A fertile confusion punctuates contemporary English via the language’s conflation of second person singular and plural. The best we get is the contraction, ‘y’all.’ On top of that, we use ‘you’ as hypothetical, or normative, what you might do or rather what one might do were you—I mean, one—in a situation. On occasions where the antecedent which the pronoun ‘you’ refers back to is under-specified, the readers of poetry are at risk of mistaking him- or herself or themselves for the addressed, when actually the poet is only letting the readers overhear in public a private address to someone else. Conversely, when the poet is accusing the collective you, often of callous indifference to delicate beauty, the reader is allowed to excuse him- or herself from the crowd and become instead an anthropologist to folly.
Apostrophe features so regularly in Tasha Cotter’s Some Churches that the collection draws one, you, me, us into this confusion. The evidence is in Cotter’s titles: “Poem as Litany of Songs I Knew You As,” “If You Would Like to Appear Here,” “My Secret is You.” So too in lines such as, “Every last heart, if you asked, wants more light,” “Today, near the entrance / I saw the eighteen-year-old you,” “You say I’m indebted to dead beat hope,” or “You look out the octagonal window and find absence.” On a larger, thematic scale, Some Churches dwells on meeting, parting, missing. “The Invitation” opens with, “This morning, it was the snow I couldn’t stop / looking at after reading your invitation.” “Lies We Tell in Winter” echoes the link between winter and potential estrangement:
That winter I invited you to a maze you could find your way out of.
To a quarter mile drag strip that I constructed next to a red line cemetery.
I said think hard when you hear I will and I can’t ten times an hour.
One winter there was a deep path dug by my hands,
traveled by the children who got out of school early
Both these poems return to, dwell in and develop imagery from the first poem in the collection, “Some Churches”:
That winter, when I got to the maze, I knew I was too late.
It was the empty, uncurled air that announced I’d missed you.
And then I noticed the pilgrims, already working their way out
of the crumbling stone, noting every footstep, cataloging
every choice moan by moan. The church said come in, but I didn’t. Sit down,
said the one bench, but I couldn’t.
It’s possible that we the reader jump into Cotter’s work in medias res, with the invitation’s recipient, before we meet the sender. Also, here is a hint of Cotter’s surrealism: it’s a little ‘Yo Dawg I herd you like’ to set a maze as a destination of someone’s journeys when mazes serve as allegorical journeys.
Funny thing about mazes: the labyrinth can be considered unicursal, or of one path; the maze, multicursal, of multiple paths, some of which dead end or turn back on themselves. A labyrinth is to be walked for the experience of walking through it, letting the walls conduct the traveler. The maze forces the traveler to decide between sometimes indistinguishable, equally unpalatable options. Both labyrinths and mazes flatten movement to the horizontal plane. If you want the vertical, choose the catacombs (see next paragraph). The horizontal pilgrimage is juxtaposed with and complemented by the ascent into Heaven or descent into Hell. Labyrinths and mazes constrict the perspective of the pilgrim while making the path easily apprehensible to a bird’s or god’s eye view.
The maze in this poem, which curls not only the traveler’s movements but the air itself, and imprints on the air a trace of those travelers, is wonderful and amazing. Cotter’s church seems vaguely menacing in that it absorbs its pilgrims; the movement of people through the maze becomes a dance, vaguely reminiscent of the mourners in Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” which hem the speaker in. If Cotter is establishing here the sense that memories of the past haunt the present, she will carry that through the entire collection. The poem “New Year’s Day” asks, “If no one demands we should be / prisoners of recall, then why am I becoming more and more alone?” And “Honeymooning in the Catacombs” asks
what about all our old sweethearts
still lingering in distant sub-terrain hallways,
each on a slowly decaying silhouette
dangling against a white-washed sky
Former lovers, worries the speaker, if not wholly forgotten, threaten the current devotion while still in the honeymoon stage, and perhaps still vulnerable. The subject of honeymoon cannot be fully discharged in one poem; it re-emerges in another language, another title, “La Lune de Miel.” In this poem, the you is ambitious to form new memories—”You talked like you wanted to meet everyone”—while the speaker focuses on her own “private countryside,” on the “rumor of islands” behind the mountains which “remained hidden.”
The dialectic between love and memory is nowhere better explored in Cotter than “Lovers, We Find Ourselves at the River of Lethe”:
And the question becomes what we do at the shore.
Because you are thirsty
and I am tired enough to pretend I don’t know
the turn we will take. Maybe, water-cupped, you won’t consider
the result, but I know I’ll rock myself to sleep wondering what I did,
letting you taste something like that
when letting you wet your lips, was all I’d wanted to do
because the wind of us gets angry.
The beauty of the ambiguity in this first line is to whom the question is addressed, for it is a we/us at the point of returning to I/me and you. How does one treat the beloved who has reached a different orientation to memory and to that former life in which the couple existed?
My selections from Some Churches are rather unrepresentative. Poetry is not a project, as Dorothea Lasky has said, and it is a relief to read a collection of poems like Some Churches which ranges from one setting, tone, theme, style to another. The poems tend toward a quiet experimentation rather than an experimentalism. Is “Poem as Litany of Songs I Knew You As”—which weaves together titles from Radiohead, The Postal Service, Better Than Ezra and others—an appropriation that comments on how even the romantic self is shot through with mediation? As personal as it is impersonal, I enjoy it as I would an Arcimboldo portrait: a face as well as cornucopia. Some Churches contains prose blocks, personal narratives set in Europe, surrealist doctor’s visits, dispatches from the twenty-something life, brief lyrics. Only the brief lyrics fall short of the promise of the rest. “Transit of Venus,” for example, will deploy a line such as “I say we’re too old to pretend we believe in stars,” yet the emotional strength of this line will not have enough catalyst in the surrounding six lines to truly combust. My favorite lines came from surrealist-tinged “The House of Regret”: “Tell me shell and shadow, / the earth can repair an aviary, can accept / the avowed, can close a door left open / by your mouth.”
Cotter is savvy enough to anticipate in her poems, such as the collection’s second, “Blood Orange,” their critical reception:
I’m told that not having one foot on the ground makes you
cryptic, and I am hoping that by doing this one thing
you understand me, sub-textually. If it were up to me, we’d exist
in a private orbit, watch critics peck at the planet for seeds.
It seems that no one understands what a blood orange is when they see it.
People think that that either the red or the orange should go, because to blend the two
alienates some readers.
The difficult and complex taste of the blood orange, the offense its name gives by combining two categories—of food or of color—becomes a symbol for the speaker’s relationship to a you, and also for the speaker’s manner of writing out to that you. Cotter’s poems hint at private regrets, longings and departures, yet are reserved in their disclosure of details. The reader thus benefits from alienation, becoming an alien in orbit around a planet she or he or it cannot land upon. Let’s call it Negative Capability rewritten, this time as much a capability of sensual body as one of the intellect. To be in awe of gravity and the arcs it draws, to not destroy the planet by mining for some quantifiable resource: Some Churches asks for and awakens to such an approach.
Some Churches, by Tasha Cotter. Boston, Massachusetts: Gold Wake Press. 88 pages. $14.95, paper.
Jeremy Behreandt was raised in Park Falls, Wisconsin. He received his BA from UW-Eau Claire and his MFA from The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His first chapbook, The Wilhelm Scream, was published by Plumberries Press.