Like Elizabeth Bishop, whose legacy he takes up, Joshua Edwards is a poet of travel; I am not the first to make the comparison nor, I imagine, will I be the last. Yet if that term—“poet of travel” or, worse, “travel poet”—seems tinged with the middlebrow, more reminiscent of Eat, Pray, Love than Italo Calvino, it is because invoking it as a kind of summative description means, in the case of both writers, mistaking subject matter for intellectual content, for ideas; to call either writer, that is, a “poet of travel” is to miss how, for both Bishop and Edwards, travel serves in large part as a heuristic, what Richard Hugo would call a “triggering subject” by which to pursue broader questions about the self and its relation to world. These are questions—“What is death?” Edwards actually asks, a line that would seem maudlin from a less-skilled writer—that have long been the domain of philosophy, of course, but which were once, too, in a more serious era, the province of poetry as well; in Castles and Islands, Edwards returns us to that era.
Though he departs from Bishop in significant ways, as I will show, Edwards continues her effort to move outward from individual experience to rigorous intellectual inquiry, muscular thinking that a younger generation of American poets seems largely to have abandoned. Characterized, instead, by deliberate fragmentation, pseudo-thought, and self-indulgent “association”—a tracking, ostensibly, of the 21st-century mind in motion—this recent poetry eschews, for the most part, the modernist project of employing fragmentation in the service of thought. Yet this—thought—was Bishop’s ultimate endpoint; and so is it Edwards’. Like Bishop—think “Roosters” and “In the Waiting Room”—Edwards examines the trauma to which the human subject, in nature, is exposed, the way we are both dominated by and—in language, in consciousness—dominant over the world we occupy. Like Bishop, in other words, Edwards is steeped in the Romantic tradition of the sublime, that constitutive work—terrible and pleasurable at once—of the human imagination as it comprehends, and in so doing masters, the inconceivable. In this way, both Bishop and Edwards take up, from various angles, the classic Wittgensteinian credo that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” the idea, that is, that what we can know about our universe, and about ourselves as we travel through it, is determined by the language with which we first set out. One purpose of travel, then, as Edwards puts it, is “to feel the pain of a newly-discovered/ word that pushes thinking beyond/ the body’s quarters and into open time;” to move through space, Edwards suggests, is to move through language as well.
Beyond this shared tradition, however—travel, intellectual inquiry, the sublime—the comparison between Bishop and Edwards begins to approach its own internal limits. Where Bishop’s lapidary, gem-like language complements her search—the heart of her intellectual project—for a luminous detail that might serve as a singular point of meaning (“ESSO—SO—SO—SO”), Edwards documents the disorientation of the self and its language in a world before which we can only gaze on in wonder; Bishop crystallizes, we might say, Edwards dissolves. Castles and Islands, Edwards’ fourth full-length collection, names this oscillation between the certainty of knowledge—protecting us, like a castle, from the terror of the world—and the abandoning of rational inquiry, of the self, in favor of “be[ing] useless/ someplace: the tropics;” Edwards’ “islands” signify an immanent natural world somewhere beyond the human, a world the collection pursues across both poetry and photography, and one in which the self is absorbed in—fascinated by, wondering at, in awe before—a staggering cosmic otherness. The collection, then, enacts a gradual stripping away of ego, indeed even of language and thought, until a final lyric sequence—spare, refined, haunting—that centers around death and longing, a sequence in which, as Edwards writes, “my thoughts turn to beauty/ without a trace of bitterness.”
In this collection, Edwards seeks a purity of being accessible only by downgrading—or restraining, or humbling, or quieting—the ravenous epistemological project of language, by fleeing language-as-representation, we might say, in favor of a fuller, more transcendent—because less human—presence in the world. Edwards outlines this trajectory in the book’s opening proem, “Flag of Convenience,” reproduced here in full:
I meant to describe everything
to you in letters, but as you know
I was overwhelmed and only sent
postcards with monuments
embarrassed by impressions.
I couldn’t describe the swimming fish
or flying birds, the descending sun or
holy moon. I had no substantial thoughts
about anything besides the ocean,
which reminded me of artichokes.
I saw a thousand new types of plants
and didn’t learn any of their names.
Even beneath skies of so many stars
I’d never known before, I was dumb
and discourteous as a cloud.
Now back to what is nearly home,
there are some fragments coalescing
and images getting clearer: a moving
sheet of ice, layers of later gardens,
two cords of wood, a small fire.
Edwards’ is a poetics, as evident here, that makes a minimal human claim on the natural world, one interested more in registering that world than in tracking a “21st-century” response to it or—an even greater ethical overstep—appropriating it for rational ends. “I had no substantial thoughts,” he says, suggesting that one purpose of travel, as it functions in this collection, is to reveal the limitations inherent in our necessarily place-bound patterns of thinking. “When I travel,” Edwards writes later, “[I] find out something I saw was not/ what I thought it was.” Another way of saying this is that Edwards is interested in how our situatedness in the world, our rootedness in a culture and a politics and a place, shapes thought in such a way as to foreclose more imaginative, or alternative, possibilities—of thought, of language, of life.
Travel, in other words, seems to demand from us a “beyond-language.” As Edward suggests in the opening proem, this is one purpose of the collection’s series of black-and-white photographs, a magnificent catalogue of caves, tree canopies, rivers, glacial ice-sheets, wind-sculpted rock, mountains, and vast oceanscapes which expose the reader, immediately and concretely, to immensities that force him to acknowledge his own smallness, his own limited language. While some of the photographs appear a bit grainy in print, and while, to achieve the full effect Edwards intends, we would, ideally, stand in the middle of massive wall-sized reproductions, the photographs are nonetheless staggering; as I flipped through them again the other day—lingering on a photo of the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, one-hundred miles wide—I whispered “wow” in the middle of a crowded laundromat. This is, I think, precisely the sense of wonder the collection aims to cultivate, a wonder akin to the Romantic sublime but employed, too, in the service of a powerful ecological consciousness; for one effect of our situatedness in time and place, Edwards suggests—and in the language and thinking thereof—is that we remain unable to imagine an alternative to, a future outside of, the ongoing devastation of our planet. Castles and Islands brings us face-to-face with the terror, but also the strange, non-human beauty, of a world without us, the kind of world we see, for instance, in the creation sequence of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, or the kind of world we can imagine, among other moments, in Edwards’ precise, terrifying description of “infinite and icy harvests.”
Edwards is at his best, however, not in moments of imagistic description, but when, rather, his writing is discursive, abstract, thoughtful; while the connection between his spare images seems, at times, too opaque, his more rhetorical moments resemble late Stevens—indeed, even surpass him—in their graceful intellectual heft. Like Stevens, and like Bishop of course, Edwards never tries to dazzle us with intellectualism or glib pseudo-thought; instead, he pursues a clarity of thinking which—coherently and powerfully—engages anew some of the most enduring, because most important, problems in literature. Castles and Islands is neither fashionable political poetry nor self-expression masquerading as “lyricism” or “association;” it is, rather, serious, significant inquiry across multiple media—and as such it will be largely, and unjustly, ignored. Edwards’ own pursuit of egolessness, however, stands as a needed corrective to a poetry scene which seems, in its infatuation with causes célèbres and social-media popularity, to have lost its sense of wonder and awe; the collection’s elegant, wondrous exploration of the human in a world, now more than ever, beyond our control makes it much deserving of a wider audience. “Marvelous things are about/ to come to pass,” Edwards writes in “The Lamp of Obedience,” “as language/ changes and the character// of the world is harmonized.” So are things marvelous, so are they harmonized here.
Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize from Four Way Books and is forthcoming in March 2017. Recipient of a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, as well as a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his work has appeared in Best New Poets, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review Online, The New Republic, and Ploughshares, among other places. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Chicago, and the 2016-2017 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.