Kathleen Halme’s My Multiverse opens with a marvelous set-piece, a multi-part cycle (that comprises the entirety of the first section of the six-sectioned book) titled “City of Roses” that begins with that tender invitational, “Dear,” and from there pans its camera over the big and small, visiting with different characters and embracing the ambience of different scenes all within the same city, Halme’s own Portland, Oregon. It’s a gesture in line with the great urban works, like Ulysses, which endeavor to sketch the cultural, emotional, and physical anatomy of a city: “Blocks and blocks of ornate iron-front buildings. / Shanghai traps and tunnels. / Iron horse rings to which someone / has hitched tiny plastic palominos.” Kathleen Halme’s My Multiverse opens with a marvelous set-piece, a multi-part cycle (that comprises the entirety of the first section of the six-sectioned book) titled “City of Roses” that begins with that tender invitational, “Dear,” and from there pans its camera over the big and small, visiting with different characters and embracing the ambience of different scenes all within the same city, Halme’s own Portland, Oregon. It’s a gesture in line with the great urban works, like Ulysses, which endeavor to sketch the cultural, emotional, and physical anatomy of a city: “Blocks and blocks of ornate iron-front buildings. / Shanghai traps and tunnels. / Iron horse rings to which someone / has hitched tiny plastic palominos.”
Hers is rangier, however, messier with more personal lines, and where Dublin or Paris or New York might be distinctly cobbled in stone, brick, and iron, Portland is, of course, a place of rain-wet wilderness as well, and a place with a rich First Nation’s history that predates the European. Halme—herself with strong anthropological tendencies—writes beautifully of this history, especially with regard to its materiality: “Art and fact. / Elegant Klickitat baskets. / Burden baskets, water baskets, buckskin platters. / When a maker died they burned her baskets.” We already begin to see in this opening section what she means by “multiverse”—this isn’t going to be a cosmologically mind-blowing collection complete with differential equations and references to nebulae and neutrinos, but rather a collection of history and myth, where the past lives on in simultaneity with the present, where cultures and lives are layered in the material world.
Materiality is very important. It’s now the third time I’ve used the word. What we encounter in the first sections of the collection is a kind of construction, and Halme has an exquisite—I would even say tactile—ear for building the world up in words. In “The Gala Coach of Landgraf VII of Hesse-Darmstadt,” she walks around the coach and bends a stunning lexicon of esoterica into shape:
more fey than a fairy tale pulled
by six Klickitat ponies is the carriage
carved in nervy rococo
gold lion heads stick out their royal tongues
and even the leather suspension straps
are as embroidered as trousseau lingerie
When we get lines like “carved in nervy rococo” we feel like she is really cooking. The distinctly physical assemblages she offers should be an indication of what’s to come: namely, destruction. The third section is also comprised of a single, multi-part poem—the title of this poem is “Flood.” Halme built her city (maybe we are no longer specifically in Portland) only to ruin it, and she does so with theatrical relish:
Boulders dislodge like cannon shots. The living
room tilts to pop the picture window
and drops like a country falling from a map.
The river collapses
this intricate kit—
a big unthank
of marked pieces,
abundances tumbling, pleasances
plunging, the soaked and swelling
couches of the dead.
It is a dramatic sequence, and many of the poems that follow echo its theme of disassembly and pose the question of rebuilding and, via that, transformation, as we can see in this beholden moment from the poem “Osiris Rising”:
A dead man cut into parts
and sung back together by love.
Is this a miracle we crave?
Over his head, lifted in a countenance
of bliss, an electrum headdress rises
like a forming thought.
We can also see in these lines something new, an engagement with semiotic abstraction, the headdress “like a forming thought,” a “countenance” of bliss. Sign, myth, story, écriture (and their less defined currents of philosophy and prayer), all begin to emerge more presently in the foreground. The penultimate section of “Flood” is constructed around quotations from a “scribe,” lines like: “The lost word will be sung, / the lost world be restored / when soul settles into structure.” Nebulous, prophetic stuff, for sure, and the quotational framing clues us in that things are going to get more self-reflexive, perhaps concerned with writing itself as a spiritual or, more precisely, remediating enterprise. That the titles of the poems in the final section “The Reader Became the Book” appear to be quoted lines from other writers (including Virginia Woolf, Marilyn Robinson, and D. H. Lawrence—the section title is a Wallace Stevens line) cements this new territory.
The materiality that characterized the imagery of the opening half of the collection evaporates, seems to get absorbed into poems that become more material themselves, as sonic constructions, crystalline cerebral structures. The sharp ear we see in the opening sections hints at formalist tendencies, and that becomes fully realized, especially in the penultimate section, aptly titled “Loose Timber.” Many of the poems here exhibit juttingly formal maneuvers, rhymes falling in even four and five beat frequencies. Some of the poems are even center justified. As an example, here is “Forget-Me-Not,” which I can quote in full:
We gave the most when less
gave way to grace.
Perhaps it’s still the way
we crave, the plotted looks
and privacies, a place to hide
our hearts. When touch
was overmuch we shied—
before the age exposed
its lurid eye.
Dickinson here, perhaps, to counterpoint the Whitman allusions Halme makes elsewhere, which is all to say that she is directly engaging the American tradition. And doesn’t this take us back to her concern with history—this time mimetically treated.
The latter poems and their more numinous subjects and formalist approaches don’t always connect with me, and I don’t feel wholly satisfied with the resolution they offer this collection as a sequenced group. But that doesn’t detract from the talent diversely arrayed in Halme’s book, which stretches from acute description of the material and historically rooted world to transcendental lyrical inquiries that can refresh some of our most cherished metrical traditions.