“True Faith: Poems” by Ira Sadoff; BOA editions Ltd., Rochester, N.Y., 2012; 88 pages, trade paperback, $16.
One of the above-ground strands of American poetry that bubbled out of the 1950s and turbulent ’60s was called “confessional.” It specialized in meditations (sometimes direct, sometimes oblique) on specific personal recollection, pain, misgiving and sometimes epiphany, subjects that in the past had been deemed by and large too personal to divulge explicitly in verse. Springing most prominently from often-difficult poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell and John Berryman, confessional poetry was one of literature’s contributions to an intense cultural discussion about the nature of “self.”
This approach and subject matter divided and subdivided, like water rivuleting to its utmost levels, from personal autobiographical introspection into channels as disparate as an almost surrealistic re-creation of mind material, like the poems of John Ashbery in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in the 1970s, to a sort of industry of literary self-expression that hit tsunami proportions by the 1980s and has not receded.
Ira Sadoff’s new collection, “True Faith,” appears to be an entry in that persistent flow. These poems surf idiosyncratically in and out of the waves of recollective consciousness and the relentless emotions and thoughts that accompany and re-accompany them. The remembering minds in these poems bounce from one probing question or self-abrasive feeling to another with a sort of Kafka-like cohesive disjointure.
We get multiple views of father-son conflicts, worry, apology, scars that cannot be gotten rid of, regret, remembrances of petulance past, music arrowing in from memory with almost holy force, an intermittent wondering about who God thinks he is anyway, and skepticism about virtually every thought that comes to mind. The latter can get weird, like images in a house of mirrors.
I try to shape my strangeness
with speed and gravity, the confusion
you uncover just getting to unknow yourself, the part
that’s celibate and monklike, without the flies around it.
Despite the rapids these poems navigate, each poem has an internal cohesiveness that cannot have been easy to achieve. There seem to be a lot of personae but just one voice: Many anxieties and angles on how the past and present could or should cohere are articulated in a consistently headlong, rushing flow of language. Alliterative patterns appear and disappear like whitecaps. Allusions to literary-culture heroes (or villains) such as Freud and Kafka arise and fly past like boulders in the stream.
It seems to me “True Faith” reconverges with the sensibilities of Ashbery — the title phrase evoking exactly the edgy peculiarities in Ashbery’s (literarily) famous title — and updates the self-interrogation of Berryman with the puzzlements of further-advanced age and the self-stunting prescriptions of post-deconstructive moral concerns. There is something reassuring and anxious about the fashioning of coherence out of utter confusion.
There’s a government here, a world order
with its cattails and oil spills,
and just under the surface a corpse or two.
Ira Sadoff is the Arthur Jeremiah Roberts Professor of English at Colby College in Waterville. His books include “Uncoupling,” “History Matters: Contemporary Poetry on the Margins of American Culture” and seven other collections of poetry. “True Faith” is available through BOA Editions.