The inherent conflicts in poetry are the source of so much of its power. For whatever lip service is still paid to steadfast Grecian unities, the poets who endure create precarious balances which threaten to tip. Between the seen and unseen, said and unsaid, intended and let slip, author and audience, there thrums the resonance that amplifies the memorable and the worthwhile. So too, even in this newest century, there is that old interplay between restriction and release, tradition and innovation, the form and the freedom. Wallace Stevens comes to mind twice in reading Amy Pence’s Armor, Amour. First, in his open inquest of these tensions in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” where nature, the singer it inspires, her song, her listeners, and a critic are interrogated to determine where these relationships created poetry out of chaos; this poem comes to mind often. Second, there is the similarity the best of Armor, Amour—as well as the worst—bears to a Stevens’ earlier imagist works, particularly a poem like “Anecdote of Men by the Thousands.”
What stands out upon hearing “Anecdote of Men by the Thousands” read is just how disingenuous it is about the promise of freedom it makes on the page. The variable line- and stanza-lengths, the occasional end-rhyme, the stubborn redundancy of lines like “As the cackle of toucans / In the place of toucans” all conspire to cover its specificity and complexity. The tongue-numbing assonance of the opening stanza, the precision of word choice, and the aggregation of tone and place built from each detail, however make the poem itself a tour “[o]f a place...[i]n its place.”
Pence achieves this same fusion in her strongest poems. “Split Turtle Egg” opens with the visually nebulous “gray of its being—the red sac / torn open,” then shocks expectation by reversing the image, changing the hatching turtle into “an eye turning / to the seen.” The reader is implored to squint at the ill-defined creature—a “homunculus”—and then recoil from the intrusion of its gaze as amplified by the great old EC Comics revulsion of injury to the reader’s own eye. Vulnerability is built from the act of reading and the “thin separation” between the unborn and the “rushing world” is mirrored in the moment two eyes lock gazes. All of this is neatly packed into the egg of the poem: the tide presaged by a cluster of “st” and “ts” sounds, the scarcity of extraneous verbiage, the trust in one finely focused image and action to activate an emotional response, and even the dependence on the title to cue so much. And then it ends, confident.
Much of Armor, Amour attempts similar effects using similar tools and it succeeds quite often. “Sacral” summons up sheep, both mythological and filthy, to represent the self and builds to a revelation of “the god in me sheared / and golden, collecting / among the dry twigs.” Symbol and image twine about each other with a delicacy that the three, short, variable stanzas at first seem unable to offer. “Dark Matter Exists” snaps so quickly from traffic exhaust to the collision of galaxies and back to the collision of vehicles and “the weight / of the human body thrown / through glass” that the narrative made of these increasingly solid images doesn’t snap into place until a second reading. In fact, much of the work of this poem takes place off of the page, in the mental process of overlaying the images and using the combined result to crack the code of the poem. Pence repeats this effect for cheeky humor in “Behold,” where the reader is challenged to—both separately and at once—“Behold how love illuminates” and “Behold the colon.” The poet makes no effort to explain whether she means the lower intestine or the punctuation mark that, in fact, follows the latter quote.
Through the first four chapters of Armor, Amour, each poem has one or more robust, specific image that serves as its core, a key that enables the unlocking, and unpacking, of the rest by an engaged reader. However, too often, this image is all the poem has to offer; the key refuses to turn the lock. “Cosmetic Surgery” leaves two words intentionally missing or incomplete and the objects left to decode the poem (husks, billboards, and trees) never cohere; the poem feels incomplete instead of mysterious. “My Blunder” has two sharp details, one archly poetic (“The dragonfly throbs / its gilded thorax”) and one beautifully practical (a coffee cup stain around this headline “two-year-old / swallows crack, dies”), which drift farther apart as the poem devolves into dramatic rhetorical questions. The danger of stepping away from conventional form, from narrative, from Wallace Stevens’ vocabulary of symbolism, and from so many of the other tools that complete a poem and, instead, focusing on sketches and fragments, is that one blurred line, one small flaw, will collapse the illusion. This is made all the more clear when compared to “The Boon of the Underworld,” the longest poem in the first half of the collection, which is awash in lush symbols and images. After the sparseness of what has come before, it basks in a richness of tactile detail. “In my teeth, / the flat coins; in my hands / barley cake:” these ritualistic devices of burial and death are delivered with a determination that the reader had to dig for in earlier selections.
In the latter chapters, Pence steps away from the small packets of stanzas to play with format. “Impermanence,” the fifth chapter, is made of poems split into two columns separated by variable caesuras which, in fact should be read one at a time: the left column, then the right. An afterword suggests that after this, the poem should be read a second time, left-to-right across the lines; there is no way to predict this and limited reward for doing so. Visually, this promises an interesting energy but, especially when a page break interrupts the columnar reading, the format in fact drains vitality from the poems. “Embroidery,” the strongest of this set, ends its first column/stanza with a third page tail that feels perfunctory because the two words “fetal / knowing” are divorced from the rest of the poem, alone in the top half-inch of their side of the page.
The last numbered chapter, “Velocity,” plays around even more with constricting and releasing formal devices in ways that don’t reveal much about the content, or the music, of the poems. “Open me” again uses dual columns but now one or the other will drop out for large portions of the page, occasionally interject what may be commentary on the other column, or reassert dominance. It is unclear whether a second, horizontal reading is intended or even possible. Unlike the work of e.e. cummings, or the buried plain speech in Robert Browning’s monologues, there is no frisson of discovery when the reader finds the right way to read these poems. The multi-part “Vessels” again has no obvious logic to how it spreads across the page, in love with white space but looking padded.
Armor, Amour ends with “Open Me: for Soprano and Piano” by Hunter Ewen, a composer and multimedia artist, which reconfigures portions of many of the shorter poems into combinations of musical scores and evocative line drawings. The text to “Preamble,” for example, runs vertically up the page in staggered spikes of musical bars, interspersed with little hands that look like cake toppings scattered on the page, until musical notes spiral up what is either a mushroom cloud or Seattle’s Space Needle before throwing off sparks that morph into check-shaped birds, or just checks. This section is fascinating and there is some promise that this experimentation can be important and impressive. However, it adds nothing to the unadorned simplicity of the original version of the poems. Ewen’s redesigned “Split Turtle Egg,” which looks a little like a hypnotized turtle face, with spiral eyes, in fact buries the strongest parts of the poem under its flash.
In these reinterpretations of Pence’s poems, as in the formal experiments of the previous two chapters, is the lesson of “Anecdote of Men by the Thousands” writ large: a subtle force is generated by the opposition of surface freedom—where the line rests where it lies—and the subliminal form. Pence’s formal experimentations instead occlude the delicate, distinct strengths of her work and her jazzier, freeform “Vessels” sequence wallows without that tension. There is a clean, clear liveliness to Amy Pence’s style in Armor, Amour which is both defined and threatened by the fragility of its design; it stands on its own precipice.