Book Review: Know Thyself

Book Review: Know Thyself

“A poet writes to continue asking questions”

By Ruth Lepson, poet-in-residence
at New England Conservatory of Music

It takes nerve to write homophonic renderings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, yet that’s exactly what Joyce Peseroff has done in one section of her well-crafted, complex recent book of poems:

Like a granite island quarried to oblivion,
her husband’s memory chips. Time crawled
with hammer, auger, chisel and maul–handed
Eve a blunt drill bit, broke her old man
to paving stones. Nearly in tune, his jazz
guitar changes chords; that meander
can corrode or flutter hearts.
                                                      Men auger
shame from a tin nonentity, pot whistling
to the kettle, naming each ruddy organ
wrong–profound baptism into nights
without work or love’s
leviathan hum.

Over four centuries have passed, and Peseroff is less sure of the power of poetry than Shakespeare—of course, Shakespeare is Shakespeare. Nevertheless, in our postmodern world, every aspect of Shakespeare’s original sonnet is called into question:


Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

But it’s the woman writing now, and maybe her stance is less sure given woman’s role in the Western world, though at least now she’s the author of the poem and to some degree, of herself. If Shakespeare’s sonnet refers, however obliquely, to Christianity, Peseroff’s does, too, but not to Jesus and the Resurrection; rather, to Eve and the end of Adam & Eve’s life in the Garden of Eden, the beginning of our fall.

Going back to Peseroff’s poem, she then does something she does often in this book. She jump-cuts to another time, a contemporary and possibly personal one: “his jazz guitar changes chords.” And the baptism taking place is one that leads to death, a central subject of the book.

There’s a certainty to her language which comes of knowing her materials, both in the language and in the metaphor—hammer, auger, chisel and maul—she’s familiar with the instruments of labor. This is true throughout the book when she describes nature as well; not purely metaphor, it’s always an image first, or last.

And aren’t those deeply moving last lines—when we no longer have work or love, what have we? Yet you could say that the poem ends on a positive note through the line break, so that leviathan hum’s the final emphasis. The hum of what’s beyond our understanding may be overpowering, infinite, but the feel of the book’s a begrudging acceptance of what is and must be.

Peseroff is like a mild-mannered reporter. To know her is to see her smile gently and to experience her mildness. It’s surprising to find out what she questions, how often she falters before life’s changes, whether writing about poet Jane Kenyon, whom she still misses, or her mother’s death, in one of the most affecting poems in the book, “Returning to Live in the Country”:

…How long I waited to get here!
Every day draws me deeper,
further into the trees. In sun and snow
the creek ripples…
the guest room smells like pine boughs
and Poland Spring water runs from the tap.
I wish you’d come to visit before earth
opened and I stood open-mouthed over you.

“Open” and “open-mouthed” connect mother and daughter, death and life. “Horse, Alone, November” is, I imagine, a poem in which her daughter calms a horse, but there’s such empathy in the poem it might as well be Peseroff herself watching and comforting him:

……                      Left behind,
he paces the golden perimeter
of fence post and electric wire,
a fragment of eternity falling
red on his rolling shoulder
when he jars the ground beneath
the gnomon in a field
a single maple makes.

She takes the kind of care with each syllable, line break, and image that the speaker takes in caring for the horse. Aren’t these gorgeous lines–

red on his rolling shoulder
when he jars the ground beneath

And another aspect of the writing is the mixture and inclusion of several senses appropriate to the situation or to the being: in this case, sight, sound, and touch.

Even a fly hanging around “her” kitchen doesn’t escape her notice, though not in a sentimental way. At first, the speaker planned to smash that fly. But then she has a thought: What if the spirit of her mother lives in it? She quickly dismisses the thought as absurd—but we know we think these things—and then she personifies the fly:

            Last of its kind, Robinson Crusoe
landing on a kitchen island, it needed to be warm.

That’s sweet, without being cloying. The fly’s our fellow creature. In other poems, our poor Earth, mistreated now, is felt as our fellow creature. There’s a buoyancy to the poetry yet an undercurrent of worry. What will become of her and ones she loves as they age, and what will become of this world? No easy answers, as a poet writes to continue asking questions. Yet there’s a certain calm, the coming of the inevitability of death, in the poems in which she mentions being replaced by other “carbon-hydrogen-oxygen chains.”

From appreciation of Greek myth and the names of Vermont towns she passes, driving her daughter back to school, to the happiness of sailing on one of her favorite lakes, Peseroff lives joyfully and will until she dies. I’ve read this book three times, and it unfolds more beautifully each time. It has the self-conscious sense of language that Shakespeare and recent postmodern poets speak of:

Hey, would you consider buying ad space/in this poem?

Yet that in a way is incidental to the poetry, centered as it is in the world.


“I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the Pyramid’s royal pile, one that no wasting rain, no furious north wind can destroy, or the countless chain of years and the ages’ flight.

I shall not altogether die, but a might part of me shall escape the death-goddess. On and on I shall grow, ever fresh with the glory of after time.” —Horace, Odes III, xxx, Loeb translation

Horace’s Odes, as well as Ovid’s well known envoi to Metamorphosis (“yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars…”) were well known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

The fundamental difference is that while the ancients felt themselves immortal through their poetry, Shakespeare makes his beloved immortal through his poetry. So the claim is more modest, in keeping with the rest of the sonnets.   

(Philip J. T. Martin, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love and Art)

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