The Retreat of Eros

In her latest poetry collection, Barbara Cully allows passions to catch their breath.

A lecturer in the UA's composition program, Barbara Cully is also a poet of somber, speculative abundance.

As Carolyn Forché first observed in her introduction to Cully's book, The New Intimacy, winner of the 1996 National Poetry Series, "such writing proceeds from the recognition of the end of irony; in it elegy has become, finally, all." In that first collection, a handful of prose poems undertook to seek a language of "the easily broken private citizen, drained of historical agency but still awake."

In 2000, the flirtation with the social sentence continued in her chapbook sequence of some 20 prose meditations, Shoreline Series (Kore Press). Now in Desire Reclining, her second full-length collection, Cully persists in her search for agency and faith amid a culture of "illimitable want."

In the deftly suspended gravity of her paragraphs, Cully's declarative sentences utter and subside, carrying lyrical moments of witness through their hurry, their delay, their spiritual restlessness and relenting:

Are the hills and mountains subject to spasms of perfectibility? Are they alive with remembered phrases and choral ecstasies resounding across a snow-lipped canyon on a waning New Year's Day? Steadfast, the mountain blunders into an act of keeping still when it is time to keep still. But it has trouble going forward when it is time to go forward.

Wise, anticlimactic, intimate, favoring a conspicuously flat surface--there is a debt to the I Ching here and to the lyro-philosophical tones of Rosmarie Waldrop's The Reproduction of Profiles. Elegantly oblique, these poems report with the informed intelligence and sharp percept of someone like Marianne Moore. Despite such a company of influence, however, Cully's poems are wholly her own:

First we have the desire in its box of solitude, a sheriff to seduction. Then the body with its hungers hoping to be tried. The penitent's punishment is ten million stones because duration in time is the image of all that is powerful.

In language that is plain but not starved, sentences witness and declare, ghosting from the vulnerability of a "body with its hungers hoping to be tried," to a somber repositioned quietude, and back again to an almost talismanic, Asian precision.

Apparent when reading Desire Reclining is a reluctance on Cully's part to use selfhood as a fixed poetic center from which the poems depart. Take, for instance, this section from "Graveyard Soliloquy":

Dead that bend their fingers dark around a stone. The living that bend their fingers thus. O, what door is shut? O, the lupine and the wisteria creeping. The opportunity to listen much the same as the opportunity to be good. Animals in relief, and writing, dogs and swans, brass roses in an endless cascade. A brisk rendition of poppies in September, silt in summer, washed until only the mountain remains. Hymnless, I have broken herbs into glass to make someone laugh. No, I have broken a promise to make someone tea.

Here is a poem somewhat removed from the implications of its title. That the poem is soliloquy should raise our expectations for a consistent, single, unified speaker, yet this second section is the only one in which we observe a fixed first-person "I." (The remaining four sections deftly commingle and juxtapose the testimony of manifold means of speaking other than the high-poetic, lyrical "I.") Here and throughout Desire Reclining, even the proprietary "I" is depersonalized to the extent that personal biography becomes secondary to its larger, more important role as social, ritualistic witness. Indeed, we might approximate it to the transparent, communal, sagacious "I" of Eastern European poets, particularly the work of poets like Milosz or Holub.

There is no single point of climax in Desire Reclining. Voices are manifold; thus the studied, contrapuntal calm of her work as faith's enactment is refracted and multiplied in the social fields of her paragraphs.

In short, the ecstasies of a personal Eros have been let to rest, passions allowed to catch their breath. Writes Cully, "the point of retreat is to leave behind the clamor of the world, to stoop long enough to hail an insect and to taste God." Hers is a collection that shows us how the terms of loss and faith may be not merely personal but shared, not only a matter of private lament but of a public one as well--in every sense of the word common, "salvation" as near to us as our "hands and feet."