Up through the Renaissance, earth, air, fire, and water were considered to be the basic elements of the created universe. In various states of balance and imbalance, they were also believed to be the causal factors of human personality. Long after scientists and the educated public had abandoned such notions, poets continued to exploit the metaphorical power of these states of matter. Whenever one lets one’s senses work upon the natural world, one can understand why these explanations have had such a long hold on the imagination. Earth, air, fire, and water are generative images in Amy Clampitt’s highly acclaimed volume The Kingfisher. In taking advantage of their power and allusiveness, Clampitt finds a convenient and telling link between her own baroque sensibility and the Baroque art of the seventeenth century.
The book’s first two sections, “Fire and Water” and “Airborne, Earth-bound,” announce this sensibility while simultaneously announcing the all-encompassing range of a nervy artist. As one might expect, section 1 includes poems on coastal settings, while section 2 provides inland scenes and descriptions of birds. The third, fourth, and fifth sections are called “Heartland,” “Triptych,” and “Watersheds.” These deal, in turn, with the American Midwest, religious holidays and motifs, and foreign travels. The sixth and last section, “Hydrocarbon,” echoes the opening movements of the collection. By thus presenting the new science’s name for the key molecular combination necessary for mankind’s major energy sources, Clampitt suggests that her book is an encompassing journey that tests the old and new sciences against each other, asking the reader what has changed and what has remained constant over long stretches of human history. Provocatively, this last section has a strong political focus.
The plain style has found an aggressive challenger in Amy Clampitt. She dares the reader to contend with poems seasoned with such word choices as: dado, trig, gemütlich, ombré, repoussé, panicled, campanula, chrysoprase, velouté, ruching, clepsydra. Even crossword puzzle fans will find themselves reaching for the dictionary to get through a number of Clampitt’s poems. This baroque diction is an antidote to plainness, to dullness, and to the barely literate stuttering that is so often taken seriously today. Indeed, her work is extravagantly ornamented: sometimes wonderfully rich, sometimes too rich. Her antidote carries its own poisons—hothouse poisons in which style does a dance further and further removed from communication. One can admire phrases such as “damascene-/ sealed bizarrerie of fernwork” and “a totem-/ garden of lascivious pheromones” and yet wonder if this is luxury or overgrowth. Everywhere, Clampitt’s book is chock full of lavish soundplay, inventive word combinations, startling imagery, learned and playful wit, but there is almost no room to breathe, and sometimes straightforward sense is forsaken. In these poems, the reader is summoned by a strange, idiosyncratic voice. Time will tell if the author of The Kingfisher sounds fresh notes of genius or only precious notes of wastrel extravagance.
One poem, at least, indicates that Clampitt herself is well aware of her poetic manner and the possible objections to it. “Marginal Employment” records the extravagances of the Duc de Berry, evoking his “choicest curios” and telling how his tastes
. . . added value
to the hours of no one knows
how many lapidaries, couturiers,
embroiderers of passementerie
with gilt and pearls, and wielders
in gold leaf of the minutest
The duc’s Très Riches Heures “is burdened with a fossil gilding,” and the reader is asked to consider the effort, the human toll that went into “the scandal/ of such squandered ornament.” This last phrase could represent an extreme stance toward Clampitt’s poetic style. Her argument is this: “The earth’s hours/ are weightier, for all this lightness,/ than the sum of human enterprise’s/tumbledown fiascos.” High claims for the value of high artifice.
Amy Clampitt is a pleasing technician; indeed,...