Friday, May 05, 2023

Claire Schwartz, Civil Service


Orderly Conduct

who wrong your hands
who run up your lacy underwear
who tailored your tongue
who danced for the patron
who didn’t masturbate for forty days
who detonated the bath bomb
whose free two-day shipping
whose pomp and imposter syndrome
whose hearts and mines
who applauded the veterans boarding the plane
who hate-read the article
whose title increased
whose art war makes
who took the meeting anyway
whose question was really more of a comment
whose difference of opinion
whose yard sign believed in love
whose kitchen was furnished with titles from a bathhouse
who brunched about thread count
whose good deed goes

I’d seen enough of American poet Claire Schwartz’s poems in journals to know that her debut, once it landed, would be impressive. The resulting collection, Civil Service (Minneapolis MN: Graywolf Press, 2022), is a book set less in sections of poems than clusters, composed as an assemblage of lyric form, from pulled-apart sentence fragments to tight stanzas to the prose poem that speak to narratives around war, history and perseverance. “History is / the only road that survives.” she writes, near the end of the poem “Letter by Letter.” This is a collection that begins with a gesture, self-declared—the short sequence “[The original gesture]”—and follows across six clusters, each of which begin with a short interrogation, each of which are titled “Interrogation Room.” As the first of these read:





What is the meaning of life?

We enlarge it with our grief.


Threading the fugitive Amira, a character that sits in a nether-space of disappearing and existing, through the book’s framing, Civil Service is a book of echoes, writing trauma and geometry, memory and power, civility and devastation. “Is this a town square or a cell?” the opening sequence offers. “Difference is the meaning you make. // The poem is an event. // The poem takes place. // That makes the poem a geography.” Schwartz’s poems are delicate, descriptive and devastating, and her “interrogations” exist in a kind of nebulous and urgent dream-state, writing an incredibly powerful kind of confessional around what is frustratingly and familiarly unfamiliar. “The distance between you and the war is your country.” she writes, as part of the extended “Lecture on Confessional Poetry,” “The war is your country. // You think of this as nuance. // That you think about the war makes you human. // To be human is to endow lines with meaning / and make others susceptible.”


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