I used to read poetry confidently. When I edited my college paper, back at Beloit, we put W.S. Merwin on the front page and ran a long interview with the even more obscure Laurence Lieberman. But more recently, I read poetry tentatively, and, in my worst moments, defensively. (I have the same reactions to contemporary art.) I curse Jorie Graham.
Then I remember the very basic rule of reading poetry: work harder. Read it several times; read it slowly; let it percolate through my mind.
When I do this, the rewards are amazing. I’ve recently finished Shana Youngdahl’s affecting chapbook Donner: A Passing. It took me some time to realize that her very syntax absorbs her subject: starvation and how it changes people.
Before starvation ends life, it distorts consciousness. Consider this passage, well into the book:
Back at the lake: cabins buried under, survivors
immune to fumes of shit and vomit
Little movement, this, the felling
of trees. The dead
The bible murmured aloud, a forsaken
mountain where few breathe.
Each day the same bones
boiled and chewed.
The known world: thinning.
Look at what’s happened to the verbs. They are enfeebled into gerunds, exiled to adjectival clauses (“Where few breathe). Notice the way the omitted “are” and “is” petrify the writing: (are) boiled and chewed, (are) immune to fumes . . .
Notice the horror of “frozen-eyed storms” which denotes snow but evokes the dead settlers.