Tuesday, February 17, 2004
What if Frank O’Hara had been, literally, a court jester? Or, at the very least, tutor of the King’s children? Those are questions that linger in the imagination as one reads Pattie McCarthy’s forthcoming Verso. In “alibi (that is : elsewhere),” the second of the book’s three sections – and the one section that is available already as a Duration Press ebook – McCarthy strikes a new tone in & for her poetry, less formal, almost personal. At the same time, however, all of the concerns – with history, naming, gender, etymology & referentiality – that have always animated her work rage on unabated. Not atypical: alibi is Latin for elsewhere.
The tone in the sequence’s first poem comes off as quite campy:
nonesuch auguries, egads.
we will have none of that.
saying again this place is
this, only moreso.
here the air
rises from beneath it
seems & is heavy salty—
whereas there the air is sharp,
takes corners, comes around
it hasn’t rained for fourteen days. the birds
have thwarted me & eaten the verbena seeds.
I smell like a girl & tire of profundity.
In what reads like an act of utter divergence, the very next piece quotes Thackeray, Chaucer & Shakespeare, all on the subject on augury. If an alibi literally is a mode of displacement – “I was not at X when Y took place” – then divination is likewise predicated on an ability to read details, as if the whole universe took on the symbolic qualities we usually reserve for words.
It takes McCarthy only three more pages to blend all these elements & arrive at this remarkable level of density:
there one is afraid of that
which is invisible whereas
here one fears that which is seen.
with maps, one could endeavor to prove
one’s self alibi.
no one leaves here ever if
only there was another.
it’s not safe sometimes to meddle with walls.
the fall of Jane Scrope’s sparrow.
if by making certain
conditions of the air — well, that’s how they took
the poison in those days.
One part Gertrude Stein, perhaps, one part John Skelton, definitely. It was, it’s worth remembering, not the wall that caused the death of Jane Scrope’s sparrow, but the presence of the cat Gyb. The wall, however, is what McCarthy wants us to if not see at least feel, pressing on us at all points. Thus an allusion to a poem 500 years old in what at first reads as if it were “plain speech.”
The problem of knowledge in poetry has bedeviled modernism & what’s come after since Pound first edited T.S. Eliot in order to make him more, not less, cryptic. Where Robert Duncan wrote of “the secret doctrine,” Charles Olson countered that “such secrecy is wearing the skin that truth is inside-out.”* There was a day certainly when every college student – at least the English majors – could have been expected to recognize that sparrow, but, save for the Straussians, that day died before my years in college in the 1960s. McCarthy appears to have found a writing that lets her – and us – have it both ways, by making the membrane between the visible & its opposite the focal point. Which, to my mind, is where O’Hara comes in, perhaps the most eloquent practitioner ever of what I might characterize as cloaked rhetoric, the complex articulation tossed off as if it were a spontaneous aside.
The word McCarthy finds for this is an Irish one, pishogue, which, in a pluralized Irish spelling – “piseogs” – is the title of the third major sequence in Verso. Spells might be a good English translation, sayings that by their very nature convey witchcraft. This section reads very much as the notes to an investigation into the murder of Bridget Cleary, an 1894 case of an Irish housewife burned alive by her husband in the belief that she’d been stolen by the faerie folk.
Wisdom, magic, reference – all systems that hinge upon a coming into representation, the word made flesh, even if only so that it might be burnt. Verso, in this sense, has another meaning – the same one we find hidden in the word verse, that constant, compulsive turning, from the visible & back again, from the magic to the muggle, the meaning to the word, a perpetual, ineluctable shuttling back & forth, as restless as the imagination.
From the very beginning, Pattie McCarthy has been one of our most intellectually ambitious poets – a tradition she shares with Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Beverly Dahlen & with H.D. before that. And indeed with the likes of Pound & Olson. We can still count the number of women who attempt writing on such a scale on the fingers of our hands. So it is worth noting & celebrating this addition to that roster.
* In “Against Wisdom As Such,” in Human Universe, Grove Press, 1967, p. 68.