Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poems
The “Through-Compositions” of Alice Oswald, Dart (Faber & Faber, 2002)
Airea D. Matthews, Bread and Circus (Scribner, 2023)
BY LISA RUSS SPAAR
I have been thinking and writing about second books of poems for over a decade. In the first Second Acts essay I wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books in the fall of 2012, I meditate on some of my reasons for this interest: the way that a cultural fascination with the debut, the break-out, the brand new can often mean a sophomore effort is overlooked; the significant validation for the writers that their first collection hasn’t been a one-hit-wonder; the chance for the reader (and writer) to see in what ways a writer has grown and might continue to grow.
Looking back through the dozens of second acts essays I’ve drafted over ten-plus years—pieces that typically pair a second book of poems published at least twenty years ago with a recently released collection—I see that I tend to bring into tandem books that complement and illuminate one another in a compelling, provocative way—thematically, formally, in terms of risk-taking. I find, too, that I’m drawn to books by excellent, original poets I perceive to be more interested in their work and in refreshing their practice than in prioritizing personality and self-promotion.
There is nothing below-the-radar about the poetries of Alice Oswald and Airea D. Matthews. The former is currently Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford (the first woman to hold this position) and is considered by many to be one of Britain’s greatest living poets. Her numerous poetry collections and iconoclastic translations from Homer have garnered her a host of luminous awards, including the T. S. Eliot Prize for Dart, as well as the Forward and Griffin poetry awards. Carl Philips chose Matthews’s Simulacra for the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for a first book. She has been a Pew Fellow and winner of many national prizes, including a Rona Jaffe Award. She is currently Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and teaches in and codirects the poetry program at Bryn Mawr College.
I have no doubt that both poets are gratified by the ways in which their work has been appreciated and validated by publication and prizes, but the poems in these second collections evince what Emily Dickinson called a “Costumeless Consciousness.” Both collections are book-length poems in which ego is inseparable from myriad “other” forces both human and not human—in Oswald’s book, those energies emerge from the Dart River and environs; for Matthews, the systemic consequences and confluences of cultural commodification shape what the author herself calls a “memoir in verse.” “One mind isn’t enough for a poem,” Oswald says in an interview in The White Review. Both poets allow a myriad of voices to animate their collections organically, in what Matthews, with a shout-out to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, calls a through-composition, “a structure in music that insists on the story moving forward and the narrative developing over the course of the piece.”
It’s hard for me to know how to begin to talk about Dart, which I found in a London bookshop in the early aughts, its small (5 x 8 inches), turquoise, watery blue-bound cosmos accompanying me back across the pond and into various offices and rooms until I loaned it to a student, who, I hope, lo these years later, is still haunted by and cherishing its well-worn and annotated field guide breviary as much as I did. Luckily, Dart is still in print, and, in its entirety, can also be found in Spacecraft Voyager 1: New and Selected Poems, put out by Graywolf in 2007. My first inclination is to stop here and urge everyone to read or reread the book, preferably in one sitting. The experience is alchemical: somatically stirring, sonically magic.
In a prelude to the poem, Oswald tells us that for two years she’d been recording conversations with people who know the River Dart in Devon, where Oswald was living at the time, and that she has used these recordings “to sketch out a series of characters—linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea.” The through-composition of the poem takes place from the river’s origin and follows it to the sea at Dartmouth, and along the way we encounter various river folk and entities—some living, some dead; some real, some mythic. We encounter dairy workers, swimmers, dreamers, tin extractors, sewage overseers, stonewallers, ferrymen, naturalists, but also water nymphs, King of the Oakwoods, and Jan Coo (a spirit of the wood who haunts the Dart). We encounter the drowned, salmon poachers, seals, birds, boats. But through pronominal and syntactic slippages—pronouns, agency, interrogations, invocations, invitations, and a rich diction mix of Latinate and heavily old English words and phrases, passages of poetry and prose all turning into one another everywhere—it is finally the river that speaks: its stones, passengers, eddies, flora, and fauna (Oswald spent years working as a gardener, and her familiarity and affinity with plants is palpable). The effect is Protean, as felt in these lines describing a canoeist caught in a perilous stretch:
I was pinioned by the pressure, the whole river-power of Dartmoor,
not even five men pulling on a rope could shift me. It was one of those
experiences—I was sideways, leaning upstream, a tattered shape in a
perilous relationship with time
will you rustle quietly and listen to what I have to say now
describing the wetbacks of stones golden-mouthed and
making no headway, will you unsilt
how water orders itself like a pack of geese goes up
first in tatters then in shreds then in threads
and shucking its pools crawls into this slate and thin limestone phase
three hayfields above Buckfast where annual meadow grasshoppers
flower and fly to the tune of ribbed stalks rubbed.
will you swim down and attend to this foundry for sounds
this jabber of pidgin-river
drilling these rhythmic cells and trails of scales,
will you translate for me blunt blink glint.
The poem moves this way, in “swift fragmentary happenings.” Later in the poem, a voice points out that “your eyes are made mostly of movement,” and in this way, our perception “darts” along with the poem’s perceptions, its “balanced twist” of a reminder that civilizations first take place along rivers:
have you forgotten the force that orders the world’s fields
and sets all cities in their sites, this nomad
pulling the sun and moon, placeless in all places,
born with her stones, with her circular bird-voice,
carrying everywhere her quarters?
Perhaps it is the river’s power to humble us—
they walk strong in wetsuits,
their faces shine,
their well-being wants to burst out
In the water it’s another matter, we’re just shells and arms, keeping
ourselves in a fluid relation with the danger—
—that helps shape a sense of a self, albeit a fluid, prismatic, myriad one. Like Oswald’s “seal watcher,” exploring the recesses of cliffs along the river for seal sightings, the poet/poem moves forward as the way opens:
I steer my waveski into caves
horrible to enter alone
The fur, the hair, the fingernails, the bones.
Flick out the torch, the only thread between down here and daylight
and count five while the sea suckles and settles.
Self-maker, speaking its meaning over mine. . .
This is me, anonymous, water’s soliloquy,
all names, all voices, Slip-Shape, this is Proteus,
whoever that is, the shepherd of the seals,
driving my many selves from cave to cave. . .
Like Oswald in Dart, Matthews calls upon “other minds” to help her shape Bread and Circus, a self-described “memoir-in-verse” that draws upon political and social theorists with vastly different perspectives on the value and perilous fallout of capitalism, and puts these notions in conversation with poems that concern the author’s familial struggles over a 40-year period. The book-length poem is, as I intimated earlier, comprised of individual poems that come to us in four successive movements based on the “narrative” flow of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm. The book reads a bit like a commonplace book, and is a collage of original texts, palimpsestic extractions, photographs, manipulated economic line graphs, and other images, including a Voronoi diagram. The epigraph and title come from the poet Juvenal’s “Satura X” (AD 100): “Long ago they have thrown overboard all anxiety. For that sovereign people that once gave away military command, consulships, legions, and everything, now bridles its desires, and limits its anxious longings to two things only—bread, and games of the circus!” As Matthews tells us in her notes, “The metonymic phrase implies that people in power appease through distraction.” The two other primary voices brought into the conversation belong to Scottish economist Adam Smith, widely known as “the Father of Capitalism,” and Guy Debord, a libertarian Marxist concerned with the detrimental effects of late-stage capitalism, in which self-interest can reduce humanity to a spectacle of self-commodification. Matthews chiefly uses Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) and Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967).
Matthews holds a BA in economics from the University of Pennsylvania as well as an MPA from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and an MFA in Poetry, both from the University of Michigan. Her real understanding of the paradoxes and vicissitudes (and histories) of consumption, production, and the transfer of wealth informs the smarts and wit with which she excavates texts by Smith and Debord. In “On Supper,” for example, Matthews takes a passage from Smith’s “Of the Principle Which Gives Occasion to the Division of Labor” and puts in bold words that create the following excavation: “When an animal fawns upon its dam it wants to be fed. Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren when he needs his occasional wants.” A passage extracted from Smith’s “Of the Origin and Use of Money” becomes, in “On Origin and Use,” “Every man grows to be a certain commodity the latter the former the meat the brewer the baker the butcher the bread the cattle the armour o ox. O salt o sugar o [water] o leather o nails o ale o sheep.” And when these mined texts are put into conversation with passages of prose and poetry about a poor black family’s struggles over generations with expectation, poverty, hunger, and violence, rife ironies and stalwart courage emerge with startling clarity.
The personal narratives are often accompanied by a date, and the story begins in 1969 with the “matrimonial circus” of the poet’s parents’ wedding, the groom drunk, the pregnant bride and wife-to-be (“her [mother’s] sole investment”) weeping on a YWCA bathroom floor before finally showing up for the wedding as “an unholy congregation craned their necks and swished their church fans, advertising a local funeral home, to watch a lovely commodity reluctantly agree to her own barter.” The through-line of familial material traverses the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and into the current century, recounting a legacy of racialized hunger, adultery, homelessness, substance abuse, AIDS, and domestic violence lived out mostly in various parts of New Jersey. Pieces like “Cost of the Floss” and “Meeting Wittgenstein at the Circus” explore how this matrix of racialized suffering has affected the speaker as an adult. In the former poem, the speaker—having avoided as a girl inviting friends to her house because the speaker, her mother, and sister live in a single room with no sofa and one shared mattress that serves for watching The Jeffersons, playing Scrabble, and sleeping—finds herself purchasing a ridiculously expensive hazmat suit from a vintage store because the owner implies that as a black woman she can’t afford it. In the latter piece, the speaker, a mother of four, finds herself trying to answer a question (“What is a nigga?”) put to her by her young daughter after they’ve been taunted by a Ford full of racist boys on the way to a circus of “Brazilian contortionists, Trinidadian dancers, Ghanaian tamers” with a “black-on-black gaze.” The speaker meditates here and in other poems on the word (“Why does the word nigger / a land differently from different mouths?”):
Like deeds, words are concerted actions eliciting visceral responses. They conjure images. And we, fragile and human neophytes, have been given responsibility for these menacing weapons. We dodge and flex however we’ve been conditioned, contort in the ways our forebears have taught us.
With these ideas loosely in mind, a spotlight cast on a single tightrope. I respond to my daughter’s question: “Nigger is an acrobat, a word with double joints.”
Without skipping a rapt beat, she settled back into her seat, countered, “Oh. . . I thought niggas were flowers.”
In the way that Oswald uses the sonic landscape of the river and its environs/denizens to frame the “silence” at the beating heart of the poem (by silence here I mean the perhaps stunning realization of what our humanness and humanity might signify), Matthews attends—often with audacious wit and fearlessness—to the static of technology and other intertextual media to do the same. In centos, parodies, and all manner of innovative forms she takes on subjects ranging from “Shakespeare dropping ‘Net Knowledge,’” Eve’s “eviction” from Eden, the iconic bedtime story Goodnight, Moon (“In the great bleak room / there was a telephone / and a big buffoon / and a picture of a sheep / shooting up the moon. . .”), and the sham/scam rabbithole of social media:
In this carnival clowns cluster
inside the ringmaster’s imagining.
They’re woke and tired. Oppose GMOs
& don’t know why, eat vegan & have
luxury beef. Love whoever they want
& ghost whoever they don’t. Act brand-
new whenever they act. Always.
Act. Take copious selfies to recall
what they look like through
a filter, in a visually fortuitous
moment. Say: wait let me
video this present suffering. . .
Matthews explores all of this not just to excoriate inequity (though the irony, ire, and satire are real), but also to celebrate and praise resilience in spite of it. “Ars Poetica, 2021” is at the beating heart of the collection:
The long ante- ante-penultimate poem, “Nevertheless,” is a paean to the economies of survival and change. The last lines speak to the elan vital of both Dart and Bread and Circus:
Praise to the body relenting to dust,
the spirit yielding ascent
Praise to all who rejoice in becoming
Amen to all who transform in return
Dart and Bread and Circus are second books by poets who sound like no other poets writing in our moment. In their intelligence, humility, and ardor they augur and inspire faith in poetry’s ability to body forth the unspeakable. To paraphrase Oswald, the through-compositions of these long poems are very much themselves in their radiance.