On Kizer: “The Substance of Song”

In the coming weeks, we will publish a series of tributes to Poetry Northwest founding editor, Carolyn Kizer.  We’ll post additional material throughout the spring: for additional features in the series, please visit here.  We are very pleased to open with an appreciation by Katrina Roberts of Kizer’s hard, sweet music.

I’ve long been struck by the final gesture in Carolyn Kizer’s poem “Lines to Accompany Flowers for Eve,” addressed to one who’s tried to take her own life: “No Way of knowing its strength, or your own, / Until you lie quite still, your perfect limbs / In meditation: the spirit rouses, flutters / Like a handkerchief at a cell window, signaling, / Self-amazed, its willingness to endure.” We’ve recently lost important poets—great women—to suicide. Their tragedy reminds us the world is hard, indeed, and unfair to so many women in countless ways. And also that an individual life, even one apparently lovely, is simply inscrutable. I’m buoyed at least by the sustaining insights these poets have left in their stunning, tumultuous wakes.

Kizer has long said what she wants in a language that defies convention and expectation. She knows endurance. Admittedly, I’m drawn to poems of hers that speak not directly about gender politics, rather about that age-old mind-body question… but that’s my own leaning: how spirit inhabits the meat-world; what of an ever-after? Bearing children has heightened such questions for me, deepened each vantage; I’m grateful for anyone’s translation of the quotidian into the miraculous. There’s such savageness around the globe, endless hardships of body and mind the human spirit must wake to and withstand— experiences staggering to contemplate, yet made real by those who write some semblance of them into existence for the rest of us. Kizer has always looked unflinchingly at the hard cold facts of the world as it is, even as she pushes it towards that sweet music it might become.

Similarly, I appreciate Kizer’s work in linguistic translation (from the Chinese, Yiddish, Macedonian, Urdu, etc.) and how her engagement in this enterprise prompts her expansive voice to find resonant corridors in the echo of the ghazal, for instance, appropriated for her poem “Shalimar Gardens.” One of poetry’s great pleasures is precisely the power of an individual formal choice to underscore complex intention—how idea and gut sense can inhabit and construct (through provocative syntax) the fascinating rooms (stanzas) of a poem’s architectural (and visual) argument. Listen to the satisfying sonic transitivity of its opening three couplets:

In the garden of earth a square of water;
In the garden of waters a spirit stone.

Here music rises: Barbelo! Barbelo!
Marble pavilions border the water.

Marble petals of lotus bevel
The edge of the pool.

The lilting anapestic/iambic climbing in the first couplet draws me, then gives way to the torque of trochaic/dactylic falling meters at odds with the word “rises” in the next few lines (underscoring that divide between a body’s gravity and ethereal music), and then returns, up-swinging, to offer aural resolution as all aligns along the pool’s edge. I like the concision here, the measured eye, the mind’s cartographer charting (in reined lines) the geometrically stunning space of terraces, basins, pathways; and the simple way Kizer invokes a notion of substance and ornamentation—fretwork and fruit trees, sheen of pale polished stone, plashing of hundreds of fountains—out of which inspiration ascends in song.

More descending in the penultimate couplet seems apt, as do consonant pairings: “Here spirit is married to matter. / We are the holy hunger of matter for form,” before the poet, recalling the traditional maqta, summons herself (with the takhallis): “Kizer, you…” and, in a striking reversal (rather than sculptor carving rough rock to release the spirit within)—claims (dramatically) instead to “Enter into the dark world forever / To die again, into the living stone.” Here is the poet’s own death—albeit (and thankfully!) in a world made only of words—translated into eternal reincarnation through that which is most elemental.

My mind spins within my skull; I’m grateful to Kizer for her provocation, for her willingness to affix the laser beam of her eye to that which is directly before her, as a record of her singular perspective in our shared world, and for the sustained lamentation and communiqué of her song.

Katrina Roberts has published four books of poems: Underdog; Friendly Fire; The Quick; and How Late Desire Looks. She is the Mina Schwabacher Professor in English & the Humanities at Whitman College. Her work appears in places such as The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Poetry, and The Bread Loaf Anthology of New American Poets.  She and her husband, Jeremy Barker, founded Tytonidae Cellars and the Walla Walla Distilling Company in southeast Washington State, where they live on a small farm with their three young children.

If you’d like to con/tribute – the remembrance of an encounter with Kizer or her work, a close reading of  a poem, a letter to the editor, etc. – please write us at:, with the subject line “Kizer tribute.”