Claire Bateman
Etruscan Press, 2010
A Metaphysical Contortionist
Kathryn Nuernberger

I hate to say that Plato’s shadow looms large over the poems in Claire Bateman’s new collection, Coronology, because that news may conjure anguished memories of Philosophy 101, particularly of the mental backbends it took to distinguish between an actual table and the idea of tableness. But Bateman’s juxtapositions between the idea of a thing and the thing itself are whimsical and fun, as well as illuminating.  With poems like “A Pocket Introduction to the Universe,” “Index of Dead Brides,” and “Coronology,” Bateman reveals herself to be a metaphysical contortionist who can make the imaginary, improbable, and paradoxical seem not only possible, but instantly, urgently real and of the utmost significance.

In “Homeless,” for example, she describes “the idea of the indoors” as an orphaned outside-cat slinking around for centuries “pretending to be cagey and feral / all the while mewling to itself like a skinless kitten.” When at last the first hut is constructed – an indoors for the idea of the indoors to go home to – we learn the idea of the indoors has grown too large in the intervening years to fit inside. You could say a table is too small for its tableness, but one can sympathize so much more easily with an abstraction that behaves like a lonely cat. By creating such a humble and sympathetic idea, Bateman offers an opportunity to meditate on even grander abstractions (what Plato would call forms), like the idea of love, the idea of justice, the idea of you or me, which often don’t seem to fit in the bodies made in their image either. Get it? I don’t, but trying to get it is a pleasure in its own right. In the spirit of fictions by Calvino or Borjes, these poems celebrate a universe that runs on impossible conundrums and they burn that same fuel.

In “Unearthing the Sky,” the sky is dug, like an antique relic, tarnished and chipped, from the ground. After “years of repair work / with everything from lasers to sandpaper, / tiny camel’s-hair brushes to welding torches,” the sky is finally released back “into its own silence.” At the end, after so much effort, people wonder if the new sky will live up to the memories and fantasies they have of the old sky. Of course it will not be exactly what they have in mind, but watching the sky rise into its dimensionlessness, a woman weeps with joy. “For something so heavy, it seemed / almost painfully light.” Bateman’s poems have a similarly sublime effect. She makes abstractions, for a moment, seem heavy or hand-sewn or even to be mewling creatures, but then the bolts, pegs, and screws are removed, and the poem calls our attention to the extraordinary essence of something as ordinary as a view of the sky.

“Chefs” is another poem that effectively combines serious consideration of the dichotomy between abstract ideas and material bodies with the tone of a whimsical fable. Because creation has achieved stasis, it has been decided the world will come to an end. News of this upcoming apocalypse inspires a bevy of marriages, not only between human couples, but also between couples that had been kept apart like “the Rockies and the Alps; the Fire Bird and the Lady of the Lake; … the mechanical bull in Bucky’s Bar in Residio, TX, and the asphalt on Interstate 10.” Judges, ship captains, and priests are unable to keep up with the torrent, so even chefs are drafted to assist. A spate of unlikely divorces also ensues. “Epoxy wanted nothing more to do with adhesion; the cornucopia with plenitude; the handshake with affiliation….” This seething energy of unprecedented attractions and repulsions necessitates a postponement of the apocalypse because “things were not nearly as played out” as they had seemed. The chefs then refuse to marry or divorce anyone else, an abstinence which “ironically increases the level of restlessness in the world, and thus even further postpones the desired apocalypse.” Like the wedded contradictions in “Chefs,” Bateman’s delightful meditations never resolve in favor one side or the other, but instead celebrate the irreconcilable dichotomy between the physical and metaphysical. It is, Bateman suggests, such unresolved tensions that keep creation in motion.

Such appreciation for irreconcilable dichotomies can also be seen in “The Future of Wite-Out in America,” which posits a religion “requiring twelve significant errors” in every adult life. In this religion the failure to commit errors is in and of itself an error so egregious it can substitute for all twelve. The poem goes on to weigh the merits of “a lifetime of being wrong” against errors “that prove to be meager and shabby.” The poem wobbles, vibrates, and spins wildly with such contradictions until all that careful logic can no longer be contained. The poem ends without epiphany or climactic metaphor, but instead presents an image of “you” as “you stumble, lurch, and weave over the threshold of your fallible life.” Often we consider the reconciliation of thesis and antithesis to be an ideal ending for a piece of writing. That this poem fails to reconcile error and perfection is the perfect celebration of the way that tension makes the human spirit, in all of its weakness and all of its striving, possible.

On the rare occasions a poem in this collection does misfire, the source is often a reluctance to let a complicated metaphor (like an idea that behaves a like a cat, a religion based on Wite-Out, or the marriages of inanimate objects) falter. “Intellectual Property,” for example, describes “the day the trucks began arriving / with the materials for my Big Idea” and sticks so carefully to this conceit that the “Big Idea” remains trapped in the body of a trite metaphor. Similarly, “Tall Babies” never manages to break the tedious equation between fumbled human endeavor and “the swaying padded rumps” of “babies / terrible and tall.” Bateman’s genius is not packaging wisdom up in a spiffy extended metaphor, thank goodness, but in the more ambitious and more rewarding art of directing our attention to the what-can-never-be, an act which, curiously, makes the what-can-never-be suddenly be. And then, as we try to figure out what the difference between the two is, BOOM.

Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of Rag and Bone, which won the Elixir Press Antivenom Prize. New poems are forthcoming in West Branch, Copper Nickel, and Burnside Review. She teaches writing and literature at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as poetry editor for Pleiades.