Jenny Lynn Penberthy's Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works

by Matthea Harvey

Lorine Niedecker is best known for her spare, exacting poems (“I learned / to sit at desk / and condense”) and her association with the Objectivists, a poetic movement that foregrounded imagery and shunned authorial intention—as in William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum, “no ideas but in things.” Jenny Penberthy, who has already edited two volumes of Niedecker’s letters, provides a complete portrait of her wide-ranging aesthetics through plays, prose, and facsimiles of pages from a 1935 calendar on which Niedecker scrawled such lines as, “What a / white muffler / in a dark coat / will do for a / dull man.” Her early work is charmingly surreal: “Mr. Brown visits home. / His broker by telephone advises him it’s night / and a plum falls on a marshmallow / and sight comes to owls.” In New Goose (which was never published in its entirety), Niedecker writes a modernized Mother Goose, mixing nursery-rhyme structures with the cadences of her mother’s vernacular: “She had tumult of the brain / and I had rats in the rain / and she and I and the furlined man were out for gain.” The mind is always present in her work, even when its tendencies toward making meaning are being mocked. For Niedecker, simplicity of speech did not equal simplicity of meaning. An early poem, “Progression,” follows an exaggeratedly knotty and invented diction with an assertion about the complexity of plain speech: “Gaspaciousness enmillions / dread-centric introspectres. Future studies / will throw much darkness on home-talk.” Niedecker, who had a lifelong correspondence with Louis Zukofsky and later a close friendship with Cid Corman, spent most of her life on Black Hawk Island, near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Perhaps as a result of this isolation, her poems are in conversation with a pantheon of artists, writers, statesmen, botanists, naturalists, and philosophers from the past. It seems likely that she saw her own concerns in John James Audubon’s lament, “must I migrate back / to the woods unknown, strange / to all but the birds / I paint?”; in van Gogh’s alleged ability to see “twenty-seven varieties / of black / in cap-/ italism”; and in theologist Emanuel Swedenborg, “who located / the soul: in the blood.”


—Matthea Harvey


Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works was published by the University of California Press in April.

Fall 2002
The cover of BOMB 81