Reviewed by Sandra Simonds
In her latest collection of poems The Seventy Prepositions, Carol Snow describes a world that is constantly “repositioned on the loop.” With a near clinical eye and ear, Snow investigates the linguistic and psychological implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Each poem becomes a study of the relationship between position and momentum where perception is king. The closer we get to the subject, like Heisenberg’s particle, the more we seem to miss. The following excerpt from “Notwithstanding” expresses this dilemma: “so when the artist extends his thumb before the / subject: what’s that about?--what (could have) / happened?--still missing--happened.” In these poems perception is a sort of puzzle-making, but each linguistic piece does not always fit with the next. Snow tears apart familiar lines from literature such as Shakespeare’s “a coward dies a thousand deaths, the hero dies but one” and splices her own questioning voice into them, thereby rendering the familiar line surprising. Take the poem “Considering,” quoted here in its entirety:
some act/ experience resists description--
‘beggaring’--a coward…a thousand…
--that which demanded a
‘threshold language’--said of it: something held
Snow positions voices as diverse as Rogers and Hammerstein, Stevie Smith and George Oppen like “the fifteen changeless / stones in their five worlds” in a Japanese rock garden. But Snow’s puzzle-making is much more than an idle game. She is trying to piece the world of language together much in the same way that L. Zaseysky, the subject of A.R. Luria’s The Man With a Shattered World, does after being shot in the head. Snow quotes Zaseysky in the epigraph of The Seventy Prepositions: “then I’d take the words, sentences, and ideas I’d collected in this way and begin to write my story in a notebook, regrouping the words and sentences, comparing them with others I’d seen in books.”
In certain places Snow’s use of the child’s textbook as a form reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III. Compare Bishop’s “What is geography? / A description of the earth’s surface” to Snow’s “1. are / Some are saved and some are drowned” then “2. during / Would he hold my hand during it?” Bishop and Snow deconstruct a textbook style formal education which is the first time the task of organizing language becomes institutionalized; both of their analyses result in a sort of vertigo.
Narrative becomes a sparse thread woven through the book, which is somewhat of a departure from Snow’s previous collection For. When snippets of narrative do surface they are signposts the reader must use to find her way to connect the personal to the philosophical: “Mrs. Larney assigned / “Polonius’s advice to La-ray-tees” (we duly misread / ‘Laertes’) / and the Seventy Prepositions, rote.”
In her difficult and urgent world there are several funny moments as well: “when the mental “thwonk”s, my idiot sing-along, / -began” or “Amor fati / The love of fate”--but uh-oh will never / know whether it would have been better to-- / missing--” which arise out of verbal quirks and games. These instances serve the book well by lifting the weight of inquiry and providing range for the reader’s experience.
The integrity and master craftsmanship could easily be overlooked in this collection. Snow attempts to hold the world together via the careful positioning of voice, focusing on minute linguistic pieces. Prepositions are words that pivot a sentence into further meaning, but in this book they are the titles in the final section that serve as the jumping-off point to being pulled further down Alice’s hole: “either way the well was very deep or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and wonder what was going to happen next.”