Joshua Edwards; it’s Gang of Four; but that verse loops in my head after every read of the multifaceted poet/translator/photographer’s second collection, “Imperial Nostalgias.”

Through Edwards’s speaker — often on trains, in hotels, or otherwise between destinations — we get a sense of Americanism as a sort of perma-tourism; our material demands, our spiritual restlessness, and the colonial thrust of our history are all caught up in the ceaseless American drive to never settle. Sometimes in these poems, it feels as if the present is only with us because the past left so much behind:

“Through a turnstile, past a diorama/ of ruins, into the ruins themselves./ Ruins as diorama, ruins as sculpture,/ birds as music boxes. Everything/ moves toward metaphor and dream.”

In “Cathay,” he is “unnerved/ by new surroundings,” missing “the bright feeling of belonging/ and the familiar patterns of my country/ its virginity and schizophrenia,/ my several stolen bicycles.” Even at home, the abstraction of history obscures what sits before us, as in “Thomas Jefferson’s Cabbage”: “The sightseers know what they are seeing, for it is written/ on the signs. This plantation, surrounded by slave gardens/ and full of ghosts, is pretty as a picture.”

Edwards captures the detachment that attends privilege without inflating it or claiming immunity. In conversation with Sheila Davies Sumner on a Studio One Arts Center reading series blog last month, Edwards explained that with the collection’s title he “wanted to create a context for the book in which my position in the world is implicated or exposed.” Indeed, “Imperial Nostalgias” reads more like a personal travelogue (and here and there, a notebook) than a cultural critique.

And through his freedom with form — the book moves through a pair of prose parables, a series of photographs, a cycle of sestets, a stretch of free verse, and a rattle bag of “Fugitive Pieces” — Edwards quietly highlights the gap between what we see, and how we decide to see it. The luxury of a disconnected perspective can be the traveler’s heaviest baggage.

In the long travel sequence “Departures” — in which the form almost allows you to feel the regular rumble of tracks beneath the train — what could be the knock of the housekeeper is followed by a question Baudelaire once asked of an avalanche, “Veux-tu m’emporter dans ta chute?” (“Will you take me in your fall?”). Rolling past cities, strolling through museums, wandering unfamiliar streets, Edwards’s speaker is both lost and found in what he sees, and his lines make it easy to surrender your own bearings and follow him.

Michael Andor Brodeur is assistant arts editor at the Globe. He can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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