Monday, September 29, 2008

>Ashbery's "The Virgin King"


“The Virgin King,” The New Yorker September 29, 2008

            Neither an Ashbery fan nor an Ashbery critic, I have little to say about his “The Virgin Queen.”  A short poem of two cinquains, it contains his characteristic wit and associative gesture, but it doesn’t, for me, reach beyond either.  In fact, it reads like a poem he slapped together in seconds, using the tools for which he’s known and popular but not really building much with them.  Of course, that assessment could be way off . . .

            The poem moves very quickly, and if it’s at all concerned with readers’ ability to keep up, it doesn’t show it.  The first two sentences begin with the ambiguous, without-antecedent pronouns “They” and “It” respectively.  They assume readers will go along for the ride, examining this hole they’ve created, the hole that a focused subject generally occupies.  That subject could be “The Virgin King” of the title.  But who’s the Virgin King?  Initially, the phrase made me think of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, although the poem seems to have nothing at all to do with her, and so the title wouldn’t appear to be riffing her.  A quick Google of the phrase returned hits naming Richard Branson, the King of the Virgin Empire, but the poem seems equally unconcerned with him.  So, we have an opening stanza—half the poem—that doesn’t focus attention on a subject, grammatical or contextual, effectively fogging reader focus in such a way that nothing seems important.  Everything does.  And, the one place Ashbery does draw our attention, the “innocent details” he places in quotation marks, is equally unhelpful and arbitrary, a red herring, since neither innocent nor details resonates with anything particular in the poem.

            The second stanza has much the same effect: there’s an ambiguous “you” (which does work as the reader) and an ambiguous “we.”  We’re forced again to pay attention to things other than subject and subject matter.  But, it’s in this other realm that the second stanza offers high contrast to the first and so becomes interesting.  Both have sort of a waggish humor, which connects them, but structurally they’re very different from one another.  The first is comprised of four relatively short sentences, the second of two sentences, one built with a few subordinate clauses that extends its main idea across four lines.  So, the first stanza reads somewhat choppily, full of staccato; the second reads quickly and fluidly in comparison.  Consider the opening of each.  Stanza one: “They know so much more, and so much less, / ‘innocent details’ and other.”  The comma after more and the endstopped linebreak keep the sentence from picking up the pace, from creating a strong sense of rhythm.  Stanza two: “Something tells me you’ll be reading this on a train / stumbling through rural Georgia,…”  Not a single pause until the comma after Georgia slows us down, and probably readers cruise through the enjambment at train.  The line is trochaic until its last few words, giving it noticeable rhythm, and as such its feel is much different than that of the entire previous stanza.  Of course, the train is stumbling, an interesting verb for a train and a bit of an oxymoron considering the pace of the sentence that contains it.

            Anyway, I appreciate some of the poem’s tidbits as mentioned above, but they seem to me more like drills to an exercise than facets of a poem (I guess I’m making some kind of poetry assertion here).  It’s like Ashbery wrote an imitation of himself.  This is fine . . . except I find myself saying oh, that’s an Ashbery poem, which chalks it up to being little more than nothing in and of itself. If you’ve read much of his previous work, then you know everything there is to know about this piece.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

>Marilyn Hacker's "Names"


“Names,” The New Yorker September 22, 2008

            I don’t think any contemporary poet nails the sonnet into its box as effectively as Marilyn Hacker.  This isn’t to say she has written the best sonnet in the last X-amount of years necessarily, but she has regularly proven her ability to use and abuse the form to her great advantage.  This is true of her villanelles, too.

             “Names” is an Italian sonnet right that closely follows the traditional form of meter, rhyme scheme, and turn.  Only a line or two is perfectly iambic, which is not a problem, but the lug of the rhythm is immediately clear: “Be mindful of names.  They’ll etch themselves” she writes in line one.  The first foot here is a headless iamb, but the rest of the feet all fit the proper flow; so, rhythmically, the poem’s tone is set, one line swinging readers to the next and so one, even in the case of endstopped lines.  That’s simply the way pentameter works—it keeps the story rollin’.

            But it’s not Hacker’s use of meter that I particularly enjoy; it’s her end rhymes.  Those of the first envelope quatrain are straight forward and simple: themselves, glass, pass, dissolves.  The B rhymes are straight while the A rhymes are slightly—but just slightly—slanted.  The second four lines bend end-rhyme a bit more: twelves, grass, piss, calves.  The B rhymes share consonance via S, but their vowels have shifted.  The A rhymes share a similar slantiness.  But, what’s really cool isn’t the transformation of sound within the quatrain but its play with the first set of B rhymes.  Glass and grass are straight, sharing vowels and consonants, while pass and piss are slant, sharing consonants.  The echo is obvious, binding the quatrains with more than a simple ABBA rhyme scheme.

            How this interplay affects meaning—I don’t know.  Nor do I think any end rhymes must support some kind of rhetoric…end words maybe, but the rhyme is there in support of the form.  I’m just saying Hacker pushes the form beyond its usual, simple requirements.

            In terms of true coolness, however, it’s the end rhymes of the sonnet’s sestet that really, for me, make the poem click.  Consider lines 10 and 13: “A sparrow lands in the japonica….wingbeats intrusive and symphonic—a….” (italics mine).  That’s very (I hesitate to say) clever, at the very least creative.  And the rhyme, for such an usual example of it, doesn’t feel forced, either.  It feels worked, considered, deliberate.  “Japonica” is the less common name for a camellia, so I’m conjecturing it wasn’t Hacker’s first choice.  Maybe she wrote “symphonic” first only to end up at “japonica” later as a result of the sonnet’s strict form (of course, it’s impossible to know without asking the poet).  I believe, too, this diction helps her emphasize the poem’s turn.  None of the previous language is anything like “japonica,” the poem’s only four-syllable word.

A well, that line is the only one that’s a complete sentence (though it ends with a semi-colon).  This, along with the shift from the ground-dwelling park-folk to the airborne sparrow, also emphasizes the turn.  After this, the names, the poem’s only grammatical subject with the exception of the first sentence through nine lines, have disappeared.  They’ve been replaced by “a sparrow…massed pigeons” that flee the scene, “a / near-total silence” that takes their place.  This interests me because the disappearance of names is exactly what Hacker is asking us to be aware of in the first half of her poem: “Be mindful of names,” she writes, “They’ll pass / transformed, erased, a cloud the wind dissolves.”  And, in fact, they disappear in the amount of time it takes readers to get two-thirds of the way through her sonnet.  Her advice seems apropos

But what exactly are these names?  Are they representative?  Symbolic?  I’m not too sure.  I do think of names and dates when I read that line, historical facts we’re supposed to remember at all costs as students and that we probably forget as non-students.  Both are sort of concrete ways of tabbing history while it happens, after it’s passed.  And, there is a sense of this history passing in the middle section of the poem as the pre-teens play and the adults go about their business, all at the park somewhat oblivious to the turnings of the world.  The anonymous, distanced speaker seems to be the only entity sentient of such turnings.  She notices the sparrow and the flock of pigeons taking flight “as if it were a signal,” an important phrase suggesting there is something of which to be aware.  But the others are locked in their own worlds, kids and adults alike.  It’s funny, but in the poem, those worlds—and their inhabits—don’t seem important by the sonnet’s close.  The birds do.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

>Bob Dylan's Two Poems


 “17” and “21”, The New Yorker, September 22, 2008

            Years ago I read Tarantula, Dylan’s first book of poems, and, though I hate to say it, I wasn’t impressed.  Even as a fledgling college writer I knew I wasn’t reading what I’d come to think of as poetry.  His poems were interesting, yes, laden with the images and quirkiness the fill his songs.  But even the best lyricists, it seems, don’t necessarily make the grooviest of poets.

            So, these two poems written in the Sixties to accompany some Barry Feinstein photos are funny in their way, but I don’t know what else to think of them.  The first, “17,” narrates the photo of a car parked in a garage where a chandelier hangs.  Nothing else is in the garage (or in the picture, for that matter).  The poem lacks capitalization and commas, among other conventions, though it does use periods.  To indicate speech style, every instance of the word to is solely the letter “t,” as in “after crashin the sportscar / into the chandelier / i ran out t the phone booth . . .”  I like this funkiness.  The funkiest twist of all is the end, however, this weird, abrupt jump to a comment about Marlon Brando.  As the speaker looks out a window—he’s taking a break from composing “a suicide note”—he sees a crowd, for which he says “i really have nothing / against / marlon brando.”  It’s a weird thing to write.  Was he killing himself because he thought he’d had something against Brando?  Is the comment related to the crowd (who’s chasing Brando?)  The poem, itself, is weird.  But is weird enough?  I guess what I’m saying is, “17” just lacks depth.  Many of Dylan’s lyrics might actually suffer from this problem, but with music, vocals, etc., that potential problem never quite becomes an issue—and doesn’t need to: lyrics are part of a song.  But, for a poem, the language is everything.  It must do all the work.

            That having been said, Dylan has some nice lines, a good sense of the poetic line in terms of creating a complete thought and moving on.  “i really have nothing” (/ against / marlon brando), for example, would seem to indicate the speaker’s frame of mind: he crashes car, can’t get a hold of his wife or a chair, becomes a public spectacle, writes a suicide note.  He’s had a bad day.  He’s got nothing to gain and nothing to lose.  And, it’s nice to see Dylan’s characteristic list in play in the poem.  A good deal of the first half of the piece is just a list of actions in a vein similar to that in many of his lyrics, especially those to some of his older albums like Bringing It All Back Home.  And, his language is generally imagistic and specific.  It’s the depth of it that I don’t particularly care for.  The poem predominantly stays on the surface of itself.

            As for “21,” I prefer it to “17.”  Unless it’s accompanied by the car and its chandelier, The New Yorker doesn’t include the photo it describes, though the poem makes the picture clear: a pool, some puppies, and death.  One reason I prefer it is for its use of enjambment.  The first poem arguably has two enjambed lines with the Marlon Brando passage, but “21” is replete with them.  Enjambment, of course, isn’t necessary for a quality poem; however, it does put tension in the line and plays with rhythm among lines in ways endstopped lineation simply cannot.  I’m interested in the poem’s little story too: death was all about the place the day it took the girl but skipped town the day of the funeral.  And, I mean—what does death care about a funeral?  So, I guess I agree with the poem’s point there, should it have one.  And, like in “17,” the images are specific and the language simple but interesting: “death silenced her pool.”  It would seem the reaper, here, is the reaper of the indoor mini four-lanes.  That doesn’t make sense, exactly, but it’s interesting.  It makes me think.  Maybe the girl died in a way unrelated to the pool—to Feinstein’s picture—and death is just taking care of any witnesses: rippled pool water, “her little toy dogs.”  Maybe she died by drowning.  The meaning isn’t clear, but language makes me consider it, which is a good thing.

            Dylan’s put out nearly a zillion albums since the early sixties, and I have a lot of them right up to Modern Times, which he released just a few years ago.  I’m a respectful, appreciative fan.  And, it’s good to see him in The New Yorker.  But, without the music, his poetry doesn’t excite me the way poetry should.  He’s a good example of why poetic doesn’t necessarily mean poem, why song lyrics aren’t necessarily poems either.  Donald Hall wrote a great article on the acoustic differences between these art forms.  I think it was in the APR, but I don’t recall . . . should I find it, I’ll link to it here.

>Harry Clifton's "The Eel"


“The Eel,” The New Yorker September 15, 2008

            The eel is known as one slippery fish; Clifton’s poem is very eely for this reason.  It’s a weird, elusive piece that, just as I think I’ve gripped it, wriggles free via a couple of early twists.

            The title, “The Eel,” would seem to indicate the poem’s subject as so often a simple noun title does.  And, the first couplet falls right in line: “In the crowded yard, in the oily blue smoke / Of an eel supper, the eel looks on.”  We’re at a barbeque, perhaps, enjoying (what I understand is) a delicacy.  Strangely, “the eel looks on,” as though looking past this little backyard dilemma.  I imagine its empty eye staring up at the mad human about to ingest it.  I imagine it staring into space from its metaphysical, after-death limbo, completely removed from the macabre scene.  On first glance, the couplet fits the title well: we’re talking about an eel dinner here.  On a closer look, we can see this ain’t no ordinary eel.

            In case the initial oddness goes unnoticed, the second couplet makes a quick turn to catch our attention.  Grammatically, the subject is the eel thus far, so the He in “He is home for summer” grammatically refers back to it—the eel is the antecedent.  But it’s strange to suggest the eel has been gone and returns now for a summer respite, the summer break between college semesters or something.  American and European eels do migrate, but from what I can tell the summer months are not particularly marked months in their cycles.  They spawn in the fall, leaving freshwater for the marine waters of the Sargasso Sea.  According to Wikipedia, the American eel may leave rivers and streams as early as July, but in Clifton’s poem, it seems they are returning to the world of freshwater, not leaving it.  What’s more, the rest of the poem really has less to do with the eel as a species than it does with it as an arbitrary symbol.  Replace the word with another animal, and likely little in the way of references to eel biology will be lost.  So, though grammatically the “He” is the eel, thematically the word just doesn’t work that way.  “He” is not the eel.  And the poem’s more interesting for it.

            After we learn He is home for summer, we learn She is, too, and now the narrative in Clifton’s tight, little lyric really opens up: “Metamorhphosising . . .  Androgynous . . . slipping in and out / Of the local, the universal . . . the lifelong shedding of skins.”  Clearly, this poem has become about sex, both its beauty and its indifference, even—if you don’t like eels—its grossness.  The words are well-lubed innuendos for the common ground under all living creatures.  And, in it’s this idea of reproduction that the poem turns full circle.  In the opening couplet, we witness the final moments of the eel; it’s already dead, about to be devoured.  In the last, we witness “the lifelong shedding of skins”; we wonder of the infinite progression of life, not just eel life or human life, but life force.  Continual rejuvenation.

            So, the poem’s central tension seems to be the conflict between life and death.  This isn’t a matter of good and evil, mind you, and Clifton doesn’t seem to pass judgment.  Simply the poem says, on the one hand . . . . but on the other . . . . Even the Bible, that quintessential life-saving and life-taking device—is invoked as the “Book of the Eel.”  I wonder, if we read it and promote it, how many lives will be lost in our pursuit of its—and our—eternal longevity.  Perhaps there is something, after all, to be learned from the non-existent desires and existential battles of the eel.

Monday, September 15, 2008

>L.S. Asekoff's "The Gate of Horn"


“The Gate of Horn,” The New Yorker September 15, 2008

            So, there are two mythical gates: the Gate of Horn and the Gate of Ivory.  Dreams pass through each—that is to say, we pass from dream through one or the other into consciousness—the latter being the exit from false dreams and the former being the exit from true ones.  Since this Asekoff poem is “The Gate of Horn,” we should be taking its speaker’s ruminations as truth, assuming he’s an astute fellow capable of distinguishing reality from falsehood.

            But, I don’t know that he is.  The poem is rather self-indulgent and enamored of itself, so it’s safe to say the speaker, presumably an older man, also suffers from these ailments.  In many ways the voice is similar to that in Browning’s dramatic monologues, particularly “Fra Lippo Lippi,” except the conclusion Asekoff’s speaker reaches appears to be true…at least from my vantage point: individual human existence is virtually worthless.  In contrast, whatever their respective its may be, usually Browning’s characters never quite get it,; they never understand themselves as completely as their readers do.

            So, the story for “The Gate of Horn” is this: an ambiguous “you” (very easily the reader) wakes up this man who then prattles on about the dream he was having, the life he’s been living, yadda-yadda-yadda.  And finally, the poem comes to an end.  Throughout, the speaker does nothing but talk: “you woke me from a dream of words” (italics mine) Asekoff writes in line two, and “Do raise the shade—& fill that glass” the speaker requests at the poem’s end.  For all intent and purpose, he’s a lump (perhaps that’s why this poem becomes a lament for his glorious, weepy life) capable of doing little more than prattling on…at length…in a voice that suggests no one, not even you, are really listening: the speaker’s talking to himself.

            As Asekoff’s music continually crystallizes, the speaker’s audience drifts farther and farther away, which seems to be just fine.  This dude loves to hear himself wax poetic, quoting Shakespeare, using Italian phrases usually suited to music to suit himself: “what is life / but a recitativo oscuro, with its shadowy intimations, / musical aphorisms, librettos in a sigh.”  It’s all very prettily put, but I fear, as is the case with his Browning precursors, this is merely meretricious pontificating.  It sounds good, sure, but is it honest?  The speaker seems to be more interested in hearing himself philosophize than he does in actually speaking of or listening to the truth.  Compare his what is life but a recitativo oscuro to Baraka’s “In Walked Bud” speaker’s what is life but a whiskey dream….do-DEEEE, do-do-DEEEEE!  Baraka’s speaker uses nonsense to tell the truth; Asekoff’s uses pirouettes to, at the very least, disguise it.

            Asekoff’s acoustic play is a case in point for his speaker.  The words cling and clang against each other with all the music of a verbal virtuoso.  My favorite example is the line describing Beethoven, the speaker’s alleged ancestor: “that half-caste past master of the hyper-climactic.”  There are about as many, rapid succession short As in that line as I’ve ever heard in a line.  You’d have to be as deaf as Beethoven not to hear them.  The K in caste and climactic echoes with kinsman in the previous line and crescendo and king in the two following.  And, crescendo rhymes with grandioso, which precedes it as placed in the musical descriptor molto grandioso, which means hugely grand.  How fitting for our humble speaker—and his late great uncle Ludwig.

            Another example of the speaker’s loftiness is his comparison of himself to Mallarm√©’s famous swan.  In Mallarm√©’s sonnet, a swan lies dead, frozen in lake ice, and the speaker contemplates the futility of the swan’s beauty and of his song, the fabled swan song sung in the bird’s final moments.  Asekoff writes “we dread & long for / those moments of cruel lucidity that fix us as we are—Mallarm√©’s swan / frozen in ice… / Last night I sat here alone in the dark / …”  The speaker is the swan, apparently, and this idea runs its subtle course through the rest of the poem.  In fact, it more or less becomes the central trope even though Asekoff doesn’t spend an abundance of actual language developing it.  Like the beautiful bird, the speaker must be at or through death’s door, metaphorically at least.  And no one is around to hear his musical ruminations except himself.  In death, as in life, he’s alone.  To sing or not to sing becomes the question.  And the answer?  Futile.  It’s hard not to think, too, of a certain hammock on William Duffy’s farm, of the poet who wrote, “I have wasted my life.”

            Despite his allusions to timeless writers, myths, and music, despite his desire to see the light—“the letters & the numbers, the figures / of the creatures of the Lord….Do raise the shade”—this golden-aged speaker of “The Gate of Horn” remains “staring at shadows / trembling in the shade.”  And his claim, “I hate farewells,” is dubious.  He can’t stop saying farewell—thus, Asekoff’s long line, which for the most part hovers around six beats, arguably a loose hexameter.  All in all, I don’t really care for his tone or his verbosity; the writing may be clever at times, which suits the speaker but doesn’t necessarily make him likeable as Browning’s language makes the good Fra Lippo Lippi.  And what is true about his dream?  What Truth did it bestow upon the speaker.  Only that it’s over, I think.  It’s over.

Friday, September 12, 2008

>Yusef Komunyakaa's "The Clay Army"


“The Clay Army,” The New Yorker September 8, 2008

            I can’t read a Komunyakaa poem without noticing its sounds.  Since his earliest books, Komunyakaa has shown a mastery of rhythms, and the majority of his poems share an almost singular keep-on-truckin’ sound sensibility.  Like many of its precursors, “The Clay Army” progresses via an interplay of iambs and spondees (this is, in part, what gives a Komunyakaa poem its jazz) and a well-used system of enjambments.

Consider the opening couplet: “When the roof of the First Emperor of Qin’s tomb / caved in, six thousand life-size terra-cotta soldiers knelt…”  The top line contains five stresses (most of this poem’s thirteen couplets’ first lines do), which imbues it with the ghost of pentameter, though not a single foot is iambic.  Instead, we have two anapests, a dactyl, and a bacchius, the final two syllables of the final foot pounding the ear with its two stresses—in effect, a spondee.  Two more spondees start the following line: CAVED IN, SIX THOUsand.”  The rest of the line is developed with six iambs.  This pattern of flow, stop-stop, flow, is largely responsible for giving the couplet, and the poem, its momentum.  Unlike meter, the sounds don’t tire, they don’t date themselves, and readers don’t wander into cavernous tombs other than the clay army’s.  Rhythm—cadence, really—becomes the poem’s dominant force.

            The first two lines of “The Clay Army” are enjambed but comfortably so.  As a result, readers are pulled to the ensuing lines with just the right amount of pause, the timing of this hesitation caused by the rhythmic expectations syntax has already setup.  Other enjambments in the poem work in a similar way: “the rebel general Xiang Yu looted this sanctuary // of the dead, sequestering the bronze weapons / honed by these bodyguards of the afterworld // to kill the heirs of the charging drum & bells.”  The lines progress forward methodically, pulling readers as waves might tug waders in a surf.  The end words are safe and subject-conscious—sanctuary, weapons, afterworld, bells in this case—and each line wears the guise of a complete idea in and of itself, though this isn’t a consistent tactic throughout.  The end result is a bolstering of the poem’s rhythm: ever-forward.

            Though this rhythmic description of a Komunyakaa poem is nothing unique to this Komunyakaa poem, it is an interesting fit for its subject: an army designed to help the dead First Emperor continue his conquest in the next life: ever-forward, you could say.  Of course, the irony is that in this life, in this world, the army is stuck in time, prone to the rack and ruin of history and its unique spin on preservation and decay.

            As for the imagery, my favorite of the bunch is found in the description of the soldiers’ faces, their “noses…dilated as if smelling lilies / in a valley.”  How lovely!  As if these thousands of soldiers, horses, chariots wasn’t grand enough, the soldiers are smelling flowers!  And their noses haven’t been carved or sculpted or shaped; they are dilated, as though living, as though in the very act of enjoying life’s finest while I write this sentence some 2200 years after the fact.  What’s more, lilies of the valley are symbols for purity, which fits the First Emperor’s sense of (self-) divinity, but also for humility, which clearly doesn’t fit the First Emperor at all.  Nevertheless, the image of these soldiers sniffing invisible lilies is striking and beautiful.  While much of the rest of imagery is somewhat historical and objective, this simile is intimate and touching.

            Like so many good poems, “The Clay Army” seems to do two things at once by indicating both the futility of the First Emperor’s dilapidated tomb as well as its amazing splendor.  It highlights human stupidity, as I see it, as much as it does our magnificence.  And, neither pulls too heavily on the other.  This isn’t a tug of war but a rendering of the paradoxical nature of humanity.  And of poetry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

>Mary Jo Bang's "Beast Brutality"


“Beast Brutality,” The New Yorker September 8, 2008

            What I like about this “Beast” of Bang is its characters’ distance from each other, a key tonal and contextual element.  The story of this five-couplet lyric is this: the speaker is looking at pictures of a friend’s fallen-apart marriage.  Perhaps they’re on the couch, sipping Irish coffee, contemplating the meaning of life in context of this debilitating experience.  Whatever the setting, it’s—at least for the woman—an intimate moment, or it has potential to be so, one friend opening up to another about a relationship gone sour.

            But Bang’s sound play undercuts this potential tenderness.  The first instance is in line three: “The prompt queen sat with her crown on.”  Prompt queen is obviously a play on prom queen, providing some backstory for our lonely heart.  Perhaps she’d lived a good life in high school, married her sweetheart, and dreamed good dreams that, for awhile, must have seemed livable, sustainable.  Alas…  The consonance crunch of “prompt” and “crown” also undercuts this notion of the good life.  Not only does each word begin with a growl, each has monosyllabic punch.  The entire line does, hitting the reader quick and fast, a double-whammy since the play on prom queen is funny, too, as a demeaning slight.  Bang’s occasional rhyme also undercuts the alleged seriousness of this woman’s plight, particularly “measure” with “architecture,” which echoes of “Gothic arch”: “The insets between each Gothic arch providing a measure // Of what can be // Done with architecture.”  It’s slightly limerickish here both in rhyme and rhythm.

            As for the woman’s language, let’s just say she ain’t the prompt queen her friend might prefer her to be.  Her words are rather laconic, as though she’s speaking in a vacuum, as though she isn’t sharing couch space with anyone but herself.  This is a nice contrast to the speaker’s poeticisms, illustrating the characters’ separation rather than union.  This separation physically manifests in the poem’s last couplet.  Bang writes, “And then she looked away. / “And then we looked away.”  There’s no eye contact here, and there’s no originality either.  The speaker’s heard this sob story before.

            So who’s the beast?  What’s brutal?  Could be the dream of husband/wife, kids, car, house, all of which could be construed as something akin to the dog that bites the hand that feeds it.  Could be the dog—that emblem of fidelity—the woman and her husband stand beside in the picture.  Could be the woman or the husband, or both.  Or, it could be the poem’s speaker.  In fact, because she plays the part of concerned listener, she gets my vote as this poem’s beast, doing what she feels must be done: listening quietly.

Monday, September 8, 2008

>Jeffrey Skinner's "Reunion"


“Reunion,” The New Yorker Sept. 1, 2008

            What I like most about “Reunion” is line six: “You should be elsewhere” (italics Skinner’s).  Is the speaker speaking?  Is the ghost of his dead relative speaking…dead father maybe?  Hard to say…and in a ghost-poem, any and all moments of not-knowing unsettle me.

            Jeffrey Skinner’s “Reunion” works via a series of oppositions, the central being strength and weakness.  It seems the poem’s speaker would like to be strong enough to move beyond his grief but remains prone to that loss as manifested by the reoccurring ghost of (let’s just say) his father.*  “Why do you keep returning” he asks the troublesome vision in line one.  Though he never conjectures the reasons, it’s easy enough for readers to conjecture reasons why he’d like the ghost to disappear: so he can get on with his life.  So he can finish his dinner amongst the comfort of the living.  So he can release his…guilt?  Many ghosts do return for retribution.  Later the speaker declares, “Same teasing of the strong, / same muffled terror of the uncertain.”  He can neither explain nor verbalize the visit, but he knows he’s powerless to it much as he is to doing anything about it.  He can’t speak of it, as though petrified.  When he (possibly) does—“You should be elsewhere”—he preempts the moment with “the suspicion I cannot speak.”  It’s mental speak.  Overtly, he’s powerless

            Another opposition is that of fear and complacence.  The speaker acts as if he is scared speechless, but his tone is practically serene with indifference.  Several of Skinner’s verb-less sentence fragments help create this detachment: “Thanksgiving dinner with all the relatives…Heavy drinking, as always…The newest baby / passed around like a contagious glow…Same teasing of the strong…”  No verbs equal no action, no engagement.  The ghost has arrived to engage the speaker, but the speaker chooses not to pick up the baton.  If this is an attempt for the speaker to bypass grief and get-on-with-it, it isn’t working.  As Skinner writes in the first line, the ghost keeps coming back regardless of the speaker’s cold shoulder.  Perhaps it’s this very rebuff that brings him back?

            The other major opposition that runs through the poems is that of the living and the dead.  Is the speaker truly visited by the ghost of his father?  Not believing in ghosts, I have to say no.  The speaker has simply conjured him up out of grief and the refusal to acknowledge the dead as dead.  In fact, the man is “alive,” Skinner writes, though his body is “more holographic / than warm.”  The only dead person at the table is the poem’s speaker, dead because he refuses to act: he can’t talk to the ghost, he’s one-hundred percent removed from the living guests at the table, and he can’t summon the powers to overcome this latent grief he’d like to keep buried in his subconscious.  Ironically, it seems this latter issue is exactly why the ghost returns “like a signal / carried by a frayed wire.”  The signs are there; the speaker just doesn’t see them.

            Of all the images in the poem, Skinner’s “frayed wire—there, gone, there—“ is my favorite.  It’s a dead ringer for the holographic ghost that keeps coming and going, coming and going, who’s too dangerous to touch.  “The newest baby / passed around like a contagious glow” is a nice, contrastive echo of this heat, as it is of the ghost—it’s implied he’s cold, “more holographic / than warm.”

            Unfortunately, the “Reunion” noted in the poem’s title never quite occurs.  It’s more like a meeting of old friends in line at the grocery store.  Each sees the other, but neither wants to acknowledge that fact with much more than a glancing head-nod, if that.  The ghost of the dead father attempts to toast his living son, but, as the son notes in the poem’s last line, “the rim never [touches] your lips.”


*Why dead father?  Line 10 states “you, at the head of the table.”  Of course, a father could sit anywhere, and anyone could sit at the head of the table, but it’s an odd detail to include if it isn’t intended to be telling.  And, I just don’t believe the speaker would have this much trouble facing facts if the ghost was someone else, including his mother.  

Monday, September 1, 2008

>Michael Dickman's "We Did Not Make Ourselves"


“We Did Not Make Ourselves,” The New Yorker Sept. 1, 2008

            Michael Dickman—not to be confused with his brother Matthew, also a poet-contributor to The New Yorker—has written an airy, fragmented piece on the process of invention.  Invention of self, invention of world, invention of invention.  Structurally, the piece offers some nice changes-of-pace that pertain to different modes of the speaker’s thinking; contextually, it’s rooted in the conflict of blank slate vs. determinism, though neither model seems to come out on top.  Or, they both do.

            So, the poem begins with dream, wakefulness, and the conflict therein: “We did not make ourselves is one thing / I keep singing into my hands / while falling / asleep // for just a second.”  It’s early morning (we discover in the ensuing few lines), and the speaker is caught in that moment of vivid dream-world threaded by a string of consciousness.  Who is actually speaking is unclear: the sentient, wakeful self or the self flying through dream?  Is the awake version doing the “singing” or is the dreaming version doing the singing?  With this quasi-paradox, the poem dives into “self” determination, if such a thing is ever truly determinable, with something akin to prayer and lament.  Are we we?  Am I me?  No, we are not, he croons before drifting off to create anew.  The lines of the opening stanza stagger back on themselves as though they, too, retreat into darkness and slumber.  They become shadowed by thought-dream, “asleep.”

            But moments later, the third stanza—one long, long line—asserts itself: the speaker falls asleep “for just a second // before I have to get up and turn on all the lights in the house, one after the other, like opening an Advent calendar.”  This deviation from the relatively short, chopped lines that precedes it sticks out of the poem much as it sticks out of the speaker’s dream world.  This, for a moment, is conscious thought.  Throughout, there are three such instances of awareness.  What’s interesting about them is that they are greatly in the minority, as though consciousness is something that happens less and internal spinnings, to which the conscious self appears susceptible, happens more.  The speaker seems relatively incapable of producing and keeping himself in the present.  Rather, he keeps falling into the past, into the dream (and, after all, what’s the difference?).  And this happens over and over.  As Dickman writes in the poem’s final three stanzas, “There is only this world and this world // What a relief / created // over and over.”  And as for self-awareness, well—.  Don’t bet on it.

            The result is that neither the wakeful present nor the dreamy past becomes tangible; instead, both worlds grow to inhabit the same physical (mental) space, and the speaker is left only somewhat solaced by that fact.  “What a relief,” he claims, the poem’s opening dismalness all but wholly disappeared.  At least, it seems, the speaker has something to count on, intangible and abstract thought it may be.  And he needs this act of creation to be accountable because so much of the world exists way beyond his sphere of control and understanding.  He “didn’t / make grass, mosquitoes / or breast cancer….I didn’t make my brain / but I’m helping / to finish it,” Dickman writes.  He hasn’t even made himself.  In fact, this is one of the few poems I can think of in which the speaker, though ruminating at length about himself, appears to be absent.

            What I find interesting about some of the poem’s imagery is that, though the speaker remains very proximately concerned with his existence in a concrete world, the dilemma is a metaphysical one.  On one hand, he’s chalking up his “self” to a blank slate mentality: he’s born a zero and it’s up to the environment to start filling that zero in.  On the other hand, some images offer a bit more deterministic approach, which makes the memories (environment) and their impact arbitrary, a dead end in the speaker’s search for self: “My brain opening / the chemicals in my brain / switching on.”  In either case, the poems says the same thing: I’m not responsible for me, I arrived at the whim of chemicals and of “Dogs / Trees / Stars.” And the “Dogs / Trees / Stars” really only arrive at the whim of chemicals in the brain.  It’s a vicious circle.  Consequently, the speaker seems to be waiting for Godot.  Waking up (from what exactly?) is “like opening an Advent Calendar” that announces nobody’s arrival.  He can search both body and mind—and do it “over and over”—but he’ll perpetually come up empty-handed.

            What bothers me about the poem is its use of the universal “We.”  For a piece so overtly concerned with the existential self, why are we all being lumped into the mix?  If the speaker is so completely unaware of himself, whom he did not create and whom he cannot penetrate, then it seems very likely he remains very unable to penetrate any concept of we, which he also did not create and cannot penetrate.  This becomes problematic as early as the title and provides the occasional slip.  “I can still remember back there / How we’re born,” Dickman writes.  Now I’ve taken these lines out of context of the surrounding lines, but since they’re written as individual stanzas, that shouldn’t be a problem: the individual stanza should be able to stand up for itself in isolation as well as in communion with its surroundings.  But, how can this speaker remember how we were born?  Seems a weird thing to ponder here.

            Am I nitpicking?  Maybe.  But for a poem that claims self-awareness flees at the speed of time in units as large as the smallest units of time, claiming anything for all of us is a stretch.