Anyone who’s taught poetry-writing knows that poetry is as natural a vehicle for hiding as it is for showing. T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative (sublimating feeling in description), his “continual self-sacrifice” and personality extinction, seem to be already encoded in poetry’s DNA. Which is to say, poetry is a kind of encoding. That which is hidden is also persistent, at large in poetry’s patterns.
Considering how we’ve been trained to look and be looked at; considering the scope of modern surveillance; considering the proprietary, toxic, and elitist norms most of us were raised under and continue to face down, there are many reasons to hide, many defenses at play. That’s life. That’s survival.
Describing the human psyche generally, psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott describes the “inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” This dilemma he famously calls “a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek.” Poet and critic James Longenbach applies Winnicott to poets who “resist” their own meanings; the true “lyric” poet exhibits a “desire to sequester herself.” Such a poet is Beth McDermott.
Figure 1, her first full collection, sports poems that are constantly inviting the reader in with questions or imperatives to look and consider. To follow these poems’ threads is to engage in a game of hide-and-seek.
After “Letters from the Dust Bowl”
In “Port de Bras, or Carriage of the Arms,” a ballerina’s well-executed and well-coached port de bras makes the “points” of her wrist and elbow
disappear, as if she
has no bones but scapulae:
a monarch's forewings, wet
Like the dancer’s arm, several joints in this poem’s articulation seem to be missing. We don’t know if this ballerina is a painting, but there are several poems in the book explicitly about Degas paintings. The speaker enters the poem at the end.
In the viewing
room, dimly lit so that I can
see through the half-silvered
surface, I'm still envious.
I read this as the aftermath (“still envious”) of seeing the ballerina. “[D]imly lit” “half-silvered” mirrors are used in “viewing rooms” to surveille and not be seen in turn. The more brightly lit, observed party—confusingly called the “subject(s)” while being the object(s) of study—can’t see through their side of the glass, which for them is a mirror (confusingly called both a one- and two-way mirror). Any mirror in the context of ballet, of course, evokes a dance-studio mirror, one of which appears in the later poem, “Degas’s The Dance Class, 1874.” Thus, it’s tempting to try to make the viewing room a metaphor for watching the dance through the studio mirror. This doesn’t pan out, however (McDermott is notably sparing with figures of speech). Maybe the speaker is conducting a study (their subject yet another lacuna) after seeing the ballerina.
Despite these missing joints, the poem’s own “positions” are arresting and suggestive. Impressionistic. The ballerina
her cupped hand while her
teacher's voice repeats like
an instar: there is a string in-
side of you, uncoiling like
Like this moment of lepidopterology, the concept of a “viewing room”—an apt moniker for such stanzas—resonates throughout the collection. It suggests the separations, reflections, and power imbalances of looking.
Figure 1 is dense with such compact, heavily-enjambed, short-lined, free-verse poems. They are lapidary, yet elliptical. Slippery, yet impersonal. We get little of so-called elliptical poetry’s performance of voice. One thinks of the more difficult Bishop poems, like “The Monument,” or Marianne Moore, but without the rhetorical panoply and aphorisms, and with more disjunction.
We get little hand-holding: The point is not to translate what the speaker sees but, rather, to whittle down her response, a “Give and Take”—as one of many ekphrastic poems is called—between speaker and subject, subject and object. For McDermott, “reciprocity” is the thing, or, in “Disappearing Act,” “a thing.” We see that art, like nature, is always something other.
These are hard poems—sharp-edged, impacted, ambiguous. Their foci are so self-consciously fine that each atomized assay crystalizes into taxonomic distinction, as if pinned. The parts prove hard to fully connect and hold together in the mind. Many of the poems follow a pattern of 1) observation, 2) elaboration, 3) swerve. For example, in “Port de Bras,” we 1) hear about the ballerina’s position, 2) get imagined into her head, and 3) end up with the speaker in the viewing room, “still envious.”
“Bird for Bird,” also in the first section of Figure 1, extends the motif of the disappearing act.
But the bird hides
itself. If only I could study
the jay acting like the kill-
deer, who offers itself
instead of its shallow nest:
watch me drag my fake broken
wing. I'd be surprised
that watching it come undone
is distracting enough
(look how the killdeer's copper
rump is uncovered by coverts)
to believe that ivory-black
splattered eggs are stones.
It takes some doing, but the kernel of the poem seems to concern the avian defensive tactic of faking a wing injury in order to distract predators from a “shallow nest”—making the nest disappear, as it were, or blend in, the “ivory-black / spattered eggs [like] stones.” The speaker seems to have found footage of a killdeer doing this—“watch me drag my fake broken / wing”—and not to have found it convincing, or doesn’t imagine it would be convincing to predators, at any rate—“(look how the killdeer’s copper / rump is uncovered by coverts);” coverts are feathers that cover a bird’s flight feathers. However, this poem-kernel is only the point once-removed, a kind of consolation prize, because what the speaker really wants to “study” (so goes the poem’s rhetoric) is a jay “acting like” a killdeer, but she can’t because “the bird hides / itself.”
Presumably (I find myself resorting to this qualification a lot with these poems), the speaker wants to see a jay perform the wing-trick, which she can and does see a killdeer perform. After the first three lines, the poem is somewhat ambiguous about which bird is being discussed, but it can read as all concerning the killdeer so that the interest in the jay drops away, a kind of decoy in itself. It also begs the question of how closely the points of resemblance can correspond before the birds are the same (other poem titles include “On Likeness” and “Reflection”).
Such a poem feels heavily inflected by thinking about mimesis. We have three compromised imitations: the jay’s of the killdeer, which can’t be verified (though the ability to also undo its wing seems unlikely); the killdeer’s “look at my broken wing” trick (though why would it emphasize that the broken wing is “fake”?), which exposes its “rump,” giving it away; and the unbelievable spattered egg-stones.
Missing joints, unjointed—the book has many references but few notes, and the poems have many referents but limited contextualization. What you see is not always what you get. What you get is often something you can’t see.
If what you want from a book of poetry is a poem “acting like” the lushly personal and emotive identity poems of our milieu, you’re not going to find it in Figure 1. In “Give and Take,” the speaker describes herself as
a white sea
without a coastline; without a cliff-
side to interrupt me, I am water
breeding water: I have no
This poem follows the three-part structure, swerving away at the end to zoom in on a puffin egg and flowers. In vain, the reader bruises their brain against the edges of things, the rocks and hammered waves, to try to make the parts coalesce. It’s not that they don’t, but that they don’t in any certain way. One comes to suspect it’s intentional, that the tricky nature of seeing things is the point, that something modern, or postmodern, is going on here, that the speaker’s talking about her art as much as herself. As she says of “The Mushroom Farmer,”
her perspective is so
the public can't
Of course, there is grief. The “straw- / berry” at the bottom of the Russian doll in “Matryoshka” has had a struggle. Loss lurks deep in these sharp, slippery poems. The book’s epigraph says as much:
You will forgive me, Sir,
But often on this cottage do I muse
As on a picture, till my wiser mind
Sinks, yielding to the foolishness of grief.
For McDermott, Wordsworth’s sinking and yielding is informed by—but is more than merely—the fallen state of representation. Obliquely, we hear of a friend who starved to death (whittled down to nothing), of a “crisis” the speaker’s mother steps in to help with. The point—the poem—is not what happened, but rather, as for Marianne Moore’s famous strawberry, “where the fragments [meet].” Poetically subsumed, Figure 1's griefs animate themes of seeing and meaning: an artist’s recreation, a bedside still-life, problems of likeness, a parent’s well-meaning battery of platitudes. Nostalgia for the rural scenes of the speaker’s childhood is anti-pastorally attendant upon machinery.
If what you expect from ekphrastic poems involves straightforward attempts at representation, think again. A poem based on Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl gets hung up from the get-go on virtually unplaceable hypotheticals about what’s the “real subject” and “real quality” of the painting/light. Sharp details there are, but they get conscripted and confused in the what ifs and who can sees.
In a poem about a Mapplethorpe self-portrait photo of his arm, the thinking flits metonymically from landscapes to “pinned” butterflies, to Christ, to the smallest snake in the world fitting on a quarter the way Mapplethorpe’s arm fits the frame. It’s a lovely progression, increasingly unlikely, that ultimately swerves away into a thought about evolution (itself a progression of hiding, tricks, and defenses).
He is pinned
by the lens, redeeming
as the Barbados
threadsnake that sits
on a quarter. It evolved
to fill the centipede's
proof of the species'
These are antidotes for writing’s perennial yen for transparency, reminders that poems are “chewy” objects as my advisor liked to say: unparaphrasable.
with your eye is like paring
an apple, eating the endocarp
and spitting out seeds.
("Can You Be Present")
Integral to these poems are the obstinate endocarp and seeds at the core of every observation and representation. Given the cost and the fruit of looking, the reciprocities and the perils of being seen, “What better food,” Marianne Moore asks, “than apple-seeds—the fruit / within the fruit…?”
AUSTIN SEGRESTteaches poetry at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. His first book, Door to Remain, winner of the 2021 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize, is out with UNT Press. His poetry and essays on poetry appear widely.