The voice in Ordinary Sun, which is dense and prolific, asks a great deal from the reader: to give over his or her faith to the logic ascribed by the work’s language. The author himself states in the penultimate stanza of the title poem:
I love the way metaphor can corrupt
but so seldom allow it.
Though each allowance is
I sing loud enough.
The long poem “Corrolla in the Midden” resembles a manifesto; it pieces together, through declarative sentences, the availability or willingness of the narrator’s actions in experience and thought, especially in the face of love and its problematics.
For complexity or worse, the clustered
knots of desire makes our minds undo
betters the dialect of shrubs
and so teaches us to love wholly
the fuck of pain and the doom
of love, which has no place.
I didn’t say I see everything
in the dark, and I’m not inclined
to explain that when I say
“dark” as I nod off I get lost.
I’m not inclined to the earth
or to what ruined us or what
we became. I can only say
we cherish ruins.
(“Corolla in the Midden”)
The “I” assures us “I am not conjuring // but curl my eye’s arms around / these tree tops and trees in the past”, and further on, “harmony has taught me to stop loving // because the most disfigured eye / swells with love with // or without seeing the mangled face.” Balancing the creative aspects of perception with a disjuncture between “harmony” and imperfection (“mangled face”) dislodges a sense of the self and what may be trusted in the self’s perceiving. The section “Corolla in the Midden” is angst-ridden and perpetually forward-moving in tone, as if the narrator/poet is all too aware of some cleaving that has happened in life or in all of humanity. There is a type of beautiful frustration with not being able to reconcile the ordinary and the metaphysical in this world:
…where the world works out
what the world will between
fuel and flash, as shape
…Each leaf denies
Another nightmare in its scent.
So in general Henriksen is presenting a problem not only of perception (“An eye is not enough. / The hand rubs an unpainted fence” from “Copse”) but also one of perspective. If there is a narrative to behold by the reader, it can only be circumstantially assembled at best because of this. There’s a similar sense in the narrator’s ability to comprehend and convey the reality expressed in the world of the poems. This isn’t necessarily a double separation from reality (which would be problematic and annoyingly obscuring), but a point-by-point representation, philosophically almost, of reality translated onto the page, into a poem: “The world began in wrong. The clouds / prove this by their leniency. As grace // disturbs our sentiment for violence / so the bush lays its ambush of lilacs” (“Afterlife Ending As a Question”).
Whereas it may appear at times that Henriksen is seeking images to bear the weight of multiple interpretations, it is in fact the aim of the poems to reach a moment of specificity whereby the reader may transcend the “ordinariness” of described objects/images, thus elevating said objects/images to the more metaphysical or sublime. Such a feat is accomplished with an overwhelmingly lyrical focus on and of language; not so much a creation of an original syntax, like Carl Phillips or Susan Howe, but a musicality of word relations that eschews simple wordplay.
Not to want the origin of light, to want its myth.
To want the stroke across the jaw without the fist.
Walked among unplotted ways.
Made maps to joy. Waited near birds.
Liked haloed fury made of things.
Foraged through the brain, begot a bird
(“New Sparrow, New Sorrow”)
Or later, in “Resolution”:
The drift of horses magnifies the dust of dusk.
An owl condoles the house with a loud retch.
I made a whisper to make her body blink.
I shooed the last blackbird from her limbs
and brushed the snow from her torso.
The word choices throughout these poems is such that if the language were to go slightly askew either to the left or right, up or down, the poems may fall to banality or nonsense. Think of the line “I made a whisper to make her body blink” and the use of the verbs “made” and “blink” as opposed to “spoke”/”move”. The distance between the poems’ compositions can be felt in places, as Henriksen has spoken in interviews about the poems being written at varying times over a seven year period. And this gives way to the book feeling a bit long, primarily due to the language getting away from Henriksen, slipping into unbridled inattentiveness (“A whale tenderly descends from a star, / another regurgitated sweater on the sidewalk”) where the thought might best be conveyed in more coherent terms. But this is something every poet is guilty of from time to time, and it is a minor complaint of Ordinary Sun. In relation to such a complaint is the book’s excellence, when the thought, language, and representation cohere to an exacting communication of lyric and sensibility.
Countless poets publish countless books every year in which attempts are made to sublimate the ordinary to the metaphysical through a purposeful (usually lyrical) manipulation of language. And many do succeed. What sets Henriksen’s work far apart, though, is the pure control of craft and language by which he changes what is being looked at, what is being read. These poems are well-wrought but not over-wrought, beautiful but human, accessible but refusing. The project here is to make the ordinary and the concrete something more “angelic” or infinite, but if the reader squints hard enough, he or she might see that even the poet himself cannot escape the beauty of bringing down to earth such things as heady and abstract as love and loss. Not to say that this is an accident on the poet’s part. Rather, it is a byproduct of the committed focus of the senses, which comprehend that this is not all that constitutes being human:
Sometimes she’d touch
a body in her empty bed.
A stranger’s face, a dark
spot on the wall, watched
her as if from a mirror
and behind the face a hand
held a brush for her hair.
As Wallace Stevens once wrote, “I am the angel of reality… / …I am the necessary angel of earth, / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again.” Metaphor, and all poetic language for that matter, may act as filter through which reality is better understood, or at least seen anew. Like Stevens’s “angel of reality”, Henriksen’s poetry is a channel of comprehension, an attempt of the self and the imagination to seize upon the intangible but not get lost in the intangible, to prove that that which may not be seen is nevertheless graspable in the here and now: “Though each definite person, like a body, was the opposite of an absence.” ~RS