Angie Estes, Chez Nous, Oberlin: Oberlin College Press, 2005.
The arresting cover image on Chez Nous, Angie Estes’ most recent collection of poems, points to key elements within in a way few book covers do. An elegant photograph of Peggy Guggenheim at the window of Kay Sage’s Paris apartment, circa 1940, the cover image, like Estes poems, considers the many layers of perception and reveals the complex dynamics of space and vision. We see Guggenheim, wearing a dress made partially of cellophane, standing before a window that reveals a hazy and slightly obscured view of Notre Dame. There is, at once, a feeling of familiarity and a sense of foreignness; the tension between interior and exterior, intimate and public is palpable.
In Angie Estes’ poems, the sometimes confused and sometimes conflicted public and private meanings of individual words are both revealed and hidden—like Peggy Guggenheim’s body under the contradictory materials of her dress, the substantial fabric and translucent cellophane. Throughout Chez Nous Estes is interested in the ways language maps both interior and exterior landscapes, exposing contours and corners, pathways and distances. And the distances she travels with regard to subject are nothing short of remarkable; in Chez Nous we venture from Paris to Delphi to Rome, encounter Miles Davis and Mae West, Marcus Aurelius and Pliny, to name only a few. These poems mark the territories of both intellect and emotion—often at once and with an attention to lyric and image that is striking and memorable.
Take for instance, “True Confessions,” the first poem in the collection. Like many of the poems in Chez Nous, it includes clever word play that draws on both sound and meaning: “glamour is its own / allure, thrashing and / flashing, a lure, a spoon / as in spooning, as in l’amour”(1). It also introduces one of Estes’ central mediations (obsessions?), the sometimes curious etymologies of common words, the layered meanings buried within the familiar. “And the true / home of glamour, by which / I mean of course the grammar / of glamour,” Estes writes, “is Scotland / because glamour is a Scottish variant / of grammar with its rustle of moods / and desires”(1). In just 54 lines, we hear the voices of Rita Hayworth and St. Augustine, visit the Scottish hills and Coney Island, and face the confusion of desire and contempt, sex and violence evident in the strange fact that a pin-up of Hayworth rode the atomic bomb tested at Bikini Atoll.
Estes constructs poems by piling idea on top of idea, image on top of image, meaning on top of meaning, creating elaborate and complex structures—dwellings, as it were. “And indeed / if we consider this beautiful / machine of the world, / Palladio wrote, so much needs / oiling,” Estes writes in the book’s title poem, “the porch swing
of the chickadee’s song, the mourning
dove flung up like the window’s
wooden sash, the word
And isn’t news
rude, the way
it beckons? Le corps
becomes a copse, someone’s
opus, but we can’t imagine
whose because chez nous
the peonies dress for dinner
in their pungent
fuchsia coats (36-37).
With her method of accumulation Estes suggests that it might be impossible to express anything in more direct terms; the surprising precision of word and image in these poems standing in sharp contrast with language’s inevitable inexactness seems to argue that the idea of creating an authentic representation of image, idea, or experience out of language without employing such layers is not possible. “What’s uncanny,” Estes writes in “On Yellowed Velvet,” “unheimlich, in German is not / heimlich, secret, and certainly not heim, / home, which means home can’t be where the heart is but the Hôtel / Tassel in Brussels, whose staircases / turn and let down their lips / to meet you, whips unfurling / like vines.”(62)
Angie Estes is a poet who puts words and phrases through their paces, always calling attention to the way language—any language—can mask its own roots and gather meanings around it self. “Let words / be the Montmorency Cherries I bought / at market,” Estes writes in “Palinode,” “because the woman pronounced them / Mount Mercy, let them be the tumult / of memory, mute.” (67) In “Kind of Blue,” she writes “What if / you paused for a minuet // instead of a minute? The dark / might sky, the blue might // star, the always / could open, the close // might earth.”(14) For Estes, word play is serious business, but she is not without a sense of humor and her poems are often rich with wit. “The woods fill / with accent trees or, if / you prefer, eccentricities”(63), she writes in one poem, and in another: “decide whether you’d rather / remember spending hours / next to the sea, against / the sea, or in ecstasy.”(30)
That language, even in one’s native tongue, both unites and isolates us is everywhere evident in Chez Nous. Estes’ poems are marked with a sense of the pervasive foreignness of language and with the curiosities and imaginative possibilities of bilingualism. In “A History of Reality,” Estes writes: “Taken literally the shore would be / littoral and the ocean its Latin / lover litura, erasure or / correction, clearing the beach / like a windshield with its big / glassy hands.”(64) And in “Portrait,” a poem that makes much of Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, a writer and thinker who acts as a kind of touchstone for Estes, “The irises keep opening // into fleur-de-lis, and le désir // and les idées come back / each April as des iridées.”(9)
Angie Estes is interested in the way meaning inhabits language, the way we who use, abuse, stretch, and sometimes transform it also inhabit language, but, perhaps more importantly, she is interested in the ways language and meaning, and by extension poetry, inhabit and transform us. In Chez Nous, language is a dwelling place but not really a comfortable home; it is an uncertain site, an untrustworthy foundation on which, nevertheless, an incredible and extravagant structure is built. The achievement and satisfaction of this fine book is Estes’ constant lyrical reminder that it is a structure capable of holding all manner of joy and horror, humor and grief: “whether it’s memory or loss / we’re in need of most,” the poet wonders, “to remember / the way home or forget / who we are when we get there.”(2)
- Nancy Kuhl, 2006
Copyright © 2006 Nancy Kuhl. All rights reserved
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