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Poets of Notre Dame

Jeff Roessner

Robert Archambeau, Citation Suite (Wild Honey Press, 1997.)
Beth Ann Fennelly, A Different Kind of Hunger (Texas Review Press, 1998.)
Stephen Tapscott, From the Book of Changes (Carcanet, 1997.)

       Though rooted in the spoken word, poetry can easily become a silent art form shunted into the usually hushed space of the art gallery or behind the closed doors of a theater. And given the often less than dramatic self-presentation of poets, it is easy to lose sight of evolving traditions. It's only with the release of a collection such as The Space Between: Poets from Notre Dame in 1990 that the legacy of writers nurtured in a particular place begins to emerge. Still, such a volume risks giving the impression that the tradition is finished, sealed between covers and neatly shelved in the library. Three releases within the past year, however, suggest that this is far from the case at Notre Dame. Each at different stages of their careers and each with a distinct poetic sensibility, Robert Archambeau, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Stephen Tapscott offer ambitious books that suggest the vital work being done by writers who came of age at the university.
       In his first chapbook, Citation Suite, Robert Archambeau engages in a dialogue with the works of an eclectic assemblage of past writers and philosophers, including Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Plato, and V.S. Naipaul. In this complex intertextual web, Archambeau attempts to "catch the words and letters left by others,/lay them, as this story, side by side." Although the lyric "I" recedes here-at one point the speaker claims, "I would be an author with no name"-this innovative sequence reveals the poet's vision of contemporary urban experience filtered through the lens of the literary and philosophical past.
       Archambeau's Suite contains four sections, each of which begins with two sizable quotations and then proceeds to interrogate or answer them. For example, after citing the well-known passage from Woolf's To the Lighthouse concerning Mr. Ramsay's ambition to take philosophy beyond the letter Q, the speaker of the poem asks, "Who made your alphabet?" And when referring to Plato's allegory of the cave, the speaker inquires, "Who dreams beneath your city?" The linear "alphabet" of metaphysics and the underworld of dreams beneath the city-these are the thematic strands woven throughout Archambeau's evocative work. As the poem progresses, the characters and images from the citations accumulate; they form a palimpsest that includes unsettling passages, such as the one that places Mr. Ramsay in Plato's cave:

       Imagine Mr. Ramsay in a cavernous chamber,
       groping down a passage to the light.

       Imagine the corridor is longer than he expected.
       Imagine him groping there still.

       Ramsay's fumbling search through Plato's cave in fact stands as a central image in the poem: it suggests the nearly impossible attempt to account for contemporary experience using a philosophical alphabet from the ancient past.
       Although he uses citation as a structuring principle for the poem, Archambeau never simply celebrates the insular play of language, but insists on the human context of the words quoted and stories told. At its most compelling, the sequence juxtaposes the literary and philosophical quotations with a contemporary landscape:

       Who sleeps beneath your city, now?
       Homeless, broken, crazy,
       down tunnels under Lake Shore Drive,
       down in the subways, underpasses-yes, I see.

       Yes, there: I can demonstrate.
       Who made your alphabet?
       There, scrawled on the El train.

       Those spray paint letters we cannot read.

       Reframing Plato's allegory in a scene of urban blight, the poem interrogates the tradition of metaphysical philosophy, asking how it can be made relevant to the contemporary city-scape. Never shying from such difficult questions, Archambeau's Citation Suite is a provocative sequence from an original poet.
       Less experimental formally than Archambeau's work, Beth Ann Fennelly's A Different Kind of Hunger is a selection of poems no less accomplished. Having published her verse in a host of national magazines, Fennelly here collects these works into a volume published as the winner of the Texas Review Poetry Chapbook Competition. Her work has been generously praised by writers from Miller Williams to James Whitehead, and rightly so. Reflecting a subtle eye for telling visual details and a keen ear for the music of language, this volume marks the arrival of an important poetic talent.
       Perhaps the most striking aspect of Fennelly's work is her gift for creating vivid characters through their speech. Indeed, the most successful poems in the collection are those in which she allows a diverse range of speakers to take the stage. Here, for example, is a French woman reflecting on the siege of Paris:

       . . . .It's strange how fresh
       the siege is in my mind, as if my life's composed
       of those eight months. I think we keep ourselves
       so tightly wrapped we never see our spools.
       We saw them, clear as skeletons, that time.
       What's wrong? What's right? To live was right. To know
       that you could take the heart and eat it raw.

       As in this poem, many of the works here give voice to those-particularly women-traditionally at the sidelines of history. One poem presents a letter to Gauguin from a daughter he'd left behind in France; another reports a conversation between Milton's daughter Mary and a visitor who has come to pay his respects to her recently deceased father. Written from such oblique angles, the poems reflect Fennelly's deft handling of perspective as she explores the lives of those who made sacrifices so that others could write and paint.
       The dramatic quality so evident in Fennelly's work is complemented well by her focus on Eastern European subjects. She spent a year teaching English in the Czech Republic, and the poems written about that experience reflect a remarkable depth of insight into daily life in that part of the world:

       The women wheel-barrow home to fishermen
       waiting with faces caught in the nets of their hands
       for a meal of rice, maybe a few mussels
       boiled until the tongues burst through the shells.

       Or here again:

       . . . We will walk
       past the Capuchin cathedral, the chandeliers made
       from bones of monks, under which newlyweds
       duck fistfuls of coins, a tunnel cheaper than rice.

       The dynamic sense of life distilled in Fennelly's verse, along with her gifted use of personae, provide clear evidence of her unique and compelling voice. Amply demonstrating her talent, the chapbook leaves the reader with the promise of more exceptional work in the future.
       As the title of Stephen Tapscott's third work, From the Book of Changes, suggests, his poetry concerns transformations of all kinds-in nature, in the body, and most especially in desire. The furthest along in his career of the poets reviewed here, Tapscott has edited a collection of Latin American poets and translated Pablo Neruda. In this volume of original work, he presents poems steeped in memory, and offers a reflective point of view on the changes associated with maturing. The poem "At the Last Judgment" epitomizes how the past haunts the present in this collection:

       At the last judgment, when the blind angel
       winds our lives back slowly on her spool.

       I will ask her to stop
       for a moment here-it is years since-because

       I do not understand, and surely I will need to explain.

       Throughout, Tapscott seems to be imagining a future when-as he glances back over a completed life-he will try to understand and explain. The result is a vividly descriptive set of poems that reflects the accumulation of memories to be sorted through as he ages.
       Written mainly in couplets that range in length from a few words to Whitmanian extravagance, the poems are not linked narratively around a specific memory or event. Rather, similar to W.B. Yeats in "Circus Animals Desertion," Tapscott takes desertion-by the imagination and by desire-as his subject, and it is this theme that unifies the volume. But while Yeats struggled with hopes of recovering his youthful fervor in the heart's rag and bone shop, Tapscott never labors under the illusion that he will re-inhabit his former self. Instead, the poems register surprise at and attempt to make sense of his shifting priorities: he notes, "I work with less / to prove. I try to be decent." And he sets out to explore the reasons for his changed perspective: "Because it's too late now to die young and beautiful: because I try / to tell the unstrategic truth now, in a quieter voice."
       In fact, the clearest consolation for the lost urgency of youth is the emergence of this quieter, more contemplative self. The poems consistently offer a place in which the speaker cultivates such a state of mindfulness:

       . . . from now on
       not knowing must be your sidelong clue:

       if you want to find it,
       you may not look for the morelle.

       to find it you must do nothing
       with your whole attention . . . .

       It will not be growing where you found it last.
       Even to wish violates.

       Such attentiveness is an apt metaphor for Tapscott's approach to nature in these poems. While releasing the ambition to bend the world to his will, he revels in meditative descriptions that are the source of his strongest work: he writes of "a lake-rain, hardened / by thickening July. And the ailanthus accepted its part / of the storm across the leaves." Similarly, he describes how trees "withdraw, leaving vivid / reds, then brown, then a clarity / that is neither colour nor the absence of colour."
       Although possessing a keen eye for such detail, Tapscott does not treat nature sentimentally, nor are the poems presented as naively personal lyrics. With the same subtle awareness he trains on the natural world, he investigates the construction of his own identity-a pursuit often signaled by self-referential asides: "Tapscott's current position is: limits permit. / Because I am sick of the privileges of I: his stratagems, his positionings." To escape the pitfalls of such self-preoccupation, the speaker imagines himself absorbed into the larger community of humankind that his life comes to represent: "I know I am only one man, / but tonight I am dreaming the dream of my century." Ultimately, in seeking to comprehend the process of change that is his life, he sees himself as "telling the old stories over, making my life a metaphor of a life."
In this work, Tapscott shows himself to be a keen observer of the subtle shades of memory that comprise a life. Having forged a successful poetic career by making such metaphors, he stands as an example of where Archambeau and Fennelly could be in a decade or so as each continues to advance the living tradition of poetry fostered at Notre Dame.