Review: Complete Poems

Book by NICOLE KRAUSS
Reviewed by DANNA JAMES ZELLER

Elizabeth Bishop, in her tender, funny, and deeply restrained memoir of her relationship with Marianne Moore, begins by explaining the title, “Efforts of Affection”: “In the first edition of Marianne Moore’s Collected Poems of 1951 there is a poem originally called ‘Efforts and Affection.’ In my copy of this book, Marianne crossed out the ‘and’ and wrote ‘of’ above it.” It is a strange revision, either obsessive, the act of a fastidious editor, or, possibly, a cryptic admission of something unspeakable or unspoken. The conjunction offers a more open, if inscrutable, connection while the preposition builds tension, hierarchies, acknowledges the possibility of intimacy, loss, indiscretion (and Daniel Varsky’s desk). In the end, either Moore or Bishop or both have let slip a glimpse of something whose larger existence lies hidden away.

With great restraint comes… great responsibility, and likely a fair amount of eccentricity. Nicole Krauss is just the writer to explore the danger and urgency of restraint—the interplay of trauma, memory, and the ongoing act of living. She seems to pose the question, how can one who survives by reliving or repressing the past fully acknowledge or inhabit their present lives? In Great House, her third novel, she again follows characters into the vast and intricate structures they’ve built to cope with loss, in this case an underground tunnel of artifacts; labyrinthine rituals of withdrawal; great white sharks of hope and despair (and Varsky’s desk).

How do these various structures relate to the “Great House” of the title? Curiously. Ostensibly the title refers to the house of learning built by Yochanan ben Zaccai after the destruction of the second temple—a house which is itself named after “all the great houses” destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians as told in the Book of Kings: “and he burnt the house of the LORD, and the king’s house; and all the great houses of Jerusalem, even every great man’s house, burnt he with fire.” In other words, Yochanan ben Zaccai’s “Great House” is one built to commemorate a solemn loss, but also to acknowledge its own precarious state. After this destruction, true great houses, any sacred place of worship and learning, must become travel-sized, interior, and indicative of loss. Weisz, one of the five first-person narrators in the novel, and a monomaniacal collector of furniture lost to people during the Second World War (and Varsky’s desk), explains it like this: “Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.”

And Krauss does just this. She bends her characters around the shape of what they’ve lost and sets them in motion: “It aggravated an insecurity in me that always lurked below our relationship: the sense that some large share of Yoav would always be held back from me, some life he lived never mine to live beside him.” (Izzy) “That her sanity, her ability to carry on with life, both her own and the one we had forged together, depended on her ability and my solemn agreement to cordon off those nightmarish memories, to let them sleep like wolves in a lair…” (Arthur) “I felt on the verge of an exquisite understanding, as if I might turn a corner and discover, at last, the center of everything…But a moment later the illusion was shattered and I never had been farther away.” (Nadia)

The five narrators in Great House each tell a story loosely or mysteriously connected to one another. Some of them are seemingly latched together by mere conjunctions (and Varsky’s desk). But these connections are continually revised and revisited and pushed further toward prepositional connections, toward the edge of revelation and the failure or insufficiency of knowing. As I read Great House and worked to make sense of the connections between narratives, I found myself thinking “efforts and affection,” “efforts of affection,” “efforts and confession,” “efforts of collection.” Great House is something of a quest narrative in which the intertwining of loss and desire distort people’s vision and dreams, and ultimately lead them hot on the trail of their misrecognitions. Danger and madness are never far from these pages, which also have a strangely sober quality, because of the steadiness of the prose. Great House is a consistent, tightly woven game of hide-and-go-seek in a gothic mansion filled with trick-mirrors, stunt-doubles, ghostly furniture casting hair-raising shadows, and somewhere, an open window—a bright, surprising relief of air. Because sometimes, through a multiplicity of strange ways, people do find each other (behind, through, since, within, among, underneath, beside, perhaps even despite the Chilean poet Daniel Varsky’s desk).

The book is woven together loosely and dreamily by the creative and destructive powers of exile; and perhaps, to go even deeper into the psychological, it is a work concerned with the problem of truly knowing one’s self and loved ones. As Arthur Bender says in his first narration: “Here in this house live two different species, one on land and one in the water, and one who clings to the surface and the other who lurks in the depths and yet every night, through a loophole in the laws of physics, they share the same bed. I looked at Lotte brushing her white hair in the mirror, and I knew that every day from then until the end we would grow stranger and stranger to each other.” It is often unclear whether efforts can or should be made toward trying to break through so many failures of intimacy, silences that scream. But there are moments in which restraint might be an act of tenderness. It is impossible to know. Moore says in her poem “Silence,” which Bishop quotes toward the end of “Efforts of Affection”:

The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.

I don’t know if Krauss would agree. Maybe it would depend upon the kind of silence or its motivations. She surely has compassion for exiles made of self-protection, but I think she is arguing with exile on a personal and cultural level and asking something philosophically profound: must we live in structures whose entire foundation is loss? Krauss somehow pushes against the walls of these great houses already made of ash, or gently cracks a door, and leaves us to wonder.

And who is this poet Varsky and what about his desk? Daniel Varsky is an idealist, a fighter, or maybe he has a death wish. We never learn very much about him. He is a strange presence in the book. He stays in New York for a certain amount of time and then he returns to Chile and once he is gone all that is left of him is the desk and a poem and a trail of desire. The poem, entitled “Forget Everything I Ever Said,” leaves a kind of Foeresque stamp that ripples tenderly, if slightly off-key, throughout the novel. Varsky himself sends ripples that at times turn ominous. He is, in memoriam, something of an instigator, and his desk is apparently quite large. It’s hard for me to imagine—that is, how big it is—and as it changes hands, the lore around it grows and dissolves until it finally seems to find its true owner. This desk is a place where Nadia and Lotte, both writers, work, and there is an isolating quality to it—the desk isolates and watches over them. It might be yet another manifestation of the great house, one in whose corridors Krauss’s searching footsteps echo.

Review: Complete Poems

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