Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sarah Vap - American Spikenard

Sarah Vap, American Spikenard

So anyway, I’ve been enjoying Sarah Vap’s Dummy Fire for the past week, and then I started reading her other 2007 book, American Spikenard, and was taken immediately by the power of her poems’ fragility.

I was thinking, reading Dummy Fire, that her poems threatened to disappear into the world, in enigmatic and powerful ways, gestural ways. I’ll stand by that for Dummy Fire, but American Spikenard is something of a different creature, at once moving toward the ephemerality of Dummy Fire, but with a longer line, and in that, a longer dwelling in the moment of her attention. The way that the closest attention is always going to be childlike.

Or something like that. Here’s a poem that occurs early in American Spikenard, as I’m only about half way through right now.

Second Daughter

Couldn’t you verify what I sense: that there’s no reason
to be disappointed by any particular

outcome. Describe a beautiful pattern—

amazing. I call it elegance. Single. But pattern is feeble
compared to attraction

which makes it or breaks. I’m trying to account

for all the sisters’ wildly
different strengths, and hurtling down to the center of the earth. I heard a voice say

Personalize this, Sweetheart.

That could be a battle for me—a doddering, sympathetic figure wishing
both symmetry and chance.

I heard my little sister speaking

with mother and father for hours—their rented house by the water;
seawater, diving puffins. They had

a nice conversation. I shouldn’t have minded. It had to do

with what I would have said to them. I’d say there must be choice
at subatomic levels—eventually,

the smallest things in me will make the same choice.

I’m sorry
I’m so far away right now. This is all I can say: there’s a chance that I could pass

through something solid.


At 9/16/2007 5:17 PM, Anonymous louise mathias said...

yeah, I liked this one a lot...

i though it interesting that you said that one of the books you ordered you expected to dislike! (i don't know that i've ever ordered a book i expected to dislike). then i tried to figure out which one it might be, and i think i know but i won't say it here...

At 9/16/2007 5:23 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well with 18 books, I thougth I'd stretch out for one of them . . . really though, I thought it was going to be interesting when I ordered it (the one I think we're both thinking of), but when I got a copy and read the first poem I realized I was in a world i don't find at all interesting, so I put it down and went for the Foust and Vap. I think I'll read the Hawkey books next.

It's SO much fun ordering 18 books at once.

At 9/17/2007 1:17 PM, Blogger Oliver de la Paz said...

Love the Spikenard. Sarah just moved to my neck-of-the-woods (Olympia, WA).

And, 18 books?! Win the lottery or something?

At 9/18/2007 6:35 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Tell her that her books are finding a friendly reception in Missouri.

18 books, yes. It's actually even better than that. My university gave me an $800.00 award to spend on books, so I bought 40 copies of The Little Book of Guesses (suitable for classroom adoption), these 18, and I still have $175.00 left over for AWP.

What a nice way to start off the fall!

At 9/18/2007 9:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you teach your own book?

At 9/18/2007 10:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Dear anonymous:

I bought 40 copies so that I can take copies with me to sell at poetry readings, or to send to people.

No, I don't teach from it. I can't imagine what I'd say. Something along the lines of:

"Uh, um, and then I wrote this one."

But if you'd like to teach from it, by all means! I have 40 copies I could sell you . . .

At 9/19/2007 9:57 AM, Blogger Oliver de la Paz said...


I'd be so uncomfortable teaching my own book.

"So, um, here's a moment of my highest vulnerability . . . and here's another . . . and another . . .." At this point I'd start openly weeping in front of my class.

At 9/19/2007 10:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Wonderful idea! Maybe then I should make them all buy a copy, I could use a good cry.

At 9/20/2007 8:32 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I'd probably start editing my own poems in class. You know, if I taught. Or had a book.

I'll sound a small note of dissent on this poem, though I'm not familiar with Sarah Vap's work in general, so I'll need to read more. I find too many phrases here that give me nothing whatsoever to hold onto: "Describe a beautiful pattern-- / amazing. I call it elegance." or "a doddering, / sympathetic figure wishing / both symmetry and chance." There's certainly good phrasing also, and I like the whole ending a lot, starting with "I'd say there / must be choice," but those phrases that are obviously intentional but that do nothing for me tend to get in the way.

At 9/20/2007 9:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


It’s always a balancing, isn’t it? The movement between image and statement, or concrete and abstract, say, in poetry. So where we each fall on the gamut between these two poles of meaning transfer, becomes the way we write, and largely, the way we read. Or anyway, that’s how I would phrase it. I’m sure others would phrase it perhaps more profitably. I find that when I try to write about this economy, it often folds up and moves away.

But, in my thinking about a poet like Sarah Vap (or several others who fall locally with her on the gamut of meaning transfer in my imagination), one takes such statements not on the level of scene-building, but on voice-, or tone-building. It’s similar to how I read Ashbery, I suppose, the way the modification, or value, is often asserted, not shown, in direct violation of the “show, don’t tell” rule. When done well, as I think Vap is able to do in many poems, it is a move that is enacts the image of a consciousness in the world, at the base, perceiving level.

I’m not saying that as well as I should. What I mean to say, more plainly, is I don’t often “get” or “see” such statements either, and sometimes that is something that takes me out of the experience of the poem, and sometimes that’s something that helps build, for me, the experience of the poem. This poem, again, for me, is one of the ones that works.

But there are others that don’t, of course, where the tendril between perceiver and perceived gets too freighted, and the poem evaporates.

At 9/20/2007 2:49 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I totally agree with you about such statements being more about voice/tone than about scene, and there's certainly a place for it--some poems are composed entirely or mostly of them, and even my own work uses these devices.

This is at least 90% my own bias, I'm sure, but there seems to be a really fine line for me between when one of those abstracty statements works for me in the context of the poem and in building the mood or the character or whatever, and when it falls very flat. I don't think I've done a very good job, even internally, of working out where or why the line is.

Phrases in the more abstract mold that worked better for me in this poem include the first sentence and the ones at the end. Again, this is primarily a visceral reaction on my part, and shouldn't be taken as anything other than that. Thank you for the response--it's very helpful in getting me to think about these things... :-)

At 9/21/2007 6:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

This deserves a long discussion. Indeed. Will you be at AWP?

I wish there were an equation for it . . . showing vs. telling (or however it should better be phrased). I keep finding that the very phrase that ruins one poem, might make some other poem rise. You know?

It's SOOOOOO subjective. Or mostly so. It seem in the abstract there's much agreement. But in the application!

At 9/23/2007 10:56 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I'm not a big fan of prescriptive phrases like "show, don't tell" or (worse) "no ideas but in things."

Trying to work out some kind of roommate situation for AWP--may be outside my financial bounds otherwise.

At 9/24/2007 6:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"Prescriptive phrases are always wrong" is my favorite prescriptive phrase.


At 9/24/2007 9:51 PM, Blogger Charles said...

I think in Sarah's work there's a lot of tension between the external world and the internal world. One impinging on the other in some way, with resistence.

At 9/25/2007 10:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree. That's a good description of what first struck me about her work.

In a related note, I just realized we have some poems of hers coming out in our next issue, due in January.

Funny, I never made the connection. And here I am signing the forms and reading the poems, and finally making the connection.

Oh my.


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