- Eternity & Oranges by Christopher Bakken
Eternity & Oranges, Christopher Bakken’s third book of poems, opens with a yawn. Here’s the first stanza from the first poem, “Aubade”:
We’d not slept in days, or else we were still sleeping—who could tell? Few words passed between us then, yet somehow we heard what the other said.
Compare these lines to the first heaves of his two most recent books: the gustatory travel-memoir Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table from (2013) and the poems of Goat Funeral (2006). In the former, Bakken explains (on page one) that the best way to carry a just-harpooned octopus is by stuffing it in a pair of pantyhose. The latter’s first poem introduces “our hero” who—in the first line—dry-humps the horizon. The stanza above, placed where it is in this new collection, asks a lot of its reader’s patience. The language is flat. The action is largely static (and what of it there is, is shunted into the past tense). The stanza is visually inert, though the ear may surface here and there to catch the sibilant hiss of white noise, or the half-heard murmur of internal rhyme. What music and imagery one finds here are as temporary, and as tenuous, as a lover’s fading caress. Comparatively speaking, these new poems often exude an odd, perhaps even off-putting quiet. One could argue that this collection lacks the crackle a returning reader should expect, the mimetic viscerality that rewarded our attention as it sloshed and squicked and burned across his earlier work.
And yet: I am both taken and persuaded by what might initially resemble slackness in these poems, for I feel that these gestures are evidence of a far more dexterous poetics than what is found in Goat Funeral, one that carefully modulates sentence rhythm, image, and sentiment with astonishing effect. Later, in the same poem, is this revealing run of lines:
I showed you an ancient silver coin: on one side, a Gorgon’s head, off-center and missing an ear.
What’s this on the other side? I asked. (I didn’t have to ask this aloud.) A stag, maybe, or a bull. We didn’t know. The body was worn away, but the horns were still sharp. [End Page 26]
The speaker’s tone remains unchanged—languorous, subdued, still on the threshold of sleep. He poses again an unuttered, unanswerable question. He occupies a space, both rhetorically and imaginatively, of ignorance. But embedded in the lines is a deceptive friction that undermines such poses. All but two of the lines contain at least one clear, almost archetypal image: the coin, the Gorgon, the ear, the stag, the horns. Each line is end-stopped, unifying each with its syntactic function, which grants them a sturdiness both on the page and in the moment of the poem. Even the rhythm—tetrameters giving way to a hexameter and a concluding trimeter pair—suggests a solidity and permanence seemingly at odds with the poem’s initial gestures (part of me can’t help but thrill at the scansion of “but the horns were still sharp,” whose terminal spondee invites us to diacritically mark the line with an additional pair of horns). It’s as if these lines reconstruct this intimate moment block by chiseled block. Where the poetic machinery of Goat Funeral occasionally got in the way of what it was trying to say (or vice versa), here, what is said is held in equipoise with how it is constructed on the page. It’s as if his impulses are millstones, grinding first their material, and then one another, to smoothness. But despite these sturdy assurances, including those found in the poem’s concluding lines—“fish shining on the dock / like a pile of just-polished knives”—the poem serves as a reminder of this collection’s primary obsessions: in every recollection and utterance we are, at best, living among descriptions of a ruin.
The impulse in Goat Funeral was often primarily preservative: poem as monument. Depending, as the...