Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ellen Bass' "Gate C22"

I've been reading the New Poets of the American West anthology (Many Voices Press, 2010) lately and ran across "Gate C22" by Ellen Bass. The poem, which describes a most tremendous kiss shared by two middle-agers at the Portland aiport, is killer good, a testimony to what the imagination can do in a single moment when moved by sudden, arresting circumstances. In this case, the speaker, the "passengers waiting for the delayed flight / to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots, / the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling / sunglasses" are all subsumed by the couple's kiss.

But I'm less concerned with the kiss and its voyeurs than I am with the simile in the poem's second stanza. Bass writes the lovers "kissed lavish / kisses like the ocean in the early morning." At first I was like — that's so dull, a missed opportunity, an okay image that falls flat because a kiss is nothing like an ocean and the simile does nothing to change that perception—has done nothing yet, that is.

I should say that I also found the poem neither here nor there at this point: strong imagery, strong verbs, but nothing that sucked me in the way that kiss sucked in its onlookers. The first stanza was fine, and the second began in a dull mode, using two short, flat sentences in a single line to start an "unattractive" description of the couple:
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,

Of course, those opening lines are a setup. Rather than stop that simile after a single line, Bass continues to work the metaphor, describing how the kiss/ocean "gathers and swells, sucking / each rock under, swallowing it / again and again. Drawing that comparison out over a few lines is extraordinary, allowing it a chance not just to be a comparison but a synthesis of the two disparate images. The verbs gather, swells, sucking, swallowing apply as well to the tide as they do to the embrace. It's a great example of why poets should be careful not to stop their metaphors short, but to work them out. They can always be pared back if that's what the poem desires.

The other thing I like about this kiss/ocean is that the simile really becomes the poem's center, even more so than the kiss. The kiss is the audience's central image, but not the poetry's. What I mean by this is that the description of the ocean not only sensualizes the kiss by being sensual itself but acts as something of a scaffold for the workings of the rest of the poem. Imagistically, it is the most sensual part of the piece—the literal descriptions of the kissers and their kiss don't come close.  More importantly, the movement of the poem from stanza to stanza follows the movements of a tide, rushing in and easing out, extending at times with great velocity, others with a benign steadiness. This can be seen in Bass' use of mini-catalogues: each stanza begins with some scene-setting narrative, then dives into these brief but very imaginative lists, which, for me, is where the poem most succeeds. Bass' kiss/ocean, placed in the middle of the poem, seems to be the fulcrum on which this back-and-forth occurs.  It becomes the center of the poetry and, for me, the imagination of the poem even though the kiss remains the center of attention.

I find the ocean a good central metaphor for "Gate C22" for another reason, too.  The shoreline with its rising and falling tide is a place of gatherings and departures—the flotsam washes onto shore, the beach junk washes out.  In and out, coming and going, landings and departures—it's an airport.  How perfect!

I think the first person to really drive home to me the point of expanding a metaphor (remembering it can also be pared back) was Steve Orlen.  We were reviewing some poems of mine when he commented that I had taken a just-okay image and turned it into something special by working it out over the course of several lines.  I had been oblivious to this fact, but since then have made a point of looking to see how I and others use metaphor in our poems.  For Orlen—at least in our conversations—it was often a matter of rhythm, growing an image in order for the language to keep up its music.  But, as it does in Bass' poem, expanding the analogy can also give the imagination room to grow, infiltrating and invigorating the rest of the poem.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Turning a Poem onto its Head

Yesterday's writing episode began with me flipping through my notebook for the odds and ends of poems I'd jotted down recently but hadn't worked with yet.  I had a couple of starter-pieces in there, and my hope was to find something worth continuing on a fresh page, thus allowing me to X it out of the old, already sweated-over pages of my notebook.

What I ran across was the start of a poem that centered on the star jasmine growing in front of my house.  For whatever reason, I'd wanted to write about that thing for weeks -- probably since it had fully burst into bloom -- and seeing my first go-at-it there on the page reminded me that I had yet to properly work up the idea.  The problem was my opening lines stunk:
With its white cluster of tiny trumpet
bells, this jasmine lingers on the sleeve
I brushed against it, unknowingly
at first. . .

Now I liked (and have kept, at least for now) the image of the trumpet bells, the words linger and sleeve, but I disliked that ignorant word unknowingly and that flat, opening preposition With. I didn't care for the line breaks either.  Creating no desirable effect of their own, they put the pace of the lines in too much conflict with the natural rhythm of the language. And none of the words received pause or attention because the rhythm was gangly instead of musical -- all of which I blamed on the line breaks, right or wrong.

The ensuing lines and few stanzas suffered the consequences of that sad opening and aren't worth discussing further. I liked a few of the sentiments that had turned up, however, a few of the jumps the poem made as it strove for new images and content. So, I made the decision to salvage what I could.  The question was, how?

And the answer was to turn the poem onto its head, effectively starting where that initial string of ideas (it hasn't been accurate, really, to call them a poem) had ended -- the last line.  Actually, the last line was "and they bloom, the silent speak." So, I restarted with the penultimate line, which I broke: "Drought pushes these loveliest of flowers / to the edge" and so on, working my way backward through the piece by every two lines or so, keeping what worked, dumping what didn't.  Old connections were cut; a new logic formed. Even better -- whatever original emotional attachments I had to the jasmine and, thus, to the poem became severed by this new arrangement, allowing me to explore emotions and ideas that wouldn't have otherwise arrived in the poem's original form.

Sure, restarting a poem with the end is a bit arbitrary, but its effect -- the poem opens itself in a new way -- is not.  Often that's the trick: to see the usual as unusual, the familiar as strange.  As a writer and reader of poetry, I prefer not to know a poem's ending before I arrive at it -- the experience isn't surprising that way. But as the poet-in-process, I particularly enjoy not knowing how the poem is about to begin.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Aha! My new blog/website just went online.

Until now, I've been peddling books out my '92 Stanza's trunk and selling songs live on the side of the road.  So, please, have a visit -- sample/download some tunes for $1.  Order signed copies of my books for a discounted price.  Read something (interesting?) about a poem from time to time at Present Everywhere, Visible Nowhere.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Paula Bohince's "Nostalgic"

Paula Bohince's "Nostalgic" first appeared in Southwest Review, but I picked it up a few days ago at Verse Daily.  I've never read Bohince before, and I must say I'm at a bit of a loss when it comes to understanding "Nostalgic."  According to the title, we're dealing with the past, with loss.  According to the language of the poem, we're working with birds, place, and love.

"Nostalgic" is a short, 3-stanza poem with lines that range from the short to the very short -- the clipped -- the briefest of which is the one-word last line of the poem, "cloud-headed," and the longest of which is the third line of the poem, "cloistered homage to a decade of geese."  It is a lyric piece although I'm not entirely sure it doesn't tell a story of a leaving...from what I'm unsure.  This could be a love (forlorn love) poem, as there is a "we" in it that definitely doesn't include me, and uses language like "kiss" and "departure" and "In the end," which taken together can suggest love gone awry.  But I also wonder of environmental loss: the "robin's / blurred departure," the "homage to a decade of geese," "the marsh / where cattails remained when all else / left."  The question is -- are these images meant to be read literally or metaphorically?  Or both?

Bohince's clipped lines help create this sense of discontinuity.  No pattern of consistent length emerges: some lines stick out, some don't.  As well, many of the lines are so short they disrupt meaning.  Whereas a poet like Billy Collins generally has a complete phrase or thought per line, Bohince breaks her thoughts up across lines in this poem such that rhythmic and cognitive flow are disrupted.  Consider the last stanza:
In the end, we were landmark,
compass, same as the lingered-over
pond, the marsh
where cattails remained when all else
left.  Ragged in salt,

All but two lines are enjambed in a way that disrupts immediate meaning-making, though in gestalt they do work together to create sense.  Plus, Bohince has a few nice effects due to her enjambments.  The way "lingered-over" hangs on the stanza's second line does make me linger a moment over the "pond" of the ensuing line.  The tough enjambment at ". . . all else" slams an emphasis on "left," supporting the read that loss/departure are prime components to the story and theme of this poem.

And, the discontinuity of the lines adds to the poem's overall sense of melancholy, darkness.  This mood, of course, is more obviously driven by some of Bohince's choice words: "haunting," "departure," "ragged," "cloud-headed."  I would include "Un-find" in this list as well since it is such a weirdly formed word.  "Un-find" makes me feel so uncomfortable.  I mean -- that's an impossible task.  Once something is found, can it be un-found?  It can be lost, but can it be...ignored?  Sort of like finding Waldo: once you know he's there, it's pretty well impossible to un-know his location, to un-find him on that page of the hidden picture book.

Perhaps this notion of impossibility is at the crux of the poem.  There's this clear sense of letting go, of being ordered to let go, as evidenced by the commands in the second stanza, yet to feel nostalgic is generally an acceptable way to feel.  It is bittersweetly pleasant.  It is a remembrance and longing for a happiness that has been but is no longer.  Perhaps the speaker here has been unable to move forward.  Perhaps she feels fettered by those emotions and their connection to past events necessary to the poem but hidden from its readers.  And if that's the case, then the poem actually struggles against it's title: the speaker does not want to feel this way.

So then, who is being spoken to?  In the first stanza, there is no clear speaker and audience, but the two commands "Un-find" and "kiss" of the second stanza clearly separate the poem into the speaker and the spoken-to.  The third stanza combines them into the we who "were landmark, / compass . . ." Running forward with the relationship read of "Nostalgia," I'm going to say we have a lover who located her place in life according to this past relationship, to a "we" of which she is no longer part.  When the relationship ended, that sense of place vanished with it, as it often does in the world after a seemingly steadfast (to use Bohince's own language) relationship.

While "Nostalgic" isn't my favorite poem in recent months, I do appreciate its tight, constricted lines.  It feels crafted. It controls how I read it down the page, forcing me to wonder about the "right" words and lines...I think.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cameron Scott's "Evening Hatch"

Finally, after weeks and weeks of trying to write this little quixplication of Cameron Scott's "Evening Hatch" from the The Fly Fish Journal, I've managed to actually complete the task.  Not enough time in the day lately, it seems -- but I'm very happy to have finally jotted down a few words about Cam Scott's poem.  Scott's a friend of mine from the University of Arizona's MFA program.  Every now and then we run into each over the internet and strike up a little conversation.  So -- it's a pleasure to have noticed this poem floating around out there in hyperspace.

"Evening Hatch" is a 3 stanza, first person narrative about a father who sneaks away from his daughter's wedding reception to do a little fly fishing at a nearby river -- the river's within walking distance, close enough to the gala for him to hear "the clink / of glasses as the bride and groom move between tables."  The father is noticeably at home at the river, inferrably uncomfortable at the reception although by the poem's end, when "The world tastes like honey," he's at ease.  It's very much a poem in three parts with each stanza serving a new purpose as we read about the father's comfort at the river and equal discomfort at the reception.

Scott controls this tension and release with his poem's music.  Though the poem isn't metrical per se, it does rely heavily on the iamb to create a controlled, flowing pace and mood.  Much of the first stanza, set entirely at the river, has the iamb as its predominant foot, and its last line is perfect iambic hexameter: "And yes, my shoes, submerged, will smell all year of mud."  The effect is pleasing . . . relaxed.  Because it's been with us now for hundreds of years in one form (no pun intended) or another, the iamb continues to sit easily in the ear.  Too much of it I personally shun (because it's too often done poorly), but a line here and there I find very welcome.  It makes a poem, as it does with the opening stanza of "Evening Hatch," musical and familiar.  Although Scott's poem is not strictly metrical, its play with meter helps lull the reader's ear, just as the river lulls the father-speaker of the poem.

However, Scott opens the second stanza with a rhythmic rat-a-tat: "But here I am anyway . . ."  That dactyl "anyway" throws the rhythm off immediately, and what follows is a bit freer language in terms of rhythmic pattern.  This is accompanied with a shift in imagery.  In the first stanza, we are with the father at the river; in the second stanza, we are placed at the reception, hearing "the clink / of glasses as the bride and groom move between tables."  Although the imagery in the second stanza does eventually return to the river, it never quite gets its rhythmic feet under it -- close, but not quite.  Nor does the father recapture the calm that pervades him in the first stanza when he is physically and mentally at the river simultaneously.  Throughout the second, he occupies two separate spaces: the river where is "casting at dusk" and the reception where "the bride and groom move between tables."

The third and final stanza shifts from arhythmic to rhythmic language as the father physically returns to the reception for the father-daughter dance.  This more or less happens in the third to last line, but takes the rest of the poem to completely satisfy: "as I walk in wet shoes across the room, as if I were tracking flour / from a broken pantry door.  Someone slaps me on the the back.  / My cuffs, unrolled now.  The world tastes like honey."  It seems to me the rhythmic shift back to pattern and flow matches the father's acceptance (that may not be quite right) of his daughter's marriage, of their simultaneous passage into another phase of their lives as marked by the ritual of marriage.  There's a definite sense of tension and release here.  Where the second stanza acted as a disruption of the first's seemingly natural flow, the third stanza recaptures that flow.

The imagery in Scott's "Evening Hatch" does well to hit all five senses, which is great since much of this poem has to do with the outdoors and the comfort the father finds there.  Part of the picture is tactile -- pant-leg bottoms "wet with river water," a "silk tie" -- part of the picture is aural -- "the clink of glasses," "the wandering edge of riffle" -- part is gustatory -- "the taste of honey" -- and much is visual -- "trouser cuffs rolled up," "the branches of a downed tree."  Certain images speak directly to the olfactory sense, too: "my shoes. . .will smell all year of mud" and "the towering cottonwoods" and "the spruce."  The father-speaker of the poem is completely immersed in the natural world for these brief moments of fly fishing at the river while in the distance his daughter's wedding reception carries on.  For awhile, as much as he feels at peace at the river, he seems at odds with the wedding.  But, fishing the "Evening Hatch" helps him come to terms with this life changing event.  By the poem's end, as "someone slaps me on the back," the father is returned to the reception where he claims, "The world tastes like honey."  All is well.  All was a bit discordant, but now all is well.

Cameron Scott's "Evening Hatch" borders on the sentimental perhaps, but its play with sound and picture keep it from completely giving into it.  It's an interesting demonstration of how a person can be in two places at once, then reconvene better off than he was before.