Dear Editor: Poems
It is a pity that Amy Newman’s Dear Editor sounds like such a terrible idea, because it is in fact a smart and beautiful book, one that proves no concept, however halt in principle, is a match for someone hellbent on its execution. In this case, the idea can be summarized thus: here’s a book of epistolary prose poems, half a year’s worth of letters to the unnamed editor of an identified literary journal, that refer to a manuscript of poems that we never get to read.
The only way to do justice to this is to quote an entire letter, for which I beg your patience and Newman’s forgiveness, but you really need to see the whole of one to successfully imagine the magnified effect of a book full of them.
Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X = Pawn Capture, a lyrical study of chess that now seems to have a mind of its own. For no matter what I do, the chess games cadenced by the accompanying sighs of my grandparents pale to the desire I have to make them sound beautiful. More troublesome is that I am so taken by the emergence of the lady saints who show themselves to me at times, although to the workshop class these visitations would be foolish fancy and I should write no more of them. That is a weakness I confess only to you, in response to the promise of privacy I observe in your absolute silence.
Asking for the details of the room in which I negotiated the chessboard with my grandfather, the workshop class would prefer the Victoriana of these itemized journeys to my far-too-indistinct wanderings. That the rug beneath the sink was of braided dishtowels dampened by the unforgiving tears of my grandmother is to me incidental to the blessed hands of Catherine of Bologna outside the window as they flutter like gray exotic birds above my grandfather’s head, gesturing in a wash of light and a hum of crickets, and always accompanied by the scent of the perfume of innocence that as her miracle.
Although my grandmother would have loved to see it, when I gestured toward a similar kind of light, rising, she slapped my hand back to my red blood and my sinning body. Although she loved her saints for the ecstasies, she wouldn’t give mine the time of day. One good whack with her boned palm was enough for me and I knew when to keep my mouth shut thereafter, but if only I had been able to render them in their dimension as I saw them I might have convinced her and avoided the several afternoons of bed rest after what she perceived to as the devil in me: my utter happiness followed by weakness and, I admit, a little perspiration. I wish I had a JVC Hard Drive Camcorder 0GB Everio G Series set up but I would never have known where to direct the lens and at what shutter speed, and the light would have washed out the visions anyway. Though it is advertised as having a clear LCD monitor to cut surface reflection and glare even in bright sunlight, I don’t think it would stand up to the wash of radiance that is Therese of Lisieux as she is praying above the swirling dogwoods and my grandfather’s unperceiving body. Technology is impressive but can it contain that kind of halo and blur of contradiction? I could not convince anyone with a work of chaste white glare.
How maddening dimension is, based on expansion and contraction, distance and nearness, interval and contiguity, length and brevity, layer and filament, weight and support, the exterior and the interior, angles, curves, symmetry, distortion! And don’t get me started on the textures of the ladies, wrapped in their filmy sheers and clusters of halo. These are details I try to support with the blank unholy annoyance of a dictionary, a glum book disguised as enough language, within which I can’t find one word to describe the face of St. Anne de Beaupre, who as you know was the grandmother of Jesus Christ, when she hovers, light and elastic, by the flaking paint of the screened-in porch. Like my grandmother’s, her expression is priceless, by which I mean it says more than words. But that doesn’t work.
Thank you for your consideration, and for reading. I have enclosed an SASE, and look forward to hearing from you.
What we see as the greeting shifts just enough from letter to letter to justify the difficulty “Amy Newman” has in both writing and writing about this absent project. For example:
Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X = Pawn Capture, a lyrical study of chess I am writing as a response assignment.
Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X = Pawn Capture, a poetic exploration of my grandfather’s way of avoiding my grandmother’s outlook on life.
Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript, X = Pawn Capture, and you know all about it.
This form is relentless, especially at the start and the conclusion of each poem; Newman breaks from it only a few times, and when she does so the occasion is one of having forgotten a point in the previous letter, not to deviate from the tone. The paragraphs between these hail-and-farewell templates share persistent points of reference, but Newman recombines them to create greater diversity than their syntactically rigid frames might predict. A girl who lives with her grandparents, a grandfather who is irritable and disaffected, a grandmother whose patience for him has worn thin, the grandfather’s daily absorption in the action on his chess board, the granddaughter’s efforts to suffer through the incompetent sexual blunderings of the boys from whom she is altogether detached, the rituals of cheerleading and the protocols of creative writing workshops and the deep roster of martyrs and saints and the calendar on the wall, the days of which flip by as predictably as do the letters to the editor.
It is all cliche, all mortifying, and Newman intends it be. Form may be the way we derive order from experience, but hell is repetition, and thus the membrane between a satisfying recognition and the tedium of cliche is thin indeed. For some of these elements, Newman’s targets seem too easily struck; her narrator’s workshop peers are the lowest common readership, and her instructor seems at least as dim; the framing rhetoric of the submission letter is almost too banal to deserve satirization.
But there’s far more to Newman’s use of these than the clipping of easy targets. She is right to note that writing that lends itself to ready encapsulation—as representation requires—is poorly served by that summary, even (and perhaps especially) when the description is accurate. Apply this logic broadly, and it quickly apparent that nothing that can be condensed can preserve dignity or even interest. What is fiction? Fiction is a sequence of untrue claims. What is eating? A periodic consumption of matter from which matter is maintained. What is marriage? Another person, many days in a row.
From this perspective, the question of why one would do anything more than once becomes paramount. Any game of chess, for example, is exactly like any other game of chess, if one focuses on the persistence of the rules. Yet this is an absurd way to regard the game, because it is the multiplicity the rules allow that define the pleasure. Every game is exactly like every other game, except for the fact that no two games are identical. Similarly, one can make claims of anything that are true but not complete, accurate but imprecise. What counts as difference within similarity is Newman’s concern, and she makes as elegant a case for repetition as emotionally rich as I’ve ever read.
For example, consider her use of martyrology. The gruesome parade of Catholic saints and martyrs seems like the world’s oldest example of the collector’s fetish, whereby the slightest tweaks to a base narrative justify whole cascading ribbons of elaboration. The materials are the same: devotion, mortification, death. These materials, as well as their use: cliche. But Newman writes of them beautifully and humorously and with great specificity, relative to the granddaughter’s assessment of her circumstances:
She had imagined if she wrote out wedding invitations to her favorite saints they might show, to give a blessing. So there are somewhere yellowed invitations to Bernard of Clairvaux (whether for bees or the wax with which he is associated she never said) and her favorite, Saint Lucy, who was so pure that God granted her immobility when the Romans tried to move her to a brothel; this would have appealed to my grandmother for the obvious reasons.
From this distance and in her winter coat, I might mistake grandmother for Euphrosyne, the saint who renounced her possessions, dressed like a man, and for years instructed her own father in the spiritual life, until she revealed herself and her own father broke into blossoms and shook with truth. But above the burning and the smoke of the metal bin where your replies are smoldering is the kind and shining face of Teresa, reading the ash, and a stunning bundle of pale green petals, and many, many patterning birds. I wish you could see this.
In these one finds somewhat traditional apprehensions of religious texts and images, but because the letters are about the poems and not the poems themselves, we are likely to find lyric assessments coupled with a wistful and bizarrely specific wish for “a Motorola V620 phone with Integrated 300K camera with 4X zoom at the ready”. What I find most masterful in Dear Editor is thus the way Newman pivots from one category to another. In any given letter (most of which are no more than a page and a half in length) she turns a proximate assessment of the game of chess into an extrapolation of what her grandparents think of her and themselves, and turns that into a meditation on church iconography or adolescence or workshops or all of the above, and somehow makes all of this seem logical and inevitable and appropriate even as she concludes by thanking us for our consideration and our reading, and alerting us to the enclosed SASE and her anticipation of hearing from us. The Amy Newman who writes these letters has a firm grasp on how the form requires she begin and conclude her address, but in between she loses focus in a way that should read as awkward but is smooth, logical and persuasive.
This discrepancy—between what should be happening given the occasion of the letter and what could be happening in the poems we never get to read—is the best justification for never getting to read them. All the great strengths of this book invite the obvious question: if Newman is as capable of writing about imaginary poems to an effect at least equivalent to actual poems, why not eliminate the artifice of the form and go directly to the poems themselves? Because any poems limited to the obsessions narrated here could never be as good as Newman’s trace evidence of them. For all its droning mendacity, her workshop is likely correct. The margins are not only superior to the text; they achieve the purpose the text would seek better than he text ever could, even were it to exist (which, perhaps happily, it does not). Everyone knows someone whose descriptions outpace, in quality, intelligence and intensity, whatever they are given to describe. You wish you had seen or heard or read whatever they had, even when, in fact, you have. But one rarely encounters this gift at play when the subject is a version of the speaker herself. So I cannot imagine X = Pawn Capture is a good book, but Dear Editor, I am so glad Amy Newman wrote this one.