Jamie Ross, Vinland, Four Way Books, 2010
Reviewed by John Pursley III
So long as the sky is recognized as an association
is recognized in its function of accessory to vague words whose meaning
it is impossible to rediscover
its value can be nothing but mathematical certain limits of gravity and
density of air
William Carlos Williams, "Spring and All"
Jamie Ross' first book of poems takes its title from the Norse word for North America, using exploration and discovery as its primary themes. But, rather than unearthing the historical past in any real empirical sense—as an archeologist would—these poems garner their strength in connections that extend beyond the scope of mere pragmatics and delve into the deeper, imaginative consciousness of the things themselves. These are poems of the imagination. They hint at narrative and/or narrative constructions, often dealing with the variety of quotidian ups and downs of a well-lived life, but are not hindered by nostalgia or the sentimentality of the past. These poems explode with vivacity, with historical and cultural awareness, and the masterful precision in breadth and scope of a fully-accomplished poet.
Many of the poems in Ross' debut move backward through history and at the same time press forward toward uncovering complicated relationships between the past and the present. Ironically, the first poem in Vinland, "I Open His Book" illustrates this concept by doing both in the same moment, challenging our understanding of linear time. In the poem, Ross suggests that his father is chiseling fossils from the rocks, probing into the past and simultaneously peering into the future:
...he clears each face away. How
the fish swim as he sets them free, fossils
in this ocean that he cleaves and charts,
ancients in this story he encompasses
The poem looks backward at the father (a central figure in the book), who at the same time is looking backward at the fossils of what were once fish, which represent a story much older than both of them. Through this confluence, Ross seems to suggest that the poem "sets [both of] them free." Knowing what we come to know about the father's illness from this poem and subsequent poems in the collection, this phrase takes on multiple meanings that extend well beyond the historical moment and delve into much larger issues, such as the speaker's attempt to deal with the loss of his father and our abilities (as readers) to enter into our histories and manipulate them, challenging our preconceived notions of space and time in the matter of a single moment.
It's a complicated web; however, the best poems in the collection obscure this further, moving from exterior stimuli to interior workings and vice versa all with a graceful, pointillist painterly precision, allowing the reader to experience something much more akin to the thing itself than a simple representation of the thing. If you stand too close, you can't see the work. For instance, "It's This That I Remember," begins:
How my friend sat at her table, hands
around her cup—both thumbs on the handle, air
sown with south-flying geese, the leather
chair in languages
that squirrels know, trees know, all their
branches hesitant, listening
like a cloth, a skin that she might
sit within, or be astride, or wrap about her—
this cup, humid and brown, open
as the milkweed pods
fallen near the upper ditch,
that spilled out on the pasture
over the garden, into the broomcorn
and cabbage, dill-fans gone to seed,
the turning field of chiles
deep in their orange syllables...
The further the poem probes in this direction the farther we are seemingly removed from its ultimate subject; yet, the focus upon the friend is actually heightened by the attention to outside detail, rather than lost amidst an ever-changing landscape.
The poems in this collection range greatly—from generational poems about the father, to poems about hurricanes, the American/Mexican west, Toyota pickups, chainsaws, sheep, automobile accidents, bear attacks, high art, and hand-knit sweaters—but, in all of the poems, Ross tirelessly experiments with voice and what he can do with it tonally and structurally. As we grow more comfortable with Ross' voice, we are constantly held in check so that even when we do get a relatively straightforward narrative poem, like "When the Rockies Held the West," we are surprised by it. The evenhandedness of tone is also remarkable, especially considering that the father is such a prominent figure throughout; however, some of the best poems in the collection, such as "Fresas," are remarkable for their hope and joyousness, and keep the book balanced and animated.
Although vastly different stylistically, in reading Vinland, one can't help but think William Carlos Williams' ideas about the imagination in Spring and All influence these poems, especially when Williams suggests that "In the composition, the artist does exactly what every eye must do with life, fix the particular with the universality of his own personality—Taught by the largeness of his imagination to feel every form which he sees moving within himself, he must prove the truth of this by expression." Ross has proven this truth, and as endlessly inventive and exploratory as the poems are in Vinland, they are never fractious or off-putting. The poems are not always easy and can present challenges for the reader. But, the real strength in these poems is their ability to delve into that inner consciousness neither fully siding with the imagination or with reality, but blurring the lines between the two in a manner that seems wholly true to the experience. Or, as Elvis Costello once facetiously said of one of his songs, "People are always asking me what this song is about. If I could have explained it another way; well, I would have written a different song."