Saturday, April 16, 2011

Two poems by Mark Conway

 "Vertigo" ,Mark Conway's poem published in Slate in 2005, has the definite problem of a poet who tries so hard to avoid cliche that he mistakes clown-shoed phrasing for original style. The poem reads like a man who keeps trying to say something important or intimate but is stymied ,stalled or otherwise silenced by memory lapse, fear, or head injury. The opening stanza, composed of unassigned similes and indefinite articles like "antidote", "fear" or "refined",lacks even the dignity of grandiose throat clearing; it's an open field of nagging doubt . This is the kind of
speech habit I would walk away from, and it's a writing habit that would cause me to not seek out any other poems by Mark Conway.It does not improve as the poem progresses to other stanzas, since Conway seemingly abhors clear language and chooses instead to give us the most awkward syntax he can contrive:

Wanting it, teetering
on the edge,
between falling
and crawling, back taut
against the arc
of the almost-fallen object,
backwards against
the need just
to get it
over, the wind
forced against your nostrils
as breath

One can well understand the desire to express everyday things in interesting phrases, but this is not phrasing at all, just clubfooted diction. Whatever it is he wants to talk about is deferred until the last possible moment, in an unmistakable effort to create tension and provide the poem with
momentum, but this all seems so arty, and yet there is no art. The problem, it seems, is that Conway tried to make every instance in this poem
a twisting road that was full of surprises. Simpler
sentences would help this mass of knots perfectly well, with the fancier diction cut way, way back.The payday of this poem for me is the first genuinely bad line of poetry from a Pinsky selection for the summer:

This is what fathers do
I say in the empty
tunnel of my body(!!!!!!)

(Exclamation points are mine).

The Empty Tunnel of My Body. I just want to say that phrase over and over, up and down the street, yelling it through a bullhorn. It has that acid-casualty odor that comes from old Strawberry Alarm Clock albums, or happens to the name of one of the local lunatics who shows up at open readings and whom everyone is too scared of to tell him that he's done way over his five minutes.

Another of his poems,"The First Body" ,argues that we love this life because we have craving,a fatal attraction for the afterlife where there is no labor, no exhaustion, no gravity at all. He wonders, in tight, ridiculously compressed and conditional sentences, about the struggle creatures have in order to survive in real terms.

In the morning, bowed
under blue rain, geese beat
their heavy way back
to the city-state
of mud. Rising, the wings groan,
trying to fly away
from the body.

was hard, the cold broke
weak and strong, together. Stay
and watch the robins scream
over scattered barley.

This is not a Peaceable Kingdom or a green world, but a series of struggles, striving and hard-nosed facts that are about the privations of
biological life. At first read, this makes you think of what a nature poem written by the gloomiest
Schopenhauerian a cruel world can yield. The
facts of nature are described in terms not of grace or transcendence but of pain, discomfort, death,
the slow and inevitable progress of cyclical existence.

May and the great trees rage,
white sap burned up
into leaves. Turn
and beneath the branches see
the actual air
moving, hesitant, green.
This is when the soul knows
it has a body,
by wanting
to leave it.

Trees rage, white sap makes leaves burn, the air turns hard. Images of things slowing down, of an ice age approaching.

was hard, the cold broke
weak and strong, together. Stay
and watch the robins scream
over scattered barley.

And still the suffering of living flora and fauna does not stop, and very soon we get this labored point,especially if we've been fortunate enough to have read and discussed Eliot's "The Wasteland" with an accompanying volume of Fraser's "Golden Bough" as a secondary source. There comes a time in many a poet's career where they feel they must attempt their own discourse on the cyclical nature of life, comparing geese in their "city states of mud" with a humanity that is mired in place, dreaming of great deeds and meanings while getting exactly nowhere. What delusional fools we mortals be. But again, this is a theme writ beyond redemption, and there remains a question about what Conway thought he could ad to the endlessly iterated subject.

An annoying habit of contemporary poets is the catchy ending, the sudden left turn to another idea that catches you by surprise, the last minute set of grace notes that are to bring previous stanzas which might have seemed like dissociated taxonomies into a sudden sharpness. The hope is a virtuoso turn of phrase that handsomely threads a number of beads together, and which is intended to leave us breathless. Or exasperated , if the trick doesn't work, which it doesn't here:

This is how we came to
love this life—
by wanting
the next.

This has all the makings of a young man intent on making a big statement and comes up with only

some meaning-giving statement. Here it stops being poetry and becomes naught but rhetoric, unconvincing and unfelt, conveniently all inclusive and "big" in its generality that a reader is virtually instructed to nod their head in a passive pose.

Big statements sink poems, especially poems that are situated in the junkyard of exhausted tropes. Conway the poet was less interested in waxing something profound about the ferocity with which nature and its creatures cling to life than he was in depicting the cyclical notion of life as being closer to a Beckettesque diorama of monotonous inevitability.

"I can't go on, I go on...". Life , nature, and all, are predictable, harsh and drudging things we go through against our will until death, where our reward isn't heaven or insight or superior forms of knowledge but instead just an escape from an unstamped existence to a permanent , dreamless sleep. This is what I think Conway tried to do, and he has not fully appreciated the "anxiety of influence" cast by the looming shadow of Eliot, who's genius none of us can compete with, not on his terms.Conway ought to have stepped back from his best thinking on this one and allowed the images to speak for themselves, something he could have done with a substantial rethinking and rewrite of the piece.