Surprised by Joy

Hazard and Prospectby By Kelly CherryLouisiana State Univ. Press. 174p $19.95
For the reader whose misfortune it is not to have yet discovered Kelly Cherry’s poems, this is your lucky day. Cherry’s new book, Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems, offers a generous sampling of the poet’s work, culled from six previous volumes, and features a dozen previously uncollected poems that explore new literary terrain. Formally engaged and linguistically rich, these are poems that sing, that stop you in your tracks, that make you want to read them to other people and share what has come as a pure gift.

And yet, for all their surface pleasure, Cherry’s poems lead us to dark places. To read the collection chronologically is to accompany the poet on a painful journey. As the narrative unfolds, we witness the slow erasure of memory and identity as the speaker’s parents age and die, the dissolution of a marriage, the death of an estranged husband and a descent into madness. Indeed, the latter experience marks the nadir of the speaker’s interior drama, a dark night of the mind and soul wherein she cries for help and declares her despair: “There is blood everywhere/ and I am lost in it. Doctor, I breathe blood, not air.”

What makes these poems of desolation bearable is a superb formal control through which the poet shapes the chaotic experiences of life into art. For all its agony, “Lady Macbeth on the Psych Ward” (quoted above) is a tour de force of formal wit. Its nine lines, arranged symmetrically in three tercets, employ rhymes that often do not look like rhymes (nowhere, nightmare, hair). The disjunction between orthography and sound, as well as the obsessive repetition we associate both with madness in general and with Lady Macbeth’s particular manifestation of it, are embodied in this unsettling, relentless rhyming. Madness is often characterized by hyper-rationality as well as irrationality, and the former is eerily evident in the speaker’s tightly controlled expression of her uncontrollable thoughts. Here the use of form and musical language elicit in the reader both terror and pleasure simultaneously.

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Though Cherry is not a rigid formalist, all of these poems, including those in open form, demonstrate her thorough grounding in English literary tradition. Hazard and Prospect offers the reader skillful variations on the villanelle, the ballad, the sestina and, most prominently, the sonnet. In each of these poems, form participates in conveying meaning, so much so that the formal structure seems to have come about organically at the poem’s inception rather than having been imposed later upon an already existing arrangement of words or lines.

In addition to the pleasures of craft, the other element that redeems the desolation of the early poems is the consolation offered in the later ones. In the course of her journey, the speaker gathers strength and recovers a sense of her own worthiness, as well as the ability to love. In a celebratory poem dedicated to an unnamed young woman on her graduation from college, the speaker turns her attention away from herself and towards another human being for whom she has great affection and pronounces this benediction: “I tell you, there is an economy in this,/ the way love returns.”

The healing power of love leads the speaker to contemplate ultimate “Questions and Answers” in the section of the volume bearing that title. These poems, among the finest in the book, are meditations on the Annunciation, the “Virgin and Child,” on “Galilee” and “Golgotha,” wherein she places herself in the presence of the divine in an attempt to understand the relationship between suffering and love. Tried by personal tragedy and by the experience of living in a culture that privileges the seeming certainties of science over the revelations of faith, she emerges from this baptism by fire physically, psychologically and spiritually whole, a resurrection made manifest most clearly in the quality of joy evident in the remaining poems of the volume.

Among these final offerings is “Byrd’s Survey of the Boundary: An Abridgment,” a found poem consisting of excerpts from William Byrd II’s History of the Dividing Line Between Virginia and North Carolina. Alternating between his reports (written in gracious 18th-century English prose) on the “Hazards” and “Prospect” discovered in this brave new world, Byrd’s charming meditation likely influenced Cherry’s book title and sounds the keynote of the collection: there can be no prospect without hazard, no joy without sorrow, no resurrection without crucifixion. Kelly Cherry’s poems bring us, finally, to this wisdom.

As she nears the end of her journey, having laid claim to her home, her faith and a husband she loves, the speaker discovers that what finally endures is “Joy”: “You could be doing anything,/ arranging dahlias in a vase...driving a truck...having a baby.../ you could be anywhere, at home/...walking through woods or sitting on/ a screened-in porch, writing a poem—/ and there you are, surprised by it.” The final line of the poem, an echo of Wordsworth’s poignant sonnet on his recovery from the death of his young daughter, “Surprised by Joy,” places poet and reader in the company of those who have come before us, have suffered greatly and have left behind eloquent testimony to the astonishing resilience of the spirit and the power of poetry to speak of it.

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