Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Setting out Late
An autumn leaf
trembles in its guise
of paling green, feeling
slightly out of date or off key.
The unsure basso is the worst of all
but it’s been time to get moving
for quite a while
in your head, which is maybe
lazy and a little timid
but gaining momentum.
This poem concludes a volume that might be called They Wouldn’t Go Home Till They Had Thought of Something. Such anyway is the caption on an illustration – a squirrel & rabbit, both dressed in human clothes, in a forest under a full moon, obviously concentrating very hard, lost in thought – that appears on the cover.
The volume has roughly 100 pages, 8.5-by-11, stapled on the left rather in the manner of old issues of The World or Sal Mimeo. I can’t tell you who published it, because there is no information given of that nature. I can’t tell you who wrote this poem, nor for that matter any of the poems included in this venture, because that information isn’t given either. It’s a collection of anonymous poetry.
I’ve tried a magic trick with this poem, tho. I’ve read it alternately as a John Ashbery poem, as a Bill Berkson poem & as a poem by Larry Fagin. It works for me under each of those conditions, but it’s a different poem every time. What if I thought of it as a Billy Collins poem? Or a poem by Bill Knott? Does it then become any less interesting? More?
Here’s another poem from the same volume.
To myself and into the air
He promised silence
On the long solid self
To nest waving
I want. Lady,
A red scarf goes under
My delicate body when I waken.
I like to block myself up,
To thicken on the horn, shackled with a big drink.
In the Parthenon, Marion, we
Were half so fragile. We were
Asleep. But we said, “I block you,”
Or your with teeth, our pale feet,
Our clouds, down to the color, romping.
My little magic trick doesn’t work so well here. For one thing, there is nothing here equivalent to the logic of the last sentence in the first poem that jumps out as being so clearly branded (or at least brandable) a device. Yet the logic to the second poem is hardly conventional – there are NY School details throughout. But the twist at the end of the first sentence, that almost deliberate afterthought of I want and the grammar of street jargon – block myself up – suggests to me a younger poet. Am I just projecting that? Possibly. The use of caps at the left margin, if I think about it, suggests just the opposite – that’s a detail in the punctuation of verse that is declining faster than the use of semi-colons.
In all fairness, there is a broader range in this volume than I’m suggesting from those two pieces, both of which strike me as being archetypal (if not generic) NY school. “The Hard Heart,” for instance, has an almost confessional tone:
I would never have wanted to see your sad face again
Your hollow cheeks and hair in the wind
I left across fields
Through the damp woods
Night and day
In the sun and the rain
Dead leaves crunched beneath my feet
Sometimes the moon was shining
Then we were face to face again
Looking at each other but not saying anything
And there was no room left for me to leave again
For a long time I stayed tied up against a tree
With your terrible love in front of me
More anguished than in a bad dream
Finally someone greater than you released me
All the tearful expressions follow me
And that weakness one can’t fight against
I flee quickly toward unkindness
Toward the force that raises its fists like weapons
On the monster that pulled me from your sweetness with its claws
Far from the soft sweet hug of your arms
I go away breathing hard
Across fields and through the woods
Toward the miraculous town where my heart beats
There is an evenness of affect here – the straightforward syntax, the steady deployment of clichés – that tells me this is intentional, that the poet wants me to understand that terrible love and miraculous town are vague because that’s a critical detail, one reason the narrator appears to seek abusive relationships. Which is to say that I read this not as bad or maudlin verse, but rather as a poem that is consciously exploring sentimentality and its relation to abuse & violence, deliberately employing the devices of bad verse as devices. It’s an interesting, complicated trick, and its effectiveness depends on its seeming artless. Again I have to ask myself am I projecting?
I try my magic trick with this one, but this time it’s a double layer of gender, not the names of possible poets, that I try. I read this as representing the voice of a woman in a lesbian relationship, then of a man in a gay relationship, then of a man in a heterosexual relationship & then (and only then) as a woman in a heterosexual relationship. Then I try all of these positions with a second layer of this game (sort of a reverse Kevin Bacon game, genderwise), trying each of these narrative positions, but presuming that it was written by a woman. Then I do it again, only presuming that it was written by a man. It’s a very different poem if a man wrote this depicting a lesbian relationship, for example, than if a hetero woman wrote it about herself. Does it cease to be dramatic monolog if it’s truly “confessional?” Would it be a better poem if written from a less predictable gender position?
Larry Fagin, who is a closet New Critic, has argued that we ought to be able to read poems with no identifying marks whatsoever and thereby determine whether a poem is, at the least, “good” or least “interesting.” He probably disapproves of my magic tricks, seeing it as infusing the poem with extraneous data, looking back at my own reflection to decide what I do or don’t like. But I don’t think so. If anything, I think this collection demonstrates the fallacy of such purism. Partly because poems don’t exist outside of history – when is R. Mutt’s fountain just a pisser? – and largely because an inordinate number of details in the poem don’t actually engage without that connection to the real. Again, with that second poem, it means something different if it was written by the late David Schubert than it would had John Godfrey penned it. Both would be meaningful & interesting, but not the same meaning, not the same interests. Or if the third poem was written by Diane Wakoski or Leland Hickman or Ishmael Reed.
A further possibility might even be that every poem in this collection was written by the same writer, which would suggest (a) that the author is a chameleon or (b) that these are works pulled from very different parts of a long career. Given how many of the works here show the scar tissue of St. Marks & environs (no actual mentions of Ukes or Gem Spa that I recall, but still . . . ), this is a genuine option.
So I find myself liking the first two, but for fairly different reasons, admiring the third, but not really engaging with it at the same depth. And the project as a whole reminds me very much of Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar with its attempt to abdicate control of the poem, to hand it over to the willing reader. In a sense, each project echoes for me those old “music minus one” recordings where the viola part is omitted from a string quartet so that students can practice. Both projects are consciously incomplete, but one completely different axes. In their absence, the reader is invited to substitute whatever presumptions are needed – like a “paint by numbers” kit that lacks a code for assigning colors.
Smith wants the reader to take more responsibility, not just in the reading but in everything they do. Fagin, when he argues his “anonymous poems” case, doesn’t really want – at least as I understand it – readers to fill in the blanks. But the blanks are real. Even if we read a poem and it’s by a poet we have never read before, that is information, a context. If anything, these anonymous poems are far more controlled than Smith’s – which makes the large gaps opened up by the sheer absence of a name more intriguing. But it doesn’t fill them in.
Think for a moment of the federal government’s great wish to hear every phone conversation, read every email, and it’s inability to assign anything better than “keyword searching” software to the task because of the absolute volume of data involved. The sentence It’s going to be a bomb means something very different to the question How do you think Mel Gibson’s next picture will do in New York than to What are you taking on the flight to Milan? Or What do you think of Joe Lieberman’s campaign now? Context, as Roman Jakobson used to note, is one of the six functions of language.