Poetry Porch: Poetry


Know Thyself by Joyce Peseroff. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015. $15.95. ISBN 9780887486036 (paper).

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson

In this day and age when everyone has an opinion but no one can agree on very much, Joyce Peseroff explores the dilemma of communicating what you know. In her recent collection of poems, Know Thyself, the title suggests the didactic approach of the teacher to the student. Yet the collection as a whole gathers poems written not so much by subject but with particular readers in mind, especially those who are experts in their fields and strive to reach the next generations.

        How does the seasoned adult and well-read scholar impart what she knows? The title poem, “Know Thyself,” a clause from the Greek that means “to take the middle way,” suggests the difficulty of the process. If obtaining knowledge is hard, dealing with the self is harder still. The first verse begins with a riddle: “I’m looking for something I haven’t found.” In five five-line stanzas, each unrhymed cinquain shifts approach, often combining the figurative and narrative. I’m looking for something . . .

    . . . caught like a salmon then released
    before knowing it lit up the brain scan
    of a marine biologist I hadn’t met,
    or, at a meet, wouldn’t recognize

    as the soul for whom my soul thirsts (12).

While the wordplay between “met” and “meet” delights, the images perplex. The salmon caught in a stream, the lighting up of a brain scan, the marine biologist in a laboratory, might add up to something if as scenes they can play out in a sequence, but the qualifier “before knowing” confounds the progress of time, a reminder of how self-awareness is often out of sync with chronology. The negatives “hadn’t met” and “wouldn’t recognize” further discourage the hope for resolution. Plato’s ideal that the soul face to face with its other half will be filled with recognition is also dashed. The verbs “looking” and “finding” might be the root of the problem if they imply the notion that knowledge is procured after a search, when in fact it might be better cultivated or received.

        The investigation continues with a reflection, “Perhaps what I hunger for doesn’t exist” (12), and compares the pursuit of knowledge to a cook’s vision of a meal suitable for a king. Despite his concoction of magnificent feast, by twist of circumstance, the cook is punished by death. A discouraging conclusion follows, “In time, they behead the cook, all history/ the failure of human mercy.”

        In the last stanza, Peseroff emphasizes that, to the Greeks, “know thyself” means that “you’re not an animal or god,” which creates the space in between to be a little bit of each, to be human. The image from Greek lore, “ . . . who drills in the cave/ under a sea cliff taps the door to hell,” evokes the warning of Virgil and Dante and emphasizes the need to study the past to build on the ancient traditions and avoid repeating previous mistakes.

        This sober poem is followed by many that provoke through humor. Where knowledge is relegated to categories — philosophy, theology, science — Peseroff shows what happens when one field dominates the conversation of another, in this case economics over mythology. In the poem “Exit Interview,” the reader meets Eve, an innocent wage-earner explaining how she was booted out of the garden. Through extended metaphor, the garden becomes a corporation whose unnamed CEO has created a hostile work environment, with Grade 13s, company secrets, and layoffs. Employees have been accused of having too much time on their hands, being lazy at gardening, and challenging authority with too many questions:

    about genotypes stored
    in the master file: are zebras black
    with white stripes or white with black?
    Exactly how long is Leviathan?
    How do songbirds learn
    to sing? . . . . (68)

After she is “relocated,” Eve resigns to get on with her life as a free agent among the ants. She understands that outside corporate walls, she must continue on her own, to struggle and prevail despite nagging insect bites on the ankle. Besides that, she adds ruefully, with a nod to the source material, no one at the company learned much from the experience, beyond who was naked.

        Two poems address the daunting task of reaching the younger generations, where narrative is often the preferred approach and paraphrase the method. But what happens when the receivers can reword the plot but just don’t seem to get it? The poem “Cool Story, /Babe, Now Make Me a Sandwich,” features characters Babe and bro, takes place in the mall, on the highway, where the two share stories to pass the time. The title and first line adapt the meme frequently found on the Internet “Cool Story, Bro, Now Tell Me Again.” While the meme, in all its irony, expresses the dismissal of a story that is irrelevant, Peseroff’s poem exemplifies the case of having a broad intuitive grasp but limited means to discuss it. In the hands of the naïve speakers, parody entertains them: “There was this lady who shared/ her apple with a guy. Then they were homeless” (74). As the saying goes, familiar plot, end of story. Yet when the two watch a sparrow hit a car windshield, and another “prod its mashed breast on the asphalt,” they react:

    Up and back if flew, a brown streak
    looking, listening—not for something
    to eat. Something else, bro. (74)

The indefinite pronouns “something else” fused with the vernacular endearment “bro” suggest that, however limited their vocabulary, the speakers have learned more than they let on.

        Peseroff addresses the daunting task of advising the young, dispensing knowledge that will help them with their lives in “Willing Heart,” a short poem that begins with the paean: “Anything’s possible with a willing heart” (76). Yet if someone wants to talk about pregnancy — the wish for it, the danger of risk or failure, the unforeseen outcome — where to begin? With humor, Peseroff creates aphorisms that reflect the pervasive influence of advertising:

    Know toilet cleaner and chips
    share a preservative.

Associations bind contemplation of fate with terms of economics:

    The number of
    billable hours in a pregnancy is more
    compensation than wage.

In this ironical world today, in which life decisions carry the weight of forbidden subjects, it is better to associate than to try to make sense. The poetic lines create a hook with the familiar in a thicket of the strange, nestle truth in a haystack, write a letter to the heart. The poem’s last line becomes a rewording of the first line, “anything is possible with willing, heart” (76). The transformation from a declarative sentence in line one to an imperative in line eighteen captures the slippery slope of optimism. Logic fails before predictions of the future.

       As she explores the nature of knowledge and communicating what is known, Peseroff gathers a compendium of dilemmas we depend on to educate ourselves and converse with each other. With poetry that is inventive and wise, she matches the authority of the teacher with that of a diversity of colleagues and students, who face the known and the making known together.

On Composing by Sound

Editor’s note: I was confounded at first by “Sound Net Sequence,” in the middle pages of Know Thyself. Peseroff’s note that this sequence is based on a homophonic reading of several Shakespeare sonnets intrigued me. Yet I was uncertain about my own reading of the poems.

I was intrigued by the idea of knowledge conveyed through hearing, when so much of what we understand we describe through the sense of sight. Wisdom shares the root “to see.” When we understand, we suddenly see the solution to the dilemma, etc. Yet Peseroff created these poems based on sounds that we hear. So I asked her about the process of composing by sound. I wondered if we should be familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets in order to understand them?

Peseroff's reply: I started writing “Sound Net Sequence” out of a desire to disrupt my usual writing process. I typically start with notes — often a visual image, sometimes an odd piece of found language that has an image embedded, though the detail isn’t always visual. I thought of the writing prompt, “Translations from an Unknown Language,” where a student is given a poem in Spanish or German on Italian — any tongue using the Latin alphabet — and asked to make something of the words strictly through their sound. Thus “sopa,” which means “soup” in Spanish, might become “soap” in the student’s poem, and “ropa,” which means “clothing,” might become “rope.”

I typed out a Shakespeare sonnet on my computer leaving a triple space between each line. I filled the spaces with words that sound like Shakespeare’s but are not necessarily related. The poems in “Sound Net Sequence” don’t take meaning from the sonnets they’re based on. The association is strictly through the ear.

I did notice that each of Shakespeare’s sonnets contain some sort of plot, with the final couplet providing a resolution. I tried to mimic this structure — I like plot — though, strictly speaking, not all the poems are 14 lines and they adhere very tenuously to anything like sonnet form. A reader doesn’t have to know the Shakespeare sonnet a poem is based on; the “basis” is part of a construction that’s dismantled as it’s completed, like a scaffolding around a house.

My hope is that the “net of sound” each poem weaves creates a space to listen as well to see what goes on in each “plot.” They’re meant to startle, surprise, and convey the sound as well as sense of feeling.

Copyright © 2019 by Joyce Wilson.