Orson Scott Card,
An Open Book
(Subterranean Press, 2003)

Orson Scott Card undoubtedly needs no introduction to readers of this site: the creator of Ender Wiggin and Alvin Maker is himself near to being a legend, highly regarded not only as a novelist but as a teacher, and someone whose work I have enjoyed since the early years of his career. And so, it was with great anticipation that I turned to An Open Book, Card's first collection of poems.

The first group of poems, titled "Hunger, Love, and Death," starts, as all good poetry does, with the things of the everyday world: falling in love, children, grandparents -- indeed, these small works seem centered in family, moments from a life that almost anyone can claim, glimpses of the great cycle that we all live from birth to death. The second section, "Apocalyptic Verses," is much darker, but not apocalyptic so much as focused on the things of this world that we would rather forget. "Wholly Writ," which concludes the collection, seems to spring from reflections of real life in the mirror of Christian scripture -- dark, and often sobering. Card has included an afterword in which he notes that he considers this collection, and the poems in it, to be works in progress.

As a hard-core poetry junkie, I came to the realization some time ago that even one who loves poetry will run across, from time to time, poets with whom he just simply does not connect. (For the fortunate, these are few.) The question then is "Why?" It becomes even more important to find an answer in this situation than it might be in the case of a poet with whose works one finds an immediate affinity, or even in those cases where one expends considerable mental sweat pursuing the insights of a poet whose work might be difficult but contains hints of the ultimate rewards. Regrettably, as much as I have enjoyed and admired Card's prose, and as rich and illuminating as I find his novels, his poetry left me cold.

The irony in this is that Card stresses, in his afterword, his search for clarity, with the comment that "the first reading should reward the reader. If later readings reveal new insights, so much the better; but if the first reading did not achieve Dryden's recipe of sweetness and light, why should a reader return for a second reading?" Why indeed? (And I must add that this is something that applies in full measure to Card's prose, which is a model of clarity and precision, if not always sweetness and light.)

After much thought, it is exactly in the realm of clarity that I find fault with Card's poems. It is not deliberate obscurity on Card's part, which is something that he quite correctly decries -- one is sure that the meaning lurks below the surface, but one is left reaching vainly for the connection. These poems seem inextricably bound to the particulars of Card's life (as in "He died of cystic fibrosis at 24," although that is one that does not really need the extra connection); this is true, of course, of any poet, but somehow these works seldom seem to make the next step that would bring them into the realm of Everyman. (And any artist, in whatever medium, must be to some extent Everyman if he hopes to say anything to us at all: one need only think of the delicate balance of the particular and the universal in a work like Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" to see how the poet's family can translate to everyone's family.)

Nor is it that Card is formally adventurous -- there is little need to adapt one's reading to unique and puzzling forms. The poems are largely free verse, but a very regular and disciplined sort of free verse -- the reader need not deal with those pungent prose paragraphs that bear the weight of the world in the poems of Joy Harjo, or the rich, seductive passages in Mark Doty's works that create their own structure as they wander, or the electric free association reflected in the rigorous looseness of Jorie Graham's work. In Card's poems, it is all right there in front of you -- and perhaps that is part of the problem.

The one glaring exception to everything I've said above is "Fire at the End of the World," subtitled "Nonscriptural Verses," a set of short prose stanzas that do reach an apocalyptic vision, a vision at once terrifying and transcendant. This one is what I wish every work in this collection had been.

An Open Book was, in spite of its title, not terribly open to me. It certainly was not for lack of trying -- I have always been willing to expend the effort on poetry. It may be, as Card notes, that these have occupied the realm of "personal works," poems written for oneself or a few close friends who have a deep familiarity with the poet's point of view. I found them largely impenetrable, well done but not striking those sparks that a poem should strike, not leading me to that place behind the words where the poetry happens. Perhaps the various points I've touched on above can be boiled down to one word: "pedestrian." It's not a word I thought I would ever use about anything written by Orson Scott Card.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 5 March 2005

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