by Amy Pence
Ninebark Press 2012
Reviewed by Christine Swint
“glide past the earth’s/ fierce and mythic wreckage”
Armor, Amour, from Ninebark Press, is a beautiful collection of lyric poetry by Amy Pence. With the advent of e-books, the printed book as tangible artifact has evolved even further into an art form, and Ninebark Press has produced a lovely, intimate example of this. The cover design by Seth Fitts depicts an angel or a woman with bowls and spheres orbiting her shadowed face. This image evokes a few of the key poems in the collection, such as “Global Positioning Systems.” The bowls and spheres refer to satellites that are lost in a void, our human space debris. The reader is both implicated and observed as one of the souls that “glide past the earth’s/ fierce and mythic wreckage” as well as “the eye” that in our ignorance “regards/ what is lost” (16).
The woman depicted at the center of the “earth’s fierce and mythic wreckage” recalls the title poem of the book, “Armor / Amour,” from the section “Desire” (30). She is the “dark-hooded dream” who becomes an aspect of the speaker’s psyche, the subject of an inner meditation the speaker directly addresses. She names this dream image as a “mettle,” a kind of energy, that “opalesces / until I no longer see you.” Even the colors of the cover opalesce, pointing to other poems in the book. Muted grays, pinks, and blues, invite us to discover the “[l]ayers and layers” that “unfurl in our conscious/ dream” in “My Peony” (11), to imagine how the “dragonfly throbs/ its gilded thorax” in “My Blunder” (9), or to become “[e]nraptured” by the “winged inversions” of “Cyclamens” (44).
The book is divided into seven sections: “Regret,” “Vanity,” “Suffering,” “Desire,” “Impermanence,” “Velocity,” and “Open Me,” each one a different emotional or physical abstraction with Buddhistic or scientific implications that Pence embodies through image, metaphor, and sound. For example, in “Split Turtle Egg” from the section “Regret,” the speaker examines the egg’s “red sac/ torn open” in which a “spiraled homunculus” exhibits barely perceptible signs of life. The speaker returns the scarcely living turtle to the water, but ends the poem with this observation that stands for the fragility of all life: “such a thin separation/ from the rushing world” (5).
Pence guides the reader through a range of expressions by employing contrasts. The first half of the collection contains musical tercets and quatrains of dimeter and trimeter lines that contrast with an acute portrayal of human joy, frailty, and suffering. “Night Heron,” from the section “Suffering,” is an elegy in eight dimeter and trimeter lines, separated into a quatrain and two couplets. These spare, lyric lines convey the last moments of a soldier’s life as he is shot by a sniper. The actual death is implied by what is found:
Diminished. No Battlefield
but the torn poem found
in his pocket. A corporal,
a lieutenant: the ash
of his name. Our silence
implodes. The sniper
recoils into the grim bird
where we do not know ourselves.
Pence leaps from one metaphysical observation to another, holding the poems together with passion and awareness. For example, “God Damn,” in the section “Vanity,” jumps from the face of a dianthus flower to humans on a catwalk in a way that evokes the imagist poems of H.D. and William Carlos Williams. The first couplet presents the image of the flower: “Like open spokes, the dianthus/ raise their blank faces” (15). Immediately after, the speaker leaps to human behavior in general: “On the catwalk, we’re all / objectified: look for / the salacity in each other.” Like a koan that attains its meaning through contrasts of disparate images, the poem features a juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated aspects of existence, nature and fashion. We come to understand how we collectively objectify ourselves, our fellow humans, and nature.
“Pink Jasmine,” a longer poem from “Impermanence,” juxtaposes in two columns a description of the jasmine as it climbs on a “sharecropper’s shack” with images of a lynching. As Pence states in her notes, “The column poems in this section are meant to be read column-by-column and then across each line, so that each poem is read twice” (98). The first lines on the left reads, “[i]ndelicate:/ its scent that breeds,” while the lines to the right are an ekphrastic impression of the exhibit, “Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynchings in America”:“Hanged, then sometimes burned / children afterwards” (47). The result is two or more simultaneous readings that overlap history, memory, and present-day images.
Plant and insect images fill the poems, sometimes as direct observations, and always on some level as metaphor. There are references to Wal-mart, smart bombs and dead rodents among the flowers and trees–Pence does not shy away from the subjects of war and death, but neither does she gloss over the root human urge to mingle and join, as she explores sexuality in the section “Desire.” “Stamens” is so steamy hot it is worth the entire collection. Pence explores both the function of a stamen as well as its shape as she states in the final couplet: “Two fingers up/ into my center.” With Pence, less is more; her control of language opens the door to a world of desire.