selected reviews

MAY 8, 2006




“Sono” (Knopf, $23)

The poems in Arvio’s second collection are described as cantos, and they show almost as much allusive range as those of Pound himself. Written in pithy, often playful tercets, these verses (many set in Rome, where Arvio has a home) frequently begin with a simple string of words that serves as the basis for assonant riffing; “I was wandering in a quandary” becomes “and never without a qualm or a pang, / and thinking of taking a quantum leap / out of my quondam life and into yours.” Arvio deploys insights from philosophy, psychology, and physics, but a constant preoccupation is that language constructs the things it attempts to describe, and in this her clearest forebear is Stevens, to whose “palm at the end of the mind” she alludes in the first and final poems.


FEBRUARY 18, 2002




“Visits from the Seventh” (Knopf;; $22)

This extraordinary first book of poems takes its place in an authentic line of descent from such landmarks as Yeats's "A Vision" and James Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover." A series of forty-nine narratives detail conversations with those in the hereafter—who, it turns out, are no more reliable than their earthly counterparts, a cast of "gypsies and fantasists, conmen and creeps." But the true subject here is the emotional cost of such celestial intimacies for the human narrator, whose future must always remain hidden. For her, loneliness and mortality are not merely conditions to be recalled but present afflictions to be endured, and she can only pray, "Give me what I can bear to know I felt."


Grace Cavalieri  February 12, 2013

Night Thoughts, 70 Dream Poems & Notes from An Analysis, by Sarah Arvio:  Alfred A. Knopf.

Who does not love the nighttime mind with its full disclosure, lack of censor—metaphor, innuendo, enchantment, intensity? Sarah Arvio breaks the codes through psychoanalysis and coverts her thoughts to poems. This is a book of mutual discovery for the poet and reader, and most fascinating are the notes which untangle the unapparent worlds. Among the many successes here is that Arvio is too busy puzzling out psyche and prosody to think about moving to sensationalism—but sensational they are—all our horror stories of guilt and shame—memories that changed shape early on.

This book is influential because it is one of a kind. With all the books written today, one so unique with such an alternate view of poetry is almost a game changer in the field. There are 70 set pieces of exactly 14 lines. We know how important consistency is to hold tumult. Discipline is essential—and well done, it becomes admirable. Never have symbols had so many faces, but what I like is there are no overt moral questions which would stain the search, and Arvio’s lack of punctuation alludes to this. These are works of strong feelings ringed by messages saying we can’t control our dreams but we can control the poem. From the uncomfortable silence of the psyche’s tundra, Arvio wrings out her truth.

Lisa Williams speaks about “night thoughts” on Accents--a radio show for Literature , Art and Culture February 15, 2013

LLA Reads Spotlight:

June 17, 2015

Adam Day recommends: NIGHT THOUGHTS by Sarah Arvio (Knopf, 2013)           

"NIGHT THOUGHTS, Sarah Arvio’s third, and most accomplished, collection, is really quite fantastic. Accompanied by 64 pages of 'notes from analysis' on 'events' and 'figures' from the poems, these allusive, irregular sonnets look back at a group of connected childhood traumas. The fallout from which led to years of tormented dreams, and culminated in a semi-psychotic event, leading to the psychoanalysis and dream analysis that gave rise to this collection.

Cinematic in effect, Arvio’s poems evoke a nearly Lynch-ean American landscape and psychological atmosphere. Threat of something is ever-immanent, and it’s genuinely unsettling, as in these lines from 'eyelet': 'this was the blood of my eye that was let / that saw the bloodletting behind the day / this wasn’t something I could cotton to / though it cottoned to me & stayed.'

The poems create a timelessness, that one imagines the author must herself feel, so that they are experienced less as a perverse projection on a screen than as a one-way mirror to unfolding events, with Arvio looking on beside us, highlighting how the self always seems to suggest separation. Or as the poet says in the 'notes,' these events 'occurred, apart from me but also intensely inside my own mind,' a statement indicative of the speaker’s underlying sense that her vision may have significance only to herself. But rather than portraying vulnerability, one has the sense that the author is vulnerable, so that the writing, rather than solipsistic, is compelling, creating in the reader something akin to a sense of responsibility for, or a role in, the speaker’s state.

Arvio adeptly explores how psychoanalysis, trauma, and dreams offer a threat to the self’s sovereignty, and how paradoxically they might work to construct personal identity. That threat to the self’s sovereignty is mirrored by the organic and complex resistance analysis, psychic injury, and the dream life offer expression, and narrative. The inclusion of 'notes' in NIGHT THOUGHTS seem to acknowledge the insufficiency of narrative to explain, as well as Arvio’s need to speak for the experiences and aspects of multiple selves, across time and mind, which she, the speaker, is struggling to understand. As in these lines from 'bell':


at the sound of the bell a big bully

with a ticker & pulley & a chain

& a hammer & a bar & a bang

smashes the head inside the headshaped frame

time in the ticker continues to tick


Interestingly, this concern for iterative selves across a spectrum, as well as NIGHT THOUGHTS’ textual breaches, bring Arvio into meaningful conversation with the likes of Hejinian and Howe, even if Arvio’s breaches are more subtle, and her mode more 'confessional.' And it is the speaker’s struggle for expression, represented by these breaches, that is the struggle of the patient in real time – urgently untangling toward meaning, or simple understanding, in retrospect.

And though Arvio uses plainspoken, almost childlike language, it is resistance and play that diffuses what might, in another poet’s hands, seem mawkish, and which reproduces a foundational struggle with the protean nature of language, memory and the self. It is an unending struggle as the collection’s last poem, 'end,' iterates: 'there isn’t an end this is what I know / there is no end & no bottom to it.' "