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Zara Raab, review of Christina Pugh’s Grains of the Voice

Grains of the Voice by Christina PughGrains of the Voice
Poems by Christina Pugh
Triquarterly Books
Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8101-5228, 75 pages, paper, $16.95 



Musical Harvest: Review by Zara Raab 

Christine Pugh’s poems remind us that, as Roland Barthes writes, “significance in literature is inexhaustible.” For though these “linguist silhouettes,” as Pugh calls them, are slender––rarely over a dozen lines––her meanings proliferate with each reading. Pugh is one of the poets in the present era who, coming of age amid the social protests and revolution of the 1960s, has turned from social and political protest, commentary, and satire––the staple of divisive, hugely entertaining late night comedy––toward interior, embodied discourse, leavened with rich seams of allusion to 60’s and 70’s rock and roll, washed clean of nostalgia, along with linguistic, semiotic, existentialist deposits, as well. Even Corot’s “grave boatmen,” May Ray’s surrealist art and metaphysical art `a la the Italian print maker Giorgio Morandi make an appearance in this book as illuminated with literary and cultural references as a medieval manuscript. Pugh’s lyrics seem to come from tongue or glottis, nose or teeth, not from the whisperings of her brain, breath or lung. (Barthes––whose ghost lives in the seams of this collection––calls the lung “a stupid organ [… that] swells but gets no erection.”)

Roland Barthes also supplies Pugh’s title. In his essay, “The Grain of the Voice,” Barthes asks, “How, then, does language manage when it has to interpret music?” Very badly, he says, at least in music criticism. He goes on to speculate somewhat incomprehensibly as far as I can see that if we “displace the fringe of contact between music and language,” we may find in vocal music a worthwhile encounter between language and music. Barthes calls this encounter—again, with mystery–– ”the grain of the voice when the latter is in a dual posture, a dual production—of language and of music.” For the first section of Pugh’s book, Barthes’ words provide the epigram, and early rock and roll tunes the many reference points.

Pugh’s “Persistent Tune” evokes the life style of generations of youths who, beginning with the Japanese Walk Man in the early 1980s, tuned in to popular music pretty much nonstop. Now it’s the iPod, and in her poem of that title, Pugh sees herself with “wires/ like a wingspan”—the ear buds of the iPod trailing to the hand or pocket with the ubiquitous device.  The poem “Persistent Tune” plays on the old radio hit  “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” It’s a song––as you’ll recall if you rode in automobiles with the radio on in the early 1970s–– about losing one’s way in the heady 1970’s cultural shifts, going back to San Jose “to find some peace of mind.” It is a requiem for all the lost souls who went to LA hoping to become stars: “weeks turn into years; how quick they pass/ and all the stars that never were/ are parking cars and pumping gas,” the pop song goes. “But who could get / a job pumping gas these days?” Pugh’s poem responds: “Nobody, /not least the stars that never were.”

Pugh’s “Water Music” evokes the old strobe lights of disco dancing in “a quilt of refractive light upon many square inches” of the body of the girl who “nearly / danced as a river.”

                    This is why we say Her
          name is Rio, and why I’m learning love requires
          a trawl-net, an act of free will. 

The connection between Rio and the lesson on love is not all that clear to me, but Pugh does manage to capture the way we tend to remember the old songs once heard over and over again on the radio as we circled the freeways in our youth––a snatch here, a title there. She is not above satire of these memories, as when she reminds us (in “Heideggerian”) to “listen carefully/ to all that surrounds us: the ravening glow / of the Elvis lamp, florid at the hairline, / lips and cheek; or James Brown’s miniature / bare chest rippling in the window of the Salvation Army.” (An Elvis lamp is for $150 on eBay.)

However deeply related song is to poem, only one of them is really profitable in the age of record and disc. Survival and economic viability, never explicit, are nonetheless persistent tunes in Grains of the Voice, for as she implies at the outset, in poems like the ones you are about to read, “there / is no real profit to be had; there’s / little use; there is no exchange /value.” (“Profit Margin”) The poet is improvident, to use another of Pugh’s titles, taken from a line in the poem “Women” by Louise Bogan (“They Are Improvident Instead”), and her trade impractical; like the rest of her tribe, she shops at the Salvation Army (“Unsung”).  Music, in contrast,  “enthralls the marketplace” (“Singer”). By interpolating a line from Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Pugh may be raising the question of relative value for poem and song: Shall she compare the poem to the popular song (that may rake in thousands of dollars)? When the poem—her poem–-is auctioned in the literary marketplace, she seems to ask, what price will the auctioneer offer?

 Whatever its purely economic value, song and poem are both linked to aliveness:  “[I]f you live in my ear / so I too might live again—“. In “Poem,” the poet loves the acoustic guitar, however “extinct” it may be in the popular culture; she chooses the “archaic percussion” of clapping, and “always I’ll choose this over all the ones and zeroes”—over money. She chooses making music, clapping (with her own body), or the simple body of the maple wood guitar—over “storyboard” (movie), and over “vocoder” (speech-analyzing synthesizer). In the past, body and its song, weren’t simply economic units; they had spiritual value. At the farthest reaches of American commerce and the speech it entails are the Latin chants of the nuns turning wheels of cheese in the caves of Auvergne in the poem “Inflection.” Language, like the tiniest of organisms, can be endangered; it can become “dead letters,” a Latin no longer spoken.

                   How can we call those words
                   human, when they’ve flown so far
                   from our commerce, our market place?                  

Yet cheese making is a business, and the white-haired girl at the bluegrass festival (in “I and Thou”) who “told us singing was like praying” may be “sublime sublime,” but she will afterward doubtless count the ticket receipts and pocket her share of the proceeds. No accident that the song Pugh chooses to recall from this festival is Metal Gear Solid’s “Heaven Divide”. In any contest between the ethereal and the physical, Pugh sides with the latter:

                    Fill your black hull with white
          moonlight, Stevens said; but Appleseed had fertilized
          the land with something more than light: with scattershot
          blossom and a fruit whose hardness ever will resist
          the tongue and teeth. (“John from Cincinnati”) 

Songs are layered in Pugh’s texts like traces of lemon in a cake or herbs in a dressing, subtle but palpable, as in the lines from “Poem”, referring to the Beatles (“Let It Be”) and (with “Trill it, then, and bury me”) to the heavy metal band Black Tide (“Bury Me”) or to Goldfinger (“Kill Me: Bury Me”). Earth, Wind & Fire makes its way into a poem (“Heideggerian”) on the essential nature of being. Poetic song, too, is here, from the layered voices of John Donne and Wallace Stevens to echoes of Yeats in “how could the voice come silent in such groomed/ space, plash and reverberant?” (“The Voice, Midsummer”). Linguistic jokes and conundrums also abide in poems like “I Am Are You” where the poet “would like to visit Iamareyou.org that haven / for the shut down of the shifter, that tenement / of pronouns in remission.” If John Ashbery mimics better than any living poet the way we tend as humans to remember and forget, Pugh mimes the verbal ways of that subset of humans whose talk is ruled by the frontal cortex—philosophers and linguists.

In the title poem, “The Grain in the Voice,” the narrator is asked why there were no protest songs for Iraq, and whether the poet remembers Ohio (perhaps a reference to the Ohio River Music Festival of 1975 where there would have been plenty of protest music).  The poet demurs. She doesn’t remember the specific political events evoking outrage or mourning, but she does recognize in the song and in the grain of the singer’s voice, the diction of outrage or sorrow. And she seems to be saying, “these are eloquent enough.”

Pugh’s poems manifest a synesthesia of sounds, colors, and emotions––the ways stimulation of one cognitive pathway in the brain leads involuntarily to stimulation of secondary sensory pathways, so (“Ut Pictura Poesis”) the visual sight of elephant seals on the sand is slicked away by distance until “you’ll see them / only in the sirens of their cries”, and in the title poem

                    My ear scribbles sorrow
          every time the stylus writes: a knife
          sheets sparks like a rash of birds
          ascending. Can you hear the
          singer murmur, what is the color? 

Not only does Pugh see color in the sound, see visions in the sparks or feel sorrow in the pen, she s also adept at “hearing voices with the voice”, another Roland Barthes concept the epigram for which precedes Pugh’s Section 2: “Interlude: Recto and Verso.” In loss and bereavement, Pugh hears the voices of the popular singers, the tunes her generation took in like the lullabies of a nursing child. Each poem in this section is followed by a short “Verso” poem of 3 or 5 or 10 lines. The first one, “Verso (Homunculus),” ends:


The preceding poem (the Recto) is called “Harrow” (torment, or heavy machinery with prongs dragged over plowed land), a description of a relationship, possibly, with the lover who writes his poems in sky-blue ink. If, as “Memo/ Harrow /Valentine” suggests, it IS a poem of troubled love, it is a muted expression, one where the loss of the beloved is met and experienced privately through dreams, not in society. The Verso member of another pair seems, in one reading, an acknowledgement of just how deeply matters of love (and art) can be traced back to one’s origins:

          let me gather it as mine
          let me take it in as mine
         the sequin shape of the Man Ray river [32]

Sequins appeared in the art of the modernist artist Man Ray; much as he wished to distance himself from his immigrant origins as the son of a tailor and a seamstress, sequins and other sewing objects found their way into his works, the “sequin shape” of his “river” perhaps inevitable. (The “Man Ray river also has echoes of Ray Charles’ song “Ol’ Man River”.) Nowhere is the interiority more evident than in “How My light Is Spent,” a title taken from Milton’s sonnet with the line “They also serve who only stand and wait,” quoted by Pugh. Grief is as perpetual and impossible to break as a diamond. Her griefs “burnish [her] with elegy.”  Life and death are entwined, just as the bodies of the dead in Guyana after the mass suicide of the People’s Temple members are entwined about each other, as the grape vines were entwined in their first home in Ukiah, California.

Pugh’s inward turning lyrics articulate a metaphor for fear or at least intimidation in the iron lung with its power to dampen human motility. In one interpretation, an iron lung represents a way of coping, of “mask[ing] a melancholy,” as her verso tells us, and of hiding, or finding self-protection. How do people manage to love each other, and how much of it is pure drama as “the mind […] holds the open/ shape of the proscenium”? (“Lilac Garden”)

One of the few poems to step out of its rich, multilayered, and elegant interiority––and speak more directly and movingly to readers––concerns America’s wars. “Ornature,” featured on Poetry Daily, is one. It reads in part:

          The beautiful girl says
          she’ll always be a soldier.
          She’d had a two percent chance
          of waking from the coma.
          Someone has to be that
          two percent, she says
          with a smile. Why not me?
          —And, sackcloth or silk,
          the husk did open. We decorate
          her friends at the end of May.

Another, “Civics II,” memorializes the human rights activist who set himself on fire in Chicago in 2006 to protest the Iraq war.  At the end of this poem, Pugh quotes from Malachi Pitscher’s biblical namesake (Malachi 1:9): “who is there among you that would shut the doors for naught?” The verse continues, although Pugh does not quote it, with: “Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.” Without engaging in act of direct protest, Christine Pugh manages with her ferocity to take a stance for the vitality pulsing from the guitars, drums, vocal chords and typewriters of musicians, singers and poets. In one sense, Pugh’s poems echo and evoke the classic songs of rock and roll, songs like the Styx’s “Come Sail Away with Me,” Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My,” or the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By.” In another sense, the poems in Grains of the Voice have their own music, their rhythm tight, dense, multilayered. Not the lyrics of rock and roll, but the mesmerizing beat beneath it. 

Evoking the rainy darkness of the remote northern California coast, Zara Raab’s poems are collected in The Book of Gretel and Swimming the Eel, and soon in a third book, Fracas and Asylum, which continues her journey through inner and outer landscapes of storm, seclusion and reverie. A fourth book, finalist for the Dana Award and based on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, will appear later this year.