Rest Cure by Sandra Ridley.
Reviewed by Jamie Bradley.
At long last I’ve had the opportunity to sit for a reasonable length of time with Rest Cure by Sandra Ridley (Apt. 9 Press, 2009). I suppose the primary question this long poem asks is how close to complete stillness can you get and still navigate a poem? It starts with a reliance on a propulsive and conjunctive language:
Before running on nightshade & wormwood in a topiary maze.
Before hawthorn punctures her arm: poison tipped.
Before a peck of stones, she handpicks or pockets,
she is camphor-doused
by a fold of wool: wet & held tight to her eyes.
The propulsion of “before” and the conjunctive “&” placed in a minimal context circling a present stillness that draws it up to a halt. If you get the thing done right as Ridley does here and as you might find, for example in much of the work of Anne Carson, what you get is a body that gives off a glow. An energy cast, appropriately, into a straightjacketing form that nonetheless beats at it, again appropriately, like blood through a vein. Beats against it and withdraws, and then repeats. Done repeatedly there’s a structure of reverberation that affects every subsequent line exponentially. One of the things this allows the poem to do is to paradoxically expand its meaning as it progresses, even as the forms apparent on each page begin to contract, moving more and more closely to stillness, to individual heavy lines, to some that may fragment under their own weight, or need to be couched in even more stabilizing and stricter stanza forms. A language that might touch on the experiences of laudanum, ether, and hemorraging presented here. The Beckett trick, the minimalist paradox. You can call the whole thing Dionysius and Apollo instead if you like, I don’t think it will mind. It’s a paradox that also depends significantly on the propulsive, heady, and above all senuous quality of something like this:
& yesterday was lamb’s wool under her walking skirt
& wasn’t it or weren’t they
& didn’t she hold a piece of him when she came here
before she slipped listless & antiseptic
This suggests that the dilemma of containment and particularly male containment of the female in the context of the poem’s narrative is more complicated than it might appear in another writer. The experience of the voice in this poem is more ambiguous, her dream and waking lives as much languid and longing as troubled in a conventional sense, while always still the fine threat of violence resonant in lines like “Until his hypodermic drips & spins above her wrist-/ clockwise, he loves her.”
The line is balanced, is worked right to the edge of its length and is then drawn back slightly, leaving a degree of silence. A speech in containment that, by virtue of its containment, challenges most potently through silence, the echoing quality of a large room contained in a seemingly small voice. Well this is a story partly told by narrative suggestion (something a bit like Wide Sargasso Sea but stroking playfully at Sam Beckett territory), the primary vehicle for this story is sound and shape, as it should be, and arguably must be if Ridley is going to register something noteworthy in the direction of containment. She is very skilled at her craft, and has figured out some very eloquent ways to pull a sensibility from that craft that can sustain a long form. This joining of craft and the less tangible aspects of how a poem might mean are perhaps an obvious, one might say definitional aspect of poetry but I think it’s something that otherwise talented writers spend a very long time figuring out how to approach. To see it here in full evidence so early on in a potential career is something to note and find encouragement in. Sandra Ridley is producing the good stuff and we would do well to hear it.
A word needs to be said about the production that Cameron Anstee, working through his Apt. 9 Press, puts together to facilitate the poetic experience on tap here. Simple, elegant fonts, beautiful paper and streamlined covers bearing his handmade impress. Regardless of what one thinks of the poets he presents, no one can argue they aren’t getting their money’s worth in terms of the total object in their hands and the effect it might have on their ears: just showing and not telling, just raising the poems to our attention and not getting in the way. Any writer should wish for so simple and generous a treatment.