Vol. 3 No. 4, Winter 1998/1999 (#12)

Quarry

Joanna Rawson

University of Pittsburgh Press ($12.95)

by Juliet Patterson

When we describe a poet as sincere, we usually mean a poet who is in some way "telling the truth": a poet self-confessional in strictly autobiographical terms. This often takes for granted the identification of the poet with the speaker. But sincerity, as Ezra Pound explained, is more than a demonstrated ability to reach "the truth" in poems. Pound described sincerity as something measured by the poet's willingness to suspend that kind of truth in hopes of self-discovery. This is another way of saying, perhaps, that sincerity is marked by the poet's interest in a transformation of self, and that truth in art is generated only by the practice of this ambition.

Of course, there's no test for truth in art, but reading the poems in Joanna Rawson's debut collection Quarry, one could be convinced that there might be. The assured maturity of Rawson's voice and the sincere power of her imagery are enough to guide us back to the idea that the artist's task is the transformation of the actual to the true. The power of her book also lies in the blending of existential issues with daily life; Rawson has found a way to think into the human heart and does so with great lucidity and sensual detail. Consider the opening stanza of "Shard Camp":

Barefoot in a slip in the midst of all this fervency.
In the long grasses tasseling against chill
aspens shake in the flagrant
din of the century.
Blackbirds blast a downdraft over the grove
like a helicopter squadron from the war
(or a movie about the war).
Women wade to their waists with laundry,
the white nylon garments stick like aquatic mucus
to their thighs. Daylilies blast open,
fleshy, reckless, humans.

Reading these poems one is also reminded of the compulsion of myth, where perception is impregnated with extreme emotional qualities, where whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere of joy, of grief, of anguish, of excitement. "Shard Camp," for example, continues, "The kids lay their brains in a row, / in a strip of clearing, you'd think / following some instruction. / No end to bodies scattered all over this place- / pebbles, facts."

Mallarmé said, "Things exist, we don't have to create them, we simply have to see their relationships. Our external and only problem is to seize relationships and intervals, however few or multiple." Rawson's work follows just such a tract, moving toward the elimination of all obstacles of memory, history, and geometry, between poet and idea, between idea and observer. These poems are transactions, transfigurations, and ultimately, transformations. This is a promising debut by a poet who will certainly find a place in the front rank of poetry.

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Winter 1998 Table of Contents