BY JULIE SOPHIA PAEGLE
University of Arizona Press, 2015
by AK Afferez
June 25, 2015
Somewhere between Ancient Greece, Las Vegas and Buenos Aires lies a center of gravity where Julie Sophia Paegle spins a meditation on time of epic proportions.
If the opening invocation to Calliope – the muse of epic poetry and eloquence as well as the name of a musical instrument – didn’t tip you off, then the numerous references to the fall of Troy will: the intent is to capture a sense of time (and the loss, violence, and power of transformation that go with it) by grappling with one of the very first myths (or should we just say stories?) that founded Western literature, and Western poetry in particular.
Twelve Clocks is tightly controlled in its form – the ‘table of contents’ is called “clockworks.” Yet one cannot deny the lingering sense of imminent chaos that irrigates the whole piece, an undercurrent brimming with possibilities, speaking both to our mind’s yearning for order and to what Paegle names “the body’s call / and response.” In the end, it is all about finding patterns, both the mathematically-measurable ones at the atomic level, and the overarching historical ones that surge through human stories, tales, and lives. There is, obviously, birth and death, with the opening rhythm of the “midwife’s doppler.” Children feature throughout, with Connor, the son of the narrator (let’s call her that), harkening back to Hector and Andromache’s Astyanax, who was cast off a tower by the Greeks during the Trojan War so he would not avenge his family.
Astyanax means “Lord of the City,” and was actually the name given by the people of Troy to the boy, in honor of his illustrious ascendency, but Hector had originally named the boy Scamandrius, from the river that ran nearby. Was the young prince already bound to tragedy with such a double name? Water conjures the ever-elusive river of time, which our human minds cannot begin to fathom; and glory in Ancient Greece is a fragile thing, all the more so when it runs in the family. Hector, King Priam, Cassandra, Paris, Andromache, Hecuba… Everyone remains at the whimsy of the gods.
From Astyanax to baby Connor then – although we can assume Connor won’t bear such a burden of fate. Still, his presence forces his mother, the “I” of most poems, to reevaluate her sense of time and relation to others, and echo that into the very fabric of the poems.
Take the layout and the structure of the poetic line. Here, no two poems are ever the same: while “Night Takes the Earth” is written in tercets, “Glass Remembers Sand” is first a hourglass-shaped calligram that grows more and more dislocated as the poem advances. “Door in the Hour” alternates tercets in regular font and prose paragraphs in italics connected by enjambments. “In the Dark” and “Time’s Desire” go even further in shattering the layout and using the whole page to give each word and line the space and weight they need. In “What Spins Out,” the longest poem that experiments with form, layout, voice, and perspective, the words are literally spun across the page, in various centrifugal and centripetal movements, scattering the lines and then gathering them together, ever-redefining the stanza.
Concealed signs of cohesion are indeed present throughout the collection: each title is usually a reprise of the last words of the previous poem, a kind of discreet refrain – and aren’t refrains used to keep time too, in music? Characters crop up in various poems, Astyanax obviously, but also the girl, Ariel-like spirit of fire and ether it seems, who steps into the mirror-covered elevator in Las Vegas. Her name is Clare de Lune (moonlight) and her perfume is L’Air du Temps – the air of time, literally, or the spirit of the times, more idiomatically. But overall, the center hardly holds – be it punctuation or the language itself (Twelve Clocks open on an epigraph in Spanish, and Spanish is relentlessly intertwined with English in the poems themselves). Everything spins out, pushing back against the boundaries of the poetic, of what the poetic voice can do, of whom it can reach across time and space.
Because it’s also always about space. That by which we have produced our standard measurements of space and time is one and the same – caesium-133, the only naturally-occurring stable isotope of that chemical element. Its properties were used in 1967 to define the second, which in turn helped define the meter. Time and space, always intricately linked, even in our universal measurements (we’ll overlook here the American exceptionalism when it comes to measuring distances, among other things).
This has fundamental consequences here. Yes, from the very title onwards, we are exploring ways to track time, from the most ‘archaic’ (the obelisk, the water clock) to the most ‘technologic’ (the electron, the atomic clock). We are grappling with its elusiveness – and who should be mentioned here but Proust himself and his A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)? Time warps in these poems, disorienting us, connecting antiquity and modernity through the hidden tunnels of history. At heart perhaps is the distinction made in Ancient Greece between chronos (clock time) and kairos (experienced time). The former has predictable, measurable cycles that the latter does not. Kairos is entirely personal, intimate. Thus, nine months have a numeric value within chronos; for a mother, they go beyond that as she feels herself and the world around her shifting. A few minutes never have the same weight again when you’ve known “the mere fifteen minutes of transition labor” – “a bucking frenzy of eternity cut down”. One day is a quasi-lifetime for an adult firefly. A few hours were all it took for the club in Buenos Aires to burn down, and take the young lives inside with it. And so on.
But tracking time also means tracking space. The collection takes us through “six cities asleep” – its diasporic voices are anchored in Las Vegas, Buenos Aires, and Troy. Recollecting the fall of Troy puts into focus the perilous situation of Las Vegas, that jewel in the driest desert of the United States. The settlement was founded – ironically – because of its springs. Nowadays, if you spend some time on the Strip, you will be reminded of these empires of old reduced to dust by hubris. It seems we track the intersection of time and place with both natural and man-made catastrophes – the fire and the earthquake in Buenos Aires, the nuée ardente in St. Pierre, on the island of Martinique... These all become fixed markers in time, just as they reshape the geography, transforming our understanding of where and when we are. Geologically, too, space is time, and time “is meant by sediment.” As any scientist would know, the earth is a lesson in patience – soils form and tectonic plates move. Infinitesimal scales, too minute for our minds to grasp – and yet, the consequences are all around us.
According to “The Bodies of Birds,” Borges found proof of God’s existence in the impossibility to count the birds in a flock: “Their number is definite, but not / visible, neither even nor odd, or either, / or both? Hence, God.” According to the French philosopher Pascal, our fears stem from our condition, confined as we are between two infinites – the very big, the very small – that we can never grasp. According to Greek and Roman mythology, looking directly at a god would have you bursting into flames. In Twelve Clocks, Paegle superbly channels poetry into a means to bypass these problems, to access time both horizontally (going back into history) and vertically (connecting various scales of time – the individual to the civilization to the planet to the cosmos to the poetic line), to come to terms with the magnitude of loss that time carries along, to give lyricism the edge it needs to get at the heart of our selves. To look straight at the divine, in short.