Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gagged on a clothesline

There is a bit of a buzz by  Tony Hoagland's commentary  in the September Poetry Magazine where he opines, in part,  that contemporary poetry is divided  into two types, the bong and the gong categories .The first  is the sort of poem that rings the bell, gonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggg!!!­, with a clarity of perception that is exacting, photographic. There is no mistaking what the writer is talking about, no ambiguity in the details, and one is surprised how a surprise ending arises from otherwise banal details .The latter being a diffuse, abstract, expressionist kind of ode that emphasizes the inexpressibility of the moment a poet might decide to write about, the escalating, entropy -bound speculation that comes after a deep bong hit or two. There are pleasures to be had in both approaches, of course, as those who are chronically clear and the others who prefer an obscurantist veil over their stanzas are actually are a varied lot, with their own ideas about how language needs to be subjugated to best reflect the author's quirky habit of mind. We the reader ought not be ashamed to have both Billy Collins and Louis Zukofsky on our shelves; what makes either of these poets, or the poets that come between them (assuming said shelf is alphabetized by author) interesting, intriguing, worth reading for whatever pleasures they can deliver are unique. We know the universal aesthetic produces a poetry that becomes nothing more than talking points and marching orders, don't we?  "Clothesline", though, seems to have been knocked out before it had a chance to get going and wound up unconscious on the permeable border between gong and bong poetics. The title, in fact, is ironic, as it is also the name of a notorious move in professional wrestling, where one fighter bounces an opponent off the ropes and catches with a fore arm to the throat to the rebound.

Poet Bohince is attempting to dredge up memories from a time in her life when what is revealed are only scattered images of places and time-bound details; In this case there is the association of safety, her mother's womb, of tight, warm, snug places where one felt secure and protected against an incoherent , violent, noisy commotion in the near distance, but what this poem lacks is the emotional cohesion that would make this associative pastiche compelling. This has the feeling of something that has been rewritten and revised continuously, starting at first as something of epic length, eventually whittled away to a skeleton of it's former verbosity, with vain attempts to flesh out the bare bones with imagery to make these meager lines become somehow evocative. Rather, it reads like some one who is attempting to accommodate suggestions from a poetry workshop:


Though I sloshed inside the machine
of her body, as our whites swam in a soft boil,
were wrung, hung,
then flew,

or tried to,into the pain and ultimate

forgiveness of pines. …

I realize that one can't really depend on a poem to make sense in ways those in supermarket lines might mean the term, but there is a logic, an intuitive sense that we demand; these opening lines are less organic than they might be, seeming instead to be the result of an edit that rid this sentence of a qualifying phrase in the center of the expression, conflating washing machines, wombs and clotheslines in one gamy sequence. Not that the clause would have fared better with an explication, short or expansive; it was bad writing to begin with, a clumsy entrance into a badly decored room.

Paula Bohince, in fact, seems the voice of the workshop, with the sort of inarticulate , choppy cadences that are intended to duplicate the moment of realization, the epiphany,


The Y branch hoisting the heaving line,
spiders who'd snooze
in undershirts. Shook awake,
would climb air.

My mother
who was there
in every crevice.

There is a built-in halting here, a manufactured pause that does not convince you that the speaker is holding their breath; even in print you can feel the technique being worked on you, you can sense the writer counting the beats between what passes for stanzas, one , two, three...line!, and then reading the succeeding sentences in a whispery croak, anticipating the appreciative sighs. Bohince straddles that ground between catering to audience expectations of what a poem should be and a cartoonish version of abstraction, in an effort to leave something for would-be critics to rave about . It fails at both, and it is an intensely unsatisfying poem. It's like tossing stones and twigs into a bowl of hot tap water and calling it soup.