“[T]here are things that are important beyond all this fiddle” wrote Marianne Moore, meaning, by “fiddle,” poetry. It’s worth taking the claim with a grain or 10 of salt: She writes it in a poem; the poem is called “Poetry”; it turns out, to no one’s surprise, to be a defense of the art. Still, I like the line: its plainness, its plain accuracy, the description of poetry as “fiddle”—as in, fiddling around—and the implied presence there of the person who would use a phrase like “all this fiddle” in the first place, someone with neither time nor patience for wasteful activity but who still has, somehow, room for a little playing around with words. That little wink. It feels spacious, right.
There’s a remarkable amount of fiddle in Kathleen Ossip’s third book of poems, The Do-Over. (Her second, The Cold War, got big love from the likes of The Believer, The Nation, and the New York Times, and it cropped up on a couple lists of 2011’s best books.) It’s a serious collection—a book about death and love that’s charged by ambition and a taste for beauty—but seriousness, in Ossip’s case, entails much that seems unserious on its own. “For what is the purpose of judgment, with its snap-snap?” she asks in “A. in January,” one of the poems about her late and beloved stepmother (the A. in question) that form the book’s articulating spine. The quick glide from the antiquated formality of that “For” to the childlike, almost-preverbal noun “snap-snap” seems less a diminishment than a function of Ossip’s willingness to hold her writing open to mystery. To borrow from Moore, the fiddle, in Ossip’s poems, is often what ushers in the beyond, lending a reassuring sense that a poem matters not just in light of its own achievement but in terms of its ability to accommodate a world that is often inelegant, unelevated, scratchy, or strange.
Later in that same poem, Ossip writes:
The most excellent thing you can be is quiet, to grant the
Essential strangeness of a body that has no fixed place,
Resembling a cobweb that marries one violet to another.
On these small things we fix all hope.
So what is the evolutionary point of love and death?
Spiritual growth?, I blab, purpose-headed to the end.
The phrase “essential strangeness” repeats throughout the poem—appearing once in each of its three stanzas—and “purpose” here is echoing the line with the “snap-snap” above. There’s a lot of repetition in these poems; they feel like someone trying something out, turning it around, still hoping to get it right. The book as a whole maintains a provisional quality, a sense of words and ideas coming together in the moment, and not necessarily in the best possible order. That “most excellent” line, for example, has the ungainly freshness of a first draft and only comes to feel orderly in the way that the poem as a whole balances out.
“Provisional” in both senses of the word—not just conditional but also generous, “providing for present needs.” The poems’ apparent imperfections reach out, in the way that style always suggests an audience, to those of us who arrive at these pages imperfect and empty. At first, I resisted the pocks and catches in Ossip’s language. When I (proudly, gratefully) published her “What Is Death” in At Length in December 2013, I did so without understanding what lines like “John Lennon was cremated there. / What??!! Above us only sky?” were doing in the poem. (In fact, I suggested changing the lines, but she chose, politely, confidently, to leave them intact.) I went on not understanding until a review copy of The Do-Over showed up in my mailbox a few months back.
Though they sound nothing alike, Ossip ended up reminding me of Sylvia Plath, who appears in the book on multiple occasions and lingers as a kind of gravity, a magnetic attraction to experience so strong that language bends almost past sense in order to get it right. In Ossip’s poetry, that gravity manifests as a kind of imbalance—each line or figure seeming to need something else to prop it up—that allows for multiplicity and requires a certain amount of clumsiness for all the poem’s facets to lean and stand.
Her poems shift registers abruptly and often, but whereas in many contemporary poems that movement disjoints, here it reads as scrupulousness, one mind making room for the ways that something as serious as death can’t help consorting with banality, pop culture, boredom, commerce, and the like. “Ode” puts the death of Ossip’s stepmother in concert with the life of a factory worker in Longhua, China. The poem is remarkable for its ability to comprehend both without diminishing either.
Elsewhere, though, I worry about the way Ossip’s openness works itself out. The same receptivity that allows her to embrace multiplicity can double, in places, as acceptance, a tendency to treat the world as a given. The sense that our middle-class-and-more American life is made up of choices only intermittently finds its way into the collection, in spite of frequent settings in the kinds of pseudo-pastorals American privilege allows: on beautiful lawns, in meadows, on porches, in a lovely home. Given how honest these poems feel, I found myself wanting more engagement with all that we accept, at second- and third-hand, when we accept our experience as is.
The first poem, “A. in May”—like “A. in January,” an acrostic written along the letters of her stepmother’s name—actually does include a nod to the nature of its circumstance, but only for a line: “Realm of the universe, hers, and realm of the bourgeois dah-dah-dah.” The poem is more notable as an example of the persistent working-out that mingles majesty, mystery, and clumsiness throughout The Do-Over. It opens:
Alfresco on a chairbed the woman confirms the natural.
Natural it is to be disgusted and hopeless.
Disgusted and hopeless at being related to her,
Relating to her is what keeps me alive.
Even the unfair trees and the lawn are alive.
There’s a brittle, almost-ontological logic guiding the inversions of these lines, each one hooking back into the one before—until, finally, “alive” stays stranded out at the end of the sentence. That mix of pedestrian and lyrical shows up again in statements like “I want to take your kindness and put it in my hair” or “In the dark of the year, the holly wind-holdy, thoughts were and are” or “This is the light of the culture: gold and misleading” or “What does infinity look like? It hurts. // Its bodilessness hurts.” Strangeness has its own shelf in the contemporary poet’s tool kit, and though it can often feel coy or programmatic, it feels alert here. I suspect that’s because Ossip’s poems spend so much time thinking carefully, because their larger arcs so shrewdly balance their parts into a surprisingly rich score, and because they seem so thoroughly sincere in their looking for a proper angle on experience, even as they sense that no one angle can suffice. One of my favorite poems in the book, “What Is A.,” is unusually short and spare. It reads in full:
A leather sack time and space
Upon death she becomes a fame
fragrant as orange
an honest sentence in English
a hard case
worked out in the end
whose stunning comfort
For all its weight, for the hard fall of each short line and the horror of that first image, it’s a playful poem. Much in this collection feels strangely healthy, as if part of what Ossip has inherited from A. is an ability to take pleasure in the work of living, which is the work of thinking honestly enough to go on revising one’s ideas. The Do-Over is not so much a book of grief as it is a book of gratitude enacted, both in its recollections of A. and in its investment in a world that can be experienced and described, but only so long as one remains open to moments and meanings that overlap, alter, obscure, conflict, and, therefore, continue to invite more thought.
In a meditation on the word “sad,” Ossip concludes:
A. always asked: What do I feel like doing? I always ask: What should I be? Those are two very different ways of being sad
or happy. That’s why her death fell like a sea on me. Sadness flopped violently at my feet
then it died too, and now the remnants of sadness lie scattered about the situation, like bones and salt.
These are, appropriately enough, among the saddest lines of the book. The mineral scattering of those remnants is both more final and less resolving than any other ending in The Do-Over. The title of the collection implies a link between the ongoing openness of poetry (to more thought, experiment, and beauty, among other things) and the possibility of life beyond death. But that’s only possibility, the afterlife just one more thing life lets us try to see. “No aspect of life is to be despised,” she writes in the title poem, “though we’re still sitting in the meadow, / sick, singed, loud and daring.” Then, a little later:
So kiss the mainstream culture, let it go.
Let go of that beautiful despair.
The shackles of the lyric, let them go.
In the clearing, the now is falling.
And so it is. In as much as it makes sense to talk about writing as perfect, The Do-Over is not, nor does it mean to be. But it is remarkable: unusually alive, intelligent and alert; unusually imaginative in its ways of letting the now fall into poems that find more invitations in impermanence than any others I’ve read recently.
The Do-Over by Kathleen Ossip. Sarabande.