Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Alan Dugan battles nihilism

The late poet Alan Dugan considers a mystery in his household with his poem "On Finding Bloodstains After  A Bad Party",  a title that promised much. Might we be about to read a free verse version of  Tough Guy's Don't Dance, Mailer's masterly exercise about bad parties, hang overs, and decapitation? No, this is something gentler, kinder,  paean to amnesia, deeper places of mind where there are no spotlight or cameras with infra read cameras, an ode to the assumption that one has perhaps succeeded in permeating the thin but resilient membrane between our waking life and the place where we can act as our more natural, primeval selves, unconstrained, free of an interfering vocabulary and the curse of it's subtleties. I like the poem as a bit of wondering and bemusement, a presentation of the writer without an answer to a mystery presented before him, but this does seem theatrical , or cinematic, a rendering of the troubling discovery.

A poet less inclined toward artful allusions and cushioned qualifiers would have , I think, depicted the blood stains with a muted panic and a verbal jaggedness that might have suggested someone attempting to quickly summarize the reflections in a mirror's shards after it had dropped to a hard floor; the poem would have been faster, more jittery, coming from a place where everything is unknown and coming at you at the same, precise moment.

The interest would have been in the perceiver's attempts to make everything whole again, stable, with an accompanying awareness, the "moral of the story", that what appears routine, fixed and familiar is easily enough set out of joint; it would also be a suggestion that it is the material world we need to pay attention to no matter where our imaginations wander. We need to keep our eyes on the road.Dugan isn't that poet and prefers waking up recognizing the room he lives in and realizing almost at once what has disturbed, what has been altered.

The poet risks nothing , of course, because the imaginative terrain is clearly something that resides elsewhere; Dugan would seem to be describing an evil twin who had visited him from the gamier acres of  Wallace Steven's ideal world and cuffed another visiting demon on the chin as they brought an evening's revel to a memory-deadening end. Dugan arranges the parallel entities , doppelgangers and mirrored iconography skillfully, and suitably modulates his tone; the tone for his bittersweet music is at precisely the right volume. What this lacks , though, is the mystery that is suggested, the real sense that something has happened and that he hasn't an easy explanation. Our hypothetical poet from before would have convinced us of the idea that the world in which he lives is roiling with menace , personal and external, under the occasionally calm surface of things. This could be the instilling of awe in the reader. Dugan's tidy constructions , however wonderful the writing , falls short of being about something previously unseen or unconsidered. It seems more a burnished rationalization. Whistling in the dark, if you will.

It could be argue in Dugan's favor that he was observing his own equivocations when he feels himself about to fall into the abyss; fine would add,but this reduces the challenge of doing something more than insisting that the best of us are merely flesh and blood  and not supermen, captains or industry, or high powered philosophies rendering everything into a handy towelette.  The poem provides an argument by example, with historical allusion; what this requires is a snap shot, with reflex.

 I agree that Dugan is dealing with the polar opposites of handling fear and despair, whether to face it head on or slip into evasive thinking, and that's precisely the problem. It's a set for an ironic effect that I think is safe ; one gets to be a Rod Serling of their own life and continue the circle of pre-formed reactions that , alas, change nothing. Poetry that matters , I think, should add something unthought or unseen to the mixture; it should break the string. A moment of clarity is the desire, that moment when a narrator can bear witness to things in t themselves, not recite variations of abstract notions of human nature. This poem makes me long for William Carlos Williams the more I read it.

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