Poetry Porch: Poetics


The Education of the Soul
Two books of poetry reviewed by Joyce Wilson

Given Away by Jennifer Barber. Kore Press, 2012. ISBN 978188553567 (paper).

Counter-Amores by Jennifer Clarvoe. University of Chicago Press, 2011. ISBN 9780226109282 (paper).

    “I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School—and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity.”
                                  (Keats, Letters of JK, Oxford University Press, 1970, 250).

Two books of poetry published recently explore the vale of soul-making described by Keats in his letters of 1819, when he asks “how then are souls to be made?” If it is true that the self is that part of the psyche that interacts with other people, institutions, and events in society, then the soul sits deeper in the core of the body. The soul is more fragile than the self, exists in a kind of solitude, is harder to connect with or to know, and is in need of a medium or guide to come into being. Given Away by Jennifer Barber concentrates the process of development of the soul over the course of a year while Counter-Amores by Jennifer Clarvoe reviews the assessment of the soul’s growth over a period of decades after the end of the Second World War. Each of these works begins with a state of emptiness, chronicles varieties of suffering, and ends having reached a fulfillment. What interests me is seeing this process in terms of Keats’s education, in which he proposes defining the world as the school that puts children through trials of the heart, upon which the child learns to read, and out of this intelligence comes the soul. This process of forging an education risks the didactic, defies expectations, and releases the latent individual voice to sing.

The poems in Given Away by Jennifer Barber meditate on states of deprivation and attention beginning and ending in the hot dry month of August. The spare appearance of these poems on the page enhances the sense of interior meditation, as if the mind has been alerted by a festering pain at the core of being where the soul resides. These free verse poems consist of lines often no more than two, sometimes three, iambic feet, and the integrity of the iambic rhythm controls the demeanor of the explorations. There is a fear of finding emptiness and impoverishment, but the exploration persists. Specific discussions of job, family, economy, social engagement, which would fall under the realm of the self, are not addressed. The search must go much deeper into the center of being in order to make something of the pain and suffering found there.

Many of these poems describe struggle: with breathing (“I can’t get a breath of air”), with a harsh authority in the prophets Ezekiel (who must pick up a hot coal) and Isaiah (who has placed the hot coal on his lips), and with identity (“It wasn’t like me”). While the narrative is sketchy, the images remain concrete. One poem names a place, Achill Island in Ireland, where the narrator observes a flock of sheep so intently that she fears she will merge with the object of her meditation:

    If I stay, my hair
    Will go even more
    Like a sheep’s, I’ll walk

    The wet pasture, calling
    Babylon, Baa-bylon,
    I won’t know how
    To get down a city street
          (“Achill Island Fears,” 24)
The humor in this imagined metamorphosis, caught with the limitations of a sheep’s utterance and longing to speak, makes light of the connection with exile in Babylon and the implied ambition evoked by the a comparison.

The affirmation process finds strength in singing (“In the psalmist’s/ O my soul”) which loosens the throat to breathe, in anecdotes from history, in reading Gilgamesh, Genesis, the Song of Songs. It is interesting to note how much benefit this nascent being takes from reading. The psalms are not only found but opened, and after being opened comes the opening to:

    opening to the psalms
              the way folded paper
                   flowers open from a shell
    dropped in a glass of water,
              swaying, blossoming.
                   (“Orchard,” 62)
This image of paper flowers blossoming in a glass of water presents the gestation of the soul as a triumphant birth. While the process begins with opening the psalms as one would open covers of a book, soon it is the soul that is responding to the music of the psalms.

These experiences contribute to a new freedom and confidence in the voice of the speaker. The image of the sower weeping over a page so worn from use that the paper is crumbling calls forth another image of what might arise from such a dissolution:

    an ear, a voice
    coming apart between my hands.

    God doesn’t speak in the psalms—
    God’s spoken to.
         (“God Doesn’t Speak in the Psalms,” 72-73)
God speaks in the books of the prophets, but he does not speak through the psalms. The axiomatic declaration of the lesson risks the didactic, announcing the completion of the search, where the dactylic music of the second to last line is culminated in the iambic.

While the lesson of this poem poses as a triumph to end the search, is it the best poem? The most emphatic, it is the most memorable. It also sends one back through the pages to savor again the elusive insights and musical impressions, where, in the Andalusian city of the poets, “The question/ baffles the swallows/ scissoring the names/ Eliossana,/ Al-Yussana: Lucena.”


Counter-Amores by Jennifer Clarvoe must waken the soul by poking, cajoling, manipulating, threatening, and then accepting its stubborn, endearing hiddenness. The process, by necessity, consists of taking on two perspectives or more at once, and engaging in irony. Inspired by Ovid’s book of the same title, these poems record the challenge of self to soul, arguing, and finding humor in the process. The problem is the medium of language, which is by its nature full of too many related words with similar spellings, multiple meanings, overlapping roots and histories, where the truth exists in the thicket of word play.

The first poem begins at a point of despair in an extended mixed-metaphor. The noun is thirst, and the verbs run away with it.

    Can you hear my thirst?
    Can you hear it now?

    Can you hear a thirst reply
    from the opposite hill?

    A thirst lies as if sleeping
    at the bottom of the valley.

    At night it reappears,
    pours itself into the dream—
         (“After the Equinx,” 3)
A thirst that cannot be heard, nor found in nadir of the valley, nor deciphered in dreams, will not be slaked. It eludes through its multiple personalities.

The splitting of selves distracts the search for the soul, which is aggravated by a puzzle of words from Dante. Where one seeks light, a dark self knocks.

    Here I was refound by a dark self;
    My self was found by a darker self, obscure.
    I was not one self, but made of wood

    Within this wood—not single, but multiplied
    On into darkness. No way to see for rest,
    For all the trees, for all the terza rima.

    A tree grows in the wood—what would you have me
    Do? They all diverge into the darkness,
    Dive into darkness, urge to obscurity.
         (“Mi Ritrovai,” 8)
The personification of this dark self, the repetition of “wood” for the conditional “would,” the irregular enjambments, all take from Dante’s journey into a dark wood. And the forest cannot be seen because of all the trees. All might be perplexing if not for the relationship between three words salve, savage, and salvage, and Corinthians:
    …And then I was found out by an
    Obscure greeting—salve—strange advice
    From something dark and savage that nonetheless

    Spoke of salvage, through the loss, darkly.
         (“Mi Ritrovai,” 8)
Looking through a glass darkly might have once brought an end to the search, but the process of this knowledge must be told. The maze of similar root words and spellings, the accrual of meanings and traditions, their study over time, complicates the journey. Faced with the damaging evidence of the complexity of language, one can despair, or one can take delight in its riches.

Clarvoe’s poems dare to meander, and she is in control more than she lets on, waiting to meet us at the end of the last line with a sense of quiet triumph. A trip to the marketplace, Bernini’s “Rape of Proserpina,” Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, a fish seller, trompe l’oeil, Elaine Scarry’s theory that “beauty prompts a copy/ of itself,” are all means to the end:

                                  …We’re the species
    That copies things because we love a joke.
    We love the way a joke holds out the idea
    Of how things ought to be and uses that against us.
    (One has to think the first joke went like this:
    God made us in his image.)
Playfully irreverent, Clarvoe’s search for tomatoes is literal, and on that search, she discovers the concrete and indivisible center:
                                  …I have to remember what
    I came for: tomatoes. Pomodori.
    And my vegetable guy knows, without my asking,
    To add the usual due foglie di basilica.
    What’s meaning? What’s meaningful? Silly, but then
    I’m thinking about the relationship (folie a deux),
    Between those leaves of basil and a basilica,
    And then I’m remembering that “silly,”
    Because it takes us past the bounds of reason,
    Comes from Seele, comes from the word for soul.
         (“What She Thought,” 66-68)
The delight of these poems is their unforced evolution. Who could have imagined engaging with words basil and basilica, seele and silly, to arrive at the soul? The wit and spontaneity bring the reader back to these poems again and again.