I Have Built a Language: Stephanie Strickland’s How the Universe Is Made

I have no history with Stephanie Strickland’s work. My reading of her new and collected poems from 1985-2019, How the Universe is Made, is the first time I have ever knowingly read anything she wrote. I have been given the heft of her decades in one fell swoop, and it feels solid and whole: a story well told, whose telling hasn’t ended.

Having not paid attention to the work’s unfolding, having in fact grown up simultaneously with this work, here are the threads I noticed, the through-lines: the persons of Simone Weil and Willard Gibbs, in conversation across decades and continents; the humanness, the softness of technological tools; a playfulness with words that does not condone carelessness; the landscape of New England; and throughout, a devoted looking and continuing to look.

I have come to know Simone Weil only by scraps and glances. I hear a quote at a conference; a friend mentions a thought; I run across the title of something she’s written, or some facet of her life. All I have is facets, many of them, each one glisteningly insufficient. Perhaps because I feel at home in the poetic, I have accepted these glimpses as they’ve come.

Strickland’s sketches of Weil are different. She has done much research, and is well acquainted with her subject. In a recent interview hosted by Lit Youngstown, Strickland referenced the common belief that Weil committed a sort of suicide-by-starvation: “Though,” she intones, “I disagree with this.”

Research, then, but not the detachment of an academic. No: the passion of a poet, of a friend and admirer, a kindred spirit. For example, in “Agent,” the narrator begins by asking: “How do you say her?” It’s an odd way to ask, and we may expect that something hidden is about to be revealed. But the answer is simpler than that: “Simone. Say Simone.” Her second name, though, does hold hidden things, or can in the ear of a poet. “How do you say Weil?” the narrator intones halfway through the poem, half-heartedly, almost as though the answer is already known. As if this were a catechism. But this is a poem.

Not Vile, not the German,

although I would be pleased

to call her Miss Because,

but as the family said it,

Vyay, Vey, an oversound

of woe, of one

who waits, keeps vigil...

Strickland unfolds the very name of her subject into a portrait of her character—Weil’s, and, we intuit, Strickland’s own. The resonance of this poem sounds in the space held by someone who can relate. As she relates Weil’s names to other words, Strickland relates her attributes to the reader. We are suddenly present in this intimate space, witnessing. Indeed, I feel I have come to know both Weil and Strickland, a little, through these poems. Each speaks the other, revealing something that requires relation.

Similarly, I would believe you if you told me Willard Gibbs was a genetic ancestor of Strickland’s. Certainly he was a spiritual ancestor: inquirer, explorer of the edges of what seems possible, gently stammering vivid truths and standing by them. Again, I know this Gibbs only from Strickland’s poems, which I have only just encountered. I could be wrong. And yet, I have seen the man stand up for himself in front of other faculty. I have glimpsed the morality that drove this creative investigation. Gibbs’s. Strickland’s.

Speaking of Gibbs, Strickland draws repeated parallels to Emily Dickinson. The poem, “Articulate Among Us,” begins by drawing this straight line: “Never married, never moved from their Family Home.” Then there’s the fact that they both spent their lives in the cradle of the Connecticut River Valley. But most importantly to Strickland, it seems, is the way each of them engaged with language. “Is Dickinson articulate?” the poem goes on to ask. A few lines later: “She said the grave gave her language.” The grave also, the narrator claims, has given Dickinson life: “As alive, / or more so, in the grave as out of it... /...Speaking in the tomb, of the tomb ...”

Again that sense of spaciousness, of resonance. The way Strickland says something is the shape of what she says. Back to Gibbs, who, the narrator tells us, “built a mathematic language to make his work more pure,” the last two words Gibbs’s own. Speaking as the subject, of the subject. Elsewhere we learn that Gibbs had a stammer, and yet instead of forcing him to say something he didn’t, Strickland portrays the ways Gibbs was, as he was, articulate.

So too at the end of this poem, when the narrator (for reasons we learn earlier) turns her attention to 

...The supremely

articulate among us, Amistad Africans, mutineers for freedom

on the ship they commandeered, stole from the captain and steered

by their own light—and by starlight—to a New World, a rock-bound

coast; a world not wilderness alone but Wilderness with courts

in it, and canon, and codes of presentation, a world of sacred

language their own language attacked, active virus, ancient

knowledge that it was, they perplex—No translator.

No way-maker. No wizard wise woman sponsor. Only the Valley

itself of the Connecticut River...

Strickland’s words, then, sketch a sort of playful map of New England landscape and history. She sees the region as part of a larger whole, and as encompassing many glossed-over parts, little stories not many have ever bothered telling. Why bother? Because they have caught her attention. Because she has given us playful, trustworthy places for our own attention to land, and permission to skip over what doesn’t interest us. A solidity that is mostly air, which can be understood if you look, and look carefully, and keep looking.

And yet, as we see her sketching this map, we also realize she is speaking in code. Thus, her forays into electronic literature (which make up the latter part of the collection) seem only a logical extension of how words seem to organize themselves within her. I get the impression that, once upon a time, she read Richard Brautigan’s “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” and thought: why not? Not that machines will replace what is human, but that they can amplify it, translate it: the evil, the kind. With Gibbs, Strickland seems to be teaching herself in front of us how she might say something more pure than before, given what she knows now: always something new.

It’s as though she sees the development of computers, technology, artificial intelligence, code, as something quintessentially human. So she approaches it as she approaches humans: playfully, letting her attention wander when it wants to wander, and elide what needs smoothing out. Not without seeing the disjunction, but forgiving it, and seeing the wholeness that includes it.

Strickland’s works are lyrics to songs whose music has not yet been imagined. Her tone is no-nonsense, but not always plain. And yet where it could be accused of denseness or dilettantism, the words seem to refuse, saying: No, I saw what I saw and I am saying how it is. She offers her words, then, as a witness to the matrices and orderly disorders that compose the world.

Philip C. Maurer writes from western Massachusetts. His work has been published in The Christian Century and elsewhere.