A Poetics of Emptiness: On the Poetry of Five Points, A Journal of Literature and Art Vol. 11, No. 3
Five Points, printed by Georgia State University, has consistently published top-rate poetry for the last few decades. Cosmetically, the journal reflects this superior quality: Five Points rivals—and in many cases, exceeds—many other major journals that include all genres of creative writing, interviews, and brief, elegant interludes of glossy-paged artwork.
Masao Yamamoto’s visual contribution to the issue, modestly titled “Photographs,” works from a “Zen philosophy of emptiness” and proves a good starting point from which this issue’s poetry seems to radiate. [Yamamoto's photo at right graces the cover of vol. 11 no. 3.] Yamamoto’s work centers on natural objects in varying degrees of barrenness: leafless trees, rock-cliffs, clouds, mountains, even birds. Minimal and monochromatic, the visual style not only suggests emptiness, but an acknowledgment of the beauty implicit in that emptiness, a peculiar, celebratory existentialist vision. The poems of this issue—works by Mary Oliver, Philip Levine, Debra Nystrom, Kim Addonizio, Erin Batykefer, and Natasha Tretheway, among others—orbit this desolation motif, both implicitly and explicitly—and the ultimate effect of the journal strikes me as lucid, spare, elegiac.
In Mary Oliver’s “On the Beach,” the poem that opens the issue, the narrator witnesses herons dive to pluck and “lift. . . the narrow bodies of fish.” In a moment of meditative reflection—typical of Oliver—the narrator considers the indefatigable mystery of death:
and that was the end of them
as far as we know—
though what do we know
except that death
is so everywhere and so entire—
pummeling and felling,
like this, appearing
through such a thin door—
The birds are the lives who have taken to serve their own desires, so that they “open their wings” and fly onward. Oliver’s other poems in Five Points are similar—tender, almost simple—through I suspect this is the extreme, difficult-to-execute artifice. Oliver is not without her conspicuous literary predecessors: “Visiting the Graveyard” echoes the mid-career free verse of James Wright, and “Red” indicates Oliver’s appreciation of William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark.”
Philip Levine’s contributions—tonally antithetical to Oliver’s—are long-lined prosaic narratives: “Above it All” places the narrator into orbit with his comrade, “Cosmonaut P. Cosmonaut.” At turns concerned with existentialist angst and a sense of belonging, the speaker sees the “great expanse of nothing between one planet & / another, between one vanished continent & another, between one / person and another.” The cosmonaut surrealistically morphs into the speaker’s “uncle Nate,” equipped with an “enormous cigar & . . . [a] one-eyed squint” who poses to the speaker—and by extension, the reader—“Were you expecting something?” Simultaneously humorous and eerie, Levine also accomplishes an expulsive, Whitmanesque outwardness in “Islands,” populated by the “immense endless opera punctuated by / the high notes of sirens and the basso profundo of trucks & jackhammers & ferries & / tugboats.” Paradoxically, this dissonance melds to “your own small & sincere voice,” part of the “great American epic.” [Above left is another Yamamoto photo from the issue.]
In Debra Nystrom’s “Smoke-break behind the Treatment Center,” landscape plays the central character, around which the patients live on the periphery: the “stubble field” and “chopped-off stalks” serve as freeing but bleak anodynes to the “anxious,” who, in winter’s barren stasis, “find out if they are changing.”
Kim Addonizio, famous for her voluptuous, sensual, highly erotic poetry, departs from the body’s fecundity for a philosophical poem in which “you are already dead,” “walls are collapsing” and the “foundation is dissolving to dust”; the “you” of the poem, despite being already deceased, is the “sturdy-blue-flame” super-imposed onto a crumbling background, bleakly “condemned to be homeless.”
Erin Batykefer’s “Two Yellow Leaves,” written after a 1928 Georgia O’Keefe painting, is a refreshing counterbalance to the issue’s dominant gray vision. The poem begins, “October has slicked the mirror-flat rivers with yellow leaves,” a nice ekphrastic pictorial—but then “July apples [are] carried to the kitchen in your shirt, their yellow sugar slick on a serrated knife,” which unleash a Proustian rush of memory, around which the luminous yellow motif gleams. The poem is bright, citrine, but it keeps the contrastive notion of emptiness, “the yellow outline of the bone under skin.”
After a long interview in which Natasha Tretheway explores her southern heritage and poetics, readers are treated with “On Captivity”—a play on the Book of Genesis and the consequent Miltonic vision of Eden—the “serpent’s image” counterpoints the “secret illicit hairs / that do not (cannot) / cover enough.” Here we have the uncontainable contained, the knowledge of “nakedness,” the “shame of it.” Tretheway successfully recontextualizes the captivity narrative, painting an apocalyptic, undulant portrait.
The poems in this issue of Five Points are eclectic, distinctive, and dark, and their haunting images and stygian motifs will certainly not leave me for a while. Very few journals can claim—in all honesty—to publish in one issue a collection of poems that evade the overly disjunctive, linguistic post-post modern pieces that in many circles thrive. Five Points opts for muscularity, a clear-eyed, unadorned poetry that speaks to the senses and glows with an extensive half-life.