Tuesday, November 18, 2008

>Rae Armantrout's "Prayers"


<!--[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

>Jack Gilbert's "Summer At Blue Creek, North Carolina"


“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

>Grennan's "From This To That"


“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

>Merwin's "Alba"


“Alba,” The New Yorker November 3, 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.

>Ruth Padel's "Learning To Make An Oud In Nazareth"


“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.