Don’t just do something. Stand there.

My first conscious encounter with Weldon Kees was less than a year ago, when Dana Gioia read several of Kees’ poems and none of his own at the Pasadena Public Library. After Gioia read “For My Daughter”, there was a susurration through the ample audience. You could actually hear the grimacing heartbreak at the darkening of Kees’ face delivering those final ultimatums: “I have no daughter. I desire none.”

The memory of this poem and its reading – where Kees’ intelligence was on grand display, where his particular rhyming strategies transcended the worn dressings of the sonnet, where I felt for the first time his incisive sensibilities – suddenly revivified when I got to Kathleen Rooney’s “Robinson Regards the Snow Babies in Central Park” from her collection, Robinson Alone, which remembers and prolongs our encounter with Robinson, first introduced to us by Kees himself(1, 2, 3, 4). This is also where I unconsciously absorbed the word “susurrations,” used earlier in this post.

This is a very cool book and a very cool project.
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I’m allowing myself to list only 10 things I like about Robinson Alone, though believe me there are more:

1. There’s a double layer of persona in Rooney’s book, since she is taking on Kees taking on Robinson, a.) because she fashions her poems with Kees in mind, especially his intricate rhyming; and b.) because Robinson is a mask of Kees, even if Rooney is responsible for making this indelibly so. Robinson’s fate is Kees’ fate, in one sense, inasmuch as it involves a bridge (the Golden Gate) and being alone. After finishing the book, I’m wondering about whether Rooney’s Robinson and Robinson’s Kees both have the same portion of mystery or if Rooney’s project has demystified Robinson in a way that is denied to Kees’ suicide/disappearance/silence? Or let me put it this way: is there a double-effect to Robinson Alone being such a thorough personal epic, that there is no more story to tell?

2. The Burma-Shave poems during the second section, which occurs during the road trip between the coasts and, by the end, has turned into an exhausted surrealism caused by the interstate system itself. It is a delight  that nothing American is sacred in this text.

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3. I enjoyed how the energy is lofty and tight like a high-wire, all invisible and potential. Robinson’s sentiments are snow-globular, contained and distinct from anything outside his own boundary, but shaken and falling within.

For instance,

4. “Their New Apartment Came With A Garden” (no link)

5. Robinson Prepares Himself.

6. and WHAT DOES HE WANT? THE FUTURE. WHEN DOES HE WANT IT? NOW. (no link)

7. I love what happens when Robinson and Ann get to Los Angeles: “The Village of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels, on the Prociúncula River./Easier, he admits, just to say L.A./Plainly not alluvial, no longer a floodplain, the climate seems wild, spooky in its mildness.” and then this Chicagoan writing in the voice of a Heartlander transplant from the East Coast really nails it: “The motto of this city: augment augment augment.” (Sixteen Days in a Lincoln Roadster, p. 84)

8. Her lines are stanzas and vice versa very often. This is a very deliberate move and has a powerful effect, creating a lot of space between the thoughts presented in each line/stanza so they have breathing room. What it demonstrates is a fastidiousness as neat as Robinson’s own, minding the wheres and whens.

9. I like the repetitions. “Consider consider consider the oyster,” (37); “Here, he is hailed, hailed/hailed again…” (54); Burma-shave; “of a lonesome man buying a postcard” etc. (81); “augment, augment, augment” (84); “cement, cement, cement” (ibid). And certain others. But these, in conjunction with the clever, Keesian peppered rhyme scheme, create a wonderful, show-stopping music.

10. The word Robinson. And its constant, incessant, sounding in your ear. Man, it makes you care. Rooney’s own interest becomes your own and the act of reading makes me complicit in Robinson’s being. And guess what? Guess what?! This is the best part: this is the truth. I can’t make Robinson go away anymore. That Robinson’s sad and explosively silent existence is now known, I am responsible for it. And guess what, guess what? he’s not even real in that other way we mean real. No, no, but that’s what’s more damning: what other excuse do I have now? How come not love?

This is made perfectly clear in the last poem. Suicide is strongly suggested, but never confirmed. Regardless, the pensive investigator (just a cop, really), is in Robinson’s house, which “looks the way it feels to read a newspaper that’s one day old.” Some of his friends are there, too, wondering about Robinson, inside Robinson, inside the snowglobe. And then the cop: ” The policeman wants to go back outside, among the lemons & fog & barking dogs./Out where the sun can copper their faces.” I’d like to go back outside, but can’t. I have a feeling it used to be easier before I read Robinson Alone, before I got to know him, less than a day ago. But I can’t go back. “There is no question of my gratitude.”

 

• • •

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It occurred to me that Rooney is deliberately conscious of “For My Daughter” in Robinson Alone. For one thing, she directly alludes to this broader sentiment in Kees, naming Robinson’s principal cat, Daughter. But perhaps what is more ponderous is the type of genetic inheritance, a set of familiar traits emerging to identify Kees and Rooney. I have daughters myself and I understand the dread that motivates Kees’ poem: “How could they entrust/themselves with another life?” But Rooney has refocused Kees’ bitter wit in Robinson and, in doing so, proved an ally, a friend, and a worthy heir to Kees himself.

Consider, consider, consider….

If it’s broke, don’t fix it

Repair, C.K. Williams, FSG 1999.

It didn’t take long for my eyes to get tired reading Williams’ Pulitzer winner. I didn’t expect it to happen either. I was moved by one poem, “Archetypes” – but even as I search for a copy of it online to share here, my overall complaints rise to the forefront. The two bloggers who have previously posted this poem have done so without any formatting and therefore show how the poems sprawl with loose lines like downed power cables, ultimately connecting to nothing. There is no urgency in any of these poems, there’s no indecision or even a chance to make a mistake, which ends up being a mistake. Frankly, there’s more than a little tone that smacks sanctimonious and self-righteous, a pat on the back for recognizing, for instance, that despite his best intentions, he’s cut off from any authentic discourse on race because he’s white. Way to go, bro; I’m glad to know that you came to that realization.

Which makes me wonder what I’m looking for in a poem or in a collection of poems. As much as I have praised others for being fully present in their poems, I suspect that that is an accident of craft, that a voice emerges and it happens to be the poet whose name is X who also happens to be the author of this collection. Not purely accidental, mind you, but that the poet doesn’t go in there with an agenda or a purpose other than to follow the poem. Williams seems to fail by a thin margin because he’s pressing the point of each poem. He really wants to capture the moment of lovers in half-sleep and the Ben-hur-like circuit of threatening thought that accompanies the possible fear in what could be (should be) intimacy. But he wants the capture, not the poem. Or at least that’s how it comes off.

Another way of saying this is that I feel like he broke every one of these rules from the pretty amazing brain of Hannah Gamble.

How do you approach the idea of writing a poem with your full self, planning the conditions of an accident that can reverberate on a different frequency from historical consciousness and punditry while simultaneously broadcasting a tune just about anyone can whistle too? I guess that is the question. The big one.

I don’t know.

 

Every Riven Thing

All Good Conductors

1.

O the screech and heat and hate
we have for each day’s commute,

the long wait at the last stop
before we go screaming

underground, while the pigeons
court and shit and rut

insolently on the tracks
because this train is always late,

always aimed at only us,
who when it comes with its

blunt snout, its thousand mouths,
cram and curse and contort

into one creature, all claws and eyes,
tunneling, tunneling, tunneling

toward money.

2.

Sometimes a beauty
cools through the doors at Grand,

glides all the untouchable
angles and planes

of herself
to stand among us

like a little skyscraper,
so sheer, so spare,

gazes going all over her
in a craving wincing way

like sun on glass.

3.

There is a dreamer
all good conductors

know to look for
when the last stop is made

and the train is ticking cool,
some lover, loner, or fool

who has lived so hard
he jerks awake

in the graveyard,
where he sees

coming down the aisle
a beam of light

whose end he is,
and what he thinks are chains

becoming keys.

What I keep trying to tackle in the aftermath of reading Christian Wiman’s abyssal, devotional, meditative volume Every Riven Thing, which is a fiercely silent cri de couer from the author’s own crucifix, is the anxiety or unease or the fidgets I have about poetry and Christianity, especially in the 21st century. Wiman has nothing of this anxiety in his text. I mean nothing. This book is the hand stretched out that doesn’t shake. Put some spiders on it. Keep pretending that you’re going to cut it off with a hatchet. Put a cancer in its body. Still the book doesn’t flinch. I don’t know what Wiman has been through since his diagnosis. I don’t even know more than what I could find online: He has a cancer and, subsequently, he put out a fierce book of faithful poems in 2011. I do know that this book will outlast and outpace most of its contemporaries.

Christian Wiman has also been the editor of Poetry magazine. Also, he wrote a retrospective essay on poetry since 1900, which should be required reading in any introduction to poetry class.

I don’t know. I’m having a hard time with talking about Wiman. His stance is where I want to stand but lately I’ve been unmoored as a writer. I’ve been writing cover letters and resumes and a lot of not-poetry that when I encounter Wiman’s wild, honey-eating line (“as if water wanted out of itself;/tip of the sycamore’s weird bare reach: some latency in things leading not so much to speech), I have that uncanny Pentecost sense that I don’t speak his language yet I understand everything he is saying.

Even his masterful rhymecraft could not settle me. Quite the opposite. Hopkins is similarly ecstatic, but not as crazed. If you were to compare Hopkins and Wiman, it would be like Elijah and Elisha, respectively – Wiman would let the bears eat you.

Small Prayer in a Hard Wind

As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
Only someone lost could find,

Which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
Its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

Seems both ghost of the life that happened there
And living spirit of this wasted place,

Wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
That is open enough to receive it,

Shatter me God into my thousand sounds . . .

 

Here’s an honest question. Does faith live in Wiman’s darkness? Is blindness its natural habitat? Does faith root the soul without that sense, like cave lizards whose eyes are hardly even vestiges of eyes? Wiman suggests as much himself, claiming that the soul’s satisfaction is the cowl over your head at your execution, the silent privacy of your fear and release.

 

To love is to feel your death
given to you like a sentence,
to meet the judge’s eyes
as if there were a judge,
as if he had eyes,
and love.

(Self)Interview with Someone Who Has Recently Read Fredy Neptune

The author of this blog has recently been reading Fredy Neptune by Les Murray, Australian’s preeminent poet, winner of heaps of awards. Fredy Neptune is a novel in verse. I sat down with the author of this blog to ask him some questions about his experience reading the book during a lunch break where we both work. The full transcript follows

Q: Hey! How’s it going? Or should I say, G’day mate!

A: Shut up. Stop that right now or else I’m leaving.

Q: Sorry. I thought it would be appropriate.

A: Nope.

Q: Well, should we begin?

A: Yes, let’s.

Q: Alright, so how did you first hear about this book? And more importantly, what did you think going in, since it claims to be a rare & ambitious hybrid of genres: a poetry novel.

A: I recently met a guy and became friends with him, but the first thing he did when we met was ask me if I knew Les Murray or the book Fredy Neptune. Strong recommendation when that’s your first impression. I answered no to both questions, by the way. To answer the second question, though, I see what you’re getting at but it didn’t seem like the hybrid part of your description would be the challenge. Rather, this book is stinkin’ huge. It’s 255 pp. and every page has five stanzas of eight lines.

2013-02-05 12.41.24Q: That’s a lot of text!

A: ….

Q: ….

A: So, that was the real challenge of this book. In fact, I still haven’t finished.

Q: What?! C’mon! Are you serious? I told you that this needed to be finished like a week ago. You knew I was going to write this piece and now you’re telling me you haven’t even finished the book?

A: Sorry. I can still tell you…

Q: I mean, what’s the point? How am I supposed to get anything from this conversation if it’s only filled with half-measures? And that’s just on your side. So, it’s really a quarter measure. 

A: No, really, I’d love to tell you about this book so far. I mean, the only thing that’s going to change at this point is the plot. I’m 2/5ths of the way through, which is already over a hundred pages, which is plenty of material to go on. He never changes form and, like I said, the only thing I don’t know yet is what happens – I feel like I already have a good sense for what’s going on in the book.

Q: Oh really? Fine. What’s ‘going on’ then?

A: Well, basically, you have this Australian-German grifter. Is that the right word? Hang on. Let me look it up.

Q: ….

A: Huh. Not quite, but also not too far off the mark. Anyway, so this Australian-German young kid, Friedrich Boettcher, who starts working on ships then gets forced to serve for the Krauts…

Q: Woah! Totally offensive.

A: Huh. Yeah, sorry. This is a big deal in the book actually. In fact it was this type of language appropriation and discourse that demonstrated that this book was a novel. But I’ll get to that later. Anyway, Freddy gets consigned by the Germans, pardon, and finds himself in the middle of WWI battles in the Middle East. In fact, most of the first book is all set in the middle East. In the first few pages, Fredy sees the Germans burn a bunch of Armenian women alive and his reaction is to get leprosy and then lose all feeling in his body.

Q: What? 

A: He reacts to seeing the Armenian women burnt alive by contracting leprosy, healing from it, but losing his faculty of touch.

Q: Oh.

A: Yeah! This happens in all of 8 pages. It’s insane. Here: listen.

Q: Wow.

A: So, anyway, he goes around in the Middle East and to Rio and all over trying to catch a ride home – he’s a lot like Odysseus – and hiding from the cops or the Germans or the anti-Germans because he doesn’t fit in either category and his affliction gets him into a lot of queer situations.

Q: How do you say queer?

A: In this way: I mean imagine if you did not have the sense of touch and people around you during WWI did have the sense of touch.

Q: I see.

A: The whole first book, The Middle Sea, is about his pinballing around getting into and out of trouble before finally getting home. Then in the second book, Barking at Thunder, which I’ve read, has him at home, looking for his mother, who sold their farm because their family had become pariahs on account of them having German heritage – see this is what I meant earlier. This book has a laser trained on the social currency of hate, usually coined in words and names. For instance, Freddy’s name (i.e., identity) becomes different currency at different times used by him and against him: rarely does he ever use the name Boettcher. Instead it’s Beecher, Butcher, Boytcher (“I showed him my paybook. Boytcher? Isn’t that German” [18]), Beeching, Boettischer, Beitcher, Beotisher, Belcher, Blucher, Bo’sher, Boatcher, and finally, Neptune, great god of the sea, enemy of Odysseus (man of many turns, mind you, like names): “How about Freddy Neptune?/You work below the line” (100). He’s more Proteus than Neptune, though. But to get back to the point, you don’t start off a novel with a hate-crime like burning a group of Armenian women alive and not concern yourself with hate and injustice for the rest of the book. So, Les Murray doesn’t.

Fredy (or Freddy) is a barometer of justice and right action, which isn’t to say he acts rightly all the time, but his sense of it is strictly tied to his condition. He knows that an honest word, especially about his condition, will at different times worsen or heal it. Or this event:

I was in Osnabrück outside the Peace Hall this Spring morning
eyeing a couple of other land-rakers like me
and a pretty girl going by with an attaché case,
filling in, I dare say, for some pen-pusher off at the war.
One of the drifters suddenly jumped and tore
the briefcase off her. Really. Because her arm came off too.
I blinked. It was real. She screamed. The veins and muscles
attaching the arm were leather straps. And the thief,

well he was hopeless. He leant his head against the wall
with the case at his feet, still chained to that wooden arm
and the crowd running up – the other bloke had cleared.
The girl was crying, with the sleeve torn off her blouse
and I was the one nearest. I was so stupid-shy,
she was stretching out her hand, her live real hand -
and what do I do but put her wooden arm in it?
If I had got that right, everything would have been different. (8)

Q: Wow. 

A: Yeah. So that’s what I mean by being a barometer of right-action, right-living.

Q: So what happens after he gets home?

A: Well, it’s a lot of the same, he wanders on the land like he does the sea, getting into trouble here and there, but it is definitely a variation on a theme. In the same sense that the “same” thing happens in both books (and I imagine at least in the third book), “nothing” happens in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Q: What does happen in Ulysses? Seriously!

A: Not now, man.

Q: FineCan you explain the idea of the “Novel in Verse”? Does it work here? Well, I guess what I mean is, is it actually a novel? And then, a follow-up question: is it successful as a genre? That is, can people get on board with it? Will it be a form that is embraced by readers and authors?

A: Clown question, bro.

Q: What do you mean? I’m serious.

A: I don’t have to explain the “Novel in Verse.” It’s self-explanatory.

Q: What about the other questions, you know, does it work…is it true? 

A: OK. Fine. I’ll bite. What makes this a novel is not length or plot because those things don’t make a novel.

The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.

Q: Who said that?

A: Bakhtin.

Q: I don’t buy it.

A: What do you got?

Q: I don’t “got” anything. But that doesn’t sound like a novel to me. What about plot and character? 

A: Well, someone has to be saying things and have occasion for saying the things they say, so plot and character are assumed.

Q: But - 

A: Bakhtin really hits his stride talking about the novel by placing the overlapping systems of diverse speech in common areas – for instance, markets and courthouses or road-side stops. Or even ship decks, shipyards, circus tents,  middle-of-the-street, post-office, movie lobbies, and dining room tables in Fredy Neptune.

Q: I just don’t - 

A: Moreover, Bakhtin also traces the genealogy of the novel to the grotesqueness of Menippean satire and to the larger-than-life/disproportionate exaggeration that draws our focus to the abundant, unfetterable overflow of tongues.

Q: HOW IS THAT WHAT A NOVEL IS?

A: Easy. Name a novel.

Q: The Hunger Games.

A: OK. Whatever. The diversity of language systems in this book is not great (which might help establish its complexity on an objective level and then we can make value judgments on it). Basically, you have hybrid Greek and Latin proper names that define the spaces and categorize them into easy understandables: good/bad. For instance, Katniss’ name is non-Greco-Roman at least, refers to a tuber whose Latin name is Sagitta, which means arrow. She’s a heteroglossic character. Wham bam.

Nobody properly speaks in these languages during the book so you don’t have a true heteroglossia (Bakhtin’s terming of the condition of over-abundant language systems), but nevertheless, the author “artistically organized” the Greek and Latin/Anglo-Saxon linguistic elements, as well as diverse social speech types (consider the different ways of talking that Haymitch and Effee Trinket in the dining car [social gathering]). So, holds up. Satisfied?

Q: I guess. I’m going to have to think about it.

A: The point is that this approach to the novel illuminates how Fredy Neptune is novelistic. Murray populates the entire story with overlapping voices that blur into each other; sometimes you don’t know who’s saying what and it becomes noisy like a market square and you can’t hear the person you’re trying to listen to for all the voices. This is a novelistic trope and Murray masterfully uses it.

The other novel in verse that I’ve read, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, is not. Hers really is more like a cycle of poems, even an epic. Actually, it’s a very good epic. But to call it a novel is to miss the mark. If I remember correctly, Red stands on the quality of line and the strength of blending its characters’ mythic and personal aspects, like taking a gemstone and quickly turning it in the light to compose the refraction into a single image. But, she doesn’t do that through dialogue or discourse. It happens mostly through soul-description and soliloquy. I’d have to go back to confirm this suspicion, but that’s what I remember.

Q: But back to Fredy. What is it like reading this book? You mentioned its city of voices is confusing. 

A: Well, it is, but that’s clearly intentional. The experience of reading is very different from reading a novel, which also makes me doubt calling it a novel. I don’t re-read many sentences in the novels I like to read but I often have to go back and read some passages, sometimes a whole page, to resituate myself in Fredy. But that’s maybe a condition of this hybrid genre, since all verse demands this type of repetitive experience. Even “The Red Wheelbarrow” needs to be re-read and re-read. 

Q: Les Murray is a Catholic poet. I bet you get a kick out of that.

A: Well, I didn’t realize this until I read it in a biography. There’s nothing obstinately Catholic about Fredy Neptune in what I’ve read so far.

Q: What do you mean “obstinately Catholic“?

A: I mean that Fredy’s participation with people so far is an exercise in natural virtue, especially jurisprudence and practical wisdom. However, there’s this great conversation that goes:

You have God? – Eh? Pardon? – You Christian, have religous? - 
Well, yes. – You have God a little and not trust Him?
That is Christian.

That’s about how it feels when I’m revolving around the Sun, the Trinity, and there’s a dark side not facing it. Which is all the time, right? There’s always a part of a planet that doesn’t face the light. I don’t know if that’s particularly Catholic, but I do think Catholicism acknowledges that a little more, at least historically, and has more room for that to be a fact of the experience of having faith instead of trying to spin the globe to keep it in the light all the time.

Q: So, the book just feels Catholic? 

A: No, not really. It just feels like it’s comprehending its own experience honestly and not-exclusively. That is, it’s letting everyone have a voice, even if it’s not a voice we want to savor or hear. For instance, Fredy’s step-dad is a German nationalist who is probably still harboring some Nazi sentiments and he’s not really holding back his opinion that the Fatherland is superior. His exclusive, borderline hateful, ethos gets fair play – it’s a location for conflict, but only because it has the opportunity to be heard and that conflict helps the maturation of the work. In a way, that’s very Catholic to me. The Church is a location for conflict. It’s supposed to be. The Church matures through conflict and it’s pretty clear from history that mankind matures specifically through its conflicts with the Church.

Q: What do you think is going to happen in the book?

A: Well, right now, Fredy’s about to go to Hollywood, which I’m excited about. I bet he’s going to get into some bigger trouble, though – he’s just been hired by a sketchy Australian politician to go find a guy in Kentucky (also excited about this) and bring him back to Australia. I don’t see that going very well. He left his girl and his son, so that’s gotta be sorted out, I predict for the better. And finally, he’s gotta get his non-feeling sorted out, which I think will happen, since the last book is called ‘Lazarus Unstuck.’

Q: Oh, I forgot to ask, how Australian is this book? You have some experience with Australia so talk about that.

A: That’s a crappy question. A little broad.

Q: Well, you didn’t finish the book.

A: Fair. Well, I don’t really know how to answer you. What I admire about Australian English is the low-form, how relaxed it can be, how fast people can talk and gaff and switch between them. It’s something I don’t recognize in English English or American English. Australian slang and Australian idiom is hard to separate and that’s a strength. Murray is all over that. 

Murray’s Australia in Fredy is largely blue collar and it’s also very racist. The people of Australia, having lost nearly an entire generation at Gallipoli are shoring up their ethnic identity in a gesture as exclusive as the Aryan mistake. So, Murray’s Australia is in fact just like everywhere else in that way and that’s his point of harping on it: “Guess what everybody, we’re all idiots and can’t think straight when it comes to ethnicity.”

The marvel is that he can generate a sense of place not through description of place but through activity of humans. Details are there to give you an atmospheric condition, but really, for Murray, places are defined by what people do there. Amazing.

Q: Should everybody read this book?

A: Yes? No? I don’t know. Really. Does everyone have the patience for this book? I don’t even have the patience for this book and I love it so far. How can I say? Is it worth reading, yes! Does that mean everyone should read it? I don’t think so.

 

EDIT: Clarification needs to be made. I misread the description of burning the Armenian women. The Germans did not burn these women – the event Fredy witnesses was part of the Armenian Genocide. Sorry!

How Many Analogies Can I Make About Berryman’s Sonnets?

1. Berryman’s sonnets are like the black & white, full-page lingerie ads in the Sunday edition.

2. Berryman’s sonnets are like parodies of what you imagine most rap music videos are.

3. Berryman’s sonnets are like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

4. Berryman’s sonnets are like those moments of recorded songs where you hear people talking in the studio and you know that the band was like, “Oh yeah man, leave that in, it will be so cool.”

5. Berryman’s sonnets are a cough before the song starts.

6. Berryman’s sonnets are the secret song at the end of an album, which really isn’t worth waiting 12 minutes to hear.

7. Berryman’s sonnets are love notes between high schoolers that you wish you didn’t find when you’re cleaning up your classroom at the end of the day.

8. Berryman’s sonnets sound like he got drunk only after his wife/lover/I’m really not sure what after reading them had already gone to bed and he was feeling lonely. ALL ONE HUNDRED FIFTEEN OF THEM.

9. Berryman’s sonnets are what would happen if Berryman was Wallace Stevens. Or if Wallace Stevens was John Berryman. I can’t tell which.

10. Berryman’s sonnets are beardless.

Several First Paragraphs for Full Treatments I Probably Won’t Write

The Bride of E, Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf, 2009)

I.

My disagreements with Mary Jo Bang’s The Bride of E have nothing to do with definition, only style. In the same way, why I care about what kinds of clothes I wear is different from why I care about wearing clothes. You see, being outfitted adds to the what of me but whether that outfit is chic or drab, well, that affects only the idea of me. Similarly, my idea of Mary Jo Bang’s The Bride of E has little to do with the poetics involved (for they are strict and awe-some), and more to do with how I can’t get to an angle where the words look good together and so the idea of the words and the reality of the words clash. I realize I am the odd bridesmaid who, as supportive as she wants to be, doesn’t like any one gown the Bride tries on at the shop.

II.

Usually, I would easily agree that laughter and joy are kin, which would then make me think that humor must have something to do with joy, that when we surface into the high terrain of double-, triple-, multiple-speak and burden our words like burros with several meanings at the same time, that we must do so with a little bit of smile. Say this is impossible, that your heart is not open to joy because the mountain is steep and you don’t know whether the high ridge in the distance is the end or if the peak is farther off and higher up. Say you’ve packed your burros anyway. Your jokes now sound like wielded knives and your laughter consorts with its second-cousin, anxiety. “There is a house that’s off-camera/In flames” (The Bride of E, 53).

III.

The experience of reading Mary Jo Bang’s The Bride of E is like walking through an exhibition of Magritte and his contemporaries. The surreal artifice connecting disparate images is buoyed only (and I mean exclusively) by psychoanalytical tropes. The sixth poem,“Beast Brutality” is the first to draw the line in the sand, to draw you through the doors, to initiate you into an unstable world of symbol and Freudian device. Indeed, of the many allusive characters Bang invites to her party (Plato, Pee-wee Herman, T.S. Eliot, Alice in Wonderland, Dante [whom she recently translated], Dreiser/Sister Carrie), Freud is the most prevalent. And she speaks so lovingly of/for Freud at times that I put on his greatcoat, too, and try to sit to feel “the rough brush of the horsehair chair” without feeling what it might mean. Then again, I am a sucker for Vergil.

IV.

While reading Mary Jo Bang’s The Bride of E, I got in the way of myself because I knew I had to write about it. Moreover, I kept drawing lines between reviewing (which is not what I want to do) and reacting, like chemical reaction, like what-can’t-but-happen when you put elements together in certain conditions. I’m trying really hard to do the latter, to spontaneously combust into prose upon reading a line. But Bang’s book of poems had about as exciting of a reaction with me as a magnet to aluminum (I’m the aluminum, by the way), which makes me wonder where the power is when you read? On the back of the book, the power seems to belong with Bang: “One of the finest poets of her generation.” – Marjorie Perloff; “This is a book of darks and delights. It is totally amazing.” – Lyn Hejinian. But when the magnet fails to attract and grip and hang on to material that it cannot attract and grip and hang on to? We are powerless at each other.

V.

I was at the playground with my 2-year-old. The jungle gym sprawls and creates areas that are hard to reach and easy to disappear your child. Adjacent is the aquatic center where young bodies, no older than 15, jumped or simply dropped routine shapes from the 5-, 7-, and 10-meter platforms. They were 50 meters away from me when their bodies poised and crossed then leaping then falling shimmered to silhouette because the tall pines in the background cradled the sun who bends the light around them like water, which only came after, which made the whole thing possible. To see them falling and disappear from a wall between us, never seen splashing safe. Is that too much to ask for?

Next up: Berryman’s Sonnets, John Berryman

The True Learning That Makes for Righteousness

The Pasadena Central Library. I’m a big fan. The building squats like a house and not a church (except for those churches that are built like houses) and there’s no pretense, no grandeur, just age and not even that much age (1927). It has been in a handful of movies, like Legally Blonde, Arachnophobia, and Dead Heat. Just down the street is the Pawnee/Pasadena City Hall, which is way more impressive and beautiful. Screw it, though. Give me this low-ceilinged, dim-lit hug of books.
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Above the door in the courtyard are three quotes:

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THE TRUE LEARNING THAT MAKES FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS

and

BE MADE WHOLE BY BOOKS AS BY GREAT SPACES AND THE STARS

and

THE ASSEMBLED SOULS OF ALL THAT MEN HOLD WISE

These are some intense assumptions! I love it! Imagine: a byproduct of true learning (what is true learning!) is righteousness! How indeed am I made whole by spaces and by stars and how does this come before books? And to that last one, what a claim that the content of the pages of the books on the shelves are an assembly of souls!

I’m a little overboard. I distinctly remember the first time I walked through the courtyard and read the first quote. I felt immediately welcomed, like crossing the Texas border and reading “Drive Friendly – the Texas Way,” a slogan with as many assumptions as asserting there is a true learning and that it yields righteousness. But I always did drive friendly in Texas. There are witnesses, too.

These are damn fine things to tattoo on a library. I have a suspicion that attitudes might be different than they were in 1927 in Pasadena and that not too many people will readily assert that righteousness is the what we’re after when we set out to learn or that naming ideas as souls is even close to the truth anymore. But, like a tattoo, you’re stuck with looking at it until you do an equal violence to take it away. And like a tattoo, you’re probably reminded of the you you were when you used to hold these things as true. And if there’s something right with you, you’ll wonder whether or not that’s still in your blood somewhere.

I didn’t capture the left edge of this engraving, which groups the names of: Homer, Pindar, Vergil (my spelling), Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare. And as you can see on the right, you have, Plato, St. Paul, Aristotle, Bacon, Darwin, Newton, Pasteur.

The first collection of names makes for a lot of sense and there’s no real deviation from the historical arc of handed-down, canonical authors that we’d be shocked if they weren’t engraved in a library. You can almost roll your eyes at these bros. Almost. It’s not like anybody’s ready to engrave Junot Diaz’ name into a library. Or even Toni Morrison’s for that matter.

Not the point.

The point is just look at that list of guys on the right! (By the way, all dudes, no dames. 1927.)  That’s such an exciting arrangement! It actually, actually verifies the ideas of “true learning” and “righteousness”! Putting Darwin up there with St. Paul must have been brazen in 1927! and some people will call it brazen today! Or Newton up there with Aristotle! That is going to cause more stir with staunchly silly Newtonians than it will with Aristotelians! Of course these aren’t real rivalries but that’s what’s so good about the grouping – it holds you accountable for your convenient parsing of ideologues. These people are propped up so often as emblems of such distinct and antagonizing schools; it’s actually exciting to see that the mind behind this library will carry no truck with the high school mascot rivalry these men are subjected to. No, no, the library says, I am merely the assembly of souls for what men hold wiseI dare you to say these souls are not.

The stacks. There are three floors in the library. After walking into an expansive lobby, it really alters your mood and your purpose to duck down under low thresholds into these really low ceilings that are lit by fluorescent bulbs and remind you of your school library, or at least my school library. No wooden shelves. No seats tucked into neat corners. No windows. Just books on monochrome metal.

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Which brings me to a constant state of wonder in a phenomenological way

So there’s this place in every city that tries to have all the books ever?

Yes.

And they’re open to the public?

Yes.

And you can read those books whenever you want?

Yes, having met certain conditions that are not hard to meet.

And you can take them home with you?

Yes.

And you don’t have to pay anything?

Yes, having met certain conditions that are not hard to meet.

OK.

OK.

The poetry section is still strange to me. One reason is that I’m more familiar with LOC than Dewey. Another reason is that I’m never in the stacks for more than five minutes. My usual library visit averages at 7.5 minutes roundabouts, not including parking. I’m usually headed straight to the Holds section or to the poetry section and I usually have a call number in hand. But if I’m browsing, I’m not quite sure where it actually begins, which I wouldn’t care about except that I’m trying to be thorough for this project and I’m afraid that a hundred or so 7.5 minute visits will still leave many leaves unturned.

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Boss

Bucolics, Maurice Manning (Harcourt, 2007)

  1. When I finished reading Bucolics, I bought seven copies of it – one for me, six for my closest neighbor friends whose souls would be enhanced by the new language and voice for prayer provided by Manning’s seventy-eight poems.
  2. I will probably buy a case of this book  and just hand it out like pamphlets on the street, like some weird evangelist that I thought I wasn’t anymore.
  3. Which makes me think, is this how the apostles felt?
  4. No, really.
  5. When Christ said, “Follow me,” did it just sound right in their ears and they were suddenly aware that that pitch, the sonorous hum of his simple command, was what would make their souls – indiscernably agitated, at unease – shut up?
  6. Is that a function of truth?
  7. Though I can’t say I shut up when I was reading Bucolics
  8. In fact, while I was reading, I had a lot of what I’ve started to term “line seethers” where I read a line or phrase or poem that’s impossibly good and my visceral reaction is to pull back my lips in a sick smile that curls into my teeth and I breathe in a little.
  9. In David Foster Wallace’s essay, Federer as Religious Experience” , he terms a similar ritual as Federer Moments.
  10. His Federer Moment involves him genuflecting against his will.
  11. Hence the title of the essay.
  12. This poem was full of line seethers.
  13. This one, too.
  14. But Bucolics was made – foundation, plumbing, joints, frame, design, and ornament – entirely out of seethers.
  15. I knew I liked Manning when he used George Herbert as an epigraph, too.
  16. I love George Herbert.
  17. So did Elizabeth Bishop.
  18. I love Elizabeth Bishop.
  19. The amount of hawks in Bucolics really delights me. 
  20. The amount of hawks in poetry in general makes me realize I’m doing OK.
  21. I might make an anthology of hawk poems.
  22. These Bucolics are the Psalms and Vergil and Horace and Cummings and Wendell Berry and Manning (because Manning is not only this book) and everybody who has ever worked hard for at least a day in their life at the same time.
  23. Which is AWESOME
  24. from Bucolic I: “boss of the grassy green/boss of the silver puddle/how happy is my lot”;
  25. “if you loose me like a leaf”;
  26. “when my blossom Boss is full/boss a bee to my blue lips/that one drop of my bloom/would softly drop into/your sweetness once again”
  27. Seeth.
  28. You see, what’s present here is every aspect of the craft of poetry that I love most in the poems I love most.
  29. They are: attentiveness, distinctive voice, attention to the line and its ending and its participation with the next line, prayerfulness (not praying, but the attitude of the activity of prayer), joy, dark shadowing without despair, alliteration, lines with uniform syllables, privacy, common speech, lovely speech, common speech which is lovely speech, precision, accuracy.
  30. from Bucolic X: “all over me you tuck/me in you tuck me tighter/than a splinter in my finger”;
  31. “this close I wish you’d put/your ear against my mouth/so I could tell you something/I could tell you something/Boss if you would just/bend farther down I know/you know what I would say/Boss if you’d put your ear/against my mouth though it/would only be a whisper/I’ve got a secret Boss/it’s burning up my lips”
  32. My buddy and I were talking about the creation of new metaphors and that role in the development of language.
  33. I kept thinking of how St. John of the Cross gave us a nice easy way to name the soul’s grief while still on earth as “The Dark Night”.
  34. Manning has provided more metaphors for other urges and states of soul or for placing the attitude of man a certain distance from the divine.
  35. My favorite one, though, is “honeypot.”
  36. from Bucolics LXXVIII, “I don’t like that moment when/you turn me out alone to graze/to graze is such a hot-faced slight/as close as breath but never close/enough to know if I was hitched/for real or if the hitching Boss/I felt was just a feeling sweet/but not the honeypot itself”
  37. That’s another way to put it.
  38. “God’s put me out to graze on my own for a while.”
  39. I can see myself feeling that.
  40. I’m going to wear this book out.

ECLOGUE

for Maurice Manning

I bet you’d turn
if I tapped your
shoulder touched
your shadow I bet
you knew what
you were making the
loneliness of human
flesh of the big
mawing body hole
between us got
arms legs and
a kisser where you
got none but a
word and a man
and both of them’s
boss i’ve been
looking for you
waiting for that
tickle of breath
at my ear saying
hello thought I
heard it standing
up from that stream
I drank from but
it was only a falling
petal touch was it
you you lazy magnolia

 

Dumb

I did this silly thing where I “went public” with this blog and then haven’t posted in a week because we’re moving. Moving is terrible.

Even though this is for my sake, not yours, I invited you to come in and then I left the party myself.

Sorry for the bait and switch. I’m jamming on Maurice Manning’s Bucolics. For the rest of my life. Coming up.

60 Points: How do you like your blue-eyed-boy?

Selected Poems, by E.E. Cummings, edited by Richard Kennedy (Liveright, 1994)

1. A lot of my high school students, exclusively girls, chose to recite Cummings’ poems a lot in their poetry classes and contests, especially “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in”.

2. This is because Cummings’ poems are tender and boldly Romantic but in a modern strain.

3. It’s like watching Ryan Gosling in The Notebook.

4. But Ryan Gosling also did Half-NelsonLars & the Real Girl, and (my favorite so far) Drive.

5. And Edward Estlin Cummings also wrote poems about picking up prostitutes (fictional) and “constructive/Horizontal/business” (very non-fictional) and a bitter aversion to the wars that brought about a situation like The Notebook (true, but maybe fictive).

6. Which doesn’t cancel out any of the tender and boldly Romantic modern strains at all.

7. I’m not saying that; that would be false.

8. But it does illuminate an aspect of reading Cummings (and maybe many other dead and collected poets) and the commerce involved therein.

9. For instance, I take a drive about 40 minutes to the nearest Wal-Mart to purchase a supply of 2-pound blocks of Cabot Extra Sharp Vermont White Cheddar about once a month.

10. It’s a long drive on city streets with a lot of stop lights.

11. Usually, I have at least one kid in the car.

12. Typically, I don’t buy anything else.

13. The Wal-Mart where I live is usually overcrowded and overturned.

14. Families are everywhere and they are mostly just looking at things and then putting them back, usually in the wrong places.

15. Everything is out of place at the Wal-Mart, which is not even near my house.

16. I can’t really say I like Wal-Mart because I don’t.

17. They are very good at making things cheap.

18. Things like:

18a. the capacity for an object to gain value based on the desire and focused effort that you put into it;

18b. the purpose and function of clothing as distinct from advertisement;

18c. milk

18d. tires

19. I have shopped there a lot in my life.

20. When I first got married, we lived in a place where the Wal-Mart was pristine, well-kept, spacious, and rarely overcrowded.

21. It was also the only store you could go to (only a slight exaggeration).

22. We were also not financially capable & stupid about money, which are the same thing.

23. Neither of those attributes means poor.

24. Being poor is something I have to stop attributing to myself.

25. I have never been poor.

26. Wal-Mart has made sure that I have never felt poor, regardless of whether I ever could have been.

27. Now that I’m less stupid about money and more financially capable and not even close to being poor, I only go to Wal-Mart for a brick of white cheddar that they don’t sell at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Sprouts, or even the local cheese shop.

28. If I want to get a tender poem from Cummings, I can tunnel vision the disarray – the words and syllables that were picked up and discarded like a t-shirt in a $5 DVD bin with a large representation from The Notebook -, and find one.

29. I can also ignore the noise and clamor that surrounds me in that pursuit, the literal grammars of shopping confused and failing to mean between all Wal-Mart shoppers and me.

30. I can also block out, with greater effort (this is where it gets really contradictory and starts to fall apart), the effort it takes to drive all the way to Cummings to get that tender brick of poem.

31. It’s really hard to sit down with a Selected Poems and effort into it instead of skipping tracks on a greatest hits CD.

32. To listen for understanding.

33. To be honest with yourself.

34. To not mix metaphors.

35. The point here is that Cummings was all over the place for me.

36. Originally, I was stumped at reading his rule book (which, by the way are just his poems).

37. They spread out like complex basketball diagrams and instructions for putting together an omelet.

38. I find him ambitious most of all and like most ambitious & capable attempts that start from groundwork only, the success rate is not high, but the successes are grand.

39. The dare pays-off.

40. Let me say this before I say the other thing: I really enjoy Cummings.

41. OK, here’s the other thing: Cummings is really confusing and you’re a jerk, yeah, man, an asshole if you posture yourself as thinking he’s not confusing, purposefully obfuscating and no I don’t think you have the secret key to every lock in every poem.

42. Just cut it out.

43. While I enjoyed grazing through Cummings’ poems, I have to say that I did not like the way Kennedy put this book together.

44. What the heck is this topical arrangement about and do these poems even have publication dates?

45. This is a silly way to put together someone else’s poems.

46. Silly Kennedy man.

47. But to return to the commerce of poems:

48. Most people’s relationship to poetry is commodified.

49. Occasional poems are to be found everywhere.

50. I know because I search for them a lot.

51. Building a dollhouse?

52. School’s been shot up?

53. First tooth?

54. Writing a movie script?

55. I guess what’s so marvelous (makes me marvel, wonder, think-with-optimism) about the high school girls is that they are actually succeeding at extracting the product from the noise surrounding it with their extemporaneous selections and recitations.

56. They lose nothing.

57. And neither do they who google for a christening poem or a poem about starting a new business that uses a metaphor of an alighting moth or an estranged friend/lover/parent has died and you need a poem for the funeral.

58. The poem lives alone, shrink wrapped and cooled.

59. Ready for you.

60. “my selves go with you,only i remain;”