Tuesday, August 7, 2012

100 Books #73 - Amy Durant's OUT OF TRUE

"I will spin stories that make your past disappear."

As someone who is known for having hitched her poetic wagon to formal poetry's star, I am not a fan of free verse, as a rule. It's a form -- or lack thereof -- that tempts too many pretentious yobboes to regard their half-baked lyricism as Art that Must Be Taken Seriously and to rely on half-baked surrealism to stand in for imagery. You know the kind of stuff I'm talking about.

There are poets, though, who I think do free verse well. T.S. Eliot comes to mind, as do Swinburne, Stephen Vincent Benet, Hart Crane, Jorge Luis Borges (in English or Spanish), Paul Valery (in English or French), Sara Teasdale -- my personal favorites.*

I think that Amy Durant could be another that gets past my free verse defenses, at least some of the time.

Disclosure time: Durant and I are internet-friends**, and she supplied me with a free review copy of her book. I'm mighty glad she did.

The poetry in Out of True has a delicate, fragile feel to it overall.*** Written almost entirely in the second person/vocative case, it has the feel sometimes of a wistful note left on a pillow on a lonely morning, but most often of the importuning of an anxious friend or lover who wrote down her thoughts and is standing fretting to one side, gazing out the window, trying not to watch while someone reads them. Sometimes this second effect is overwhelming -- as if the poet is failing in her effort not to peek over one's shoulder -- but this generally adds to the impact of the poetry. This is especially true in some of the later poems in the book, in which the fragility has been broken into sharp, sharp pieces. Ouch. "So listen: I don't love you. My brain's just telling me I do."

My favorite of the entries here is an early one, "Syzygy" in which Durant takes the classic trope of the Sun and the Moon as separated lovers and imagines them finding ingenious ways to communicate with each other. "Eclipses are a ruse," she tells us. This poem is so good it immediately made me channel Emily Dickinson when she tells us her definition of poetry: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Yup, top of my head went clean off. In complete honesty, I suggest that everybody should buy this book for this poem alone.

But also for "Wintergreen: High Summer." You'll understand when you smell it.

But wait, there's more: she has a modernist take on the ravings of Shakespeare's Ophelia (Durant is a professional theater geek in her offline life; I think quite a lot of the great plays have seeped into her head by osmosis), which I hate the very idea of on principle, but actually found pretty compelling with its shades of Virginia Woolf and all the other drowned girls singing "Hey nonny nonny." The hawks and the handsaws have all started to look the same. Well, yes.

Also noteworthy is "Oubliette," a long meditation on how the poet has chosen to forget her high school classmates, couched as a strategy guide for a monster-hunter. "I never took my eyes from my quarry. You don't survive by being stupid."

And sometimes, sometimes the Amy who amuses me so online peeps through, as in "Samson and Delilah," cast as he said/she said accounts of their relationship with bitterly wicked humor. One laughs, then winces, then shudders. And "Apocalypse (Please) Now" is one for all of those whose favorite moment in Serenity was when Kaylee told Simon "I'm gonna live!" Only with zombies.

That's not to say every single poem in Out of True is a burning, polished gem. Some repeated themes, mostly concerning the pain of failed romance, begin to grate and send me rushing back to the "I don't like free verse" camp, but even the poems I like the least contain arresting lines, and never, ever feel contrived.

And should you always like a poem? Shouldn't you sometimes want to run away because it's forcing you to contemplate something painful or icky or frightening? Exhibit A: Swinburne... Exhibit B: "Dissection: What Was Lost"; Exhibit C: "Scapegoat"

Ultimately I glance askance mostly at this collection's title, though, because every poem in it, every single one, is true.

*I certainly do not make any claims, in making this list, to being in any way an expert on free verse. Like I said, it's not my first choice for poetry reading. I like the formal stuff. But sometimes I run across stuff that just speaks to me and I wind up buying volumes of the stuff, just to have that one poem always at hand, even now in the age of the internet.

**And on the internet, she is extremely funny. Go have a look at her hilarious and unfailingly entertaining blog Lucy's Football, for a look at that side of her.

***Caveat lector: almost all of this poetry is romantic (with a small "r"), tinged with longing for love, regret for lost love, fond memories of love, etc. If that's not your bag, you might not like this stuff. But hey, it's not usually my bag, either, and I liked it all just fine, so there you go!


  1. Is it asshatty to comment on a review of your own book? Eh, I'm new at this writery thing. I'm going to do it anyway. Thank you so much. This is a fantastic review. I'm so glad you read it, and I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and thank you so much for reviewing it!

    1. Not asshatty at all; it just shows that you're brave enough to engage your audience, and that you're proud of your work, which you should be.

  2. I love this review! And I loved the book. Syzygy was also one of my favorites.

    1. Yeah, that's one I can see myself returning to a lot! I'll never (not) look at an eclipse again without giggling.

  3. You mentioned all of my favourites, too. :)

    1. I bet they'll be everybody's favorites! I think "Apocalypse (Please) Now" should be a geek sensation!


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