Mercer Bufter: The Truant Lover Review

Juliet Patterson’s The Truant Lover (Nightboat Books, $14.95) strikes a rich, full chord, delivering moments of disjunction as well as high lyric beauty. While sampling or adapting work from a host of sources including Rae Armantrout, Tomaz Salamun, Richard Meier, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Grey’s Anatomy and The Golden Book of Birds, Juliet Patterson weaves these bits of raw material into poems that are authentically original, and whose effects range widely in scope. Patterson can deliver bucolic scenes as well as verbal evocations of portraiture in a nearly cubist mode.

In a poem like “New Year’s Eve,” Patterson shows great skill in setting a scene and merging a physical space into a psychic one. The poem begins with a beautiful piece of set-work steeped in contradiction and the specter of absence,

My window’s full of shoreline gone
& gulls slide the glass.

Attention to sound and line remain present even when disorienting effects are being employed or foreshadowed by the poems. The ambiguities of place grow more intense as the speaker regards a postcard. The two locales mix together:

Yarrow & sage, bergamot
soaks the postcard, a leaf beetle
arrested in the frame of a postcard
stamp, a barren sky & your Wisconsin

The repetition of the framing motif, which applies to the speaker as well as the straying leaf beetle reinforces the thrust of the poem, and each instance works beautifully on its own. This poet doesn’t beat her reader over the head with her observations. Creating a world where there are no easy answers, Patterson asks for active reading.

On a technical level, the poems in The Truant Lover are generally built on very solid foundations. In the following passage from section iii of the poem “The Rim,” although the lines are not broken for rhyme, persistent rhythm and internal rhymes underpin Patterson’s effect.

To want is to scrape away time. Here
you have the focus of anxiety, of alchemy as where the shadow
sees just how to live

In these lines the aural affinities between here-anxiety-alchemy-see underpin the interesting ideas in the line. By using internal rhyme to make the lines more convincing to the ear, Patterson strengthens the ideas she ropes together: desire and time, imitation of an ideal, and the ends that emotional anxiety push us toward.

Patterson often works in a spare, fragmented form. In this mode her short lines, often in couplets, hang tenuously on the page. Their effect is somewhat staccato, and in a poem like “Off Berneray,” objects accumulate line to line.

Smell of her bedspread.
Further nicknames.

A pink congelation of sunshine
& cold, a little simpering

laugh. I’m standing on ocean
strand, written in half. …

The accumulations in this poem are personal and also very inventive, making good use of juxtaposition in the surprising line breaks “sunshine / & cold” and “simpering / laugh.” Patterson’s construction is anything but haphazard, and the subtle touches of craft she employs in these poems are admirable. For example the rhyming correspondence between “simpering laugh” and “written in half” works to encapsulate an idea conveyed in the poem. Thereafter, Patterson’s rhetorical and grammatical strategy changes as she brings the poem to conclusion. Here, the poet has moved away from straightforward narrative, instead offering up images that do not occur in real time, but represent something closer to thought recollected. The images are really impressions marshaled for the purpose of drawing conclusions, and in this way Patterson’s technique seems to mirror how we all think, at least some of the time.

These poems are driven by a voice that I think would define the world clearly and unequivocally if it were possible. Instead, the poet is forced (like most of us) to offer up images, the correspondences that connect them, and the humanity behind what life leaves for us. I’ll close with one of Patterson’s most beautiful “conclusions.”

To want is to collapse into a gallery of waves
as meanwhile, the holy dread goes on driving.

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