KR Reviews

On Stardust Media by Christina Pugh

Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020. 96 pages. $16.95.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, the Hollywood mogul Monroe Stahr declares of the literary types with whom he has to work, “Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.” That remark came to my mind while reading Christina Pugh’s superb fifth collection of poetry, Stardust Media. It’s not that the narrator of Pugh’s poems is disconnected. On the contrary, the organizing intelligence of this poetry exudes urbanity and self-possession. But the underpinning poise also allows for its opposite, a lively and beguiling discontinuity. As they channel-surf between wildly various material—Homer and alt rock, Larousse Gastronomique and Mitt Romney—Pugh’s poems depict and enact the existential (and everyday) task of keeping it all together. Here, technology proves both motif and means: these poems portray, and are themselves, technologies.

If Pugh’s central fascination has to do with “the way we live now,” among the pixelated drub of overlapping information streams, her reasons prove more than merely theoretical. In Stardust Media, the work of maintaining integrity in the midst of the modern maelstrom originates in the poet’s destabilizing loss of her father. Her commitment to making something built-to-last out of that instability shows in her handling of what might otherwise seem opposing tones. Grief and humor, unity and diversion, intellect and emotion are mutually entailing in this book. Pugh’s ability to reconcile such countervailing forces, to wrest from them a genuinely affecting depth and dimension, is what makes her such an important poet.

Take the ending of “Have You Heard the Annunciation,” in which Pugh evokes the sense of being bound to history, while considering a reproduction of Giovanni Bellini’s Annunciation:

But don’t you get the feeling something’s moving
your hand? That we’re broken now by the genome,
if not by God? You’re stirring dead letters in the Web’s
silty bottom when you glimpse a mosaic of long-
hushed history. Suddenly, your ancestor is sending up
a smoke-ring. And your eye is cut by a sliver of Gabriel,
whose hectic electrons could still shred your destiny.

These lines deftly combine discursive eloquence with emotional power, erudition with unpretentious immediacy, and a tone of wonder with one of wariness: the words “broken” and “shred,” for example, suggest both ecstasy and utter bewilderment.

Pugh’s talent for transitions, her knack for yoking the most heterogeneous ideas in provocative and moving ways, reveals more than just formal felicity. Consider “Carmine Lake.” The poem centers around a description of art curators studying a Van Gogh painting:

When conservators show
their recent radiography, dark
pink particles will star
throughout the blue
paint’s epidermal layers.
That’s all that’s left now—
the color’s afterlife
a certain loss of feeling,
like the darkness that fades
from our hair as we age.

In addition to the masterful counterpoint between the long sentence and the short line, as well as the captivating specificity of the description, these lines are distinguished by an artful turn in feeling-tone—from the objective observation of the first five lines to the pathos of the next five. But then the poem turns once more as it leads to its ending:

Though I could be mistaken.
The first time I ever heard
my father cry (this was
on the telephone),
he was almost eighty.
I’m sorry, he said, I’m more
emotional than I used to be.

The shift of focus from the painting to the father parallels a deepening of the emotional stakes, toward a powerful conclusion. Yet this turn also compellingly complicates the poem. To be mistaken about “a certain loss of feeling” might signify good news. But here, regaining feeling means facing the father’s decline; the sense of a welcome renewal remains.

Such intricate and surprising movement seems to me characteristic of Pugh’s work. In “Living Under a Bridge in the Early Nineties,” for example, a depiction of Kurt Cobain leads, through allusions to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to a striking statement about the poet’s own mortality. In “The Shirt,” a humorous vignette involving her husband’s t-shirt wends its way to a vivid and poignant meditation on the art of Vermeer. Pugh is the furthest thing possible from a categorical thinker. Her poems ask us to consider happiness and sadness, art and life, thought and emotion as more subtly related than our usual assumptions allow. To read these poems is to experience both the challenge and the liberating exuberance of multiplicity, to feel what it’s like to be “a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.”

To put it another way, Christina Pugh is simply a master of metaphor. In “I Called the Video,” a pianist’s hands, reflected on the surface of his shiny Steinway, become “a girl who whirls before a glass to find / the way a skirt will sculpt her moving legs in wind.” In “Voice Road,” a location in rural Michigan comes to embody the very work of poetry. Pugh’s metaphors feel both inevitable and surprising. She knows that while metaphor operates, as Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric, “by giving names to nameless things through transference [metaphora] from things kindred or similar in appearance,” it also works, as Aristotle also writes, by making verbal expression “foreign” or “remote” (xenos), as emphasized by current theories about the disjunctive function of metaphor, its operation by “semantic impertinence” or “cross-domain mapping.” Pugh never resembles some chronically ironic postmodernist, content to fiddle as the world around her falls into indeterminate fragments: she genuinely strives to make sense and shape of social and personal experience. But neither does she simplify her subjects. Instead, Pugh’s poetic technology offers both vital connection and a refreshing estrangement of the familiar. The poems in Stardust Media are  major works by a major poet. Their virtuoso technique enlivens the reader’s sense of just how complex and rich the world may be, even as the poems strive toward their fundamental, bedrock motive—to preserve and transmit the imprint of the human.