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  • A New Kind of Beauty
  • Sarah White (bio)
The Haunt Road
Karen Garthe
Spuyten Duyvil Press
102 Pages; Print, $15.00

The first line of "flag that saved a tribe," which opens Karen Garthe's The hauntRoad, is "They were in Cairo like tiny cups of tea."

Rather than wondering who "they" were, or why Cairo, or just how "they" resembled cups of tea, I recommend inquiring what we can expect language to do in the work under review. We soon have to conclude that, as a poet, Garthe simply does not send words on journalistic errands. Who? What? When? et al. are the wrong questions to ask of her poems. She does not use words to describe things. "They" didn't LOOK like tiny cups of tea or smell or taste or sound like them. "They" simply WERE like them, the same way "they" were in Cairo, which remains unexplained, along with the surprising typography of the poem's title because Explain is another thing this poet does not do with words.

Any further information we receive about the cups-of-tea-people will be strictly lyrical and rhythmical: "the lightest part of cloud they were, such powers of everything." The poem diligently, religiously, avoids making a certain kind of sense and, at the same time, offers ways of reading, as well as emphatic hints as to how NOT to read:

We demanded trick words STOP     explaining ourselves STOP I have taken mybreasts and proffer them. . .

We get, not an explication, but an erotic invitation. What more do we want? Perhaps a little additional advice: "STOP laughing STOP / any annoying / Knowingness." I will keep this in mind as I proceed along The hauntRoad.

In a poem called "scalloped," I am told that "Poems hang in air boats and grammars of / Mercy," maybe not all poems, but these, certainly. Each one evokes its décor, about which there is much sweetness, sensuality, and, above all, musicality: "some nights lay on the heart / like King David's musician / harping."

There is also keen distress in these lush scenarios, for instance, the distress of "misunderstanding poetry, panicked and unconsoled. The persistent defeat you wear in the dream." There are even worse distresses than that; the poems often struggle gorgeously against Love's elusiveness—a ubiquitous theme, of course, in lyric poetry, though here it rarely, if ever, laments predictably on behalf of the poet's own person. It is more likely to complain on behalf of Cleopatra in her "sunk palace," Rebekah at her well, Eurydice in her "Many Caves" or a (Jamesian?) "Little Sinecure governess come face to face with her master." These are some of the legendary literary figures with whom this poet wants to attune our hearts. Somewhere in the mix is a passionate, familiar voice: Garthe's ravishing "sharp Prow," a sailboat-shaped poem, gives us

       swoon oars stirring                delicate night    delicate peace


What we'd do with such a starred clear chance. . .      a satin crossing,      a long kiss

The same contrary-to-fact erotic diction found in Emily Dickinson's

Wild Nights-Wild Nights!Were I with theeWild nights should beOur luxury!

perhaps the same "Thee" as one that opens Garthe's "Wild gray door."

But it's foolish to pretend I recognize the precise origin or emotional engine of these poems. I'm reminded that I have been told to minimize "annoying Knowingness." In most cases, I do not know and cannot trace the poems to a single origin. They seem to spring fully armed—and fully surprising—from a poetic mind like none I've encountered, a mind that seems deeply loyal to the gods of Surprise. I constantly find myself, as a poet, asking (though I tell myself not to), "Where could THAT have come from?"

Comfort of pepper dogs        joy in the woodsand a moonshine sip handing back the lost understanding of Imposter    on the rim of the flavor deal's    shakedown

I can't be sure exactly why but it matters in the book's thematics whether a poem is located in the woods, or on the ocean, or both...


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pp. 23-24
Launched on MUSE
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