It was mentioned in an exchange about Joe Osterhaus's poem, discussed in a previous post, that he perhaps fails because there is an impure quality of the voices he puts forth, an imprecision in how exacting he conveys the details; these mixed dictions are the poem's strength, I think. They work in much the same way Robin Williams' comedy routines do, with his crazed careening of voices, accents, illusive references, the colloquial and the profane chumming it up with the serious, the stately. Some on the forum who objected to what Osterhaus had done protested that he wasn't doing something that a poet was supposed to do, ie, write with a fidelity to the world as it presents itself to the senses. This is where the difficulty comes in.
It’s a mistake to think that the default task of the poet is to get a scene exactly right, to offer up a snap shot of a situation under review. In most cases we discuss each Tuesday, the task we assign ourselves in how well , how effective a writer has offered up their view of a recognizable scene, in their voice, in their style. Ostehaus’s poem works for me because he knows how to create tension between the desire to dress up the ruthlessly ordinary in language that would elevate and transform , and to have it checked by a plainer , less varnished details signifying a world one is a part of and cannot transcend however sharp one’s descriptions happen to be. One of the things I thought attractive in the poem were the mixed dictions, the slightly arcane and obliquely filtered melded with the colloquial , the utterances less burden with literary weight. This anchors the scene making in time and place, and is , I think, a rather apt representation of the fluidity of one man’s thinking.
Recollection, in this case, as details considered are in the half-world characterized accurately by Bottomfish as similar to Edward Hopper’s paintings; a world of idealized objects in what seems like suspension, awaiting another set of events to lend them a narrative continuity , interspersed with the predictable ticks and spasmodic motions of the human form. I appreciated “the crawl forward” and that the cashier, contrasted against the somber tonality , “yanks her cash drawer”. We’ve all seen this in lines we’ve waited in on busy business days, and anyone who has worked a register knows the fast and brutal efficiency one applies to quickly remove their drawer from the till so they may count out, make their drop and go home at last.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Truth be told, I rather like most of "Food Lion, Winchester, Tennessee", andI find Joe Osterhouse's writing to be rich and evocative, not overwritten. Elegant is the word, I think, a balance of concrete specifics and artfully placed qualifiers, both elements which produce a vigorous and quietly urgent music of an ordinary set of observations considered from a larger view, larger just so. Over writing , for me, is the evidence of a bad idea, or an idea that hadn't been completely thought through in which the author tries to compensate with a muscled-up language inclined to bullying the reader to accept a premise instead of taking it apart, inspecting it closely. This trait, I think, is a central reason why so many political pundits sound like a cracked-out Greek Chorus of doomsayers; the smallest incident on the campaign trail or in Congress is riddled with every rhetorical gun in the arsenal .Osterhaus isn't over writing with this poem, as overwriting by default means a writer has an imprecise grasp of the qualities he's trying to join. The poet here offers up choice descriptions of credible scenes.
Night sways at the lit boundary of the lot.Downroad, a Lotto billboard dances with flies,whose reels card strands of glare, and epauleta gambler shaking the bias from two diceand a drum sunk in the embankment, gouged with rust.*******Inside, the clockwork mists***track Raleigh's world: from a field*********of broad leaves, twistsof cured tobacco; and, from harbors gigged with rest,
a waxwork queen wept on a waxwork shield.
This, I think, is in a league with the best prose we take from the short stories of John Cheever or John Updike, or even Hemingway , in his tour-De-force description of the Cuban marina in the middle of his novel To Have and Have Not. This is a world where qualities of light matter, either brightness burning through the blackness as morning comes, or the darkness hovering over the lit patches of the earth as citizens scurry to complete their tasks and perform their duties. The sweep of this stanza is smooth, euphony, moving with the grace of a Hitchcock tracking shot from the line inside the store with it's details of cashiers switching shifts, to the edge of the parking lot as night moves in, revealing just beyond the edges of the lot as darkness gathers tobacco fields and military bases.
Osterhaus won me over with his apt language, his skill at describing the commonplace in interesting ways, such as when he writes Downroad, a Lotto billboard dances with flies, or in the next stanza where he writes of a shopping cart's Wheels corkscrewing. This, for me, is the work of a writer who has developed his ear and mastered the rules of writing to the extent that he knows when he can credibly and effectively break them; Wheels corkscrewing is an choice turning of a noun into an adjective. Osterhaus loves language enough to abuse it wisely.Or again in the first stanza, where there is the perfectly rendered description of the minor tedium of waiting in a supermarket checkout line
From here, the line seems not to move at all;back beneath a clock that diamonds the hourswith blushing vents of coke.
James Cain couldn't have been more effective with an opening line; for him, one is tossed off a water truck in the first sentence, and here, one is in the afterlife waiting in a line that will not move no matter how many times one checks his watch. Osterhaus has that talent too few poets attempting this sort of broad sketch have, the knack for putting the reader inside the details.
The final lines spoil the effect,though, and the sudden evocation of soldiers, the Iraq War, and a bit of self doubt concerning the narrator's bravery compared against that the enlisted men is more pandering for ironic effect than anything else.The poet feels compelled to make it known that he is the sensetive sort who harbors a self-recriminating demon that informs that he is a spineless worm, even in a supermarket at night. It's a sudden intrusion of the narrator's issues , and fails for the reason that Osterhaus ought to have found a less obvious way of dealing with the soldiers other than gently flagellate himself.This is a Lifetime for Women movie moment when a sudden detail changes the tone and causes the participating heart to drop to the floor with the sudden gravity of cruel fate. The only thing missing here is the low toned, off key violin chords to signify that the good vibe is now soured;does the poet really need to Pavlov his readers? It rings false, a coda of self-criticism that neither convinces nor benefits the poem as a whole; had this been my poem, these would have been lines I would have highlighted and deleted and try instead for an ending that didn't seem a cardboard prop in a world of hard objects.