Review by C. Derick Varn
Must A Violence by Oni Buchanan (University of Iowa Press, 2012)
One can probably think of many poets who shift voices and tones within a career, but few successfully do such acts of multivocality in a single collection . Oni Buchanan’s third collection, Must A Violence, not only is able to make such shifts in voice, but does so while being focused with a thematic clarity that stitches the collection into coherence. It is this trait in particular that has endeared me to Buchanan’s work and led me to carry her book with me across two continents leaving my copy with dog-eared pages and worn edges despite the relative newness of the collection.
In Must A Violence, Buchanan’s extends concern with the natural, which grounded her two prior collections, What Animal and Spring, to the specific locus of human violence in and on nature. If Buchanan’s second collection, Spring, was largely an exercise in reverence for material world, Must A Violence is a dirge which lets in glimpses of that prior light. Often channeling various voices into single poems, the shifts in tone mirror the fragmenting of both human violence and the natural world. Whereas the compositional focus on Spring was music of the natural world–the syntax being subordinated to concerns for harmony, melody, and tonal phonetic—Must A Violence has a compositional turn that focuses more on harmonics and mutating repetitions. One can see the shifts in repetition in several poems through the book, particularly “The Worms,” “Must A Violence,” and “Mechanics,” all of which adopt a tactic of repetition that seems as much emerging out of musical minimalism as Gertrude Stein’s poetic incantations. This is perhaps made most clear by looking at the title poem´s final lines:
Is the brink made of egg shells
Is the brink made of fruit rinds
Is the brink made of rats’s nests
Is the brink made of calcite
Is the brink made of teeth
Is the brink made of feathers
Is the brink made of straw
Is the brink made of chaff (81)
In a poem which begins with an inorganic whole represented in the “machine” (79) ,as the poem progresses the detritus of the natural world is what is left and increasingly the shifts remind of the various debris of the natural world left in the wake. The musical repetition starts to clarify the focus for the author, and the rhythm carries the reader along until the reader has finished the poem and realized how he or she has been shifted to focusing on the aftermath. Much has already been written on the fact that Buchanan is a pianist as well as a poet, but thinking of her books as existing in movements as aural variations on a theme often help one approach what can seem like otherwise daunting poetry.
Yet the mutlivocality of Buchanan can been seen in contrast with a poem just prior to it. While the title poem is like minimalist musical composition, it is important to notice it follows a longer poem which relies on more convention poetic uses of rhythm. The central section of the book is a long poem, “Little Pig,” which seems to focus on the banal movement of a young pig’s daily existence. However, the tone is shifted from more “conventional” nature poem by the use of the direct address of the pig. This is a tactic Buchanan has used in both her prior works, and can be seen in her poem, “Dear Lonely Animal,” in Spring. Yet the focus in Little Pig is to humanize an animal that is generally seen as meat, and conversely to dehumanize those who see it as meat. The violence of the title is both implied and actual in the poem is still undercut by the tenderness of the final lines: “…It’s nice / to wake up to you, Little Pig. / It’s nice to aspire to be / deserving of your love, the love / of one Little Pig, unique in all the world” (76). In the hands of a less skilled poet these lines could border on the purple, but the building and contrast to the violence of the book make them feel like a necessary relief.
Myriad voices and fragmentation can almost been seen as clichés in 20th and 21th century poetry, yet Buchanan seems to use them with an ear for music that can remind one as much of Gerard Manly Hopkins as Lyn Hejinian. Buchanan’s use of layering, natural language, unnatural syntax, and the many voices of life are not generally seen as traits of poets whose primary concerns are nature. Must A Violence further and deepens her themes as a poet of both highly structured music and highly organic nature. The contrast between the two creates opportunities for something akin to a new music of natural world and a call to increase our sympathies and awareness of that music.