June 26, 2018KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingWriting


[Continued from “Pros[onn]e[t]”]


Where the title of Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Crawlspace, published by Bloof Books in 2017, pointed the reader toward the collections’s subversive sonnet form as an enactment of both interiority and marginalization, the title of Eléna Rivera’s experimental sonnet collection Scaffolding, published by Princeton University Press* in the same year, takes the architectural figure of the repeated poetic form and asks the reader to consider the process of its “building.” The collection foregrounds the process and act of writing throughout, proceeding loosely chronologically over a year (which I take to be 2008-2009), beginning with “July 14th From 80 La Salle.” I say “loosely chronologically” because, rather than tidying up the titles, Rivera further highlights the not-entirely-linear nature of even a highly constrained project like this one by including strikethroughs and parentheticals in her titles to indicate both when a poem was started and when it was “completed,” alongside dedications to particular literary influences, and even different “versions” of the same poem, reworked and appearing side by side in the book.

Rivera replaces the expected iambic pentameter line of the sonnet with another constraint – the hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable line), which makes for an interesting interplay between what the ear hears and the eye sees as somewhat “informal” lines but the mind recognizes as tightly patterned. Place – New York City, specifically – feels like another formal constraint added to the poetic equation, though the mind behind the poems moves from the city itself back into memories and out into the work of other authors (particularly those engaged in the sonnet tradition) as well.

Where the recent book-length sequences of Nikki Wallschlaeger, Anna Maria Hong, and Terrance Hayes pushed toward musicality, dense surfaces, and verbal fireworks, Eléna Rivera’s sequence strikes quieter notes. Her poems are far from soundless though; in fact, the collection begins with actual sound effects – “Dawn in the city, windows wide open – wham! / Slam! Screams! Now scaffolding confronts this hometown –” – but here, sound feels like a result of the mode of close, daily observation and reflection that propels the project, rather than a propeller itself. At the end of October, revised in March, “An autumn leaf falls tense shrieks in the hallway / mixed with laughter, sex, saxophone, flute playing”; “All beauty is an instance of attention,” writes Rivera, earlier that month, in the eleventh line of “Oct. 1st.”

I’m particularly taken by the way the poems interrogate themselves in their making; “Oct. 1st” begins:

“I love,” the rest of the sentence acts on it
“love a dog’s delight, the way it wags its tail”
Look up is the image enough for the mind
or is there need for “the story of my life”?
The words need to come together carefully,
lines an instrument of thought not otherwise

The interplay between thought, memory, language, observation, and form reoccurs throughout. In October and revised in July: “Remember the mind is full of old snowmen, / and arguments are games played on winter wounds.” And earlier, on August 14th:

The form carries a one-way conversation,
site of separation brought into relief
A relationship between sonnet and “house”
the I that tried to run away, walls of snow,
and how invisible the girl felt, small, bold

Thematically, the sonnet asks us to attend to love, and here the reader finds one kind of exploration of devotional love in the mode of daily attention, and another in the often troubled childhood memories of a mother and father that recur throughout the book. As the poetic form itself is a shaping force, here are flashes of earlier forces that shaped a sense of self, love, narrative, and world. “They’re at the beach in August, mother reading, / father runs after them laughing then diving, / a Greek god for a while until new rage grabs”; “to still my father we screamed at my mother / ‘Stop!’ and the crying ‘Stop!’ the abrupt stopping / Green bus trembling the cows went back to eating”; “A man, a woman and a child in-between / wanted to please both.”

While the double-vision “versions” and revisions throughout the sequence are a formally interesting glimpse into poetic process, they are also an emotionally moving way of enacting a mind’s return to its preoccupations, and the ways in which the act of putting language to memory and observation can make and remake the moments and narratives themselves.


*[Though I don’t know either author personally, I thought I’d note that my forthcoming collection of poetry, Stet, will also be published by Princeton University Press in September, and Anna Maria Hong’s book Age of Glass, which I discussed in an earlier post, was published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center, which also published my collection Say So in 2011. It’s interesting to think about editorial vision and print culture kinships; though neither of my books was a sonnet sequence, perhaps there’s some formal and formally subversive affinity at play here in press identity and curation. Though that said, CSUPC was under the editorship of Michael Dumanis, not Caryl Pagel, when my book was published, so this may be wishful thinking on my part.]