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A Review of Kristin Bock's "Cloisters"

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Rattle E-Reviews, October 10, 2009
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A Review of Kristin Bock's Cloisters

Kristin Bock's debut collection of poetry, Cloisters, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award for 2008, is a book that keeps its secrets.  Eschewing what we typically think of as narrative, Bock's poems enable a symbolic approach to story-telling, her eye focused more on the interpretive crossroads between the mythical and real realms than on the events that take place within them.  In poems like "Phrenology," in which we find ourselves fingering gravestones to speak to those interred"; "Hibernaculum" (a protective case or covering of an animal or plant bud, if you're unfamiliar with the term), which opens "Stone remembers / the sea / that hollows it"; and "While You Are Away" in which a mannequin comes alive, Cloisters drops us with immense vocal authority into unknown yet oddly familiar territory.  The result is a book that keeps its mysteries while examining them-- a revealing collection that reveals very little.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece in Cloisters is the first poem, "On Reflection," which, much like the reflection of a tree in water, is a mirror image of itself, the first nine lines of the poem reappearing as the last nine lines in inverse order.  Here are the middle six lines:

      staggering through the pitiful corn.

      I can't always see through it.

      The mind is a pond layered with lilies.

      The mind is a pond layered with lilies.

      I can't always see through it

      staggering through the pitiful corn.

"On Reflection" could most certainly be seen as a gimmick, a poem that pulls off an inventive and no doubt difficult form but without much of a rationale behind it: form for the sake of form but not much else.  But "On Reflection" operates first on the most essential elements of good poetry.  The poem's language is beautiful: "Far from the din of the articulated world, / I wanted to be content in an empty room."  Its similes and metaphors are startling: "a barn on the hillside like a bone, / a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes."  And its imagery is masterful: "to be free of your image-- / crown of bees, pail of black water / staggering through the pitiful corn."  The result is a poem full of such fresh, unexpected lines that, when the repetition occurs, you don't at first take notice; there's a tingling of familiarity but an unassailable need to read on. 

Bock truly gets to work in "On Reflection" after you've seen the full, visual effect of the inversion, slyly altering punctuation in the second half of the poem to alter syntax and, thus, meaning.  Line three and four, for example, "a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes, / to be free of your image--", utilizes an emdash to refer to the strange images in line five, "crown of bees, pail of black water."  When these lines are inverted in lines thirteen through fifteen, however, Bock ends the previous line, "a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes," with a period and capitalizes the nouns in what was previously line five's "crown of bees, pail of black water" like so:

      Crown of Bees, Pail of Black Water,

      to be free of your image--

      a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes.

These variations modify the fifth line from a statement of image to an address; with a simple twist of syntax we find ourselves in a realm where one can speak to what was previously an inanimate object.  This, of course, reworks the way we perceive and interpret the reflected images, word choices, and symbols that, at first glance, are exactly the same as their originals.

Bock uses inversion and syntax in a similar way in the first two lines: "Far from the din of the articulated world, / I wanted to be content in an empty room."  These lines tell us, first, that the speaker is a great distance from "the articulated world" and, second, that the speaker desires to be content with its absence.  But when they reappear at the end of the poem, "I wanted to be content in an empty room / far from the din of the articulated world," the final line now denotes the location of the room rather than that of the speaker.  Now we have a speaker who not only has been transported by the work of the poem but who seems to exist in two places at once.  Either way, she still desires a contentedness she cannot have; the speaker's physical location may have changed but his internal discontent remains the same.

By creating such deep meaning without a single shred of narrative, "On Reflection" immediately positions Bock somewhere between narrative and lyric.  Bock isn't a story-teller, but she's not just singing either, gathering one exquisitely composed line after the other and organizing them in a way that mimics narrative but never allows this narrative to reveal itself.  The poems that follow follow suit. 

Cloisters' second poem, "Windscape," is a series of bold, musical statements: "A great pain strafed the city. // The air was a tapestry weft with cries. // Everywhere, women bandaged / the pietas of soldiers." 

"Because You Refuse to Speak" is startlingly surreal with lines like "Out on the pond, a snake / inside a swan glides past" and "A hammer sounds / between two mountains."  

"Scarecrow" takes on the voice of its title, declaring "Go back to your life beyond the cornfield, / Back to the farmer's wife and her faraway heart... // You'll make no friends here." 

Cloisters' final piece, "Resurrecting the Thirteen Stations of the Cross," a prose poem, is visually stunning:

       I looked down on a mountain, on a cry rising up from the cracked

      earth.  I looked down on the swine and the cattle, and they moaned a

      little.  And I looked down on the tiny beings with their tiny tools, and

      a few looked back and shuddered...

It's important to note that Cloisters is a book of short poems.  "The Hymn of the Pearl to the Moon," for example, is a mere twenty-two words:

      Cast in your image

                                  and into darkness

      we are luminous nudes

      bathing

                  in firelight

                                   by cave pools

 

      mistaking our reflections

                                             for gods. 

"The Somniloquy of the Sleeping Asp" is twenty-four:

      I am the little black

                     curled inside the lamb.

 

      If the center of the sea forgets me,

                     the center of the sea forgets you." 

In fact, only seven of thirty-eight poems are over a page long, which would be the norm if Cloisters weren't so dimensionally small-- its cover measuring in at 6 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide versus the standard 9 inches by 6 inches.  That said, even the longer poems are broken into smaller sections or utilize some sort of organizational element that further compartmentalizes these lyrics.  "Notes from the Boat Docks," for example, is in couplets.  "Among Sorrows and Stones" proceeds like an interview with a stanza of questions followed by an italicized stanza of answers:

      Who remembers the letter

      trembling over a flame?

 

      I do.  I buried Isolde in her black sail.

 

      Who accompanied the bride with a scar

      to a parking lot swept with paper roses?

 

      It was I who gestured to the scissors as she mended.

No doubt this book will be puzzled over for its lack of narrative, not because collections of lyrical poetry are unusual (they're not) but because Cloisters gives you the feeling that there is a larger story at work here.  A quick scan of the middle sections' titles, for example, "Scarecrow," "Estranger," "Return," "Nostrum," "Under the Ghost Tree," "Oracle," "On Not Finding Your Grave," "Afterworld," and "Trying to Pray," creates the sensation of a vast and otherworldly landscape.  And there are most certainly a number of motifs that appear in poem after poem: life, death & resurrection, modernity versus antiquity, and the animation of the inanimate.  But if there's a thread that winds its way through these lyrics, it's about as mysterious as Cloisters' section titles: October, December, February, April, and August...notice the odd omission of June. 

Rather than criticize Bock for the elusive quality of her poems, it's important to recognize that a decision is being made here-- Cloisters doesn't lack narrative or story, Cloisters simply avoids it, the poet clearly more motivated by the metaphoric, symbolic, and interpretative world and her speaker's more motivated by their opportunity to speak to someone willing to listen than by an opportunity to explain themselves. 

Like the poems themselves, Cloisters is a book that creates a sense of largeness despite its small borders.  The result is language and Bock's language is exquisite, wooing us into one lyric after another so swiftly that, even though we may not know where we are, we trust that Ms. Bock most certainly does.  The effect is a book of almost God-like proportions-- poems we can observe and perceive but aren't exactly certain we can fully understand.  Though we're not sure where we've been, we're relieved to know that we can go back whenever we wish to do so.  Cloisters takes us into a world that at times seems secular and, at other times, clearly emanates from the spiritual-- something akin to the afterlife, prayer.  Cloisters is a book that not only explores but mimics the mysteries of human experience.  We are the better for it.



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