I’ve been meaning to write about Karen Volkman‘s Nomina for quite awhile, but Joel Brouwer has beat me to it and said most of what I had in mind to say. Here’s the comment I left in response to his excellent review:
Joel, you’ve relieved me of trying to make sense of my scattered notes on Nomina, which line by line fascinates and baffles me. (Present tense because I keep re-reading it.) It seems part of Volkman’s project is to defeat glosses—which only works because, as you say, there is an undeniable something there that unites each sonnet’s associations in a way that feels important. I hate to used the overused word “compelling,” but her poems are that in a strange, not quite abstract way. Nomina suggests “numina” as well, which may be why the poems are so strangely evanescent. Oddly enough, she reminds me of Bill Knott at his inventive best, though Knott is fierce and funny where Volkman is obsessive and sober. Yang and Yin?
I wish I hadn’t used “sober” to characterize Volkman’s sonnets. I meant “solemn,” in both its main senses: serious and sincere; we find her in poem after poem bent to the task. The task is difficult enough to make her language bend and strain like Sisyphus hoisting his stone. Volkman resists our urge to decode by making each poem a multilayered palimpsest with no one “key layer” that helps us focus the meaning, though it does seem that key words are scattered throughout her sequence, but in no immediately perceivable pattern; and yet there is no doubt that a pattern exists. Had William Blake been an Impressionist his art might have looked like this: focused on color and varied intensities of light and dark instead of symbolic figures.
Anyway, I thought I’d add to Brouwer’s one example with another, one that seems particularly Knott-ish in its wordplay:
A premise, a solace—deciduous dress.
A figment garment, ornament of leaves
that tip and trill and flail, kinetic sleeves
and skirt of scatter, skirting autumn’s less.
Pale-slow, slow-pale. Console the maiden, bless
her fraying figure, attenuating eves
and pale slow days when a sapped sun grays and grieves
and moon’s pale plummet plurals, passionless.
Arboreal time. Bone time. Marrow grows
and wakeful, wakes its ages, and decrees
blinding doctrines, darking—fragmented snows
seeping to sources, as a bright eye will close
in a night room, sightless. Lovers turn to trees,
trees to lovers. And each gown shreds and glows.
I hear Knott’s influence in phrases like “skirt of scatter” and “moon’s pale plummet,” and in the compression of the word “darkening” into “darking.” And am I nuts to hear Larkin in the wonderful 8th line, “and pale slow days when a sapped sun grays and grieves”?
In the sonnet that serves as introduction to her two-part sequence, Volkman writes: “Opacities are poured // in midnight ciphers.” No kidding!