Monday, December 12, 2005

 

When I first glanced at C.D. Wright’s “Rising, Falling, Hovering” in the new Chicago Review, my first thought was that this might be a text around which to build a discussion here of the uses of variable line spacing in contemporary poetry, since Wright changes her mode from passage to passage, sometimes from stanza to stanza. Reading it later, I was overcome with a different sense – that this 30-page poem could easily be the basis for a major motion picture. That is not a thought that has come to me often before, save maybe long ago in reading Ed Dorn’s ‘Slinger, which I’ve always imagined as an animated text, sort of Heidegger meets Scooby-Do. “Rising, Falling, Hovering,” however, would have to be some combination of El Norte, Syriana, The Sheltering Sky & just maybe The Ice Storm, and would require the skills of a Wim Wenders or Tarkovsky or Ang Lee at the top of their game. It’s a sad, thoughtful, even wrenching poem. I would call it Wright’s masterpiece, tho I’ve thought that of other, earlier pieces, and she keeps making these great leaps forward. I would call it a beautiful poem, but I think Wright distrusts beauty & it shows – rather, it is a profoundly crafted, searingly imagined piece of work.

Reading “Rising, Falling, Hovering” reminded me that Wright has used Evan S. Connell, Jr.’s Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, which can only be described as a verse novel, when teaching the American long poem. The verse novel is a form that has been favored of late by some new formalist types, such as Vikram Seth & Glynn Maxwell, but where Golden Gate & Time’s Fool simply pour plots like so much syrup into regular patterns – the basest conceivable concept of form – Connell, a novelist by trade (Mr. Bridge, The Connoisseur, Mrs. Bridge, The Diary of a Rapist, Points for a Compass Rose) who came to the project, as it were, from the other direction, understands Pound’s dictum that poetry should be at least as well written as prose:

Listen! There are sapphires,
garnets, amethysts, and many another jewel in
Ceylon
where the king Sendernam wears a ruby
larger than a plum;
and we have seen it, my brothers and I,
and have shielded our eyes from its opulence.

What should I say next? I am held in thrall
by a thousand things.

As I walk past a woman’s window
I hear someone whisper,
Lhurda, the dawn is breaking! It will soon be day.
My love, the dawn is here.

I have concealed myself.
I listen
while she remembers
mysteries of birth and creation.
I see her
entering the water,
who is
more wholly precious to me than wading animals,
or the swift iridescence of shark fins flecked with spume.

Like Notes from a Bottle, “Rising, Falling, Hovering” occupies that middle kingdom of the genres – neither fully poem, nor fiction, nor memoir, nor philosophy & yet at once all four. “Rising” is more scenic than Connell’s work, with passages functioning almost as if they were chapters:

Calla lilies limp in their buckets
The obligatory pariah dog
Concentrates its starved mass on a step
Blowflies battling the head
The casket seller checks
For occupancy before locking up
Monastery deep in shadow
Worker urinating into a box
Under the Bridge of Martyrs
Disposition of small limbs
A face dark and deadish
The petal of one eye shutting
In Hidalgo’s courtyard
The pomegranate tree spreads
Into its memory of a future
For the next ones to forget
Ink of the padre’s letters
Gone to vinegar
For the next ones to drink
Desk clerk mesmerized
By the new media-borne war

Yet, in contrast with fiction, there are large swathes of text whose purpose could not possibly be called narrative in the usual sense, unless an aspect of light in a shadowy hotel lobby be imagined as an action:

Across the river       is a whole other world:

      hotel (once grand) with a ballroom called Starlight

A lobby that smells like assisted-living dinner

     smoke-discolored chandelier

Aloe vera and bromeliad felted with dust

And toenails of the truly old painted
     for twirling across polished floors

And one of the old ones in a camphoric gown
     says she wore this when she was smaller

Spotlights on the fountain tinted for travelers
     in the time of terror        color of the koi

There are little things here – the choice of the word discolored, the choice of the word felted – that bespeak a commitment to accuracy that supercedes all other possible pleasures of the poem. Even what at first appear to be excessive touches such as the rhetorical structure of that second line, or the suddenly too-pretty prosody of the time of terror, come precisely into focus, necessary to a more thorough realism that governs the work: color of the koi indeed, the pun in the last word exactly at odds with the scene’s present circumstance.

There are multiple story-lines here, none of which of reach closure. Nor is it always clear whose scar belongs to whom, only that scarring is very much the point. One sees both operating in the poem’s last punctuation, a period at the end of to be cont. A phrase that is itself repeated over the course of this text.

I read “Rising, Falling, Hovering” in a single sitting – an almost unheard of practice for me with a poem this long – then did so again six days later. It made me realize that the only other poet now writing whom I do this for, feel both driven & motivated to do so at such length, is Rachel Blau DuPlessis. In both cases, I think it’s because Wright & DuPlessis are writing the most complex poetry anywhere in this language, and both do so in total mastery of their tools, and in total surrender to the demands of the poem. Reading this poem is a major life event.





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