Monday, March 29, 2010


Over at the Contemporary Poetry Review, Jason Guriel has an excellent analysis of Robyn Sarah's poem Gesundheit, from October's Pause for Breath.

Montreal’s Robyn Sarah also presents an exemplary model for the painstaking poet. Like Wiman, Sarah publishes little but what she does publish tends to be fully realized (which means you get the feeling, reading her words, that she can account for the choice that led to every one of them) and necessary (her poems stopper a gap, a need). In retrospect, it was necessary for Wiman to draw our attention to that flock of birds, wasn’t it?, and in “Gesundheit,” published in Maisonneuve, last summer, Sarah draws our attention to the banal business of sneezing, perhaps as no other poet has:


Orgasm of the nose

the sneeze

builds to hairtrigger pitch

and sweet release.

Echoes itself, betimes.

Atchoo . . . aaaatchoo! (it rhymes),

or comes in multiple,

whole strings of sneeze.

Sneeze ladylike, in a hanky.

Sneeze workmanlike, in a grab

of the grubby shirt.

Or (caught unawares)

sneeze a grand unprotected sneeze

in open air.

Some with a toothpick or a twist

of tissue, tease a sneeze,

a private trick to clear the sinuses.

A sneeze rattles the face.

Loosens the mucus.

Paves the way for the trumpeting

honk and blow—

A pepper sneeze, a pollen sneeze,

a feather sneeze, all alike

pledge to untickle in a rush,

give leave to raise

a just-a-minute finger

before succumbing to the flush—

a microsecond’s uncontrol,

a dispensation to go blotto

with impunity,

going where it takes us,


making the noisy noise

it makes us make.

A sneeze bobs the head.

Single or double bob,

or strings of pigeon bob,

brings blessings down on it.

That “grab / of the grubby shirt” is a delight as is the extraordinary, sonically intricate last verse paragraph, whose repetitions and internal rhymes bear the reader irresistibly along as if she, too, were committed to a sneeze from which she couldn’t pull out, a launch sequence that’s “brakeless, / making the noisy noise / it makes us make.” Unlike Wiman’s poem, though, which carefully rolls out an argument, Sarah’s poem is all perception, choosing to approach its subject from multiple angles. In the process, “Gesundheit” catalogues more sneezes than we knew existed, like an ambitious, unblinking anthropologist let loose among previously undocumented behaviors. The result is a showy, shameless, but, finally, wonderful splurging of real talent.

the rest of the essay, which looks at poems by Steven Heighton, Christian Wiman, Derek Walcott and John Ashberry, can be found here.

There is also an excellent essay in the Winter 2010 edition of ARC on Echoes of November by Zach Wells. Check it out.

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