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WHO NEEDS TO HEAR A QUAGGA’S VOICE?

 

 

Poet Sarah Lindsay tells us what we didn’t know we were missing.

By Daisy Fried
Poetry Media Services
 

 

Twigs & Knucklebones, by Sarah Lindsay. Copper Canyon Press. $15.00.

Twigs & Knucklebones is a rare thing in poetry—a very good read. Fans of Sarah Lindsay's previous books, National Book Award finalist Primate Behavior (1997) and Mount Clutter (2002), will find here what they found there, only more so: freaks of nature and freakish nature, far-flung and underexplored places, things scientific and sci-fi, real things that seem invented, imaginary things that seem real. Orchids that grow underground. The introduction of starlings to America. Cities of the dead. Life on Jupiter's moon.

Lindsay's poems are as narrative as poems can get—they tell elaborate stories—but aren't at all confessional. Lindsay uses the word "I" to refer to herself or a poet-speaker in very few poems. Her voice in Twigs & Knucklebones is omniscient yet intimate, superliterate and flawlessly graceful, like a really good lecturer who knows how to entertain an audience while speaking on complex subject matters. In a sense these are "research and development" poems: one suspects Lindsay reads an article, for example, about a species of extinct zebra, then writes "Elegy for the Quagga." But the R&D never overwhelms insight or music. "Krakatau split with a blinding noise," writes Lindsay of the volcanic island's 1883 explosion. "Fifteen days before, in its cage in Amsterdam, / the last known member of Equus quagga, / the southernmost subspecies of zebra, died." A little later, "Who needs to hear a quagga's voice?"

The poet does, and by the end of the poem, so does the reader—and can't. It feels like a kind of wound:

Even if, when it sank to its irreplaceable knees,
when its unique throat closed behind a sigh,
no dust rose to redden a whole year’s sunsets,
no one unwittingly busy
two thousand miles away jumped at the sound,
no ashes rained on ships in the merciless sea.

This isn't your standard alas-the-endangered-owl poem, trying too hard to pull the heartstrings. The very name of Lindsay's extinct beast is alien, and comical enough to have built-in resistance to simplistic resolutions. Also: "no dust . . . no one . . . no ashes." No apocalypse. The Krakatau imagery has plenty of resonance with atom bomb tests. The world didn’t end with the extinction of the quagga—or the invention of the bomb. But Lindsay's poem gets at that secret worry that we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Elegy for the Quagga" is about our own inevitable extinction, individually and as a species, and our sense—terrible, freeing—that maybe, after all, we don't matter.

What does matter? The lightheartedly doomy Lindsay is obsessed by this question. The book's middle section, long enough to stand on its own as a slim volume, is a series of poems titled "The Kingdom of Nab," an ancient and vanished civilization that Lindsay invents out of whole cloth. Nab is fertile ground for Lindsay’s recurring theme, the ephemeral nature of all things, including great empires. Sometimes too recurring, maybe. But as delivered by the capable, unsentimental, secular-seeming Lindsay, the poems feel political: if you write about a vanished civilization, even an invented one, you’re writing allegory about contemporary power and empire.

No poem in Twigs & Knucklebones is a bad one, and virtually all are remarkable for their sheer interestingness. Lindsay's delight in imaginary and unknown worlds, her compulsion to write exactly what she doesn't know, removes her poems completely from the tired confessional anecdotalism of so much narrative poetry. But the I-less Lindsay needs to find some other way to make her poems perform as poems rather than as (invented) encyclopedia entries or nature feature articles beautifully written in medium-length lines. A few poems suffer from excessive good-idea-ism, by which I mean that the motivating idea is too visible, as in "The Museum of Damaged Art: Audio Guide."

But Lindsay's best poems are those that allow for some readerly identification beyond the spectator sport of Lindsay's ingenuity. In the sci-fi poem "Valhalla Burn Unit on the Moon Callisto," maimed patients on Jupiter's satellite "come / and linger in the courtyard, / with its soothing views of a thoroughly fireproof world," and doctors are "qualified for this post by the loss / of an irreplaceable love; / they aren’t homesick for an Earth they could ever go back to." There’s a post-apocalyptic feel here, but no explanation of the nature of the apocalypse. Instead, the poet makes the impersonal account achingly personal:

No atmosphere. That's why the sky is black
           all day, which does tend to bother the nurses,
           the aides, the kitchen staff, the housekeeping crew,
           all of whom are encouraged to miss their planet,
and when they cry, are to do so hunched
           over sterile vials meant to preserve
the healing proteins found in common tears.

Guggenheim Fellow Daisy Fried lives in Philadelphia; her latest book, My Brother Is Getting Arrested Again, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. This article originally appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Sarah Lindsay, and her poetry, at poetryfoundation.org.

© 2009 by Daisy Fried. All rights reserved.