Patrick Bizzaro

Poetry And Healing:

Observations About Four First Books

Couch, Leigh Ann. Houses Fly Away. Clarksville, TN: Zone 3
Press, 2007. 60 pages. n.p.

Rhein, Christine. Wild Flight. Lubbock: Texas Tech University
Press, 2007. 120 pages. $21.50.

Carter, Catherine. the memory of gills. Baton Rouge: LSU Press,
2006. 60 pages. $16.95.

Campbell, Erik. Arguments for Stillness. Willimantic, CT:
Curbstone Press, 2006. 85 pages. $13.95.

Written in a time when hope and faith are economic indicators,
these first full collections of poetry give us glimpses not only of
poetry in the first decade of the twenty-first century but perhaps of
what it will continue to be. While it is futile to seek in these four
fine volumes a single theme or trope that characterizes them all,
each book shows the author’s penchant for portraying perceptions
through the interplay of imagination and memory. The result they
each pursue is a resolution of sorts that their readers too may benefit
from reaching.

Leigh Ann Couch’s Houses Fly Away leads us away from literal
experience in reaching a solution for personal dilemma not by
employing imagery, as is common among contemporary poets, but
by portraying the world as action, as a sequence of events that
leads out of the self. By portraying the world in this way, Couch
allows her imagination to transform the event in ways the poststructural
preoccupation with simultaneity would not permit. In
Couch’s poetry, the aesthetic is always the ethic—that is, the
impulse that results in the act of imagining also provides guidelines
for behavior in the world. In the book’s opening poem, “Beast,”
Couch fittingly writes about survival:

          We poke around the grass, the sun warms
          our skins, we make more of ourselves, we eat,
          don’t get eaten, sleep—it’s enough for a life.           (1)

Clearly, one act in this example leads inevitably to the next, and
everything pushes forward in these lines to define “a life.” Rather
than the poststructural dominance of simultaneity (that is, that all
history exists at the same moment) in her poems, Couch renders a
world that can be defined carefully, yet completely, as events that
characterize the complicated relationships available to us in this
changing world; in these poems, imagination is redemptive but
always set in motion by what is in front of us. Couch posits what
amounts to an aesthetic statement, one certainly that propels the
poem while at the same time instructs the life:

          I take only what’s given, what I can get,
          and I get lonely in this body lost
          in trees and air.           (1–2)

The logical impulse in poems, as in most reflective writing, is to
find a way to live in this rush of events. The entire volume, then,
demonstrates the transformative power of poetry when poems are
the product of deep imaginings. Poem after poem shows how imaginative
and personal writing helps us heal the rift between the
alienated self and the universe it inhabits. In every poem we move
forward with the author in the notion that events unfold consecutively,
in some order our poems help us discover and thus understand,
each one of us in our own way. The poet finds resolution in
the order her poems invent.

Couch, like the other poets discussed here, uses simile to connect
the self with a community, potentially the reader. In the lines below
from her poem “Reach,” the narrator communes with her reader
and, in doing so, connects both the reader and herself to the timeless,
transcendent, and transformative power that continues to be
nature. Couch takes a Romantic view we want to hold onto during
the first decade of the twenty-first century in the hope we will be
able to hold onto it indefinitely:

          Over the whole world lace is falling.
          The Bradford pears are just beginning
          their solemn procession two by two,
          they blanch with happiness, and they reach
          for each other across Carolina Avenue.
          Take my hand from my mouth and I might start singing.           (45)

There is reliance in these poems on techniques that transform us, on
events that change us until “the interior becomes exterior” (39), the
thought becomes song. And healing that results from this transformation
characterizes poems by each of these poets in their first books.


In Wild Flight, Rhein uses flight as a metaphor for movement
through space and time, including during her own life, but also as
apt metaphor for her father’s effort as a young man leaving Germany
to reach more hospitable lands. Where Couch relies on imaginings in
her portrait of the world, Rhein relies on memory, which makes certain
events repeatable, simultaneous in time, as she views her father’s
escape from Germany. In the opening poem, “Gift,” Rhein employs a
strategy that I want to call “revisionary recall.” In it she describes
her father, in stanza one “a German boy” walking home from
school, offering to a prisoner “the butter sandwich that is his lunch”
(4). Six lines farther into the poem, it is “Sixty years later” when
“my father and I/stand in the same spot,” indicating simultaneous
existences of the sort memory permits. In Rhein’s poems, memory
allows the repetition of events in the world. Events, thus, may be
scrutinized—“January 1945 all over again.” Clearly, stasis is possible
here, the event as it is recalled becoming something else entirely as it
is studied in these poems, a fair substitute for the event as it
occurred: “as if there were no buried layers” (19).

As it is for all of us, memory is selective for Rhein. But memory in
her verse also fastens us to our interpretations as though events we
recall have no point of origin whatsoever, history is unstable, and
just about anything might actually have occurred. We are given, in
Rhein’s words, “life changed by pretending” (25). Like imagination
in Couch’s poems, memory in Rhein’s is transformative. When coupled 
with imaginings, recall too is creative, offering a starting point
for resolution and an opportunity for healing to take place. That
starting point for history proves in a Rhein poem that the conventional
recall available to us ensures continuation of lives long lost.
Rather than a world marked by consecutive events, then, Rhein
works to great advantage by envisioning the world as simultaneous
in time and place, using memory to do so. She is able, as a result,
to focus simultaneously in these poems on cause and effect, rendering
very much of a postmodern approach to history.


A view that includes the original event and the revision of it may
often help us achieve peace of mind and relieve of us the ongoing
threat that comes from a lack of resolution. Revisionary recall helps
us to perceive an historical event differently and thus to heal. We
cannot necessarily change the event, Rhein teaches us, but we can
change the way we think about it. Among these books, we see resolution
for Couch as a product of intense imaginings and for Rhein
as a product of memory. Catherine Carter offers us a third way in
the memory of gills, providing an interesting integration of the two.

“Sunken Tanks, Bloodsworth Island” offers clear and exact
description of the famous island after the fact, long after tanks
along the famous shoreline had been bombarded in a form of
rehearsal for the real event:

          The sand is gone, but the tanks are there
          yet. Eight feet under, a hundred
          yards out, a turret and a hatch
          emerge, peer out, draw down
          again.           (3)

If the same topic were transformed by imagination or memory, as it
might if addressed by Couch or Rhein, we would have very different
results. By contrast with those two poets, Carter focuses on the
end result and renders it exactly as it appears to her, without the
illusory change that “pretending” (to use Rhein’s term) might produce.
“Sudden Tanks” ends, then, in ongoing threat:

          The bombers have gone home, and no one runs
          strafing practice on the dead tanks now,
          although—corroded lace—the three-inch gun
          points south, across our bow.           (3)

Carter’s concern with final causes is rendered with particular clarity,
as if to say that if we do not avoid the event by transforming it
as Couch and Rhein do we must learn to master it and, thus, to
control our personal fears. Carter offers what amounts to detailed
instructions for survival and does so by staring death and hardship
in the eyes, as in “The Last Good Water” where, to drink, “You
must/be an animal here, / prostrate yourself” (4). Carter is fearless
in these poems, lying prostrate, indeed, in “Evidence of Angels,”
“teasing the buzzards—lying very still / to make them circle and
look;/but they didn’t land…” (6). We learn from this expert at
addressing hardship directly that “The love of God is a tricky business/
if you don’t like animals” (7). This is the fading Romanticism
Carter would like to keep current: Wordsworth wrote, “Love of
Nature Leading to Love of Man.”

Carter’s work seems to achieve certainty from what might be
viewed by a researcher as a sample of one, observations and
recordings of things as they are or as they appear to be to the poet.
She evokes the imagination and memory only to enhance and thus
better understand events as she is engaged in them. Her details
carry the weight of factuality, as in “Letter Appealing a Citation”:

          It wasn’t really reckless, unless
          second gear on U.S. 301 (the backwoods stretch)
          is reckless. I tried to tell him:
          it was damp and slick
          and the headlights fuzzed in the fog
          and there were toads, hundreds
          or thousands of toads,
          all springing west.           (8)

Less poetry as transformation than poetry as discovery of what’s
actually there, Carter’s poetry employs memory and imagination
chiefly to deepen the experience of the present. The event is the
event. The poet’s job is to record it, deal with it, and move on.

Carter is so much the naturalist that we sense an extension or
broadening of her perception so that, by the book’s end, we applaud
the Darwinian sense of adaptation that seems to be the theme of her
most compelling poems. These adaptations render experiences that
border on miracle. “I have begun to hear things” (28), she writes. If
we look long enough at ordinary events, they become extraordinary.
Extraordinary elements of ordinary events are the things Carter renders
in her finely wrought poems, a world cut off from other
worlds: “Almost no one alive now remembers the years of shad
runs” (29). There is loss in these poems, of course, but acceptance
too and without remorse: “Almost no one seethes and weeps.”


Erik Campbell’s Arguments for Stillness resists easy categorization,
using rhetorical allusions to accomplish poetic tasks. It is important
to note that Campbell is an expatriate, living and writing in Papua,
Indonesia, where “he hasn’t worked very hard as a technical writer
for an American mining company” (author’s biographical note).
Thus, Campbell’s life dilemma predictably enough is different in
fundamental ways from those writing in America during the Bush
administration. Still, Campbell’s work is remarkable for the
author’s extraordinary consciousness of the time in which he lives
and its points of contract with the past. He makes this point in
“The Golden Age of Good Times,” which includes a epigraph from
Stephen Dobyns, “Can one point to a golden age of good times?”:

          If we should all at once decide to try,
          Like a group coup d’etat against states

          Of sadness and regret, a revolution of gesture
          Consisting of index fingers, human compass
          Points trying for good and true norths,

          How many of us could be found pointing
          At one another, hoping to find so many
          Welcome, reciprocal accusations?           (36)

These lines show quite well one powerful trait of Campbell’s verse,
its distinct voice. And what contributes to the strength and effect of
these lines is his excellent use of enjambment.

Campbell finds resolution by negotiating likenesses, finding in the
history events and personages he evokes points of contact or similarities
that create meaningful contexts for understanding the
predicament addressed, most often people’s insistence on acting to
resolve life conflicts. The solution, in the end, is stillness. There is
literary precedent for the technique Campbell employs. Poets long
have looked elsewhere to find a cure for an immediate dilemma: to
King Arthur’s court (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King) to Renaissance
Italy (Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto”), and
to Greek mythology (numerous writers, including Yeats). Making
such connections between Campbell and his literary ancestors, I
would place Campbell not among the Romantic writers, as I might
the others discussed here, but among the Victorians. Campbell
seems removed (geographically and otherwise) from many of he
immediate events he writes about and in that distance finds resolve.
But I’d qualify that judgment by pointing out that Campbell has a
wonderful sense of the ironic and that his best poems make use of
that sense. The interesting twist Campbell brings to the techniques
used by earlier writers is his reference to well-known persons in an
effort to create a revisionary biography for them in which sees
them in an altogether contemporary context, resulting at times in
near-comic effect.

What connects this work with collections by Couch, Rhein, and
Carter is Campbell’s convincing argument for life lived most profitably
in stillness, inactivity. We find out in the epigraph to the
book’s “Prologue” from Blaise Pascal that “‘The sum of evil would
be greatly diminished if men could only learn to sit quietly in their
rooms’” (xv). Metal Man of the book’s prologue “sits in Union
Square so that you don’t have to,/Covered in metallic paint, not
moving, like applied//Pascal taken one step publicly further.” As a
rhetorical argument, this poem concludes that the product of Metal
Man’s inactivity is most agreeable: “Nobody dies because of this.”

Arguments for Stillness further appeals to a logic we associate with
rhetoric in its sensible organization beginning with “Potential
Energies,” moving through “Moments of Stasis” and “Still Lives”
before ending where the poet is, in “East.” The opening section
includes revisionary views of Hamlet, Nietzsche, and Gregor Samsa.
The second part offers views of Frankenstein as well as “The Man
Who Kissed the Letter” and the wonderful “Poet and Audience,” a
poem every poet should read for its enthymeme concerning why
poems get rejected: “It’s because the postman has opened/All your
submissions and kept them.” In overstatement typical of the best of
Campbell’s poems in this collection, the poet-as-technical-writer
offers observations about the appropriateness of the book’s type to
the type of person the poet envisions himself to be.

My favorite portion of the book is the third part, “Still Lives,”
since it reads as the core message of the volume, the argument
promised in the previous section in the poem, “Twelve Stanza

          You will slowly become convinced, when my artifice
          Permits, that everything you’ve ever done, said, forgotten,
          Or read had a poem in it you simply didn’t notice. Your

          Life, albeit full, has been too full of formless, almost
          Moments that should have ended with action, with
          Someone weeping or waving their way to becoming.           (45)

It is fun for me, both a poet and a composition scholar, to watch
the poetic overpower the rhetoric. Even poor Aristotle, who separated
the poetic from the rhetoric to begin with, would certainly
smile and shake his head at Campbell’s aping of rhetorical convention
in the making of these poems. From the middle section, we are
fortunate enough to receive the philosophical core of the book in
“Familiarity”: “What we call ‘familiarity’ / Is really a certain type of
slowness” (51). The poem’s protagonist seems to speak for the
author, himself, having “outlined a partial plan to combat the
familiar.” Simic comes immediately to mind for me since the
avowed goal of Simic’s early verse too was exactly this, to bring
strangeness to the familiar, so we see things such as forks and
knives as if for the first time after having read one of his poems.
Campbell’s poems work against “repetition” when repetition “risks
bordering on anything resembling / / Belief, density, or languidness.”
That plan works quite well in this book and ultimately convinces
us that poetry transforms and, by doing so, heals the angst
and boredom of contemporary life.

In closing this essay, some generalizations seem in order. For one,
what these books have in common as first books is the authors’ use
of writing for purposes of healing. Of course, healing is always a
personal matter and each person must find her or his own way.
And for each, the way will be unique but require either transformation
or acceptance. Thus, as books written and published during
times of war and economic hardship, we might expect these poets
to lead the way in modeling a route out of such difficulties. Given
historical precedent, we might likewise expect poetry of this era to
take the transcendent route. While I hesitate to generalize any further
about the condition of poetry in the first decade of the new
millennium, I might posit for purposes of conversation that times
such as these allow poets the rare opportunity to transcend day-today
events through sincere imaginings, as in Couch’s work, through
what I have called revisionary recall, as in Rhein’s poems, through
courageous and direct confrontation of social mishaps, as in
Carter’s book, and through reinventing the familiar, as in
Campbell’s poems. All in all, these are four poets I urge readers to
read closely. I anticipate for each more than a little success in their
futures as poets.