The Aftersound: A Review of New Poetry and Pandemic Inconclusiveness, in Letters

Discussed: Fieldglass by Catherine Pond, The Complete Stories by Noah Warren, and Mutiny by Phillip B. Williams

Maria Hummel is the author of House and Fire, winner of the APR/Honickman Prize, and four novels, most recently, Lesson in Red. She teaches at the University of Vermont. Jenn Habel is the author of The Book of Jane, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and Good Reason, which won the Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. She lives in Cincinnati. Jenn and Maria met in graduate school in Greensboro, NC, probably on someone’s front porch on South Carr Street, or maybe at the College Hill bar, or in Stuart Dischell’s workshop. The origins are unclear, but they’ve remained friends ever since. 


March 4

Dear Jenn:

We’ve had slush on the sidewalks and robins in the yard this week, signs that winter is ending. I have regarded them with my usual suspicion. Winter does not end easily in Vermont—it lashes and lingers long past anyone’s patience with it, and we save our bitterest faces for that awful, ice-blasted day in late April. 

All this practice with bad endings makes me wary and hopeful about COVID. When will we know it’s really over? A few weeks ago, I proposed that you and I confront the dread and ennui of waiting by becoming ending-obsessed, to find some new poetry books by younger poets and to see if some conversation—with our culture, with our era, with poetry itself—could be found in the endings of their poems. It is this kind of desperately solitary communal task that replaces a social life these days, but I’m looking forward to it.

I started with Catherine Pond’s Fieldglass, a luminous collection of poems that circle around relationships. David St. John compares Pond’s work to the first books of Louise Glück. I see the connection too—Pond’s lines are taut and imagistic, and the narratives often harbor dark betrayals and stark moments of beauty. That said, I feel like Pond is laying bare a different emotional subject matter: a complicated love for other women and how this figures in self-love. There’s an air of tragedy and fatalism to many of her poems, but not self-pity, which makes them addictive to read and interesting to consider for their endings. 

To get “granular,” as people love to say lately, I made a list of some common types of endings I found in Fieldglass.* 

the simile: an explicit comparison, usually of an emotion to an image, “like summer rain”

statement of magnitude: often begins with “how,” as in “How fast. And with how many hulls.”

statement of interpretation: the poet reflects on meaning, “Happiness was there, though out of reach, like a river”

statement of contradiction: the poet counters a prior assertion, unsettling it, “But when I part the leaves, he is already there, answering me in my own voice”

address to the reader: breaking the fourth wall with a statement like “I’m not asking permission”

action suspended in time: a present-tense sentence in which a subject acts, “I reach for it,” “a tarn vanishes behind the jack pines”**

quote: as in, “When you write your mother, he said. Remember to tell her how happy we are.”

When I look at this list, I think I need to say something about what Pond’s endings do, not just what they are. Many poems in this aptly titled collection conclude on seeing through, on translucence, on glass. I like how this leaves me looking inward and outward at the same time. What are you finding?

the end,

*This list is purely about syntax and types of assertions, and doesn’t take into account the sonic qualities of an ending—i.e. that a writer can be using sound to make or avoid resolution.

**There is a pervasive subset of these in which birds act. Have you noticed how often the flight of a bird will end a poem? Or a wingbeat. Less interest paid to pecking and beaks.


March 9

Dear Maria, 

A line from Fieldglass feels relevant as I imagine an “end” to the pandemic: “Nothing ever really breaks, though force can cause a flexible object to deform.” In what ways, I’ve begun to wonder, have I been deformed by this year? 

I read Fieldglass straight through, riveted. Pond’s voice is lyrical and lucid; simultaneously passionate and austere. In terms of her endings, I was struck by how many poems conclude with monosyllabic words (36 out of 44, if I’ve counted correctly). Many of these are nouns: boat, mist, hand, room, glass, legs, voice, pines, etc. And rain—a central image in this book. 

One ending that stood out to me is that of “Riding the Bus Back to Oxford,” a poem that begins, “I wish I was a lesbian, she said. I tried, you know.” In this brief poem—just ten lines—Pond succeeds in revealing a great deal about the dynamic between the speaker and her companion, whom I take to be or have been her lover, just as outside the bus window a field “was revealing itself.” Before napping, the speaker’s companion apologizes to her: “I’m sorry, she said. / I just miss him.” Here is the poem’s conclusion: “Later, she woke from a nap// to the sound of rain and touched her head gently / to my shoulder. Don’t get sick of me, she said.” What I like about this ending, in addition to its understatement, is being left in a charged space. The “after” of this poem—its afterspace or aftersound—is, for me, buzzing with emotion. Another way of saying this is that this poem continues on after its last line. And another way is that the poem concludes without being conclusive. Pond’s endings are typically more conclusive than this one and, as you note, often reveal something seen. Fieldglass is a book of looking and seeing. In it love itself is defined as “telescope glass: you can see across to the other side.” Throughout, Pond depicts what she has seen with acuity and nerve. 

And now I have a question for you: What do you make of the provocative title of Noah Warren’s second book: The Complete Stories? I was immediately struck by the skepticism it induces—for how can a collection of stories (by a living writer) be complete any more than individual ones can be “whole” or “true”?   

I decided not to allow myself to skip forward to read the two poems called “The Complete Stories.” I am committed to reading the book in order, but I keep rereading the first section—especially the first two poems. Although we are loosely focused on endings in this correspondence, I want to take a moment to say how much I like “Get up, Brian says,” as the first line of a book of poems. Now that I type it, I realize that it sounds more like the first line of a book of fiction. 

“Get up” returns in the second poem: “Look what you’ve done, / it’s your bed, said my mother // to my father, who was trying to get up / off the floor, reeking of Listerine.” In this poem, “Wall Mice,” the speaker is linked to his father—first subtly through this phrase that the reader remembers from the previous poem in which the speaker struggles to rise (“Love is a hole / I lie in.”). And then in the last three stanzas explicitly. Each of these stanzas is end-stopped and each could function as the end of this poem. But Warren presses on from possible endings—“In that one, I kept Father apart from my loneliness” and “I was able to sleep like that”—to arrive at “I could feel it. I felt the huge jewels falling into me.” These huge jewels are pieces of glaciers that have “calved”—about which the speaker’s father talked to him in childhood. The word “calved” speaks to the previous poem, to the fact of a child the speaker and his lover “declined,” and the image of ice falling into the speaker resonates backwards through this poem and the preceding one, illuminating and complicating them. It might be fair to say the image “falls into” the preceding pages. A wonderful ending, I think. 

I look forward to reading the rest of this book and your thoughts on it. 

In my end is your beginning—


March 18

Dear Jenn: 

So now get up is actually the first line of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, which has twice won the Booker Prize for its masterful depiction of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. In the opening scene, the young Thomas lies on the ground, beaten by his drunken father, who commands him to rise. So now get up.

It’s curious that Noah Warren’s stunning second collection opens with this same command, because it is also, I think, a book that questions the compulsion to author oneself, to make oneself writ large. Reading The Complete Stories, I admire how sharply Warren investigates the incompleteness of most narrative-making, what novels and personal histories leave out, and how often important versions of a life are cast away in the search for its meaning. This exploration happens in poems that overtly address the making of fictions, like “Novel,” but also in “Wall Mice,” which you mentioned has multiple endings, as if the poet can’t stop revising his vision of the past.

The Complete Stories crescendos on this theme with the long, layered poem, “On Value,” about Warren’s famous grandfather, Robert Penn Warren, and the lives he inhabited as author and man. In it, the child Noah sits on his elder’s lap, reading aloud, and leads his blind grandfather to a grove. These tender, evocative scenes alternate with a consideration of his grandfather’s work—a racist essay that Robert Penn Warren later recanted, and his “best poem,” a sequence on the naturalist John James Audubon, who cultivated his own mythology as the lost Dauphin of France. “On Value” showcases Noah Warren’s particular gifts of intertwining personal reflection with a profound intellectual scope, but never losing his lines’ subtleties or lyric surprise. 

You asked what I thought of the provocation of calling a book The Complete Stories. I agree there’s an ironized stance to it, and yet I found the two poems with this title deeply moving and honest. 

One takes place at a party where people are sharing stories of human frailty (Ashbery has a heart-wrenching cameo) and the conversation turns to how to live well and intimately as a writer, always hauling your doubled self—the one who narrates and the one who lives. 

“… [T]hat gap / has always haunted me,” confesses the speaker, “the silent self always judging out of pain, the self in the world fickle / trying to make sense of what it’s done.” His listener, a woman who has lost her sister to ALS, is not impressed with this candor, however: “Maybe, she said, and it’s true, vulnerability often doesn’t work, nor is it often true.” 

My first thought was: what a harsh, smart comeback! My second was to ponder the woman’s refusal to lionize the artist’s gift and burden. What makes her skeptical? Aren’t we all this skeptical nowadays? Does any writer older than twenty-two believe without reservation in their own calling? So why does it hurt to hear this doubt aloud? The last words of the poem are indicting when lifted from their full sentence: “… we don’t believe, and don’t comfort us.” And yet the clause that introduces them has a forgiving tone (“it’s possible… with bravery… even as we fail”)—an ending that feels well-suited to 2021. 

I’m just following one thread in the complex weave of this collection. What stood out to you?



April 1

Dear Maria,

Do you know Jack Spicer’s poem that begins “Any fool can get into an ocean / But it takes a Goddess / To get out of one”?  That truth about oceans, Spicer writes, is also true of poems. And labyrinths. He concludes: “Any Greek can get you into a labyrinth / But it takes a hero to get out of one / What’s true of labyrinths is true of course / Of love and memory. When you start remembering.” 

The organization of The Complete Stories leads me to see Warren’s speaker as tentatively, provisionally, extricating himself from a labyrinth of memory, one containing considerable grief and loss. Here are the final two stanzas with which he “gets out” of the book: 

Most of my life I would not believe the heart of life was making pasta
with a few people, sipping maybe two glasses of wine. In the evenings, when I was a child,
I played chess and backgammon with my father. To his credit, he never let me win.
We took a poll: most thought it was before midnight still. Talking can do that, make
a little time feel like a lot, or a lot a little, or both, in a way that makes
one feel pleasure, or loneliness, or a mix of these and many other emotions. 

The sociability depicted in these lines, as well as in the other titular poem that you wrote about, contrasts with the solitude with which the book opens: renting a cottage in the town where he was born, the speaker spends his mornings drinking too much coffee and staring “at [his] friends’ lives on the internet.” He spends his evenings drinking (as, it is suggested in the next poem, his father did) and writing a novel he would later abandon. Unlike that novel, the stories in this book are “complete.” I now view that adjective as much less ironic than I expected to. Perhaps complete here suggests finished more than entire. 

In a book concerned with, as you observe, the doubled self of a writer, I note the repeated use of forms of the verb “make” in its final lines. The pleasurable making of pasta as opposed to the painful making of literature; what sociable talk can make versus what the solitary self can. For Warren’s speaker, writing and reading are so much a part of life that commas become flies (“Max Ritvo”) and ants dissolve into commas (“Ants Swarming Bait”). “Tell me a story,” he quotes his grandfather as he relates the ending of what he considers his ancestor’s finest poem: “the boy self / pleads to the poet who inherits him, / ‘Tell me a story.’”

The Complete Stories is, in part, the story Warren tells to his boy self—a boy we catch glimpses of throughout. There he is alone with his books, there he is watching his father work, there he is in his grandfather’s lap, there he is pressing his cheek to the face of a glacier. The story told by the poet who inherits this boy self is one of time and legacy, of the making of art and the making of a self, and it is enormously satisfying.  

Thank you for inviting me to consider these books with you!


April 14

Dear Jenn:

“Perhaps complete here suggests finished more than entire.” Yes, what a good way to put it! And now we face the same conundrum with wrapping up this review project. When we started writing these letters, we were both waiting for our first vaccine shots and first-pass pages of Phillip B. Williams’s Mutiny, surely one of the most anticipated Fall 2021 releases. Now that we’ve received both, I am both happy and sad. The world is opening up, but this engrossing correspondence about endings is ending.

Until opening Mutiny, I had no idea how ending-alert it is, in its titles (so many “Final Poem for the…”), in its constant references to the “end,” in its eschatological tone. The book’s framing and its castigating and tender voice conjured for me the image of a man standing at the rim of a volcano that is American history, speaking his last utterances before the world blows up.   

Despite the jeopardy, those utterances are highly composed. Williams’s molten subjects—the Middle Passage, a massacre of Mexican-Americans in Texas, gun violence, white editors fetishizing Black suffering—never override his patient, nuanced argument with poetic form to un-white its attention and execution. I’m dazzled by both the topical breadth of this book and its laser eye on line and diction. The long documentary poem “January 28, 1918,” about the Texas massacre, presents story and interpretation with devastating precision. “In what organ does the never-seeing of brown faces begin?” Elsewhere, the collection’s sonic intensity (“Mushmouf’s Maybe Crown”) pushes Mutiny into the realm of word music while deliberately de-constructing the sonnet form. We heard Williams read his concluding tour-de-force, “Mastery,” through the Radcliffe event in March, and I was struck by the difference between listening to it and reading it. Aloud, for me, “Mastery” had an inexorable flow, propelled by Williams’s alliterative riffs and anaphora, his layers of allusions, as with Twain’s Jim and Langston Hughes: “He speaks of rivers / as the river, soul grown deep into a river / carving a country like an infant’s throat.” On the page, the stately, high Modern blocks took me by surprise, and then I thought, of course

Before I turn to one of Williams’s endings, I want to note two things: 1) I think this book is for the ages. It hits on so many levels: urgency, complexity, formal inventiveness, depth of feeling, and pleasure in language… and that’s the short list. 2) While it comes from a gay Black man in America and has a powerful public face, it is also, affectingly, about being a son, a grandson, a lover, and a brother—in other words, what we white writers might naively call a “private life.” Mutiny reminded me that this is a boundary I take for granted.

Williams’s titling pattern, “Final Poem for the…,” suggests an emotional and moral exhaustion (with America? with poetry? with grief?), as in “I hope this is the last time I have to address this subject. Or this one.” The conclusion of “Final Poem for the ‘Field of Poetry’” is all the more potent if so. One of the collection’s quiet, intimate poems, this elegy exposes the same “doubled self” we talked about in Warren’s The Complete Stories, referencing a poet in a cabin at a residency who has just learned of his brother’s death. The poet stares at his notepad, “the white page / frozen before you like rime,” and then:

On the pad you write: enough
what you’ve had, how much
more of you there is, how
much of you will be left when you’re gone. 

The resignation and hope and ongoingness of these lines—they speak to the losses Mutiny documents, and to its resilience. Enough. A declaration of fed-upness, but also fullness and strength. What a word for this year. I’ll leave it here. 

How did you read finality in Mutiny?



April 26

Dear Maria, 

I agree—Mutiny is an incredible book. Sweeping and intimate, fierce and tender, visceral and virtuosic.  

I’ve been thinking about Williams’s complex treatment of finality in Mutiny. Many of the poems depict the ongoingness of trauma—historical, racial, sexual. The past is never past. Williams often writes in form—quite inventively, as you note. In an interview from some years ago he said, “I enjoy how the sonnet turns away from history because it eventually has to end, unlike history which will be forever as long as there are people.” This reminds me of the ending of Louise Glück’s “Celestial Music”: “The love of form is a love of endings.” One thing I find fascinating and compelling about Williams’s use of form to write about trauma is how his content sometimes spills outside of his frame. In such instances, the form cannot contain the subject. The ending is not an end.  

“Final Poem for a King” provides an example. The poem, composed of a sequence of seven sonnets, explores the decision to “tell” sexual trauma, or not to, as well as the efficacy of doing so. One of the sonnets begins:

No woman in my family will tell me
what happened and I can’t tell them
I already know had been in the other
room sometimes when it happened
heard the slaps come down heard stop
ring out from my ______ heard the names 

Obviously, the speaker chooses not to identify the victim(s) in this poem, which concludes mid-trauma. Its final lines read: 

and my _______ running to the front door
to lock it only to have to run to lock the back
door too and the knob jiggling, jiggling, ji—

Were this poem not a sonnet, that ending would be, to my mind, less successful. Through form, Williams enacts its failure. Only through form can we isolate trauma in order to make it visible—as in Glück’s “Celestial Music” the speaker’s friend draws a circle around a dying caterpillar—but trauma, Williams shows, is continuous and permeable. Form fails us and form is all we have.

A second example is found in “Final Poem for the Bullet,” in which the speaker recalls being caught in crossfire at the age of ten. This poem is composed of two long sentences. The first describes the experience in a series of clauses beginning with “when” that stretches over thirty-one lines. The second is posed as a question that begins “And if when / I think back to that alley” and goes on to consider the possibility of the speaker rendering the child-self he finds there. That question is fourteen lines—a sonnet with a couplet, I’m suddenly noting. But I have used the word “sentence” when these are actually both fragments—both are composed of a series of dependent clauses that have no predicate. They provide no syntactic closure, never resolve. Thus we have a “final” poem constructed of lines that do not conclude. 

One of my initial thoughts about finality in relation to this book was that mutinies are beginnings as well as endings. “In the Beginning” begins the final poem (as does the first one). In this beginning “six children jump double Dutch in autumn / rain, and the ropes’ helix is a seventh seeing.” The children’s chanting is “a rhyme to heal / the days.” That rhyme contrasts with the sterile language alluded to in the opening poem, the “pale figures voweling from an empty heaven.” One of the mutinies in this book is Williams’s own against the Western canon and, as he put it during the Radcliffe event, “the chains of this artistic stupor” that bound him. “Words drop like seeds” is the opening of the final line of this mutiny. The ground they fall upon is both inauspicious (“hard”) and auspicious (“wet”) for their chances of propagation. 

As I come to the end of our correspondence about endings I am grateful to have had the chance to read together as we did all those years ago as students. I’ll close by saluting two things that endure: poetry and, when we are fortunate, friendship. 



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