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Our Held Animal Breath

June 24, 2013

When I agreed to discuss Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s volume Our Held Animal Breath for TLC Book Tours, I was surprised to get a copy of the book direct from the author, and then pleased to discover that it came complete with her signature on the title page.

What I found when I started reading the poems is a kindred spirit. Like me, Kirkpatrick has a tendency towards didacticism. I am always quite taken by the direction of her gaze, and the wonderful way her poems begin is sometimes enough to make me forget my wish that a few of her endings could be more ambiguous. Here is an example, my favorite poem in the volume:

A Friend Visits the Sites of Vanished Civilizations

She tells me the Anasazi ascended,
dropped the husks of their bodily selves
and returned to pure energy.

I speculate climate change,
food gone scarce, but she’ll have
none of it.
They were shape-shifters,
sometimes running on their four legs,
sometimes unfolding their wings.
Why not become the breath
rather than the animal breathing?

Image by Erich Vieth

Image by Erich Vieth

And it makes as much sense
as anything else
here at the surreal beginning
of the twenty-first century.
Aren’t we all in the grips
of something more or less unbelievable?
Somnambulant citizens in a failing craft,
we watch the waters rise.

In the face of it
who among us would not wish to leave
altogether, not through the squalor
of disease or cracked bones,
but sudden and clean,
an indigenous rapture?

Here’s what the Hopi say:
a serpent with plumes
brought a great flood, water
scouring red rock, uprooting
cottonwood and willows,
rising above the sandstone walls
of the city.
The leaders
Had stopped talking to the spirits
Of the land, and the people,
The people let them.

Ending with the Hopi story is fabulous, but the last four lines go too far, reconciling with the “real” explanation of things in a way that might be less effective than letting readers puzzle it out.

I felt this way about many of the poems. There would be a great beginning, or a few really good lines, and then the ending would cause the poem to lose some of its effect. The dream-like beginning of “Millennium” struck me that way:

A tethered fox
snarls and backs away.
I swim across a lake
to reach a thatched cottage.
Inside, a sudden staircase,
a carpet worn, beyond price.
When I sit down at a desk,
cigarette butts at my left hand,
smoky slice of agate at my right,
I am alone with the rest of my life.

If the poem ended with that wonderful line—the way a writer always feels when she sits down at a desk—it might even be a better poem than it is, going on to more obvious symbolism.

The didacticism of “Stubbornly Green” is mitigated, for me, by these four lines in the second stanza:
“When I was younger, the future
was all pulse and promise,
but middle age doesn’t offer
many bluffs.”
As the poem goes on, though, it is increasingly “saying what you already know.”

The title of “Canning Globalization” gives away the ending even before the reader gets there, unable to mistake exactly what he or she has been told to think. I want a little more freedom in my thinking when I read poetry, especially when the ideas and comparisons the poet brings up are as beguiling as canning and globalization or when to use the word “moral.”

I much prefer the ambiguity of the way the speaker of “Rescuing the Garden” protests “I have found them in time./I am sure of it.” Or the fun of being told what not to do in a poem like “How to Lose a Democracy” which instructs us to “first, believe you can have/whatever you want/whenever you want it.”

All of these poems are enjoyable, and if I chafe at the restrictions of some of the endings, it’s mostly because of the sense of possibility this poet raises in me with the wonder of her beginnings.  tlc-logo-resized

Giveaway Directions:  Want to win a copy of Our Held Animal Breath?  Leave a comment with your e-mail address, and I’ll contact the randomly drawn winner, who must be age 18 or older and live in the US or Canada (because the publisher is sponsoring the giveaway).  Deadline to enter is June 30, 2013.

UPDATE: Snowball, commenter #2, is the giveaway winner!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2013 11:58 am

    I don’t know if this is a good thing or not overall, but half-way through the Vanished Civilizations I realised I was reading it as prose – rather than worrying about lines like usual I just read it and the meaning was easier to understand.

    Off topic, I apologise. Regarding giving the ending and ideas away, I agree with you mostly (the only part of me that doesn’t is the part that gets daunted). There’s something wonderful about being left to work meanings and endings out yourself, it creates a better effect, as you’ve said, and it stays in your mind longer. I know exactly what you mean about the possibilities. Even if it’s that the ending simply wasn’t the one you would’ve chosen it’s disappointing.

    • June 27, 2013 8:52 am

      I think line breaks can work to make a reader pause and think before going on, and if you can read a poem without regarding the line breaks, sometimes that means that the line breaks are not offering you that possibility, to pause and think about what might be.

  2. June 24, 2013 4:20 pm

    The leaders / Had stopped talking to the spirits / Of the land, and the people, / The people let them.

    As I read along I was touched by the sadness of an entire civilization disappearing, then those lines dropped my jaw. They pulled me back into the here and now, reminding me that we can very well become the architects of our own destruction if we don’t stand up and hold our leaders responsible for their ignorance and intransigence. To me the poem seems to raise the specter of the past to warn about the future.

    • June 27, 2013 8:53 am

      I definitely think that’s the intended meaning, so it struck me as didactic. Read and learn!

      • June 28, 2013 7:32 pm

        Yup! Much of the poetry I’ve been reading lately makes me wonder if I’ve actually lost my ability to think: jumps and twists that seem more for effect than anything else. So sometimes I find a bit of the obvious comforting. You have a habit of posting thoughtful and engaging poetry, and your analyses always make me think. (Ow! that hurts!)

  3. June 24, 2013 7:03 pm

    I can see what you mean about the last four lines of your favorite of the poems, but on the other hand I quite like the cadence of those lines. I like ending with “the people let them” because it’s small, if that makes sense.

    • June 27, 2013 8:54 am

      Yes, “the people let them” is small. It seems like they weren’t doing anything, and that’s the problem. I do like that, and the cadence of the lines. There is lots to like.

  4. June 28, 2013 11:53 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these poems for the tour.

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