REVIEW: To Drink Boiled Snow by Caroline Knox

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by Brenton Woodward

To Drink Boiled Snow is, in some ways, intimidatingly erudite. It contains an erasure, a dramatic allegory, a meta-poem, a poem consisting entirely of anagrams for “Morgan Le Fay,” whatever a boustrophedon is, every kind of metrical line and foot I’ve ever heard of, and unquestionably many more poetic formal elements I never knew existed. In doing so, it illustrates not only the beauty but the necessity of a wide spectrum of poetic formats – the vast and precious variety of the poetic ecosystem.

To Drink Boiled Snow is the sort of book that confronts you with the fact that there are words you have heard for years, words you have read a hundred times, which you do not really know the definition of. Words that you have ignored or dismissed and never bothered to look up, reassuring yourself that your vague and tentative sense of their meaning is enough, that in time, contextually and without effort, you will understand them fully.

To Drink Boiled Snow shows you, however, that you have not. That these words you have dismissed are important, that they do things. That you are missing out on little slivers of the world by not investigating, right now, what it is exactly that these words mean. That you, as a writer and/or reader, are in denial about the number and scope of words which you treat this way. And, of course, when I say you I really mean I.

But in the act of confronting me with these words, these lexical lacunae of mine, the poetry hints at their deep and true definitions. “Sidereal” is explicitly defined by the poem in which it appears, drawing specific attention to the presence of these blindingly invisible words in our lives. Its early appearance in the book (“All Good,” p. 4) blazes a trail for more of these words; these others, when they come, are presented without explication, wrapped in their own obscurity which the verbal landscapes around them are careful to maintain. These aren’t the sort of words that I could gain a vague contextual sense of, or, if I could, I felt that I had gleaned only a tiny portion of their full meanings. This book taught me (and reminded me when I forgot) to be mindful of these words, to stop and acknowledge and honor them. I am, in all seriousness and humility, a better person, in this respect, for having read Caroline Knox’s book. I am better for words like sidereal, ideogram, soffit, numinosity, and motile.

Yet I never felt belittled, or lectured, or browbeaten. This book’s erudition is confrontational, but not in a conceited or self-aggrandizing way. The confrontation is between myself and all the ways in which words could be used, all the schemes and matrices that have been devised and that I have ignored, to the detriment of myself and of the language at large.
“What is it with / words like sidereal?” Knox asks in “All Good.” And I ask this of myself, continuously. “There is no word like sidereal,” she answers herself, but there are so many words like sidereal, and I cannot convince myself any more than she can that there aren’t.

Despite my statements thus far, To Drink Boiled Snow is not an attempt to display or preserve archaic forms and words for posterity; it is not a lexical or poetic museum. It’s more of a yard sale. It is an argument for seeking out and collecting words, structures, rhythms, formats — and then using them. To beautify the world. To confound and enlighten. To seek and hoard and know for the sake of the acts themselves. It is a call for more poetry, and more kinds of poetry, and that is itself a beautiful thing.

Available from Wave Books (2015): $20.00

Brenton Woodward is the Assistant Editor at Liminoid Magazine, a fiction writer, and a(n) MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University.

 

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