March 21, 2012

Fragmented Elegy: Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, an Index

In 2009, the poet Craig Arnold disappeared on Kuchino-erabu, a remote Japanese island, while climbing a volcano for research on his next book. Arnold had published two books of poems: Made Flesh (2008) and Shells (1999), which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The poet was a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, had been a Fulbright Scholar at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, and his poems were included in Best American Poetry. Though a search party found his footsteps ascending the volcano, his body was never recovered and Craig Arnold was presumed dead.

Rebecca Lindenberg, Arnold’s longtime partner, published her first collection of poetry earlier this month. It is also the first book in McSweeney’s emerging poetry series. At its crux, Love, an Index is an echo. It is a continued conversation between the speaker and the subject, whose voice has been cut out. Lindenberg’s poetry is composed in quiet moments of remembrance and grief. It is not, thank goodness, a tour de force. It is too human for that. Rather, the speaker lingers on images of the body – a breath on the ear, a poppy colored birthmark under the eye – as well as meals shared, and trips taken. It is an attempt to reconstruct or offer documentation of a man who ceased to be. It provides evidence of Arnold in “fragments,” which the titular poem defines as “Parts suggesting the whole/they long to be gathered into.” Arnold is the book, and the book is a body sewn together from memories.

Love, an Index, is divided into three segments, with the first section detailing the evidence of love. “Catalogue of Ephemera” provides a list of all the gifts Lindenberg’s lover gave her, and can be interpreted as an exercise in putting memories into order. One recalls Joan Didion combing over closets full of her deceased husband’s clothes in The Year of Magical Thinking. After is the fall. The second section, and the spinal cord of the collection, is the alphabetical directory for which the book is named. In the third and final section, Lindenberg’s broken animal emerges, a haunted search without recovery, for her lover’s body and her peace. Her “Obsessional” is written in a villanelle, itself a compulsive poetic form. The central repetition evolves into a cyclical point of madness: “What makes a man impossible to find/on such a chip of land it’s hardly there?” But by the book’s end, there is grace: as a scrap of paper on its descent, the poet is saved on an updraft. The lingering image in the final poem, “Marblehead,” is the image of green, of all good, of all newness, an abstract concept anchored in the minutiae that compose the book’s pulse. “But now lobster steam billows/up the window, you gulp/purple wine, your pinky sticking out,/and the round olives are the green/all green things aspire to be.”

At times, the speaker seems to struggle with her multi-faceted relationship with the man who was both her lover and fellow poet. In "Love, N1," a long poem composed of footnotes and references to love poems by Sappho, Plato, Frank O’Hara, and other major names, she includes quotes from Arnold, gleaned from conversation and his poems. The effect is twofold: she writes about her love in the context of a vast poetic dialogue, while also including Arnold as a source to be considered among the classics. The writer appears divided on this, his greater fame, and her success in light of his disappearance. In “The Girl with the Ink-Stained Teeth,” she writes she “knows she’s famous/ in a tiny, tragic way and condemns the man who disappeared, leaving her nothing/not even/her name.” That Rebecca Lindenberg will forever be seen in the context of her partner is unlikely. Love, an Index works through an issue, an obsession, but in it, Lindenberg executes her grief in measured, clean lines that speak of more to come. Turn by turn, her grief breaks down language into utterances. It comes to the point where a single word reaches out and takes the reader by the heart. Through her grieving she becomes an empowered voice. Her sorrow becomes a measureless depth.

While Lindenberg asks for empathy, she never wants pity. One would never read this book and feel an urge to apologize. It is notable that words such as pity, sorrow, and tragedy are words she left out of her central "Index." There is anger, and ache, and harbinger. There is divorce. Each dark image becomes coupled with elements of light, or physical matter to ground them in: interstate, lemon, and lyric. Mimosa. Like Anne Carson in Nox, Lindenberg is concerned with the echoes her lover left behind. Unlike Carson, who attempts to discover her estranged and deceased brother through lingering scraps of evidence, Lindenberg uses the echoes to explore the spaces in which the dead continue to exist.

And so, her collection is worth reading for the same reason that all good literature is worth reading: it preserves a man’s soul, long after his death. Or, in this very special case, the book preserves two souls, in the physical and emotional spaces they occupied together. This is a love story, for all affairs that have begun and ended, on various scales of magnitude. This is a mausoleum for an end that left no body behind.

Caitlyn Christensen