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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ELISE PARTRIDGE REMEMBERS EVERYTHING BUT...

The Art of Noticing | Robert Pinsky Poetry Forum:

Elise Partridge’s sparse poem “Chemo Side Effects:Memory” , is a telling verse of someone trying to remember the precise word to describe the slightest detail of the slightest thing and feeling as a result the mild dread that a part of themselves has gone away, vanished as would nameless leaves in a stream rushing toward a storm drain. Her language is crisp, brittle, but there is a power in the skeletal telling that more robust rhetoric would merely have blunted with their compounded comparisons; Partridge has something here akin to an artist sketch pad, getting the essence of a situation, in this case a memory lapse and a growing alarm, in a few confident strokes. It is , perhaps, a skill garnered from years of writing verse with the linguistic cleverness and gusto younger writers feel they need to do, to transfer their book reading into the tight corners of their as yet unexplored lives. Partridge’s poem here reads like someone who knows the world they have defined, formed, created to their satisfaction ; the task of this poem is to observe the poet finding her place in the world, to remember the names she had given the animals, the places, the things of her life.
What we observe, of course, is something like a comedy, where the protagonist is frustrated in their task and gropes about the clutter , real and recollected, in hopes that the object, the word she wanted appears suddenly, magically,like a bright, shiny coin . It’s a touching sight to imagine, not without humor:Where is the word I want?
Groping .
in the thicket,
about to pinch the
dangling
berry, my fingerpads
close on
air.
I can hear it
scrabbling like a squirrel
on the oak’s far side.
Word, please send over this black stretch of ocean
your singular flare,
blaze
your topaz in the mind’s blank.
Thinking, remembering , the pleasure of the poet,the reader, the talker of long phone calls and timeless coffee chats, the effortless act of bringing together experience,reading, emotion into new forms and communicating new ways of witnessing the world in the community of one’s imperfect compatriots, is now work, labor, Something that was always at the ready in the notated folds of one’s mind is now missing or renamed, misplaced somehow in the archives of one’s interior life. One’s brain has become a over stuffed closet where all manner of incident, sorrow, joy , growth, frustration has fallen out of their boxes and now overlap one another in an avalanche of obscuring imagery. But there is bravery inspite of this, the sort of reaction to fear we don’t speak of that often, that of making the brain behave as we think it should, however in vain our efforts seem to be. Partridge gropes for that thing she cannot name nor tell you what it means; this is a search for the Golden Fleece, the Gold Urn, the unnamed thing whose connection to a supposed metaphysical order, would reconnect the searcher to their path, the point they were trying to make, the directions they were trying to give, the emotion they were attempting to express. This is is Calvinism on the intimate scale, the thinking that if we continue the search and beseech the elements with urgent humility, magic realism will take hold and what is causing pain and anguish is massaged out of countenance .
There is much here to discuss , I think, but I will say that I am in awe at how sharp a scene Elise Partridge has drawn with such a superb word selection and construction of phrases. There is modern jazz here, Miles Davis/Chet Baker , confident masters of their craft who know when to leave spaces, silences, who know how to build toward surprise.
I could always pull the gift
from the lucky-dip barrel,
scoop the right jewel
from my dragon’s trove….
Now I flail,
the wrong item creaks up
on the mental dumbwaiter.
No use—
it’s turning
out of sight,
a bicycle down a
Venetian alley—
I clatter after, only to find
gondolas bobbing in sunny silence,
a pigeon mumbling something
I just can’t catch.
There is among other elements a dream quality to Partridge’s poem, a flickering tableau that seems to shake, vibrate and spin the harder the dreamer tries to slow the activity and locate a center of their thoughts. This has the effect of picking up a thick, large format magazine and concentrating on the fleeting images and text while they speed by as you fan through the pages as you would a deck of cards. The poem goes from being a stuttering, hesitating description of frustrated intellection and evokes something larger, quietly horrifying as one accepts the fact that everything runs down and and everything gets lost and that everything, at the end of their use, are isolated .
The last stanza, with it’s image of things and meanings being just out of reach, the “pigeon mumbling something / I just can’t catch…” is reminiscent of the kinds of dreams, the melancholic fabulation of our lives that takes place after we drift into the thorny wilds of napping, where we are young and searching for answers and yet burdened with several decades of memories and experience; we ask the strangely familiar things in our dream state presence who we are and the name of the place we stand, but the characters, whether family or, in a tip to Lewis Carroll it seems, pigeons who can’t clear their throats and speak clearly, all with hold the information, they are mute.
The poet’s tone, calm and vaguely bemused, and her language and phrasing, which is elliptical yet precise, musical yet aware of how silence and pauses can mold cadence and provide the power of to the bittersweet nuance of Partridge’s punchlines, work splendidly toward creating a dread just under the calm surface. But she struggles on, soldiers on, and realizes that what she is doing isn’t a destination at all, but a journey; she responds to the blockade by writing a poem that is made of the things that she came across in her determined search for that precise word that would have nailed what she had initially started out to say. She had taken a detour and wrote a narrative , another chapter in a story she is done yet done with.



There’s an understandable desire to have the poem speak to us in full sentences, but there is something to be said for half-sentences and the barely articulated; in a far less grim comparison, the poem reminds me of a police procedural in which we see the detectives looking at a bulletin board full of snap shots of the victims and the suspects, newspaper clippings, photostats of canceled checks, seemingly random things linked together with circles, arrows and yellow post-it notes giving us bits of a linking narration. What intrigues in that image, as in the poem, are those key items that are missing. In this instance,there what I feel an intensive effort to go back to the moment , the very instance, when her idea, the notion she was about to speak, eludes her ready grasp and she does a quick mental rummage of the memory, rummaging clumsily among the associations that arise and distract on her piecemeal groping for the right term.

A large part of why this poem appeals to me is because it creates the idea that as she comes across an image of her past , the contexts and sensations associated with it announce them announce themselves like emphasized photo captions. At some point she is off her determined search altogether and finds herself instead following associative string of personal icons and finds herself entranced, perhaps, but the murmur of the descriptive words, presenting themselves in a what it less a stream of conscious than it is a rough, fast ride on the rapids. The narrative that forms is piecemeal, seemingly related, people , places, things and the reflexive grasping for parts of the anatomy twirled and twined and otherwise spun together in a rush of sensation that reveals nothing, finally, other than all the compartmentalized detritus we have organized and placed in the mind’s cold storage easily enough becomes chaos and clutter again with the right provocation. Partridge’s intention, I think, is not create meaning or provide a comfortable lesson to be derived, but rather the sensation of an experience that, by definition, defies language’s ability to fully express.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Get down and brood


Funeral
Roseanna Warren


In church, you lay in a casket open to your waist
as if you were in a ticket booth tipped over on its side,
selling tickets for an unearthly show. Your domed, bald
head, smooth cheeks, globed eyes, and modeled chin
were frozen into ideal shape as by Parmigianino.
You, in life all smiling quickness, now slept severely.
You had completed your lesson plans, handed back all corrected assignments.
Your hands rested one atop the other on your chest
guarding your final assessments. We shuffled by but you ignored us
as you ignored the massed bouquets and the preacher's manic grin
when he declared that Heaven was a retirement home
with plenty of vacancies. In the graveyard, they had closed you up.
The undertaker flicked at your gleaming mahogany coffin with his hanky.
The pallbearers placed their red and white carnations. The prayers
went on, and then they didn't. We left the box
on a gurney perched over a green rug atop the grave. We were not to see
you descend. A train chugged by
the full length of the country graveyard by the stone wall and the line of oaks,
freight car after freight car huffing with afflicted lungs
hauling behind them a long, ribboning wail.

When in doubt, find an unnamed person to talk to and address them as "you" through out your poem, taking care to make sure that this person is deceased . Emphasise the ritual and the props of a funereal send off, imply in tone that you think the prayers being said aloud sound pro forma, unfelt, lifeless as a voice mail entreaty.

Toward the end, as the funeral slowly winds down and the mourning procession passes the departed, introduce yourself with a third person pronoun and vent just a little about the deceased and how it came to be that your dead friend was someone  you thought of a soul mate, a confidant, someone you could confess your worst thoughts to and not judged or held accountable to a moral philosophy both irrelevant and absurd to your way of being and doing. Then confess your worst sin, that of viewing them as an intimate who betrayed your  trust  you know not how; regardless , you are they did and  your soul will not be satisfied until  you have thought, uttered, wrote and disseminated the articulated poetry of dull-witted rage that has been stewing. Make videos explaining all this and post it to You Tube.

Twitter yourself stupid with 140 characters of rancor and bile. Text people you don't know and threaten to disrupt what remains of their must see tv if they don't get their goddamned shit together and stay the course, maintain, obey orders, leave you alone, stop ignoring you, or  whatever else you can imagine .  Demonstrate at last that language fails  you and your  ears and eyes are lying to you in capital letters. Realize  you have no friends , finally, and this makes for the best of all worlds you put the effort into create. Wonder why you     are still unhappy and who's to blame for that.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

More often than not I defend the "well made" poem if said poem has some things going for it , like a solid construction, an ability focus imagery in a fresh and sparing way that gets across experience and a sense of the irresolution of one conflicting responses to situations written about, either past or current, in an execution that takes one by surprise, leaves you breathless, if only for a second. Like it or not, those poems, scorned by large sections of the post-avant gard who write more "difficult" work ( a worthy endeavor provided the writer has a command of the diffuse material they are trying to deal with, uh, diffusely), are themselves not easy to write; one may speak of technique all they wish, but there is an innate sense, I believe, of knowing how start, what to build with and, most importantly , when too quit, lest one kill a good idea for a poem with the lack of confidence overwriting suggests. Billy Collins has come in for his share of jabs and jibes because of the middlebrow accessibility of his work, he is a poet who has a certain mastery of the everyman voice who writes poetry "for the rest of us" ; his is a poetry is a body of work that forces the reader to think about the world they're already familiar with in new ways.

His is the world of the banal, the small, the incidental, the vocabulary of twitches and tics , but this remains a realm that needs to be written about. Collins is the man to equal the challenge in inspiring a reader to interrogate routines and schedules that guide their journeys from desk to mailbox and back again. Billy Collins, in fact, is the perfect "gateway poet"; when I worked at an independent bookstore for some years in San Diego, several customers over several years expressed a desire to read something more daring, challenging, "edgier" than what the former U.S. Poet Laureate was offering. I navigated them to Thomas Lux, comparable to Collins for clarity and readability, but darker, more ironic, a poet who explores the unintended results of one's best efforts to assert their will on the world.

There are those "well made poems" , however, that strive to hit all the marks that only make you feel that someone is trying too hard for the lead role in play they're not suited for; they dance too fast, they sing too loud, they deliver the monologue without suggesting that they're talking to another person."For D" by Roseanna Warren reads like it were a dull long poem that had been work shopped down to a dull short one; the striking language is all that's left, and there is nothing between the odd phrasings to make this prissy string of worry beads intrigue you. The poem is a dieter who has lost weight too quickly who finds that absence of flab doesn't mean one will find a prince or princess emerging from the flab and stretch marks.

This is one of those poems where you read each line expecting something to happen at the end of each line, and nothing does. It's a fussy poem, full of odd and unnatural words placed in positions where attention becomes focused on the odd sounds the words make rather than the meaning they may suggest or the unresolved feelings being sussed through. Euphony is fine, everyone enjoys rich words and intriguing slang, but there is an expectation that the person writing the poem should have his or her feet on the ground and have a diction roughly like ours (slightly heightened, of course, since this is poetry after all).

The plane whumps down through rainclouds, streaks
of creamy light through cumulus, and, below,
a ruffled scattering, a mattress' innards ripped—

No one talks like this, and no one should be writing poems with this word choices this precious. Whumps is a word suggesting body surfing as a lone man or woman braves the water and rides the momentum of waves coming to crash on a burly shore line, and it also sounds like the sound a drunk uncle might make against a newborn baby's bare stomach; Warren wants to suggest a plane's bumpy passage through some "creamy" clouds , but she makes us think of desert instead of a slow unnerving as she nears her destination. "Innards" is the kind of word one actually speaks, but ironically, in an affected voice to soften the use of a dated colloquialism. The image of seeing a slashed mattress on the landing approach could have been a dramatic one, a choice foreshadowing, but "innards" undermines that.

For the rest, the poem is over arranged, and it occurs to you finally that this reads like someone preparing their responses and  constructing a constipated poetics in advance of the facts; Tilda Swinton's ruthless character in Michael Clayton comes to mind, a nervous corporate crook rehearsing her prepared statements in the mirror with different tones of voice, eye movements, and differing tilts of the head. Her character, like this poem, ends badly.