EQUINOX BY EDWARD SMALLFIELD: composition through silence
Edward Smallfield’s Equinox (Apogee, 89 pages) is a truly fascinating collection of poems that weaves together a traditional form with a highly conceptual process. That form is the sonnet, a traditionally mechanical form, mystifying (and defining) Shakespeare’s poetry and cauterizing our more modern heroes such as Ted Berrigan into canon. For a form so universally known and, in practice, difficult to “awaken,” Smallfield successfully finds a way to urge it to life through some exciting combinations of erasure, borrowed language, disciplined persona, and complete silence.
The poems look like star-fields, with stuttered phrasing, isolated words, and detached punctuation in a field-relation across the page. This creates two intense, distinct sensations: silence and rhythm. In the sense of how the poems read, these forces seem diametrically opposed, with the former working to freeze or dramatize the action of the poem, and the latter used to create elastic, pleasing music and flow. As distinct (and highly “spacey”) a visual experience these sonnets are, they are also highly musical and one begins to relish in Smallfield’s feel for composition right away. A lot of the language rhymes (both hard rhymes and more textured rhymes) and—most enjoyable of all—they most often conclude with a rhyming couplet. Take this example from the first of three sections of the book, “memoir:”
a life is learning how to wait.
in your country it is never late.
The letters stand at attention.
Stanger, alien, exile. A shadow army begins to march.
Pleasure lurks beneath an arch. (“After Luis Cernuda”, 10)
To weave rhymes through highly controlled, “borrowed” language genuinely calls into question the genuineness of these poems as erasures. By that I mean they seem so perfect, too perfect (it doesn’t help that the “Notes” section in the back doesn’t try to shed light on how the poems were organized; they are merely provided one, two, or sometimes as many as four authors or sources per poem, and that’s it). And for that reason, the subjects of the poems themselves are at large.
The sonnet traditionally is a single dramatic act coming out from the poet, from his/her contemplation that usually pivots around a subject or thread of reason; a negotiation which is tracked by the reader largely from line-to-line or through the rhyme schemes. These poems, titled like the one above, are “after” another source: “After Catullus,” “After Niedecker,” “After Archilochus” and so on. This creates a phenomenon where the “borrowed” language or palimpsest both speaks as Smallfield and as the original source or, most interestingly, to the original source. But the foundation of the sonnet form is never truly lost. Take this example from a conclusion of a poem:
How white the gulls
The men leave the car
don’t be afraid / to pour (“After Niedecker 2”, 36)
There’s a way that the poem above can wriggle its way inside the original source, or at least speak as the source within the source, like a “host voice” or temporary ventriloquist. Here, it manages to take advantage of what we know of Niedecker’s work (namely the natural descriptions and short, highly active line and phrase relationship) and what we know of Niedecker herself (namely her mythic solitary nature in a Midwestern town and her journalistic work, “The men leave the car / don’t be afraid to pour”). All this while still doing justice to the form and “logic” of the sonnet.
This is quite the accomplishment, to merge translation (in this book’s sense: borrowing language) and another poet’s life-force, so that history speaks through the work and the assemblage speaks for itself. This is all a long way of saying that form and function are in constant tension here, and not only on the level of composition, but on the level of conception. The reader is constantly entering the form through the eyes (or more appropriately, the ears) of other writers and other minds.
To demonstrate this further, let’s look at the more complicated pieces. The book is comprised of 74 sonnets, about half of which take-off from a title like the two cited above (“After ____”). Most of the other half’s titles are rendered as literary subjects, principally as either “the classics” or “American lit.” These poems borrow as many as five sources to construct the piece, and instead of engaging another writer, the reader engages with the subject, only aware on a conceptual level the sources “borrowed.” The poem below is titled “American lit 3 (pg. 38)” and borrows language from Raymond Chandler, Charles Wright, Dante, and Pietro Sraffia:
article, adjective, noun:
pencils of rain
one writes only to erase again
inside her gown
& sepia of photos on the train
alcohol & the back doors of small towns
in the local dialect
a list of sins
not like the one who loses like the one who wins
from this distance the wreckage
What is this a picture of?
what alights what hovers
At face value, the poem is fairly self-destructive, spare, and melancholy. Its content is roughly the remembrance of a lover like the fading detail of photos and drawings drowned in booze (note the marvelous separation of “grain” and “alcohol” in lines 7 & 8 to subvert the hard rhyme of “on the train / grain”). But what the title does, and the sources from the Notes section does, is render the subject far more powerful than a relationship between people. Well, not to underestimate the power between people, but you see what I’m saying. By titling the piece “American lit” and utilizing poets as far-ranging as Charles Wright and Dante, the poem summons a far, far larger stadium-size than a single heart. This is the micro/macro shift at play in most of these poems, and it is a very entertaining experience.
The sonnet “romances” the memory of a lover through the mouthpiece of “American lit” as if the subject itself is the echoing image of the gown on a train. Or, if the reader wants to, they can focus on the poem as it reads point-blank on the page. But a face-value reading will always leave something desired because, as you well know, titles are very important.
As far as theme, the poem above is a good example of what Smallfield is working with here. Pain and joy, flesh and control have prime battleground in this collection, as well as the pliability of syntax, which often breaks right at its hilt: “the light in slices / a solstice / metric a life is choruses & skies: to be alive / inside a silence” (41). These self-referencing bits do what self-referencing bits often do: bring the focus of the reader to the project. Perhaps in this way, the urge of the sonnet is to connect with language itself, but I’d be a fool to say that was the main thesis here. That’s merely one color of light that refracts through the prism of these poems. It should also be noted that at no time do these phrases seem un-Smallfield i.e. the tone is even and considered, despite the variance of subject and author where the poems bloom. In this way, Smallfield displays the ability to weave a singular voice through silence and space and meaning itself. “[T]o die in Spring / when everything / to see / I have nothing to say / but I want to say it anyway” (67).
Two other ways a poet invites the reader into their project is through structural repetition and sections, which are both strong cohesive materials for Equinox. The structural repetition of this book is obvious (the sonnet form), but the section titles are not. There are three: “memoir,” “solstice,” and “elegy” and it could be said that the poems in each reflect those three ideas or themes respectively. It cannot be said (by this reader, anyway) what true “work” they are doing besides putting the ball in a certain court—pointing the reader in a certain direction. One can easily see the relation between “memoir” and “elegy” in terms of remembrances. “Solstice” however, the second section, placed between the other two, is suggested as a kind of threshold to me, and in a certain sense (in the sunny world outside of these poems) it is a threshold: the start of the summer and winter.
So what does it mean? It means that the “equinox” at play here is justified through the foundation of these poems, as a module between solstices—a sonnet of feeling from a sonnet of translation, meaning derived from another meaning. Form following form (and so on). A solstice denoting the transition between remembering states, as personal as loss to love or economical as history to present. And, to repeat, all done conceptually and through form seemingly at the same time.
I’ll end on Smallfield’s words from the title poem, revealing perhaps the link between personal and worldly remembrances. “What you depart from is not the way / this life on the earth / a translation / from nothingness an incision.”
Chris Carosi is from Pittsburgh. He earned an MFA from the University of San Francisco and is a contributor to ZYZZYVA. His first chapbook of poems, bright veil, was published by New Fraktur Press in 2011. He lives in San Francisco.