Sunday, May 25, 2008

Three Poems by Jim Powell from Slate


When he's on his game,Jim Powell has a finely tuned ear for voice , place and period, which we can see with his poem "The Seamstress", which can be read here in Slate.A good poem, as it goes, nothing special in the long run, but Powell does a neat and not-so-obvious job of creating parallels between a holiday that commemorates the dead and keeps their memory alive (and in so doing preserving some order in the minds and morals of those remaining alive), and woman trying to bring a decorative skeleton figuratively "to life" so it might add impact and meaning to the celebration. Powell is rather good at implying that it is all for naught, under the noise and decoration; the dead will remain in their graves as dust inspite of collective conjuring, and the skeleton will just continue to look limp and tattered , a rattling assemblage held together with costumish thread and brocade. And so it sits as well with the seamstress, herself old, creaking at the joints to finesse a stitch, squinting in the night light as the seams get wider, less tight, loosened with age.Her bones ache, her eyesight fails by degrees, the skeleton is a limp and tattered symbol whose power has waned and meaning has lessened to the level of Saturday morning cartoon, and the dead themselves are even more deceased than they were before, memories of their existence buried under the same ground the children dance upon other than that children love to the dance for any reason or no reason at all because being alive is only its most fun and enthralling at those times and moments when there is no knowledge of limits, of what you can't do or what can't be done.Powell's poem "First Light". What about it?Perfectly suited for a slice-of-life poem, an observational piece focusing on the work place, though it's problematic that the job described turns out to be in a bakery, a lone baker just beginning his work day before light. The situation is a shade archetypal, and what is noticed in the lines "tufts dusted with a snow of flour", and especially "thick arms cradling rolls and crusty loaves, a gift for late-returning revelers..."for the derelict who washes in the creek under the bridge his daily bread at daybreak come off more as wish-fulfillment than as inspired vision.

The setting is too ideal, everything that you would expect to be in a early AM bakery tableau just happen to be there,right down to the homeless man who picturesquely "washes his hands under the bridge". The stops being a poem at this point and becomes instead one of those faux Impressionist paintings of Parisian cityscapes in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, filled with blurry, alienated figurines in their shops and on the slippery hued streets going about their anonymous chores.Their is an idealization in this well-crafted piece that strikes me as wrong and inappropriately dreamy. This may be because Powell gave us one painterly detail too many in this hyper-literalized diorama. Had he omitted the line "under the bridge" -- the problem is that bridges and rain are ever so ready poetic words to use when inspiration falls mid line -- and substituted another tactile element, something plausible , recognizable yet unexpected (garden hose, a playground water fountain, a janitor's mop, something that could credibly be in the scene), the poem may well have worked. Even so, one expects something more to be said about this situation than the idea that it's swell , dreamy, and meant to make you go "oooooooohhhhhhh" and "ahhhhhhhhhhhhh". There is an underside here that is ignored, and Powell shuns an urge to get beyond his cozy poetics to discover something remarkable , disturbing, and finally memorable.As is, this poem is not unlike those previously mentioned faux Impressionist paintings, which are produced by the hundreds for tourist dollars. Powell's poem reads as if he's written dozens of variations on it. That isn't writing, it's only production.


Not every poem clicks , of course. Another poem published in Slate,"Two Million Feet of Vinyl", worries an idea instead of bringing it too life.A bit laborious, heavy on the obfuscated detailing of a industrial manufacturing in the attempt to let convoluted descriptions yield a strange, alienated poetry. But one sees rapidly where this going, where everything, including workers, are mere materials to be converted in endless, brutal processes, and wind up as dust. Powerful, perhaps, in a poem that doesn't telegraph it's tragic punchline so much--you can see it coming like the Underdog float in the Macy's Holiday Parade--but here it just hangs there.You want more and it doesn't come.It appears that he's seen "Things to Come" recently, and is enamoured of "Modern Times" and tried to emulate their effects with his own reassembly of the deadening effects of a technologized economy. But this is not a journey where Luddites and and technocrats haven't gone before, it's a set up for a joke; man shapes his tools, after which the tools shape man. It's a poem based on first semester political science lectures. The level of discourse is fine for freshmen, but by the time one gets around to be a published poet there is the reasonable expectation that there's more than the gasping gee-whiz of it all occupying the writer's worried mind. What's being delivered is the moldy metaphor of alienation in Modern Times, that repetitive and mechanical means of production have made man a part of the machines he invented to save him labor and time.  The facile equations between machine processes and the rescinded world is irksome at best. I don't know if he intended this to be ironic, a parody of futurist rhetoric, or whether he merely wanted the glorification of brute, soulless contraption would itself yield remarkable poems of the "found" variety. This isn't the kind of ambiguity that makes for great art, because it would have to at least point toward something , give a sense of direction if it were worth discussing longer than a terse dismissal. But this points nowhere other than at it's clipped locutions. Powell is a good poet who must have dashed this off in an odd mood and didn't see fit to change it. Fine, I have dozens of poems that exactly like this; cryptic, spacey, unyielding in their impenetrable weirdness.

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:08 AM PDT

    Mr. Burke,

    I think you are a bit too jaundiced in your criticism those three of Mr. Powell's poems.

    "First Light" works for me, despite your comment about the unlikeliness of the bum washing his hands under a bridge. You obviously have no experience with the way bums actually live in places like Berkeley, CA. We have creeks here, and I've seen the homeless washing themselves at these creeks, and under bridges and road overpasses.

    What I really like about Mr. Powell's poetry is his precise and laser-like imagery. It cuts through the bullshit and gets right to the point.

    You may not agree with his politics, but who gives a s... about that. Poetry is about saying it like it is.

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  2. Poetry is about saying it as it seems. Saying it "like it is" assumes the Romantic trap of thinking that the final state of things can be deigned by the poet's imagination. The permanent significance some poets attempt to capture is an illusion: word meanings change, cultural habits change, reading habits change, world views change, the meanings of what was formally thought to be a settled affair changes as well. Or rather our attitudes change to the subject changes, which means the object itself is inert, bereft of meaning. The poet, attempting a verse that reaches years , decades beyond it's time, is better served getting his her own properly and artfully qualified perception of events and ideas right. One might not trust meta narratives anymore, but brilliant individual responses are always illuminating. Mr. Powell is a good poet capable of writing a fine set of stanzas; he can also over shoot the mark.

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Say something clear and smart.Lets have a discussion.