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Published: Tue Aug 8 2023
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In Discussion: AGNI 96 Reviews AGNI 96

The first-ever AGNI reviews folio marked a celebratory occasion—our fiftieth anniversary, a joyous thumbprint on the calendar of our literary community. But as I write the introduction to the AGNI 96 reviews folio, I am in a different mood. One of our community’s treasured literary voices, Victoria Amelina, was killed by a Russian missile in Kramatorsk, Ukraine on July 1, 2023.

I never met Victoria, but I mourn her, and the grief-ripples that her death has cast through our editorial team have reminded me of the vital importance of uniting writers through conversation—ones like the conversation our founding editor, Askold Melnyczuk, had with Victoria in May of 2022. We cultivate community in order to discuss the work we’ve loved to write, edit, or read—and that community is who we turn to when we celebrate, or mourn.

This edition of the folio contains three essays that have helped me process this dark moment. George Estreich says in his review of Jessie Van Eerden’s essay: “The best writing crosses a gap”—whether one of distance across a political border or one between two people at a restaurant. Of the gap on my mind of late—that between the alive world and the no-longer—Monika Cassel writes of poems by Hannah Baker Saltmarsh and Mark Irwin: “Like our hands, these poems’ nets grip briefly, then let go.”

And to where are we released? I am left thinking of the opening to Ellen Wiese’s review of Daniela Danz’s poem, translated for AGNI 96 by Cassel: “On the edge of a primeval forest, you dreamt about the end of the world.”—Rachel Mennies, AGNI Reviews Editor

  
The authors below:

  
George Estreich on “Answer When You’re Called” by Jessie van Eerden 

In Jessie van Eerden’s essay “Answer When You’re Called,” a narrative of a kayaking trip down the Chattooga River becomes the throughline for a spiritually inflected meditation on naming. Along with her (unnamed) partner, Van Eerden glides down the river “on her knees,” naming trees and quoting writers, writing notes at each campsite, all the while remembering that the river precedes names, that it once “wasn’t called anything at all.” The trip could stand for the essay itself—a wandering with direction, with pauses to look around—and the reader’s pleasure is in the current’s varying pace, in the discoveries around the bend of a paragraph.

Reading van Eerden’s essay, I paused often: on “the kingfisher’s rattle call, like an engine turning over,” on a remembered visit to the West Virginia town where the writer grew up, on her affecting portrait of new love in midlife. For reasons of my own, though, I stopped the longest at a quotation from a poem that van Eerden braided into a paragraph:

“Give me the names for things, just give me their real names, /”—from Charles Wright’s poem “The Writing Life”—“Not what we call them, but what / They call themselves when no one’s listening.”

Reading those lines, I saw something glinting in the essay’s depths. I’d taken poetry workshops with Charles decades ago, as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. I showed up each week at his office hours like a visitor to a fortuneteller, hoping to be told that the typed lines I brought with me were or might be a poem, and that I, therefore, was or might become a poet.

It’s been years since I wrote a poem, and van Eerden’s essay is about her life, not mine. But as Wendy Lesser writes in Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, some reading experiences are shared and some are purely personal, and separating them is neither desirable nor practical. So beyond these purely personal reactions, or because of them, I began thinking about “poetic” moves in prose, specifically about van Eerden’s use of poetic techniques to structure her essay.

To describe prose as “poetic” is to suggest the presence of qualities conventionally associated with poetry: descriptive richness, density of figurative language, overt attention to sound, and so on. Though van Eerden’s essay has all this in abundance, these qualities don’t “belong” to poetry any more than to fiction or nonfiction. Her essay does, however, deploy a distinctively poetic device: the first line of each section repeats a word or phrase from the preceding one. It’s a move borrowed from poetic forms sometimes called “obsessive,” like pantoums or villanelles:

because of course if you go back far enough, the Chattooga wasn’t called anything at all as it swelled and splashed over smoother and smoother stones. Just as richly itself then, as a nameless river.

Once “nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays.” So opens George Stewart’s 1945 book Names on the Land . . .

Late in the essay, van Eerden gestures toward her chosen form: “You see, I am making a paper chain, each link moving us toward namelessness.” In other words, only “namelessness” can make names legible and meaningful. Naming the world has to be done with care and humility, and with an understanding that each place existed before we named it—“nameless rivers flowing into nameless bays”—and that the river’s present names will fade like past ones, just as the river’s stones will be worn down, smoothed by the current. (Namelessness, in van Eerden’s essay, is associated with deep time—both geological and divine.)

Van Eerden’s formal move occurs at section breaks, embodying the idea of continuity across a gap. That’s relevant to the essay’s situation: van Eerden is traveling with a poet, identified only as “my love,” in the wake of both of their divorces. So naming, in the essay, is about more than rivers and trees; it’s also about bridging the gaps between people:

A few nights before we left them with their mother, his daughter asked me in the lamplight, “Will we have to call you Mama if you and Papa get married?” “No,” I said, “you have a mama. You can call me by my name.” But my answer didn’t feel right, and as we drive the five and a half hours southwest to the Chattooga, the question stays with me.

The best writing, like Van Eerden’s, crosses a gap. It resonates with readers whose lives and assumptions may differ from the author’s. But as her experiment implies—with its white space crossed by repetition—Van Eerden’s essay is also about gaps, as well as the words that echo across them: the space between lovers, between believer and God, between observer and nature, between writer and reader, between our past and present selves. In a way, she is calling attention to the essay’s negative space: the silence into which one speaks, the silence of the nameless, without which names have no meaning. I don’t consider myself religious, and I had to ask my (raised Catholic) wife about Van Eerden’s engagement with the figure of Mary Magdalene, yet the essay resonated for me. It erased, if briefly, the gap between writer and reader.

Perhaps, then, the title “Answer When You’re Called” can be understood in the imperative. It crystallizes and complicates the essay’s main preoccupation with naming, as a crystal complicates the light: it suggests the writer answering the call of the visible world (because writing is, after all, a calling); it has religious overtones (van Eerden meditates on Jacob wrestling the angel as well as on Mary Magdalene); and it can be read as an address to the reader, a request or command to answer the essay’s call.

I live in western Oregon, in a town on the Willamette River. Often I’ll put in just north of downtown in a solo kayak, to float a few hours to Albany or beyond. It’s a different river from the Chattooga, in a different place—wider, slower, and less wild, part of a far different ecosystem. There are eagles and ospreys overhead as I paddle past golf courses and irrigation pumps and tangles of blackberry. It’s different from van Eerden’s Chattooga, as my life is different from hers. But I recognize the accuracy of her take on the rhythms of a float—the heightened attention, the fade of the everyday, the presence of a different and almost-holy quotidian—and in her version of her own purposeful drift I see an analogy for reading itself. It feels, almost, outside time. It is, paradoxically, a removal from the world, and a deeper engagement with it. You launch into the current, you float for a while, you take out somewhere else—and you are, because of the experience, changed.

  
Monika Cassel on “Little Theories of a Fly Ball” by Hannah Baker Saltmarsh and “Vertigo” by Mark Irwin

Every day, I walk to a nearby park to play ball with my dog, who starts racing even before I’ve drawn my arm back for the throw. She usually catches on the rebound with a big leap in the air. My eyes follow the parabola that the ball traces as Zamia crosses the muddy field, intent and joyous. I think about parabolas, about rising and falling, as I watch those arcs every morning. I think about earth and air and, because the dog is young but it hasn’t been that long since I had to say goodbye to the last one, about life and death.

I think, too, of physics: of the models for traveling projectiles that my late brother wrote software for, early in his career, simple graphics by today’s standards but back then a revelation. With his program, you could adjust the pitch or force of a ball and watch the different paths it traced—a ghost of what would happen in the real world: the fly ball itself, the bat, the air, the bleachers, contact, liberation, connection.

Balls follow the laws of physics but can still be unpredictable, as we can be when handling them. I was never great at ball sports. Zamia’s practical interest in physics and the chase is constantly at war with her desire for the certainty of holding (and keeping) the ball in her mouth, or of playing keep-away. Half the time she comes back and lies at my feet, with the ball firmly lodged in her jaw: it is not always returned for the next throw.

Hannah Baker Saltmarsh’s “Little Theories of a Fly Ball” and Mark Irwin’s “Vertigo” work out an ars poetica in part by mapping perspectives and relationships: How do I love thee; how do I see thee? Both poems count the many ways, exploring the limitations of language, establishing and questioning patterns. Both turn swiftly midstream to orient us toward loss, poetry’s frequent destination.

In “Vertigo,” we encounter a cow running to the edge of the property as her calf is taken and a child grieving a dead mother. Irwin presents us with these two scenes nested among dizzying shifts in scale: we observe cell division at life’s beginning, ants and wasps in crowds or in their homes, fish migrating in schools, hollowed-out human cities, the mob at the Capitol, soldiers at war. The mother losing her calf shows us the nexus between language and loss. Her bellowing is a “new frontier of language”; it isn’t articulate, but we certainly understand it.

“Little Theories” throws us a curveball midway: the speaker addresses John Berryman directly, and we now know for certain that language-as-poetry is part of this particular ballgame. We greet the lost ball, the lost father, Toni Morrison’s lost son, the speaker’s concern for her children even as she sees them scrabbling for the ball, then at the end Marianne Moore at night in bed, listening to her mother’s breathing. The speaker takes issue with Berryman: “you were wrong to tell the boy in your poem he’d never have his ball back,” she says, but adds, compassionately, “The boy is you, John, losing a father / the same way you’d later undo yourself, the ball you threw away.”

The poet-speaker is in conversation with herself, too, as parent, as child, and as co-parent, with Berryman, Morrison, and Moore themselves as parents or children—paying attention to (watching, listening for) their losses, or turning away from them. She summons the responsibility we have for one another that we’d rather ignore because of our own hurts: “Maybe you’re the fan who surrendered the ball: you die inside, thinking, / But I was that kid too, and I never got one.” “One” here, of course, stands for everything: the world of our desires and disappointments.

As in “Little Theories,” the speaker of “Vertigo” is interested in patterns, in this case the correspondences between different scales: cells to ants to humans to ecosystems and back again. Here, falling off “an invisible ladder” represents an end because the “draining of color” is gentle, a “floating down.” And grief is generative: with an anaphoric “thus,” a mother cow, her doomed offspring, and a child grieving its mother lead to lines in which the speaker unveils his ars poetica: “I sensed the way words can become / a net of being: morning—the brook trout’s leap carrying all the luck of light, / its brief tattoo on the lake.” Is the brook trout also a fly ball? Are the morning/mourning and that gorgeous “brief tattoo on the lake” our languages, our names “writ in water”? As Saltmarsh also does, Irwin identifies a gap between language and what it names, between love and loss, but shows too that words’ “net of being,” though porous, is a point of contact.

This weekend, my younger daughter scrolled through old photos to find a baby picture for her senior yearbook. Reading Saltmarsh’s “maple-leaved fingers,” I was reminded of my children’s hands when they didn’t yet know how to grasp or hold (and didn’t yet need to), how they reminded me of starfish. Vertigo: my children are twenty and seventeen now, arcing away from me.

Whatever or whoever the ball is, we don’t always get it back, and if we do—as my dog could stand to learn—the best next step is to put it in motion again, to pursue the curves and brief tattoos of its flight. Our starfish-hands were made for holding, and releasing. Like our hands, these poems’ nets grip briefly, then let go.

  
Ellen Wiese on “You traveled to the end of the world” by Daniela Danz, translated from German by Monika Cassel

On the edge of a primeval forest, you dreamt about the end of the world. You, the second-person subject of the poem, traveled to a village on the cusp of the wilderness and slept while mountains receded, blackberry vines rose, and the village held counsel. Then:

in your sleep you saw the forest draw up and heard it whisper,
the house you are sleeping in will fall away

It is at this point that you mostly disappear for the rest of the poem. From that singular comma onwards, Daniela Danz uses text and tense to render the voice of nature.

Danz’s poem “You traveled to the end of the world,” translated beautifully from the German by Monika Cassel, brings us into a world of vanishing human structures. First, the house in which you sleep falls away, and then the houses of Family, Community, and Waiting; so too the economy, the church, and “the house on the margins / that never belonged.” The poem jumps from mythical to mundane, granular to universal, covering expanses of time so subtly that a reader might miss it. The voice of nature takes us through future, present, and past; it insists that the unfolding events are still to come, happening as we watch, and long since finished. We have left behind the time of roadkill frogs, but the garages have yet to fall away, and a man still dozes at the wheel. In the midst of all of it, the poem tells us, “now it has grown cooler in the shade / of the forest that is closing in.”

Floating in that triplicate tense of prophecy, the poem has no stanza breaks and is almost without punctuation, with the notable exception of the comma that introduces the forest’s voice. Danz plays with borderlessness to engage the reader in their human instinct to impose order on chaos. She writes:

the priest struggles with the clasps on the holy scriptures
which never actually worked that well

and, consciously or not, the reader chooses which they believe worked badly—the clasps, or the scriptures. In an effort to make sense, we reconstruct the corners and walls of language even as we are told how the houses fall away. In its final lines, the poem brings back the second-person dreamer:

Shirley Temple’s body will fall away
and your body
and the body of whoever reads this
or will have read it or is in the family of someone
who once read it back when the forest closed in
and reclaimed the village you’d traveled to
in order to see the wilderness

The second-person tense necessarily centers you in a poem that hinges on the erasure of you. The poem is personal in the way it names and turns the reader. Our present moment is an unsettling time to consider wilderness; the end of the world often feels just outside the windows. To the reader—the occupier of a body that too will fall away—the poem’s history-beyond-history, its story of vanishing and relics, provides a sense of comfort in that destruction. It presents a vastness too big to understand, and in a context in which human understanding is inconsequential, and yet, as the reader I am able to participate, in a small way, in that understanding.

In Danz’s poem, wilderness is a concept constructed by humans—even in their absence. This is no human dream of an apocalypse, but rather the translated perspective of a world beyond “the knowledge of history and certainty.” The tools we use to make sense of existence, to group and build and border, are only passing inventions.

In its mind-bending communication of the incommunicable, Danz’s poem gets us as close as we can come to comprehending something outside of sense. She leaves us with the falling, the prophecy, and a question: How do we understand the language of something beyond our understanding?

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