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Consistent Inconsistency: Poems for Camilla by Rachel Hadas

Themes

When I wanted to review a book of contemporary formal poetry, I was happy to find Poems for Camilla by Rachel Hadas, some of whose work I had read years ago and admired. I was further encouraged by the jacket-flap blurb’s explanation of the collection’s device of prefixing a Latin epigraph from the Aeneid to all but one of its poems: “Rachel Hadas’s remarkable new book treats the Aeneid as a commentary on our times. Just as Virgil wrote against the backdrop of the self-conflicted, imperial turbulence of Rome, Hadas examines our republic as it veers off into possibly irreversible disorder.” I could kill two birds with one stone thanks to the collection’s treatment of political upheaval, examining how its prosody reflects this theme.

The opening poem, “Camilla,” rewarded this expectation. This poem and the book are named for Hadas’s new granddaughter, in turn named “from Aeneid VII’s warrior maiden,/the speedy runner, skimming over wheat,/scouring the ocean …” “Camilla” recounts how Queen Amata of Latium and Aeneas’ enemy Turnus agitate their people into war against the hero and his Trojan refugees, then implicitly but resoundingly likens this scenario to contemporary American politics:

Haven’t we all experienced this year

that rage, insidious, insatiable,

infusing crowds? Once poisonous fires are lit,

they are not easily put out….

………………………………………………………………..

Amata, Virgil tells us, spun—was driven—

wildly through all the city like a top

which boys in empty courtyards, vacua atria

……………………………………………………………………….

stare at in wonder. Yet they’ve set it going.

Does staring signify

entertainment or approval? Or

are we all simply mesmerized by motion,

by speed without direction,

out of control? We gaze and do not know

or worse perhaps do know where this is going.

“The Sense of the Meeting,” the second poem, continues the book’s political focus. In a time of intransigent partisanship, it reminds us that “in any gathering disagreements rumble”—that democracy presupposes difference of opinion, and hence must be able to accommodate it to survive. The poem’s lament of

… colloquies

where human doubt and discord,

crescendoing toward anger,

throb, a secret vein, a buried current

beneath the speechifying, to burst through

finally with tempestuous force

cannily evokes the noxious “white rage” expressed more openly and abundantly in the past few years than in the past several decades.

Thereafter, though, political commentary disappears from the collection until popping up randomly in two later poems, “Rejoicing in the Image” and “Painted Full of Tongues.” Hadas only fleetingly mentions her granddaughter after “Camilla” in “Stride for Stride” and “The Long View.” In these poems, Camilla appears at the end like a deus ex machina to grant personal relevance for the speaker to the impersonal themes of Aeneas’ and Achates’ companionship and the pace of natural change; the latter poem’s announcement “Unfathomable mutability:/Camilla will be three months old tomorrow” lacks impact because Hadas never permits us to glimpse what Camilla was when born, is now, or has been in between. Even the theme of disorder is carried only into the book’s third poem, “Filing System.” That said, Poems for Camilla’s manifold themes evolve smoothly through most of its length. But not its entire length. In addition to some themes developing, disappearing, and re-emerging, the book abruptly switches at times from a certain theme in one poem to an unrelated one in the next, while the last few poems in the collection shuffle themes like an Atlantic City croupier. Such thematic organization could embody the theme of the tension between order and disorder if the book covered this theme for more than a few pages.

Worse, after the first poems I relished, Poems for Camilla has little to say of import about its themes, and rarely treats them in compelling language. “A Female Cry” culminates in a fit of existential despair of the high school literary magazine variety:

And when the women’s cry

stretches to touch the stars,

then do the stars respond?

Or, aiming somewhat lower than the stars,

do the gods listen to that female cry?

And if they do hear it, do they answer?

I can hardly believe an acclaimed poet with enough life experience behind her to be a grandmother can come up with no less banal a reflection on hope than that it is “hugged to its possessor like a secret/wish you mustn’t tell,” no less facile insight into it than “Whatever it is we hope for, we desire./That we desire it means we don’t possess it” (“Hope: The Secret”). “The Source of Thoughts” begins promisingly, asking “Tell me, do the gods implant/this ardor in our minds … ?” It immediately, however, drops the intriguing metaphysical and psychological issues this question raises to consider more commonplace platitudes with less of the question’s verbal verve:

Or flip it: maybe we ourselves

attribute to the gods

our hearts’ dear direst wishes?

Or take it one step further: could it be

that what we wish becomes a god to us?

Ancient Rome, by Giovanni Paolo Panini via Tulip Hysteria on Creative Commons, CC PDM 1.0

Ancient Rome, by Giovanni Paolo Panini via Tulip Hysteria on Creative Commons, CC PDM 1.0

Style

Corresponding to the aridity of much of Poems for Camilla’s content, Hadas wields a predominantly dry, prosy style in the book. In particular, short, choppy sentences lay out the poems’ subjects and themes in series of flat declarations when, in many instances, pruning their deadwood and merging them into larger or more complex sentences would be more emotionally and aesthetically gratifying. Take the second stanza of “Grief and Solace”:

Sometimes the consolation and the grief

match perfectly, as when a mother comforts

a child who has fallen down and scraped her knee.

As she scoops up the child, her loving gesture

dovetails with the hurt. The hurt’s a small one;

so is the consolation.

The last sentence’s meaning is so bound up with the penultimate’s that it hardly merits a sentence of its own; deleting it and adding “small,” or a synonym, before “loving” and “hurt” in the penultimate sentence would express the parity of hurt and comfort more pithily. “In Vain,” meanwhile, hinging on an interpretation of the sentence structure in the poem’s springboard epigraph from the Aeneid, reads like a lecture on Latin linguistics thrown into a line-breaking Cuisinart.

Some passages of the book are simply inane. Hadas tends to pronounce grand thematic apothegms that don’t align with the descriptions and symbols she bases them on. “Carrying the Future” presents Aeneas carrying his aged father Anchises on his back while leading his young son by the hand as symbolizing the present poised between the past and future, then declares, “The loads we carry/tangle up the was and the will be.” Anchises and his grandson both touch Aeneas, but don’t touch each other, much less tangle; what’s more, Aeneas’ load doesn’t tangle up the was and the will be because it, his father, is the was. “Looking On” also tries to spatialize time. Its first stanza sets the scene of fathers and grandfathers of competitors in Anchises’ funeral games watching them before shifting in the next two stanzas to the speaker’s memory of visiting a playground with her father, one parent-child duo among many. The speaker says her father “taught me that he and I/were part of something bigger than our dyad;/were figures in a pattern/that stretched in both directions, back and forth …” There’s a problem with this statement: there are no grandparents at the playground, nor does the speaker mention her own. (Hadas attempts to fudge the parallel with the scene from the Aeneid by noting that the speaker’s father is “old enough to be her grandfather,” but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.) The pattern she and her father figure in stretches laterally to the other parent-child pairs at the playground who resemble them, not back to a generation before her father and forth to her. “Grief and Solace” opens, “The zany disproportion/between grief and consolation/indicates a deeper disconnect:/the yawning gap between inside and outside,” and in the final stanza provides an example from the collection’s touchstone text:

Aeneas sends a thousand picked attendants

to the funeral of Pallas, the slain prince.

Their presence may not help old King Evander,

Pallas’s stricken father; but their absence

might have wounded him a little more.

We do what we can; it is never enough,

our gesture meant to soothe

raw lamentation gaping like a wound.

For such great loss, small comfort.

Yet a mere four lines later, the poem inexplicably equates the values of grief and consolation: “The dark corrects the light./The kindness cancels out the violation.” Her flat substance and style and her disconnect between imagery and the explicit communication of its meaning give the reader the impression that, in Poems for Camilla, Hadas has lost much of her poetic touch.

Poems for Camilla also suffers in places from extraneous verbiage. “Camilla” follows its first sentence announcing Hadas’s granddaughter’s name and namesake with the redundant and jarringly chatty “So there I was revisiting Camilla.” Early in the playground scene of “Looking On,” Hadas imagines it necessary to add the parenthesis “I was little too,” as though teenagers and tweens customarily visit playgrounds with parents in tow. Most perplexingly, Hadas scaffolds “And You, Catiline” with set-piece beginning and ending stanzas that only blunt the impact of the more forceful lines following and preceding them. It opens with a quatrain of generic questions about life after death: “Where do we go when we die?/How much space will we take up/and in which region of the afterlife?/How will we be remembered, if we are?” Hadas misses the chance to hook the reader at once with the much more striking first line of the second stanza, “I had you in the wrong post-mortem zip [sic] code,” which would have been all the wiser a choice for immediately establishing the apostrophe to the Roman would-be usurper at the poem’s heart. Catiline’s conspiracy appears as one of the details from Rome’s future adorning Aeneas’ shield in Virgil, giving rise to Hadas’s fourth stanza epitomizing the poem’s tropes:

Where do we go when we die?

How can a name, fame, personality

score a space on the elaborate shield

divinely hammered out for the hero’s use?

Aeneas, its recipient, admires

his splendid gift; but wielding it in war,

he will forget the figures it depicts.

The argument of “And You, Catiline” rests its case here. But Hadas continues for another stanza containing a virtually identical image, taken from Homer instead of Virgil and switching the perspective to that of the surviving mourner too close to the poem’s end for it to develop much significance:

In the Iliad, the action stops,

allowing us an interlude to study

Achilles’ shield, another godly gift.

Achilles’ shield encompasses the cosmos.

The hero nevertheless, consumed with grief

for his dear dead Patroklos,

barely notices the splendid object

which the poet lovingly describes.

The poem concludes with the patently weak tercet “Where do we go when we die?/Aeneas. Achilles. Patroklos./And you, Catiline.” Hadas structures “And You, Catiline” like an oyster whose top and bottom shells must be shucked and discarded to enjoy the digestible meat within.

As evidenced by the line “Where do we go when we die?” in “And You, Catiline,” repetition comprises a special subset of the book’s unnecessary text. Both the third and the fifth stanzas of “No Way Out” begin with the self-evident statement about suicide, “Once the impulse hardens to decision,/once the decision is made,/it cannot be revoked.” Poems in the collection duplicate ideas as well as specific language. The third stanza of “The Sense of the Meeting” does nothing more than rehash the confusion of the relationship of tenor to vehicle in similes and metaphors expressed in the previous stanzas. “Rejoicing in the Image” begins, “Ignorant of things, rejoicing in the image,/not knowing the situation, delighting in the picture”—the second line extending the idea conveyed in the first in space on the page without extending its meaning. Maybe Hadas thought she could compensate for the dearth of interesting content in her book by padding its language, but two aesthetic wrongs don’t make a right.

Structure

Many of the book’s poems feature a rather stiff and predictable structure: an introduction heralding the poem’s subject, a body developing or complicating it, and a summation of the poem at its end. Sound structure certainly constitutes an aesthetic asset, but after reading poem upon poem developed in this way, the reader can practically see the poet sawing, planing, and mortising like a carpenter the planks with which she constructs the poem. This trademark methodical organization suits the theme of fighting disorder in a poem like “Camilla”; in “Filing System,” however, it undermines the theme of the speaker’s surrender to disorder. Hadas does vary her structural approach successfully and aptly in certain poems. “Anxiety Attack” reflects the disorientation of its titular event by rapidly pushing its thematic development through its brief length. Ingeniously, the first and fourth, final stanzas of “Grief and Solace” bookend the poem with the topic of grief from within and solace offered from without, while the two middle stanzas address lack of external solace and relying on oneself for it. The two outer stanzas and two inner stanzas thereby form different thematic layers, matching the poem’s subject of interior versus exterior emotional climates. Poems for Camilla contains too few of these unique structures to counterbalance its more prevalent lapidary technique, however.

Victorian Carpenter, by wahtsthatpicture via Creative Commons, CC PDM 1.0

Victorian Carpenter, by wahtsthatpicture via Creative Commons, CC PDM 1.0

Form

Poems for Camilla’s use of form first attracted me, and Hadas’s skill with form in the book is largely uneven. Hadas makes iambic pentameter her normative meter throughout the collection but actual meter varies extensively, through both metrical substitution and different line lengths. In the book’s initial poems, I thought these variations embodied the struggle of order against disorder these poems treat, but they continued into poems that have nothing to do with this theme.

Many of Hadas’s variations in meter work commendably. The “feminine” endings of several lines in “Camilla” point up its conceit as a woman-to-future-woman monologue. The spondee in the second foot of the line “A god calms stormy waters—waters stirred” in “The Sense of the Meeting” slows the line down to reflect the calming of the sea. By contrast, in “And You, Catiline,” the inversion of the initial foot of “trembling before the faces of the Furies” into a trochee brings two unstressed syllables adjacent to each other, creating a shudder in the line’s rhythm mimicking the subject’s trembling. Hadas also weds sound to sense by abbreviating the line “opens even a crack” in “Filing System” to trimeter, and in “The Source of Thoughts,” after the tetrameter line and two trimeter lines “Or flip it: maybe we ourselves/attribute the gods/our hearts’ dear direst wishes?”, she extends the next sentence back into lines of pentameter just as the sentence itself extends the speaker’s train of thought: “Or take it one step further: could it be/that what we wish becomes a god to us?”

On the other hand, these changes in meter often work at cross-purposes to the poems or specific passages Hadas applies them to. The feminine ending of “but as a measure of our mortal limit” extends a line about limitation and stricture for a syllable beyond the normative pentameter. Although the initial spondee of the final line of “Carrying the Future,” “Bowed down by double weight, we stumble on,” reproduces the heavy slumping of its imagery, the rest of the line, which screams out for an anapest or dactyl to produce a stumbling effect in the rhythm, proceeds in perfect iambs. For not-so-good measure, Hadas riddles the line “wants at the same time to protect his son” from “Ignorance” with metrical variations, despite it being about preserving the status quo. Regarding line length, a line from “Special Effects” about contraction (“resumes, and the horizon shrinks again”) runs for a full five feet, and the content of the pentameter line “gigantic, disembodied, all hot air” rather invites a line inflated beyond normal length.

Only one poem in the collection rhymes through its entirety, and another contains an instance of occasional rhyme. The book’s handful of poems with political content continue an illustrious tradition of political poetry in blank verse, such as Milton eschewing “the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming” to allegorize the English Civil War and its consequences in Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, and Wordsworth employing blank verse to depict the Industrial Revolution’s destructive effect on England’s agrarian way of life in forthright terms. In and of itself, the absence of rhyme in Poems for Camilla presents no problem.

The two poems in which Hadas chooses to rhyme do pose difficulty. “The Mothers on the Wall” is a sonnet with an unconventional rhyme scheme: the first quatrain rhymes ABAB and the remaining ten lines form rhyming couplets. The content of the poem offers no explanation for its shift from the Shakespearean pattern established at its beginning, or indeed why this poem out of all those in the collection should rhyme to begin with. If “The Mothers on the Wall” must rhyme, its subject of the mothers’ distance from their sons as the latter march to war and vanish from sight defies placing rhymes so close to each other. In “Their Own Particular Day,” Hadas withholds rhyme from the bulk of the poem to reflect the inscrutability of when one will meet one’s inevitable fate; it’s the sonic embodiment of stymied expectation. Then the poem’s end refers to one’s destined day of death as “this border you will reach in time and space,/yours and no one else’s,/invisible until you’re face to face.” When rhyme finally manifests itself here, an unrhymed line interposes between the rhymes—clashing with the ending’s theme of the sudden recognition of the inevitable’s arrival, which calls for a couplet to position the rhyming words “face to face.”

In a backhanded way, the use of formal verse in Poems for Camilla succeeds in reflecting the content of the book as a whole, despite the solecisms in applying it in particular places: as the book seems thematically to go in several different, sometimes conflicting, directions, so do its meter and small amount of rhyme. Poems for Camilla appears part of a trend, even among poets as reputable as Hadas, of forgetting that writing poetry entails intellect as well as emotion—that intellect organizes the articulation of emotion into effective literary art. Hadas does not sufficiently think out a great number of aesthetic decisions in the book, leading to disharmony between and within the realms of sound and substance, theme and image, content and diction. If, as Plato maintains, the life unexamined by the self who lives it is not worth living, surely poetry unexamined by the poet who writes it is not worth writing or reading, much less a whole book of it.

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