Reviewed by Zane Koss
Light Light. BookThug, 2013.
The title of Julie Joosten’s engaging debut collection of poetry, Light Light, captures both the tone and content of her work. Long uninterrupted lines roll across the page in a calm and assured voice that focuses on scientifically observable phenomena. The sixteen poems in this collection range from short meditations to twenty-page sequences that are tied together by repeated themes, images and phrases. Four poems titled “Wind Scene” are distributed throughout the work and further contribute to the sense of unity. These “Wind Scenes” act as microcosms of the text: each “Scene” begins with a quotation, followed by a few focused, yet sparse, lines of exposition that express the dissolution of the boundaries between self and world. Each “Wind Scene,” like the text as a whole, uses archival material to work beyond the boundaries of the individual speaking subject and to draw novel connections between human and natural processes. Though Light Light isn’t guided by an overarching narrative, the poems feel all of a piece, and the insightful work reads like a unified whole. In keeping with Joosten’s focus on interconnectivity, this structure helps to add weight to the book’s theme.
The most noticeable feature of Joosten’s style is her use of long solitary lines double-spaced down the page. These long lines tend to be grammatically and syntactically complete, and their combined independence and interconnectivity recall Phyllis Webb’s experimentation with the ghazal. The ghazal deploys couplets that, like Joosten’s solitary lines, can stand alone or within a sequence. Joosten’s other most apparent stylistic signature also invites comparison to Webb. As Webb does in her Naked Poems, Joosten makes use of the page as a poetic unit. In most of the poems in this collection, the page functions as a stanza—each page groups clusters of double-spaced lines into coherent thoughts or narratives. In other poems, such as the long sequence “Once Sun” or the shorter “Touch / The radicle thus endowed,” alternating pages are used to present shifts in style or parenthetical asides. In the poems that use pagination to signal stylistic shifts, Joosten deploys negative space both thoughtfully and effectively.
Throughout Light Light Joosten works to find the poetry inherent in scientific language. “Sky Georgic” becomes nearly surreal nonsense as Joosten lists cloud types: “cirrostratus cirrus cirrocumulus altostratus / altocumulus cumulonimbus stratocumulus stratus / nimbostratus cumulus” (76), but Joosten manages to balance these linguistic explorations with her measured cadence. The most effective long sequence in the text, “If light stabilizing / If to receive a bee,” also works through scientific discourse. In this poem, Joosten uses quotations from the seventeenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian to work through an exploration of the intersections between science, colonialism, and nature. Here, as elsewhere, Joosten keeps her eye on the minute processes of nature, expanding these observations to include the workings of the human world.
Joosten is at her best in the sequences in which she directly engages with archival or historical materials, weaving her fascination with natural processes in between acts of historical recovery that recall texts such as Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie or Michael Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid. The long poem “If light stabilizing / If to receive a bee” and the shorter sequences “Touch / The radicle thus endowed” and “Along a Lambent Contour” are among the most successful. The connections that Joosten draws in these poems provide crucial insight by exploring our relationships with each other and the natural world. Given the collection’s cohesiveness, it is difficult to dismiss any of the poems out of hand—even the poems that are less successful still contribute to the coherency of Light Light as a unified text. Joosten’s use of form and structure contribute greatly to the overall effect of the text, and help sustain her argument for the resonances between micro- and macro-level connectivity in her subjects. Joosten’s calm and clear voice not only helps her engage with the discourse of scientific objectivity, but provides for a pleasant and enjoyable read.
At press time: Zane Koss is a recent graduate of the Master's of English Literature program at McGill University, where his research focused on re-examining Dudek’s relationship with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in order to better understand the decentralized, non-hierarchical political structures that Louis Dudek’s 1950s poetry models. He is currently at work further exploring the networks of social interaction operating across the Canada-US border during the 1950s and 60s, experimental poetic form and radical political vision.
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