Memphis Commercial Appeal

Voices from Seventh ripe with sensuality of detail, cognition

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By Fredric Koeppel 

March 24, 2002

Poets always hear voices, whence cometh poems. Unlike the beguiling, commanding voices of, say, Jeanne d'Arc, though, the voices that poets hear typically come from within, not without. The muse, understudy for the subconscious, takes up residence in the intricate webbing of mind, heart and imagination and from that vantage whispers or lobs words and images.

Sarah Arvio, in Visits from the Seventh, a first book of such extraordinary accomplishment that it demolishes the slightly condescending category of "first book," refuses to play it safe by specifying whether the voices that inhabit her poems emanate from ghostly presences or transcendent beings or from the crystal and murk of the poetic process. Whatever their origin, these voices dwell in the "seventh," that is, "Seventh Heaven," the proverbial spot of joy, and are no more substantial than "a wisp, a thread, a twig, a shred of smoke." They take some pride in their ambiguous state:

I said some nonsense or other to them

and they mocked back, "but we're your one design,"

or "you're our one design" - which was it?

Visits from the Seventh is composed of two parts, "First Round" containing 31 poems, "Second Round" 18. Most consist of three-line stanzas, though a few take four-line stanza form. Titles are laconic and striking, frequently one word: Death, Clouds, Love (of course), Hats, Murder.

The poems are often linked by theme, image and word. Park Avenue, for example, deals with multiple sorts of reflections and transparencies and, naturally, uses the word "mirrors," which links it to the next poem, Mirrors, the gist of which seems to be that the ordinary and subliminal worlds reflect each other just as two lovers are the reflection of each other. Cote d'Azur offers a triumphant "their greatest yes," leading to the negation of the next poem, Dancing, which concludes with the question and answer, "And then will we know? 'The signs point to no.' " Which in turn carries forward an echo to the poem Yes in "The Second Round" and its stealthily ambiguous line, itself a soft echo of Emily Dickinson, "Did I expect 'bliss'? Did I, did I? Yes."

If "seventh heaven" is an ethereal region of wise, all-observant spirits, what is the "sixth" that occurs between the seventh and our five senses? Not extrasensory perception, as we commonly state it, but sex, that combination and heightening of all five senses together. In fact Visits from the Seventh is permeated with sex, not blatantly or explicitly but with ripe sensuality of detail and cognition, from a Keatsian sense of "life being too lush, too real and too rich" to the startling energy of a force that "pulsed and then . . . pushed against the pulse,/running under the surface of the day,//a violence but a sweet violence,/the tactile balance of a savage thing,/in the balance of love" to a principle that Keats might have endorsed without expressing it this way: "The chaste are always wrong. For sex is change//and change is the essence of everything."

Most notable, however, is the intense sense of longing - "No memory, no thought . . .//can stand in for the loss of a life of touch" - for while the voices are alternately wistful and witty, coy and oracular, gentle and tart, the voice of the narrator is puzzled, searching, suffused with yearning - for Another, for the Other ("all things through which some 'other' shines or shows'), for an Otherness, which is, as a voice says, in Ellipses, the book's last poem, " 'transitional, translucent, in a trance'; desire 'because it tended somewhere else.' "

All this could sound dreadfully fey, but Arvio keeps the poems grounded in tantalizing hints of biography. There's a man of whom she asks, "Could I face him and could I face myself?" in a poem in which the voices wonder if the heart "is the throne of all joy" or "a piece of meat" and another whom the narrator spurned and who killed himself; was it her fault? A horrendous mother-daughter relationship is summed up in the Sylvia Plath-like lines:

Dial M for me & M for what I am,

a girl with no mother to dial for.

A girl whose mother was her murderer.

In its dependence, however ambivalently stated, on authoritative voices, Visits from the Seventh will remind readers of contemporary American poetry of James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), a compilation of three earlier volumes in which Merrill (1926-1995) examined his life through the medium of a Ouija board. Compared to Visits from the Seventh, however, that epic work, with its endless questions and capital letters, seems heavy-handed. Arvio writes with a scintillating combination of richness, delicacy and astringency, abandon and good sense. Her language is wonderfully various, recalling 19th Century Romantic poetry, Keats and Dick inson (as noted) and, excessively enough that one sometimes wonders if she's joking, Wallace Stevens. Nor does she neglect the vocabulary of the classic love songs of the '30s or the nervous, detached slang of the present. Those highly-attuned voices are well-read.

The poems in "Second Round," begun, the narrator says, after "a year I tried to shake [the voices] off," rely heavily on puns and word play and, for all their exuberance, occasionally sound brittle compared to the poems in "First Round." Despite that flaw, Visits from the Seventh offers an intensely moving poetic experience and a refreshing, paradoxical glimpse into a complicated personality growing into memory's mosaic through emotional transformation. "And do we want to remember?" asks one voice, eliciting this song in beautiful response:

"Never never Oh give me the blurred wish

or the dream of the fact half-forgotten,

the leaf in the book but not the read page,

not what I saw but what I felt I saw,

not what I felt but how I wished to feel,

give me what I can bear to know I felt."

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