Lapsed Hymns

We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone by Kerri Webster. University of Georgia Press, 2005.  62 pp. Reviewed by Elena Karina Byrne.

Wallace Stevens believed the poet's subject was his "sense of the world." Indeed, we think we know our sense of the world, but it's not really so simple. Whether from the perspective of Magritte or Mata Hari, it all really comes down to not only what we seem but perhaps more importantly, seeing ourselves see the world, which might be looking back at us. Stevens also believed "words are chosen out of desire." Like seeing, the author must come to terms with desiring - his "body, fiercer in his mind, merciless," - and desire certainly comes to terms with its author. Themes of both perspective and desire are crucial to Kerri Webster's refreshing and welcome debut collection. Because of the distinct lines drawn between experimental and "conventional" or "traditional" approaches to writing, that grappling with desire is all too often missing in contemporary poetry.

Kerri Webster's marvelous first book finds a fugitive comfort in its innovative handling of diction, desire, and a justly askew, yet sensuous seeing/sense of the world. We are never made to feel that the poems wear a false, emotionless suit of avant-garde self-consciousness. Early on, Webster declares, "The word is a rented room," and paraphrasing Tennyson, "we do not eat our hearts alone." Imagine the poet entering the mind's exile without everyday idioms or vernacular; it's like entering a rented room or house through an upstairs window, rather than through the front door. That's the gift and beauty of inadvertent seeing. In Kerri Webster's case, something exciting and far more personal happens, between a Magritte-ish subversion of reality, and a Mata Hari-very-real dance.

With gorgeous maneuvers in language, Webster multiplies image, subject and persona, the way a scientist splits atoms. A priori knowledge takes over. The book's opening poem, "Lexicon," is a good introduction to the poet's fresh stance and understanding, where she tells us there's "a figure of speech for ellipsis [and] a verb for slow peril / logged in a commonplace book dog-eared and oily -". This first poem, like the book itself, moves through sadness and longing, time and absence, being and the universal self. All this is coupled with "drowning mirages" that serve to body the poetry forward, toward a civilized disorder. Meanwhile, a subtle narrative gracefully unfolds through "holy vanishing." Webster's sonic equipage is visceral, smart and accessible, derived from sensory nouns and verbs. She employs enallage - surprising, unexpected descriptions that instantly provoke a kinesthetic response. It's a kind of "Genuflection, like gravity, world within world - that breathes beyond the page, and also moves outward, "safe-passaged & gleaming," into its own temporal "lapsed hymn." These poems rhythmically find their way out of the dark with unconscious authority. Here's an aurally playful example from "Bestiary":

                               In the House of Sleep, such a frail house, flail-chambered
                       and failing, watch him pull his pants on, watch him
                              palm hilly hilly, leavened he's leaving
                       all yeasty, the part with the bird...


                         and I court abandon - hilly hilly - underbelly
                                    of the senses and someone forever
                          walking away...

Webster "understands / gray like some academics get theory."  In other words, she expertly brings multiplicity to bear on the concept of "poem," thus translating the dryness of theory into the embodied physicality of the body and of lyric. The book achieves this through a congeries of poetic forms, subjects, and modes. One section of the book comprises a section of short prose "hotel" poems, which address Joseph Cornell's box series. These poems seek a fresh logic, the kind that seems to turn dramatic lyric and metaphor into a Rorschach test of creative conjecture. Another section, bearing titles like "Grace," "Gratitude" and "Silence," addresses equations of definition and punctuates turns in observation, directed by epigraphs from Rilke. They delightfully double monologue as dialogue. When the speaker says, "frankly I'm asking for more than this" we know "What doesn't read like trespass" reads like revelation. Every section maintains its own invocation, its own unique format, and many of the poems use nature as personal vernacular for the abstract sentiment: "Folded animal, my loneliness." This sentient transfer liberates humanity through the vatic acquisition of nature. What inevitably ties all the sections together is the accumulated weight of the writer's voice, as well as her relationship to the one addressed. Here, interrogation is a kind of invention, a signature defiance where each section also presents an unlikely, yet intimate marriage between the theoretical and the physical.

As art comes to terms with a new wartime, postmodern angst, we ache for language's accessible passion, a hunger for not only a new kind of approach, but a gut-level (not gut-wrenching nor heart-on-the-sleeve, please) emotionality. When the "phrase for absence gullied" seems abstract or remote in Webster's work, we are coaxed to let "haunting be the sum of touch." In other words, feeling becomes visually clear:

            And suddenly a chunk of sky falls out of the sky, as though

            Electrons cannot be trusted to orbit, as though everything

            Is fundamentally collision.

Her images and syntactical arrangements feel primitive - new and viscerally accurate. The poems are alight with intuitive intellect, where "consumption and consummation are kin." A unique brew of lists serves as alchemy to the imagination, where the opiate of her language enters its own "permeable skin," enters our bodies and that "whole silly empire of sorrow." In this re-sensing of the world, you might certainly find there's "a word for sadness that dwells in the small of the back." You might also find anchored moments, mid-stream, like, "I am frail / And you are frail." This works as a kind of "etherized version of seeing" that is nearly prophetic. What if art is the muse itself, the sensorium of prophecy? Then we might gladly return to it again and again, as we would Kerri Webster's debut.