Online Edition: Spring 2003

Given by Arielle Greenberg

Given

Arielle Greenberg

Verse Press ($12)

by Michael R. Allen

In Given, Arielle Greenberg makes dazzling explorations into the secrets embedded in language. Greenberg deals with words as strange objects that offer obscure meanings which might explain life, but she is no simple "experimental" writer--rather, she remembers that what poetry does best is produce complex meaning in the never-ending possibilities language affords.

Greenberg's success is fitting considering that Given is partially an homage to Marcel Duchamp, that pivotal explorer of material phenomena; "Given" is the translated title of Duchamp's final work, Etant donnés. Of course, "given" also conjures the poet's gift of poem to reader, as well as the perhaps divine gift of words to the poet. Greenberg's title hints at the power of her word choices: getting away with swift and easy meaning is not an option for a reader of these poems.

Consider the first stanza of "The Alexander Technique," which runs nimbly through cultural references and poetic evasion:

Joe DiMaggio has not told me any secrets for so long.
     God's lonely eye has not turned to tell me any secrets.
Freud developed psychoanalysis to cure his own talking of secrets
 out loud to me.
     Virginia Woolf's shawled Indian girl hasn't told me any secrets.
A problem.

An American icon has not told (given?) the speaker any secrets lately, but immediately DiMaggio is replaced by "God's lonely eye," something more important but also more abstract. Freud is also involved in the lack of secret-telling, but then the famous psychiatrist is replaced with a modest literary character, and finally the series ends with the definitive statement "A problem." Yet the reader still has no idea about what secrets are being told or going untold--if any. Perhaps the secrets, usually a tantalizing literary puzzle to unwrap, simply serve to facilitate the creation of other mysteries, such as what the speaker wants to know.

Sometimes, however, Greenberg's words give up their mysteries. The interlude joining the book's two sections, a sequence of five poems entitled "(caveshow)," is a beautiful centerpiece that presents the profundity of the peculiar, repetitious patterns of dream recollection. Likewise, the brilliant "House of Precision" revels in its own failure to show the way to its title--"There are maybe three blocks between x and the House of Precision"--"x" evokes the supposed precision of mathematics, but the "maybe" reminds the reader that the poem is not an equation. The prose poem "Nostalgia, Cheryl, is the Best Heroin" offers not directions but shaded memories: "This is a terrible story, Cheryl. It is an instructional essay for a sweet beating. It is an open letter to linen closets everywhere." These memories seem painful, but the poetry seems to recall something longed for as well.

Often with dry wit, Greenberg shows that a poem is an incomplete set of directions to the secrets of life--secrets that are very real and easily knowable if only we were given the precise directions. Through these poems, we might understand some of those secrets, even if we may never know them as prosaic facts.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents