091.1: Elizabeth Knapp:: The Oak & Spiderman on the Archaeology of Memory & Ark 091

There is a condensed alacrity to Elizabeth Knapp’s poetry, and her speaker consistently maintains an austere clairvoyance and a sound judgment. Such alacrity is vital when each poem exhibited here begins in total and alluring chaos. In “The Oak,” for example, we accompany the speaker witnessing lightning hitting an oak tree, where two impeccable forces of nature converge, leaving us to mourn with Knapp’s speaker over “no tree, but the felled weight / of suffering.” In “Spiderman on the Archeology of Memory,” Knapp’s speaker focuses on Peter Parker, who instead of working for the Daily Bugle and pining over the magma-haired Mary Jane, begins in:

     ...a briny soup,

     water so dense he could make love in it
             or walk across its polished oilskin, the primal

     elements holding him up.

Spiderman is not left to bring order to an otherwise helpless New York City, bombarded under a barrage of the Green Goblin’s pumpkin bombs. Instead, he is situated to take the task of what our superheroes are rarely ever expected to do: resolve the contradictory forces of human nature.

In each of these poems, Knapp’s speaker recognizes a veritable truth about the world: that it is inherently chaotic and dangerous, where the forces of creation are wound, inextricably, in with the forces of destruction. Through this morass, her speaker attempts to achieve a grander vision. I detect in these lyrical beauties the subtleties often found in Frost’s dark temperament, coupled with Tranströmer’s baroque and sublime style. Her images delight as much as they derive from physical deterioration and decay. Not one to push a moral agenda on her readers—and how could she, or anyone for that matter when rendering such a necessarily brutal depiction of humankind and its environment?—Knapp’s speaker transcends, even when she avoids the seemingly necessary trap of didacticism or warning, such as the final two lines of “The Oak”: "I see this not to console or relieve: / There was no other way around it." Cody Todd

The Oak

First, a crack like the splinter of lightning,
as if the sky had clapped its hands
and opened itself to the dusk. I watched
a steady stream of cars snake its way
down my horseshoe drive, a tide
like a funeral procession. Turns out,
no one had died but a tree—an oak—
ravaged by drought or parasitic
disease, sprawling like a toppled
icon across the street, redirecting
the flow of traffic. I got closer,
bending down to where it had broken
open, a gash of rotten wood like teeth,
the head of a child in its hollow.
What will they do with it, I wondered,
and where to take the poem from here,
caught as I was in my own reflection,
seeing my own face in the scars
of a tree, a grief exposed to the blind
light of streetlamps, to the gawking
of random passers-by, to the dusk
congealing like blood at my feet.
I couldn’t tear myself away. Then
it was no tree, but the felled weight
of suffering. Something had died
in me. For once, to look upon
that desiccated self—an ossuary
of broken limbs, a shattered crown
of leaves—and feel nothing but
the smooth balm of relief, a wave
of compassion rising. Meanwhile,
the oak lay ravaged on the six o’clock
street. Disgruntled drivers detoured.
I say this not to console or relieve:
There was no other way around it.

Spiderman on the Archeology of Memory

Once upon a time, in a lifetime far away,
he remembers floating in a briny soup,

water so dense he could make love in it
or walk across its polished oilskin, the primal

elements holding him up. Now experts say
the sea is shrinking, sink holes swallowing

its seaside resorts, as nations spew into
the Jordan River a biblical wave of sewage.

There, where Jesus first took the plunge,
where Herod simmered in the royal hot springs,

where a flock of Bedouin goatherds
coughed up the dust of an ancient mystery,

there he felt his soul cave in, and there amid
the fossilized scrollwork, in that pool of tears

he died himself, shedding one life for another, far
from the clash of tribal warfare, the precarious

shift of ecological sands, in a town like Albany
perhaps, or Milwaukee, or Denver, anywhere

with at least one good Thai restaurant,
a decent library, four seasons, and a dependable

supply of fresh drinking water.


After the great floods of 2002, the Prague Zoo
became a wasteland: thousands of animals
crane lifted to higher ground before
death by drowning, or worse—
every zookeeper’s waking nightmare when
faced with an animal too dangerous to move—
gunning down a surly rhinoceros or a stubborn
hippopotamus, or, as it happened in this
instance, shooting dead the zoo’s great grandfather,
Jabar, an 80-year-old Indian elephant.
Kangaroo babies in their mothers’ pouches
loosed from their dreams of outback life
made the helicopter journey above the rising river
never to drink from the same water again. Flying high
over the flailing city, blindfolded to tragedy,
pairs of tigers, koalas, wombats, giraffes,
queer species of rodents, spider monkeys,
rattlesnakes, and duck-billed platypi
said goodbye to a captivity that was never truly
theirs, roared, honked, and hissed their lamentations
until the sky filled with bestial music,
violent as the sunrise over the city’s submerged spires
where humans clung to human hope in the wake of
extermination, nature’s revenge on all sentient life, the earth’s
yard no longer a free-for-all playground, instead a giant
zoo where even our own breaths are housed.