Traveling in the Undersong: Review of Marianne Boruch’s The Anti-Grief

During these months of uncertainty, many of us have sought refuge in books that might signal hope or bring solace, perhaps to restore or fortify our already threadbare resolve. The Anti-Grief, Marianne Boruch’s new and eleventh collection of poems, just might be the book you’re looking for when uncertainty overwhelms and nerves are frayed. It is a book that not only reaffirms the singularity of Boruch’s oeuvre, but one that again generously invites us to look at and re-think the world as we know it—or think we know it—and then look again and listen as we puzzle out our unsteady present:

I give up the pencil, the walk in woods, the fog
at dawn, a keyhole I lost an eye to. 

Thus begins the opening poem, “Pieces on the Ground,” presented as a preface to this collection, separated from the carefully choreographed clusters of poems that follow. Here also she gives us a clear indication of her leitmotifs and what’s to come:

By afternoon, the brain is box, is breath let go, a kind of
        mood music agog, half emptied by the usual
        who am I, who are you, who’s anyone.

Memories unspool as the mind’s tangled tapestry unravels, challenging what we think we know or understand. Those familiar with Boruch’s work will recognize her startling jump-cuts, which lead to further speculation, a move toward revelation—even those which might arise from misery or loss:

I lie down after dark in my own house
to know nothing again. Stains on his wall—

that room that room that room—  

an almost human in a nightshirt with a candle who
never sleeps either, look-alike ordinary,
blurred sort-of and kind-of...  

                                      (from “Incant Until Gone”)

While many of the poems in this collection feel introspective, at times melancholic, and anti-mystical, there is a shared intimacy of experience, a confidence. At times Boruch achieves this through minutiae or specificity of detail, as in “I Saw a House, a Field,” where “Most of the rooms muted by cold, / and the furniture there / with its human chill under drapes / of plastic for the season—.” Boruch masterfully makes details and syntax collide:

Because eventually we are
an austerity, walking room to room
enamored and saddened, all the crazy variations
of bed and table, clocks,
books on a shelf, foreign harbors etched
some yesterday, framed for a wall.
And the effrontery of windows assuming
how lovely out, a certainty
of lawn and woods, distance on a road, voices
that in summer drift up and move away.     

We find ourselves in a lot of rooms throughout this book. We visit museums (“The Museum of Silence” and “Museum Footage, 1945”), and certain poems act as ekphrastic tributes to artists (“In Dürer’s Engraving,” “Vermeer’s Woman In Blue Reading a Letter on Loan in America,” “Genuine Fakes”), and to classical composers in “Nocturne,” where Bach, Schubert, and Mozart take up residence in Alaska’s interior wilderness. Other poems converse with poets and writers: John Berryman, Henry James, William Blake, Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy with her bad teeth—they’re all along for the ride, whirling compasses in hand, as designated navigators and trusted travel companions. “There Ought to Be a Law against Henry,” the title in italics and lifted from a line in Berryman’s “Dream Song 4,” seems part indictment (“disheveled . . . undone . . . probably the drink”) and part paean and historical snapshot of the poet’s genius, madness, and verbal pyrotechnics. In other ways, this poem feels part treatise or ars poetica that reveals something about the guiding spirit or the haunted hand behind this collection:

Henry my hero of crankiness and feigned indifference,
unspeakable industry, exhaustion
and grief, half funny-crazy, half who-knows-what-
that-line-means. A henry whole
universe of Henry, of
there ought to be a law against Henry—pause 
and pause—Mister Bones: there is. 
Will be! Was!. Not to say poetry’s
worth it or the most healthy fascination for the sane.
I’m just, I mean—is this love?

The Anti-Grief concludes with an eight-page masterpiece, “Keats Is Coughing”—wild-eyed in its mind-bending premise, a lush collage of cinematic ranginess. It demonstrates what physicists refer to as “quantum superposition,” whereby waves or matter can occupy multiple places in space or be in two places at once. Here we find ourselves in a liminal zone, time-traveling between ancient and present-day Rome, to Keats’s burial site and to Denali National Park and Preserve in the deep Alaskan wilderness, among the grizzly bears and caribou. It is an unflinching meditation on time and place, but also a kind of mental Baedeker, a reminder that the mind can indeed go wherever at the drop of a hat, without ever leaving the house. “I found Rome in the woods,” the poems begins, leading us through the Alaskan tundra to the recollection of historical monuments. Much of what unfolds from here and throughout the poem is a high-wire balancing act between its lyric and expository disclosures:

Such fabulous unthinkable inventions we’ve made
to merge or unmake: the trash compactor,
the poem, all tragedy and story, pencils sharpened to

a point that keeps breaking, wilderness gone inward ...                           

And here’s the speaker’s pitch-perfect answer to the notion of quantum superposition:

how can you
be in two places at once
when you’re not anywhere at all!

Another way of defining this intricately woven layering or dislocation is in the term undersong:

Look it up! Undersong: a droning; 
the burden of a song— 
Maybe that lowest
common denominator is
contagious. Rome or Denali,
a mash-up of lunge and cry out, predator
and prey throwing coins to a fountain,
footholds made first by hoof,
pickpockets at buses and trains, nuns
queuing up their no-nonsense, brambles thorny,
raggedy spruce groves,
  a look, a nod to sell loveless
love on the street, a chain of mountains in
choral repeat, saints
stained to glass, how ice gouged rivers
from rock-bound, 
the one-lung rapturous 
common-sense pope,
all outstretched arms, his little popemobile circling
the thrilled at St. Peter’s
up on our rickety chairs to see in six, seven languages
how radiant—
Cross my heart, he was.

And Keats,
Keats is coughing. 

                  * * *

So much can be said of this poem’s ability to transport, to make us reflect on all we don’t know and can’t know—that uncertainty again, the undersong of our own individual lives. The Anti-Grief isn’t some elaborate elegy, but it does suggest certain truths about the state of our planet, an urgent undersong and call to action, and how, even unconsciously, we too often mistreat one another:

Time + beauty=ruin. Perfect shapes in the mind.

      meet my friends Pointless and Threat and Years of
         Failure to Meld or Put to Rest. Ruthless
           is human.

In this penultimate section of “Keats Is Coughing” certain questions about grief—and not readily offered up solutions—are put to the test:

I ask a composer: How to live with this undersong thing 
over and over, how to
get rid of it,
rid the world of it—

He looks to the heaven—what undersong thing? And shrugs
I’ll put it on the test. Let students define it!

And later in the same section:

Grief punctures like ice, moves like a glacier 
to flat and slog and myth, low blue and white flowers
we hiked trail-less. The rangers insist. They insist—

never follow or lead, never lay down a path.

But we are on a path, a critical one at that, and the poem brings a view of itself from above, with a vast self-examining vista, a speculation on evolutionary migration:

From above

the look of us spread out, our seven or eight 
a band, little
stray exhausted figures

over the land bridge from Asia,

circa: prehistory keeps coming, older than Rome,
both both underfoot, understory, underway

miles below numb, it’s burning.

         * * *

“Some words / sting, some are sung. / Another life / isn’t smaller” are lines which bring this poem and the entire collection to its extraordinary finale. (I hear a nod to Elizabeth Bishop here.) Those final lines also recall the last, resonant lines from Boruch’s poem about Berryman:

There’s break as in lucky, as in
shatter. There’s smitten and there’s smite.

The intelligence, power, and deft handling of nuance make this collection essential.

Arthur Solway’s poetry and essays have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in TriQuarterly and Southern Poetry Review. A finalist for the 2020 Anhinga Press-Robert Dana Prize for Poetry, he currently lives and writes in Santa Cruz, California.