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Friday, November 30, 2018

Kate Colby, The Arrangements

Few poems rely so entirely on perception as those of Kate Colby. Her “Shaker /caked with salt” (12) requires no explanation. Colby avoids a generalizing gestures, “humidity” in the next line suggests a cause, but observation for Colby is always momentary. What about her silences? “I can’t speak for / thinking of you” – that from the first lines of the first poem in the new book, Arrangements (Four Way Books 2018). Absence haunts the book. For this poet “matter matters” which was the by-word of Eva Hess. “Sea grapes draped / on split-rail fence” (13). There is a pastoral ambience to that line. The poem “Green Blind” concludes “stone thrown into // otherwise intact / algal mat. In addition to observed matter in dialog with absence, New England melancholy may be the second pole of Colby’s art. In general observations cancel one another out. “My vision excludes me,” she writes  in “The Beholder” (18). The premises that underlie a philosophy of observation are soulless. Thoreau noted the same problem when he admitted, his vision as he stood on a mountaintop excluded his presence even as he attempted to record what he saw, a trenchant version of the frailty of the individual moment. Observation is a species of entrapment. There is no turning away and then it is gone. The effort of remembering is continuous with the experience of the present. No release. “I was once in a room so hot // and crowded that our sweat condense on / the ceiling and rained back down. // I think of this every time / I walk beneath a dripping // window unit.” (“The-wife” 20-21). She finds many watery and humid images with which to surround her sorrows.

Her line breaks are acute and painful. Therein lies the poetry.  These lines from “Burial” are consonant with those U have already cited:
Never to be out done by woods,
where you heard the rain before

feeling it – now is the time
to weaves wreathes from waves
graven matts of marsh weed. (80)

The next line contains the word “pall. The feelings are funereal. A dear one has been lost. It is also cataclysmic. Colby’s “Annunciation,” very unlike the work of Ewa Chrusciel that I recently reviewed holds no space for hope:

See, at the beginning of
the painting she cradles

her viscera, a small window
hovering in front of her

head. By the end, this
tentative angle has taken

from her the purpose of
history … (85)

It is difficult to quote from or truncate this poem. Coby’s apotheosis, in the midst of such loss is to become eyes “turn myself, into eyes.” perception itself, as steady as the effort to see may be, is after all perception, often sadly so. I now have no doubt as to what arrangements are cited in the tittle, “Arrangement.” This is a funereal book.

Donald Wellman 

Monday, November 12, 2018


As I read this book of poems, I am moved by a delicate surrealism that records fleeting moments of birdsong and  lost souls that flounder in the wakes of inflatable boats. These transitory phenomena are associated with the presence of the dybbuk, a dislocated soul that possesses its host body with malicious effect. In the body’s transit between worlds, the dybbuk clings to its host, conflating the life after death and the earthly life of anticipation and hope. A figure from Jewish folklore, it haunts immigrants and exiles, whose experiences are the subject of Ewa Chrusciel’ s Of Annunciations (Omnidawn 2017). Glimmers of transcendence, experiences of annunciation, are found in natural substances, the grain of wood, incisions and ghost rays, so the poem “Of Annunciations” would have it. In healing the blind, the newly sighted see men walking like trees (Mark 8:24). To my mind armies mass on the hills of Dunsinane. Shakespeare’s figure is an omen, a confusion of armies on a frontier For Chrusciel, the most compelling manifestations of the dybbuk are water-born apparitions, “The sea keeps its apparitions, spits out / migrants, walking trees. Branches / conceal seeds without shore or limit.” (25)  

Chrusciel is sensitive to the presences of angel-born but fleeting, , annunciations, moments discovered in highly original perceptions of the meanings behind words, whether those in manuals or those from holy tracts. Currents transect, “Inside the sea the river.” The river carries the detritus of the of the lost souls of contemporary immigrants, “valises, simcards, photos, coats.” (27). Her images possess her and have the power to  possess the engaged reader,
                        In need to be inside you
                        in order to live.
                        In me, you hear whimpering
of drowned children,
they walk in circles. (74)
The archetype of dawning perception within the womb is Mary. The poet is unable to offer us the hope that the Archangel offered her. “What could we offer in exchange for one child?” (74). One note of salvation survives, “”There is an immigrant in our soul.” We discover, facing atrocity, “In each of us the feet of an archangel.”(93). Chrusciel is sensitive to the presence of angel-born annunciation, moments discovered in the meanings behind words. It is a book that tests faith in human goodness, engaging its subject with profound seriousness. Her art examines interconnected threads; she has created a book of apocryphal intent. Ewa Chrusciel lives between two worlds, one Polish, Catholic, and traditional, the other the domain of endless exile and the tragic fates that populate daily news.

In this context, I am lead to remember poetry associated with the haggadah and exile. In his Passing Over (Marsh Hawk 2007),  Norman Finkelstein addresses Jewish mysticism and its polysemic production of rabbinic commentary. It seem that “the shape of an absence” haunts Finkelstein’s commentary (“Mara” 49). Who is Mara, I believe she is a holocaust survivor that Finkelstein met one day in Ohio. Tellingly, in his Inside the Ghost Factory (Marsh Hawk 2010), I find these lines “This is neither from // the ghosts nor about them. Covering /  cherubs, archons. Filthy birds, hovering / above us. Where are the air traffic  // controllers?” (61) Finkelstein’s irony and crafty drollness are very different Chrusciel’ s engaged emotions, but she too is often droll, indeed wry as if squinting, “I watch wild turkeys / feeding on tiny seeds / of my nouns.” Her words are those of the witness. Finkelstein’s are those of a raconteur who understands how devices call attention to themselves..

One more question for both poets: are each of us, in some sense, displaced “jews” as Jean Fran├žois Lyotard argued in Heidegger and the jews”? I am thinking now about Paul Celan’s “No one / testifies for the / witness.” A survivor must invent language in order to engage prepossessing truths. Of Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn 2014) I wrote of  “a hoopoe nestled in the chest that is the poet’s immigrant heart,” and I cited this line, ‘The hoopoe is the dybbuk messenger chattering under my bra’” (13). Her humor and her seriousness remain constant.

What if dybbuks were subject to production (an idea that I take from Finkelstein’s recent From the Files of the Immanence Foundation (Dos Madres 2018) . Would they have proliferated more easily in an earlier age than this. And yes the drowning of immigrants in transit might well cause a renewal of their unsettled wanderings as Chrusciel intimates.


Immanence is often my true theme. Both poets touch on that realm. “The Abyss awakes and smiles. / Endless depth. Endless extension. / … Ghosts jam the frequencies. “ (“License,” From the Files of the Immanence Foundation 66). This may cast some doubt on Kant’s “immanent sublime,” as it should, but for Finkelstein as for Chrusciel thare are uncalled of presences whose substance is felt..

Donald Wellman
Nov. 12, 2018