To encounter a poem as an object is not just to see it in its totality—as suggested by the modes of reading and composition presented in texts like Cleanth Brooks’s The Well-Wrought Urn (1947) or Louis Zukofsky’s “Sincerity and Objectification” (1931)—but to really experience it as if it were physical, solid: something you can heft and throw and arrange in space. Like a real tactile object, this sense of the poem as something with body makes for an experience with it that is characterized by immediacy, connection, and presence. Holly Lyn Walrath’s Numinous Stones, published by Aqueduct Press’s Conversation Pieces series—and which first appeared in Italian as Numinose Lapidi—constructs a gorgeously real graveyard of tombstones out of its elegies and remembrances, which takes the insubstantial stuff of words and solidifies it.
The first technology of solidification that these poems deploy is form. The book is composed entirely of pantoums, a circular form adapted from traditional Malaysian poetry in which the second and fourth lines of each quatrain are also the first and third of the next. The repetition lends itself to slow developments and cycles, a good choice for the subject matter of death and grief, but also a key element in producing the impression of the book as a graveyard full of moveable headstones. By highlighting the line as a moveable element of composition through a form that repeats and reconfigures whole lines, the pantoums of Numinous Stones construct themselves as things that are as mobile as the lines, placed in their locations in the book with meticulous intention, but also as something that the reader can pick up and move as they read.
Take, for example, the first poem in the collection, “We’re Refugees Who Found Love Searching for Atlantis.” The first two stanzas read:
The ocean is a vessel cast in the heat of the stars
We walked there in the twilight and sang starsongs
Our bodies were translucent and full of darkness
How we carried our homeland in our bones
We walked there in the twilight and sang starsongs
The molten gold we sucked from the statues burned
How we carried our homeland in our bones
What if the floating city is just a dream? (p. 1)
As the lines circle back around, they acquire new weight—“there” is not just “the ocean” but “our homeland,” and the twilight extends to cover both the arrival and the searching. The repeated “how we carried our homeland in our bones” takes on a new life in its replication, transforming and being transformed by its surroundings. The repetition unifies the two stanzas as they trace over the searching and the distance travelled, asking how the claim of the title is supported by this configuration more than any other. The uncertainty of grammatical relation here further bolsters the effect. The repeated lines do not necessarily fill the same roles in a sentence upon their return, even seeming to break the expected syntax: the “how” introduces a method without a seeming objective, an unfinished thought as the noun phrase rejects the possibility of verbs on either side of it.
This play between unity and rupture keeps the poem feeling like a single item while calling to mind the way that objects in a space are both discrete and combine to constitute the space around them. Often here, the line appears at first to be the object, rather than the poem. In the end, the form solidifies the unity, taking the poem from a space constituted by objects to a moveable unit composed of parts, a kinetic sculpture rather than a space. Walrath’s pantoums all circle back to their original first and third lines with a bit of inversion in the final stanza, ending and beginning the poem with the same line. By coming back to the beginning, ending with “The ocean is a vessel cast in the heat of the stars” (p. 1), “We’re Refugees Who Found Love Searching for Atlantis” ties itself together and allows the sense of the line as a mobile unit to extend to the whole before moving on to the next poem.
Walrath also uses her titles to create the sense of the book as a space filled with solid objects. Many of them trend towards sentences and descriptions of items, and they partake of the distinctive style of titles of visual art: “A Black Fish Floating Belly Up with Regret,” “Romeo Opens the Tomb,” “Dark Shapes Move in the Morning Before Dawn,” and “The Rain Formed a Man and Reader, I Drank Him”: all these, among others, call to mind the titles of such works as Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting “Truth Coming Out of her Well” (1896) or Wangechi Mutu’s “It’s the End of the World as I know It . . . Again.” Walrath is herself a visual artist, having recently exhibited erasure poems. By calling on these painterly allusions, then, the arrangement of the poems is made to feel both deliberate and contingent. No narrative logic demands this specific order, yet their specific sequence is a key part of the operation of the book. Gently guiding the reader through the graveyard exhibition, from the search for Atlantis to the final reckoning with the practical immediacy of death, these poems use the sense of themselves as objects to demand the reader’s involvement. Like an occupant of a space, the reader is asked to fully engage with the poems—to pick them up and move them, feeling the full weight of what they contain, tracing over their edges and curves—in order to move through the book. This sense of physicality engendered by form and structure lends the poems a consequence that can be felt and experienced with the immediacy of the weight of a stone.
So if it is in this way that these poems are indeed stones, then the book’s success would also require a sense of them as “numinous,” as the title promises. “Numinous” —denoting something imbued with spiritual power and evoking the power of auras and magic embedded in the landscape—is, it turns out, the perfect adjective for these poem-tombstones, which glow and shift. Equal parts tombstone and standing stone, the poems of Numinous Stones successfully embrace the spiritual richness that attends such objects. It does so by closely tying their speculative elements with their encounter with loss. “To All the Skeletons I’ve Loved” serves as an excellent example of this, incarnating death as a lover so that “With every kiss that tastes like decay / He wraps me up in undertaker’s robes” (p. 41). This is not simply literary personification, but a powerful embrace of the fantastical as it manifests in our lives. Death himself is present in the deaths that must be borne in our lives, and his personal presence is a part of processing that pain. In loving him, the speaker encounters her own pain, while still acknowledging the difficulty that he has brought. The kisses “taste like decay” because Death is always dying and the loss he is cannot grant comfort, no matter how much love is present through the moment of goodbye. Death is always a serious matter, but here, the speculative elements of the poem emphasize the way that grief is an embodied spiritual process, something lived with the whole self. This spiritual journey is felt at every stage, bridging the full expanse of possibility from the barest, most realist representations of loss and illness and the most fantastical. It is not just an emotional process, but one that offers a serious reconfiguration of the self in relation to the world and the soul, if we are to reach so far as to admit the existence of such a thing. The poems of Numinous Stones, without laying claim to a position on the reality of the supernatural or eternal, reach out to touch the heart of the sacred as it is both made and challenged by grief.
Numinous Stones delivers what it promises and more. The poems are, indeed, as the title indicates: immediate, solid, resonant, and glowing. Carefully crafted and thoughtful in its honesty, in this often personal and autobiographical book Walrath’s verse is sincere without feeling like she is letting the reader trample too freely over her experiences. Instead, she invites us to join her as she moves through the graveyard, helping to return the stones to their rightful places, learning and reflecting in the process. The book is a well-considered exploration of death and illness—and of the way that they (and the caretaking expectations placed on those around the sick and dying, especially the women around them) can reshape our relationship with the self and the world. This perspective on death offers a prime opportunity to think through the ways in which we invest meaning in our lives, and in the lives (and deaths) of the people around us. Bolstered by the form and structure of the poems, as well as by the construction of the book as a whole, Walrath is able to offer a new view on the roles played in our current moment by illness, disability, and death. Though these poems specifically address loss to Parkinson’s, their thinking, carried in the experience of them as objects, is applicable to all the many ways that illness and death play (and have played) a part in the world that proves so hard to render with any kind of sense.