Monday, March 20, 2006

I saw a promotional paragraph for a forthcoming reading by Rosmarie Waldrop “of Brown University” & had to chuckle. While Rosmarie’s husband Keith has taught at Brown for decades, Rosmarie has for the most part resisted employment there so that she would be able to devote her energies to her own work as writer, translator & publisher, three activities at which she is one of the very best on the planet. It’s a division of labor that seems to have worked out excellently in their marriage – she taught during the periods when Keith didn’t, but the Brown job has had staying power & he obviously loves teaching – the last time I saw Keith, he swore he’d never retire, and it was the students, not the paycheck, who were motivating him. We should all be so fortunate.

Rosmarie’s freedom has really had an enormous impact on what she can do, and has done, with Burning Deck, and it has much to do with why this has been such a terribly influential press for so very long. She doesn’t need to worry about how this or that book “looks” to the colleagues in the department, doesn’t need to worry all that terribly much about whether the books will ever make a profit, though it would be nice not to lose so much money that it shuts the press down, a periodic hazard for any ambitious small press. One consequence of all this has been that Burning Deck has published some tremendous books by poets who did not go on to publish 20 big collections over the next 40 years. For all of the famous poets the press has published, the many people published there who aren’t famous represent some of the press’ greatest accomplishments, marvelous books by George Tysh, Margaret Johnson, Tom Ahern, David Ball, Ray Ragosta and many many more. Rosmarie Waldrop may have done more to bring forth the work of neglected poets than any other single publisher around. On top of which you can add another long list of books by poets who became widely known only after they had first published with Burning Deck. Thus Jackson Mac Low & Forrest Gander, thus Ray DiPalma & Lyn Hejinian. Burning Deck published my second book, nox, at a point in my career when I could count on very few readers ever having heard of me. I’m not even certain that the Waldrops had heard of me when Rosmarie first published that book – she listed my date of birth on the colophon as 1935, aging me 11 years – but somehow she saw something in those fragile poems for which she was willing to take a risk. Thirty-two years later, I’m still amazed at that.

All of which is to say that when I get a book from Burning Deck and I haven’t ever heard of the author before, I’m willing to give it more than the benefit of the doubt. I’ve learned over the years to pay attention – the writing will be anywhere from good to glorious, but there’s no guarantee that this poet is going to have a fat volume from a bigger press ever, let alone soon. Which is the framework I use to approach Erica Carpenter’s Perspective Would Have Us. There is no biographical data on the book itself and if it wasn’t for a paragraph on a public relations sheet slipped into the book, I’d’ve had almost no idea who this person might be. Googling will tell you a little more, tho not a lot.

The poems themselves are delicate & exact, a balance of qualities that one seldom finds among younger poets, which these days means anybody who hasn’t yet turned 50. Consider this, for example, as an act of depiction:

Two Minutes Later

Darkness kept, even with the streetlights,
holding constantly erect, so that the boulevards could perish
into frames of passing cars.

At one level this is a very simple description. On another, it is full of quirks – that long disruption of the initial verb phrase, that exceptionally literary second verb pushed right out to the end of the second line, the point of greatest emphasis in a poem with this shape. One could almost imagine this poem somewhere in the collected works of a Rakosi or Reznikoff, but not quite. Rezi could never accept the flourish of perish.

Or this poem, one of several to use the mode of correspondence:

Dear _____________

We eat the biscuits even though they’ve left us
feeling weird and unrequited.

Friday night: now this has nothing
more to tell, my feeling full about one half

or all the time I would be vigilant and constantly
on watch. Rather I’m speechless

where the time goes (think vibrations
at the dull end of a rope) and insist

I’m fully functional in terms and really fine.

Even tonight it must be obvious,
having started several novels, to conclude

with our beginning other novels

There is an awkwardness here that I trust completely. It would have been so easy to have run this poem as six couplets, but that’s not how it works, nor wants to – those two single-line stanzas, one ending on the most optimistic of closures, the next dangling without a moment of final punctuation, miming the incompleteness of beginning, govern the poem’s energy, which is not at all ordinary. Or go back and try parsing the poem’s second sentence: you will be forced to recognize just how much it patterns itself on the disruptive angles of speech rather than the expository integrating machine of verse.

If I hadn’t gotten that paragraph and seen those sites on Google, I might have thought Carpenter to be an older writer than she is – for one thing, she has a deft way with a line, which is not something that comes easily & is a value I’ve seen more often in poets born in the 1940s than those born in the ‘70s. The values she argues for in the poem are relatively delicate, which seems amazing in age where the rocket-propelled grenade appears to have overtaken the saber.

The finest work here, to my ear, is “Six Views from Capri,” a series that carries the epigram after Godard. It operates on several levels, only one of which (and not the most important) is cinematic. Here is the fifth section, far enough into the poem where the elements are colliding:

Still, do I know Paul?

Paul falls within the genre
of the thriller: though not overly complex
can be exciting and a beast.

And Camille?
Camille is an apartment.

Worse, she’s trapped
inside an art file in the ‘60s.

Here we have the question of characters combining with the question of commentary (with its attendant problem, how can one know anything “from the outside,” from viewing, let alone directing?), with an overlay of actual cinema. The line Camille is an apartment made me laugh & brought to mind Jean Eustache’s great The Mother and the Whore, not Godard perhaps, but a work involving two of the masters major collaborators, Eustache & Jean-Pierre Léaud, who in that film plays the rebel-flâneur of 1968 who, a few years hence, has become a parasite on the lives of two women, one of whom has now become the owner of a small boutique & who, for Léaud’s character, is indeed “an apartment.” For such a simple passage – nothing, literally, happens here – there is so much going on, something we’ve seen earlier in the book with a series of translations from Sappho that, to my ear, carry a faint hint of the Spicer of Heads of the Town, the bitterness, perhaps, but not the sarcasm:

At my age – well,
things were different.

This way, that way
my lovely friends and I.

Of course I love you, but I
hear that girl Andromeda
is well


Standing by my bed,
I asked myself and said
I will confess: it’s noontime

So this is an excellent, wonderful book, but I wonder if, twenty years hence, Erica Carpenter will be a name to conjure with in American poetry. So much of what she does seems to me at odds with a lot that is going on now, a celebration of subtlety in an age of bluntness. If she doesn’t become a household name, she surely will be a neglectorino of the future, someone who certain, discerning poets will find & turn to, knowing that what is to be had in a book like this is rare indeed.