Friday, March 6, 2020

Phoebe Wang’s Admission Requirements

A. E. Housman, in his poetry, was consistently despondent. That emotional tenor was balanced wonderfully by a savvy musicality that acted as bouyant counterpoint. No such luck while reading Phoebe Wang’s collection of poetry, Admission Requirements. The despondency on display in poem after poem over the course of one hundred pages is unrelieved by any variation in alternative mood and, more importantly, by any prosodic stickiness. The words evaporate.
Another reason these poems don’t remain with the reader is the narrative verbosity. That phrase may sound redundant. After all, narrative tends toward explication, plentiful description including mundane detail, and a pile-up of supporting list-like metaphors, extended or ragged. But Wang’s efforts have the demerits of bad narration in verse: prosiness without vivid or arresting .... well, stories.
A familiar – indeed, insistent – approach is to lay out a desultory geographical scene, one often static, though ostensibly real, as in a Russian peasant painting composed in March. A building, unpeopled, sits darkly by a river, there’s a forbidding escarpment, and the poet/narrator ends the consideration with a bleak-but-fuzzy takeaway: “I long to lie atop rapids/that can outrun change, lashed/to that promise of future returns.”; “no matter how far we trudge/on the tide flats, that temporary country,/the rooms we covet remain cut off.”; “There’s no end to the work I began alone/making meaning where there’s none.” The final-lines quote from the last citation is in “The Pre-Existing Structures”, a particularly dour poem which also contains, “I look for some great/design, and find only carillon regularity”. I could always use some carillon regularity, or, more specifically, carillon transcendence. But then whatever we hear is a reflection of our current emotional state, indeed our spiritual condition. I immediately recalled Hart Crane’s great poem, “The Broken Tower”, which contains these brilliant lines: “shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway/Antiphonal carillons launched before/The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?”.  One immediately feels Crane’s polyvocal pain and joy, his wise encapsulations of different moods and flavours. With Wang, even a carillon is flat, affectless. And the language enhances that state. Contrast Crane’s “shadows” with – again, in this poem – “ Here shadows aren’t perturbed/by questions of their source and agency”. The nouns come from a numbing sociological primer. The final line from Wang’s final lines also “make an inadvertent memory universal and prescriptive”, to quote Mary Kinzie’s warning on the dangers of assumptive transference.
Despite the above aversions, I like the gambit Wang shows of using geography, especially architecture, as a means of tracking emotion. But the metaphorical equivalents are poorly, even haphazardly, handled. (The sky is, in different poems and by turns, a “grey parachute”, a “split screen”, and an “allotment”.)
It’s usually a mug’s game to guess future talent based on book one, but Wang’ll have to harness the nuts and bolts of craft before having a chance at transmitting any aesthetic wonder from her interesting approach.

1 comment:

L said...

Phoebe Wang are you grieving/ Over Wang sobs unrelieving? / It's not the feeble weeps you poor-mouth for;/ It's P. Wang's pratfall you abhor.