by Christopher Kempf | Contributing Writer
Penguin Books, 202
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2020
Penguin Books, 2020
Improvisation Without Accompaniment
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2020
Year of the Dog
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2020
Perhaps no collection from the twentieth century has more profoundly shaped the form, problems, and possibilities of contemporary poetry than Robert Lowell’s 1959 Life Studies.
Perhaps no collection of poetry, in the present moment, is less fashionable.
It would be difficult, I think, to find a book that has aged more poorly than Lowell’s fourth, with its patrician mannerism and its sometimes myopic indulgence in what we have come to recognize, sixty years later, as white privilege. “I was promised an improved future,” Lowell relates in the prose narrative “91 Revere Street,” “and taken on Sunday afternoon drives through the suburbs to inspect the boys’ schools: Rivers, Dexter, Country Day.” Such excursions seem perfectly apposite in a collection packed with trust funds, Boston Brahmin gossip, family portraits hung soberly above rococo fireplaces, and which begins, memorably, in a first-class Pullman car traveling from Rome to Paris. Writing in The Hudson Review, contemporary reviewer Joseph Bennett identified precisely this tropism toward the aristocratic; in Life Studies, he parodied, “we visit an insane asylum for Porcellian members; our jail in New York reminds us of the soccer court at St. Mark’s School; we learn the intricacies of the pre-St. Mark’s schools; and we seem constantly on the verge of being provided with a Harvard Club ladder.” Though it masqueraded as metonymic treatment, through the decline and dissipation of the family Lowell, of U.S. culture writ large, Life Studies might also be described—as in fact M. L. Rosenthal described it in The Nation, coining the term “confessionalism” as he did—as a literary exercise in egoism.
Yet in many ways, not least of all in its scrupulous attention to self, Life Studies appears in retrospect to have inaugurated a brand of identity writing currently comme il faut among American poets, including the three taken up in this review. In laying bare the Oedipal tensions that roiled his family’s Beacon Hill brownstone—to say nothing of the unraveling of his marriage to Jean Stafford, or of his manic depressiveness, or abjuration from Catholicism, all of which figure prominently in Life Studies—Lowell ushered in a new and indelible mode in American poetry: the autobiographical “life study.” Characteristic of that mode, in Lowell as well as his successors today, is the yoking of an intimate and expressive free verse to recognizably personal subject matter, with self-inquiry functioning at the same time as a kind of social and cultural diagnostic. In Life Studies, the diminution of Lowell’s father from naval officer manqué to Lever Brothers’ soap salesman stands in for the broader failure of an entire class. Among contemporary poets, likewise, private experience offers a concise “study” in—which is to say, an especially parochial and curated version of—those spiritual, social, regional, and inter-cultural traumas that continue to characterize U.S. national life. Fundamental to the mode of the life study, therefore, is profound belief in the idea of synecdoche, the notion, ultimately mystical, that the part stands for the whole, the one for many. It is hardly shocking that the life study remains far less irrelevant in Canadian, European, and other English-language poetries. In its conviction that the poetic self, like the nation of which it is part, contains Whitmanic multitudes while remaining irreducibly singular—a conviction, in other words, that every life offers fine grist for the poetic mill—the life study seems a distinctly American mode: egalitarian and absolutist at once, born equally of humility and hubris.
It was the novelty of that conviction to which readers of Life Studies reacted most dramatically—for Life Studies marked a conspicuous departure, at the time, from the more academic verse that had come even then to be associated with the New Criticism. While such verse—“well-wrought,” as Cleanth Brooks would have it, mannered, metered, and resolutely moral—examined in sometimes powerful ways the psychological machinery of the self, that machinery was most often inspected through the lens of the New Critical “speaker,” that figure who, like a nun at an eighth-grade semi-formal, maintained respectable distance between poet and reader: room for the Holy Spirit. Lowell flouted that distance—and readers were as appalled as they were enamored. Though he ultimately heralded the book, Rosenthal criticized the “grotesque glimpses” it offered into Lowell’s personal life, describing Life Studies as “impure art, magnificently stated but unpleasantly egocentric.” In The Kenyon Review that year, John Thompson confessed that “the new poems in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies are a shock.” They are “directly about the poet’s own experiences,” Thompson went on, as if to describe were to indict, “in his troubled childhood, in jail, in a mental hospital, in marriage, and they are quite without reticence.” Despite these objections, in form at least the poetry in Life Studies seems strikingly New Critical in nature: witty, rhetorically complex, layered in both intellect and affect. And for all its ostensible tawdriness the collection in fact models precisely the kind of clinical detachment implicit in the idea of a “life study.” “Life turned to landscape,” Lowell writes on the book’s first page, and he observes that landscape with all the critical distance of a Troyon or Constable.
The influence of the book could hardly have been as monumental had the poetry itself suffered from slackness or mere self-fascination. The collection’s reach is long, to the point that we are even now in its shadow. From Sylvia Plath’s dramas of psychological angst to the Black Arts poetics of Amiri Baraka (who virulently objected to W. D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle winning the Pulitzer Prize over Life Studies) to the austere self-scrutiny of Louise Glück, Life Studies continues to animate diverse poetries committed to the notion, at one time radical, that private experience constitutes meaningful artistic material. This is the very premise, moreover, of an entire industry known as “creative writing,” one grown to as many as 158 graduate MFA programs, 64 low-residency programs, and ever more Ph.D. programs offering would-be writers opportunity to study and shape their individual lives in verse. It is more than mere coincidence that Life Studies became the literary historical force it did during a period which Mark McGurl has accurately termed “The Program Era;” the collection epitomizes the core tenet and tantalizing promise with which—from Ithaca to Irvine, from Providence to Palo Alto—creative writing recruits its eager literary legionnaires. “Write what you know,” such programs encourage their novitiates. “Find your voice.” And each year anew they do.
The three collections taken up in this review constitute part of this legacy, and not simply because these writers work within the aesthetic and institutional “program” of American creative writing. “Life studies” in the literal sense of that term, they hearken back to Lowell while mapping out a contemporary poetic landscape dominated by the fashioning of self and the formation of identity. While Joshua Bennett’s Owed (Penguin, 2020) looks outward to the social and political conditions within and against which Black personhood finds its being, Matt Morton’s Improvisation Without Accompaniment (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2020) gazes inward as it examines how individual identity is constructed in the absence of external frameworks. Deborah Paredez, in turn, approaches life study in Year of the Dog (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2020) as a kind of photographic negative, limning the historical conditions into which—in 1970, the Year of the Metal Dog—a “Latina daughter of the Vietnam War” is born. Cerberus-like, these collections peer respectively beyond, within, and backward from the self, but all three are at their best when they examine in nuanced ways how exterior and interior worlds abrade, alter, and reinforce one another.
Within the possibilities available to contemporary poets, I hasten to acknowledge, the construction and consolidation of self may seem a relatively narrow, if not outdated, preoccupation; these collections, however, especially read against each other, reveal the wide perspective and variously filtered lenses through which a life might productively be studied, helping us to see, at the same time, why that perspective continues to matter. Together, Bennett, Morton, and Paredez disclose both the strengths and shortcomings of our present moment in poetic life studies, making them, as it seems to me, well worth our own close study.
Follow-up to his acclaimed National Poetry Series-winning debut, The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), Joshua Bennett’s Owed explores how inegalitarian social structures become internalized and affect the patterns and potential of Black life. While this exploration takes many forms, Bennett devotes special attention to the kinds of interior self-policing that entail from internalization of American racism. “[Y]ou always / remember to measure / Your hair, your volume, your tone,” he writes in the opening poem, “Token Sings the Blues.”
over email, you perpetually
sorry You don’t know why
You apologize to no one
in particular just for being around
& in your body at the same time [. . .]
As this passage demonstrates, in Bennett’s hands the genre of the life study serves to protest a culture which insists, continuously and in sundry ways, that lives like his do not matter. The cover art for Owed, therefore—a photograph of the poet as a child, held by his father—functions not so much as self-promotion, but, like the cover of Audre Lorde’s 1970 Cables to rage, as an insistence on Black humanity and indication of its precarity.
And as that photo suggests, much of Owed can be read as an ode to the speaker’s childhood and adolescence, as well as to those formative peoples and cultures to which, for the poet, a form of debt or tribute is owed. These are often friends and family members, but they are also historical figures like Frederick Douglass, as Bennett integrates both Horatian (private) and Pindaric (public) conceptions of the ode. The masterful “Purple City Byrd Gang” waxes lyrical on rapper Juelz Santana. “The front cover reads / From Me to U & it almost / feels like a form // of direct address,” Bennett writes of the 2003 Santana album.
Me & Juelz Santana
are damn near the same
age & although I have yet
to hold a gun or serve
the block my will
is good. I am fifteen
I am private school
by way of two buses,
one regional train,
a first alarm
at 5:25 a.m. shaking
the entire house
by its neck.
Part of what makes this poem such a compelling engagement with self-formation is its nuanced characterization. Here, Bennett’s speaker examines his vexed relationship to both Black and white culture while complicating the binarism that threatens to dominate much of American discourse—ethically as well as thematically, Owed simply operates within a richer range. Its grounding of social critique in childhood reminiscence, the most distinctive feature of the collection, contributes to that richness, effective not necessarily because one empathizes with or relates to the speaker—though one might—but because the poetry itself feels more fully realized as a formal construct. The poem “Still Life With Toy Gun,” for instance, develops one prominent line of inquiry—namely, that Black Americans might be “owed” much more than they have received—by suggesting that the speaker himself, like countless others, is owed the carefree childhood he never experienced. “Super Soakers. / BB guns. All manner of false weaponry / we were barred from as boys,” Bennett explains,
because of a mother’s fear, her suspicion
that the rules of a given game might shift
& gunfire would be our only warning,
the policeman’s voice an aftershock, his first mouth
having already made its claim. Even now, no one
among us calls this a kind of theft, which is to say,
the term never launches like a hex from our tongues,
but even if it did, somehow, rise & alight the air, if everything
we missed during the years we grew tired trying not to die
found its own body right then, right there in the center
of campus, what difference could it make now
that we have already mastered the rule book, the protocol [. . .]
Here and elsewhere, Owed takes account of the severe toll levied—by state-sponsored violence, by the unjust administration of Black life—on survivors no less than victims. Though Bennett documents this toll as it manifests in his speaker’s immediate experience, he draws on the shared experiences of millions of other Black Americans, including, as he makes clear, those writers of color to which Owed owes.
Indeed, Owed situates itself within a storied tradition of identity-based life studies, one which reaches back to Lorde and her contemporaries but which also vitalizes the present moment in U.S. poetry. If Bennett’s writing is most clearly indebted to poets like Terrance Hayes and Gregory Pardlo, however, that debt at times registers in a reliance on recognizable tropes and expected frameworks. In Owed, for instance, one finds black objects sensualized—“my first pair were blacker even / than my nascent curls,” Bennett writes in “Owed to Long Johns”—while white objects stand in for systemic oppression in various forms, as when, in “Summer Job,” Bennett’s speaker rolls on “another / coat of white paint to cafeteria walls without irony.” In Owed one finds the microaggressions that continue to delimit Black life recounted in somewhat familiar tonal shifts, including between comic and academic modes. “[A] long lost colleague / at Princeton […] once reached wide-eyed / for my high-top fade,” Bennett writes in “Owed to the Durag”, “before a swift rebuke, / marked by my striking his wrist as if some large / though distinctly nonlethal mosquito, surely a top six / proudest moment of anticolonial choreography.” That Owed sometimes rests on such well-trafficked techniques testifies, of course, to the fact that the social conditions which gave rise to those techniques remain all too solidly entrenched; no doubt Black writers would, like Bartleby, prefer not to rework time and again the same culture-wide injustices to which they have been subject. And one might, of course, read Bennett’s arch tone—to say nothing of a phrase like “without irony”—as winking acknowledgement of his own, perhaps necessary, reliance on those writers and forms that precede him.
Bennett is at his most original, though, when he adapts yet transforms this kind of writing, as when he converts the elegy for a murdered friend—another lamentably familiar narrative—into something with the force of a contemporary epic. In “The Book of Mycah,” Bennett elevates into myth the life of a neighborhood athlete gunned down when “the boys in blue sprang, a spray of navy fléchettes.” As Bennett narrates in striking prose, “we stared at our champion felled by an outcome so common we don’t even have a special name for it. [. . .] They shot Mycah Dudley, quite legally. He died that night. He rose.”
Evocative of “Lycidas,” the poem demonstrates the devastating social critique which flashes, blade-like, throughout Bennett’s writing. These are intimate personal narratives, but they also unfold as part of an expository, rhetorically-driven poetics invested in yoking personal experience to public argument. As Bennett shuttles between these modes, he occupies a tactically mobile point-of-view capable equally of parodying, pitying, and proclaiming its own interiority—in Owed, that is, Bennett appraises the self from multiple angles, turning it in the light as it refracts the world beyond. “I have given myself over to the particular fixations of my age,” Bennett describes in the poem “Plural,” “ducking / sleep, day-drinking / with my internet / friends, three or four / Instagram self-portraits [. . .] I’m learning how to participate / in the world.” Throughout this collection, Bennett reminds us why, for Black Americans, this participation needs to be learned in the first place, why life needs to be “studied” if it is to be lived in all of its fullness, and why Black life writ large deserves more complex and generous attention. An urgent and important sophomore effort, Bennett’s Owed constitutes just such scrupulous study.
While Bennett situates the self within broader social and cultural frameworks, Matt Morton’s Improvisation Without Accompaniment examines, as its title indicates, how one improvises a coherent identity once those frameworks fall away. “Then / and there I made myself,” Morton writes in the poem “And the Mountains Grew Sirens,” about a grandmother’s funeral, “all the streaming-in light / stained by paint on the glass.”
And the snow
erased the Indian paintbrushes and the birds
went with her, the field where
no one walked, all a rushing, like bats,
the storm of her going.
As the stability provided by the outside world “rushes” away from him, Morton’s speaker is left solitary, possessed only of interior resources on which to draw. And these rushings away are many in this collection, as Morton’s speaker loses not only family members but his Christian faith as well as his sense of place and cultural identity. In this way, Improvisation Without Accompaniment closely resembles Life Studies itself, in which Lowell endeavors to reconstruct a unified self absent both religious conviction and historical certainty.
Winner of the 2018 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, Morton’s debut stands apart from many other first books in both its formal dynamism and the sharpness of its intellect. This is a book driven by ideas—or rather, by various meditations on the single idea of self-improvisation. If Morton’s pursuit of this idea becomes by the end a bit overly insistent, his ability to yoke the subject matter of Improvisations to its formal procedures bespeaks his command and maturity as a writer. Rendered in highly dissociative, statement-driven language—think John Koethe meets Dean Young, who blurbs the book—Morton’s poems “improvise” from line to line, their disjunction enacting formally the speaker’s own dissociation from stabilizing systems of meaning. In Morton’s work, as in Young’s and their shared modernist predecessors, one sentence or image is disconnected from another so that aesthetic form stands in for psychological and spiritual incoherence. As he cycles through these improvisations, moreover, Morton layers his work with outtakes, alternate versions, selective memories, and self-revisions suggestive of the continual making and remaking of self—the study and revision of a life. “[O]f course, there were no Chinese lanterns,” Morton writes in one poem, with my own emphasis added. “I do not know if it was me // who found you struggling in the water [. . .]”
Within these fragmentary texts, the conclusions of poems often function as codices that help make sense of what comes before. In “Not the Wind, Not the View,” Morton ends by explaining that “I’m not sure what, but something / is long overdue. Do you understand / what it is I am saying? Somewhere / in America my father is dying and I am / sitting here, listening to the radio.” That the poems in Improvisation require such eleventh-hour glosses suggests that too often they remain opaque, hermetically sealed in private systems of reference; to answer Morton’s own question, one frequently does not understand what he is saying. But where Improvisation really hums are those poems that dole out just enough breadcrumbs, that offer just enough signposting of thought that we can enjoy the gamboling and pirouetting of Morton’s language while still tracking its argument. In these moments, Morton resembles the Joyce of Finnegans Wake or the Stein of How to Write, the latter of whom advised audiences to read through a magnifying glass in order to focus on one word at a time, opening oneself thereby to the spontaneous improvisations of sound and syntax. Thus, in the poem “Landscape,” Morton writes that “I have, in the highlands, mined / that it is good to begin slate-blank each day / anew—to leaping wake with a start and count / one’s crooked blessings.” And the poem “Wintering” recalls nothing so much as the washerwomen of Joyce’s “Anna Livia Plurabelle.” “Back there, far behind me? I splashed,” writes Morton.
Time was, I held a woman laughing,
happy and sunmottled all in the waves and
cresting castles moated blue around us.
Wide open, time was. Bodies ago,
till now. Now, he’s a lonely pup
who thrashes filthy, like so [. . .]
Such filthy thrashing is simply a pleasure—steeped in nostalgia while avoiding sentiment, sonically playful but semantically sound. While one will hardly track every turn in this and many other poems in the collection—nor catch every vaguely insinuated childhood trauma, nor interpret every surrealistically reproduced dream—Improvisation is an impressive debut which renders coherent, even affecting, the incoherence and instability of self.
Yet the notion of selfhood advanced in Improvisation is not entirely unstable. For Morton, there exists a kind of kairotic or fortuitous moment within which, if one studies a life closely enough, one might live up to the potential of self and of history. “For each moment, you are given exactly one chance,” Morton explains, “it is irrevocable, that is where the pressure comes from.” In the absence of external frameworks such as religion and family, one’s life becomes a sequence of “moments” or “improvisations” shored against ruin. This line of thinking is brilliantly pursued in “Self-Portrait as Oswald’s Ghost Addressing the Warren Commission,” the strongest poem in the collection and the only dramatic monologue. As he attempts to account for his actions, Oswald’s testimony opens onto existential reckoning, his fear expertly reproduced in Morton’s tonal and syntactic mastery. “Well first of all for the record I was a boy,” Morton writes,
I rode the trains underground with my face
pressed against the front car window and I could
not have been closer without falling into it
the darkness in front of all the people watching
from the platform which is to say we were racing
past faster always [. . .]
It is a horrifying image, and one which launches Oswald into an increasingly manic logic, as he pleads that “I am a veteran do not / forget it I have been to Japan and Moscow” and that his life “wasn’t mine at all / but a series of events which from the start had the / name Lee [. . .] .” By the end, Morton brings Oswald around to those questions of self—and of self-sufficiency—so integral to Improvisations as a whole. “[T]o me your question / then has implications going beyond what / you are asking,” the poem concludes,
because what is one man really
when all of my life was this question asking
itself over again which was is there someone
helping me do these things I was and me hoping
certain history was something a man could become
though all the time afraid I was acting alone.
One feels in this passage the immediacy of Oswald’s fear, here treated in such a way that it figures in miniature the larger dread behind the collection as a whole. In the manner of Patricia Smith, who selected Improvisation for the Poulin Prize, Morton renders sympathetic one of the most notorious figures in U.S. history, studying one life through another, oneself through one self.
For the terror evoked in the figure of Oswald is the terror at the heart of all life, Morton suggests, an emptiness within which we improvise as best we can, from line to line, from moment to moment. “The challenge,” Morton writes, “is to open oneself / to uncertainty.” In Improvisation Without Accompaniment, Morton boldly takes up that challenge.
If Morton reconstructs a poetic self unmoored, like Lowell’s, from stabilizing religious and cultural scaffolding, in Year of the Dog Deborah Paredez refocuses the life study on precisely those historical contexts that shape and inform, if not stabilize, her speaker’s coming-of-age. Like a camera refocusing between figure and ground, Year of the Dog throws into vertiginous interrelation what Lowell called “life” and “landscape,” reading less like poetic autobiography than historical documentary—but retaining, for all that, the intimacy and dynamism that characterize the life study as a mode. Organized around her Mexican-American father’s deployment in the Vietnam War, where he served as part of the 56th Dental Detachment operating out of Phu Bai Dental Clinic, the collection focuses especially on the dramatic upheavals that wracked the United States in 1970, the year of the poet’s birth. As part of this retrospective project, Paredez integrates iconic photographs from some of the era’s most horrifying atrocities, among them John Filo’s portrait of Mary Ann Vechhio at Kent State University and Nick Ut’s photograph—known by its devastating shorthand, “Napalm Girl”—of young Phan Thi Kim Phúc fleeing a South Vietnamese napalm attack. Though the collection incorporates a wide range of documentary material—from pop songs to police reports to press conferences—it is photography that supplies Paredez her animating metaphor, as Year of the Dog meditates powerfully on the “aperture” that is personal and historical memory. What can we see, Paredez asks, in looking back on our individual and collective pasts? What remains irretrievably hidden from us? What develops?
In considering these questions, Paredez devotes much of Year of the Dog to marginalized women who disproportionately bear the burden of historical violence. The figure of Hecuba, appropriately, recurs like a presiding spirit, invoked as she is from Homer to Hamlet as an archetypal image of female suffering; Hecuba’s mourning for the deaths of her husband Priam and son Hector, Paredez suggests, figures mythically the all-too contemporary experiences of women abandoned, erased, and impaired within broader systems of injustice. “When the baby starts / to descend,” Paredez writes, in what serves as a kind of thesis for the collection, “it’s called / lightening though / it feels like a weight you cannot bear.” This attention to female suffering allows Year of the Dog to shuttle adroitly between its titular time-frame and present-day forms of oppression, exposing, as Paredez does, the trans-historical logic of systemic—and especially gendered and racial—violence. The poem “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” for instance, brilliantly employs the chiasmus form to link the experiences of Deborah Johnson (wife of murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton) and Esaw Garner, the wife of Eric Garner. “He’s good. And dead,” Paredez writes in the quasi-dramatic monologue.
a fly-swarm circling the carcass.
Then: another round.
Blind light and ricochet
of bullets obliterating blackness.
Again a parade, star-strangled procession.
Year of the Dog is at its most powerful—intellectually keen, emotionally rich—when, as here, Paredez makes clear the rhetorical and historical logic that binds seemingly disparate experiences. When these connections aren’t present, or when they fail to convince, the collection risks collapsing distinct traumas into an overly reductive historical narrative, as when World War I trench warfare is uncritically juxtaposed with the Cu Chi and other tunnel systems used by the Viet Cong. No doubt there exist affinities among Vietnam War protests, the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and present-day active-shooter drills, all of which Paredez discusses; but in the absence of a rhetorical framework that clarifies these affinities, some poems read like poetic set-pieces, Year of the Dog like a greatest hits of American oppression.
What ultimately rescues the book from reductiveness is the personal, the “life” at the center of Paredez’s “study.” From a skilled opening sequence about the speaker’s childhood to intimate portraits, in the book’s closing section, of her parents’ marriage and of her own daughter, Year of the Dog places its speaker not at the center but at the luminous periphery of its historical landscape. The poem “Last,” for instance, expertly braids the personal and the public, evoking mythic resonances in its meditation on the evacuation of South Vietnam. “The last Huey is lifting off / that Saigon rooftop,” Paredez begins the poem, describing a
broken line of families, dark
hair aloft in the blades’
wake, and our relay
team is finishing last
at the annual track meet—
girls angled in staggered
lines, bodies half-turned
back towards the ones
Here Paredez boldly risks a potentially inelegant metaphor—a relay race is not, after all, a life and death scenario—not simply for its striking juxtaposition, but to mark her speaker’s own distance and difference from the more consequential history she observes. Thus, the poem concludes:
on that roof and no other
chopper will land—hours
like years, climbing
down, backs against
the emptied sky, ochre clouds
of track dust kicking up and
settling. We run. We finish
last, we meet each
others’ waiting hands.
That closing image, an almost photographic zooming-in on the girls’ clasped hands—the negative of which is the never-to-be-clasped hands of Saigon evacuees and rescuers—dramatically personalizes the history with which Paredez works.
And these hands recur throughout Year of the Dog, synecdochal cipher for the more brutal dismemberments on which the book often meditates. The poem “A Show of Hands” recycles cliché in order to show how American language both refracts and enacts larger violences. “[M]y father taught me never to show / my hand,” Paredez opens,
always play the hand
you’re dealt don’t
bite the hand that feeds you gotta
hand it to him he lived
his life hand to mouth
even before ‘Nam he knew
close only counts in
hand grenades [. . .]
In similar fashion, Paredez manipulates iconic historical photographs so that historiography itself—those processes by which we remember, record, and revise the past—seems simultaneously a recuperative and ruinous endeavor. Filo’s photograph of Vecchio, for instance, becomes three cropped images of the latter’s hand, mouth, and arm, all overlaid with Ovid’s description of Hecuba in the Metamorphoses: “[a]s her open mouth shaped itself for words, trying to speak, she barked.” While Paredez’s similar treatment of Kim Phúc’s body might be a bit tactless, her point, as I take it, is that the forms through which we access our individual and shared histories remain partial—in both senses of that term.
It is an important lesson to remember, and one which Year of the Dog renders with arresting immediacy. Influenced by recent personal and historical documentaries from Martha Collins, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Henk Rossouw, and Solmaz Sharif, among others, Paredez’s life study treats the self as what I’ve called a photographic negative, framing its speaker as a sort of absent presence in the midst of—or, more accurately, at the margins of—a broader historical landscape. But in Paredez’s hands, history is more than mere background. It actively forms and focuses those who move through it, ensuring that, as we too move through this collection, we are reminded of both the peril and potential in the histories we live. “[E]very crossing is a tomb and a tune,” Peredez writes of these histories, “a wolf-wail and the moon that turns me.”
Though none of these writers invoke Lowell explicitly, and though only Paredez immediately frames her writing as a form of life study, each carries forward the sense of frank introspection and self-scrutiny that made Life Studies a landmark contribution to 20th-century American poetry.
Just as that book situates Lowell’s psychological and spiritual lassitude within the decline of family, culture, and caste, so too do these new collections, when at their keenest, trace with courage and conviction those lines of influence that tether exterior and interior worlds. I’ve shown, I think, that Bennett’s work turns primarily outward while Morton’s gazes inward, with Paredez, in turn, reaching back to reveal how self and society, life and landscape mutually inform one another.
“Cerberus-like,” I called this tri-directional vision.
It is also Orphic, the fundamental gesture of all poetry—we look inward and then outward, backward and then forward, to the future. These poets refuse to divorce that future from the past, reminding us that futurity itself is, as it always has been, a tentative and provisional thing, ever improvised, ever at stake.
Christopher Kempf is the author of What Though the Field Be Lost (LSU, 2021) and Late in the Empire of Men (Four Way, 2017). He teaches at the University of Illinois.