by Caroline Knox
Wave Books 2008
Reviewed by Richard Scheiwe
Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses
“You’re the elastic limit,” we were told,
and with reason. Hooke’s Law
states that within the limit,
strain is proportional to stress.
from “Hooke’s Law”
The poems in Caroline Knox’s sixth collection, Quaker Guns, embody the dichotomies and disparities of American poetry: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Neo-Formalism, everything under and in between. Hooke’s Law is an apt metaphor for Quaker Guns, the Law stating, “as the extension, so the force”; something can only be pulled apart in perfect proportion to the strength of force being applied.
From “Hooke’s Law” onward, voices and forms and styles pull the collection apart, rendering it consistently difficult to decode: too many voices giving way to too much “flotsam.” But even if Quaker Guns proves unstable overall, Knox’s daring competence of pastiche and tangential movement might leave you anticipating a subsequent, or previous, volume.
This isn’t a Book of Forms, per se, but Knox provides supplies a directory anyway. From the sixth section of “Hooke’s Law,” her intentions are made plain:
The book you are reading,
Quaker Guns, contains the
sequence you are reading,
two sonnets, two haiku,
a sestina, an homage
to George Herbert, some tercets,
a masque, two translations,
two erasure poems, an elegy,
recipe, a song, an ABC,
an eclogue, a canzone,
a group of rubayyat, and other poems.
Formal variety, sure; what Knox doesn’t explicitly acknowledge are the disparities in voice. One could as easily generate a “voice” catalogue relative to their own associations: “A Dance” with Susan Howe, “Dove” with Ted Hughes, “We Beheld Two Nebulas” with Robert Pinsky and “Oldest Dog” with Stanley Kunitz.
In “A Dance,” the voice is firmly controlled: complacent but not absent authority:
Bouki fait gumbo
Lapin mangé li.
Bouki • Wolof for hyena;
Verbs are French: fait, mange.
And later: “Compare Aesop fait (get Greek word for “tale”) / Compare LaFontaine fait fable. / God gives but, but He does not share.” Yet things change in the next poem, “We Beheld Two Nebulas:”; we’re confronted with a newfound cosmic fluidity:
first, the nebula Midges, a diffuse
nebula, and like all diffuse
nebulas, a luging blob
wheeling light, the starry map
of cells which die every day,
a seed-shaped clay molecules…
This wavering between associative logic and a more narrative logic is the consistency of Quaker Guns, for better or worse, as Knox augments this ir/resolution with rhyme, dialogue, surrealism, repetition, catalogue, and persona, keeping us off balance, uncertain.
Knox also builds an occasionally-lovely barrier with her peculiar dependence on self-referentiality. As already evidenced with the sixth section from “Hooke’s Law,” her formal poems are unnecessarily conscious of themselves. In the sonnet “Scenery” from the long poem “Face-Masque,” she writes:
popping with rhetorical questions, afloat
in blancmange literally, or sinking in it, says:
The wrong sestet hooked up with the right octave?
Would I swallow that, hook line and sinker?
And in “Coordinates,” a poem written in tercets: “Here is something you can substantiate: / these are nonce tercets; every line / rhymes with another somewhere or other.” Finally, she offers a poem whose subject is self-referentiality itself; the title (“The Title”) appears in the middle of two sestets, and states, partially quoted:
The poem begins all wrong in medias res
so it looks like a fragment, a throwaway,
something that goes nowhere—
was and is here, down in the middle of the
poem, halfway down the page…
The charm of “The Title” is that the act of reading the poem is the point; self-referentiality is the point. Self-referentiality also works in “Line Poem,” composed of long lines. Instead of acknowledging itself in the meat of these lines, the poem relies on the objective correlative, connecting the physical properties of the poem to an exteriority only hinted at by the title:
Long jetty, shell-racked jetty, cracked warped planks.
A twill tape measure, an audiotape cassette unspoiled and puckered, shining.
A bike chain and a bungee chord. A möbius strip and a broccoli elastic.
Split vanilla pod inset with paltry-looking flat oily brown seeds.
Authority develops because of her faith in the energy of her accumulating imagery. “The Title” and “Line Poem” are top-notch self-referential poems. But over the course of Quaker Guns, her self-references are so many that they begin to occlude the overall goal of such a task.
In the title poem, Knox explores the idea of Quaker guns, a term for fake guns used to trick enemies in battle:
But these aren’t worth the powder
it takes to blow them to hell.
They’re Quaker guns, a creative ruse, the kind you couldn’t and wouldn’t
fire: they’re flotsam, jetsam, or any old trees, ships’ logs.
They’re broken masts. They’re Friends of the Friends.
Along with Hooke’s Law, the book title is a natural metaphor for these poems; are these poems, in their variety, designed as self-conscious stand-ins? Toys built so well they come to life? When you have a sampler of everything, it’s an easy wonder if any are the genuine article. In Quaker Guns, some are, some aren’t.