Cleopatra Haunts the Hudson
by Sarah White
Spuyten Duyvil 2007
Reviewed by Komo Ananda
Like plums? Good, so do I. You might like them even better as metaphor:
I had to free my mind from the troublesome plum,
the notion of treasure in someone’s dim
past, plum to pull from the pie still dripping,
the one true plum, not anonymous plums in the jam
but Damson and sentimental ones, plums on the path
to somewhere, the trouble that simmers
within the skin, as purpose simmers
in pilgrims who choose the Way of the Plum.
These wonderfully meditative lines from Sarah White’s sestina “Plum” are pulled along with excellent external and internal rhymes. But even if we don’t get a sense of tranquility from the sound, we are lulled in by the plum as if it were a mantra. There’s a mystical message in the many meanings and forms of the plum that we can envisage if we adopt the Way of the Plum.
White’s first book, Cleopatra Haunts the Hudson, provides an amusing journey through sound and meter, with an underlying emphasis on the power of a single word. “Plum” is also an example of how she tends to reach for something spiritual in the mundane; indeed, her search is the search for Barlach’s “things behind reality.” This is not a new conquest for a poet, but the historical context she uses to frame her sonic and rhythmic paintings keeps the pages turning and leads us deftly in and out of the imaginative and literal worlds.
White doesn’t allow us to wallow in the esoteric. As soon as we’re on the brink of being lost, she uses her historical poems to jerk us back. In a series of four epistolic poems entitled “Pen Names: (1) Anne’s pen, (2) The Name Keats, (3) Woman Trabadour, and (4) The Blue stream,” White writes about men and women of letters, and how their personal lives have influenced their writing. “Anne’s Pen” tells the circumstance of Anne Frank’s imprisonment (in hiding) and her friendship with her diary “Kitty.” She uses factual information from Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl to create a metaphor for the Shoah and ultimately a metaphor for Anne’s death through cremation, like her lost pen:
Next day, the clip was found
among the ashes, not a trace
of the gold nib…must have melted
In “The Name Keats” White puns a little with Keats’s name and circumstances; she illuminates Keats’s idea of negative capability alongside his own insecurities as a deathly ill writer who might not stand the test of time. Next comes “Woman Troubador,” in which White skillfully invokes the tradition of feminine perseverance amid patriarchal rule; revered women such as Dante’s Beatrice, who leads Dante to God, and Ysabella Castile, who helped her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon lay the foundation for the unification of Spain, make appearances.
In “The Blue Stream,” the final poem in the “Pen Name” series, White alludes to herself as a woman of letters. She builds upon historical content, I believe, in an attempt to begin developing her place in the feminine poetic tradition. In the opening line the pen is addressed again:
My plastic pen has inched
across the page,
grown pale, and fainted
like some corset-clad,
She questions the pen for the lack of muse, or a woman’s place in poetry.
White is predominantly a poet of ideas; I was reminded of Stevens and the idea of extracting from the everyday experience to enter the imaginative world. Two poems, “City of Remembered Cities” and “Natural History Learned On The M-4 Bus” directly address the circumstances of a city. In “City of Remembered Cities” we are given a description of what cities were built upon, that the foundation of a city lies in its past, present, and future:
A river divides our city in principal parts.
Bridges are named for leaders,
victories, and lovers
who walk beside the river.
Any labeling of a bridge, be it by government or individual, is the imposition of the imagination. As the poem continues, history is presented as the labor of human muscle, succinctly leading to the present and future that includes all relevant parties:
display the craft of steelworkers
and spiders. Lower bridges
figure in watercolors…
…Those who know who they are
are asked to be governors. Thos who don’t
are asked to be actors. Passengers
are asked to avoid irregular situations.
Thanks to alphabetical
order, the city remains grammatical.
Tallness rhymes with smallness.
Near a Spire of Triumph
burns the flame of our irreparable loss.
It seems a city is built on tangible things, but that its inhabitants become ingrained and rooted in its system and create narratives to survive. They imagine the city indestructible until their stories no longer work, until history repeats itself and all are forced to look starkly on what’s been created in order to decided what might continue to work. White demonstrates a keen understanding of the fact that imagination constructs a life as steel, governors and citizens construct a city—and that both are subject to revision with the passage of time.
These ideas have already been dealt with by Stevens, Milosz, Ashbery and maybe hundreds of others. At times White also perhaps borders on being lyrically sweet. But her interest in incorporating the feminine tradition alongside that of the kingdom of the imagination makes this book relevant. There is a time-honored tradition of skilled poets publishing first books late in their careers, and White shows a hard-earned sense of wisdom in Cleopatra. There is also, on a very fundamental level, love and faith in language and the single word, be it plum, pen, city, imagination or reality.