by Julie R. Dargis (Morocco 1984-87)
Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79)
As a girl growing up in New England, I visited many colonial houses-the Paul Revere house on the Freedom Trail in Boston, the birthplaces of John Adams and John Quincy Adams in what is now Adams National Historic Park just south of Boston, the houses at Old Sturbridge Village in central Massachusetts and Historic Deerfield in western Massachusetts where the famous massacre took place. Framed on the walls of these houses, the cross-stitch sampler proved an ubiquitous artifact. Its (often wobbly) stitches testified to the progress a young girl had made in acquiring elemental skills in needlework. Seven Sonnets, a new chapbook by Julie R. Dargis, qualifies as the poetic version of such a sampler. It serves at once as affirmation of Dargis’s painstaking attention to the sonnet form and as indication of the years of commitment ahead if she is to master it.
As W. H. Auden wrote, “A poet is someone to whom arbitrary difficulties suggest ideas.” Dargis has devoted herself to the arbitrary difficulty of writing in iambic pentameter (and, in the case of Sonnet V: A Leaf of Three, in iambic tetrameter), and she does indeed demonstrate a basic understanding of metrics. A much more sophisticated understanding of sonnet form is in order, however, if she is ever to get beyond the arbitrary difficulties to the ideas. It’s not just that Dargis needs to roughen up the meter and rev up the rhymes in her sonnets to get herself into a more original and daring poetic space. She must also tighten up the argumentation. It is for good reason that sonnets are often compared to legal briefs. In a Shakespearian sonnet (which is Dargis’s predilection), the line of argument in each rhyming quatrain, from the first to the next to the next, should be explicit and concise, and the conclusion in the final couplet razor-sharp. Dargis’s argumentation is, by contrast, impressionistic. Sonnet I: Sonnet for Sardo, for example, moves from soaring planes and searing trains to new snow falling to the “bloodied tide” of sunset without articulating enough of a logical connection between one image and the next.
The two sonnets I see as the most promising are Sonnet VI: Liquid Stone and Sonnet VII: Paris, 29 mai 1913, les bras levé… The trochaic opening line of Liquid Stone-“Molten lava, liquid stone, release your”-shakes the reader out of what has started to feel like an iambic torpor. Enjambment, caesuras, and feminine endings begin to give the music of the sonnet an original stamp. There’s also some cohesion of metaphor along the lines of scientific principles. Paris, 29 mai 1913, les bras levé… looks forward to the centennial of the riot that greeted the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913. Although the sonnet stands as too much of a puzzle and could not properly be understood without the copious notes that follow it, it does manage to capture in its rhythms some of the shock value of the ballet’s dissonant premier. The unity of the sonnet around one event also gives it a narrative cohesion none of the other sonnets have.
At the end of each sonnet, there is a specification as to place and date-“Rome, March 22, 2012,” “Florence, March 31, 2012,” etc.-which does not appear to have any immediate bearing on the subject matter. The sonnets do not describe a trip to Italy in any direct sense. Perhaps the essay at the end of the chapbook, entitled “God’s Kitchen Window,” is intended to fill this gap. In it, Dargis shares the moments of writerly transcendence she experienced while breakfasting in the gold-encrusted, marble-ensconced, cherub-studded glory of the Grand Plaza Hotel in Rome. The trope of “God’s kitchen window” is a potentially viable one, but unfortunately, the essay gets bogged down in insignificant detail. It is difficult to decipher its animating force.
“The sonnet is where old professors go to die,” Robert Bly once commented. Yet the rumors of the sonnet’s death always prove to be greatly exaggerated. The sonnet’s resiliency is astonishing, and contemporary poets from Billy Collins to Sherman Alexie to Karen Volkman to A. E. Stallings to Marilyn Nelson have succeeded in investing the form with new vigor. Perhaps, after a considerable apprenticeship, Julie Dargis will succeed in doing so as well.
Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won both the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the RPCV Writers and Readers Award. Her poems and translations have appeared in many magazines, including The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Manoa. She is Director of the Low-Residency M.F.A. Program at Murray State University and Editor of New Madrid.