Thursday, August 27, 2009

In defense of Daniel Bosch

It's a scene any introspective sort will recognize or feel empathy for; one is alone in a cold, dark room, staring out of the window, gazing at the stares and the spectral clouds passing over the face of full yellow moon, contemplating what there is beyond this existence. Is there something one goes to and finds an ironic eternity tailored by one's decided deeds on earth, or is there only dust, silence, a blank slate of non-being?

This isn't comedy for self-infatuation by default, but exactly the kind of exercise the mind plays at when there isn't the opportunity to engage with the world beyond one's own skin, and it's not uncommon to wonder, once one is done with the cerebral gymnastics to sort through their obsessions, loves and losses, to finally ask the variations on The Question: when does this all end? What will I say if there is someone /something waiting for me? What legacy will I leave? What will the consequences of what chose
to do and refused to do?

One wonders, one pauses to refresh themselves, one ponders, one writes a poem , one dreads, one begins a hundred different projects for fear of wasting what time remains on the Big Stop Watch.Thanatos brought to the personal level, where it hangs alongside the day's activities at work, lovemaking, paying bills, visiting museums and playing with grandchildren, is that chill one cannot shake from the bones. It is a tone in one's voice that one cannot rid themselves, it is a low grade depression that lingers no matter how hard we laugh. Death doesn't so much stalk us as it waits,in an inside coat pocket as an envelope we cannot open , containing the expiration date of our lives. The sum of many a man and woman's life has been how well or how badly they've adapted to the knowledge of the inevitable deletion of their life force; literature, in it's limitless styles, rationales, intentions, aesthetic rules and origins, chronicles to greater and less greater degrees how well one lives with the sour taste of their own death forever under the savoring of each bite of food and drink.

Death's Doorman
by David Bosch, turns this theme into a two voice theater piece, and it works, surprisingly enough, for such a gimmick-tending conceit. I well imagine the introspective sort I described earlier in the bathroom, late at night (although a sunny mid afternoon would do just as well) staring at the mirror , envisioning all sorts of after life scenarios, asking every question , poetic or merely dumb, that he or she can muster, trying to arm themselves with a knowledge where an unavoidable fate can be made
tolerable. It's as if the interlocutor is trying to reserve the best seat on the last plane out of Hicksville. What returns , we see, are one word answers, like echos coming from a long , deep cavern, warbling refractions of what he or she had just asked, the keywords distorted and changed.

Would this be ambience, or atmosphere?

I hadn't expected such an emptiness!
An empty nest.

Do you open up before or after a good pandering?

Book, Web site, infomercial. Edginess must be catching.

So let me be the first to congratulate—
Too late.

What is it people seek in your utterances?
Other answers.

You knew Mozart. Before he decomposed—
He composed.

And Freud was your plumber. Conscious or unconscious?
Kein Anschluss.

But have you ever crossed over? You know, necrophilia?

This becomes a brief and bitter comedy, and is something Samuel Beckett would have written as one one of his radio plays, the usual scenario of a character frozen in habit or ritual , redundantly trying to revive some earlier sense of coherence from situations or things. Bosch's second voice offers no inside information, provides no clues, but rather deflects the inquiries with accidental puns. This is a piece that doesn't so much ends as it does stops , cold. It's seems that this inquiry could go on indefinitely, right to the grave, as the peculiar narcissistic loop provides just enough variation in the malformed responses, the echos, that one can proceed with it forever as if they were indeed closer to a Big Secret. Bosch is wise to leave the scene when he does, leaving us with a funny , if minor melodrama .

One can, of course, seize upon any of the questions and their responses and find layers of implication and hence unearth every deferred meaning, but I think that's part of what makes the poem work so well. Bosch plays on the human brain's insistence on making utterances contain more than surface references, and it is a nice trick he's pulled. The character, the interlocutor , is trapped in infinite regress with his questions, and the reader, as well, might be compelled to parse each pun and skewed return. This might ,then, be a comedy with two acts performed simultaneously.

Stephen Dunn hits it hard

Stephen Dunn swings for the fence with his poems, and when he connects, the crack of the bat is loud and the ball is lost to the suburban trenches.What I enjoy about this poem, "And So", is Dunn's clarity and the ease in which this sequence of images, with the tone modulating ever so from point to point. It's a poem about nothing in particular and things in general, about the things that come itno the narrator's field of vision and the memories that are sparked after his failed phone call and his resulting walk through the town he lives in. I especially liked the Nina Simone citation, since one of my absent minded habits is to start thinking of or even hum a sung a phrase someone else had said had inspired; it's like a private intermission from the affairs of the day. This is a record, also, of the narrator's own thinking, thinking, in this sense, being not an interior essay one fashions as if preparing for debate, but impressions of what's seen conveyed in broad strokes, sketches of the real world one is lost in. Less argumentative than reflective, with the reflection being refreshingly unprofound yet elegantly modest, it is a poem of someone starting a point of the day in a casual funk who comes to realize that the world in miniature, his suburban (or exurban) locale, is abuzz with others wrapped in their chores, their jobs, their hobbies lest they think too much on the emptiness around them and drive themselves desperately crazy.

And So
Stephen Dunn

And so you call your best friend
who's away, just to hear his voice,
but forget his recording concludes
with "Have a nice day."

"Thank you, but I have other plans,"
you're always tempted to respond,
as an old lady once did, the clerk
in the liquor store unable to laugh.

Always tempted, what a sad
combination of words. And so
you take a walk into the neighborhood,
where the rhododendrons are out
and also some yellowy things

and the lilacs remind you of a song
by Nina Simone. "Where's my love?"
is its refrain. Up near Gravel Hill
two fidgety deer cross the road,
white tails, exactly where

the week before a red fox
made a more confident dash.

Now and then the world rewards,
and so you make your way back

past the careful lawns, the drowsy backyards,
knowing the soul on its own
is helpless, asleep in the hollows
of its rigging, waiting to be stirred.

This reads effortlessly, and it's an easy mistake to assume it came to him effortlessly .It has the breezy informality of what Ted Berrigan could do with this remarkable faux sonnets. It's hard thing to pull off , the moment-to-moment progress of someone moving and thinking as they move about a community they know, and even Berrigan was, much of the time, a little too much off beat personality, too little genuine poetry. Dunn is a bit more formal than Berrigan (who's charm lies in his shambling verse), and that bit of reserve brings us a sharper focus as his gaze and thoughts engage. It's a swift stream .

Into history, or the dustbin

One advances into their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgement of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit competition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere.The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. The artist, painter or otherwise, also casts their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarefied medium. History, for that matter, is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Moonfire: an insult to Mailer

Taschen Books has published a Moon Landing commemorative "Moonfire", a very over sized and sinfully expensive limited publication that makes use of the writing of Norman Mailer.The Taschen stunt-publication of this edition is an insult to Mailer, really, as it cannibalizes what was likely the one true masterpiece about the moon landing, >"Of a Fire on the Moon", for an expensive gimmick that is inaccessible to most readers who'd otherwise benefit.

Besides being the result of prodigious research and reporting, the book was an insightful essay as to the role and the fate of the artist in the face of new technology that has usurped the Romantic notion that truth can be revealed through intuition and imagination. The sin is compounded by keeping "Of a Fire on the Moon" out of print, which irritates me endlessly; a major American author's best nonfiction book unavailable to the public Mailer, arch romantic himself , wrote about this through out a number of his essays and journalism, that what we consider as qualities that make humans unique are fated to be regarded as passe and dangerous, as the massive accomplishments of technology demystify the universe entirely and leave the artist , the poet, the novelist irrelevant artifacts. Irony has no limits, we find, with the Taschen volume, who have used the available machinery of contemporary publishing to produce bulky, expensive volumes that are less books and more engineering feats.

Mailer's fine work about the moon shot and the social consequences upon the artist for decades to come , intended for the idealized general reader, are made into mere elements of a pricey elitist vanity. It's an obscenity

Sunday, August 23, 2009

William Bronk and Wallace Stevens

Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World
William Bronk

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
--which what?--something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.

Conceded, that all the clocks tell local time;
conceded, that "here" is anywhere we bound
and fill a space; conceded, we make a world:
is something caught there, contained there,
something real, something which we can sense?
Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space.

William Bronk is a good companion poet to read along with Wallace Stevens, as both concerned themselves with our ideas of a world unspoiled by skewed perception. Both were poets you could imagine walking among their gardens and cities of perfect forms, the ideal types and not the inferior, material imitations, chancing some thoughts beyond the gravity of the actual planet.
Helen Vendler asserts in her review of new "Selected Poems" that Stevens disguised his true hurts and sorrows with symbolism, merging his high, English inspired cadences with a Yankee's habit of plain speak. His was a seamlessly expressed struggle between the ideal relationships among things or the ideas of things finding harmony among their distinct qualities, and the tense world he must return to. He was a vice president of an insurance company, after all, an institution designed to protect and amend the quirky happenstance between gravity and clumsy people.

Bronk, in contrast, seems to be in one world who is constantly thinking of the other, and here suggests that it is our ability to coin words or vary our linguistic references to known, quantified qualities that recreates our world constantly, in terms of a musical score, with beats, rhythm, a narrative line that flows or gets jagged according to the tone each moment might take. And it is that skill, developed through various layers of frustrating experience and states of monotonous torpor, that we can again think of what we see as too familiar and what we see as alien and strange as intrinsically exciting, full of intrigue, it's own vital elements we can learn about and learn from. We come to think of the world in other words and not by the clinical terms they're assigned by dictionaries. This availed Bronk to see that light in the street he trudged every day, palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in from say, the sea, a purity of space. Our language needs to remain vital and up to the task of re-inscribing conventional experiences, lest we miss the whole point of having senses to begin with.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jackson MacLow

In the late seventies, Jackson Mac Low came to read and lecture at the University of California, San Diego. At the same time, I was an undergraduate there, a benefit of having a Literature Department whose poetry doyens in presenting experimental artists. The reading was in a basement room of a large University facility that doubled as an undergraduate art gallery, with Mac Low, in a dark coat and a fine head of long hair, standing before a screen as slides of odd numeric and word sequences and arrangements flitted by when he clicked on a control. The word combinations came in spurts, punctuated, quite literally, with silences, stammers, elongated repetitions, until it became clear (to the few in the room who might have been truly curious) that MacLow had his allegiance with the earlier Modernist poets, especially William Carlos Williams. The reading, we can say, was not the sort of thing that would-be Ed Dorns or erstwhile Ginsbergs had been prepared for. Although latent with meaning and associations that cannot be wholly deferred, words still have tonal properties that can be organized in ways other than literal meaning.
MacLow's "chance system" theories of composing verse satisfied few readers/listeners, but there is a rigor in the method he used in a lifetime of work and a genuine curiosity of what one can do with poetry than reaffirm the old themes. At the time, I was more or less baffled, taking it in as future banter and bullshit for a student party, and the others of my station seemed to be smiling a little too hard, too earnestly as they jotted various notes in the crowd, making smart talk with their attending faculty. MacLow, as I remember, seemed perfectly amiable, although he seemed not to feel compelled to explain his ideas in more straightforward language. Good for him. Stating that poems are "unreadable" is slippery here since it's an accusation tossed about by too many readers describing difficult poets. As an experimentalist, MacLow hardly forgot about aesthetic pleasure; in fact, it's safe to say that he was bored with the standards that were in front of him, had no use as to what the general concept of beauty was, and went about seeking the company and energies of others who shared an interest in seeing how new art can be created. Granted, there is nothing less appealing than yesterday's Avant garde, but there are several artists, Cage and MacLow among them, who merit serious attention after their passing.

Mac Low is hard to read--a better term-- essentially, he was given to experimenting with new compositional techniques, "chance systems," as he called it. The result was meant to challenge the reader/listener to approach the work differently. I happen to think that quite a bit of his writing is perfectly readable if closed on its own terms. But MacLow's work, like Cage's, wasn't about delivering pleasure wrapped in a consumer-friendly package, but rather about the unexpected things, the noises, the random words, the accidental pairings, the overlaying of contrary sounds, that lay in the spaces between the words and the notes on a page. One either opens up to the possibilities, or one does not, but even here, one's reservations and resistances are important to explore.

Cage and MacLow both read about and around, if not through, and look at. Cage was among those, like MacLow and earlier modernists like WC Williams and Stevens who thought that a poem "...should not mean but be..." (Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"). Cage, of course, was less materialistic than his earlier American poets and was attracted to the chance formations that Zen study gave him the stamina to imagine containing in particular compositional systems wherein the natural sound and tonal value of each element in a limited terrain find a new aesthetic arrangement, the aesthetic of what the eye sees, and the ear beholds for that fleeting moment and then vanishes. In any event, MacLow's work as a poet, composer, and collaborator was a lifetime endeavor. He sought beauty and new perception in his own fashion for his work.

My favorite thing about that McLeish quote that gets trotted out all the time is how its mania for defining poetry defines itself right out of the category. That is precisely the meaning of the quote: poets have to write their pieces "out of the category" of conventional verse and create new ways of writing and reading poems instead. It's about ways of seeing the world and recording the experience in a manner that would revolutionize perception. Bob Perelman addressed this whole notion of experimental geniuses who sought to revolutionize the way readers came to experience the world in his book The Trouble With Genius; sussing through the writing and aims of Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and others, Perelman caught the usually undiscussed detail that these experimentalists,
preparing the literate world to reshape their thinking about writing sequence, had in fact isolated themselves with their own genius from the public they wanted to influence. The bold originality of their work had made them geniuses, but of a different sort than one regards DaVinci, Einstein, or even a Henry Ford. Perelman's modernists were writers and aesthetes and were geniuses of poetic form, not practical application. It might be said that there was advancement in the sort of difficulty poetry and prose could encompass. Still, these were problems of interest to already marginalized audiences, other aesthetes, poets, and academics. The modernist project was a failure for reconfiguring the world through a radical expansion of the senses. But as literature, this generation produced their masterpieces, problematic though they were for a wider audience. This is the great conceit of the experimental artist, a project doomed to failure so far as the universal revolution is concerned, but what remains in the resistance to old categories are, nonetheless, new ideas of what poets ought to be doing for their own time.

Modernism's experiments with Imagism and Vorticism and a host of other revolutionary projects might not have reconfigured our audio and visual senses. However, they have given us some newer ideas about image, theory, rhythm, scope, and subject. Much of what we take for granted as the given of modern, conventional verse wouldn't be possible sans these seemingly indecipherable experiments, which isn't to say that poetry not have changed with the times. Without our savant grades and experimentalists, though, it would be substantially different. Well, let's look at the poem itself. The spirit is the same for Mac Leish as Cage and MacLow. That poetic language needs to find new ways to address the world we experience. Mac Leish wants words to have a particular "thingness" that can get the substance of the objects it strives to be about; that the thing -in and of itself is its own adequate symbol. MacLow and Cage were more interested in the lost arrangements of the hidden world, the sounds and objects one finds in those odd moments where the mind fixes on seemingly ephemeral details of daily endurance. In either case, there is a search for a more accurate way of getting perception across to a reader. What separate them are strategies, not sympathies.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gluck's private party

Louise Gluck's poem, "Crater Lake," is cold as crypt marble. This is the second Louise Gluck poem that we've been presented within two months. I'm more convinced than ever that she has even less useful things to say to the land of the living."Crater Lake" has all the symptoms of a writer who regards their thoughts, their thinking as so bracingly brilliant that they are not obliged to aid the reader in the slightest in figuring which end of this poem is up and which is down. Not that it really matters, though, since the effect here, as with her last poem published in Slate "A Myth of Innocence" [], is walking into a room in a large house thinking that it was empty and coming upon some there, alone, back turned as they gazed out the window, muttering phrases and broken references to themselves.

There was a war between good and evil.
We decided to call the body good.

That made death evil.
It turned the soul
against death completely.

You do get the feeling that there is a submerged attempt to marry myth archetypes with the sweltering and restless subconscious tensions that confront us as we, a race, reconcile the glory and agony of love and death. Still, Gluck boils her worries to arhythmic, unmusical aridity. Think of that strident piano banging in Kubrick's most pretentious film Eyes Wide Shut; terse, strident cadences applied to a scenario of ritualized, debauched despair, pushed forth with a hardly an interesting nuance, phrase, image to part with and make us consider the further complications.

The pretentiousness comes in large measure from Gluck's glib and unconsidered use of Big Terms to make a reader pause and inspect a line for a profundity that isn't there. "Good and evil," "love," "death," "love" are all dished out like portions of food you don't want to eat--eeeewwww, cooked carrots, liver, creamed corn, grossssssssss--and yet we have to read and digest on the sorry promise that it's good for us. Gluck, though, recedes into a vagueness here that commits the worse sin one can manage for an oblique poem; it provides you with no reward for reading it. There is a complete absence of euphony whatever underscores the notion that the poem fails because it cannot sustain itself without knowledge of the myths Gluck is ostensibly deconstructing.  It does, perhaps, fulfill a structural function with the single narrative which this poem is reported to be a part of, but the effect is lost here; we assume, the punch of this writing exists only in its context with the other works that go with the storyline it obliquely refers to.

"A Myth of Innocence" [], which is lecturing, nearly hectoring and weighed down by a ridiculous solemnity that reminds me of the pinched nerve seriousness of elderly priests at mass whose ruthless lack of cheer or life would make a nine-year-old boy or girl want to liven things up with arm farts or gum popping. Gluck's writing is so weighted with unbelievably padded writing that it reads in slow motion, like a funeral march, through all the obvious paraphrases of overplayed myths and the cumbersome attempt to bring a universal concept into a private moment when one's loss becomes the sadness of the world.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance

cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

This syntax is tied into knots and hamstrung loops of unfulfilled metaphor and allusion that makes you think of a distracted chef who cannot complete a single plate of palatable food. I get a strong feeling that this poem is likewise composed of scraps, items intended for more complete poems, wholly coherent and perhaps fresher in their utterance. So many indefinite and transcendental qualities zig-zag in this writing, mentions of myth, reflecting pools, a yearning for a younger self, and an unassigned future. It's a traffic jam of references, not particularly musical or convincing beyond nudging a reader in the ribs.

This may be a poem that Gluck worked on quite a bit to give a semblance of poetic content, but no matter how she tailored her first draft, the writing remains lifeless and unconvincing. I've written hundreds of poems that I hoped to make evocative with a mannered strangeness of phrase and allusion until I realized I had only produced a variety of convoluted poesy. Gluck should have cleared her palate and gone for a simpler, less cluttered tongue to speak what her muse presents to her.

Poetry lives, it thrives, it has purchase. And a pension

Poetry does encompass all sorts of odd configurations and rethinkings, it seems to me , and will continue to do so regardless of anyone's well-worded attempts to put a fence around the form and preserve it's purity. Language , we tend to forget, is a living thing , used by millions , billions of us around the globe to get across the complexity of experience with a finite vocabulary, and to encompass new successes, new disasters. It's a malleable entity, and while the meanings of words and their syntactical constructions change with constant use, tempered by technology, politics, pop cultural, language and it's literary forms, the novel,the poem, the play, the short story, wind up settling down into a semblance of order, structure, coherence. Frayed, changed, tweaked, but in tact.

I'm not a Flarf fan--I will take William Burroughs, Godard and Pynchon over the easy ironies of a generation of bright scribes who seem intent, to hammer the remaining life from the concept of irony--but those who've been around poetry classes, workshops, reading series and have written three decades worth of material trying to simultaneously debunk previous standards and extend them yet further, we've seen this energy before. This is to be expected and desired; while there's only so many intellections one can play their variations upon in the attempt to develop an original poetic and aesthetic with which to nestle their work at a theoretical distance from a casual reader, the real energy is in the work itself, the actual poems that get written with the attitude to "make it new". Verve and innovation are what poetry constantly needs to keep in a relevant resource for reader desiring something other than coldness of a sober prose.

It's not that I don't get Flarf, but rather that the kids have discovered my old toys in the attic, in the form of old avant gardisms and mouldy experimentalism, and who have painted the notions in colors of their choosing. An aesthetic that generally suggests a preference for inappropriate juxtapositions of rhetorical pitch and tone, practitioners of flarf scour the Internet for the convolutions, crazed coinages, conflations and confusions an unmonitored language finds itself subjected to; the findings are brought back to the reader (anyone eager to be in on the joke) in poetic form,shall we say, in an effort to bring an x-ray to the pinched seriousness of a literary establishment's endeavors to pass itself off as essential to existence. It is, we guess correctly, a joke. If that's the case, it's a joke that gets told over and over, the thinking being, it seems, that a concept gets more profound and funnier with frequency. I used to have great fun with the find and replace mechanisms embedded in Word documents; I would cut and paste a straight forward NYTimes article detailing some bloodless activity only wonks would be interested in, and then used find and replace to switch-out appropriate ones for ones that were non sequiturs. Finding and replacing all uses of the article "The", for example, replacing it with with a nonsense sentence like "Jesus, your breath makes want to eat Cheeze Whiz Hunger Punks". And so on. It was instant Dada, incredibly funny, but after the glee came the tedium of just doing something in an attempt to re-ignite a mania that had passed. Flarf seems a more grandiose version of that and, as with many experimental movements of the passing moment, the rationalizations for their perpetuation is more artful than the work itself.

Poetry , meantime,will withstand this assault as it withstood the valiant energies of my contemporaries and I, the best of their efforts will be absorbed, the best work will find homes in appropriate anthologies and web site archives, and another group of writers, some years younger, will begin their attempt to usurp the current residents at the top of the heap.

One might call this a dialectic, a cycle; one might also consider terming it a pathology, having as much to do with vanity, ego, status and the conviction that one's generation is the last word at the end of history. Language and it's attendant form, poetry, however, goes on. We still breath, it still thrives.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Envy of the Dead

In one of his essays, Edgar Allen Poe summarizes one the essential elements of his philosophical musings by asserting that we are cursed with "the memory from before birth", a slight and wavering recall of a time when calm and serenity were in place and there was nothing of the distortions or crass money, family, or religion to make us nervous, devious, only half alive (if "alive" at all). The upshot of his baroque hypothesizing was, to be sure , our constant and at times overwhelming desire to return to such a nocturnal, darkened, stress-less state, a return to the womb, perhaps; in any event, his pining was a desire for sleep from which one needn't wake up from, death in other words.

Following suit are Poe's peculiar interest in things decadent and decaying, those thin , reedy and tubercular characters of diseased gentry and errant aristocratic stock who hang on to the waking life by a mere thread, effete and defeated and gracefully blended into the material realm, waiting for gravity to take its toll and to become themselves receivers of the dirt nap, freed of the binds that only punish you for having nerve endings.

There was, among the decadent writers and artists following Poe, a literal worship of an aesthetic principal that the greatest beauty was in a person or a thing in it's decline, when it was letting go of the struggle and was reduced to it's basic, most true and frailest form. An aspect of this, I suspect, was envy of the declining aesthetic object, be it a human or a diseased elm; a deep and permanent rest awaited them, and death would be that thing that gives the lie to the certitude of philosophy or economic determinism that insist that life must forever be thus, a certain way, without change. Those who die have escaped, and there are no arms to bring them back to suffer more with the rest of us pining over a grave.

Poet Patricia Traxler gets all this wonderfully, succinctly in her poem The Dead Are Not, published on line this week at Slate; the poem is brief and each finessed line conveys the complicated, conflicting and confused set of emotions one journeys through as yet another death comes closer to one's inner circle of confidants and family. The dead are not dead yet,

Always they take
their time, and we wait
politely, dreading
how real it will
have to be, sooner
or later, and at the
same time longing
to know that reality.

There are arguments one has with the departed, negotiations still in session, curses and protests of undying love are uttered, self-recrimination and blaming goes on for days and nights until one tires of the their tears and breathes easier because sunrises still come inspite the weight of grief. We mutter to ourselves that the dead are "in a better place", that they "felt no pain" or that
" least they died quick..." all so we get on with our lives and our responsibilities, and yet an echo of our accepting rhetoric stays with us as we shoulder our daily responsibilities, that "better place" doesn't sound so bad, and we become envious and petty all over again, we blame the dead for being cowards and laggards who would do anything to shirk their duty, and we come to envy them and that place they've gone. Gravity takes its toll, our bones ache, the mailbox is filled with bills, someone else you know has told you they have a fatal disease, your back hurts like shit:

Nights, as we reach
to switch off our bed lamps
and close our eyes,
we dare it to take us
into its mouth
that smells of tar,
saltwater, sludge,
take us up then let us
tumble endlessly,
blameless again
and helpless as any new life
forced out for the first time
into the terrible light.

Traxler gets to the center of that guilty little secret
at the core of grieving, the scourge of envy and the many faces and tones of voice it takes. Without metaphysical baloney, faux piety, or even a tone of anger, she writes in the cool, reflective calm of someone who has investigated their feelings and discovered an unknown fact about their thinking. This poem has the remarkable clarity of genuine self-sight, unnerving in its tone, beautifully expressed. Her skill gives us the chance to see something very private, unobscured by clouds of delusion. A very fine poem.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TO READ: nearly perfect

This is only a few paces removed from being a Hallmark greeting, but Michael McPhee's poem "To Read" is sweet and lightly likable . The metaphors are juxtaposed well , on balance, and what saves the comparison between picking up one's first book with an initial driving lesson is McPhee's delicate touch. This is an amusing, interesting effect that's constructed on the slimmest of plausible analogues, but there is a logic in the balance the poet maintains between what what he sees and what he associates with it.

He held the opened book
in both hands, at arm's length,

as if he were a student driver
practicing steering this Model ABC
that resisted his touch,
that he could tell he wouldn't know
how to control once it started,

not yet able to ease his grip
or surrender his frown
and learn to let the sentences unwind,
letting their momentum
carry him down the waiting road,

stopping and starting his way
into a world of words.

The awkward grasp on the book, the hesitant hands on the steering wheel, the slow, careful easing through the paragraphs, the lurching starts out of the driveway, the gathering of momentum as the plot thickens and the sentences take on more detail, the increasing convolutions of the streets and their patterns; in the brief space he allows himself McPhee draws up the parallels one's mastery of their language in written form and the growing skill as a driver. In both areas, one's technique becomes reflex. Personal style and flair are expressed while maintaining a knowledge of rules, limits, the need for restraint. McPhee remembers his lessons in restraint and preserves the essence of his idea; not a vehicle for an impressionistic essay nor an excuse for a confession, the poem is focused on the young reader, the fleeting, incidental analogy McPhee imagines. It is nearly a perfect crystallization of a hard to grasp perception.

The "reader" portion of this analogy has a strong sense of trepidation and adults, generally, don't have those kinds of fears when it comes to picking up a book and reading it. Children, though, especially those who are too old for board books, picture books or the sorts of books intended for toddlers, do, as a whole , enter come to more sophisticated writing with hesitation. The books they'll read will be nonfiction in large part, fact-based books, with that they will be expected to recall and remember what they've read. I sell children's books for a living and have talked to many teachers and parents about young children, resistant to a more difficult reading, and how their lesson plans are designed to ease through their resistance and value reading, in itself.

The leap to the driving lesson is meant to give us a sense that there are times in our lives when we must leave what's comfortable with and take the next step in our progress to becoming fully functional adults. I had the combination of anxiety and excitement as a teen when it was my turn to learn how to drive--I liked being driven everywhere I had to go , or mooching rides from friends who had their licenses, but there came a time I had to find my own way, with my own means. The analogy between the two, I think, are distinct, but cogently compared.

A simpler explanation might be to not get hung up over how old the unsteady reader is and appreciate the artful way McPhee accomplished verisimilitude in such a small instance. In both images, the unsure reader and the analogous new driver have somethings in common which the poet found a right-sized set of terms to bring to our attention; beyond that, I don't think the poem means much more than the particulars directly identified. Everything else, whether the reader is a young child or an adult with a reading problem , as zinya skillfully hypothesises, are things that are suggested, if not hinted at. Some of the best things we like in particular poems happens off stage, in a gathering of our own associations that enable our imagination to fulfill it's default function, to complete story lines and flesh out sketchy details. In that sense, each more detailed explication of the poem becomes, in a sense, autobiography.

There's a maxim I heard in school that I like, that a work of art isn't really finished until an audience, separate from the artist, experiences it and invests the object with meaning. . If there's something in McPhee's poem that makes some others think the reader is an adult, that works just fine, since it's a suggested texture that occurs independent of what the words claim is going on. A poem evokes ideas that are not in physical evidence.

It's an almost perfect poem. Nearly, that is, because the last couplet, "...stopping and starting his way / into the world of words" spoils the clarity of image and idea; McPhee starts to think at this point, tacking on something that is a tactical error among many a poet, that of summing up with a punchy conclusion. It does not fit the rest of this otherwise wonderfully spare poem, an abstraction that adds weight , not gravity. It's almost an editor sneaked this into the draft before it went to print, someone who just had add the phrase "world of words" in order to connect this piece with a more rigorous discourse being conducted elsewhere. The phrase, I think, is trite and hackneyed, and wonder why there was an impulse to clutter up a poem that was almost perfect.