Art is a battle, Van Gogh says, it costs one the skin off one’s back and Jacqueline Osherow “took on faith” to transmute gold in her tough-nerved and tender new collection, Whitethorn, a book worthy of the highest praise. One could say she wrestled the thorn from the flesh with a pin beaten into a switchblade, and with a surgeon’s accuracy, cut to the gristle poetry that “helps the air articulate its longing / for all its songs, already sung.” Though this makes her sound more like the flayer Apollo than the flayed Marsyas, she—a poet whose “specialty is infiltration,”—embodies both, welding and wielding a poetics that takes no prisoner. Whitethorn opens with a crepuscular, straight-shot
as lullaby, corralled, is requiem
a sigh, bound and gagged, a lyric poem
(“Poem for Jenne”)
There is consummate gangster energy to the words corralled and bound and gagged (another poem gives the wonderful: “that conscientious hitman, life on earth” and another, as if talking about a laconic mob boss: “That’s why God kept these tree confidential”) firmly planting Osherow’s poetic authority which is as certain and invincible as this progenitive couplet from Pope’s Duncaid: “There foamed rebellious Logic, gagged and bound, / There, stripped, fair Rhethoric languished on the ground.” By ‘poetic authority’ I mean what Heaney once said defining Auden’s poetic authority as the “rights and weight which accrue to a voice.” For in Whitethorn we encounter the life of a voice that takes high risks to lasso emotion down to what is essential, to pen in
…one undamaged thought,
one clear, identifiable reminder
that life is not entirely defeat
(“Proust on the Slow Train from Grosseto”)
The voice often succeeds in this authority, and in the rare moments when it does not it is due, in certain poems, to an impulse to reach further than necessary in order to achieve the surprise Keats said is there in excess. This does not mean that Osherow’s critical acumen isn’t as sharp as her poetical—she is exquisitely measured—but she shows a different authority, rifting ore into the parenthetical and diurnal rhythms, a task which she correctly confesses to be “fairly difficult to carry off.”
Take for instance the tour de force long poem “Snow in Umbria,” where the speaker witnesses, “by dint of miracle,” on a short visit there the unaccustomed snowfall in the olive groves; she is to leave the following day, she says, “on a nonrefundable ticket.” The detail of the ticket, nonrefundable, might appear superfluous but it is a fine detail of dramatic relevance. It intensifies the “dint” as a singular event, one that is indeed nonrefundable and will never be repeated in the speaker’s lifetime since the snowfall is a phenomenon that occurs “once in a hundred years.” But a few stanzas later, in a crucial moment, the detail that is given loses its fine-tuned spark and douses into symbolic subterfuge:
(Yes, reader. It came to that.
I, too, uncharacteristically, wore white;
once in a hundred years, a dress of snow.)
(“Snow in Umbria”)
That the speaker wore white is not irrelevant, but “once in a hundred years” and “a dress of snow” brace too hard the poem’s operative conceit. Perhaps, too, the direct address to the reader, nicely implicating as it is, is over emphatic, too sensationalized. But even here Osherow’s authority is on display, for it shows another of the collection’s triumph, her magnificent gift for telescoping the intimate, personal experience onto the natural world. More than human beings it is Osherow’s cherries and lilacs and tulips and moon and rose that are her staid companions and between them there is a special commiseration.
In “Camouflage (Useless Bay, Whidbey Island),” one of the many beautiful sonnets in the book, she ends: “A flash of lightning, thunder, disarray / then that gray union: sea, sky, heron, me” grafting herself into the achromatic gloom being reflected in all of nature by some instinctual, nonhuman principle. This is not the casual sense of feeling sad because of rain or happy because of sunshine; it is not pathetic fallacy; she is a poet by nature but not a nature poet; Osherow is, as Stevens puts it in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the “single artificer of the world / in which she sang.” An artificer who in one instance speaks to a “Ms. over-the-top gold” cottonwood in autumn as if she were a green gambina:
Poor tree. You don’t know what’s coming.
Enjoy it while it last; I won’t tell.
You’ll find out soon enough. Fall is fall.
Unless you get used to losing everything?
Still, I wouldn’t want your place.
My misfortune’s relatively mild;
I’ve got piles of stuff; I’m even singing.
Though there are different ways to read the tone of that, there is an implicit staccato movement that suggests it should be said less with the voice but with eyes filled with a deadly, acerbic sneer.
And, in another instance, the sonnet “Tulip Odes,” begins like greeting a fellow compadre of a similar catastrophe: “Tulips! You’re real heroes! You’ve come back!” and ends on a note of a perennial bond forged by the speaker’s and the tulip’s common affliction: “But look at us; against all odds, we’re here,” a much happier fate than Plath’s famously condemned tulips that “should be behind bars.” One of my favourites is the wry “Moon Sonnet” in which the moon, a kind of priest addressed from the speaker’s stoop, “an improvised confessional,” is saluted as “Hey, Moon.” Hey, the OED reminds, is sometimes used in the burden of a song with no definite meaning and so is the perfect interrogative opener to a poem which is going to be burdensome as the speaker is just there to “talk and talk and talk and you would listen.” But much as the speaker in many of the poems makes herself a partner of nature, she knows there is a fundamental difference between her grief and theirs: hers is human, a consequence that can never be assuaged by manipulating certain simple strategies a raggedy flower might need to bloom. The tending of human grief is a long, difficult work. Knowing this she chastises her “bizarre and troubled garden” who refuses to flourish and thinks her burden is all that:
But what am I saying? You’re a garden.
We’re not alike at all. You just need rain
or a sprinkler system, some decent loam.
For you a little light is possibility.
So why these doldrums? You’re a garden. Bloom.
It is not only the sonnet form Osherow shows an unrivalled mastery of in Whitethorn, but she innovates with equal brilliance with the terza rima form, and this, for me, confirms the genuine strength of the collection as a solid literary occasion. Osherow applies the terza rima in the disciplined manner Dante did in Italian and with the same kind of homage Byron showed to Dante in his strict terza rima poem The Prophecy of Dante, or indeed Shelley of The Triumph of Life, and it is in the collection’s last poem, the long and beautiful “Todas las Puertas,” Osherow pays her own debt to Padre Alighieri, claiming her poetic authority, with great love and honour. “Todas las Puertas” is Dantean in its encyclopedic scope—both a journey in search of the “gate to God” but also a brave attempt to “join[ed] parallel lines” to “every gate.” In this sense one can say the poem—and the book by extension—is truly under the aspect of eternity and no wonder it ends without a period, repeating
just continue and continue and continue
(“Todas las Puertas”)