WITT V. WITT
As readers of poetry, we constantly look for something new—fresh and engaging language, poignant imagery, expertise in all shapes and sizes. We want to be surprised. We want poems to take us somewhere we haven't been. Sam Witt takes us to those new places in both his books, Everlasting Quail and Sunflower Brother. Most striking about Witt is his masterful ability to stretch language to its limits to give us great depth and intensity in his darkness. His most common themes are bereaved. He seems to suggest to us that true beauty comes in contemplating or realizing loss.
I will try to quickly introduce you to the differences in Witt's two books using the style and panache of a ring announcer: In this corner, weighing in at 210 pounds, Everlasting Quail! Wearing the blackest of black shorts, his unpredictability and ferocity makes him a contender and an entertainer. In the far corner, weighing in at 198 pounds, Sunflower Brother! A bit more seasoned a fighter in the blue shorts, he's got a consistent right hook that could knock your chin clear off. Settle in—it should be an amazing show—both fighters trained by one of the best boxing minds we've seen this generation.
Witt engages with grief/loss/death more intimately and more convincingly than many younger writers I've read. Again, Witt seems to want to teach us to appreciate the beauty of a thing by showing how ugly it can be when we lose it. He shows his mastery of loss most clearly when he overlaps death with life as in "Fireflies" (Sunflower Brother):
Can't you see I had to tear myself back down
& blow apart like dandelion-fluff that glows
as the air moves, a celebration
of scars, unknitting themselves into diaspora,
into a new skin for us,
in this shower of sulfurous life.
And in "Beverly" (Everlasting Quail):
And no more will you suffer and move as I do tonight,
like all of us born from the chamber of a gun, trigger-finger,
against the tongue, thinking:
suffer no more in the black belly of the retina –
He seems to invite the uncomfortable, saying, "Auntie Me, I am hungry for pain this morning." He employs this same method of comparing other polarities: silence and sound as in "Petersburg Dawn:"
Seconds before the explosion
crickets were chewing the thirsty air with their legs
thousands of them together; the air screamed.
Language and darkness are the lifeblood of Witt's poetry. Neither book would survive if not for the freshness of his treatment, especially after how many thousands of poems have been written about death or loss. He keeps us engaged by showing intimacy through his images and the perspectives he offers us. Very frequently, Witt employs the tactile and identifying quality of fingers and fingertips to cue intimacy or deep love and respect. As fingers should, Witt uses them to point at specific messages, not just secluded to violence as in the above example in "Beverly" but also in soft, personal instances like touching a satin slip to his temple in "The Nap." These tactile moments form a striking and necessary balance to his Witt's use of the unconscious, sleep and air breezing through the speaker.
Witt finds great balance so as to avoid knocking the reader over with all-of-one-kind-of punch. When we might begin to fall over, he'll break from his right jab and throw a left hook. This was crucial in the second section of Everlasting Quail, which was largely archaic in syntax and language and even font choice. He uses italics to introduce shifts in tone and has a good sense of the reader's point of exhaustion.
The most recognizable difference between the two books is accessibility. Everlasting Quail challenges the reader much more. Witt relies heavily on allusions, especially in the second section—so much so that he includes notes at the end of the book. His sentences are much longer in this first collection, and the style—from structure and form to movement and rhythm—is much more experimental. In Sunflower Brother the poems tend to focus in on a specific image or smaller group of images with more traditional structure (clear stanzas and syntax). The sentences and poems are also much shorter in his second book, making them easier to approach and mentally digest. Sunflower Brother deals much more in the now—now being the word Witt uses most frequently in the book. This immediacy and brevity bring the poems much closer to the reader. They open up faster, probably because of a first person speaker we can more quickly recognize. In Everlasting Quail, the "I" is slightly (or mostly) removed from the subject matter, whether it is syntactically, (by placing the speaker outside of the subject of the sentence) or figuratively, (by placing the speaker alongside sleep or interacting with more metaphysical images). In Sunflower Brother, the "I" is often the subject of the sentence and relates more concretely to the images and relationships portrayed in the poems.
We get a clear idea of this by comparing the first poem of each book. The poem "The Mortality Tree," (Everlasting Quail) largely emphasizes the idea of collapsing into itself:
the way her shadowy flower neglects to open –
petal by petal swallowing itself,
stem and all, a laughing rose; a root,
spreading its love-shades inward
Witt seems to be setting us up at a distance, telling us that the poems will be difficult, and as long as we're willing to keep reading, (and I really do mean keep reading) they will continue to open up to us. He will entice us with extremely engaging language and imagery to help us navigate through the darkness.
"The Cold War" in Sunflower Brother provides a clear contrast in the way that the speaker of the poem seems to be reaching out:
In school they taught us
each atom was a solar system,
with a sun, and thousands of planets.
They were wrong. They were wrong
about my finger,
capable of touching your cheek.
Instead of the speaker or the poem being trapped within its own solar system, like the hummingbird in the jar earlier in the poem, it stretches out and makes fairly intimate contact. Witt sets up the reader to expect poems that open up more easily.
Sunflower Brother's accessibility made it my immediate favorite, but after reading each more times than twice, Everlasting Quail has won my vote. Witt's diversity and intensity of emotion should never be overlooked. Reading these two books together—though they aren't more than slightly dissimilar—creates potential commentary on the goals of poetry. Does one favor accessibility, sacrificing some opportunity for surprise? Or does one favor difficulty, sacrificing the easily engaged reader? I choose the latter, but on slim margin. In either case, choose one (or hopefully both) of these books for the richness of Witt's language and intelligent treatment of the loss and pain.