Review | If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, by Anna Journey
|The University of Georgia Press, 2009
Few poets demonstrate the rewards to be reaped through careful attention to small, significant gestures like Anna Journey. Even within the roomiest, most ambitious poems from this, her prize-winning debut collection, Journey never forgets the basic scientific fact that vast amounts of energy can be transferred from one location to another, one form to another, in a split second. Think lightning bolt. Think five-car pileup.
Or take, for example, the quick dedicatory nod to Baudelaire that Journey makes in her opening poem. What better homage to the decadent dandy of Les Fleurs du mal fame than the vast arrangement of flowers that this collection sets before us? From her opening description of the devil prying apart “red hibiscus like skirts” to her final, myth-inspired scene of “a poppy field with its charred seeds / between silks with a scent that could bring // the gods to their knees,” this poet revels in exposing fecund nature at its erotic, perilous extremes.
In his essay entitled “Gifts,” Ralph Waldo Emerson notes how “Flowers . . . are always fit presents . . . because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world. . . . They are like music heard out of a work-house.” With these poems Journey flings the shop door wide open. She puts the needle on the record. She pumps up the bass.
Journey privileges image in her work with an acuity and aplomb that speak to her background in the plastic arts. She approaches the materiality of language like a painter, or a potter at the wheel, always cognizant that the subtlest highlight or the slightest pressure, however gingerly applied, alters the entire body of the artifact taking shape before her. Figures circle back upon themselves but don’t quite duplicate. The startling evocation of a “miscarried sister” in “Rose Is Dead and Crashes the Party,” who appears rather fantastically in the book’s third section, raising
mask of an io moth
to the would-be
of her cheeks, her not-yet
nose’s Swedish hook
sharp on the scent of the before
is foreshadowed with quiet minimalism, much earlier (textually, temporally), in “Visitation of the Rose,” where she is embodied as a “torn hem” of “wet jasmine” dazzling “the green door / of the antique shop,” who doesn’t even create a blip on the “ghost radar” of the shopkeeper’s “vain / little shih tzu.” Where one poem attempts to divine the future, another travels into the past to flesh out memory or to commune with the strange yet familiar figures who wander its ruins. Thus the poet relies less on conventional narrative structuring and more on surrealistic effects of accumulation and scatter to propel her ruminations through the four sections that make up the volume.
The controlled profusion of floral imagery mentioned above is one obvious example of this technique. As is the distinctive field of associations which Journey develops through a constellation of poems featuring foxes (and other creatures with red hair).
The primordial, phantasmagoric womb where we encounter “Fox-Girl before Birth” is rendered with such lyric compression and complication that it’s difficult to say whether the “wide / Chinese fans of her gills” and her “webbed palms” represent some undesirable misinterpretation of the genetic code or simply the gradual, humanizing metamorphoses all fetuses must undergo on their journey toward birth. In “A Skulk Is a Group of Foxes” the poet conveys her images didactically, descriptively, to enact a heady exploration of the way words themselves evoke the world. On its literal surface the poem tells of the appearance of an actual fox at the edge of the poet’s backyard. Composed, collage-like, of nine single-line strophes layered between an equal number of irregularly lined stanzas, the call-and-response effected by the form ultimately mimes the interrupted, interspecies drama that is the impetus of its unfolding:
A picture’ll last longer
than the fox’s shy dance with the neighbor’s
to the winter crab apple that’s erupted
into a yellow cloud. My
yelp at noticing them
unlit the flame under the pine, then the slow
sliding door’s glass thunder.
The next time
someone says, Don’t skulk
in the doorway―come on in, you’ll know
they’ve conjured the animal.
Later, in “Red-Haired Girl Wants You to Know,” when a somewhat-petulant (and unmistakably human) speaker comes forward to confess that she “detests / the way red-haired women morph // into whores, sinners, or fox fur / shawls with the heads left on,” the mock complaint of her disdain demands that we reconsider all the sly, slightly evasive modes of self-representation to which she’s been a party. Bad totem. Anna’s not coy. She’s just complicated.
This process of imagistic recapitulation, when carried out in “real time,” within a single poem, becomes even more pictorial, as if the poet is laying out a repeating visual element in dabs of pigment across a canvas in progress. In “My Great-Grandparents Return to the World as Closed Magnolia Buds” the composition happens to be a landscape in which the ghostly flowers promised by her title are suggested first as “tip after tip // of white-tailed deer” disappearing into a stand of trees bordering a bayou cemetery. When the nascent blooms make their actual entrance into the space of the poem, it is through a distracting, slightly damning simile that we see them, “their clammy petals pulled / shut, like Klan hoods.” Several stanzas later the speaker almost forswears the gambit of the title completely, complaining that “magnolia buds are too awkward / and pungent for angels” after all.
But the uncanny logic of the poet’s tropes quickly reasserts itself as she reasons that the buds “could hold the blood of a woman / or a man” and so stumbles, through a surprising, scene-altering simile, toward the poem’s haunted, self-effacing conclusion:
like the gauze pads
she used in Germany to patch shrapneled
eyes of soldiers before knowing
the right place. Because this is the right place,
the wrong time,
the lapse of decades a salt brine between us―
of women linking arms. In the photograph―with me,
unborn, the bark hardening on a sycamore, dry wind
over the bayou,
the palsied cotton just about to fall.
And so we move through observations of an actual landscape into a meditation upon one that is only spectrally available, in a photograph. The presences that weave the two spaces together are summoned tentatively, and not without some trepidation. The variable metrics of Journey’s lines here, the way they hesitate and nearly stall, convey the speaker’s rapt anticipation of new discoveries mingled with regret over what must remain ungraspable in the final balance of her multidimensional elegy.
With a title that echoes the conventions of still life painting, “Corpse Flowers and Grackles” seems to offer up its subject in fairly explicit terms. But this calmly determinate surface is swiftly distorted by the eruptive pressure of a deeper narrative impulse in its opening lines. The grackles themselves are rapidly displaced by reference to the sound they make, then by the speaker’s apprehension of the way “their cries want to be something else—the shrill of brakes, a crooked / cop’s static.” What emerges is a subtended family anecdote, featuring a “prison nurse” aunt, whose most remarkable attribute is “her stubborn refusal to name / anything.” We’re told she never coughs up appellations for her “two mean mutts” or her “half-Persian cat,” much less an explanation for the stink of the corpse flowers she cultivates. Their stench just hangs in the air, undeniable as the aunt’s compulsive retellings of “the story of her son // shooting a man outside a bar in Jackson.”
The child/speaker of the poem is left to imagine all sorts of reasons for the “tropic rot” at the heart of these recollections. And, though the grackles are eventually restored to us, as themselves, doing their little “black ballets in the spear grass,” the aroma of those flowers is like a Proustian hand holding open the gateway of the speaker’s deep memory, through which a youthful version of herself wanders back to stroll along some vast reservoir of imagination and dream, where the poem abandons her:
about the scent of the corpse flower, whether it reeks
from standing water, a dark bird dunked in its fetid basket,
or its own body, its own body that, when it opens,
lets everything in.
This “logical” progression might, in the hands of a lesser poet, devolve into a clumsy arrangement of fragmentary considerations impelled by the speaker’s familiar nostalgia. But this tale within a tale is rescued and elevated by the quirk and surety of Journey’s discernment of the occult linkages between her signifiers. The care and precision with which she crafts each lyric juxtaposition reveals just how scrupulously she has dwelt with the raw material of her observations, mulled them over in memory, rappelling down the sheer, inscrutable face of the circumstantial to reach the supporting bedrock of her imagery.
Certain critics have observed that a common failing among the poets of Journey’s generation is their tendency to render the self as something more “theatrical than confessional or meditative” and that, as a result, voice becomes less an “organic extension of self” than a type of “artifice, a fabrication of vocabularies and rhetorics” which lacks the blood and pulse to keep readers fully engaged. While Journey’s poems are dramatically inflected at the level of diction and tone, their polyvalence never feels gratuitous or merely decorative. The presences animated within her richly evoked atmospheres attempt to resurrect the large, multitudes-containing self of which Whitman so barbarically sings.
These are arranged into a chorus of pseudo personas like the “gin-brave” soul who hops a cyclone fence to sit a spell and pen a “Letter to the City Bayou by Its Sign: Beware Alligators.” Addressing her own tipsy warning to the “slow, dark water,” half-bragging, half-bemused, she laments: “I’m made // of so many girls I can’t get them all / drunk at once or they’d mutiny.”
Even the poem’s trendily convoluted title is no mere fashion statement. It pulls its full share of rhetorical freight, establishing the epistolary frame the poet has chosen and reproducing, with faux-journalistic rigor, some telltale signage of intense local color. And watch out for the semantic wobble in that second little preposition! It creates (at least momentarily) the delightful possibility that the road sign might have a voice of its own (of which the poem is about to enact some fantastic articulation). This effect is no less weird or wonderful as the reader comes to accept the poet’s more pedestrian use of “by” simply to tell us where her itinerant speaker has landed, spatially, next to the drink. Language here, it would seem, isn’t just about getting the literal work done. Like all serious humor it relies on suggestion, dark hints, and an undeniable urge to play.
The colloquial and the profane are just two patterns adorning the rococo surfaces of Journey’s richly carved fantasias. Her speakers take great delight in reproducing the fine details in turns of phrase that echo everything from the campy, lip-synch-tinged exchanges of “transvestite hookers” on sultry street corners (“I’m drunk, / though I won’t wear heels, honey, or I’d fall / for anyone…”) to the tomboyish hucksterism of nubile garden-center clerks, selling expensive pottery to scary, blue-collar guys with coolly premeditated sales pitches to the tune of: “Girls love that shit.”
This adept ventriloquism can lend a certain “produced for the stage” quality to the most confessional of Journey’s vignettes, but the manner in which the poet hybridizes the bawdy rant of a queen who expects a measure of reverence from lovers and enemies alike with the self-parodying interior monologues of a bashful shopgirl who finds it difficult to take a compliment (even from a paying customer) reveals her compelling sympathy for characters of all sorts as she (and they) flirt(s) with something that feels an awful lot like the truth.
Journey’s formal innovations are often just as remarkable as her thematic density. Having obviously spent some time in the classroom of Charles Wright’s dropped line, Journey incorporates the visual and rhythmic effects of his signature prosody into several of her own compositions. She employs it, much like Wright, to navigate readers across the entire page, often front-loading consecutive lines with gradually elongating fields of negative space to create kinetic verse paragraphs out of argument and image:
The flower with my own name, Anna Elizabeth, was too damn pink
and ruffled. I switched
its label, wrote Lucifer’s Panties, stuck its white plastic
flag back. I named the others Unquenchable Burning, Hellflames,
Few young poets ache so openly (and so wonderfully free of irony) to achieve the sorts of radical transformations that art makes possible—from the time-bound to the eternal, from attentive and generous daughter of a plainspoken autobiography to awe-inspiring diva of myth and history, from exiled spirit in the material world to delirious medium bridging the divide between daylit rationality and night’s swirling intuitions.
Something akin to the mighty “fukú” described by Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that collective bad karma which propelled the nightmarish history of the Dominican Republic (and perhaps the entire planet) for decades and hovered with stunning virulence over the lives of one particular family (as chronicled in that novel), seems to be at work in Journey’s poignant, otherworldly almanac, filled as it is with curses and the charms to avert them, old wives’ tales, home remedies, and love spells gone predictably awry. But the astral guide who is our poet would seem hell-bent on reminding us that every family is home to its own dark secrets, tragic accidents, and late-blooming bohemians. And that, in the naked light of facts, pushing up daisies for eternity looks a lot like just reward.