FALL 2013 (Issue 80)

Barbara Duffey

Emergent Narrative in Laura Walker's Follow-Haswed

Apogee Press 2012
89 pages

Off the obscurity of the reference shelf jump the titular denizens of Laura Walker’s Follow-Haswed, the entry words bookending Volume VI of the print Oxford English Dictionary.  Each poem takes its title from one of the entry words inside Volume VI and is “collaged,” to use Walker’s term, from the etymology, definition, note, and quotation material for each word.  Many, such as “furlough,” “give, “go,” and “gap,” spark several poems, and one of the work’s innovations is the unexpected recursive structure that arises over the course of the book and within particular poems.  This structure allows Walker to suggest a narrative without overburdening her language and syntax play with overt plot.

For example, the first “fraught” begins,


to be cedar she was
in any storm or weather
any Strangers Ship


she long’d to see
in any storm or weather

any Strangers Ship
Utensils of War

tossed bark over the water

Not only do the lines “in any storm or weather” and “any Strangers Ship” repeat, but the appearance of “any” in both establishes a kind of ethos for the book, searching for lyricism in “any” dictionary entry in Volume VI.  The poems themselves feel like volunteers, offering lyrical “ports in the storm” available in our most seemingly prosaic reference works, if only we had a consciousness to liberate them onto a new page.  This imagery of “any ship” belies the careful craft behind these title-motifs and Walker’s poetic consciousness, however.

In the first poem, “Christ” reads as an invective, invocation, or address, whereas in the second “fraught,” the sparse syntax places him in apposition to the “boat,” suggesting that Christ himself is the “Strangers Ship”:  “of a boat / Christ” is the poem in its entirety.  The third “fraught” picks up the water imagery, provides texture of the history of the language, and complicates the religious imagery in this thread:

large memory
usually by water

in mid water

be sea
schippes with salt

counterfet Gods
all kind of strange beasts

As “Ships” becomes “schippes,” Christ is placed in contrast to “counterfet Gods,” who might be or be in proximity to “all kind of strange beasts.”  Because Walker composes from the material of the dictionary entries themselves, her poems are infused with a feeling for English’s development over centuries; thus, the reader senses a depth and context even when the poems present ambiguous syntax devoid of the kind of connective tissue often used to lead a reader through a complete sentence.  Here, inference and juxtaposition combine with anaphora and motif to provide a density anchoring the poems’ ambiguities.  As we follow an entry word throughout Walker’s work, meanings accrete.  The “fraught” poems continue to evoke water.  The final “fraught” consists of one line:  “the river stream, her load of water[.]”  We are left contemplating the insistence of the water imagery, the change implied by “the river stream” and by the transformation of the images over the course of the several poems united by the same title.  As the unnamed antecedent of “her” carried a “load of water,” so do these poems ask the reader to carry that imagistic burden through the course of the book. 

The “go” poems demonstrate this accretion and how it can be used to give added effect to a phrase.  The first “go” brings up sex but doesn’t deliver: “use up / as a lover,” that “as” identifying what a lover would be like but insisting in maintaining its difference, as in “use up / as a lover [would].”  Thus, when the second “go” contains the phrase, “I lost him,” we are drawn to read the “him” not in the context of the bee imagery in the rest of that second poem, but in the lover, or some other character, in the first “go.”  However, the fourth “go” introduces pregnancy into the collage, suggesting the “him” might be a possible baby: 

to have been pregnant
and never 
I lost
they make a great humming

I lost him

From this collage emerges an unexpected narrative, what the poem itself might be referring to with its oblique parenthetical “(tale, story),” reminiscent of Nabokov’s infamous “(picnic, lightning).”  Nabokov’s parenthetical is fatal, and I sense that this one is, too—this story, this tale that emerges from the dictionary entry is one of the loss of a pregnancy, that pluperfect infinitive “to have been pregnant” twinned with the final “and never.”  The “never” is final even further as it refuses to mention what never happened, though its juxtaposition to the pregnancy suggests that “give birth” is the missing phrase. 

The river shows up in the next “go,” as do “loaves and fishes,” uniting the water, survival, and Christian imagery.  The last “go” reminds us of the bees, that “they make a great humming” when they “are reddy to flye,” reminding us both of the sound surrounding the death of the possible child (the bees humming) and the history of variant spellings in our language, that texture of English’s history that such dictionary poems provide.  Their humming might also conjure the noise of those “counterfet Gods.” 

Once I encountered the pregnancy imagery, I went back to the earlier poems and began to read the “load of water” as an image of the amniotic fluid a mother carries during a pregnancy, with the modern sexual connotations of the word “load” implied in the background.  I then went back to the very first poem, and the unnamed “she,” living in the OED since 1989 unnoticed, needed a “Strangers Ship” to rest because she had been made “weary” by the tragedy of a miscarriage.  I could very well be reading into these poems, but I feel invited to do so—the recursive structure of the book invites me to draw connections between poems whose words feel more like constellations of meanings than linear bits of thought.  I look for the “tale, story,” however fatal to the generative ambiguities of these poems it might be to do so, because of the beautiful juxtapositions in that “go” poem—because it’s impossible to turn away from a poem that places “to have been pregnant” against “never” against “I lost him.”  Of course, Volume VI is the volume that includes entries for “God” and “god,” so the specter of “Him” is never far away, either, promising miracles, those loaves and fishes.  And maybe, for this “weary” speaker, some sleep.

And “haswed” means “marked with gray or brown,” in case you were wondering.