Tuesday, October 17, 2006

My old friend Camille Guthrie from Vassar days has a new book out from Subpress called In Captivity. The title refers to the last of the famous Unicorn Tapestries on display at the Cloisters in northern Manhattan; I blogged about seeing them and Camille's engagement with them back in July 2005. The "In Captivity" tapestry seems anomalous to the sequence as a whole, which depicts the hunting and destruction of the unicorn: where in the sequence, if anywhere, does it belong? Do they catch it, then release it and kill it? Were there two unicorns? Or does the tapestry represent an alternate, choose-your-own-adventure style ending to the pursuit? At any rate, now I've read Camille's book and it's marvelous: wryly funny, lyrical, even mesmerizing in spots. I've admired her formally adventurous and daring work since college, but I think she's achieved a new fluency and wit here to accompany the mythic landscape that she generally chooses as the backdrop for her poetry. For one thing, New York City is as fully present and alive in this book as the medieval world of the tapestries is, and our contemporary idiom is woven seamlessly into a tapestry (the pun is unavoidable) of high lyric. Rilke and Rabelais coexist here, while I fancy I can hear the "classical" education in English literature that was on offer at Vassar (i.e., strong doses of poetry and prose from the English literary tradition with little or no theory gumming up the works) in Camille's citations of Milton, Shakespeare, Blake, and Edward Lear. There's also a splendid assortment of forms on display: the funny and erotic list poem "My Boyfriend," the Steinian stanzas of "The Hunters," a masterly sestina called "My Psychomachia" ("He who knows the word for a thing I know masters the thing"), and a sequence called "Defending Oneself" that consists of "mirrored" quatrains, two above and two below a single black line.

Any New York book nowadays is a post-9/11 book: Camille handles the disaster obliquely and yet personally, stalked and stalking through the streets, which can at times appear as a Waste Land but with the survivor's ironic distance constantly punctured and punctuated. There's a welcome sense of bodily experience that I can't help but think of as the feminist difference between what Camille's up to here and the Eliotic in general. Plus the pieces of literature and myth she conjures seems fresh and alive: not fragments shored against ruin but the palpable elements of one woman's experience. From "Defending Oneself":
The finest I could've afforded
I sent him ten pairs of antique Levi's
As soft as a rabbit napping on moss
I'll overnight twelve more Tuesday

Forget it all, Leaf Litter
Your letters were shredded in the Reign of Terror
Then used to cover potatoes from frost
It was a fairy vision


True and False Heart
She'll do it you can count on it
She'll chop off their candied heads
And pretend not to like the sound effects

I'll still speak to her reddening while we talk
But only in answering couplets
She—celebrated oil of vermin
Me—genuine dust of scorpion
There's an uncanny knowledge on display here, a rounded awareness of one's one darkest corners and the difficulties of an ambiguous cultural inheritance. It captivates me and I hope it will captivate many more readers.

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