Tuesday, December 23, 2008

David Lehman's When a Woman Loves a Man

I recently picked up David Lehman's When a Woman Loves a Man. I chose it not because of a long-held interest in Lehman's work, or even a casual curiosity based on poems read over a period of time, but because I read a single poem from it on Writer's Almanac, “SF”:

SF stood for Sigmund Freud, or serious folly,
for science fiction in San Francisco, or fear
in the south of France. The system failed.
The siblings fought. So far, such fury,
as if a funereal sequence of sharps and flats
set free a flamboyant signature, sinful, fanatic,
the fire sermon of a secular fundamentalist,
a singular fellow's Symphonie Fantastique.

Students forget the state's favorite son's face.
Sorry, friends, for the screws of fate.
Stage fright seduces the faithful for the subway fare
as slobs fake sobs, suckers flee, salesmen fade.
Sad the fops. Sudden the flip side of fame.
So find the segue. Finish the speculative frame. (69)

“SF” appears in the second half of When a Woman Loves a Man, and reading it here again, all by its lonesome, I'm less enamored of it than originally, but I still like it. Having read the whole book, which isn't very good, my interest has waned—what I now know has colored my current perception as well as my memory of the past. What sold me on giving the book a try was Lehman's New School cred; not that I'm an acolyte, but I do have a soft spot for NY School poetry in general, and I'm willinger to toss out a wide net in the cold Atlantic than to plow my way through a cornfield of Iowa alums.

That said, what do I like about “SF”? Lehman handles the central conceit rather well—working in all those esses and efs in an interesting sonic fashion (hey, that's an SF!), and then making some sense, though tangential of the combinations; for example, Sigmund Freud/serious folly; funereal sequence/sharps and flats; flamboyant signature/sinful, fanatic; and slobs fake sobs/suckers flee/salesmen fade, though there I'd excise either slobs or sobs, just because I think it sounds better without one or the other. The poem, overall, doesn't feel belabored to me; it's fun, as it's meant to be, but it's also light as a feather, and feathers work better when put together to make something fly. If Lehman's, or any poet's idea was to examine a feather's intrinsic beauty or design or purpose, that's one challenge, and I venture a more daunting one; therefore “SF” is a trifle of a poem that floats off on its own, but can't withstand the demands of establishing a sound foundation for the rest of the structure that this book is.

When a Woman Loves a Man begins strongly. A prelude, “Brooklyn Bridge” recalls Hart Crane's “To Brooklyn Bridge,” in terms of its subject matter and the enthusiasm, even love each poet has for it, but stylistically each couldn't be more different. Lehman's single-stanzaic poem is like a mighty outpouring (or as they say on Law and Order, “an excited utterance”)—ecstatic, untamed, a declaration descending from Whitman's barbaric YAWP, using step-lines that add to its unbridled giddiness:

Calvin Coolidge,
jump for joy!
I've got to hand
it to you—
with compliments
that it will make you blush
like my country's flag
no matter how United
States of America
you may be! (1)

Here's Crane:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . . (57)

There's an excitement in Crane, rediscovery upon closer examination that is cinematic and sweeping of a beloved object, but it's discreet, polite; not to say that Lehman is impolite, but he strikes me as someone more likely to belch in public and apologize for it, than ducking out of the room to burp in private. Also, breaking United / States of America as he does is a simple thing, but it's effective, and shows he's got the wherewithal to put some additional thought into how the lines look on the page, not just as a mass exodus of celebratory language but in microscopic detail, too.

There are other good poems here, but they are outweighed by an excess of cleverness and featherweight verse that doesn't work even as well as “SF.” The high points are lofty, but even those ultimately diminish when combined with what remains.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Writing the Chicago Crawl

Most people I know hate teaching comp classes, but as a 'creative writer' I find that it keeps my head straight as far as the so-called writing basics go; it also helps stave off any incipient existential angst when my own writing may not be going so well, by simply forcing me to address rudimentary issues in a manner that makes them clear to my students, therefore getting me to be actively engaged in thinking about writing, while not thinking about my writing. For the semester that just ended, my 101 class focused by design largely on language issues, reading essays by Anne Lamott, Malcolm X, Brent Staples, Amy Tan, Richard Rodriguez, and Marjorie Agosín, but as I was reading through William Stafford's Writing the Australian Crawl, I found numerous essays that would also tie appropriately into the arc of the class.

I finally settled on “A Way of Writing.” Stafford begins, “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them” (17). This is, of course, an important philosophy for neophyte academic writers, poets, fiction writers and essayists too. He stresses the importance of receptivity while writing, as well as a willingness to fail: “most of what I write, like most of what I say in casual conversation, will not amount to much” (19). Once any writer realizes this, and sees that the most important thing is writing itself, again, as a process, they have leaped an important hurdle. Stafford ends this essay on what he calls the “process-rather-than-substance view of writing” with a final dual reflection:

1. Writers may not be special—sensitive or talented in any usual sense. They are simply engaged in sustained use of a language skill we all have. Their “creations” come about through confident reliance on stray impulses that will, with trust, find occasional patterns that are satisfying.
2. But writing itself is one of the great, free human activities. There is scope for individuality, and elation, and discovery, in writing. For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him, the world remains ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream. Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer. They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision. (20)

I like “the world remains ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream.” Many times writers feel compelled to take sides, either planting their feet in the realm of the real, or letting their heads float into the clouds. When either commitment works, on an personal level, and we see it reflected, alive and vibrant in their work, the writer doesn't need any excuses—the work speaks for itself. But those instances may be rarer than the true believers would choose to admit. Picking a style, and sticking with it is, in some ways, like a marriage; but promises made at the altar need to adapt to changes as the couple grows as individuals. Before too long, the writer is letting style drive the bus, and not the other way around. Stafford's reflection allows for a “your-shit-does-stink” authenticity alongside the promise of deeper or more arcane knowledge.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On Jane Kenyon

It's hard to believe—for me, anyway—but I've never read much of Jane Kenyon's poetry, at least not on its own, in one big gulp. The same is true of her husband, Donald Hall, who is most familiar to me (aside from his Poet Laureate stint) as the editor of the highly-influential Contemporary American Poetry anthology foisted upon me as an undergrad at the University of Michigan. (Wish I still had it; but like many things, especially as I have gotten older and found myself the owner of a home smaller in size than many previous apartments, it went the way of myriad books from that time, that is, to a second-hand shop or all-inclusive thrift store.)

But thanks to Graywolf Press, who kindly (desperately?) priced all their hardbacks at ten bucks apiece on the last day of Chicago's annual Printers Row Book Fair, I couldn't resist adding Kenyon's Collected Poems to my lofty pile. I'm glad I did. It's not a very imposing compendium—only four full-length books, two short posthumous tomes, a handful of uncollected poems, and twenty translations of poems by Anna Akhmatova—the fact that it's in hard cover makes it feel weightier than a paperback probably would. But it's quality, rather than quantity that counts, especially here. Reading these poems again, I searched for some abiding metaphor to describe what it is that makes them so special, yet so elusive. Then it hit me: Kenyon's style is almost transparent, so much so that while engrossed in her work you might miss the machinery that makes these poems tick. Like an old watch when it's disassembled, part of the pleasure is in observing the gears as they spin, working in tandem and making everything run smoothly. Not every poem—by Kenyon, or otherwise—would benefit from being taken apart, however. One might, on their own or on assignment, try it with any random poem, and arguably succeed in laying bare its innards; but not every poem would be as beautiful in pieces as it is whole, nor would those components necessarily reveal something of interest, much less merit about the poet who assembled them. Kenyon's poems are simple machines of deceptive agility and skill.

For my money, the most successful poems—I hesitate to say 'best', because there's plenty to like in all Kenyon's books—are found in From Room to Room, her first. “My Mother” is one example. I recently used it in my public school classes, as a writing prompt for 3rd through 6th graders. I suspected its plainspoken language would translate well with any age group, even in classes with many ESL students, and I was correct. It's not a poem I found on line, and I don't recall seeing it in any anthologies, but it's quite powerful as well as quietly powerful. Here it is, in its entirety:

My mother comes back from a trip downtown to the dime store. She
has brought me a surprise. It is still in her purse.

She is wearing her red shoes with straps across the in-step. They
fasten with small white buttons, like the eyes of fish.

She brings back zippers and spools of thread, yellow and green, for
her work, which always takes her far away, even though she works
upstairs, in the room next to mine.

She is wearing her blue plaid full-skirted dress with the large collar,
her hair fastened up off her neck. She looks pretty. She always dresses
up when she goes downtown.

Now she opens her straw purse, which looks like a small suitcase. She
hands me the new toy: a wooden paddle with a red rubber ball at-
tached to it by an elastic string. Sometimes when she goes downtown,
I think she will not come back.

Initially, Kenyon's poem reminds me of Weldon Kees' “For My Daughter”:

Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read
Beneath the innocence of morning flesh
Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh
Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;
The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,
Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen
That may be hers appear: foul, lingering
Death in certain war, the slim legs green.
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel
Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.
These speculations sour in the sun.
I have no daughter. I desire none.

Each poem startlingly reinvents itself in its final lines. For Kees, such misanthropic musings are mere speculations that, like (mother's?) milk, “sour in the sun.” What at first appears to be a young father's macabre preoccupation is instead a brazenly nihilistic dismissal of traditional family values. Kenyon, whose poem appears autobiographical, deals with a much different kind of horror in her denouement, when the child narrator says of her mother, “Sometimes when she goes downtown, / I think she will not come back.” Fear of abandonment trumps the loss of a child, when the child, in fact, is not there and never was. More than that—the idea of a child's mind preoccupied with the terror of losing a parent is far worse than an adult imagining an imaginary child's moral decay and inevitable death.

Stylistically, Kees' poem is also a much different animal than Kenyon's, but let me get back to the latter. What I love about “My Mother” is manifold: the almost reportorial details, wrought using basic colors and plain speech; the linear narrative, which nonetheless allows readers access to elements of an accrued past—mother, who works “upstairs, in the room next to mine,” but whose work “always takes her far away” (physically as well as psychologically), whose trips downtown, for which she “always dresses / up,” may be purely innocent but which cause no small amount of anxiety for the daughter; even the line break “at- / tached,” which suggests the motion of the paddle ball toy with its elastic string mother has brought back as a gift...to assuage her daughter's fears, mother's own guilt, or both? Also its two accessible similes—shoe buttons, “like the eyes of fish,” and the straw purse, “which looks like a small suitcase” (echoing the daughter's worries that mom may leave and never come back). How accurate, imagistically, as well as emotionally resonant.

Very few of Kenyon's poems spill over onto even a second page. In later books, such as Constance, she pushes herself into composing longer narratives, such as “Having It Out with Melancholy” and the more blatantly autobiographical “The Stroller,” but these are two rare exceptions. Her style is lean and sinewy, and while much of her work is set in the country (where she lived with Hall) and peppered with allusions to crops, hay, lakes, screen doors, flora and fauna, and the stillness one associates with rural living, I would hesitate to call her a “country” poet like Wendell Berry. She seems to be influenced less by place than by interior factors, her writing coming from some deep reservoir that could be full of well or fluoridated and pipe-fed water—it hardly matters what the source is. What's more important is Kenyon's candor and the force of her words.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

First Friday Series Reading


Hope you can make it out to this reading. I'll be featuring, for the first time in a long while, along with Thomas Curry, Elizabeth Harper & Janet Kuypers. The inimitable Charlie Newman hosts.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Abstraction and Ethical Choice in Camus' The Plague

In an early chapter of Albert Camus' The Plague, itinerant journalist, Raymond Rambert asks the town doctor, Bernard Rieux for a certificate stating that he is plague-free, in order that he might leave the quarantined city of Oran and be reunited in Paris with his girlfriend. When his request is refused, Rambert angrily accuses Rieux of being incapable of understanding his situation:

You're using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions.

After Rambert's departure, Rieux muses on his accusation:

Yes, the journalist was right in refusing to be balked of happiness. But was he right in reproaching him, Rieux, with living in a world of abstractions? Could that term “abstraction” really apply to these days he spent in his hospital while the plague was battening on the town ...? Yes, an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities. Still when abstraction sets to killing you, you've got to get busy with it. And so much Rieux knew: that this wasn't the easiest course.

The answer to both of Rieux's reflexive questions is no. Rieux, in fact, isn't dealing with abstractions, or ideas at all when he refuses Rambert's request—he is reacting rationally to unforeseen events that have befallen Oran. In addition to working long clinical hours, diagnosing and treating contagious patients, he helps convince city health officials to institute measures for inoculating the city's populace at the earliest possible time, in an effort to stem spreading of the disease. Rieux does what he has to do in the face of calamity, out of a sense of responsibility to himself, as a citizen of Oran and the community, as a doctor who has pledged to treat and heal the sick, even if his own well being is threatened in turn.

Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, says,

[V]irtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature, but nature gives us the capacity to acquire them, and completion comes through habituation.

In other words, virtue is not something we are born with; but life experience gives us the potential to be virtuous, to learn by doing, which doesn't necessarily involve navigating the “the easiest course.” Furthermore,

[A]ctions done in accordance with virtues are done in a just or temperate way … with knowledge … from rational choice … and … from a firm and unshakable character.

Rieux's actions—instituting a quarantine, treating patients as if they were afflicted by the plague before an official declaration of outbreak has been made, at the risk of infecting himself—arise from rational choice, and from “a firm and unshakable character.” He chooses to do good, based on objective evidence, operating under directive from his own moral compass, and sticks to his guns. “You're stating the problem wrongly,” Rieux remarks to his compatriot, Dr. Richard, discussing implementation of prophylactic measures. “It's not a question of the term I use; it's a question of time.”

Later, once the plague taken firm hold of the city, Rieux is talking with a newcomer to Oran, Jean Tarrou. Tarrou unexpectedly offers the besieged doctor assistance by organizing voluntary groups of helpers, an offer which Rieux gladly accepts. The discussion then turns to Father Paneloux's recent fire-and-brimstone sermon; pressed for an answer as to his particular beliefs, Rieux admits that he is an atheist. Tarrou asks him how he can work so devotedly when he doesn't believe in God? Rieux replies,

I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing.

Rieux is concerned not with the nebulous prospect of an afterlife, but with the here-and-now. “Virtues are rational choices,” Aristotle says in Nichomachean Ethics, and Rieux's decision to try to cure his patients arises from the knowledge that he, as a physician, has the requisite knowledge, is the best prepared to effect such a remedy if possible. He continues,

When I entered this profession, I did it 'abstractedly,' so to speak; because I had a desire for it, because it meant a career like another, one that young men often aspire to. Perhaps, too, because it was particularly difficult for a workman's son, like myself. And then I had to see people die. Do you know that there are some who refuse to die? Have you ever heard a woman scream 'Never!' with her last gasp? Well, I have … I've never managed to get used to seeing people die.

Rieux confesses his earlier attraction to medicine may have been for 'abstract' reasons—aptitude, social pressure, prestige, hierarchical class distinctions—but the reality of being a doctor, of dealing with life and death on a one-to-one basis, quickly altered his conception. Virtue “comes through habituation,” is a learning process; therefore, through applying himself as a doctor—saving, as well as losing patients; becoming familiar with, yet not inured to death—Rieux has come to be virtuous.

Later in The Plague, when contagion is at its zenith, Magistrate Orthon's young son is afflicted by the epidemic and brought to the auxiliary hospital for treatment. Camus spares little in describing the boy's febrile convulsions and “torture.” Drs. Rieux and Castel, Tarrou, Paneloux, Rambert, and Joseph Grand, Rieux's former patient and a municipal clerk, bear witness to the child, Jacques' symptoms, after being administered Castel's last-ditch anti-plague serum:

[T]he pain inflicted on these innocent victims had always seemed … to be what in fact it was: an abominable thing. But hitherto they had felt its abomination in, so to speak, an abstract way; they had never had to witness over so long a period the death-throes of an innocent child.

Medicine, religion, so-called journalistic facts, even the daily business of living in the midst of plague—no belief system, science or philosophy—can approximate the reality of pain, suffering, and death, especially that which affects “an innocent child.” Disgust at such senseless and widespread suffering ceases to be conceptual or intellectual when one willingly undergoes exposure to it. No one is untouched by Jacques' death, least of all Rieux, who says, in reaction to Father Paneloux's platitudinous statement, “But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand”:

“No, Father. I've a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

Rieux will never “manage[] to get used to seeing people die”—it is beyond his character, the opposite of what is good, the antithesis of action. His character will not allow it.

Once the plague has officially abated, Oran is scheduled to reopen to the public. Though he is still overworked, considering a return to normalcy brightens Rieux's perspective—he's hopeful, with an optimistic general outlook for himself, as well as others. He ponders further change:

Yes, he'd make a fresh start, once the period of “abstractions” was over, and with any luck—

Rieux's thoughts are interrupted when his mother arrives to tell him Tarrou is not feeling well; within days he has died of the plague. The “period of 'abstractions'” Rieux had in mind—the idea of a plague-free Oran, as opposed to the reality of reopening the city, its citizens acclimated once again to the rhythms of reality, the all-encompassing pestilence banished—is summarily over. Prior to succumbing, Tarrou asks his friend to be honest with him regarding his prognosis:

“Rieux,” he said at last, “you must tell me the whole truth. I count on that.”
“I promise it.”

Telling the truth, no matter how ugly, unpleasant, or frightening, is a noble choice. Hard as it may be for him to do so personally, Rieux is honest with Tarrou about his prospects, and that final declaration obliterates the temptation to cloak meaning or hope in abstraction. Tarrou's death brings “tears of impotence” to Rieux's eyes, but it is his inability to thwart the plague through medical treatment—science, medicine—that brings on the tears. Sometimes the plague kills; death is not an abstraction, and Rieux's intentions and actions are profoundly moral.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

De Composition! De Composition!

As a card-carrying poet, people might think I prefer writing by longhand, versus writing by computer. They're half right. I consider myself a reformed Luddite; once I may have clung to the idea that purer composition, more artistic writing, was done solely with a pad and paper, or in a stretch, on the keys of my old portable reporter's Corona typewriter. But once I abandoned my stubborn reliance on such an antiquated notion, I began to see that there was a time, place, and argument both for and against each mode. However, I said those people who imagine I embody the Byronic ideal of the poet, scribbling frantically by flickering candlelight, were half correct, because my preferred procedure for composition still involves paper and a pen. I'll tell you why.

When you write with paper and pen, you have defined boundaries—literally. You are limited to the borders of each side of your paper, the top and the bottom. Of course, when you get to the end of the page you flip it over and continue on the back, or start on a new sheet. Nonetheless, having a set space in which to compose your thoughts forces the mind to contemplate borders, to engage in rigorous and sometimes drastic pre-editing of work that, on a computer screen, may go through various electronic permutations, sometimes altered by as little as a word or even letter, over and over, before a first draft sees the light of day. A pad of paper is also a three-dimensional world unto itself, a physical reality onto which a pen or pencil scrawls down ideas by literally engraving. I find this method reassuring; it also provides me with an immediate and kinetic connection to the history of writing and writers from the pre-computer past whose work I've admired and learned from. It also leaves me, from draft to draft, with a chronicle of my thinking process laid out in words, phrases, cross outs, add ins, and so on. Many times I've longed to have that record of my work when the current draft in hand was something that barely resembled my first inkling, something perhaps far removed from my original intention in a bad way, and now I have no road map back to where I started.

Composing on paper is cheap: you can buy a pad or notebook at a nearby chain pharmacy or grocery, even your corner mini mart if need be, walk with it into the parking lot, plop down on the pavement and begin writing. With a laptop, you need electricity, or batteries; and if your batteries begin dying out on you before inspiration has run its course, you are going to be in trouble. A computer that can't turn on isn't going to do you any good, unless you sell it and use the quick cash to buy yourself a ream of legal sized pads and a dozen boxes of Bics. Computers too, with all their bells-and-whistles, entice writers away from their craft with the allure of easy distractions, convincing them to take a break when they should keep writing, or to check email between brainstorms; I'm as guilty as the next person when it comes to this. If it's something important you're drafting, sometimes taking the hard (copy) route will force you to remain on task. That screen, reflecting like a mirror, seems to bring out the narcissist in us all, and often at the worst possible time.

I do see how computers have enabled us to get rid of paper waste and eased burdensome storage; hard drives and flash drives take up less space and are as portable as, in the latter example, a tube of lipstick. Thousands upon thousands of pages of brilliant writing, right in your pocket! But if my mind is already attuned to its chosen environment—in this instance, a blank piece of paper—it's also already finding strategies with which to make the physical part of my job the least strenuous, since my mind has plenty of heavy lifting to do in composition mode. The result will be far less drafts, far less actual paper use and accrual, than if I am privy to the benefits of relentless on-screen editing.

The final irony? I'm composing this brief essay right on my laptop. As I said in the beginning, those know-it-alls who believe they've got me pegged are partially on the money. I want this draft to be rough and speedy and what better way to knock it out quickly than on my MacBook? Once it's done—in exactly another minute or two—I can get back to more important work—namely, a new poem, written in longhand earlier this afternoon.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hands on Stanzas 2008-2009

I'm thrilled to once again be teaching as a poet-in-residence through the Poetry Center of Chicago's Hands on Stanzas program. This year, I'll be returning to three schools: McPherson, Solomon, and Shields Elementary. I start at Shields next week, and the other two follow shortly.

Be sure to check each school's blog weekly for updates. Links are above. Student poetry will be posted soon!

The Poetry Center recently re-launched its web site; go here and take a peek. Snazzy, eh?

I'm lucky to be a participant in the Hands on Stanzas program, and specifically to be working in these incredible schools.

More to come...

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Mega Reading

Hope you can make it out to this aptly-named event. See below for approximate reading times, including yours truly's. I'll be reading all new poems.

Tentative Schedule for Mega Reading on August 9th:

1) Vittorio Carli (2:00-2:10)
2) Tom Henkey (2:10-2:20)
3) Articulite (2:20-2:30)
4) Buddha 309 (2:30-2:40)
5) Count Leonard DeMontbrun (2:40-2:50)
6) Donnie Byron (2:50-3:00)
7) Jason L. Ammerman (3:00-3:10)
8) Joe Carli (3:10-3:20)
9) Maureen Tolman Flannery (3:20-3:30)
10) Katie Schaag (3:30-3:40)
11) Lee Groban (3:40-3:50)
12) Dr. Groove/Geoffrey Watts (3:50-4:00)
13) Jessica Guzales (4:00-4:10)
13) Ditch Pigs with Miss Lady J. and Suzy Sunshine (4:10-4:20)
14) Kim Berez (4:20-4:30)
15) Janet Kuypers (4:30-4:40)
16) Yolanda Yo Jackson aka Poetic Flow (4:40-4:50)
17) Bob Lawrence (4:50-5:00)
18) Laura Lionello (5:00-5:10)
19) Ixta J. Menchaca (5:10-5:20)
20) Dena Pope (5:20-5:30)
21) Blonde Lesbians from Outer Space (5:30-5:40)
22) Jesus Sains (5:40-5:50)
23) Cathleen Schandelmeier-Bartels (5:50-6:00)
24) Shag (6:00-6:10)
25) Earline Strickand (6:10-6:20)
26) Larry O. Dean (6:20-6:30)
27) Vincent (6:30-6:40)
28) Erika Mikkalo (6:40-6:50)
30) Cynthia Walker (6:50-7:00)
31) Ivan Petryshyn (7:00-7:10)
31) Jennifer Watman (7:10-7:20)
32) Valya Woodstock (7:20-7:30)

Mercury Cafe
1505 W. Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
(312) 455-9924

Hope to see you there!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Steve Orlen's The Elephant's Child

I first became familiar with Steve Orlen through Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. Here's the poem, “Monkey Mind,” in its entirety:

When I was a child I had what is called an inner life.
For example, I looked at that girl over there
In the second aisle of seats and wondered what it was like
To have buck teeth pushing out your upper lip
And how it felt to have those little florets the breasts
Swelling her pajama top before she went to sleep.
Walking home, I asked her both questions
And instead of answering she told her mother
Who told the teacher who told my father.
After all these years, I can almost feel his hand
Rising in the room, the moment in the air of his decision,
Then coming down so hard it took my breath away,
And up again in that small arc
To smack his open palm against my butt.
I'm a slow learner
And still sometimes I'm sitting here wondering what my father
Is thinking, blind and frail and eighty-five,
Plunged down into his easy chair half the night
Listening to Bach cantatas. I know he knows
At every minute of every hour that he's going to die
Because he told my mother and my mother told me.
I didn't cry or cry out or say I'm sorry.
I lay across his lap and wondered what
He could be thinking to hit a kid like that.

“Monkey Mind” isn't among the sixteen new poems in Orlen's The Elephant's Child, which also collects work from 1978-2005; it's from his 2001 book, This Particular Eternity. By far, my favorite, and I'd argue the best poems here are from the last ten years, and even Orlen (or his publisher) agrees, since earlier books, from 1978, 1981, and 1992, are represented by four, four, and seven poems, respectively. He seems to hit his stride – and by 'stride' I mean come into a comfortable and recognizable style – in Kisses (1997), a book that also addresses Orlen's Jewishness. (An earlier poem collected here, “The Pripet Marshes,” has the Holocaust as its theme, but its voice is more reportorial.) Which doesn't mean there's no discernible style or voice in the thirty-year-old poems by Orlen; if I picked up the aptly-named Permission to Speak, chances are I'd recognize right away a poet whose work talks to me, whose words I really hear. The best thing is, his poetry has both improved with age, as well as become better, more incisive and personal over time, reflecting a fine tuning of Orlen's work and obsessions.

One of Orlen's great subjects is sex, which he approaches unflinchingly. “In Praise of Beverly,” from Permission to Speak, is the first chronologically in this collection, if not sequentially. What he exhibits here, as well as in later works, such as “Poem for Women and for Men,” and “Nature Rarely Confides in Me,” is not just 'honesty' but a rejection of sentimentality. As a poet grows older, the inclination for them is to mellow with age; the same is certainly true, and perhaps more evident in contemporary music. But while the not-necessarily-well-fed rock and roller loses their bite as well as their bile – meaning 'success' is neither the measuring stick, nor the impetus for toning down the barbaric yawp that came naturally early on – the poet, already a creature of isolation and introspection, should be immune to such a dwindling of character, or at least an extreme case of it. Orlen's work here, especially the most recent, shows no sign of wimping out.

Back to “Monkey Mind” for a moment. What I admire about this poem – and what grabbed me right away – is Orlen's deft mental maneuvering through a minefield pocked with memories and emotions. For him, crass lust is on a par with stupidity, is equal to childhood fears, measures up alongside love and forgiveness; he doesn't prioritize these all too human failings and feelings, creating a rhetorical argument for one, and against another. That so much baggage apparently at odds with itself can coexist in one poem is a laudable already, but Orlen makes it appear natural, leads the reader by the hand without drawing attention to the disparateness around them. As to style, he doesn't give eyes a workout by letting lines meander or zigzag across the page, but employs instinctive breaks between sentences and stanzas, breaks that are not uniform yet which both inform the text as well as allow it to move gracefully. Notice the shortest line in “Monkey Mind” –

I'm a slow learner

– how it says what it says by saying as well as showing. Great craft, great poems.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tom Carey's Desire

I'm not exactly sure where I read about Tom Carey's Desire. I'm a big list-maker and an inveterate jotter, specifically in the pages of my trusty At-A-Glance appointment book, where I know nothing escapes my scrutiny for long. If it's worth remembering, pondering, vetting, analyzing, dissecting, it winds up there. Those items that do are ritually moved to later pages if not dealt with in a timely fashion, and as I'm transitioning from an elder planner to a neophyte edition, I make one final pass of the former's pages, just in case something fell through the proverbial cracks. Cary's book found its way into my At-A-Glance, and after some shuffling and juggling, I finally got myself a copy.

Carey is a native left-coaster – specifically, a southern Californian – who grew up in the shadow of Hollywood. IMDB only lists one screen credit, but his bio notes a role as well in Day of the Locust (one of the best book-to-screen adaptions ever), which is apt because of its poison pen attitude toward Tinseltown. He studied acting seriously, and seems to have continued with it after a move to New York in the late '70s. However, in 1988, he became a Franciscan brother in the Society of St. Francis, a religious order in the Episcopal Church – “men who live under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,” according to their web site. It continues, “In addition to the work of prayer, most of the Brothers are engaged in work outside the friary.” Indeed.

Desire bears the subtitle, Poems: 1986-1996. Does Carey write or, more specifically, publish anymore? The book is ten-plus years old, and the only other publication credit I can find is as co-editor of James Schuyler's Collected Poems (Desire is dedicated to Schuyler); a poem about Joe Brainard appeared in Jacket, in 2002. That's it, based on a cursory search. It's not the selected work of a longstanding writer; Desire instead seems to be a compendium of poems written during a decade, including some overlap with Carey's entry into the Franciscan order.

Carey ain't no Thomas Merton. He's obviously influenced by the New York School, and writes in a cosmopolitan, chatty, yet often world-weary style about people and places in bohemian New York; his poetry isn't universal, but it also doesn't feel hermetic, like the worst graduates from that particular alma mater. Unlike the NY poets, though, many of Carey's poems are confessional, written by a mind on the cusp of being both gay man and religious acolyte. He doesn't appear to be torn about the religiosity, in fact relishes the rituals of his chosen vocation. But it's an unusual blend, to say the least, these poems of longing and lust, death and dying, life and living.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Terrance Hayes' Wind in a Box

Terrance Hayes displays an astonishing versatility in Wind in a Box. I'd use the old cliché – that these poems seem as if they'd been written by a legion of bards, instead of a lone legionnaire – but Hayes' voice comes through, whatever form his poems take: persona, prose, list; “variations” on blue; as well as multiple renditions using the collection's title, each quite different from the previous incarnation. The stylistic mix works here, doesn't feel either desperate, or forced; if anything, it posits him as an avidly open poet, who's not merely willing to try anything for trial's sake, so much as he is restless.

Hayes is erudite, but also necessarily rageful; he tackles race relations, most tenuously among African-Americans, peeling skin color away to get at the beating heart beneath. But there's bones and gristle too between the outer and inner parts of these poems, and Hayes doesn't neglect the physical – body image, sexual congress both consensual and not; see "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)" for an example of the former, and "A Girl in the Woods" for the latter. He's smart, which can be a crutch with some writers, but he handles his smarts like a hot coal, tossing it from hand to hand so he doesn't get burnt.

His persona poems are not what one might normally expect. Hayes is oblique when naming (re)sources; readers need to dig deeper below the surface from the start. The title, “MJ Fan Letter” imparts that the poem is voiced by a fan, to Michael Jackson; the addressee is K.O.P., or Jackson's once ubiquitous title, King of Pop. But the language suggests otherwise. So is Jackson, then, writing to himself, and by extension, talking to himself? The poem's genesis is the song “Man in the Mirror,” which he references in its first few lines:

...for the first dozen years of my life
I never looked at myself. I believed mirrors
bore no true social significance partly because
they hung on walls.

The banality of that comment – “because they hung on walls” – is offset by the perversity of what readers know: that Jackson has such an unhealthy relationship with self-image that he would literally reconstruct his face through myriad plastic surgeries until he stopped looking remotely like himself; even sadder, until he no longer resembled a black man. Hayes has found in Jackson's self-mutilation a symbol of the much greater problems and issues that continue to haunt African-Americans.

"MJ Fan Letter," like many poems in Wind in a Box, requires multiple readings to get to all its levels. Sometimes I see this as a deficit, if the poet is working overtime to obfuscate what otherwise would benefit from being clearly stated; clarity is not easy to achieve, whereas willful obscurity is. Hayes' command of language is exemplary, and his poetry is often demanding, but once you get to a point of resolution the struggle has been worth it.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

David Kirby's The House on Boulevard St.

David Kirby is a contemporary poet with a deceptively light, deft touch, and plenty of smarts. When plumbing the cultural depths – something he does a lot, but in a very offhand manner – Kirby's subjects run along a more meat and potatoes vein: Gomer Pyle, Rat Scabies, Richard Pryor, Karl Wallenda, Roman Polanski, and Little Richard are merely a handful of names that pop up in The House on Boulevard St., alongside major league poetry peeps Robert Bly, Sylvia Plath, Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickinson, and Marianne Moore. Perhaps he says it best in “Meetings with Remarkable Men”:

My own heroes are not Andrew Jackson or John Bunyan
or Cervantes but people I already know,
like Officer John Moore, the little skinny yellow-eyed guy
who used to be what was called a “prize fighter”
(if you asked him, he'd think about it for a while and then say
his biggest match was for $10,000 in 1947 against
Wild Bill Kelly) and who now writes parking tickets
for the football players who leave their Broncos
in the handicapped spaces outside the Williams Building
everyday so they don't have to walk far
to the desks where they'll drowse through
my Contemporary Poetry Class...

Here, Kirby reveals (and revels in) his everyman poetics, displays ready wit, and a love of pop culture. He also writes in a step-line form that zigzags across the page, hugging the margins and giving the appearance of a dense and inscrutable field of text – that is, until one begins reading, and finds the writing breezy as well as accessible. Kirby uses this form exclusively nowadays (unlike his earlier poetry, which was more formal and blander; I'd say it had a lot less personality), and it succinctly echoes the twists and turns both his mind and narrative takes.

The House on Boulevard St. is a “new and selected poems” (emphasis Kirby), but reordered from its original chronological publication, broken down into three sections which are “organized around the periods of time the poems explore rather than their dates of publication,” according to the preface. This is an interesting way to sequence the book, with poems about friendship, teaching and academia together; poems written on sabbatical, in Paris, Scotland and Italy; and poems about family. Kirby employs a compositional similarity from poem to poem, akin to a great ocean into which the reader jumps and thrashes giddily, yet each develops its own distinct personality and seems less of a piece than part of an engrossing obsession. It's no surprise, then, that he is also an expert essayist; I've read both What Is a Book? (with contents divided under subjects, What Is a Reader?, What Is a Writer?, What Is a Critic?, and finally, the titular topic), as well as Ultra-Talk, which finds Kirby considering a dizzying array of matters culled from the great (un)washed, and would recommend both readily.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Great Poetry E-Book Free-For-All!

The mission of the Poetry Super Highway is to expose as many people to as many other people's poetry as possible. To that end, Rick Lupert at PSH has come up with a crazy project in which poetry e-books will be freely available to all interested humans on Earth for a 24 hour period.

Throughout April he collected e-books from poets and writers interested in participating -- including yours truly. Then on May 1st, for a 24 hour period, a special website will go live with links to all of the e-books. For 24 hours anyone will be free to download, for free, as many of these e-books as they like ... a poetry e-book free-for-all.

On May 1st at Midnight (the evening of April 30), Poetry Super Highway will distribute a special e-mail letting people know the location of the web page with links to all of the e-book files. People will be free to download any or all of the titles, electronically, travelling all over the world. This web page will go off line 24 hours later at Midnight on May 2nd.

PSH will also list e-book descriptions on this web page along with links to the authors' websites.

When it's over, PSH will produce a list of how many copies of each book were downloaded for no reason other than you may find it interesting.

Check out the
e-book site today, and forward this information to anyone else who may be interested.

Oh, and let me know what you think of Used Poems: 1985-2004.

Thanks!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott"

Tennyson's poem, “The Lady of Shalott” is a brilliant piece of populist writing, displaying vibrant language and beautiful musicality. Part of its power, and continued readability comes from Tennyson's sense of what to leave out of the story.

Unlike “The Palace of Art,” which throws in every detail and then some, as well as the kitchen sink, “The Lady of Shalott” moves with the allure and excitement of a fairy tale, albeit one with a tragic ending. Consider its first verse:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road run by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

The reader knows right away this is a fantasy – if not by the evocation of mythic Camelot, through Tennyson's “once upon a time”-like scene setting: the river, the elemental grains that “clothe the wold and meet the sky,” the road through the field where travelers “[gaze] where the lilies blow” at the Isle of Shalott. More importantly, Tennyson hesitates to heap adjective upon adjective, leaving it to the reader to imagine the minutiae of the scene and contributing to the poem's universality. Compare this to the first eight lines of “The Palace of Art”:

I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house,
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell.
I said, “O Soul, make merry and carouse,
Dear soul, for all is well.”

A huge crag-platform, smooth as burnished brass
I chose. The rangèd ramparts bright
From level meadow-bases of deep grass
Suddenly scaled the light.

Even though its four line stanzas are more compact, Tennyson's language – and eventual relentless cataloging – clogs and chokes the poem: “crag-platform,” “burnished brass,” and “deep grass” are not the worse offenders, but a far cry from the minimalist lines that begin and run throughout “Shalott.”

The tone of the language is also completely different. Whereas “Shalott” is conversational, “Palace” is grandiloquent and mannered. The approach in each instance is stylistically sound, and provides both poems with their own distinct personality, but the breathing room in “Shalott” imbues it with an urgency that the other poem lacks. For example,

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.

Does the Lady sleep? Where does her magic emanate from? What colors? Whose whisper? Why a curse? Why is she forbidden from viewing Camelot? The power here is not so much in the answers – which we as readers do not, and never will know – as in the implicit questions.

Tennyson's portrait in language of “The Lady of Shalott” is that much more vivid in its opaqueness; in fact, we never get any description of how the Lady looks, aside from being “robed in snowy white,” and Lancelot's comment, “She has a lovely face.” Lovely in what way? What color are her eyes, her hair? Is she pale or dark skinned? The reader fills this in, creating their own vision of The Lady. This is part of Tennyson's mastery in relating the story of the poem. By keeping his language clean and simple, Tennyson makes his poem appreciable to everyone, including the knights, burghers, lords and dames; abbots, shepherds, pages and reapers who populate it. That's no different today, where some poetry requires footnotes, and/or Byzantine knowledge to fully comprehend the Poet's Message, obfuscated as it is in tangles of rarefied and bloated language.

over-Its entirety could be dissected, and a series of questions posed from reading between the lines of the text, but “The Lady of Shalott” is not a poem that lends itself to pomo intellectualizing, surging forward instead on the weight of its emotions. It is those emotions – loneliness and want of love – that provide the core of the poem's power. Who has never been lonely, or unloved? We identify with the Lady's feelings because we have all felt them, and Tennyson elicits these character traits without resorting to bluntly spelling it out for the reader. On the other hand, emotion is on hold in “The Palace of Art,” whose protagonist only hints at feelings in its final four lines:

"Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built:
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt."

Guilt is a more intellectual emotion than loneliness or lovelessness, and predicated on action or reaction; “The Lady of Shalott” may dwell in a world of shadows, but she is more in touch with herself, and her feelings, than the sybaritic voice of “The Palace of Art.” Her selflessness is intrinsically more appealing than selfishness, and lends her pathos, even as an enigma.

There are a few explicit questions in the poem:

But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

And

Who is this? And what is here?

Lines uttered by onlookers as the Lady floats, dead, along the river to Camelot. Tennyson knows it is better to let them linger than to diminish them with concrete answers. It also strengthens the mythic qualities of the poem, and in turn its heroine, to leave them unanswered. The rules are the same, whether the questions are spoken, or implied: the inherent power of “The Lady of Shalott” lies in its omissions. Rather than wallop readers with the wholesale image-mongering technique of “The Palace of Art,” this quieter and more elusive poem gets under the skin and remains there, a poignant and mysterious masterpiece of understatement.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Robert Browning and Dramatic Monologue

Critics have nominated Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church” as 'perfect' dramatic monologues. I would agree that each is a stellar example of the genre on its own terms. Both draw the reader in from the first line or two:

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. [Duchess]

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? [Bishop]

So, too, does “Fra Lippo Lippi”:

I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.

Browning begins these poems in the midst of implied action – the Duke pointing out the Duchess' portrait to the unwary envoy; the Bishop speaking to his 'sons/nephews' gathered at the foot of his death bed; Fra Lippo, apologizing to, then remonstrating gendarmes questioning him on the street. He also offers immediate details about each speaker or situation: the Duchess is dead, the Bishop is paranoid or delusional, and Lippi isn't just any poor schmuck caught out after curfew. This is a masterful and visceral poetic technique for ensnaring readers, particularly well suited to dramatic monologues, where a single voice is trying to suck them into a whirlpool of subjectivity. We know this isn't Browning speaking as Browning, but as a character, each with an apparent agenda demonstrated within their first utterances. In all three poems, we're hooked from the get go and primed for more.

Cornelia Pearsall argues in her essay on the subject that the essence of the dramatic monologue is the speaker's desire to achieve some purpose or goal. Even if that goal is simply bending our ear, that's true enough. “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” are tidy little packages achieving that essence, “Duchess” tidiest at a mere 56 lines. (“The Bishop” doubles that.) However, by definition, a monologue is a prolonged talk or discourse by a single speaker, especially one dominating or monopolizing a conversation. While not improved merely by lengthening, a more loquacious monologue provides time for the character to define him or herself by their thoughts, actions and deeds. “Fra Lippo Lippi,” at 392 lines, is three times as long as “The Bishop,” compelling readers by virtue of its sureness of voice and complexity of character and theme; likewise, it is never flat or prosaic. “Fra Lippo Lippi”'s ambitions as a monologue are grander, its stakes higher; it achieves its ends magnificently, almost transparently as we become like eavesdroppers on Lippi's conversation. The ego takes the wheel; the trip begins.

Another element that elevates “Fra Lippo Lippi” to, if not perfection, than a higher state of accomplishment than the other poems, is that of the unguarded moment. When the Duke begins his monologue, he is ostensibly in control of the situation. So, too, is the Bishop, who apparently has requested this gathering. Lippi is accosted by the guards, wrests control away from them, and begins pontificating on a variety of issues on his mind – the nature of art, freedom of choice, fate, and circumstance. This sounds today like real and, even considering its antiquated terms, modern speech and ideas. The portrait Lippi paints in words is as vivid as the art he is famous for, and as human – ironically, also at odds with the rarefied painting endorsed by the church that “makes [people] forget there's such a thing as flesh.” Yet he wouldn't have engaged in this philosophical diatribe if not for being accosted after midnight “at an alley's end / Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar.” Less likely embarrassed or merely guilty, Lippi is surprised by the intrusion, but quickly regains his composure:

Aha, you know your betters! Then, you'll take
Your hand away that's fiddling on my throat.
And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
Three streets off – he's a certain...how d'ye call?
Master – a...Cosimo of the Medici.

It doesn't take Lippi long to drop Medici's name, further elevating his station in the guard's eyes. From there, his story unfolds at a breathless clip – the orphanage, his natural artistic talent discovered and exploited, the church's admonishment of the liberties he takes painting “the beauty and the wonder and the power” of the world. While he has asserted a dominant role in the poem, his monologue has an air of the confessional to it. Sometimes we will be painfully honest about ourselves or our situations to complete strangers, whereas we cannot always trust the confidence of our best friends and family. It is that schism that also lends “Fra Lippo Lippi” its rare poignancy and power.

These three poems are each brilliant, in their own way. “Duchess” and “Bishop” are earlier works – 1842 and 1845, respectively – whereas “Lippi” was written in 1855, the same year Browning wrote “Love Among the Ruins,” “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” “The Statue and the Bust,” and more. Would he go on to write a more fully realized dramatic monologue than “Lippi?” No. Despite the pleasures inherent in much of his work, it remains a masterpiece of tone, control and character unique among his poems, if not perfect than the nearest thing to it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tennyson's "In Memoriam"

Many people consider Alfred Tennyson's “In Memoriam” to be his masterpiece. In fact, it is many things: emotionally draining, exhilarating, philosophically curious, solipsistic, exhausting (and exhaustive), dogmatic, and demanding. One constant, however, is Tennyson's poetic music. Throughout its 131 sections, prologue, and epilogue of equal form (isometric stanzas comprised of iambic tetrameter quatrains with the rhyme scheme ABBA), Tennyson maintains his regimented rhyme scheme with an ease that is startling in its ability to reinvent itself. While the poem as a whole may, at times, stagger under its own weight, the stanzas move with the same organic tide flow as the ocean bearing Tennyson's close friend, and the inspiration behind "In Memoriam," Arthur Hallam's body home to England from Vienna.

It would be cynical to dismiss this achievement by sheer fact of the time involved in completing “In Memoriam” – Tennyson devoted seventeen years to it. However, it was composed not as a whole, but as a series of separate poems, many of which were likely edited and/or adapted to fit the uniquely self-enclosed quatrain form that it employs, since Tennyson reportedly had no intention of combining the disparate poems together until it appeared in print in 1850. I would imagine that writing “In Memoriam” amounted to a type of psychotherapy for Tennyson, and doubt that while purging himself of his immense grief over the sudden and untimely death of his best friend, he fretted over the poetic form his exorcism was taking.

As examples of Tennyson's masterful control of language, I am going to randomly choose a few stanzas from “In Memoriam,” since I might be predisposed to defer to those that I find particularly persuasive otherwise.

The yule-clog sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.
(LXXVIII, Stanza two)

This is the form Tennyson never diverts from: eight syllables per line, and the enclosed rhyme scheme that, in effect, posits each stanza as a stand-alone entity. The choice to limit each line to eight syllables is both brilliant and foolish – brilliant since ultimately he pulls it off (without drawing attention to itself), foolish because he risks stagnancy by limiting each line to a mere eight beats. Yet the lines never feel mechanical, or sound stilted. Notice, in the example above, how mellifluous the long and short “O” sound is in yule-clog, frost, region, brooding, something, and lost; and the “I” sound with keen, wing, wind, region, things, quiet, and something; and how naturally the lines speak and breathe individually as well as in concert. Both sounds allude to the tone of the verse as well – melancholy and hushed.

The stern were mild when thou wert by,
The flippant put himself to school
And heard thee, and the brazen fool
Was softened, and he knew not why...
(CX, Stanza three)

We again get echoes of the “I” and “O” sounds from the prior stanza, in addition to “E” in stern, wert, himself, heard, thee, brazen, he, and knew – a terser, more bitter sound. By alternating short with multi syllabic (or visually elongated) words, Tennyson creates the illusion of a less severe score for his poetic music. The brevity of the lines is further disguised by indenting the second and third of each stanza, which cumulatively gives “In Memoriam” the appearance of a flowing steam or river undulating down the page, and helps to enjoin all its myriad stanzas into an ultimately unified whole.

Gnarr at the heels of men, and prey
By each cold hearth, and sadness flings
Her shadow on the blaze of kings:
And yet myself have heard him say...
(XCVIII, Stanza five)

Unlike the prior two selections, this stanza begins in mid-sentence and ends with a pause, via a comma. However, it doesn't sound or feel sliced out of context, even if it makes less immediate sense as four lines on their own. This is a tribute to Tennyson's facility with language: even in a truncated context, his lines sing, and flow. Here, he chooses an overriding “A” sound – gnarr, prey, hearth, sadness, shadow, blaze, and, have, heard, say – within the confines of the stanza, lending it a more guttural music that directly plays on the themes of death and disgust within the section.

The use of enclosed rhyme in each verse creates a seemingly contradictory motion within “In Memoriam.” It renders each four lines as a complete thought unto itself, as if Tennyson were having difficulty coming to terms with, and moving onward from Hallam's death. It also conveys the hesitancy with which the poet is absorbing all the information on both intellectual and emotional levels. However, by choosing the ABBA rhyme scheme, and alternating rhymes from verse to verse, instead of locking into an established aural rhythm, the poem moves in a slow but steady progression toward its ultimately celebratory conclusion – the marriage of Tennyson's sister. The music inherent in each stanza also works in this way, as the listener's ear is naturally drawn to each variation on the theme, wonders and cannot possibly guess what awaits in the next quatrain.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pilcrow Lit Fest: Five with...

I'll be a panelist at the Pilcrow Lit Fest next month. Amy Guth, the irascible and endearing brains behind same, mailed me a questionnaire to be completed beforehand.

Here's my answers to Ms. Guth's probing inquiries.

Amy, thanks for asking!

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Haystack in the Floods

I went through a Victorian reading jag a short while ago. That doesn't mean I donned my frock coat and scarf and took to the streets reciting The Bab Ballads; but because of a recent self-medicating dose of Robert Browning's work, I found myself wondering what other writing was out there I had missed (or misunderstood) from that era.

One such overlooked poet is William Morris. Morris was a painter and a Socialist as well. “The Haystack in the Floods” is a surprisingly 'modern' poem, one with an immediate impact that resonates in the mind (and gut) long after it has been read. Unlike Tennyson's idylls, beautifully written yet with their Spielbergized approximation of Arthurian times, Morris' view of the medieval goes beyond castles, heroic quests, and moats, delving into psychologically deeper recesses and addressing, to quote Hannah Arendt on Adolf Eichmann, the banality of evil.

Set in 1356, after the defeat of the French at Poitiers by Edward the Black Prince, an English knight, Sir Robert de Marny is traveling through France with his mistress Jehane, heading for the English-controlled safety of Gascony when they are suddenly surrounded by French enemy, Godmar and his troops. The opening five lines of the poem establish a fatalistic tone:

Had she come all the way for this,
To part at last without a kiss?
Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain
That her own eyes might see him slain
Beside the haystack in the floods?

Morris' poetry sounds like pulp fiction, a hundred years ahead of its time. You can almost imagine a narrator reading those same lines, with minor vernacular changes, in the opening minutes of a poverty row film noir – Jehane the femme fatale, Robert the fall guy, and Godmar the heavy – filmed in stark black and white. All the elements are there: passion, filth, rain, self-pity, existential angst and, of course, murder. The mood continues:

Along the dripping leafless woods,
The stirrup touching either shoe,
She rode astride as troopers do;
With kirtle kilted to her knee,
To which the mud splash'd wretchedly;
And the wet dripp'd from every tree
Upon her head and heavy hair,
And on her eyelids broad and fair;
The tears and rain ran down her face.

This is an incredibly vivid passage, rich with details: the wet, naked trees; muddy ground; Jehane's matted hair and face streaked with rain and tears. Morris writes with terrific restraint and simplicity, creating tension and dread even before Godmar has arrived on the scene. These are desperate people, not even bothering to put up false facades of hope or joviality. The landscape is dark, dreary, and wretched; they are driven by a basic instinct to survive, and little else.

Robert is either headstrong, or stupid, or a fatal combination of both:

By fits and starts they rode apace,
And very often was his place
Far off from her

Answering to “a murmuring from his men,” Robert “turn[s] back with promises” (or is it sudden false bravado?) that they are close to safety at Gascony. Approaching the “old soak'd hay” of the title, “that Judas” Godmar appears, accompanied by thirty of his men. Robert tries to soothe fears among his own ranks by evoking the English victory at Poitiers, even though they are outnumbered nearly two-to-one. His troops are somber and silent, offering no resistance as Robert is pulled from his horse.

Godmar speaks matter-of-factly when Jehane refuses to “yield ... as [his] paramour”:

Jehane, on yonder hill there stands
My castle, guarding well my lands:
What hinders me from taking you,
And doing that I list to do
To your fair willful body, while
Your knight lies dead?

This necrophiliac scenario of rape and murder doesn't quiet Jehane. She threatens to kill Godmar while he sleeps, by strangling him or biting through his throat. Godmar explicates the French peoples' reaction to a returning, treasonous Jehane:

'Jehane the brown! Jehane the brown!
Give us Jehane to burn or drown!' –
Eh – gag me Robert! – sweet my friend,
This were indeed a piteous end
For those long fingers, and long feet,
And long neck, and smooth shoulders sweet;
An end that few men would forget
That saw it – So, an hour yet:
Consider, Jehane, which to take
Of life or death!

Godmar's leering description of Jehane’s “long” fingers, feet and neck, and “smooth” “sweet” shoulders is the speech of a sociopath and sadist. Jehane dismounts, “totter[s] some yards” and “with her face/ Turn'd upward to the sky,” falls into a dreamless sleep (or is it faints?). Awakening, she reiterates, in a “strangely childlike” fashion – or state of shock – that she will not go with Godmar. “With a start” he acts, and she observes

The long bright blade without a flaw
Glide out from Godmar's sheath, his hand
In Robert's hair, she saw him bend
Back Robert's head; she saw him send
The thin steel down; the blow told well,
Right backward the knight Robert fell,
And moaned as dogs do, being half dead,
Unwitting, as I deem: so then
Godmar turn'd grinning to his men,
Who ran, some five or six, and beat
His head to pieces at their feet.

This gruesome climax has been foretold from the beginning. Morris' language is vivid and kinetic – the flawless “long bright blade” coming down to sever Robert's head; Robert moaning “as dogs do,” half-dead; Godmar's men rushing in to smash the head “to pieces at their feet” in a febrile frenzy. Jehane, hands cold, smiling ruefully and perhaps driven mad, is off to prison in Paris to be burned or drowned as a traitor. An incredibly nihilistic conclusion, the hopelessness of which is hammered home with the final two, perversely plainspoken lines:

This was the parting that they had
Beside the haystack in the floods.

Morris casts a cold, clear eye on his characters. He eschews affection toward them, and is not afraid to see them as they are. Even if our sympathies go out instinctively toward Robert and Jehane, the ostensible victims in the poem, that feeling is artificially enhanced when compared to the cruelty and Darwinian drive of Godmar. There are no larger-than-life heroes, no stereotyped villains here. There is no need to look for motivations, hows or whys; things just happen. “Had she come all the way for this?” The answer is yes, in Morris’ pitiless universe of cause and effect.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Mercy Seat

I’m more than two-thirds through The Mercy Seat, Norman Dubie’s collected & new poems. I was looking forward to reading Dubie more closely, being somewhat familiar with his work beforehand, from stray poems read in magazines and/or anthologies. Perhaps it’s because of my tendency to get deeper and deeper into a writer all at once, however, that I’m somewhat disappointed. Or rather, that Dubie disappoints me.

Reading myriad poems in one mental gulp dilutes their impact, and points out certain stylistic drawbacks that he exhibits, especially in work up through 1990. (I’m not beyond that point yet.) One thing I noticed almost immediately is the annoying tendency he has to end his poems with a final, stand-alone line. I’m not talking about what the line is saying, by itself or in context with each poem as a whole, but Dubie’s laziness in repeatedly opting toward that stylistic decision. (I just randomly opened the book, and counted. Out of twenty-five consecutive poems, eight ended that way; that’s a third.) This is, perhaps, not the most damning of criticisms, but as I digested these poems in large doses, the pattern not only distracted me, but cumulatively, and repeatedly took me out of the work. The Mercy Seat’s poems aren’t noted as being in their original sequence, and instead are grouped according to years; I assume they may be ordered differently than upon first publication. Nevertheless, placing them together in this omnibus edition puts them in a new light, and under cumulative scrutiny this stylistic tic of Dubie’s bothers me. Asked why, I’d say, generally, that I see numerous instances here where that last, lone line could be absorbed by the preceding stanza without diminishing its power, or drastically altering its meaning. In fact, I see only how such absorption would improve the poems, by not drawing attention, again and again, to the last line, as if that were the poem’s, and Dubie’s point.

I do admire the craft of these poems, and Dubie's grasp of voice, even if the voice doesn't waver much, if at all from poem to poem; differentiation, for him, appears to be in the particular details of each persona. One other criticism would be the poems' utter lack of humor. Sure, humor is hard, and maybe Norman isn’t much of a chuckler – at least in print; he could be a hoot-and-a-half at parties. But the dearth of any comedy, even black, made these poems not just "heavy" but heavy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Real Sofistikashun

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Real Sofistikashun, Tony Hoagland's swell collection of essays on poetry and craft. Some chapters are giving me a sense of déjà vu, and while I can't confirm it – being, by necessity, less of a pack rat since our move to smaller digs two years ago, I'm unable to keep as many piles of periodicals around for casual perusal as I'd prefer – I'm confident I may have eyeballed them previously in APR or The Writer's Chronicle.

Reading Hoagland's essays in big gulps is doable, but not recommended. I drove my special lady to an appointment with her “aesthetician” recently. It was a snowy night, streets slick with ice and slush, and she eschews being behind the wheel of her trusty Toyota on such occasions if she can avoid it. Since it was not a teaching day for me, but a 'work' day, I offered to chauffeur her. Recently purchased, I brought Real Sofistikashun along for the ride as well. While my gal was off being coiffed, I parked my ass on the salon's semi-comfortable sofa and dug into the opening essay, "Altitudes: a Homemade Taxonomy." It establishes the tone Hoagland is to maintain for the duration, which he describes in his foreword as “neither academic nor exactly for the reader off the street.” True enough: you need to come to these essays prepared, but whether that preparation involves cases of canned meats, flashlights, first aid kit, batteries and water, or just a few candy bars, is up to individual discretion. If opting for the latter, however, you are likely to waste time traipsing to the corner store, stocking up on little things that could easily be tucked away in advance for emergencies. Hoagland's style is breezy yet rigorous – he gives you examples and cites to follow his train of thought or theoretical point, but after five or six chapters, the sheer ambition of each argument begins to weigh heavily upon the reader's brain. So it was as I slumped there, flanked by spritzers, shampoos, the tremor of trimmers, hiss of curling irons and incessant clipping of shears. Giving my noggin a much needed break, I closed the book, and switched to lighter reading – this month's Italian Vogue.

Be that as it may, I especially enjoyed Hoagland's thoughts on “the slipperiness of metaphor.” As he says, “Effective metaphors are always more complicated than we suppose,” and his essay on the subject is less an argument for any approach or school of thought than it is an examination of metaphor's metaness. While I don't agree with every point he makes – for example, Laura Kasischke's “A Long Commute” effectively illustrating “the fantastic elasticity” of metaphor – I don't have to: these essays sink or float by virtue of the overall thrust of Hoagland's thinking, and not sundry examples.

Here's hoping Hoagland's thoughts on “fear of narrative” and the power of meanness measure up to my expectations – entertaining as writing, useful and practical while writing.

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