Crossing State Lines: An American Renga

Edited by Bob Holman and Carol Muske-Dukes
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2011
Reviewed by Mike McDonough

“We dead or that’s Toledo up ahead”

Carol Muske-Dukes and Bob Holman have edited a truly collaborative poem, a renga written by a diverse contingent of 54 American poets. Part of Eric Fischl’s multidisciplinary effort to foster a dialogue by bringing artists and their art to communities across the US, Crossing State Lines: An American Renga wants to speak to a larger audience; and, despite this ambitious, rather self-congratulatory editorial agenda, and being saddled with an unpromising title vaguely recalling that seemingly endless series of lame pop bands with continental names, it largely succeeds.

Traditionally, the renga starts an opening verse (hokku, from which haiku derived), with a linked couplet of 7-syllable lines (waki). The process is repeated, and then passed on to the next poet, with liberal amounts of sake in between. Additional rules vary among different forms of renga; the editors asked each poet to write 2 responses within 2 days, and left the writers free to follow or disregard other rules such as syllable count, seasonal references, or how many previous verses they should read. Each poem may or may not directly respond to the poems before, but none is out of place.

Any selection of only 54 poets is bound to lead to regrettable exclusions, but the book comes as close as possible to disproving that apparently inevitable truth. The poets are equitably but not mathematically divided between performance and page poets, men and women, younger and older practitioners. The 10-line format doesn’t let anyone hog the page, and affords an angle of vision that flattens out one of the most useless arguments in contemporary poetry. Choosing between page poets and stage poets is like one of those Facebook Beatles/Stones debates. The world is big enough for both, why retreat to a desert island?

With each poet writing under a strict deadline during the time of ferment after the 2008 election, Crossing State Lines feels like a conversation, ripe with natural whirls, eddies, falls, and contradictions. The whole is a journey filled with anger and hope. Robert Pinsky starts off by invoking the sweep of the country in an appropriately formulaic way; he starts the questioning by asking, “What live or lethal or great or insane flows / linking air to air? Or song to song?” Much later, Beau Sia answers by momentarily dragging the crazed indifference of a tornado back towards the hope of understanding: “a tantrum heading in the direction of definitions.”

The format allows for maximum interplay, and repeating themes. Against the hopeful news of Obama’s election, the poem explores the continuing reality of America’s endless wars. The range of voices guarantees these themes are explored in many different directions, both poetically and politically. The poem easily incorporates Michael Ryan’s breezy lightbulb joke, as well as his skepticism about the potentially self-congratulatory gathering of poets here: “How many poets does it take to change/ a country? How many presidents? How much pain?” Luis Rodriguez answers the challenge:

disasters are our lot, sun blistered face or frozen smile—it’s more about
whatever wholeness we hang on to when nature and our natures break

and what language of that memory can elevate us to try again
we’ve been here before, and we have to save the world every time.

And Phillip Levine’s contribution, as always, keeps us honest:

After he goes on about hell, she says
“We in heaven.”
No, Leo says—he’s driving—
“We dead or that’s Toledo up ahead.”

Though the renga stresses the inevitability of change, every disaster does not find a proportional dispensation of grace. Don’t miss the double meaning of pharmakon (referring both to disease and its cure) in a standout poem written by Edward Ledford, a Lieutenant Colonel stationed in Afghanistan. The formal requirements of the renga, loose as they are, prevent the inclusion of a single soldier-poet like Ledford, or a celebrity like Paul Simon, from feeling like an editorial gimmick. A collective atmosphere persists in spite of the artful effect of printing the author’s names in semi-disappearing display type. With each untitled poem adhering to a modest length, and freed from the editorial dictum preserving only the best of each specimen, however arbitrarily defined, the renga wears its diversity relatively unselfconsciously. The writers help make the renga a conversation rather than a competition. By following (however loosely) “the rules,” everyone has a turn to speak.

The reader is invited to add their own voice, expressly by the irrepressible Bob Holman, and more quietly by others. The book’s vision of poetic democracy unfettered by the pernicious categories of marketers and sloganeers is greatly enhanced when Suji Kwock Kim offers an effective cento of previous lines towards the end of the renga. Robert Hass writes an effective anchor leg describing hikers unpacking their sandwiches on the edge of a cliff over the Pacific. Crossing State Lines is a clearheaded book, and it speaks well for the state of American poetry.