Brokenness haunts the pages of Kathleen Graber’s new collection of poems, The Eternal City, chosen by Paul Muldoon to re-introduce the distinguished Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. An award-winning poet who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, Graber has drawn her poetic inspiration from Mark Doty, Charles Wright and Stephen Dunn, among other contemporary writers. Graber’s work focuses on illuminating the life of the mind through a tapestry of richly drawn and arresting images.
In Graber’s poems, past, present, and future states of mind are coexistent with real and imagined worlds. This adds complex layering to her elegant and well-crafted long lines. In the poem “The Magic Kingdom,” death and loss mingle with memories of childhood games, and girls in gingham dresses are the ones who foretell the damage that lies ahead: Oh no. You forgot to say forever!
The opening lines of "Some Great Desire" offer additional insight into the poet's general theme for this collection:
Because here is not here anymore, meaning what was once
at Konigsplatz has been moved to Grosser Stern,
. . . soon enough
I'll learn that I've been looking in the wrong place,
but no matter, for whatever figures from the Siegesallee
remained after the bombings were carted off . . .
While there is unmistakable regret in what has been “carted off,” things nevertheless continue to exist, occupying a landscape of the mind, as recorded history, personal memory, or even yet to be realized dream imagery. Shape-shifting and particularity-making, Graber's themes encompass a vast array of subjects, from religious iconography to graffiti to placards of state bureaucracy, yet in her skillful hands, the images cohere and we travel with her, those 285 spiral steps of the Siegessaule.
In the poem “Dead Man,” a shadow exists alongside the speaker’s newborn nephew:
Sometimes we coo to soothe him: Don’t cry, Little Bird, I know, I know.
But only the roar of the vacuum finally calms him,
for nothing sounds as much
like the lost world of the womb as the motors of our machines.
The root of travel means torture, having passed from Medieval Latin
The intention of the poet to attach the words “vacuum” to “womb” and “torture” is as stark as their placements, one atop the other. We are meant to read them as connected in some way, and while Graber does not spell out the connection, through the long, broken lines, a shadow lingers. And later in the book we read:
Yesterday, I read about a genetic disorder:
the afflicted are driven to hurt themselves & those they love.
Graber is passionately concerned with the nature of intelligence and the human capacity for sinful or irrational choice. In “The Third Day” Graber tells the familiar tale of Augustine and the stolen pears with poetic precision:
so ugly, inedible, in fact, that he knew, even as he took them,
that there were better ones at home. It is difficult to say
what he means by unmaking, but this is what sin is & does,
he warns, as we stray, disordered, away from the perfection
which made us toward the nothing from which we are made.
Is evil something that exists in itself, or is it instead the absence of the good? Graber’s poem addresses Augustine’s view of “unmaking” as disintegration and decline. It seems we settle for sin until we, like the prodigal son, begin even to envy the pigs their pods. Lost in longing,
we fill our hands when they are
empty. We empty ourselves when we have held too much too long.
In “The Synthetic A Priori,” Graber demonstrates her skill in moving the reader from a present event to an imagined past to larger themes and focusing attention on the specific elements she wants to represent:
At a church rummage sale, I study the perfection of shadows
in a painting by Caravaggio, although what I hold
is only a small print of Christ—its frame broken—dining
at Emmaus with three of the Apostles.
Never mind that the biblical story isn’t told quite right, her skillful use of syntax and her pacing of the drama keep us engaged. Even without a formal rhythmic underpinning, the impression gained from reading her work is to have come across something elegantly crafted and almost classical in form. Further down in the poem, she moves from concrete images to the abstract with equal proficiency:
that rich, convincing darkness. As though the master understood
that the obscured world only seems to us somehow
even more familiar, as though our sense of our own unknowing
had at last been made visible—even if what we do not know
cannot itself be seen.
Her ability with metaphor is masterful. Consider this startling image from the prologue poem: “Tolle! Lege!” where conversion is described as something whole but wholly shattered in the moment just before breaking. Both Augustine and St. Paul, converts for whom the prior world broke completely, could be imagined concurring:
What I know of conversion
I learned while cleaning the sticky shelves of the icebox,
A glass sheet exploding as one end hit the sink’s hot suds.
For a single moment, as fissures crackled along the body,
I held something both whole & wholly shattered,
Then, form gave way, it broke a second time, & was gone.
Additional shattering follows:
my own reflection in a heavy mirror affixed to a wall
I smashed it & packed my pockets with as much of myself
as I could.
With all the seriousness of her themes, Graber has a sense of humor, too. Who can’t smile when coming across these lines from “The Heresies”:
And in Jenkintown, a man is trying to achieve ethical ecstasy,
having given away all of his money to charity
Sometimes Graber’s images are so tightly packed that they arrive like subway cars at rush hour, with no room for the passengers waiting on the platform. Sometimes they are so specific that the two pages of notes at the conclusion of her work are only somewhat helpful in unpacking the poems.
Graber’s words require careful reading and rereading. Poems impose a logic of symbols, an ordering of argument, with enough clues to keep the reader on track. There is a unique satisfaction in following a set of images, rhythms, and voicing to get the effect of what Emily Dickinson called “saying it slant.”
Layers of meaning attach to Graber's carefully wrought lines. In one of the later poems, she writes:
In three weeks I will be gone. Already my suitcase stands
overloaded at the door. I’ve packed, unpacked, & repacked it,
making it tell me again & again what it couldn’t hold.
And also from “The Heresies”:
That the truth is both visible & blinding. That the alloyed belly of the world—
nickel & iron—poured from the great madness of Wisdom, who,
expelled from the Divine Light for seeking the cause of what is cause-less,
wants now only to be rejoined with what she had lost.
A brilliant new voice is calling out from these exquisitely drawn verses.
Losana Boyd is the Executive Director of Creative & Marketing Services at First Things. She recently completed her MFA in poetry from Hunter College in New York City.