Mary Ann Samyn

A Beaker: New and Selected Poems

Caroline Knox
University of Georgia Press, 2002
$14 (paper), ISBN 0-9703672-7-9

Torque means "the moment of a force, " "a measure of its tendency, " "Turning or twisting." Caroline Knox knows this, I'm sure. Her poems a tour de force of torque. They are under pressure. They are pressure, applied to language, applied to what the mind can do and the senses.

This moment of force, this torquing can make for a challenging read. Knox's poems are intellectual and quirky, like brainteasers. With special guest appearances by Kenneth Koch, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Shelley Winters, Agatha Christie, General MacArthur, Harry Truman, Pelé, Jerry Garcia, Wallace Stevens, Nancy Drew, Lizzie Borden, and, of course, the Reformed Red Hat Nuns of Tibet, how could they not be? But the poems are also riveting in other ways, capturing our attention on many levels at once.
As she writes in "Gorbachev Moon": "Inside this idea/ there is another idea." Sort of like nesting dolls, only with more import. That is, import in terms of more at stake, more gravity, and more brought into the poem, foreign goods.

And there is a sense of foreignness in these poems, of physical travel and time travel. The feeling of hurtling through space, moving so fast one seems not to move at all. Consider the "snowy globe" of the poem "Gift." What a better metaphor for the swirling, shaken quality of Knox's poems?

     The snowy globe rotates
     in true and short imagist fashion
     obviating prosy and secular freight

     As we speak, the flakes, keeping to cold orbits
     are grounded ultimately on a
     terra firma base
     made in China
     made of plastic.

The speaker is talking of a snow globe, I know that, but I am thinking of Knox's poems. Of how they can be shaken and turned over, "righted," as it were. But on the underside: a mark of origins and the play of language, the oddness of "facts."

Elsewhere, too, Knox's poems swirl and eddy, enjoying the silly, sometimes dizzying, sometimes mystifying twists and turns of language. Lines such as these from "Famous Bigshots" are not unusual in this collection:

     Famous bigshots of the world unite
     in black tie and nutria stormcoats,
     omnicompetent, handsome dreamboats
     totally snazzy and slightly snobby
     exclusive hotshots with prodigious bankrolls
     for clandestine bombshells, gaslight escorts,
     splendidly outfitted armfuls of cashmere
     adjudged diaphanous.

In fact, many of the poems tumble down the page, over themselves, into our laps, in this same way. And of course, when reading a new and selected volume, the impression is always one of time, of persistence, of the poet having kept at it.

Beaker, which includes work from books published in 1984, 1989, and 1994, is definitely evidence of Knox's persistence, her repeated willingness to tackle the intricacies and intersections of language and experience. Perhaps this accounts for the number of poems that deal with exploration, both physical and psychic, including "To Newfoundland," "Log of the Snow Star," "Railroads and Newspapers," "Pantoum du Chat," "Nashotah," and many, many others. The title poem, "Beaker," is an excellent example of Knox's capacity for exploration via noticing, particularly noticing of that which is commonly overlooked. After introducing the beaker in question, the speaker goes on to describe the vessel's engraving:

     Memento John Saffin Junior
     Obijt 9 Dec 1678

     Memento: the unlooked-for and predictable;
     Obijt: the death of Saffin's namesake child;
     9 Dec: early, unlooked-for winter;
     1678: Boston, a city upon a hill.

These lines illustrate Knox's gift not only for incision and intellectual agility, but also for emotional resonance. This sort of vitality on all levels is characteristic of Knox's poems and reminds me of how bland so much of contemporary poetry is, preferring to sound one note or maybe two shy ones, while she strikes up the band and leads the whole gang of instruments down the street.

Or maybe the image is just as magical but quieter, as in "Beaker." I'm thinking now of a volume of new and selected poems like a trail of breadcrumbs: I was here and here and here. Except in Knox's case, the trail veers off in unexpected ways or climbs a tree or spells out a word on the forest floor.


© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review