LEA GRAHAM Reviews
Victory and Her Opposites by Amy England
(Tupelo Press, 2007)
[First published in American Letters &Commentary #20 (Winter 2009): 82-85, edited by Catherine Kasper]
Poetic Stratigraphy: A Review of Amy England’s Victory and Her Opposites
Amy England’s Victory and Her Opposites: A Guide is a book of poems that is stratigraphical. It is constructed like an excavation site of the imagination and draws on multiple voices, outside texts, scholarly disciplines and genres. Its subject, the Nike of Samothrace, is found in pieces, sometimes as the central figure in the book; sometimes as the periphery to discovery itself. The unearthing revealed in the book honors all discoveries great and seemingly inconsequential: a fragment of “tea cup of modern manufacture,” “a five pfennig coin” left by 19th century Austrian archaeologists, layers of scholarship on Cthonic Mystery Cults, a “watch [Paul] lost six years ago,” and the speaker’s own experiments in erosion(16-17). The genres in the book range from lyric poems, to prose poems, one-act plays, dictionary-like entries, lyrical narrative passages. Additionally, words are treated as objects; arranged, overlapping and emerging from underneath each other as art pieces, shards, or ruins themselves. These play off or against color and black and white illustrations in the text. As such, we learn about archaeology and the mysteries of the site in Samothrace alongside, overlaying , and side-winding (as the snakes throughout the text) the complexities of a writer pursuing her interests, carefully unearthing that process in its fragments and disembodied states.
“Salient Apse,” is a poem written in layers, as if it were an excavation site itself:
Zeus as snake rapes his mother as snake. She places the daughter that
The walls cream white above strong red above black, as inside a
A square recess in the apse floor. An initiate stood there (36).
The lines are distinguished by changes in font, creating striations in the text, running mythic and ritualistic narratives above and below the archaeological and the narrative “I.” The effect is multiple and simultaneous voices, and yet the reading process demands attention to each individual line and searches each narrative’s continuation through the layers of lines:
comes of this in a cave for Zeus-as-snake to rape. Persephone, the
house or tomb. There was a drain for poured offerings, eschara with
Perhaps a large stature of Demeter poured water from a flat dish on his…(36).
The mythical narratives and archaeological descriptions work saliently as the disconnected lines seem to move away from what came before. Yet, the poem as a whole is shaped semi-circularly. While the meaning of the poem arcs, it never reaches full circle, but rather lets the space remain open. One way it achieves this is that midway through the poem, one font leaves off and another takes up for awhile, until conflated at the end in “statue. the cyclical and art. / hold of me” (39). The fragmented lines connect the Nike at one end and the speaker at the other, yet there is anopenness to the “hold” it has because of the changes in font and the fragmentary nature of the lines. England uses the form not only to embody the dig site and the archaeological process, but also to remind us of mythological coiling, and the superposition of cults. The snake god, for instance, becomes Zeus Meilichios (Harrison 21); or Hermes, god of fertility, language, and trickery is worshipped in Samothrace as “Cadmus,” the king credited with the creation of writing, and transformed by the gods into a snake (Dictionary of Greek Mythology). The poem replicates this, creating a curious allure, while eluding the simplicity of merely good story or pertinent information.
The text’s ability to acknowledge fragmentation, semi-circularity, connection and disjunction exceeds merely form. Narratives and reflections also help to create and buoy the energy throughout the text. In “Erosion Experiment,” the speaker begins a reflection about the genesis of her interest in the Nike:
This is in Japan, sitting around a table. I say I want to go to the Greek islands, and someone
says that his grandfather was an archaeologist, and found the Victory of Samothrace’s
hand…. I go home, note down, found Victory’s hand.
Seven years later a class in French. The teacher, a traveled man, describes the Nike on the
staircase of the Louvre, “looking like she’s going to take off again any minute.” Married, I
visit the statue, stand below it on the stairs to imagine that ascent. Oddly coherent piece,
given its missing parts: “suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp.” Beautifully
broken thing (59).
This guided movement of the speaker’s earlier words and rising interest work like “the Law of Superposition,” in which the lower a deposit is, the older it is assumed to be; and where “different kinds of deposits accumulate in response to different environmental factors” (Archaeology Website). This poem coming later in the text and after poems like “Field Notes,” and “Mentioned by Ancient Poets,” includes the history of what the speaker calls her “infatuation” with the Nike. It serves as another part of the artistic unearthing and process. As the speaker “stand[s] below” the Nike, a dig site is figuratively suggested. This time, however, it is the human who is seen below, as if she were both the archaeologist and the Nike itself, the found “woman in the ground”(60). This image helps us see inversions, shakes us out of our notion of autobiography as coherent. The artist/observer endeavors not to make whole, but to understand the “broken” beauty or the meaning in the incomplete, and
how characteristic metonymy is of the sacred…. The archaeologist tipping the process of bone or kylix handle in the hand, looking for the position that will suggest a whole it could come from. When all those possible shapes converge into the one actual one, there is satisfaction but the work of imagination ceases (60).
It is the cessation of imagination that this text consistently avoids. We are in the hands of an author who is willing to look at the “ruin” and its Latin base er-, “to set in motion or erect” (34). The play of these opposites, “ruin” and “erect,” maintains the buoyancy of the imagination, keeps us digging for other meanings, other ways of deflecting the “delusion of wholeness” (76). And still the poet doesn’t stop with only the found object. She experiments, creates her own ruin or chaos by taping
a draft of a poem about the history of Samothrace to the kitchen floor where people are sure
to walk on it. The cat often sits on my experiment, as it is less cold than the surrounding
tiles. Am still waiting for the erosion of the paper to become interesting. Am still waiting
for a purposeful erosion to have the weight of accident (73).
This passage that comes near the end of the text celebrates the artistic in all of its forms. Simultaneously, it acknowledges that the experiment may not have the gravity of the “accidental.” This seems yet another layer, another stratum in the construction of this text. The voice, though human, humorous and idiosyncratic, still maintains a disembodied state—like the poem taped to the kitchen floor. Amy England unearths the missing and the silence of the past as if it were an artifact itself; as it if were imagination’s own quickening.
Lea Graham is the author of Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books 2011) and the chapbook, Calendar Girls (above ground press, 2006). Her poems, collaborations, reviews and articles have been published in journals and anthologies such as American Letters & Commentary, The City Visible, Notre Dame Review and The Capilano Review. Her translations are forthcoming in The Alteration of Silence: Recent Chilean Poetry through the University of New Orleans Press. She is Assistant Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a native of Northwest Arkansas.