Monday, March 28, 2011

Garden of Beasts – Anita Sullivan

It's not that there is anything wrong with Anita Sullivan's Garden of Beasts, but I searched and searched for something that grabbed me, and I remain ungrabbed. Emily Dickinson said that she knew poetry if she felt as if the top of her head had been taken off, and with this collection, my skull rests intact.

Sullivan returns often to topics of birds and nature, of family, and of music. These are most interesting when they are combined somehow. My favorite poem was “Bach Muses Aloud”, a poem in which Sullivan atypically speaks in something other than her own voice, about something other than personal recollection:

My music comes from avoiding
all the spires of Leipzig.
As the clock is striking one
on my way to conduct the young boys,
around me shapes turn me
as if I were a many-sided pot
in a wheel of spikes.
Today this partita’s opening phrase
comes out of the loose left flap
of my trousers adhering to the corner of
that low stone stair.
Even the key is a noise plucked
from a passing hoof, or the pie-maker’s
cry. And if I were to tip
my head
back when my wig
is drawn suddenly to mate
with a cage on the bird-seller’s back
I could smile at the slow mordent
this impresses into a courante’s second ending.
It often feels like the images and scenes in each poem have potential, and remain undeveloped. They are interesting to observe as it is interesting to observe a closed-circuit TV camera, but simply watching things happen is different that watching a well-plotted story. Sullivan’s real talent is in the occasional image or simile that catches the reader off-guard:
But the notes bite,
peel my wing on the way past
like the pried-up lids of empty cans
village children use in wartime
to slit the throats of sparrows.
This image and this phrasing stick with me, though I quickly forget what the poem is about.

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