I wrote this a few years ago as part of a letter in support of Victoria‘s candidacy for something or other (I forget what). No doubt filed forever in some selection committee folder, it’s never going to see the light of day otherwise, and Numéro Cinq seems like a good home for such lost pieces of writing and thought. Victoria and I have taught together at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and she has two sons (as I have two sons) and we both have a past with Gordon Lish—much in common.
On Victoria Redel’s Swoon
Hazlitt said, “Every word must be a blow.” And that’s the way Victoria Redel writes. Every word and phrase a hammer blow, crafted along the edge of a twisty syntax that is taut, teasing, emphatic and lascivious.
Swoon is something else, is gorgeous, a complex triptych of a book, a classic three-step structure held together by the strings of eros and femininity and point of view (that woman poet) and the technical threading–the repetition of the italicized “Such Noises” prologue poems and the smaller linguistic and image parallels (see, for example, how “…bend into the microphone…” on p.4 in “Somewhere in the Glorious” transforms into “And with that she’d sing, tilting and leaning into/ the purpled head…” on p. 71 in “Tilted Woman”; and how Akhmatova, the “Russian woman” and “my mothers” in “Such Noises” on p. 3 return as the “old Jew” who kvelts in “Noisy Woman” on p. 77). And so, though the book moves through its sequence–the young lover in the throes of eros the bittersweet, to the mother, to the multiple female characters of the austere, Chekhovian prose poems in the last section–it is one complexly woven whole.
In Swoon, Redel has hit her form in a spectacular fashion. She is alive in language. She’s a mature poet, a knowing poet, a wild, romantic poet. But, in the end, what she is most besotted with (what the poet in the poems is besotted with) is language itself.
Look at that second poem already mentioned “Somewhere in the Glorious”; two lines in the middle go: “I have only all my waiting. For what have I waited/ by cross street and elbow, for what gadget of transformation?” Then, two poems later, in “Cabin Note”: “We are still waiting./ But for what?” And then in the next poem “Damsels, I”: “If not for paradise then for what/ do I rut, incorrigible in the palm of your hand?” Nevermind that I’d give anything to have written any of these sentences myself with their insistent and erotic parallel constructions, their open-ended and endless interrogatives, their theological and sexual weavings, their surprising turns of phrase. But Redel has actually managed to thread and suspend the thought through three different poems over several pages so that the mind of the reader, in the middle poem (with its acute exploitation of white space, the emptiness of waiting, quite specific to this poem), is really suspended, in suspense, unconsciously waiting for the syntactic pay-off. And the pay-off is spectacular, not because of the thematic surprise (the connection between desire for spiritual transformation and for love is an ancient theme) but because of the language, the bull’s-eye perfect “what”/”rut” rhyme in the third poem. It goes straight to the heart and the mind. It’s what makes Redel a masterful poet.
I love things like this: “What we do we do in this life with our clothes still mostly on.” A line I could write an essay on, an epigram made poetry by the atypical verb placement. Think how a line like this gets built up. It starts with the idea: We do what we do in life with our clothes on. (A slightly anti-romantic, pretty realistic view of what life is like after you’re grown up.) Redel inverts natural word order–”We do what we do” to “What we do we do”– to make the line surprising, give it rhythm and zing. What we do we do in life with our clothes on. An interesting idea but still not a line Redel would write. She adds the word “still” so that we get: “What we do we do in life with our clothes still on.” Which builds in the antithetical picture of what we do with our clothes off which, accordingly, is not what we really do in life. And finally she adds the amazing “mostly”–”our clothes still mostly on” which twists the whole sentence with a wry, ironic tweak. The epigram becomes story, it becomes the image of a couple doing what they do in life but half-in or half-out of their clothes, that sad, comic moment of struggling, half-dressed transition from passion to so-called real life.
See also “Swoon.”