Saying the Unsayable


     David Swerdlow, Small Holes in the Universe, WordTech Editions
     Li-Young Lee, Book of My Nights, Boa Editions

The most enduring poems have been those that embody mystery at their core, those poems that meditate in rich metaphor on the nature of being-in-the-world, lyrical searches into the nature of self, death, and reality. These poems are more concerned with their internal landscapes than a narrative vision; their lyricism is more evocative of the metaphorical possibilities of a more fluid and tenuous world. Moods rather than moments drive their momentum, and the signposts of the tangible world are externalized reflections of their vast interiorities that nevertheless also contain history, but in more subjective ways. These poems don’t exclude the dream world. With these poems, one thinks of Rilke’s angels, or of poets such as Lorca and Trakl, whose freshness of language startles with equally original perceptions and states of consciousness. These poems want to embody the mystery of silence, the other side of language, and thus their language often seems stretched and collapsed, turned-in-on-itself and dizzyingly unexpected.
      We often find poets concerned with these mysterious sources outside of North America, in countries where they have experienced some oppression, violence, imprisonment, where the absurdity of their historical situation often leads to a surreality in their work. But of course we find them also in the U.S, sometimes because of their wider experience outside of this country. Li-Young Lee’s background is widely known; along with his family, he was exiled from China and Indonesia and came to the U.S as a refugee, an experience that has informed much of his work. David Swerdlow is a new poet who has not experienced exile (he hails from Cleveland, Ohio), but, rather, has traveled widely in South America, is a scholar of Peruvian poetry, and his first full-length book of poems reflect that rich perspective. Beyond the conventional debate between narrative and lyric, accessibility and inaccessibility, both poets share a common passion for exploring their interior landscapes in thrilling and original language that opens out into the mysteries—in Swerdlow’s case the “universe,” and in Lee’s case the “nights”—rather than shutting them off in narrow narratives or facile word play.

Small Holes in the Universe moves much as the poet’s life moves: his marriage, a first daughter, a second daughter. We learn his wife and children’s names, where they live (rural Pennsylvania), where they travel (Peru). These biographical details, though, are actually signposts for the poet’s vastly spacious interior world, and we recognize fairly quickly that, while they are rooted, the poems are not narrative, grounded as they are in an internalized space, the edges of moments or moods, wise to the complicated registers of feeling. These are utterances that contain within themselves what is also withheld: “We turn to the person we love whose sadness,/resembling our own, cancels our own,/and we hold on” (“After Tithonus and Aurora, Thoughts on a Life of Work”). Sadness and celebration are so interlayered as to sometimes become indistinguishable, reflective of the twenty poem’s great ambitions. The poet’s response is “to say, without saying,” to infuse the moment’s fragility with love and attention, yes, but also to allow us to understand that the words—beautifully rendered as they often are--can sometimes be the least of it. Throughout this startling first collection of meditative and lyrical poems, Swerdlow reminds us of how poetry’s task is really to enact being.
      Though our speaker is not always comfortable with the surfaces, he’s wise enough to accept the ambiguities, as in “Common Ambition,” where he scrapes the ice from his windshield, clearing out a small hole in his universe. The poems demonstrate an understanding of the tenuous boundary between beauty and loss. They are self-aware (“The slow/wagering of the mind against itself”) in their skillful attempts to utter a lyricism that maneuvers within the interstices where the interior and exterior worlds meet. It is refreshing that this poet—rare in contemporary poetry—can be self-conscious and sensual at once, and the poems’ energies seem to generate on their interplay:

                Mortality in the lack
      of space for the complete body seen
      as beautiful. Clavicle
      and window, window and emptiness
      suggesting itself
      possible and attractive.
           (“Looking Out the Window, Drawing Nudes”)

This doubleness is certainly the case in one of the strongest poems in the collection, “What Milagros Might Say,” a dramatic monologue in which the poet speaks from the voice of his wife, who’s speaking primarily about—the poet. Milagros is associated with Peru, and her presence, along with that country’s, offers the collection much of its earthiness, its sensuality, its visual texture, of which there is an abundance. The speaker’s sense of color recalls us to Stevens in the way in which he can be at the same time metaphysical and painterly: “eggs in a basket, the basket/resting on a blue and green cloth, one egg on the cloth,/its shadow lined in red, its shell given its curve by shades of slate blue-/gray and light rust, the rust backdrop moving to a red line, to a diffused blue….” This sense of color, though, implies a deeper commitment to the intricacies of the physical world and the various ways we hear the “long vowel of seeing.”
      Much to admire about these poems is that Swerdlow doesn’t merely record that “seeing,” but rather questions, explores, or otherwise identifies his (and our) role in that complicated relationship between self and world, or being-in-the-world. Humble, the poet announces “the small self I have been” in the face of an overwhelming natural mystery, “the water//expanding into its calm” (“The Last Hill and the Wild Trees”). Likewise, in “After Tithonus and Aurora, Thoughts on a Life of Work,” the speaker, after buying corn from an Amish girl, wants both to celebrate this “fact our lives have come to” and to not read too much meaning into the connection between his own gardening and his wife’s pregnancy: “The parallel too conspicuous, and thus/dissatisfying.” As with the “small holes” he scrapes on his windshield, the poet arrives at the conclusion that, in the jar placed over our songs, we have “small holes to breathe” through. In the enormity of the universe, we have a little space of our own to mourn, celebrate, and affirm.
      Particularly compelling about these poems is their ambition to be both long, which we often associate with narrative, and lyrical at once, in lines that seem to sweep, Charles Wright-like, across the page—long or short as need be, following the accurate pulse of the mind’s flow. Swerdlow manages this by dividing many of these poems into sections, self-contained units of lyric that sustain their moods in shorter sequences. In this respect the poems are orchestral, the sections reiterating and building on their themes. The wholes are always greater than the parts. “Whose Lives We Complicate,” for example, is broken into two sections, the first containing five shorter segments, the second containing four. The signposts of this lovely poem are his wife and two daughters, but the whole piece chooses various ways to explore—in that signature metaphysical and lyrical language—the interconnection between love and loneliness and parenthood in general. Likewise, the book’s seminal piece, “Mosaic of Splashed Light,” eleven pages long, contains four sections that embody thirteen segments. This last poem in the collection contains all of its themes, and pushes the language even farther into his sources. Boldly stating “I am so glad I have no tidy religion/no repertoire of belief,” the poem is an annunciation of the poet’s own sense of being-in-the-world, carrying on in spite of itself, loving the fleeting moments of a head on a lap, a bird in a tree. And though the poet recognizes perennial sadness (variations on “sad” are perhaps the most frequent words in the collection) and our inevitable “demise,” he returns again to the daily rituals--secular, artistic, or spiritual—a weaver practicing her loom, the poet’s grandfather wrapping his leather tefillin, a man “squeezing oranges/into a clear pitcher.” These observations (perceptions, memories) constitute the “small holes” in the wider “universe” of being, and Swerdlow, in his brute and lyrical honesty, understands these almost insignificant snatches—splashes—are all we have, as he concludes: “half of comfort must be disgust.”
      Small Holes in the Universe is a reassuring collection, demonstrating that contemporary American poetry can be at the same time metaphysical and earthy, exotic and thoughtful, meditative and lyrical. It doesn’t have to choose between regional and self-reflexive, personal and historical. These brilliant poems embody all of these qualities, in addition to one we seem to be lacking and desperately need: a poetic voice that knows that “a word is elegy for what it signifies,” a poet who questions his own language and perceptions in skillfully beautiful images and surprising assertions. And though he knows that, at bottom, being is unsayable, we’re very grateful to him for saying it.

Li Young-Lee’s Book of My Nights is a collection largely concerned with how our experiences and perceptions are fundamentally beyond language, unsayable. Since his first volume, Rose, Lee’s work has traveled from the immediately recognizable--the logical, physical and accustomed way of articulating ‘reality’--to one that is more interior, dream-like and often surreal. Indeed, it’s as if Lee is steadily writing his poems later and later in the daylight, his subjects blurring, becoming more fluid, and therefore opening out into imaginative possibilities. With this latest volume, the dark has finally arrived, and these poems are a recording, journal-like, of what he discovers in his night-world.
      It’s a dream world where the normal rules of perception won’t apply; his “subjects” are, rather than physical figures or external perceptions, particles of an internal space, in flux, altering and transforming. Lee’s language must rely heavily on metaphor and “leaping” images, but unlike many poems that are language-driven, what satisfies in this collection is that Lee’s speaker is always a voice who is emotionally committed. Whereas Swerdlow refers to his family as signposts in relation to the “universe,” Lee continually alludes to his family--father, mother, brothers, sister; wife and children as intimate bodies shaped out of the vast “nights.” Perhaps the key word in the title of this volume is “My.” The poems are explorations of mystery and spirit, the poet seems to say, but it is my life that compels these dark searchings. That the poems so often can inhabit these two worlds, in a beautifully mystical use of a language that is grounded in the emotional urgencies (memories, desires) of the poet’s life, is what makes Book of My Nights so compelling.
      The central metaphor in the collection is, of course, “night.” Night is that mysterious source where a warehouse of images, memories, and fragments of parables and stories (that often carry a mythological weight) are stored. Lee means it to embody the timelessness of Keat’s Grecian Urn, but also the mystical qualities of Roethke’s far field—it’s that unsayable space beyond the named world, that place of Rilke’s angels, “a river bridging/the speaking and the listening banks,” a shadow world that informs the historical one of memory and relationships. The power of these poems comes when the worlds collide, sometimes in opposition, sometimes in fusion: “Night is the shadow of my father’s hands/setting the clock for resurrection” (“Pillow”). Objects, figures, and gestures are never only themselves, and, as in the best poetry, everything becomes metaphor, resonates, suggests. The richness of the unsayable, that place where “even my name isn’t my name” (“A Table in the Wilderness”) is that, when it is tapped, it offers the poet numerous ways of suggesting, questioning, proposing, naming. These poems, in their attempt to tease out the unsayable, are closer to Lee’s memoir, The Winged Seed, which so often explores the varied poetic possibilities inherit in images and even ideas.
      Two of Lee’s strategies in exploring those possibilities are in asking a lot of questions and posing alternative possibilities. Often-repeated words include “or” and “either,” as in, for example, “Depending on who you ask,/his mother or his night, he’s either/the offspring of his childhood or his death.” Again, from the same poem, “From Another Room”:

           Depending on who his mother is in his dreams—
           beggar, thief, boatman, mist—

           He’s either a man paused
           on the stairs, thinking he heard
           the names he used as a boy
           behind his parents’ house,
           during evening games of lost and found,

           or else a child
           reading aloud to himself
           from his favorite book every morning.

Because the source of these poems is the dream world, central is the speaker’s uncertainty, his unwillingness to commit to a story, a scene, a secure phrase that might limit possibility.
      Lee’s speaker is a child in this night-world in the same way that adults are “children” of the “infinite.” Many of the poems take on child-like cadences, allowing Lee to forefront a sense of uncertainty, inherent in the night-world, which in turn offers more imaginative gestures, as in these opening lines of “Nativity”:

           In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
           just to hear his sister
           promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
           just to hear his brother say,
           A house inside a house,
           but most of all to hear his mother answer,
           one more song, then you go to sleep.

Whereas in his first two collections Lee writes about his parents, here the child expands and becomes the adult and the ‘parents,’ too, enlarge to become night, God, the infinite, and “mother,” “father,” “sister,” and “brother” become shadow-figures, ghosts and angels, mythological presences that reflect the unsayable. They are totems of memory, the poet’s emotional connections, sources of love. In poems like “Degrees of Blue,” Lee takes the innocence of the child and projects it onto adults: in the face of the overwhelming night, we’re all children, though in the sense of Job addressing God. In fact, sometimes we hear a voice reminiscent of God’s voice in The Book of Job, but gentler, less assured, more questioning: “the hours themselves, where do they hide?” It’s the voice a man would use if he didn’t, as so many of us do, outgrow our childhood curiosity. Whereas, for example, Job’s God questions, “Hath the rain a father?” Lee suggests that “everywhere is home to the rain.”
      Because these poems are so grounded in their mystical sources, the language often has the flavor of parables (from “Little Father: “I buried my father/in the sky./Since then, the birds/clean and comb him every morning/and pull the blanket up to his chin/every night”), aphorisms, Zen koans, even the quality of fairy tales (from “Our River Now”: “you close your eyes and dream/the king’s bees build the king’s honey”) and lullabies. Lee sometimes even invents phrases to convey the multiplicity of variations on saying the unsayable:

           So many words for son:
           He-Dreams-for-All-Our Sakes.
                (“Words for Worry”)

What drives these explorations into the night world is, of course, metaphor, but a metaphor stamped out of Lee’s own unique sensibilities, sometimes repeated like leitmotifs. Often, metaphors will generate out of themselves in wild associations. They pervade the collection, in the tradition of the deep imagists or the Spanish and Chinese poets they translated, where metaphors will birth more metaphors until the whole image resonates with many levels of meaning:

           I buried my father in my heart.
           Now he grows in me, my strange son,
           my little root who won’t drink milk,
           little pale foot sunk in unheard-of night,
           little clock spring newly wet
           in the fire, little grape, parent to the future
           wine, a son the fruit of his own son,
           little father I ransom with my life.
                (“Little Father”)

These poems are non-linear, surreal worlds where the images take leaps and bounds, sometimes in the manner of Lorca, where we can find lines like “And when clocks frighten me with their long hair” (“Black Petal”) and “whoever’s heard the title/autumn knows him by/is heir to all those/unfurnished rooms inside the roses” (“Heir to All”).
      Yet this poetry is not merely surrealism: rather, we have a speaker often troubled by loss and death, poverty and exile. We need not have read Lee’s other collections to sense that this poet’s past was fraught with fear and dislocation, wandering and homelessness and it is these memories that, finally, supply the emotional richness to the beautiful phrasings. From the first poem, where we are told about the night that “There’s nothing that hasn’t found home there:/discarded wings, lost shoes, a broken alphabet,” to “I can’t tell what my father said about the sea/we crossed together/from the sea itself”(“Hurry toward Beginning”), there’s a rich undercurrent of memory sewn through these poems, and its images supply the emotional details, the pulse, of the otherwise vast and formless nights. In “The Eternal Son,” the speaker recalls a faint memory of his mother at the moment of a profound turn in their lives:

           My mother’s eternal son,
           I can’t hear the rain without thinking
           it’s her in the next room
           folding our clothes to lay inside a suitcase.

           And now she’s counting her money
           on the bed, the good paper
           and the paper from the other country
           in separate heaps.

           If day comes soon, she could buy our passage.

Ultimately, the poems journey from one space to another, from memory to night’s lyrical horizon, or attempt to embody both places at the same time. The central image in “The Hammock,” a piece that asserts the collection’s central concern, symbolizes how we can live both in and between two worlds, where the poet lives his life, where we lead our lives. As in this poem, Lee constantly muses about the “eternity” on “either side” of his life—the past, involving his parents and their stories, and the future, which includes his own and his children’s. Between these two eternities, he asserts in the last line, there’s “a little singing.”
      What keeps this poet and David Swerdlow singing are the two impulses their books attempt to embody: heart and invention. While their world’s speculations offer Lee and Swerdlow ample opportunities to make beautiful poetry, indelible phrases that have the spark of imaginative originality, they never forget the sources of that invention, the figures that, even in their loss, infuse Lee’s “nights” and Swerdlow’s “universe” with intimacy: their loved ones—wife, children, parents—the emotional signposts that signify their wide-ranging imaginative landscapes expressed in a stunning lyrical language that always says the mystery beyond itself.

--Phil Terman, 2004

Wayne Miller's chapbook

Become a Subscriber!

Back Issues

Back to The Laurel Review

DISCLAIMER OF LIABILITY: The individual to whom this page pertains is solely responsible for the information, content or materials contained in it. Because Northwest Missouri State University has no involvement in managing the content of this page, Northwest will not be liable for any damages of any kind arising from the use of it, including, but not limited to direct, indirect, incidental, punitive, and consequential damages.