Sunday, March 11, 2007

Don't Let Them Hear Your Write

There comes a time in most poets lives when thoughts of their own death start to crowd their concerns, and the work they produce , the poems,
start to churn in that anxiety. It often makes for great work, the "mature" part of an artists career as they assemble a life time of perceptions in the fashioning of a style that is sure and bittersweet in the the way image, stanza , line, assonance and alliteration nails the troubling awareness that each day that passes is one less day on earth. This dwelling on the inevitable tends to become a constant buzz under the civilities and rituals of routine interaction, a phase where you seem and feel distracted, distanced from the world you walk through, glancing at everything in abstracted bemusement as if through a thin, barely perceptible membrane that separates you from anything else. Only your thoughts matter, only your subsumed astonishment that some how the the world as you know will get along with the grace of your presence. And so we wonder, and wonder, and wonder again how will we be remembered; what poem, song, or artifact will someone inspect of ours will someone inspect as they muse on our absence?

Nuar Alsadir handles the issue in The Riddle of the Shrink with appropriate reserve, too much so on this score. The details are telling, illustrative, comic in the way their caricature the inopportune instances that frustrate a smooth transition to day's end and Jay Leno or Letterman before bed. But it's pat stuff, straight from poetry's version of Central Casting; you can just about see the trails left by the feather dusters on the tropes as they were readied for use; lost tickets, a disconnected phone, a ball rolling under a piece of furniture where it will stay until either interior designers or movers force the hypothetical room into upheaval.

Upheaval is exactly what this poem does not have, and it is in the well -mannered inventory of shuddering detail that makes this seem more like a list of ideas for a poem rather than a poem itself. There is a self-reflexivity here that is perfectly useless to the theme and attempted tone of the piece,

The friend you have entrusted with your death

song, an editor, has changed the words.
Now it is you, not your modifiers,

who will dangle, suspended between this world
and the next.

You could make the case that the use of language is flowing and clever, but it is the seamlessness and cleverness that makes this stick out : the obsession to have the work refer to the author's life as a poet, a person of the purposefully dissecting and associative mindset who is now aghast that she will lose control of her words after her departure because an editor reworked some of her lines. There are any other number of things to ponder and run down in detail that would benefit graduate students lost, for the moment, in the paradoxes presented by philosophies of language--do humans make the language, or does language shape the speaker?--but that is another activity, not poetry. John Ashbery, whose name has been used here many times in the last week or so, manages to blend philosophical problems and anecdotal bits of his life with a style at once mysterious , challenging and yet engaging for all the areas his work insinuates itself in. Even as a young poet, Ashbery's writing was such that the philosophical and the more recently biographical materials had no designated areas where one stopped as another began, there was no sectioning of source material, which is what this week's poet is intent on. Ashbery is seamless and unaffected, if often inscrutable; we none the less are intrigued with his wanderings. But Alsadir is orderly, writerly, too logical and conveniently ironic in her confrontations with should convince us is here as her innermost dread and terror.

The sanctity of a writer's work aside, it is hard to really care about matters such as what happens to ones eternal soul with this ill-disguised whimpering larding up the works. Again, I wish poets who feel a need to mention that they are poets or writers in the poem, or are prodded by primeval forces to write a verse with poetry as the subject would instead trust the quiet about them and write nothing at all until the world their senses cannot control engages them again. No more self-reflection on the medium, okay?

The poem is too well mannered, too writerly to really seize upon the surrealism Alsadir attempts in the second half:

The image of the future

is the memory of the dream in which
you are standing before a kiosk, attempting

a transaction with a forgotten code.


These reads less like a poem where psychic dislocation is given a glaring, austere showcase than it is something paraphrased from stacks of old Robb-Grillet novels; it experience converted into jargon, and the defamiliarized tone sounds borrowed.