Reviewed March 30, 2012 by Daniel Moysaenko.
From Thoreau’s Walden to Fanny Howe’s monastic The Lyrics, there’s a long tradition of writers isolating themselves in order to work. Although their level of melancholy and solitude varies, and the impetus driving the projects differs, such works seem more certain, simple, and focused than those conceived within the frantic pace of the city. While Andrew Grace’s third book of poetry, Sancta, falls into this history of the cabin-dwelling writer and is colored by the most positive aspects of the tradition, his poems are not confined to it.
The book is comprised of untitled prose poems, the second of which introduces Grace’s cabin, set a tenth of a mile from the lake. One moves through chapters mentioned by the speaker though not demarcated, from the first part of the book to the second, in which the speaker’s partner leaves the cabin. The site is not pristinely removed from societal trappings; there’s a beach strewn with needles and napkins, and an old cement factory and mall across the lake. “The mall is one condition of exile,” Grace explains, acknowledging that, though distanced from civilization, he cannot escape “the greenish blaze of a building the elderly circle like a seven story mountain.” Nature is tainted by civilization, and civilization is described in terms of nature (e.g., a building like a mountain). Metropolises interrupt the poems. And while this fact constitutes a possible, peripheral commentary on the state of nature, more interestingly, it seems to qualify the speaker’s solitude in the woods. I sense his exile is not so different than my own. Yet the speaker maintains the sanctity of his exiled position, moreover, implying the multiplicity of such a space—sancta, not sanctum.
With Grace’s poems, one sinks into the short, dense language, and then is lifted closer to the surface. As soon as I would tire of the grand or austere, Grace would toss out a plainspoken, playful, or deadpan phrase. Lines such as, “If I can rise from the dust, I cannot answer” and “The moon snitches on a clutch of skunks” provide careful, musical, even ecclesiastical moments before giving way to conversational declaration or invitation: “I keep expecting a small, feral animal to be in the cabin with me.” Grace sustains a refreshing balance of tone, diction, syntax, and pacing. His writing is elegant yet bold. In one poem, I bounce through the aggressively musical and long first sentence to find solace in the second: “Moth morning, maelstrom of mothwing at the window, fog-dulled sun trundled like a cart of moths across the aspirin sky. I stay in bed.” The way the lines lead to “I stay in bed” mimics the action. I feel overwhelmed; I feel myself staying in bed too. Many of the poems in Sancta enact this hook, bringing one deeper into the speaker’s daily routine, his cabin and surroundings, and the weight of their implications. Grace teases meaning out carefully, leaving slow gaps between details, then intimating connection.
In some poems, however, the lines are already scented with metaphor when delivered: “Golf balls glow under a thin membrane of water. The car-gored buck by the roadside has yet to break out in insects.” These lines pop with intense music and cinematic clarity while gathering around themselves an aura of anticipation as well as futility. One’s reaction to the impending action seems useless; nature’s takeover is total. And in presenting the reader with this situation, Grace skillfully pushes and pulls. I settle into nature but am distanced from it, drift from the human but return through observation and contemplation. The speaker suggests that such details simply distance, that “description is a filibuster against emotion.” Grace’s natural description may seem detached from personal emotion in many cases, but I see it as standing on top of emotion, eventually leading to it. The physical draws out the psychic. The solitary stay in the wild unveils the personal as “The forest knocks and I answer.” Sancta successfully melds nature, self, and abstraction within a sloping terrain of voice. And in the speaker, these subtle movements make sense, folding in and out of time and place.
Yes, there seems to be a physical cabin, specific geography, and something of a plot. But these short blocks of text concern themselves primarily with what is beyond the cabin, the lake, or even the speaker. Minute descriptions of his surroundings interact with one another as literal points of reference. However, in the process, they become abstractions—stand-ins for human relation, solitude, loss, memory, and movement. Though the cabin and natural landscape actuate the poems and their meditations, what Grace achieves speaks to a more general experience. I am struck by the way nature is described through unnatural terms, abstractions are colored by nature, and purity is still sought out, but more astonishingly, found. Among the beach detritus, “There is so much light we can’t keep it out of our eyes.” And though the sky is “the color of heroin,” the speaker wants to lose himself in this tarnished nature. One is constantly reminded of the poems’ location, but physical moorings dissolve to mount something more important. The wooded sanctum slips into the speaker to clarify his struggle, recasting him in its own terms: “When the iron shadows hunker down, you unload the little boat of your sorrow and we climb aboard.” Grace’s constant oscillations between self and landscape are grounded in a spirituality at once resplendent and wrecked. And when the speaker finally confronts the book’s looming topic of divinity, he theorizes God as “any way of navigating the radiant aftermath of loss. And what I mean by radiance is what the lake is doing, marbled by the moonlight and shaking like a lost man.”
But more than apprehending illusive truths about grief or divinity, Sancta dismantles the weighty abstractions of God, loss, redemption, and loneliness. And there, Grace finds himself standing in the middle of a wilderness. This is the book’s thrilling core—a space that does not dissipate after study, that is steadfastly interior and exterior, self and circumstance. The mind is a “shower curtain behind which some man fills his arms with himself,” constantly grasping and moving inward. It seems this image describes any location, physical or spiritual. And as the speaker realizes that “the light will never end if I don’t let it,” a variegated sanctum of thought and poetry follows him even after leaving the cabin.
Daniel Moysaenko is a reviews editor for The Volta and lives in Chicago.