Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sleigh and WC Williams

Tom Sleigh's poem "Block and Bag", the featured verse on Robert Pinskys' poetry discussion forum, is a superb evocation of the writer's imagination set itself the task of anthropomorphising the obvious. Bored , hung over, or tired from long  road trips and a succession of hotels that are generic and without evidence that decent people would have anything to do with them, the narrator, likely Sleigh himself, stares out his room window and details the touch and do between a styrofoam box and a loose  bag being pushed around by a strong enough wind. It is wonderfully cartoonish, and it is a comic wonder to witness a poem's narrator musing  what the nature of the attraction/repulsion between the   block and bag might be. The poem under discussion:

(Tom Sleigh)
Pursuit, delay, anxious moments of dallying,
then leaps, bounds, hilarious cartwheels turning
manic with rage or fear performed in a concrete
courtyard bare but for hotel windows replicating
everywhere these mad, senseless, random chases,
a little styrofoam block fiery as Achilles
racing after a plastic bag kiting and billowing
round and round this blah arena, this angle/plane world
stripped to extremes of sun scraping concrete
bare, or blasted dark, obliviated by clouds,
the light neutered to the spirit’s dullest grays while Block
and Bag now seem hunter/prey, john/whore,
then inexplicably bound and flutter to a halt,
exhausted, Block’s corners pitted, rounded
by bumps and skids and somersaults,
Bag blowzy and worn, bedraggled by all this
unexpected passion, this afflatus of breath swelling
it full then sucked out so it collapses in ruin,
abject, pleading, overdoing it maybe, knowing more
than it lets on, only playing dead for Block’s titillation,
You did it, you conquered, I’m nothing, nothing …
until the whirlwind hits and drives them on
obsessed without purpose in their abandon
that could be joy, terror, elation of love, despair’s
deflation, desire’s movements like armies
maneuvering across no man’s land, the spirit
coquetting after the unreachable
as Block now bounds to within an inch of Bag
fluttering off at an eccentric angle,
the light winking off it like an eye winking,
you know I know you know someone’s watching—
now Bag crumples in a corner, seemingly blacked out,
Block hovering near as if debating to strike
and demolish Bag, put an end to this pursuit—
no angle of approach, no middle ground,
no terms of ransom, no truce—
just this squarish, brick-faced concrete
among endless displacements rippling out
across this nowhere courtyard where Block and Bag
are at it again, running amok, racing round and round,
giving no quarter and desiring none
the way heroes of old lavish on each other
ferocious attentions no lover can rival,
oh most worthy and wedded of combatants:
berserk Block; shrewd tactician Bag.

This is a splendid companion to Tom Sleigh’s “Block and Bag”. Certainly, both poems are set in a material world where what is seen isn’t linked to an unseen metaphysical chain of certainty that even the best poets can only guess at. Indeed, the closest thing that the items in the lines are connected too are the writer’s imaginations which are free to link to associate and characterize the incidents and their particulars as they choose, drawing from their respective wealths of experience, temperament, sensibility.Sleigh, though, distinguishes himself in the way he selects particular qualifiers, similes, choice phrases to his parking lot terrain and the doings of the Styrofoam and bag; his language , connected to emotional association and the texture of moods sculpted from a range of experience, is the animating force behind the narrative his gives the block and bag in their dual tumult; the fluidity and near seamlessness of how phrases emerge from the action as though responding to circumstances the way gardens, in longer time spans, respond to sunlight and good weather, gives everything an accelerated feeling. Sleigh effectively collapses the events into something cinematic, whether a cartoon or a Three Stooges two reeler. Williams, in contrast, pares everything back to a skeletal exactness, presents an outline of events, a sequence of cause and effect that is so simply stated and astounding in clarity that it achieves a unique complexity ; there is a narrative complexity that has everything to do with the language he didn’t use.
As the cat
As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset
first the right
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty
I could on for paragraphs about the photographic quality of this fine gem of a verse, but it suffices to say here that what William Carlos Williams has done is distill the movement of the cat trying to navigate over an obstacle course of household items with the effect of a well chosen slide show, uncaptioned, where image and the sequence of images presented tell a story that is profound because it is something that incidental, banal in itself, but meaningful because it is seen. The cat poem makes me think of the motion studies of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, incidently. Good and great poets notice things and create new frameworks for understanding their contexts, and both Sleigh and WCW have done that, with different sorts of language and rhythmic emphasis.

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