Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Doyle & The Ersatz Life

If while reading Caitlin Doyle’s poetry you suspect everything is not as it seems, encountering “First Apartment,” an argument as concise as a Shakespearean sonnet, will throw down the gauntlet decisively. As with many of Doyle’s poems, it is benign fun on the surface: a choice of furnishings made on a whim growns into a fashion sense. The choice dictates the speaker’s clothes, her friends, and In time, her eyes adjusted to each thing / so what she saw was what her taste became. What remains is a mirror that surrounds her face, indifferent to what it reflects. The speaker has created an ersatz life, and this dichotomy – reality on one side of the door, unreal counterpart on the other (if not seeping through the windows like a house afire) – penetrates Doyle’s work. It is her fixation, and for the reader it is, in the most satisfying sense, the unease that stalks our comfort.

In Doyle’s thus-far short career, much has been made of her work with rhyme and wordplay, which she employs to heighten the ominousness of her subjects. In this respect she stands on the shoulders of several fine poets working today who use rhyme to this effect, former poet laureate Kay Ryan, as outstanding example. For starters, take a shot of Doyle’s “The Breakfast in Heidelberg Series” if you care to inoculate yourself against pretentiously allusive versifying. Delight in “Brief History Of The Bikini,” which sets the midriff-bearing outfit against its explosive namesake, Bikini Atoll:

So many summers the body wasn't there,

invisible and free to show itself
to nobody. Then boom. 

But something more complex than wordplay is at work. To say her strength lies in manufacturing literary chiaroscuro – that her go-to tactic is to put darkness in greater relief by playing it against rhyming verse – is too easy. Her true aim is something slightly different, and serves a specific purpose: to examine the merits and dysfunctions of faux worlds (call them self-delusion, fantasy, or simply nothingness) that haunt and displace traditional realities.

This territory is ripe for interrogation. Doyle and her contemporaries live in a world once-removed. The evidence that today’s realities are shaped externally is everywhere: in the echo chambers of media and TV news coverage, as well as in our communications where we become our own avatars. (Who are our friends if not those on Facebook?) Such a fractured sensibility is part of the modern culture. Just as Madame Tussand makes heads “more real than flesh” and reigns over a literal monument to simulacra in “Madame Tussand,” so does Doyle reign over these dual worlds. She does so sometimes with expected subject matter – consider the panhandler who is both statue and man, dolls which are both animate and not – but other subjects are hauntingly fresh, as in the darkly wonderful “If Siegfried and Roy Had Never Met,” which creates for the two performers an alternate narrative – one that is as free of danger as it is anodyne. In the ominous “Ocean City,” a similar dichotomy edges the dueling shores, one festooned with false idols of commerce, the other all too real.

These mirror images bleed together, Escher-like and unsettling. In the sonorous (and exquisitely rendered) “The Bells,” ringing bells are obscured by their own echo until their signifying breaks into chaos and no one can hear the chime behind each chime. The poet suggests the echo could be there to “stop the urge to steep us in too faithful a refrain” – a rabbit hole that gets straight to the seductive powers and dangers of authentic (and elusive) emotion. Either way, in the end, it's the representation that is embraced, not the actual.

It would not surprise me if Doyle were a student of Jean Baudrillard (she is one regardless of study). “The Bells” is Baudrillard’s vision come to fruition: the imitation is not sub-real, it is hyper-real. It is Disneyland, it is the Eiffel Tower in Vegas. It is our only world. This is certainly the case with “The Foley Artist’s Apprentice” where a mentor counsels that “the real sound isn’t always the best.” The poem begins this way: I wanted to be one of his props, a thing / that made the sound of other things –. And later, I wanted to be the words / on the paper. Thunder, the sound of birds, even a beating heart is not only just as good as what's on the other side of reality’s door, but (oof!) it’s better.

Doyle is keenly attuned to the haunting counterparts to the authentic – so much so that I long to know more about the functions of these constructs. What occurs when they break down? What are the moral and psychological repercussions? Do these faux worlds ultimately provide solace, or are they only bogus imitations of a dystopian world? I expect that collected, these autonomous poems would be given the freedom and restriction that would help them fulfill their unifying motive. With Doyle’s rich career stretched out ahead of her, I have every expectation they will have the chance. Then boom.

The Foley Artist’s Apprentice

I wanted to be one of his props, a thing
that made the sound of other things – an umbrella
pushed open and closed: birds’ wings.
A coconut shell, one half
in each of his hands – galloping,
galloping. I set up his microphone stands
and he made the crackle of fire
with a ball of cellophane,
poured salt on a tinfoil sheet for rain.
The sound of skin on skin - two pieces of paper he slid
against each other. I wanted to be the words
on the paper. I wanted to be what I heard
in the mixing studio as I layered and looped
his tracks. I play them back:
my body the strip of steel he shook for thunder,
the feather he held to the spinning bike wheel
for a hummingbird’s hum, the fine-toothed comb
on which he plucked the crickets’ song. The real
sound isn’t always the best,
he said, when I asked why not go outside
and record the wind – and when I held
the microphone to my chest what it amplified was less
like a heartbeat than the one he made
when he wrapped
the microphone in felt and gently tapped
it against a bass drum, again and again.

Used with permission.

About Caitlin Doyle
Caitlin Doyle’s poetry has appeared in many publications, including The AtlanticThe Boston Review and the 2009 edition of Best New Poets. She is currently a finalist for a 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. She holds a fellowship as a Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House, and recently she received a grant from the John Anson Kittredge Foundation for her manuscript in progress, "Tea in Eden.” You can find out more about Caitlin at caitlindoylepoetry.com.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nurkse & the Half-Known World

To be a poet is to be interested in something other than ourselves. In his book Walking Light, Stephen Dunn insists that poets must enlarge their sense of the personal to include “the kindred and alien experience of our fellow humans – everything we’ve read about, observed, or overheard that impinges on us – not to mention our daily engagement with the less than visible half-known world that we vaguely apprehend. In short, all that is not ours until we’ve found words to make it ours.”


How does the poet gain access to the half-known world? D. Nurkse’s worthy and luminous efforts permeate The Border Kingdom, a collection organized around an investigation of states of limbo. It is an inquiry into suppression, competing desires, the struggle against borders, and the struggle of living within them. Using image and archetype as catalysts, experiences – both alien and kindred – become uniquely limned in the mysteries of this numinous realm.


In the poem “At High Falls” an image of a hawk does strenuous work and has a hard wrought beauty besides:


A migrating hawk memorized us,

wheeling, and left its faint cry

in the ribs of the brass bed.


Consider the dimension of the hawk in these three lines. It is, first, an image that can be placed without much trouble into real life: it is bird that exists; it flies in a sky that is presumably blue and situated in a somewhat overhead position. But more than simply appearing, the hawk memorizes the couple in a predatory pause, capturing what has passed but lives on (in our memory, in the mind of the hawk, on the page) and the scene becomes transitory in an instant. That its cry, left in the lovers’ bed, infiltrate the “ribs” of the bed connote not only a penetrating depth, but something unnervingly skeletal: the hawk is a harbinger as well. All of these characteristics inform the relationship taking place within the poem. Sadness and nostalgia are made visible through an image intricate enough to hold this additional insight.


The hawk also contributes to the poem’s mysterious cast. Lorca sought a “visible mystery” – an aesthetic entered into as escape, or evasión, as he expressed it – as he sought to write “diaphanous” poetry directed by a poetic logic, not a human logic. When an image cannot be placed into real life, it is deemed surreal, and Nurkse, despite his realistic images, is awash in the waters of Spanish surrealism. The hawk is as much from the unconscious as it is from the sky. Poetic logic begins to take over the poem as it gains momentum and moves toward new knowledge.


Another advantage of the image is that the reader places her confidence in its power, not in the speaker’s impressions or emotions. Its value is in its objectivity – we don’t question the motives of the hawk in providing this new data. Here is Bashō, to whom the objectivity of the image was paramount:


……Felling a tree

and seeing the cut end –

……tonight’s moon.


The reader doesn’t question the motives of the tree. The natural world stands on its own, independent from interpretation. That it provides an impression of the moon through its shape and color is hardly disputable, but its mystery, which arises from what is not in this poem, is the source of its beauty. So to, the poem “At High Falls” tells of events, not emotions. This strategy distances the poet, providing a vantage point that enables him to assess to what extent he is involved in what he is describing. In “High Falls”, the “us” of the poem is subordinated in favor of the external world. Similarly, many of the images in this collection – the hawk, paper cups stained with Montepulciano, an oyster shell – provide a scrim of distance. This distance moves the reader away from the realm of the personal and toward a larger, communal realm of human experience. Effective images also provide the propulsion to leap from what is known to what is unknown – from a cut tree to tonight’s moon. Such leaps are intended not to assemble random relationships within a single plane, but provide a link of continuity between two worlds. They help the poet gain access: the quotidian experience becomes a rite of passage into archetypal experience. My experience is our experience, the poet proclaims.


Archetypes unlock the door to the half-known world – they are the universal dream that clarifies without need of verisimilitude. Jung, the arbiter of the archetypal experience, asserts that a person who speaks in archetype speaks in a voice stronger than her own. Nurkse’s use of archetype provides the personal – those “kindred and alien experiences” – broader and deeper reach. For example, the collection begins with classical states of limbo, among them the Great Crusades, and ends with a contemporary limbo, before a potential bombing (“this crusade, this carnage”) while the rains of warheads spiral in the moonlight “but they may never land,” as well as a personal limbo (“Hardly had I died / when I found myself driving”). The voice achieved is stronger, amplified, elevated…from the occasional to the eternal realm. For Jung, this is the source of true art.


* * *


At its core, “Sacrifice” is no more than a personal childhood anecdote, but one lashed to the numinous world. The brew of pleasure-regret is the remains of the centrifugal force that comes from innocence lost, no matter the scale. Following the poem’s first real discovery, in which the speaker finds that the backs of the stuffed rabbit’s eyes “shone just as bright as the staring pupil,” the pulse of momentum is felt like an accelerator’s punch, allowing for the ravages that follow. In the final discovery, an alternate realm is apprehended. This creates the poetic moment where the mystery – that border town between known and unknown – resides.


Sacrifice


How angry we were

at the stuffed bunny

for making us love it

night after night.


We ripped off an ear,

tore out the stuffing,

scattered it in handfuls,

prized out an eye

to roll in our palms.


The back, which we had never seen,

shone just as bright

as the staring pupil.


We licked our fingers

and teased the empty socket.


Night fell.

We listened for footsteps.


When they came

they were the same as ever,

just the blood beating in the mind,

but the silence was utterly new.


We entered it

as you might sneak through a door,

answered it, as if it were a voice—


yet it was just silence

and we could no longer change it

by laughter, tears,

or any silence of our own.


Permissions pending.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Seiferle & The Dual Narrative

Poetry is most commonly the realm of a single speaker, and the line serves as the primary unit of the poem. However, examples of the primary unit being subordinated, subjugated, or challenged by the presence an interlocutor are close at hand, from Poe’s outspoken raven to Eliot’s multivocality. The dialogic tension of conversing lines can serve a number of purposes in the poem, including exposing an internal, provocative, or verboten perspective, and releasing the speaker from the subjective experience and allowing contradiction or ambivalence to reign.

In contemporary writing, countering a primary narrative with an alternate voice can be an attempt to capture the fractiousness and schizophrenia of contemporary life – one impossible to corral in traditional line and syntax. It can work to recreate thought more realistically – that is, less linearly, as, for instance, David Foster Wallace’s fiction allows an alternate voice (the voice usually subordinated by footnotes, for example) its freedom. Dual narratives can also call attention to form and language, thereby shifting aesthetic interest from the speaker’s perception to the means of conveying perception.

Stichomythia, meaning literally “line speech,” is the term for a line by line conversation between two characters. In its original use in Greek drama, the technique allows for rapid fire dialogue, and can function as debate, as a Q&A platform, or as a vehicle to interrogation. It comes as no surprise that it is on the stage where its dramatic value pays off. In Hamlet, stichomythia heightens the drama in Act 3 when Hamlet first confronts the Queen about her transgressions. Even her “Come, come” is hurled back in this verbal joust as “Go, go”:

Hamlet: Now, mother, what's the matter?

Queen Gertrude: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.

Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.

Queen Gertrude: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.

Hamlet: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.

Queen Gertrude: Why, how now, Hamlet!

Hamlet: What's the matter now?


Stichomythia has been contemporarily broadened from this vocal sparring to include rhyming couplets and split lines that join to form one metrically correct line. A stunning example can be found in leadbelly vs. lomax at the modern language association conference, 1934 by Tyehimba Jess (recently featured on a Poetry Foundation podcast). Here, each voice has a clear (and as it happens, nonfictional) source; it is not an investigation of a single psyche, but the interrogative function works similarly. Each poem can be read separately; each one radiates out from a center margin, but they easily be read across the page, thereby merging the two poems and their respective voices. When read from left to right, the tension between motives, social class, and race between the titular artist and “manager” of the art becomes powerfully evident.

In Seiferle’s poem Night Music, from her new collection Wild Tongue, two poems also create a third, and as Jess uses margins to separate the poems and offer a third reading, Seiferle’s italics and indentations serve a similar purpose. The lines in Night Music are in a state of constant collision. The syntax of the traditional sentence structure pulls us forward while the opposing line pulls us back. The syntax is simple; many lines are self-contained prepositional phrases or assertions, and they are end stopped, yet some offer the option of enjambment because they are married to their alternative line. Where unambiguous syntax lends surefootedness, syntactical ambiguity results in unsteadiness. For Seiferle, it also suggests the mercurial quality of realms of existence.

In part I, the river does double (then triple) duty as metaphor and thing fished in; the waterbird suggests an “absence of form,” and the narrative shifts between the corporeal and the metaphysical, then seem to amalgamate as in an Escher illustration. The word “radio” in part 4 inveighs against Cesar Vallejo’s “rule,” referred to in the competing line, that everything would change if the word were used in a poem. Ultimately, the dual narrative echoes the unity and the separation of loss as one voice accepts “you” as the “body of night,” while the other simultaneously touches the hand in the physical realm.

To a reader confronted with the dual narrative, there is a choice of pattern and meaning – the two voices can be apprehended independently or together. It is this choice that might be the most interesting aspect of this technique. The speaker’s relinquishment of authority serves to intensify the reader’s ownership of the event – that is, the event happening on the page. The poem is not simply a prior incident recounted, or an emotion articulated, but is instead something that discovers itself, in real time, simply through our participation as a reader.


Night Music

by Rebecca Seiferle

I

“voice” is not only a matter of utterance

................there is so much light in the dark water

but a mater of being,

...............the water bird seems to be fishing for nothing

so that form, even the apparent absence of

................but light, its beak, a thin needle of splendor

form

................threading the waters

is the attempt to create

................all the dark at its back, luminous,

another order

.................like that river which was believed to circle

of time

................the ancient world where we are still

that river which is full of prehistories and intoxicating

................watching for the winged messengers

drinks offered to lips of water

................so that we always begin with the simplest of faiths

naked or the color of blue berries

................full of the dust of ourselves

2

that word, like many words,

................I kept confusing

has a person

................the vessel of the supposed

buried within it

................hero with the monster he went to kill

so the mask is fashioned

................its eyes as many as mercy, its mouths as many as death

until we forget ourselves

................trying to stay alive as a happy animal

though at moments in another’s eyes

................for what is a love but that

we still glimpse the face of the beautiful daughter

................night music

peering out beneath that white skull

................of the human heart

a strange and terrible prize

3

there was this ancient rule

.................full of a pain

that words could not be

................as I am now

uttered

................my own horned toad

as a thumb jammed into a mouth

................weeping tears of blood

would choke off crying,

................out in the garden,

piercing the ear of that most distant angel

................the fear of love, the fear of death, the fear of not

who falls to the ground like a dead wren

that idle cat brought home

4

he said that everything would change

................I was listening to the radio

if the word radio were used in a poem

................dancing not in body but in mind

because what is a poet

................when suddenly I am, oh, somewhere else

but a night music

................in another realm of being,

so full of pain and sounding so much like you

................and in that world, too, I love and love you

for what are ‘you’ finally

................and I’m holding out my hand to you

but the very body of night,

................your hand resting lightly on my palm

a folded wing,

................our fingertips just touching

a tree full of birds

.................as we begin to move…

A music

................So close and reserved

It will not show itself

................Except by a dark light

5

where am I

................I’ve gone miles past the turn back

when I’m absent-

................to my life, to the errands of the hungry

minded?

................cats and dogs, which I do easily, mindlessly

my mind, humming,

................loaded down

with bags and papers,

................walking into the house

my skin still strange and full of that night music

................into the bright and busy rooms


Copyright 2007 Copper Canyon Press

Friday, August 17, 2007

Kevin Young & The Monumental Landscape

In his essay "The Anxiety of Influence," Harold Bloom says that criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem. The poem is an act that perpetuates other acts and gives new life to the forms it repeats, and its influence helps to situate it. A poem under the poetic influence, when it is not utterly intoxicated, has an ultimate autonomy – while it engages with other poets’ work, it also contains its own motives.

Kevin Young takes some of the fun out of the art of knowing by making it quite clear what influenced his latest collection’s titular poem, "For the Confederate Dead"; instead he keeps much of the fun in hand to play it down the stretch in this personal and political book. As an answer to Robert Lowell’s "For the Union Dead," the poem achieves its own motives, as did Lowell’s poem, which openly engages with his mentor Allen Tate’s "Ode to the Confederate Dead." As poetic forbearer to Young, Tate seems almost inconsequential, but revisit lines like “In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,” and “The singular screech-owl’s tight / Invisible lyric seeds the mind / With the furious murmur of their chivalry,” and they seem to lift off the page as if in the relief of plaques that commemorate the monuments at the center of these three autonomous works.

In our culture of monuments, there are those that create a spectacle simply by falling (how shocking, if not exhilarating, to see such permanence actually be dismantled), and those that weather decades, inculcating inspiration and reverence. Lowell’s Boston monument is a “fishbone in the city’s throat,” and for Young, the Confederate monument is a “pale finger bone.” The monument itself, intended to endure symbolically, becomes itself a symbol of maligned immutability, and in Young’s "For the Confederate Dead," the monument is a “giant anchor” with all the weight and immobility the metaphor suggests. In "Americana," another poem in Young’s collection, the poet conducts a verbal boogie with personified America, and concludes by vitiating an American monument: the Statue of Liberty stands armed and backward.

With her Pulitzer Prize winning book Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey joins the ranks of those under such monumental influence. Her poem "Elegy for the Native Guard" takes its epigraph, “Now that the salt of their blood / stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea…” from Tate. Trethewey writes more directly against "Ode to the Confederate Guard" and as a result, the glamour of Tate’s language is eclipsed by suspicion, as his heroes chivalrously “fall rank upon rank.” Trethewey‘s book is more forthright and less playful than Young’s (and is written from the other side of the Mason-Dixon), but they draw from a similar literary stream. Here is Trethewey, writing for The Virginia Quarterly in 2005; her concerns are clearly a complement to the research evident in her collection. Her reference is to Walt Whitman’s later writings about the Civil War:

Monuments all around the South serve to inscribe a particular narrative onto the landscape while at the same time subjugating or erasing another.


Probably no future age can know, but I well know, how the gist of this fiercest and most resolute of the world's warlike contentions resided exclusively in the unnamed, unknown rank and file; and how the brunt of its labor of death was, to all essential purposes, volunteered.


Here, Whitman directs us to the unnamed, unknown rank-and-file white soldier and, inadvertently, to black soldiers as well—the legions of runaway slaves and freedmen who flocked to Union camps, first as contraband and then later as men (and women) eager to enlist—whose story has been left out of public memory of the Civil War and has only begun to be inscribed onto the man-made, monumental American landscape.

Today, social narratives are ambiguous by design. Our leaders and their charges fail to recall, their narratives are a froth of obfuscation. Ours is a world in which stories continue to get lost—even our own personal stories.

In Young’s poem the speaker says, “In my movie there is no / horses, no heroes / only draftees fleeing // into the pines…” The word “race” makes a cameo appearance by virtue of enjambment, but it dissolves, lost to its imperative form. The word lives instead in the mural in the café. The scene, intended by its owner as pastoral, has endured a dubious resurrection. It is below eye level, Young says, it is “too much around the knees” and in contrast to the monument that stands across from it.

The poem ends with a fraught figure -- “Race / instead against the almost / rain, digging beside to the monument…” -- that comprises a directive to labor and to race against imminent weather. It is not a directive to uproot or dismantle, but to dig beside; the result would be something parallel. Tate once wrote that reaction requires a radical removal of undergrowth to get to the roots, it is not accomplished by rearranging foliage. Stories make history live, but how can history’s stories be uprooted? Alternative narratives must be sculpted instead to retrieve the lost story. There are examples other than Young, but none better to illustrate that poetry is performative, not constantive – that it is indeed an act.

The epigraph of Young’s poem is a quote from Whitman’s "Song of Myself." It signifies another American predecessor and heralds something unsettling. Whitman’s capacious and inclusionary poem is itself an American monument anchored in the literary culture, and it helped fix the author’s place as gray-bearded prophet and lover of mankind. When it comes to race, however, Whitman’s work is problematic, and the section from which Young’s epigraph is taken includes a scene where the “negro” is objectified in glorious detail as part of cataloging what the speaker sees. Young’s connection with, specifically, the last line of this section, may be attributed to his highly mischievous nature; Whitman’s line, as it appears in "Song of Myself," is not what was intended when it was published. Instead, it has become disturbingly concessional. Here is the beginning of section 13 of Whitman’s iconic poem; its last line serves as Young’s epigraph:

The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses, the block swags
underneath on its tied-over chain,
The negro that drives the long dray of the stone-yard, steady and
tall he stands pois'd on one leg on the string-piece,
His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over
his hip-band,
His glance is calm and commanding, he tosses the slouch of his hat
away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and mustache, falls on the black of
his polish'd and perfect limbs.

I behold the picturesque giant and love him, and I do not stop
there,
I go with the team also.


Here is the full text of Young’s poem:

For the Confederate Dead
By Kevin Young

I go with the team also.
--Walt Whitman

These are the last days
my television says. Tornadoes, more
rain, overcast, a chance

of sun but I do not
trust weathermen,
never have. In my fridge only

the milk makes sense—
expires. No one, much less
my parents, can tell me why

my middle name is Lowell,
and from the Confederate
Monument to the dead (that pale
finger bone) a plaque
declares war—not Civil,

or Between
the States, but for Southern
Independence. In this café, below sea-

and eye-level a mural runs
the wall, flaking, a plantation
scene most do not see—

it’s too much
around the knees, heighth
of a child. In its fields, Negroes bend

to pick the endless white.
In livery a few drive carriages
like slaves, whipping the horses, faces

blank and peeling. The old hotel

lobby this once was no longer
welcomes guests—maroon ledger,

bellboys gone but
for this. Like an inheritance
the owner found it

stripping hundreds of years
(at least) of paint
and plaster. More leaves each day.

In my movie there are no
horses, no heroes,
only draftees fleeing

into the pines, some few
who survive, gravely
wounded, lying

burrowed beneath the dead—
silent until the enemy
bayonets what is believed

to be the last
of the breathing. It is getting later.
We prepare

for wars no longer
there. The weather
inevitable, unusual—

more this time of year
than anyone every seed. The earth
shudders, the air—

if I didn’t know
better, I would think
we were living all along

a fault. How late
it has gotten…
Forget the weatherman

whose maps move, blink
but stay crossed
with lines none has seen. Race

instead against the almost
rain, digging beside the monument
(that giant anchor)

till we strike
water, sweat
fighting the sleepwalking air.

Copyright Alfred A. Knopf 2007

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Joshua Poteat & Traversing Time and Space

In Joshua Poteat's poem "Hitchhiking in the Dying South" from Ornithologies, the poet is reminded of an accident along the road. Without veering too far from the matrix of the poem, Poteat constructs a landscape that both enlarges and compresses, as an accordion; he travels through time and space, covering a sweep of ground in the process.

The poem begins by naming the poet's surroundings, a counterpoint to those who enter a town they “could not at first even name.” With lines that begin “I have seen” and “I have felt,” the poem may bring to mind Ginsberg’s "Howl", but it has more in common with Frost’s "Acquainted with the Night", where naming is not just testimony, but heraldic badge:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain - and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

In Poteat’s poetry, his memories are often malleable. Other lines in "Hitchhiking in the Dying South" begin, “Or was it…”, “It’s difficult to get this straight…”, and “Now that I think of it....” This porosity of memory and reality that allows the poet to travel through time is central to his memory-driven poems where truth and fiction merge and become indiscernible, achieving what Billy Collins calls a “poetic plasticity of time and space.” The resulting voice is often slightly removed from the material world. It gracefully, almost angelically, eases leaps and helps manage appropriated voices that materialize from others times and places.

Night absorbs the accident’s chaos, and in this memory, the poet says he “had come to love the sparks.” Later, in the sponginess of retrospect, both the night and the speaker receive
the body of the cow as part of this communion. The speaker posits that “maybe even / a beauty” is there. Written as memory, anything is possible, as nostalgia creates a seductive pull toward a buffet of palatable morsels that have the potential to redeem.

Larry Levis is a master at traversing time and space, and
his associative images are constantly escaping the confines of his poems. Poteat names Levis as mentor and earns the entitlement. (Poteat's southern landscapes also make him Levis’ successor.) Consider this passage from the poem "South" by Levis. In it, the poet in his youth passes a southern landscape by train:

Past junkyards embracing swamps;
Past towns so poor they were not
There, except for some grief that
Made them swell a moment beside
Those tracks, only to vanish—
A few lights slipping backward—
That was my time, or no one’s



While some of Poteat’s images are anchors – they halt the motion of the poem to mine a new theme (the bloody snouts of the pigs alive in the moonlight), some are windows, which unfold into variations on the theme and time at hand (the crows' noise reminds the poet of the slant sympathy of his old foreman). Space, too, is traversed, as miniature worlds bank much greater ones — an entire countryside is the backdrop for a moth that confuses flame for the image of flame reflected in the cow’s eye. It is a dizzying spiral inward. This facility is pure Levis, whose images take off, to draw on "South" again, from a trembling flower, a moth, and the eye of a chicken, in a characteristic journey of discovery in which diverse figures challenge but rarely break theme’s gravitational pull.

Levis and Poteat are linked by sensibility, particularly in these two poems. In "South," Levis claims the moth’s markings as a “beautiful truth” and the poem ends with the smoke of the train scrawled on “A sky that stays there, above / Any reason for a sky.” Here is Poteat’s "Hitchhiking in the Dying South" entire.

Hitchhiking in the Dying South
by Joshua Poteat

I have seen the morning spread over the fields
............ and I have walked on, trying to forget
how it seemed as if daybreak was founded
............ on the most fragile web of breath,
and I had blown it.

............ Then I thought it might not exist at all,
nor had it ever. That it was only the idea of breath
............ and the egrets asleep in sourgrass were the idea
of flight, and if I was to breathe in,
............ it would all just disappear.

I have seen the spotted toads at dusk
............ come up from the ditches after a rainstorm
and into the asphalt's steam and I have seen them
............ crushed by lumber trucks, then lifted away
into the pines by the gathering crows.

............I have felt the night quiver with heron's wing
over the swamps, over wild pigs in a blackberry patch,
............ their snouts bloody & alive in the moonlight,
and I have walked on, dirty, alone, kicking to the grasses
............ the swollen bodies of possum, squirrel, rabbit, raccoon,
giving them no prayer, no peace-filled silence.

............But that was long ago, when work was scarce
and I thumbed my way to the tobacco plant
............ or the slaughterhouse, north up Highway 17
to Holly Ridge or down to Bulltail on 210,
............ either way I would be shoveling something until dusk,
something soft and warm and beyond me.
............ And I would be glad for it.

Walking with that forgotten gesture wavering
............ in the morning air, I felt that people
could come into the world in a place
............ they could not at first even name,
and move through it finally, like the dawn,
............ naming each thing until filled with a buoyancy,
a mist from the river's empty rooms.
...........

.............Thumb of autumn, thumb of locust, thumb of every kissed lip.

I have seen a cow die under the wheels
............ of a Cadillac going sixty, and who's to say
what the cow got from this?
............ Some would say a dignity, perhaps,
past the slaughterhouse
............ and the carcasses swimming the eaves.

............Or was it a punishment for nudging open
the gate-latch, the driver of the car
............ in shock, mouthing cow, cow,
and the crows in the pines answering
............ with the kind of sympathy my foreman used
when one of his line-workers
............ cut off another finger in the shredder.
Son, at least you still got your arm.

............ It's difficult to get this straight,
but there was a beauty to the sparks
............ that spread out under the car, under the cow,
as they went from flesh to asphalt to flesh again:
............ fireflies in the hollow of the hills:
a blanket of white petals from the tree of moon.

............ A brief and miniature dawn began,
there on a summer night in the South
............ I had come to love as part of myself,
the sparks clinging in the grass for a moment,
............ unbearably bright, a confused moth nuzzling up
to the reflection of a flame shining in
............ the cow's one open eye.

Now that I think of it, there was maybe even
............ a beauty in the cow's fat, white body, a peace
I would never know, as it took in the car,
............ lay down with it: calf-soft: morning breath.

This peace had a body, it was caught up in the night,
............ made from night, there on the shoulder of a road
so endless even the stars shrugged it off
............ and took the sparks as one of their own.

Used with permission from Anhinga Press.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Maurice Manning & the Job / Hamlet Archetype

Maurice Manning writes captivating characters, and the single speaker in his collection Bucolics is one. He is less character, however, than figuration – son of an archetypal foundation laid by Job, and Job’s derivative, Hamlet. While to place the overlay of archetype on any work is to simplify it, the collection’s many intersections with such archetypical heroes prompt useful discussion from which blooms Manning’s own unique hero.

The collection is a petition of poems, titled numerically, spoken in appeal by a lowly field worker to the higher power he calls “Boss.” The collection urges provocative questions about the usefulness of a higher power that is apathetic, negligent, and cruel. While Job’s struggles stem from a wind-and-lightning-bolt-wielding caricature of God, it was Job, not God, who emerged as the deeper character through the poetry that illustrated these tensions. Similarly, by giving voice to his shame, pain and wonder, Manning’s speaker unwittingly creates a three-dimensional world in the face of an absent leader who is void of dimension.

Much like Hamlet, an outgrowth of the Job archetype, Manning’s speaker seems forced into verbalization; he is someone who likely lacks the natural proclivity of expression. His lot in life is a humble one, he is naïve, and his speech is a jaunty collage of unpunctuated low diction that has a tone of spontaneity. He seems to be composing as he speaks, at times finding beauty in what he witnesses fortuitously, at other times inflamed with a frustration he is unable to mask. The lines, spry and variously rhymed, betray this jazz-infused spirit; it is a lyrical evolution of biblical verse.

Both Job’s poetry and Hamlet’s soliloquies comment on themselves, and Manning’s speaker acknowledges the vortex his own questions create (I never know what’s going to cross / my path O never what will make / me ask another question that’s / a question in itself.”) Fixed in the monologic form, the speaker’s internal wonder and doubt necessitate his expression, and create his poetry. The act itself precipitates the ongoing argument of poetry and religion. A didactic read of Bucolics leads to the conclusion that poetry is a figuration of religion and that religion, take away the compelling force to make it fact, is no more than poetry. (Perhaps read “tragedy” for religion for a more Platonic, less biblical reading.)

The monologic form also establishes the grand irony of the collection, which is emphasized by the speaker’s often desperate appeals to engage the mum Boss. Boss’ silence becomes a mounting obstacle as the collection progresses; at times it is even tyrannical. The speaker wonders about Boss’ trousers, what he keeps in his pockets, and his seasonal schedule, and accuses him of being a birdbrain, a gambler, and a heartless manager. (His habit of familiarizing his god is also suggestive of Job.) The dramatic irony creates the gap in which the reader can comfortably turn the questions asked by the speaker on herself.

It is a dramatic, not a verbal irony – the speaker himself seems to be a victim of irony, as Job is a victim of an ironic God: Job’s own lack of irony only serves to exacerbate his struggle. Free from irony, Manning’s speaker’s hope at times undoes him, and at times it is his lifeline. The question of how human beings can become slaves (the servile, impulsive use of “Boss” implies both this power structure and racial divide) to an idea is inescapable. The speaker provides one answer as he admits he needs Boss to “tell him what to do.” Boss is in many ways a necessary fiction.

In the following poem, the speaker’s dream seems to accentuate his own powerlessness against understanding, that is, the limits of his own head. The desire for freedom played against confining boundaries is a recurring theme for the speaker as he struggles to know what is outside of his only known realm.

XVIII

there was a fox Boss in my dream
last night a fox the color of
the field before it wakes to green
I didn’t know there was a fox
about until it moved until
it moved like it was sliding Boss
it slid across a furrow then
I barely saw it sliding to
the woods sliding to the river Boss
I never know what’s going to cross
my path O never what will make
me ask another question that’s
a question in itself I’d like
to know why everything is stuck
in the middle Boss of something else
why the fox was stuck inside my dream
though it was making for the river
do you make nothing Boss but questions
did you set that fox inside my head
did you lay that field behind my eyes

(c) Maurice Manning

This poem courtesy of
Harcourt Inc.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Anne-Marie Oomen & the Creation of Characters

Emily Dickinson wrote that the speaker in her poems is not the poet herself but “a supposed person.” The degree to which a poem’s persona or “supposed person” is a reflection of the poet herself is largely left to biographers, but the question does have an allure. Whether the persona of a given poem is rhetorical device or obscured vehicle of confessionalism is an irresistible question. And, when the speaker is a fully realized fictional character, the poet-persona relationship is further razed, and doubly intriguing. The practical angles created by the triangulation of reader-speaker-poet become as numerous as the reflections in a hall of fun house mirrors.

Creating a character is the ultimate move of subjectivity – perhaps the ultimate move of authorial trust. A character mitigates the dangers of high poetic voice and creates multiple angles of vision by placing the poet both inside and outside the poem at once. Characters can more easily slip into the role of repository for sympathy, judgment, and identification, and pave the way for heightened drama in a thematic collection (or single dramatic lyric).

Fictional (as opposed to “supposed”) personae also allow the poet to reveal difficult truths while more effectively concealing its source. In Maurice Manning’s brilliant Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, Lawrence is the book’s hero, but Manning’s quirky style creates a chasm between his characters’ life and realism; Lawrence’s drama and pain, though universal, belongs to him and him alone. In Cornelius Eady’s collection Brutal Imagination, Eady masterfully personifies Susan Smith’s own fabrication – a black man that she accused of kidnapping her children. The voice of such self-interrogation is one man’s, though the effect bleeds beyond the margins.

Beatrice, battered and on the run in a stolen pickup, is the speaker throughout Anne-Marie Oomen’s Uncoded Woman. Beatrice encounters Barn, both brute and savior, and their pas de deux serves as the backdrop to the collection’s unfolding drama. The reader comes to know Barn, a fisherman that watches the ocean with a cardsharp’s eye, through Beatrice’s defiance and surrender. His seductive promise to her is that they can “stay alive” and each poem is for Beatrice an act of survival.

Beatrice is ideal as narrator and as foil for the poet’s telling of a truth of the female experience; the practical angles created by the triangulation of Beatrice-Oomen-reader serve these poems. Beatrice is coarse, she is dismissive of hidden meanings, and her language is natural and rhythmic, which heightens the tension created between the verse line and the grammatical sentence. The book’s characters lack the demeanor for elaboration, and the reader, free of exposition, is placed directly inside Beatrice’s experience.

In the following poem, Beatrice witnesses a private act turned public with Barn, who looks on “without shame.” Together they serve to name the reader as accessory in an ignominious scene. Worth noting is that the titles of each of the poems in the collection derive from semaphores, the messages created by colors and combinations of flags used by vessels to communicate at sea.


You Should Come as Near as Possible

With Barn, I watch a pair of steelhead
hold their place in the Platte,
her at the gravel bed, him gray

and hovering, warding off
foreign males, the marks
on his body possessive

as spilled ink. He bucks and snaps
at the others, and his sound,
if there were one, a growl at the moon.

And though Barn has watched
this coupling for decades, he
cannot tell me what happens next.

The male shimmies, draws
near her tail, slides over.
Side by side. Shadow. Shadow.

In the narrow current,
the swim together.
They shiver.

We can barely see it—the quiver
before he falls back, quick
arrow into the current below the rocks.

Then the radical gesture. She
flips to her side, slaps down her
silver body against hard stones.

Don’t let the old-timers fool you.
It is not a beautiful sight,
except for the light from her belly,

gorged with river. From her liquid bones
she forces a thousand eggs into a tomorrow
where they will also tremble and slap.

They do this all the afternoon. I watch
like a sinner who lovers her sin, a voyeur
of river with this man who tells me

without any shame,

There, there, she’s doing it.
Woman, she’s ready again.
Oh God, she’ll fill the river.


You Should Come as Near as Possible, from Uncoded Woman by Anne-Marie Oomen. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2000). Copyright © 2006 by Anne-Marie Oomen . Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Morri Creech & Poetic Variation

Variation is predicated upon pattern: once a pattern is established, it can be varied. Giving shape to chaos is one of the multitude effects of this compositional technique. Whitman gave shape to the chaos of his catalogues through a patterning anaphora; Eliot gave shape to chaos through repetition and rhyme. It is this interplay of structure and chaos that, when managed well, creates authority, tension and beauty.

Consider Langston Hughes’ Dream Variations, a poem which deftly cleaves to a metrical pattern and rhyming structure. Its variation of the line “Dark like me” and “Black like me” subtly disrupts the consistent pattern of rhyme and meter. In a rendition of the blues line, historically unbound to formality, the result is a surge of emotion, a breaking out — as much as is possible — from structure. This breaking free mirrors the speaker’s dilemma of being held by the “white day” and finding a temporary freedom at nightfall.

Each stanza of Morri Creech’s Engine work: variations reframes a memory, though the season and its impressions vary. Stanza i opens with the description of a traditional pastoral setting; even the capitalized first lines draw attention to the poem’s desire to embrace traditional poetic techniques. In ii, the pattern breaks syntactically and the comfort and organization that meter provides gives way to disquiet. Enjambed lines play hesitance against flow (“still haven’t made/A sound all afternoon”), ellipses and dashes show the difficulty of expression within the given confines. Creech skillfully mirrors strophic variation with theme — the birds are disconnected from the fruit, and even the fruit’s location is ambiguous — “on vine, or branch…or bramble”. There is a “frayed edge of recollection” that ravels away to nothing.

In a sentence that defies beginnings, stanza iii begins, “All right.” The speaker grasps at a language that is inept, and in a parallel effort at expression, the engine itself is aurally variant with its stammers and whines. As he grapples with distrust of memory, the tools at his disposal seem to be both too many and too few.

The metrical line eventually breaks on the page, yet the images continue to accumulate; the syntax and line coalesce again in v, and the tone reveals a longing tinged with resignation. The polite constancy of the rhythm returns, only to emphasize previous stanzas’ foiled attempt to break out and seize this now lost and complicated understanding, and the speaker is forced into an unsettling choice.

Engine work: variation
By Morri Creech

i
June morning. Sunlight flashes through the pines.
Blue jays razz and bicker, perch on a fence post
Back of my grandfather’s yard. His stripped engines
Clutter the lawn. And everywhere the taste
Of scuppernongs, just moments off the vines,
So sour that you would swear the mind has traced
A pathway through the thicket, swear the past
Comes clear again, picked piecemeal from the dust—

ii
Or else it’s late—September—and the shade
Thicker than I recall: those cardinals,
Finches or mockingbirds still haven’t made
A sound all afternoon, though ripe fruit swells
On vine, or branch . . . or bramble. Thus the frayed
Edge of recollection slowly ravels
Away to nothing, until that place is gone
Where the heart would know its object and be known.

iii
All right. Not to begin with those backlit pines,
Those scuppernongs, the jay perched on a branch
Of sweet gum—no, oak, I think. With what, then?
With my grandfather holding a torque wrench
Or ratchet? Some old engine’s stammer and whine
Before it starts or doesn’t—a house finch,
Singing or silent? Language, too, seems wrong,
Though it’s all I have. Grandfather. Scuppernong.

iv
To fix him in some moment, word for word,
That man who taught me gears and cylinders, sweat,
Precision of machinery—the hard
Love of assembling things:
I know the heat
All summer hung like a scrim where pistons fired
And the boy I was watched in the raw sunlight;
Spilled oil rainbowed in its shallow pan.
One birdcall, maybe. Fruit on a trellised vine . . .

v
Impossible not to change things, move the words
From here to there. It’s late now. Nothing’s settled—
Not engine noise nor the sound of one far bird
The mind sings true. Which version of the world
Should I believe? This morning in the yard
Scuppernongs hang and sweeten. Pine boughs yield
Some fragment of the blue jay’s call, a sound
The resonant air repeats but cannot mend.

This poem appears courtesy of The Waywiser Press (London & Baltimore)