Poems that bridge rational and mystical

by Shevi Berlinger

book cover

Northerners
Seth Abramson
New Issues Poetry & Prose
2011

 

Certain poems evoke a feeling of turning inward and focusing a scope on particulars, so that the world seems to stop, and the leaf, the candle, the frost are the center of the universe. Other poems create a sense in the reader of breadth and magnitude. One of the fascinating things about Seth Abramson’s newest book, Northerners, is that his poetry often vacillates abruptly between the two perspectives. The result feels, at times, like the equivalent of a literary jolt. At the end of this vacillation, moreover, there frequently emerges a synthesis of diverse elements and images.

Abramson worked as a Staff Attorney for the New Hampshire Public Defender for more than half a decade before turning to poetry (Northerners is his second book; his first is 2009’s The Suburban Ecstasies). And the precision in his writing feels reminiscent of a well-reasoned argument. In “What I Have,” he develops a definition of the sense of touch, drawing wonderfully from both rational and mystical realms of experience:

And there is less water in the world
than a famous woman once said, and I know that,
and that the stars in the river
also are real I also know, for they disappear also
and refuse to be touched. And I have touched

bare things, and it works—
it can be the sole unbraided moment in a life—

Later in the poem, he writes: “And the worse of all is anything/ that stays as it is// when touched.” The cause-and-effect relationship in this poem reveals itself over and over throughout the book, as does the repetition of words within close proximity, driving the poet’s points further and further. At the end of “What I Have,” Abramson lands on a synthesis of concepts; he writes, speaking of human beings:

And what is it they leave behin d?
Perhaps not the meaning of time,
                                   but the time of meaning,
and the fact that whatever happens, tomorrow
                   will change it.

In the poem “The Commons,” such a synthesis of opposites also arises; the poem begins with the lovely lines: “Before I worshipped down/ I worshipped up./ Up were the open hands/ which were clouds…” The poet then ends with the thought that what is up is down, too: “I had everything here// that was there. I had two great hands/ and the wisdom/ to lower my guard.” These lines add emotional eloquence to the cerebral weight of the volume.

Northerners is also filled with numerous indentations that nudge its words eastward—many of them the standard distance from the left margin that signifies a new paragraph in prose. They suggest the shadow of a prose structure imprinted onto the poems.

With this volume, Abramson has given us fifty poems that reveal a keen set of observations about compassion, consciousness, and justice. Many of the poems feature men as their subjects, another beguiling dimension. In “Geography,” Abramson writes, “I could forget that a man who matters/ to someone/ matters to someone/ everywhere.”

Yet, as you can see, the poems deeply reflect universal human questions. While the language within these poems can appear dense and not overly yielding at first, its wisdom and familiar repetitions offer comfort. Readers will want to peek at them again and again to see whether their perceptions of Abramson’s lines have changed with time. In Northerners’ poetic world, it seems, indeed, that everything changes when seen and touched.

 

 

Associate Editor Shevi Berlinger teaches English at the City University of New York and is at work on a book of poetry. She also runs a food conservation project, Egg in a Box.