Monday, May 2, 2011

Sketches drawn with a broken hand

Striking images alluding to opaque , disquieting personal episodes used to be the thing I insisted a poem be, a constantly streaming series of broken bits rendered in sufficiently harsh terms that seemed to want to perpetuate a pain. I am lucky to have had a series of professors and poets who suggested, even required me to read far beyond my reading preferences; I would have small poetry collection had I not broadened my horizon. It is unreasonable to demand that poets write with the same depressed acuity as Sylvia Plath, and I think equally irrational for poets to attempt the mimic her singularly downcast genius.

Leslie McGrath's poem , "The Mouth of the Mind", nonetheless treads the excessively forged confessional path in order to offer up a scenario that recalls Mark Strand's "The Dreadful Has Already Happened". Strand, whom I don't care a great deal for as a poet, does however have a lyric ability where a musical of how to start a phrase, what to make of it in mid turn, and where to finish up, and his poem is a masterpiece in how to convey wordless woes and worries without sacrificing flow. McGrath , odd to say, is no Mark Strand (at his best); her emphasis , blunt and less willing to provide a reader with a verbal ease to segue between the clashing elements of her nightmare, seems to reduce the ratio of what can be understood on an intuited level and make her awful recollections into garish totems , a bric a brac of crummy self image. Strand's poems features the poet leaving the baroque verbal garnishments in the spice cabinet for a change and crafting instead a scenario of  fluid strangeness, creating the most effective surreal effect;  a narrative line that seems that it ought to resolve itself but which only deepens ever so slightly in its contradictions the more one re-reads to see if they've missed something vital. It's meaning is undecidable, but the presentation is compelling.


The baby did not scream, but I remember that sigh   
when I reached inside for his tiny lungs and shook them   
out in the air for the flies. The relatives cheered.   
It was about that time I gave up.

Now, when I answer the phone, his lips
are in the receiver; when I sleep, his hair is gathered   
around a familiar face on the pillow; wherever I search   
I find his feet. He is what is left of my life.
This is something of a silent film, significant family members and friends involved in a ritual that is required for reasons that are with held. Every small thing finds negation, each gesture of warmth and security is undermined by sullen looks and currents of anxiety; what we're made aware of, though, is that through the  temperamental extremes there lies those short moments of peace, serenity, the lack of the nagging noise that converts the banality of the world into storm warnings and shots over the bow. The sadder bit of it all is this calm that requires the most effort to arrive at.

Bear in mind that I enjoy a surrealistic, non-sequitor style; even with that, though, a certain playfulness is expected, a particular joy in presenting the world and memory of it in alternative versions of What Happened is required, if only to prevent the odd bits of phrase making from becoming a humorless shelf of unfocused melancholy. Her imagery is heavy handed and lacks a memorable phrase or unusual. The segues from baby bunny rabbits, alive or dead, dinner tables, stray bullets on a counter salads full of wasted money are not especially convincing that this was anything worth writing a poem about; it seems more an unrefined extract from a dream journal that is intended for a therapist or an astrologer than it is for a readership who are interested in how the language might again escape the truism that everything worth saying or expressing in verse has already been said. McGrath's crabby, snippy, self satisfied anguish does not express the inexpressible in terms of the forgettable. It is, though, a confirmation that writing a good poem is not something just anyone can do.