Causeway: Elaine Sexton
Author: Julie R. Enszer
June 2, 2009
At the very center of Causeway, poet Elaine Sexton’s second collection of poetry, she concludes the poem “Sea School” with these lines:
every tide I give myself over to,
every studied and unstudied
The poems of this book come from Sexton’s submersion in liminal spaces both real and imagined. Estuaries, where the river’s current meets the tide of the sea, have a prominent position in the book and in the imagined narrative of the poet as do the liminal spaces between land and sea. Sexton writes, “I was practically born/in a tide pool,” and she stays in these places mining their imagistic potential for her poems. In “Borrowed House,” she writes, “I draw this view,/a gentle lap lap lap, from your house,” and then concludes by connecting the metonymic lap of the water with a relationships saying, “the way we push and pull one another/as we buffet the past, as I see it, through glass.”
These lines demonstrate Sexton’s keen ear for her craft. The poems of Causeway sound beautiful. The collection overall is inflected by attention to form. Sexton writes some poems in forms, like her “Lower Manhattan Pantoum,” and all of her poems are attentive to form on the page and within the collection. While the liminal space between land and sea might seem to dominate the collection, the “naturalness” of those spaces is in tension with the urban, or “human-made,” landscapes in which the poet often finds herself.
The poem “Turnstiles” begins the collection with these lines,
I carry the prints of a hundred thousand
strangers in my hands, their palms
on the turnstile this morning like mine
touching the kiosk buttons, fingering
coins to pay for the Times.
The task of navigating through multiple, challenging geographies, both urban and rural, land and water, extend throughout the book. Eventually, these geographies become a way for the reader and the poet to enter the internal geographies of the poet and the poems. The urban causeway of the title poem is “outside your idea of me” and while “walking the causeway,” the poet realizes, “I’m invisible, stirred/under the radar/of your thinking[.]” Even in the urbanized space of the causeway constructed for cars, the poet realizes that she wants “to be/somewhere else,/not here, where/the marsh and bay /divide at our sides.” In this poem, Sexton suggests the exploration of internal geographies and interpersonal tensions, but returns by the conclusion to an observation of the natural world. This is both the strength and weakness of the collection. While keenly observed and careful in its assignation of imagery and metaphor, too often it flees from true insight or discovery of human nature.
Where Sexton presses onward connecting the internal and the external, she delivers the most beautiful and satisfying poems. For instance, in “The Horse in Her,” Sexton writes about an afternoon with Maxine Kumin,
Steady at 80, she led us, shifting
her legs over a thick trunk
blocking the path, intent on finding
the mushroom grove a mile deeper in.
This poem uses the natural world as a way to illuminate the personal and the interpersonal in profoundly satisfying ways. Similarly, in “Onion Field,” Sexton concludes the poem,
Did I know, even then,
our friend and driver, our host,
would die, months later? And you,
whom I love, I would leave.
And the house where we stayed, year after year,
down a lane cut through onion fields,
would be sold. That I’d actually risk
not coming back to this place. Again. And again.
In these moments, we see a poet in charge of her craft bringing together language, imagery, and insight that is profound and powerful. These poems make the collection worth reading – and the wait for a next book worthwhile.
New Issues / $14
Paperback, 73 pp.