Fall by Amy Newman
For her third collection, Fall, Amy Newman chose to use "72 different definitions for the word fall" in a series of poems, subdivided into intransitive, transitive and noun classifications that together tell a story. It seemed a confusing project that could lead to less captivating poems than her previous ones. Especially with a disappointing opening poem that must have encouraged many a less enthusiastic reader to set the book back on the bookshelf. However, once we begin in the Garden of Eden, it is clear that Newman means to use the meanings of the word "fall" to tell the story of humanity in her uniquely haunting way. Where Newman initially disappointed, she now goes on to intoxicate the senses with images that simply flow. Particularly ingenious is the list-like poem of disappointments that God has with man (and woman!) in "To assume an expression of disappointment: His Face Fell."
The next section deals with man's existence since the fall. Once in "exile," Newman echoes Plato, as man attempts to imitate the original garden, "mirror… something in repeated forms, diminishing" and yet the truth remains, "that only one is true."
Newman's brilliance continues in her painting the debilitating state of man on earth. She threads one of God's disappointments -- "20) the possibility of loneliness" -- through other poems via how "the homesickness remains" for humans in their new state, the way she and her family miss her mother after death where "at evening, the reminder of the leave-taking, of the day (oh please don't go)" are tortuous and man thinks "homesickness: to fly, to touch the hands of those: whose hands we miss so dearly."
There is a large personal section, where the poet's own life is used as a canvas to lend humanity's tale particular examples -- her struggle against being born into this world, cancer "falling on" her mother, the poet's longing for her mother emblematic of the sense of loss for the perfection of Eden, her neutral reaction to life as it "accumulates losses while elsewhere happiness: that's all" versus marvel at it for "its many gifts and losses. It's something. It goes on."
This personal section opens with a captivating poem with novel interpretations of traditional Christian marriage symbols. I confess that it was disquieting to read the poet imagining her parents' coupling -- "found their bodies later slipped of clothing, cool, rung to each other. The many, restless conjugations they would make." Or is Newman attempting to make us think of sex with guilt, fear, and dread? For she next describes more sensuous lovemaking, where unbeknownst to the couple there is an "indelible tattoo of cancer" within the girl.
Elsewhere Newman is most erotic in her description of the cross-pollination of the apple blossom responsible for the original apple of sin, underlining the deception by the flower "the bloom... deceives; obsessed with her endurance, the petals make-believe to want the spinefold legs of bee, they make-believe it's all for him." Then, Newman suddenly declares, "I want to intercept this one cross-pollination" with "a stop-time" for "I would distract the bee to keep the world ajar. Against which the what-if? of our disorder."
Newman speaks of the changes in the day affecting our moods, the unease at night, regretted loss, incompleteness, where the changing seasons are also reminders of the same. At first she regrets the coming of fall, "We loved the gardens, so pregnant, emerging. But then they grew fallow… Like any gorgeous thing, they'll fall away" and laments, thinking probably of her mother, "plants, who promise to remain as if a gift, unwrapped, but at the season's end they take it back, and wither, and hardly say goodbye." Later though, she seems to grow beyond her initial pain and speaks of spring hurting just as much as Fall (reminiscent of T.S. Eliot), "keep the cicatrize; the wound. The world is coming into vibrant, painful bloom."
Through these poems, Newman has developed her ideas of man's repeating the patterns of beautiful gardens from memory, the seasons' passing underscoring our sense of loss, the fall of night saddening us as an end and language being a poor substitute for the original beauty that we miss. Therefore we must agree with her that "The tongue is an eye: language is an eye: it speaks a dream of loss: it hastens to a thing not said: it knows the way home but will not speak it… when we left the first home we inherited this language." Further, she succeeds in leading the reader to accept the epitaph that opens her book "how little at home we are in the interpreted world" (Rainer Maria Rilke). This is a magnificent book of poems by an original poet.
Fall by Amy Newman
Wesleyan University Press