Elizabeth Myhr’s the vanishings & other poems
Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris
Elizabeth Myhr’s debut collection opens with two intriguing epigraphs. The first one is from Rivka Galchen: “Once the system has collapsed, the information it holds is no longer a dream or a secret..; the answer is then just an ordinary thing we can read….” This is an interesting approach to realism, one thinks. And, on the next page, one discovers the second epigraph from the Ball Shem Tov: “The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand.” Placed together, these two statements form a magnetic field where the duality of a realist and spiritual seeker is one and the same.
How could this be, one wants to ask, and who are other poets that have wandered into this territory? The poet who first comes to mind when we consider this strange terrain of intersection between realism and the spirit is of course Rilke, particularly the Rilke of his middle period, of which “You Must Change Your Life” and ‘Panther” are more representative pieces. And, Rilke is certainly a guiding spirit in this work. However, what Myhr accomplishes, and what places this book way above and beyond any other such debut in a generation is that she is able to be a realist and step outside of time in the same poem, often in the same line. Her work is filled with the urgency of her own moment, the urgency of the late 20th/early 21st century. We recognize the landscape of the “exile” which is very much of our own moment, but Myhr is also able to point us to how “its grass drenched with lemonweed/offers a hillside prayer.”
An attempt at writing in a voice of a spiritual seeker in verse is a risky business, since spiritual vocation asks one to strip oneself of most pretty things, particularly those pretty things of language. And, what is the poet without pretty things of language? This is the very question Myhr asks in such powerful poems as “the second limitation of language” Who is the voice with such a limitation? “A fake ambassador in the practice room,” yes. And, yet, out of such limitations miracles are born also. And Myhr’s lyrics are a witness to that:
I swing my body
toward the high golden wall
and every time I touch it
I touch you and we
hear the music between us
This is not to say that her voice is always that of a mystic or that her vocabulary is always seeking to strip itself and stay as spare as a stick in the steppe as a spiritual seeker must. Far from that. This is a sophisticated 21st century voice, with a rich palette in her hands, a voice that is unafraid to be modern and very much of this world (poems are filled with detail of a monorail, lemon cookies dusted with soft white sugar, porcelain, café chairs, etc. – just to quote from one piece) but it is the intersection of such modernity and the spirit that makes real magic happen. (“nelly throws her crumbs to the birds / and nothing trembles her shaft of sunlight). And, the name for that magic is attentiveness. And so, the eye sees everything, sees for example how “against the soft sugar and joy /of lemon cookies melting in hot tea / the napkin paul bends down to rescue / from the top of his worn leather shoe”
Attentiveness, Paul Celan wrote, is the natural prayer of the human soul. This could be any moment, a moment when “on the italian veranda apricots wine her white muslin sleeves / draped in silvered shade and olive heat” – the point is not what moment it is but with the intensity it is captured. The world is beautiful but unsayable, Simic tells us. Yet, the poet makes those raids against the inarticulate, and the crumbs of the world are brought to our lips.
With all her attentiveness, and love of meditation in a lyric, one is also almost surprised to discover the erotic, the unpredictable moments of sexual heat that we encounter where we least suspected it. And, so a voice arises:
I no longer want to decipher the grammars
the constructions the histories the manifestos
I want your dangerous lips
your bite on this living neck
For me, as one reader, the word “living” here is what placed these lines apart from the many love poems written by Myhr’s contemporaries. It isn’t just a moment of heat here, but a moment of empathy. One encountered this empathy, once upon a time, in Auden’s “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / human, on my faithless arm” yet in contemporary poetics such moments are rare. Indeed, when Myhr is able to bring together her considerable gifts of attentiveness and emotion, the results are often quite moving: “the breeze lifts your parted hair / and I cannot say hello or goodbye”
This is the work that attempts to “pull ebbing radiance down across lovegrass and rye”, a work where there is always an awareness of a loss and an attempt to see it with clarity. So, “a girl in a blue dress scattered with flowers” knows that “we’ve fallen so far from / the land…a house full of strangers not moving a house full of books in /another man’s language oh grandfather great grandmother / our people our people”
I say she is a realist and a spiritual seeker at the same time because Myhr understands, as Donne did, that all senses are in the seeing. She is able to excite the reader’s eye with an appropriate detail, and then break the reader’s heart by telling us what the world does to that detail. No detail is small enough to tell us the epic of our moment: “now her thin body in its white cotton blouse / red shoes and head kerchief / fades in hot sun like the mimosas”. This is the book of beautiful poetry, one that knows the Greek’s belief that the light traveled to the world through the eye of the child, and knows also that when the eye opens, “every time silence unfurls like a flag”.
-- Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris