Little Arias by Kristen Case
New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2015; 81 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
There are birds in many of the poems in Kristen Case’s debut collection, Little Arias. There are birds in enough of the poems that the book leans into being an aviary, birds of particular species—robins and hummingbirds—sharing space with gestures and muscles that are bird-like. Unseen sets of birds mark time and the thinking that fits within it. “Make the birds a figure for thought,” Case writes in “Directive.” A visible flock “folds and unfolds its single body” in “Morning.” The little arias of the title might be sung by birds. For birds, all sound making—song and calling—is communication.
To make sounds, whether or not those sounds contain language, is a way of traversing the distance from your own body to the body of another. We send sound beyond the body to populate the space between. The poems in Little Arias take up a generous range of the ways we might be between, and the pairs in which we might share something between us, whether two people, a human and a tree, or a human and a poem.
The six sections of Little Arias, two of which house individual poems, three of which contain poems in a series, and one of which is a single, two-page poem, all have an internal logic that speaks back to questions of what betweenness is, and who or what might share it. “Twelve Sentences,” is the first of the book’s six sections, and it employs language from Dickinson, Emerson, Bachelard and others. In “6,” Case writes, “I am trying to describe a poetry of interruption and silence derived / from the experience of continually moving out of one’s own habitual / modes of speaking and into the language of another.” Language, like song, in Case’s poems, is made for sharing. Case also considers the work that silence does—and what might be between silence and language.
Silence is beautiful to these poems. “On Silence and the Desire for Silence” opens:
In the months before my son made intelligible sounds,
we shared, sometimes, a perfect solitude.
It was as if language were a house
that I could walk out of.
There is a homology in these lines between silence and the absence of language. The speaker’s son makes sounds, but they aren’t yet words. Music, then, might be a kind of solitude to these poems, or even a kind of silence. An aria, which has more music and fewer words than a recitative, offers its own betweenness, allowing periods without language to open into moments shared between music and words. What’s shared between forms both physical and non-physical is the locus around which the book’s poems rotate. Being with, in these poems, is another way of being between.
In “Landscape with Childbirth and Pronoun,” the exchange between figures happens within the body. Case writes, “My body is a house, the rooms of which / are built of birds. Into these rooms, a swift / violence of light.” In “Being with Words,” exchange takes place between bodies of words and the human body, “image or shadow of / interchange between the unfolding that is called myself or my body and / the unfolding called a sentence.” Writing, which has form but no weight it can transfer from print to speaking, hovers in air like Case’s unified body of birds. Drawing a parallel between the body and the sentence as figures that unfold allows the sentence to briefly let silence and music be the primary features of being made of words. A sentence that matters for its movement, and not its content, might help articulate how and why bodies interact and intersect and how time does the weird things it does to space, memory existing in space that isn’t space anymore, a little like the room words make when they are spoken.
Case’s poems are exercises in paying attention, in trying again and again to articulate the moment at which a poem becomes a poem, or a child becomes a child, or two people become singular to one another. At the other end of her questions about how things start is a curiosity about how they sustain themselves. The newness of having a baby shares room with the anxiety of knowing that your small children will be small only briefly, that “someday this swing-set will be decayed and abandoned and no one / will have played on it for years and the swings will be broken and you’ll / see it from out the kitchen window but you won’t be able to have it torn / down because of your weird pseudo-mystical belief that the past inheres / in objects.”
After the final poem in Little Arias, there is a note on “Twelve Sentences” that may itself be a poem. It closes: “The sentences are limits / I set them down as if setting a table.” In the book’s final words, language is kinetic, and it moves without weight. Words written, and those said in air are picked up and put down, and this movement ties them to bodies that speak and read and write. The book does beautiful, diligent work to build poems that are homes for what they contain, as sentences and moments and bodies might be homes for one another, as a body that is a house made of birds (and, therefore, a kind of machine made of birds) can develop other bodies within itself but can’t keep them there. The bird and the sentence, and the body and the house, exist between physicality and its absence, and so part of their physical form is occluded, and part of their music lives in bodies that want to take the weight of that music through the body in order to send it into words that communicate as the arias of birdsong might.
Case’s lovely and careful and curious first collection of poems sounds, in places, like a response to the call of “There is a Birdsong at the Root of Poetry,” the first poem in Jennifer Moxley’s most recent book, The Open Secret. Moxley, like Case, lives and teaches in Maine. Both of the campuses at which they teach are in towns of about or less than 10,000 people. Perhaps the quiet that Maine’s landscape offers, and the inevitable fissure of that quiet, supports some of the two books’ twin attunements and patient, relentless working and reworking of what it means to listen and what listening affords. Case’s poems illustrate what the close care of Moxley’s instructions might produce. Moxley’s poem closes, “ . . . listen / and hear / what those who know all / can not.”