Review by Sarah Vogelsong
WHAT IS HEARD
by Rachel Adams
Red Bird Chapbooks
N3105 Elm Lane
Pepin, WI 54759
2013, 26 pp., $10
For reasons of tone or subject, some poems seem attached to seasons, and Rachel Adams’ inaugural collection of poetry What Is Heard (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013), although published in midsummer, to me finds its greatest resonance in fall, the season of putting in order and taking account. In this slim volume, comprising thirteen poems, individuals have turned their thoughts from life’s momentous events to the more meditative duties and pleasures. By the time we read of their lives, the people to whom Adams gives voice are past falling in love; they are negotiating the end of their relationships. They are not buying houses and beginning anew; they are rebuilding and patching together the seams of the old. They are not balanced at the peak of crisis; they are coming to terms with the world in its aftermath.
I have known Adams since we worked together as editors in Washington, DC, and so I had seen a few of these poems over the years as they were published in various literary magazines. But although each still packs a punch when it stands alone, the whole in this case really is more than the sum of its parts because of the thematic coherence of the collection. What most struck me in reading What Is Heard is how much a chapbook can be like a concept album, with each element building on the last, links appearing between the different poems, and the complete set gaining much more force because the author has allowed the reader to look at a single question or subject from so many different angles and in so many different lights.
Adams sets the tone of the collection from the get-go: there is nothing sparse about these poems or the world they describe; instead, they overflow with detail, with symbols and signifiers that harken back to other times, people not present, places that only exist in traces. The landscape for her is no “scraped raw” West, but her native East, “heavy and damp,” swollen with the aftereffects of storms that have already passed through.
The opening poem “What You Bring Along” orients the reader to what is to come, not only bringing us back to the East with its layers of accumulated history but directing us away from the highways that figure so prominently in American writing. Adams is looking for something more subtle and organic: “somewhere, south of your intended route,/ … a trail bordering a reservoir.”
Trails wind throughout almost every poem of What Is Heard, tracing a path between the destination sought and the memories that continually pull the traveler back into the past. But although physical markers—the “blue paint-blazes on the trees” of “The Movement”—are littered along these trails, the real debris are not objects, but words, “what is heard,” or, more often than not, “what has been heard.”
So it is that in “The Movement,” one of the strongest poems of the collection, what the narrators encounter at the conclusion of the trail is a cabin with
ballpoint-pen diatribes, and expletives,
and the record book hanging on a nail,
brittle and teeming with little histories.
No matter how much a burden words may be—and the words of “The Movement” are full of pain (they are “brittle,” “diatribes,” “expletives”)—for Adams, words are most fundamentally affirmations of meaning, the illustration of shared memories formed over time.
Consequently, what drives this poem (and, to a large extent, the collection) is the tension that arises between these words that are “everywhere” and the silence that threatens to snuff them out in “a stifling that is subtle.” “The Movement” is full of words that have been heard, but it takes place before new words can be spoken; it ends on the long breath someone takes prior to saying things they do not wish to say.
In this way, words and trails overlap throughout What Is Heard: trails are lined with words and words create long trails of meaning. The fear that creeps through the poems at times is that the trails will eventually end, the words disappear into silence. Nowhere is this fear better expressed than in “Catoctin Mountain Traversal,” at the dense heart of the book, where “the past comes folding in” so close that it penetrates and is absorbed into “the buried time I hold inside my coat.” Here the trail leads nowhere: it “spirals out” but arrives only at a “flat and vacant peak,” becoming at the last moment not a trail, but the closed, burnt-out rings of a cut tree.
This fear of absence, silence, nothingness returns three poems later in the intensely personal “Kinetic,” a work that describes Adams’ own experience undergoing heart surgery in her thirties. But although there is a bleakness to this poem (“What a thing it is to be incapacitated,” the second stanza begins), there is also the sense that all is not lost. The sterility of the first stanza—“mechanized,” “sanitized,” “automatic”—is overcome in the second by the tenacious confirmation of being “alive,” even if “only for minutes here and there.” The struggle is being able to sense (to hear) but not to speak.
The poem from which the chapbook draws its title, “Harvey Mountain Sound Walk,” is one of the clearest expressions of what drives Adams’ work forward. Based on her time at an arts colony in the Taconics, the act of hearing is elevated from a passive absorption of unfolding time to the poet’s active decision to engage, uncover, and catalogue. “We note, like fastidious scientists, what is heard,” Adams writes, and that is, first of all, “one’s own footsteps.” From that recognition of the self, she expands outward to the cicada, the airplane, and the bluejay, the observations accumulating one on top of the other. Even when darkness falls, nothing is lost or erased: “Harvey Mountain will store up its sounds,/ hibernating, rolling them into itself.” The act is similar to the folding in of “Catoctin Mountain Traversal,” but in meaning totally different: in the Catoctins, the trail collapses inward to create a kind of black hole where meaning is annihilated, whereas on Harvey Mountain, the trail becomes part of the flux of life that feeds poetry.
The Taconics return once more before the end of the chapbook in “Northerly,” another love poem that, like “The Movement,” is marked by foreboding. Here “what is heard” takes on a rawer edge, becoming almost a question: “Tell me the sound,” Adams writes in the first stanza, and for a moment, love and poetry seem to become one. “Tell me the sound—/ … of memory, of folding-out road,/ of possibility.”
But having brought us to this brink, she sends us crashing down at the opening of the second stanza with a line from Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”: “I had a thought for no one’s but your ears.” She leaves unsaid Yeats’ next lines: “it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown/ As weary-hearted as that hollow moon,” but that unsettling emptiness still permeates the rest of the stanza, encapsulated in the “heavy press of a palm” that brings the poem to its conclusion. The reader knows immediately that something is wrong, that the trail has gone crooked and “the words that warmed us so” will ultimately be brought to silence again.
These are dense poems, although they read easily. Like the hiker who gets caught up in the beauty of a trail without discerning any of the details of flora and fauna around him, it’s easy for a reader to be lulled by the smoothness of Adams’ rhythms and the loveliness of her language. But a more careful reader, or someone who returns to these poems again and again, will begin to see the links between each piece and to unearth the “stories in the ground,/ in the low layers.”
Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor living in Richmond, VA. Her work has appeared in Style Weekly, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and The Neworld Review. (sarahvogelsong.com)