Monday, March 2, 2009

The Poems of Barry Goldensohn

Somewhere in space the tempest of intellection vs emotion in contemporary poetry ensues, participants more passionate that habitual losers at downbeat racetracks.
No one walks away happy from these discussions, of course, and although common sense
the proper place for one or the other of those qualities lies in the middle, with dominant tone depending on what is being composed, matters get sidetracked to issues that leave aesthetics behind and land somewhere in the swamp of Deeply Held Personal Beliefs. The outcome from that kind of morass, in extreme, are crusades, jihads, and obsession with celebrity murder trials. Some times it’s harder to stay in the center of a discussion than on other occasions:

Reading Faust When Young
for David Mamet

I remember only the leap from the bridge
into the turbulent river after knowledge,
but not what special knowledge or what power
ever came his way in the old story.
I was young when I read it. Immortality
meant art and Faustus was never an artist.
And as for girls, you didn't need the devil,
when you offered everything. What did he really
need to know? Something about the girl—
what she felt and could never say because
she had no words for it? He had little
to say to the Greats. Helen was a peep-show.
And the stuff about his soul—
well, that was religious and historical.

Overreaching for me was natural. I wanted
to know everything, to stay forever in school
taking courses. God and the devil
never figured in. With his snaky tail
the devil was too fanciful to explain
the lines waiting for gas or a bullet and ditch
and fire bombs and carpet bombs and the icy
rapture of ideologues shouting about who to kill
and who to save. My fellow humans were real:
their evil was sufficient. The sacred
was love and art and the political dream.
The world-drunk heart was what I took for the soul,
which dulled the edge of Faustus' sacrifice
and god was never real enough to love or lose.
 This is an acute recollection ,stark and crisp , but it seems a fanciful evocation of some delayed connection of points whose effect ought to have a less earth-shaking idiom. There’s a lot of throat clearing harrummmmmphing going on in the lines as I read them where a slighter, more minuscule rhetoric could have prevailed.

There's something to be said for distanced irony, the now-I-get-it school, but since the instances were fleeting, minor, gradients of perception building to a larger, if not earth riving sharpness, a voice less swaggering in its couched self-loathing would fit the material better. It would seem a better idea if Goldensohn hadn't mentioned Faust or Jung at all but in the title, and instead placed us smack dab in the action of his past thinking, the incidents as he vividly recalls doing them in his earnest, youthful practice of applying his hormone-fused enthusiasms upon his world.The mention of historically loaded names and sufficiently parsed ideas, though nicely arranged and phrased, are too precious for me to take this as anything more than an occasional poem that would normally find its way to the bottom of a drawer: it fairly gloats with its knowingness, and the author sounds too close to thinking that his eventual lesson learned is something to glory in. Look at me, I am wrong on a higher plain.

The piece is over-loaded with awkward references and glancing mentions of religion and myth; the poet's voice aside, this poem reads like an abstract of a freshman's ill-crafted term paper. A reader might object to Goldensohn's irony with the insistence that a lyric poem supposed to be about emotion .Ironic observations, they might insist, are not emotions, merely cruel juxtapositions of unfortunate inclinations.

The lyric poem is the verbal equivalent of a musical evocation of intense feeling that defies the logic of words to express adequately. Thus, the looping chains of association, the constant comparisons of unlike things, including the sounds of the words creating euphony. Intense emotion colors the entire world, cast it in all engrossing tint. The perceived world makes a certain kind of sense, though the sense eludes us more often than not; there is even an element of paranoia that can come to play here, as in the notion that everything in the world, be it people, places, things, institutions, weather, are all somehow connected to the internal transformation.

Irony alone isn't an emotion, but because it has something to do with an individual's perception, whether the poem's speaker or the reader themselves, it can become a key and determining factor in how hot emotion might boil or cool off, whatever the case may be. Irony concerns the incongruity between what is said and what actually is the case, and since a lyric poem operates on the transcendent level where emotion bypasses logical argument in pursuit of impossible language capturing the inexpressible, conflicts, disjunctions, distortions and contradictions between myth and fact, action and deed are likely to happen as default conditions, and will ratchet up the energy a lyric swoon requires.

I do think that my own work and explications regarding verse aim toward an Dionysian expansion , but unlike a host of others before me who pursued that expansion into sheer incomprehensibility --Kerouac, late John Ashbery, Pound, Language poets who've pushed at the margins of prefabricated resolution and took the entire enterprise of American poetry off center--I think the image , lines and music need to be reined in, operate within strictures, Jazz is hardly a formless expulsion sans melodic infrastructure, since the quality of the best sets of spontaneous composition require suitable composed materials to contextualize the extrapolation; the form of the melody being extrapolated upon gives shape to the musician's improvisations.

There's a point in the kind of poetry I find appealing and the poets I think do interesting work where they have to acknowledge something a real subject set in the material world, the physical world, and that there is a need to link the most fanciful forays and high-flying linguistic maneuvering to real emotion, producing something at the end resembling whatever effect the writer thinks he's working for. It's a dialectical process, for want of another term, thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Goldensohn's intellection resembles a tight suitcase about to burst open on the bed; the epiphany is too slight for the evocation of top-heavy name like Faust. Faust, of course, could have been used effectively as a reference serving a satisfying conclusion, but the hand is heavy here when the name and its cache is played. Irony trumps everything, as the saying goes, but it can also kill everything that's going on in a work, and the willingness to abstract compulsively here makes for a small work that is all over the map. It's an over packed suitcase.Stevens’s strategies better, in so far that his work is about experience, in the moment, in the intelligence of a perceived who is in witness to things that will not yield their essence in the metaphysical sense. Stevens, though not overtly emotional, crafts a supreme fiction he often spoke of to take the place of the secrets that are forever unknown, a dramatized system of perception that acknowledges the world as its own adequate symbol.

Wallace Stevens believes in the adage that there ought to be "no ideas but in things..."(concisely phrased and explained by William Carlos Williams). Stevens, with compatriots Williams, Eliot, et al, were, in their varied ways, obsessed with making language a hard, malleable material no less than clay or steel, and they wanted to write and elaborate upon images that didn't obscure the fantastic qualities of the world their language was supposed to be writing about. Perception is a dominant concern for this generation of modernist poets, and Stevens, I believe, followed the loose dictates brilliantly and developed a methodology of processing the world that could capture in it many of its amazing juxtapositions. What is amazing about Stevens' work is that he develops a philosophy of perceptual imagination from the world as it already is.

This terrain has a permanent equilibrium; the roiling core of a man's irrational impulses become abstracted, formalized in a design where language absorbs, fragments and restructures the shape our meaning as days , months, years pass by. Stevens was entering the world, and to have the world he experiences shape and form his readings and his writings; he wrote, I think, as a man who was in that legendary of state of constant becoming. Goldensohn sounds lost at best, though I am sure he can write a decent poem. This isn't one of his better ones.

Goldensohn offers up a poem titled "War Work" here, the intent being to bridge childhood memories of Manhattan thunder storms that he mistook for a nuclear attack, and how his parents consoled him that his small world still held its comforting center. A moving sentiment ,perhaps, if told in real life, but horrid and malnourished as a poem. The poem confirms the tired complaint that too many poems are bad prose broken into irregular lines--the reader is given the worst qualities Of both forms and must surrender to vague critical asides that claim there is more in the ambiguity than the unguided eye can connect. Or the reader must suffer the personal insult, by implication, that manage to live despite the fact that they have no heart.

I suppose I have no heart.This poem is so weak that if on the off chance that this incident is true , I hope his parents made fun of him from that day forward, into his adult life. Writing this poem the way it is seems like an attempt to ennoble a childhood embarrassment by dressing it up in the unseemly character warping issue of Nuclear Destruction and General Apprehension.

This has interest if one were to read it as a single entry on a blog, or paragraph out of a long letter, but as a poem is slight and repulsive for being so unambitious. It's the equivalent of being a bad mood while on the way to work early one mid-week day and seeing homeless men gathered at bus stops, smoking mooched cigarettes and drinking , and then having your mood uglier.

You want to throw these guys in jail for being lazy, shiftless, drunk and leisurely at 7 in the morning while you and your fellow wage slaves go off to work to make a wage and eventually pay a tax that pays for the bench that has become their reclining point. It has nothing to do with fairness, logic, the like, and it goes against my professed belief in social justice, it's just an emotional response, hitting me like a sucker punch. I feel the same way about this poem; it irritates me that this half-baked pot of gummy sentimentality gets the exposure (and the poet gets the paycheck) while the rest of us work hard for our muse, producing better work in the responses to this gruel than the what the actual poem contains.

Again, fairness, balance, reason has nothing to with this reaction, and it's obvious there are other things under the tight lid of my personality that makes me want to slap Goldensohn for being so shiftless in my presence (in a manner of speaking). Envy, resentment, arrogance? Well, yes, all those pesky defects. But beyond it all, beyond all my failings on this issue of being a wordy critic of other people's poems, this poem has the appeal of a small toy after a baby as finished slobbering and puking over it. It mights the bag, it chews the root, it sucks long, deep and with braced teeth.
Fog has its appeal because we’re interested in the idea of a nether world coexistent with our own, where things are less definite, less material, able to appear and vanish into other details , or into vapor altogether. It’s a filter over the hard edges of what we see and take for granted and perhaps even curse for being solid, precisely drawn, an arrangement of three dimensional things we have to walk around, not through.

Walking in the fog, through the woods is what Barry Goldensohn fancies with his poem “Walking In Fog”, a jaunt that has one feeling that one is walking through unforgiving barriers, penetrating unseen membranes. There’s that twilight , near dark feeling of the world one knows becoming vaporous and and translucent, less fixed on names and definitions that are written down and conveyed by way of essay and routinely complicated system-making, and which seem more as ideas in themselves, the notion of things that hover over our straight forward lives whispering subdued captions of what our lives and our contexts are like free our fear of not having enough or losing what we have.

Goldensohn’s trek through the forest,through the signifying fields, has something in common with the dyes of a madras shirt; everything ,from detail to the slightest glimmer of joy or foreboding trilling lightly at the delicate edge of the paradigm, it all bleeds together.

Everything looms at me. Hound's-tongue
with wet doggy leaves and blue flowers
starts up from the mist-streaked hillside.
Standing by itself, framed in fog
the live oak twists black arms above me,
an embrace, free of the crown of leaves that hides
the outlines of limbs in the crowded background view.
The canyon and the next hill disappear.

There is a dream logic at work, not the rational cause and effect a more stainless-steel mind requires, but instead the logic,intuited sense of how elements fit together; Goldensohn has an especially balanced poem here, the physical details veering toward the surreal but never escaping the atmosphere so as the poem is made turgidly weird and overwrought with metaphors that might have sank the poem.

There is , with sincere thanks, a lack of explanation about any of this means, and the power of the poem draws from the way things appear and vanish in this verse, from looming branches and wet leaves; things emerge as one comes closer, things that one has just past vanish into the cottony mist. There is the feeling of being drawn in, embraced by all that one sees; animals and their habitats . I come away with the feeling of being absorbed

Plunging into dense puffs and gusts of fog
along the road a dying friend wheels
and lunges from cliff wall to cliff edge
in a bright yellow blouse and blue jeans
joyous with losing herself and coming back
in daily magic, you see me then you don't.

It comes to death, of course, the fascination with it, the thinking of whether this life is worth the struggle and the pain and the sheer labor just to be current with one’s accounts and relationships, and the thought does arise among many of us, musing at twilight, at dusk or dawn, in fog near the cliffs where the songs of sea maidens and powerful water gods offer their promise of rest and deep, coral toned symphonies, that the transition from this life, the hard life, the life where everything has density and measurable weight, to the life where gravity takes no toll , would be simple, ease, painless, natural beyond nature. The final image of the dying friend wheeling herself to the cliff edge, decked out in a bright blouse as she considers going over the edge and then returns from the fog, as if by magic, caught me by surprise, it stopped me, it fairly stunned me.

Writers, the sort we like to discuss, the introspective and the thoughtful and the perennially worried, are most comfortable on the smooth, stainless steel surface of given meaning, but they (we?) are cursed (blessed?) with the impulse of analysing where they stand, why, and how it might be otherwise if there rules of gravity weren't an imperative.

The speaker here is someone noticing how things familiar and commonplace appear to be at once ethereal and somewhat supernatural given the change in atmosphere, light; the density of things gives way to diffusion and there is the feeling that you're walking through the material world and travelling great distances in no time at all when you stroll through the forests; our narrator observes what things appear as, notes the change in a personal psychology, the rise of feelings that have to explicable basis, but never gives way to the seduction of his mood.

He is firmly rooted, and wonder as he might about another plain his language is inadequate to describe, he remains on the soil he landed at birth. He has much he wants to do, and hasn't the hankering to consider other options; the wheelchaired friend, though, has the luxury to wonder, to play games as described, coming so close to a mystical abyss only to back away from it's yawning gasp. Giddiness is the mood, finally, the thrill of having trekked alongside certain fatality only to walk away from it, if only by mere inches. It is one of the benefits of not taking the Leap, the reminder that one is alive without doubt when every sense is going off like fire alarms.

The fog, with what its qualities suggest about being a portal to some greater realm above our own, is something we journey through, absorbing the associations, daring to think of a life free of the dreariness of making a living and keeping your word and thinking perhaps further that passing on would be so bad, and then coming back, an aberration in the mist, slightly crazed, energized, fresh from the fox hole, ready to shoulder the weight of the world one was birthed into, realizing there are still some things one would like to attempt before presenting a boarding pass.