- Kaleidoscopic Poetry
234 Pages; Print, $18.00
A poet’s new and selected collection is usually thought of as a culmination, a review of a career with a forecast toward what’s to come. In the case of Martine Bellen’s This Amazing Cage of Light, this is certainly true: the book brings together work from her 1991 collection Places People Dare Not Enter to her 2013 book WABAC Machine, concluding with eleven new poems. However, for those unfamiliar with Bellen’s work, the book also serves as a compelling introduction to her poems, a unique opportunity to see an artist of Bellen’s caliber develop her work and its particular obsessions over the course of more than two decades and an array of poetic forms and cultural references.
The “cage” of the collection’s title might make one think of poems of tight formal restriction. However, Bellen’s poems manifest the opposite impulse: toward a variety and looseness of forms. Terse imagistic lines, such as those in the poem “On Becoming a Poem”: “Three librarians flutter / Above land neck, land waist / Lore of scythelike wing”—are followed in the book by long lines of conversational sprawl—for example, the margin-tapping lines of the poem “The Day Lou Died”: “I’m not proud it took me three weeks to start a poem that countless others / managed to write on the right day. Nick Flynn’s was published in the New Yorker.” Images of the quotidian and prosaic frequently emerge beside lyric and surreal, as in these lines from “What the Animals Told”: “Firecrackers light the dawn while saints dress. A ballgame’s / in progress.”
Charles North has described her poems as “kaleidoscopic,” and this word certainly seems appropriate. The poems make dazzling associative leaps of logic, image melting into image, across forms as varied as precisely dropped hemistich lines, to long, intricately packed prose poems. Bellen’s speaker exclaims in frustration in the collection’s final poem, “Bird Calls,” “Why is form impermanent—why can’t poetry stay poetry and / fiction stay prose!” It is this tension between the traditionally lyric and the prosaic, and between what is known and what is unknowable in language, that seems to drive the formal investigations across the selected poems.
“I touch Satan and know it is Satan. Though I am aware it may / be satin,” Bellen writes in a characteristically associative prose poem “Sky Frames,” allowing the reader to slip sonically between the slant-rhyming “Satan” and “satin,” as well as enjoy a visual and semantic slip—isn’t satin seductive, much like Satan is said to be? And isn’t, too, this slippage a fitting embodiment of the female character of the poem, who states she is “between [her] rememory,” and says, “It may be you who can’t be held like a body, not in mind.” Memory and human life move, Bellen seems to be arguing here, much like language: so fluidly they cannot be held too tightly inside a single interpretation, though we may desire it deeply.
The poems’ formal range and linguistic play is matched only by the density and variety of Bellen’s references and interests, which range from artists as various as Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki to Vermeer, and poets as disparate as H.D. and Frank O’Hara. Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Cornell, Gertrude Stein, Shakespeare, YouTube videos, Calamity Jane, and Lou Reed, among other personages and concepts, all make appearances in the collection, whether by reference, dedication, or persona. Bellen’s omnivorousness of thought, a hunger and affection for all kinds of culture, both high and low, is evident throughout the collection, as she jumps from consideration of the words of Ikkyū, the twelfth century Japanese Zen poet, from whose lines the title of the collection is drawn—“We live in a cage of light / An amazing cage / Animals Animals without end”—to using television to create a metaphor for time and space: “Let’s say time is a moving container, like a train / … / Like...