Cloud Physics, Karen Enns’ third book of poems, is an unsettling work of great beauty. Groups of poems are separated by visual fragments—perhaps stand-ins for the spare, elegant cover image, itself a subtle marvel of motion conveyed in hundreds of dots and tiny markings of varying densities, like a choral song, or particles of light and shadow, rising and falling. In the opening poem, “Cloud Physics,” a deep sadness for the present age is rendered as fragmentation, fear, doubt, renewal, and loss. But listen to Enns’ language in the third stanza of this powerful and evocative poem:
This is the time of crushed glass and stone, lime dust
that stays and stays in our mouths, the language of not speaking,
of carrying the vegetable weight, the last treeline, the geologies of terror
and eternity, the motherlode of fear, of grace,
The main preoccupations of Enns’ poetry—first, every nuance of sound, including music, wordplay, and silence (such as the soundlessness of the universe), and second, the frailness and temporariness of Earth, its geology, and the lifespan of humans and other organisms—are both in play in the stanza above. There is our inability to speak, to articulate our and the world’s losses as they crescendo, with dust clogging our mouths such that we become a language that cannot be heard, that is stranded in our bodies; followed by an overwhelming sense of loss.
The attention to the intricate and intimate complexity of sound, the cadence of her poems, and her line breaks feels linked to Enns’ musical training—she worked for almost 20 years as a classical pianist. In the poem “Ad Libitum,” the narrator showcases the memories of a lifetime of sounds: “I am made of what I’ve heard. A conch shell / ringing with my own soundscape.” Words themselves, “each phrase, / scale, cello note, ostinato, flute staccato, / organ stop, solo sax,” provide a delightful rhythm. The fear of losing language, and its myriad sounds, is painfully and powerfully voiced in the poem “Dissolving Syllables,” where we move from loss of words through humming and whistling to fill in the gaps to: “When whole phrases started dropping out, / we knew it was only a short stop / to losing daylight and the seasons.” What a marvellous leap, to connect language disruption to lack of light and nature’s seasonality.
The poems read like an extended conversation with the world, the self, music, friends, and children who’ve moved into their own lives. One of many highlights is “Twelve Months,” a series of acutely felt and poignant elegiac poems. Sometimes these poems feel so private that they are hard to follow. But this is not a really a criticism: I don’t need to fully grasp them to sense the depths, to feel their intense lyricism.
Another stand-out poem for me is the ruefully bemused “Yellow Blooms,” where the narrator walks alongside herself, watching from the corner of her eye, as it were, with curiosity and judgement. There are many surprises in these poems. In “Birthday,” I love the idea that time could so easily swing the other way, mid-stream, “moving toward a watery womb / rather than away from it.” I especially like, near the end, the lines: “We’d taste with our whole mouths / ravenously and without shame. / In the end we’d hear with the ears of wolves.” The choice of “wolves” is fascinating: they are pack animals, predators, animals of great resourcefulness, endangered, and their voices, like this wondrous book of poems, echo and echo.
Jan Conn is the author of 9 books of poetry, most recently Tomorrow’s Bright White Light, Tightrope Books, 2016. She is a member of the collaborative writing group Yoko’s Dogs. Their most recent publication is Rhinoceros, Gaspereau Press, 2016. As a biologist, she has published more than 100 scientific articles. She is also a visual artist, with shows forthcoming in 2019 at No. Six Depot, West Stockbridge, MA and Grand Mesa Arts Center, Cedaredge, CO.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.