Objective Feeling: A Review of Amanda Auerbach’s What Need Have We for Such as We

Hannah VanderHart

Winston-Salem, NC: C&R Press, 2019. 80 pages. $16.00.

Amanda Auerbach’s What Need Have We for Such as We does not read like a debut collection—it has both the consistency and uniqueness of a well-developed poetic voice, and knows what it does and how. A central quality and tension of Auerbach’s poems is that they read as something very old made new—they have facets of the vision of William Blake, the coolness of Wallace Stevens, the probing wonder of Emily Dickinson, each reincarnated to the now. Take the collection’s first poem, “End,” that begins:

Time a shepherd
me a sheep
led through meadow
and meadow and gate

This stanza could be from an earlier poem, its end-stopped, two-beat lines the formalism of nineteenth-century poetry, or before. If I told you it was Christina Rossetti, or perhaps Dickinson, you might believe me. But the poem unwinds in the next few stanzas, assuming the gently-clipped, article-scant syntax and voice that defines Auerbach’s poems:

I am afraid
of gate. Please give
me the feeling
of having to go

so I forget
the feeling
of having to go through.

The poem “End” has the shape of a formal poem—five quatrains with regularized accentual meter—but the speaker’s syntax works against the stanzas, the sense pulling across the sound of the poem, giving the reader the feeling of a voice unfenced and unconfined. The next lines reach across three stanzas:

You lead and this

implies you lead to
a place that is
a place: a pen
where I might dwell

and no longer
be a sheep
and no longer
be moved.

“A pen / where I might dwell” is a formal enclosure for both a poet and a domesticated sheep—but is the dwelling and the fixture to one place desirable to either? Ambiguity rests for the speaker in the transformation from sheep to something else, in the existential state of “no longer / be[ing] moved.” What is no longer moved—the physical body, the emotions? There is the possibility of respite in the stasis of both. Still, the shepherd Time is up to some sleight-of-hand—as is the poet, beginning her book with “End.”

Farnoosh Fathi notes the influence of Gertrude Stein in Auerbach’s poetry, and a Steinian resistance and play are apparent throughout the book, perhaps especially in a series of “Limit Objects” prose poems occurring in the book’s final section. But Stein is also in Auerbach’s more traditionally lineated stanzas, such as the poem “This is,” which begins its incantation with a couple of fiats, or decrees:

Let there be light.
Let there be forms.
I make the woods.
Let woods make woods.

Let creeks wind through.
Let rocks break ground.
They need no lakes.
They need no pinks.

Three things are all
I need to make.
Each one is good?
Each one makes beings.

Sonically, these poems can be like drinking cream—the double accentual beat heady, rich, the end-stopped lines asking to be chanted. Though all poets are interested in poems as spells on some level, there are poets for whom poems are sonic spells and incantations—Stein and Dickinson, both evoked in poems like “This is,” foremost among them. But before one goes too far with a gendered, magically-inclined reading, we can also locate the perceptual remove of a philosopher or a scientist present in Auerbach’s poetry—a distance integral to her speaker’s imagination and empirical encounters with the physical and relational world. The combination of the incantatory with the objective voice is itself magical, as in the poem “Chains in the Sea” (“This is the Stevens-meets-Dickinson I actually want,” I wrote in the margins), which describes,

The sea beneath: chains
clinking and swaying in
the waves of the harbor.

The cold moves through
folds and nettings, clothes
taut and still as a chain
should be.

The stanzas are not only description—Auerbach offers a judgment about how the moving chains “should” be—but still, their work is that of landscape, mood, and setting; the reader looks, too, at a harbor scene. The speaker moves more prominently into the poem at stanza three, “The chains sway. Indifferently. / Indifferently we exist / among other things.” This indifference is Stevensonian, the harbor chains draped in the blues and silver, the speaker an object among other objects. And then there is the meditation on the mind:

The mind half floats half
pulls through the stiffness of sound
of waves in the harbor,
of chains in the sea.

The water soaks,
the chains sway,
the mind pulls through.

The sea is of chains.
The chains are of sea.
The chains are the
openings and harbors.

Metaphor, the poet’s currency, abides in this poem’s coolness and its clanking—in the chains of the sea, in our nouns and objects. Think of Blake’s tiger, Stein’s rose, Dickinson’s bee. The soft declamations in Auerbach’s “Chains in the Sea,” the suggested statements, the facts, the authority—these grow from the poet’s assurance that nouns do the work of the mind, engaging us deeply and meaningfully with the world, even though the speaker might judge that engagement to be one of indifference. In Plato’s Republic, Book III, Socrates critiques poets by noting: “The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearances only.” And yet, we live by appearance—by observing the chains in the sea, feeling the cold moving through “folds and nettings, clothes.” Poetry offers us appearances that we can feel through language.

What Need Have We for Such as We is often journalistic and philosophical, the poems impelled by the speaker’s reflection on some ordinary action—washing mint, accompanying a friend’s significant other to the hospital, baking bread, attending a church service. But the syntax and the leaps of the poems’ logic—as Whitman’s comparative observation of the noiseless spider’s line-casting to the existential state of his own soul—are not ordinary. What Need Have We for Such as We is not your everyday book of poems—it is startlingly fresh, its labors and its voice new.

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