Reviewed by Christopher C. Vola
In her newest and most engrossing book, The Piercing, Christine Garren showcases her faith in the exhilaration found in the overtly commonplace with 50 short, strikingly beautiful poems. Her imaginative, surprising, and yet somehow accurate reactions to routine events and objects call to mind recent collections such as James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys and Mary Ruefle’s Post-Meridian. However, unlike Tate and Ruefle, Garren’s poems rely for the most part on understatements, on calmly describing the things that all of us see to uncover any number of darkly energizing truths. In “Childhood” from Among The Monarchs (University of Chicago Press, 2000), she uses her surroundings to explore a powerful moment between a mother and her daughter:
From the tree, a swing is hung. A mallet
rests against a fence. And on the lawn, a woman gathers pecans.
I think about her all the time,
partly in disbelief, partly because she is my mother. But now it’s dusk.
The calm and momentary sounds, the familiar objects, the subtle change in the sky--the spaces in between the moment--all seem to endow the brief and apparently insignificant reflections of a child with a mysterious and captivating strength.
The poems in The Piercing begin just as innocently, often painting an objective, tranquil, and pastoral picture--a flock of geese passing overhead, rain falling through trees, two boys swimming. When read alone, these descriptions are quaint and occasionally touching, but Garren’s true prowess surfaces later in the poems when she describes her own interactions with these scenes in order to create personal, sensitive moments that lead to abrupt yet rewarding resolutions. For example, in “The Teaching,” we see a “long rectangular yard behind the house. / At dusk the birds came, eating the berries / while the olive-colored leaves blackened,” and think that we have seen this autumn scene hundreds of times, that this is our own backyard, that this is a place that merits little more than a passing glance. But Garren shows us that this small patch is in fact an invigorating jungle filled with strange trees, strangling vines and explosions, and implores us to look to “the small wildernesses of it, / the blown-everywhere leaves, as it was true / here / its ruin was its beauty.” An unlocked door, a large box, and an old photo album elicit similar responses from the poet.
In his review of Garren’s first book, Afterworld (University of Chicago Press, 1993), W.S. Di Piero writes, “[Garren’s poetry] lives in the commonplaces of life but opens into mysterious invisible orders.” Throughout The Piercing, she continually takes the reader to a world where even the most fleeting images conjure the ever-present longings of a not-too-distant past, a world where “The gulls, blanched in the dark / were coming in behind the boats--from so long ago / this has gained such force inside of me,” a world where the surreal and the rational collide with a seamlessness that is rare and, in most cases, visually satisfying. Summer grass, torn bits of paper and the whirring of a ceiling fan all serve as catalysts for the emotional and sometimes frightening confessions, for the stories that exist behind the mask of the ordinary, for the “little death beneath the clouds / that the bells fragment.” These stories are what make Garren’s latest work a stirring read. In “Break,” she relates to a deep sense of loss when “a few autumn leaves fell past us, with spots on them, drifting / over us, with a distinct departing noise-- / and we looked up / into exactly how they came, those early ones / that frightened us.”
Many of the poems’ lyrical qualities stem from Garren’s expert use of line breaks. In “Safe,” as well as in other poems, this lyricism allows her to instill a subtly driving rhythm, one that provides the reader with a sense of anticipation, of not knowing where the poem is going, but of wanting to get there:
the sound of dark rushing past us
the damp scent of darkness
the cocaine powders, the thoughts
In these lines one can find the music for which Garren is best known--a quiet sonata resonating possibility, desire, and an interior fierceness that drives the reader to an often unlooked-for conclusion.
Within the arrangements of this music, there also exists a sense of finality that hangs over The Piercing, much in the same way a dark rain cloud slowly expands over an otherwise pleasant picnic. Unlike the picnickers who may begin to curse the sky as its downpour ruins their tuna casserole, Garren understands the inevitability of time’s continuously buzzing machine and embraces it, acknowledging that “The exhilarating life is finished. We must accept it / this late afternoon and move / back into the rational world.” While so much of The Piercing relies on uncertainty, one concrete message is that all things must come to an end, an end foretold by such inconspicuous and overt signs as the coming of winter, a dead goldfish floating in a pond, an anchor being lifted from the water, a nervous cow before its slaughter. However, alongside this notion of fatality lies an equally salient notion of regeneration, the sense that “death must be equal to its directionlessness,” that the world is cyclical and can revert from blackness to daylight in an instant, that the failings of a middle-aged woman can be forgotten in the quiet steps of her tiny daughter.
The sparseness of Garren’s prose and her superficially simple musings make The Piercing a complex book--accessible yet densely packed, calm and focused yet completely unnerving. The book ends much in the same way as it begins, unassuming but sharply poignant: “Look, there you go. There I go--There our landscape goes as if / through a fantastical roof’s hole, the shingle pulled off, the nail off-- / our death is / flying over the city.” In a collection so plentiful in ambiguity, in melancholy and hopefulness, in arrivals and departures, one thing is certain: The Piercing is Garren’s finest work, a book for those seeking adventure and for those who have already found it in their own backyards.