Showing posts with label Poems. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Poems. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"Mummies to Burn": the future consumes history

Charles Harper Webb's poem "Mummies to Burn" reminded me, perversely, of a cheesy 1973 science fiction movie, Soylent Green,, starring Charlton Heston, where we witnessed the tale of a resource-strapped, overpopulated civilization feeding the hungry masses with a mysterious synthetic foodstuff called, soylent green. The movie goes through its dirt cheap production clumsily, as I recall, until it comes to the payoff when the protagonist sees how the sausage is made. His last helpless cry to a hungry, unyielding mass, was that "SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!" It's gallows humor, I guess, worthy of William Burroughs or Philip K.Dick, where the State handles the overpopulation and food scarcity with a single, sinister, brilliant move; arrest an over enlarging group of an underclass no one would miss if they vanished without a trace, and feed the momentarily privileged with the compressed and processed energy bars made from the departed homeless. It was an ecology-themed science fiction film, made at a time when activist demanded a strong government hand in matters of overpopulation and hunger.

It was suggested to me that Webb seemed to be on a creaky anti-West riff, using the anecdote as reason enough to rehash a favorite harangue. There was a further suggestion that since the poem is a critique of Western technology strip-mining a culture for the sake of economic expansion, Webb wouldn't be inclined to criticize Egyptian history. Their record, it was asserted, wasn't Edenic and absent of cruel events. Had I came across the sentence that he had, I too would have been struck, surely, but the irony of the fact--white people converting human corpses into fossil fuel--and would have been motivated to write my own meditation on the severely negative side of Imperialism. His concern wasn't whether Egyptian history was noble or ignoble, but that European exploration into the area was intended not to learn but to discover exploitable resources. What he gets at, his intent and success, I think, is that the mentality is a pervasive attitude in the invading culture and that the psychology extends to a narrowly set pragmatism; short of coal and timber, need to save money. 

Blimey, burn these bandaged cadavers, they're not doing any good just laying around as they are. The fault of Cameron's visually magnificent Avatar , is that it relies on tropes that are too obvious, especially on the Pocahontas / John Smith tale. Webb, on the other hand, is riffing on a historical fact and provides a provocative argument that it's not an isolated instance. I don't think he's anymore anti-West than, say, Jonathan Swift or, say, H.L.Mencken, two writers we praise for their critical eye and caustic wit, as well as their willingness to speak an unruly version of Truth to whatever gathered assemblage of thugs happen, at the moment, to constitute Power. You could say that Webb is a satirist in someway, a wiseacre, but whatever he is in spirit, he still notices how things that are said clash with things that are done, and that, like George Carlin, he has a willingness to push codified interpretations to the point where they become absurd. He is a poet, I think, who is keen on exposing contradictions and revealing the lies and embedded evasions we use to ease ourselves through the daily dose of cognitive dissonance.

The film had a paranoid take on government intervention in any social problems, and here posits, by way of Heston's flinty visage, a scenario where the State committed itself completely, with genocide and cannibalism being sane and logical methods to use in problems that have to a solution. A nice, if sick joke, on the whole idea of recycling. Webb's poem proceeds from the same metaphor, extending to the idea that a capitalized idea of progress has to not just break with the past in order to extend a civilization's reach, but must be willing to consume it by any means. The present is only a waiting period for that thing that really matters, the future; everything else is a merely a means of getting there.

The companies didn't think of kas whimpering, "Woe,"
when the bodies where they'd meant to spend eternity
dispersed into the desert wind. Nor did the companies care

how many children weren't conceived because workmen
pictured their wives among the desecrated dead—
how many woke, shuddering, at night, imagining

the gaping mouth; the yellow, glaring teeth;
the mummy stench.

Nothing else matters, indeed, and there is a lack of love, concern, interest in what has come before, the deeds and lives of generations who created families, communities, a sane commerce, a culture. Nor is there an interest in appreciating the time one is actually in; appreciating what one has, in the moment, in the time of one's time, is merely to stand still and fall apart. We get the language of this mindless drive toward an unreachable future perfectly, deftly, highlighting the early modernist fascination with the power and drive of machines that will shape the time not yet arrived like was a malleable material, an easily pliable clay.
Nor did the companies care

how many children weren't conceived because workmen
pictured their wives among the desecrated dead—
how many woke, shuddering, at night, imagining

the gaping mouth; the yellow, glaring teeth;
the mummy stench. Those were not days (except
in print) for tender sensibilities. Mobs howled

for hangings. Corpses cluttered the streets
in that time of White Man's Burden—of Drag
the Wogs to Western Ways, and Make Them Pay.

So to the flames the mummies went. Earth
spewed them forth, plentiful as passenger pigeons,
common as the cod that clogged Atlantic seas.

No fear the supply would ever end. No need
to save for tomorrow mummies abundant as air,
mummies good for turning water into steam

to drive the great iron trains that dragged
behind them, in an endless chain of black, shrieking cars,
the Modern Age.

Aptly, this describes a sort of gluttony where there is no hunger except for a need to feel that one is powerful and headed toward a destiny who's rightness will become clear at some undisclosed date. It's insanity, though, a rage to plough through, smash, grind, conquer, burn, smash, and otherwise both nature and the archive of human endeavor to the irrational sense of destiny that there is a greater world coming, a final stage of perfection that requires the severe, violent divorce from what's come before. Webb draws a fine string of images from this one historical tidbit, and makes an argument without the shrieking harangue of a less talented writer. His aim , I suppose, is to have us laugh, shudder, straighten our shoulders, and to be aware of the avarice toward nature and life that gave us our diminishing margins of comfort. From there, I think, some of his readers might decide to do something about it.

Friday, September 30, 2011

2 poems by Bei Dao

Bei Dao is an especially fine and brilliant poet , and I thought it would be a relief to read some work from a contemporary Chinese poet who better brings together a modern diction with the tradition of image clarity found in traditional Chinese verse. Pound's translations are so loose in their relation to the original tongue and intent that many who know of such matters consider them to be not translations at all but wholly original poems instead. 

This perspective makes the poems a bit more approachable, and presents us with the idea that Pound's misreading of Chinese aesthetic led him, all the same, to develop his notions of a twentieth century poetry where the image prevails over sentiment and empty rhetoric. Bei Dao, of course, has the sure-footedness I don't think Pound ever achieved in this area. While Pound was busy mimicking an old old style (or what he took to be what an older style would sound like) ,Bei Dao neatly builds surely, delicately, all things in balance, indeed, not an idea but in the thing.
Branch roads appear and disappearin the hands of trees.Where did the fawns go?Only cemeteries could assuagethis desolation, like tiny cities.
The thinking comes after the poem, for the reading to resonate with. Our fine poet here performs his art beautifully, the presentation of the perception. 
Translated by Eliot Weinberger
Wind at the ear says June
June a blacklist I slipped
in time
note this way to say goodbye
the sighs within these words
note these annotations:
unending plastic flowers
on the dead left bank
the cement square extending
from writing to
I run from writing
as dawn is hammered out
a flag covers the sea
and loudspeakers loyal to the sea's
deep bass say June
Teacher's Manual
A school still in session
irritable restless but exercising restraint
I sleep beside it
my breath just reaching the next
lesson in the textbook: how to fly
when the arrogance of strangers
sends down March snow
a tree takes root in the sky
a pen to paper breaks the siege
the river declines the bridge invites
the moon takes the bait
turning the familiar corner
of the stairs, pollen and viruses
damage my lungs damage
an alarm clock
to be let out of school is a revolution
kids jump over the railings of light
and turn to the underground
other parents and I
watch the stars rise.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

David Ferry scratches his head

I remember reading David Ferry's poem The Intention of Things online and was somewhat bemused when other readers commented that the piece reminded them of Wallace Stevens'  wondering of what it must be l pass through the membrane separating our existence of mere representation and enter into the realm of Platonic Ideas, where the real things actually exist. Heady stuff for a poem to plow its way through, but there is at least an elegance in Stevens' ruminations on these fixed landscapes, things-in-themselves-unsullied or spoiled by human vanities.I had concluded some years ago that Stevens had stopped his search for intrinsic and immutable meaning in the nature of things and concluded that his imagination and his gift for scrupulous composition would be put to better use re-framing the texture and position of things among those palm-lined shores abutting the fabulous terraces and columned cabanas, thus investing his language with a further power to evoke the mystery of things that seem, to him, to collude amongst themselves to keep us guessing to what end our days serves. For most, this results in periodic bouts of being dumbfounded, a chronic state of WTF; the pratfalls we have at the point when we assume we've discovered our path results in arguments with the results. Stevens fairly much admits that he'd be baffled if he thought he could define anything in this world of appearances and realized he would be guessing. Fortunately,  the guesses were inspirations in themselves and that he had the genius to transform his speculative method into poems that would inspire the intrigued reader to ask better questions. Ferry, though, hasn't the elegance or eloquence Stevens, and his poem The Intention of Things is a rudderless mess. One might have fun chasing pronouns and such things as they try to follow these elliptical couplets, but this reminds not so much as a poem of phenomenological speculation linked with the secret purpose of objects than it resembles a stoned rap a group of dopers would wander into once the smoke took hold and the world around them became an unreal cartoon they'd been dropped into. The worse part of it is that it reads further as if one of the zonked participants actually remembered the disparate topics of the ganja fueled rap and wrote it all down, trying attempting to make it a serious inquiry into the sequestered nature of things and events. It is humorless, it is overdone, it is sophomore metaphysics, it is dull and very pretentious; the narrator seems to think he's Hamlet, standing apart and on high, ruminating on human folly, the inevitability of death despite all in-genius plots. But that's a speech that's already been delivered, an unsurpassed achievement. David Ferry's dry verse here seems more a typing exercise committed while he paraphrased a seeming half dozen ideas already infinitely paraphrased.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Four sonnets

For those who think these sonnets are an inferior expression of a venerated form, I sympathize with you. Formal poetry is not my strength. They do have their appeal, though, in as much as they force me to constrain my signature turn of mind ; let us use a musical analogy and say that I like these because they amount to me performing my old sicks over a new set of chords.
Sonnet 1
You turn your head, you cough  and recover,
 hand at your throat, the mike buzzes but not before
you shuffle your poems and read yet again, you go on in a room
where everyone has a first line, I would read about your eyes,
wide as they are as saucers cups that are deep as pans of bread
that come from the oven and into my heart, and that’s a start, I think,
you fold your hands as you read; you’ve got this memorized,
yet it all seems extemporized from the bottom of your heart  which hasn’t a bottom at all, now some one else reads, a guy with tattoo of his tongue across his left cheek, he  screeches to hip hop clicks of the tongue but he’s young and not far from done as long as his homies thrown their signs with fingers that cross a language of quieting the flutters of the immature heart, I will read you later, on the phone, with every court and hand gesture, you wave goodnight, I know the line,
you’ll see me in the funny papers.

Sonnet 2

Not this day nor that one but the one after all these, rather, 
when we come into town  with pockets full of matches
and cigarettes in a sock, we rock the nation with big beats 
in hock to no groove other than the tire tracks that
criss -cross the oceans on trade winds that carry notes  
like saints carrying a crucifix to the next thorny hill
under a sky that opens only for any spirit that slides 
up the ladder like plumes of smoke, we toke in gasps
 and get out of the car, unload, set up  amps, take up a collection 
for a room to split five ways, give or take the extra guitarist,
 a girl friend who snores, a nice place, we say, this world is ours, 
while over the bridge, in the other life where phone lines connect,
there are meals to eat before the meat gets cold, moms to kiss on the cheek,  
girl friends to lie to because we love them too much to be ourselves on a dare.


Sonnet 3

Extra candles at the table mean that there
will be more bread to butter, more sin to absorb

even as we see a motorcade and a pope in
a unbreakable box on the screen when

the first spoonful of hope is served from bowls
that a heat that escapes logic and cold fingers,

bless everything that gets in your way, says Dad,
do the sign of the cross and make the world tremble?

work your voodoo somewhere else, he hisses, hand me a roll and turn off the set.

The screen goes dark, millions of button-down faces
in crowds that line streets and make the stadiums sag

under the human pounds are gone in a small white dot against a dark green field,
and Dad smiles again, snapping his fingers,
and chews his bread with his eyes closed, face framed with kitchen lights and lacy steam.

Sonnet 4

A fevered dream gives up its dark corridors
and invites me to stare at the ceiling instead, 
with music of laughs and grunting keyboards
filling the dim sleepless niches that make up the sky 
that is now filled with circling birds, black and crying,
hypnotized by advertising about home loans and 
travel clubs to the farthest end of a Pacific Island where
there are no dull, all-night parties and robot music that 
grinds away at  unsmoothed nerves, I pick myself from
the bed, kiss your forehead, slip on my open toe sandals 
and sit at the edge of the bed, the edge of my wits,
the end of what feels like the earth Columbus 
must have feared all three of his ships would drift over
in a delirium born on a black, sleepless sea.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Two poems by Mark Conway

 "Vertigo" ,Mark Conway's poem published in Slate in 2005, has the definite problem of a poet who tries so hard to avoid cliche that he mistakes clown-shoed phrasing for original style. The poem reads like a man who keeps trying to say something important or intimate but is stymied ,stalled or otherwise silenced by memory lapse, fear, or head injury. The opening stanza, composed of unassigned similes and indefinite articles like "antidote", "fear" or "refined",lacks even the dignity of grandiose throat clearing; it's an open field of nagging doubt . This is the kind of
speech habit I would walk away from, and it's a writing habit that would cause me to not seek out any other poems by Mark Conway.It does not improve as the poem progresses to other stanzas, since Conway seemingly abhors clear language and chooses instead to give us the most awkward syntax he can contrive:

Wanting it, teetering
on the edge,
between falling
and crawling, back taut
against the arc
of the almost-fallen object,
backwards against
the need just
to get it
over, the wind
forced against your nostrils
as breath

One can well understand the desire to express everyday things in interesting phrases, but this is not phrasing at all, just clubfooted diction. Whatever it is he wants to talk about is deferred until the last possible moment, in an unmistakable effort to create tension and provide the poem with
momentum, but this all seems so arty, and yet there is no art. The problem, it seems, is that Conway tried to make every instance in this poem
a twisting road that was full of surprises. Simpler
sentences would help this mass of knots perfectly well, with the fancier diction cut way, way back.The payday of this poem for me is the first genuinely bad line of poetry from a Pinsky selection for the summer:

This is what fathers do
I say in the empty
tunnel of my body(!!!!!!)

(Exclamation points are mine).

The Empty Tunnel of My Body. I just want to say that phrase over and over, up and down the street, yelling it through a bullhorn. It has that acid-casualty odor that comes from old Strawberry Alarm Clock albums, or happens to the name of one of the local lunatics who shows up at open readings and whom everyone is too scared of to tell him that he's done way over his five minutes.

Another of his poems,"The First Body" ,argues that we love this life because we have craving,a fatal attraction for the afterlife where there is no labor, no exhaustion, no gravity at all. He wonders, in tight, ridiculously compressed and conditional sentences, about the struggle creatures have in order to survive in real terms.

In the morning, bowed
under blue rain, geese beat
their heavy way back
to the city-state
of mud. Rising, the wings groan,
trying to fly away
from the body.

was hard, the cold broke
weak and strong, together. Stay
and watch the robins scream
over scattered barley.

This is not a Peaceable Kingdom or a green world, but a series of struggles, striving and hard-nosed facts that are about the privations of
biological life. At first read, this makes you think of what a nature poem written by the gloomiest
Schopenhauerian a cruel world can yield. The
facts of nature are described in terms not of grace or transcendence but of pain, discomfort, death,
the slow and inevitable progress of cyclical existence.

May and the great trees rage,
white sap burned up
into leaves. Turn
and beneath the branches see
the actual air
moving, hesitant, green.
This is when the soul knows
it has a body,
by wanting
to leave it.

Trees rage, white sap makes leaves burn, the air turns hard. Images of things slowing down, of an ice age approaching.

was hard, the cold broke
weak and strong, together. Stay
and watch the robins scream
over scattered barley.

And still the suffering of living flora and fauna does not stop, and very soon we get this labored point,especially if we've been fortunate enough to have read and discussed Eliot's "The Wasteland" with an accompanying volume of Fraser's "Golden Bough" as a secondary source. There comes a time in many a poet's career where they feel they must attempt their own discourse on the cyclical nature of life, comparing geese in their "city states of mud" with a humanity that is mired in place, dreaming of great deeds and meanings while getting exactly nowhere. What delusional fools we mortals be. But again, this is a theme writ beyond redemption, and there remains a question about what Conway thought he could ad to the endlessly iterated subject.

An annoying habit of contemporary poets is the catchy ending, the sudden left turn to another idea that catches you by surprise, the last minute set of grace notes that are to bring previous stanzas which might have seemed like dissociated taxonomies into a sudden sharpness. The hope is a virtuoso turn of phrase that handsomely threads a number of beads together, and which is intended to leave us breathless. Or exasperated , if the trick doesn't work, which it doesn't here:

This is how we came to
love this life—
by wanting
the next.

This has all the makings of a young man intent on making a big statement and comes up with only

some meaning-giving statement. Here it stops being poetry and becomes naught but rhetoric, unconvincing and unfelt, conveniently all inclusive and "big" in its generality that a reader is virtually instructed to nod their head in a passive pose.

Big statements sink poems, especially poems that are situated in the junkyard of exhausted tropes. Conway the poet was less interested in waxing something profound about the ferocity with which nature and its creatures cling to life than he was in depicting the cyclical notion of life as being closer to a Beckettesque diorama of monotonous inevitability.

"I can't go on, I go on...". Life , nature, and all, are predictable, harsh and drudging things we go through against our will until death, where our reward isn't heaven or insight or superior forms of knowledge but instead just an escape from an unstamped existence to a permanent , dreamless sleep. This is what I think Conway tried to do, and he has not fully appreciated the "anxiety of influence" cast by the looming shadow of Eliot, who's genius none of us can compete with, not on his terms.Conway ought to have stepped back from his best thinking on this one and allowed the images to speak for themselves, something he could have done with a substantial rethinking and rewrite of the piece.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hamlet's Ghost Catches the Late Train

Alan Shapiro tries to drop us in some one's thoughts midstream in Wherever My Dead Go When I'm Not Remembering Them , an attempt, I gather , to show us what a mind doing casual housekeeping when the ruling personality isn't focused observing himself being poetic. There is impatience here, the anxiety of the wait : the narrator cannot be engage the world as he would wish, to exert a measure of will on to his stage. The imperatives of free will, imagination, self-definition , following of one's bliss are for a time suspended, or at least irrelevant because our figure is here waiting for a train that will take him some other place he needs to be; this is a schedule not his own and this leaves him virtually nothing to engage but his own thoughts , inspired by the scene of the wait, the grind and mechanized stutter of the city the whirrs determindedly past him. The idea is an attractive one, I guess, the conceit of what a personality, normally fitted for turning their life's experience into miniaturized melodramas, would do in the off hours, when the mind is "off duty".

Impatience , though, implies something  like  film maker jump cuts, the jagged, abrupt , yammerng intrusion of one thought upon another, the overlay of images and opinions, the irrational mixing of personal history and visual detail from the present moment: the effect should be one similar to walking into a room where radio, CD players, televisions, internet and cell phones are all blaring at once, at full volume, with the same shrill , monotonous insistence. Shapiro's poem sags under the weight of a conventional narrative construction, weighed down with a string of specifics that kill the sensation:

Not gone, not here, a fern trace in the stone
of living tissue it can quicken from;
or the dried–up channel and the absent current;
or maybe it's like a subway passenger
on a platform in a dim lit station late
at night between trains, after the trains have stopped—
ahead only the faintest rumbling of
the last one disappearing, and behind
the dark you're looking down for any hint
of light—where is it? why won't it come? You
wandering now along the yellow line,
restless, not knowing who you are, or where,
until you see it; there it is, at last
approaching, and you hurry to the spot
you don't know how you know is marked
for you, and you alone, as the door slides open
into your being once again my father,
my sister or brother, as if nothing's changed,
as if to be known were the destination.
Where are we going? What are we doing here?
You don't ask, you don't notice the blur of stations
we're racing past, the others out there watching
in the dim light, baffled,
who for a moment thought the train was theirs.

This is more an impatient explanation by the poet of what he was trying to do with the poem than it is an a particular set of impressions of standing alone on a train station platform as thoughts invade awareness and then recede. The not so faint shadow of Hamlet attempting to speak to the ghost of his slain father isn't far off, and the poem suggests that a good many of us have incomplete conversations with our dead parents or spouses that we find ourselves conducting when the real world obligations are, for the moment, done with. But for all the emphasis on what rattles in the brain when it's tired and feeling rushed, the poem doesn't convince me. The writing sounds rushed, though, and in fact feels more like a convenient and easy to contrive self-dramatization than anything composed with assurance.

Where is the feeling of the world falling in? The nausea of the ground giving way under your feet? The lightheadedness when , in public, a host of repressed emotion and unresolved issues press upon you suddenly, severely, mercilessly? What's missing is the alienation effect, the familiar "made strange", in Bakhtin's phrase; the trains, the buildings, the cars passing by should be bereft of their normal assurances, including the easily conveyed sense of melancholy; this is a world that should seem, at least for the moment, possessed and defined by the dead. Shapiro, however, uses them as props instead to reinforce a conventional poetic sensibility, and misses a chance to write something genuinely strange and memorable.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

School of Defeatitude

"Wissahickon Schist" by Karl Kirchwey is a poem that practically brags about it's failure as a poem. The brutal upshot is that the poet is not able to complete his self assigned task of bearing unaffected witness to a natural situation.The poet ponders the nature of nature and starts to write a line to crystallize his emerging perception and then stops, catching himself in the act of attempted epiphany, realizing at some point that for all the skills with words he's attained in many years of reading , they alone cannot avail him the unattainable essence of things before.So he stops writing, stares at the formations around him, the birds in their habitats, the plants and their reactions to the changing weather and realizes what it is he is missing. And later, turning himself into a second person "you", writes a poem about being overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of the nature he was trying to make even more extraordinary.

Ergo, another poem about poetry, or worse, a poem about being not being able to write a poem; this is a poem about the writer's impotence to get to the heart of the things that make up his world, those things no human , motivated by imagination and the imperatives of free will, had a hand in designing, constructing, arranging in situ. The imagination is reserved, finally, for creating a mythology for how all these things arrived in the states and ethereal essences that are their allure--the narratives of what is already visible, complete, and unto themselves. Myths, poems, epic dramas used to be the way we explained to ourselves the formations, disruptions, and inevitable continuity of the world, that a creation of metaphorical structures could link us to a grand design greater than ourselves; our task was to abide by the revealed law of the poetically evoked and make our place within the narration.

Science , though, has hollowed out the myth, made the metaphors mechanical, reduced mystery to the level of the lost cell phone we will eventually find if we look hard enough. We know the connections between natural phenomenon, we realize the power of metaphor exists only in the arenas where the concrete facts and their theories are unknown, unimagined. So the metaphors are empty and the poet realizes he has no power to contain even the contents of his perception, and he stops writing and seeks rather to vanish back into the library to lick his wounds with another poem that confirms the sheer futility of being a poet in the first place. This poem is a stinker, a dishonest, whining stinker.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The poor are patronized, Baseball gets punked

Lucas Howell couldn't cram enough conditional observations into this over-alert lyric; the poet, seemingly a sympathetic lyric writer by nature (or conceit) wanted to get to the core of the bleak reality of the coal miner's as they emerge from the mines. It's an inelegant pile-on of elegant phrase making where we are, in effect, instructed not to miss the point that these men have extraordinarily hard lives the likes of which we can read about in poems like this.

Out of the broad, open land they come.
Out of a coal seam's
hundred-thousand tons
of overburden, out of shit-reek barns
and shearing pens,
or down from the powder blue
derrick platforms of howling Cyclone rigs
they rung by rung descend.

This isn't bad writing as it goes, but very little of this kind of tone goes a long , long way to the point he wants to make, which seems less about the lives of the workers than it is , perversely, the bragging rights Howell claims as being the witness to both and consequently imagine them in language that makes their lives more vivid, hence more real. Had he moved on from his set up in the first stanza we could have done something different with this poet's acute sense of detail, but the second stanza brings us the example of a writer who isn't sure he'd closed the deal with the reader; Howell tips his hand and lays bare the set up he's arranging with gratuitous of qualitative pronouncements, as in the rather unremarkable and trite observance of

They come bearing the weight
of lives and labor on their boot heels,
a week of night shifts,
or the prairie sun's relentless arc.

We're to shed tears, on cue with the faux-folk music of dulcimer , guitar and fiddle , as we are given over to archetypes culled from Walker Evans' famed portraits of working poor whites. Crushing weight, long work shifts, a punishing heat, life here is presented as it might seem to the casual witness, bleak and hard and beset with no relief. But there's more coming, a conspicuous twist that you sense coming ; one set of detailed if cliched images emphasising a community's unglamorous obligation to go into the earth cannot pass without an equivalent arrangement emerging at the half way mark. It surely does, and Howell lays out all the cards he's been holding--the innate dignity of the human spirit cannot be crushed by the far off requirements of corporate interest, no sir, these men , tired and calloused as they are, reaffirm their dignity and their love of community with game of baseball. The game is not just the national pass time, it is the miracle elixir, the magic bullet for physical pains and complaints of alienated labor. One half way waits for a Liberal Guilt siren to sound; the aim of the poem is solely to create a comfort zone with which those made uncomfortable with unadorned facts might wrap themselves, give a nod, and then walk away.

But here, beneath the lights of Bicentennial Park,
these men work the stiffness
from their shoulders,
crow-hop and sling the ball sharply
around the horn. No matter
who they've become
in the years since boyhood, the game's
muscular beauty remains.

Transformation and transcendence and resurrection are the themes here, and the power of play is the device through which these workers cease , for the time being, being stooped shouldered and regain the elan vital that was plentiful in their youth. It's not that the therapeutic benefits of sports are false--life without games, play, physical recreation wouldn't worth sticking around for--but rather that Howell reduces what he's been witness to a convenient narrative structure that reports the hardship and then no so subtly, gracefully, nor convincingly turns around and provides a homily to convince himself, if not the reader, that something beautiful flourishes, thrives even in the midst of pulverizing ly hard and repetitive work. The last stanza is dreadful and spiked with the shards of truism platitude, and disingenuousness.

And the small victories
sustain them—a well-timed swing, or dusty
headfirst-dive for home—
as they disband,
again, into the world from which
they take their living.

This is a pompous and false dichotomy, that the laborers relish their game and find the "small victories" to be a satisfactory compensation for their dangerous work and poor pay, and it strongly implies that this is the way it needs to be. It's awful enough that Lucas Howell doesn't trust his own skill a writer to make his points and inferences without sticking instructional billboards along the trail of his thinking, but he adds an insult to injury with the banality of his insight. This man is the least interesting poet I've read in years.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Quietude is Deafening

Gail Mazur's poems have an easy elegance that can , in their best renderings, bring a number of heady matters into the same conversation without a sign of the stanzas tearing at the seams.Apparent one can read in a previous selection published on Slate,In Another Country, she has the ability to give form to a sense of sensations that you'd think would remain inarticulate and exist only as vaguely felt sensations: happy, sad, despairing, hopeful, what? She gives these sensations voice, a monologue. But as well as she brings her equivalent phrases for unnameable notions together in a smooth transition to a page , the transition is too pat, too eager for prime time. The conceits that drag her work down is the continued sense that the insoluble conditions she enjoys digging through for material find resolution in her over worked ironies.

"The Age" shows no shift in strategy and no modesty in the size of the unambables she's attempting place a sign on; no more odes for an empty house, bring on the Temper of the Times!!!This would be fine, of course, but what irritates me is the implied exclusivity , the book cliquishness of this bit of zeitgeist mongering. You feel like a friend you came to a party with abandoned you with a group of others , none of whom you know, who are enthralled by a lone speaker who seems to be synthesizing everyone else's input into a discussion you know nothing about, touching on each tidbit and making them fit some clever if predictable irony gridwork.

For what seemed an infinite time there were nights
that were too long. We knew a little science, not enough,

some cosmology. We'd heard of dark matter, we'd been assured
although it's everywhere, it doesn't collide, it will never slam

into our planet, it somehow obeys a gentler law of gravity,
its particles move through each other. We'd begun to understand

it shouldn't frighten us that we were the universe's debris,
or that when we look up at the stars, we're really looking back.

This is exactly where you and I have walked in , and there is the feeling that all these longings for historical knowledge, back in time when matters made sense as they occurred and had their effects, is wishful more than anything else; the phrases are so well chisled and polished in their response to sort of bleak declarations the narrator might have been confronted with that I'm inclined to think , assuming the poem is inspired by experience, that Mazur might have been stumped by the original inquest as to what became of our collective Sense of Hope. We'd begun to understand /it shouldn't frighten us that we were the universe's debris,
or that when we look up at the stars, we're really looking back doesn't sound spontaneous at all, it's desire for a firm place to set one's certitude studied, not weary.

Starting from small details to grander themes is a technique I enjoy when the parts are a good fit for one another, but Mazur reverses the equation here by going from grand to minute, as in the way she begins with an implied struggle against the despair of the age, settling finally on the school children chanting the name of the New President as some sign that the clouds will separate and the sun will shine again. This would be fine if it weren't such a smarmy production. This is a Hallmark Moment, an epiphany so perfectly placed in this ostensibly factual account of a personal struggle against spiritual malaise as to be incredible, implausible, phony . What Mazur is trying to get across is something that's very small yet very meaningful, yet she talks this idea to death with a busy-work string of contemplations that effectively crush the poetry .

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tale of the proscratinating Horn dog

"All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame" by Fulke Greville, a formerly obscure poet who is now being revived and rehabilitated three hundred plus years later by the preferring mentions of Harold Bloom and others, is a superb poem of directed ambivalence. It's the tale of a man who chooses the ache of desire over the pain of losing himself to the power of another being over him.

Caelica 56: "All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame"
All my senses, like beacon's flame,
Gave alarum to desire
To take arms in Cynthia's name
And set all my thoughts on fire:
Fury's wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard's heir,
Cupid did best shoot and see
In the night where smooth is fair;
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake;
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
And thus unto myself I spake:
"Sweet God Cupid, where am I,
That by pale Diana's light,
Such rich beauties do espy,
As harm our senses with delight?
Am I borne up to the skies?
See where Jove and Venus shine,
Showing in her heavenly eyes
That desire is divine.
Look where lies the milken way,
Way unto that dainty throne,
Where while all the Gods would play,
Vulcan thinks to dwell alone."
I gave reins to this conceit,
Hope went on the wheel of lust;
Fancy's scales are false of weight,
Thoughts take thought that go of trust.
I stepped forth to touch the sky,
I a God by Cupid dreams;
Cynthia, who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams,
Leaving hollow banks behind
Who can neither forward move,
Nor, if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.
There stand I, like Arctic pole,
Where Sol passeth o'er the line,
Mourning my benighted soul,
Which so loseth light divine.
There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace.
He that lets his Cynthia lie
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away.
Let no love‑desiring heart
In the stars go seek his fate,
Love is only Nature's art.
Wonder hinders Love and Hate.
**None can well behold with eyes
**But what underneath him lies.

We have an erotic poem here, a distended stretch of rhapsodizing the brings us in the center of a train of thought that is sparked, fired up and colored entirely by a long and obsessive gaze. It's an interesting comparison with T.R. Hummer's poem in Slate last week, "Bad Infinity" , where the reader was likewise situated in a psychology that was arguing with the world and attempting to reconcile combating approaches to a world that appeared to be failing the narrator, much of the power of which comes from Hummer deploying a set of images culled from what seemed to be reconfigured tropes and semantic turns that might formerly neatly contextualized the world with grace and nuance but now which seemed to be falling grossly short.

Greville's poem, written over three hundred years earlier, has the narrator at the most severe pitch of an arousal wherein he wrestles with all the conflicting motions. He is something like Hamlet, lost and stalled , perhaps impaled by the metaphorical scaffolding he constructs for himself; he cannot take action so he does nothing but instead continues to settle for the satisfaction of having fashioned a new kind of language to describe an intensity that finds no resolution. As the dear Cynthia, falling under the dually imperious and self-critical gaze of Greville's horn-dogged suitor, is subjected to a stream of artful exaggerations that compare her and the feelings she creates to grander things greater than her would be lover, we have the metaphorical flow taking a turn, at first describing all that is desirous of the good lady that the observer would like to physically encounter, only to have the rationale undermined as the poetry assumes its own authority and becomes the ruling edict in this stream of obsessed thought processing. She is too fine to be touched, too near the perfection of angels to be violated, hers is a beauty that is stunning to the degree that all who behold her are made motionless, made hapless, made powerless.

Some years ago I attended a lecture on eroticism , and in a section where the speaker needed to make the distinction between the erotic and the pornographic, the point was made was that what we find erotic in a situation lies in the very fact that contact, the actual coupling, is suspended, deferred. Anticipation is the essence of the erotic impulse, the rituals of seduction, the contemplation of the shape and good graces of the other one is attracted to, the psychic moment when the pride and embarrassments and degrees and self-doubt cease to matter and one pursues something outside their daily concerns.

Greville's character, it seems to my meager estimation, was hoist by his own explosive rhetoric , considered something thing truly beautiful and worthy of possessing but deemed himself finally unworthy, preferring instead the ache of yearning, the pining after, the perfection of a feeling that made his imagination become gloriously alive. A fear of commitment, perhaps, but most of all I think it might have to do with a fear losing of what power one things they legitimately have. The force that could coax such brilliant from a man could surely rob him of as well, and that would leave him sans anything he knew was truthfully his. This is almost a comedy of a sort, albeit a richly musical one; a man choosing his muse over the woman he believes he could love.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A poem that walks over your grave

There are those I know, friends and former friends alike, who know it's well within my personality to become a fire-breathing jerk; though I prefer to regard myself as having an even temperament most of my awake time, there are those moments when something gets to me that will not let up. An annoyance, a complaint, the site of something ugly or something said that was offensive to my closely held (and improvised) standards as to how reality and it's subjects should arrange their affairs. Bear in mind, please , that I am seldom right when I go off on a toot, and my universal declarations about the exact nature of the world's wrongs are inappropriate, over stated, bigoted, unfair, the rantings of a salivating asshole. Even at my age, with the wisdom I've garnered from decades of mistakes I've learned from, I still have to make amends, apologize, repair the damage I've done during my lashing out. That said, bear in mind as well that these moments of rage binging are much scarcer than they were , say, twenty years ago. The point, I suppose , that knowing better is not enough.

But anger, being in a state of pique is seductive; quite suddenly, as the adrenaline flows and what had been a passing social glitch becomes a World View, the world gets smaller, I get larger, and all matters at hand and hidden, all business , entertainment, love and remorse become intertwined, connected, the world suddenly makes sense. The small irritations that had been collecting in the recesses of compartmentalized personality show their full fester at last and everything that one knows becomes a chain of related failures, betrayals, breakdowns, recriminations, all of which seem to be headed to one end, a single source for the source of the world's (nee my) discontents. It's much the same as being on a drug, and there is something awesome as one calms down and realizes the stress they'd just put themselves through--one wishes they could rage more and sustain the fleeting unity, but it is illusory. It's proof , for me a least, that my brain isn't my best friend when I've exhausted my wit.

What I've marveled at, though, is the associations that come to you when you've revved up your mind to function at the sharpest point of a perfect snit. Seamlessly, effortlessly, without resistance and without contradiction , you find yourself being like Hamlet equivocating brilliantly as he ponders a conspiratorial heaven that draws an ill map for him, or Lear, for that matter, going insane as he strips himself in the rain of the vestments of his power, real and symbolic, because the actual relationships so revealed to him are too much. It's poetry, the power to begin with the instance and utilize language to extend a psychology that places human worth below the philosophical certainty we might have been raised with.

Poet T.R.Hummer gets at this beautifully with his poem "Bad Infinity", a ram-rodding crash course of sensory overload that begins with a colonsocopy as a starting point and soon compresses the raw cycle the narrator speeds along:

During the colonoscopy, orbiting through twilight sleep,
***she felt, light-years distant in the interior darkness, a thump
And a dull but definite pain—as if someone were dragging,
***at the end of a rusty chain, a transistor radio through her body,
A small beige box with a gold grill, assembled by a child in southeast Asia
***in 1964—and she woke in groggy panic till the nurse made soothing noises
For her to sleep by, like a song in an alien language heard through static
***beamed from the far side of Arcturus: The Dave Clark Five's
"Glad All Over," maybe, tuned in by a boy in Thailand. Such a drug,
***the doctor said. Everything you feel you will forget.
Amen to that. Amen to plastic and silicon, amen to a living wage,
***amen to our tinny music, to the shrapnel in the IV drip,
Amen to the template of genes that keeps the body twitching
***and the wormhole in the gut of Orion I will slip through
When the chain breaks and the corroded battery bursts, its acids eating
***all the delicate circuitry that binds the speaker to the song.

Wonderfully done, powerfully done, this gets that state of helplessness as the subject, a woman under examination, feels the effects of the drug and the invasion o of her body, attempting to balance between a giving in to the process she's volunteered for and an attempt to maintain control, dignity, a small measure of power that couldn't robbed for her. Hummer has an ear for interesting coinages and odd juxtapositions , and understands the irrational references an addled thought process can take.

Hummer's technique avoids an explicit argument and side steps the rhetorical flourishes with which to make concrete details bring the reader to material point , preferring rather to allow the similarities he aligns in this string of association to bleed into one another as we come upon, perhaps, a metaphor that is delivered invisibly, nearly outside the poem, The body and the radio are made to be similar items, organic matter and technological device coming to the same fate, the eventual break down. Everything breaks down, falls apart, all things , whether the bodies of living creatures, buildings or mechanical devices, fall prey to age, wear, tear and spill their contents back onto the ground; all things release those things that give them an animating spark, including those machines designed to detect defects and indicate a means of real-world salvation. But all things fail, and a life is never truly saved but rather, at best, is allowed to linger longer. Hummer blitzing images and manic rhythm radiates the rage of someone who gets this emphatically; in the end we are reduced to the sum of our dissipated parts , with the attending terror that there is no salvation after the last pulse.

The probes feel like a cheap transistor radio playing a Dave Clark 5 song ironically called "Glad All Over" as the probes search for cancer cells,
and concludes, violently, hauntingly, with the tale of the imagined radio become personified and wearing out, the battery leaking acid, corroding the sheath that contains it. This language stream, equal parts brutal fact and drug enhanced delusion, combines what I hear is fear and anger meeting head on in equally forceful bursts, the result being something between acceptance and the last act of defiance . The beauty of it, of course, is that Hummer conveys this as a state one is currently in, with little in the way of set up, nor a clue as to what the post-examination results might be; this is not unlike walking into a room you thought was empty and finding someone in there alone, confessing secrets from some isolated area of their being to the shadows. Hummer makes us feel ill-at-ease and maybe a little as if someone had just walked over the spot where we'll eventually be buried. Or scattered. Not many writers do that for me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Addictions by Carole Muske-Dukes

Funny, but everyone has an opinion on addiction. Luckily, Carol Muske-Dukes poem Addictions , is not one of them, but rather a mashed up scowling at how the way the culture lives is analogous to habits one cannot stop. It is a rant and a rage and a pissed off diatribe of someone who's been too long in the wraps of addiction, to booze, speed, heroin, money, love, those things that we involve ourselves in some quest of mastery of our destinies, only to find ourselves instead to be the slave to the cure we sought. Muske-Davies is an enjambed, colliding, corrugated assortment of conflations and confluences, one thing leading to another--there is the reckless stammer of someone peaking on their delusion or mumbling from the depth of an incompressible bottom attempting to give insight, lay blame, paint the large picture with small details they cannot bring together. Not hopeful or necessarily bitter, Addictions glides between tones, rests briefly on different moods, providing a travelogue to some deeply confused discontents.The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says succinctly that one cannot be sober--in this case let us say, free from whatever trait it is that makes our lives problematic beyond manageability--solely on the basis of self-knowledge; knowing better is never enough. What Muske-Dukes does with this poem is layer all the different things in such a way that they become akin in their allure and their sorry consequences, and presents with a picture that suggests that even the so-called cures can be mere subterfuge for new variations on the slippery thinking that keeps addiction alive; it is the disease that sleeps with one eye open.

I would agree that one is always an addict, regardless of how much clean time one might have. Addiction, from what I've read on the subject, is a condition involving brain chemistry more than anything else, the upshot is that once one achieves an addicted state, the propensity to become addictive to narcotic substances does not vanish. My evidence is anecdotal, but I have never seen an alkie or an addict go back to successfully being able to drink or use. Many of them wind up worse than they did before, rapidly, and many of them die. An addict and alkie essentially have to accept the fact they will always be so in spite of their clean and sober time, and they need to learn to live their lives as the rest of the non-addicted population does.

It's been said that what Muske-Dukes wrote here is less a poem about addiction than she has an anti-war poem, and I'd say sure, the elements are there,but what we really have is a miserable persona in effect going off against the state of things that they think has a singular cause, the doings of all these damned addicts and alkies lying, cheating, stealing to get their drugs and booze. Rage, as a state of being, is a condition that gives one the illusion that they are finally perceiving everything as it really is, and sees those things as a series of connections that form, apparently, to no good purpose than to ruin the world generally and endanger the narrator specifically. It's paranoia, and the ironic twist is that the speaker is as much a victim of addiction as the ones physically and psychologically habituated. Denial is a needed element for the perpetuation of addiction cycles, and what Muske-Dukes creates is the chorus that naysays wretchedness of the addicts whose lives they make impossible to recover from. The narrator is not someone in sympathy with the poor, the downtrodden, the ones in need of help, this is someone who is fed up with the troubles and would rather have they --an amorphous mass differentiated only by their not being the speaker- vanish, like stains giving way to the scrape of strong detergent. The larger point concerns the difficulty of stopping the behavior that we know is killing us. She does well in recreating the wicked downward spiral of negative thinking, collectively expressed.For me, the whole subject is black and white, an addict uses until he or she is dead, the only cure is abstinence, and those who cannot stop using or drinking in amounts contrary to our tentative idea of sanity simply die as a result of their excess. I am an agnostic in spirit, though I have an open mind about spiritual matters, and I will assert that the spiritual nature of AA saved my life; I started to at least give lip service to the principles and then gradually came to believe that there was something to this "surrender to win" ethic when I began to notice improvement in my life. For me it comes down to the Chicken Soup Theory:

Can it help?

Couldn't hurt...Muske-Dukes, though, really isn't talking about addiction as such, but rather uses it to describe the expressive tendency of an entire culture--it's a metaphor for a what's seen as a global condition, that everyone is self-seeking even though they hanker to be more charitable and humane. With our selfishness and our thinking at odds, we have all sorts of confused and conflated ideas about what the "right" thing is, and we wind up operating in grotesque ways, rationalizing with various rhetorics, philosophies and wishful thinking to justify the worst of our ways, and use the same vocabulary to lay the blame on others. Muske-Dukes is wise to put this in the form of an accelerating rant--the velocity of the resentments fuels the rage distills it to some hard, palpable gripes that are not without merit.


I subscribe to the idea that the validity of a theory is in the results it gets, and it's not my place to argue with people how they understand their particular addiction, nor judge them as to how they've coped with and surmounted their problem. Let us say that my understanding of my alcoholism comes not from any need to fill up what was missing in my make up, but because I liked the effect produced by alcohol and sought to continue, sustain and increase that feeling with ever-increasing amounts of the sauce until such time that what I used to be able to take or leave became a habit I couldn't stop under my own power. Alcohol wasn't a symptom of an underlying disorder, it was the problem. I reject the oft-recited template of bad nurturing, unreturned love or other forms of psychic scarring that set one up for years of trying to compensate for what was missing with the intake of copious amounts of booze; I was a reasonably happy kid, my parents loved me, I had plenty of friends. I had an average amount of teenage angst--the reason I drank was simply that I liked the way it made me feel. This isn't to say I didn't have issues, tragedies, and traumas to contend with, but none of these, individually or combined, convince me that they were the reason I drank. Granted, I experienced every bit of the irrationality, craziness, meanness and chronic fucked-upedness that comes along with twenty years of steadily increasing binging, that state we in twelve-step programs consider to be insanity, but it's my understanding of the way I drank, arrived through several long inventories , that my unmanageably started after I crossed that line between heavy drinker to alcoholic. I am not much of an onion peeler , I'm afraid, but my inventories were thorough, my amends were a long time to complete, and the point of the self-examination wasn't to discover why I drank but rather to avoid the sorts of behaviors and habits of thinking that will make me want to drink again. I've gotten a sufficient amount of crap from Big Book thumpers who've had the nerve to claim that I've been staying sober the wrong way, but I've seen many Big Book Thumpers and twelve-step gurus get drunk in 21 years, and here I am, still sane, sober and productive. What this means, I think, is that there's no wrong way to stay sober--with Jesus, with Bill W, with the naysayers at Rational Recovery--as long as you're staying sober and living a life that works. Happily and usefully whole. If one wants to subscribe to a theory that everyone is an addict that all bad behavior and the odious consequences thereof is a form of addiction, fine, so long as what one garners in such a belief is a clarity that enables one to make better decisions as to what to do with their life. Without those results--results that come in God's time, not mine, not ours-- I will think that one is living --wallowing--in the problem.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Poems of Barry Goldensohn

Somewhere in space the tempest of intellection vs emotion in contemporary poetry ensues, participants more passionate that habitual losers at downbeat racetracks.
No one walks away happy from these discussions, of course, and although common sense
the proper place for one or the other of those qualities lies in the middle, with dominant tone depending on what is being composed, matters get sidetracked to issues that leave aesthetics behind and land somewhere in the swamp of Deeply Held Personal Beliefs. The outcome from that kind of morass, in extreme, are crusades, jihads, and obsession with celebrity murder trials. Sometimes it’s harder to stay in the center of a discussion than on other occasions:

Reading Faust When Young
for David Mamet

I remember only the leap from the bridge
into the turbulent river after knowledge,
but not what special knowledge or what power
ever came his way in the old story.
I was young when I read it. Immortality
meant art and Faustus was never an artist.
And as for girls, you didn't need the devil,
when you offered everything. What did he really
need to know? Something about the girl—
what she felt and could never say because
she had no words for it? He had little
to say to the Greats. Helen was a peep-show.
And the stuff about his soul—
well, that was religious and historical.

Overreaching for me was natural. I wanted
to know everything, to stay forever in school
taking courses. God and the devil
never figured in. With his snaky tail
the devil was too fanciful to explain
the lines waiting for gas or a bullet and ditch
and fire bombs and carpet bombs and the icy
rapture of ideologues shouting about who to kill
and who to save. My fellow humans were real:
their evil was sufficient. The sacred
was love and art and the political dream.
The world-drunk heart was what I took for the soul,
which dulled the edge of Faustus' sacrifice
and god was never real enough to love or lose.
 This is an acute recollection, stark and crisp, but it seems a fanciful evocation of some delayed connection of points whose effect ought to have a less earth-shaking idiom. There’s a lot of throat clearing harrummmmmphing going on in the lines as I read them where a lighter, more minuscule rhetoric could have prevailed.There's something to be said for distanced irony, the now-I-get-it school, but since the instances were fleeting, minor, gradients of perception building to a larger, if not earth riving sharpness, a voiceless swaggering in its couched self-loathing would fit the material better. It would seem a better idea if Goldensohn hadn't mentioned Faust or Jung at all but in the title, and instead placed us smack dab in the action of his past thinking, the incidents as he vividly recalls doing them in his earnest, youthful practice of applying his hormone-fused enthusiasms upon his world. The mention of historically loaded names and sufficiently parsed ideas, though nicely arranged and phrased, are too precious for me to take this as anything more than an occasional poem that would normally find its way to the bottom of a drawer: it fairly gloats with its knowingness, and the author sounds too close to thinking that his eventual lesson learned is something to glory in. Look at me, I am wrong on a higher plain.

The piece is over-loaded with awkward references and glancing mentions of religion and myth; the poet's voice aside, this poem reads like an abstract of a freshman's ill-crafted term paper. A reader might object to Goldensohn's irony with the insistence that a lyric poem supposed to be about emotion.I ronic observations, they might insist, are not emotions, merely cruel juxtapositions of unfortunate inclinations.

The lyric poem is the verbal equivalent of a musical evocation of intense feeling that defies the logic of words to express adequately. Thus, the looping chains of association, the constant comparisons of unlike things, including the sounds of the words creating euphony. Intense emotion colors the entire world, cast it in all engrossing tint. The perceived world makes a certain kind of sense, though the sense eludes us more often than not; there is even an element of paranoia that can come to play here, as in the notion that everything in the world, be it people, places, things, institutions, weather, are all somehow connected to the internal transformation.

Irony alone isn't an emotion, but because it has something to do with an individual's perception, whether the poem's speaker or the reader themselves, it can become a key and determining factor in how hot emotion might boil or cool off, whatever the case may be. Irony concerns the incongruity between what is said and what actually is the case, and since a lyric poem operates on the transcendent level where emotion bypasses logical argument in pursuit of impossible language capturing the inexpressible, conflicts, disjunctions, distortions and contradictions between myth and fact, action and deed are likely to happen as default conditions, and will ratchet up the energy a lyric swoon requires.

I do think that my own work and explications regarding verse aim toward a Dionysian expansion , but unlike a host of others before me who pursued that expansion into sheer incomprehensibility --Kerouac, late John Ashbery, Pound, Language poets who've pushed at the margins of prefabricated resolution and took the entire enterprise of American poetry off center--I think the image, lines, and music need to be reined in, operate within strictures, Jazz is hardly a formless expulsion sans melodic infrastructure, since the quality of the best sets of spontaneous composition require suitable composed materials to contextualize the extrapolation; the form of the melody being extrapolated upon gives shape to the musician's improvisations.

There's a point in the kind of poetry I find appealing and the poets I think do interesting work where they have to acknowledge something a real subject set in the material world, the physical world, and that there is a need to link the most fanciful forays and high-flying linguistic maneuvering to real emotion, producing something at the end resembling whatever effect the writer thinks he's working for. It's a dialectical process, for want of another term, thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Goldensohn's intellection resembles a tight suitcase about to burst open on the bed; the epiphany is too slight for the evocation of top-heavy name like Faust. Faust, of course, could have been used effectively as a reference serving a satisfying conclusion, but the hand is heavy here when the name and its cache is played. Irony trumps everything, as the saying goes, but it can also kill everything that's going on in a work, and the willingness to abstract compulsively here makes for a small work that is all over the map. It's an over-packed suitcase. Stevens’s strategies better, in so far that his work is about the experience, at the moment, in the intelligence of a perceived who is in witness to things that will not yield their essence in the metaphysical sense. Stevens, though not overtly emotional, crafts a supreme fiction he often spoke of to take the place of the secrets that are forever unknown, a dramatized system of perception that acknowledges the world as its own adequate symbol.

Wallace Stevens believes in the adage that there ought to be "no ideas but in things..."(concisely phrased and explained by William Carlos Williams). Stevens, with compatriots Williams, Eliot, et al, were, in their varied ways, obsessed with making language a hard, malleable material no less than clay or steel, and they wanted to write and elaborate upon images that didn't obscure the fantastic qualities of the world their language was supposed to be writing about. Perception is a dominant concern for this generation of modernist poets, and Stevens, I believe, followed the loose dictates brilliantly and developed a methodology of processing the world that could capture in it many of its amazing juxtapositions. What is amazing about Stevens' work is that he develops a philosophy of perceptual imagination from the world as it already is.This terrain has a permanent equilibrium; the roiling core of a man's irrational impulses become abstracted, formalized in a design where language absorbs, fragments and restructures the shape our meaning as days, months, years pass by. Stevens was entering the world, and to have the world he experiences shape and forms his readings and his writings; he wrote, I think, as a man who was in that legendary of state of constant becoming. Goldensohn sounds lost at best, though I am sure he can write a decent poem. This isn't one of his better ones.

Goldensohn offers up a poem titled "War Work" here, the intent being to bridge childhood memories of Manhattan thunderstorms that he mistook for a nuclear attack, and how his parents consoled him that his small world still held its comforting center. A moving sentiment, perhaps, if told in real life, but horrid and malnourished as a poem. The poem confirms the tired complaint that too many poems are bad prose broken into irregular lines--the reader is given the worst qualities Of both forms and must surrender to vague critical asides that claim there is more in the ambiguity than the unguided eye can connect. Or the reader must suffer the personal insult, by implication, that manages to live despite the fact that they have no heart.

I suppose I have no heart. This poem is so weak that if on the off chance that this incident is true, I hope his parents made fun of him from that day forward, into his adult life. Writing this poem the way it seems like an attempt to ennoble a childhood embarrassment by dressing it up in the unseemly character warping issue of Nuclear Destruction and General Apprehension.

This has interest if one were to read it as a single entry on a blog, or paragraph out of a long letter, but as a poem is slight and repulsive for being so unambitious. It's the equivalent of being a bad mood while on the way to work early one mid-week day and seeing homeless men gathered at bus stops, smoking mooched cigarettes and drinking, and then having your mood uglier.

You want to throw these guys in jail for being lazy, shiftless, drunk and leisurely at 7 in the morning while you and your fellow wage slaves go off to work to make a wage and eventually pay a tax that pays for the bench that has become their reclining point. It has nothing to do with fairness, logic, the like, and it goes against my professed belief in social justice, it's just an emotional response, hitting me like a sucker punch. I feel the same way about this poem; it irritates me that this half-baked pot of gummy sentimentality gets the exposure (and the poet gets the paycheck) while the rest of us work hard for our muse, producing better work in the responses to this gruel than the what the actual poem contains.

Again, fairness, balance, reason has nothing to with this reaction, and it's obvious there are other things under the tight lid of my personality that makes me want to slap Goldensohn for being so shiftless in my presence (in a manner of speaking). Envy, resentment, arrogance? Well, yes, all those pesky defects. But beyond it all, beyond all my failings on this issue of being a wordy critic of other people's poems, this poem has the appeal of a small toy after a baby as finished slobbering and puking over it. It bites the bag, it chews the root, it sucks long, deep and with braced teeth.
Fog has its appeal because we’re interested in the idea of a netherworld coexistent with our own, where things are less definite, less material, able to appear and vanish into other details, or into vapor altogether. It’s a filter over the hard edges of what we see and take for granted and perhaps even curse for being solid, precisely drawn, an arrangement of three-dimensional things we have to walk around, not through.

Walking in the fog, through the woods is what Barry Goldensohn fancies with his poem “Walking In Fog”, a jaunt that has one feeling that one is walking through unforgiving barriers, penetrating unseen membranes. There’s that twilight, near dark feeling of the world one knows becoming vaporous and and translucent, less fixed on names and definitions that are written down and conveyed by way of essay and routinely complicated system-making, and which seem more as ideas in themselves, the notion of things that hover over our straightforward lives whispering subdued captions of what our lives and our contexts are like free our fear of not having enough or losing what we have.

Goldensohn’s trek through the forest, through the signifying fields, has something in common with the dyes of a madras shirt; everything, from detail to the slightest glimmer of joy or foreboding trilling lightly at the delicate edge of the paradigm, it all bleeds together.

Everything looms at me. Hound's-tongue
with wet doggy leaves and blue flowers
starts up from the mist-streaked hillside.
Standing by itself, framed in fog
the live oak twists black arms above me,
an embrace, free of the crown of leaves that hides
the outlines of limbs in the crowded background view.
The canyon and the next hill disappear.

There is a dream logic at work, not the rational cause and effect a more stainless-steel mind requires, but instead the logic, intuited sense of how elements fit together; Goldensohn has an especially balanced poem here, the physical details veering toward the surreal but never escaping the atmosphere so as the poem is made turgidly weird and overwrought with metaphors that might have sunk the poem.

There is, with sincere thanks, a lack of explanation about any of this means, and the power of the poem draws from the way things appear and vanish in this verse, from looming branches and wet leaves; things emerge as one comes closer, things that one has just past vanish into the cottony mist. There is the feeling of being drawn in, embraced by all that one sees; animals and their habitats. I come away with the feeling of being absorbed

Plunging into dense puffs and gusts of fog
along the road a dying friend wheels
and lunges from cliff wall to cliff edge
in a bright yellow blouse and blue jeans
joyous with losing herself and coming back
in daily magic, you see me then you don't.

It comes to death, of course, the fascination with it, the thinking of whether this life is worth the struggle and the pain and the sheer labor just to be current with one’s accounts and relationships, and the thought does arise among many of us, musing at twilight, at dusk or dawn, in fog near the cliffs where the songs of sea maidens and powerful water gods offer their promise of rest and deep, coral-toned symphonies, that the transition from this life, the hard life, the life where everything has density and measurable weight, to the life where gravity takes no toll, would be simple, easy, painless, natural beyond nature. The final image of the dying friend wheeling herself to the cliff edge, decked out in a bright blouse as she considers going over the edge and then returns from the fog as if by magic, caught me by surprise, it stopped me, it fairly stunned me.

Writers, the sort we like to discuss, the introspective and the thoughtful and the perennially worried, are most comfortable on the smooth, stainless steel surface of given meaning, but they (we?) are cursed (blessed?) with the impulse of analyzing where they stand, why, and how it might be otherwise if their rules of gravity weren't an imperative.

The speaker here is someone noticing how things familiar and commonplace appear to be at once ethereal and somewhat supernatural given the change in atmosphere, light; the density of things gives way to diffusion and there is the feeling that you're walking through the material world and traveling great distances in no time at all when you stroll through the forests; our narrator observes what things appear as, notes the change in a personal psychology, the rise of feelings that have to explicable basis, but never gives way to the seduction of his mood.

He is firmly rooted, and wonder, as he might about another plain his language, is inadequate to describe, he remains on the soil he landed at birth. He has much he wants to do, and hasn't the hankering to consider other options; the wheelchaired friend, though, has the luxury to wonder, to play games as described, coming so close to a mystical abyss only to back away from it's yawning gasp. Giddiness is the mood, finally, the thrill of having trekked alongside certain fatality only to walk away from it, if only by mere inches. It is one of the benefits of not taking the Leap, the reminder that one is alive without a doubt when every sense is going off like fire alarms.

The fog, with what its qualities suggest about being a portal to some greater realm above our own, is something we journey through, absorbing the associations, daring to think of a life free of the dreariness of making a living and keeping your word and thinking perhaps further that passing on would be so bad, and then coming back, an aberration in the mist, slightly crazed, energized, fresh from the foxhole, ready to shoulder the weight of the world one was birthed into, realizing there are still some things one would like to attempt before presenting a boarding pass.