29 September 2017

Beating the Bounds by Liz Ahl

Let me begin with disclaimer: This is not a review of Liz Ahl's first book-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds. Liz is a longtime friend who sometimes writes about the place where I live and people I know, so anything I say about this book's qualities ought to be suspect. Further, I'm not very good at writing about poetry. I read a lot of poetry — well, "a lot" in comparison to most Americans, certainly, and probably in comparison to most writers who are not themselves poets — but have no facility for writing about poetry with much more insight than, "I like this line," or "Doesn't that sound nice?"

What this post is, then, is not a review but a notice, plus quotations and anecdotes.

Notice: Liz Ahl has published her first book-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds. No book better captures what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like to live in rural central New Hampshire than this book. That may sound like a little thing, but to me, who calls that world home, it is everything.
It's all relative, of course, the late and the early,
the patterns we imagine, the seasonal routine 
we embellish, and all the talk we make—

("Talking About the Weather")
Anecdotes: I first met Liz when she was a foreigner. It was nearly 20 years ago, and I was just back from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Walking through the Plymouth State University Bookstore one day, I saw that a professor had assigned a class to buy Joel Brouwer's poetry collection Exactly What Happened. Joel Brouwer had been at Bread Loaf, and I had fallen in love with his poems. But they weren't exactly famous. Of all the thousands and thousands of poetry collections to assign to undergraduates ... that seemed a strange choice. A good choice, an excellent choice, but statistically odd. I wanted to know who this person was. The professor's name on the shelfcard in the bookstore was unfamiliar to me: L. Ahl.

My mother worked at Plymouth State, and so I called her up. "Who is L. Ahl?" I said. She said it was the new teacher in the English department, a woman named Liz (a variation of my mother's own name, though Elizabeth my mother is Betsy, not Liz). My mother gave me Liz's email address and I wrote to her. I said something to the effect of: "Who are you and why do you know Joel Brouwer's book?" She replied, something to the effect of: "I am Liz Ahl, poet and teacher. I had friends at Bread Loaf this year, and somebody told me about Joel Brouwer, and I, too, love this book, as all sane and rational and poetic people do. We should have coffee sometime. Also, I think I live across the street from your father."
You and I were neighborly, waving
as we swung out of our driveways
or back into them. We commented on weather,
checked in when power failed. You called me
"Nebraska" because it's where I came from,
and once or twice I visited you in the gun shop
attached to your house. It surprised you
that I knew how to shoot; it surprised me
how you doted on those two barn cats.

If I remember correctly, at the time I was not in contact with my father. There was a more-or-less three year period where my sanity couldn't bear him. It had been some years since I'd been by the house I grew up in, though I lived just one exit down the highway, where I worked at a boarding school, my first job out of college. Liz and I met, and eventually I visited her at her house, a house she rented, a house I remember seeing built when I was very young. Eventually, I visited my father again. Eventually, he died, and I inherited the house and the gun shop, and I moved back to New Hampshire from away, and I sold off the gun shop and I kept the house, lived in it, because nothing else made financial sense, and I'm sitting in it now, writing these words while looking out a window at the house where Liz used to live, before she moved a couple towns over to a house of her own.
I'm washed ashore
the far side of forty,
and more—I've stayed
for a dozen years
in this one, small place
(or, true, a small town
whose bigness lurks
in depths, not breadths.)

("Settling Down")
The poems of Beating the Bounds are poems of place and living, of observance and occasion. They have the informal tone of everyday conversation, but their rhythms are always elegant, the kind of offhandedness that requires immense effort and craft. I've known some of these poems a long time, having first heard one, for instance, at one of Liz's readings (she's a marvelous reader of her work), then read it in one of her chapbooks, and now having it here, between perfect-bound covers — and despite their familiarity, the words in the poems I know best in this book are words I still find wonder and comfort in, words I return to with pleasure and, always, a sense of new vision. As a poetry reader, I am often most enthralled by the surreal and fragmented and oblique — Paul Celan is a personal god — but I have great fondness, too, for poets who can write what gets called "accessible" because it fits conventions of conversation and everyday language use, but who use that "accessibility" (accessible being, of course, a matter of which conventions you're familiar with, comfortable with) for the sake of precision and clarity, of exactness. There is formal beauty, too, and Liz Ahl is often a formalist, sometimes obviously (as with the occasional villanelle), more often subtly, the formal assurance of a writer who had written many poems to form, spent many hours/days/weeks thinking through prosody, so that her freest verse and prosiest poem would still, inevitably, inescapably be placed in a cauldron and stirred with eye of craft and tongue of song.
You must walk the path you think you know again,
to see how, again, you don't fully know it.
How the border changes, how you change,
even though the printed maps assert
permanence with their typographic certainties—
their precision of scale, their tidy legends.

("Beating the Bounds")
I am pleased that Beating the Bounds found a home in Hobblebush Books' Granite State Poetry Series, because though Liz sometimes writes about, for instance, the mysteries of D.B. Cooper, space exploration, poker, letterpress printing, typewriters, and the frustrations of living under the current political administration, this book is focused more on the work that has sustained her ever since I first met her, the work of coming to grips with this granite place — of becoming, if not a native, then not a foreigner. These are the poems of a woman who had never really put down roots anywhere, and I'm selfishly glad she's stayed around, because I like her and I like this place and the poems she makes of it.

I like this book, specifically, because it so quietly and beautifully captures the experience of a person whose life comes to disprove the poem that ends the first section:
I'm never quite at home on Old Home Day.
My native inclination is to stray—
so it doesn't matter much how long I stay.
I've always been a woman from Away.
Two more sections follow, and the book ends with the poem "Settling Down" and words that disavow any ability to end, which is good news, because I look forward to more life, more poems, more books from Liz:
I thought I knew things.
But I never learned
how to end a poem
like this.