Jane Greer, Love like a Conflagration: Poems
Pittsburgh, PA:* Lambing Press, 2020, 88pp, $15.95
Review by Timothy Bartel
Love like a Conflagration is a confirmation of a vision forty years in the making. Jane Greer did a daring thing in the early 1980s when she started a literary review, Plains Poetry Journal, dedicated to formal verse. It must have seemed, at that time, as if American poetry had abandoned formal poetry for good. Sylvia Plath’s confessional free verse was ascendant, and even American masters of mid-century formal verse like Robert Lowell and Gwendolyn Brooks had, in their later poetry of the 60s and 70s, embraced free verse to wide acclaim. And yet Greer said no to the strengthening zeitgeist. Her first collection, 1986’s Bathsheba on the Third Day, revealed a poet fiercely assured that the poetic concerns of the present, social, sexual, and religious, could be addressed in traditionally crafted formal verse. In the 90s, Greer’s vision fuelled Annie Finch’s anthology A Formal Feeling Comes, which gathered the best articulations and examples of the New Formalist movement.
With this year’s Love like a Conflagration we see that Greer has more, and dare I say even better, to give us. Just like Bathsheba on the Third Day (which is included at the back of Love is a Conflagration), Greer’s new collection begins with a poem in loose, Sapphic stanzas. Most of Greer’s lines are Sapphic in their syllable count but not in their rhythm. In the first three lines of each stanza, Greer favors the more standard iambic pentameter with an extra unstressed eleventh syllable to Sappho’s Ionic lines with their strange and lovely central choriambic foot (an ancient four syllable foot in which the first and last syllables are stressed and the middle two are unstressed). But Greer retains Sappho’s choriambic rhythm in most of the fourth lines of each stanza. The poem begins as a meditation on glass figurines of angels, but moves to a consideration of true angelic irruption and divine love:
Love like a conflagration shall be yours now
love like an April river, like a tremblor;
love like an avalanche, a midnight bomb-blast,
finding you hidden, (4)
Greer shows off her talent for building energy through anaphora, and weaves spondees (“love like,” “bomb-blast”) into the iambic rhythm, until resolving into the more strictly Sapphic “finding you hidden.” Love here is not comfortable; it is akin to the justice and righteousness of the prophet Amos, all avalanche and rushing river. The final stanza of the poem contrasts this divine love with Christian kitsch art, to devastating effect:
This is your Precious Moment, I its angel,
angry and dark and terrible, God With Us,
Emmanu-el, come bearing yet more mercy,
but you won’t like it. (4)
In the first and last lines of this stanza especially, Greer fits phrases that could feel out of place in serious formal verse (“Precious Moment,” “but you won’t like it”) perfectly into her metrical structure, heightening the bitter irony of her tone. This is a quality that didn’t appear in her first collection, and it is impressive here.
Another very successful instance of this metrically formal usage of colloquial language is in “Unrequited,” in which the speaker addresses a dying Christ:
Love, and count it all as loss
You croak, shattered, from your cross.
This is what you call us to?
We’re just not that into you. (25)
A less confident poet would have used more conventionally poetic language for that final line, but Greer wants to smear our flippancy at divine love in our faces with the most banal of rom-com blather—which is nevertheless precisely metered to match and rhyme with the line before it.
Greer is unsparing in her acerbity against human willingness to devalue God and each other. In “Holy Thursday,” a foot washing service becomes a meditation on Christ’s identity with all humanity:
Christ the young brutes who bully my child,
Christ all those who really mean well
Christ the serial killers and senators
and everyone I’m sure will rot in Hell. (36)
Greer intentionally picks the people the speaker is most disposed to hate and insists that they, too, are loved and to be treated like Christ. The language becomes more blunt and even frantic as the poem draws to a close:
Christ the retard Christ the hippie
Christ the communist Christ the queer
Christ the many who live to annoy me
Christ my sorry face in the mirror. (37)
Greer allows the language to betray the speaker’s unfairness, condemning the speaker by revealing the speaker’s private use of slur words in condemnation of others. But in the final line, the speaker comes to the one person she perhaps is most disposed to find unlovable: herself. And she forces herself, and the reader, to see Christ there as well. Hopkins tells us that “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” Greer shows us what that can look like, in all its messiness.
One of the traditional forms that experienced a resurgence of interest due to the New Formalist movement is the sonnet. And there are a few sonnets in Love Like a Conflagration. Still, Greer’s most powerful shorter poems are often eight to twelve lines long, as if she doesn’t quite need fourteen lines to perform her dense and satisfying maneuvers. This is most evident in one particularly Dickinsonian poem, the eight-line “Saved,” about the passing of a fever:
. . . it listed a moment—left me startled,
with some subtle feelings, oddly bittersweet:
a sense of loss with no remembered having,
of cooling where I hadn’t noticed heat. (31)
Dickinson would have cut many of these lines in half, but Greer lets them stretch into pentameter and even hexameter in the first line. And she allows herself a Dickisonian double analogy in the final two lines, comparing her experience of illness to both loss and having, and cooling and heat. She wants us to not just understand her literal point through an analogy or two, but to meditate and even marvel at the two literal phenomena that form her analogies: loss and cooling are of interest in themselves, and she leaves us in her analogies, caught up in appropriate awe of them, like Dickinson before her.
Possibly, when the future literary histories of the last four decades are written, scholars will aver that the New Formalist movement was neither really new nor notable. After all, they will say, formal poetry hadn’t really gone anywhere: world class poets like Richard Wilbur and Geoffrey Hill were writing robust formal verse the whole time, they will say. And they will be right, in their way. But coming of age as a poet at the turn of the twenty-first century sure did feel, at least to me, like entering an age of free verse, and the work of Jane Greer and Annie Finch did feel countercultural and, perhaps ironically, freeing.
Though I would love to be proven wrong, I fear Love like a Conflagration will not win the Pulitzer for 2020. That prize will likely go, as usual, to a collection of topically relevant and formally vague poems that will be highly praised and quickly forgotten. Greer doesn’t write, I think, to win the lauds of those who love such collections. She writes for those with longer memories and deeper concerns. And in our age of bloated, lax collections clogging the Barnes and Noble shelves, each thin fold of finely crafted verse like Greer’s is a gift—a gift and a challenge.
Timothy E.G. Bartel lives in Houston and teaches writing at The College at Saint Constantine. His poems and essays have appeared in Christianity and Literature, Notes & Queries, and Saint Katherine Review. His recent books include Aflame But Unconsumed: Poems(Kelsay Press, 2019), and Glimpses of Her Father’s Glory: Deification and Divine Light in Longfellow’s Evangeline (Wipf and Stock, 2019).
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the location of Lambing Press as Seattle; Lambing Press is located in Pittsburgh. We sincerely regret the error.