To read Joyce's column on the West Chester Writer's Conference.

To read Joyce's column on a critic's poetry collection.

To read Joyce's column on Stephen Burt and Michael Schaaf in the PSA Panel on Criticism.

To read Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism, part one of Joyce's OBSERVATIONS

___________

A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O'Grady

More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000

Poetry

A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion
Measures

By Nadya Aisenberg


County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Publishing, Ltd., 2001. ISBN 1903392071 $12.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson


***** It is difficult to read Nadya Aisenberg's collection of poems, Measures, without noting that it is her final one, that she knew her death was imminent as she completed the collection, that during her last years she had been bothered by recurrent physical pain, and that her death of a brain aneurysm in April 1999 was sudden but not completely unforeseen. With all this in mind, one can only marvel at the spirit of freedom and vitality that infuses the book. While the collection takes a comprehensive view of the world as defined by philosophers of science and art, it avoids positions of finality or summing up. Rather, each poem establishes a threshold from which one can look forward and backward and participate fully in the present tense.
***** Indeed, many of the poems take the form of arguments, examining the polarities of their subjects and their syntheses. The opening poem, “Constantly Describing Itself,” counters Goethe's premise, “Everything that lives strives for color,” with the notion of losing the self, not in a world without sound or color or words, but where waves and clouds appear and disappear with an infinite variety, “claimed by some spirit of devotion.” The poem “Enlightenment” points out the irony of looking to the past, its certainty celebrated by Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” for example, in this time of uncertainty about progress, when evidence shows how much our lives are governed by the humbler occurrences, the realities of aging and death, and the “the vanishing/ arcs of swallows as they swoop before dark.” “The Task” addresses daily life as a process of paring away that we cannot control, as the body shuts down, friends die, and everything is taken away but memory, and so we must continue in the present, like “green shoots through winter bark.”
***** Other poems follow a dialectical pattern and examine the spaces as a third reality in between two physical objects, two people, or two points in time. “Lauds” describes sky filled in by snow, by the sounds of bells from the sixty-eight churches in Moscow before they burned, as representing feelings of great happiness. “Treviso” describes two people caught between stasis and motion, the desire to belong and escape, say hello and good-bye, as involved in a long, energizing relationship. “At the Other Chapel” considers the space between hands of God and Adam and asks why Michelangelo did not join the outstretched fingers in a firm clasp, before concluding about the value of freedom in the empty space left between.
***** It is interesting to note that the divinity appears in these poems as a master craftsman, a great tuner (of musical instruments), a gardener, who makes and unmakes the world and is never finished. One poem asks:
And whose hand is tearing strips from the sky,
And whose hand will seed wild grasses
on the worn nap of the threadbare world?
(“The Day the Horizon Disappeared”)
Such a divinity, while working continually behind the scenes, effects little to make major changes in the progress of life and death. Aisenberg finds remedy in assessing what we use to measure the things of this world, an activity that often carries its own lack of completion:

******* Sometimes the idea
is the measure of all things. We say
Light, say Love, call God the name
unnamable. Wanting even a spider's
web across the unspanned blue.
Sometimes the absence of God is God enough.
*****(“At the Other Chapel”)

***** The poems in Part Two appear in a sequence in which the narrator tackles the major pillars of western civilization and the humanities. The poems ask, let us rethink how far progress has brought us, begin with beginning, retune our ways of seeing things, consider what science has taught us that we can use, reflect on what doubting has taught us. Paintings and music are presented as touchstones for feelings, as in Agnes Martin's paintings that capture “the innocence of trees”(“Measures, x”) and in Mozart's music where we see “passions fitted to harmony” (“Measures, xi”). The relationship between Cordelia and her father, focusing on the famous lament 'nothing will come of nothing,' is described as providing a space where forgiveness takes place (“Measures, ix”). Egyptian, Zen, Christian ways of death are all examined for their perspectives on eternity as the narrator asks:
What is negotiable in this world?
Not what we keep, not what we give away.
Not what is taken from us. So we invent.
***** (“Measures, xxii”).
Standing before a canvas by Jackson Pollack, the narrator wonders about managing uncertainty when faced with this “de-centering” art and the sense of recognition it conveys amidst the apparent confusion of surface patterns. In a voice than combines a tone of formality with the colloquial, she observes,
With no one source of light, the focus diffuses,
demanding we take in everything at once.
And we can
***** (“Measures, xx”)
The sequence evolves from making rhetorical questions to creating images that evoke movement and energy. As if unable to remain a detached observer before the ongoing parade of life, or foreseeing its final maneuvers around the bend, she emphasizes the need to step forward and engage in dance:
Who knows the dance knows God.
Dervishes, wild and full of grace,
whirl like suspended particles, patterns
of ecstasy. And matter dances, too.

There are iridescent clouds, virtual clouds
in the field which is always and everywhere there.
One hand of Shiva gestures, Do Not Fear.
With the relentless energy of all rotating things,
we lean into the stillness of deep space.
***** (“Measures , xxii”)

***** To read this collection is to marvel at the author's courage and generosity in describing the necessity of letting go.