Wednesday, July 25, 2007
JEFF KNORR—THE THIRD BODY
Jeff Knorr’s poems in his collection The Third Body occupy many quiet domestic settings that typically resolve themselves in the imagery of the natural world. Beetles, weather patterns, fallen stars serve as metaphors for the emotions and dilemmas of the characters in his poems. The first section (“Any Way Home”), in particular, is concerned with the theme of loss and redemption. The losses are experienced by different individuals in the poems. Sometimes it is the speaker who is measuring the frustration of temporarily losing a child to a bureaucratic system. Sometimes it is the loss of a previous world as experienced by a small child. Sometimes it is the more conventional loss of human and animal life.
In ”Winter Turkeys” the winter turkeys add up over the years to signal the passage of time, and we see the speaker’s father (as there is very little artifice in the poems one can assume the speaker is Knorr) beginning to recognize his life is on the wane. The father is being forced to acknowledge death’s omnipresence, and he is begrudgingly allowing himself to become vulnerable to it. The word “funeral” is stuck in his mouth. He is a man content with his reminiscing, but a little troubled by it.
Much of Knorr’s work in The Third Body explores memory, the memories of kin, who is included and excluded (by omission) from those memories. It is a testimonial to Knorr’s generosity that he tries to include as many as possible into his kinship system. While it might seem trite to equate the life of a dog or goats to that of a child or a mother within that system, Knorr’s obvious concern for an intact nature renders these choices as understandable. Given that 57% of American households own either a dog or cat (up from 44% in 1956), concern for a pet as “part of the family” is not unwarranted. The US is the nation with the highest percentage of household dogs or cats. Knorr takes us along on his remembrances of who is inside the pack and who is outside, troubled only by how far he can will his generous memory before someone comes along and tries to steal his identity.
If a thief could appropriate another’s memory, we’d all be in trouble.
The second section (“Measuring Our Days”) is populated by 10- and 12-line poems written in couplets. Most of these poems are again contemplative about nature, and they focus on the beloved to the extent that the “love” becomes the present force in the poems, the eye around which the storm swirls. Knorr’s earnestness in addressing his love is countered by his admissions of grief and remorse for past wrongs. This group of poems is reminiscent of William Stafford and James Wright (epigraph for this book by Wright from his “Beautiful Ohio”) in that they make their impact through line compression. Here is one example:
Daydreaming, Driving Midway Road
When I get old, I don’t want the sun on my hands;
rather, I’d like the wind to touch them.
Once she told me she’d drag my body in if I died outside.
The only clear reason is to keep from being eaten by yellow jackets.
Standing on a stone wall built by Chinese
I saw the red fox, but only once.
I’m beginning to think there are no foxes.
He must have been the soul of the last worker.
There is nothing more consistent than a bird’s morning song in July.
Dying, we burn into some star just beyond her arms’ reach.
I like this poem for its daring leaps though I am troubled that Knorr’s version of daydreaming is a little bit like my own ordinary waking experience. Perhaps I might be put on notice for all my saltatory gestalting. Nevertheless, Knorr makes these stray but pithy thoughts coalesce around the beloved. At the end the speaker is treading on oblivion as he imagines an immortal connection to the one he loves. Here the lines pile up as end-stops and then are delivered into the imagination. The whimsicality of the previous events is retrieved by the graveness of the threat at the end.
But these poems are not written so much to be marveled at for their angular momentum and other tour de force techniques. This is a book whose poems aim to be lived with, and if one doesn’t have the time to live with the poems for a while, then, like Wright and Stafford, one might miss the merits of the work. I took it upon myself to take the book with me to family camp. I found myself reading these poems late at night after a long day full of hyper-stimulation and hurt incurred after a loss in the ferocious staff/camper volleyball game. Because I had left my seven-year-old’s reading material at home, I was forced to read these poems aloud to him as he tried to drift off into sleep. Between bouts of reading “Urashima Taro” (from the camp’s meager library), my son reflected on this from “Long Distance and the Black Sky”:
The way the moon danced at night in the snow of Mt. Lemmon made him
so lonely that one day hunting desert quail he buried his gun in the sand.
My son wanted to know why the man would bury his gun in the sand (probably because this was something he had been doing himself along the banks of the American River and he was curious why would someone would bury something that valuable . . . would he be able to find it the following day). I think it is a compliment to Knorr’s intent of being straightforward and unadorned that he could have a seven-year-old wondering about his lines. Though the poem’s larger theme is about loss and redemption, I suspect Knorr would accept a seven-year-old missing the forest for the trees if that same seven-year-old began to puzzle out the wondrous breadth of human behavior. Is this not one of the primary aims of a poem?
My son also twittered during “At the Sullivan Ranch, Returning Home” when Knorr writes about a dog:
Working his nose, he breathes anxiously,
and he is occasionally shitting.
My son stood up in bed, working his nose like the dog and mimicking the dog’s habits. Now that’s turning poetry into theater! Again, though Knorr would not have intended such a dramatic display (fueled by fatigue and sleep deprivation), any action his lines might inspire would be a mark on the side of the good.
Oh, and my oh my, look how talking about Knorr’s book has forced me to conjure up a few family memories of my own.
The third and final section of The Third Body is “A Lesson in Love & Evolution.” It begins to touch on the book title. In the poems of the third section one sees the third body as all the items that attend to a marriage: the child, the family, the pets, the weight of the natural world, the force of history. In short, the world intrudes, but it intrudes in a way that enhances devotion. It doesn’t degrade it.
Tracing the Banks of Rivers
In the dark we lie against each other, still. This moment
of morning holds deep quiet when rivers calm against their banks.
I trace the outlines of your body the way it grows, its directions,
the way it has bent through years of uncertain sunlight.
Running a finger over shoulder blades, back, hips,
the slow tight curve of your chin,
the tender inside of elbows and knees, scars,
there is not a lonely spot of you I do not love.
I track us into a third body
we know the way a hawk knows wind.
I have given you a part of my heart for good.
There is no finding it again except in your eyes,
the way grass beneath an orchard tastes of apples.
We have so much at our backs: a son, a dog, three countries,
card games, some reasonable and unreasonable death.
But ahead of us is the kind of clarity deer wish for,
a gentle day grazing without being spooked.
The days spread before us under unbroken sky.
We have come this far tracing the banks of rivers
and in this kind of love the river might simply be the river.
The third body, that which is foreign but instinctively known (“the way a hawk knows wind”) maps a country of intertwined fate that binds the speaker together with his life’s love. This bond provides the speaker with clarity that makes the world come alive as nothing other than itself. It strips away all pretense and worry. It keeps one’s mentality rooted in the here and now, a hopelessly difficult assignment for a brooder like me.
It takes a lot of courage to mention one’s “love” again and again throughout a collection such as “The Third Body,” but it is this kind of speech that lands Knorr firmly within the cadre of emotional poets who face their sentiments and try to name them plainly without any embellishment, perhaps even temper them with the bitter root of life’s disappointments and mistakes. The life that a poet like James Wright “wasted” is spent on that high performance vehicle known as familial love.
Knorr’s decency resonates throughout the collection as well. One gets the sense of his menschlichkeit early on in the collection during his speculation on the state of his father and son. One senses his trustworthiness in the careful attention to his subjects. The lines are trimmed of any kind of excess which might indicate he is given to flights of fancy.
“Morning Swim” is one of the pieces that finds Knorr projecting himself as a speaker navigating through elation and despair, in the way that beauty needs ugliness in order to make itself be perceived fully. The poem begins in an “abundance of blue” and with a war in the background, but it ends with the lover swimming out from the speaker as he tries to imagine his life without the beloved [“What would have happened / had we all married someone else”]. The speaker’s final refuge is silence, and the speaker finds such a silence to be a redemptive force. The silence draws the world back from encroaching on us all.
A similar quiet appears in ”Worship”. The quiet is counterpoint to a convulsing dog, and it is within that quiet that a quasi-religious experience ensues which allows for the speaker and the beloved “you” to recognize the dog as part of the familial “third body.”
Knorr provides very recognizable emotional landscapes in The Third Body. His work relies on the reader’s recognition of well-established feelings. His is the kind of the work that “feels” rather than “thinks” in the common parlance. He is readily emotionally accessible, but this kind of discernment between thought and feeling is overly wrought. It might do well to describe the basic difference between a Spielberg film and a Fellini film, but as a useful critical tool, it usually fails to make any lasting mark. Knorr makes us feel his situation, his love for his family, yet without the reader’s perception that Knorr is fully aware of his predicament, the reader begins to lose sympathy. The man/woman who is fully aware of his own demise is more pathetic than the man/woman who is oblivious to it. Similarly, a poem that thinks its way to its conclusion can be emotionally charged as well; however, many might not acknowledge such a charge because often times a poem of this variety is pushing into new emotional terrain where the reader can’t firmly say “Hey, I’m feeling this right now.” The poet who thinks his/her way to a conclusion often is conducting forays into more experimental emotional space. He/she isn’t sure what he/she is feeling. Hesitancy and doubt persist. Perhaps fragmentation. For many readers, this produces an anxious feeling that makes such readers fail to trust the “thinking” poet. The entire experience smacks of a vaguely unsettling feeling.
Knorr guards against that unsettling feeling. His dread (of loss or bungling the job) in the face of the beloved does not quaver. It is a self-assured dread. We know it as such the moment we encounter it. There is no guesswork in coming to terms with what Knorr wants us to feel. He is reassuring. The reader wades into the depths of each poem, preparing for the steady embrace. No subterfuge. No distraction. No sleight of hand. Sometimes a river is just a river—just as honest as it can be.