Book Review

Jane Satterfield, Her Familiars, Elixir Press, 2013

by Adrianne Kalfopoulou

Jane Satterfield’s third collection of poetry, Her Familiars, explores and expands discourses of the feminine, and feminist reconstructions of historical events, as it mines, too, personal moments in the poet’s world. I am tempted to use the term “domestic” to speak of Satterfield’s explorations of subjects such as those in “Girl Scouts Visit the FBI,” “Reading Billy Collins’ ‘The Names’ with My Daughter” or “Morning Coffee,” poems in the first section of this stunning, richly layered 87page collection. But the adjective narrows rather than expands the ambitions of these poems. I believe, instead, Satterfield “un-domesticates” the domestic moment, which subverts assumptions of domesticity as a space that limits, or tames, vision. If there is a recurring trope in this collection it is in the multiple ways Satterfield opens up her poems’ engagements with larger worlds.

“Girl Scouts Visit the FBI” which begins the collection, demonstrates this fluency for braiding a surrounding reality of political circumstance as it comes to bear on the personal moment: lulled by an X-Files rerun, the speaker finds herself “back to the Hoover Building, my own inside shot//” there in the mindscape of memory that becomes the poem’s present, the moment conflated with a time that “Choppers stuttered over Saigon. In a year where cookie sales//earned record profit.” And as the speaker tells us in “Reading Billy Collins’ ‘The Names’ with My Daughter,” “The poem marking a moment, makes/that moment stretch on past the frame of its making --” indeed this is what Satterfield does to striking effect in her two long sequence poems, “Collapse, A Fugue” that takes up the main part of section II, and “Clarice Cliff Considers Leaving Edwards Street” section IV of the book, and the poem which closes the collection. The polyvalences of “Collapse…” are in the poet’s own words “exquisite” as are the deft turns in Satterfield’s line breaks that emphasize the drama of a postmodern inclusiveness that simultaneously threatens to collapse the subject. I will quote most of the fourth stanza in this first section of the fifteen-page poem made up of six sections to illustrate this tension:

…Polyphonic, the mind &
its many trails. Possible, then,
to track them all? The possibilities’
exquisite range? Mind
as mash-up. No – as landscape. Or history
as mash-up, ground we walk &
everywhere – graves.

The trajectories of the poem and its ambitions amount to a fugue that attempts, I’d suggest, to create a “counterpoint” (to use one of the term’s musical formalities) to history “as mash-up,” to give voice to the “graves”; if Satterfield is borrowing from the compositional technique of a fugue’s “imitative counterpoint,” she is doing it in voices which provide context for histories of colonization from the “Eastern Settlement, Greenland” to “Roanoke Colony, 1580s” and “Jamestown, 1603” three of the sections in this sequence; we are given stories of survival from “the great hall’s history/ of saga & song…” that speaks for “man &/nature – instinct &/ resonant fugue.//” (“Eastern Settlement, Greenland”) to the memories of “two women heavy with child/ sailing ten days short of three months/across the Atlantic.” That in the collection’s “Notes” we are provided with a list of the background sources for “Collapse” that include “Plath’s definition of ‘fugue’ in Ariel; Milton’s definition of ‘fugue’ in the OED; Wallace Stevens’ ‘Comedian as the Letter C’; the medieval epics ‘The Saga of the Greenlanders’…” suggests Satterfield’s range of influences and inclusions. “Collapse” then becomes a fugue of history’s consequences, of burdened histories that includes, too, the environmental threat of the bees’ “Colony Collapse Disorder” an uncannily resonant title with its embedded irony given the subject of the poem sequence. These connections and forays into the past, this “easy slide through the centuries:/” illustrate that no matter the year, and history, “A colony is/an agendaed endeavor – a corporate// campaign of fearful musters/& prepared defense.” And thus the poem becomes an answer and antidote, “A field of meaning,” as Satterfield defines it in “Reading Billy Collins’ ‘The Names’…” where meaning is most endangered.

“The War Years” the poem which closes section II, and which was awarded first prize in the 2011 Mslexia poetry competition, encapsulates how many of Satterfield’s speakers negotiate the larger canvas of their histories. Once again, it is a private, or personal consciousness that remains uncompromised and which magnifies the surrounding devastations: “we managed to keep mad busy//in the vast erasure of televised/dramas whose sound might be muted/the moment tracers flashed on.//” The redemptive moment is that in which Satterfield subverts history’s factuality with contexts of the lived life, the “outrage upstaged by a plate of sugar/snap peas./” Like Clarice Cliff in the collection’s final sequence, a poem that pays homage to the ceramicist, “One of the most prominent designers of the twentieth century,” Satterfield’s reimagining of Cliff’s consideration to leave Edwards Street with its “black-leaded range” of her working class upbringing, lies in the act of creativity itself; the initiative, no matter how seemingly small, to voice the ways women in particular have managed to survive and thrive is a recurring theme. In Satterfield’s rendering, Clarice Cliff tells us “Design// was a kind of travel,” one in Cliff’s case which allowed for “the spirit of modern life and movement -- ” When Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts in protest to the Clinton administration’s cuts in funding to the arts, she said in her July 3, 1997 letter to the White House that “art’s social presence --” is meant “as voice for those whose voices are disregarded.” Her Familiars brings so many of these forgotten or disregarded voices to life.

Adrianne Kalfopoulou  is the author of two collections of poetry and chapbooks, most recently Passion Maps (Red Hen Press 2009); her forthcoming collection of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Life, will be out in September 2014. She is Associate Professor at Hellenic American University in Athens, and has taught in NYU's Creative Writing Program and at the University of Freiburg.