Showing posts with label Slate Poem. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Slate Poem. Show all posts

Thursday, July 2, 2009

This poem has no handles

We find ourselves reading one poem about poetry after another in nearly all the slim collections we are sent our buy , and I have a growing dread that this is something no amount of harranguing will make go away.It's a category more bards show a personal powerlessness
to leave alone. And poetry editors. Soon enough we'll have a literature that is not from someone engaged with life in that search for the surprise, the miracle, the hard truth that resides outside themselves, but rather only on how well they are playing the poet/priest role they've taken for themselves. Would this have something to do with the trend toward young writers who've hardly entered their thirties composing memoirs of lives that aren't nearly as interesting as people you pass going to work?

Perhaps, perhaps; Americans might have gotten over their taste for Confessional Poetry just a bit, but rather than seeing the rise of a New Disinterest concerning topics and content, writers are confessing, revealing and genuflecting at the altar of their meager achievements more than ever. Hey, it beats working, and writing a poem where the language seldom lands on anything other than the writer's temperature is easier than sussing through the problematic strands that make life such an inconclusive thing from dusk to dawn, cradle to grave. Some of it has to do with a poet wanting to have the last word with dead poets who's work motivated him or her to do the hard work to participate in a financially strapped art; if someone can't get rich writing poems, they can at least emerge from the shadow of the giants who've come before them and flip them the bird. More often than not, however, it's puffery, self-congratulations, sophistry.

It's not the playful wallow that characterized the avant gard indeterminations of seventies post structural poetics--that at least skirted the edge of dada gesture and surrealist logic. This new habit is
mere vanity. The long rolling is incredible.

And once again the self-reflective
twitch proves to be an ideal way to fill a page, a monitor, a notebook with a series of eccentric line breaks. In this instance, Campbell McGrath's"Lincoln Road" offers a twist and merely uses the meta poetry index as a means to
jump start a verse:

Browsing, before dinner, at Books & Books,
checking out the new poems
in the new journals, the vast glass panes thrust against
by shoppers and gawkers on Lincoln Road
emit a particular cautionary hum
as they insist upon delimiting inside from out,
tongued and grimed by the fingerless
gloves of the homeless,...

Irritation is the mood here, a man of ideas focused on the latest missives from the competition, seeking either pleasure or taking notes on what
the hot first lines are, when the bustle and commotion of the rude public interrupts him. Damn, I hear him think, now I have to slip into my flaneur costume and observe the cursed details of things in the city and the population who negotiate the hard corners of sales counters and
intersections! Damn it all! There isn't, of course, any further mentioning nor obvious dwelling on the entwined poetry or being a poet, but the tone and pace of the poem, the leaden use of "literary" words to describe banal circumstances, bespeaks a boredom. This doesn't have the virtue of the boredom become genuine ennui, a variant of despair, a quality that at least might inspire sharper language that bypasses the rote literacy of McGrath's ode to his
prowess as an observer.

...the splash
of modest fountains
in common space, a baby
in green hip-harness
staring back at me goggle-eyed, recording it all
like the tourists with digital camcorders
pre-editing their memories
and the ringing of cellphones broadcasting
a panegyric of need
with whichever hooks and trembles
we have chosen in the darkness to answer.

The problem is tone, of course, and none of this convinces me that what was described was actually seen . Suspension of disbelief comes into play here, since this particular list attempts to get across what was observed in a hurry, while browsing, on the fly, it needs to suggest something fast, mercurial.

You'd think, really, that this sort of matter should catch the rhythm of things that are fleeting, and are fluid. The people, places and things should be made to seem that they have lives or conditions of existence apart from the frame Campbell places around them,

The effect in the poem, though, is static, like butterflies ethered and pinned some eccentric's collection.

There is a surface beauty to the poem, but all these people, those who've interrupted our narrator's browsing, are stick figures all. Campbell's descriptions are worked over, padded with overly precise detail that sounds mechanical, unnatural. Attitude as well ruins the mood, with the asides about tourists with their cell phones and cameras seeking an unnatural process of memory preservation belonging more in a reckless, full tilt rant rather than a poem that at best would claim to be a skillfully rendered sketch. It satisfies as nothing at all, and the material is so dry that these lines could be used as kindling.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Mark Conway's "Tarot Card of the Dreaming Man Face Down"

The tragedy of someone's death isn't that someone is no longer with us and that it's a sad and unjust matter of the universe that such a rich
life force is now extinguished.

No, it's not that, no matter our intense desires to fetishize the dead with praise of genius, great qualities and fantastic deeds. Those who have died are merely dead, after all, they've ceased feeling pain and mental anguish, they've gone beyond the nagging anxieties that makes Life a blood pressure reading we must keep our eye on. For all the hosannas and energized grief, for all the post-mortem reviews that might catch God's passing ear and perhaps persuade Him to allow the spirit through the improbably crafted gates, we are , in effect, frantically flattering ourselves for having had the acquaintance, claiming acquisitions of knowledge, wisdom, beneficial examples with each chat and shared drink; it's subterfuge, after all, and we pad the walls of our psyche against the irrational, powerful, consuming waves of rage and grief.

It is the living who are in pain, in various stages of mortal panic, it is the living who have to yet again close another house in their neighborhoods of the familiar and realize again, and again that those who are leaving this terrain are dying not through accidents or natural disasters, nor from age much in advance of their own, but from a mortality that wears a face much like their own. There is no longer distance in the deaths of those one knows, it is no longer a distant reference abstracted through complicated strings of association and family ties. Each passing leaves a tangible space next to you; you feel something gone, a wind blowing through an old house. We attend memorials, we go to services, we bring flowers to the grave site, we cushion ourselves in ritual acts and pro forma talk regarding death and dying, and yet still there is panic, anger, roiling, seething grief, a rage that remains. Mark Conway's poem Tarot Card of the Dreaming Man, Face Down gets to that tertiary layer in the geology of the soul and, I believe, gets it right when his narrator begins to admit that the rituals are not enough to handle a close death; he bites his lip and allows the thoughts to form, hard, bitter language, caught half way between poetic expression and stammering rant.

Then it was gone, the beatitude
of your body,
specifically there,
black, black, blue, heavy
as a dead dog, the back
of your legs
looking plastic, looking extra, trailing
behind the rest of you
like a mooch, like a goddamn moron and you
barely there,
already caravaggioing your way
through the light
and dark, mouthing the prime numbers
of eternity .

The memory of someone's entire lifetime is reduced to ritual and ornate templates of otherworldly inevitability, and this something that suddenly seems cheap and besides the point. Conway's narrator speaks for anyone who has the conflict during memorial services of thinking that the extended and costly protocols of death and burial being false and morally repugnant and yet sitting through it all, choking on combinations of tears and sorrow. One wants to be like Lear and tear off their clothes in the rain while excoriating themselves for their purchase of such now-conspicuously shabby delusions of order and purpose, yet one keeps their seat, ultimately uncertain of what lies beyond the last breath one takes and the last beat a failing heart manages. There is only the chance to live in that uncertainty, leave the ritual be, and acknowledge anger and selfish rage in the deeper recesses of the soul where true feelings reside in unthinkable cohabitation.

Where you are, slipping
through the monstrous
inner membrane of the world,
you see how it works.
I, like a mooch, like a goddamn moron, live.

We waited for you. Two or three days.
Then an old man came and prayed

Searching for words, Conway's narrator attempts the elegant and the poetic to make his ambivalence ironic, to create another kind of distance between his emotions and his constructed equilibrium, but what comes forth is only confusion. Conway's poem works for me because it is not dense with literary or to the cultural references, although the piece cites them. Conway goes past the dictionary contextualization, or the gnomic referencing;he does not pull an Ezra here and drop obscured names and terms into a verse without pause to make them emotionally relevant. Our narrator seems tongue tied, between a cultivated voice that makes easy resizing of responsive emotions, the other wholly inarticulate. What happens are high cultured points stripped of their critical trappings with their naked appeal to emotion bared yet again. Something tangible in Caravaggio's dark paintings is revealed when his name is here used as an adjective. The poem is a elliptical account of the inner struggle to regain composure and the overwhelming desire to collapse under grief's smashing weight.

The inexpressible cannot be written or spoken into being; the truth that does arise is the insoluble fact that goes on, life is for the living , that goodbyes must stop and one's shoulder must return to the wheel one is obliged to push through obligations. One needs to stop dreaming of a visit from an gone soul and learn to live in the spaces formerly occupied by another.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Eric Paul Shaffer v. Rod McKuen

Eric Paul Shaffer's "Sitting in the Last Sunset, Listening to Guests Within" is exactly the kind of poem I continually tried to write when I was fifteen and sixteen, when I had a teen obsession with the free form kitch of Rod McKuen and his carefully cultivated image of being A Man Alone.

I loved it all, it made me want to have "poetic experiences", it made me want to catch it all in words as McKuen had done; foghorns, waterfronts, grey mist on dark downtown streets, some nameless other in the shadows catching my eye, she gives me a wink, a tilt of the head, and with little transitional problems, me, the hero, walking alone again down dark and empty downtown streets, nursing a apt melancholy, thinking thoughts of supreme heaviosity. Lucky for me that I
discovered the Beats and Eliot and Wallace Stevens and WC Williams among others whose works disabused from trying to compete with schlockmeister McKuen on his own turf. Poor Eric Paul Shaffer--can we ever trust a poet with three names (William Carlos Williams excepted)?-- gets in the ring for at least this poem, and leaves the arena seeming less a writer firm in what he knows and more like bad actor auditioning for every role beyond his grasp.

Eric Paul Shaffer, off by himself, having a reflective moment as the sunsets, too busy mentally redecorating the world around him with limp literary language to have actually seen anything at all. If this poem weren't so earnest and non-ironic in its detailing of a sensitive soul parsing his surroundings and friends it would be a snapshot perfect caricature of a young writer attempting to convince himself that he has a vaster experience than he actually has. The writing is very writerly, cast in the hopes of coming up with fine language:

" The stars are far, the moon far from full, yet even alone
under these old stars, I'm not alone".
Self consciousness plagues this verse like an obvious head cold; it sounds stuffy, congested, it makes the voice sound callow as it makes a claim for a small truth that lies submerged in this fussy diorama.

All my friends are in the kitchen now. Dinner is done, the sun set,
and after our muted admiration from the yard, by ones and twos,
they rose beneath a sky gone dull and turned to the house for wine

or coffee and pie. Plates clatter, and cabinets bang, and the spigot
gurgles in the sink. I'm alone on the last step, watching universal
blue darken the mountains and the sea.

This is a lot of writing to set a mood with, with the sole purpose of introducing the narrator as someone apart from the collective; we are meant to glean some less than graceful suggestions of melancholy, of psychic isolation, and for all the descriptions of the constructed world of dinners and washing plates and the natural world of stars and tides, the situation is unnatural, contrived.

How utterly film-like and subtly dramatic, the hero, the one with the soul of a poet, easing off to dwell on deep words in a world that remains silent to his yearning. How completely superficial, fake as Nigerian money orders. All that remained was for a young woman, slim, red haired and holding a long stemmed wine glass, to come up behind him while he mused and offered a penny for his thoughts. Cliches are fine for poets to play with, but the point, I'd think, is to subvert them and make the language do other things, catch the reader by surprise. Not, as Shaffer does here, offer them as fresh, original.