By Richard Nester
Sonia Greenfield’s chapbook, American Parable, should receive a trumpet fanfare upon being opened. It pioneers a style, a method—not so revolutionary as Whitman’s breathtaking leap into free verse perhaps—but worthy of notice both for what it says and how it says it. Greenfield’s verse is fiery, packed with lived experience and whetted by an imaginative grit that is emotionally concrete, accurate and incisive. She manages to join Whitman’s vigorous engagement with public issues with Dickinson’s lyric genius for private mediation. Greenfield’s poems are not only important in themselves as individual explorations of significant human questions but also for what they accomplish in terms of method, which is to explore civic questions in poems that have a complete right to be called lyric poems, something long thought impossible. In American Parable, Greenfield successfully closes the considerable distance between the styles of Whitman and Dickinson and their subject matters.
To better understand how Greenfield operates in American Parable and why her method is so fresh, we need to look at a poem from her first collection Boy with a Halo at the Farmer’s Market. This poem “Nafsicrate Considers Bruegel’s Famous Work” reacts to W.H. Auden’s famous “Musee des Beaux Arts” from the point of view of a character who might have appeared in Auden’s poem but doesn’t, that is the mother of Icarus. Greenfield will use a similar approach many times in American Parable as she establishes a point of view that has been overlooked or disregarded and then uses that point of view to close the distance between the reader and the poem’s subject. Providing readers with these kinds of insights is a classic trope of lyric poetry, but one that has rarely found its way into the rhetoric of civic discourse.
One of the things we notice about “Nafsicrates Considers” is that Icarus isn’t named until the poem’s last line since to his mother he is simply “my boy,” a real person, who is both intensely special as well as typical of all children. She has passed her unique knowledge of how to dive to him—a detail that ironically references the painting—while acknowledging her anxiety for his safety. As she says “you can’t trust children to make good choices.” Icarus remains somewhat unreal to us since we don’t encounter him except in his mother’s report. In this respect, we are still “turned away” from him, to borrow Auden’s figure of speech, but Nafsicrate is certainly a real mother suffering the anxieties of a real parent and not the generalized, emotionally distant spectator of Auden’s poem.
Developing this fresh point of view enables Greenfield to dispute Auden’s opening claim in “Musee,” which is “about suffering they were never wrong / the old Masters.” Auden continues, deftly producing his evidence both from life and from Bruegel’s painting, so that we tend to accept authority of his argument and his verdict that indifference to suffering is the default mode for humanity. What other opinion could there be? Auden is apparently cocksure about its truth, but is it actually the only truth available? Is it so universal after all? Or is it rather the wisdom of a particular set of “masters” (with a small m), painting in a particular time for a particular audience, singularly devoted to commerce. By including an observer who is also a vital—but usually disregarded–participant Greenfield is able to challenge the hegemony of the expected, a classic move in lyric poetry.
As far as Yeats was concerned, poetry and rhetoric could not exist together, and his distinction between them is famous, poetry arising from “quarrels with ourselves” and rhetoric from “quarrels with others.” After Yeats, poetry took an inward turn away from public engagement and persuasion toward explorations of inner conditions and their imaginative traffic with the material world. When public engagement did occur as in Auden’s oft-quoted “September 1, 1939,” it exhibited a reluctance to linger with the personal. Within the space of a few lines, Auden moves from his seat at the bar “uncertain and afraid” to a place at the lecture podium delivering a geo-political sermon about what every schoolboy should have learned about the propagation of evil. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t great poetry, but it is not in the lyric mode of exploration and discovery. In American Parable, Greenfield closes this distance as we become more fully engaged with the people and issues she offers us.
Another means she adapts from the lyric vocabulary is what Matthew Zapruder in his recent book Why Poetry calls “associative leaping,” a form of imaginative seeing. This method is on vivid display in “Snapshots of Pluto from New Horizons,” a poem that skillfully combines exposition with lyric grace as Greenfield examines how embattled language is in the current political climate. She includes situations from gender politics to the distorting power of language without once seeming strident or accusatory. Humans may “default to optimism” as we imagine a heart shape emerging—like our own lunar man-in-the-moon—from Pluto’s “variegated terrain,” but the poem’s sadness is unmistakable, sadness for emotional resources squandered because of a lack of the clear seeing that poetry offers.
She provides a poignant update to Williams’ claim that “men die every day for lack of it [poetry],” as she focuses our attention on the women, workers, and children that are diminished by our failure to offer “new horizons” to our most vulnerable citizens. Her images have an associative power that belies their plain spoken sense. A case in point are the leaking “sandbags” of the poem’s last line, which remind us of our inability to insure against disasters political and emotional as well as natural.
A poem that pairs well with “Pluto”—in that both involve journeys that are in part hopeful and in part forsaken—is “Refuge” where Greenfield portrays the contemporary refuge experience through the eyes of a character she calls “melania” (spelled with a small m). “Refuge” fuses the refuge experience of women and children fleeing war or political crisis with the immigrant journey of the First Lady of the United States—a decidedly more well-known Melania—as it juxtaposes material barriers of “brambles” and “walls” with emotional barriers of “tinted windows” and “blue pills.” The fusion completes itself as the “tinted windows” of melania’s exile existence “roll down” the way / Slovenian woods pull their / shutters closed at the end / of the day” and melania is eventually pointed to her “bed over there.”
Woody Guthrie, in his classic protest ballad “Deportee,” recognizes that namelessness is a signal trait of the economic and political exile. He sings “you won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane,” reminding us not only of how dangerous anonymity is for the exile but also of how anonymity can be weaponized by the powerful. Greenfield, by ironically naming the principal character of “Refugee,” throws the humanity of the exile into stark relief. She will insist that the world look now even if it was not looking during the earliest stages of the world refugee crisis.
Accurate, insightful seeing is a crucial component of Greenfield’s lyric approach. In poem after poem, the visual details pile up, calling on us to witness what on many occasions we might prefer not to see. Sights, detailed on Greenfield’s moral canvas, places and events where the seeing is inward as well as outward, include those associated with lynchings and abortions. She notes in “Yours,” where the subject is unsafe drinking water, that moral toxicity usually accompanies physical toxicity. Twice she goes underwater, once to survey drowned Confederate statues, noting that “if you want to touch / this history bad enough you can dive for it” and again at “The Miami Museum of Water” where Trumpian artifacts submerged by global warming mingle with detritus from Cuban restaurants. Even when a poem’s overall message is inspirational, as in “I Believe, in the End, the Dogs Will Save Us” suffering is evident, a reminder that our real heroes are ones who survive trials—in this case a mutt whose leg is caught in a trap and not the kind of dogs—herders and bomb-sniffers—that are more likely to get credit for heroism.
American Parable’s title poem is probably the least lyrical of the collection, not because it lacks the quick movement that we usually associate with lyric, but because it is in fact a parable, a parable being a narrative tale designed to illustrate a universal truth. The universal truth in this case is the powerful negative impact of fear on a country and a people. The poem begins by describing the reasons that the country has not to be fearful: “weapons & open / spaces, prairie grass & forests / river runs & rolling golden / mountains.” But fearful this country is, shockingly so, and without rational explanation. Rumors of “terrible creatures” spread, but there is no evidence that they are doing anything “terrible.” Rumors are all the evidence offered. A “golem” appears to be lurking and a “fog of plagues,” but whether these dangers are the reasons for the fear or its consequences, goes unsaid. All we know is that a “prophet / who lived in a golden tower” tells the people that he can save them, provided they will throw rocks at those he says are to blame.
The allegorical nature of the narrative is too plain to bother recounting. Nonetheless, it is expertly told, and its truth about the consequences of fear is hard to question. Creating an allegory is clearly a way to steer the poem away from topicality and toward universality, and Greenfield is successful in doing that. “American Parable” is not a political lyric of the kind I have been examining, but it serves the collection the way the pole of a circus tent serves the spacious area underneath it—a three-ring circus of political poetry that illuminates our current crises and points a way toward new forms of poetic discourse. That these poems will constitute acts of resistance and survival is a hope profoundly worth hoping.
You can find the book here:
Richard Nester has twice been a fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has published essays on social justice topics in The Catholic Agitator, a publication of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, and poetry in numerous magazines, including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, and Callaloo and on-line in The Cortland Review, Qarrtsiluni and Inlandia. He has two collections of poetry, Buffalo Laughter and Gunpowder Summers, both published by Kelsay Books. His reviews of poetry have appeared in North of Oxford.