blackbirdonline journalFall 2009  Vol. 8  No. 2
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Review | Colosseum, by Katie Ford

spacer Colosseum, by Katie Ford
   Graywolf Press, 2008

What a rare joy to find a poet who, so early in her career, produces a collection that is both far-reaching and elegant in its observations of public and private human experience! Katie Ford’s second book, Colosseum, winner of the 2009 Larry Levis Reading Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University, defies the commonly held belief that a poet’s second collection often pales in comparison to the urgency of her first, particularly if that first book received as many accolades as Ford’s Deposition.

The speakers in Deposition neither believed nor disbelieved but rather questioned and doubted. Ford concluded that book with a questioning of the divine: its last lines, “Lord of harvest and of land if you commanded this / rest now it has come to pass. “These lines promised no easy answers; disaster is cyclical, and no one can be prepared for its effects. This understanding permeated individual poems, but the structure of the book operated from this standpoint too, culminating in a final act, which functioned as another open door, a call-and-response within the self, and a call-and-response with the earth.

Six years separate the publication of Deposition and Colosseum, years in which personal and public devastation dominated Ford’s life and the lives of those around her. Colosseum continues Ford’s exploration of the obsessions that dominated Deposition—proof and faith, trauma and its aftermath, ruin and salvation—interrogating notions of who and what governs us, often by conflating theological language with judicial language. (“When Thomas asked to see the extent / of the wounded body, evidence / was consecrated as a holy request.“) Yet, Hurricane Katrina and the evacuation of New Orleans, which underscore many of the meditations in Colosseum, advance Ford’s earlier concerns and widen the scope of this new book to incorporate devastations on a global scale—the Fall of Saigon, the bombing of Nagasaki, and the violent past associated with the Colosseum in Rome. As the book’s epigraph by the poet H.D. attests, “there, as here, ruin opens / the tomb, the temple; enter.“

One of the most significant triumphs of this new collection is Ford’s handling of the lyric; her poems are both elegiac and epic in tone, juxtaposing exquisitely spare poems of four or five lines with longer poems that are sectioned and meditative. In this way, she brings to mind the work of the pioneer elegiac writers Callimachus and Propertius of Classical Greece and Rome.

My first reading of Colosseum coincided with my first trip to New Orleans.  Having read Deposition, I was already impressed by Ford’s use of jarring syntax, long lines, and lack of punctuation that fused so aptly and remarkably with the subject matter of trauma. Beginning Colosseum, as my companions and I drove through the South and into New Orleans, I was moved by the difference in the lyric positions in her second offering. Here, lines are kinetic but never so much so that one loses sight of the very human moments at hand; utterance is dedicated to accuracy of sight and experience. In the prologue poem, “Beirut,“ Ford writes:

A human cry lives many lives.
The gulls are that fierceness made flesh.

For thirty years the people of my life lived.
Then thousands around me drowned.

The lines in Colosseum oscillate between personal longing (“Lord of confusion, Lord of great slaughter and thin birds, you could never answer all of us at once“) and lines that latch together the lives of many with the lives of a few. In “Coliseum Theater,“ Ford discusses the destruction by fire of the movie theater in the aftermath of the storm:

All the films we saw there, their reels melting, the rows
where lovers went because they knew
or didn’t know, it doesn’t matter,
that watching the same story
could make them closer.

While I return to many of the poems in this book, “Coliseum Theater“ stands out, as it articulates the fundamental, collective cries of the book: How do we rectify such a chronicle of grief? How do we rebuild as individuals and as a community while furthering as a species? Ford handles these large questions with grace and devotion to seeing, and seeing again, as poem after poem corrects or revises the tentative positions of the preceding poems.

In the final lines of the title poem, Ford writes, “When one is the site of so much pain, one must pray / to be abandoned.“ In poems near the close of the book, her stance seems to have altered, not toward belief, but perhaps toward hope. As she writes in “Seawater, and Ours a Bed Above It,“ “we live and die and live again,“ a line that represents the structure of the book as well. There is a moment in “Flee“ where the speaker’s voice shifts from a self overwhelmed by the devastation of the storm and in the throes of doubt to a divine voice speaking from the void: “I am not human // I gave you each other / so save each other.“ Like the speaker, I do not know the origin of this voice, but its instruction contains a truth behind its utterance—the possibility of repair.

In an essay on the poetics and politics of bewilderment, Fanny Howe concludes, “The whirling that is central to bewilderment is the natural way for the lyric poet. A dissolving of particularities into one solid braid of sound is her inspiration.“ Reading Colosseum while touring the Ninth Ward four years after the storm, I began to appreciate further the achievement of Ford’s lyrics, in particular the poem, “Earth,“ which produces a resonance epic in proportion to its four lines:

            If you respect the dead
            and recall where they died
            by this time tomorrow
            there will be nowhere to walk.

The poem evokes the internal paralysis of destruction and its aftermath and the fickleness of memory. Further, it speaks to the physical remnants of any catastrophe—though the Ninth Ward is now being rebuilt, next to the construction lie overgrown fields, concrete steps lead to where a house used to be, and shrines patch the neighborhood.

In the city’s potter’s field, my travel companions and I struck up a conversation with a funeral director still at work on repairing the cemetery. That day, we stepped over the bones and clothing of the city’s poor, unearthed during the hurricane. The restoration of the city proceeds slowly. “Earth,“ which speaks of acts of restoration, embodies what is most remarkable and moving about the book—Ford’s overwhelming sense of social responsibility and empathy.

The second section of the book, “Vessel,“ begins with an epigraph by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who feels like a tutelary spirit for Ford. Tsvetaeva, a poet of great extremity, who suffered censorship and exile under the Bolshevik and Stalinist regimes, still looked to what could salvage her home city—the song in the midst of such upheaval. In “Verses about Moscow,“ she writes:

Behind a small door where
people pour in their crowds
lies the Iversky heart—
red-gold and radiant

and a Hallelujah floods
over the burnished fields.
Moscow soil, I bend to
kiss your breast.

It appears Ford, too, finds what Tsvetaeva found: Yes, there must be mourning laid out on the page, but pain can also sing. Ford concludes “Beirut“ with these lines:

and if it’s true the gods
took pity on the dead
enough to resurrect them
into ashen singing things—

then, so too, our songs

will have to be plagues.

Near the close of Colosseum, Ford aligns with Michelangelo’s famous statement of his sculptural aesthetic: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.“ She writes, “. . . there was, inside Michelangelo, an Isaiah to carve out / the David, the idea, the one buried / in us who can slay the enormities.“ [37]

When a poet can alter the way you see not only isolated events but the entire world, you know you have been, in Osip Mandelstam’s phrase, “hailed by name.“ Many of Ford’s lyrics remain with me long after finishing the book. In these rare exchanges where one is “hailed by name,“ a salvation takes place.  end

Katie Ford appears in this issue of Blackbird, and as the 2009 Levis Reading Prize Winner her work is featured in our Levis Reading Loop. See her Contributor’s note below for a full bio.

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