reviewed on February 15, 2023
Founded by Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum Bennet Bergman, Changes Press and its generously endowed Bergman Prize have rapidly become—alongside “indie” stalwarts like Graywolf and flash-in-the-pan initiatives like Astra—one of the trendiest and most prestigious publishers of contemporary poetry.
Part of that prestige, no doubt, owes to the Bergman’s $10,000 prize, awarded recently to no less than three writers: Laura Newbern, Jimin Seo, and Zoë Hitzig. Part of that prestige, in turn, owes to Changes’ association with Bergman judge Louise Glück, guarantor, like the appellation d’origine contrôlée, of nigh irreproachable artistic credibility—and one imagines, with her Nobel Prize and Yale Younger pedigree, that Glück did not come cheap for Changes
No small part of the prestige attached to Changes and the Bergman Prize, though, owes to the success of the prize’s inaugural winner: Rachel Mannheimer’s Earth Room.
That Mannheimer attended Yale, for her BA, around the time that Glück was serving there as Professor of the Practice hardly diminishes the achievement that is Earth Room itself. The book is an astonishing debut—ambitious in its intellectual aims, masterful, like the best of Glück’s work, in its deployment of tone, wondrous in its evocation of place.
A kind of travel diary in the tradition of the Grand Tour, Earth Room is a single long poem consisting of roughly thirty place-named sections, with many places recurring across the book: the Tanztheater Wuppertal in eastern Germany, Dia Beacon, Cayuga Lake outside of Ithaca in upstate New York. Indeed, the Cargill salt mine beneath Cayuga Lake serves, in Earth Room, as an almost autochthonous presence, a many-chambered room in the earth which haunts, or undermines, the book’s other forms of terrestrial entombment.
Mostly those forms are art. At the heart of Earth Room is an ekphrastic meditation on Walter De Maria’s 1977 installation New York Earth Room, maintained since the 1980s by the Dia Art Foundation in lower Manhattan. As much as the long poem resembles a travel diary, that is, so too does it function as art criticism, lavishing particular attention on conceptual, performance, and installation artists such as Pina Bausch, Isamu Noguchi, Yvonne Rainer, and Robert Smithson. Encountering the work of these and other artists as she travels through Germany and the United States, Mannheimer’s Jewish speaker reflects on the imbrication of aesthetics with various forms of historical violence. “Your name, it sounds so German, the ticket woman says,” in a section of Earth Room titled “Frankfurt.” “German Jewish, yes, I say. / Huh. I’ve never heard of it, shakes her head.”
Across its geographic and cultural reach, moreover, Earth Room offers a portrait of a relationship in what seem to be its waning moments, a relationship abstracted therefore—like the artwork which fills these pages—to representative gestures. “Or if we were in bed,” Mannheimer writes in the justified prose poem “Rochester,” “he could rest his high head, novelly, on my chest, and I would stroke his hair and tell him it was okay, it was just his brain, it didn’t happen.”
Such material—haute European and Ivy League locales, avant-garde art, a relationship so unfulfilling as to seem claustrophobic, like a room in the earth—might easily have lent itself to mannered, even aristocratic writing.
What saves Earth Room from mannerism, though, is the range of its voice and, in contrast, the surety of its tone.
Voice, to distinguish between the two, is the sense of a character or speaker behind the language itself. Tone is that speaker’s attitude toward her subject matter. In Earth Room, the two play off of one another in gorgeous counterpoint.
Mannheimer’s speaker comes through in a voice sometimes intimate and tender, sometimes wounded, sometimes weary of the world through which she moves—combined with Earth Room’s retrospective mode, her speaker seems to look back on and to assess her life from a great distance, or as if underwater. There is little intensity in the voice of Earth Room, but a spectrum of mutedness, as if in the pastels of an O’Keefe painting.
In contrast, the tone of Earth Room is one-note—it is a tone of underlying tension, of dread. There is a distance and disaffectedness in Mannheimer’s meditation on her speaker’s relationship, an urbanity in her discussion of art. One readily sees why Louise Glück—whose presence, like much of her work, is nothing if not urbane—admired the book to the extent that she did, to the point that, alongside the work of Noah Warren, a distinctly disaffected “Yale School” may be emerging here.
But there is something wondrous, nonetheless—and immediate, and oblique—in the stunning denouement to Earth Room, one of the most remarkable closing notes or codas in contemporary poetry. The section is titled “The Catskills,” and it will, for those who want to encounter it for themselves, be spoiled here. “How far to the falls? Chris asked / the young family coming toward us on the trail. / You’re very very very very / very very close.”
Earth Room is very very very very good.