Soldier On, by Gale Marie Thompson. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, January 2015. 86 pages. $16.95, paper.
“I only wanted for to see / the spectral light,” writes Gale Marie Thompson in her first collection of glistening poetry, Soldier On. Yet it is not as much the idea of light that governs this collection, more the gesture of “hand[ing] each other daffodils in the dark,” that speaks to the sort of intimate exchange which readers will be warmly familiarized with in Thompson’s poetry.
Thompson’s method of gathering functions similarly to Lewis Carroll’s iconic phrase “of cabbages and kings”; here, Thompson speaks of root vegetables and Joseph Cornell, John Wayne, Sigourney Weaver, Deepak Chopra. As both a syntactic and symbolic rule, other notions are similarly constructed—far-reaching, surreal. The movement of mouth over surprise is irresistible for Thompson, and what’s most commonly conjured are gifts of the kitchen: “gingersnaps, watermelon, whipping cream.” Describing the effect of the near-non sequitur is to trace closely to the parameters of a poem’s imaginative possibility, one way to move both evocatively and with concision. This sense of poetics is one that Thompson’s poems produce consistently. Like the trick of Carroll’s Walrus and Carpenter, with their darkly amusing apostrophe in medias res, so often the central event of her poems is eclipsed in the very act of speaking of it. In an early poem “If Alkaline, If Extinction,” the present tense moves with a small sleight of hand to the past. We start from a present promise: “We can both be a little reborn, if you’d like”—then jarringly, the action is swallowed two lines later:
… there are several ways to expand
but perhaps this is not the best one.
We never knew the quiet things.
We shared an entire police station.
We shared a passion for beach hats.
Now this month’s divots are puddling on the floor
with this month’s missing gemstone …
I am missing so many bees these days.
The slippage of want, desire, and declaration complicates Thompson’s plainspoken and disarming voice. Hers is work that is part of a wave of poets who manipulate imagined gesture through an approachable, charmed language. The poems of Soldier On are in no way simple; each poem is an entirely different assemblage of tissue: mood, object, light, candor. The most settled element is Thompson’s sureness of voice, leading us through a pantry of personal and cultural reference: “This is the sound of a building when it breathes.”
Thompson includes no overt claim to specific region (apart from a coy “Can you guess which state I’m from?”), or accompanying politics, but provenance betrays itself through the floorboards. Born in Georgia, raised in South Carolina, and currently studying individual and cultural memory at the University of Georgia for her PhD in literature and creative writing, there’s no mistaking the nature of Thompson’s attachment to place. There is a kind of gentle futility to the southern rural experience, one that produces an amicable predilection for the absurd. Though there’s no way to tell for certain within the poems (and it would in some way deflate the resonance in Thompson’s handling of the symbolic space of the house), I instinctively recognize a certain malaise—”kiss the bulldogs” comically so—which joins hands with a spiritual appreciation for material surrounding in this place-oriented psyche: “It is me, sinking at the bottom of the pool. / It looks like hopeful, almost.” What is made of both natural, and personal, effects in the material imagination. Rather than traditionally recognized region, a local sensibility determines her scope of description, from a grammar that sounds nearly colloquially incorrect to old-fashioned word choice (despite the poem’s title “American Bones, Dear Friend”):
We’re just looking at finger potatoes here.
I’d like to know how to walk and see
at the same time. I’d like to know the cityscape.
Anything is liturgical. Anything is healing wounds
and peat moss, a glass dashboard with white hands inside.
How I want to make out is how I want to see
and be in cahoots with. It’s almost as if
my friends are real, have jokes, quit smoking …
Moments of examination hold tones of Lorine Niedecker’s outward-looking interiority, a Wisconsin poet whose relationship to her home space was both literal and figurative firmament, history and feeling superimposed on and into her working-class space. I feel this comparison most strongly in Thompson’s longer sequences, such as in this section from “Glass Eye Poem”:
The unbelievably sheer chance
a long wash missed out on
when I heard you sing
on the radio
An uphill glowing Amazon
Thompson is a poet interested in making shapes with hands, referencing and miming outward with the most basic implements of home itself: “I will have my hands in this deluge.” Niedecker’s spare lines mesh; I feel this effect, too, in Thompson’s likewise spare, though differently balanced, most often end-stopped lines. These clean lines proceed with a thrillingly tenuous hold on order—rhythmic running stitches—and in poems in which she cinches that main through line, the effect is breathtaking. The poet’s images and declarations fall before us, at first glowing as though they want nothing more than immediate acceptance. Yet this gesture feels more like an act of resistance to clinical interpretation, instead solidifying the notion that what’s presented is inseparable from its being said, an uttered diorama. Thompson instead chooses to move laterally in her world building, sifting through an assortment of things found, grown, and handed over in her material grove. Her poem dedicated to artist and experimental filmmaker Joseph Cornell (1903—1972), “Hinge”, moves carefully down the beam dividing sensory memory and image. It also contains my favorite, most Plathian description—”A bell blanches in the air.” Earlier we find:
It was almost as if, or did you say,
I am going to lose this word? I find myself changed
in the warmth of two people eating together.
Like Cornell’s famous shadowboxes, his last notable exhibition apparently “arranged especially for children, with the boxes displayed at child height and with the opening party serving soft drinks and cake,” these poems operate through invitation, proffering of both food and symbol, and by extension, an etiquette that functions between gestures of gift-giving to an open second person. We are treated as guests in the home of the poems, and Thompson obliges, performs, entertains, and converses as host, albeit an introverted, quirky one. She’ll go as far as to reassemble if necessary: “I want to give you the shape of a home / but only if it’s the right one.” Sometimes, we are lavished with attention, and are expect to meet our host in mutual hyperbolic kind:
Sometimes, you don’t want to take off your shoes.
Here, let me cover you with sapphires.
Let me see your suitcase puddle.
It’s not as if we can’t stand for hours
bent this way.
I sometimes feel as though I’m gazing “through a looking glass” at the activity of Thompson’s poems; also given the poet’s interest in Cornell, who displayed found footage of old Hollywood actress Rose Hobart through a deep blue lens, this seems appropriate as a metaphor for the experience of reading another’s memories at a textual remove. Both artists dip into the stuff of the oneiric—and what, really, can we extract from another’s dream? We can know the movement, the color intentionally cast on event. In writing poems in a present tense that’s actually a remembered one, can the authenticity of experience ever rupture recollection? “Today it feels like I’m talking to you / through a tundra.” There’s a distance that marks this collection, one that involves the reader in the act of straining against a felt impossibility, which, in its best moments, mimics the reader’s own experience of trying to meet Thompson’s aphoristic demands: “Nothing is real to me unless it’s right in front of me.”
There is a militancy claimed in the meaning of “soldiering on,” though this as a principle becomes less clear as a narrative through-line for the book, except perhaps as an unconscious procession through privately significant symbols. Perhaps it is a kind of subtle coercion that is exerted through delicacy, a bewitching willing of the reader into an economy of unlikely gifts, which is the procedure of Soldier On. Territory of the home space is recalled, charted in action, relived within the surrealistic community of poems this collection creates. Even the book’s cover image suggests a Bachelardian/Baudelairean neighborhood of possibility: “Anything is a harbor,” and according to this principle of memory, anything harbored in a harbor becomes a harbor for anything of significance.
Originally from Georgia, Alicia Wright has received fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, The Literary Review, Prelude, and The Southeast Review. She was the winner of New South‘s 2015 New Writing Contest and Indiana Review‘s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives and teaches in Iowa City, Iowa.