Thursday, February 02, 2006

Just how bad does a poem have to be before the poet is swatted around the head & neck & forced to go sit in the corner wearing a dunce’s cap? Stephen Dobyns’ “Alligator Dark,” the focus this past Sunday of Robert Pinsky’s column in the Washington Post, offers an excellent test case.

At one level, the poem is a simple narrative vignette, a boy taking too long to pee at the potty. At its second level, however, the Oedipal myth is fully invoked & the boy is not just splitting a cigarette up in the toilet with a stream of urine, but (always already) getting a blow-job from mom. The first line – Stiff as a fireman's spray, his urine smacks – is comically overdone enough to warrant a laugh, but the long first sentence dissolves into prolix details, 3½ more lines, in its long march to invoke nostalgia, so much so that an inattentive reader (or one not yet sensitized to the Freudian subtext) might not hear the echo of lips in smacks, nor assign a second meaning as yet to the idea of a two-inch remnant. The Perhaps in the second sentence – Perhaps he is eight – is not merely cloying, tho it certainly is that, but is there also to keep the line from falling short at four metrical feet: padding your metrics is exactly the mark of Slacker Formalism. It’s also just bad writing.

The third sentence deserves to be quoted here in full, to shine some light on its special awfulness:

A chaste delight in this pre-filter era
before Freudian notions could for him
ruin the simplest of pleasures.

What is this sentence’s worst moment? Is it the ham-handed adjective chaste, appropriated here for smoking, but not really (tee hee) about smoking at all? Is it the metical inversion of could for him / ruin that enables Dobyns to end that line with an iamb, even if it makes the sentence sound as if it were spoken by an ESL dropout? Is it the blatant flag-waving of Freudian, so that no reader could be too stupid to miss this clever parallel subtext? Or is it the banality of that last cliché, the simplest of pleasures?

The next sentence starts off with no less subtlety: The butt’s / lipstick-reddened tip bleeds into the murk, ending on an em-dash. At least here the sound of the language is inherently interesting. But apparently the poet felt this was just too subtle, given the ejaculation of the poem’s next phrase: Take that, Mom! I’m really not making this up!

This, as one might imagine, is the poem’s climax, but we still have six lines left to go & here is where Dobyns’ makes a wrong turn, invoking yet another conceit – that of the Titanic, no less (no two-inch remnants for this boy) – as the frame sentence returns (complete, I must say in Dobyns’ defense, with the consonant clusters of t and p again): till the paper splits apart / and tobacco bits skitter off like peewee / lifeboats. Considering how tightly Dobyns is trying to tie themes together here, that verb skitter simply is out of place, but, hey, we’re hearing those ol’ Freudian undertones again in peewee. That phallic synonym for shortness is contrasted at the end of the next sentence, one that returns to the master narrative of the vignette itself: The boy zips his pants as his mother /shouts, What's taking you so long? The first portion of the final sentence stays on this plane – Just / washing up, he calls back, before flushing – the iambics almost brutally wooden – before sinking one final time into the bathos of the cutely figurative: the tiny survivors of the stricken liner down, / down to the alligator dark beneath the streets.

Yes, the tiny survivors are both the shards of the split open cigarette & spent semen. But does the metaphor of the stricken liner here add to the clunky conceit or merely clog it? Further, does adding yet another colorful metaphor in the final line – the poem after all is called “Alligator Dark” – add further or simply demonstrate a poet incapable of controlling the tools of his craft? And let’s not forget the joy of down / down.

This, Pinsky intones, is a poetry that “lives in that borderland between the ordinary and the dreamy, the banal and the mysterious, the grandiose and the squalid.” The mystery here is why anyone would think this patchwork of tacked together conceits makes for a heightened experience of language? The squalid I can see alright, Robert, but the grandiose? There’s that two-inch remnant again, down / down indeed.