Craig Morgan Teicher's third book, To Keep Love Blurry, name-checks only one of mid-century American poetry's big-name Roberts: the now-unfashionable Lowell. Like Lowell, Teicher meticulously probes the intersections of writing poetry and living life. He can be lacerating, as was Lowell, in his depiction of himself as a father and husband. But Teicher's poems also obsessively chart a kind of epistemological and existential anxiety, often in the manner of another mid-century Robert: Creeley, who once enjoined, "So keep on tracking—life." When Teicher is at his best, he "tracks life" in a compelling and singular way. His long poems "Layoff," "On His Bed and No Longer Among the Living" (a kind of verse-memoir), and "Grief: A Celebration" manage to chase life and thought, art and love, through iterations, permutations, and quick, hard turns: "Most of this poem," Teicher declares in "Layoff," "comes straight / from my life, a record of events set in rhythmic words."
Teicher is well aware of the artifice required for such a project; though he is the subject of his poems, his work constantly questions what kind of subject language allows him to be. "My brain spilleth over and gets on everyone," he writes at the start of "Layoff." The poem is linked to Teicher's earlier efforts, in which he attempted
…to start a poem
with just whatever
I'm thinking at the moment—
and see if I can't
get at something that matters
in the process, to see
if I can't say something about
what it is like
to be me…
Those lines are from Teicher's first collection, Brenda Is in the Room (2007); their immediacy made that book a joy and a thrill to read. In To Keep Love Blurry, the intensity of that urge has been joined by an attention to formal technique that sometimes feels strenuous, as though Teicher had set himself a noble but noxious exercise goal, like walking up twenty flights instead of taking the elevator. Intricate rhyme schemes abound, as do sonnets, villanelles, even blank verse. The poems in this book feel less spontaneous, more worked-on and -over than Teicher's earlier efforts. Occasionally, the lines are clunky, even platitudinous: "Harder to say with families who's in charge," he writes in the otherwise wonderful "Layoff," "But to keep love going the cost is large." One doubts that "large" is the actual cost of love to anybody.
But bigger ideas stomp through Teicher's book. He seems to be making a bet that Confessional poetry might be uniquely suited to twenty-first-century audiences, obsessed as we are with status updates, Twitter feeds, and a kind of endlessly available, ersatz celebrity. His book pays sustained attention to Robert Lowell, one of the first, and for many the worst, of the Confessional poets. Teicher's imitations of Lowell run from form to content (those lacerating portrayals). He revives the kind of close, anxious attention and willingness to bare all that Lowell became famous for after his book Life Studies. Teicher has never been shy about his sources—W.G. Sebald, Elizabeth Bishop, and others appear throughout TKLB—and in fact such a willingness to name names becomes part of the character of his books and the self he constructs in them. In TKLB, for example, he diagnoses himself with a critic's touch: "A very minor Robert Lowell, with a dash of James Tate," he writes in the poem "Fame."
The Tate-ian fabulae of Teicher's Cradle Book (2010) has mostly faded; here, it is inaccuracy—what we perceive and misperceive and how to know the difference—that interests the author. TKLB serves up a series of questions—about fate, mortality, his marriage. The result is twofold: The poems frequently feel chatty in ways that complicate their formal strictures, and they are tilted outward—toward you, the reader. The result is often exhilarating, especially in a landscape of contemporary poetry that, at times, might try too hard to mask or deny the presence of either writer or reader. "If poetry and thinking both do nothing / then the longer I write the less I choose / to do," Teicher writes in "Layoff":
Is that what I want, who I hope
to be, someone who sits before a scrawling page
a ream, if you will, as thick as the sky
is deep, with room for none of what they signify?
By the end of this poem's twelve pages, that question, its clauses circling overhead like vultures, seems very real. In his looping, loping, run-on rhetoric, Teicher achieves a pace and tone that feels natural not just to the poem but to him—whoever that may be. In these poems, Teicher creates a character, call him Craig Morgan Teicher, who you feel you know and believe. And at that moment in the poem, you're fully prepared to feel all the gasping dread his words signify.
That idiosyncratic, almost novelistic attention to character means Teicher's book is a lively read, even as it feels complex and "alive" in its commitment to exploring the details of its author. To Keep Love Blurry is less successful, however, when it directs attention away from Teicher and pays homage to long-dead literary movements and persons. In "Middle Generation," Teicher writes of the Confessional poets he admires:
They were jealous and fake, and drank with inspired, suicidal thirst,
but if I could write poems like their best, I'd forgive me at my worst.
To my ear, the poem suffers from the sins of its fathers: Its pat certitude feels reinforced by its buttoned-up end rhymes and metrics. Even taken with the irony with which it is surely proffered, it's stuffy in a way Teicher at his best never is. Teicher titles the first section of his new book "Life Studies," writing in a sonnet form similar to the one Lowell used for his controversial, diaristic late works, Notebook and The Dolphin. The latter detailed Lowell's relationships with Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood, and came under fire (most notably from Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell's close friend) for its (mis)use of personal letters from Hardwick. Bishop wrote to Lowell: "IF you were given permission—IF you hadn't changed them … etc. But art just isn't worth that much. "
How much art is worth, and how much one's own life should be made available for its use, are fundamental questions for Teicher. The Brenda in his first book's title refers to his wife, the poet Brenda Shaughnessy. In that book, she was shimmering, even effervescent. She reappears in this work as an angry and powerful presence, as does their son, Cal, who was born with cerebral palsy; Teicher's father and dead mother, whom he also writes obsessively about ("You wear my death like a birthmark," he scolds in "Mother"), make multiple appearances; Teicher's anxieties, fears, friendships, attitudes about poetry, his jobs and lack thereof undergird nearly every poem here. And yet To Keep Love Blurry worries frankly about the claims "being honest" makes on those whose lives we touch with, and use for, our own. You might even say it confesses them.
To confess is a tricky thing. Teicher draws on older versions of Confessional poetry to suggest that poems committed to investigating the individual dramas of a single self might still be worth writing, and reading. His book also asks us to consider our present moment: Are we experiencing a renaissance of Confessional art? Novels such as Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? and the entertainment complex that is Lena Dunham suggest that more thrills can be wrung from the wet towel of an "artistic" life. But finding forms to accommodate the mess and chaos of self—and in doing so, to sculpt, tweak, and perhaps even alter it—has long been one of art's precincts, and its deepest pleasure (Michel de Montaigne declared back in 1580: "I am myself the matter of my book"). What makes Lowell, Creeley, Heti, Dunham, and Teicher resonate is the way they question how "honest" one can actually be in writing. Even Lowell, so often accused of installing an oppressively Lowelliean subjectivity in his poems, concludes The Dolphin: "My eyes have seen what my hand did." One can feel debates over poetry as "self-expression," language as constituting subjects, and the role of the self all lurking behind To Keep Love Blurry; they also partly informed Brenda Is in the Room. Teicher knows that "honesty" and confession are performances, things we decide to be and do. And when he chooses, he can do them very well indeed.
Hannah Brooks-Motl is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her criticism has appeared in the New Republic.