In terms of delivery, Shores-Argüello’s “Crimea, An Unexpected Freeze” is shoulders above a good deal of contemporary verse. Its composition reads much like a mixed-media collage, with alternately painterly moments (‘the dull smear of beach’) and those popping from the backing (‘swelling breast-plates of ice’). I returned several times to ‘The straw-boned seabirds are blown/from their trawlers, their religion of fish’ for music and a sense of ideational axis, though I’m less and less sure that the image is so much axis as it is component on par with the rest.
Let me say: it’s difficult to write a criticism of a poem or poet one recognizes as invested. I feel a kind of kinship with Shores-Argüello that, frankly, I haven’t felt for other poems I’ve criticized on SHARKPACK, ones that are a species of ‘identity poetry’ or vaguely ironic hipster dross. Still, there is something essentially subordinating to “Crimea, An Unexpected Freeze” that colors my experience of it: it subordinates Poetry to the status of design.
As I read the poem, its politik (or ‘global perspective’ or ‘agenda’) has moved it into happening. The references to place are clear (and it was, after all, entered into Guernica‘s (q.v.) “International Literature Award” pool), as are a few quizzical failures of imagery that stem from it being less than a ‘purebred’ poem—those sent from cosmos to spirit to pen with pure voltage, and only the vaguest sense of outline. To my taste, there’s an immediate scale issue with this wolf ‘hang[ing] from the teat of upper atmosphere’: for its tail or body to ‘sweep the crags of coastline,’ it would have to be quite large; I’m not given enough in terms of imaginative vocabulary (‘rigging,’ ‘sails’) to believe I’m anywhere but a boat or sea vessel when blown by the wolf’s ‘breath’; and how could that breath cycle to me, from a mouth stuck to a teat in upper atmosphere? If the wolf is hung by his tail from far north in the sky, it’s tough to imagine being fixed there by a teat.
Punctilious? Fussy? Perhaps, but for a purpose: when I arrive at ‘As all warm animals do in Ukraine,//the pelicans try, but the long trowel of their beaks/cannot reach what is closest to them[,]’ I’ve hit an even clearer imposition than that of the wolf: this bit has got the neon lights of ‘THESIS THESIS THESIS’ blinking in aquamarine all about it. In my opinion, it’s decidedly ungraceful, and not because the poet ‘got lazy’ or ‘just had to’ spell out a bit about another ‘warm animal[‘s]’ condition, but because the poem itself is the product of an agenda that Poetry will not suffer. The curtain has been thrown back, and one sees that it is not the smokes that rise to this Oracle, but a note passed in fine cursive.
It’s true that I am inherently skeptical of political poetry, or any verse that attempts to situate Poetry into a pose that it wishes—well, bothers too much with her, attempts to handsomely groom and preen what is a numinous experience. It’s also true that I prefer Tennyson over Byron, and will keep my ‘religion of fish.’ In the case of “Crimea, An Unexpected Freeze,” there are failures of image and situation that I attribute to a wan ‘agenda,’ true—but the failures (and they are strangely minor/major) exist nonetheless.
This is written with all affection for the poet; I may find his book void of all issues I indict here. I count myself fortunate to have a piece this careful to sharpen skean against.