The Voice of That Singing by Juliet Rodeman (Tupelo Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Michelle Mitchell-Foust
Early in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Mirror, a child watches the family barn burning behind their country house. It’s raining. His young mother watches too, her back to the camera, the water dripping off the porch awning. Still the barn burns. No urgency, as though a barn burning is a natural part of the landscape. Over the course of the film, in every room of the country house, the watcher has the feeling that the child, the narrator—Tarkovsky’s voice reciting his father’s poems–is living at once every age of his life. Likewise, the child’s mother appears in the film at different ages, the images of her non-chronological. She, too, lives all ages at once: watching the barn burn, proofreading a piece of writing, wiping away steam from a mirror, washing her hair, levitating during sleep.
Giving exuberance to time is often the gift and the predicament of poets and speakers in poems. Time in Mirror appears to grow abundantly. Tarkovsky calls it sculpting in time. In the filmmaker’s autobiography, he refers to this exuberance as varying rhythmic pressure. More than memory, more than prophesy, we have both at once, escorted by the image.
Juliet Rodeman’s marvelous book The Voice of That Singing achieves this same kind of temporal exuberance. We can thank the pervading season of these poems, often summer, and the times of day: dark morning, dark night, and all times dark of shade. We can thank the perpetual present tense voice of the poems and the brimming gerunds for this phenomenon, such as those in “Summer,” “heated kitchens rubied with boiling, canning.” And we can thank her masterful use of the second person, the “you,” who is never one person from poem to poem, , rangeing from a wound, to darkness, to night, or to country, as in “Native Country:” “To know this heartland, beloved stretches, navigable hollows. / To think you are waiting for me, outside there, set on fire.” The “you” is perpetual.
Sometimes the “you” is death, particularly the death of Rodeman’s sister Frances, who passed in 1992 from AIDS, as we find in Rodeman’s “Anticipatory Elegy,”
When we hold you now, cradle of darkness,
our arms ache, and we must lay you down.
We are summer’s women, long past girlhood.
In “Wanting You,” Rodeman writes the pairing of the “I” and the “you,” where the “you” might be an absent Other, perhaps a sister, or the “startled abundance of this thicket country,” as we find in the poem’s ending:
Shadow, what they call you is not you, foothold not for this world,
not to be passed down, still, all-told, look at you, they call me you,
but I/you, not-you, not for this world, story not to be passed down,
you cannot stay, so you stay here, here where the earth and air
winnowed of all the ahead yet unlived, unbeautifuled, unallowed,
here, where you sleep, shallow and shadow yet
This confusion, (or should I say expansion), of the “I” with the “you” creates temporal exuberance, because even while the “you” may have passed from the physical world (or was never meant for this world), the “I” exists as the “you” in perpetuity, in the “here” of the poem, or the “here” of another plane of being.
Similarly, Rodeman’s “Axis of Vision, Axis of Things,” the “I” is a collective narrator who varies the rhythmic pressure of time:
In the houses of the living, we are bending over.
Around the table, the landscape will not speak.
These things we tell because they have happened
in the future, there are ways to know it.
If we step away from this pronoun expansion and look at The Voice of this Singing as a whole, we understand from the speaker’s words that throughout the book the “I” is the story, and the “you” is the world. Rodeman tells us that history enters through the “I”. The world speaks back in singing. The singing comes out of the dark, or out of rift or absence. This is a music that is informed by the atoms of human beings and animals and things that is not solely relegated to their mouths. Consider “True in the Moonlight,” its opening:
Things sing themselves,
making their way through,
white horses of dreams,
yellow houses of nakedness,
The singing of the title of the volume must not be confused with the lyricism of Rodeman’s poems, which deserves its own high praise. The speaker of The Voice of That Singing wants us to know that language is a taking. The poet, “toucher,” “forsaker,” takes and leaves. What is put into words is theft from the world’s best properties. Consider “Broody Henhouse and a Nightful of Foxes” and its lyrical description of the singing where lush imagery, alliterative diction, stop motion syntax, catalogue, and hypotaxis combine:
The quiet must be woven about
with the tiniest shards of glass,
colza seeds, briar, thistles,
all the roadsides blooming,
and wears a child’s enchantment,
the body distracted beneath it,
a singing out along the cove.
The children lying abed,
no crying for this crying,
the put of something against it /
door / all of night comes in.
The best we can say of a book is that we wish we had written it. I can say this of Juliet Rodeman’s The Voice of That Singing. I never wanted it to end, and it didn’t. I carry the singing with me still.