By Merrill Kaitz
It is a volume filled with complex pleasures and pains, put together on purpose.
If by song by Marcia Karp. Lily Poetry Review Books, 117 pp., Paperback, $ 18.
If by song, Marcia Karp’s debut collection, is wider and deeper than most. It seems to contain a busy life, or at least more than half of a, teeming with loves appreciated, lost, rekindled, re-lost, found. Works of love are inextricably linked with the portraits of a poet (or his characters) in search of a personal and poetic voice, identity and truth. Often there are notes of bitterness, anger and despair. But there is also hope and joy, in a full and mature voice:
A beautiful spirit and a sweet lyricism intertwine in the lines of Karp (sometimes reminding me of John Donne). There are tones of Sappho and Catullus, which Karp confirms by providing a few translations (or tributes to) each in one of the book’s final sections. There are frequent puns and free associations, giving the feeling of an expansive movement proper to the mind, reminiscent of the prose of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Obviously, this is not a bunch of trivial verses. Rather, it is a volume of complex pleasures and pains, assembled with purpose.
Let’s start with two poems, the first from the book, “If asked, she says only” and the title poem (which comes some 80 pages later), another if, “If by song, words. “
This could be an answer, or an echo, to Emily Dickinson’s question: “I am nobody. Who are you? ”But a few lines later, there seem to be more people involved:
Eyes can belong to others, perhaps to a multitude of others. But we suspect that they are also iterations of the first person singular, the “I”, the “I”.
Then, after eight two-line stanzas, the last six stanzas provide a sonnet-like focus reversal. We are told that her own eyes “swirl in their tears” and “the other / feels lost and not courted”, and she “is called / only someone, nobody”
This is the introductory story of this collection. We meet a voice alternately or simultaneously, spiritual and lyrical, happy or sad, found and lost and found, uncertain and surviving. She may or may not be “nobody”, but she finds herself constantly in a sort of crowd, watched by one or more observers, who are a suitor, a lover, an enemy, or all of these at the same time.
“If By Song, Words” is a long poem (123 lines), the longest in the book, placed near the end. It is sort of a highlight, although it is followed by two more sections, which include several puzzles, as well as poems, translations, imitations, inspired by the most passionate and undisciplined of classical poets, Sappho and Catullus. “If By Song, Words”, however, is a very personal meditation and memory from early childhood, a portrayal and cry on how a life can be nurtured, choked, silenced, by love – that it is through too much love, too little love, faulty love.
Although it has many facets, the story and theme of the poem remains the growth of a poet, from birth to search for his own words, identity and truth. It begins with two lines in italics:
It could be a young poet in search – or it could be a child learning to speak. The poet thinks: “I once thought I had big thoughts. But it could be the kid who says, with the play of “I” and “eye” returning from the previous poem:
We see the child held in the air by his father (Held high above, / in the arms of daddy), his mother also present, watching. There is love: “His world was filled with love. But there is definitely a problem. Is it too much love, too much controlling love, or parents competing for the love of the child? “Riven” seems a key word:
and so “she had an I for everyone”. Maybe she has too much of Keats’ “negative ability”, the power, or maybe the compulsion, to feel with everyone.
The poem is made up of uneven stanzas, seeming to leap forward, pushed and pulled by sound, free association and play on words. The fragments of rhymes and songs are as important as the ideas. But these are rich and resonant fragments:
There is danger here, danger of losing oneself completely and her voice: “Without words, she would spread silence”, and later, “They had straddled his tongue, hampered his calving...” and, “My tongue! he was flayed in floating thongs. “they wanted me stupid,” she sings.
But the narrator, whether a child or a poet, finds a way. In the song about being sent for a bucket of water, she finds it in a few beautiful lines:
And there is a triumphant final stanza, concluding:
It is a strong poem, worthy of giving its name to the book.
All along If by song, Time and time again, Karp dazzles with his emotion, wit and insight, all brought together. Sometimes his diction, in semi-Shakespearean sonnets, sounds almost Shakespearean (yet a pentameter line can have two left feet):
Or Karp gives us a memorable and complex proverb (within an even more complex poem):
And then, for another example among many, there are lines so deep and clear that they could be a mountain pool, or the centerpiece of a philosophy, and yet they are just the setting. scene from a short poem:
It is not the poetry of nature that If by song gives us; Karp is far from the world of Mary Oliver. This poet expresses with force all the joy and the disorder of love and of the human being.
Merrill kaitz published poetry magazine Zeugma, studied with Anne Sexton, Lucie Brock-Broido and Monroe Engel, and was once a 12th Scrabble player in North America.