Saturday, September 1, 2007

A flurry of Poets published in Slate

James Hoch's poem "Draft" reads like notes gathered from a shoe box kept under a bed, only just recovered only years later after the weight of accumulated life has made the mind a field of circuitous memory. Small boy, too young to comprehend the ways of married adult life, sees his father leave and what seems like the resulting decline of his mother's health:

Some things, I knew,/were beyond choosing /father leaving, the endless /caring for mother, that love /is a salving: what medics and nurses do.

Fodder,/I was too small to object,/the conscription too severe.
A lifetime of growing up with the gnawing certainty that those you come to love and depend on will leave you in the lurch without a clue to their motivation or feeling. Every conversation not having anything to do with work or sports becomes a mine field of self-fulfilling prophecy.Years later , an argument his wife gives him a good rocking:

So when you said / you felt drafted / into marriage, the shutter

screwing up my face, you / quickly followed, just a metaphor,

The fleeting thing being reached for is that it is not a metaphor to the narrator, but instead very real and existing at some primordial level of consciousness where the hapless child still cringes in the while the adults around him scurry around in agitated melodramas. What she takes to be a mere figure of speech instead sends that expected bolt of dread through the narrator's system. We have here a scene from a marriage seen through a crack in the kitchen door, through a window left open on a hot night; she sees the anxiety on him and assures him it's only a word.

Try another,

I said, closing the window, /drawing a breath between each / sentence, trailing closely every word.
This is a sour situation, and it hasn't anything all that interesting going on in it's asymmetrical lines to warrant much more consideration. I'm thinking of Sylvia Plath Lite. Plath could get up a full boil of language when addressing the failings of her relationships with men, and she could get sufficiently global in her references to make her brooding lyrics worth a curious read. Hoch here seems too indebted to Raymond Carver as this poem plays out; I appreciate and pursue the thinking that a reader can be left guessing to larger actions "off stage" as they read a dramatic unfolding, but it helps if there is electricity in the events. One wants to be convinced that this narrative is something that needs to be told.

This is weak tea, not strong coffee, and is a bit too defeatist for my liking. The narrator's child self we can take pity on, but the narrator as adult, seeming not to have become not the least bit resilient with age, we find inexplicable weak and gutless. I am sure James Hoch is not gutless, but this poem sure is. An ode to spinelessness? It reads more like a snippet from a confessional novel Philip Roth would be writing, minus the rage, and rage is exactly what this poem lacks and needs , in an accurate measure, to make it live and become memorable.

This is a sigh, an oh-hum, a dejected kicking of the tin can down the street after a minor disappointment. What we imagine off stage for these two is a tedious existence of purse-mouthed conversations and silent dinners, a series of compartmentalized daily chores and rituals that affords them the maximum amount of time away from each other. There might be a bigger drama here, some family catastrophe that might inspire a stronger and more responsive muse. Hoch has here a faint sketch that would matter to the vaguely depressed.

I can't , 'though, get much excited over a couple of scenes connected through a soft-focus eliding. Hoch may have meant this to be suggestive of hearing a snippet of a tense conversation through a thin apartment wall or an open window you happen to be walking by, but this situation lacks sufficient tension. It is arguably neurotic in that it suggests a personality that requires unnaturally high maintenance. After the wife explains her use of the word "draft" as a "metaphor", we have a glimpse of a relationship that is going inexorably to the dogs. Hoch's narrator may have been placed at ease with his wife's clenched jaw assurance, but he sounds petty, controlling, and resentful that his control of his environment had been threatened:

Try another,

I said, closing the window,

drawing a breath between each

sentence, trailing closely every word
This is not a man of grace and consideration; closes the window to make the cold and the outside noise stop unnerving his indoor world, and a taunt for the wife to "try another" metaphor while he weighs the words that are said and the manner and posture in which they're uttered. Co-dependency at it's most skeletal and repulsive.

But all this happens under the surface of the spare descriptions, and what he have is an outline freighted with too many signifiers to indicate a greater psychological turmoil; this is a soap opera, filled with long , unsmiling stares, monotone deliveries of barely contained contempt. I don't often say this, but Hoch has underwritten this piece, and the "subtle" maneuvering between the different meanings of "draft" are clever more than revealing; it seems more a nice trick than a stunning trope. This poem comes off as all short cuts with no main road.


Slate's poetry editor Robert Pinsky has an affinity an abiding fondness for poets whose work reads and sounds like a series of interrupted ideas. This might be revealing, since I get the feeling that the stammering sequence of lopped-off exposition makes me think of the youngest kid in a large family, one constantly piping in and yelling and talking too fast and abruptly over a crazed din of babble so their lone voice and smothered perceptions can be heard and gain some air.

Sometimes it works, since I enjoy David Lehman's mosaics of place names, mad jazz and painterly effect; there is an fabulous improvisation in his lines that performs an activity I think is poetry's core province, which is testing language's ability to accommodate experience and offer up perception in a manner that merits a second, third or a hundredth look at the daily things that surround us. I find surprise and glee in his work, at it's best, and the interruptions or clipped notions work as layers of many references Lehman decides to associate; it's a sloppy process, I suppose, but it's one I'm partial too, taking Frank O'Hara as my foil. There is not enough time in this life to bemoan and decry what cannot be undone.

Too often, though, the Pinsky predilection for gives us material that isn't poetry at all, but only muttered aspects of pains and regrets that will not heal. Sometimes it seems like we're in a cheap motel with our ears pressed against the well trying to hear what's happening in the next room

under the blare of the constantly on TV. Creating the effect that we're eavesdropping on some private ritual is not , in itself, evidence of art; the writer has to provide something that will convince the reader that this is more than the conventional weirdness that anyone of us is capable of when we're not seen by the public eye.Picking at the perceived wounds will not hasten the cure for the pains, nor will it transform them into poetry, an art that one might want to paraphrase, quote and make one's own because the language caught an essence of emotion and a salient detail that cleaved to the imagination and eased, for a moment, the dread feeling that you're always alone, unheard and anonymous.

Twichell's poem “Sling" does none of those things, and we are again stuck in an elevator or on a cross-town bus listening to someone talking to themselves, continuing a conversation that should have concluded decades earlier.

The meanest thing my father ever said,
he said to my cousin, who told me:
She'll make the world's worst wife.
Thank you, cousin, for tearing away
one of my veils.

When Mom came to see us
I fell from the tree house, and had to lug
a pail of stones around all summer
since the elbow healed slightly bent.
That straightened the arm.

O when does childhood end?
In the globe of the night sky,
the inner stars are falling.
I leave him in a room like a baby's
but without toys.

It’s a list of grievances that presented in an unremarkable way, save for the conventional wisdom that if one is cryptic and unyielding about the few comprehensible bits in a verse, then one has succeeded in writing a credible poem; this isn't the case with Twichell's poem, which demands that you fill in the blanks and do the work of giving it coherence. Interpretation is one thing a reader must do, of course, but there is the expectation that the writer has offered up something that is worth the excavation and which can sustain the inferential, layered analysis .This poem isn't the one to warrant such an effort. Contemporary poetry is fairly much defined by autobiography, confession, full disclosure, private languages and the lot, and it's a stylistic given that's been pursued by any number of brilliant poets who had the talent and will to make their demon-wrestling the stuff of compelling poetry-- Robert Lowell and Plath and John Berryman wrote with a mastery of language as mighty as the egotism that made them use their collectively deteriorating self esteem as the focus of their work. Big talent will make you forgive almost anything, since it always comes down to the work itself, that set of lines one has written that must stand by itself, sans the poet's protests.


Mark Strand is a poet whose work I've gagged on when I had to read him in college thirty years ago, and the effect is the same this morning with "Mother and Son". There is something patently fake about Strand's poems and the sentiment he tries to get across, and for all the sign posts that signify misery and hurt that crop up in this poem there is not a sense that he believes a word of it. He tries to be surreal and hushed in his lines, but his business is stagy and arch instead of evocative. He approaches his scenes as a scenarist would trying to pitch a movie idea to a potential financial backer.

The son enters the mother's room
and stands by the bed where the mother lies.
The son believes that she wants to tell him
what he longs to hear—that he is her boy,
always her boy. The son leans down to kiss
the mother's lips, but her lips are cold.

There is no empathy here, only declaration and instruction about how to appreciate what he intends. It fails even as journalism.This isn't poetry, but rather stage directions. In another medium, theatre, this might may add up to powerful, wordless acting, but it is without resonance as a reading experience; these are jottings, you think, notes at the margin of a page that might find themselves elaborated upon later, in a stronger, more vivid context.

It has the feeling of summer reruns, something you've from this author before, and each exposure is more listless and bored than the last. Strand cannot purge himself of childhood images of death, and has used this seemingly autobiographical element as a running gag through his decades as published poet; there is a stifled fear and dread of death , detectable here in "My Mother on a Late Evening In August " and in "The Dreadful Has Already Happened" .

The earlier poems are stronger , with greater vigor; despite the conspicuous aspects of wallowing in the mythology of traumatic childhood, Strand still writes with a power that achieves the quality of stifled terror. It becomes a different story decades later, when the sure footed moves of youth loose their grace and what was once grace of a sort becomes a leaden shuffling, without uplift or rhythm. "Mother and Son" is the premise worn to it's thinnest , least viable point; if this poem were a floorboard, it would give under the weight.

The burial of feelings has begun.
This is not just a bad line, but resembles as well a grunting short hand of a writer who is too familiar with the situation he's committed to verse about over and over. In other genres Strand would be called a hack.

The son touches the mother's hands one last time, then turns and sees the moon's full face. It is a sure sign that a poet has nothing new to say about a subject if he or she employs "the moon" as the means to create an eerie mood, or suggest realities that mere human senses cannot register. One can't really ban the use of the moon as an image for poets since the phenomenon of the thing has so saturated our reference points that we would likely lose an entire literature if it were no longer available to writers to use at will, but one does expect some real work to go into the employing of such an accessible symbol. Strand's moon is something of a prop, a deux ex machina in which the white orb in the black sky makes things poetic and pregnant with nearly unsay able knowledge sans a human intelligence creating the psychological frame work for the aesthetic operation to achieve an effect of real meaning. That is the staginess of Strand again, directing our responses instead of engaging. He can be a bossy poet. For Strand, though, it has gone on too long, and it's unseemly that a poet his age still hangs around dead things in the night, refusing to let an old wound heal. But then again, more than a few poets enjoy picking at their scabs when they're looking under rocks for smoking guns.

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