In assembling this representation of a quarter-century’s work, Bill Knott has been perplexing in his judicious stinginess. Mixing newer poems with older ones sifted from eight previous collections, Knott has held himself to a meager forty-eight pages, and many of these pages are mostly blank space. This minimalist harvest, then, is in the nature of the poems themselves: spare. The book itself, like Knott’s characteristic poem, is strangely lucid yet enigmatic and defiant. The ordering of the poems reveals nothing about their previous appearances in other collections or their dates of composition. There are no subdivisions. The closest thing to a structural marker is the appearance, at irregular intervals, of poem clusters under the repeated title “Shorts/Excerpts.”
Within these clusters are the micro-Knotts, aphoristic sparks of wit reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s inverted cliche’s. Knott plays with patterns of language that pretend to wisdom or truth, leaving the reader to decide just what has been revealed. “Our farewells lack the plausibility of our departures.” “There is a valley is the oldest story.” “Never mind delivering tomorrow’s gypsy.” “The only response/ to a child’s grave is/ to lie down before it and play dead.” Too easy to dismiss at first, and seemingly easy to imitate, such pieces radiate power if reread, explored, and allowed to linger in the reader’s consciousness. The joke is that one cannot be sure if or where the joking ends.
Indeed, Knott’s playfulness is his most attractive quality. He combines some traits of other rewarding but underread poets whose humor is not valued in the late stages of the confessional and plain-style aesthetic. Like George Starbuck, Knott is capable of satire and witticism, but while Starbuck’s work seems a reincarnation of eighteenth century neoclassicism, Knott’s is fully of our time. His work borders, sometimes, on parody and burlesque—but never as pointedly or programmatically as does the work of Kenneth Koch. Like James Bertolino, Knott will move toward surreal juxtapositions and striking metaphors, but he is more sparing of them. His work has a greater restraint and decorum.
Yet many of his best poems begin with a bang. Knott does not sneak up on readers. He does not overprepare. The first line is not simply a house-quieter or an announcement that a poem is getting started. “The catcher holds a kangaroo fetus in his,” begins “Mitts and Gloves.” Other poems begin, “I write these lines to cripple the dead,” or “I’m tired of murdering children,” or, from the splendid “Fear of Domesticity”: “Eyelashes did their job:! they lengthened the afternoon,! like a dress- hem.” These are openings that simultaneously startle and invite: One must move into these poems to discover where Knott is headed.
In that last passage, one can see Knott’s instinct for eerie, yet immediately clear, figurative expression. In the same poem, parenthetically subtitled “after reading Plath and Sexton,” Knott invests his treatment of unsettled sexual identity with a macabre wit. His speaker averts his glance from the “endless wall, slowly! basted! with suicide.” Knott builds, with the perfectly chosen “basted,” a complex image of enclosure that is at once—in the full context of the poem—domestic life, stereotypical female roles, house, kitchen, oven (of successful and would-be suicide attempts), and womb (toward which the dress hem rises as the speaker’s hands grope upward).
Language confections such as “libertysplit streets,” “patrol my thoughts,” and “Swift suedes of evening” are part of Knott’s stock-in-trade. Often, Knott complicates his wordplay by employing intriguing line breaks in long, unpunctuated passages. “Funny Poem” uses these techniques throughout. It begins: “death loves rich people! more than us poor!...
(The entire section is 1594 words.)