Loom by Sarah Gridley

Loom by Sarah Gridley

Omnidawn, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-890650-78-0
Perfect bound, 82 pp., $17.95
Review by Tom Daley

Nakedness is only

being itself: an uncarved block
turned on its side

a first
and last bad habit.

This is the contention of the speaker of the long opening poem of Sarah Gridley’s Loom, “Shadows of the World Appear.” The book-length meditation on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” seeks, among other things, to undermine the preciousness of the Victorian poet’s sensual but chaste Lady with a blunt appraisal of the female form, of traditional notions of female artistry. Earlier on the same page, the artist/author who would depict this creature of Arthurian legend is instructed to “Show her bottom’s blush in the scalding bath.” Rather than wrapping her in gauzy tulle, the artist must “Show a stout cloud // of rose talc / where she dries to fragrant abstraction.”

In Tennyson’s poem, the Lady of Shalott is compelled to weave a tapestry representing people and things she saw in a mirror that showed her the progress of those finding their way to Camelot on the road adjacent to where her “silent isle imbowers” her. She cannot look out of the mirror on the world; nor can she stop her weaving, lest an unarticulated curse fall upon her. She sees the handsome Sir Lancelot pass by in her mirror and, distracted, abandons her weaving and watches as the mirror cracks. The curse has fallen; she prepares a boat and lies down in it, setting off for Camelot. On her way, she dies. Her corpse-laden bark arrives at Camelot to the mystification of both common folk and the Round Table knights.

Gridley’s last thought of the collection appears at the end of Loom’s acknowledgments page, in which she suggests, “We are here to dream with our eyes open.” Throughout the book, the craft of the fantastical lady-weaver fixed on her mirror and trapped in her island on the middle of a river becomes a kind of archaic double for the exertions of the speaker of the poems in the book. The book is a turning toward, and a falling away from, perception grasped as through a reflection, and that grasp alternately tightens and loosens through the distortion of culture, sensibility, and mystery.

In the process of exploring a word’s etymology, Gridley proffers a potent metaphor for the work of language, with words as its building blocks. In “A Phenomenon,” the speaker explains: “Nakara in Arabic is to hollow out. Nacre yields us mother-of-pearl, liquor concreted as inner shell, a little tomb of aragonite bricks that rough up light as iridescence.” In “Charcoal,” the artist who uses the medium of charcoal must be mindful that “What finds the residue of bone and willow and leaves the careful working in our hands” has a kind magical resonance to it.

A “grimoire” is a book of instructions for how to weave charms and spells. In the poem, “Grimoire,” one of the instructions might put an end to the whole business: “One was a spell for no more spells. For cutting them down, and letting them go.” The word “grimoire” is cognate with “grammar,” both, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, deriving from the Old French “gramaire: ‘grammar; learning,’ especially Latin and philology, also ‘(magic) incantation, spells, mumbo-jumbo.’” Might the grammarian’s attempt to codify, to regulate, nudge all the magic out of language leave it un-glamorous? Yet words, and their arrangements, whether mapped out or not, are the reagent for the chemical processes of perception. They are the silver paint that backs the glass that makes reflection in a mirror possible.

Modernity impinges on legend, reorganizes perception. In the long poem, “Half-Sick of Shadows,” Gridley’s speaker contends,

Here the illuminant illumines the subject:
A small magnesium explosion
where a flashlamp
startles the veil

In their fantastical yearnings for the idealized world of the Middle Ages, Tennyson and his pre-Raphaelite followers sought to retreat from the encroachments of the Industrial Revolution. Gridley’s speaker seems to be making the point that the invention of photography, and the flash lamp that made indoor photography possible, must have unsettled these seekers-after-magic. Tennyson, et al., might find “the veil” Gridley references more than startled if they had known that the inventor of the magnesium flash for photography, Joshua Lionel Cowen (founder of the Lionel train company), would sell his fuse-cum-powder invention to the US Navy to use to detonate submarine mines. Here, their concerns about the insidiousness of technology would seem, at least to them, to be very much justified.

While the book principally concerns itself with gathering grist milled on an intellectual grindstone, the reader who reads poetry for the pleasures of image and musicality won’t be disappointed in Loom. Though some of the philosophically derived thickets are over-brambled, there are lovely compensations, as in these excerpts from “Font”: “Flash of aluminum keel, spider webs wiped from its idle hollow”; “Weathers fall through a gathering basket”; and “To glean was to tell potatoes from stones.” Though Loom is not for the casual poetry aficionado, it will reward a reader possessed of patience and a modicum of intellectual curiosity. Like the work of the Lady of Shallot, it has a kind of enchantment on it.

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