Friday, July 01, 2005

 

From my perspective, there are two negatives to the concept of the School of Quietude, the idea of an aesthetically & culturally conservative (and ultimately Anglophiliac) literary movement that I’ve adapted from the correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe. One is that it lumps together too crudely all manner of conservative-to-outright-reactionary writing, without sufficient regard to the subtleties therein. But the more serious problem lies within Poe’s term itself, which could be misread as suggesting that quietness itself is not an appropriate register for writing. There are, in fact, many quiet poets who are (a) excellent writers and (b) not at all quietudinous, so to speak. I’ve noted both Tom Meyer & Devin Johnston as instances of this circumstance in the past. But perhaps the best example is the poetry of Merrill Gilfillan.

I’ve praised Gilfillan here before, so it should not come as much surprise to find out that I think of the man as the pre-eminent nature writer of my generation, indeed since Thoreau. The key to this, whether in his poetry or in his essays, lies in the specificity of Gilfillan’s language. He is principally a descriptive poet, even when it is all the many other little things kicked up by his description that ultimately catches our eye:

Morning with Chokecherries

Douse them, wet
they shine like brilliant
caviar (dust devils whirling,
cranes circling, babies
laughing, halfmoon sailing,
ravens, old station wagons
circling and circling), set
them in the sun.

Or:

Smoke Today

To the west
just off that lightning-rod
ridge, a lazy gray
smoke curl, a simple up

and out, left
to right.
Burning off
the tumbleweeds, burning off
piranha ticks.

It makes me long
for a Lucky Strike.

Early today, far above
faroff Prairie Dog Creek,
a mile-long ribbon

flowed elegantly east,
undulant fretless umber
almost not quite really there –
burning off the buckaroo

wallpaper. It made me dream
of a Gauloise blue.

Even as Gilfillan creates a context in which undulant fretless umber does not sound excessively lush & almost not quite really there remains articulate in all its qualifications, Gilfillan yokes together two disparate domains, one that of the landscape of northern Wyoming, the other the cultural imagery of tobacco brands, both brands retro, one almost comically exotic. It’s a touch not unlike the parallel Gilfillan draws in the first poem between cranes (whooping or sandhill, the reader wants to ask) & station wagons.

Both of these poems are to be found in Undanceable, just out from Flood Editions. They are about as noisy as Gilfillan gets. Much quieter are the six serial poems here, ranging from four to a dozen pages, perhaps because they can circumambulate their ostensible subject (or, in the case of “Six Songs,” radiate outward from the idea of the title). They don’t much need to go anywhere, closure being an option more than a necessity, the presentness of everything – word, image, intellection – being always the about in What’s this about. Thus there is no forced drama hidden in the first section of “Yampa Crows at Yampa Evening,” Yampa itself the name of a river & valley in Gilfillan’s adopted state of Colorado:

Subject pilfered,
lightly repainted: poetry
as subtlest of craws: crows

at sundown
fine print for omnivores.

They sit on old boxcars –

“Alabama State Docks/
Port of
Mobile” – doors
wide open, see right through:

sand bar, willows, Yampa,
alders, foothills, half-lit peaks:
the
Williams Fork Range.

Gilfillan’s vocabulary, a la Forrest Gander, keeps me close to a dictionary when reading him. In the nine sections of “Yampa Crows,” I find cecropia, firn, feuille mort, alpenglow.

Poetry as meditative as this is, in its own way, as “pure” or “extreme” or “abstract” (take your pick) as Clark Coolidge’s Polaroid or The Maintains. Tho, of course, it is not abstract in the slightest & abjures extremism. I could read such writing without limit, and with total pleasure at all points, which is pretty much what reading’s all about. Undanceable makes for terrific music.

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