Monday, February 20, 2017



Goat In The Snow by Emily Pettit
(Birds, LLC, Austin, Minneapolis / New York / Raleigh, 2012)

Emily Pettit is an American poet, editor, and publisher from North Hampton, Massachusetts. She received her MFA in Poetry at the University of Iowa and her BA in Contemporary Images at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Pettit is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Writing in the Faculty of the Arts at Columbia University, New York. She is an editor for Factory Hollow Press and notnostrums, and the publisher of the literary journal jubilat.  She is the author of two chapbooks of poetry:  How (Octopus Books) and What Happened to Limbo (Pilot Books).  Goat in the Snow is her first full-length collection of poetry.

This collection, compiled over the course of some seven years, contains 39 poems divided into three untitled sections whose headings are matched by the design on the cover. Each section contains 13 poems which testifies to a certain symmetry matched once again by the cover. Twenty-seven of the poem titles begin with the words “How To…” and it doesn’t stop there because several poems that do not have such titles still contain the words “how to…” within their texts. There is an expectation that these poems will be instructional in their intention but, on a close reading, none of them actually offer up such instruction. Pettit is being playful. Essentially this is a collection of statements and questions. There is an ambivalence here: “How To…” sounds as if the reader is going to learn how to do something, how to carry out some task, etc., but within these poems, the word “how” is used as a question marker as if Pettit is unsure herself about things and is asking us the readers for some sort of response. In “Go Airplane, Sway Tree” she says:

I want to know a whole lot of things
about things I know nothing about.

There is a certain tone of confidence (in the titles) and a certain degree of vulnerability (in the text), coupled with a modicum of self-examination.

Pettit views titles as incredible opportunities. In an interview with Jack Christian published in Bomb Magazine she explained how the writing of the “How to….” poems began after an encounter with a list of “How to…” links on the internet. “Instruction or even the implication of it can be very provocativecommands and declarations are maybe sometimes needed to push people in the imaginative directions that poems can present. People can be hesitant to engage with the unfamiliar and a command or declaration might make it so a person doesn’t have time to be hesitant…”

The cover, designed by Joshua Elliott, shows a series of identical white circles against a black background. The symmetry is striking. There is no mark that distinguishes one circle from another. All are equal in diameter. In the title poem, Pettit writes:

                        Some things

we will repeat over and over again.

Repetition, especially three-fold repetition, is  a recurring motif in this collection. In “How To Start A Fire Without Sticks,” the word Fire and the word Water are repeated three times in succession; in “How To Find Water Somewhere Else,” the word danger is repeated three times in succession; and in “How To Find Water In The Orange,” the poem ends with the words I go I go I go. But come back come back come back. There are many more examples to be found of this kind of repetition within this collection.

Pettit wrong-foots her readers at every turn. She likes to play the giddy goat with us and delights in fooling us with her own brand of logic. In “How To Hide A Fire” we read:

The curtain is blowing though
the window is closed.

Another example of this type of playfulness can be found in the poem titled “How To Make No Noise.” It could have been titled “How To Be Quiet” but that would not have had the same effect. “How To Make No Noise” surprises the reader because it is usual practice to talk of making a noise not of making no noise. How can you make no noise when there is nothing to make?  The end of the poem is equally startling with its suggestion of noise and silence so beautifully divided by the line break:

………..I slam the door
so quietly shut.

For me, the title poem “Goat In The Snow” is a poem about recognition: degrees of knowing, of knowledge and the gathering of knowledge and how we file it away in our minds: it is essentially about the naming of things.  The poem begins with the naming of goats and sheep. Pettit is careful to separate the sheep from the goats. We are not to think that she is being practical, however. She tells us, almost as an aside

…..This is not how to start a fire

with sticks.

That is almost the title of another poem still to come. I say almost because the title turns out to be “How To Start A Fire Without Sticks.” There is nothing predictable here. The goat has clearly caught her attention and with it the thought of other animals whose names crop up in the text: a llama, and a mongoose. The fly is, of course, hypothetical when it appears in the phrase “a fly on the wall” to which someone else has suggested the phrase “a goat in the snow…” something well-hidden from view. Pettit touches on what traditionally in some cultures separates us from the animals—the matter of the soul. Here though, the whole matter of the soul is brought into question:

I think if I had a soul it would be saying soul.

It is the goat that has the last word, metaphorically speaking.

In “How To Hold A Tiny Eye” Pettit spins us a poem of seduction. It is flirtatious. It has that connotation of playfulness about it when we call to mind such diverse word groupings as “I spy with my little eye” and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” There is also the image of the eye being “the window of the soul.” It is about how to hold one’s beloved with a glance and the emotion that registers in the heart. It is a poem that is, by turns, both confident and shy. The bold opening lines later give way to a certain shy reticence bordering on confession. It is public and it is intimate at one and the same time:

Sometimes things get really beautiful really fast.
Good evening to you! Let’s get nice right now.
I know you know I have a tiny eye, so perhaps
I’m not to be trusted. It is an unpredictable eye.
My tiny eye says, ‘You bet.’


And yes it’s true I keep my eye hidden.
My tiny eye is out of control. My tiny eye wants
to have its own ideas and it does. For a fire
my tiny eye would do almost anything.
For a feather where wouldn’t my tiny eye fall? 

The word “hide” appears many times in this collection. It appears in the titles of four of her poems and it recurs several times in the texts. There is a sense in which Pettit is herself hiding behind these poems. She is playing a game of hide and seek. There is another word that appears many times throughout this collection and that is the word “fire.”  It appears in the titles of three of her poems and again, is used several times in the texts themselves. Fire represents attraction, danger and ultimately destruction.

“How to Hide An Elephant” contains within it many of the elements that make up a Pettit poem. The opening line throws us for six. Instead of being on the ground, footprints are in the air. In the next line a specific action leads into a specific thought. Next, there is a journey—this time it is “to the end of the world.” An unlucky number precedes a striking image of a row of red barns. There is, we are lead to believe, some breaking news coming up but it turns out that the next sentence, far from describing breaking news, informs of an infinitesimal death: “a mouse has died in the wall.” There follows a threefold repetition of the word box and the juxtaposition of three things: porcupine quills, tiny tools and bees. The precise connection, if there is one, is hard to follow and the reader is required to make large intervallic leaps of the imagination in order to keep up. Two statements follow and then a question. At the close, the incongruity of putting a tiny elephant in your pocket plays havoc with the title, especially when the elephant turns out to be the elephant in the room. How can you hide that which is already completely invisible?  The poem consists of 17 short sentences in a total of 16 lines. A lot is going on.

Pettit adopts a very consistent style throughout this collection. It is almost unwavering in its predictability despite the unpredictable nature of the text itself. The short sentences, the constant element of surprise, the unusual juxtaposition of words, the philosophical statement, the direct question, seemingly addressed to her readers, the ambivalence, the threefold repetition and the playful way in which she purposelessly misleads by turning logic on its head are the hallmarks of her writing. She wants to startle us and take us out of our comfort zone. In “How To Stop Laughing When You Laugh At Inappropriate Times” she writes:

When I blow everything up
I promise I won’t put everything back
together in the old and comfortable ways.

Familiar sayings are rendered unfamiliar: a fly on the wall becomes a goat in the snow; knee-high to a grasshopper becomes knee-high to a duck; and not putting all of one’s eggs in the same basket becomes don’t put all of your octopi in one eye.  

Her method of composition is not necessarily linear. In the interview with Jack Christian cited above she says: “I am very concerned with endings. I am in love with them. I often, or rather, almost always begin with an ending and then try to get there.” She enjoys being ambivalent and likes to keep things that way. When she is asked in the same interview what it means to be a goat in the snow, Pettit says that “it means many things, and I think I might do it a disservice to pin it to any one idea, any one image, any one emotion or sentiment.” On the question of logic, Pettit says “I love different sorts of logic, logic perhaps organized by music, comparison, diction or tone, to name a few. I try to let different logics live together in a poem. My mind is messy with different sorts of logic at work, and I think my poems, as a result, are making different moves, often messy moves, but moves.”

Even though her images are sometimes difficult to place in context, she forces us to see things from a new perspective. Goat In The Snow is a uniquely challenging and rewarding read.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014),  The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).

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