Life by Elizabeth Arnold
Flood Editions, 2014; 128 pp
Reviewed by Tyler Mills


The lyricism of Life, Arnold’s fourth book (Flood Editions, 2014), re-casts syntactical force with the voltage of a lightening bolt as it strikes a metal post. Think of a poem team-written by the ghosts of George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, and Mina Loy and then shot through with the twenty-first century genius of a poet whose lyric “I”—and eye—speeds out the self and into the most incomprehensible voids of time, and you have Life (aptly named). The first poem in the collection, “Right Whales Off Race Point,” begins,

blacker than black
and out of that


a spray
more like vapor

or air, a kind of rain

but going up (1-7).

The blowhole of the whale creates a space as absent of light as anything we can comprehend—“blacker than black.” And “that” (hardly nameable) “density” becomes massive in how language can hardly articulate it. We are reminded of a black hole, and this absent center is where the magic of the whale’s exhale comes in: so much more than the breath of a single mammal, almost, “more like” a natural system reversed. As the speaker of the poem says, “a kind of rain // but going up.”

What makes this book different from the poems of her last collection, Effacement—another book that treats the poetic line with the dangerous energy of live electrical wire—is that time itself is tossed into different modes by the lyric speaker. The lyric utterance moves past the self and into a space where the world’s larger structures, such as the Nile, move through a kind of geologic time. Life begins with an epigraph by Virgil from The Aeneid (trans. Sarah Ruden): “The river groaned with thousands / Of corpses—Xanthus couldn’t reach the sea.” The river appears in this book not as a mythic river Styx outside of time, but as the very real longest river on our planet in the long poem, “Like Water Flowing,” which begins, “Everything had to look alive inside the tomb. / Outside everything’s dead” (1-2).

A poem such as “The Sun,” an ekphrastic rumination that compares two photographs of our sun, splits like an atom on one particular line break in line nine (but here is the whole poem):

The Sun

In the paper today
two close-ups of the sun shot

ten years apart,

the older one
complete with the familiar spots,

the other, current,

almost entirely clear orange,
cartoon-character-face orange.

It’s thought

any face projected on a screen
is dead.
                         “What can I do?”

she said about some
chronic social wrong I’d brought up.

Nothing, said the sun.

In the ninth line (“It’s thought”), everything about the representation of the sun in both photographs, everything about the poem’s movement to mark a kind of time that marks the death of stars, and as a result, everything we thought made us effectual—as is evident in the friend’s question, “‘What can I do?’”—oscillates between two poles of meaning. “It’s thought” simultaneously seems to refer to the “face” of the new sun, thinking. And at the same time, it refers to the general perception of what can happen in a representation such as a photograph of a person’s face: “It’s thought // any face projected on a screen / is dead” (9-11). Now that’s a poem.

Elizabeth Arnold’s Life, again and again, throws the lyric voice outside of the self—refusing to navel-gaze—and into what always seems on the brink of an impossible cognitive awareness: of how we as humans are visitors to the landscapes of the earth, even though we have forever marked it.