What is Sought: A Review of Kathleen Graber’s The Eternal City
The Eternal City
By Kathleen Graber
Princeton University Press
As anyone who has borrowed a book from me knows, I horribly deface just about any book of poetry I leaf through. That is, for me, part of the process: the dots, the shaky underlines, the half-finished marginal notes to self or imagined future reader. I would like to say that I have an elegant system for marking important passages, making notes to myself, but I don’t. I have switched pens in the middle of a single poem. My books look an awful wreck and it’s all right; I accept it. Still, occasionally, there is a book I love so much and revisit so often that I begin to feel as if I have violated some sort of sacred object.
Kathleen Graber’s collection The Eternal City comes to mind. It is good to be reminded of what, in particular, you have once valued–to sit still and read over your callous handwriting trying to recall if it was a shaky, commuter train, were you a bit drunk, or just eager to get it down before it left you? So I’m sitting here, having flipped the book open partly randomly. It is the 13th page. I have marked part of “Florum Principi” with a black, ballpoint pen:& the light pregnant with something like despair or the sudden stillness along the coast when the tourists have gone. We don’t want to be lonely, but we are. Disappointment? More like the promise of a disappointment we’re disappointed hasn’t come.
I keep reading these lines over, only half-sure I know what they mean. And what did I mean so particularly by marking them? I probably was just relieved to see the word “lonely,” as the lonely often are. And, of course, there is still this loneliness coming and going (mostly staying), but what else? Maybe something in the appellation of melancholy, paradoxically or partially, is what sustains us. Or the fear that by putting it into words, it will cease to be beautiful, that the words will be wrong. I should start at the beginning.
I first got my hands on The Eternal City when I was living in Ireland. I had just read “The Drunkenness of Noah” in The New Yorker, which I loved, but the store had to order it and by the time it came in the blow had dulled–I was increasingly broke, and if not for not my sheepish nature and reluctance to appear rude to a foxy, foreign book clerk, I might not have bought it at all. In “The Drunkenness of Noah,” Graber writes, speaking foremost of her ailing mother:Sometimes we find a way to say what cannot be said. And sometimes we never speak that for which we could only too easily find the sounds.
There are no better words to describe the awe and gratitude that comes over me each time I re-read this collection, a masterpiece that moves from reflection to investigation to ekphrasis to observation and fully back. So perhaps it is fitting that I cannot really say how glad I am to have bought this work that day, instead of mumbling something and leaving the store embarrassed and empty-handed. Which is sort of what I wanted to do at the time.Sometimes we find a way to say what cannot be said. And sometimes we never speak that for which we could only too easily find the sounds.
These are great lines in a great poem, but even more than that, they do such tribute to the aspirations of poetry itself. Words are enough and they are not enough. We face the world in such astounding moments of speech and silence, and literature, at its most successful, can, for a second, transmit the wonderment with which human beings are overtaken with intensity, when we find ourselves caught, inarticulate, in the presence of being.
The Eternal City is guided largely by an exchange with the past, using mythological figures of Augustine and Marcus Aurelius to trigger personal poetics and describe Graber’s experiences and process of inquiry into them. The opening poem “Tolle! Lege!” takes us from a piece of abandoned furniture to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, to a scene glimpsed outside of the speaker’s window as she gathers fragments of a shattered milk bottle and rearranges them, recalling the ancients:Augustine believed he could almost glimpse that greater kingdom wavering before him. Aenigma, he writes, suggesting the face in the mirror, though his mirrors would have been bronze & someone somewhere would have spent all of his days pounding the world into something that small & shiny & thin. And still, it is not easy to make out what is sought.
Is this not what it is to write a poem, or to make anything for that matter? Who has not sought out a vision of a self, experience, or world only to watch it evaporate before it can be fully described? There are many ways of seeking, and poetry is only one example of the soul expressing its primitive desire to recover something lost. Graber muses, “The soul, Augustine reminds us/loving itself, loves what is lost.” So this book becomes a vital, vast act of searching. Much of this search attends overtly to text and the promise it offers: to deliver us from something within ourselves or offer an explanation. Too, Graber warns us of doubleness, “That the truth is both visible and blinding” (from “The Heresies”); “That our lessons may instruct us. That the life of reason will bring us to joy.” We oscillate between the hope that something beyond ourselves may provide us with a satisfying means of schematizing what is within [ourselves] and the warning that, like Leopold Bloom or Odysseus long before him, all roads we take will lead us back to where we’ve started. (“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way around is the shortest way home.”)
Graber’s recurring realizations of this phenomenon, are, however, part-celebratory; again and again, her poems take us through an elliptical search for truth, and while they warn us of the frailty of any single story or version, there is hope in the elegant, dynamic movement of exploration that occurs in language. How remarkable to live among such stories; how eloquent life becomes even/especially while it is excruciating; how magnificent is the act of language each time it falls short of what it aspires to capture or preserve!
Both the elevated and insufficient qualities of language are perhaps addressed most directly in “What I Meant to Say,” a particularly candid, confessional piece in which Graber addresses a student she watched packing and muses upon running into him while, she, herself, prepares to leave one place for another. The poem describes several levels of recollection, and, is, itself, a recollection.
Soon no one will know what I mean when I speak.
Last month, after graduation, a student stopped me just outside
the University gates despite a downpour. He wanted to tell me
that he loved best James Schuyler’s poem for Auden.
So much to remember, he recited in the rain, as the shops
began to close their doors around us. I thought he would live
a long time. He did not. Then, a car loaded with his friends
pulled up honking & he hopped in. There was no chance to linger
This is my favorite part of the poem, perhaps one of my favorite parts of the book. (Though who needs to choose? It is a common fallacy to think we are always so in need of choosing. I digress.) What I like so much is the way memory saturates the language over and over. I like when people recite poems. And sometimes it takes a very long time for us to understand something that seems quite obvious. We do not live forever. So much of life passes by us so quickly, or jumps in a car and gone before we can stop to think of it, so it is good to recall it later in a poem. There is so much to remember and so much we pass by or forget. I like the universal quality of that thought, and of the poem, which, triggered by a moment of departure, strikes me as particularly resonant to all of us, who are, everyday, committing acts of leaving.
Maybe a poem is what happens when we realize we are not fully ready to leave yet. We are always moving out of one instance and into another. “I’m going away for a long time,” Graber reflects, “but it may not be forever. There are tragedies I haven’t read.” Or to put it another way, as in the poem’s conclusion: “Kyle, bundle up. You’re right. It’s hard to simply say what is true.”
The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber is available from Princeton University Press.