With my decision to narrow down my literary focus to poetry a few weeks ago, I knew that there were a few books I wanted to hit right away. One of these was Restoration by Christina Pugh, who was a professor of mine and my thesis advisor when I got my Master’s in English literature with a focus on poetry from the University of Illinois Chicago. Restoration came out the same year I started the program. That fall, Pugh taught a poetry workshop course I was taking, and I found her teaching to be instrumental in the depth of my poetry education. Quite simply, she was one of the best professors I’ve ever had. It’s a shame it has taken me this long to pick up one of her books, but it’s better late than never.
Pugh’s poetry is decidedly more mature and studious than most of the contemporary poetry I have read, and this made it almost challenging to get into at first. The last book I read, May Day, by Gretchen Marquette, was narrative and inviting, pulling the reader in. Pugh’s poetry feels more like something to be approached with a pickaxe. Her style is dense and compact. There are very few extraneous words. Every word has a well defined purpose and was clearly placed with that purpose in mind. Pugh is a master of assonance, which is something I prize highly as the better side of alliteration. Her poems almost beg to be read aloud because of this.
I must admit that I often had to put the book down, on average several times per poem, in order to look up words I wasn’t familiar with. These words included the kind of scholarly terms you might find on a tests like the GRE, like: paucity, helve, eidetic, littoral, reticule, caul, sobriquet, and ordinal; as well specific botanical and musical terms, like: digitalis, scilla, brio, ilex, phalaenopsis, andante, and cantabile. These examples are honestly just a fraction of what I looked up. I have divided feelings on this. On one hand, a part of me feels frustrated at the overly erudite, almost nose-in-the-air attitude that using this many “big words” connotes. On the other hand, I feel almost as though I should applaud Pugh for not only her enormous lexicon, but for her brilliant use of it. Every time I looked up one of these words I found that its use in the poem was incredibly apt. I think in summation what I can say is that the intention behind using specifized language such as this makes or breaks the act. Never once did I get the feeling Pugh was just attempting, for lack of a better way of putting it, to show off or look smart. Her endeavor seemed simply to write clever, dense, incisive poetry, and in that matter she succeeded utterly.
Restoration is divided into three sections. The first focuses on dreams, the second is a short section containing a single long poem on the subject of Freud’s “Dora an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” and the third is entitled “Restoration” and deals with the senses. The first section, I found, was a bit abstract for my taste. Reading through it almost felt like a walk in the fog. Every once in a while I would be arrested by the clarity of an image or thought, but for the most part things felt hazy and hard to understand. The second section was a bit lost on me as I hadn’t read the case history from Freud on which the poem focused. I did read the majority of the wikipedia page on the subject, but that still wasn’t enough to really feel moved by the poetry. That was my main complaint with the first two sections of the book. Something about the abstractness of the poetry coupled with the dense language made the poems hard to, well, enjoy. I didn’t feel fully sunk into them. I didn’t feel I was understanding everything that was said.
The third section was a breath of fresh air. In focusing on the senses, Pugh writes beautiful, clear poetry. I think my favorite poems in the collection are the three specifically about Bach’s Inventions. I’ve never read better writing about music. In general, poetry or prose that attempts to describe music fails utterly, but Pugh’s is brilliant. I listened to the Inventions referenced as I read, and I felt that the poetry matched and was inspired by it in a fantastic way. In the first poem I could see the pool and the mountains, the rocks and sky reflected over and over again. In the second, I felt the machine of the heart; I saw the frozen bird yearning for the horizon. In the third I drank in the beautiful vision of sunflowers and leaping trout that fit in so well with the cavorting, frantic music. The third section of the book focused on little moments, and I think in doing so it kept the poems from being too abstract to really understand. In it, she writes about a beetle she sees on her desk lamp, watching synchronized diving in the olympics, observing a child flying a kite, looking at an antique quilt, a free throw, a tube of lipstick. These poems were all fantastic.
I think my favorite lines in the whole book comes from “I Shall Not Want:”
to the temple
in the word, the sound”
The mastery here is clear. I was particularly impressed by Pugh’s ability to switch modes between the more abstract poetry in the first section and the more narrative, clearer poetry in the third. I feel grateful to have had her as a professor, and while this review isn’t quite a Padeuteria, perhaps my own verse in some small way can be.