Katherine E. Young



The Late Style of Ann Knox:  An Appreciation

 

I met Ann Knox in the summer of 2006 when I was invited to join a poetry group of which she was already a member.  At the time, Ann was finishing the series of poems that was to become the chapbook Reading the Tao at Eighty; several of those poems were later reworked for Ann's last published collection, breathing in, on which she collaborated with photographer Rona Chang.  It was only after Ann's unexpected death in the spring of 2011 that I learned about the Eve poems, a number of which exist in drafts dated between 2004 and 2005.  While some of the poems have been published individually, the chapbook as a whole appears here for the first time as Eve Learns the Word Want.

 

The loss of Ann is immense, palpable; my world feels diminished without her.  At various memorial services for Ann during the last year, people have spoken movingly about her dedication as a teacher, her insight as a colleague, and her generosity as a friend.  In my own case, Ann tactfully and movingly offered support during a particularly difficult period when other, ostensibly closer, friends made themselves scarce.  It's not enough, however, to remember Ann as simply a wise and kindly friend, a selfless teacher, or a gracious hostess (Ann earned her hostess stripes the hard way, as a diplomat's wife):  Ann lived!  She wrote, she traveled, she maintained a cabin on the Pennsylvania border until the day she died.  There was a constant sense of motion and discovery about her; her long, straight hair was pinned by a barrette to the back of her head, an arrangement from which one or two strands always seemed to be escaping.  She had traveled widely, experience that showed in her choice of clothing: she favored vests and jackets in exotic patterns of ikat or block print or embroidery on natural fabric, often accompanied by chunky metal or bead necklaces. She loved dogs, and they loved her back.  She wore large, owlish glasses, from which she might, if you were lucky, gaze at you as if you were the most important person in the universe.  Her D.C. apartment was filled with books, artwork, kaleidoscopes, seedpods, stone axe heads, various natural and man-made treasures that often found their way into her poems.  Into her ninth decade, Ann actively cultivated a vibrant, vital life that included a hint of sauciness, a naughtiness all her own.


Like their creator, Ann's poems revel in complexity, even ambiguity; if you're seeking easy maxims, you've come to the wrong poet.  Ann's recent collections can be characterized as reflective, philosophical, even spiritual—though in very different ways from the Eve poems, as I'll suggest below.  Never dull, of course: Ann's Tao poems, in particular, exhibit the smooth, flowing grace of a river stone being shaped by water.  She's one of a very few poets whose poems I read over and over again.      


One simple way to consider the Eve poems is to define what they're not (a technique Ann often uses in her work, as in the first line of breathing in's "Clematis":  "We do not touch to say goodbye . . . .").  In the first place, they're obviously not finished; by that, I mean that Ann was working on them at her death, and that they are less polished than work she saw through to publication.  The manuscript contains punctuation, tense, and one or two evident errors of spelling and word choice that Ann undoubtedly would have corrected had she lived; fortunately, none of these detracts from the collection as a whole.  More important is the subject matter of the Eve poems: simply put, these poems are not what one might expect from the poet of Reading the Tao at Eighty and breathing in.  In tackling the Biblical story of the fall from grace, Ann reexamines territory where she has often seemed at home—the unbreakable connection between humans and the natural landscape—from an unexpected and somewhat dissonant perspective.  The Eve poems are a departure from Ann's habitual "key" or "register" in the Tao poems.  Eve's voice here is by turns sharp, didactic, impatient, critical, uncertain.  The poems are only rarely humorous, their themes often disquieting.  In sum, these poems are not as gracious or composed as Ann's other recent work.  Their wisdom is not comfortable.


Herein lies a seeming paradox:  anxious, uncomfortable poems written by a poet in her late seventies and early eighties, a woman whose other "late" poems exemplify the qualities of sagacity and polish more commonly associated with age.  In this essay, I want to examine the form and several major themes of the Eve poems (ideas I'm lumping under the heading of "style" for reasons that will soon become clear), see how the poems fit in the larger context of Ann's work, and explore why I find these poems so troubling and so compelling, reading after reading.


I began by suggesting some of the things the Eve poems are not.  What are they, then?  In his last book, On Late Style (left unfinished at his death), Edward Said explores the concept of an artist's "late style," which he argues can be quite distinct from the style of earlier work.  Said begins by asking, "Does one grow wise with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?"  He goes on to discuss Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, and Wagner, artists whose final works he believes serve as "an apotheosis of artistic creativity and power."  "But what," Said then asks, "of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction?"  Said is particularly interested in examining "nonharmonious, nonserene tension" in the work of great artists, "a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness, going against . . . ."  Said is not arguing that late style is necessarily unpolished (although some of his examples fit that description), but that it can be uneasy and often unexpected.  Many of Said's case studies are drawn from music (Beethoven's late work, Mozart's Così fan tutte), but he also offers a brief "glimpse" of the poet Constantine Cavafy, of whose late work Said remarks, "it has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradictions between them."  In challenging received wisdom about the work produced by older artists, Said offers a rich perspective from which to examine Ann's Eve poems. 


At first glance, the Eve poems don't appear to be much different from Ann's other mature poems.  In terms of form, for example, the Eve poems resemble much of Ann's late work, mostly three- or four-line stanzas making up short poems of usually no more than a single page (in Ann's 1988 collection, Stonecrop, the stanzas tend to be longer and less concentrated).  Ann is always aware of and interested in formal conventions, but never seems constrained by them.  A poem composed of three-line stanzas might suddenly break into a four- or five-line stanza and then go back to its earlier form.  Ann also ends lines where she wants—she once told me she disliked ending her lines with commas, as she expected the line break to provide the pause required by the syntax.  In terms of form, then, the Eve poems, like Ann's other recent work, show us an artist working with her material much as a potter shapes clay, maintaining constant tension between form and function.


In terms of their setting, as I mentioned earlier, the Eve poems continue Ann's abiding interest in the natural world and the roles humans play in nature.  One of her favorite metaphors, used over and over in her writing, is the idea of braiding, plaiting, and weaving to describe how humans interact with the natural world.  Here, she uses "braided" as an adjective in the penultimate stanza of "Fugue," a poem from breathing in about the connectedness of landscape, painting, music, and the human participant:


And akin but not quite congruent,
a braided river crosses and re-crosses
a wide valley, its twisting current
combing eel-grass in slow green waves.

 

For me, the final stanza of "Fugue" represents a perfect microcosm of Ann's voice in much of her later work, from the slight hesitancy expressed in its first line to its insistence on a kind of wild harmony among living creatures (observe her use of "plait" in the third line):

It's not a round, exactly, nothing as precise,
nothing as orderly, but echoes of each
strand plait with bird song, wind-
hush, heartbeat and the body's thrum.


Note the implied sonic parallel:  bird song, windhush, heartbeat, body's thrum.  This is the language of belonging to nature, rather than existing apart from it.


So far, then, one might argue that the Eve poems are really orphans, that they would have grown up to be less gawky and socially awkward had their creator not left them behind.  But that argument doesn't do them justice.  As I've already suggested, these are anxious, ambiguous poems that ask the hardest, most intractable questions:  what is the meaning of life?  How should it be lived?  How do humans see, and does seeing differ from knowing?  Is gender destiny?  What is love, and how should it be practiced?  Unlike Ann's Tao poems (which examine some of the same questions), the Eve poems seem to me to exemplify many of Said's ideas about the "nonharmonious, nonserene" late style of certain artists.  They are full of what Said calls "intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction."  Among the many thematic threads that make up these poems, I want to concentrate on four that seem to me particularly insistent:  Eve's unrepentant thirst for knowledge, the kinds of knowledge that Eve finds meaningful, her intuitive need for context and nuance, and her loneliness.  In these poems, we encounter a woman struggling to make sense of—let alone come to terms with—existence. 

      

The twenty-two Eve poems in this collection are all tied to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, the fall from Paradise, and Adam and Eve's subsequent lives.  All of them are short, most just one page.  The poems range in setting and culture from the Garden of Eden to Paris in the twentieth century.  Ann uses anachronism sparingly, to devastating and witty effect in the poems.  For example, the snake in "Locked Out" rolls Eve a joint and teaches her to breathe in and hold:


Okay, so he was a dealer, but a real
charmer, lithe, elegant as Fred Astaire. 


Twirling his cane and sliding away, the snake joins a cast of shady male characters populating Ann's poems, including a snake oil merchant ("Eve is Bored Then Tempted"), and "a guy who lounged in the Luxembourg" who tempts Eve by buying her an anise ("Adam Says We'll Always Have Paris").  In the title poem, "Eve Learns the Word Want," a garter snake introduces Eve to the Victoria's Secret catalog; eventually, Adam and Eve buy a double-wide trailer and search for satisfaction in Las Vegas.

The trailer-to-Las-Vegas ending of "Eve Learns the Word Want" reminds me of the final stanza of "Flowering," a poem from Stonecrop.  Both poems transport female protagonists from the realm of myth and legend into the humdrum reality of twentieth-century domestic life.  It's not that Ann despises domesticity—many of her poems about family and children are warm and intimate.  But the poems can be emotionally ambiguous; they tend to turn on the narrator's sense of her own satisfaction (or lack thereof).  Ann's gift for nuance is evident in "Flowering," where Cinderella has married her prince:

Cinderella grows plump in a housedress,
her hands smell of garlic, she watches
the kids ride tricycles in the yard
as the prince, on a scrap of rug, wires
the pickup's muffler, and her kitchen windows
gleam with jars of apple, fig and dark red plum.


Here, Cinderella has outlived the first glow of youth and beauty, the Wheel of Fortune prizes; her fate appears happier than Eve's precisely because she's found evident satisfaction in making jam.


Like "Flowering," other poems in Stonecrop prefigure the Eve poems, none more clearly than "Walled Garden."  In the poem, the unnamed female narrator finds herself confined to a garden beyond which grow vines and "strange fruit we have not yet named."  Doves circle overhead, flying in and out of the garden, while a man sleeps beneath a fig tree.  The narrator wants more:


this body wants something hard, some
wild tangle, some far stretch to try
its limbs . . . . 


"Wake up, come!" she cries at the end of the poem, finding a foothold in the ivy on the wall, adding, "I can lift myself up."  If there is a constant theme running throughout Ann's poetry, it's this fundamental curiosity, the search for knowledge and experience that engages not just one's intellect, but the entire human organism.


Sometimes the Eve poems feel a bit like arguments masquerading as poems.  In what is for me the most problematic poem of the collection, "Disclaimer," Ann explicitly asks the reader to see and respect Eve's desire for this thing called knowledge, by which Ann means something akin to sensibility, sensitivity, deep observation, respectful seeking, consciousness.  I have no quarrel with the idea here, but rather with the tone of the poem, which for Ann is strident, somewhat didactic, as if the poet didn't trust herself to be clear in her art.  Similarly, "Child Rearing," an anti-war poem in which the narrator wishes for her grandson to avoid the masculine desire for "having" and instead choose "seeing," strikes me as overly programmed, less subtle and consequently less interesting than Ann's usual work.


"Eve is Bored Then Tempted" carries on the argument with more finesse.  In the poem, the snake nods toward a tree heavy with fruit:


                        Why not?
            The words echo in the empty
            silo of Eve's history.  Why not? 


Citing Cleopatra, Emma Bovary, and Hester Prynne, the narrator exclaims, "we all make choices, aren't we human?"  Running through the argument, however, is a genuine cri de coeur that transcends talking points:  knowledge enhances pleasure.  "Eve is Bored Then Tempted" ends as the apple's flesh


quickens her tongue and new knowing
spreads, rioting through her body—

Molly Bloom's enormous Yes.

In Eve's universe, knowledge—no matter how dearly bought—brings better understanding, compassion, and greater satisfaction to both body and spirit.  Indeed, one might say that in the broader universe of Ann's poems, the greatest sin (my word, not Ann's) is a lack of curiosity.


But curiosity is a strange beast.  In the Eve poems, Ann explicitly divides curiosity into "listing" and "seeing" to distinguish the differing ways Adam and Eve make sense of the world around them.  Ann frames those contrasting approaches starkly:  Adam wants to impose order and logic on the world by naming and listing its elements, while Eve desires simply to observe and experience what exists.  It's the difference between the individual and the collective, or perhaps between male and female, as the narrator hints in "Eve is Bored and Then Tempted":


When she asked Adam, he went on and on
about a void, about separating night and day,
land and water.  Nothing useful, nothing

about family or the collective unconscious.


Note the contrasting styles of Adam and Eve:  Adam seeks knowledge to divide, while Eve seeks knowledge to comprehend.


One of Ann's major themes as a writer is the need for something to push against, the shadow that provides background and context for light.  Throughout the Eve poems, she embraces exactly the kind of contradictory tension Said finds compelling in the late work of certain artists.  In "Against the Grain," Ann explores Eve's desire to define what is "good," but also her developing understanding that "good" is only one, and perhaps not even the most interesting, flavor of life.  Towards the end of the poem, Eve experiences a "darkness" in her chest:


She needs a word for this counter, this
running against, for the not, the un,
the Dis—disquiet, discomfort, disagree.


The poem's last stanza is explicit about Eve's need for background, texture, context:


Without a reversal she has no way
to shape meaning for what seems
missing, but if here all is perfect,
what is she reaching for?


The inherent limitations of perfection are also manifest in "Restless," which begins with a bored Eve peeling an orange and chucking the peel over her shoulder.   She wants "something to press against" in a place where everything is just fine; she imagines storms, drought, Adam breaking a leg. Adam, whose rigid, domineering, unresponsive persona looms large in these poems, doesn't seem to mind perfection, but Eve is curious:  if God has created knowledge, why isn't she allowed to know?  What, indeed, is so sacred about an apple?  Eve constantly seeks to open Adam's mind, not least to the duality of shame and sex, clothing and nakedness, and the pleasures of each, commenting in "What I Miss about the Garden" on the oddity of God's choice to couple shame with pleasure in a punishment that "eats inward."  Still, she sounds a defiant note:  "I don't regret my choice."


"What I Miss about the Garden" ends in heartbreak and self-discovery:


When the gate clanged closed behind us, I saw
Adam was beautiful, other, and that we were
separate and I was a self, my self.


Indeed, essential, existential loneliness courses through the Eve poems.  Adam is inattentive to Eve, shushes her questions, goes off alone to make his endless lists.  Eve herself rejects her firstborn, Cain, another questing, angry soul more in her own image than his father's.  "Eve Considers Death," retells the story of Abel's death and his mother's discovery of his body.  Eve wonders what it is that disappears, leaving behind the body.  Even in her grief for her child, she cannot escape the primacy of the self:  in the poem's last line, she wonders what will be left behind when she is gone. 


What do any of us leave behind?  The final Eve poem, "Bed," examines old age and a life of compromises.  Adam labors up the stairs, refusing to admit that he's off-balance or short of breath, while Eve locks up for the night.  Standing at the bedroom door a bit later, Eve notes


Adam's steady breath, the Appalachian ridge of him,
old and worn down now, like herself.

 

She catalogs her own infirmities, "unfastens from the day's tasks," and "reaches across the rift to Adam," likening their two bodies to worn rock, each "eroded in its own way."  No resolution here, just resignation.  There's commonality, of course, in having weathered life together, but the poem ends simply, without sentiment:  "two bodies at rest." 


As is clear from that last, devastating line, these poems confront anger and hurt.  As a group, they often feel raw, and not only because Ann left them unfinished.   "And All the Days That Adam Lived" begins with hurt:


No word about Eve after Seth's conception,
only Adam begot sons and daughters


as if Adam had done it all by himself.  In "Two Sons" Eve confesses that Abel's absence has "gentled and dimmed," but that "the thought of Cain ripped her like a cry in the night."  In "Eve Loses Her Dog," a poem in which the lost dog represents other losses that still wound, the final stanza looks both backward and ahead:


Odd how one loss weaves with another
braiding, gathering stems into a wreath of sorrow.
From the doorway she looks across the hayfield
to woods, the edge of the hills, the limitless sky.


Only that single adjective, "limitless," hints at a place beyond despair.


Elsewhere in this edition of Innisfree, Rosemary Winslow has made a poem from the last lines of Ann's poems in Reading the Tao at Eighty—one of Ann's consummate skills as a writer is knowing how to end a poem.  Look, though, at how the Eve poems end:  many with questions, some with dissatisfaction, others in guilt, a number in resignation.  But Eve never stops wanting to feel, to see, to know.  She never regrets her choice.  Like Eve, the Ann I knew was defiantly self-reliant, willing to drive herself and her dog alone to Alaska or to spend the summer alone in a cabin.  Reading Rosemary and Ann's poem, I am reminded of Ann's work in Stonecrop, a collection that includes poems on the collapse of a marriage, wounds inflicted in the name of love, and the death of a child.  Here are two exquisitely beautiful lines that begin the second stanza of "Sea Wall":


Before the first loss, love had no name
and fear was absent as wind here is absent.


Love, loss, fear:  in Ann's world, all are preferable to sterile perfection.  In its deliberate lack of sentimentality and clear-eyed examination of human frailty, "Sea Wall," like the Eve poems, supports Said's argument for the sophistication of "nonharmonious, nonserene tension," of disenchantment rendered with pleasure, of leaving contradictions unresolved.  Ann Knox's Eve poems remind us just how much wisdom costs, how dearly knowledge is bought.  These extraordinary, uneasy poems from a brave and searching writer are a testament to the human spirit in all its complexity.



 



Katherine E. Young's poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and many others. She has published two chapbooks and was a finalist for the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize (U.S.).  Her translation of Russian poet Inna Kabysh won a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize.










                                    

 

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