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“This Nameless, Miraculous Crime”: On Form, Philosophy, and Disobedience in Kara Candito’s Poetry

by Kristina Marie Darling


Spectator, by Kara Candito. 80 pgs. University of Utah Press, 2014. $12.95.
Taste of Cherry, by Kara Candito. 80 pgs. University of Nebraska Press, 2009. $17.95.


I was initially resistant to the measured couplets and tercets that populate Taste of Cherry, Kara Candito’s prize-winning first book of poetry. These orderly stanzas struck me as tame compared to the more formally adventurous work by women that I had encountered. It didn’t take long for me to understand, though, that Candito’s engagements with these seemingly limiting constraints were much more thoughtful, and far less docile, than I had realized.

Throughout Taste of Cherry, as well as her second book, Spectator, Candito inhabits the various forms we have come to associate with the contemporary lyric only to reveal their implicit violence. Candito’s poems treat their own forms—couplets, tercets, and quatrains—as a kind of restriction, an attempt to lend order to unruly and disruptive sensory experiences. This perceived containment illustrates how physical body is forever changed once it is borne into language. Throughout Candito’s work, each line break, each seemingly well-ordered stanza, becomes a reflection on the philosophical problems inherent in their own making, a reminder of the freedom that is lost as we impose structure on language, perception, and experience. What’s more, Candito renders us startlingly aware of the gender politics surrounding our smallest linguistic choices. 

“The words slam around inside our mouths,” Candito writes in Taste of Cherry. This line presents language as the active agent at work , and the body as the subject that is acted upon. The “named world” that the speakers of these poems inhabit is also a divided world, a place in which sensory experience, sensuality, and pleasure are persistently at odds with the words used to describe them. Candito writes,

              . . . What the body
                            wanted was its penance; scar, reminder that I

could love anyone, gnash my teeth on their
              shoulder, then forget them in the subway car,
                            the stale air and grime of it, metal bar still

warm from a stranger’s hand . . .

We are reminded of our desire to ornament “the stale air and grime” of sensory experience with formal and narrative flourishes. We render the body less frightening, and less strange, by situating it within a visibly consistent, apparently stable, linguistic landscape. As Candito describes a “metal bar still / warm from a stranger’s hand,” a “gnash of … teeth,” and metaphorical “scars,” the body is held at close proximity, these visceral details existing in tension with the constructed form imposed upon them. Indeed, the white space before the second and third line of each stanza, the jagged edge that surrounds Candito’s words, calls our attention to the precarious nature of the many kinds of order and stability that we attribute to language, despite its ever-shifting semiotic terrain.  Her appropriation of received imagery, too, reminds us that the linguistic landscape we inhabit is constantly shifting.  Here she recasts a familiar biblical phrase (“gnash my teeth”), arguably beholden to a male textual tradition, in a novel context, offering instead an affirmation of desire, the senses, and the female voice. 

“The stars were arranged in rows,” she writes, “like obedient / children, girls.” These neatly constructed quatrains, presented later in the collection, evoke the artifice inherent in our efforts to “arrange” the world, to line up even “the stars” in an attempt to contain beauty, sensuality, and their frightening volatility. This tension between order and chaos is undoubtedly gendered, as it is the “girls” who are always the “obedient” ones. Indeed, the female body is frequently the subject of these neatly constructed poems, narrated by a voice that seems ready to dismantle the very structure that houses it. She writes,

. . . And she was so lovely, sharpening her knife,
                            shifting from one foot to the other
              in the glare of headlights.

              How her breath was close and hot
against your ear and you learned to stitch a love scene
                            from the shredded night.

Again, the female body is portrayed at close, even discomfiting, proximity, with the speaker’s “breath…hot and close against” the reader’s ear. The uniform lines and measured stanzas subdue a threat of violence: a woman who is “so lovely, sharpening her knife.” The white space before each line, the unevenness of the left margin, subtly threaten disruption while at the same time showing us—through its aesthetic presentation, its artful symmetry—the beauty inherent in the speaker’s loss of control. Candito offers a careful progression of verbs—we transition from “sharpening” to “stitch” to “shredded”—reminding us that these destructive impulses also retain a generative possibility. As the narrator “learn[s] to stitch a love scene” from the rubble that surrounds her, the poem itself becomes a “shredding” of the expected relationships between inherited literary forms and the content housed within them, a stitching together of tradition and a postmodern female voice. 

~

Spectator reads as a beautifully rendered continuation of Candito’s work in Taste of Cherry, her interrogation of forms received from a (primarily male) poetic tradition and their relationship to the female body. The poems in this accomplished second collection inhabit couplets, tercets, and quatrains if only to expand our sense of what is possible within them. Candito writes,

I consider the famous poet’s majesty when he recites
              an ode to my ass—Left Bank beret askew on the alopecia,
                            an expired visa, sardonic deployment of Dada.
After the reading, holding court in chiaroscuro,
              partaking of eclairs and smoked scotch—
                                          Is this tasteless? he asks.

Here Candito “partakes” in the “eclairs and smoked scotch” of the artistic establishment while at the same time questioning their palatability. Line by line, the “majesty” of the “famous poet” is undercut. Here, a formal, stately phrase (“he recites”) is followed by “an ode to my ass.” Candito’s sestets employ the forms we tend to associate with cultural taste while gradually revealing their distastefulness. Indeed, the poem becomes “a trembling cup, overturned,” as she writes elsewhere in the collection, each line undoing the work of the last.

As we read from a “beret askew on alopecia” to the “expired visa,” the internal rhyme housed within each line is revealed as a deliberate distraction from “the famous poet’s” misuse of his revered position. We attempt to render something less “tasteless” through euphonious language, which becomes a kind of ill-fitting ornamentation. The aesthetic presentation of the narrative, with its measured and symmetrical lines, remind us that power, privilege, and injustice are often painstakingly dissembled. Yet these “tasteless” behaviors become suddenly visible through the poem’s artful “chiaroscuro.”  Indeed, Candito’s subtle mention of this technique reads as a provocative reflection on the poem’s own composition process.  The interplay of light and dark, visibility and  concealment, is skillfully enacted in Candito’s use of internal rhyme, and an almost decorative choice of form, to present a disconcerting narrative of disempowerment. 

Spectator, like Taste of Cherry, inhabits familiar constraints only to interrogate their implicit politics. Throughout Candito’s work, the structures one normally associates with containment are made to house female voices that are luminous, empowered, and fierce. “If I’d known then, husband, that you’d fly / due north to find me gloveless in this / ordinary Midwest of hunting rifles…” Candito writes in finely crafted tercets. The subdued violence of the landscape (replete with “hunting rifles” on the most “ordinary” of days) becomes a metaphor for the poem’s making. In much the same way that the speaker is made to inhabit a place filled with distant gunfire, she must also constantly navigate a linguistic terrain that resists her voice.

Candito’s decisions to break form also read as a powerful commentary on the narratives housed within them. Consider “Lorca Addresses His Sister Before Her Wedding”:

. . . like a condemned Artemis, unspeakably dressed,
              plucking the conjugal arrows from your breasts.
Throw that ring in the water! Sing with me, sister,

before dawn’s fermata cloisters your open throat.

Here Candito calls our attention to a female figure who is visibly overshadowed. What’s more, the one-line stanza at the end of the poem evokes this loss of voice, agency, and visibility. In much the same way that marriage “cloisters” her “open throat,” the poem itself is redacted, cut short.

Yet Candito skillfully turns what might have been an act of erasure into something generative. The visible incompleteness of the final stanza invites the reader to imagine what would follow if “dawn” had not broken, if the wedding remained merely an abstraction. We find ourselves involved in an excavation of possibility.

Much like Taste of Cherry, Candito’s Spectator works within a predominantly masculine literary tradition—its array of forms, voices, and narratives—to carve a space for innovation in our thinking about form, gender, and the body. In each of these formally faultless poems, Candito shows us buried possibilities—an “ancient city,” its “sealed windows.” And in such darkened rooms, it’s the moments of rupture that let the light through.

 

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, including Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVOX Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship and residencies at the American Academy in Rome. Her poems and essays have appeared in New American Writing, Poetry International, The Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI Online, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She is editor-in-chief of Tupelo Quarterly. (10/2016)


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