Offcourse Literary Journal

Tickets to a Closing Play, by Janet Buck. Arlington, VA. Gival Press, 2003. 43 pages.

Reviewed by Robert W. Greene.


Janet Buck is a gifted, disciplined poet, as readers of OffCourse know well. Her new collection, Tickets to a Closing Play, winner of the 2002 Gival Press Poetry Contest, confirms our sense of her power and skill, and gives us an opportunity to celebrate her continuing presence among us.

In Tickets, Janet Buck treats bereftness and grief as blows that strike with terrible but mundane force. After Auden ("Funeral Blues"), Bishop ("One Art") and Thomas ("Do Not Go Gentle"), she shows us that the work of mourning never ends, that art does not so much shield us from the pain of loss as allow us to absorb it. Like an adroit fencer, she never loses her poise, but calls out "touché" when hit. Her gaze stays focused, unaverted, on the decay in the persons (and things) closest to her. In the process, she becomes our surrogate and champion in the single combat of living and dying. And always she "lets the words take the lead" (following Mallarmé's dictum).

As with all true poetry, exactly how Janet Buck's verse achieves its effects remains mysterious. I should nonetheless like to explore the mystery in her case, by alighting here and there across Tickets to a Closing Play.

The last two lines of "Upon the Threads of Slivered Glass" seem to capture Janet Buck's credo as a poet: "Words must be that olive oil / which floats above this vinegar." Let me venture a gloss: The intelligible should dress the bitter without diluting it. We note in passing that the demonstratives "that" and "this" keep everything in the particular, the realm that lyric poetry quits at its peril. Also, we can hear (feel) a four-beat line, possibly the poet's favorite meter, so appropriate for the tone of practical resignation that pervades her work.

Occasionally, Janet Buck's line rolls past the span of a sigh, as in the opening stanza of "Tumbleweeds on Desert Floors": "When you died, my sister and I flipped a grimy nickel / to decide which of our salt-stoned cheeks / would tackle the stash of memories / huddled in darkness under your bed. / I lost." In rubato style, the quick coda ("I lost") effectively realigns the stanza with the rhythm of the whole poem (and of the whole collection), while reprising the dominant theme of loss.

Elsewhere, one line, like the first in "Swelling Walls," conveys a world of meaning: "Death alters the size of a house." It would be hard to imagine a more graphic yet more oblique statement of death's impact on those nearest the departed one. ("Tell all the truth but tell it slant," Emily Dickinson commands and Janet Buck heeds.) At other moments, a striking image, like the following one from "Sharp Ice," hints at rivers of regret: "Too young to abide the wrinkling fruit, / I wasn't prepared for the rind." Or, from "Final Picnics," this one: "At the edge of a grave, / even the desert looks green."

Loss, with consequent bereavement, is shadowed in Tickets by a sporadic meditation on the inadequacy of any expression of that twofold notion. The secondary theme extends and deepens the primary one. In "The Closet," sisters, at once little girls and grown women, stare into a parent's closet after a funeral. Whose funeral it is doesn't matter. What matters is the raw experience of primal lack, including of the words sufficient for rendering the lack. Along with the sisters, we see a colon, but no words for the space after the punctuation mark. A parent is gone for good; nothing more will issue from that quarter. "The Closet" ends: "He stands in perfumed oceans / of dresses and robes —/ a colon perched / ahead of no phrase."

We are drawn now to another site of stored-away clothes (and memories), the last lines of the last poem in Tickets, "Carving a Map." Art may constitute weak medicine, flimsy cover, only a dubious whiff of protection, but it's what lingers after we outlive someone (or something) essential to us: "A poem smells like / mothballs killing lavender, / but it's all I have for the scent. / This page, this sweater with holes."

In "Chore of Mace," the poet, as in a dream, simultaneously has climbed a flight of stairs, forged a life and built a poem, futile if necessary activities all. Fragments of remembrance, imagination and perception swirl around her, enter her orbit. She merges with her instrument. Indeed, the words of the poem take the lead. Everything is somehow resolved, albeit darkly, in the dense concluding lines, almost an envoi: "So this is how it really feels / to handle sonnets in the raw, / then emerge as lifeless prose —/ aware the rhyme and ligature / float in buckets of a grave."

In a entirely positive sense, Tickets to Closing Play is one long poem, an elegant dirge in which the olive oil of art floats above, but not apart from, the vinegar of life.


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