The laconic and the ironic are inseparable in Rachel Mannheimer’s vivid debut, Earth Room. Crossing Montana, one poem ends: “We were in the basin / of the Big Hole River but I don’t know / about the hole itself, whether it was behind us.” Not only does it refuse the epiphanic ending, leaving us abruptly, but it dusts that suddenness with the irony of a “big hole,” of any sort, in pandemic-era twenty-first century America. Let alone the fact that the hole refers also to a battlefield—“It seemed wrong / to call it a battlefield”—where Nez Percé families were slaughtered fleeing the cavalry. The themes in Mannheimer’s book are various but consistent, cropping up and interweaving: the loudness of silence, the melancholy and alienation of whiteness, “heterosexual antics,” a new lover, a former lover, the early death of the poet’s mother, trips to museums, travel, portraits of artists, meditations on Pina Bausch and Tanztheater, Jewishness, anxiety about our technologically-riven future. But the style is always limpid and marvelously controlled, page after page. Driving through Nebraska—in a short poem called “Nebraska”—the voice sees
…two horses standing side by side
but back to front, so that I thought I’d seen
a single being with two heads. Like feelings—
I could never say which were distinct. I only knew
the names of three and sometimes, like my mom—
top of the stairs, late afternoon—I’d holler the wrong one down.
The poem ends after that leap from the illusion of the two-headed horse to the nature of feelings and the naming of feelings to a memory of the poet’s mother. Compression in the last lines so sudden and brilliant that it moves us with the violence of its return, its poignancy partly the way it sneaks up on the poem, on the speaker.
It’s the precision of description, in fact, that makes “laconic” a little bit misleading. What this book is really after is reality, the old impossible idea of the real, and the way the very search for it makes it all the more unreal. The poet seems above all to want to avoid layering with overt opinion what it is she’s trying to talk about. Mannheimer, who grew up in Anchorage but has lived much of her life in Brooklyn and New Haven, emerges as a virtuoso of focused description. But that description serves a mesmerizing end: it is a performance meant to question the performance. Performance, defined in one poem as “stuff you do with your body” as opposed to theater which brings to bear the imagination. “In New York, I’d had an affair with a man who volunteered at the Dream House,” begins one of the poems called “New York”—all the titles in the book seem to be place names, many repeated—and after a detailing of the man’s apartment, the poem continues:
Because we mostly met for sex, and because his apartment was small, and mostly bed, it felt, sometimes, like a stage for sex. Also, the sex was more prop-based than I was accustomed to—ropes and gags. I stayed naked, and he drew me baths and adored my flesh and I barely talked and felt like a cat, or a 5-foot tower of fruit.
The poem, one of the many prose pieces in a collection that toggles back and forth between free verse and prose poems, jumps in the next block of text to the critic Michael Fried, and even grafts in a long abstract quote from sculptor Robert Morris, as if to prove that plainspoken need not mean unworldly or whatever the opposite of cosmopolitan is. As it finishes, the poem introduces the term “literalist art,” which might be one apt description of what Mannheimer is after—“I got into poetry,” she writes in the book’s opener, “because I liked words and small things / and lacked the imagination for fiction.” To wit:
Fried … argues that literalist art, like theater, exists for an audience. You might say the art is activated by the beholder, who encounters—within this staged environment, under these lights, etc.—a situation. But what Morris describes isn’t viewer as audience. Both viewer and object are dancers.
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” wrote W.B. Yeats. An old idea, but this book is, among other things, a meticulous account of the performative pressure that drenches the lives of so many creative-minded young people in our times—her figure for this is dance, but especially the work of Pina Bausch, which lives in the ecotone between dance and theater. For Mannheimer, art is a useful figure for trying to understand how to live now. What is reality when it can seem to be so calculated, as ours seems to be, so engineered with the kind of high-definition precision, production, and multi-dimensionality available, increasingly, to humankind. The first poem, after all, slides us smoothly into the book’s gravitas by recounting the disappointing—deadening—experience of a VR tour of the moon. “People say,” the poem goes, “that poets love the moon …”
JESSE NATHAN: Your poems emphasize the power of what’s left unsaid. The way it presses on what we do say. But at the same time, they are full of brilliant, vivid description—vivid saying. On the question of understatement, how do you think about the ending of a poem?
RACHEL MANNHEIMER: I’m interested in your observation about understatement—it feels absolutely right, even though I wasn’t fully conscious of it. I do think of the book as a social, peopled book, and I think of understatement as a social impulse, if occasionally a misguided one: you’re trying to spare someone else the full weight of your emotion. (Or, sometimes, you’re trying to be funny.)
I’m thinking, too, of a Robert Smithson line that’s in the book: “Scale determines art.” With understatement, the representation of the emotion isn’t to scale. But it’s recognizable as understatement because the other person can intuit the emotion’s “true size”—based, I guess, on the circumstances described. And also, of course, description can have an emotional valence, isn’t neutral—your emotional state and your preoccupations determine what you notice, what you report, how you interpret the world.
A last thought about understatement: I think I’m also in the habit of understating my emotions to myself. Trying to spare myself their full performance, or their full expression in my body. Which means the emotions are muted, obscured—and, to some extent, I’m writing the poems to uncover them. And, really, to discover my thoughts, which are also often obscure to me! I’m writing from uncertainty, trying to figure things out.
And maybe that brings me to endings. Some deep part of me believes that every poem needs to conclude with a great truth. It’s a high bar to set. It’s definitely wrong. But I’m often trying to find ways to avoid this imagined obligation. A rhyme can give something the ring of certainty. Or I end the poem with something I am sure of—report a fact, describe something concrete. Or I duck the responsibility and give the last word to someone else, I quote somebody else. But the other trick of this particular book is that I’m calling it a book-length poem. So each individual ending is not an ending at all!
In fact, I think the book resists conclusions in a lot of ways. It’s a long poem that pauses and continues, and it’s also in some way about continuing. Continuing in spite of grief. Continuing at the end of the world, because “the end of the world” isn’t a single ending either—isn’t a curtain falling. The manuscript originally concluded with the long poem “Mars.” That poem ends: “Then they left the room.” After I’d chosen the title Earth Room, I became worried that it felt too much like, Here is the end, you are exiting the room! In retrospect, I’m not sure it was an actual problem. But, in any case, I rearranged things, and now—well, I guess I shouldn’t give away the last line of the book. But now it ends with a sort of asymptote. Resisting the end to the end.