Friday, July 16, 2010

Hamlet's Ghost Catches the Late Train

Alan Shapiro tries to drop us in some one's thoughts midstream in Wherever My Dead Go When I'm Not Remembering Them , an attempt, I gather , to show us what a mind doing casual housekeeping when the ruling personality isn't focused observing himself being poetic. There is impatience here, the anxiety of the wait : the narrator cannot be engage the world as he would wish, to exert a measure of will on to his stage. The imperatives of free will, imagination, self-definition , following of one's bliss are for a time suspended, or at least irrelevant because our figure is here waiting for a train that will take him some other place he needs to be; this is a schedule not his own and this leaves him virtually nothing to engage but his own thoughts , inspired by the scene of the wait, the grind and mechanized stutter of the city the whirrs determindedly past him. The idea is an attractive one, I guess, the conceit of what a personality, normally fitted for turning their life's experience into miniaturized melodramas, would do in the off hours, when the mind is "off duty".

Impatience , though, implies something  like  film maker jump cuts, the jagged, abrupt , yammerng intrusion of one thought upon another, the overlay of images and opinions, the irrational mixing of personal history and visual detail from the present moment: the effect should be one similar to walking into a room where radio, CD players, televisions, internet and cell phones are all blaring at once, at full volume, with the same shrill , monotonous insistence. Shapiro's poem sags under the weight of a conventional narrative construction, weighed down with a string of specifics that kill the sensation:

Not gone, not here, a fern trace in the stone
of living tissue it can quicken from;
or the dried–up channel and the absent current;
or maybe it's like a subway passenger
on a platform in a dim lit station late
at night between trains, after the trains have stopped—
ahead only the faintest rumbling of
the last one disappearing, and behind
the dark you're looking down for any hint
of light—where is it? why won't it come? You
wandering now along the yellow line,
restless, not knowing who you are, or where,
until you see it; there it is, at last
approaching, and you hurry to the spot
you don't know how you know is marked
for you, and you alone, as the door slides open
into your being once again my father,
my sister or brother, as if nothing's changed,
as if to be known were the destination.
Where are we going? What are we doing here?
You don't ask, you don't notice the blur of stations
we're racing past, the others out there watching
in the dim light, baffled,
who for a moment thought the train was theirs.

This is more an impatient explanation by the poet of what he was trying to do with the poem than it is an a particular set of impressions of standing alone on a train station platform as thoughts invade awareness and then recede. The not so faint shadow of Hamlet attempting to speak to the ghost of his slain father isn't far off, and the poem suggests that a good many of us have incomplete conversations with our dead parents or spouses that we find ourselves conducting when the real world obligations are, for the moment, done with. But for all the emphasis on what rattles in the brain when it's tired and feeling rushed, the poem doesn't convince me. The writing sounds rushed, though, and in fact feels more like a convenient and easy to contrive self-dramatization than anything composed with assurance.

Where is the feeling of the world falling in? The nausea of the ground giving way under your feet? The lightheadedness when , in public, a host of repressed emotion and unresolved issues press upon you suddenly, severely, mercilessly? What's missing is the alienation effect, the familiar "made strange", in Bakhtin's phrase; the trains, the buildings, the cars passing by should be bereft of their normal assurances, including the easily conveyed sense of melancholy; this is a world that should seem, at least for the moment, possessed and defined by the dead. Shapiro, however, uses them as props instead to reinforce a conventional poetic sensibility, and misses a chance to write something genuinely strange and memorable.