Beyond the unfamiliar word and the statistically-improbable phrase, sonorous line and shapely stanza, endearing argument, compelling personality and all the other ideology-soggy but nevertheless real markers of competence, there is another order of pleasures of poetry: Taking stock of the writer’s project, how they understand the world, what they’ve accomplished and whether the author’s hours and ours were spent well. The history of criticism oscillates between the poles — no, not Norwid and Milosz — of an absolute standard toward which all writing can only aspire (call it Shakespeare) and a faith in the value of individual experience, when both extreme and fully realized (call it Ishmael). This oscillation has something to do with what used to be called historical forces of action and reaction. Lately, when it’s examined at all, criticism is seen as a sort of habitus buyer’s guide, a pointer toward a temperate zone of the mind. At best, this criticism is a Goldilocks affair of looking for the just right in a hunting lodge full of chairs and beds too big and too small.
In her first collection, Elizabeth Bradfield cares equally about finding the middle way and about describing her experience as she finds it, a naturalist in a polluted world, a lesbian, a poet. None of these categories is what I’d call secure, exactly, so I understand her impulse to play to genre expectations while gently informing us that the reporters of the science section are not simply imagining the freaky shit that someday body-modders will use to claim their fifteen minutes on Boing Boing:
Hormonally imbalanced females of all deer species
have been known to grow antlers.
This is what I choose. Periosteum rampant on my brow
and testosterone to activate it at the pedicle.
Although writing is not communication I want to have some idea what’s going on. This is different from wanting to be told what I already know. Interpretive Work is Bradfield’s first book, and content-telegraphing titles such as “Fireflies First Seen at Age Thirty” and “No More Nature” indicate to me that she’s a little bristly about what’s expected from her. I personally could give a rat’s ass about what’s expected of other people, and I usually have a hard time getting past that self-consciousness when it turns up in the work of a new writer. Not so with Bradfield. But since this is a knives-out time, I will begin my praise of her project and its more successful iterations by taking inventory of what in this book I look past:
- Go-to rhetoric. “Quick but not chemical, quick but not light.” “Not their shape, but their swing.” “Not allowed / to drink but must mingle, chat, smile.””Not just the stray sequins themselves, //scattered cosmos of glamour, but the small round punches.” “Not death then, but watchfulness.” I understand that this is a book about seeing past rigid categories, but the repeated use of the not-but construction makes it harder to have a fresh insight each time. Not a thrillingly bold response to a situation, but recourse to an evasive logic that sounds like poetry because it misdirects and fatigues the reader. There are other crutch-phrases and -phrasings (beginning sentences with This or a brief apposite) but it would be enough of a sign of restraint and forbearance were Bradfield just to let the not-but go.
- Ekphrasis. At least ten of fifty-odd poems here describe photographs, specimens, and otherwise seeking distance from experience. Again, I understand that a naturalist’s uses for scientific method are at the heart of the book. It is the health of that heart I am concerned with, and while describing describing may be an exercise, it is not aerobic.
- Threes. Of these complaints this is least fair, or rather the one I’d most likely lodge against myself as well. Bradfield has a thing for threes, and who doesn’t, but use them guardedly or find yourself in a dead end, parodied, especially if the series is at all open ended. “Of eels coiled in burrows. / Of water transforming just by its increase. / Of what the fish do to take advantage.” Of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is what comes to my mind. There are others. Threes carry force, undeniably (“deny deny deny”). Poetry is not merely gathering force, though; it also involves catching the reader unawares continuously. The subjects of Bradfield’s poems are consistently startling. Formally, she’s getting there.
Now for the good news. Bradfield’s poems are stocked full of unfamiliar words, statistically-improbable phrases, sonorous lines, shapely stanzas, endearing arguments and compelling personalities. Her recurring subjects wear much better than her recurring tropes. I am partial to her senses of incongruity, outlaw difference, and sheer perverse terror and delight in bad language, as in poems such as “Sweater for a Giant Squid” and “Cul-de-sac Linguistics,” which begins “Today, the boys call each other penis,” and ends
like kickballs on a true arc into flowerbeds
of penis tulips and pussy daffodils
that nod their heads in wild agreement
with the whorish, shit-loving lot of it.
The delight is obvious; the terror is that the boys will use this strange power of words to stigmatize the poem’s speaker and her lover. To do what Bradfield does with respect to the natural world, but without empathy. It’s a terrific poem. So too is “Concerning the Proper Term for a Whale Exhaling,” which begins “Poof my mother sighs.” Bradfield reads her sexuality in the testing questions of neighbors, administrators, and tourists the way other poets… well, no. Actually, most other poets don’t persist in a personal mission this variously.
Bradfield writes her sense of self as dynamic lovable other into the flora and fauna she and her girlfriend encounter in their work as nature guides. Neither simply identity poetry nor nature writing but a raucous, tender hybrid, her poems actually scrape through the documentaries and cartoons to achieve real empathy for, say, a manatee:
Here is what it senses: the grass is sweet,
the canal’s currents slow.
A ways off, another manatee skrills:
sweet grass, still waters, warmth.
Embodied, gestural feelings, the very gold of reading, keep coming through. Having worked as a whale-watch guide, she comes back again and again to the rise and fall:
Quick on the bow wave’s push, they rise
(though rise is not the right word for that thrust)
and we lean over the gunwale, lower our faces
to quick breaths shearing the water, position our gaze
so when one rolls, offering an eye, we meet it. Joy. Even
with all I know of apnea and thermoregulation,
of range and distribution, my shove of joy muscles up.
She has a touch of that sublime regret we’ve required, since forever, for how no first experience can stay fresh forever, but she has much much more of the gift for staying alive to the variations of experience. It is the gift that makes a long career, or a satisfying love. In the absence of the well-patrolled poem-of-the-month culture we’ve been told existed once, we rely on critics to recommend writers whose sense of necessary and sufficient conditions to make them reliable about delivering the goods. We ask them to place bets. I see something in this book. I hope Bradfield continues to develop and change. Nature certainly doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and we’re going to need poets like Bradfield to keep reminding us of that, and a lot else besides.