Oyster Boy Review 18  
  Winter 2003–4
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Spar, by Karen Volkman

Reginald Shepherd

Karen Volkman.
University of Iowa Press, 2002.
57 pages, $13 (paperback).
ISBN: 0877458073

Karen Volkman is one of the most talented poets in America today. Her poems are rife with startle and surprise, but the unexpected images and phrases always feel apt—they are never attempts at novelty for novelty's sake, but rather the elements of what Auden called a secondary world. The poems are strange, distant and intimate in the manner of dreams, and also like dreams in their clarity and focus: we may not know what the events and objects "mean," but we feel their reality no less intensely. "It could be a bird that says summer, that says gather no late failing harvest in a wealth of arms." For the most part the poems discard the anchors of narrative or persona ("If it be event, I go toward and not back. I go tower and not floor"), proceeding instead by leaps of aural and metaphoric logic. "Tender feather, tell me a flight thing, never a trap thing, never a fall." They catch on spars of image and language, and spar with the matter of which they are made: "I believe there is a song that is stranger than wind, that sips the scald from the telling, toss, toss." Spar is primarily comprised of a series of untitled prose poems, unrelenting in their intensity. There's an almost devotional quality to the poems, many of which are addressed to or speak of a lover or deity or both—they call up English Metaphysical god seekers like George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Thomas Traherne, as well as Emily Dickinson's restless hunger for transcendence, her mining of the sacred for the erotic and the erotic for the sacred. The poems ecstatically immerse themselves in an ocean of words and emotion and intellect (and for Volkman feelings and thoughts are one): each one is a "Little skiff, on a sea of excess." Much contemporary American poetry seems embarrassed by passion; Spar's fearless lyricism is a welcome rebuke to knee-jerk irony and earnest mundanity. As one poem puts it, "I am more than carbon or echo." It's a challenging and invigorating book.