Reviewed by Will Cordeiro
Eryn Green’s Eruv, this year’s winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, portrays a ceaseless yearning to recognize the Edenic potential in daily things, transfiguring flawed particulars so we can see them shine forth as if with an inner radiance. Whether burnished by memory, exalted by imagination, or seen anew through love, the brief scenes recalled in these lyrics attempt to invest the bric-a-brac of commonplace moments with a sacred aura. The title comes from a Hebrew word meaning “mixture,” which denotes the shared alleyways and courtyards that make it possible for observant Jews to carry items outside their home on the Sabbath. Like this system of doorways and corridors that mediate the difference between private and public spaces, Green’s poems act as metaphorical links between merely personal experience and a realm of communal tradition: an eruv helps things to be “carried” similarly to the way tropes use figuration as a vehicle to carry a tenor. Indebted to Ronald Johnson’s Ark and the virid pastoral of W. C. Williams’s Spring and All, the off-centered cut-ups of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets,and Lorine Niedecker’s pointillist precision, the poems posit a flourishing, ever-hopeful vitality at the heart of things.
The book begins with the brilliance of its opening poem, “First Walk,” situated in a divided landscape:
Afternoon opening into vacant lot— just a few thin sticks surrounded by gold-tipped weeds and a small silver rainbird streams across the scene— all light sources teeming
The weeds—the noise of vegetation—may be gold-tipped but they are nonetheless refractory. The vacant lot with its few thin sticks, not unlike the poem’s few thin lines, ironically spell the plenitude of this scene where seeing enacts a drama of everyday transformation. The silver “rainbird,” a watery creature out of a fever-dream, wings across the foliage like the elemental fire of Heraclitus. Yet, the bird also connotes the rainfall, its flying at the same time a small descent from grace. In this decidedly postlapsarian garden, vision is compromised by the very effulgence of the light sources that appear everywhere immanent yet scattered. What counts as noise is relative to the music one seeks to hear; likewise, the cast-off detritus in this weedlot teems with overlooked illumination.
The promise of the poem as it develops with “helpless pink flowers and attendant bees” is tempered by the poem’s own knowledge about how promises, erotic or otherwise, have a way of betraying us: “going over the falls.” Walking, as Thoreau says in his essay on that theme, involves every footstep in a type of falling, and so the primacy of the title is undone by an oxymoron: to walk among creation—and to name it—already inscribes a division across which we fail to be in palpable contact with a more originary, if only imaginary, fullness. To walk requires a fallen state, an isolation—to long for a return to some primal clarity presumes we’ve been expelled from Eden.
In the book’s initial jaunt, we are partly fenced off from the paradise that the poem awakens us to. And though the “afternoon opens,” it opens onto swiftly fleeting hallucinations that river away, branch out, tumble over cascades, or run underground. There are multiple light “sources,” no single origin, back toward which we attempt to locate the pure being that seems lost to us. Each waving grass-tip or bird-quill is woven into the blaze of mortality. To witness this liquescent shimmer at all, light must intervene as mediator, just as, divorced from speaking directly with God, we depend on angelic messengers, saintly intermediaries, isolated moments of revelation. The poem’s images, torn apart or violently grafted together, thus reveal a possible abounding whole while they momentarily veil our own brokenness, and we leap across the lines to feel the luster that is made possible only by such fragmentation.
The poems insistently operate through a paratactic accumulation of imagery in which the reader must bridge their disjointed syntax, thereby initiating an active “crossing” of space, a “going over” from one particular to another that is at once Wordsworthian “fallings from us, vanishing” and the transport inherent in metaphor itself. The process of reading is explicitly likened to that of seeing in “Hymnal Oranges,” where the beholder changes what is perceived and, in turn, becomes changed by it:
Because as soon as we can read our own nakedness, eden is foreign to us—exegesis always already baggage, the question of how how we see changes everything, oranges, for instance, the inscrutable meaning of this Mardi Gras—
Learning to read our experience also separates us from that experience, obtruding our view of things through some “lens.” The method we adopt to help us understand a text is also inevitably laden with some baggage, such as, for instance, the critical cliché of “always already.” In order to see the naked eye, we require some instrument to see it with, and thus neither the eye nor the rest of us can remain resolutely naked. Time has taken our true face away. And yet, the ability to adopt different lenses also creates a kaleidoscopic “sea change” in which our interpretations of events continually differ from themselves. Even the seemingly unrhymable “oranges” echoes that “baggage,” perhaps shining the brighter for it. The particularity of “this Mardi Gras,” with its canivalesque masquerade, will give way to the lean times of Lent. Though the moment may seem dazzling, one can never fathom its meaning until long afterward, in retrospect, though retrospect itself distorts through nostalgia.
The poem ends by twisting John 3:16 into childlike singsong:
—for it was for God so loved and disabused not to perish, any whosoever learns to say it sing songs
This second paradise of promised redemption is mocked, as if “any whosoever” unthinkingly reciting such a verse could win back everlasting life. Nonetheless, the giddy mockery—willfully lullabied by one born again innocent of syntactic rules—actually becomes a hymn of praise, a brief paradisiacal stay against devastation. This reversion to innocence does free us, if only in the instance of its decipherment, from the certain sentence of our death.
Another poem appears to imagine the clouds as giant cars “running over us,” then raining down something stranger than brimstone or hubcaps:
Dear poetry falling down on its face from above, thank you thank you shouldn’t have known it was enough—O good magic and all my new scars, I promise never to regret ruining my shoes dancing in the barn
The address to poetry here isn’t so much an apostrophe—since that requires the addressee to be elsewhere or fictive—as it is the invocation of a “ good magic” that the poem itself is in the process of conjuring into being. Thus, the dance is both a moment recalled by the author and the present dance of the lyric we are reading, footloose beyond decorum. If shoes have been scuffed, the skin, too, is scarred. But such minor scratches are mere heirlooms for an ecstatic bacchanalia, the faint-headed face-plant we’re provoked to by this rustic goat-song.
Green’s orphic impulse is to capture the wild greening of the world, those moments when love empties us again into a future. His most poignant poems bodysurf on intuition. We ride their waveforms, which resist being reduced to fixed points. They project a sudden order onto the scattered geometry of things-at-hand. At best, this casual disregard for given structures, common sense, and even basic grammar renders his lyrics urgent with a lucid mysticism, as if their grace rendered them telepathic. The poems have disparate flashes of insight resembling the numinous hymns of such visionary poets as Christopher Smart or Thomas Traherne. When they work, the poems’ fast-paced cascade of imagery abrogates the need for narrative development, working instead through the fragmentary. When they don’t work, however, the poems are jejune and irksomely solipsistic. Here’s a self-standing section from “Botanica”:
Morning kick morning, swallow morning—just like Nathan said. Morning twist morning into a basket, a branch set, a quiet green car— Morning punch me in the stomach look again
I have looked again. Unfortunately, I still can’t make much out of this cryptic note-to-self. It seems to be about revision (crumpling old drafts into a wastebasket?) likened to a hangover (a morning when one feels punched in the stomach, crumpling over?)—but, in the absence of any context in which to flesh out such imagery, this section feels too subjective. I might claim the poem shows that the braiding and branching of different possible phrases, which frustrates the writer, is simultaneously recognized to be the forest of interpretation, the vehicle by which all language motors its readers along. But to explicate such claims, I begin feeling as if I’m spiraling down my own self-imposed hermeneutic circle. This little throw-away scrap has the habitually distracted, slightly precious, self-romanticizing affect that plagues many literary effusions of the millennial generation. It wants to make too much of itself. It’s (dare I say) a little too “lush.”
I take issue with Carl Phillips’s foreword, in which he praises Green’s risk-taking. The poems are not risky, either politically or formally. On the political front, some of the poems appear to be set in Israel, but there’s barely any mention of conflict outside a few stray lines: “I don’t / understand protest songs / in the street but know sky blue wool / with my grandmother is beautiful.” Such sentiments seem to absolve Green of engaging the larger import of his situation because he only “understands” the cozy blanket provided by his grandmother rather than the historical implications around him. The poem turns away from the fracas of a street protest only to embrace a matrilineal forebear whose very survival had once depended upon an urgent political intervention. “Why even try” the first section of this poem concludes, dismissing the struggles borne by the country and the family that it celebrates, to say nothing of the other struggles that hover in the background. In other words, the poet’s sentimental exaltations avoid anything that might seem too much like a wet blanket, such as the state’s persecution of Palestinians.
Formally, the poems in Eruv are often clamorous with inchoate longing, at a time when a clearer-headed and more classical style—of a Quevedo, say—would be riskier (at least, less fashionable) than Green’s pop baroque gongorisms. The fragmentary nature of his verse, emphasizing sound over sense, allusion over narrative, frequently exhibits a rather trendy “scenester” ethos of the so-called “new sincerity.” Perhaps, more sympathetically, one might contend, the point of such a section as the block quote provided above is to be a trace of work-in-progress, a notational smudge on the larger canvas revealing the hand of the artist. Perhaps. But, if so, one wishes for a focal point from which such expressionistic gestures might cohere into something more than just slapdash abstraction.
Regardless of whether the poems are risky or not, I am ready to forgive Green’s occasional misfires since the best poems in this volume also eschew any prosaic ligatures or clumsy explanations and, puzzling as they can be, they manage to get away with it through sheer brio. Something clicks. The poems’ surprising turns culminate in a series of wayward revelations, as a desire for transcendence is resisted for a more earthbound recognition and then, by some fortuitous grace, the imperfections within the mundane become converted into their own small tokens of paradise:
…my beer foams over as I call your name. I gently blow over the corona. All the white laughter happens. All flowers
The suds climb up the spout—they wink and burst with laughter. They crown the beloved’s name that’s blown as if to make a wish, all things blossoming and evanescent, white as the lace of a marriage veil. The beer label, with another name that could be arbitrary, suddenly signifies the foam that halos atop the bottle like the spontaneous overflow of emotions, becoming a crown of flowers, a wreath of laurel. In such ways, the poems create a chain of subtle implications functioning just below one’s rational faculties, evading “the intelligence,” as Stevens says, “almost successfully.” For, although the poems appear disjunctive and the reader is at pains to articulate their significance, they frequently possess an immediacy of sense-making that takes possession of their readers’ vision. Like the thresholds of an eruv, these poems authorize us to move within the liminal spaces between private moods and public meanings. They transform the inner world of isolated occurrences into a larger network of correspondences by which our days become shared.
These poems, in fact, disprove the idea of a “lyric I.” A lyric fails to represent an individual’s experience so long as the “I” remains sewn up in its own skin. Instead, lyric depends on a common ground between reader and speaker, which, paradoxically, it is the work of each lyric to create. Green’s book, despite its many jump-cuts and cutbacks through inscrutable association, often enough attempts to throw a bridge across to its reader—a Wittgensteinian ladder which, once we’ve climbed up and are safely on the other side, we look back, baffled by the impossibility of our new position as we hover over empty air. The best poems in this book thus allow us to see the precarious foothold we have in this life as a foundation of tiny miracles; the poems, too, are miraculous in how they somehow hold together despite themselves.
Eryn Green received his Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Denver and holds an MFA from the University of Utah. His work has appeared in Jubilat, Colorado Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere.
Will Cordeiro is finishing his Ph.D. in English from Cornell University, where he received his MFA. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Phoebe, and elsewhere.