THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
On Laura Solomon’s The Hermit
(Ugly Duckling, 2011)
By Aaron McNally
a dream is a mirror
that doesn’t belong to you
anymore than words do
. . .
sometimes it is hard to believe in free will
more often it is easy
easy to move the words and believe that you move them when in fact it is
the words that are moving you
It’s certain something is astir when a poet causes David Shapiro to allude to his nemesis in a blurb (his term “a new visionary company” referring to Harold Bloom’s wonderful poetic tome on the Romantics). Laura Solomon stays profoundly graceful in the eye of such a stir. For it is true that her style is equally capable of taking the best of late New York, high Modernism, Surrealism and transcendental Romanticism (more Whitman than Coleridge) and remains ever-natural, despite. (Harriet Monroe once remarked that serenity in the midst of sophistication was a “triumph.” Solomon is certainly victorious.).
The Hermit is the conceit she uses to frame this victory in her most recent volume. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the subject of the book is any simpler than its stylistic mode. The title poem starts with a repetitive refrain fit for Gertrude Stein that laments how boring and useless writing can be and urges into a fable, in which a sorrowful bird is consoled by a hermit via the gift of narcissism.
Narcissism. Really? This sounds like Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s not. Believe me. Such a near-run-in with anti-intellectual sentimentality is evaded via the strength of Solomon’s ironic wit in other places. (See “The Autobiography of Alice B. Notley” for proof. Or, better yet, “Tutti fanno la cacca perché io no,” which Solomon delightfully translates as “Everybody Poops.”)
But neither does the book leave pathos behind. Much of the book is spent stretching English (and quips borrowed from other languages) into a symbolistic abstraction to lament and praise our great sense of isolation from, and deep connection to, one another. Other times it is amazingly concrete and emotionally precise. Take “From the Book of Comprehension,” a poem which made this critic cry, for evidence of this. It concerns a girl who longs to learn a particular Italian dialect (“for which there is no book the woman can study”) so that she can communicate with her boyfriend’s father. She would like to help him with his farm labor, but the only task she can be instructed to perform is to set a spade on top of a barrel. (Much as a poem has such lofty aspirations, only to find out that it’s simply language, after all.)
Ms. Solomon has consistently published over the last decade, and her work is of consistently high quality. That I found this book moving is no surprise. Neither is the fact that I found it to be stylistically masterful and poised to set new standards for American poetry. A tall order, to be sure, but one Laura Solomon seems to accept with casual aplomb.