Statement of Prejudice: I am aware that Julia Copus is a poet.
Reality: The World’s Two Smallest Humans is a book of two halves. The first, a series of lyrics grouped under the title ‘Durable Features’ (significance unknown, but likely to have something to do with interior design, which is then hitched to the poems’ discussion of a failed/failing relationship, among other things), is pretty middling stuff. The poems are more often than not too long for their fairly straightforward approaches to some of poetry’s commonest themes – time passing, loneliness, lost love etc – and it suffers badly when pitched in the same arena as Sharon Olds. Copus just doesn’t find the sophisticated emotional configuration or the piercing lyrical moment to fully animate these opening lyrics, and the over-riding feeling is restrained, conversational, nice.
The one exception, however, is one of the best poems in the book, and one of the best single poems in the entire shortlist. “Heronkind” holds a remarkable balance between conceit and execution, simplicity of statement and intricacy of thought. It’s no accident this is one of the shortest poems in the sequence, establishing the necessary scientific data regarding the dietary life of juvenile herons, then hits the mark perfectly with the poem’s conclusion: ‘How much less complex / life would be / without this feverish / dance between / the wanter and the wanted, / though the truth of it is / that without fish / all heronkind would / be stunted.’ Neat. The poem says everything it needs too, and is also one of the few poems in this sequence to pay heed to its sonic architecture. The short lines hide the aural echoes, and elsewhere in the poem allow them freedom to shy away from line-endings and work their way more subtly into the ear. It’s a great piece of work, and makes the other poems more frustrating for the lack of close attention paid to their structural ungainliness.
Digression: some reviewers have praised Copus for the mirror-y form she came up with in two poems, “Raymond at 60” and “Miss Jenkins”, in which the last line of the first stanza is repeated as the first line of the second stanza and so on. It’s a complicated trick well performed, but it limits the poem’s freedom of expression, and is impossible to read without being distracted by all the clever-clever. And that’s besides the altogether over-Audening she gives poor old schoolmarmy Miss Jenkins. Let’s not be distracted by the shiny lights, fellow readers.
What we should be distracted by is how wonderful the book becomes from the middle onwards. Two long dramatic poems, “The Particella of Franz Xaver Sussmayr” and “Hero” have a fantastic sense of humour and pathos respectively, and JC is ablaze in the creative freedom the ventriloquism allows her, to the extent that one wonders why there isn’t more of it in TWTSH (aside from the fairly dull and drafty “The Constant Landlady”). In the former, we have the four-part account of Sussmayr, who transcribed Mozart’s The Magic Flute into its completed long-format, addressing a non-speaking friend delivering it to Vienna. Fair enough. But JC’s ability to make us care so quickly about this blowhardy fellow and to take his closing question, ‘what, in the end, is the world most altered by?’ both as a sincere inquiry and a naïve sally into what is clearly the unknown, a minor clerk faced with a work of great genius talking to a delivery boy. Moving stuff.
Inadequacy also haunts Hero in the latter, a version of Ovid’s Heroides, and y’all know I’m a sucker for classical reworkings, in which Hero grows weary of waiting for Leander’s nightly crossing of the Hellespont: ‘I can’t sit tight, as other girls do. / I cannot be a harbour for you.’ Again, JC’s adherence to a rhyme scheme enhances the poem’s forward momentum and Hero’s eventual resignation towards her appointed place in the myth. The poem’s conclusions are straightforward but affecting, it’s a deeply felt rumination on gender politics, and a worthwhile addition to the collection.
The final section, “Ghost”, is a series of poems telling the story of JC’s IVF treatment. I say story because it has a simple but bona fide narrative arc, and the poems connect with each other on a level deeper and more uncanny than the unity of topic. In JC’s telling, the machinery is invested with unsettlingly human qualities: the giant purple treatment chair’s ‘empty / purple arms reach out / for her’; the lamp, which inhabits its own tiny but brutal poem, “Constellation”:
A lamp the size and shape
of a flattened planet
traces a graceful arc
and comes to rest
in the constellation of her
in “Inventory for a Treatment Room” is ‘on a long, extend- / able limb’; in “Phone” there is a ‘fragile clutch of embryos’; and finally MINOR SPOILERS HERE in the poem “Lapse”, the IVF has failed, ‘the womb / was an open palm: / glabrous, dumb, / it had not known / to close. Just that.’ Similarly, the few humans are distant, masked, ‘padding about like kindly, / soft-footed camels’, the speaker herself presented as another piece of the equipment, the sum of many parts.
The book’s final piece, typed in all-italics – as to suggest a slight otherworldliness or permit a flight of fancy – is addressed to future potential children, and to welcome them to a world of ‘changeful air / with its brood of noises – helicopter, dog-bark, / many song-filled, open-throated birds’. While the piece is understandable, leavening the book’s ending with a hopeful note, it isn’t well executed, and I don’t entirely believe JC’s stoic conviction. Obviously at this point I’m speculating about the inner life of real-world-historical JC and triangulating it with the JC-version presented here, a mendacious task at the best of times, but the poem simply doesn’t ring with the same intensity as the others in the section. The last stanza’s stoic exterior seems just that, and I suspect that it’s a deliberate callback to Hero’s situation, of one disappointed but persevering. Which doesn’t map perfectly – Hero is a victim of institutional behavioural restriction, the JC of “Ghost” is not – but it does inject some significance at the very last minute. Maybe it would have been a more straightforward (implicitly less nuanced) approach to the situation, but I was left wondering what JC might have expressed if that ellipsis before the resigned ‘But you did not come’ had given the poet license to speak.
Tl;dr: This is an odd little book, with a second half that totally belies the pedestrian first. When Copus takes emotional and dramatic risks they pay off; when she aims for the cosy and the well-trodden, it feels little more than that, but a handful of lyrics are worth the price of admission alone.