By Sylee Gore
And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered
Vase of Moonlight
Lynn Xu, Wave Books, 2022
The Nick of Time
Rosmarie Waldrop, New Directions, 2021
Emily Berry, Faber, 2022
I still own a wristwatch, though it has lived in a drawer for many years. The metal I once took for gold has worn to silver, but for the tiny hands marking minute and hour. In poetry, symbols of time are less obvious than my watchface, from the scythe of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 to the nearing chariot of Marvell’s ‘Coy Mistress’. For these writers, time is death, and the speaker its quarry: time prowls the poems with an unswerving gaze, its implacable progress a constant reminder of death’s inevitable approach. In T S Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ time is meted out in coffee spoons. Yet our experience of the slosh of time is seldom as crisp as that ticking second hand. The mechanical sequentiality of time has been comprehensively demolished by contemporary physicists. Eliot’s contemplation in Four Quartets (1943) of ‘Time present and time past’ moves past the chronometer to explore the redemptive world of the seasons and consider a timeless state.
One might transcend time – or succumb to it. Denise Riley responds to the tragedy of her son’s death with a loss of sequentiality in Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2012): for her, grief shows us ‘how our habitual intuitions of time are not without their limits’. Time is the medium in which we live, a dimension equal to space yet less thoroughly vocabularied. Today, many frame the experience of time as a fog, a soup, a haze and our instrument to parse it – language – proves risibly unequal to the task. Our language for time is largely functional – earlier and later; then and now; yesterday and tomorrow – and lacking in colour. Consider, by contrast, how many English words exist for ‘laugh’. Supplied with such paltry options, how do poets – tasked with innovating verbal expression of phenomena our vocabulary fails to express – come to grips with time?
Time appears as neither character nor subject in the recently released poetry collections of Lynn Xu, Emily Berry, and Rosemary Waldrop, but each forges its own language to capture a warped and changing temporal experience. Xu’s And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight veers into visual poetry in its use of typography and the space of the page, Berry’s Unexhausted Time comprises groups of short poems in untitled sections, and Waldrop divides The Nick of Time into ten parts of varying lengths, including five ‘laments’. Xu and Berry enact visceral experiences of specific temporal states through formal innovation in their collections, while Waldrop steps back to astringently interrogate the volatile nature of time itself.
In And Those Ashen Heaps, Xu’s second collection, time is the stage on which the drama of coming-into-life occurs. The book begins at ‘a windbreak of gum trees / et cetera / the edge of time / et cetera’ in which the hour itself is redacted: ‘at ***** in the afternoon’. This nameless, numberless hour precedes a structured and embodied experience of time comprised of black-printed pages in short phrases of one to six English words, subtitled in Chinese. So strict a sequence slows the reader’s eye, making the book a landscape across which language moves as deliberately as the hands of a clock.
The clock on the wall had stopped
It was moving
but several hours behind
Beyond its own horizon, time has become an unpredictable, disrupted entity in which the speaker occupies a state of eternal beginning. Time wavers between midnight and noon: it has become both the cusp between days and the centre of the day:
It was midnight
and also midnight
This uncertainty around time echoes the cyclicality of beginning; a whiff of the nascent dominates the poem. Xu cites her inspiration, César Vallejo: ‘Los párpados cerrados, como si, cuando nacemos, / siempre no fuese tiempo todavía’ (‘The closed eyelids, as if, when we are born / it was always not yet time’). Time as a phenomenon beginning with birth is beset with ambivalence, with a speaker ‘in a night of infinite reversals between the 1, and the 2, and the afternoon, having established its yesterdays, between the poor day and the great night, at two in the immoral afternoon’. In this vision, time is maternal. Death is the farthest shore onto which one is washed. The birthing process pushes one through time itself: ‘and / having labored timeward / through remaining / time what / over the bent world life /must borrow: that farthest- / nothing / that incandescent.’
To be born into time is to insist on the boundary between (temporal) life and (atemporal) non-life. And Those Ashen Heaps finishes:
Hello December born
with the anxiety of January
anxiety of the meridian
of the hour before
and the hour after
hour of the pendulum
denuding its numbers
The anxiety of a year’s ending contains the fear of a new beginning. With the pendulum’s swing, Xu reminds us that the motion of the clock’s hands is powered by a circumscribed movement: there is no tick without a tock. This sense of entrapment also appears in Emily Berry’s Unexhausted Time, which takes its title from a phrase in Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost. Time is a corset or a cage confronting the mostly first-person speaker with the difficulties of life. ‘House’ casts time as a mirror box of action:
We live in the house of a man who has committed suicide. He’s going to do it again tonight at six o’clock. We have to live through it again in time. We’ve lost track of how many times. The first time it happened again we ran outside, we couldn’t bear to live through it another time. Now when the gun goes off we don’t even flinch. Other than that, nothing changes. We remember all the mistakes we made the first time, if they were mistakes. We make them again, every time, we think it might be different this time.
In this surreal scene, the same inexorable progress of the wingèd chariot traps the speaker in an infinite loop, growing slowly inured to the horror of death. Such a loop ably captures the intransigence we all experience: to know one’s failures and repeat them anyway. Indeed, the inability to break from time’s clasp and behave differently recurs in Unexhausted Time: ‘I would fall / through a tear in time to get there, / I would fall through a tear in the story. / I had what I had, and it was never enough.’
This gnawing lack of fulfilment stems from a sense of entrapment in time where ‘The wind riffles through the chapters / of my life’. This image itself suggests the foreordained and inescapable. Later in the book, however, Berry writes, ‘If we can dream another / time, then we can find a way to live in it.’ Time freed of its confining qualities might afford a way to live that is less restricted than the clock-bound oubliette.
Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Nick of Time explores this possibility by displacing the totality of a single time. Waldrop applies language with a surgeon’s precision to the task of casting time in several imaginatively disparate roles. Time, in her poetry, is subjective – not a thing but an experience, a phenomenon both local and general. Waldrop’s array of understandings of time animates the collection, which begins: ‘There is no evidence that we have a special sense. Of time. You don’t think it’s pressing as you sit on a sidewalk in Providence.’ Waldrop’s time is weightless; it resists the physical forms other writers have tried to assign it. She asks, ‘And how can we see time as it is when we treat it like a thing?’ The question underscores the distorting quality of metaphor, however seductive.
Indeed, the totality of the word ‘time’ wrongly encourages us to see the concept it labels as a fixed entity, when in our lived experience, it varies. Time itself is multiple, as when Waldrop writes of ‘A different time, not suited to the ephemeral.’ In contrast to the many words to shade the many ways we laugh, we lack a precise vocabulary to distinguish between our many experiences of time. The present moment is only one of many different times.
Waldrop distinguishes between ‘local time and time at a distance’. Local time is akin to the passage of time placed in the physical world and linked to sense impressions – what the poet calls ‘The Almost Audible Passage of Time’. It evokes Berry’s stifling temporal lockboxes that trap, indeed freeze us in place. Waldrop never loses sight of time’s physical effects, for – far from the gliding motions of the watchmaker’s cogs – she writes, ‘Even mislaid, time burns at both ends, and my body no longer moves with the energy of electrons through longitudes, latitudes. And in altitudes I get sick. My face tells the time without wheels or springs moving inside the brain.’ Waldrop asks, is ‘time always the time of the speaker?’ Here, time at a distance is a time of abstraction. After all, ‘The way the sun moves time through leaves is less mysterious than the way time moves through us.’ In ‘Interval and High Time’, Waldrop writes, ‘As long as we talk of the river of time, you say, we’ll drown in its literal depth.’ Detaching time from bodily experience becomes a way of apprehending the less visceral ways we engage with this phenomenon.
Not long ago, I took the wristwatch I once wore out of its drawer. As pandemic time recedes, the convenient clock at the bottom corner of every meeting is gone. Now, I need a more discreet means of keeping an eye on the time. These three writers whose poetry works to expand the language around time demand our words attain more nuance for reflecting on its passage. Time is not only a hunter stalking its vulnerable prey, nor a light-and-shadow abstraction, but also, as Waldrop writes, ‘a component of observation’: that is, the poet’s central task.
SYLEE GORE reads Creative Writing at Kellogg. She sends too many postcards.
Art by Eloise Cooke