Lost & Found

[IT] Incandescent by Amy Pence
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The found poem is a new animal to me, despite the fact that it’s been around for 150 years. A friend used the term recently to describe a poem she’d written for our irregular poetry salon. Literary magazine Territory asks for citation and rights information for all found texts used in a submission. But the concept of found didn’t really sink in until I read, over and over, [It] Incandescent by Amy Pence.

[It] Incandescent is a collection published by the independent publishing house Ninebark Press. This slim volume mixes poetry and prose, facts and fiction, two women conjoined by a terrible secret, the eponymous [It]. This is how the book opens:

Called Back. It's what her headstone says. The Dark ocellated. I recollect, orient. Summer in Amherst, near Emily Dickinson's grave. Headstones teeth the new dusk.

She: my obsession. Her biography, the poems I write. Knowing what she knew, what I once knew.

Here, I think, to research Emily. Or to find someone? Tread the light gravel. Called back, it seems, looking for the path between.

Between is a liminal space in [It] Incandescent. The border between the life of Emily Dickinson and the fictitious I, at the place where the fabric runs the thinnest. The poems in this collection approach, glance away, hint at the interconnections yet refuse to make the overt link.

Definitions

The Poetry Foundation defines a found poem narrowly as prose

reshaped by a poet into quasi-metrical lines.

The American Academy of Poets offers more room to breathe.

Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.

Amy Pence takes Emily Dickinson’s words – prose and poetry – and sinks them deep into the flesh of her own poems. A nineteenth century spinster meets a modern-day single mother. Words that might have sounded archaic or arch in Emily’s mouth, come unstitched in Pence’s hands.

A small figure passes, wearing gay muslins in summer and bright merinos in winter (she did not begin wearing white until 1861).

Fireflies. Slips of paper shift in her pockets.

Strange blooms arise on many stalks -
                      that heady summer of erotic
white

When Pence inserts found text written by Dickinson, she italicizes it. Like sutures that dissolve as the wound closes, they leave only the faintest trace of a scar.

Narrative Arcs

That visual element carries through the dual narrative arcs of this poetry collection. There’s the Emily Dickinson summoned from the grave to walk once more among the hemlock trees. And there’s the fictional narrator who goes to Amherst to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, burdened by her own story: a terrible father, a daughter bowed low.

hemlocks swollen
at the periphery of desire.

The path between these two narratives is well-marked. There are purple boxes to mark Emily’s journey and white ones for the narrator’s.

In the opening poem, the pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson’s home begins. The fictitious I takes her first steps down a path well-worn by Dickinson’s feet.

Where to go in the pine –
fringed tunnel to nothing?

[…]

locked down by trees in
loosened air – Not solitary —

“Biographical Index”

The colors, the typefaces, the boxed and unleashed text on the page. [IT] Incandescent is a poetry collection that needs to be seen and heard.

found poetry redux

For all the pleasures found text can offer, it has its own perils. Where does inspiration end and plagiarism begin? But when used well, as Pence has here, new text can breathe life into found words, bringing the past into our own present.

Pence mines known gaps in Dickinson’s biography to suggest a new way of reading her work. A white dress materializes in several poems like the ghost of Emily herself. Death is the theme of one of the final poems, where the reader is left with this final image: 

all the loaded nightdresses
hang ghastly on the line

“Daisies] Beetles”

[It] Incandescent is a story, a biography, a poem in conversation with its many parts. Hold onto this book with both hands as it shape-shifts before your eyes.

6 October 2019 | Karen Kao