LUCY BIEDERMAN Reviews
The Rabbits Could Sing by Amber Flora Thomas
(University of Alaska Press, 2012)
Reading and re-reading Amber Flora Thomas’s beautiful and multifaceted second book The Rabbits Could Sing (University of Alaska Press, 2012) is like monitoring Lake Michigan; you do not know what to expect on any given day. However it looked yesterday, or the way you remember it, is no guide—it could be icy or warm or clear or muddled or choppy or smooth as a blue silk scarf: there’s just no telling. The more I return to The Rabbits Could Sing, the more elusive I find its meanings and morals and moments. It is a magic trick of a book, a mirage. I find it difficult to place within the contemporary poetry landscape; while individual poems are composed of clear, detailed, narrative sentences, those sentences, when combined, create jagged, prismatic poems.
Thomas writes in long lines that feel like big, deep breaths. A Thomas line often has two things in it—two descriptions, say, or two actions. Relatedly, Thomas often employs caesurae, usually marked by strong punctuation like a period. In reading individual poems I was often aware of points at which another writer might end a line, either because the expected four beats had passed, or because of a natural pause in breath; Thomas pushes the line past this point. For example, these lines open “Dear Reader”:
I, too, begin with one hundred judgments on the gravel roads
through childhood. I think I am my own absence
and go on confessing the vacancy. I fall asleep in a field
and become the weather over the field. I go everywhere with you
in mind. At Muir Beach, I watch dogs chase sticks into the surf
and the surf chasing the thin legs of dogs onto the beach.
Beginning the poem with the heavily punctuated “I, too,” has the effect, for me, of clearing out space—making room to say what needs to be said, no matter how many words or how much punctuation, or how long a line, it takes to say it. Thomas’s enjambments lead into the “absence” of the blank page, push our attention onto the next line, and finally, into a period. Then, instead of ending the line, Thomas continues it—into something new, like “I fell asleep in a field” or “I go everywhere with you.” By doing this, she creates new possibilities for association across the line. For example, the line “through childhood. I think I am my own absence” carries the slight hint of a childhood during which the speaker thought so.
I read “Dear Reader” as a response to Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole” (“In a field / I am the absence / of a field. / … Wherever I am / I am what is missing.”). Where Strand’s poem becomes an assertion of presence, Thomas’s is a “confession of vacancy.” Strand carefully absents his poem of proper nouns or detail of any sort; Thomas fills the poem with descriptions of inner and outer “weather,” and places us at Muir Beach. And as Strand underscores his singularity, a sense of two-ness pervades “Dear Reader”—the poem begins, “I, too,” and continues to Thomas’s extended couplets enact a sense of weaving together—perhaps joining the Poet and Reader, or Absence and Presence. And in directly addressing the Reader, Thomas turns the poem’s attention to perhaps the ultimate Absence/Presence.
Thomas’s exploration of absence feels to me like a close cousin to Keats’s Negative Capability. For Keats what distinguishes the mind of a writer like Shakespeare “is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Thomas traffics in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, but, apart from or in addition to the actual content of her poems, she creates a sense of a shadow-poem or cloud-poem—another poem (or life, or world) that could have been instead. Her final lines often perform this, as a kind of opening-up of possibility that also casts doubt on the reality of the poem we have just read. For example, in the beautiful and unsettling final stanza of “Here”: “And later, silence is a trophy / in every room, owning the days / with its crumpled sheets and / many, many questions.”
In the five stanzas preceding this one, Thomas has built a sense of desirous anticipation, and, buzzing underneath that, a sourness that mounts jerkily through words like “thief” and “terror.” With the harsh enjambment of the penultimate line, Thomas dumps us right into the “questioning” final line and its un-happy ending. That final line doesn’t feel crushing because it is sad—I think Thomas is too open-eyed about the way life really feels to give us anything as simple as a sad ending. This ending refuses to transport us into some other realm of being, whether sad or happy. We are only “Here,” where we began, facing the same reality with which we began, uncertainty—the poem’s flitting between terrified anxiety and something like love—and the “many, many questions.”
Another poem that beautifully plays with the notion of absence is “In the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.” In its first stanza, rather than establishing where we are, Thomas establishes where we are not: “My gaze slides over ten unnamed cities. / So many people not to think about, / so many country of thought / where I cannot take refuge.” Right at the beginning of the poem, we are un-placed, unmoored from a social or even literal landscape. Only two lines in the poem are about a painting: “I lean toward gold-framed petals / and wade into red cannas.” By the next stanza, the speaker’s mind has wandered from toward a beloved. In the final stanza, “I’m undoing your sashes again, lowering / your skirt. Into the rushes, up against / the veins and dew, I press my mouth; / horses canter into the red wake.” The one place the poem’s title leads us to expect to go—a painting of a flower—we only briefly touch. That the last stanza’s imagined wake is red suggests to me that the speaker is standing looking at the painting, seeing those sashes, her own mouth, the horses, through their red lens.
At times, Thomas, with her genius for conveying bright, nearly grotesque description with a nearly ostentatiously flat affect, recalls Plath. In “Meditation on Four West,” “Bird Leaving a Branch,” and “Cavity in the Rubenesque Façade,” Thomas’s tone feels especially close to the Plath of poems like “Tulips” and “Waking in Winter.” In “Cavity in the Rubenesque Façade,” Thomas writes, “I dream I have a wound, big as / Aphrodite’s shell. I have so many tongues / I can’t keep them all!” That exclamation point—the excitement at having described something well, the satisfaction of description standing in for experience itself, is so Plath that it makes me nearly homesick for Plath herself.
Plath and Thomas also have in common an attention to minute moments that, for most writers, would be beyond the reach of words. For Plath these moments become possibilities for psychological terror; Thomas renders them ambiguous, complex. These are moments that one does not include when telling the story of one’s life, but they are important somehow, remaining in memory for decades. In “Sunbathing,” for instance, the speaker lies in the sun then kills an ant, but Thomas conveys the unsettled and unsettling sense that something deeper and more persistent is at play here.
And setting aside issues of content and theme, Thomas, like Plath, simply writes gorgeous lines, sentences—even titles. In fact, some of the titles of Thomas’s poems are so beautiful, they are sort of miniature scenes, or stories, or poems all their own, like, “When You Rise You Do Not Drown,” or “More Light Because Her Shadow Shook,” “or “Then You Fled the Room.”
One of the most interesting and beautiful things to me about this excellent book is how fully Thomas resists resolution—in individual lines, in poems, in the book at large—and how Thomas involves the reader in this resistance. While the poem “Killing the Rabbit” is subtitled “Ars Poetica,” I found the book’s rabbit theme slightly forced; I read “The Chipped Bowl” as a more fitting ars poetica. In it, Thomas, describing the image of a woman painted on a bowl, has one of my favorite lines in the book: “She will always be on the verge of her life.” And, then, later:
You have grown accustomed
to the shattered image of her tranquil
ascent into your day, and the falseness
of her story, no matter how you end it.
You eat of this longing.
Lucy Biederman (http://lucybiederman.blogspot.com/) lives in Chicago. She has an MFA in poetry from George Mason University. Her chapbook The Other World is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in ILK, Shampoo, Ping Pong, Many Mountains Moving, and The Tusculum Review. She will be a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Louisiana in the fall.