Quarry Cross by Robin Behn 
Plume Editions, 2018; 97 pp.
Reviewed by Chloe Martinez


Poetry and music, word and song: where does one end and another begin? Robin Behn’s Quarry Cross is a book of poems deeply engaged with musical questions. Six of the poems (including the title poem) are named after fiddle tunes and appear accompanied by musical scores. Behn, a musician herself, tells us in a note that we can visit her website to “hear these tunes with the poems read inside them.” (I did, and they are indeed lovely that way.) It’s an interesting wording: not set to music, but inside of it. Throughout this collection we are made aware of music and poetry as nested things, a set of matryoshka dolls that goes on to infinity. 


Apart from the fiddle tune poems, explicit musical references are few here; Behn rather treats the poems like pieces of music, propelled more often by sonic and rhythmic effects than by narrative or image. Here is the beginning of “Early Riser”:


You go along in a darkness

—years, leagues—

you go along in a darkness,

the light at the world’s edge

falling off your eye

again


Our attention is drawn immediately to musicality, not by meter but by a subtler kind of sonic patterning—repetition, but also multiple softened rhymes (years/leagues, light/eye, edge/again). Other poems show us how musicality can let us say difficult things, like “Epistle to Unrelenting Days” (a terrific political poem in a moment when I’m finding it hard to read even one more political poem):


To the sleek sides of missiles

and rough intent

To air in its sickness

of holy bent

To coming days

if there be days… 


The music of language might carry us forward when reason fails, when all else fails. Behn’s willingness to let the music lead is what so often makes these poems startling and fresh. They are varied in form and tone, but what unifies the collection is their attention to the sounds words make together, and the sense that both music and language can help, can heal. In “Inventory at Dusk” a father’s death is both marked and reckoned with through song:


I sang for his wild mouth.

I sang instead of truth.

I sang for a place to lean on.


And opened the window then.

A little. I did. But first I combed his hair

like going over the ocean.

 

Chloe Martinez lives with her husband and two daughters in Claremont, CA, where she teaches on the religions of South Asia at Claremont McKenna College. She is working on a scholarly monograph and seeking a publisher for her first poetry collection. A graduate of Boston University’s Creative Writing MA and the MFA for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her poems have appeared in The Normal School, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Reviewand elsewhere, and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.