Canticle of the Night Path by Jennifer Atkinson
Free Verse Editions, 2013; 78 pp
Reviewed by Paul French
Jennifer Atkinson’s latest book, Canticle of the Night Path (Winner of the New Measure Poetry Prize, Free Verse Editions, 2013), seemed like formalist work during my first thumb through. The stanzas looked kempt and controlled (they’re organized by variant rules of five: i.e. five sentences or five stanzas or five lines, etc.)—connected by, at first glance, conventional lyric language, anaphora, even some classic old “O’s,” as in “O they sang to the wax and wane” (21).
I’d never read any of Atkinson’s work before and, not knowing what else to expect, I expected a throwback—a golden-age-slavering tribute, a raising of the Titanic—but, yeah, it’s not that. While Canticle may give us good views of its trunk and roots, this book’s branches, make no mistake, are lush and new—wilding out with the knowledge of a strong foundation. Once I dug into Atkinson’s book, I was shocked by just how utterly and refreshingly strange it was. As I mentioned, this strangeness/newness isn’t prima facie. You’ll probably miss it if you don’t allow the poems their due time to reveal the directions/misdirections of their traditional aspects (see Closer Poetry #1 below for a good example).
A canticle is basically one of the many Biblical songs or chants not contained in Psalms. The singer of a canticle is one of rhapsodic passion, possibly one who has just felt the hand of God and has burst into song as a result. It is an ecstatic medium and one that yields fascinating results when appropriated for the voice of the 21st Century poet. I notice that Atkinson’s canticles maintain a passionate tone, but also an inquisitive one. It’s as if the speaker of the poems is being touched by various forces of nature (and culture) and is singing out to question their essence, often without answer. As I mentioned, this is a lush book, and its interrogations are myriad—ranging from spirituality, feminism, ontology, and so on. Despite its short length (about 60 pages of poetry), it’s one of those great books that could launch a thousand pages of thought. I am going to highly recommend that you check it out. And if you’re not quite sure yet, check out my close reading of a sample poem below in our first Closer Poetry.
Closer Poetry #1
This is the first installation of a new series in which I provide a close reading from my reviewed book. If the review above is favorable, you can bet I'm cherrypicking one of my favorites. If the review above is unfavorable, you can bet that I'm reverse cherrypicking and that the poem below serves as a metric for the work's deeper problems. I write these as a chance for our readers to receive a good look at the nuts and bolts of a book before they decide if it's something they want to try. So, please, read this poem with me and see what you think. We can start a dialogue about your ideas on the AMRI Facebook page to discuss this poem, this reading, and more.
From Jennifer Atkinson's Canticle of the Night Path, (pg 22)
Canticle of the Gate
Such responsibility the gate takes on! To bar and to beckon, to pre-
serve and to serve, to court and to thwart penetration!
The iron bars were wrought to look emaciated and arabesque like
a dancer on point--that easily tipped over. O the elegant curliques
and graces, the rays and arrows, the impossible symmetries of the
spaces! But in its very delicacy resounds the stern clang of its es-
sential nature. The gate cannot be breached without the key or a
You and I cannot pass through. The alley cat no one cares for (she
does for herself by herself nicely) steps between the bars. The child,
fearless with curiosity and disregard for the future, winkles herself
under. But you and I are politely and firmly declined.
Beyond continues the same street, the same rain- and foot-worn
cobbles, the same wood shutters at the windows painted the same
shade of cerulean blue. Except--and it is an exceptional excep-
tion--we may never walk there.
Not at all and yet we wonder. Looking through, distanced by those
torqued black lines the iron draws across the scene, we feel our-
selves, our bodies change, our postures shift in response. The white
cat turns her sleek head and stares.
1-2 These bucking exclamations are odd animals. Their blood is old. I read these and hear echoes of classical odes in that tone of instant rhapsody. I behold the object! And how intriguing the object is! How express and admirable!
The object beheld here is the gate, a vested symbol for the canticle form (see review), bringing to mind St. Peter and the pearlies. But at this moment the speaker's view doesn't light on the gate as a gateway. No, the speaker's focus doesn't yet extend beyond the latch. Instead, the gate is treated as an end rather than a means. Rather than being a purposed thing, Atkinson's gate is a thing with purpose. It is taking on responsibilities, not being given them. The litany of infinitives appends this personification with a mixture of duty and uncertainty. What can/will the gate do? Notice Atkinson's cut of the word, "preserve" here. Why did she do this? Pre/serve?
3-5 The personification of the gate bleeds out of the couplet and into this stanza with the figuration of iron bars looking, strangely, "like/ a dancer on point--that easily tipped over."
The bars transmuted into elegance, they are thus made vulnerable, attenuated by and into beauty--the ballet player's arabesque pose a signifier of control brinking on collapse. If a gate represents order, there is, here, the possibility of disturbance. And, as with the dancer, this balance is to be admired. "O," Atkinson muses, classically again, "..the elegant curliques/ of graces, the rays and arrows, the impossible symmetries."
Of course, this Blake-like panegyric language is risky. Despite the tongue-in-cheek pairing of "elegant curliques," it's possible that a reader could mistake that old blood I mentioned before as rust on a very overwrought gate. But then comes the turn, the riskiest move of the poem, and by far its fulcrum.
6-8 As I mentioned, by this point Atkinson's poem has built up a lot of pressure, and the turn, to borrow from her vein of language so far, is nigh.
It's hinted in the classic use of "But" that prompts the sentence regarding the gate's "es-/sential nature" (Like "pre-/serve," "es-/sential" is a puzzling cut. Is this a Satrean reference in line with the ideas of the first stanza? A continuation of the personification? "Sential" a whisper at "Sentience?" More questions for our readers).
But back to the turn. It's the line of one word, "blowtorch," whose non-sequitur tone lifts away some of the poem's weight and changes the register for the rest of the language. And it's delivered like a punch-line, isolated and final, given a pause. This was a shocking moment for me--so clever, so dangerous. I admire the risk and finesse of it, much like I would admire a dancer who risks falling by placing all her weight on a single toe.
9-12 Here the voice comes down from its classical-sounding meditations to a more intimate level. Suddenly Atkinson's speaker is talking directly to us: "You and I cannot pass through" (You'll notice that the language is more conversational throughout the rest of the poem).
Even though the speaker and the addressed are barred from what lies beyond the gate (I could make a few obvious associations here), a stray cat and a child are able to slip through the gaps in the bars. The "You" and the "I" enter the poem to be set against antithesis figures of wildness, both wild independence and wild innocence (the cat and the baby), but where do these figures go?
Fourth & Fifth Stanzas
13-20 At last, we have a look at the beyond, but it isn't what we might suspect, given the heavenly connotations of the gate I alluded to above. It's a sameness, inglorious and on-stretching that greets us. It's the same streets, the same houses, same everything--a cookie-cutter repeating landscape. However, as the speaker says, there is a crucial difference: we ("you and I") cannot enter (in fact, she says, we are forbidden to walk there). Like a gated community, Atkinson's beyond space is defined in part by its exclusivity.
But if it's all the same, why should we care? According to the poem's language so far, the aesthetic value of the gate is greater than that of the mundane property it guards. Maybe the grass is just greener though, because the speaker continues to focus on where she can't venture, which causes her to change, not psychologically, as we might expect from obsessive desire, but physically. Both the speaker and the addressed change "in response," Atkinson writes, to the scene of the gate and the beyond. The cat from the third stanza senses something is happening and stares back, hauntingly, at the transformed speaker.
Here's my theory (one of a few) on this ending. The speaker and the addressed have merged with the gate. Standing there for so long in front of this restricted zone has cursed them to remain, like a tableau of a dancer, in a liminal pose. They are bent along with the iron, and maybe they're beautiful this way, but they are static figures now. They have become the object of the gaze, as the white cat stares at them from the other side.
But give us YOUR reading. Like our Facebook page and start a conversation. And make sure to purchase Jennifer Atkinson's Canticle of the Night Path, available now from Free Verse Editions.