Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dead Poem

There are some poems make you want to scratch an itch that isn't there.Henri Cole's Dead Mother reads like an attempt to garner a bit of that mausoleum erotica Edgar Allen Poe so masterfully spread across the pages of our national anthologies, the distinction being in Henri Cole's effusion is that he cannot resist inserting the surreal. It's not an unusual tact to assume, as gazing upon one's dead mother, laid out in an unusual pose that is unread precisely because an earnest mortician attempted to make her appear "natural", is not a daily practice; excluding the intervention of the bangs, clicks and rumbles of alive things to bring you back to a presence of mind, one's thinking will guide you through an odd narrative of what the eyes reveal.He sounds uncertain whether the dead mother is indeed a corpse, and projects, it reads to me, a wish that something tangible about her regrets be revealed, five or six tears—profound, unflinching, humane—ran out of her skull, This quickly takes on a tone of an old EC Comics stories as the long dead citizens of a town, victims of foul deeds and anonymous murders, arise from their crypts , rotting flesh and bulging eyeballs dripping from their skeletal frames, march to the home of their betrayer to administer a delayed justice. It gets a little much , and Cole speeds up the narrative with crazier associations, .

and tenderness (massaging the arms, sponging the lips) morphed into a dog howling under the bed, the bruised body that had carried us, splaying itself now, not abstract but symbolic, like the hot water bottle, the plastic rosaries

I like associative leaps , the abrupt insertion of an image that although seeming unlike the conversation that preceded it will, on review, suggest a larger emotion, or a larger set of conditions a narrator has yet to realize. This would be the shadow poem, the text of what the writer hasn't said or referred to, the unspoken thing, names, that demands an airing. Cole's dog image is doubly hindered,though, first the near comic placement of the dog under the bed--these are the bits of country songs and stale jokes--the next being that it's a cliche. Anthropomorphising an animal to convey complex emotion is a trick that's been used up in contemporary literature--although the poems of Ted Hughes and some of John Hawk's novels are notable exceptions-- that has become an animator's tool. Unreality isn't a sin in poetry--we insist on it, generally--but a poet's lack of conviction is. The rhetoric swells, the sentences turn into an unemphatic stream :

like the hot water bottle, the plastic rosaries, the shoes in the wheelchair ("I'm ready to stretch out"), as dents and punctures of the flesh—those gruesome flowers—a macabre tumor, and surreal pain, changed into hallowed marble, a lens was cleared, a coffer penetrated.
It seems sometimes that a poet realizes he starts out with one idea and realizes the punched up ending they envisioned won't be plausible given the arrangement of items he's already written, and that they are too lazy, too much of a hurry to start over and make their conflicting ideas cohere. This last stretch is an effusion without a destination, a string of odd combinations of qualifier and noun --"macabre tumor:, "surreal pain", "hallowed marble"-- that, as such, is meant to give a sense of closure through implication, reinforced with reportage of acts that rely more on the whispered hush of that suggestion than on something more concrete. What lens had cleared? What coffer was penetrated? Cole closed the door and forgot to turn off the lights behind him. "Dead Mother" reads more like a rehearsal of a response rather than a gathering of the conflicting emotions a parent's death unleashes on you. It was remarked that that his may be the reason for the seeming foliage Cole circles his subject with.I agree that Cole is attempting to inoculate this poem against criticism by making the language abstruse, as opposed to abstract.

Abstruse , for me, means clutter, vagueness, a grandly arranged set of unconventionally phrased ideas that have the sound of a hollow tin can once their noise is made. Abstract language, in contrast, leads back to a referents, and everything can be discerned in an intricate network of relationships; the associations, obvious and less obvious, emerge from a careful reading of how unexpected things become analogies for unstated irresolution , or as metaphors for a larger theme the specific topic is only a symbol of. Even in the tight reins of a sonnet, I suspect Cole sometimes lets his imagination get the better of him and leaves a personal association, a private pun , linger quizzically in a line on the pretext that a scholarly critic might catch it, inspect it, run a gamut of philological tests on the wording, and uncover a deep vein of insight and erudition that would make some latter day jaws hit the floor. It's laziness, I think. The poem seems not an account of viewing a dead mother and experiencing a traumatic reaction than it is the work of someone trying to perfect their reaction; this seems about grief as gristle for the literary art , and that I think is this poem's downfall. It's over-thought, and not thought through.

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