It is no surprise to find John Ashbery’s name on the back of Emily Pettit’s debut collection—a collection driven by a bearing up of tone and consciousness over story that is dear to Ashbery fans—nor is it a surprise that of the many aspects of the collection, he chooses to focus his book-back blurb on its kindness. It—the kindness—“is always ahead of us, anticipating the problems we will or won’t run into.” And Pettit’s collection is not only kind, but gently shepherding, too, having arrived at a sense of the poet’s role as one that does its leading from the inside, the speaker that proverbial, frazzled traveler one picks up on a long journey who appears, at first, hopelessly lost, but who has at her core a powerful if mysterious compass, one that maybe even she doesn’t fully understand.
We move through the poems in Goat in the Snow guided by that compass. The book, populated by poems with “How to” titles—from “How to Recognize a Stranger” to “How to Be Alone in a Shape”—is, on its surface, instructive, but Pettit’s poems deliver almost immediately the failure of one kind of instruction and the triumph of another. “We are working on recognizing the noise a twitching / mind makes,” she writes, acknowledging in a way many of these poems do that poet and reader are both taking their instructions from somewhere else—the noise of the twitching mind—or at the very least, that the relationship between poet and reader is as democratized as it can be. Pettit’s speaker desires to be “a fly on the wall dressed as a person, a person who / has complicated ideas about what constitutes a wall” (“How to Start a Fire Without Sticks”). We will learn here, but we will not be taught. Rather, it is as if Pettit is leaning close and telling us she’s created a space out of language in which, if we’re all quiet and attuned, we can begin to notice guiding patterns in our world.
In the collection’s title poem, Pettit writes:
I myself would not recognize a mongoose,
but I know the word mongoose and I know it refers
to an animal, a mammal.
I think if I had a soul it would be saying soul.
This is a collection that concerns itself both with what we know and with how we express it. It takes as its primary position that of an eavesdropper who possesses a unique awareness of the eavesdropper’s position as one that is no more or less powerful than that of the eavesdropped-upon. Which is to say, if we derive our power from knowledge and what we know is circumscribed by language, is it not more powerful—or at least equally so—to know the word “mongoose”? Even what we have overheard belongs to us, becomes a part of our arsenal. To be without language is to be without power: “That, that, / that, that’s what a fish might think,” she writes, and we’re overcome with gladness that few things depend upon the discerning judgment of fish. As we eavesdrop upon these poems, we become part of a chain of listeners and language-users, empowered by the notion that words, in whatever manner they arrive, create a shared experience.
Pettit’s poems put to rest the notion that a disjunctive, Ashberian poetics such as this one cares nothing for its reader; this book loves us, is tender, cares for our well-being enough to check in and make sure we’re still here, feeling feelings: “My heart beats fast fast fast. Is your heart / beating fast?” (“How to Find Water in the Orange”). Elsewhere, “I would do anything / for a different look from you” (“How to Recognize When You Have Behaved Badly and Behave Better”). And it is, as none could recognize better than Ashbery himself, a kind collection, one whose willingness to let us be a part of the meaningful collaging of the world we share is instructive and generous, at once.
—LAURA EVE ENGEL
March 30, 2012