Friday, August 29, 2008

>Mahmoud Darwish's "Here The Birds' Journey Ends"


“Here The Birds’ Journey Ends,” The New Yorker August 25, 2008

            It’s strange to me how many poets in the elder years write so consistently about that line between life and death, that line they so soon, according to their ages, are about to cross.  Maybe it’s not strange, thinking about it…we do seem to write what most consumes our thoughts—conscious or subconscious—and perhaps those in their golden years become preoccupied with how few of those years are left, with what a truly unknown future both brings and leaves behind.  In my early thirties, a wise conjecture about this is difficult for me to make.  Regardless, Darwish, who died less than a month ago, seems to fall right in line with his “Here The Birds’ Journey Ends.”  Rather beautifully written (translated by Fady Joudah), it’s a calm meditation on life’s passing.

            Part of the poem’s beauty is born by its ten long lines: generally speaking, the longer the line of poetry, the more fluid its rhythms.  Consistent with that observation, much of Darwish’s language in “Here The Birds’” has a sweeping grace.  All but the last sentence stretches across two lines or more, many are perpetuated with “and,” and every line is lengthy, the shortest stretching 14 syllables.  As well, though clearly not a metrical poem, several lines tend toward the iambic, such as “We are the ones who forge the sky’s copper, the sky that will carve roads” and “Soon we will descend the widow’s descent in the memory fields / and raise our tent to the final winds: blow, for the poem to live, and blow / on the poem’s road.”  That these lines contain iambs is neither here nor there.  It’s the fact they are rhythmically patterened that matters, as the pattern of beats helps give this poem its elegance.

            Though the title says the journey ends, it could just easily say the journey begins.  Darwish’ second line states, “after us there will be a horizon for the new birds,” a sentiment he repeats verbatim in his last line.  He echoes it near the middle with “After us, the plants will grow and grow.”  These images make the poem less about life’s end and more about transient nature.  Life as a force persists whether I or Darwish or his birds do not.  Life as a force is eternal; the end (much less the beginning) as we perceive it is arbitrary.  Darwish’s use of birds fits this idea nicely too.  They are a common symbol for life’s transition to death, for the spirit and spirit-world, and, though they offer no surprises in the poem, they fit it easily and comfortably.

            It’s possible, too, that Darwish could be writing about Palestinian-Iranian-American conflict, indicating all such historical madness will eventually reach its peaceful end.  He writes we will “make amends with our names above the distant cloud slopes.”  While no clear reference to peace in the Middle East, its possible the poem can be taken there by such a line.  Darwish, after all, who believed strongly in the Palestinian cause (though not necessarily its governments’ methods for pursuing it), and was on no certain terms a friend of Israel, sought peace, a human peace more so, I think, than an ethnic one.

            Then again, he claimed his poems were often misunderstand politically.  If he wrote a poem about his mother, it was about his mother, not about his mother-land.  If he wrote “Here The Birds” about the passage of a life within life’s greater scope, likely that’s the case—unlikely its about the passage of any nation’s from this life into the next, from this history into another.

            A final note, it’s interesting to me that his repeated line—“and after us there will be a horizon for the new birds”—is so rhythmically, tonally flat.  It’s bad poetry in its own way.  At the same, it’s what might be the poem’s greatest success.  So often poems about death and dying (yadda-yadda) romanticize the subject, thus those sweeping rhythms I earlier indicated (Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” comes to mind as I think about this).  But here’s a case in which the final thoughts are expressed rather flatly.  Not bluntly, but flatly, laden with the emotional acceptance of a truth that is indifferent to its writer.  And his readers.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

>C.K. Stead's "Isola Bella


“Isola Bella,” The New Yorker, Aug. 25 2008

            I know very little about C.K. Stead except for that he’s an elderly New Zealander and a prolific writer of poetry and prose with numerous books to his name (a brief, but worthy bio of him can be found at the New Zealand Book Council website).  I know just as little about Isola Bella: it’s a very small island in Lago Maggiore of northern Italy (bordering France) and is the precise size of the palazzo the affluent Italian Carlo Borromeo III built there for his wife, Isabella, in 1632.  That having been said, Stead’s “Isola Bella” is a quaint semi-lyric, semi-narrative about a moment on the islet in which the speaker gets something other than what he came for.

            Ten tercets long, the poem is built of two-beat and three-beat lines of a loosely trochaic meter.  “In the stony garden / with the bronze plaque / that misquotes her” the poem begins, dropping us into the palazzo’s magnificent, prodigious (from what I understand) garden.  The basic pacing of the lines persists, which keeps the poem lilting along, almost gleefully, as though the speaker is having a heck of a time meeting Isabella—or the island itself (the poem’s “she” never made explicitly clear).  This dancing-like rhythm is created, too, with constant enjambments.  The beat-structure makes for short lines, which make for fragmented phrases and sentences, and as a result our ears listen more to Stead’s poetic phrase than to his sentence(s), which construct the poem’s length.  The sentences, for their part, are rather short.  Most are made of short phrases, though they may strung together to build longer clauses.  Consider the opening stanza plus a few lines of the second: “In the stony garden / with the bronze plaque / that misquotes her // she called down / from the terrace, ‘Friend or / for?’”  The sentence proper (as in subject-verb) doesn’t begin until line four, the first three lines consisting of two, four-word prepositional phrases and one, three-word relative pronoun clause respectively.  Pretty clipped diction, here.  The sentence core—“she called down”—is only three words long, and it is followed by a three-word prepositional phrase that’s succeeded with a three-word question.  And, so far, Stead’s only used three bi-syllabic words.  The rest are all monosyllabic.

            The effect of all this is the poem’s gleeful cadence.  Whether or not we know what the speaker is up to, why he is at the island, what his relationship is to it (to the “she”), we can’t help but feel a little uplifted by the poem’s rhythms.  It’s as if the speaker is a tourist getting his first experience with some kind of exotic, singular beauty he’s heard so much about but of which he’s allowed only a distanced view.  He’s standing in the same garden as she is, but they don’t occupy anything close to the same space.  The poem’s opening is reminiscent of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in this way: heightened moment, yes, but things just ain’t gonna pan out the way the speaker would like them to. 

            The imagery detailing the woman supports this conflict: “Her hair / was a shiny cap, / her face a mask,” her smile is only a “half- / smile,” and she shadows herself beneath a parasol.  If her hair is capped, then it’s covered.  The lovely, flowing locks we’ve been trained to associate with the typical maiden in her balcony on high just aren’t there.  Any emotion she might reveal isn’t, as it’s masked.  Even her welcoming smile seems forced, distanced.  Her inquiry of “Friend or / foe?” precedes these few details, our first real clue that the poem’s “she” is guarded to visitors. 

The speaker is quick to shift his gaze as a result.  In response to her question, he answers “Friend of friends.”  Rather than introduce himself by name, he backs off.  He puts up a wall just as she has.  And the names he mentions seem…spurious.  Half-truths.  The ellipses between them—“Lawrence…/ Carco…Bertie Russell…”—indicate he’s considering what/whom he should say next.  This tonal shift creates tension with the poem’s rhythms and seems to lie at the heart of the speaker’s central problem: here’s this beautiful woman/island that isn’t meeting his expectations.  How, now, does he conduct himself?

            After the exchange, one other name is mentioned but only in the speaker’s internal monologue, the conversation dead.  And the name, Jack, is entirely anonymous, representing an unknown identity and furthering the notion that the speaker and his subject share no common ground.  Nevertheless, he doesn’t seem too jaded by this glitch in his plan, whatever that may be, and salvages some semblance of beauty from the experience.  Stead writes how sunlight “glittered” in the bay water and in the trees, how the palazzo imitates the color of its Alpine backdrop.  The final image is of the sea as it “preened itself in / the sky’s blue mirror,” which is a pretty inversion.  “Preened” does carry negative, connotative weight, but the final product is nonetheless a pretty one.  Perhaps the speaker, despite the initial setbacks, is able to stand back and still get what he came for: a picture.

Friday, August 22, 2008

>Matthew Dickman's "Trouble"


“Trouble,” The New Yorker August 11/18 2008

            “Trouble” is a poem of quirky dichotomy.  On one hand, we have the vast majority of the content: suicide after suicide after suicide—slight narrative moment—more suicide.  On the other hand, we have the vast tone: uninspired, calm, taciturn.  While the content could dip into the depressive, the tone never quite allows it.  In fact, as it makes me pine nostalgic, if not sentimental, for lost actors, actresses, etc.—the litany of suicides—it makes me chuckle a bit at the pointless, foolishness of it all, of taking life/death so seriously.  And it ends with a bit of a chuckle, the notion day after day, we (at the least speaker) carry on amidst all this quasi-tragedy with some semblance of self-control.

            What I like most about Dickman’s list of suicides is that it is composed primarily of rather extraordinary people, people who have made some claim on fame via a pretty face (Marilyn Monroe), pretty acting skills (Marlon Brando), pretty poems (Sara Teasdale), and a pretty life’s work worthy of a Nobel (Harold Pinter).  These are regarded as uncommon folk.  Special folk.  Yet, when lumped together almost in statistical fashion—as if the poem is a ticker of names more so than the lives the names represent—they seem completely common.  They become faces in the crowd no different, really, than you or me, subject to the same pains and triumphs.  The fact they committed suicide becomes as arbitrary as their fame, as their claims to fame.

            So what’s the trouble?  Got me.  Dickman closes the poem “In the morning I get out of bed, I brush / my teeth, I wash my face, I get dressed in the clothes I like best. / I want to be good to myself.”  Maybe it’s the simple pleasures the speaker enjoys, the whole putting pants on one-leg-at-a-time, that’s the trouble.  That that's it.  Maybe it’s that there’s so little we can control in our lives…might as well forget about all that really matters because it doesn’t really matter.  What matters most is what happens in your little micro-micro-micro world, and even that’s up for grabs.  This sentiment is echoed by the little asides throughout the poem, the quick turn-aways from the suicide-listing like “Sometimes / you can look at the clouds or the trees / and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground” and “I like / the way geese sound above the river.  I like / the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they're beautiful.”  Simple, unadorned, absurd, ineffable pleasures.  All that fame and fortune and the struggle to acquire it—to create it in the case of many of the artists in Dickman’s list—just doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things.  So, clean your teeth.

            Some of the little words about this poem I’ve read around the web indicate it's a bit depressing, but a look at craft shows otherwise.  The poem is so blasé via tone, really a result of lineation and phrase-making, that it’s impossible to become depressing.  Barring minor deviations (such as a one-word introductory clause and a compound sentence), all but two sentences are built subject-verb.  One is an If-then sentence (so introductory-clause-followed-by-main-clause complex sentence) aside about reading a book when traveling, “especially by train,” and the other is the penultimate sentence quoted earlier, which begins with a short prepositional phrase (“In the morning)” not separated from the main clause with a comma.  Both sentences essentially say the same thing: you can fix neither the world’s problems nor your own, but you can take care of yourself psychologically, physically in the interim (so, clean your teeth and feel good about it).  But it’s the consistency of the other sentences that makes the poem's tone so banal.  They lull readers into monotony, effectively dulling the usual emotions we associate with death and suicide.

            As well, many of the lines are long to longer, which draws out the rhythms of Dickman’s sentences; the smattering of shorter lines keeps the poem from actually growing rhythmic.  The poem retains the tone of a rather drab, almost disinterested conversationalist who's tired of telling the same old stories.  The lines themselves are comfortably enjambed, a few are endstopped, so contextual tensions are further allayed.  Those few lines that are more unnaturally broken don’t feel that way because too much poem asks us to ignore—in terms of pause—line breaks to a degree.  Really, I wonder how many advantages other than subtle pacing this prose-poem acquires by using lineation at all.  True, many of the lines have a conceptual or imagistic integrity to them, but many of the other lineation-born effects of poetry are dulled here.

            But, if polarization of form and content is part of what’s at play, then that dullness seems a well-made choice.  What few other Dickman poems I’ve read (from The Fishouse in particular) bear a similar effect.  I’ll be curious to see what his new, first book is like.

Monday, August 18, 2008

>John Ashbery's "Attabled With The Spinning Years"


“Attabled With The Spinning Years,” The New Yorker Aug. 11/18, 2008

            It seems foolish to explicate an Ashbery poem; they are famously, purposefully amorphous, concerned much less with meaning-making than with, as he once put it, the experience of experience, quixotic in its own right.  Nevertheless, we should be able to look at any poem to see what the heck it’s doing, even if little can be made of it.

            “Attabled With The Spinning Years” begins with nonsense: Attabled.  The closest real word I can find is astable, which means to confirm, which remains unconfirmable as a proper definition for attable here.  As for The Spinning Years, they are questionably old age, as in the years a spinster has entered, but who can say for certain?  To further complicate things, the poem’s opening questions have various as of yet unrelated grammatical subjects, the first of which—“it”—lacks an antecedent: “Does it mean one thing with work, / one with age, and so on? / Or are the two opposing doors / irrevocably closed?”  Readers must perform shifty footwork to keep up; the lines have us guessing and wondering, which is a good thing, albeit unsatisfactory if we look, or assume we should look, for proper answers to these questions.  If we expect to land sure-footedly onto them, we can be disappointed.

            The questions themselves—the first four sentences of the poem and five total in the first stanza—are rhetorical in nature except…they’re not rhetorical questions.  It’s as though they purport an argument that isn’t actually being made, that at the very least isn’t yet known, as though we’ve dropped in on the speaker mid-conversation.  It is their tone, not their implicit and known answers, that creates the rhetorical stance, that creates the notion of something where there is actually nothing, causing this reader, at least, to stop and consider them.  And that’s powerful poetry—anytime a poet can get a reader to stop and pay attention—hard enough to do when he isn’t being abstruse.  What binds the first stanza together are images and notions of time.  We have “Years” in the title, “age” in the second line, and numerous other such language that divulges the poem’s subject, including a bit of clearer imagery as the first stanza culminates with autumn: “Surely that isn’t snow?  The leaves are still on the trees, but they look wild suddenly. / I get up.  I guess I must be going.”  This admission is interesting because it comes in response to what has become a rhetorical scene, that of the snow and the about-to-be-leafless trees.  As a consequence, the rhetorical quality of the stanza is solidified, and it becomes clear the speaker has been speaking to himself.  The questions, if he can answer them, can only be answered intuitively by the body.  They have no verbal response; the response is get up and be going.

            The second stanza begins with an abrupt turn of previous phrases.  Rather than pose a question, Ashbery uses a sentence fragment: “Not by a long shot in America.”  And what can we do with it?  Two things: one, we can branch out from the speaker talking to himself about himself largely in the context of himself to the speaker becoming a piece of something larger than himself, a piece of something he now, like it or not, represents; two, we can infer that the body’s answer to autumn was wrong, that it should not be going anywhere but should learn to adapt more aptly to staying put.  This is the comment of the second stanza.  Like the first, dotted with references to time’s relentless forward mobility, the second contains images of permanence, particularly “modern buildings [that] look inviting / again” after a century has passed.  The final lines make me think of plastic surgery, one of America’s—the world’s—many devices for stopping the clock if not, in theory, turning it back altogether: “God’s…scalpel redeems us / even as the blip in His narrative makes us whole again.”  So, one little deviation in the master plan, and our subversive one becomes whole again.  We’ve foiled the natural course of events for the better, human course.

            As with many Ahsbery poems of disassociative associations, “Attabled” is difficult to hold together line by line, brick by brick.  It wanders subjects, contradicts itself, repudiates comments and gestures.  But, like good free jazz, it still maintains a central line, though perhaps not a focus, around which images and ideas spin.  There is a concept in there someplace.  One other way Ashbery helps us see the concept is with sound.  Like much of his work, “Attabled” is acoustically playful, the play is more than just that.  While some phrases fall flat, others are rather rhythmically graceful, which helps readers focus on those moments that may be key.  After nine lines of more or less arrhythmic language, he writes “…and such.  The almost invisible blight / of the present bursts in on us.  We walk / a little farther into the closeness we owned.”  The ghost of a pentameter is there, and it’s pleasing, given the previous passage’s atonality.  And, those lines are contextually important.  They are the first assertive gestures the poem makes, grounding the poem’s central problem, that of time and of the present’s ever-increasingly observable encroachment on our very finite eternity.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

>Louise Glück's "Before The Storm"

>“Before The Storm,” The New Yorker, 8.4.08

“Before The Storm” is a consistent Glück poem: the tone is subdued, almost flat; the diction is sharp but simple; and, the sentiment is forebodingly dangerous. What makes it different than much of her other—really of her earlier—work is that the “I” and “you” often so terribly present is more or less absent here; in fact, the speaker remains anonymous, though clearly she’s intimately knowledgeable of the scene. The “you” remains equally anonymous. As a consequence, “Before the Storm” works on a much less personal level than many of Glück’s other poems. Her distanced observer, however, makes the poem no less intimate.

The story, here, is that a big storm is coming, something on par with a hurricane, and that it will last “perhaps ten hours all together” after which “the world as it was cannot return.” We have myriad signs that the storm is approaching, that it will be devastating—the world will be changed, we can sense the tempest from a distance, which suggests its magnitude—but we do nothing to heed the signs. Or, perhaps we notice the signs, but they reach beyond the fail-safe point: nothing can be done except weather (pardon me) the weather.

The storm in the poem remains vague enough to become a stand-in for many, many other things, and with my environmental leanings, it’s difficult for me not to read the poem in the chic fashion of the Green Movement. The first line stages a typical (dare I say American?) perspective, complete with a near total lack of foresight: “Rain tomorrow, but tonight the sky is clear, the stars shine.” Well, whoop-dee-do! As long as the world is right, as long as the Heavens shine brightly on we believers, then little harm can come to any of us. But, as the poem continues in lines two and three, “Still, the rain’s coming, / maybe enough to drown the seeds.” Lack of foresight or not, we’re in for a long night. As with much of the poem, these line are tonally honest and brutally straightforward, even boring in their way, which heightens the drama of the conflict without becoming melodramatic or waxing poetic. There’s a definite schism between content and tone, and the result, for me, is fear.

Other details heighten my anxiety for the poem’s pastoral landscape and beyond. Not only are the seeds, which suggest spring and new life, about to be ruined, and thus the future crop and all that would follow (food, money, next year’s seeds, etc.,—cascading repercussions), “the ram, the whole future” is missing, “tomorrow there’ll be blood in the grass….dawn won’t come…the world beyond the night remains a mystery.” These are portentous forecasts. There’s potential for rack and ruin, here. But, while the storm may be unavoidable, the poem heavily implies it could be better endured by paying attention and heeding warnings—“[t]his far from the sea and still we know these signs”—than it will be. Eden is about to be sacked? Let’s avert our eyes to the stars’ eternal beauty and pretend nothing’s going to happen. It reminds me of the last moments of the isle of High Brazil from the cult classic Erik the Viking. As the island is sinking, Erik (Tim Robbins) pleads with the island society’s king (Terry Jones of Monty Python fame) that it is, in fact, only seconds from being submerged along with the king and his people. Jones replies with something to the effect of No, it isn’t; no, we’re not.

Another image that stands out is that of the mountain, which “stands like a beacon, to remind the night that the earth exists, / that it mustn’t be forgotten.” To use a mountain in a poem is to use an image laden with context metaphoric and otherwise. A mountain is an impasse. It is, or has been, home to many gods and goddesses. Reaching its top, acquiring its glory, is a crowning human achievement, a sign of our ability to conquer the unconquerable forces of nature. It is a symbol of hope for humankind, which can do anything if it can rise even higher than the mountain. Glück gets good mileage out of the image in each of these ways. Interestingly, the human element does seem removed here. The mountain “reminds the night that the earth exists,” that it, not humankind, must be remembered. The moment is cold and detached, and the image is apropos not just for the nature of nature, which is not necessarily cold but is certainly indifferent to human desire, but for the poem’s equally cool tone. When the mountain element recurs, it’s presented in strong contrast to the human element: “One by one, the lights of the village houses dim / and the mountain shines in the darkness with reflected light.” Something will persist; something will endure. But, it will not be the village, at least as we’ve come to know it.

“Before the Storm” is built with a variety of sentence-types and line lengths, which heighten the writing’s tension. Some of the sentences stretch across two lines and their verbiage to the right-hand margin; others are fragments as short as two words, lines as short as four. The effect is a stilted rhythm. The poem lopes along and then stops, saying pay attention, which seems to be what it’s all about. After all, “The night is an open book” Glück writes in the poem’s penultimate line, “[b]ut the world beyond the night remains a mystery.”

Well, an inevitable mystery, yes, but not necessarily one for which we cannot prepare ourselves. If only this was in our nature…

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

>Kathryn Starbuck's "Ancient Anecdotage"


“Ancient Anecdotage,” The New Yorker Aug. 04 2008

I have next to zero knowledge of Kathryn Starbuck save for two facts: she is the widow of the allegedly slightly-overlooked poet George Starbuck, and she didn’t start writing poetry until some time after his death in the nineties.  Since then she’s published one book and is forthcoming with a second.  With the exception of “Ancient Anecdotage,” I have read nothing of her work and so cannot place the poem in context of her other work (which may not particularly matter, though to me it seems that it should).

“Ancient Anecdotage” is a skinny poem of roughly thirty-five lines of roughly two beats per line, though it lacks a particular rhythm or count of any kind.  The line breaks are all pretty ruthlessly enjambed, and the poem runs quickly, but choppily, down the page as a result.  It’s made of two sentences in its entirety.  The short, first sentence begins with a brief prepositional phrase—“As a former / and future / child, …”— and the long, second with a similar-sounding, strange sort of interruptive determiner—“But / Poor Richard, his almanac of / …”  The sentence continues to the poem’s end mostly by stringing itself together with subordinate and clauses, which effectually lead readers step-by-step to its conclusion without giving us the option of wandering off.  We’re just hauled along, clause by clause.  Each thin line rapidly forces us to the next thin line without offering much in the way of a complete idea, which also adds to the poem’s quickness and the reader’s need to continue zipping along with it.  To acquire any real sense of completion and coherence, you have to keep reading, you have to stay focused, and you have to keep it all in your head until the poem’s final word.

This manipulative gesture on Starbuck’s part makes “Ancient” stand out from other fragmented poems.  Often the fragmented poem is at least coherent at the level of the fragment: it may be equally enjambed with “Ancient,” but the fragments themselves are complete thought units—they simply don’t create a sum that is greater than its parts.  Often it’s the opposite: meaning is lost on the grander scale while it’s contained in and maintained by the disjointed microcosms that destroy it.  “Ancient Anecdotage” differs here in that the fragments themselves don’t add up to much.  You have to read the whole poem to get to…the end of it.  The poem is only partially associative in nature, which aids it in this regard, and there are no true leaps in image, diction, or tone—leaps much contemporary poetry, especially of the fragmented kind, relies on.

Nevertheless, the poem makes a distinct comment on our poetry-of-the-day: lyricized intellectual truth in, narrative experiential personalia out.  Starbuck writes that though Poor Richard’s “ancient / anecdotage / was still in / pretty good / shape,” his comments for day-to-day living had dulled into “a steady / palaver of what / where when and / why.”  The once almighty journalistic questions (and their answers) are now examples of “perseveration / and failure.”  It’s as though Richard’s life has become the tedium of (bad) poetry and, thus, bad reading.  And really, who cares about what happened to Poor Richard on such and such a day and how—or why—he applies it to me via his anecdotage-laden almanac?  So what if he has a good story to tell, a fable to share?  What do I care if his penis was nearly nibbled to death by piranhas, as suggested by the poem’s ending?  How does that represent me and my individualized mode of thinking, which is not poor, male, etc., etc.?

Modern American poetry has been inundated with the confessional and quasi-confessional mode for fifty plus years; it’s bursting with ancient—as in outdated—anecdotage, and Starbuck’s piece makes one wonder about current trends.  Still, one advantage of the narrative is that it appeals to the gregariousness of human nature.  When we gather at the water cooler—virtual or otherwise—we don’t speak to each other in non-unified, associative imitations of our neural networks.  We swap stories (albeit sometimes solely at the sentence level) and talk to each other.  More and more, the fragmented poem of the fragmented poet of the fragment universe is talking to herself,  Perhaps the Poor Richards of the world are doing the same thing by telling stories so they can hear themselves speak, so they can boil experience down to a few pithy maxims they feel should be shared with the rest of us.  Poets undoubtedly should resist that urge.

My last word about “Ancient Anecdotage”?  It doesn’t advocate necessarily the new or the old style.  Simply it says the old way has failed, as all old ways are destined to do.