MARCH 1, 2021
IN THE WAKE of Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration poem, there has been much discussion about what poetry is supposed to be and do. The poet I am now writing about has very clear ideas about what his poetry is supposed to be and do. It is supposed to enthrall, to enchant, to recapture ecstasy, and his drugs of choice for that ecstasy are meter and rhyme. The poet is Aaron Poochigian, whose third book of original poems, American Divine, won the 2020 Richard Wilbur Award and has just appeared from the University of Evansville Press.
Books like this one — poetry collections beyond a poet’s first and second — present a particular challenge to the reviewer. Part of the audience knows already what sort of pleasures lay in Poochigian’s books The Cosmic Purr and Manhattanite, both from Able Muse Press. A different audience will know him better through his many works in translation from Latin and Ancient Greek, from an assortment of major publishers. But many might still need this basic introduction: Poochigian writes in form. Like Auden, he is a poet of wild inventiveness within even the strictest limitations. He says of his own work — he has not been shy about giving interviews — that “[e]very poem I write is an attempt to recapture an ecstatic experience…”
That experience, he relates, involved reading aloud in Latin the opening of the Aeneid, and accordingly he became a classicist. Such immersion in the ancients is immersion in the old gods’ way of breaking into human lives. The Greek tragedies are all about the fear of the gods, and of the slow-breaking wave of their will. In his translations, Poochigian certainly seems to be responsive to the awesome, the fear-inspiring. He is at pains to make the language of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes clear for modern English readers, yet clearly elevated above ordinary dialogue, more like chant and song; this is an end he aims to accomplish by means of meters, rhyme schemes, and stanza forms. Even in the notorious difficulty of Aeschylus — the tortuous language A. E. Housman parodies in “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy” — he finds the numinous, as he writes in his translation’s introduction: “My experience wringing meaning out of Aeschylus’s plays matches that of other readers: the tone is so authoritative that, rather than simply concluding that Aeschylus is full of it, we assume that such profundity, like God himself, is difficult to grasp.”
Epiphanies, revelations, and out-of-body events are threaded through his first two books of original poetry. The Cosmic Purr, published in 2012, opens with one of them, demonstrating Poochigian’s feel for the extraordinary even in the dullness of his freezing, tumbledown, snowed-in hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota:
But all is calm now that the wind has fallen.
Time slows down as in epiphanies.
Breath swirls and swirls away. I had forgotten
snowflakes could float around like this, like cotton
from cottonwoods, like tufts of crystal pollen.
The book fairly announces by its choice of title that its real theme is the rush of realization. That title comes from “Torque,” in which the narrator describes such a rush, that of simply listening to girls conversing in Russian:
syllables rough and smooth enough to soothe and stir,
we are the deep massage, the cosmic purr.
My brain turned over. Everything was turbulence.
This engine has been revving ever since.
With Manhattanite, which won the Able Muse Book Prize in 2016, the pattern is even clearer; there’s a whole section entitled “The Next Epiphany.” Revelations are back to back in the poems “Turf,” about the strangeness of the natural world, and “Divertimento,” about the equally strange built environment:
Bravissimo for the kinetic sculpture
dangling upward from a snag of earth
while juggling, with acquiescent rapture
three arms’ worth
of gale-force wind. Oh yeah, I wanna be
that gleam with crazy feelers going round.
Thank you, Ohio, for reminding me
how Art should astound.
Even the ecstasy of drunkenness gets its due in “One Too Many” (“Lord, may the spastic waggling of my tongue / strike all their earsies as divine. Amen”), as does the ecstasy of sex, in “Ménage à deux.” The book’s final poem sings “ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically of love.”
As if to cater to his readers’ expectations, Poochigian begins the new book with an especially vivid openness to numen:
You there, behind your breath, a rhythmic wraith
of breath, are voyeuristic in the slush,
absorbing everything — the twilight rush
and blur of digits, a Sephora sign,
those antics laughing at a madman’s faith —
till vertigo crescendoes in a sense
of outside-in and inside-out, intense
clashes of light and shadow, warmth like wine,
and an ungovernable urge to dub
the grove holy, the old bandshell a shrine,
the whole plaza a civic sanctuary
where the ineffable has residence
You are a church of one, a private parish;
be passionate in the pursuit of awe.
What is more unexpected about American Divine is its complete cohesion, something like a story arc. The first two books were built of coherent sections — love, travel, characters, epiphany per se — but they also celebrated craft itself and thematic variety. American Divine, though, has a sort of symphonic shape, even while it pours together currents that have always been in Poochigian’s verse.
The book’s opening section, “The One True Religion,” concentrates on religious experiences conventional and un-. Along with the beauties of the opening poem are felt the oddities of unfamiliar faiths (“Anant Chaturdashi”) and the breaking-in of powerful strangeness (“Multimammia”). “The gods are down here,” Poochigian writes, “and they can be hard / to look at, hard to take — hard, hard, hard.” A new vein in this book is the American part: the exploration of the oddness of American religiosity, the prosperity gospel, the hidden hypocrisy, the strange history of religious enthusiasms and awakenings, the worship of wilderness, the bliss of drugs (or is it just sex?). Even a teenage experiment with Satanism horns in.
This first section has ups and downs, but it trends downward, toward the refrain “Pack it up, boys, we’re done.” The next section opens with a precipitous drop, “The Uglies” — also the section title, a look at the opposite of ecstasy, naked despair:
Just yesterday, when I was young and clever
I had the perfect purpose figured out:
lavish ecstatic monumental thought
begetting artworks that would last forever
on life’s rich brevity. But in the night
ridicule moved in, and the monster doubt:
Nothing is deathless, so your scheme is shot.
You are a chump, however hard you write.
The Americanness of these uglies is multiform: the career despair just noted, environmental despair, defeat in war, drug-damage. Even the resignation of Zen in “Welcome Home,” a figure for the loneliness of the poet’s native North Dakota, is almost ugly in its note of loss:
Years past ambition now, I can admit I am beholden
to what I am beholding here — sublime oblivion.
The section ends with a pointed antithesis of Sappho’s lines, the ones that serve as an epigraph to The Cosmic Purr — “I declare / that later on / even in an age unlike our own / someone will remember who we are” —
The wind will blow away
grand statues in the square,
the words with which I play,
good times, and my despair.
All that I do
and say —
the wind will blow away.
The book is an emotional wave, and this is the trough. The last section, “The Living Will,” swings sharply up in mood with “MMXVII,” a tough-eyed, un-ecstatic look at that very tough year:
How late’s the age we live in? What I mean
is now, a Thursday in the Holocene,
wildfires are singeing Disneyland, and sea
levels are rising, and I can’t escape
the sense of living in a libertine
empire, the sense payback will wipe us clean
out of creation. Hey, you hearing me —
yeah, you — my countryman, my fellow ape?
The poem goes so far as to envision civil war (remarkable foresight, that) yet ends with a vow to be involved, to give a damn. Having started afresh, this section mostly decides to hope: it ends with its title poem, on a vow to travel, to be free of old ties, and to “hear the Sirens calling.” The line “beholden only to the waves and wind” seems, in its echoing “beholden,” like a way to banish the book’s earlier despair.
These excerpted examples show off the book’s thematic moves but don’t do justice to its varied technique. Poochigian’s original poetry spends almost no time on blank verse, although his translations of Greek drama display mastery of pentameter, the translator’s most frequent choice for rendering classical hexameters. He has a special bent, in translations and original work, for the rhyming stanza.
Stanza patterns are everywhere in his original poems, along with irregular rhyming — half and near and slant — dimeters, trimeters, hexameters, and the four-stress alliterative lines of his verse novel Mr. Either/Or.
His truly distinctive aptitude, though, is for songlike forms. This tendency, too, is classical: the Latin carmen is the word for both poem and song, and it connotes the magical, the enchanting. The singable forms appear in all three books. They have refrains that come back again and again, like the italic lines in this bit of “The Ax, ” a wide-ranging romp of imagination and obsession from the new book:
You, dear, you, for those seven weeks
after we met on forever.com
were my one and only snuggle-cheeks,
my cinnamon bun, the absolute bomb,
and then the ax came out of the blue …
I know, I know,
I should have gotten over you,
like, years and years ago.
That “like” in the last line above brings up another distinctive Poochigianism: the interjection, along with the precipitous shift from the elevated to the colloquial and back. The seemingly tossed-in like or wow or whoa, along with longer hesitations like you know? or I don’t know or what? or Hey, are not simply more original versions of the tools all metrical poets sometimes need to complete a line. They voice the notion that there are truths one hesitates to speak, moments beyond the ordinary — exactly the wildnesses Poochigian most wants to express. It’s no surprise that his next translation will be Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.
Maryann Corbett is the author of five books of poetry, most recently In Code (Able Muse, 2020). She is a past winner of the Richard Wilbur Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. Her work appears in journals on both sides of the Atlantic, on the websites of the Poetry Foundation and American Life in Poetry, and in The Best American Poetry 2018.