“A deer came out in the evening
I’ve retired from their life of touching you”
–Keetje Kuipers, “Across a Great Wilderness Without You,” Beautiful in the Mouth
“The past is a humidity
Road, sea cliffs.”
–Gretchen Steele Pratt, “Rodman’s Hollow,” One Island
“They’re not quite buried / in this cemetery
the palsied cotton just about to fall.”
–Anna Journey, “My Great-Grandparents Return to the World as Closed Magnolia Buds,” If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting
“wearing smoke like a new dress. With a pocket knife”
–Rhett Iseman Trull, “The Real Warnings are Always Too Late,” The Real Warnings
While reading Gretchen Steele Pratt’s One Island, I noticed something about the poems. They are mostly free-verse and a few are in received and nonce forms, but the majority of the poems I liked most use a trope that I see used by other young contemporary poets. So in the ever-continuing search to find measures for what makes a poem “enjoyable” and to identify and articulate useful schemes and tropes that shape my own poetics, I would like to discuss the use of liminality as a poetic trope. Liminal is defined as “of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition,” or simply as the “in-between, transitional” (Merriam-Webster). Usually, liminal spaces might consist of places like windows or doors. In the realm of poetry, and for this discussion, the liminal space I see in the work of contemporary poets is between material and immaterial images or metaphors.
The lines from poems I’ve quoted above are the first and last lines of the respective poems. They begin with a clear image in the world of physical possibility and end with an abstraction or metaphor out of the physical plane, or vice versa. The transition of how this takes place, the space between, is the poem. I believe this is a reflection of an author’s choice based on personal poetics. It might express that the poem is liminal, maybe all poems are by nature. It is a genre trapped somewhere between greeting cards and short stories.
The transition between the material and immaterial in poetry seems to be a device shared by many young poets. It could be willingness, as Stephen Burt predicted in the 2004 addendum to his essay “The Elliptical Poets,” to “split the difference between a poetry of descriptive realism on the one hand, and, on the other, a neo-avant-garde” (Burt 355). These poets want it both ways. They have learned from narrative and elliptical poets, and they enjoy aspects of both. Liminal Poets want to use the poem as a space between and they want their work to exist there as well.
Kuipers and Liminality
The liminality also exists within the space between. In the Keetje Kuipers poem quoted, she dances from the narrative side of the field to the elliptical effortlessly:
The deer came out in the evening.
God bless them for not judging me,
I’m drunk. I stand on porch in my bathrobe
and make strange noises at them—
if language can be a kind of crying (Kuipers 36).
What makes this example even more fascinating is that it remains digestible; readers can understand the non-sacrificed meaning. The narrative thrust of the stanza is simple. The speaker is on her porch in a bathrobe crying (presumably from heartbreak) and deer come out. She also uses the disjunction of ellipticism and swerves around a “never-quite-unfolded backstory” (Burt 346). She moves from the “porch in my bathrobe” to “noises” that are “language.” Here Kuipers muddles the word “language,” making it into an abstract term. Even in this small space she has moved from the material to the immaterial. The end of the poem lives up to the promise of the title. It is a woman who has become strong and used her hands without the help of her lover. The first part of the final image, “my hands lost in my pockets, two disabused tools” is easy enough to be visualized. The image of touching “you” makes it unclear exactly what she means. Is the speaker directing her words to an actual lover or a community embodied as a lover? Either way, since the lover is never described, it is an image that cannot necessarily be visualized. The liminality trope works well here because the poem is about the transition from being dependent to independent.
Pratt and Liminality
In the second poem quoted above, “Rodman’s Hollow” by Gretchen Steele Pratt, she locates this spry, evasive poem in a specific place (Roadman’s Hollow near Coneymus Road on Block Island). The first stanza of the poem is about descending into the bottom of the hollow, whereas the second, quoted below, is about ascending out of it:
Green movement still cupping salt air still dusty with hot morning,
Night bowl of frogs, wet green
Deep bowl of trees,
Fat frog’s croak, then a deep green cataract
All sunlight, sunlight, Conneymus Road
Still a sinking in my brain still rounding
Basin of trees sunk between
Road, sea cliffs (Pratt 1).
Pratt lists a series of strange images (what does a “bowl of frogs” at night look like?), all in one broken up sentence that begins with “green movement” to give momentum to the stanza. It is a form of syntactical climax; she moves from those abstract images through the “green cataract” and “sunlight,” to a specific place at “Conneymus Road” until there is the final concrete image of the “road” and “sea cliffs.” The initial transition from descending the hollow to ascending and coming out of it is a good choice of a place to use the trope because it sets the expectations of the collection.
Journey and Liminality
Anna Journey’s work as a whole in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting might be considered more elliptical than liminal, but she uses the technique as well. She attempts to merge the narrative and the fantastic in several points throughout the collection. She uses wildly juxtaposed imagery and it is grounded in the Southern Gothic. Journey begins her poem in a cemetery, which conjures up very generic imagery, but then describes her great-grandparents as “not quite buried” there. It is very difficult to imagine how someone ends up not completely buried, but it is accepted because of her tone before this poem. She continues in the poem, with other strange images “petals pulled / shut, like Klan hoods” and “loam in the throat” (Journey 9). She is able, near the end to transfer to a concrete image of “four generations // of women linking arms. In the photograph—with me / unborn, the bark hardening on a sycamore, dry wind / over the bayou, // the palsied cotton just about to fall” (Journey 10). The technique works well here because the transition is about taking a negative event that has place and changing it to a positive one by controlling the negative charge. Journey owns the negative charge that is her birth, she has made it into an event that drops a curtain.
Liminality and Trull
There are definitely varying degrees of liminality among the work of the poets. If Anna Journey is furthest to the elliptical left, then Gretchen Pratt is left-leaning and Keetje Kuipers is center. Leaning to the right, is Rhett Iseman Trull. Trull’s poems don’t so much consider the poem as a liminal space. There are very few poems in the collection that meet the thus far outlined criteria where a poem begins in one mode and ends in another. Trull utilizes liminal moments in poetry. She doesn’t always commit to the image. Instead of using hyperbole to create impossible imagery or playing with the reader’s expectations or perception, Trull uses metaphor or simile to slide in her moments of liminality. Like the initial quoted line from her poem, she may “set the basement aflame and run out laughing,” but the smoke she wears will be “like a new dress.” The image of a woman smoke-covered and running is simple enough, but what complicates her image and brings it into the realm of liminality is her choice of line integrity, she continues with line after the caesura, “[w]ith a pocket knife.” This prepositional phrase makes the image more elusive and it shows just how conscious Trull is of the line.
Keetje Juiper’s “Blackfoot River” is perhaps one of the best examples of how a liminal poem can work in a collection. For the first third of the book, Kuipers expresses disparity, dissatisfaction, and a sort of loneliness. The poems also occupy a space between light and dark, throughout the collection “god-black,” “glitters,” “fire,” “black ocean,” “dark,” “shadow,” “blackness,” “flash,” “incandescent,” “bright,” “dim,” “glow,” and countless uses of “night” and “light” are used to create the space between light and dark. In poems like “Bondage Play as a Substitute for Prayer,” she uses the absence of light to express darkness. It seems from lines like “Because I have a good life/ because the scales are tipped too far/ toward my own contentment” that the speaker is setting up a tone of guilt (Kuipers 21). She seems afraid of selfishness and this comes up again in the lines “we pray and are comforted/ by the sound of our own voices,” from “On Earth as it Is in Heaven” (Kuipers 28). Kuipers seems to be commenting on society at large when she writes “To the Bear Who Ate a Ten-Pound Bag of Sunflower Seeds in My Front Yard This Morning,” especially in lines like “we are always hungry, and it seems ineffable to us,/ what it was we wanted, and then, of course/ whether or not we could have it” (Kuipers 31). There is an absence that she writes about and a desire to fill that absence that’s almost hopeless. Then something happens. In “Blackfoot River,” Kuipers utilizes the light/dark tension that she has created and she shifts not just the poem, but the entire collection from despair to desire. “The unspeakable spoken and spoken until it becomes/ lost in the bright keening of the stars,” is a conscious comment on her poetry, the state of contemporary poetry, and culture as a whole (Kuipers 33). It speaks to our insatiable, google-crazy, age of immediacy hunger and the moment at the end of the poem is epiphany— the speaker realizes this, and does nothing about it.
The poem begins “Wading the river in near-darkness, the valley / still close from the smoky fires burning / twenty miles east, my brother turns to me / and says I’m telling you this for your own good.” This situates the reader in a location with a specific person. It is late evening in a river near a valley with the speaker’s brother. Rivers themselves are a liminal space. They have reflective surfaces, and they are, in biblical realms, a place of baptism and renewal. The speaker and her brother cross this river as a threshold to a time when they are both alone and the speaker’s brother has “disappeared” into adulthood. Then she reaches the moment of the “bright keening stars and the poem acts as a coming-of-age poem, and not just about the speaker and her brother or the speaker and the world, but the speaker and her poetry. She writes about “[a]ll the things I’m afraid to say, about the dog / no one’s cleared from the side of road, how I see / the young boys crossing under the wire fence each dusk” (Kuipers 34). The poems ends, like any good liminal poem, opposite of where it began. This time with the abstract image of an “owl / crossing the dim orb of the stained moon” and with the speaker deeming herself criminal as all she can do is “stand around and watch.”
Liminality and Contemporary Praise
Each of these poets has won a prize for their debut collections, from which these chosen poems derive. All were winners in 2008–2009, and two were chosen by Thomas Lux. The poets’ ambivalence and originality were a part of all of their blurbs. Lux wrote of Kuipers’ “boldness,” Tony Hoagland calls Pratt’s collection “earthy” and “vibrant,” Fred Chappell writes that Trull is a “brilliant, caring, and telling new voice,” and Lux calls Journey’s experiments “new experiments.” These comments are all hinting toward what I have written about. The energy that these writers are pulling from is from the space between. They are, as Lux says of Kuipers’ collection, “tearing up the old language, but making the old language new.”
In the smallest and largest schemes, their poetry is a series of movements from the material to immaterial, and it is all a process. Thomas Lux writes in the foreword to Beautiful in the Mouth that Kuipers, “like all good poets” has many influences and has “absorbed their lessons, assimilated them into a voice entirely her own.” (Kuipers 9). Pratt, Trull, and Journey have done this as well. Their influences have been wide. Perhaps, poets have rebelled enough against the previous generation. When your influences have been on two different ends of the spectrum, how do you rebel? You choose the middle. What could possibly exist is a generation of compromise. Perhaps having a generation of poets that has been largely educated inside of the academy has broken a few divisions. Maybe this recent generation of poets will be an amalgamation of what has come before, and not suffer from an anxiety of influence, but will embrace all of their many progenitors.
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Burt, Stephen. Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Grayworlf Press, 2009.
Journey, Anna. If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. Athens, GA: U of Georgia Press, 2009.
Kuipers, Keetje. Beautiful in the Mouth. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2010.
Pratt, Gretchen Steele. One Island. Tallahassee, FL: Anhinga Press, 2011.
Trull, Rhett Iseman. The Real Warnings. Tallahassee, FL: Anhinga Press, 2009.