The Black Spring Press Group, 2022
50 pages, $10.99
Review by Tanner Stening
Here’s something that just sprang to mind while I was reading John James’ Winter, Glossolalia. Sometimes we seek out poems for want of conversation, expecting them to quite literally talk to us. Sometimes they do: “But now you are here with me / with no particular place to rendezvous / beyond the open pasture of this page,” says the speaker in Billy Collins’ “Dear Reader.” Of course, the bid for exchange must navigate the unbridgeable silence of the page, a constraint that nevertheless consigns would-be intimates to their remote outposts in spacetime.
But just as often we seek out poems for want of contemplation, which is perhaps the more natural mode for poet and reader, who convene not to converse, but rather to share in silence and observation. Wholly unlike the Collinsesque interpersonal me/you, in Winter, Glossolalia, James’ latest chapbook, which follows his 2019 debut collection The Milk Hours, poet invites reader into a more liminal space with no false promise of communion. Instead, the poems foster and become an interchange on what is seen, on how to jointly perceive the world as it, to borrow a phrase from the book’s cover, “springs” into language that is deeply and gratifyingly representative.
It’s precisely how the glimpsed world is worded back that a more formal lyric emerges, setting the tone for the book: “Fog clots the air, almost / absent, nasturtiums denuded / in the small distance,” the speaker says in the opening stanza of the poem “Glossolalia,” which later points us toward “the crisis of anthropogenic climate change.” It’s a sensory-rich moment: “Fog / sieves the sound / of a dumptruck / extracting discarded / matter from a can.” Then, immediately following in the same line, civilization retracts into surrounding creation: “White moths / circle a pistil, tongue / an orchid’s yellow fuzz.” End of section.
The three-part poem concludes with just one deployment of the second-person: “Weather’s edge, / your mouth’s an open / wound. Clouds / surround the puncture’s / bright bloom.” It’s unclear who the speaker is exactly, which is perfectly fine. The self blotted out reveals itself in deeper, more authentic ways. Instead of fretting over the details of a life, which a sizable chunk of contemporary Anglophonic poetry likes to do, we’re guided by an intuition of where to direct one’s sense organs, and how to stay still long enough to frame exact perception through “sight’s locality” (“From a Plane”)—a filtering that renders the world fluently and exactly as it might be.
There is one memorable personal revelation that stood out to me, however: “My hands / are in their twenties,” the speaker says in “Mountain Song.” We are privy to other moments of human context or connection, poignant and fleeting as they are. But they do not reveal; instead, they cede to a large “glossolalia,” that which is perhaps code for a universal awe or quiet that the act of reading—of witnessing witnessing—demands.
Indeed, the poems in this slim but superb volume seem to take from the likeness of Elizabeth Bishop, where the primary process is a roving impersonal consciousness, relentless in its drive to name. We feel entirely cut off from everything other than the scene in front of us, which is meticulously stretched out for detail and texture, then transformed deftly and suddenly into a neighboring image: “Dull sickle in the shed, / wasp swallowed / in a pod. The fig / in your … hand is obscene.” Often the poems bring these descriptions of a climate-altered world and its florid particulars into view, but so too do they fix their attention on language, which for James is both medium and essence, source code and output, tool and trick. Again, from “Mountain Song”: “Grammar’s torque / wound around / a wound,” the speaker says at one point. Another moment: “Words won’t say what’s beyond the page, won’t gather / Thought into a print.”
The experience of reading Winter, Glossolalia is unavoidably shaped by its image-text structure. There is visual art interspersed throughout the book (James is also a collage artist). These striking visuals fuse together cartographic and encyclopedic illustration, which bear, in visual form, the juxtapositional logic of the poems themselves. Perhaps they are transmutations of the poet’s quest to account for the world, to dimensionalize an experience of the ineffable. Either way, the visuals have a peculiar looking glass effect of seeing into the ambiguated, inarticulate cargo of the human mind—the stuff we haul around and try to make sense and meaning from, often only occasionally. The alternating sequence of collage and poem is a carryover from The Milk Hours, finding full expression in this latest work.
At the heart of Winter, Glossolalia, is a question: Does the world—so extravagantly particular, so freeform—preempt the poet’s descriptions of it, or does it result and flow from his very words? Often, the poems answer through their procedures: “Fallen limbs bundle / in a pit— // flames release / their form,” the speaker says in “Toward.” The flames, speaking in tongues, appear to uncork the world yet stop it from thresholding into view. James invites us to sit with and process these fallen shards of the world. It’s only through the transmutative act of reading them do we begin to see their—and, by extension, our—place in it.
Tanner Stening is a poet and journalist based in Boston. His writing has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Rattle, New York Quarterly, Appalachian Review, Poetry Online, and elsewhere. A longtime local reporter, his work has also appeared in the Associated Press, Cape Cod Times, Boston Business Journal, and elsewhere. He writes for higher ed.