Couched in Verse

In Molly Peacock’s latest collection, poetic form, like psychoanalysis, offers safe passage through perilous waters

A little girl, escaping monsters, washes up on unfamiliar shores where an analyst takes her in. Over 40 years the analyst cares for her, as the little girl turns into a poet, a grown woman, a grey queen. She marries a knight and moves to a faraway land. Then the analyst has a stroke, an AVM (that stands for arteriovenous malformation). She becomes a little girl, escaping monsters, and washes up on unfamiliar shores—where the poet takes her in.

Such is the backstory, or one of them, of Molly Peacock’s new collection of poems, The Analyst (full disclosure: Biblioasis has published my work, as well). The story is autobiographical, yet strikingly archetypal in its shape, even if some of its key figures—the analyst, that monster known as an AVM—are not part of the classical repertoire.

If your poems are mythopoeic but the myth—the story with which they are engaged—is not (or not yet) part of a common horde, how do you give your reader the context? How do you tell that reader enough, but not too much?

Peacock has been giving readers the backstory for this book in other venues since early last year, when her essay “White Swan, Black Swan: Poetry in an Analytical Hour” appeared on the blog of the Poetry Foundation; her essay “My Analyst of 40 Years Had a Stroke—Then Became an Artist,” in Partisan, followed a few months later. She cites both essays in her brief afterword to The Analyst, which does its own bit of context setting. But the afterword—a few paragraphs at the collection’s end—left me wanting more (I went back to both of those online essays, rapt). And also less. “The poems in this book raise the question of whether psychoanalysis releases or defeats a poet’s muse,” Peacock writes. In Molly Peacock: A Critical Introduction, his 2014 monograph on the poet’s work, Jason Guriel flags “one slightly worrisome, recurring sign” in Peacock’s recent poetry: “the gimmick of a poet wringing her hands over her poems in real time.” I thought of that as I read the afterword to The Analyst, thinking, no, don’t do it: no hand-wringing. I wanted the poet to walk out of the darkened theatre as her alter ego does in the poem “The Pottery Jar,” with her spine “straightened,” her head held high.

For me the most effective bit of context setting for this book is a single line from Peacock’s Poetry Foundation essay (the quotations-within-the-quotation are from James Merrill): as her life in letters evolved alongside her psychoanalysis, she writes, “poetry and psychoanalysis ‘like a May fete’ became inextricable, a double helix ‘wound in ribbons round the pole’ of a developing self.”

In poetry circles, Peacock is often classed as a formalist, meaning that she makes liberal use of rhyme and metre—the sorts of patterning associated with traditional prosody. But, as Peacock writes in her essay “From Gilded Cage to Rib Cage,” traditional prosody is also associated with “the common wisdom … that the poet must choose the suitable form for the subject.” As Alexander Pope wrote, in his Essay on Criticism, “’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence, / The sound must seem an Echo to the sense.”

Here, Peacock parts ways with traditional prosody, cleaving to what she sees as a particularly female tradition of poets who will choose a verse form not to match (Peacock’s word), or echo (Pope’s word), the feeling but rather “to contain, to control, or otherwise make the feeling safe to explore.” She cites poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Barbara Howes, among others—she might have cited Richard Wilbur, another poet she admires: for this strategy is not the sole province of women. As Wilbur writes (in an oft-quoted passage), “one does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means of organizing oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.”

Peacock’s world has been out of hand for almost as long as she can remember: a violent, alcoholic father; a depressed and often absent mother; a sister she was made to care for while still a child herself. “Formal verse often makes impossible emotions possible,” she writes in “From Gilded Cage,” and she intuited this early on. By 1989, when her third book came out, she was a master of the strategy:

Buying flowers
lowers
panic levels
as bevels
in mirrors
reduce terrors
by taking
images
and breaking
their edges …
(from “A Simple Purchase,” in Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems)

Form, too, lowers panic levels. A rhyme scheme can be the clew that promises a poet a way back out of a traumatic memory—and thus emboldens her to venture into it, in the first place.

The Analyst, like Peacock’s earlier collections, has its share of impossible emotions. But it is also a book about possible healing, and in this context it is interesting to see Peacock experimenting, not just with the containment of sense by sound, but with that Pope-ian echo of sense by sound, that match of form and content. I am thinking of her use of repetition: repeated words, repeated phrases, even whole lines; anaphora; homonymic words or phrases; identical rhyme (always in her toolkit, but used more consistently here than elsewhere):

Slice the baby potatoes, skins on,
turn to the smooth black surface on
the stove where two steamers — enamel —
swim like red fish painted on enamel
and prepare with attention, like you,
my intimate witness, like you
who will never speak to me again
whom I will never see again,
hearing from your friend who tried
when you said, Let me die,

I want to die, to help you …
(from “Gusto”)

I think not only of the compulsive repetitions of trauma, but of the evolving repetitions of psychotherapy (Freud’s remember, repeat, work through) or physiotherapy (the analyst’s “twist[ing] and learn[ing]” [“Life, Lightened”] as she remasters keys, and words, and stairs, post-stroke). “Repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise”: that’s Elizabeth Bishop, in “North Haven,” her memorial poem for Robert Lowell. In previous books, Peacock has shown us how the repetitions of poetic form can contain the ruptures of violence. Here, she shows us how they can also enact processes of growth and change; of hard-won, incremental revision.

“[Peacock’s] life was too fragmented to treat in collage,” writes Guriel, in that 2014 monograph. From the start, she eschewed the trendy a-linearity of much late 20th-century American poetry. He quotes her: “I valued clarity above all else in writing and was so often disappointed by my obscureness.” Reading The Analyst, I sometimes felt Peacock takes her devotion to clarity too far, resorting to straight description, ploddingly prosaic:

Thank you for waving goodbye as that young woman
set off to cohabit with a man who wore a bathrobe
till 5 in the afternoon and smelled of Balkan Sobranies,
and thank you for the welcome back.
Thank you for your applause as she changed
the locks and the password to the bank account,
for now she had a bank account.
(from “The Pottery Jar”)

Rereading the book, I could see that this is at least to some extent intentional: as Peacock writes in her Partisan essay, description “recreates life from extinction. Analysis is all gone now.” The Analyst is a re-creative project, an attempt to summon up anew not only the person of that intimate witness the speaker mourns, but also the whole long, collaborative creation that was the analysis itself.

If that explains the prevalence of prosy description in The Analyst, it did not quite, for me, give it aesthetic warrant. And yet, it was against the backdrop of those prosy passages that I appreciated the lyric energy of the poems that are for me the book’s triumphs: “Credo,” which hums with pent-up emotion; “Tuesday Tombstone,” with its grave inversions; “Mandala in the Making,” the book’s carefully orchestrated final poem—and, most of all, the two translated Anglo-Saxon riddle poems that Peacock drops, without context or (much) comment, into the middle of the collection. Through some sleuthing in the publication credits, I determined these were written for—or at least included in—another project, a collection of Anglo-Saxon translations by contemporary poets, called The Word Exchange. But the inclusion of these riddles in The Analyst is not gratuitous. It is perfect, indicating in two succinct, lightning flashes of verse the shape-shifting virtuosity that can be a quality of a speaker in a poem, a soul in analysis (“I was a girl,   grey queen, / and a man, solo,   ll in a single hour” [from “Riddle, or The Therapy Hour”]). Here is the second riddle, quoted in full:

I watched a wonder,     bright marauder,
bearing its booty   between its horns.
An etched ship of air,     a silver sky-sliver,
it lugged a month’s loot   from its raid on time
to build a great bower   from all it brought back
— if only it might   make plunder into art.
Climbing the sky-cliffs   rose another wonder
its dazzle known   to all dwellers on earth.
It seized the spoils   and drove the silver creature
with all its wrecked wishes   off to the west
(hurling back insults   as it hurried home).
Dust rose to heaven.    Dew fell on earth.
Night went forth.    Nothing afterwards then.
No man knew how   to map its path.
(“Riddle: Moon & Sun”)

Peacock gives the traditional “solution” of the riddle in her title. But like many of the Anglo-Saxon riddles, this one creates story-creatures that do not quite evaporate in the light of their “solved” identities. Other solutions, discernible in the poem’s sol-lunar light, propose themselves: in the context of Peacock’s book, “analysis & poetry” (or “poetry & analysis”), “word & world,” “reader & writer” …

Enigma is not the same as obscurity: as Peacock herself pointed out in Arc Poetry Magazine, the authors of the Anglo-Saxon riddle poems are “valiant” in their devotion to clarity—describing the moon, in this instance, “four times in an effort to get it right.” But it (enigma) is a friend of complexity. (“As an older woman, I hardly ever feel anything unalloyed,” Peacock writes in her Partisan essay.) And also of mystery.

Guriel speaks of Peacock’s “late style” as a casual confidence—one not always underwritten by pains taken. But reading these poems I wondered if her late style may hold out something else, as well. A poet who has spent her career labouring in the service of clarity has earned the right, in her seventies—and as she begins to contemplate what Northrop Frye called the riddle of death—to embrace the pleasures of enigma.

I can see how, like a patient in analysis, I have projected my own preoccupations—with myths, with riddles (both central to my own poetry; both, like form, technologies that make “impossible emotions possible”)—onto Peacock. Perhaps this is just in the nature of reading. There is a sense in which all writers, even the least “confessional,” confess to language, to the empty page—that opaque confessional screen on the other side of which is a reader. Yet any lifelong reader will know that the opposite is also true: books—which, if silent, are far from unresponsive—are the intimate witnesses to our (readers’, as well as writers’) inner lives.