The Touch by Cynthia Kraman
In the late 1970’s, Cynthia Kraman was an “avant-punk pioneer,” a “fiercely feminist frontwoman,” and a “commanding, cerebral performer in the poetry-driven tradition of Patti Smith, delivering her vivid, subversive screeds...” (“Notes from the Underground,” Hannah Levin). Then the former punk rocker became a medieval scholar. The poems in The Touch possess both a Chaucerian sweetness
I woke up dreaming that I went to you
And you were owner of a little bird
and punk-rock alienation
It cut my young brain
into a brilliant bowl where I poured pain
Kraman’s poems seem to wander through and between medieval mysticism (“I wanted God, God wanted me; we played”) and punk pain (“When I was young my heart was like a sword”). The method in the madness of any poet’s leaps in life is counting (“All night I rearranged the ancient tongues”). The Touch is divided into two main sections, each with its own form created by Kraman, forms that revolve around numbers.
The poems in the first section have “three stanzas of non-rhyming decasyllables of seven lines each.” The number seven, Kraman explains, is “endowed with mystical meaning but also firmly embedded in the natural world.” In the second section, “each poem has five stanzas of five lines, with alternating stanzas closing with couplets and triadic rhymes.” While each poem stands alone, the repetition of poems with three-stanzas (first section) and five-stanzas (second section) makes for a tremendously satisfying read.
The book’s eponymous poem seems to be the touchstone of the book. “The Touch” begins in an iambic pentameter with a mechanical thump, but the meter disappears abruptly in the last five lines. Likewise, meter fades in and out of every poem in the book. Or, as Kraman puts it in her helpful afterword, “On the Forms in This Collection,” the poems “sometimes [scan] into metric feet.”
Why does Kraman’s iambic pentameter fluctuate and fade? “Poetry resists imposition,” Kraman writes, “Form has to operate as a gift...These rhythms and vocalizations come out of our hands and mouths because they are in our bodies; they are in our bodies because we learn a mother tongue.” Perhaps the punk rocker in Kraman resists strict meter, just as the poems frequently resist punctuation. The poems in the first section use the old-fashioned style of initial caps for each line, as if to compensate for the rebellious punctuation. Another possible reason for Kraman’s fluctuating iambic pentameter is that the prevailing contemporary poetic aesthetic is anti-meter, anti-feeling, anti-passion, and pro-intellect. “Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, and Jonson...saw what a flexible and adaptable meter [iambic pentameter] was, how much could be said with it, how much feeling, passion, and power could be expressed through it.” (Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, George Thaddeus Wright) Fortunately, Kraman’s poems are not too heavily intellectual and have plenty of feeling and passion. Her frequent use of exclamation points and question marks certainly bucks the prevailing aesthetic.
Kraman writes, “Forms provide all of us, like the little bee in Wordsworth’s sonnet, ‘Nuns Fret Not,’ a bell in which to furiously buzz.” Compare Kraman’s furious buzz with Wordsworth’s soaring and murmuring “bees that soar for bloom... murmur by the hour.” Again, a formal constraint is refashioned by Kraman, both literally and emotionally. For example, Kraman’s buzz is furious in “The Lockjob,” for good reason. The book is dedicated to Kraman’s mother, who “survived the European war as a [Jewish] Belgian ‘in hiding’”:
How hijacked I’d been by me mum’s gruesome group
Of Motls and Shmuels and Gittels and Leahs,
The dead rising angry and hungry and dead
The dead are so dead oh my darling, so dead
And locked in my heart, oh so locked in my heart.
The poems are populated by this mother, lovers, God, New Yorkers (tourists, the homeless), “People I’ve Met,” and “Mythical and Historical People I’ve Known,” such as Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, Chaucer, and Keats. We travel through several beautiful, but painful, summer nights
Because that’s they way my mind works, how it
conjures up genies of remorse and pain
out of a June night in a London lane.
(“Half Moon Street”)
The bones of iambic pentameter are clearly felt in the poignant, lyrical poem, “To You If Then Comes.” Here we see the form Kraman created for the first section of the book: “three stanzas of non-rhyming decasyllables of seven lines each.” In this form, Kraman’s decision to use initial caps seems to have heightened her attention to the individual line. However, her attention falters in the last line, which, unlike the other thrilling repetition in the poem, is disappointingly flat for a reader with Chaucerian taste. A metricist might think that the poet had exhausted her “techniques of expressive variation” (Wright) in iambic pentameter and faltered. On the other hand, a punk-rock reader might enjoy the bass-thump of the line.
“To You If Then Comes”
O sweet my mine, if I get sick again
O guide me then, when winter storms in me
O navigable hours, when you made fast in me
O harboring time, and these we married up
And made two twin, to tumble in the waves.
Unfurled, the land! The arable, the dry
The old and torn, the beautiful and formed.
Come resurrect our sights, our sighing charts
Come sit beside, come show it all to me
Come touch the dimpled satin kissless lip
Come touch the touchless, light the sad unlit
Come climb my masted heart unwandering
And rearrange an ended calendar
And re-begin departures on wide seas
When pain has reached its unknown outer rim
When I cry out, come over up my mouth
Cover up my eyes, my mouth my moving tongue
My heated little limbs, my lamby parts
My cold hard ribs, my salty toes and tips
With you with you, with you my other best
And hold and hold and hold and hold and hold.
The Touch has rightfully earned praised from Marie Ponsot, Richard Howard, and Thomas Beller. I rarely read a contemporary poet whose craft and aesthetics inspire me this much. There are so many poetic paths to follow that it’s heartwarming to see a fellow traveler in the distance.
Reviewed by Mary Meriam.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.