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Innocent Brilliance: James Schuyler’s Other Flowers
Posted By Michael Klein On February 9, 2011 @ 8:00 am In Poetry and Poetics,Reviews & Interviews | 1 Comment
James Schuyler is back from the dead with the lovely “Other Flowers” a posthumous book of his unpublished, uncollected poems. Everything I have come to know and love about Schuyler’s eye and heart is here in generous supply. The poems are – like so many of the poems published in his lifetime – made from a kind of brilliance disguised as innocence; a sadness disguised as joy. They feel closer to jazz and painting than to another kind of poetry. And, like they are peculiarly of their own time: still timeless as any poetry this indelible (though more in the sense of memorable than something held down or restricted by an era), but they are also poems that feel (somewhat like Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard and, later, Frank Bidart) almost immediately nostalgic.
The subject matter here is still the same as it’s always been: New York, adventures in intimacy, pop culture, gossip, longing and traveling and most of them are famously brief in scope of time and how they fall upon the page. In their brevity, they feel as important and quietly beautiful as leaves we use as summer bookmarkers.
What I find most fascinating about Schuyler’s poems (and probably one of the most interesting aspect of this collection is the fact that there are probably more not so good poems than in his other collections) is how slight they may appear and yet are not slight at all. Like interpretive inkblots that use tea for color instead of ink, the poems are there and not there; emphatic, authoritative, but also whispered. There’s confrontation and resistance – exemplified, in part, in “Vila Della Vite”, which tracks the desire to be a different kind of thinker than he already is:
I’m not happy
My spirits that lifted
me so high, went off like smoke
after a shot. How can
I fear so many diverse things?
I want to think of other things.
Is it all
in how you think?
I want to think of a washing machine
in a basement….
Being a different kind of thinker than he is or wants to be is actually one of the aspects that makes Schuyler such a great poet, if that makes sense. His intelligence is fixed in time but it is also mutable as the subjects it lands on, and rather than the heavy hand of the writer casting a shadow on the subject and/or cadence of the poem, the poem casts the shadow on the writer. In this way, each poem is its style:
It darkens, brother
and your crutch-tip grinds
the gravel the deer stepped delicately along
one breakfast, you were a kid.
Mother says after thirty,
decades clip by
‘and then you have the sum’
or spent it.
(From “Coming Night”)
And each poem – especially this one – is stacked in terms of form – a way of making information happen by making each line take on a different subject – what Richard Hugo talks about in his book on poetics, “The Triggering Town”. Here, each next line in that first stanza stands in unison and independently: it darkens, there’s a crutch-tip, gravel and deer, breakfast, Mother, decades, the sum, and then “or spent it” – the culmination.
And while the eye in many of Schuyler poems is in a beautiful gaze about making the moment larger, the mind is also wondering what is really being seen, considered and what the stakes are. Each poem in a way – whether it literally asks a question or not – is wondering who someone is, what something is. Each poem is deceptively simple in that inquiry, but mysterious, too:
The mind dies down.
Nerves, unsheathed, stir.
Radios. A water tap
Depart, flesh, trailed
by barbwire hair. Sea salt
explores lips of lacerations
cut on you like a christening
nick. A yellow light
in blue light. Twilight
and hydrangeas watery
through hedges. Was the hideous
lesson worth the pleasure?
(From “The Exchange”)
It’s so good to have these poems in the world now; to have James Schuyler back, uncollected, saluting the various field: these other flowers.
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