Reviewed by Joyelle McSweeney
When served up the rarefied souffle of poetry-writ-from-academia, many are the readers who gnash their teeth, pound their flagons and cry for "content!" In his first book, Richard Greenfield plates the red meat of lurid, psychological content--yet it is not in its seeming confessionality but in its language, its self-consciousness, and its careful technique that A Carnage in the Lovetrees is a strange and memorable book.
In the field of traumas come the base savannas--crosshairs tighten
on the flaring pink of the evening.
Recognize the world. After the bit of blue, after a window opened
to air and the portioned stereo of love and grandeur, after--
These couplets open the book and its first poem, "Schema," though almost any stanza in this book could serve as well as another to represent Greenfield’s sensibility, which fact speaks to the claustrophobic Cinerama that is this poet’s paradoxical metier. Greenfield writes long lines which brim to the margins, yet these lines progress phrase by painstaking phrase, girded by patterned syntax, partial rhyme ("traumas"/"savannas," "tighten"/"evening") and assonance. That even the seemingly abundant is fractured and effortful is the book’s subtheme and its governing aesthetic.
Another of Greenfield’s habits is the shoehorning of boundless abstraction into the syntactic space conventionally reserved for the concrete, and vice versa; witness "the portioned stereo of love and grandeur," and the "flaring pink" and "bit of blue" which substitute for sunset and dusk in the passage above. Also characteristic is a kenning-like compression of parts of speech so that noun is pressed into service as adjective, verb as noun. Thus, birds become ‘sorrowbirds’ or ‘roofbirds’; trees become ‘flametrees’ or the eponymous ‘lovetrees.’ Many lines feature both effects, as in "I watched the windowbird at the honey-feeder eating loss, eating love-me."
It is this overtly writerly world that the reader is then commanded to "recognize." And in the firm hands of this poet, we do begin to recognize, to breathe heavy air, to feel, as an overwrought phrase in another poem has it, "the quarterlight dawn." But Greenfield’s overwroughtness is not contemptible, as it might be in the hands of another poet. Indeed, it is often lovely, and also useful, in that it points up again and again the wroughtness of memory, selfhood, and certainly poetry. This awareness dominates the book. Poem titles that suggest confessional account ("The Abuses in Color," "Burn the Family Tree") are outnumbered by those which brazenly insist on the artifice of what follow ("Schema," "Vantage," "Vectory," "Piece Together," "Two in a Series of Encryption," "Cipher in Scene," "Camera Obscured," etc.). The poems themselves are rife with beautiful metapoetic passages:
In a revision of the line, I walk among electric ruins and memory
loss. In another, nothing happens. I find the crop. I see it framed--
I see it arrive. I see it replayed endlessly.
This pastiche of metapoetics and imagery creates a lush, well-seamed, repeating landscape for the speaking "I" to traverse--and because this "I" is a product of these same artificial processes, he can indeed traverse it, to wondrous effects.
Ironically, the madeness of this speaking "I" is particularly emphasized when the speaker asserts his own immediacy. "I have called it the fluttery bird-heart. I have seen the everlasting burn of the forest," he declares, but the symmetry of these statements, their order, and the hyperbolic poeticism of both the "fluttery bird-heart" and the "everlasting burn" suggest that witness ("I have seen") has no precedence over madeness ("I have called"), and that the witness’s account is no less artificial than the poet’s invention.
What, then, of the threads of confessional-seeming content running through the book? Incest, beatings, parental drug use, abandonment, incarceration, and (possibly) murder put in appearances in these poems, forming a vague undernarrative of something very bad indeed, and the speaker’s continual return to the vantage of childhood seems to gesture towards the autobiographical nature of these referents. Yet this disembodied account is but one element in a potently edited montage and, if anything, is crowded out by a welter of imagistic and linguistic novelty. Greenfield’s achievement in A Carnage in the Lovetrees is to have created a readable, saturated universe of thinking, writing, and memory, in which no term provides purchase on another.