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reviewed on April 25, 2024

The fourth book from the scion of the Boston Brahmin family, Sophie Cabot Black’s Geometry of the Restless Herd advances an idea of poetics—and, as it happens, of ethics—to which readers will either stridently object or more or less indifferently concede.


At the heart of the collection, specifically, is the notion that one attains a more capacious and committed politics through the clarifying distance of abstraction, that indirection, allegory, and obliquity allow one to perceive affinities and to critique hypocrisies that might evade more conscious or rational forms of thought.  In the collection’s own terms—which is to quote from its back-cover copy—these “metaphysical poems” offer an “allegory for the social and political realities of our human world,” its high-angle pastoralism prompting “startlingly immediate questions about captivity and freedom” even as it “confronts the predicaments of late capitalism.”


In other words, Geometry of the Restless Herd uses local landscapes as an image for geopolitics.  “The land ran out,” Black writes in “The Reckoning”:


                                       Each year I was more

            Upon my neighbor, even with the boundary;

            The iron post angled, the tumbled rock


            Piled as notice, as how to be between us.

            Be fruitful said the old wire, multiply

            Right up to here.

Here, a dispute between sheep-herding neighbors stands in for border conflicts from Gaza to the Rio Grande, a deliberate de-particularization premised on the likeness, the almost Platonic similarity, between one border and another; in the logic of Geometry of the Restless Herd, a sheep paddock is in many ways “like” a boundary between nations, just as one nation is in many ways “like” another.


It is the kind of proposition, of course, that would be assailed in an MFA workshop, and it is a proposition that I have condemned elsewhere in no uncertain terms.


Like Robert Duncan, Black develops the image of the field—or the meadow or paddock or pasture—as a metaphor for imaginative conditions of possibilities, a space of potential across which the mind itself might cavort.  “She took all she knew to the verge / Of the meadow, the farthest pine,” Black writes in the poem “Her.”  Whereas Duncan’s project remained largely theoretical in nature, however, and restricted its claims to thought and to language—which are, to be sure, the underlying conditions of the political—Geometry of the Restless Herd wants to “verge” into politics more explicitly, to the point that a phrase like “he who was to be the hero // Is not the hero” refers through a scrim of mythology to the American presidency and to Donald Trump.


On one hand, such obliquity offers a welcome contrast to the stridency of much contemporary poetry, especially in the latter’s self-righteous “anti-Trump” mode; the poem “Borrower Be,” for instance, develops a witty parody of capitalist economics with the observation that “where the herd is not yet / is where to hedge,” and the poem “The Older Lamb That Spoke” possesses an ethical force that only the grand and abstract gesture can achieve: “Not everything // Can be solved.  To become certain / You have killed much.  The paddock keeps // The outside out.”


On the other hand, a poem like “The Pale,” among others, seems in its pastoralism to abdicate a responsibility to history and to politics; “the hush // stitches itself / to itself,” Black writes, “and strict the moon / who would only // send back / what she was given.”  The actual “pale,” of course, was the boundary in Ireland within which an English and Protestant aristocracy ruled over a Catholic peasantry; to be “beyond the pale,” therefore, was to remain excluded from reigning social, economic, and in fact racial orders.  The “pale” names an historical condition, not a metaphor with which to adorn a de-particularized pastoral, a slippage particularly unfortunate given the aristocratic background of Black herself.


Whether one objects or concedes, as I’ve suggested, to the abstraction in Geometry of the Restless Herd will depend on one’s own poetic and ethical priorities.  The book undertakes an ambitious project, one that stakes out—or that asks readers to stake out for themselves—those boundaries beyond which a politically committed poetry cannot cross.  That provocation is not the book’s only strength, but for that alone the book would be an important one.

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