Tuesday, November 18, 2008
<!--[if supportFields]> SEQ CHAPTER h r 1<![endif]--><!--[if supportFields]><![endif]-->“Prayers,” The New Yorker November 10, 2008.
Given the timing of this poem’s publication, it’s impossible for me to read it without noticing and/or imposing political overtones. Too easily it becomes a hoorah! for Democrats, albeit awkwardly so at points, particularly those comprising the poem’s first part in its entirety. As easily, it can stand on its own as a poem about aging. So, given this ambivalence toward subject matter, I’d rather examine the poem’s employment of irony.
Irony is far and away the poem’s dominant gesture. Consider the opening couplet: “We pray / and the resurrection happens.” The speaker’s tone is so matter-of-fact that the irony almost scoots past, but whose prayers have been answered so quickly? If any of us had a direct line to God, we wouldn’t learn to pray at our besides as kids, nor at the dinner table, nor anywhere else for that matter. The fact is prayer, in my opinion, rarely–if ever–reaps such quick results. What’s more, though resurrection isn’t capitalized here, the word automatically echoes of Christ’s return, yet no a single moment, not a strain of emotion is paid to it. The language is quite nonchalant.
The next three stanzas–the whole of part one of “Prayers”–emphasizes this de-emphasis by making the born again “the young . . . . sniping and giggling, // tingly / as ringing phones.” The tone has shifted a bit closer to snideliness, as the speaker observes the cell phone generation attacking and laughing at the mysteries on their phones’ other ends. And is this what technology brings? Immaturity? Is this second coming of tots and teens going to save anyone, including themselves? Not likely, but, ironically, it’s typically technology and kids that are our future, that are redemption for insults and injuries. What’s more, the prayers of the first stanza appear to be futile: the young are coming anyway.
Part two of the poem moves darker still. The speaker, speaking for whomever she represents (all of us? the elderly?), asks “that our thinking // sustain momentum,” which I find analogous to progress, to keeping the ball rolling. The poem’s next two words clarify exactly what our thinking must do to allows this: “identify targets.” We’re no longer talking about kids taking verbal shots at their friends, but about ideologues, governments, etc. taking real shots at others. Armantrout mentions nothing about this macrocosm inside the poem, but the words targets, as well as the later torture, seems too much a keyword not to be being used for this implication. But, she nevertheless continues to mix things up. Rather than stay global, she immediately turns to the personal by having her speaker divulge her lower back pain, which, by rising to be recognized,” becomes her thinking’s target. The strange, ensuing stanza about “blue triangles” remains personal and as such becomes the object of the next stanza’s insult regarding torture. However, given the poem’s subtle but larger context, “torture” must also be read accordingly.
Armantrout’s ironies have become double-entendre-like at this point, which ultimately forces the poem into paradox. The speaker must make two, somewhat opposite admissions. She is as afraid that “all this / will end” as she is “that it won’t.” Because she makes no comment about the glee she’ll experience if one or the other doesn’t occur, the negative weight pulls all: she’s damned if it does (end), and she’s damned if it doesn’t. The great irony here is that the poem began, at least for a stanza, with hope: resurrection, rebirth, a new age. As it ends, all of that has become moot. The prayers have gone unanswered.
But honestly–what should we expect?
Thursday, November 13, 2008
“Summer At Blue Creek, North Carolina,” The New Yorker, November 10, 2008
“Summer At Blue Creek” is a poem of interesting details that go relatively unexplained. It’s a short poem (15 lines) of medium to short lines, so there also isn’t much room for context to flesh out these mysteries. They simply exist, lucanae the speaker encounters but cannot fill as he walks with his buckets down memory lane.
As I see it, two details stand above the rest in terms of their mystery, the fact that there “was no water at my grandfather’s / when I was a kid” and the fact that the rich folk down the road “arranged to have [their house] burned down.” Why has the grandfather’s well run dry? The question goes unanswered although it hints at poverty, at bad times. Money would allow for a new well; a defunct one suggests (pardon the pun) things have run dry. And what’s with the neighbors burning their house down? Are they collecting insurance money? According to Gilbert’s phrasing, it sounds like the fire was deliberate—but that’s about all readers can say about it. No additional comment is made, no additional detail.
Together, however, the well and the neighbors do provide the poem with an element of class struggle—and how ironic that the rich folk who set fire to their own house and have since moved on still have running water—but Gilbert does nothing more with it that than the above passages. The poem isn’t about the haves and the have-nots even though the speaker’s grandfather’s place is waterless and the “fine people’s house” had a “cool well”; it’s not about stealing although the little-boy speaker fills up his buckets with his neighbor’s water (obviously I read the fine people and the neighbors as one).
Other crisp details catch my attention, too, particularly the image of the speaker’s “mouth pulled out of shape” by the weight of his full pails and “the sound / the bucket made hitting the sides / of the stone well going down.” Each has great specificity, fleshing out the speakers recall, which isn’t without its gaps, of the event. As well, each is bound to the other by the implied image of the water: its weight contorts the boy’s mouth, its location causes the bucket to clang. This congruency seems to me important because it pulls the initial, opening-line image of water down through the poem without having to repeat water, water, water. The images work as reverberations of each other, resonating here and there without overtly divulging their source.
Aside from water, the speaker is in search of self—the present day, adult speaker is in search of his childhood self—although he comes up empty handed. He recalls the various details of this walk, which I presume he took more than once (the title is demonstrative of this presumption), but he cannot recall himself; he hears the bucket banging against the wall of the well, “but never the sound of me.” What’s more, what he does remember is not necessarily accurate (as is the case with many of our memories) since his re-experiencing occurs in third person, not first. He sees himself as though in a movie. Gilbert writes, “I see myself, but from the outside.” If this is true, then all he remembers of himself must be inferred. He cannot draw from experiential knowledge because it’s as though he was never there, never carrying the buckets. His childhood form has taken the role of a character he’s watching on film, not reliving by reinhabiting his body. The sounds of the bucket, the cow he passes—these are inventions born of his adult mind, not observations from his childhood experience.
The poem’s four sentence fragments further illustrate this oddity of the speaker’s memory. Two of the fragments are missing verbs, but each is missing its grammatical subject: I. Interestingly, the content of the fragments is set in the poem’s childhood experience where the “I” is absent, at least from a first person perspective; so, it only makes sense that it’s missing in these passages, too. Conversely, passages set in the present, whose “I” speaks and acts in the present, maintain their grammatical subject and the speaker’s presence.
A final note about “Summer At Blue Creek, North Carolina,” as a narrative, it absolutely tells the story of the summer, albeit via a moment in a time. But, it also tells the story of the speaker’s remembering. In effect, The poem becomes less about the memory itself than it does about the act of recalling it. While this could lead the poem into a dismal finale, I don’t believe it does. Its tonal consistency—factual, lecture-like but without pretentiousness—doesn’t allow it. The poem’s last line, “but never the sound of me,” isn’t spoken with regret nor even wonder but with complacency, as if to say this is simply the way it was—is.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
“From This To That,” The New Yorker November 10, 2008
The heart of Grennan’s poem seems to be located in stanzas four and five. The dreamer, walking the tide-line of a very busy-with-flora-and-fauna beach, notices “the head / and periscoped neck of a cormorant as it vanishes / between breaths, reappears, and looks about as if surprised // to find the world as is.” The dreamer then makes note of the bird’s “amphibian gift to live underwater and in the air.” With this comment, Grennan turns the bird into the official symbol of the poem: bird equals human, who is capable of inhabiting two worlds at once, the world of dream and the world of reality.
And, it’s worth noting that either world can be dominant. That is to say we can inhabit both worlds while still asleep—or nearly asleep—or while awake, driving a long stretch of interstate. While I take much of the imagery in “From This To That” as native to the dream world, arguably it could belong to either. In the second stanza he writes, “you walk awhile by the actual tide-line, the ocean drawn back.” But, is the poem’s you actually walking along the beach? An imagined beach? A dreamed one? It’s hard to say, especially since Grennan’s first line tells readers this is a dream poem, which means the speaker can’t be entirely trusted just as voices and images in a dream can’t be trusted. To further confuse the matter, the penultimate stanza’s first sentence is “So stumble on to true wakefulness, / all dreams dissipated, and stop silenced on a seal-smooth rock / half-buried in sand . . .” So, in the dream, the poem’s you is on a beach; in the waking world, the poem’s you is on a beach. Which world is to be trusted? Which is the illusion, the metaphor? As we shift into true wakefulness is the seal-smooth rock a real rock or a stand-in for something else? Is Grennan’s point that neither world can be trusted? All is illusion? Is this a mind-only existence his poem advocates?
According to the poem’s deliberate though subtle disorder, everything remains “half-buried in sand,” including the cormorant—visible “between breaths” (waves)—and you, the cormorant’s congruency. So, at least part of human experience must be born in the mystical, the psychological. It’s the tip-of-the-iceberg thing. The other part is concrete although not necessarily any more comprehendible.
“From This To That” is comprised of seven stanzas, six of which are quatrains whose lines hover around seven stresses in length. Their consistency gives the poem a look of coherence and unity, as does the imagery. Spatially organized, the poem’s catalogue of images is easy to follow even though the language at times is a bit overly poetic. The only exception is the first stanza in which, while describing “the dream-laden vessel of sleep,” the images arrive quickly and somewhat randomly—dreamlike. The rest belong, so to speak, and Grennan more or less provides his you with stage directions for observing them.
The dream/reality and sea/shore aspect of this poem reminds me a great deal of Dickinson’s “I started early—took my dog—“ Both adhere to their formal, structural principles (Grennan’s poem is not a form, mind you), and both make comment on perception and reality with images from a shared environment: the beach. Interestingly, though Dickinson’s poem is stranger, the shift from dream to reality is much clearer in hers than it is in Grennan’s. For all the specificity and detail in “From This To That,” the poem remains an instance of ambivalence.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
What I both admire and struggle with in Merwin’s work is his insistent lack of punctuation. In some poems, this lack requires of me great effort in figuring out how to read a single line in terms of its pacing and meaning, much less that of a stanza or the poem as a whole. In others, the lines flow lucidly one to the next, which is no small feat given that acoustics, line breaks, and caesuras created without punctuation must do all the work of pacing and bracing the poem.
In “Alba,” this craftiness is best observed in line 4, a fairly benign line in terms of content but a central one in terms of setting up both scene and mood for what ensues. The first five lines of this eighteen line, single-stanza poem are as follows:
Climbing in the mist I came to a terrace wall
and saw above it a small field of broad beans in flower
their white fragrance was flowing through the first light
of morning there a little way up the mountain
where I had made my way through the olive groves
What can be said about them? For starters, their music is intricate, providing a scaffold by which the poem’s rhythm and pace is constructed. Line one, for example, is essentially an example of pararhyme (not to be confused with Wikipedia’s pararhyme, which is really slant rhyme . . . ) in which came to a terrace is a clear echo of Climbing in the mist. K and M sounds are repeated, as is the short I in mist and terrace; as well, the long I in Climbing is repeated in the subjective pronoun I. Hardly a sound goes unreplicated except for wall, the line’s last word. However, the poem’s second line repeats or echoes the A in wall with saw, above, a small, and broad. What’s more, Merwin uses alliteration with broad beans and with field and flower—and there’s even more of that F in line three. And I could go on and on with his consonance, assonance, etc.
The effect is a very structured opening to “Alba,” consequently a very well-drawn map readers can use to discover how the poem intends itself to be read (or how Merwin intends it to be read?). What it lacks in conventional punctuation it makes up for with a very controlled use of sound. What’s more, the line breaks are easy, semi-enjambed breaks. Through line three, each contains a complete idea, which allows readers to concentrate on one thing at a time and to be controlled more by in-line pacing devices (Merwin’s latticework of sound) than end-line devices (line break). Line five works the same way. The anomaly is line four: “of morning there a little way of up the mountain.” That there throws its sense of self-contained coherence out the window. Arguably, without it, the line still lacks a sense of clear completion.
But what makes the line click is its double caesura, the pause on each end of there, as in fragrance was flowing through the first light of morning . . . THERE . . . a little way up the mountain. Previous to this unique moment, there aren’t any strong caesuras. In the first line, a quiet one follows the opening participial phrase “Climbing in the mist,” but it’s so quiet that the breath doesn’t even come to a complete stop before continuing on to “I came to a terrace wall.” In the second line, a similar caesura occurs after the word it, coincidentally the fourth word in the line and coincidentally ending with a T like its first-line counterpart. Line three lacks any clear caesura. So, when hit with the double pause in line four, readers encounter a dead stop they’ve been prepared for only by being led away from its possibility. The expectation isn’t ebb but flow, and it continues for several lines beyond line four until we encounter the word “suddenly,” and then it continues on again.
Two things in particular make line four’s stop effective. One, it’s a double stop, as aforementioned. Two, the stop was set up by a few spondees in lines two and three—particularly line three. Starting with “broad beans in flower / their white fragrance,” the brief pattern of accented feet is spondee followed by trochee (bear in mind this poem is not metrical, so applying these terms isn’t an entirely accurate use of metrical nomenclature). So: BROAD BEANS, FLOWer; WHITE FRAGrance, FLOWing; FIRST LIGHT, MORNing. Notice the repletion of F. Notice, too, the third stress in each pair is followed by exactly one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. When we get to there, this is not the case: we have three unstressed syllables in a row. What’s more, the spondees give the language an energy that sort of continues to regenerate itself, much like a repeater amplifies electrical current or cable reception. So, by the time we hit there, we have expectations in place and we have a definite energy and speed with which we’re coursing through the poem. We hit that there with a resounding BAM!
This matters, of course, because it isn’t the climb up the hill that is important to the speaker of “Alba,” it’s what he witnesses “a little way up the mountain.” Until then, this walk is more or less routine. Then the man and his mule stop the speaker immediately upon discovery. It’s as though the speaker has come on some intimate scene between this farmer and his beast of burden, as though his innocent morning stroll has become a clear and present invasion of privacy. The poem is weirdly voyeuristic that way. For the speaker, who remains undetected by the objects of his affection, it’s quite a moment. Time has stopped; the universe has stopped. Though he doesn’t understand the farmer’s words, he understands the beauty of the relationship among them—that is to say among the farmer, his mule, and the crop they cultivate, all of which gives the speaker pleasure.
“Learning To Make An Oud In Nazareth,” The New Yorker October 27, 2008
“Learning To Make An Oud” is built in six ten-line stanzas with lines generally on the longer side. It bears the guise of a fairly easy-to-follow narrative, but a handful of italicized lines throw the story out of kilter by telling an imbedded story whose plotline is more loosely tethered. As such, though the narrative mode dominates, the poem’s lyrical moments add a layer of difficulty and disjointedness.
Basically, this poem is a devotional. Through all but the last five lines, it easily enough could be a love poem in the voice of a woman (wife?) describing her love for a man (husband?). He is an oud luthier (see a pic of an oud and hear the oud here) who on “the first day . . . cut rosewood for the back” of the stringed instrument and on the fifth day “whittle[d] an eagle feather, a plectrum / to celebrate the angel of improvisation,” effectively finishing the piece. The body is inlaid with gold, with graceful decorations of “ivory swan,” and replete with detail that makes this oud (and its maker) quite a bit better than average. It’s “tuning pegs,” for example, are made “of apricot / to give a good smell when rubbed.” How very nice! Other images point to tender loving care, too. The swans circling the oud’s soundhole are “a valentine of entangled necks.” My very favorite image of endearment arrives in stanza four as Padel finishes off a metaphor about the plectrum—the pick—made “to celebrate the angel of improvisation / who dwells in clefts of the Nazareth ridge / where love waits—and grows, if you give it time.” With its Vs (and the near-V in clefts), short Es (as in plectrum and cleft) and increasingly iambic gait, it’s a pretty passage. It’s unexpected, too—really the first time (maybe the only time) Padel carries any a metaphor very far past its original application (she started the moment by talking about a pick, ended it by talking about love waiting and possibly growing in a cave). In fact, it is only metaphor to stretch across two lines, the others (two in the second stanza, one in the third) are short and to the point.
Because this narrative part of the poem—the majority of the poem—is lacking in figurative language and is very chronological organized (four of the six stanzas begin with “The [insert # of day here] day . . .), its easy to follow. There’s little to have to think about although the language is generally acoustically pleasant and interesting (as in the second stanza: “He damascened a rose of horn / with arabesques / as lustrous as under-leaves of olive beside the sea,” which is followed a few words later with the sly, internal rhyme “soul loves”), the lines have a sense of rhythm, and the images of the oud’s construction (“rosewood . . . sycamore . . . . camel-bone” and so on) are crisp and specific.
The italicized lines are no less interesting, but they are more loosely put together: the first set details the methodical construction of an instrument, the second the less methodical construction of a relationship. As well, the voice of the first seems to be the woman speaking to her audience—poet to readers. The voice of the second is a combination of the speaker talking to the lover and to us, which can make things a tad confusing. The fact that the italicized portions are set apart from each other by at least several lines adds to this disjointedness. Smashed together, separated only by respective line and stanza breaks, they are in their entirety as follows:
Let us go early to the vineyard
and see if the vines have budded
I sat down under his shadow with delight.
I have found him whom my soul loves.
His left hand
shall be under my head.
He shall lie all night between my breasts
Our couch is green and the beams of our house
are cedar and pine.
My beloved is a cluster of camphire
in the vineyards of En-gedi.
Set me as a seal upon your heart.
I sought him and found him not.
I called but he gave no answer—
Until the day break
and shadows flee away
I will get me to the mountain of myrrh.
Come with me from Lebanon,
my spouse, look from the top
of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions’ dens.
and his banner over me was love.
So, for four stanzas, these lines signify romance although each shall suggests it is a romance that may not be realized, only desired. If so, then “Set me as a seal upon your heart” sounds more like a plead than a loving request to which the beloved will give in. This idea of requited love is reinforced by the last two stanzas in which the beloved isn’t found, in which death and suffering is referenced through the symbolism of myrrh, and by the anomalous last line/sentence, which begins with a decapitalized A. For me, that last line undercuts the lovey-doveyness of the poem. I no longer trust it.
By the end of stanza four, things in general begin to fall apart. Padel writes, “On the sixth day the soldiers came / for his genetic code. / We have no record of what happened.” I take his genetic code to mean him in general, the beloved, snatched up because of his ethnicity. The ensuing stanza likens him to Christ, persecuted in part because of his ethnicity, who stood in “the selfsame spot when . . . townsfolk tried / to throw him from the rocks.” So, the beloved is killed? Taken away? Whatever the case, he overtly becomes the speaker’s sacrificial lamb through which new life is received. The numerous references to Christ, to resurrection, and creation—all incorporated as early as the first stanza and as late as the last—turn the beloved into a martyr through which the speaker acquires a new lease on life. Strangely enough, this new life leads her to the internet where “We started over / with a child’s oud bought on eBay.” Does the mere mention of eBay make this otherwise eloquently-phrased poem trite? For me, it does—not so much because the speaker turns to her own devices to make oud-playing dreams come true, but because of the speed with which it happens. What had been pragmatic and methodical becomes capricious in comparison. And, there is potential for great power and import in the ethnic-cleansing implications of the poem’s sixth day when the soldiers come. While the poem need not go there by taking the implication further, the turn to eBay makes such implications moot—irrelevant. For me, the turn makes much of the poem irrelevant.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
“The Crossing,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2008
What I find interesting about many Gerald Stern poems, including “The Crossing,” is their unique conversationality. Reading “The Crossing” is like partaking in a conversation in which the other interlocutor never pauses long enough for you to sneak in a word, whose habit of speech is sort of convoluted arabesque, and who paces while he talks, strolling you down a sidewalk whose visual and aural distractions infiltrate his line of thought and alter the things he’s about say pretty much right as he says them. He’s easily distracted, yet manages to hang on to his main topic by a thread. He’s simultaneously determined and spontaneous.
“The Crossing” is one, twenty-six line stanza whose lines are all of a similar length, roughly five to six stresses. This matters because the line hovers around the length of a pentameter line, traditionally useful for narrative, and Stern’s poem bears at least the guise of narrative. It feels like his speaker is telling a story, even though the narrative itself is narrative only in pieces. Consider Stern’s opening line: “Not to forget that we had wooden guns once . . .” The speaker begins in medias res, just after (I get the impression) a slight pause in which his audience could’ve, but didn’t, speak up to interrupt his one-sided dialogue. We are starting this poem by continuing a conversation, as though the narrative points of who, what, where, and when have already been determined. But, they haven’t, and the poem as a whole sort of skirts the issue, compromising the narrative.
Really the poem’s a lyric that shifts quickly in time and space. Stern makes heavy use of the run-on sentence and and to transition from the various As and Bs in the poem and to create the poem’s sense of historical and present-day mingling. What begins in World War II travels backward—it doesn’t travel, actually; it just goes!—to the American Revolutionary War and then scoots quickly forward to the present. The first two transitions are reader-friendly, each occurring over a line break: “Not to forget that we had wooden guns once / just as the Germans did when they invaded / the Ruhr in 1936 and likewise / we abandoned wallpaper for paint / and there was an army of 500,000 monkeys / . . .” The opening two lines of the poem are a set-up for what’s about to occur because they are complete thoughts in-and-of-themselves: they can be made sense of when read in isolation from the surrounding context. They are comfortable and easy to read for this reason. In contrast, line three feels incomplete, lacking a verb to attach to “the Ruhr,” being more forcefully enjambed than its precursors. The very next line, however, echoes the first two by being a complete thought, thus recreating the initial comfort. This wouldn’t be a big deal except it’s in this line that Stern makes his first shift, his first transition: we move from Germany’s wooden guns in 1936 to an unspecified we who are transitioning with the times from wallpaper to paint in an unspecified time and place (perhaps this was also in 1936?). By my account, contextually, it’s a sizeable, lyric shift. But, the echo in line-making softens the blow. Things run together. Time and space—times and spaces—seem all of a piece, and the result is a gesture toward simultaneity that the poem repeats. This is the first crossing in the poem. To further illustrate this point, consider how uncrossed the lines would be if something as simple as a stanza break occurred after line three such that “we abandoned wallpaper for paint” was written after a line of white space. The pause duration would lengthen; the white space would indicate something else was about to happen. As is, without the break, the something-that-is merely carries forward, morphing content as it travels along.
Now that this first shift has taken place, the others can happen more haphazardly. Case in point, the ensuing enjambments are much more difficult than those in the first handful of lines. This works because precedence has been set and because the speaker not only has our attention, he has momentum. Enjambments keep the poem rolling down the page, as does the lack of commas, and words spilling out of the speaker’s mouth. By the poem’s end, things become so disjointed that when “we spoke Deutsche and everyone hugged / the person to his right although the left was / not out of the question,” the action still seems placed in Revolutionary Times—and it may be. The we who spoke Deutsche, however, remains unspecified, as much a contemporary we as an historical one. It’s hard to tell. The fact is readers are likely to skim over that inconsistency at this point in the poem, caught up in the speed and smoothness of transition of the speaker.
But not to completely derail his train of thought, the speaker drops a few keywords into the end of his speech to keep things connected. Yes, “hug your monkey” appears to come out of nowhere, but in live five we were informed about “an army of 500,000 monkeys.” As for the list of rivers, we’ve been talking about several rivers already. The poem makes connections here as much as it breaks new ground. It sort of circumnavigates itself, beginning with war (made silly with its wooden guns) and ending with hugs and kisses. We end where we begin, but we’ve changed.
Monday, October 27, 2008
“Poem at the Bridge at Ten-Shin,” The New Yorker October 20, 2008
This is a weird poem. It made me think of Pound’s poem by the same name, a translation of Li-Po. In that version of “Poem at the Bridge at Ten-Shin,” the speaker bears witness to the ineffable beauty of spring and to the pompous nobility who, by supplanting their own grandeur above it, miss nature’s wonders. In the end, it’s the humble Han-rei who walks away (well . . . ferries away, actually) with the girl, the others too “Haughty [in] their passing” to make away with the goods of Spring or anything. They’ve missed the boat (to make a bad pun).
But it’s difficult to tell specifically who or what Seidel is addressing (if he is) in his “Poem at the Bridge” or to say anyone escapes with the girl (or guy for that matter, to keep this blurb from becoming too stereotypical). Spring beauty and sexual verve are ever at the forefront, politics litter the poem although sparsely so, and names are named but arbitrarily so. There is no particular girl, no particular nobility. Pound, evoked immediately by Seidel’s title, becomes a springboard only, for Seidel takes his own “Bridge” in numerous nearly fragmented directions nearly at once . . . then never quite does. In fact, the title would be a total red herring if not for a few late references to Pound In the penultimate stanza, Seidel writes, “One cannot be the way one was back then today,” which seems to be a reference to “But to-day’s men are not the men of the old days” in Pound’s “Bridge.” Then, in the final stanza, he writes, “I came here . . . Behind the matchless prancing pair of Eliot and Ezra Pound.” The line that follows, “And countless moist oases took me in along the way,” makes it sound like Eliot and Pound brought Seidel’s speaker through a wasteland (another bad joke) through which he was lucky to have made it out alive. So, although each line references Pound, both simultaneously negate the reference: Seidel’s “Bridge” seems to say men are the same today as they were yesterday (ignoble, unlike Han-Rei and his poem’s sentiment) and Pound’s path, though not necessarily a mistake, was not necessarily the way to poetry’s promised-land. Two roads diverged, yadda-yadda . . . .
Seidel’s “Bridge” is seven stanzas long, and each stanza is built with fourteen lines. So, it’s only fair to say each is sonnet-esque. As well, the stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABCD-ABCC-DD-EE-FF (the hyphens are solely to help one visualize the scheme), and an overall theme of the poem is love/lust. It’s fair to say the entire beast is sonnet-esque in its way although definitely not built with sonnet. What’s odd about all this formal stuff is that this poem upholds its sequence and structure rigidly, as though it matters. The sonnet is a demanding form, and Seidel’s “Bridge” is eager to meet the aforementioned demands of length, end-rhyme, and theme. However, its content is all over the place, bound by a loose fascia of ideas, some political, some lusty. Many lusty.
And, as is the trouble with poems about drugs, drinking, or lust, once that idea is felt and/or understood clearly by the reader, it can’t be shaken. Thus, once readers hit the last two lines of the first stanza — the eloquent “Between my legs it’s Baudelaire. / He wrote about her Central Park of hair.” — it’s all over. The poem becomes almost strictly about sex, even if it isn’t. Recall those oases that kept the poem’s speaker in good health while he followed Pound? They ain’t just any “moist oases” anymore. Nothing moist in this poem is simply moist; it’s a particular kind of moist from a particular kind of oasis. And neither the poem nor its speaker can escape it.
Yes, this is a ribald work. In places the result is rather trite. In others it’s rather amusing. One of my favorite such moments is from the first stanza: “My darling is a platform I see stars from in the dark, / And all the dogs begin to bark.” Seidel lifts me up with the first line, then drops me down with the second. Ahhh, so it is with pleasure, poetry or otherwise. I also like the last line of stanza two, “I put my mobile in her ampersand,” the last line of stanza three, “Love of cuntry makes men stupid, “and the opening of stanza five, “I knew a beauty named Dawn Green. / I used to wake at the crack of Dawn.” Simple, silly pleasures.
There’s a smattering of politics in the poem with references to New York and an airplane, Nixon, the current U.S. appellate court Judge Pierre Leval, and Iraq, but I think Seidel could’ve thrown about anything into this poem and made it work just as well. With all the sex, it’s hard to see how anything else in the poem matters. And that may be the point. In the last line Seidel writes, “The rotting ocean swallows the bombed airliner that’s missing.” It sounds like nonsense — as does much of the piece — but it reminds me nevertheless of Pound’s version of “Bridge.” Either seems to indicate that time moves on without the present; the partying nobles in Pound’s Li-Po translation are idiots because they believe in their permanence; so much in Seidel’s poem is idiotic because it plays with permanence, with relevancy. In the end, the poem’s political name-dropping won’t matter. It’s airliner won’t matter. In the sky or in the ocean, in the great plane boneyard south of Tucson, the plane won’t be what defines America, Al-Qaeda, or humanity, nor will it be what energizes the longevity of any of those factions. The answer to eternal life, to a noble life, is much simpler (and much dirtier) than that.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
“Mu Chi’s Persimmons,” The New Yorker October 20, 2008
Like much of Snyder’s work, “Mu Chi’s Persimmons” has a simple, straightforward approach to its readers. Its language is simple, though not unvaried, conversational, and rooted in natural image. As well, much of the rhythm is chopped into very palatable units such that the poem feels very tenderly, carefully paced, which grants much of it a certain humility and grace, at least until the very end where the poem speeds up.
Like a scroll, “Mu Chi’s Persimmons” is built vertically. By that I mean the lines are on the shorter side, and the poem (though it’s broken across two pages in The New Yorker) reads up-and-down as opposed to side-to-side as a result. In contrast, even though we still read them down the page, poems with longer lines generally read horizontally. Because all but one or two of Snyder’s lines are under ten syllables, “Persimmons” maintains a vertical appearance. The 13 short stanzas, all but one that’s three lines or less, also push the poem down the page, and the white space between creates a slowly unfolding scroll-like effect. Though the poem is short, it takes time and consideration to be read. I get the feeling each stanza should be considered in and of itself, that each acts as a thought unit, a meditation object as much as it acts as a smaller piece of the whole.
Virtually any stanza can be examined to see how Snyder creates this effect, so consider his opening, a simple sentence that begins with a prepositional phrase (a one line stanza), continues with the verbal half (another one line stanza) of a passive-voice sentence and culminates with the subject half (a couplet) of that passive-voice sentence that interestingly doesn’t end with a period: “On a back wall down the hall // lit by a side glass door // is a scroll of Mu Chi’s great / sumi painting, ‘Persimmons’.” The lines/stanzas are carefully cadenced. You can’t read them swiftly—well, you can, but you’d miss their elegance. It’s like Snyder is leading readers around a corner in his house, down a hall, asking us to actually look at and admire this work as it physically hangs in his house. There’s even a sense of pride in his speaker’s voice when he, like a tour guide might, explains bits of the painting that have nothing to do with the painting itself but with how its been hung (by him): “The wind-weights hanging from the / axles hold it still” and “I chose the mounting elements myself / with the advice of the mounter . . .”
Like the single-line stanzas, a number of the enjambments keep the poem slowly moving. The first line in stanza four, for example, ends with the word the, which sort of makes the line float off into space, incomplete as both thought and grammatical phrase. As well, the line is longer than what will follow it—roughly double the length—which helps create this floating effect: “The wind-weights hanging from the / axles hold it still.” The shorter, second line, in contrast, is a complete thought and phrase (clause, actually), which brings the stanza to a close with a satisfying sense of complettion. The poem’s movement has stopped; the stanza must be read slowly, ultimately. The brief, succeeding description of the painting works in similar fashion to keep the poem’s movement carefully modulated: “Perfect statement of emptiness / no other than form // the twig and the stalk still on, / the way they sell them in the / market even now.” Each line requires its due consideration even though some lines may be read more quickly than others. And, when the reading speeds up, a particular enjambment, like the aforementioned, or white space slows it back down.
The exception to these meditative stanzas is the one long(er) stanza in which Snyder’s semi-lyric becomes narrative. Here, though the lines are roughly the same length and build as their precursors, the poem speeds up. This one stanza lumps seven lines together (roughly as many lines as there are in the first five stanzas!) and the last four of them all contain verbs, which keeps the action rolling. But these are real persimmons the speaker’s talking about now, and he’s not just talking about them—he’s eating them, “suck[ing] the sweet orange goop . . . gripping a little twig . . .” He’s relishing them over the sink with a joy equal to but very different from that which he experiences in the presence of Mu-Chi’s painting. You can practically feel the goop, see its juice running down to the speaker’s elbow. It’s a deliciously rough image not altogether unlike that of a barbarian who grips a mutton leg to tear into its meat.
So, we have two sets of persimmons: those in the painting, and those in the speaker’s mouth and belly. The first set, Mu-Chi’s, are described with elegance and mindfulness; the second, the speaker’s, are described with violence (in comparison) and unchecked physical drive. As such, they allow the poem a nice contrast and tension that mirrors Mu-Chi’s work. Sumi, or sumi-e, is work of opposites—yin-yang, for example. You can see this in the actual persimmons painting with its black-and-white contrast, its empty and full fruits, and you can see this in the two persimmon sets in Snyder’s poem. The idea is that by bringing each opposing side together, a harmony rather than conflict can be created. So, in the poem, only the combination of a mental and physical digestion of persimmons can bring the speaker to a complete understanding of them. One or the other by itself is insufficient.
But, to keep this poem from moralizing that fact, Snyder ends with a quick and quippy last line: “those painted persimmons // sure cure hunger.” The three stresses in a row coupled with the repeated R sound move readers swiftly through the line, as though the speaker can’t wait to take another bite. And, the line makes light of the poem’s epigraph by suggesting the painting cures hunger by making its viewers seek out real persimmons, thus satisfying physical desire with food for the belly and not just food for thought. The bottom line? Because the speaker’s been mindful of Mu-Chi’s work, because he’s first digested those fruits, these from “Mike and Barbara’s orchard” are even better than they should be.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
“Nymph and Shepherd,” The New Yorker October 20, 2008
It wasn’t until the third stanza that I realized this poem was more or less strictly about sex: “I plunged, I plugged, I twisted, and I sighed,” Hall’s shepherd admits, but only the nymph “achieved death’s Paradise routinely.” Until these lines, this nonce villanelle has, at least contextually, a more somber feel to it, even melancholic. As it turns out however, the poem is about play.
As a villanelle, the poem does have its repetons, though the lines themselves are not wholly repeated. Only the endwords died and tried are. The rest of the endwords maintain the villanelle’s ABA rhyme scheme. The poem is also one tercet short of the usual villanelle length, but since Hall’s work is a nonce form, I suppose that’s neither here nor there. The poem does progress nicely from stanza to stanza, however, so that the feel of the poem matures with the revision of each repeton, a final villanelle requirement.
The poem begins in gloom. Hall’s phrase “nymph of fatality” in the poem’s second line has a dire ring to it, something akin to angel of death although not as heavy-handed. The word “lethal” in line six bears a similar connotation; we think of lethal, and we think of deadly, as in lethal/deadly force. So, a certain darkness, a certain element of fear infuses the first two stanzas of “Nymph and Shepherd” although the foundation of the poem’s lighter side is also being set. For one, it’s odd that for all this danger, the poem’s speaker—the shepherd—seems little effected: he can’t die (well, except for once). What’s more, the nymph is enjoying all this. Hall writes, “She whooped, she laughed, she cried / as she contrived each fresh mortality.” What fun! And, the deaths are contrived, which, for me, suggests they are not as real—literally—as they could seem. The nymph is more clever, creative, and spontaneous with mortality than she is definite, premeditated, and deadly.
In the third, middle stanza, Hall tells us that the nymph “achieved death’s Paradise routinely,” and the cat is now completely out of the bag. This nymph is the Amazon of the orgasm, coming and going at will over the poor shepherd who just can’t match her skill and joy with sex. “I plunged, I plugged, I twisted, and I sighed,” he says; “I lagged however zealously I tried” while “[s]he writhed, she bucked, she rested, and, astride, / She posted, cantering on top of me . . .” She’s a love machine; he’s just a body there to operate it. Poor guy.
All in all, it could be argued that “Nymph and Shepherd” is a rather trite, typical, male-centered sex poem, and that’s probably true from one angle. It does idolize the woman love-goddess. On the other hand, it could also be argued that the poem twists male/female sexual roles by making the female nymph the aggressor, the seat of power, and the male shepherd the flat-backed receiver of overzealous, oblivious lovemaking. I don’t care about either of those readings particularly. What I do care about is the poem’s playfulness, its willingness to enjoy form and fun. I remember being told once that poetry was not ever about fun, never about “play,” that it must always be something serious and, therefore, taken seriously. And, sure, poetry should be taken seriously, but it’s egregious to think poetry isn’t also playful. Anybody who considers themselves a serious poet, as in a practicing poet, must enjoy language for the sake of language, for its cling and clang in both mouth and ear, for its obvious wordplay, for its fun. Donald Hall’s “Nymph and Shepherd” is a case in point.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
“Eclogue,” The New Yorker
This piece by Reece grooves on sound. This is not to say the narrative isn’t interesting, but really it’s the acoustic craft that, for me, makes the poem worthwhile.
The story is this: Joseph Saul is an Alzheimer’s patient who hasn’t yet fully crossed over into the land of total detachment. Laurie McGraw, “whom he met at the Alzheimer’s Support Group,” is his friend/lover of sorts. Reece writes, “she had been a caregiver,” but it doesn’t appear she’s Saul’s caregiver, at least not occupationally. Anyway, they’re at the park feeding ducks, having a good time by connecting and not connecting. They have found a unique harmony in that they never quite seem connected to each other, but it’s precisely in this way that the two are bound. They share a loneliness and futility. And that’s basically that. More or less, the poem is what the title claims it is, a contemporary eclogue.
As for sound, Reece is fond of staccato-rhythms caused primarily by short words and hard consonants. Assonance and consonance also work heavily toward this end. Consider these lines from stanza three: “On her day off, she washed her blind dog / with soap . . . . The duck strutted in uniformed plume, / greasy black-green, speckled red-pate . . .” The language oscillates—here and in other places—between sort of an iambic/anapestic lilt and the hard spondee of, in the above case, blind dog, duck strut(ted), black green, and red-pate. It keeps the ear engaged and keeps the poem progressing nicely through moments of calm and moments of activity, perhaps akin to the poem’s characters. Like them, the rhythm seems to find its harmony in disparity.
The above passage also demonstrates Reece’s play with assonance and consonance, which furthers this homogenizing of sound. In the first line, he repeats the O in On: “On her day off, she washed her blind dog” (italics mine). The D in dog gets repeated throughout the stanza as does the P in plume, which occurs two lines later (a few Ps are actually placed in between these lines). In fact, I would argue that this poem is primarily dominated by P and D sounds as early as the first stanza, as late as the last: “In Juno Beach, on Pelican Lake, / Joseph Saul ate potato chips off a paper plate / and fed the broken bits to a duck” and “the duck’s scufflings as Laurie made a note / to arrange another semidetached date.”
Often Reece’s assonance is very close to rhyme, but the rhyme is usually internal and its placement shifting. Consider a few lines spanning the second and third stanzas:
. . . she had been a caregiver, he had a diagnosis,
and together their eyes vacantly connected.
Laurie spelled her name with a large dot
or a star atop the “i.” A born-again,
with two failed marriages so far,
she sent Joseph pamphlets in the mail . . .
The first internal rhyme here is caregiver and together; the next, dot and atop stretches across stanzas; then star and far, at the end of the line; and, failed and mail, also at the end of the line. Notice, too, the Ds, Ps, and hard Cs (K) are ever-present, as is the poem’s roving spondee.
All in all, these tools of our trade make Reece’s poem a fun read and, I think, a unique one among much of contemporary poetry, often devoid of high quality music because it’s either utterly prosaic (but über-intelligent and thoughtful, I assure you) or too fragmented and airy to have its phrases be long enough to generate a music, sort of like a bad drum circle. “Eclogue,” on the other hand, is all about its aural play; the rest of the poem, including content, is simply accoutrement.
“The Way,” The New Yorker October 13, 2008
Goldbarth’s “The Way” is about measurement, measurement as the way to understanding the world we live in, be it your block of the city or our orb in the universe. In places, this measuring act seems futile, even silly, given our small existence; in others, particularly the poem’s end, it seems nevertheless appropriate.
Goldbarth begins with a flat assertion: “The sky is random.” A short, simple sentence devoid of filigree and elegance, it sets a straightforward tone for much of the poem, also largely made of somewhat emotionless assertions. The word random is key here as the poem progresses by discussing ways with which we try to give the chaos order. “Even calling it ‘sky’,” Goldbarth writes, “is an attempt to make meaning . . . . It’s what / we do . . . entirely / what we do.” We try to organize the randomness in order to place it in perspective.
Though the first stanza isn’t overly adorned with images, each sentence a claim rather than a description, it does ring nicely on the ear. The lines are not pentameter, but they are loosely iambic—a pattern that continues—and the sounds are present and varied. There is the ghost of end rhyme here with “sky,” “say,” “part,” “what, “what” as the AABBB end words of lines 1-5 respectively. The last end word of the stanza (line 6) is the anomaly “rose.” But, this anomaly is fitting. The quasi-end rhyme here matches the poem’s claim that we attempt to place meaning and order on things that likely lack them or whose existence is beyond human comprehension. Our ability to cogitate the universe is simply too weak for the job. So, here we have the ghost of formalities: the hint of meter, the hint of rhyme scheme, organizational methods that do not quite (fully) organize the stanza but that are nonetheless, perhaps inevitably so, in use. This is analogous to our labeling the sky sky in “an attempt to make meaning . . . of shapelessness in endlessness.” Sky fails to encompass everything aboveground from a few inches above our heads to the moon and stars and beyond, but it nevertheless puts that range of distances in a workable perspective. It is a word we’ve come to understand and whose meaning (ultimately arbitrary) we agree upon without discussion. It is an imperfect descriptor that organizes nothing more than our ability to think about the vast space above; it does nothing to the vast space.
Back to sound—Goldbarth’s is generally pretty tight through this first stanza. The first two lines are well-linked via M sounds in “random,” “attempt,” “make,” and “meaning, the next two lines connect with P sounds, and the last two with W sounds. Again, as with the other nods toward formality, none of these repetitions are over the top. They are not obvious alliterations, they are not highly decorative internal rhymes, they are not tongue-twisting attention getters. Really the only obvious sound-play is in line four: “of shapelessness in endlessness.” It’s impossible to read through the area without having to pay special attention to that phrase with its brief parallel of rhythm and rhyme.
Directly following is another parallel, an actual verbatim repetition caused by linebreak. Goldbarth writes: “. . . in endlessness. It’s what / we do, in some ways it’s entirely what / we do—. . . .” We have two lines that end with “what” and two lines that begin with “we do.” This is an important enjambment because the question what is important to the poem: it’s the what (and why) of our existence that we seem driven to answer. The poem has contended that our world is shapelessness, but we still try to give it “a meaning . . . a shape” anyway. We can’t help it. Of course, if the world is truly shapeless, then the shape we impose upon it is misleading; it’s false, actually, because it doesn’t rightfully exist. But, we do it anyway, as though compelled. We must answer the question. We’re genetically wired to do so.
The placement of “we do” emphasizes this compulsion in several ways. First, it’s at the beginning of the line, so it automatically grabs reader attention by being preceded with a slight aural pause and a clear physical one. Second, it’s preceded by the word “what” whose hard T forces our breath to abruptly stop, furthering the pause caused by the enjambment. It helps gather reader attention at both the line end and the ensuing line beginning. Third, the rhythm staccatos a little, adding emphasis in a way the preceding four lines of iambs just didn’t do. The first “we do” can be read as iambic, set up by the iambic “It’s what . . .” that precedes it. The second “we do,” however, sounds more like a spondee than an iamb, and the double-stresses emphasis the meaning of the language. In effect, it morphs the “we do” into something akin to we make, as in we make meaning, even where there isn’t any precedent for it. We can’t help it. It’s what “we do”: we make, we think, we compartmentalize.
Goldbarth uses much of the aforementioned devices through the succeeding three stanzas, but their formality potential decreases as the poem lengthens. By the fourth, last stanza, the iamb is no longer a consistent player, and in fact the poem ends in trochees, the iamb’s opposite: “ . . . but could only say it in counting.” As well, there’s really no semblance of end rhyme anymore, and there’s no use of line break to draw reader attention to a particular phrase. The last break of the poem is the only exception: commenting on Wordsworth’s ten thousand daffodils, Goldbarth writes, “by which he meant / too many to count, but could only say it in counting.” Again, he uses the hard T at one line’s end, and though it’s softened a bit by the preceding N in “meant,” it still stops our breath, especially when combined with the T in “too” on the next line. The enjambment emphasizes content that, for me, sums up the poem. Wordsworth had no way of accounting for this vast field of flowers, so he slaps an arbitrary, large number on it—ten thousand. But, that number is meaningless and inaccurate. It is not a good way to literally, physically gauge the number of flowers in the field. A scientific survey of these flowers—of the universe—would never be so seemingly slapdash. The problem (the poem suggests) is Wordsworth couldn’t organize the field in any other way; ironically, the only way he could account for something that could not be counted was to, well, count it anyway.
The middle stanzas of “The Way” provide various versions of this futile organizational attempt, the way being repeated three times to emphasize this inevitable thing we do, this path we take toward making/finding meaning. Interestingly, the use of language as the way seems to be the common ground for each stanza, regardless of the talk of galaxies and telescopes, of Dorothy Wordsworth and her perambulator. It’s “our language [that] scissors the enormity to scales / we can tolerate,” not science, not religion. Thus, the poem begins with sky as an abstract word more so than an object; thus, it ends with direct reference to Wordsworth’s “I Wander’d Lonely as a Cloud,” returning readers full circle to the sky via language, via poetry, via the way.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
“Electra Woman,” The New Yorker October 13, 2008
I don’t have a lot to say about Dietrich’s “Electra Woman.” One reason is that it continually tells me what “you,” meaning me, the reader, are doing, and I don’t care for poems that tell me what to do, etc. This, of course, has nothing to do with a poem’s craft. It’s simply the way I’m built as a reader of poetry in terms of innate likes and innate dislikes. That having been said, the poem is funny, unnerving, and somewhat too predictable.
“Electra Woman” is a twenty-line, single-stanza piece whose longish lines swing someplace between ten and fourteen syllables. The opening three lines are iambic, but much of what follows are lines with shifting stresses: “You come home to find Electra Woman / and Dyna Girl in bed. You know they’ve been up / to something. Freddie the Flute’s all sticky. / It is, you might say, disconcerting. At least / one of them isn’t a witch, black skirts all akimbo . . .” This is notable only because this brief pentameter sets up a formality and feel that the poem seems designed to break; it is a set up afterall, reflecting the poem’s contrast in content. As for much of the prosody, it’s prosaic, particularly the middle of the piece wherein three back-to-back sentences begin with time-signal phrases: “Later . . . . At one point . . . . After the dust clears . . .” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this; simply, the language sounds a lot like prose—that’s all. The line breaks, which don’t appear to be used for rhythm and pacing, add to this prose-paragraph feel as they don’t, as a whole, create effects other than getting us from one line to the next.
The poem’s allure is its contextual contrast: the “Electra Woman” of the title, as well as the names dropped throughout, are characters from the Krofft Supershow or Krofft Power Hour, live-action kids shows from the Seventies. As references to these shows, they, on one hand, evoke nostalgia for the simpler times of childhood. Even though I’ve never seen these programs, I feel it too: Saturday mornings, sugared cereal, toonies. On the other hand, Dietrich’s use of them is sexual, which strips them of their innocence and playfulness (though the poem remains playful) by placing them in an adult context: “Electra Woman / and Dyna Girl [are] in bed . . . . Freddie the Flute’s all sticky . . . . you join / in . . .” The innuendos are obvious, and they all lead directly to the poem’s predictable ending: “you used to wait for, want, them all . . . live girls . . .” It turns the Power Hour into a twisted loss of innocence that was, for me, a known theme as early as line four, if not earlier. As a result, for me, the poem doesn’t really go anywhere. It ends where it begins with little added, other than plot and sexual play, by its middle.
Nevertheless, I find the last line interesting: “You will feel like you’ve been puffing stuff.” The Krofft creators claimed their shows and characters were without drug references, but much as it doesn’t take a pornographer to see the double-meanings in Dietrich’s piece, it doesn’t take a drug user to recognize them in the Power Hour either. Intentional or not, the references are there. So, the last line does bring in an extra element commenting on the Krofft shows in general. Perhaps that’s what all the sexual gimmick is for: the poem isn’t about sex, it’s about denying it, about ignoring it, about convincing yourself it isn’t there. Perhaps, precisely, that’s the joke.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
“Romanesque,” The New Yorker October 6, 2008
What I find interesting about “Romanesque” is its pairing of food with religion, particularly the Pentecost. There’s slight Apocalyptic reference in it, too, which could be a bearer of bad tidings. But, in Warren’s poem, it seems almost wonderful, an irresistible, melt-in-your-mouth revelation.
The first hint—foreshadowing, really, since at this point religious grandeur hasn’t entered the poem—of this culinary apocalypse occurs in line two: “Onions give up the ghost, flesh sizzles . . .” This is very much reminiscent of a Raiders of the Lost Ark moment: ghost-like apparitions fly out of the Ark of the Convenant shortly after it’s opened, killing any and all whose eyes witness the Ark’s holy contents (there’s Biblical precedence for this Hollywood version . . .). If your eyes were closed, you lived. If they were open, God’s forces closed them for you, eternally. And, so, though Warren is writing about food and never takes her imagery to such cinematic melodrama, the line is not without its religious connotation, albeit in hindsight. She subtly emphasizes this by accumulating S sounds in those words—“. . . ghost, flesh sizzles . . .”—most important in this regard. The entire line is lush with S, as are those above and below it, which snaps the ear to attention, but the acoustic climax is smack dab in the center of the poem:
Morning: smells of serious cooking float in the street.
Onions give up the ghost, flesh sizzles, a metal spoon
clinks on a dish.
The next apocalyptic moment is prolonged and, therefore, becomes much more obvious. Warren writes, “You saw light leak from my eyes . . . . Christ barely balances / in his almond chafing dish, Pentecostal fire / hurls out to the Apostles left and right, / they’re microwaved.” You can feel God’s judgment in these lines, the utter destruction of the world, no exceptions, as both speaker and Apostles are effectively nuked. Pentecostal fire does, obviously, reference the Pentecost, too. This is the moment when the Holy Spirit zapped the Apostles—in a good way—filling them with well-deserved holiness after Christ’s post-Resurrection return to Heaven. So, when the Apostles are microwaved in “Romanesque,” they are simultaneously reaching the end of their days and being rewarded by the commanding power of God (bear in mind, this is all coming about at a (farmers?) market, which must be one hell of a place).
After recounting this gastronomical version of the Pentecost, Warren plainly writes, “In the market, I bought lettuces as frilled, / scalloped, unfurled, and rainbow-hued . . .” The opening of the sentence echoes “On the tympanum, Christ barely balances,” two sentences previous, in that it is the only other to begin with a prepositional phrase. However, the loaded language of the former is now removed. Instead of talking about Christ, we’re talking about lettuce. And we’re doing it in plain language that’s slowed down first by the prepositional phrase and second by the short list of lettuce descriptors frilled, scalloped, unfurled, and rainbow-hued. This little juxtaposition of charged language with plain language runs throughout the poem, in effect keeping readers grounded in the market, not in the Apocalypse (or Pentecost), and thus in the revelatory grandeur of the market’s odors and tastes. The metaphor enhances the immediate experience of the speaker—and reader—but never takes over. We never actually enter Revelations; we never truly witness the Holy Spirit or Christ. When Warren writes, “On the tympanum Christ barely balances / in his almond chafing dish,” which is a warming pan, Christ remains basically figurative. True, he may physically be present in the sculpted scene of the tympanum, but he’s only literally an object here, a sculpted representation of Christ, not the Christ. As Warren imposes that scene onto the chafing dish, he becomes figurative, still not really the Jesus Christ. This allows Warren some spiritual energy without having to make the poem a religious poem, that is to say a Christian poem. It uses Christian imagery but primarily to enhance our experience of this fantabulous cooking and produce at the market. This is a spiritual experience for the speaker, but it is not a religious one.
The poem ends with an interesting moment in that the lettuces, not the speaker, receive the glory of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me the obvious, usual way to end this poem is to have the speaker receive the glory of God, but in “Romanesque,” it’s the lettuces who find themselves so lucky. Warren writes, “the sun touched each sweet leaf / till it trembled and spoke in tongues.” What I like about this ending is that it uses the Pentecost to generate some quality imagery—it’s weird for anyone, much less lettuce, to speak in tongues—but it’s preempted with the sun that did the touching, not the Holy Spirit. This single image keeps the poem and its readers in the market. We can witness the sun rising over a nearby awning or EZ-up and slamming into the lettuce leaves, turning their colors vibrant. It would quite a bit too much if God really reached out and touched lettuce leaves, especially you believe you’re one of the Chosen.
What this has to do with “Romanesque”? Aside from the imagery of the church—from the demons to Christ to the Pentecost—very little. The poem ain’t about architecture, but about spiritual glory. The speaker bears witness to the hallelujah of the market similar to the way those Apostles received the hallelujah of the Holy Spirit. It’s an amazing morning for her wherever she is, whatever farmer’s market she’s wandering through, dazed.
Monday, October 6, 2008
“Tag,” The New Yorker October 6, 2008
“Tag” is a relationship poem in two parts. Part one, titled THIS, is a 17 line stanza followed by a one-liner; part two, titled YOUR, is one 11 line stanza built with a few particular oddities that distinctly separate it from the former.
The overall gist is this: it’s the first full month of Spring, and the speaker (let’s say a woman though nothing in the poem necessarily indicates it) bears witness to the world in rejuvenation; however, she feels separated from it, unnatural in her feelings, which seem locked not in rebirth but in (re)loss. The images of trees and their “red branches,” “green shoot areas,” and a “river, that one” are stand-ins for the new life of the new year. Water’s flowing; flowers are blooming. And these items of nature have fought hard for “their scraped-out place” in the world with an appetite for more than just survival. Carson begins the poem (the THIS excepting) with “Insatiable April,” and the poem’s tone is set: the world of nature is taking over with a hunger that cannot be satisfied. It’s impossible not to think of Eliot’s The Waste Land here: “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain. Memory, desire, cruelty—these are things with which “Tag” will become concerned.
Interestingly, Carson’s speaker would seem to share this hunger, this longing for new life budding out of the old, but her appetite is discreet from Spring’s. She says, “I have longed for people before, I have loved people before” and “I walk and walk with cold hands . . . . [there is] nothing to carry longing away.” The word longing bears with it a sense of loss that insatiable desire doesn’t; the former suggests a need for something the speaker never had, perhaps, or cannot regain, and the latter suggests a need that is being met, that is being regained…it’s just never enough. In the poem, there’s never enough dirt and water for the world of Spring although it gobbles all it can. The speaker, on the other hand, isn’t gobbling anything, her loss total. A few details illustrate this difference, one being the speaker’s cold hands, a clear reference to the past since the poem is set in April. She’s stuck in winter while the natural world turns red and green with Spring’s vitality. She’s at odds with the world, with moving forward. She says, “I surprised a goose and she hissed,” directly relating this conflict. The bottom line is Carson’s speaker is an isolated woman. Why? She explains she has “loved people before,” but “[i]t was not like this. // Give me a world, you have taken the world I was.”
Carson’s lineation and phrasing adds to the drama a bit, too. The odd, stand-alone tags THIS and YOUR don’t clearly reference their objects. The stanzas themselves, particularly the first, are built with short fragments, sentences, and the occasional splice—a variety of incongruently phrased phrases. As well, every line in the poem’s first half is endstopped, placing each on its own level whether or not it resonates with those immediately above and below it. Most of these stops are periods: total.
The poem’s second half begins sort of the same way and in places has the feel of fragmentation and incongruity—largely caused by the dashes, the opening parentheses, and brackets—but what follows is built as a long sentence with a few awkward enjambments and a few hard, dash-indicated endstops. Lines and ideas flow into and out of each other here, and it’s difficult to tell how what pairs with what. Grammatically, the “Feigned leap” that begins the long sentence describes the “I” that is the sentence’s grammatical subject, which is poetically strange and difficult to interpret, though a feigned leap does seem to fit the speaker who isn’t leaping into the river or Spring or anything else, who is stuck in the source of her loss.
The teeny inklings of narrative in the first half of the poem have disappeared in part two, as well: no sense of setting, no sense of immediate action. This is very much an internalized, thinking speaker we’re dealing with now. The brackets demonstrate in real-time her loss for words, among other things: “river glimpsed through bare / [waiting] / [some noun] for how thought breaks up around you not here . . . “ The speaker seems literally to be waiting for inspiration, and readers get to fill in the missing pieces, as bracketed, when she comes up short. Are these bare branches she’s looking through, an analogy to the winter of her heart and mind? “Thought breaks up,” she says, “around you not here . . .”
Thus, the signs of the day—“what Hölderlin calls die Tageszeichen”—are unhealable wounds, scars that cover up unrelinquishable pain from a loss so total the speaker’s no longer capable of recognizing what should be fully recognizable, her lover’s handwriting, a signature (pardon the pun) trait. The real signs of the day—the nature imagery in the first half—are hidden to her. As well, she doesn’t know to whom these mentioned addresses belong, which only adds to her loss. Whoever they were, there were others . . . lovers, friends, who knows.
In some ways, she’s become IT, so to speak, the loser. She’s been tagged, labeled, and with her lover out of the picture, she has no one to touch.