Second Acts, Take 2: A Second Act for “Second Acts”
Talvikki Ansel, Jetty & Other Poems (Zoo Press, 2003)
Mira Rosenthal, Territorial (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022)
BY LISA RUSS SPAAR
On November 10, 2012, the The Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) published the inaugural essay of “Second Acts,” my series of periodic reviews featuring second collections of poetry, typically pairing a second book published at least twenty years ago with a recently brought out second collection of poetry. When my LARB editor of many years left this past summer to pursue other opportunities, it occurred to me that after ten years at the Los Angeles Review of Books—a run for which I’m very grateful—it might be time for me to also find a new home for “Second Acts”— different readers, a fresh venue. I pitched the idea of doing so to David Roderick, Director of Content at Adroit, a journal I admire and about which there is always a lot of buzz among my students. I’m fortunate that the Adroit team is willing to bring “Second Acts, Take 2” on board, four essay reviews a year, and I look forward to continuing my passion for promoting second books of poems in Adroit’s pages.
Why take time to consider second books of poems? For one thing: validation. It can help a writer to trust that their first book was not a one-off. A poet’s second book can often provide a chance to experiment with new modes or to swerve into unfamiliar thematic terrain. Or it may make a space for leaning in more deeply to the work comprising the first collection. Second books can be long-awaited, highly anticipated, and greeted with fanfare, but conversely may be overlooked after the excitement surrounding a debut.
One thing I’ve observed after writing about second books for over a decade is that the platforms for self- and publisher-promotion of any book have burgeoned tremendously, even in just ten years. One reason that I like pairing a recent second book, which often enjoys the benefits of this kind of dissemination of news of a book’s arrival in the world, with a second book published 20 or so years ago is that often those older books were brought out in a very different climate for promotion and advertising: no Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter. During the pandemic, when review copies were landing in empty offices, I made a point of sometimes devoting a few columns to two or three recent books that might otherwise not have received enough attention, but I’m especially interested in shedding light on earlier poets or books I feel may be undeservedly underread. Because there is so much new poetry dropping into our devices all of the time, it’s easy for important books and their writers to get buried in the e-valanche. As one example, the Special Collections Library of the University of Virginia, where I teach, recently acquired the papers and ephemera of the late poet Ruth Stone. Even though Stone taught at Virginia briefly in the 1970s, when I asked my current students if they’d ever heard of her, no one had. By contrast, when I mentioned Bianca Stone, also a fine poet and Ruth’s granddaughter, almost everyone recognized the name and the work because of the younger Stone’s wide cyber presence.
I’m especially interested in doing reviews in which I can read books in tandem, texts that share similar DNA—thematically, formally, structurally. How can two second books of poems illuminate one another across time and space? For this inaugural Adroit column, I’d like to explore Talvikki Ansel’s Jetty (2003) and Mira Rosenthal’s Territorial (2022). Each poet won a first book prize for their debut collections (for Ansel, the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize; for Rosenthal, the Wick Poetry Prize) and each found different publishers for their sophomore collections. From their respective coasts, east and west, both poets create work that is highly attuned to the natural world, and these second collections deepen and complicate each poet’s distinct concern with what it means to see, to create a meaningful image. The poems question what those of us who are all-too-human can do in service of the nonhuman world even as we learn from our correspondences.
When James Dickey selected Talvikki Ansel’s My Shining Archipelago for the 1996 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, the book received much deserved acclaim. Barbara Hoffert, in Library Journal, wrote, “Whether she is describing a pear (‘The tear-shaped, papery core, / precise seeds’), noting how her hair falls in her eyes as she dissects a bird (‘Inside out / the wing’s white bone / juts up’), explaining how her mother cut off the top of an egg ‘with one swift crunch,’ or observing ‘The bright painted crosses / on the steepest banks’ in the Amazon River Basin, Ansel has a great sense of physicality, exact, strenuous, and totally unsentimental.” In his citation for the award, Dickey wrote of the poems’ preoccupation with “the heat, the closeness, the mystery, and the terrible fear of the undisclosed.” The collection is worth reading as a field guide and perhaps especially for its closing sonnet sequence, “Afterwards, Caliban,” which imagines Shakespeare’s Caliban (utterer of The Tempest’s most lyric speeches), returned to London from Prospero’s Island and placed in servitude as a gardener to a Lord (“What I tell you, what I tell you— / It is so much smaller than what I can not tell you”).
As is often the case when a poetry collection receives a first-book prize, there is no guarantee that the press awarding the prize will publish the author’s future volumes. This is typically the case with the Yale prize, and so Ansel found a home for her second book with the then-promising, now defunct Zoo Press. Of her third collection, Somewhere in Space (2015 winner of The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry), I wrote, “Talvikki Ansel’s poems in Somewhere in Space create a portal of hope where humans can recover a sense of what it means to be animal on a planet imperiled. Ansel is a twenty-first-century ‘New Englandly’ Dorothy Wordsworth, paying keen, peripatetic, nineteenth-century attention to the salvific slippage among the human, animal, feral, cultured, and terrestrial realms of our moment. The poems in this collection build a cosmology that is atmospheric, pan-geographic, and emotional.”
In her wonderful ecopoetical text, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image & Vision, Melissa Kwasny writes:
One of the reasons I have been stressing the image when, paradoxically, I am writing about communication, is because obviously we do not share a language with nonhuman forms of life… In a world that seems increasingly focused on the needs of humans, when plants and animals are dying out at an alarming rate, the struggle to widen the world to one where we exist in relation to other forms of life seems crucial. Examining the ways poets both ‘read’ and render that relation might help us effect a transcendence of our own.
Ansel has always intuited and embodied this image-making intelligence, an ability to watch and walk through the world, closely observing its flora and fauna. This kind of seeing might seem, while wildly beautiful, almost clinically precise until one realizes this attention is paid in service and honor to the otherness of the nonhuman world. While Ansel admits, in a long, haunted series about the experience of reading Pessoa’s The Book of Disquietude, “how much I like looking—at the grit-rooved / houses, my yellow chair,” she never uses that “looking around” poetics, as Charles Wright calls it, to romanticize or anthropomorphize her subjects. Ansel is a close, literate “reader” of natural phenomena regardless of her terrain: Lisbon (“lights strung in trees, / grilled sardines, the crackling / amplifiers answer: dance / dance with me” from “Land”); Scandinavia (“The old witch in Copenhagen tossed / My parents together / at one of those green café tables, / sparrows bickered over crumbs” from “The Old Witch in Copenhagen”); the speaker’s childhood backyard (“We drop to sleep / in the field, in the muted light, / under the breeze / flowing away mosquitoes” from “Midsummer, Summer”); or at the jetty’s much-loved, littoral ocean verge (“I must live by water / I packed / what I couldn’t forget / what I could wash and / use again / everything comes to water: boats, the marsh’s red sails” from “Monday”).
“Glass Ways: Tuesday” offers a compelling example of how Ansel turns acute attention into communion with entities that possess other-than-human ways:
pale blues and greens
beaten smooth by
waves that will not let up.
let go, but grind glass
against gravel, sand,
wishing rocks with their white
bands straight through.
To go in again
buffeted, worn down, broken;
as the blind one
who swam kitty-corner
to the rocks
and would not give up.
Sea that turns a dead seal.
The tide runs into the cliffs
the path we walk on,
To not end up in someone’s
bucket or basket
but stay in, kin
to the fin and krill.
Here all things are noted, honored—the relentless surge and retreat of the sea, the stones and glass, the sea creatures, the very path the speaker and her companions (us?) walk, pulverized and polished by nature’s force. The sonic mesh of the last stanza (in, kin, fin, krill) reinforces this sense of shared correspondences. Glass, earth, walkers, swimmers are in this roil together, and perhaps the human task is to choose not to harm this delicate balance, as tempting as it might be to collect sea glass, to harvest unnecessarily—and perhaps to learn, as well, how not to give up.
The book’s final poem, which is the last in a series of poems inspired by Catesby’s prints of Birds of Virginia, closes with these lines:
After the zig-zag path of the storm
crossed beyond the pond,
two doves came out
from the long trunks of the woods
to the raked lawn,
one sat, the other fed.
I watched, as I have watched
the on-off blink of lights
on airplane wings, until they flew.
The humble patience of Talvikki Ansel’s poetics of watching models one way of moving intentionally through the Anthropocene.
Like Jetty, Mira Rosenthal’s Territorial offers an alchemical encounter with language that is in itself a form of hope despite all manner of endangerment. Of the work in Rosenthal’s first book, The Local World, Maxine Scates wrote:
[These poems] engage the necessity of reencountering the past, of ‘keeping the wound fresh for grafting’ until language can build a present freed from the lingering definitions of childhood. But these poems, testifying as they do to Rosenthal’s faith in poetry’s music and its capacity to find a pattern in experience, do not reject the past. Rather, their often luminous depths reveal the ways in which the found self, no longer an exile, joins the past to a present redefined by poetry’s lyrical power to lead us forward into the unknown.
Territorial continues to explore the pitch between past and present, fear and courage, as the self shapes itself in a world proffering myriad threats, many particular to the part of California where Rosenthal lives—wildfires, mountain lions, bobcats, deadly snakes, cougars—but also threats from predatory humans, from unresolved traumas of the past, or simply from taking risks—drug experimentation, climbing a wet stair, cavorting on a playground. In “With Binoculars in Mountain Lion Terrain,” Rosenthal writes:
. . . Still, I choose to walk this land
to comprehend my arms as equally weighted
possibilities: nerve & its darkness, the earth
and its wilds, the desire to find myself
in unknown terrain . . . .
In the second book, the vulnerable girl who haunted The Local World is often now the speaker’s daughter, the brave, curious child the poet once was. In “Track,” for example, the speaker and her daughter hike a narrow path, “brought to a halt by the outstretched / arm of the older woman, bracing, / warning of danger hidden in the manzanita / grove’s ochre laced with poison oak.” The mother has detected the track of a sidewinder:
And the two of us stand
in this drought-ridden state
together at the outline, the evidence,
a mother taking note of the burnished leaves
forcing their way up the thighs of desiccated trees
nearby & a girl, learning for the first time
some nocturnal female sense
that feels like snakes inside the flesh
& still how to keep the body
In poem after beautiful poem, Rosenthal returns repeatedly to the ways in which exploration of the territories we inherit and inhabit is perhaps the only salvific recourse (if also a form of seeing, watching, or risking) when, as she writes in the book’s last poem, “Bluff,” “force is eternal.” We see this powerfully in “The Leach Pond”:
Sulphur saturates air by her ear
listening to gravel pop under truck tires
slow along the ring road, men surveilling.
The girl drops to her knees.
And already we feel the prick of suspicion
burn up the nose, so much apple rot
evaporating, lixiviated intrigue.
But let’s not take her yet from the cry
of a kestrel, quail trill, rattlesnake grass hiss,
water lapping at dirt clods, elements
her ear renders to fatty globules of sound.
And even if I’m now equipped to read
a scene—cattails erect in their shafts
erupting with fluff, giving it up to the breeze—
I have no way to warn the girl I was.
So, let her dip the plastic cup in, screw it
solid into pebbled soil, examine polliwogs
eating away at starts of clustered scum.
Let her be oblivious to periphery idling.
For she must start like this, a simple I want
to know what’s in there, minute attention
to minuscule bursts limning Acacia’s first,
what starts the whole redress of summer.
For I have no other way to save her.
As an innocent girl explores the natural world, danger lurks on the periphery—men circling, surveilling in trucks, the sulfurous whiff of the Underworld, that rattlesnake hiss of grass. Those erect shafts of cattails. Yet the speaker allows that “wanting to know what’s in there” and pursuing that impulse with innocent and gracious force may be the only “way to save her” from what one can’t always protect or see coming.
Later, in Part IV of Territorial, Rosenthal revisits this poem in “Palinode.” Discussing the menace in “The Leach Pond,” she writes: “I was wrong, driving the scene to something darker.” Instead, she writes, “it was me, tightening / the cables, greasing the chain again, / incapable of narrating beyond // a certain story.” And perhaps this is one significant achievement of this second book, in which the speaker stays with her story, her fear, her suspicion, and pushes into it, exploring and then foregoing old, knee-jerk images in favor of a new way of seeing and surveying the world. “I’m ready,” she says,
to feel how gentle the world can be,
to see the seeds floating past on wind
that relocates them. There are no roads,
there is no atlas, there is just this stronger
presence every day, a kind of surveying
& drawing of maps in foam, from memory,
minuscule mountains & clouds preserved
on water’s glassy shield. Then the moment,
in time, when I let the image wash away.
To paraphrase Scates again, Rosenthal’s speaker frees herself in this poem from the images that have defined former experiences and finds new ones in the world she is brave enough to re-see. Both Ansel and Rosenblum are poets who allow their image systems to speak. And they listen. They attend to every new moment’s “stronger presence.” Why does this matter? Perhaps because watching and listening to the nonhuman world feels necessary, writes Kwasny in Earth Recitals, if we are “to shore up the crossbeams of the interior world in order it to be ready to welcome what is outside it.”
As Jetty and Territorial attest, such a praxis of attention is something poetry inimitably affords.