Friday, April 14, 2006

NEW! Review of Pam Rehm

Small Works by Pam Rehm. Flood Editions, $12.95.

Reviewed by Jason Stumpf

The poems in Small Works are short pieces and sequences of short pieces--small works--but “small” describes not only their length but also their style. The poems are spare. They foreground white space, silence, and the precise unfolding of language and idea. Their speaker moves not from place to place but among the remnants experience has left her. Each line feels legitimated by hard thought and expresses, or seeks, hard truth. The mind within these poems enters and contemplates moments, meticulously separating from the daily, from the domain of the self, perhaps from the domain of the soul. For Rehm, abstractions such as memory and wonder have an almost personal presence and are, in places, literally embodied, as in “Charm for Sleep,” where “Fear has an ear / in it.”

The title Small Works is, in one way, misleading: it suggests that the book might read as if assembled to catalogue a subset of the poet’s corpus. However, the poems are not an odd gathering of pieces united only by their size; they share an animating sensibility and the project of drawing language from truth and truth from language. One exemplary case is the poem “Eden,” which begins:
Endure has an end
you may rue
at the outset

But it also has need

and need is an Eden

“Eden” goes beyond being merely clever. That is, it has more to offer than the realization that the word “endure” contains letters to spell the words “end” and “rue” and that the letters in “need” can be reordered to produce “Eden.” Here, anagrammatic play provides a means for revealing the connections between words, but the true link, it seems, is born from the speaker’s experience of their meanings. The valence of the letters depends, as Rehm writes later in the poem, on “How I hold it.” One doesn’t feel as if Rehm shook the words to see what fell out, but that these meanings had been hidden all along. This notion about language--that its arrangement and rearrangement conjure an already existent understanding or belief--is central to Rehm’s work. In this and other ways, Rehm’s sixth collection roams similar terrain to her previous books, especially Gone to Earth and The Garment in Which No One Had Slept. In this newest book, her language is as stark and honed as ever.

While Rehm’s references include symbolically charged Biblical imagery--paradise, Hell, Solomon, shepherds, lamb--her primary subject is not faith but the experience of faith, which is to say the poems’ threads spread from an individual dwelling in the world rather than emanate from a pure, impersonal concept. The poems unfold with a careful beauty of thought--an authority--that announces a mind in contemplation of the world. For example, “Bow Down” tracks spiritual longing while observing the natural world:
Faith comes to one noiseless
and yet, keeps one exasperated

Eager to touch touch

A bird’s nest

Here, as elsewhere in the poem, the physical and spiritual are blurred, as faith and touch are intertwined.
The second of the book’s two sections, “Acts,” accounts for approximately the last third of the collection. Here, the linkages between poems are most apparent, signaled by each poem’s title as an act: “Acts of Anxiety,” “Acts of Will,” “Acts of Knowledge.” The poems share the project of distilling abstractions to essential associations and experiences. Such is the case with “Acts of Habit,” where the speaker equates habit (and building a habitat) with myth-making and, in turn, creation myths:
A spider’s web rebuilt at dawn

With nothing wasted
Does not change with the times

So earthly and ancient

The myth of morning
The morning makes us

Given the ways insight springs from these poems’ spare gestures, perhaps the title Small Works refers not to poetic works but to the work that precedes their making: the daily, personal exchanges between belief and reality, and the wresting from language what one can be said to know. In Rehm’s hands, this work, much more significant than it first appears, is imbued with a richness and urgency that beckons us to return.

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