Last winter, I tried writing a poem about a car wreck, loosely based on a college experience. A friend and fellow poet, after reading a draft full of description, reminded me that the reader of the poem wants a little mystery, and for that reason, a poem should trust its reader to connect the pieces of information. It was a comment that I’d heard many times, one that, for the most part, I’d linked with ideas of concision and paring. But when my friend said those words—mystery, trust—she made that lesson new and imperative for me. I started writing with an eye for the mysterious and the ominous, for the double-meaning and the omitted, and for the deceivingly-quiet tone. I also started reading with this lens, ready to let myself be schooled by any “mysterious” poets I could find.
Wonderfully—and yes, maybe a bit mysteriously—I found what I needed. A few weeks later, the same friend gave me her extra copy of Kate Northrop’s first book, Back Through Interruption (Kent State, 2002). From the first poem, I knew that I had found a mentor in Northrop. Strangely enough, her book begins with “Iowa and Other Accidents,” a poem about a car wreck which closes with “the gray sedan lifting slowly from the common snow, / turning, and the accident / always there, about to happen.” Northrop ends at the point of wreck, and by delivering the reader right up to this event and then omitting any description of it, she subverts the typical beginning-middle-end narrative line. The conclusion never happens, and so the tension is raised and then maintained even after the poem’s ending—a difficult effect to accomplish. By resisting closure, the poem lingers, and it’s still doing just that for me, months after my initial read.
From “Iowa and Other Accidents,” the book continues in Northrop’s quiet but charged voice, full of darkening landscapes and loss that is both actual and approaching. In “Two Stories with Wish & Leap,” for example, “Nothing much is known about the girl— / if she hesitated, how she looked / up there on the railing.” Eventually, the reader comes to learn that this girl has been lost to the river in a flood, but what I love about this poem is that its speakers are as much in the dark as the reader is: “We weren’t awake / at the story’s end,” but “[e]ither way we trust the fact—which is / absence—a girl inside the water.” Instead of all-knowing speakers, Northrop offers a collective voice that can only draw its conclusions from what—or who—is no longer present. Whereas a tidy narrative would seek to impose meaning on this drowning, this is a poem of tragedy, and the honesty of human experience is preserved in the poem’s fragmented nature.
Despite the poems’ resistance to definitive conclusions, though, they contain an impressive clarity which simultaneously accompanies the mystery. The speaker in “The Visitor,” for example, who is watching “the neighbors’ children / turn to dusk,” remembers a visitor from her own childhood who came “by the back road where stones glowed pale / in the moonlight” when “I was too young, [when] I still thought / I belonged to the world.” The scene is ghostly—the speaker is “in the picture window, thin / and distant like the glimpse / of a surfacing fish”—but the reader is also grounded in the specificity of “the field of sweet alfalfa” and in the precision of the speaker’s desire, even if the reader never knows who the visitor is: “Come back / and bring your finest wine, the oldest bottle. / Bring that strange dusty book you were reading.” As with Northrop’s best poems, there is both mystery and transparency here.
The poems that I’ve mentioned all come from Northrop’s first section, but I could pick randomly from the book’s pages and find the same wonderful mystery that I find in these few examples. Sometimes this mystery is the result of events excluded. Other times, it is the result of a failure of language. Regardless of method, though, Northrop really trusts her reader to enjoy the ambiguities that she presents. In that way, her work serves as a great reminder that the right amount of mystery allows a reader not only to participate in a poem, working to put its pieces together, but to become truly invested in a poem. That, in the end, is its great reward.
Corinna McClanahan Schroeder is currently completing her MFA degree at the University of Mississippi where she is the recipient of a John and Renée Grisham Fellowship. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Measure, Conte, and The Country Dog Review.