Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Oni Buchanan, _Must a Violence_

I HAVE NOT read Oni Buchanan's two (? I think) previous books, although I seem to recall reading a selection of her poems in Legitimate Dangers, which was, what, seven years ago?

You know, for a book that inspired a fair amount of caustic comment at the time, Legitimate Dangers is holding up nicely. If you bought the most recent book of everyone in the volume, you would have more good books than bad ones, I think.

Must a Violence would be one of the good ones.

The third of the collection's five parts consists entirely of one longish (16 pages) poem, "Little Pig," addressed to a guinea pig.  The voice seems very young at times, innocent, even na├»ve: "Ring that little bell with your nose, Little Pig! / There's a bell there, and it's hanging down like that / so that you can ring it!" Before long, though, another note begins to be heard; the guinea pig chews on newspaper (lining its cage?), "enough to make a Little Pig / sick with all that ink and horrible / meaning," the paper's columns full of "total indecency and complete disregard for other / living things." The speaker, one begins to feel, is looking to the pig to find some evidence that creation is not depraved to the core--or that, for the speaker, caring for the pig is a lonely act to prove to herself that someone can care about something, lovingly and unselfishly. It's a lot to ask of a little pig--and the poem knows that it is, which makes the whole all the more poignant.

"Little Pig" seems central to the book in multiple ways. There are other poems about animals or pets, for one thing. "The Wild Rabbit" is addressed to Sergei, an utterly domesticated rabbit, implicitly posing the question of whether loving and caring for Sergei has made him rather other than nature intended him to be. "If You Love an Animal," which has the same Joan of Arc innocence-as-armor tone that we hear later in "Little Pig," looks at first like advice for pet owners, but soon the reader hears, underneath the insistence that we treat our pets humanely, an equally urgent call that we treat each other humanely.

That indirectness is another way in which "Little Pig" seems central to the collection. As the speaker in that poem is concentrating on the pig while a storm of outrage at the world rumbles in the back of her thoughts, so in many of these poems the mind's powers of attention and invention become a way of keeping present pain at bay. In "No Blue Morpho," the speaker's disappointment that the beautiful butterfly is not landing on her arm turns into an ever-expanding arabesque of description of the butterfly's beauty. The mind of the child being punished in "This Here Minute" finds ways to compensate for the company and comfort of which he or she is being deprived; the broken-hearted person on the eastbound airplane in "Younger and Younger" so deeply contemplates what she sees from her window that perhaps healing can begin.

There's an anger-flavored sadness in the book, but it never comes fully into view. In "This World," for instance, as in Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses," the images seem to compose a complicated history that won't be uttered. "Must a Violence"--the most powerful poem here--looks like an exercise in anaphora, but soon turns terrifying. It left me shaken.

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