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Laura Newbern

A Night in the Country

Changes, 2024


reviewed on March 13, 2024


In the first poem in his first book, The Opening of the Field (Grove/New Directions, 1960), Robert Duncan imagines a “made place” which exists at once in the natural world and in the imagination, a place which in its constructedness—“wherefrom fall all architectures I am,” Duncan imagines—represents a form of order ranged against the forces of entropy, dissolution, and despair:


Often I am permitted to return to a meadow

as if it were a given property of the mind

that certain bounds hold against chaos,


that is a place of first permission,

everlasting omen of what is.


Packed with Duncan keywords, the passage figures prominently in what would become the Black Mountain poet’s procedural poetics, articulating a vision of aesthetic making as a holding of the line against nihilism.


Those concerns are central in Newbern’s astonishing second collection, which begins with an epigraph from Duncan’s “Passages” sequence, and which itself returns to Duncan’s meadow by multiple routes, offering a theory of art as a domestication of and resistance to an always looming existential wildness. 


The most perilous—and therefore profound—of those routes runs through the collection’s title poem, among the more memorable I have encountered recently for the force of its chiaroscuro and for the use of its situation to intellectual effect.  The poem takes place at an outdoor cocktail-party-cum-funeral-memorial for a friend’s mother “who died / one year ago,” Newbern writes, a figure fêted by partygoers gathered now beneath “strung lights / in a forest of cedars.”  The scenario might easily have fallen into bourgeois farce, with its celebrants “drinking from wineglasses” in a moment lifted straight from an L.L. Bean or Solo Stove commercial; from it, however, Newbern rises to tragedy, invoking both Duncan and Dante in describing her fellow guests as “there / in the mild wood, feeling / for the first time the weight / of the dark, the way night / weighs and falls.”  It is “nice,” Newbern goes on, that word tinged with circumspect civility, “to have glasses and silver and china plates / in the open, the middle of nowhere, that far out / in the country.” 


This is—in more refined form, perhaps—Duncan’s meadow, a made place holding back the darkness and the almost occult magic that feature throughout A Night in the Country.  In yet a further ratcheting-up of the dread in the poem, though, Newbern moves at its close from existential despair to historical violence, brought out in the speaker’s conversation with a friend’s partner:


Sometimes out here, I’m afraidThink, he said,

of the Quakers who settled this place

(a church and the cabin are all that remain);

their cattle, he said, their cattle were

their lives, and they had no lights … This

under the strung lights, toward the end of the night



Oh they had lanterns, and candles—


but still.  And now my friend, still bereaved,

stumbling, exhausted, tipping to sleep and gone

white in the face—

he looks like his mother, who lived

out in that country alone.  Who kept goats

in a low pen, close to the house.  They must have sometimes

cried in the night; she must have risen,

turned on the light, remembering where

the telephone was, a hand

on the wall … Those lights—


they seemed to grow brighter, tree to tree.

And the later, the darker it got, the more there were Quakers,

gray girls and boys and mothers and fathers, moving.

All they wanted was family, peace.

And from that, from that place, they were driven away.


There seems to me an entire history of western civilization in the ending to the poem, possessed as it is of an historical consciousness which marks, I think, a dramatic departure from Duncan’s relative otherworldliness; Newbern’s terrors are existential and occult, to be sure, but they are also “a man by the river” watching with menace “we […] the women, gathered / for wine on the rocks.”  Yet A Night in the Country resembles philosophical meditation more than it does social intervention.  “At a time when most are preoccupied with justice,” writes Louise Glück—who picked the collection for the 2024 Changes Book Prize, the last she judged—Newbern “writes about what does not change, writing no so much against current modes as apart from them.”


Like Glück or Eavan Boland—the two admired one another’s work—Newbern’s writing is spare in its rhetorical power.  At some moments, this leads A Night in the Country into a tidiness too reliant on the understated cliché, as in the association of a wife’s optimism with “redbirds alighting right there in her window” or in the related depiction of the speaker’s grandmother with her “throat brimming with sunlight.” 


But then—and far more often—there are comparisons such as “[l]ike a bright ghost in the gorges” and suggestions of a black-magic knowledge haunting in their resonance: “[b]y day,” Newbern writes, “King Mark / in his paper crown stood on the / shore and wondered who / had taken his love … by night, he knew.” 


And while I refuse to believe that anyone actually admires the ghazal in theory or in practice, Newbern nonetheless offers what amounts to an innovation in the form, as “the laurel tree” substitutes for her first name—it will have to do.


A collection concerned more with art than with ego, in which the trace of the self registers only obliquely, Newbern’s A Night in the Country is yet another incredible release from what I have come to regard as the most exciting of small presses.  Cognizant that I have fanboyed both Changes Press and Glück in this forum, I want to insist nonetheless that they have been turning out magisterial and original work, writing which eschews trendy cultural politics and which does not come from familiar names who have already won everything else.  One only hopes—or I do—that that commitment continues under the incoming judge of the Changes Book Prize: Terrance Hayes.

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