The National Poetry Series, sponsored by the Lannan Foundation, publishes five new books of poetry annually through five cooperating presses. This year's selection, published by Penguin, is Julie Buchsbaum's third poetry collection, The Apothecary's Heir.
Buchsbaum is steeped in the classics—philology and Greek mythology both. This and her intuitive connection to nature conspire in the seductive beauty of "First Love." The poet declares of a tree, "There is no Daphne there" and the poet is "no Apollo," being incapable of persuading the tree that "flees/ and I follow." The poem closes with these remarkable observations:
Why these few shrunken leaves
flapping like feeble pulses? This up-forking,
torqued mass defoliated, intertwined,
reigning in the backyard like an antlered divine?
Dappled with lichen, white spots like spittle,
rivulets of gritty shadow on the bark,
the tree, like a great wooden mind
through which a squirrel dashes like
an afterthought, never talks back to me.
The baroque, rich mass of images—from the warehouse, the sickroom, the sylvan fields of classical mythology—resolves into a comparison of the tree to a still and private "great wooden mind." Dashing squirrels, whose antics would occupy the attention of most, are perceived only as ornaments to the great mind. We are in the presence of a poet for whom the life of the mind is not merely a cerebral stance or attitude. Buchsbaum's volume examines this line where the scrambling perceived world meets the mind, for that's where her reality lies. What's essential—sensory information and thought—are the protagonists of this exquisite volume.
From the observed, demonstrated, arrayed, and compared, the poet creates the space for us to feel and determine what we will. The poem, "With Venom and Wonder" concludes thus: "...and still, in the Prussian/ blue bluffs of summer, this wanton geography of love remains." It's as close to stated emotion as you'll come in this volume of delicate and fearless feeling.
One of the first things Buchsbaum's readers usually notice with knees knocking is that she employs a rare vocabulary, wielded with the precision of a surgeon. Were she a literal anatomist, she would name every cartilage, nerve, and juncture of the body, know not only their functions, but their poetics. Yet in "Ars Poetica," she compares the poet's work not with the naming anatomist's but with the risk-taking surgeon's:
The desk gleams at me every day with
the merciless sheen of an operating table.
Where is the needle, the ligature fine enough
to stitch the wound between work and thing?
Let the squeamish keep their lab coats clean.
I mask my face and swab at the blood-leaks.
The ligatures and swabs of the learned poet are words. But the words, available to all, are powerful tools for the poet's purposes: her mastery and insight make poetry, not mere strings or clusters, which even dunces can do. In a breathtaking poem that opened my eyes to the commonality of sources the poet shares with all of us, she writes of "The Syllable Sale,"
At the syllable sale: a tiny loom, a Latin noun.
It is a gold noun, a ghost town, a death kit...
A syllable; a string of syllables; words: They come from the flea market we all shop. She trains her eye on the rare find in mountains of nonsense, the gem in the heaps of dross. Buchsbaum ends the poem with the stirring perception,
...At the syllable sale, time
has a blood transfusion; the words worry me,
all the weird terminologies. With a small fist
of syllables, heading for home, I must admit
that the language I know does not know me.
"The language...does not know me." On the one hand, the poet acknowledges the ordinariness of common language that's troublesome even to poets. It is not a given that it yields willingly to poetic purposes. She's courageous for wrestling her own extraordinary images from shared language—an inimitable view of the world that is ground to gemlike precision.
On the other hand, in saying "the language I know," Buchsbaum alludes to her exceptional diction that defines her exceptional point of view. The language she knows is indeed extraordinary and erudite. In the pages of The Apothecary's Heir, the reader encounters a jeweler's vitrine of rare beauties, among them "tertoid," "alembics," "ascesis," "scurf," and "malefic. She chooses words that reveal her meanings to us precisely, and that reveal the poet's mind and identity to us with equal clarity. She insists that the language know her and her purposes.
Readers who find this poetry difficult might try thinking of it as being, in fact, unusually lucid. To read Buchsbaum with pleasure is to understand that she offers an undisguised mind that delivers the precise, carefully chosen words to us: This is a rare but real mind that opens up the world to us through minute, bravely observed details that she does not preselect for their assumed cultural value.
With the surgeon-poet's blade of vocabulary, Buchsbaum makes the finest passes through image and thought. She dissects keen nuances of observation and feeling: "Ulcers of light eat gobbets of dark;" "And like the remnants/ of an ancient still life, the stars still look at us,/ safe in their monadic, monastic, inscrutable rites;" "...these leaves look like katydids/ cooked in lukewarm bile, but gnarled/ and dry as the claws of the turkey buzzard/ camouflaged in the detritus of dying/ palm trees behind the new gas station." Word choice is the poetry and the words reflect Buchsbaum's desire to get as close to the objects of observation and study as possible.
I've reread The Apothecary's Heir several times. It's simultaneously dense and elliptical. Its density lies in the unabating intensity of imagery. Buchsbaum's spaced couplets separate and strings image like baroque pearls on a strand, each related to its neighbors, but eye-catching for its own shape and luster. For example, from "Still Life with Rooms People Live In:"
Another squat, windowless morning
murmurs on its industrial hook.
Outside, the moon is a flatbed truck
filled with the leftover ice of night,
and alder trees keep going nowhere,
dressed in droplets, globes of scum.
Each couplet stands alone, a unique observation. The reader puts them together. We see this separation of independent images again in "Notes Toward a Patchboard Mechanics:"
The stars suggest a kind of death
in the far-off scattered light they send.
My words are coiled in fiberglass threads
that network out across the city.
I lounge beneath a Bakelite sky,
delirious at each pneumatic clamp
with which I seem to grasp the truth.
In both of these selections, the poet directs our eyes while we remain fixed within the scene, We see what the does, scene by scene. Each description heightens our awareness and sensitivity to a state of mind. Buchsbaum's extremely precise vocabulary is one dissecting tool; this staged, directed inspection of individual sights is another.
For every exact observation the poet makes,there is a blank space around it, fraught with unnamed possibilities just as crisply outlined. Think of it this way: Vague statements are cloudy and, like clouds, fill up all available space: We don't know where they end or how deep they are. We may not be able to know their content precisely, but we don't see anything that they don't cover. Focused statements, though, are clear in meaning and intent. In being so, they have limits that define both the statements and the edges of the space surrounding them. We are induced to wonder about those "empty" shapes too: What is the content of that darkness? If we peer into it, will we find something there?
So the acute, hyper-precise images in Buchsbaum's poetry involve worlds of evident exclusion. Take, for example, "Leaves Crinkle in the Woods," an exceptional poem, one in which the poet has written the positive as a series of barely connected statements with pristine emptiness between the lines. The emptiness is as important as the words to the poem's sense
Leaves crinkle in the woods like people telling secrets.
I walk on them with featherweight steps, like a person
canceling her own commitments. Deep in the warehouse,
someone begins dispelling lies. Something keeps shutting
down the musculature of night animals. There is no
remedy for this difficult day. The sky has thrice turned
to acetate now over Rollins Avenue. Beetles crawl
into the gutter like students of what is down there.
My sisters surround me and allay my fears. I fear I have
no sisters, or if I had, I have driven them away. ....
The mind of this poet-philosopher is primarily occupied with the nature of existence; few of us ever explore this territory with organized commitment. Through the poet-scientist's vision, so carefully presented here, readers can. Here, we can see both the positive and negative portraits of a mind preoccupied not by romantic passion or relationships, by Romantic Nature, discovered feelings or several other standard poetic subjects. Buchsbaum examines phenomena affecting to the senses; the meaning of cultural and scientific change; the degradation of nature; and the effects of connection or isolation. This is the poetry of a philosopher with a scientist's eye; of a lover whose mind knows the heavy consequences of passion; of a student of beauty who detaches herself from aesthetic judgment.
Why did Buchsbaum call the volume The Apothecary's Heir? A poem called "Eve of Darkness" ends with the line, "night is the only rightful heir and apothecary," but I'm not sure that the conjunction of the two words in that line suffices to elucidate the title phrase.
"Apothecary," is close to being an historical word—nineteenth century, really—that does not mean "alchemist," a confusion that some will surely make. Alchemy is pre-science, a magical effort to transmute base metals into gold. The apothecary was the early form of today's pharmacist, a dispenser of formulary medications. Unlike the pharmacist, the apothecary actually compounded from raw materials the medicines prescribed by physicians. He stocked ingredients, mixed elixirs, and shaped pills. The pharmacist today dispenses pre-composed medicines that come in many forms—including aerosols and intravenous drips—because most of today's pharmacopoeia is now made from chemicals in industrial laboratories, rather than from natural ingredients.
The apothecary's heir is perhaps someone at a particular historical crux—the inheritor of a scientific and philosophical legacy akin to Natural Philosophy; someone balking at a new era of unreason with encroaching corrosion of knowledge, nature, and formality. Throughout this book the poet refers to industrial blight, disease, degradation, and violence in her world. For solace, she finds imagery of purity: hygiene, stars, silence, trees.
In "The Ruined Circus of Eros," Buchsbaum balances this burdensome awareness of the dirty everyday with the need to find the means of continuing sustenance. There are still birds and trees, both trying:
Freighters accelerate from the port.
Something gross inheres in the hog lot.
Bird-notes inert in the sweet
gum trees nurture benediction.
I do not trust my inner child.
I do not trust my tutor.
Like ruptured caryatids
Who can no longer carry
the neoclassical, these trees
bear up under the quotidian.
On the other hand, in the third of "Three Brief Meditations on Oak Trees" the poet forsakes "the knowing mind and make for/ a quietus in which the world is contained/ in one dying oak." Everywhere, we see the consequences of sensitive observation and rational self-awareness.
I relate deeply to The Apothecary's Heir. I'm particularly moved by the way Buchsbaum's poet presents an image of an individual simultaneously isolated, yet passionately engaged. Few of us can describe anything genuinely repulsive because we can't bear to look at it. But Buchsbaum can write in "Summer of Fires:"
The mockingbird that died under
the bush will continue to infect the night
with incoherent bristles of its wings.
We feel strongly that she not only looked, but probably picked the bird up to feel the "bristles of its wings." She pored over it with her eyes and thoughts, turned it this way and that. This meticulous attention is love, for we come to love what we pay attention to. Her imagery reflects the concentration of the committed.
That struggle between love and isolation throughout The Apothecary's Heir must touch every reader on some level, for we all experience tension between our immediate, awkward and gross temporal selves and the images we would have of our timeless, perfectible beings.
Buchsbaum's poetry keeps bringing me back to study that mirror where I see two selves reflected: myself acting in a present where I flounder, and the self that I imagine will become coherent across years, with all flaws flattened, self summarized by a miraculously (and imaginary) artful me—that is, someone never closely observed.
Pharmaceuticals may be available to speed us toward health by numbing reconstitution of our minds and chemistry. Julianne Buchsbaum invites us to reconsider such normal, contemporary propositions. Couldn't we ask for the ministrations of an apothecary? Someone who—like the poet—knows the natural world and its constituents, who understands the intrinsic properties of animal, plant, and mineral, and can use them for remedies that heal without changing human nature, "the Prussian/ blue bluffs of summer" or the "wanton geography of love?"