Peter Richards's Helsinki
Published a little more than ten years ago, Peter Richard's first book, Oubliette, took on major themes concerning the nature of time, solitude, and mythmaking and responded to them with a dark, lyrical intensity that seemed completely unique. Richards arrived at a time when many young poets were looking for something new and surprising that was neither ideological and academic, like most Language Poetry, nor naively autobiographical, like the countless post-confessional backyard epiphanies that still populate most literary journals. One group's porridge was too cool, and the other's was, if not too hot, too bland. Oubliette was something bold, fresh, and idiosyncratic. A relevant heir to Keats, Richards demonstrated negative capability in the teeth of post-modernity, as well as the ability to "load every line with ore" and consistently delight by surprise. With his convincing pathos and spine-chilling linguistic daring, he made most other young poets look either smug, glib, or lazy by comparison. For me, Oubliette is still the most impressive first book by that generation of American poets arriving just after the hey (or hey-thrashing) days of post-structuralist poetics, John Ashbery, and a resurgence in homespun surrealism, a standout from a balkanized poetic era struggling for transition.
Many heralded Nude Siren, Richards’s second collection, as even more effective and impressive, and the book certainly expanded the author's emotional and thematic palette. The tortured lyricism and boldly mythic (sometimes even religious) overtones were still evident, but the poems of Nude Siren were often more erotic and love-obsessed than those in Oubliette. They were also funnier, but perhaps because of this greater emphasis on wit, they seemed a bit less startlingly original than those of Richards’s first book. Nude Siren was less raw than Oubliette, and it could more easily be seen as emerging from known precedents, with its Ashberian combination of wit and melancholy, and its American vernacular weirdness that hinted at Russell Edson and James Tate. If it was an heir to these poets, it was a worthy one, and it earned Richards a wide audience among the generation emerging after him, influencing a number of interesting young poets such as Srikanth Reddy and Sam White toward denser musicality and more frank and high-stakes self-confrontation.
After nine years, Richards's third book has finally been published—this time a part of Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney's vibrant new series from Action Books. It is his thickest and most ambitious offering to date, and again, it reveals Richards's restless, forward-thinking aesthetic. Breaking somewhat from the clear lyrical impulse of his first two books, the poems of Helsinki are longer-lined and looser in syntax, and while still densely musical, these poems introduce a narrative element and overarching framework absent in his first collections. Somewhat misleadingly, Electronic Poetry Review refers online to Helsinki as a "novel in verse." While "novel" might be pushing it, these poems do suggest a narrative grounding—a kind of bizarre fusing of Dante's descent with overtones hinting at science fiction and virtual reality. There are at least two relatively distinct characters in the book: the speaker, who seems somewhat less autobiographical than the speakers of Oubliette and Nude Siren, and the beloved, here named Julia, with whom the speaker grows more obsessed as the poems proceed and who is only marginally distinct from the speaker, as she is always seen refracted through the speaker's imagination and the filters that confound it. In a way you could say that Richards is back in his Oubliette, only this time, his place of forgetting is not a trapdoor dungeon cell but a transistor in an alien supercomputer or some cryogenic dream-tank for cosmic specimens.
Helsinki's poems seem enabled by a covert backstory, even though they are reluctant to actually tell it. They avoid most conventions of fiction and instead suggest narrativity through fleeting scenes and allusions that surface and submerge obliquely from Richards's word-textures. The author does not pull things together into a storyline but rather disperses his gestures onto it. The almost complete absence of punctuation here (he does allow himself apostrophes) further complicates the reader's efforts to parse things together, but a basic mythic shape eventually coheres: the decent into hell. This is partially indicated by the book's title, which the reader quickly realizes has less to do with Finland than Dante—Helsinki or Hell-sink-I. Used in individual poems, the word seems to refer to the sink-hole of the detached self, the hell of ordinary narcissism that the work often stages. Often the speaker seems to be cautiously recalling a lost life:
There is a place in Helsinki called Timocharis
with baleful hills and baleful ditches but speak
of that place when you get to it because next
came her shoes well but not exactly like shoes
horses wear on Earth for one was named Julia
and as it came free of her hoof it too sprouted
wings from its own incandescence and like a naked
girl endlessly climbing a horse so Julia climbed
The urge to narrate is constantly interrupted, veering off into angles of imagery that often read like some private but necessary allegorical code. Digression by digression, patterns do accrue, and the poems return instructively to certain words and image patterns. "Timocharis," a word that ordinarily refers to either the ancient Greek astronomer who created the first star catalogue in the Western world or a billion-year-old lunar crater named after him, returns in the final poem, its "baleful hills" transformed into a "club" with "a really good nautical band whose primary / sail is the pink and white paper used for packing / meat." The speaker confesses, "I never really did feel / at home in Helsinki," but despite the pervasive sense of alienation and detachment, the book's final poem ends on a surprisingly sunny note:
...the next day I met these three girls from Macedon
who let me stay in their cabin for a week never was a man
more happy and free this is an understatement I mean
these were the kind of girls who knew how to grow
yogurt but also enjoyed shooting skeet in the afternoons
we drank Makers and one night they really did weave
a crown of vetch for me to wear
The act of drinking Makers Mark bourbon seems imbued with odd consequence (drinking the makers, the muses), and the crown of vetch, which recalls Christ's crown of thorns, as well as "Crown Vetch," an invasive weed that is poisonous to horses (horses are another recurring motif in the book). The reference to "girls from Macedon" connects with other allusions to Greece, such as his reference to "razing Tanagra" in the book's opening poem. So while at first this seems like casual fun, as usual in Helsinki, the lines reveal complex and weighty undertones and connecting patterns that hint at subsurface meanings. We must also consider that this is likely only a provisional ending, as the speaker elsewhere acknowledges "nor was I ever truly released from Helsinki."
Richards provides few concrete references to help weave together his vetch of oblique images and references, but he does provide a potential skeleton key in the book's acknowledgments, where he thanks Dr. Godfrey Louis and Dr. Chandra Wickramasinghe, whose work on "interstellar grains" Richards describes as influential on his writing. These scientists, best known for their work in astrophysics, have developed research and theories related to the theory of panspermia, which holds that life on Earth was seeded from interstellar bacteria that arrived via meteor impact. This perhaps explains Helsinki's reference to the ancient lunar crater known as Timocharis, and although he doesn't elaborate, the reference to these scientists' work may suggest that Richard was toying with the idea, which Wickramasinghe expressed repeatedly throughout his career, that life is likely omnipresent in the cosmos and highly advanced intelligent life almost certainly exists and may have helped seed life on Earth. Although some of the ideas these scientists have been associated with have proven incorrect (most notably Godfrey's once infamous contention that the "red rain" that fell over Kerala, India during the summer of 2001 was colored red because of interstellar microbes created by a disintegrating meteor), the theory that life arrived on earth, rather than originating here, is still a viable if unproven theory and suggests that Helsinki may in part be read as an indirect creation myth.
Following the line of thought suggested by these references, it is tempting to imagine that advanced interstellar aliens might be the mysterious and anonymous "them" who seem to be controlling and interacting with the speaker's environment. One short poem alludes to the speaker's "keepers":
Trying to coordinate with the keepers
I'm not a scheming ray on the sea
nor a basic consequence reduced to gold
finding the focus switches the pulse
landing unseen and scalding the city
whose name is synonymous and raising
the matter should each one need feeding
That these "keepers" are not human is suggested by a reference in another poem, where the speaker states, "I want more human keepers this facility is bony," as well as by the "keepers'" communiqués, which interrupt various poems with snippets of text in all caps interspersed throughout (recalling Eliot's "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME" from The Waste Land). One such poem reads like a dialogue between the speaker and his alien keepers:
THE SUBJECT LEAVES A WHITE PRODIGIOUS COLOR
yes I accept it
the subject leaves a white prodigious color
APPREHENDED BY A RAILING
I accept it
the subject was apprehended by a railing
IT FOLLOWS THEN THAT THE SUBJECT IS NOT
I accept that if you cut me I do not bleed
Such passages are among Helsinki's more overt hints at a sci-fi backdrop and cosmology. It is as if the speaker were in suspended animation or perhaps only a virtual simulacrum created by his retainers, fathoming his own (non)existence. Such a situation is not merely futuristic or fantastical of course. As more and more people conduct significant portions of their lives online, via technology and by means of increasingly more sophisticated virtual realities, the question (and feeling) of the artificiality of existence has grown increasingly relevant in the present.
Reading Helsinki as the monologue of a speaker confined and enabled by the unreality of his environment can help account for the disjointed quality of the book's imagery and scenes, which often behave like memories but are described as experienced realities. Floating in his dream tank, the speaker-cum-memory-bank seeks to recreate his world and conjures fleeting hints of places and events, which then conflate and reconstitute in other forms. His appeals to "Julia" then are not responses to any one biographical woman but to an image-composite of all the women he once knew, and vis-à-vis this reading, like Dante's Beatrice, she comes to represent the repository of male desire, a figure rescued from error and folly, who provides our protagonist with enticing whiffs of reality: "she left me this little pile of green / light to look at and smell and use as a guide." The protagonist of Helsinki is rescuing his beloved not from the hell of sin but the hell of signs—an existence cut off from direct perception and interaction. Thus the bodily presence of Julia evades the speaker throughout, and he is less Julia's Romeo than he is a lonely Richard II raving poetry from his not-so-flinty cell:
She enjoys me in the open
she enjoys watching me invisibly walk on grass
we are both sad virgins warbling in a tower
"Julia," it should be noted, also perhaps alludes to Robert Herrick's mother and also possibly to his book Upon Julia's Clothes, for "herrick" is another repeated and mysterious reference, and the word's references are limited. (What could it indicate besides Herrick, the cavalier poet?) How these references might fit with the larger reading I've been tracing here, however, eludes me.
With his frequent references to "ships" and to being probed and otherwise interacted with by "feelers," it is difficult, despite the book's seeming inconsistencies, to escape the feeling that there is in fact a story, influenced by cosmology and fictions enabled by forward-thinking science, and that there are in fact characters populating it, or at least a protagonist, who seems temporally static, though stimulated and confounded by his imagined characters and scenes which constitute (or constituted) a life. But one should not approach Helsinki as science fiction in any traditional sense. The aliens, such as they might be, are heard and felt but never really depicted. The story, if there is a story, is digressive and oblique in the extreme—told through the lens of a strange and foreign sign-world that is as puzzling as it is rich. There is desire but not romance (the book's "romantic plot" is more grave than tale). There are motivations and impulses, but no real resolutions. Though its backdrop may have involved fiction, its poetic inventiveness is palpably real and delights with or without narrative cohesion. Readers who have come to love Richards's poems will find the same rewards in Helsinki, though indicated in new forms and through an entirely fresh formal and conceptual vehicle. Part Borges, part Dante, part Jack Spicer, Helsinki is nevertheless entirely Peter Richards.
Matt Miller is an Assistant Professor of English at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, where he teaches American literature and creative writing. His book, Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass, was published in 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press. Miller’s poetry, articles, and reviews have appeared in many journals, including the AWP Writer's Chronicle, Denver Quarterly, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, and Verse.
Action Books, 2011
$16, paperback, ISBN: 9780979975554