Apr 1, 2014

Amy Pence Reviews Kate Northrop's Clean

Kate Northrop, 
Persea Books, 2011

 ISBN-13: 978-0892553679

Swept Clean  

          If you’re like me, certain passages in books may draw you back to them.  Why?  Because one moment speaks to you, almost in whispers, of the numinous.  For me, it is the middle passage in To the Lighthouse, when the Ramsays’ summer home is in decline—rolling lights stretch across the house, and as the chapter names it, “time passes.”  The yawning existence of things and the simultaneous and sudden expiration of the human evoke a contrary longing for stasis and the acknowledgement of decay’s supreme beauty.  No contemporary poet can better capture living in that mysterious half-life than Kate Northrop.  Like reading Virginia Woolf, when you enter a Kate Northrop book, you are in an in-between space, where reality and perception only fleetingly co-exist.
                Her third collection, Clean, released by Persea Books (2011), takes us to the wind-swept, spare and evocative American landscapes named in the title “Winter Prairie”:
                …One knows

                A window:  it gives everything away,
                Nothing back.  One knows

                the TV light scattered through,
                Blue, cold, though not as blue, not as cold

                As the prairie, the winter prairie, spare
                And so clean it becomes like this

                A struck note, a shape
                Cut from the world yet held in the world

                like staring hard into a grave.
                I speak to you; clearly someone else speaks.

                Often, the speaker is limning the space of the prairie, alone in a car—driving not just through it, but into it.  The surprise at the end of “Winter Prairie” is not unusual: in Northrop’s world, these slight shifts of perception are mysterious and vibrate with the recognition of the marvelous in the quotidian. “Night Drive,” like many of the poems in this collection, moves slyly, gathering energy and power:
                Each turn appears
                As a figure in a dream
                Sure, demanding:
                Look, fields are rising—
                And they are, the bright
                Snow-stripped fields,

                Like a shroud
                Or a female voice
                You never loved me

                And that’s true…
                Like the wrapped skull in the middle passage of To the Lighthouse, in Clean, it is the human that makes its scant appearance, and then disappears or is swallowed by the persistence of time and space.
                The book shifts with Northrop’s long poem sequence “Detail,” when the human takes precedence.  Here, Northrop recalls the shifting perspectives in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.  The speaker, just as complex and often contrary as Mrs. Dalloway, ruminates on the nature of lies, where she might have left her sunglasses, near and distant memories, as well as her unique peccadilloes:
                                Loved:  pulling moss from the seams
                                Between bricks; Jell-O, how when touched
                                With a spoon, it resists

                                Hated:  a too-severe part
                                In someone’s hair, visible scalp;
                                The skin formed on house paint;

                                White condiments

                                (Miracle whip, tartar sauce, mayonnaise)

                A subtle humor permeates the poem, and the collection’s title takes on a meaning beyond barren landscapes, the ideally pristine houses, or the “squeak/ Of a paper towel as you clean/ A streak from the glass.”  The book is about “coming clean”—to look at the self with a brutal honesty even when it comes to writing poetry:

                                You know not everything always has to be life or death

                                                                Still, the poems shouldn’t be precious

                                                                Like posing for yourself in a mirror
                                                                To see if you look alright

                The collection ends with “Delphinium,” a poem that enfolds the inwardness of the flower— “They never will mirror you/ Only absorb you”—with the inwardness of the speaker.  Throughout, Northrop demonstrates that material can spark states of being and how an unsparing vision can recall us to these temporal mysteries.

Reviewer Bio:

Amy Pence (www.amypence.com) is the author of the poetry collections Armor, Amour  (Ninebark Press) and The Decadent Lovely (Main Street Rag).  Her non-fiction (essays, interviews and reviews) have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Poets & WritersColorado Review, and The Rumpus.  She lives in Carrollton, Georgia and teaches in Atlanta.