Two lines in a (chubby) chapbook of 35 poems is pretty damn good. That’s, oh, maybe an average of one in 350 lines or 0.29 % of the chapbook. I’m talking about Peg Duthie’s poetry chapbook, Measured Extravagance, from Upper Rubber Boot Books, and the number I’m citing is the number of lines in it that drive me crazy. Both lines are inversions. And both appear in the final line of poems each comprising six tercets. Coincidence? I wonder. Here’s one of them: “…these things I know, though my bones believe them not.” Here’s the other: “… and you’ll keep wanting more. So worry not.” Inversions, archaic-sounding they are, and Yoda-ish to boot, constructions that pre-20th century poets oft-times used to shoehorn their lines into a chosen form. Modern poets have shied from the inversion, giving their lines a natural sound that holds more closely to contemporary speech patterns. And Duthie is most definitely a modern poet. She does not write flarf or far-out Christian Bök-ish hyper-conceptual poetry. It is deliberate and carefully crafted. I can’t help but sense a clear mind behind the words working to deliver a clear message. It is modern.
So why those two lines?
If 99.71% of the lines in Measured Extravagance are deliberate and careful, then I assume that the other 0.29% are as well. It’s a puzzle. Bear with me while I try to figure it out.
The first clue to solving the puzzle is the first poem, “Jump Shots with William Shakespeare.” We imagine Duthie playing a game of one-on-one with the bard himself, a man for whom inverted constructions no big deal were. “The bounce and clunk of the balls/supply a rhythm—DAH-dah, DAH-dah-dah,/dah, dah-DAH, dah-DAH-dah-dah-DAH—” Then “he lobs a beautiful iamb my way”. It’s as if she’s having it out with the traditional ways of doing things, but can never quite get free of it. Not surprising, then, that we encounter the odd sonnet, sestina and villanelle along the way.
The second clue is the title, Measured Extravagance, which (unlike most collections) is not borrowed from the title of a poem within the collection, but, instead, offers a description of what we find inside. The title appears to be an oxymoron. How can something measured be extravagant? We can ask that question of poetry itself. Taking it to the bard as we shoot hoops, we might ask how it’s possible to seize something as tight and as structured as a sonnet and stuff it full to bursting. The answer … well, the whole book is an answer to that question.
We might just as easily ask the same question of life, with its well-defined form and obvious boundaries. How can we live extravagantly within our measured years? In “As She’s Dying”, we meet a mother intent on not living while she was alive: “she/who regarded my writing as a squandering/of time and ovaries.” And in its companion poem, “A Stack of Cards”, we imagine a quiet moment after the funeral, going through the mother’s things, “this mourning of a life you wouldn’t have lived/even if you’d had the heart for it.” Both poems are 13 lines, not rondeaus, sort of deformed sonnets if you like, a bit clipped like the mother they contemplate.
A life lived within the measure of its confines is no life at all, but a life lived with extravagance becomes more than the sum of its years. So we have, in “Extravagance”, another mother, like the clipped mother we already met, but she surprises us:
And yet, on the Fourth of July,
the flashiest, wickedest rockets
arrive in a wrinkled paper bag:
as they soar, whistle, and burn,
flinging sparks across the night,
Mrs. Dianna stands in the yard,
her face alight. Such a feast.
Just as fresh insight can burst from the traditional forms of poetry, so life can burst its limits with moments of wonder and delight that suspend us in time.
Another way life defies its constraints is with circularity, the cycle of the seasons and of crops and of food that comes from the crops. There’s a lot of food in Measured Extravagance. In “Deep and Crisp and Even”, with its obvious allusion to the Christmas carol, the imagery of seasons and food intertwine. We have snow in Nashville which usually falls as “a dusting or a glaze/like you’d find on a coffeecake”. In “The Sharpshooter Assembles a Relish Tray”, we meet another (possibly) clipped woman, a sharpshooter, who lays out food on a relish tray. “She scoops a spare olive into her mouth, savoring its slide across her tongue: salt. flesh. seed.” We feel an extravagance in the sensuality of the act, and of the words. It seems at odds with the outward image of a woman whose life is defined by control. “At Persephone’s Café” sets the title’s mythical allusion against the modern world’s capacity to defy the changing seasons. At our grocery stores, we can buy produce at any time of year, living with an extravagance that only royalty could enjoy in earlier ages:
The seeds of a hundred winters taste
like the yield of a thousand summers—
so piercing, so radiant that fumbling for the words
to tell how lovingly it stings my tongue
is near to nailing those seeds to a wall.
“Proportions” continues the cyclical meditation with the paradoxical image of a compost heap: “a mélange of garbage/and triumphant blooms”.
We may find a third clue in the poetry of science. A survey of Duthie’s output reveals a fondness for speculative poetry. Some of that appears in this collection (note the Erlenmeyer flask on the cover). She wonders what Werner Heisenberg said to Niels Bohr in 1941. Given that we’re talking about Heisenberg, the answer is: it’s uncertain (naturally). The uncertainty principle, like the measured extravagance, has about it a whiff of oxymoron. Isn’t the whole point of a principle to help make things more certain? Science is supposed to work within and help us describe the structure of our reality. The rules aren’t supposed to have exceptions, especially not when we’re talking about laws of science.
Circling back to the inversions: traces of archaic expression feel like the breach of a natural law. All poets born in the 20th century are supposed to cast aside formal structures and rhyming schemes. Aren’t they? But then I return to “Proportions” which opens with a grown-up and a child thinning seedlings in a garden and tossing them onto a compost. Pricks me, the image does. It’s as if Duthie has planted in a composted soil and seedlings from an earlier season have sprouted unexpectedly in between her more deliberate efforts. I end up encountering these two puzzling lines as a little extravagance in her measured rows.