Goat in the Snow
reviewed by Lucy Biederman
The title poem in Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow includes the lines:
I myself would not recognize a mongoose, but I know the word mongoose and I know it refers to an animal, a mammal. I imagine it to be long-torsoed and beady-eyed, but I don’t know.
Pettit is setting the life we lead in language (and/or in our own private minds) –“I myself” — against public or social life. What is a mongoose, anyway — and how is it that one would come to “know the word” without being able to “recognize” one in real life? In these four lines, the speaker says I five times — the self is central here, and so is the act of self-making. And the emphasis is not on the creation of a specific type of self, but of the strangeness of making a self at all. A line in “How to Hide from Another,” again ties language to that task of meaning-making: “What is the word for an order that makes sense?” In “Evacuation Procedures are Never Clear Enough,” Pettit writes, “Our system of logic / does not apply appropriately.”
Caught up in making meaning of chaos, the “you” and “I” in these poems are truly lost — as if floating in the empty space between the signifier and the signified. “How to Find Water in the Orange,” asks, “Is your heart / beating fast? A pattern of frequent worry.” The very motion that keeps us alive — maybe the only coherent “pattern” there is — also keeps our anxiety thumping wildly. In “If It’s Not One Thing, It Might Be Everything”:
You are looking at me like you don’t know what I’m talking about. You are looking at me like this is a case of mistaken identity. Someone shouts, Today, everyone looks familiar!
The lyric or surprisingly declarative endings of many of these poems are a kind of retrospective key to what can feel like random pileups of “hazard and bizarre” (“Building Smoke Detectors”). Pettit oscillates between highly specific and extremely general words, ideas, and issues. This is not to say her writing is various. It’s not: One of the most interesting things about this book is how relentlessly Pettit pursues a single mission and tone. That tone and mission, which are wound up in each other, are perhaps ineffable, but they have something to do with capturing the sound of thinking. Many of the poems are how-tos: “How to Recognize When You Have Behaved Badly and Behave Better,” “How to Find Water Somewhere Else,” “How to Lose Lost Objects,” “How to Hide a Fire.” It feels like there is shadow-title behind all these how-to’s: How do you live? The poem “Things Happen in the Night and Then It Is Not Night,” ends with the lines, “How we wonder / is this acceptable? How you hear so often / Ok ok ok ok ok. I’m ok.” This sounds to me like my own mind spinning around itself. A sound that is so familiar it is almost difficult to recognize, especially when it comes to me from elsewhere. It makes me think of the titles of one of the poems in the book’s first section, “In the Inside Outside.”
Like Wallace Stevens, Pettit entwines sound and meaning to create an impetus to keep the poem going, so that the poem becomes an account of its own invention. At the beginning of “How to Be Responsible,” for instance, come these lines, with their net of rhyme and echo: “You breathe out of order. It doesn’t totally suck. / It staggers. It’s not like being a hook. / It’s more like being a hook ladder.” The “hook ladder” of the poem “staggers” forward as if the sounds in the previous line or phrase have provided it with suggestions for what to come next. “What are your ears hearing?” Pettit asks. And later in the poem, “What to do with what you have heard?”
Pettit achieves a beautiful sense of silence through language — a sound that feels like an anxious mind, the sound of not-speech. The endings of many of the poems seem to lend themselves to a reading of the poems themselves as a type of silence. For example, “(Radio Silence)” ends, “I didn’t / say a word.” “Go Airplane, Sway Tree,” ends with the lines, “I want to know why I’m not whispering this / in your ear. Why it is that you can’t hear me.” The silence of those lines is nearly loud, for how they undo themselves, suggesting the sound of not-whispering, not-hearing. The gorgeous poem “How to Make No Noise” is concerned, I think, with the sound of being, the sounds one makes when one isn’t making noise: “Who could have known you could have / done that sort of damage without making / any noise.” This poem is particularly successful for how it lets in a sense of irony and play (“Now if you please, use your eyelashes to run / a dotted line through the sky.”) while also making space for deeply felt sentiment and profoundly realized wisdom: “Forgiveness exists in the face of what isn’t fair.”
As the poem “Goat in the Snow” suggests, Pettit’s concerns hew most closely to the lyric I, the thinking, living brain, and how to be a self in the world. The lost-ness of the I within these poems is one of the book’s fascinating and relentless themes. “How to Hide and Stay Hidden” ends with the lines, “I know cranes kill people too. / Though the number is a secret, like / where I am.” If, as a whole, these poems are “about” anything, they might be about locating, describing, and articulating the voice of an I that is hidden and silent, but that — impossibly and beautifully — speaks.