Poetry Review by John Wall Barger

Karen Enns, Cloud Physics (Regina: University of Regina, 2017). Paperbound, 70 pp., $19.95.

Frequent, small loads of laundryCloud Physics opens with the title poem, highlighting the book’s tone and subject matter right off the bat: “This is the time of ... the geologies of terror / and eternity, the motherlode of fear, of grace, // the flash of face to face to face in our minds, / cloud physics, hail, massive doubt.” Cloud physics refers to the science of atmospheric clouds. But Enns is measuring the atmosphere of society. The book charges forward with a strong series of post-apocalyptic, almost Blakean, poems, using the natural universe—planets, stars, mist, clouds—as symbols of our disintegrating cultural landscape. The speaker, cool and distant, observes the hysteria and paranoia of the world almost wistfully:

            But there was a kind of radiance stirring in us,
wasn’t there? Something unexplained and shy.
Our hair moved lightly with the changing winds.
A coolness on our arms reminded us of some particularity
of birth, or was it rebirth?
The way we slept was different. (“We Woke to a New Century”)

“To raise the veil,” as Louise Glück says, “To see what you’re saying goodbye to.” In another era, Enns might have sounded cynical; in this post-truth age, she is prophetic.

The second section is in a more subdued, personal register. The “we” voice shifts to “I.” The speaker admires her “stalwart” house, misses her children, remembers a dead man who’d worked at a frame shop. These poems search for reverence in the quotidian. You can picture the poet absorbing her surroundings with empathy. Enns’ poetic voice conveys humility and honesty. Poetry is not precious, but made up of everyday epiphanies. Enns—as here, in the second half of “Vermeer Effect”—even demystifies the writing process:

            And I turned the pigeon into a dove,
which did not land on a railing near the exit sign,
but alit. A second coming.
The Vermeer effect, all mine.
The pool of benediction, also mine.
And no one on the gritty platform noticed.
This may have been a necessary rhythmic choice,
a tension or a lyrical device. I can’t remember now.
Did I add remorse? Fragmentation?
Loss? You would know.
The only truth: I stood on a crowded platform
waiting for a train, which was red
and punctual.
I didn’t move.
I was alone.
I wanted more.

This instant of solitary craving might be the most personal in the book. Often Enns, in her lyric poems, keeps us at a distance. My favorite poets, like Glück and Sharon Olds, seem willing to share any personal detail for the sake of their art. Glück, in her essay “Against Sincerity,” says, “Substantial contributions to our collective inheritance were made by poets whose poems seemed blazingly personal, as though the poets had performed autopsies on their own living tissue.” But is this necessary? Certainly, poets can write forcefully without confessing. Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan, for example, both pack a punch, without (often) confessing their secrets. Unlike Dickinson and Celan, however, Enns leads us to expect that the “I” in her poems is intimately related to the biographical poet. When she says, of the frame-shop man, “every time I’m in the mall I look for him,” we are led to assume that she was literally at that mall. I don’t carry this assumption to her “we” voice poems, but with her lyric poems she has entered the ring with those who use a (semi-) reliable “I” voice.

Her long poem “Twelve Months” exacerbates my longing for the “blazingly personal.” It’s in the voice of her father: one poem for each of his last months. The “you” is, presumably, the daughter/poet, but the context is not clear. The voice speaks of light and trillium and goldenrod and dust and cumulus, creating a dense language of natural images to describe the inner world of the dying man, while somehow avoiding personal details altogether. In “November,” the voice asks what “A blast of starlings” means. “A sign of compensation? Maybe. But for what? ... / for the silence that spreads itself like a version of regret / over this band of soil.” The word “regret” begs clarification. What does the father regret? Here, as elsewhere, potential epiphany lapses into abstraction. I kept craving a revelation as in Olds’ “The Lifting,” where the daughter watches her dying father lift his nightshirt: in his scars and sunken flesh, we see his entire story. By contrast, “Twelve Months” provides us with a series of objective correlatives, such as, “When you look away you will see my afterimage / moving on the water, brighter.” After all these ghostly allusions to emotions, we hunger for more.

Cloud Physics has some fine turns. The prophetic poems of the first section are stunning. Enns, in her lyric poems, admirably allows ideas to live in uncertainty, without forcing reconciliation. Throughout, I like the music, the long jagged lines, and the empathy and fierce intelligence of the voice. “A Son’s Story” is an understated poem about driving her father to his parents’ graves.
I want to hear the meadowlark one more time, he said. / And so my father put his cane against the rotting fence / and sat down heavy on a stone. / A meadowlark landed on another one / and sang. And sang its heart out you would say.”

Enns might not always “raise the veil,” but when she does, the results are powerful.

—John Wall Barger

As in The Malahat Review, 200, Autumn 2017, 145-147