Judith Johnson Sherwin Sherwin, Judith Johnson (Vol. 7) - Essay

Sherwin, Judith Johnson (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sherwin, Judith Johnson 1936–

Ms Sherwin is an American poet, playwright, and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Judith Johnson Sherwin's second collection of poetry, following Uranium Poems,… Impossible Buildings,… mainly demonstrates her fine facility with music. The sound effects achieved in these poems make one after another a tour de force of rhyming and meter. The poems are of invention and artifice and that they are is of course signaled by Ms. Sherwin's choice of M. Escher's work to provide her volume's title and cover picture.

Unfortunately, this … book contains a vast majority of poems which are merely clever exercises; the facileness soon bores and then alienates the reader. Ms. Sherwin plays around and plays around, almost always on the defensive. Her use of a central image in the book, the brain, shows how she is completely conscious of the effect her methods may have: "let the words outrun/my running brain."…

Sherwin's poems are words, words, words, staircases so often going nowhere, like the drawings of M. Escher, truly Impossible Buildings. Yet the technique does not survive the transference from one art form to the other. What we may resent is the way these poems promise deeper emotion, commitment, and then offer us glittering trinkets when we have sought deep concern. (p. 112)

Should she … gather [her] strength, and take more time to feel her way, rather than so often be content to be the chessplayer only concerned with patterns of strategy, this overly-long, tedious book should in the future be judged only as a self-indulgent pause in the career of a poet whose remarkable talent might become a triumph…. (pp. 113-14)

Dick Allen, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1974.

Judith Johnson Sherwin's poems [in Impossible Buildings] are a bitch. I would like to take the easy way out and say that, leaving all its ambiguities intact, and maybe go and watch a football game (I who don't even like football).

I don't mean that to be nasty. But she is spiny as an armadillo—almost repels contact at times; at other moments wants to talk sense and simply; spends some of her time doing minuets and can turn with the turn of a page and try to talk rough (sounding like a nice girl with a mouthful of dirty words learned and laboriously practiced at a good prep school, a little of what a critic once called, as practiced by Joyce Carol Oates, "violence in the head"). Much of her book is good and exact, but it is in equal part arbitrary; she permits a lot of slippage of sense; much riots and romps around in a fountain of words, and works. (This sounds like Sherwin: a white June Jordan?) Much does not fit at all and should have waited till Sherwin, famous for a decade or two, did her Collected Artifacts—early poems, one must suspect: extremely formal and abstract, complete with a sonnet sequence which challenges us to reject it in its epigraph ("'The sonnet is dead.' Alfred Dorn and others") and which, sad to say, has only the gutsiness of the dare to recommend it. It's terribly boring. (pp. 144-45)

Attracted by abstraction, by the extraordinary cold perspectives—slightly skewed, logical yet implausible—of M. C. Escher's architecture, for which the book is named, she lets herself slip into an inconsistency Escher would never have allowed. Though his creations are intricate and busy, and God knows, not warming to the soul, they are intended to be impenetrable, their strangeness implicit in the consistent warp of his vision, which cannot be corrected at will. They do not flirt with warmth, nor try to be ingratiating and talk like someone you might actually meet. They are committed to their loneliness, the isolation of their half-mad, half-rational vision. Judith Sherwin is—half the time—gregarious…. Undoubtedly ["Came the Terrible Dark Lords"] is intelligible at some level but my problem is that I would rather think and feel than think and sweat when I read a poem; for mental gymnastics, back to chess. (pp. 146-47)

It is her inconsistent literariness, I think, that causes half the problems. In the poem "Plato's Year," for example, we shift from "Sure, I remember Spring …" to "I am not nice/In my desires so there but break some flowers in our parks." And when the "sure" returns a second time it begins to dawn ("Sure, on the tundra Spring/Resumes his willing reign") that she means Sure in that slightly archaic or perhaps Irish sense, a lyrical mannered certainty, the voice-dropping beat, not the casual real-speech assurance that might crop up in one of her own colloquial poems on the very next page. It's dizzying.

Sherwin writes beautifully, convincingly, of domestic weariness, the tonal diminishings in marriage and the old-blanket comforts, no more bitter than sweet. Her experiments with reordered fragments of the words of Alice James and Haydn are perhaps more illuminating of Sherwin's than of her subjects' preoccupations, but no matter: they are poignant and mysterious as palimpsests, not meant to be mere history. (pp. 147-48)

I am exhausted by 143 pages of self-delighting wordiness. Double-edged for a poet, that epithet. Wordy: full, vain, passionate, swollen, distinction-making, distinction-annihilating, cold, hot, outgoing, inward. Sherwin will feel ill-served by this laziness or incapacity to intuit the hidden structure of her book, and right she may be. But I wasn't weary when I began, nor will her readers be. They will be by the end, however intrigued and bedazzled. I hope she sorts out her voices and intentions in her next book; at this point, though her energy is flamboyant, she loves clarity with a shaky, evasive faith…. (p. 148)

Rosellen Brown, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Judith Johnson Sherwin's fascination [is] with Impossible Objects.

For her, this fascination primarily involves a fascination with poems. Impossible Buildings does not dramatize social and psychological anxieties so much as disinterested gamesmanship. Consequently, the best poems in her book are the chess poems, like "Positional," and related pieces like "La Nature Morte de Samuel Beckett," "A Reading Glass," "Maurits Escher's Impossible/Buildings," and "Nova." Also fine are some of her technical exercises, like "Garden."

Ms Sherwin is perfectly aware of the dangers that beset her remarkable talents, and in fact she constantly discusses these dangers in her poems. In "A Reading Glass," for example, she observes that "when i looked at/Christ's face through a reading glass you seemed to sneer/at such a concern for mere technique." She takes up the charge that "Memling spent all that care/to paint what was not there" and answers it with a deft equation between poetry and love-making (a theme repeated throughout the book)…. Elsewhere, in "This Poem May Not Be Just What You Wrote to Santa For, But," she attacks the difficulty from a different angle by forcing the reader not merely to observe her wit but to become involved in it. And in "Holy Sonnet" she attempts to cleanse herself of her (everywhere apparent) debts to aesthetic tradition with a mock-serious prayer for help from the bearers of verbal histories. (p. 419)

But mostly she throws her head into a variety of sensual conflicts. "The Balance" nicely sets forth these oppositions in terms of the Salome theme, where the poet is at once saint and sensualist, head and heart, disciplined (technician) and common (voice), scheming and sentimental. Poems in which conflicts of these sorts are presented make up the largest portion of her book…. [The] kind of sensuality which runs through this supremely self-conscious book [is] lively, curious, quietly busy. Ms Sherwin can be "serious" about love and such things, but she always finds her critical intelligence invading her emotional attitudes. Indeed, the test and very ground of all her emotions is an intellectual one. By this I do not mean that Ms Sherwin is a poet of ideas. She is, rather, like Borges, a maker of strangely playful intellectual fictions. This quality of her style makes her an extraordinary sensualist of the imagination, that is, a superb poetic technician, just as it allows her to be most powerful when she makes aesthetic engineering (whether personal or poetic) her central subject. (pp. 419-20)

Jerome J. McGann, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1974), Fall, 1974.