The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Woody Brown. Woody reads his short fiction piece “Sillyhead,” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Woody Brown. Woody reads his short fiction piece “Sillyhead,” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.
New Year’s in Corfu
Above the village of Gastouri, during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign, Corfu’s Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, summered at the Achillion Palace. A recreation of a Phaeacian Palace, it was used as a hospital during World War II. It was later transformed into a casino.
I would have kept us as we were
above the village of Gastouri
in winter, pensiones closed,
vineyards ripe with kumquats, fennel,
stray cats crouching under rain pipes,
olive nets damped down with mud.
Even though it was not our island,
not our goats to unchain from the hills’
Phaeacian ruins’ stiff-jawed rockrose,
each tree scraping starfish from the sea,
each beach a frieze of Odysseus’s shipwreck.
Even though the road to Perithia
was brocaded shut with ferns,
the stone fields fevered with poppies,
and Mount Pantokrator sloped with crocuses
where we walked to that high monastery,
gold-headed thistles igniting the apse.
Even though we lost our way
in the island’s windy basilica halls
where goat bells clanged for its Old World Empress
whose daughters, dogged in winter pelts,
sprawled on marble by the icon kiosks,
and priests, swinging their rust-gold lanterns,
darkened the storefronts of lingerie
on the cold slate sun-bleached promenades
of gold-foiled chocolates and baklava bakeries,
dim bulbs half-lighting skinned lambs on hooks.
Even with the shepherds sinking beer cans into fog
to measure the tide of their clambering sheep,
their bleating and beclouded Ionian Sea—
even at that bottom of January,
the Sirocco blowing through Judas trees,
Santas noosed from loose shutter hinges,
a freezing rain hoofing over roofs,
and the two of us, embers in an emptying tavern
with an out-of-tune bouzouki band,
spinach pie and gritty wine—
I would have kept us as we were
knowing that the spring would bring
its umber clouds above the sea,
the casino re-colonized by black moss
and tulips, and Calypso’s spellbound
mirage of an island, shingled with egrets,
would fade in the tradewinds
as the fishing boats flashed off
their last-catch starboard lights,
and the Virgin of Kassiopi, the Saint of Sailors,
would throw her crossbones overboard,
blow our votive out.
Jennifer Elise Foerster received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (July 2007) and her BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico (2003). She has received fellowships to attend Soul Mountain Retreat, Naropa Summer Writing Program, Idyllwild Summer Poetry Program, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center. From 2008-2010, Jennifer was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Of German, Dutch, and Muscogee descent, she is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, and grew up living internationally. Jennifer lives in San Francisco.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Neil Shepard.
I am found kneeling
beneath the last
_____blasted tree. Winter
on my shoulders
and a sparrow’s red skull lodged
_____in my mouth.
I have cut my hair
to feed the fire. Remnants of a city
_____dusting my lips.
No nations left to die for
or hide in. Only this voice—
_____woven through the cracks
of a halved piano: that sound
a doe makes when the arrowhead
_____replaces the day
with an answer to the ribs’
quiet hollows. I reach
_____for the charred branch
and push. Blood dots the dust
beneath me. My wet face titled
_____skyward. I push until he starts
to crown, my name already dripping
from his lips. He writhes
_____through me, scraping
for that precious shard
of light, where the wolves
_____have already gathered—
their half-moon fangs
brightening the hour. But I push
_____anyway. I open. I wound. And you—
dear reader, you will call it
_____of Adam. And I,
the fool who chose
to live, I will call it
Born in 1988 in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is the author of the chapbook BURNINGS (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010), which was selected by the American Library Association’s “Over The Rainbow” list of recommended LGBT reading. He is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship, a 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as six Pushcart Prize nominations. Poems appear in The American Poetry Review, Verse Daily, RHINO, Southern Indiana Review, Guernica, South Dakota Review, and Passages North, amongst others. He keeps a blog at www.oceanvuong.tumblr.com
TY: I want to ask about line breaks, which can do a lot of work in free verse poems. What principles or rules or guidelines do you use when deciding when to break lines?
CW: I try to rely on composition as much or more than instinct. First of all, I aim to compose in lines. I don’t think of line breaks as an afterthought. For me, it’s helpful to read aloud while writing since line breaks are in part about breath. And relating form to content is essential. A poem whose energy is equable may want end-stopped lines with contained images, while one whose energy is frenetic or about a certain kind of momentum may require a type of enjambed composition. I ask myself, what is the poem trying to do? Different line breaks evoke different sensations.
While free verse isn’t governed by rules of meter or rhyme, there is no question that writing free verse can be informed by understanding how they work. I’ve found that experimenting with forms, especially with obsessive forms like sestinas and pantoums, has helped me see how lines work. It’s not surprising that the writers who proposed the radical idea of free verse in the early 20th century were fluent in meter and traditional forms. Discipline was a means to liberty.
Francis Ford Coppola said something that I relate to this topic; something that has stayed with me. When filming Apocalypse Now, he told Dennis Hopper, “If you know your lines, then you can forget them. But it’s no fair to forget them if you never knew them.”
I like that in part because his ruling of “no fair” sounds like a playground outburst. After all, there’s a certain amount of play as well as rebelliousness in creating. But he underscores the need for laying groundwork before launching squally inventiveness. Similarly, Charlie Parker said, “Learn the changes and then forget them.” Not that writing is the same as interpreting character before a camera, or improvising onstage. But there’s a similar sort of negotiation that is best entered with knowledge of the constraints and a certain amount of skill working within them.
TY: How do you know when a poem wants to be in sections rather than presented as a whole block?
CW: Different stanza structures offer different rewards to the reader, so I consider what I’m trying to achieve with the piece. I use similar judgment regarding stanzas as I do with lines: I try to bring the concerns of content to the needs of form. Changing theme, shifting imagery, musical modulation, the need for a strong pause are some things I consider when determining stanzas. As with lines, experimenting with stanzas brings to light for me the various ways they can build or temper tension and sustain the reader’s investment in the piece. I have a poem called Velocity about a drive at night and the rush of images the narrator sees in her headlights. I presented that piece in a unified block. The content was about an almost manic state and presenting the piece in a unified block created an unremitting tension that mirrored the narrator’s experience. Another poem in “Bartab”, Belly Up, is the expression of a kind of spiral of ruminative thought or anxiety. The same kind of stanza structure would have been too much. Ordering it in carefully composed lines separated the movements and mitigated the tautness.
TY: Some writers talk about inspiration – a Muse is the traditional term – is there anything in your life that inspires you to write and keeps you going when you don’t feel like it?
CW: I grew up in a very isolated place in the rural South and spent a great deal of time alone. That solitude along with an unpredictable and often violent home environment cultivated my imagination by necessity. In those years, flights of imagination were corporeal needs. They were acts of survival. Music and dance and language were terribly important to me. And they still have a power and magic for me that reach beyond fleeting pleasure or escapism. I’ve always tried to write songs I needed to hear. Now I try to write what I want to read. A startling image or seemingly insignificant detail can draw together a moment of unity or emotional clarity. This aspiration continues to summon me. Writing is also an urge for catharsis; a way to exorcise elements of my past and to process it. I know it sounds bizarre, but I have long felt that writing for me is a way to dialogue with generations of my family.
While I do it differently than I did years ago, for me inspiration requires surprise. When I was younger, I bought into the idea that an artist has to live a life of violent transitions. If I wasn’t feeling inspired, I felt it was my duty to go out and challenge stasis. I felt I could only draw on the experiences of upheaval and privation and exhilaration. I’ve outgrown that self-destructive urge, but the need for surprise remains.
Since I was a teen I have rather defensively defied traditional gatekeepers who hindered my efforts at getting my voice and work into the world to connect with a listener or a reader. I’m still driven by this. Before I began the manuscript for “Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad”, I had inherited a bit of the cultural disdain for feminine forms of expression, for the journal or diary. But after confronting events I couldn’t have possibly anticipated, I made a decision to work within personal narrative. Considering the challenges and dangers confronting girls and women, as well as the silence and secrecy surrounding those perils, telling our individual stories can be politically empowering. I teach writing workshops to women in recovery. When you give permission to these women to write about their lives, to talk about things that aren’t part of the cultural dialogue, it’s powerful. You can see the inception of a transformation. I’m inspired by the idea of a similar exchange with a reader.
I could go on about this topic. For example, I would love to talk about Lorca’s “duende” and how my pursuit of it has been important to me since I was a much younger writer. Suffice it to say, I find inspiration everywhere because I like to solve problems. I get excited when I read something that succeeds or excels in what it aims to do. I want to know how the writer achieved that and I set about figuring it out.
Perhaps more important than the question of inspiration is how to persist in its absence. For me, the answer is just that – persistence. Perspiration is more reliable than talent or inspiration.
TY: I hear lots of sound devices in your poems, which is one of the ways even contemporary poems can sound musical. Have you been influenced by music in your writing? Or how did you become conscious of and use sound so well in your work?
CW: I’ve absolutely been influenced by music. I grew up drenched in music of every kind. I was taught nursery rhymes from a very young age, and memorizing Bible verses was very important. We had songs and rhymes for every occasion when I was small that I still remember – a morning song, and one to say goodnight and even one for when I came out of the bath! It was great stuff, really instructive in language while filling me with delight. Not surprisingly, my first poems were really just juxtapositions of different words that were interesting for their harmonic interplay, if you will; experiments with the music of language. Today when I’m at work on something, I have found that reciting it while walking helps me explore its rhythm. I’m very conscious of poems as something read aloud, the physical sensation of their recitation, how it’s like singing. When talking with excitement about something I’m working on, I frequently slip and call a poem a song and vice versa. It used to cause me chagrin, but now I look at it as a blessing, the fact that there’s unity in the things I love to do.
TY: What writers do you return to most often? Why? What is in their work that continues to teach you?
CW: Andre Dubus, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Susan Minot, Breece D’J Pancake. When I was a student of Gregory Orr, he talked to me about creating one’s family of writers, and I think it’s essential, really. Among poets, I’d say Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Jane Kenyon, Gregory Orr. I love how Simic never gets in the way of the poem but trusts the unadorned image. But in talking about what I admire and try to learn from these writers, I could devote several hours to each.
Cesca Janece Waterfield is a journalist, poet, and songwriter based in Virginia. She has been selected three times to receive songwriter grants from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She is the author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press). Her poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. She can be reached at cescawaterfield.com
:“What are you dreaming of?”
:“But you are on the ice.”
:“I am thinking of the ice I will be on.”
:“We are standing on the ice right now,
facing each other. We are on the ice
touching lips, we are squinting out
at sails that move as if on a track.”
:“I only know that we have not fallen through.”
:“What are you dreaming of?”
:“But you just dreamt of ice.”
:“That was a different ice. This time we
are indoors. The light is blue in that
underwater way. The sadness is dimmed,
and at the end of the day, you are fetching.”
“What are we looking for?”
:“I can’t remember.”
:“What are you dreaming of?”
:“But we are indoors. Blue light, et cetera.”
:“No, we are standing at the edge where
the ice breaks against the sand, triumphant.”
:“Where will we go when it splits in two?”
:“When what splits?”
:“The way I know all of your et ceteras exactly.
And the mornings when we track the orange
light from under blankets, watch strings
of dust sway in the ceiling’s breeze.”
:“To the ice. I will be in the middle
of the lake, out past the barriers, and you
can pull me back to shore.”
Oliver Bendorf lives on an isthmus in Madison, Wisconsin, where the ice cover on the lakes is shortening every year. His poems have been published in or are forthcoming from Best New Poets 2012, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Redivider, The Volta, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Iowa City, Iowa, he is currently the Martha Meier-Renk Distinguished Graduate Fellow in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he edits Devil’s Lake.
By Christopher Kondrich
Parlor Press, 2012
Music, for being such a well-diffused cultural product, can be challenging to adequately write about. Like many creative disciplines, it commands its own lexicon and sits atop a tall barrier of entry. But this shouldn’t preclude anyone who wants to get hip-deep; we’ve all experienced music to some degree and should attempt to verbalize our reactions to its influence.
Then you have folks like Christopher Kondrich, a poet who is clearly comfortable writing through the influence of music in his latest collection, Contrapuntal. The first instinct one might have with a book titled after the musical theoretical concept of counterpoint (two or more melodies moving with respect to each other), is to look for counterpoint’s influence on the book’s metrical and sonic aspects. Such an approach would not be a mistake, but Contrapuntal is more than a book of poems informed by musical theory. Kondrich transposes counterpoint and lyrical melody in a book that, yes, deserves to be read aloud (as most books of poetry do).
Four sections comprise the book, and each one is made up of mostly single-page title-free poems that read with a clear, slippery speed. The lines are mostly short enough to slide into one another without any friction on the surface, prompting the reader to stop and revaluate the lines being read. This is a metrical way of demanding a closer inspection, and the poems work for it. Without titles to ground (or disrupt) particular readings of each poem, it’s easy to lose focus on what the aim of each page may be, but the poems channel and direct the reader well.
Between “T”(“Tim”), and the narrator, a slight narrative emerges, but the dates and times are unclear and not really the point. They’re more like those previously mentioned melodic lines swirling around each other, occasionally harmonizing or just meeting within and throughout the poems. More so, there is a sense of self, and self-contradiction and counterpoint, that also swings throughout the book. Early on we get (from I feel it all time):
but either way I can
empathize with you,
not to mention empathize
with myself as I felt
that day telling you
that I can because
I did at the time
and I do now.
Like notes, certain words are emphasized and repeated within and between poems. Here Kondrich brings those notes into play, twining the threads of “you” and “I” and the various identities within the self. Rather than simply penning “I” poems, these lines drill down past the subjective, and by the end the “I” is almost lost. Later we get (from Tonight, the piano will project me into a dream):
threaded outside into something wonderful
and this is called counterpoint
a need to return to a previous state
buried beneath years of habit and rationale
Here the illusion of time rendered through music is brought into play with regard to the self, which is never really static or concrete, but a series of states paved over in sedimentary layers. On the next page:
that’s what one of your colleagues asked me
the man asked me if I felt looped.
If not looped, then maybe even conversing with the self, digging through layers—or not—and bound to repeat the same actions. The first poem of book 4:
I heard two voices
both of which were mine.
I was always afraid they
would remove what I held
in my invisible hands,
and then came the hour
I had to accept
because living meant
accepting the loss
of one hour after another,
of what felt like an hour,
which could be two,
which could be none,
a mere few minutes
compressed into a rock
the size of a thumb.
I spent part of the night
on the couch another part
at the kitchen table—
I would like some tea,
said one of my voices.
This is a solid example of Kondrich’s ability to express the experience of music, listening to music, and collating the voices in and around us. This is the final dissemination of self into segments, parts, a non-centralized existence without the core.
Contrapuntal is not a book about diametrics, bipolarity, or extremes, but rather a sonic and sonorous exploration of the way music, sound, time, and relationships exist throughout the body, mind, and self. Such a read is what contemporary poetry is poised to accomplish, and Kondrich has a measured and meticulous style that winds well around the musical and interpersonal ideas he’s presenting here.
What makes a work of art satisfying? What is the difference between a poem we call mawkish, or overly sentimental, and a poem that carries the right amount of sentimentality and wit? How do we judge or evaluate these questions of taste? Aside from all the contentious feelings that immediately crop up when considering questions of taste – questions of taste are elitist, say, or only matters relevant to a leisured bourgeoisie – how do we evaluate a work of art? What criteria do we invoke? Is there such criteria?
Charles Wegner writes, “Fundamentally, human beings are capable of aesthetic satisfaction because they are intelligent, imaginative, active, and percipient beings, not because they are educated, ‘cultured,’ leisured, or ‘artistic.’ If we can at least hesitantly agree with this proposition, then we might ask, What is it about a poem, a work of art, or a piece of music, that can inspire in its listener, viewer, or reader an aesthetic satisfaction that brings the participant back for another viewing, listening, or reading? What makes something beautiful, or sublime? How do we even talk about such a thing? And if the work of art is not sublime but kitschy, how do we make that distinction? How can we make a distinction between kitsch and art when history sometimes blurs that distinction?
Here are two excerpts from poets who are not read widely anymore. The first is by Delmore Schwartz, the second by Algernon Swinburne. Both make heavy use of rhyme, meter, assonance and alliteration. Yet the Schwartz excerpt, I would argue, is mawkish and bloated, and the other is sentimental and beautiful. Since both poems are utilizing the same techniques, what makes one poem successful, and the other unsuccessful? What is the difference between a “good” and “bad” sentimentality?
A tattering of rain and then the reign
Of pour and pouring-down and down,
Where in the westward gathered the filming gown,
Of grey and clouding weakness, and, in the mane
Of the light’s glory and the day’s splendor, gold and vain,
Vivid, more and more vivid, scarlet, lucid and more luminous,
Then came a splatter, a prattle, a blowing rain!
And soon the hour was musical and rumorous:
A softness of a dripping lipped the isolated houses,
A gaunt grey somber softness licked the glass of hours.
O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire,
__Hid round with flowers and all the bounty of bloom;
__O wonderful and perfect heart, for whom
The lyrist liberty made life a lyre;
O heavenly heart, at whose most dear desire
__Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb,
__And with him risen and regent in death’s room
All day thy choral pulses rang full choir;
O heart whose beating blood was running song,
__O sole thing sweeter than thine own songs were,
____Help us for thy free love’s sake to be free,
True for thy truth’s sake, for they strength’s sake strong,
__Till very liberty make clean and fair
____The nursing earth as the sepulchral sea.
I find the first excerpt, by Schwartz, dull, childish, jarring, and juvenile. Many of the sound plays – rain with reign, “luminous” rhymed with “rumorous” – seem ostentatious, more interested in calling attention to themselves than doing any work in the poem. “Where in the westward gathered the filming gown” might seem at first glance like a powerfully eloquent line, perhaps because of its feverish meter, but on further investigation should strike the sensitive reader as pretentious and bombastic, an overly fancy way of talking about fog. Much of the poem’s play with sounds strike me as similarly overly fancy and foggy – they do not seem like necessary stylistic or technical choices, but rather razzle-dazzle meant to distract the reader from the actual weakness of the poem. The first seven lines, which are all one sentence, exhibit a breathlessness that borders on hysteria; one feels Schwartz is working himself into fits, but one isn’t sure why. It’s as if the poem’s philosophy is that “good poems must be intense to the point of hysterics,” or that “a real Romantic poem must rhyme and make heavy cooked use of meter.” But neither of these assertions is necessarily true. Perhaps this is why the poem, in my book, fails to move or please. It is sentimental in the “bad” way, in the sense that it is hysterical without providing pleasure for the reader. It is pathetic (embarrassing) without being pathetic (full of pathos).
Swinburne’s poem, on the other hand, while seeming perhaps to partake in all the vices characterized in Schwartz’s, does not partake, I would argue, in a single one. (I think Swinburne is in line for a re-consideration, if he isn’t already. He can be absolutely wonderful.) It is a beautiful and strong poem, though sentimental, but why and how? We might say that all its stylistic decisions are commensurate to its content – that its form and style – sentimental as they may be – are equal to its soaring diction, and that it is eloquent rather than bombastic. “O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire” is a wonderfully rich and varied line, full of interesting vowel variations. It somehow manages to speak about the most clichéd subject – love – in an interesting way – as a cup that holds fire. What a powerful image! The rhymes are not ostentatious, but unadorned and lovely. One senses that Swinburne is dealing with complicated subject-matter, and the poem is not an easy read. But the poem’s complexity in its discussion of love is part of its pleasure. The subject of the poem is mysterious – “the heart of hearts” – a burning inner core within the metaphysical heart, out of which desire and passion stem and stream. Yet despite or because of the mysteriousness of the subject, we are given images that are equally mysterious, provocative and enigmatic: flowers “hid round” it, together with “all the bounty of bloom”; a heart “at whose most dear desire / Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb”, (meaning, if you can pardon the clumsy summary, a heart powerful enough to awaken or resurrect in tired dead hearts a passion again); a heart whose very “beating blood was running song.” These are very eloquent and un-ostentatious lines. They shadow forth great strength in a pounding pulse, while utilizing the same techniques that Schwartz uses to such a detriment in his poem – rhyme, assonance, alliteration, rhythm. They are sentimental in the richest, fullest sense, as lines in a poem that are moving, beautiful, wrenching, and captivating.
It is for this reason that I have never placed too much value on generalized arguments that “rhyme,” say, “is always too conventional, too elitist,” or that free-verse, according to Frost, is like “playing tennis with the net down.” In the hands of a skilful poet, rhyme might be the best technique for conveying the complexity and beauty of her thought; in the hands of a different poet, free-verse might provide the poet with adequate freedom to explore the possibility of meaning in longer or just more “free” extended lines. These arguments depend upon the time-period and the countervailing trends. Yet such choices are also contingent upon the powers and predilections of the poet. They do not, in and of themselves, make a good or bad poem. In other words, as these examples hopefully make obvious, it just depends upon how such technical devices are used. (In the same sense, then, sentimentality is not a good or bad thing. It’s just the way in which it is invoked and evoked.)
What about visual art? What makes Thomas Kincaid’s paintings of houses such easy targets for ridicule, while a Hopper painting is interesting and powerfully enigmatic? For your viewing pleasure or displeasure, here is a Thomas Kincade painting, following which is the Hopper.
Both paintings make use of the same general techniques: they are interested in line and color, shape and texture, mood and tone – just as Schwartz and Swinburne are interested in line and rhythm, sound and diction, form and tone. But the way these painters use these categories is radically different, leading to a radically different product.
So: what makes the Kincade painting bad, and the Hopper painting wonderful and haunting? (Apologies to the art history majors out there, for whom this comparison probably strikes one as obvious and juvenile.)
We might start with a question about expectations. What do we turn to art for? Do we look at a piece of visual art in order to have our weaker convictions confirmed, or decimated? Kincade’s painting, I would argue, confirms a tepid taste for art. It is condescending, meaning it does not have very high expectations for its audience. It is an overly sentimental, mawkish representation of a house that could not exist, for nothing in the real world could be so garish. The colors do not accentuate the life or vividness or story of the house, but rather simply call attention to themselves, like Schwartz’s line about the fog. It is an infantile painting that feels mass produced, but not in an interesting Warhol-esque way, with interesting ramifications for such mass production – rather, the painting seems to prey on the audience’s desire for some kind of complacent cozy satisfaction. It does not even have the relevant quaintness to be considered a relic of folk art. This is a bad painting, and it is acutely unpleasant to look at. It hurts the eyes, while doing nothing for thought. It seems to put an end to thought, rather than provoke a beginning. It strikes one as lazy, as exactly the kind of thing you would expect. Therefore, in an odd way, Kincade’s painting meets our expectations, yet these expectations are low ones, the kind we might have when entering into a depressing nursing folks home or hospital. Rather than taking us out of ourselves, it simply confirms the weakest of our expectations. It is, in this sense, the opposite of strange.
Now look at the Hopper. The house is immediately striking. It looms above the railroad tracks like some ancient, gaunt grandfather. It seems to partake simultaneously of the actual world and of the vision of the painter – like the Kincade painting, I suppose, although here the artist’s vision is mature, idiosyncratic, and very mysterious, as opposed to childish, conventional, and disgustingly familiar. It is strange how the house appears above railroad tracks, which heightens the sense of isolation in the painting, a kind of distance that is both haunting and surprising. Kincade’s house is surrounded by all the bathetic coziness you would expect for such an unimaginative painting – flowers, bushes, trees, an old fence. Hopper’s house, on the other hand, is completely alone. There are no trees, shrubs, or flowers. It is not a house one could easily imagine. This mood of austerity is heightened by the dramatic way in which light falls on the house, and the painting seems to be on the borders of something surreal, something out of De Chirico maybe. Perhaps, then, one of its virtues is its compelling strangeness, its difficult-to-place beautiful oddness in the virtually empty landscape that Hopper chose to represent. It is idiosyncratic, and it defies the viewer’s expectations, while simultaneously supplying these expectations with large doses of viewer pleasure. It is simply a massively wonderful painting. Like Swinburne’s poem, it uses the techniques of its art form to create something marvelously new. Yet it is not exactly sentimental, so much as marvelously puzzling – it seems to raise just as many questions as it answers, and in doing so, provides its unique and enigmatic pleasures.
Yet it is not only strangeness in and of itself that makes for a compelling read or viewing experience. There are many strange poems out there that miss the mark, that make a virtue out of strangeness without making that strangeness compelling. For that reason, I want to make our first virtue of satisfying art be a compelling strangeness. (This idea is not original; Harold Bloom, for example, has written much about aesthetic uncanniness in the same way, and much of the Russian formalists’ work on the familiar-made-unfamiliar strike a similar note.) It is the difference between Ashbery’s greatest poems, and the poems of many of his imitators (including me). It is also the difference, I would say, between the best songs of Bob Dylan, and the worst, or between the great novels of William Faulkner versus the so-so novels of John Steinbeck. It is a strangeness that pulls us out of ourselves. When we return, we are different; we have changed. It is makes the quality of the greatest aesthetic work so idiosyncratic. I cannot imagine another Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, because each is so fully and astonishingly their selves. A compelling strangeness, therefore, is as deep as ontology. It is an ontology and an epitstemology, and it gets at the heart of what makes art satisfying versus disappointing. The marvelous, the wonderful, the provocative, the sublime, even the beautiful, all fall under the rubric of compelling and strange. It is for this reason that a truly poignant and authentically weird work of art is the most satisfying of all.
The last poems we looked at, successful and unsuccessful, were both fairly ostentatious – they dealt with assonance, alliteration, rhyme and meter in a somewhat heavy hand, which might strike a modern reader as somewhat overwrought. Is there a way to produce a compelling strangeness that is not ostentatious so much as vividly, lucidly, fully austere, like Hopper’s house? How do we describe, for example, some of Wallace Steven’s late work, or for that matter, the poems of a young Allen Grossman? For both poets can be marvelously strange, and yet their compelling strangeness is different stylistically and aesthetically from Swinburne’s – equally mysterious, but somehow barer, less baroque, more hauntingly Protestant, though still convincing. Let’s look at an early poem by Grossman first, called “The Room,” from his wonderful book, Sweet Youth: Poems by a Young Man and an Old Man. “The Room” reads,
A man is sitting in a room made quiet by him.
Outside, the August wind is turning the leaves of its book.
The door is open, everything is disclosed, each leaf, all the voices.
The man is resting from the making of the quiet in which he sits.
The floor is swept, his books are laid aside open, his eyes are open.
All the leaves and voices are outside in the restless wind.
Soon he will rise, or take up a book, or someone will enter;
Or, perhaps, a leaf will come across the threshold, or a voice
Will blunder through the room, blind and unanswerable on its way elsewhere.
But now the room is quiet as the man has made it.
Everything in its place is at rest inside the room.
And the man is at reset, seeing each leaf, and hearing all the voices.
What is this poem about? Why is it, as I believe it is, so beautiful?
I think the answer to this question lies for this poem in a certain remarkably dramatic simplicity that, for all its lucidity, is more strange because so simple. The poem is ostensibly about a topic that might in another context reduce its audience to yawns and tears: a man, sitting in a quiet room, doing nothing. One can be forgiven, then, if, upon hearing what this poem is about, they might imagine something written by Nicholson Baker. But in this case, such an interpretation would be far from the truth. For the first part, the poem is not funny; actually, it’s incredibly serious. And secondly, the poem is not about minutia, so much as it is about minutia’s opposite: the profundity of the sublime, the sublimity of a kind of high contemplation. It is as though Grossman, with a beginner’s mind, starts with first principles; and the simplicity of the poet’s mind, reflected in the work, is beautiful, captivating, and seemingly artifice-less.
For these reasons, this is arguably one of the most peaceful, startling poems I have read in a long time. It is so exquisitely simple, both thematically and stylistically; and yet the poem conveys the great weight of thought, the great weight of contemplation going on in this man, this poet perhaps, who makes the Stevensian quiet in which he sits. There are many, many Stevensian echoes: the “turning” of the leaves echoing Stevens’s “Domination of Black,” the reference to a man sitting near books reminiscent of Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading,” and the whole barren emptiness of the lines absolutely influenced by Stevens’s late and exquisitely modulated plangent-with-simplicity work in Auroras of Autumn and The Rock. Grossman, like Stevens and Yeats, weaves a profound tapestry out of the simplest of words – “man,” “book,” “leaves,” “wind,” quiet.” It is for this reason, perhaps, that his poem is so strange – not because the imagery is necessarily alien, but the echoes of the imagery as they accumulate in the lines is haunting, compelling, and very difficult to forget. It stays with you, even as you put the poem down; it lingers like a powerful novel, or a song that you cannot get out of your mind, because it is so overwhelmingly beautiful; (I think of the chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Nettie Moore,” from his late album Modern Times).
What about Stevens? How do we even discuss his haunting late work, which makes Swinburne look even more decadent? Here is “A Quiet Normal Life,” from The Rock.
His place, as he sat and as he thought, was not
In anything that he constructed, so frail,
So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught,
As, for example, a world in which, like snow,
He became an inhabitant, obedient
To gallant notions on the part of cold.
It was here. This was the setting and the time
Of year. Here in his house and in his room,
In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked
And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut
By gallant notions on the part of night –
Both late and alone, above the crickets’ chords,
Babbling, each one, the uniqueness of its sound.
There was no fury in transcendent forms.
But his actual candle blazed with artifice.
It is as if Stevens and Grossman’s poems were talking to each other – as if Stevens’s poem provided the context for Grossman’s poem, explaining the reason why and how the man in Grossman’s poem achieves such masterful quiet. For in Stevens poem, which is also very quiet, we are given a glimpse into a certain conflict, a conflict that has faded in a magnanimous, noble way, but faded nonetheless into night, into the present that Stevens calls “here.” That conflict has to do with Stevens’s entire poetic enterprise, his interrogation in his previous poems of transcendent forms, of the “bodiless,” of the abstract, of anything whatsoever that could lead the mind away from the present moment and into a kind of shadowy cave of contemplation. Anything notional – any notions of night, or of cold, are for Stevens in this poem too distanced from reality, from the “warm heart.” And yet this diminishing does not produce depression or disillusionment, but rather makes the present stand out more vividly, more starkly, as a kind of “artifice” made “actual,” (another way of talking about poetry, among other things). And that is the achievement of his, as well as Grossman’s poem – their ability to make the present stand out more boldly, with a kind of visceral haunting embodied thrust. In this sense, both Stevens and Grossman’s poems are about poetry – each posits a scene that is half actual, half artificial, in which the sounds of the words produce an incantatory rhythm that creates the quiet in which they stir. They are so quiet, they are almost – almost – surreal, though these are not surreal poems. And both poems interrogate the very strange notion of no notion – of a sort of quiet in which sitting and being is enough, in which thought itself is made aware of its own eventual demise. Both poems are therefore compellingly strange, for they interrupt our thought, pull us out of ourselves, and return us to ourselves, so that we may see ourselves, as Stevens writes, “more truly and more strange.” They are just barely sentimental, yet they are profoundly moving. In exploring what eloquence looks like when it is reduced to first factors, they give the reader a zen experience of head-shaking clarity, austerity, and, in the Stevens poem, a haunting elegiac strain of loss.
What Night Knows
After Gaugin’s Le Cheval Blanc
Some women ride horses.
Some women are horses.
Some horses are wolves
who have lost their teeth
and are ridden by women.
Some wolves are horses
ridden wild with dreams.
Some women are dreams
in the shape of horses
free of the ghost of wolves.
Some ghosts are women,
their bent air a kind of riding.
Some women ride dreams
and bend the air, freeing
the ghosts and the wolves,
and the horses.
Lauren K. Alleyne is a native of Trinidad and Tobago. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Cornell University, and is currently the Poet-in-Residence and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Dubuque. Alleyne is a Cave Canem graduate, whose work has been awarded prizes such as the 2010 Small Axe Literary prize, the 2003 Atlantic Monthly Student Poetry Prize, the Robert Chasen Graduate Poetry Prize at Cornell, an International Publication Prize from The Atlanta Review, and honorable mention in the 2009 Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize and the 2003 Gival Press Tri-Language Poetry Contest. She has been published in several journals and anthologies, including Crab Orchard Review, The Cimarron Review, Black Arts Quarterly, The Caribbean Writer, The Belleview Literary Review, Growing Up Girl and Gathering Ground. She is co-editor of From the Heart of Brooklyn, and her chapbook, Dawn In The Kaatskills, was published in 2008 by Longshore Press.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Marie-Elizabeth Mali.
Life’s a Beach
Life is waves. Waves
create a craving for Dr. Pepper,
something sweet to cut salty somersaults that get water in yr inner
ear, and deft kelp evasion, and hours and hours
coaxing friends further in but they never want to go out as far as you–
past the point of wave-beaten, past the point of even being
subject to waves, where the huddled ocean cups
you and blows like soup. Some diagnoses
require a different type of medicine, like shots
of expensive silver tequila reminiscent of beach sand or smooth
pie crust like a desert island which may just be
the proven psychological tide
of butter, but what’s the difference?
Life is waves.
In terms of spectral dynamics,
and guitar riffs, and ambulance sirens
and your “type” of guy, which is basically any pipe
cleaner over 6’2– who all eventually say move
on– and especially with tattoo
pain and the nerve death before a root
canal, or calls from the reservation
a note to say someone else is in the hospital or has passed
on, and sudden 98 degree days when you jet to meet
one of those interchangeable gentlemen jetties and forget to signal
on the freeway and the SUV next to you crashes
into the divider and rolls and you had summer school
life is waves.
But to a lesser extent,
how about kneeling
close to shore, or sitting down
in the small sharp waves. Breakers
fill your mouth like salty chocolates.
Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the driving force behind birdsong, an antiracist/queer-positive collective, small press, and zine that publishes art and writing. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn and is working on a collection of poetry. Check out his Tumblr.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Kelli Russell Agodon.
First thing we should do/if we see each other again is to make/a cage of our bodies
—Nick Flynn, forgetting something
You find me pirouetting slow
in a tent before an exaltation of men,
dim lights, the scent of refuse
and popcorn and tobacco spit,
the clink of coins changing hands,
the lure of something both sordid
You follow me everywhere.
Where do you sleep?
I show you my thatch of straw.
What do you eat?
I serve you cave crickets and potato bugs.
How do you bathe?
We stand outside for an entire rain
leaping into puddles.
Why are the feathers on your throat red?
I say that is only for my mate to know.
How would your mate know?
My mate would not have to ask.
Weary of your eyes,
I introduce you to Python Woman.
Her grip, you mention, is impressive,
as is the overlapping leather of her scales,
but you find her endless bunching
and uncoiling unnerving. And the skins
all over her floor, just bad housekeeping.
Venom clings to every fiber.
It will take weeks to rid the smell
from your clothes.
The first time you touch me is an accident.
We are laughing together,
as though you are not only interested
in my hollow bones or my tendency to molt
before I go onstage.
As though you would with anyone,
your hand reaches for me, eyes snapped
tight as two lids over jar mouths
your fingers graze a feather—halt
when they remember.
I’ve seen you sitting mostly naked
patching together found feathers.
Are those supposed to be ________?
The ringmaster wants you to leave.
The bloodcoils around her eyes
convince you it is, in fact, time to go.
She sends the twins to watch you pack.
They argue over what kind of business
you might try that would be considered funny.
You want to know the future.
Will I see you again?
Do you feel anything for me?
I do not know.
I tilt my head and do not blink. You hate that.
I look to the sky, smell rain.
Why I no longer fly:
From here, it is the same view.
Everyone is a fossil,
excavated marionettes breaking
through crests of earth.
From here, a collection of upturned
eyes is a light show splayed
over uncut stones.
Here, we are all seraphs caught
in a mist net, and left
abandoned by the sky.
Affrilachian Poet and Cave Canem Fellow, Bianca Spriggs, is a multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky. The author of Kaffir Lily and How Swallowtails Become Dragons, Bianca is the recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship in Poetry, multiple Artist Enrichment and Arts Meets Activism grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and a Pushcart Prize Nominee. In partnership with the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, she is the creator of “The SwallowTale Project” a traveling creative writing workshop designed for incarcerated women.
Trick Vessels, by Andre Bagoo
Shearsman Books, 2012
Reading Andre Bagoo’s Trick Vessels incites a strange and rather silly first thought: “the imperative sentence wages a huge comeback!” Dumb thought? Being kind to myself (a favorite past time of mine) I begin to scratch this first thought for its complexity:
A. There is no greater or more compressed ordering device in the grammar of English than the imperative sentence.
B. It is the God sentence, and thus noun may be swallowed up in verb, and understood through action: Go! Leave! Look! Let!
C. There is much authority in the imperative. Eliot, knowing this, blasphemed against that authority, and gave it an ironic twist in Prufrock, that prime example of modern urban equivocation and enervation: “Let us go then, you and I.”
D. This much authority in a post-structural age, used without irony, is a huge gamble. After all, are we all not relativists, masters of the “but, perhaps not”, whores of the non-authoritative. After all, are we not men- kinda, sorta, well… really not? Isn’t our language always correct, and non-committal? Aren’t we sensitive and caring, and “Aware” and “grocking” even as we aim our drones at lil children, and assorted other enemy combatants?
Damn, straight! (well, maybe…). The first poem in Bagoo’s Trick Vessels doesn’t only use imperatives. It uses God’s imperative: Let. Unlike Prufrock, it is not immediately undercut and sabotaged by equivocation. This is the precise, intense, unequivocal imperative of ancient poesis: the poet conjuring the world, making it up as he/she goes along, taking on the authority of a lower case god:
Let the daughter of the Hibiscus say: “His love has no end.”
This is let restored to the full, non-ironic, authority of invocation, and, reading the poem, I wonder if Mr. Bagoo might not be a believer as well as an anti-ironist. But the poem is too tricky to rate a mere Christian wave. According to the poem, this love that has no end is a flower, and that flower is night, and hence the title: The Night Grew Dark Around Us.
I think of that trickster, Bob Dylan, informing us: “it ain’t dark yet, but it’s getting there.” I do not think this is the same dark as Dylan’s sinister version. The Poet’s dark could perhaps be not unlike St John’s “Dark night of the soul.” It could be the dark of his skin, of his ancestor’s skin, the dark ripped from its negative relationship to light, and turned into its own species of light dark as a form of light? This is not at all unusual with poets of a mystic turn, nor is it unusual with poets under historical crisis and duress (consider Miguel Hernandez writing from a dank Franco prison: “I go through the dark lit from within.”).
Perhaps this night which is flower which is love is a wager, a leap into the absurd. A decision to trust darkness itself as the percipient condition out of which light comes and to which it returns. Night in the sense of love is tomb and womb as one, and reading deeper into Trick Vessels we find this sense of dark, of erasure, of trickery to be what the great critic Kenneth Burke called “Equipment for living.”
The trick vessels could be the slave ships, but, being trick vessels, they shape shift and are never one thing, never condemned to an absolute definition. If they must be identified, the trick vessels are the words of the poems themselves, the words of invocation, of magic, of night. Let us consider night first:
IV On Encountering Crapauds at Night (from the poem, Trick Vessels):
I’ve grown to love the backs of Crapauds/That hide in dark spaces between steps/
And bow as though at temple.
And on trickery (Part VI):
The fig tree could be a murderer
A bandit come to ambush.
And later in the same section:
A soft whisper can bite.
A world of murdering fig trees and biting whispers is a world in which things can be counted on to have no loyalty to seeming. It is a word of shape shifting, a tricky world of night and, in such a world, the only true ordering intelligence is invocation—the authority of words as magic, as act—as incarnation. In such a world, “let there be” without irony is still warranted, still efficacious. In such a world where soft whispers bite, language does not resort to irony, to the glib, to the entitled, the privileged, the self referential. It is a matter of life and death, a matter of the right spell at the right time, a ceremony of erasures against erasure. Night may efface night and not be lost. The light of day has no such power, cannot live in erasures, and must resort to Prufrock’s whining equivocate: “that is not it at all.” Protest here is swallowed up in the medicine and strength of words as an act of majesty.
Much magic thinking runs up against rather brutal modern realities (Bagoo is also a journalist in Trinidad), but this is not the magic thinking Eliot would have condemned as Prufrock’s form of “Bovarism.” Instead, these words of night are as vessels, as ships, a ceremony of journeying where the Unnamed Creature Said to Come from Water (Title of the second poem) assures us:
But I have such knowledge, /I ensure these erasures/I follow the stop. I do not leak.
Broken Vessels then moves from certainties to uncertainty in many respects (as erasures tend to do), but out of this shape shifting, this world where soft whispers bite comes a new dynamic. It may be expressed as: I may not exist, and you may not exist, but what exists, and what can be trusted in the ongoing dynamic between the you and I. Sure enough, in the poem, Preface for Seasons the voice of the poem addressed a “you” to which it is in relation. The seasons here as mainly liturgical, seasons of ceremony: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost (ordinary time is, as with most poets, left out). These are Catholic, but Catholicism is here but a form under which deeper orders hide and are enacted:
Some Lines from Advent:
There is a church inside a church/Where a mountain clump breaks off
And then from Incarnation:
Becomes a tree/the tree that breaks free/to become a ceremony
(note how this echoes the opening transubstantiation of love into flower into night. Trick Vessels is full of transformations under the signs of night, ocean, and the ongoing shape shifting of identity and politics).
From the section called Lent:
The values becomes valueless/ The desired is at first rejected/ the reject is later consumed.
This is a trick in theology known as transvaluation of values: the mountains are brought low, and the valley raised, the rich are brought low and the poor exalted, the valued becomes valueless, and the desired is rejected.
From Holy Week:
Thousands of touching hands/covers for secret agents
The praising mob that touches becomes the mob shouting crucify him. Judas betrays with a kiss.
From Easter (the shortest and most cryptic of the sections):
In between dreams/I make sense/In waking life/Chaos is hard to prove.
Chaos is not hard to prove in the night, and in the dark night of the soul, chaos is the only true order—the complex order of what has been lost and what might come to be—percipient order, the chaos of da Vinci’s deluge sketches—not void of order, but order as yet undetermined. We must resist the too easy chaos of contemporary life for it is not chaos but merely the random, the arbitrary, and these poems while shape shifting, call on something more than the arbitrary life. They call on ceremony. The poems of Trick Vessels are not the imposed order and false certainties of neo-conservatism, but an embracing of the power and force of night through the spell casting power of language–the magic that does not destroy uncertainty but which gives it value, and purpose. Because Bagoo’s poems do not traffic in false certainties, they restore the authoritative voice to its poesis—its intimacy with the dark, with the shape shifting upon which the poet’s older right to invoke most firmly rests.
In a larger sense, beyond the book, I see in Bagoo’s poetry a moving away from the equivocations of the best who lack all conviction and beyond the worst who are full of a passionate intensity. The poems in this book represent a movement away from equivocation, from irony, from the parody, the self-referential, towards a more genuine formalism—not the somewhat neo-conservative formalism of Hacker or, more so, the cranky formalism of metricists, but an older sense of poetry as the enacting of a ceremony, a vital and rhythmic invocation, almost liturgical in its use of the imperative, and the invocative. It is the genuine precision and formalism of spells, of prayer, or rhapsodic speech, a ceremony which must be formed out of the utterance itself to “order the sea.”
Bagoo might strike some as too sincere, as too insistent in his intensity. He uses anaphora, the imperative, the list, the rhetorical tricks of mystical oxymoron, and of transvaluation–all the tools of the magic trade—of invocatory speech. He undercuts such tricks at times with news from the world, but the world does not triumph over the verbal will here. These poems, as I said, are very formal in terms of their deliberation and engagement. Unlike the neo-formalists they are not about rhyme, meter, intellectual display or emotional detachment. Bagoo does not impose wit and order upon the landscape. He is not the return of Auden. He is, in a sense, the return of that which “Sang beyond the genius of the sea.” His is an ordering intensity—a ferocity of engagement which is always, by its nature, a thing of ritual. “A ceremony must be found” John Wheeler, the poet, wrote some eighty years ago. Bagoo has found that ceremony in this fine collection of poems.
There are certain (uncertain) propositions that every poet must eventually encounter, if only to embrace or abandon. They are not propositions so much as ways of being, lifestyles; and, like the way one walks, or talks, or just stands in the rain, they are ineluctably intimate parts of ourselves, hence not propositions so much as self-images. What kind of poet do you want to be (I imagine a Bellovian unctuous trickster asking)? What kind of poet are you?
“Oh, she’s an angry poet,” they say, or, “The woman is far too sentimental for my tastes.”
These are cursory judgments, but some kind of truths are lodged in even the most mawkish and unhelpful of sentiments. So let’s begin at the beginning. A poem is a stance, a temperament, a philosophy, an ontologically practical, (if impractical), modus operandi. A vision – not necessarily metaphysical, but a way of looking at things that is that particular poet’s way. The proof? An Ashbery poem is not a Creeley poem. Read an Ashbery poem. You might immediately conclude that Ashbery is a funny poet, a strangely poignant poet, a curiously flat poet, like Warhol, or Clare, a poet of disappointment, a poet whose science entails the combining of words and phrases that, without Ashbery’s florabundant consciousness, would never have been placed together in the first place. Ashbery is a poet of surprise, of flow, a John Cage of language, whereby the chance coincidences of daily stuff form an abstract collage that is life heightened: an aesthetic.
Is Creeley – I’m thinking of early Creeley, from For Love – the (complex) opposite of Ashbery? What do Ashbery and Creeley share besides a certain kind of disappointment, a disillusionment with what Richard Rorty calls “the way things hang together”? For, aside from this initial bewilderment or despair at the way things are – ontologically, epistemologically – Creeley is the poet of the anti-flow, the inept and inert stutter, the desperation of someone who cannot say what he wants to say, so makes a poem out of that. To say that Creeley is funny is like saying that Todd Solondz’s movies are funny. For Creeley’s early poems are often cruel, and to say that they are “funny” is perhaps to say more about your own predilections for mean-spiritedness than, say, Creeley’s.
Still, like Ashberys’ early work, Creeley’s poems are, or at least seem to be, something new. They are not exactly adventures of the imagination, like Ashbery’s; in fact, I wonder if the word “imagination” is even appropriate for discussing Creeley’s early works. For if Ashbery’s philosophy is “Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination,” Creeley’s is, “Perhaps we can’t feel with more imagination.” Yet does that make for a coherent, or even interesting, poetics? If Ashbery’s poems are premised, if distantly, on a hope for the future, a hope for new imaginary communities, a hope for a new way of speaking, Creeley’s poem are cynical about the future, isolated from community, and unable to even speak.
It is for that reason, paradoxically, that they deserve some attention.
For the point of comparison, let’s look at two poems: one by Ashbery, one by Creeley, both with the same titles – “The Hero” – and from their first well-received books – Some Trees, by Ashbery, published in 1956, and For Love, by Creeley, published in 1962. I want to interrogate, foremost, how Ashbery and Creeley conceptualize their heroic figures, for in scrutinizing such humongously important matrices of ideas, we might therefore put our finger on the nerve, not only of what makes these poets so different, but also on how we might characterize and define their individual and idiosyncratic poetic (and therefore philosophic) stances.
Here is Ashbery’s “The Hero,” in full, (and notice the interestingly Creeley-esque form):
Whose face is this
So stiff against the blue trees,
Lifted to the future
Because there is no end?
But that has faded
Like flowers, like the first days
Of good conduct. Visit
The strong man. Pinch him –
There is no end to his
Dislike, the accurate one.
We might start by acknowledging how enigmatic the poem is – even, perhaps, how willfully obscure. Who is the eponymous hero? Is it the “stiff” face, “lifted to the future”? Is it “the strong man”? Is it “the accurate one”? All three? Is the poet himself the hero, and is his stance the one which we might take to be heroic? If so, how would we characterize his stance towards the “hero”?
Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that Ashbery’s “hero” in this poem is Robert Creeley. And imagine that Ashbery, like any competitive poet – locked in some regards into a good old fashioned Bloomian agon – wishes to carve out his own poetic voice in contradistinction to Creeley’s. How would this affect our reading of the poem?
First, perhaps Ashbery would be mocking, however quietly, Creeley’s “stiff face,” the unyielding way in which he denies all transcendence – not because Ashbery believes himself in transcendence, but because of the way in which Creeley denies it – so stern, so puritanical, so unbending. The “blue trees” might then be a trope for Ashbery’s poetic persona. In many poems in Some Trees – “Two Scenes,” “Popular Songs,” “The Instruction Manual,” “Meditations of a Parrot,” “Sonnet,” “Le livre est sur la table” – the color blue figures prominently and enigmatically: we hear of “the blue shadow of some paint cans,” “the blue blue mountain,” a “rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and blue),” “blue cornflakes in a white bowl,” “the razor, blue with ire,” and a “young man” who “places a bird house / Against the blue sea.” Blue trees are especially poignant, considering that the title poem of the book, “Some Trees,” is about trees as a metaphor for human connection. So maybe equating the blue trees with Ashbery’s poetic persona isn’t as hackneyed as it sounds.
But where does that take us? Is the face “lifted to the future,” or are the trees? Perhaps we might read the second stanza in two ways. If “no end” refers to the trees, then we might read the phrase as a typical self-referential Ashberian commentary on the elasticity of time. But what if it is Creeley’s face – a very distinct one, considering he had only one eye, and occasionally wore an eye-patch – that is raised to the future? Might we then read “no end” in completely different terms, as a kind of complaint, as if to say, “there is no end to my suffering”? We might then have the same tension in the first stanza – Creeley’s face, stiff against the blue trees of Ashbery’s persona – repeated in the second, where Ashbery is ridiculing Creeley’s stance as pompous and self-aggrandizing, as one who laments the endlessness of suffering and who must look (mawkishly), as a result, to the future, where perhaps there will be less pain.
Now let’s follow our divergent readings and see where they take us. If we read the next three lines – “But that has faded / Like flowers, like the first days // Of good conduct” – as more typical Ashberiana, then what we have on our hands is the Ashberian mode of replacing one image as quickly as he can with the next, as if we were reading a Stevens poem set to fast forward. But what if what’s faded – what Ashbery is arguing for – is the Creeleyan poetic stance – the cynicism, the disgusted high-mindedness, the seriousness, the darkness? Is this perhaps the moment at which Ashbery begins carving out his own poetic identity, by critiquing his reading of Creeley’s poetic identity? If so, then we might paraphrase those three lines as saying something along the lines of, “Yet your stance, for all its professed heroicisim and stoicism, has already faded like flowers, or childhood days when we cared about our behavior.” In this sense, Ashbery would be arguing that Creeley’s stance – perhaps like Lowell’s – is outmoded, and therefore not a viable aesthetic, at least for Ashbery.
In the final lines, therefore, we are faced with a massive ambivalence. For it is unclear if “the accurate one” is Ashbery or Creeley. We therefore do not know if this “dislike” is being criticized or commended. If we read “the strong man” as the Creeleyan poetic persona, then we might read the final lines as Ashbery critiquing Creeley’s misanthropic dislike, his fastidious need for accuracy. Yet if we read “the accurate one” as Ashbery, we might read the final lines as a self-critique, with Ashbery uncomfortable with his criticism of the strong man – i.e. the pronoun “his” in the second-to-last line would be Ashbery, and here we would hear Ashbery’s own exasperated sigh with himself. The point is not to find the exact right reading, but rather to call attention to the way in which, in Ashbery’s “The Hero,” these ambivalences are braided together. Yet it seems intriguing, to say the least, that “The Hero” is written in such characteristically Creeleyan form.
Now let’s look at Creeley’s “The Hero,” made up of eleven four-lined stanzas. How does Creeley’s stance towards the hero in his poem differ from Ashbery’s? Here is the whole poem:
Each voice which was asked
spoke its words, and heard
more than that, the fair question,
the onerous burden of the asking.
And so the hero, the
hero! stepped that gracefully
into his redemption, losing
or gaining life thereby.
Now we, now I
ask also, and burdened,
tied down, return
and seek the forest also.
Go forth, go forth,
saith the grandmother, the fire
of that old form, and turns
away from the form.
And the forest is dark,
mist hides it, trees
are dim, but I turn
to my father in the dark.
A spark, that spark of hope
which was burned out long ago,
the tedious echo
of the father image
– which only women bear,
also wear, old men, old cares,
and turn, and again find
the disorder in the mind.
Night is dark like the mind,
my mind is dark like the night.
O light the light! Old
foibles of the right.
Into that pit, now pit of
anywhere, the tears upon your hands,
how can you stand
it, I also turn.
I wear the face, I face
the right, the night, the way,
I go along the path
into the last and only dark,
Hearing hero! hero!
a voice faint enough, a spark,
a glimmer grown dimmer through years
of old, old fears.
The poem begins with the asking of questions – what seem important questions, for those who answer the questions are aware not only of the question themselves, but the “onerous burden” of asking. There is therefore a dialectic that is set up between questioning and asking, both activities which, as the poem continues, are anointed somewhat with heroic status, and given metaphoric clothing as adventures into the dark.
Yet we do not hear of this heroic adventure being undertaken by the hero him or herself. Rather, the hero, who disappears as a figure after the second stanza, and is replaced with the poet himself, does his vague heroic deed, and thereby lives or dies accordingly. Although it is difficult to read the tone of the second stanza, Creeley exhibits a certain sad insouciance towards the hero, as well as a disconnect towards the hero’s fate – i.e., he or she will either live or die, but either way, Creeley seems to be saying, these are the typical conventions of a heroic story, and there is nothing surprising about that. Here the speaker’s relationship to the hero is different from the Ashberian speaker; it is more straightforward, if similarly, though less complexly, ambivalent. In Ashbery’s poem, despite the title, it is never clear just who the hero is, so we are adrift upon a vague ocean of resemblances and concordances; in Creeley’s poem, it is more clear that the hero is the conventional hero of fairy tales, venturing off into the dark forest, but it is also Creeley or the poet himself, venturing similarly into the tangled thickets of memory, to try and devise a way of forming something lasting from this adventure, some redemptive offering, a poem perhaps. In this sense, Creeley’s poem is less ironic than Ashbery’s. It does not truck in a difficult-to-place irony, nor does it use discordant and puzzling imagery that entails a kind of cognitive dissonance for the reader. If anything, Creeley’s imagery – though his style still somewhat beguiles – is largely conventional: we have the hero, the dim dark forest, the grandmother urging the hero out, the father figure, the quest, night and light, the path. This all sounds rather yawn-worthy, however; so what is it that makes Creeley’s poem interesting?
What makes Creeley’s poem interesting is that, for all its stylistic compression, we are given a very standard and conventional narrative; and despite the tone of exhaustion and cynicism we might feel from the speaker towards his subject, Creeley does not revise the heroic quest story very much, or offer very many alternatives. Another way of saying this is that Creeley, and the Black Mountain tradition he emerges from, does not do irony. Creeley’s hero, therefore, is the hero of myth, of fairy tale and folk tale; and we might do well to read much of his work, consequently, in that light – as work in which Creeley posits himself as the conventional male hero figure, and all his various disappointments in love as commentaries on this figuration. This might make some sense, considering Creeley’s later work, where much of his intriguing bitterness is replaced with a kind of lazy contentment that seems to suggest an end-of-the-road poetics, whereby the earlier misanthropy of the young man is replaced with arm-chair speculation and hard-earned domestic satisfaction.
All of which is to say, that Ashbery, after this analysis, strikes me as the more radical poet. His poem takes greater risks – earlier we called it “willfully obscure” – but Ashbery does not seem saddled so much with the desire to be the Promethean quester, searching for the fire, venturing into the forest. He’s way too ironic to take these myths too seriously, although he’s radical enough to substitute new imagery for old. For that reason, if Creeley sees himself as the king of his own narrative, questing after redemption, where he will either live or die, Ashbery once again finds himself in the role of trickster and clown, discombobulating our awareness, turning our attention to his motley theatrics, and poking fun at convention. The New York School, if we wish to place Ashbery in that context, is far, far more ironic. If we wish to understand more deeply the relationship between the Black Mountain poets and the New York school, then, we might start by investigating and interrogating the role that irony plays in much of these poets’ works.
dream in which you survive and in the morning things are back to normal
except, I found tufts of fur at the foot of
the bed _____my muscles bruised beneath
cracked bone _____I thought we were walking
through the woods ___ standing not-close
enough while I tried to find something to pull
from my mouth _____ something that would make
sense ___the ease in which my love for
almost everything folds into itself hard with
waiting _____there was salt in your eyes
my nail beds ached, dull at first ___my mouth
burned with iron ____a small guttural noise
kept spilling __and you ran and wouldn’t stop
_______ and you wouldn’t even turn back
Aricka Foreman is a Poetry MFA candidate at Cornell University. A Cave Canem fellow, her work has appeared in The Drunken Boat, Torch Poetry: A Journal for African American Women, Minnesota Review, Union Station Magazine, Bestiary Magazine, and Vinyl Poetry. She is a Poetry Editor of MUZZLE Magazine, and Assistant Editor of EPOCH. She is originally from Detroit.