Sunday, July 27, 2008

>Dorothea Tanning's "Never Mind"

>"Never Mind," The New Yorker 7.28.08

Though I enjoy Tanning’s paintings, I don’t love this poem (perhaps I'd find her others more interesting).  Still, it’s remarkable she continues her late-late in life writing endeavor.  She was born in 1910; her first book of poems, Table of Content, debuted in 2004.

Like so much poetry these days (including my own), “Never Mind” is a narcissistic, ego-centric poem, though the redundancy of narcissistic egocentrism is partially its point.  Despite the opening two lines (from which the title is drawn), the poem still expects us to keep reading, as though its speaker believes we’ll find the piece—we’ll find her—as interesting as she does: “Never mind the pins / And needles I am on.”  No problem, I say.  May I now continue to read the article on medical pot in which you’re poem is embedded?  What do I care about your pins and needles?

Two lines later Tanning writes the word “torture,” which I don’t normally associate with pins or needles, and a few odd images like “the toaster / Eating toast.”  The tone is self-indulgent paranoia, and the speaker just can’t seem to make sense of what appears to be a very normal, sense-making world.  And if that’s the poem’s gist, that the quotidian routine of the world just doesn’t make sense, then I think I’ve heard that one before.  This is not to condemn "Never Mind" for offering nothing new but to say it just isn’t catching my interest, at least not yet.

The second stanza projects the scene from a personal, domestic strangeness to one imposed on strangers, a man bicycling across a bridge and whom the speaker supposes will lose metaphorical life after losing literal limb (including his penis) and his “sad wife” whom the speaker wonders will have an affair with a “Computer wizard called in / … to deal with glitches.”  The joke here involves the wife: is she sad because her husband lost “his left leg”?  Or, is she upset he lost “his penis … / To fearlessness”?  In either case, the ensuing PC fixer-upper fills the role of the grubby-handed Adonis plumber, of the pheromone-laden mailman (suggested in hindsight by the appearance of a mailman in the first stanza), and the poem takes a sardonic little journey into further such pornographic conjectures.  The speaker not only has lost the proportions of her own life but the life of these innocents, too.  Silly speaker.

The last stanza does more of the same, though with better, more-telling imagery, and finally the poem goes somewhere other than irony and glibness—or it approaches them from a different path.  In the confusion of a flood that seems to have ravished the neighborhood, the speaker’s “sister grabbed her / Silver hand mirror” and “The dog yelped constantly, / Tipping our canoe.”  Even in times of crisis, it seems, we can think only of ourselves.  Rather than grabbing each other, or photographs of each other, or whatever might (should?) seem important, we—via the sister—reach for ourselves by saving our own ass and image.  Even the dog, that age old symbol of fidelity, is willing to sink the ship in order to see itself floating safely downriver.  “Silly dog,” Tanning writes.

And there you have it.  Whether in times of pseudo-crisis or actual life-encroaching devastation, the game is played in pretty much the same way: you don’t mind me, and I don’t mind you.  Each piece of flotsam for itself.  I don’t know if this means the poem indicts human nature or not, but it seems a woman approaching 100 may know what she’s talking about.  Funny though.  Society tells us to love thy neighbor and all that good stuff, that the noble savage in each of us is noble because it’s constantly looking out for the other noble savages of the tribe.  Maybe, however, that’s just a survival tactic, one of many opportunist’s ploys for looking out solely for oneself.

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