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Kate Northrop's Back Through Interruption

by Jough Dempsey
6 October 2002
Back Through Interruption Cover

Back Through Interruption
by Kate Northrop
Winner of the 2001 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize
64 pages | PB $14.00 | Kent State University Press | 2002
ISBN: 0873387414 | Order from Amazon.com

Many contemporary poets seem to have the need to pack as much as they can into a poem - to fill it with objects, images, and active verbs in an attempt to show off their skill. Few poets recognize the need for space in a poem - to allow the language to carry itself without having to stack the deck. Restraint is an admirable quality in poetry, and is usually reserved for those who have matured past the need to impress.

Kate Northrop's first book, Back Through Interruption, is a fine example of how restraint can aid a poem. Her poems are sensory, but the images never take center stage, never call too much attention to themselves. Her speakers seem more content to be bit players, someone on the periphery, the shadowy figure standing in the doorway in Valasquez's Las Meninas.

Back Through Interruption is a journey into silence, darkness, wind & trees, snow, outlines, dusk & ampersands. The landscape is always hazy, where objects may appear for a moment before returning back into the mist. The physics of Northrop's world consist of transience - of expectations - and while certainly things happen within the poems there's more pressure on what's going to happen. These are portraits of 'moments before.' As "The Advice of the Dream" says, "It's important to stay unattached / to an actual happening."

The first thing that most readers will notice about Back Through Interruption is how delightful it sounds. Northrop's attention to the music of language is astounding. While her poems aren't in traditional, static form, there is much internal rhyme, luscious assonance, and words that bond well together. Northrop puts pressure on certain lines by including a heavier rhyme "glue" to hold a line together, as in "The Wife" - "desire widened inside—" or in a few lines of "The Visitor" someone is seen "in the picture window, thin / and distant like the glimpse / of a surfacing fish."

The poems in this collection are, in the literal sense, unsubstantial. Most end hanging on an action. Many of the poems end on a suspension, ending but not finishing. Something is always leaving, departing, fading or dematerializing. Northrop's is a poetry of abandonment. Consider these various poem endings: "disappearing down the avenue into the rain" - "materializing through trees" - "the accident / always there, about to happen" - "Better, I knew, to slip // unheld, an opening into mist" - "escapes always // through the underbrush, threads deep / into the landscape."

This is not to say that the poems are all the same, or are doing the same thing - only to point out the various speakers' general detachment from the world.

But the poems, while they often fly off into wild new directions, escaping their locations, aren't unlocated. The landscape of each poem is specific and exquisitely wrought. Northrop pays attention to small details. Her images are elegantly crafted. The description & imagery serve to elucidate the theme of each poem - and each seemingly disparate image coheres to form something greater than each gorgeous image that stands alone. In "Late Aubade & Explanation" she writes "we struck down // a tent, like punctuation" - making a connection, not because tent poles and punctuation look alike, but because they both fasten things. The power of the imagery in Back Through Interruption is based on this re-conceptualization of objects in the world.

"The Dead," for example, uses landscape to move the action of the poem, yet the speaker is generally aloof and uninvolved in the poem:

The Dead

Their reward is
they become innocent again,

and when they reappear in memory
death has completely erased
the blurs, given them boundaries. They rise

and move through their new world with clean,
clear edges. My grandmother, in particular
has become buoyant, unattached finally

from her histories, from the trappings
of family. By no means was she

a good woman. But the dead don't care anymore for that.
Weightless, they no longer assume
responsibility, they no longer

have bodies. Once,

at the end of August, after swimming
in the muddy pond

I'd gone into the living room, cool
as vodka, where my grandmother
sat. Greed thins a woman,

I remember her rings, bigger
than her fingers.
                    Water ran down my legs

onto the floor becoming slippery
and my grandmother, her breath
scratchy from cigarettes and blended whiskey,

leaned into my ear and whispered
you're an ugly girl. Do I have

to forgive her? My mother tells me

no one ever loved her,
so when  I see her, I see her again in the park
in her pink tailored suit, suede pumps,

I see her moving among the strange
gentlemen that have gathered, the dark
powerful men. She is still young, blonde

and most of all, she is beyond reach, beautiful.

"The Dead" is grounded in cause and effect. There is an action that drives the poem from start to finish. The first stanza: "Their reward is / they become innocent again" is what happens in the poem - it's how the dead become "unattached finally // from [their] histories." This poem is particularly observant about the real world - the living room is "cool as vodka." Another observation that keeps this from being mere fancy: "Greed thins a woman." Indeed it does.

The world contained in the poem is not our world - it's its own world. Every good poem is its own world, no matter how closely it may resemble ours. within the world where Northrop brings her dead grandmother back to walk in the park, there are anchors, or (if you'll excuse the term) signifiers that ground the poem, keep it from flying off into fantasy land, that deepen the sadness in the poem because the grandmother who was "once beautiful" is no longer beautiful, and of course is gone, "unattached finally / from her histories."

Another excellent poem is "Iowa & Other Accidents." This poem in particular exemplifies suspension. It freezes an action (an imminent car crash) indefinitely:

Iowa & Other Accidents

There was snow that afternoon covering the road
which twisted toward the secret
of water, the mysterious surge

of sludge & loam, the living
Mississippi, unlike the rest of the Midwest,

drawing itself through landscape. There was an appointment
     you were keeping

in Moline: a cheap hotel, booze, a little blow. On the Lower
     East Side, a woman

spills her martini, makes a gesture
like erasure, or regret. It was almost Christmas.
In the rear view

suddenly, the car you will always describe as oncoming
must have slipped into a skid

and now, rising up over the bank,
it startles you—that reflection. In Moline

the maid corners the bed, straightens the clean
line of sheet. Almost Christmas. On the road,
swirls of snow.  On the road

the car hovering behind you, a witness,
unfortunate & so unlike the audience permitted
the distance of fictions, the artifice

of plot. And worse, of course, the law

of cause & effect: I looked up,
it started to fall.  You must attach

subject to verb, must say
I saw, and did, in your rear view, the car you'd thought
     nothing of,

the gray sedan lifting slowly from the common snow,
turning, and the accident
always there, about to happen.

The events leading up to the accident are fragmented, replete with asides and small details - the effect slows the poem down, much like people will remember an accident in crystal clarity, later stating that everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

The poem ends with the accident "always there, about to happen." The two cars never collide, but are in essence frozen in time and place, always there, forever on the verge of happening. It's an amazing poem.

Kate Northrop's Back Through Interruption is a remarkable first book. Each poem demonstrates her ability to let air move through the poem - to use silence as another form of punctuation. The results are intriguing, mysterious, accurate, and in most cases, quite beautiful.

You can read a selection of poems from Back Through Interruption in the poetry archive.

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