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11 january 2008

Annie Finch's Calendars is a book of largely happy lyric poems. On the whole, lyric and happiness haven't always been close acquaintances. The great song standards all seem to be torch songs. The great sonnet sequences ("From the Portuguese" aside) tend to be about lovers who never had a chance. Regret, disillusion and alienation are typical lyric themes, and to borrow a term from a popular guide on how to write the blues, so is fixin' to die. But Annie Finch has never hesitated to buck a trend. An exacting technical critic in an age when most poetics is vague, a parsable formalist in an age when the strongest trends in poetry lead toward the free and the obscure, she is also a happy poet in an age (like most ages) when poets are bleak and blear.

The pieces in Calendars are lyric poems in both senses of the word "lyric." Many use regular meters, many rhyme, and several are song-like. In the other sense of "lyric," these are poems of personal address and intimate content that are at the same time potentially universal in their application.

The keynote of Calendars is sounded, perhaps, in a brief lyric in the latter half of the book. Finch answers William Butler Yeats's contention that "The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work." Finch replies:

The intellect of woman must not choose
perfection of the life, or of the work.
Perfection has a diamond for a muse
who scratches where she only needs to look. (39)
Finch does not try to out-arch the archness of Yeats's no-win dichotomy. Nor does she try at once to trump his unthinking sexism. Instead, she allows the gendered terms of Yeats's epigram to put her speaker into a rather half-baked position: the better to critique the imperative of "perfection" itself. Perfection is all very well if you are scratching your name into a window like some neo-Romantic smart-aleck.

Better, perhaps, an aesthetic of imperfection. Yet "the intellect of woman fears / for imperfection's grandeur." The narrower and never-dulled cutting edge of the perfectionist (that "intellect of man" so dear to Yeats) threatens to undercut the triumphs of an unworried spirit that merely "looks."

So the intellect of woman will not mind
the sight of where the diamond's edge has moved.
The encompassing, accepting imagination has a place even for the martinet-like discrimination of Yeats's perfectionist. Finch's speaker concludes,
Perfection's habit opens us to find
cuts in a window we have never loved.
The reference is oblique – there is much beneath the surface here – but perhaps the poem is saying that the diamond-like vestiges of perfection, for all their staying power, obscure the view. We wonder why we've never warmed to that window, but perhaps it's because the maker's fine lines amount to little more than finicky scratchwork.

A lyricist who is happy, a formalist who abjures perfection. But for all this acceptance, there are hints at darker places in "Calendars." "Desire for Quiet" opens

Silence may lead deep and make me mad.
If I say "water," it might answer "mud." (66)
Merely waiting and watching is never enough. As so often, Emily Dickinson is Finch's model, for writing in the midst of the ordinary that at the same time doesn't settle for ordinariness:
You wrote some of your lines while baking bread,
propping a sheet of paper by the bins
of salt and flour, so if your kneading led
to words, you'd tether them as if in thin
black loops on paper. ("Letter to Emily Dickinson," 6)
Kneading is no distraction from poetry here. Somebody has to bake bread, after all, and though it's stereotypically woman's work, there is no shame in a woman happening to do it. The rhythms of the breadboard can even lead to verse. But arresting in Finch's imagination of Dickinson here is the image of writing itself. For all her earthy engagment with the dough, the poet is no native chanter, no earth mother of unconscious poetry. Verba volant, and in order to secure any sort of order out of the welter of words, Dickinson had to tie them down.

Annie Finch's work consistently makes us read a line twice. You are never sure just where a line or a thought is going. But in contrast to one dominant poetic school in America at the moment, descended from John Ashbery, where the reader does not know or for that matter care where the next thought is going, in Finch's poetry one always cares. She presents a world full of great joys, but those joys are never without a quiet cast of danger. Calendars is a guidebook to such a world.

Finch, Annie. Calendars. Dorset, VT: Tupelo, 2003.

UPDATE 01.13.08: A downloadable Reader's Companion and Study Guide to Calendars is available from Annie Finch's website.