Double Review: K. A. Hays's Dear Apocalypse and Marc Rahe's The Smaller Half

Reviewed by Mark Molloy


Published by Carnegie Mellon University Press ; Rescue Press, 2009 ; 2010   |   88 ; 72 pages

Dear Apocalypse, K. A. Hays’s first published book, stands firmly in the Romantic tradition: observations of nature, spoken in an elevated diction, are plumbed and drawn into expansive cosmic ruminations on life and death. Stylistically, Hays embraces her predecessors’ grandiosities wholeheartedly, and so it’s no surprise these poems are at times eclipsed by the reach of their own rhetoric. Yet they show a genuine fluency with the things of this world, a strong moral engagement, and a firm command of prosody; at their best they hum with the activity of life.

Hays is, first and foremost, a poet of nature. In her poems we encounter cane begonia, pitch pines, turtles, brush wolves, juncos, thrushes, wrens, etc. These are often lushly described: “the seedlings / curtsy, shy under their garlands.” Hays’s nature is not the maternal and transcendental Nature that one associates with Wordsworth and classical Romanticism, however, but the materialist one of modern science. “I have no fantasies,” she writes of swans, “they are plump and unholy, loaded up / with bone and blood and pipes.”

Here is the central theme of the work: the otherness of that nature – the incomprehensibility of the perspective of tundra swans, of the fierce determination of mollusks and hyacinths to live, of the absurdity of flea-like insects who live and suffer only long enough to reproduce so that their spawn can do the same. Hays’s poems are the record of her attempts to conceptualize, and poeticize, that reality. For the most part, they are pessimistic and resigned affairs. She notes more nature’s propensity to take life than its (equal) tendency to give it.

Hays keeps her lines bound loosely to an observant though flexible meter. Her command of language makes possible complex, varied, and often quite playful and beautiful orchestrations of sound and imagery. Here she uses her line and stanza breaks as pivots with which she stirs her verse into a whorl: “My bulbs appall me. Two of them, though brief on top, / are thrusting hungrily, angrily downwards, // flinging dense tangles of growth / into the water, as if they want to bury themselves // in that still nether-region where sounds are muted.” Elsewhere she uses enjambment to help depict the steep face of a ravine in words: “on the curling grin of water teethed / through rock, gnawing this canyon.” Impressive stuff.

Dear Apocalypse is not a work of full maturity nor is it of a consistently high quality throughout. But, in its best passages and poems, words and rhythms do push up and out of themselves as leaves do, budding into nature’s gorgeous if accidental reverie.

The Smaller Half — also a first book — is a brief collection of short poems. Some are perceptive, heartfelt, and sincere; a few are mischievously surreal and enchanting; many are errant and inaccessible. A labored work, highly crafted and full of great deliberateness, The Smaller Half is also an awkward one, at times defiantly inarticulate.

These are elusive poems. Rahe is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and, at times, writes with the tentativeness and imprudence of one who frets the critical eye of his peers. The speaker’s mind can be said to constitute the subject, here; the contemporary American suburban landscape, the setting. Beyond that, things get hazy. That Rahe can compose that haze into poems as fine as the best of this volume is a testament to his significant skill as a writer.

Rahe has described his style as “lyrical narrative,” although it is rarely strongly lyrical or narrative. Instead it is frayed, of a sensibility too delicate for the inundations or vacancies (as you prefer) of contemporary American life. Rahe suffers. His poems speak of painful arthritis and hospital stays, and his emotions often verge on anger: “I feel a meanness / in me.” Hostility often disrupts otherwise sincere thoughts: “I would have responded sooner,” he writes in a poem to a friend whose wife has been in an accident, “but they didn’t allow smoking on the train.” This book is rife with such passive aggressions.

Spun off of the powerful currents of emotion that drive these poems, the language often twirls into eddies of frustration and isolation. Repeatedly, Rahe utilizes a sort of deer-in-the-headlights parataxis: “I’ve done this for love’s sake. / My own too, if it is. / My doctor says it is. / She isn’t really my doctor; / she’s more of a maid. / She does her hair in the tower.” Words are used that are not quite right (“you wait / pacing in your pants”), and lines and entire poems wander off never to be heard from again.

Rahe can achieve real gravity when working in a more traditional vein. In the work’s penultimate poem, “Stray,” the speaker, visited by a stray cat while smoking on his porch, finds in the scene around him the gravity and mystery of life and nature bound together and illuminated from within: “These black streets / are like wet binding / on frost bitten hands. // Smoke and breath rise without separate identity.” “Remains” and “Four in the Morning,” exquisite exercises in formal surrealism, likewise display real mastery and power.

At times Rahe permits himself the indulgence of a sumptuous rhetoric, and every so often allows himself a poetic flourish for the finale. But mostly the speaking voice behind these poems is a damaged one — with anxiety, fear, and loneliness its dominant themes. The poems themselves come across as damaged. Their speaker struggles with his life and environment, and we find in The Smaller Half a wilderness of averted glances and an extremity of tunnel vision: “Because I don’t have a license, / I always look to others / when I need a license.” Wise to the ways of their hostile worlds, these unsettling poems spend much of their time scurrying for (often quite beautiful) cover.

Mark Molloy is the Reviews Editor for MAKE.

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