Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Daydreaming among the paper mache

Peter Everwine's poem, Aubade in Autumn, published in the New Yorker in 2007, caught my notice last night when I was recycling magazines that had stacked up over the last couple of years. I chanced on it when I paused during the chore and flipped through a random dog eared issue and paused instintively when the poem appeared.

Much as I enjoy the writing of the New Yorker--I am one of those who consider it the best written large circulation magazine in America--the poets they publish over the decades too often take on a passive tone that strikes me as simply the equivalent of perceptual passive aggression, the pursuit of poetics in a limply progressing string of associations that haven't the muscle to involve my interest in the stretch.

These are poems you open the door when they ring the bell and then collapse barely three steps into the hallway. I am pleased with their recent inclusion of the estimable Rae Armentrout into their pages, but theirs is a reputation for for poems that prate will take a while longer to live down. Everwine, a Detroit native, offers up a swoon for an ideal childhood; this is a dollhouse full of paper cutouts.

"AUBADE IN AUTUMN"


This morning, from under the floorboards
of the room in which I write,
Lawrence the handyman is singing the blues
in a soft falsetto as he works, the words
unclear, though surely one of them is love,
lugging its shadow of sadness into song.
I don't want to think about sadness;
There's never a lack of it.
I want to sit quietly for a while
and listen to my father making
a joyful sound unto his mirror
as he shaves - slap of razor
against the strop, the familiar rasp of his voice
singing his favorite hymn, but faint now,
coming from so far back in time:
Oh, come to the church in the wildwood...
my father, who had no faith, but loved
how the long, ascending syllable of wild
echoed from the walls in celebration
as the morning opened around him ...
as now it opens around me, the light shifting
in the leaf-fall of the pear tree and across
the bedraggled back-yard roses
that I have been careless of
but brighten the air, nevertheless.
Who am I, if not one who listens
for words to stir from the silences they keep?
Love is the ground note; we cannot do
without it or the sorrow of its changes.
Come to the wildwood, love,
Oh, to the wiiiildwood as the morning deepens,
and from a branch in the cedar tree a small bird
quickens his song into the blue reaches of heaven -
hey sweetie sweetie hey.



In college , a host of us had a competition to see who could write the best parody of a New Yorker poem, our central criteria being who among us could write a poem that best falsifies an experience of city life with the kind of sticky rhetoric this poem gives us. Peter Everwine goes for the old trick here, constructing a poem based on something he heard or misheard, which is fine, but here he lays it on too thick for my liking. That a handyman's singing a floor below him would spark an unraveling recollection of his father's shaving rituals and the sound of his singing voice is entirely too convenient to be plausible; this almost reads like a parody of John Ashbery's poem "The Instruction Manual", (one of the very rare poems where Ashbery actually mentions work experience) where the narrator, a technical writer at work, diverges from his task at hand and allowing his mind to roam in a fantasy of vacations, islands, various exotica.

Think what you might of Ashbery's style and purpose, but he does have the skill to convey the daydream and the unrooted associations the mind creates as it strives to create narrative continuity with the day to day. There is the matter of knowing how to use length to one's advantage, which Ashbery does with effectively. One does have the sense of having caught a ride on the narrator's train of thought and then feeling slightly changed once one reaches the end. Everwine's poem reads more like a series of jump cuts in a movie who's script had undergone too many rewrites. The tape holding the film together are very visible.

I might suggest that the dreamy set up be jettisoned and that the poem start with the father's shaving rituals, his singing, to start at the point the recollection commences, and then pare back the self references. He'd have more poem, and less window dressing.











2 comments:

  1. I've been trying to put my finger on what turns me off to New Yorker poems, and "perceptual passive aggression" pretty much sums it up.

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  2. Diffidence is a fine state to write about provided one unearths an intriguing set of roots to pull from the soil, but it is a tragedy when it becomes a style , or worse, an aesthetic. It's not even the poetry of small talk; mumbling is more like it. Too often I find myself feeling inclined to lean closer to hear what I'd didn't hear the first time. Too many of their poets compose as if they studied writing and language rules and reasons just to command their poems to behave themselves in mixed company. That's a recipe for fast nap right there.

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