May 2008

Josh Cook


Quaker Guns by Caroline Knox

The title poem in Caroline Knox's collection Quaker Guns, provides a descriptive image for the collection as a whole, though probably not in the way Knox would have hoped. "Quaker guns" are "flotsam, jetsam, or any old trees, ships logs," used to convince pirates that a ship has more cannons than it actually does. The logs convince passing ships "It's safe to assume that you have eighty-six guns," when "you have twelve cannon at most." The ruse uses form to convince of substance. An aptitude is necessary to pull off the technique, but it is still a "ruse." Knox demonstrates that aptitude for poetry and is clearly a master of the craft. The collection is packed with clever and skillful manipulations of form, meter, rhyme, and diction, but it lacks fire power. Knox has the craft of poetry but not the art.

The clearest example of this limitation is "The Title." The poem is a well-executed experimentation with the visuals of poetry, playing on the expectation readers have when they confront a poem on the page. The title of the "The Title" is in the middle of the poem, in traditional font and layout, and in grammatical context, dividing the poem into two visually and rhythmically balanced sestets. It looks interesting and I was thrilled before I read. But the poem is about itself, starting, "The poem begins all wrong in medias res/ so it looks like a fragment, a throwaway," and continues to describe exactly where the title is presented in the poem as well as the overall layout of the poem on the page. There was a time when a poem about itself would have radically departed from the decorum of literature, but self-reflective and image only poems have become an accepted realm of exploration. Writing them, no matter how interesting the form appears, breaks no new ground. Furthermore, the role of expectations and perceptions in determining decisions, actions, and reactions, isn't limited to how one reads a poem, but is relevant in our interaction with any information. Knox's expertise in form created the opportunity for a powerful exploration of the role of expectation in understanding, but she wastes it by limiting the scope of the poem to itself.

The long poem "Hooke's Law" is another representative work in the collection (it even contains a table of contents of sorts). It is broken into ten individually titled, short-lined, un-rhymed, well-balanced, and aurally pleasant stanzas, some of which demonstrate the appalling lack of substance that frustrates this collection and some of which demonstrate the power of well-crafted images presented with the potential for further interaction. Hooke's law of elasticity is an approximation that stated the amount by which a material body is deformed is linearly related to the force causing the deformation, or as Hooke himself said, "As the extension, so the force." The poem does stretch and bend revealing a force acting upon it, but its effect is hamstrung by passages that dip into the diction of the confessional spirituality dominating amateur poetry.

The stanza titled "A Veiled Voice Spoke:" is the most egregious example of this. It's a quoted passage that plays with Martin Buber, deforming his classic work "I and Thou," by running it through individualism as described in the Bill of Rights. However, the stanza ends on the single line "The veiled voice went mute." From the title of the stanza I knew the voice was "veiled," a description that simply gives a visual handle on the obtuse diction of the speaker, and from the closing quotation mark I knew the speaker was finished. That final flourish has become a tic in contemporary poetry where the poet needs to append a grand statement or spiritual moment to live up to some requirements. It adds no information to the stanza, expresses no ideas, complicates no images, and, though it sounds all right, slams the door on what otherwise would have been an interesting statement and I'm left believing that I've read only a fun little game with words.

The stanza titled "Talon" is the strongest by Knox in the collection. The "Talon/bullet" in question was designed to expand sharp points on impact with soft tissue. Even the Wikipedia entry is chilling. The bullet itself was discontinued in 2000 but it is still an excellent image for the relationship between organic matter and martial technology. Furthermore, her mastery of craft shines as she enjambs lines to place "controlled" above "impact," naming the great illusion of modern warfare -- that somehow the first concern of the military is the control with which they act and not the impact they create. The next two lines end on "There are" and "wounded" clearly stating that whatever control might be intended and whatever technology is use to choose targets, the impact of force is the same as it has always been; "There are... wounded." The stanza ends on a brilliant pun, "Odi/ et ammo, that's what I say." "Odi et ammo" is a distortion of Catallus's "odi et amo," which translates as "I hate and I love," or "I hate and yet I love." Here Hooke's law shines, as the distortion is tiny and so the force needed to change one of the great statements on the division of human consciousness into a clever slogan for the NRA is linearly small. The rest of "Hooke's Law," as the rest of the collection, is comprised of forgettable, notable, and frustrating works.

Knox is at her best in poems that demonstrate an understanding of poetry. For example her sestina "Sestina at Yin Yu Tang," is an excellent entry into the form. The repetition of words creates an accumulating stasis that mirrors the motion of construction where techniques are repeated and repeated until a house is built, a tradition is founded, and a proverb is established. Her translation of Borges's "Spinoza," is a great poem and she brings out the best in John Ashbery when she quotes in "Face Masque," "'I think all games and disciplines are contained here,/ Painting as they go, dots and asterisks that/ We force into meanings that don't concern us/ And so leave us behind.'"

But these last two examples highlight Knox's limitations. "Spinoza" is the best overall poem in the collection, and the John Ashbery lines are the best lines in the collection. To translate such a poem and to select such lines demonstrates a profound understanding of poetry, but the collection shows an understanding of little else. For those who truly relish exquisite craft in poetry, this collection will be a great read -- word games, form games, rhyme games will delight. But those who look for more out of poetry, it would be best to somehow get a hold of "Spinoza," "Hooke's Law," and "Sestina at Yin Tu Yang" and look elsewhere for challenging, substantive poetry.

Quaker Guns by Caroline Knox
Wave Books
ISBN: 1933517271
70 Pages