Planting a garden is very much imagining something that’s not there…. You’re putting something in the ground that is both entirely different from the thing which will arrive and entirely the same.
Ross Gay, interview with Kyla Marshell at Poetry Foundation
I was quite surprised to see this poem in the table of contents. Not because it’s not a great poem – it is, it’s practically iconic – but because it was written in 2015 and has been on the Poets.Org database, and in the Split this Rock database, since then, not to mention analyzed, taught, and bounced all over the internet. It’s a poem people who don’t read poetry know. But I’m fine with Pushcart letting it qualify by its inclusion on a WordPress poetry blog in 2020 (all those years they ignored online literature…). Better late than never.
I find the poem is extraordinary because of the complexity hiding behind its beautiful simplicity. It uses what a linguistics/stylistics professor terms “title enjambment” – the title serves as the first line of the poem – to avoid the repetition that would remind us this is a construct, to flow more smoothly an expression of the mind and heart in one long sentence; that the big hands that could be seen as so threatening become nurturing and gentle as they nestle the seedling into the ground;
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do,
…that it dwells in possibility, like Emily of Amherst, drawn from the one small needful fact that grows into what might have been, most likely, in all likelihood, perhaps, against the odds a miracle occurs; that the final line takes my breath away, an apt use of cliché if ever there was one.
But there are those who have done more scholarly analysis than I ever could. So I want to consider another aspect: that Ross Gay was a gardener, that he started gardening some time around the time of the publication of his award-winning 2015 collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and that I believe how he saw gardening, as expressed in several interviews about that collection, has everything to do with this poem.
And I also want to consider that I can’t find an interview where Gay discusses this poem. Maybe he didn’t need to, it’s the kind of poem you just get. Maybe everything he had to say is in those few lines.
Fairchild himself spoke to the intersection of physical labor, memory, and his development as a poet in an interview with [Paul] Mariani : “One of the most important transitions for me, psychological or otherwise, was the gradual, halting movement out of the physical world of work into the world of art and literature and ideas. Very often, especially in my later teens and early twenties, I was existing in both worlds at the same time, watching a welder lay down a perfect seam while Madame Bovary was walking around in my head, or observing the gleam of a freshly shaped and honed piece of stock while remembering the arc of a Brancusi sculpture. I don’t ‘insist’ upon beauty being found in strange, overlooked places; that’s just the way it seems to emerge in many of my poems. Nobody could be more surprised at this than I am…”
Poet Entry in Poetry Foundation
I more or less gave up posting about Pushcart poetry a few years ago when I got tired of finding new ways to say, “I have no idea what this poem is about / why it’s considered good / why it’s written the way it is.” I’ve made a few exceptions since then, for poems that made sense to me.
This poem makes sense to me, in about six different ways.
It’s a story. Funny thing is, that’s one of the reasons poetry eludes me: I kept wondering why something was written as a poem and not as an essay, beyond “because the writer is a poet and heard it that way.” But here is a story written as a poem because that hammers home the point of the story.
We start with a father and son:
One day my father said, Get in the goddamned car,
and so I did, and he drove us about five miles
out of town, where he parked on an empty shoulder,
shut the Ford’s engine off, and then turned to me
and said, You have a weak personality. I said, What the hell does that mean? And he said, You know,
when you speak, the way you talk, laughing and using
all that fancy-assed, flowery language, you do not
impress other men, serious men, for whom life
Is a serious business. I said, after a long silence, I don’t give a flying fuck about impressing
other men. I can tell you, though, that I care
about impressing Patricia Lea Gillespie,
If that’s the sort of thing you’re worried about.
Ah, the father, disappointed that he’s not able to pass his brand of masculinity down to his son. Worried that his son is a softie. But this kid has anything but a weak personality, given how he stands up to his father and not only defends his love of poetry but flaunts it. The son picks up on what might be the underlying concern, that he’s gay, so he assures Dad he’s not gay, that one of the direct motivations for his love of poetry is the pursuit of Patricia Lea Gillespie (which just happens to be the name of Fairchild’s wife; she appears in several of his poems).
But Dad still has his ideas about what men, serious men, are, and what they aren’t, and he has no room for poetry. When is son tells him he not only reads poetry, but memorizes, it: “His eyes widened. Why would you do / a thing like that?” I can feel that. My father couldn’t understand why I bought books, why I asked for books at Christmas and birthdays: “You have books.” Fortunately, masculinity wasn’t part of my problem, just common sense.
And here the son gives a performance using the Dylan Thomas poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art” that he’s memorized for Patricia Lea:
I began, as I say, not just for the moment
but for all time and for all young men caught
in the rush of passion and sudden confusion
when the heart cannot speak but the man – oh yes,
the man – absolutely must, she’s so beautiful,
the moon in platinum waves rippling down
her raven-black hair, and I rolled down my window
of that piece-of-shit car and I sang it out, far out
beyond the stalks of uncut wheat, beyond the corn
and soybeans, oh ever beyond the soybeans, and even
the beef cattle standing mute behind barbed-wire
in a boredom so gigantic, so heavy it should
put God to shame….
And this story turns into poetry. The rustbucket car, the drab scenery, the motionless animals, the fencing, all lit up by this kid leaning out the window yelling words written by a decrepit drunk Welshman who couldn’t help writing poetry, heard by a father who “stomped the gas pedal / with each burning syllable” because this is not something men do.
And I remember the grim, tight mask of his face
inflamed now by the porch light as he lurched
for the front door and I sang to Kansas poems
I so loved that they became a kind of revenge.
Yes, this could be a story. But it has to be a poem, really, to underline the kind of revenge of a son, not really against his father, but against a rigid kind of masculinity he never understood any more than his father understood the life-giving force of poetry.
I tried to figure out if there was some technical secret to the poem, a meter, a form, something like that. All of its lines are approximately the same length, mostly 12 syllables. The first lines start out with a pretty rigid meter:
one DAY my Father SAID, GET in the GODdamned CAR,
and SO I DID…
but then it starts to metrically unravel, and by the time Dad starts telling him about his weak personality, it’s all over the place. So I have no idea why the poem takes the exact form it does, only that it must be a poem, must cram this high drama, this wildly varied scene – a great audition piece for an actor, I would say – into a format that’s stolid and predictable and unimaginative, and busts the hell out of it.
I would say that having a subject, or at least an idea that sparks my interest, or that I’ve been chewing on for a while, is important to me. I usually have an idea, or the seed of an idea, or a memory, or a word that’s nagging at me. The poem around the idea nags at me until I sit down to write it. And I write the poem mainly to get it to stop pestering me and leave me in peace. I do not consciously impose limitations, but I probably do limit myself in ways I am not aware of. We all do this, I think. We impose writing rules on ourselves that we don’t even know we have. I think when you discover what rules you’re imposing on yourself without meaning to, that’s when you have a breakthrough. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately: what are the rules I’m following that I don’t know I’m following? Of these rules, which ones are serving me well and which ones are holding me back?
~ Kathleen Balma via email
I came across Balma’s work several years ago, via Pushcart 2013, when her prose poem “Your Hostess at the T&A Museum” captivated me. We had a conversation about Juggalos, of all things, and the reaction of her hometown neighbors to a nonfiction article in the same Pushcart volume about the time the Insane Clown Posse came to town. Let’s just say they weren’t thrilled with how they were, and weren’t, represented.
Then, last year, I came across Black Spring Press Group’s Lockdown Series #4, videos of poets reading their work, on Youtube. Balma was featured, reading her poem “The Forgiveness Project.” I was captivated: at first, by the dog that kept interrupting her for the first minute, then by the poem itself.
I’ve said many times I’m not a poetry person. I stopped blogging most Pushcart poetry a couple of years ago, because I got tired of typing “I have no idea what to say about this poem” over and over; now I only blog poems that strike me in some way, either content or form or both. I also stopped buying poetry books, hoping they would show me what I was missing, but none of them did, they just repeated the same poems and talked about feelings that I didn’t feel.
But when a poet comes up with two – two – poems that really strike me, I have to check that out. I saw Balma had published a chapbook, Gallimaufry and Farrago.
My first thought was, “I wonder who Gallimaufry and Farrago are.”
Yes, I really am that stupid.
Turns out those two words are centuries-old references to food mixtures – a stew, and grains – that have come to mean a hodgepodge, a jumble of things.
The twenty-six poems in the chapbook fit that description. Some are humorous, some somber, and a few start out one way and end up another. Subjects range from Job to Abraham Lincoln to Sid Vicious. Many of the poems are about travel, particularly around Italy; some are rooted firmly in Balma’s Midwest. The book begins and ends with oysters (I’ll let that ring in the air a bit; I’m still thinking about it).
I’m (still) not a poetry person, but several of these worked for me. I’ll chose a few, culminating in the two – still my favorites – that originally brought me to this book.
A Tour of Pompeii’s Red-Light District
Along the top
edge of hall
(where a wall-
might go) is porn so old
we feel safe
Most of us have, at some point, in some way, encountered the remains of Pompeii, frozen in time by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. We may have heard of the plaster casts showing the last moments of those caught in the downpour of ash: a dog on its back, a pregnant woman prone, a man reaching for something, maybe a way out he never found.
But while we thought of homes and farms and markets, did any of us think of the brothels?
Yet, the brothels are there. Hey, even The Economist did an article on them. Penises are engraved on walls and floors. Menus of services, graffiti, all the things you’d expect. All from 1700 years ago. It’s… well, it sounds irreverent to say “funny” in this city of tragedy made concrete, but, come on, it is. Balma’s poem leads us there. Then it takes us back:
No poems here,
it seems –
this blunt graffiti
all that’s left.
No bodies either, now,
just ghastly casts
in vast museums, or
for those who hear
through time and ash:
This is one of the few poems where the sounds feel crucial to me: sounds that repeat across stanzas (“safe/saying”, “edge of hall/(where a wall”,) and, at then end, almost parenthesize the sharp stab to the heart we feel having just giggled at the idea of raunchy graffiti now immortalized: “ghastly casts….ghostly gasps.”
I associate two-line poetry with several things: conversations between two people, indecisiveness, and walking. Yes, I know, Dante cornered the market on walking meters with terza rima, but for the simpletons among us, two feet, two beats per step, it fits. That this poem is titled as a tour makes that a fairly good bet. But there is also that conversation with those who, so long ago, lived so much like we do. What would the ash catch us doing, what graffiti would we leave behind, if it fell right now?
“With his own two hands, Abe Lincoln built the log cabin he was born in.”
— from an American college student’s history paper
Theory 1: Out-of-Body Abe
The ghostly glob of fetal Abraham sneaks out of his mother’s womb at night with architecture on his budding mind….
Theory 3: Authorial Abe
Like many Abrahams before him, Lincoln enjoys limited omniscience whenever he writes speeches, treaties, bills, or commandments, and this has begun to affect his mind in arboreal ways. He often imagines what it must have been like for his Pa to construct their homestead. How many times has the teenage Lincoln built that same boxy lodge in his mind, amputating trees and sanding them to naked plainness, putting, perhaps, more care into it than his own father had? …Since the war began, he’s been adding rooms that were never there in his youth, and the walls are getting higher, so high the house is now a tower he must climb and climb.
This is just pure fun, but it’s also an interesting exercise in metaphor. How many ways can you figure out to have Abe accomplish the task credited to him by a student overtired from an all-nighter? And that last theory sends me right back to Richard Osgood’s “Millennium House”.
What the Traveler Knows
Every country is a cure for something;
…If you are irksome and rude
in your own land, there is another
where you are witty and direct; your voice,
once a pastel whine, now an atonal woodwind
I left home when I was eighteen because I knew I had to find my cure. The problem is, after that, I tended to get stuck. I stayed in places I hated because I was sure I’d never find anything halfway as good, that they were the best I deserved, that to look elsewhere would be arrogance, or pride. I wish I’d known this poem. This idea, that there is a place where even I might fit.
From the highly – maybe overly – florid phrases, we suddenly get real, almost Beckettian:
Look there, that palace, this tower,
yonder mountain peak – it’s the view
you were born to see, the perfect
finish to the shelf song of your life
so far. The end. Keep looking.
The end. Maybe tomorrow. The end.
Almost there. The end.
And yet, the end keeps getting put off, because there will always be another chapter to your life, every place will become a place to escape from. For some, at least. I think for me, I’ve found the place I want to die from. But who knows what may happen that changes my mind. The end? Keep looking. The end? Maybe tomorrow. The end? Almost there…
The Forgiveness Project
— after Szymborska
Who runs the project and for how long?
Are reservations and appointments a must,
or is it first come first serve?
Is there a suggestion box? A gift registry?
Will I need a witness?
Forgiveness is a core issue of mine, and this poem, by asking questions, raised more thoughts than even I had. It’s interesting that it’s the wrongdoer who is the focus here, not the wronged party. Forgiveness is a change in the wronged party. Nowhere do I see a guarantee that if one asks for forgiveness – presumably in all sincerity – it will be granted. Just like real life.
Maybe the confession booth has given us the impression that forgiveness is a transaction, as routine as buying a box of cereal or an indulgence. The poem underlines that by treating it lightly, but there’s a seriousness underlying that levity. I can’t define it, but I feel it. And here I am, sounding like one of those teachers I get so irritated with, declaring feeling with no evidence. But by making light of the subject, the rock-hard truth – that forgiveness implies a wrong, the infliction of pain, that “I’m sorry” doesn’t always heal even when it’s sincere – becomes more visible. Maybe it’s our irritation with playfulness on such a serious subject that stresses the reality.
But what if I take a different approach: what if apologies were offered by appointment, en masse? This is something like my (admittedly flawed) understanding of Yom Kippur. What if our errors were catalogued? Isn’t this what we imagine God doing – or even Santa Claus, keeping track of who’s naught and who’s nice? In Christian theology, sins are erased by grace, but does Santa keep track, we were not as naughty at age 8 than we were at age 7?
“Do poems count as admissions of guilt?” asks the poem. I remember (I hope; sometimes I worry that I just make these things up when I can’t document them later) that someone important in media said that America apologizes through its movies: for Vietnam, for Korematsu, and, someday maybe, for Guantanamo. But it isn’t America, the nation, that’s making these films.
I had to look up Wisława Szymborska, and discovered a Nobel laureate from Poland. There is a certain similarity to some of Balma’s work, but I’ve never been sure what “after” means; sometimes it’s a clear copy of a story, sometimes it’s a reply. So I asked Balma, with whom I had a wonderful email conversation. Her explanation:
Szymborska is and always will be my favorite poet. I understand the “after” to mean, “written as a conscious imitation of …”
“The Forgiveness Project” was written as a conscious imitation of a Szymborska poem that consists of a series of questions. I liked the form, so I wrote my own series of questions.
~ Kathleen Balma via email
I found a Szymborska poem titled “Questions you Ask Yourself” which could be a likely origin, but that requires confirmation.
From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum
If you will not tip me for my dance, tip me for daring to ask…. Tip me for staring back so hard it puts even Olympia to shame and makes her chat noire slink ever closer to her overlooked and under-rendered black maid…. Tip me for what you don’t see: the abstract; the invisible; the squiggly outline of the model’s brain matter in silhouette; the negative space plastered between fleshy objects like some happy vacuum, giving form to the nothingness between us.
I loved the return of the Male Gaze in this poem, the dare, the refusal of any shame; the redirection of embarrassment to the customer. Women have since Eve borne the burden of shame for men crying “Look what you made me do” like any five-year-old. No, says this character. Look what you are doing. I love the reference to Olympia, Manet’s painting showing a courtesan staring back at the viewer in a then-unexpected pose likewise free from shame. I love the use of anaphora (ha, see what I’m doing here) in the repetition of “Tip me.” And I love the closing line, though I’ll admit it’s a curious admiration, more of a desire to parse it, to get it right than an understanding of it.
When writers are kind enough to respond to my questions, seeing as I’m not exactly the New York Times Review of Books here, I like to give them a chance to add anything they wish. Sometimes they’ll mention an upcoming project, sometimes it’s more explanation of the work under discussion. And once in a while it’s something completely unexpected, like when I asked Robert Foreman what he wished someone would ask him, and he replied, “I wish people would ask me why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.” I didn’t know if I should pursue that line of thought, or call in a counsellor.
Balma’s reply was a little less off-the-wall, though unique enough to be intriguing: she got an outside opinion.
I just asked my partner, “Is there anything people never ask me that you think they should be asking?” He said, “I would ask you about your sentences,” and I laughed. I asked him to clarify. He said, “I’d have to research it to really articulate what I’m after, but I guess, not why you write but how you write, the particularities of your style. Your syntax. Your registers. Those are things I’m interested in.” I said, “You’d have to research your girlfriend’s poetry before you could ask her a question about her sentences?!” And he said yes. Then he said, “You write with subjects, sometimes themes. How important is having a subject that you’re interested in, and do you impose any limitations that relate to the subject? These are not very sexy questions. I’m sorry. I’m about to go get some fish. Is there anything you’d like?”
So that’s what conversations are like at our house.
~ Kathleen Balma via email
Then she turned that around into the opening quote above, a thoughtful consideration of process, what it is, and what it could be.
I enjoyed the chapbook, and I enjoyed the conversation. One of the most fun parts of writing these posts is that occasion, not a frequent one but often enough, of meeting a writer on, and off, the page.
Balma has a new collection, What the Traveler Knows, coming out soon; it includes most of the poems from this chapbook, plus a longer poem.
* * *
Kathleen Balma, Website and forthcoming collection
“Abraham, Honestly” – Poem by Kathleen Balma, via Cutbank, 1.75
“From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum” – Poem by Kathleen Balma at The Café Review, Winter 2011
“The Forgiveness Project” – Poem by Kathleen Balma, poet reading for Black Springs Press Group on Youtube
“Imprisoned in Ash: The Plaster Citizens of Pompeii” – Atlas Obscura on Slate
“The Grim Reality of the Brothels of Pompeii” – Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle, for The Conversation
“Millennium House” – flash fiction by Richard Osgood (Tin House)
I went to ReaderCon in 2011 to meet Mike Allen. He was the editor of Mythic Delirium, a magazine that, along with Goblin Fruit, had liberated me from the academic poetry tradition. I had learned to have fun with poetry, thanks to them, and I wanted to meet Mike and learn more. He gave a workshop on genre poetry in which he mentioned flipping perspectives. He made a stray comment about flies knowing their purpose was to die. I mulled that line over for years, and this came out one summer afternoon. I was sunning myself, in my wife’s garden. I had my notebook with me, as I usually do. There were flies around.
John Philip Johnson, Contributor Note online at Rattle
Checking out this poem has included more “You don’t see that much” moments than I’ve ever had checking out any poem. Like for instance, a contributor note in the original publication. A writer who writes science fiction, now writing graphic poetry. Graphic poetry. Poetry as comic book. Or is it comic book as poetry? A poem I thought was just fun, then took me somewhere else (whether it was supposed to or not). A book that’s hard to order (nevertheless, she persisted. Damn. I swore I would stop ordering poetry books) and turns out to be $2 cheaper than advertised.
The poem in its original form is available online (link below); go ahead, I’ll wait, it’s short, won’t take you more than a minute. Following the Biblical (or Taoist, maybe) format of the title, “The Book Of…” (could be Job, Esther, — Tao te Ching — but it’s Fly), it’s numbered following Biblical chapter:verse format. Chapter 1 is about living. Chapter 2 is about dying. The Living verses contain discrete sentences, one per verse. The Dying chapter, taking a somewhat different format for its somewhat different tone, is one longer sentence, divided for semantic impact.
Some of the Living verses are applicable only to flies (unless one really wants to build a towering metaphorical structure), to wit:
Feeding on the living is good,
but feeding on the dead is better.
Nestle your offspring in the rancid.
Shit is beautiful.
Some of them, however, easily apply to people:
If you land on the wrist that holds the swatter,
consider yourself lucky, not clever.
Remain humble, if you think of anything.
You only have a few days;
I can not only imagine those adages framed on the walls of my apartment (and oh if we could only see such sentiments in other places as well — university provost’s offices, corporation headquarters, Congress…), but also in minuscule cross-stitch on tiny little pillows in some fly’s house somewhere.
But it’s when we reach the second chapter that things turn somehow beautiful. Even though the diction lays it out in the starkest terms, somehow it all feels poetic and metaphorical:
And when you are licked
by the frog’s tongue,
or swallowed by a songbird,
or felled in a cloud of nerve gas
and lie twitching, unconcerned,
know that it is the honor of a fly,
it is its purpose,
When I first read this, I felt a rush of regret for all the flies I had so honored. The humor came second, and then a consideration, helped along by the comparisons invited in the first chapter, to our own situation.
Since we all do, is it our purpose to die?
A great deal of Christian rhetoric places death as the entry into Glory, the transition from the world to heaven. I’ve always found it perplexing that, in spite of that, the mostly Christian West resists death with every tool available to it, and mourns rather than celebrates a passing. Eastern religions as well see a transition rather than an end. Yet living is given its purpose, and death is an interruption, not a purpose in itself. Would we approach life differently if we believed that death was our purpose?
I do remember an Archaeology/Anthropology course from long ago in which the professor stated haughtily that the most important natural process on Earth is death: it allows for consumption, and makes way for new, and sometimes improved, life. Death as purpose is not completely out of the realm of possibility.
I started this poem thinking, Oh, how cute, and ended up contemplating purpose. That’s quite a journey to take on so few words.
When I discovered Johnson is primarily a science fiction writer who moved away from academic poetry to something called genre poetry, I laughed out loud. Then I discovered his 2019 collection, The Book of Fly, containing this work, and promoted as: “Graphic poetry, like Twilight Zone episodes! 48 Big Pages! Full Color. Enjoyed by people who don’t like poetry!” It isn’t that I don’t like poetry; it’s that I so often don’t understand it, don’t understand why it’s poetry instead of prose. Here, I understand the format, its connection to the text. So, in spite of my vow to not buy any more poetry books (a vow I already broke once this year), I ordered the poetry comic book. I’ll let you know how it goes.
to stay continually underwater, 4 percent cobblestone
(looted from cities in West Pomerania);
This is one of those poems that has so much going on it makes my head explode. And that’s just the stuff I can recognize; I’m betting there’s a lot more I’m not equipped (yet) to see.
One of the few things that has stuck with me from the poetry courses I’ve taken is that the voice of the poem cannot be assumed to be the poet; in fact, I was corrected so many times when I started out with “The poet says” to make it “the speaker says” that it’s become habit. This poem takes full advantage of that concept of separating The Poet from The Speaker.
The poem starts out with facts and figures, rather tedious, really, though it gradually brings the humanity of the situation into focus. At first there’s a reference to the looting of Pomerania at line 12, then to prisoners at line 15; we begin to see the horror of the scene – drugged prisoners on a forced march in icy rain, “the shoes prove more resilient than the men,” and the focus narrows to one prisoner fallen and drowned in the mud of the track. Then at line 26, The Speaker begins to emerge as distinct from the poet:
A chain-smoking corporal stoops to examine
the drowned prisoner’s upturned soles. Measurements
are taken. & thus David Wojahn has found some content,
another web search satisfied – prurient, calculated, cruel.
& now he retrofits these horrors into rime royal,
This is the point where the poem shifts, from recounting the story of the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen to recounting the poet’s rendition of that story; and The Speaker is Not Happy. The Speaker recognizes the work of the poet, using words and phrases such as device, skill, cunning, couplets, pixels, craft. The Speaker also seems to recognize that the poet means well, that he frequently invokes themes of social justice. But it’s not enough for The Speaker:
I would ask David Wojahn to step closer, to gaze
upon the shoe-walking track anew. The shoe-walking dead:
Bend down, bend down & touch. Stroke this bloated face,
with the left hand first & then the right, a bookkeeper from Danzig,
open-eyed. A bookkeeper, like your mother. You have fashioned him
& have betrayed him utterly. & for this you will not be forgiven.
From percents and concrete, we are brought to this intensely personal place, where The Poet is rebuked for his handling of an intensely personal tragedy. At some point The Speaker shifts from third person – “I would ask David Wojahn” – to second person – “like your mother,” moving even closer. There is no more intimate gesture between strangers than touching of the face, and not just once, but with both hands separately.
I’m fascinated by the grammar – yes, the grammar – of “open-eyed’: does this insist that David Wojahn remain open-eyed as he performs this intimate gesture with the bookkeeper drowned on the track he described in such detail, or does it refer to the bookkeeper, his eyes open in death? Or both, so they can gaze into each others’ eyes?
And that ultimate personalization, the dead man has something in common with The Poet’s mother. I’ve seen some social commentary to the effect that people suddenly become more sympathetic to another’s difference – be it drug abuse, sexual identity, or mental illness – when they discover someone in their immediate family is dealing with the same thing. Here, The Speaker uses similarity to connect The Poet to the bookkeeper, who is the subject of The Speaker’s Poem, rather than the composition of the walking track.
Now about rime royal: a seven-line pentameter with rhyme scheme ABABBCC. There are some aspects of the poem that fit this – the first four llines are ABAB, then there’s a couplet that has no rhyme, followed by another four ABAB lines. But the meter doesn’t really fit. The poem altogether has 42 lines, which divides by seven, so I guess if you squint it might work as a variant. But what I see is a progressive disordering of the rhyme scheme until it’s almost sporadic. Is the poem, which started out so rigidly with its percentages, fighting back? Was it initially under The Poet’s control, his voice, but then was taken over by… someone else?
Which brings us to the question of: Who is the speaker? Who is it who admonishes the speaker, who is it that will not forgive him for turning the agony of millions, represented by one drowned bookkeeper who can’t even close his eyes in death. Into proportional analysis? Who is it who is inviting more intimacy than those percentages can provide, who wants us to touch the face of the victims instead of counting grains of sand?
I think this is the question of the poem. Is it the poem itself, a poetic spirit of some kind who wrested control from a poet turning horror into neat little squares and precise rhymes? Is it broader than that, the aggregate spirits of the dead, or something that could be called God?
Whenever I write about stories that use dreams or premonitions as plot devices, I turn them back upon themselves and look at them as elements of the character. In this case, I turn The Speaker back upon The Poet. It’s the reading I’m drawn to: The Poet realizes his architecture fails his subjects, and rather than start again, he writes his own self-admonishment into the poem, and turns his self-rage into art.
Which might be the truest flow of any art: to simultaneously expose inhumanity, and turn pain into beauty. To comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
There will be no stars—the poem has had enough of them. I think we can agree
we no longer believe there is anyone in any poem who is just now realizing
they are dead, so let’s stop talking about it. The skies of this poem
are teeming with winged things, and not a single innominate bird.
You’re welcome. Here, no monarchs, no moths, no cicadas doing whatever
they do in the trees.
Back when I used to read submission requirements, I always smiled when I saw the dictum: NO RHYMING POETRY. Rhyme is so 19th century, so tenth-grade English class. We’ve moved beyond that now.
Apparently, there are additional rules. As the speaker lists them, I remembered: oh, this is paralepsis (yes, I had to look up the word even though I recognized the device), a form of irony and a clever way to bring them all into the poem, make it a celebration of the forbidden.
But why all the prohibitions in the first place? Because they’re not cool. They’re not cutting edge. We did that thing with the tree and the tiger and the daffodils already, we need to move on to new territory, and if your heart is moved by stars – or trees, or tigers, or daffodils – that’s just too bad. You’re stuck in the past, maybe take up book collecting and find your joy in those dusty volumes instead of turning conteporary poetry to mush.
And its that theme again, the theme the works in this anthology keep circling back to: irony vs. sincerity, cynicism vs. hope, where the earnest is intolerable while sneer and scorn and hard, sleek edges meet with approval.
I thought I was overreading again – I mean, come on, I must be stuck on this topic, seeing it everywhere, it can’t really be everywhere, can it? – but then I came across the poet’s contributor note:
I spent much of the last year unable to write. When I tried to listen to my interior, what I heard was a cacophony of accumulated voices telling me what a poem should be, what a poem should do—and, more disturbingly, what it shouldn’t. I began this poem as a genuine attempt to follow the rules I had internalized, but as I wrote the poem, I was interrupted by a strong urge to instead write about something that broke them—I wanted to write about the walk I took the night prior, in Madison, Wisconsin, and the brief, vital moment of joy that indicated my year-long depression might finally lift. I knew this risked sentimentality, earnestness, and vulnerability, things I had been told to guard against, but I was tired of the rules—I wanted to write the real thing, even if it wasn’t the ‘right’ thing. So I did.”
Paralepsis isn’t the only tool in this poem. I love her enjambments, mid-sentence line breaks that start you thinking in one direction then turn you around when you hit the next line. For example: “This poem has no children; it is trying /” leaves me thinking it’s trying to have children, but no: “ / to be taken seriously” as we all know a poem with children in it must be dabbling by some sentimental fool. Or the even more abacadabrous “no one / dies or is dead in this poem, everyone in this poem is alive and pretty” which is a pretty complete thought in itself, all the alive, pretty people, but again, the next stanza surprises us: “okay with it,” turning pretty into something else.
Then there’s the two-line stanza form. In the past, I’ve thought of that as a conversation between two people, even as walking (though terza rima kind of has that one nailed) but here, it’s more about this two-pole dichotomy, the tired (rhyme, stars, children) and the wired, which the speaker never really identifies. I’m thinking paralepsis, clever enjambments, and form emphasizing function might be within the Rules.
This poem will not use the word beautiful for it resists
calling a thing what it is. So what
if I’d like to tell you how I walked last night, glad, truly glad, for the first time
in a year, to be breathing, in the cold dark, to see them. The stars, I mean. Oh hell, before
something stops me — I nearly wept on the sidewalk at the sight of them all.
What a great ending. First, she ends with a single line: she has chosen a side after all. Then there’s that wonderful surprising enambment from “So what”: the ultimate in cynicism, the smart-ass answer to allt he sentiment, that resolves into this burst of earnest vulnerability she mentions in her Note, a burst that is made even more powerful by the denial that has preceded it.
I’m reminded of a Pushcart piece from a few years ago, Pam Houston’s essay “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately” in which she too defends sincerity against the Seinfeldesque quality of contemporary life. But here, the speaker uses irony and its variations (like paralepsis) to pay homage to the light of stars.
A long time ago, in some book I don’t remember, I read something like: “I was the rock and she the tide, but it’s the tide that shapes the rock.” Much more recently, I discovered that a couple of millennia ago Lao Tzu wrote: “Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water. Yet, to attack the hard and strong, nothing surpasses it. Nothing can take its place.” We’ve left all we perceive as soft – vulnerability, earnestness – behind in favor of strength and power. As Houston asked, has this really been a screaming success?
* * *
Complete poem and Contributor Note available online at Poets.Org
Chatti reads the poem on the Academy of American Poets Soundcloud channel
with a full gospel choir crooning behind him,
with twenty thousand spectators surging to their feet,
with an arena of flashbulbs flashing its approval,
and I’m spellbound, thinking it’s all so spectacular, until
the broadcast team weighs in,
and Charles Barkley says, “That wasn’t the greatest dunk,”
and Marv Albert says, “But the presentation was pretty fun,”
and I’m made to revisit what I thought I saw
as one question replaces all others—
Was it truly extraordinary?
When I read Doerr’s story “The Master’s Castle” a few days ago I went back and forth between the ending being one of hope, or one of delusion. This pivoted on my mood, varying from wonder and sincerity to a bitter cynicism. This poem crystalizes that pivot, beginning with a basketball dunk.
I’m totally ignorant of basketball except for the bits and pieces I see on Twitter (there’s someone named Steph Curry, right?) so I had to look up the scene that begins the poem. Fortunately, there’s a clip on Youtube that shows some kind of dunking contest, and this guy jumps over the hood of a car to plant the basketball in the basket. And, indeed, there is a gospel choir. And, indeed, one of the announcers (he’s a basketball player, too, isn’t he, this Charles Barkley?) immediately disses the stunt.
Now, I understand where he’s coming from, though I have no way to judge whether it was an astounding feat or not. In nearly every human endeavor — literature, art, figure skating, music, politics — there’s flash, and substance, and flash always impresses the audience while substance impresses the experts. There could be some jealousy there as well, but as I say, I can’t judge. But which it is doesn’t matter; the fact that there’s a difference is what the poem zeroes in on.
….I want to believe
in the marvelous, not because it feels authentic,
but because the alternative
is a world where no one dons a cape to leap over buildings.
No one turns lead to kindness.
No one sings the kraken to sleep.
In a kingdom that insists on repudiating all enchantments,
I feel catastrophic and alone.
Cynicism erases the marvelous, the enchanted, and leaves us with getting through the day; it leaves us feeling alone. Wonder lets us believe in things we don’t understand, in things greater than ourselves. In the extraordinary ability of an athlete. In miracles.
Do we have a choice between a viewpoint from cynicism or from wonder, from a hard edge of irony or a jumping-off point of sincerity? How firmly is it woven into our personalities to be one or the other? Pam Houston’s 2019 essay “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately” pled for a more earnest approach to life; I had some quibbles with parts of her argument, but overall agreed. I think a lot of us have see-sawed between cynicism and belief over the past few days years, so it may not be totally under our control. It may not be beneficial to be wide-eyed with wonder in all circumstances, but neither is a sneer the best approach to everything.
The poem then turns intensely personal: the speaker’s wife had collapsed at work, and a visit to the emergency room sent her home with no answers as to what had happened. Or if it would happen again. In the absence of knowledge, which do we go for, hope riding on a sense of wonder, or despair under the weight of cynicism?
The speaker makes a choice:
I will cling to any rationale offered.
I might pray or go to a church where a priest
tells a story about transubstantiation,
hands me a chalice filled with possibility.
And I know there’s no blood in there.
I know the wine will taste like wine. Still—
I lift the cup.
The Pushcart edition has an interesting typographical change here: “lift” is italicized. In the original poem as shown online, it isn’t. The lifting itself recalls Blake Griffin leaping over the car, rather than the dunk, which is downward. What does the italic do? Emphasis of the motion? A lift of voice? Does it add a degree of confidence to the lifting of the cup, thus to the wonder and hope that provokes it? And, of course, it could be a simple mistake, in which case, says the cynic, it’s meaningless; and says the believer in wonder, it’s not quite meaningless, since it’s that word that is mistaken, and maybe someone typing copy subconsciously heard a something slant.
This is another of those poems I’m nowhere near up to the task of discussing. Not because of obscurity or sophisticated poetic techniques, but because the message is overwhelming, damning, and I may only be reading parts of it. Fortunately, Williams has done some discussing of his own in a guest post at Poetry; but hold the celebration, as the explanation is almost as overwhelming as the poem.
The first section of the poem puts us in battlefield mode, not sparing any details of violence and death. The second section is something like an apology:
But I have not been with my feet on the earth
there where bullets make use of skin like flags
make use of the land. My thinking is as skeletal
as the bombed-out schools and houses
untelevised. What do I know of occupation
but my own colonized thinking to shake
This is often the ultimate argument against reform, whether it be of foreign policy or criminal justice: You weren’t there. Williams deals with this thorny issue of witness at a distance in his guest post; is it valid? Must we put ourselves in danger to speak out about creating danger? There is a flip side to this: the end of the draft with the Vietnam war has created the unintended consequence of an army of people who come from military families, or have few other options. Most Americans, including politicians who decide when and where troops are sent, no longer have skin in the game; it’s someone else’s kids being sent over there, another motif Williams puts to use:
The television tells me Over there, and one must point
with a fully extended arm to show how far from,
how unlike here there really is. Over there
where they blow each other up over land and God.
As though we don’t do that sort of thing over here.
The Pushcart edition of the poem leaves out images included in the published version at Poetry: three images of a wall made of the word wall repeated (the header image) with, first, the word child, then that word child rising via a cluster of balloons, and finally, a hole. Each image is followed by a description, evoking the description allowed in text-only renderings, that discusses the image. But the images themselves are worth seeing, a good reason to check out the original, linked in the first quote above. Still, the omission fits, somehow, with the ideas in the guest post, about witnessing from a distance, about sympathy vs empathy, and with the ideas in the poem about what it is to worry about over there versus here when we see one but not the other, and so can’t really see that they are, in many ways, the same, including some of the same horrors.
It’s a long poem, and complex, with stories of individuals, stories of countries, and the irony of forcing upon others the choice of American values or die.
What do I know of injustice
but having a home throughout which bullets,
ballots, and brutality trifecta against
people who were here before here was here
and people were brought here to change
the landscape of humanity?
There’s often a contemplation I often have, that by simply being here, being American, every child who starves in Yemen, every baby torn from its mother on the southwest border, every abuse in Abu Ghraib is done in my name: “…my wallet has made monstrous my reflection, / I have done terrible things by being alive. / I have built a wonder of terror with my life.” It’s way beyond boycotts at this point. There are days when I wonder why we’re all not marching in the streets. But we have mortgages and student loans and health insurance to pay and IRAs to worry about. The American Dream, a self-perpetuating machine, is its own best protection, and its design has not been by accident.
And now I ask the question that’s been on my mind with every poem in this volume: why is it written in this way? As usual, I have no idea. The language is evocative, but I think that’s primarily because of the content, which is mostly accessible. Based on the title, and the appearance of at least one other poem titled ‘from “Interruptive”’, I’m assuming this is part of a much longer, perhaps chapbook-length, poem. Interruptive means exactly what it says: something that interrupts. It’s not only interrupting the peace of mind where we can go to work and play video games and watch GOT and forget over there, but the poem is self-interruptive via those wall inserts. As I mentioned above, I think we maybe need to be a little more interruptive.
And about those walls: in his guest post, Williams makes clear he wanted the Wall to be unidentified, to apply to whatever situation comes to the mind of the reader, and he accepts the unpredictability of that approach: “…the poem is only as powerful as its reader.” The implications scare me.
The final image description conveys a kind of limited hope, or at least, aspiration to hope:
[Image of an eight-meter-tall wall bearing a hole in its center, or a 1.7272-meter-tall wall, which is me, bearing a hole in my center. I am the wall and the hole is what makes me better. I want to be better.]
Out of quarry-dust
he comes running.
Running as a crab runs
he comes out of the hills
The hills that own him –
as a lie comes to own
its person, like that.
and the hackles of the land
rise up behind him.
On the sub-zero
Range-land the deer
bed down. He –
harrowed, and holds
rivers of snow
and forgetting – he
It’s too bad this isn’t available online. It’s a long poem, in terms of lines and pages (about 7) but because the lines are so short, it’s quite short really, about 600 words. A page or two in prose. Sections are marked off with bullets, composed of three to six stanzas each. And each section contains something important to the progress of the poem, which is why I wish it were online. I can’t quote the whole thing, after all. This too fits with our discussion of the relationship of poetry and flash fiction: it’s what the flash people would call very tight, all essential.
But the stanzas, the divisions, the structure is also important, something I might not have fully realized until I read it out loud, dictating it into a text file for quoting. The short lines make for very fragmented reading, reflecting a subject who may be fragmented himself. My impression is of a homeless man, perhaps mentally ill, perhaps autistic, perhaps just worn out and depleted of his resources; fragmented, thoughts running through him and into the poem.
There seem to be two settings: at first, we see him in a wilderness setting, maybe a western plain, a place of sheepdogs and sagebrush.
In the morning, he –
stooped and stretches –
signs a song of praise
from long-ago, while
a little sun strikes
a little frost
on the skin of the earth :
some say the gate out is the river
some say the gate out is rain –
but I agree with those who say
that every gate is a gate of praise …
then sagebrush rattles
then out limps a tattered
sheepdog, thin and just like
Another reason I wish this were online: as printed in Pushcart, he signs, not sings, a song of praise. I hope with all my heart this is not a typo, because that little thing there is something like speed bump: slow down, pay attention. Notice the phrase enclosed in dashes, “stooped and stretches”, a slightly out-of-sync phrasing that appears elsewhere: “his hands are bitten and grease”, and made me stop and make sure I had it right.
It might also be a clue to the subject. Is he deaf or otherwise unable to sing? He hums later; maybe words are a problem. Is he from a culture with a gestural language? Or does he merely prefer it? It’s an interesting little quirk. And of course, it could be a typo, which makes it all the more interesting, adding in the mysteries of constructing meaning like a literary MacGyver defusing a bomb with a piece of gum and a fingernail paring. And, not for nothing, the Inverted Jenny is one of the most valuable of stamps, and various biblical printing errors are prized.
We then find out something more about this person:
He had a father
and a mother!
His dreams were
for beetles, of which there are 450,000
different species so far
identified. Or, Could you
takedown the heaviest
book from the top
shelf please? Read
to me more about
A is for Aviary ?
he would inquire.
Now sleep is all
the cathedral he desires
It’s one of those heartbreak passages, juxtaposing our subject in the past with the present. He once had a home, a home with lots of books, and loved hearing about beetles. Now he has no home, no mother or father, no books. What happened between then and now? I want to know.
The cathedral becomes a central image in the poem now as the scene changes to a city: “He lives on the steps / of the cathedral now. / Cardboard, wind tug / and rattle.” These are the accoutrements of the homeless: discarded cartons for mattresses, the elements. I also flashed on the medieval leper’s rattle, required of all those afflicted to warn others of approaching danger, but I suspect that isn’t really an element here. He points out the Angel Gabriel on the steeple blowing his horn, or maybe it’s a Native American (the term used in the poem; this is another insight into our subject, how he grew up, what he’s used to) with a peace pipe. He gives water to stray cats that gather behind the cathedral, because there’s no one else to do so, everyone having left the city for the summer.
The language gets more disorganized, or perhaps it’s just more symbolic. There’s something about a star and a certificate, about cheese for “for the mad dog who runs / through his memory // blinded.” A humming running through him like a tuning fork. And then a cryptic verse near the end:
Well, he whose
singing was a matter
of grave opinion
is now otherwise
employed. He is harness
and wind now, wind
The plot thickens. Was he a serious singer who failed a crucial audition? A pop star who hit the coke too hard? Or, and this is only because of the word grave, some kind of religious practitioner, a cantor or shaman, someone who sang or chanted for the dead or dying? It sounds quite free, to now be both harness and wind, or maybe something out of a Greek epic, the whip and the reins, impulse and restraint always fighting each other.
This is one of those poems that intrigues me, even though I don’t quite follow. Part of that is the subject, but it’s also the poem, which blends story and language in a way that makes sense to me.
Somewhere, people must still do things like fetch
water from wells in buckets, then pour it out
for those animals that, long domesticated, would
likely perish before figuring out how to get
for themselves. That dog, for example, whose
refusal to leave my side I mistook, as a child,
for loyalty — when all along it was just blind …
It’s time to abandon all the agonizing and just write about the poem, as I read it. I take a cue from the title: Monomoy is an island, now uninhabited and partly converted to a nature preserve, just off Cape Cod. I imagine the speaker walking around the island, enjoying the quiet and beauty, while various thought go through his mind. Maybe they’re triggered by what he sees; maybe they’re just what’s on his mind that day.
I can see four distinct though related thoughts. The first, above, might be triggered by the absence of artifacts on the island. The example of the dog feels terribly sad, but also shows that we construct reality, we don’t necessarily perceive it.
The speaker then considers vulnerability, how it can invite abuse and violence. He constructs a scene where someone overhears a stranger’s comment – “Don’t you see how you’ve burnt almost / all of it, the tenderness, away” – and tries to ignore it. We call it privacy, or feel embarrassed, but maybe we move away because the vulnerability might be contagious.
Then there’s a short riff on estrangement, sacrifice, drama: “then it’s pretty much the difference / between waking up to a storm and waking up / inside one.” One is objective, the subject as observer, a roof or a pane of glass or at least a sheet of vinyl between skin and wet; the other is subjective, drowning in rain.
The final section is a lovely little anecdote:
…. Who can say how she got there —
in the ocean, I mean — but I once watched a horse
make her way back to land mid-hurricane: having
ridden, surfer-like, the very waves that at any moment
could have overwhelmed her in their crash to shore, she
shook herself, looked back once on the water’s restlessness —
history’s always restless — and the horse stepped free.
That look back on what she escaped, that’s a beautiful moment, the physical reality of seeing the storm versus being in it, from the better side.
I’d thought the ideas that ran through the poem – the loyalty/need, vulnerability, estrangement, and escape from the storm – were in the sphere of human socialization, brought about by interactions with the natural environment of the island: the dog, the storms, the horse. But it seems it’s more individual than that.
The poem is one of the final entries in Phillips’ 2018 collection, Wild is the Wind. Jason Gray’s review of the book in Image was highly instructive, in that he saw Phillips using nature as Emily used her environs: “The horses, the sea, the leaves are his bees and Amherst garden.” I could see that: a sort of scaffold onto which to project meaning. But I was still in Soc 101.
Then I found an interview Sophie Weiner did with Phillips in New Limestone Review, in which he characterized the collection, not yet released, as more about love: it does look a bit more at what it means, I suppose, to believe in something like love, like the idea of commitment to love, once one is old enough to have seen how those commitments can turn out to be meaningless. How do we continue to believe in meaning, and why?”
I haven’t read the collection, just the one poem, but, yes, I can see that, instead of the speaker contemplating the human condition amidst nature, he’s bouncing off the solitude – a close, though not inevitable, neighbor of loneliness – in a more individual way. The dog’s loyalty that is merely need, the vulnerability, the estrangement, the horse in the storm, all take on different shades, and the pain comes to the fore.
My thanks for these various emails,
and regrets for not responding sooner.
I was weighing myself on the old-fashioned scale
in front of the druggist. It delivers your fortune
along with your weight – “your wate and fate.”
Mine was, to say the least, distressing,
but, like all prophecies, contained
in the narrow groove of its delivery.
John Ashbery died in 2017 after a life of poetic greatness. Poetic dunce that I am, I only became aware of him about five years ago via the Modern Poetry mooc (Modpo) lovingly cultivated by Al Filreis at Penn. Ashbery was a featured poet during that iteration of the course; “Some Trees” became the source for my own vid-poem during my mesostic phase, and his “Instruction Manual” likewise found its way into my “When MOOCs collide” video. The haunting “As Long As You Are” were the last words spoken in the final live webcast of the course, and left many of us around the world in tears. So I have a strong affection for Ashbery.
What I don’t have is the expertise to do him justice. But I shall give it a might try, as this is likely the last opportunity I will have in these pages. This is, by the way, his first appearance in Pushcart, presumably because he rarely appeared in small presses.
In the category of happy coincidence, my Vermont Poet friend Patrick Gillespie put up a post just a couple of days ago that used Ashbery as an example of what he calls representational poetry as opposed to notional poetry. One of the many useful ideas I found there, one that seems quite specific to this poem we have at hand, is: “Ashbery disrupts any notional content with a kind of notional incongruence that defies the communication of a larger, consistent idea or notion.”
The above quoted lines seem congruent enough, but then again… Does the speaker imply that he didn’t reply to the email because he was busy weighing himself? Or is the apology dispatched with in the first two lines, and now he is merely sharing details of his life, starting with the weighing?
Do those old-fashioned scales still exist, other than on eBay? Is this a memory of days gone by? Or is this more of a daydream, a fantasy, or a metaphor for a more realistic scenario, such as a medical appointment, or perhaps the routine weighing of oneself on a bathroom scale and discovering significant, unintended weight loss? It seems very much like the delivery of personal prophecy, one with menacing implications.
That line, “contained / in the narrow groove of its delivery” resonates, not so much with considering the source, but with my cognitive-behavioral training, the recognition that words are neither good nor bad, kind nor insulting, encouraging or scary, but that our interpretation makes them so.
These are all somewhat mystifying but recognizable ideas. Then the poem goes into metaphoric hyperspace about “The French doors of truth” and, while the speaker’s eyes may be open, I am lost. I don’t know what the “tragically hemispheric wall of our deliverance” might be; I keep wanting to connect it to birth, to death as a birth into something else, something unknown, but that seems a bit fanciful and unsupported. All I come up with is, we know we must come to an end, and we don’t know what comes after.
But what are the apples, the painted rags? Somehow I connect this with Frank O’Hara’s poem “Oranges” which involved a painting, paint on canvas. They were close friends, sometimes wrote poems in conversation; could this be another of those, to one who’s gone before? But that may be comparing apples and oranges, and I may need to see someone about my loose associations.
I realize I’m fully invested in the poem as premonition of death. That’s not a completely unjustified option, but I wonder what I’ve turned away from as I turned to this. How much does my prior knowledge of Ashbery’s death, combined with the persistent elegiac tone of this entire Pushcart volume, bear upon this unconscious decision, and how much is in the text?
Then to end the poem we come back to the concrete:
The horoscope wasn’t wrong, only a little late,
while I have stuff to do, and crates to open.
The crates feel urgent to me. Somehow I come up with the image of unpacking from a move, but I have a move coming up soon so I might be imposing that on the poem. Has someone else died, necessitating a move or some kind of rearrangement of belongings, and the horoscope’s prediction was of a loss, rather than of personal misfortune? In any case, the turn is from contemplation of bad news, to more mundane and practical matters. This is a turn I should take more often.
I wonder if this is itself a letter to O’Hara, or what such a letter would have been like had O’Hara not died young. If Ashbery’s mortality was weighing heavily on him, he might have had an impulse to write O’Hara again. In updating to email, it would be as if the lapse in time, acknowledged in the first lines, wasn’t that important, as if he’d been corresponding with the dead poet all along.
This O’Hara connection comes up only because it happens to be something I am aware of. That’s the problem, isn’t it. I’m unaware of so much, perhaps there’s another reference that better fits the bill. I just read a commentary on one of the Umberto Eco novels which declared that it’s a puzzle for the reader to guess the historical and philosophical references within; I wouldn’t stand a chance. How can this referentiality work, when each reader has a different exposure to outside material?
What of the title? I read this medically as well: one episode of syncope, of chest pain, of some symptom that is a harbinger of more to come. It would be possible to see it as more of an episode in a series, as of a television series or the real-life program of every day living. But I am pretty much stuck on this coming to terms with one’s demise.
I went through some of the PennSound material on Ashbery and discovered a 1966 interview on “These Lacustrine Cities”. He distinguishes between obscure and incomprehensible, and asserts the importance of a poem communicating something, even if it is obscure, because it can be easier to communicate some things obscurely. I was most interested in his preface, in which he explained what he was thinking when he wrote the poem, but he adds, this “doesn’t bear on the meaning since no reader could ever know”. He was thinking of the ancient lake dwelling centers in Europe, Zurich in particular, settlements of thousands of years ago with houses built on stilts (if I recall my History of Architecture, similar structures existed in Japan and in northwest North America), now only left in ruins. While the poem does not specifically reference these settlements, knowing about them made the poem a lot more meaningful to me; or maybe I just enjoyed hearing it, who knows. And sure enough, his explanation of the poem didn’t include any references to anything specific, but to ideas, emotions, motivations anyone can access. Identifying them, however, is the challenge.
The “notional incongruence” Patrick raised is not necessarily a bad thing. We often combine unlike images, find inspiration for the sublime in the absurd. “One commonly reads something to the effect that Ashbery’s lines should be allowed to wash over the reader like evocative abstractions. In other words, like art,” says Patrick in his post. And here I am trying to nail down imagery, metaphor, to present them like butterflies pinned to a board, instead of enjoying their flight.
Where Patrick is less than enthusiastic about words as art rather than meaning (his sentence closing that above thought is: “That said, the purpose of language is to communicate. Full stop.” I’m pretty sure I disagree with this, but that’s between Patrick and me), Meghan O’Rourke expanded favorably on Ashbery’s less interpretable technique in a Slate article from 2005: “The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It’s only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.”
It’s a poem that evokes the hell out of me (but is it the poem, or the associations?), but also frustrates me as I fail to catch the butterflies. Maybe that’s the lesson I need to learn, to just enjoy the pursuit. But then someone will come along and explain every syllable, and I will again feel inadequate to the task, stupid, unworthy of the oxygen it takes to keep my fingers tapping.
Oh well. I should get to opening some crates of my own.
Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash Delivery
A face is for other people’s benefit, a brochure gospel
undone by a mouth. I am the most marketable sin since 2004.
A smile that yields only bones, a mouth slick with restraint.
I am a good filament, a bright obedient electric. I speak,
and sometimes am found.
And once again, the disclaimer that’s getting worn out: I’m out of my element. But that’s what google is for. This seems to be another conversation in poetry, though I’m unable to locate the original Danez Smith poem that inspired it. I regret to say that, while I am vaguely familiar with Lil Wayne, at least the name, I’m unfamiliar with his work. Hey, gimme a break, I’m a senior citizen still mourning the breakup of Simon & Garfunkel; the only contemporary music I hear these days is on tv shows and ice skating competitions (yes, I’m really that boring).
The poem has an interesting structure, so at least I can start there. Each of five sections begins with some version of the sentence “Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash Delivery”, with each iteration losing a word or two from the end. Thus the second stanza continues:
Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash
body and especially my mouth, for-
give me my scholarships, for-
give me my name brand ambition, for-
give me my tattered skin on my G-Unit sneakers
how easy I drenched all the photographs
I’m not sure why the apology is necessary, if it relates to the speaker, to the poet, to Smith, or to Lil Wayne (or all of them). I do like the way the lines are enjambed by for-, which makes it sound like a continuation of “for this, for that” but is really a repetition of “forgive” hyphenated. And I’m fascinated by the sneaker competition between rap stars.
As the stanzas continue and the first line is whittled away, the language becomes less formal, until, as promised, the final stanza is a reframing of a Lil Wayne lyric, or possibly a mash-up of lyrics.
Fortunately, the poem is available online, so I’ll just step aside and get out of the way.
part of my fingertips, just as blue as anything
that ever was or will be blue—
–blue that dye aspires to, true blue
denied to any sapphire, Logan sapphire included, even
if she wears some
on those blue fingers, blue spreads, consumes her
as if she hatched from an Araucana egg:
SHE IS BLUE, fingers, bluest hands ever, Tunisian blue, Djerban blue hands,
shoulders, breasts, every
nook and cranny blue, big bad wolf says: how blue you are!
The better to blue you….
Complete poem, and audio of poet’s reading, available online at Abstract Magazine
April is National Poetry Month. As it happens, many of the Pushcart entries I’m encountering this month are poems. And a lot of them baffle me. I’ve been feeling pretty bad about that.
Like this poem. It starts with a nod to poetry, then turns into a paean to blue. Is the initial blue of the fingertip ink from a blue pen? The depressive nature of blue, the musical Blues, all roll by, and we get to orgasmic blues, blue as the color of sex. I always thought blue was the color of thwarted sex. I guess I was wrong.
So I was feeling quite … um, blue… about yet another “I have no idea what’s going on here” post in National Poetry Month. But then I started poking around, and discovered some things that made the poem much clearer to me.
The poem can be found in a variety of places on the internet, in addition to the Abstract Magazine site where it was nominated to Pushcart. Many of those versions differ slightly, and some of them mention it is in conversation with a poem by Bob Holman,. This poem, reproduced in an interview with Paulo da Costa, also references blue, the National Enquirer, a fly buzzing, and other elements that appear in Moss’s poem, including the orgasmic ending. In the interview, Holman explains:
What I am talking about here is of course not sex. It is about how you come to understand a poem. It is the same way as making love. It is a give and take between you and the poem. You never know if someone’s way of understanding a poem is righter than yours but it doesn’t stop you from having your orgasm with that poem, with that poet.
I wish I could believe that. I still cling to the notion that there is a right interpretation of a poem, which adds to my frustration as I keep trying to find it, always worrying about being wrong. Part of that is just my natural insecurity, but a lot of it is the byproduct of poetry classes in which, even in the most generous sections, one reading was favored. I’m quite fond of some unorthodox readings of a couple of poems, but could I stand behind them?
How about looking at the final lines of the two poems side by side:
Blue – Code Blue—
coming together, what a mighty tincture,
–not exactly at the same time, but coming, connected
Her fingertips writing a
….you never know
If someone else’s orgasm is better than yours
But that shoudn’t stop you
From coming together
Even if it’s not exactly
At the same time.
Based on the lines about fingers, Moss’s poem seems to focus more on the orgasmic quality of writing a poem, rather than reading/hearing it. But it could be a male/female comparison, or just two different people with different ways of communicating the same idea: that poetic interpretation is individual, and not a competition. And when you “get it”, it’s orgasmic.
Knowing Moss’s poem was riffing on something else helped a lot in dealing with the Enquirer and flies and such. I like conversations across poems, between poets. Even if I’m not sure what they’re saying. They know what they’re saying, and it’s nice to just listen, and see if I can hear.
Once again, I’m at an extreme disadvantage. But this time, I have some resources that can help. Take everything here with a pound of salt – I’m at the most superficial level of understanding here – but I think I have a glimmer of what’s going on here. It’s a poem about diaspora, separation from one’s origins, ancestors, and what can be lost.
From the starting point of Oppong-Yeboah’s bio, which states he is “a Ghanaian American poet living out the diaspora in Boston”, the poem speaks to the African diaspora via the concept of personhood, that is part of the philosophical and religious foundation of the Akan people of Ghana. The three philosophers who most clearly articulate this concept are Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, and Kwame Appiah, although Wiredu’s ideas differ from the other two; I’m slightly familiar with these names, if not the concepts, thanks to the recent six-month exploration of Africana philosophy by the wonderful HoPWaG podcasts. In addition to several excerpts, fragments of sequestered articles, and limited Googlebooks pages, I found two articles (Sykes, Antwi) to be particularly helpful in understanding the poem. Again, since I have insufficient experience to evaluate the reliability of sources, some degree of skepticism on details is warranted, but for the major ideas, these seem to fit nicely with the language of the poem.
The title of the poem, Kra-Din, is the day name of an Akan child; the first part of the name is determined by the day on which the child is born. The titles of the three numbered sections are the three aspects of personhood: okra (soul) originates with the deity, and enters the child at birth; sunsum (spirit) comes from the father, and mogya (blood) is contributed by the mother at conception.
The first section of the poem (soul) is in the form of a prayer/conversation with ancestors; the form is reminiscent of a chant. It starts out with great frustration: the dead are silent, say no, or speak in a foreign language, which, the speaker recognizes, is really his own, distanced now. “what parts of you / have you lost // that you now seek our forgiveness”. It ends with “I am learning let me succeed”; I’m not sure if the learning is the purpose of the speaker’s distance from the ancestors, in which case it is an explanation, or if it refers to learning from the ancestors, in which case it’s a request and apology. In either case, “let me succeed” is clearly a plea, a request for help or leave to pursue more.
The second section is prose-like, and serves as an expansion on the idea of sunsum, spirit. I have no idea if the Akan word for father is papa but it’s evoked anyway in the line “when we say sunsum papa we mean all that glimmers in the night when the moon looks into the face of a brackish pool.” Maybe a brackish pool holds all kinds of terrors, but to me, it’s a lovely image.
The third section, mogya, blood, begins with references to genealogy, appropriate since this is the part of the self that carries lineage and is received through the mother. It ends with something like a message from the speaker’s mother:
son, you come from a place called love
all our people are held in your name
it’s said, an entire sea of peoples pulled before a full moon
it’s said, the waves puddled and now each one carries their names
son, you come from what remains of them
our people braved water and discovered flame
This is the message of diaspora: don’t forget where you came from. It’s the message, for all of us, of family, of culture, of belonging: wherever you go, whatever you become, you are still you, and you still carry, and represent, those who made you.
A girl is swimming naked
in dark water. She doesn’t see herself
as graceful but the water tells otherwise,
the way it loosens and strikes
and burnishes. Exposed
ledges, rocks crumble on surfaces
and the surface of the water broken
by her body, marine and white.
In a discussion with Jake Weber, I mentioned that flash fiction often strikes me as having more in common with poetry than with the standard short story. My Vermont Poet friend Patrick Gillespie feels that some poems are really short fiction, or short essays, in disguise. I’d thought that might be the case here, but I’ve changed my mind. While flash makes use of language elements, I see some important moments here that would be lost if the lineation were abandoned. It is a narrative, if a short one, turning dark at the end.
I keep wanting to say the opening above is placid or benign, but is it really? The scene would have been ripe for gentle, flowing language, but there’s little lyricism; I’d call it rather neutral, factual. Look at all the words of violence ending four lines: strikes, exposed, crumble, broken. They are used in non-violent semantic context, but the position in the line, the enjambment, emphasizes them. The scene feels slightly tense, rather than warm and bucolic as it could be.
A boy joins her in the water. Again, we have a few lines of description – he’s small, probably pre-teen, a “mirror stripling” which seems to indicate he’s the same age as the girl – and some words of violence in nonviolent context: pummel, thrash. It’s not clear from the poem if they know each other, or if he just happens to go swimming at the same time.
The girl and boy
pinwheel in the water
and do not touch
but are connected by invisible currents
their bodies manufacture.
Is this going to turn into a romance? The connection might hint at that, but we will see this is not in the cards. “Days of this, weeks.” Is this time dilation, the afternoon swim seeming like forever, or do they literally swim together many times? I’m taken with the image of pinwheeling, which implies communication on some level, cooperation. Even with her eyes closed, she’s aware of where he is when he dives into the water. She doesn’t feel threatened. Yet there’s something not quite summer-day-magical about this; the language doesn’t go there.
The subvocal darkness becomes manifest:
Then, detaching itself from
sun, water, blasted rock
another body comes,
a grown man, all smiles
Whereas the girl and boy are introduced as that, this person is introduced as more of a thing, “detaching itself”, not himself, first introduced as a body, and only then as a man. The description is chilling. We’ve all known men like this, and we know what they’re capable of.
The punch in the gut comes from the final lines:
….I still dream
that the red haired boy held my head
to spare me what’s the man did
After the pulse returns to normal following the reading of such horrific lines, we can notice a number of things. First, we are spared the details; whatever happened is implied rather than described. This is a change from the close focus on the girl and the boy, even the man, who were carefully, if briefly, described. Some things are universal, need no description.
Second, these lines spring directly from the prior quote; there is no separation of the man with the smiles and cigarettes, and the recollection of brutality. The violence is attached to him, part of him.
The narrative point of view switches from third person to first. That’s interesting; you’d think that the pleasant memories of swimming would be more closely narrated from inside the speaker, with the attack kept at a distance, but it’s the opposite. This could mean that the beauty of the day was pushed into the background, and violence, running through the poem in subtle ways, is foregrounded in the speaker’s memory, not by choice, but because that’s what violence does: it ruins beauty. Yet, in this recollection, the boy’s hair color is foregrounded as well, maybe as a stubborn need to retain something good.
As for the title, let’s not forget that quarry has two meanings. A quarry is a pit left from excavation of stone; these are prone to groundwater flooding after mining is concluded, resulting in a somewhat dangerous but irresistible rural swimming hole. Quarry is also the hunter’s prey. Interestingly, these words, both from the French, have different origins: the pit comes from the Latin for square, while the hunted comes from the Latin for heart, the most valued part of a slain animal, often separated out. As such, both include the sense of excavation, removal of what is valuable. The implications for the poem are striking, as the girl still deals with what was removed from her that day.
The poem has an interesting publication history. It first appeared in the September, 2016 edition of Tin House, then was anthologized in Know Me Here, a collection of poems by women edited by Katherine Hastings; it is from this anthology that the poem was nominated for Pushcart. It was also included in Stein’s 2018 collection, Terrible Blooms, published by Copper Canyon Press; in fact, there are four poems in that collection titled “Quarry”, one in each of the four sections.
Although the poem isn’t available online, it was included in this year’s Visible Poetry Project; the resultant video, directed by Josh Phillip Saunders, includes the full text.
the sap that I am springtime
makes me want to reread Virgil’s
Georgics while eating cacio e pepe with fresh-shelled
Complete poem available online at Poets.org;
Poet reading also online at Soundcloud
Even I can see there’s a lot in this poem – which means there’s way more I can’t see – so let’s start from the beginning.
Pathetic fallacy has nothing to do with anyone being pathetic. The word, from the Greek for “suffering”, implies a connection with emotion; it’s only in the 20th century it’s acquired the pejorative sense in which we typically use it today. The Poetry Foundation, who brings you Poetry magazine, widely considered the premiere poetry journal in the US, defines the poetic term as : “the assignment of human feelings to inanimate objects…. emphasizes the relationship between the poet’s emotional state and what he or she sees in the object or objects.” This, too, has undergone some evolution; it was originally considered cheating, and is now accepted as… well, what poetry does.
While there are examples of pathetic fallacy in the poem (most notably, the spinach/heart; be patient, I’ll get there) I see the poem as a whole, even poetry in general, as an example. We say things like “this poem was sad/happy/scary”, and maybe that’s only a shortcut way of saying “it made me feel sad/etc”, but maybe not. The act of writing is a transfer of emotion; who’s to say that the poem – not the words on paper, but the aesthetic object – retains those emotions, and transmits them on reading.
Now, about that spinach heart:
…this morning over coffee I
watched a video of spinach
leaves washed of their cellular
information and bathed in stem
cells until they became miniature
hearts vascular hopes capable
of want to roll down a hill
of clover to cold-spoon chrysanthemum
gelato or to stop whenever
their phones autocorrect gps
The spinach heart is real, if a bit exaggerated; what was produced was a patch of tissue that beat spontaneously for three weeks. Seriously. Google “spinach heart” if you don’t believe me.
The poem imbues the spinach heart with the human emotions we connect with hearts. All the metaphors of the human heart is, of course, itself a pathetic fallacy, as the actual human heart is a mass of cells and no more loves or yearns than does your liver; that sort of thing is part of the mind, which no one’s quite sure how to define yet but the phrase “an emergent property of the brain” serves as a placeholder. So now we have a spinach heart (which isn’t a heart, remember, but a small piece of tissue) seen as hoping and wanting and getting pissed off by autocorrect. This doubling of pathetic fallacy delights me, but I’m not sure why.
Why Georgics? It’s in part a paean to rural life, to farming and beekeeping, with a political underpinning (at least that’s what various internet sites say; I have no idea), which makes sense in the light of the spring theme, the spinach, the hill of clover. As for the menu, I understand that. There’s a certain mood that gets me craving herb tea. I’ve never found an herb tea that I could stand for an entire cup, but still, the mood calls for it.
The poem goes some other places I’m not sure about; maybe “the earth has gotten sentimental this late in the game” is similar to implying emotion onto a poem; it isn’t the earth that’s gotten sentimental, it’s we who are sentimental about the earth as we continue to destroy it because dammit we want bottled water and air conditioning and SUVs but we feel sad about the wasteland left behind and the homes destroyed in storms-of-the-century that now happen every couple of years. But it comes back to a heart-rending finish:
….I wish I could scream
into someone else’s rain
Don’t we all. I’ve often said that just because I ruined my own life, that doesn’t mean I’m not able to see how other people should run their lives. Sometimes I even say it unironically; not being emotionally involved in a situation allows reason to prevail, lets solutions present themselves without fear or anger or love camouflaging them.
But, hey, remember when I said “pathetic fallacy” has nothing to do with anyone being pathetic? Well, the contemporary sense still hovers, even if we stomp on it and hide it under the bed, and a person who wants to scream in someone else’s rain might be viewed as pathetic. But that would be a fallacy.
I’m really reaching now, huh? Shut up, I’m having fun. Let’s go back to the beginning: “the sap that I am….” It’s a kind of reverse pathetic fallacy: instead of seeing emotion in sap (the stuff oozing from trees in early spring), the speaker considers herself sap (in the 21st century, a Sad And Pathetic person, perhaps originating from the earlier sense of being sapped of vitality) because of her emotion. I never realized what an interesting word “sap” was until I googled around a little.
The lack of capitalization and punctuation, irregular enjambment, makes the poem something of a puzzle. I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to parse the first couple of lines, wondering if this was another word-salad poem, and finally rewrote it with more traditional cues:
The sap that I am,
springtime makes me want to reread Virgil’s Georgics
while eating cacio e pepe with fresh-shelled peas.
This morning over coffee I watched a video
of spinach leaves washed of their cellular information
and bathed in stem cells
until they became miniature hearts,
This isn’t the only way to parse things, but it’s the way that made the most sense to me.
The question is: why write it in such a way? I’ve read some analyses of unpunctuated poetry that claim it makes the lines move faster, or results in varied readings, or just slows the reader down. It certainly slowed this reader down. In this particular case, what is lost by rewriting it in more standard form? The lines as written tend to take three or four beats, but I’m not sure there’s a pattern, and even if there is, what is the significance? These are not rhetorical questions; I really want to know.
So much here. I feel this post is disjointed, because I’m not able to quite synthesize it all into a whole; everything just comes tumbling out. Maybe that’s fitting in light of the format of the poem: the reader will need to punctuate as they* see fit. I should go back and edit out all the nonsense (as I often do), but no; I did have fun, and I’ll let it stand, for a future day when I wonder when I stopped having fun doing this.
*I’m really, really trying to get down with the gender-neutral use of the singular they, but it’s going to take a while before I can confidently write it without indicating it’s not a mistake.
From the dead. With pallbearers who are half as young
as their faces suggest and twice the oxen they should be.
Without a daddy at all, or with a daddy in prison, or at home,
or in a different home. With a mama. With a grandmama
if mama ain’t around, maybe even if she is. In a house, or not.
In the hood. In the suburbs if you’re smart or not afraid of white
fear or even if you are. Taking risks.
Complete poem, and short film adaptation, available online at MotionPoems
The first line, the first phrase, is killer. It’s not “title enjambment” as I call it, where the title of the poem is the first line; here, the title has closing punctuation, and the first line begins with a period, and all the sentences in the body of the poem are separate answers to the question. The first line is just the first answer. But that implication of “How do you raise a black child from the dead” sets the tone pretty firmly: although there are many ways to do it, it’s an uphill battle, with all the struggles all parents face, plus quite a few that only those of color have to overcome.
This is the second “duo” I’ve noticed in this volume, both regarding people of color. That is, two pieces approach a broad topic from different angles. The first duo was “The Whitest Girl” and “The Hunter”, exploring the interaction of Latinx and Anglo cultures. And now we’ve just read “Field Theories” examining the baggage that comes along with African heritage in America, and this story, which adds child rearing to the tightrope walk, raising the stakes even higher.
As with “Field Theories”, music makes an appearance, lightening the middle of the poem: “With hip-hop or / without. At least with a little Curtis Mayfield, some Motown, / sounds by Sam Cooke”. We all have our generational spreads. There’s a really nice section playing with enjambment that changes direction: “Putting some wood to their behind. With a switch. With a belt / to keep their pants high”. This leads right into a few phrases on high-ness, which comes back to serious business.
Then the final lines bring us back where we started:
With a little elbow
grease and some duct tape. Sweating bullets. On a short leash.
Away from the big boys on the block. Away from the boys in blue.
Without the frill of innocence. From the dead, again. Like a flag.
Every time a young black man dies because he looked dangerous or he moved to fast or didn’t move fast enough or might’ve had a gun that was a toy or a cell phone or whatever, and justice is not forthcoming, we raise from the dead, again.
This is also the second poem in this volume (Maggie Smith’s “Parachute” was the first) to be realized as a short film; not a Youtube video, an actual film with cast and sets and lighting. Purists may not like this: the film adds elements that increase emotional impact, and the poem should stand on its own as a work of language. I admit, particularly when kids are involved, there’s a tendency to bend towards manipulation. But I, with my weakness for sentiment and schmaltz and landing the familiar on the plagal cadence (those who have seen my “When MOOCs collide” video know exactly what I mean), appreciate the additional dimension of film. Poetry has been growing and changing since the first words were spoken; why shouldn’t it participate in technology. And these poems were chosen for filming because they were moving in themselves, not to make them more than they were.
The poem is from Charleston’s 2017 collection, Telephathologies, which examines various themes of Being American While Black. The word “telephathology” is real; in medicine, it’s the practice of pathology from a distance, literally. In poetry, turns out it means the same thing, except the distance varies with the reader.
Cover art by Toyin Ojih Odutola: “Lonely Chambers (T.O.)”
sold for poker chips
left cold left thawed left
bent into the yawp
This is the title poem from Bashir’s 2017 collection, described by publisher Nightboat as “melding blackbody theory (idealized perfect absorption, as opposed to the whitebody’s idealized reflection) with real live Black bodies”. That makes an incredible metaphor, doesn’t it.
While I have some grasp of that description, I’m afraid I have little grasp of the poem except in bits and pieces, individual phrases that stand out to me. It’s a poem that begs to be read out loud, with some phrases sounding much more interesting than they look on the page (“We’ll / build a fort and fill it / with maple trees gone gaudy // with cobalt wishing stones”. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work?
It includes references to slavery, to darkness, Christianity, mythology, and no doubt a hundred things I’m not able to pick up on. Again I’m in the position of wanting to apologize for not being able to read well enough.
… Huh ? music ?
music anyone ever really heard us sing?
let’s move this :anyone ever asked ?
even so we sing all day period even so we pass
our days whatever ways we can –
we know some folks don’t listen.
Just look. And trace. Look :
what is a thing of beauty
if not us
What is a thing of beauty
if not us?
That “thing of beauty” stanza appears three times in slightly different form, including the final stanza above, which does not end with a period, indicating the continuing repetition, maybe intended to be repeated until it’s believed, by us, by them, by everyone.
A fount and then silence. A none. An ellipse
between — his breath through
the seams of our windows. Whistle
of days. Impossible bowl of a mouth —
the open cupboard, vowels
rounded up and swept under the rug.
2. DOES YOUR CHILD PRODUCE UNUSUAL NOISES OR INFANTILE SQUEALS?
He’d coo and we’d coo back. The sound
passed back and forth between us like a ball.
Or later, an astral voice. Some vibrato
under the surface of us. The burst upon —
burn of strings rubbed
in a flourish. His exhausted face.
I was stuck on this poem. It’s moving – of course it is, how could it not be – and the use of unusual form is right up my alley. I started working on ways each “stanza” answered the question asked. The first question of losing speech is answered by a lovely image of “a fount, then silence”, and ellipse, words stored in a cupboard, vowels hidden. A question on repetitive language evokes a “pocket in his brain”, grooves, tracks. When asked if the child “speaks gibberish or jargon”, the speaker raises a defense (or admits denial) with “We make symbols of his noise”. One verse acknowledges the boy does not inhabit the human world of language, but sensation: His god is not our words…. / It is entirely body.” Frankly, on this topic, anything would evoke emotion, and these images bring truth to the questions. But I didn’t feel like I had it.
Then I did my usual google around for other ideas, and found a blog post from Dora Malech on the Kenyon Review website that crystalized the power of the poem: “The fairly flat interrogative language of the questionnaire serves to highlight the intense intimacy and arresting sensory detail of De la Paz’s own writing.”
In the immediate sense, the poem is a heart-rendering story of one family and one child. But in a much larger sense – and this may well be expanding beyond the poet’s intent – it’s a look at how every day, people try to deal with the questionnaires our medical system has come to rely on. The reductionism is mind-boggling, just as the world the speaker in the poem creates with his answers is worlds away from the yes/no answers the questionnaire demands. So much information is lost. A child whose parents don’t give the right answers might be shuttled into a fruitless category. Does any truth remain, except in the speaker’s mind?
And worse, does demanding answers that conform to research protocols change the perception of the parent? Will he edit his own perceptions, see what he’s told is important rather than what is there, see his son differently, as a series of yes/no answers, rather than as a person with his own approach to the world? Does that help the boy?
Zoom out even more, and it shows the consequences of reductionism in a data-driven society. Cost/benefit analyses result in lead in Flint’s water and a fire in Grenfell Tower, resulting in who knows how much loss in human potential, how much suffering to come. Students deciding on computer science majors when their hearts are in history or art might well result in lowered quality of work in all disciplines in the interests of selling more iPhones and creating a culture that sees – and respects – only cost, not value.
Every wrong form
is a form which represents us in our losses,
if it takes us another world to understand.
It comes back to a little boy who has something to say, a parent who can’t understand him, and how to bridge that gap. Maybe the answer is found in the gap between the questions and answers.
I am walking along the dazzling ruin of a road I knew
When I was fourteen, summer, and the days stretch out
Like the road itself, or like that song about a road heading
Somewhere far off into the unseen and the one walking, Caminante no hay camino, knows he’s come upon his life
Rising up to him in white quartz macadam and heat-haze.
Immediately, a yellow glow of nostalgia fills the page (in spite of the white of the road). Is this a dream? A memory? Either works. In any case, the speaker is brought back to another time, to the neighborhood star Dante Tedeschi, known as Boone for reasons that are not disclosed.
It’s a time in the late 60s, perhaps, a time of patio parties and citronella candles and whisky sours, of bikes with banana seats. We’re told an outline of a story of Dante pulling an Evel Knievel stunt on his bicycle, and because the tone is hushed and reverent, we expect this to end in tragedy, but no. Dante is the kid with the “incongruous swagger and coke-bottle glasses”, who “attained whatever he desired, slaughter / On the game board, sliding catches in left-center / On Power’s Field, even the soft-limbed Patty of dreams.” A good kid, it seems, remembered affectionately.
But we know there will be something that brings the poem to an end, a reason he is remembered so vividly. And there is.
He was first to go,
The buzz coming by phone one winter evening
After those summers had disbanded to intimations
Of more necessary longings, for jobs, for departures,
The bullet passing clean through his skull at a sister’s
Wedding, the trigger pulled by the groom’s hand.
What he had done or said, none of us would come
To know, though all of us could hear inside
That rapid fire laugh, haughty, untamable, and saw
His shambling, self-assured walk as in a heatwave
Off the White Road, Dante alias Boone, in saddle
On his Schwinn wheeling breakneck from on high
Down Heart Attack in the mind’s would-be perpetual
Now, hair flying, pot-holes loose gravel be damned,
Down to where the rigged ramp rose upward above
The waiting lake, our crowd of bored numb-nuts cheering
As bike and rider flew treacherously up into the air
And out beyond the shore, and disappeared—circlets
Of waves radiating out like visible ticks from a clock face,
Slowly softening into nothing one by one by one
As we waited for the quick-eyed, impudent head to rise.
The holes in the narrative (why did this happen?) match the holes in the reported memory (why was he called Boone?) and perhaps are details not considered important. Maybe we’re better off not knowing, not remembering some things, if we’re going for the golden glow of nostalgia.
It’s almost an elegy, turning from the summer of golden nostalgia to the present to show a white road going forward, a way of remembering Dante, waiting, again, for him to surface.