Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"The Quick and the Dead" and "Let Me Be Like Glass"

Two women whom I always enjoy hearing at NYC readings have recently published chapbooks. Elizabeth Harrington's The Quick and the Dead (Grayson Books) is a suite of poems about an intestine transplant that saved her life. Let Me Be Like Glass (Exot Books), by Adriana Scopino, takes the poet's very young children as its primary preoccupation. The subjects of both books are liable to receive mawkish treatment. What fascinates me is not how both poets avoid this pitfall, but how they skirt round its edge, and maintain a hair-raising balance.

They do so principally through their economy of words. Most of the poems are shortish. The longer poems, significantly, are less successful than the short ones. Within the chosen limits, the words feel essential. These poets are not loquacious. They speak because they have to, at least that is the impression the poems give. But they sound different in their few words, Harrington authoritative, wry and sexy, Scopino, hesitant, marveling and prayerful. The care with which they choose their words is reinforced by occasional indentation of verse lines. The words are, literally, placed on the page.

The careful selection of words is matched by the careful selection of details. In order to come to terms with accepting a dead boy's organ donation, Harrington tells herself to think of it as a relay team. The comparison might have come off as self-serving, but is justified when the patient-poet receives the baton in the "chilly hands" she raises after waking from the operation. Ever attentive to what her children do, Scopino in "Blue Car" watches her son Miles connect wooden trains in circles, "some complete/ and closed, some/ left broken,/ open." The precise observation will give body to the poem's final idea about memory, but not before looking into a blue car that contains "matchbox cars, Asha's hair tie,/ half of a waffle, a cake of vanilla soap,/ a used Dora bandage, blocks,/ a necklace made of dry seeds,/ and rocks."

When both poets attempt heightened language, those poems feel false in their ICU and nursery surroundings. Scopino's "Songs at the End of Summer" asserts uncharacteristically that "the gold's always mixed/ in with the soil,/ with the shit." Shit here is a mere idea, like the gold and soil. Harrington is the more experienced of the two, and so is less likely to break her tone. In "The View," however, a woman draws her window blinds and, finding the room insufficiently dark, solves her problem by "turning her vision inward/ and interposing herself/ between the earth and the sun." The poem cannot bear the large abstract operations here. 

But these are poets of the everyday. And it is the everyday that they lift up into glorious light. Here is Elizabeth Harrington making her own way in "Choices":

Just now, a lone bird sang out.
I lifted the metal lid to the garbage can and looked up.

This is how I do it.

And in the poem titled after her son, reticent Adriana Scopino wisely gave Miles the last word on reticence:

When he was four he began a sentence,
I have a thousand things in my heart,
but I'm only going to tell you three...


Sarah Sarai said...

Your review style is lovely, to the point and most important, revelatory.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Sarah.