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Drifting Off Into Sun and Sparrows and Wind: Review of Kathleen Graber's The River Twice

Amie Whittemore

Cover of Kathleen Graber's The River Twice

Reviewed: The River Twice by Kathleen Graber (Princeton University Press, 2019)

Listen to Amie Whittemore's review here.

Liking a book of poems is not always a sufficient reason—or even a reason—to write a review. Often I review a book to try to understand it better, or because of a vague unease or curiosity it spurs in me: the review is a means to read better, to overcome the shortcomings of mind and habit. However, Kathleen Graber’s The River Twice, is that rare book that makes me feel giddy even as it makes me weep—I want to soak in the poems as if in long baths, travel them as if they were rigorous hikes through undisturbed forests, bed down in their intricate nests. I want to walk up to strangers and say, you need to hear this poem (and this one and this one and oh wait I just read the book aloud to a dozen strangers). I want to review it so that you will read it and feel your own head drifting off into sun and sparrows and wind.

If you are familiar with Graber’s earlier collections, Correspondence (2005) and The Eternal City (2010), you know her poems are highly associative, blossoming from a capacious and exacting, scholarly yet playful mind. The poems of The River Twice are no exception. Take the opening poem, “Self-Portrait with No Internal Navigation” which begins,

Have you ever been arrested? The pigeon arrests me.

No, not the wing but the sturdy round body & the sheen

of the throat, like the interior of a snail’s shell or the bruise

of spring—think of the lilac blistered with blossoms,

of a burned moor’s sudden eruption into heather—

a beauty we expect only from what’s broken.

Graber has bundled so much in that ‘arrested,’ and ‘arrest’ in the first line: beginning with the most common transitive or reflexive usage of ‘arrest,’ “to cause to stop, detain,” but also, the obsolete definition of “to rest or dwell upon (a subject).” Much of this collection rests in the space between these definitions, as Graber turns toward myriad subjects that arrest her—particularly the subject of America, which is the title of a series of epistolary poems addressing America, each with a subtitle to narrow its scope. In the tradition of Ginsberg and Whitman, these poems both address and try to define America. Take, for instance, “America [October],”

America, some days I can barely read the postcards

I have been getting each week from a friend, broken

loose & adrift for months along your back roads & highways.

Pictures of mountains & monuments, postmarked

but with no return address: West Virginia, Nashville,

Oklahoma, Deadwood South Dakota. So that, like you,

my mailbox has become merely the idea of listening

Part of Graber’s mastery is in shifting from narrative to metaphorical logic seamlessly: America begins as the landscape in which she receives word of the landscape itself through these postcards; then the act of reception limns something about the concept of America: it is a “mailbox” that contains “merely the idea of listening,” indicating a country of talkers and bloggers, social media posts and podcasts, assuming (perhaps, often, foolishly) someone is listening to us. But who among us is listening? Graber lets the question sit, shifting to scientists “who announced this week / that the universe should not exist.”

The nature of existence, its borders, its textures, is at the core of this collection: “how tired I am of death & how tired I am of flailing against it,” one speaker rails in “Greetings from Richmond (or Thinking of Elizabeth Bishop & Everything Else in the World).” This grandiose scope (emphasized by the title of this particular poem) is not tongue-in-cheek, 21st century irony; Graber really is interested in everything. And it’s marvelous; it reminds me that I’m interested in everything too, though often it feels like I am only interested in naps and cats.

When life is crowned in despair, as it inevitably is in this century, it can be hard to feel soft, to allow for gentleness; these poems are as tender as they are smart. In “On the Eve of Spring Break,” another poem about everything, Daylight Savings is the catalyzing image; the poem begins “Daylight Savings. As though minutes might be bankable, as though there could be more or less of them simply by our agreeing to make it so.” From there Graber shifts to the weather (these brainy poems are always grounded in place), to a student “despairing in the chair beside my desk,” to the speaker’s daydreams of travel, to a friend who “waited a decade for her first husband to stop loving his second wife.” Where are we going, you might wonder? But, as with our own minds, sometimes we must depart from the initial conundrum to resolve it; Graber circles back at the end of the poem to Daylight Savings: “It’s simple: We’d rather set out in the dark than arrive there. If wisdom is a myth, it is one of the better ones. More exacting in its ways than love—for, unlike love, it schools us again & again in its own limitations.”

If you haven’t abandoned this review yet to go read this book, well then, I am not sure what more I can say to you. Perhaps you need to be convinced that this collection is formally dexterous; you’re in luck—it is! While Graber thrives in the long line, often making use of prose poems, I am most impressed by her use of, for lack of a better term, broken tercets, which appear in multiple poems, including the long sequenced poem, “Impasto for the Parietal,” which is grounded in the discovery of the Chauvet Cave paintings. The form aligns well with Graber’s project of figuring things out, even if things are, as they are, impossible to figure out entirely. In the second section of the poem Graber writes,

Sometimes, late at night, I read the hypotheses:

the possible meanings

of the Paleolithic art.

Or I reread the old essays of Loren Eiseley,

who proposed all life might be a backward yearning toward the dark.

The dropped lines indicate a parsing, a way in which “the possible meanings” are filled with lacunae, riddled with absences. However, this sense of brokenness is balanced by couplets that offer respite from the fragmentary nature of knowledge; here’s the opening of the third section:

In high school, I liked to walk along the shore & dream about the boy

who sat in front of me in math class. How he wore his sun-bleached hair

in a pony tail & how he could solve the most difficult calculus equations

at the board without effort, even though he’d just been outside at lunch

with his friends getting stoned.

The only living things in sight

were the little sandpipers & the black-headed laughing gulls[.]

Here, the tidy packaging of the couplets provides some clarity—the boy solves the difficult math; however, the boy, we learn, is stoned, and we can feel the speaker questioning how a mind can be sharp and dull at once, and to brace against that riddle, turns outward, to the birds, the coast, to life.

It is easy, and often sound, to feel brutalized by the horrors of this century; they crowd our vision, they crow to us as we gaze into the mottled crystal balls of our screens; these poems do not ignore these travesties, but allow us the essential relief of zooming out—of seeing, for example, the ruined marriage beside the moon, “so bright, so close, that the grass, dusted with white / light, threw down a thousand crisp, thin shadows” (“Self-Portrait with Moon”). These poems remind us that we are, like wisdom, as Bishop indicates and to which Graber alludes, each of us flowing and flown, and there is comfort in passage, in the impossibility of stasis, in becoming as the essence of being.

Amie Whittemore standing by a pond in the woods

Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press). Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewNashville ReviewSmartish PacePleiades, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.