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Massachusetts writers hold a great position of influence in American writing. Some of this is just a matter of timing: Massachusetts had a kind of head start in fostering talent, and such advantages inevitably become influence (“whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance”). But perhaps it’s better not to speak of “influence”; instead, I would claim that Bradstreet divined in the landscape images and structures of being that other American writers would discover and explore.

After pondering the act of contemplation, Bradstreet retells the first murder. Cain is depicted as the definitively anti-Christ figure, a cursed newborn enthroned in the lap of Eve (contra images of the theotokos):

Here sits our grandame in retired place,
And in her lap her bloody Cain new-born;
The weeping imp oft looks her in the face,
Bewails his unknown hap and fate forlorn;

Stanza 15 tells the story of Abel’s murder:

There Abel keeps his sheep, no ill he thinks;
His brother comes, then acts his fratricide;
The virgin Earth of blood her first draught drinks,
But since that time she often hath been cloyed.
The wretch with ghastly face and dreadful mind
Thinks each he sees will serve him in his kind,
Though none on earth but kindred near then could he find.

This is the bloody inevitability that Frost explored in poems like “Design.” But in addition to her distinctly Massachusetts sensibilities, one can find a propensity toward that broader, particularly American expression of the doctrine of original sin: the social outcast set adrift in a vast and bleak landscape. Stanza 16 describes Cain’s punishment:

His face like death, his heart with horror fraught,
Nor malefactor ever felt like war,
When deep despair with wish of life hath fought,
Branded with guilt and crushed with treble woes,
A vagabond to Land of Nod he goes.
A city builds, that walls might him secure from foes.

Cain is literally branded by God–a marked man, harried by his curse. He is a builder of defensive cities in the wildernes. He cannot farm fruitfully (the ground that drank the blood he spilled refuses him). He lives in constant fear of attack. It is notable that when Bradstreet contemplates sin (something that must be confronted when asceding to God), she does not identify with Adam and Eve, the traditional figures of original sin but with their cursed child. It is easy to forget that there are two events of ‘casting out’ in the first three chapters of Genesis: first, Adam and Eve, cast out for the “spiritual murder” of humankind, and second, Cain, cast out for the literal murder of his brother Abel.

While the marked outcast has been a perennial theme of literature (e.g., The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.), it has found particular resonance in American literature, particularly American literature of the West. My point is not that Bradstreet established the theme of Cain and Abel that later American writers picked up. I suppose it’s possible, but I think it’s much more interesting to say that there’s something in the American landscape and founding psyche, a kind of inverse of the “city on the hill.”

The story of Cain is built into the founding mythos of America, whose people were cast out of Europe to violently master “uncivilized” land (as de Tocqueville observes, “the happy and the powerful do not go into exile”). Consider Moby-Dick, which, despite being set on the ocean, is arguably a story of the proto-modernization of the American west. Like the descendants of Cain, who first use bronze and iron, whaling ships are mini-factories that subdue and process the raw materials of industrialization. A more recent book that memorably retells the myth of Cain in the American context is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. McCarthy’s Kid, born with an appetite for blood, “a mindless taste for violence,” is the quintessential marked outcast, “branded with guilt” and pursued by the Judge (a kind of Nietzschen Satan).

Bradstreet’s poem also gestures toward another notable American obsession: Armageddon.

 

THE FLESH LUSTETH AGAINST THE SPIRIT

This move to the story of the fall and the first murder are necessary for Bradstreet. Being on the edge of what she knew as civilization, Bradstreet had many chances to reflect upon and enjoy the sights of nature. But one who enjoys nature as she does inevitably confronts the ontological fear of death, the finality that nature itself circumscribes. Human persons are driven by appetites, the “delectable view[s]” that enrapture the senses: these passions are primal, the defining experience of embodied beings–we associate them with life, with vitality itself. But they are also fickle, insatiable in any ultimate sense (“Hell hath no limits nor is circumscrib’d”), and, as both ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy realized, the “untutored” pursuit of the passions enslaves us because it places us in a dimension of constant reflexivity, never resting. This is one of the themes of stanza 17:

And though thus short, we shorten many ways,
Living so little while we are alive;
In eating, drinking, sleeping, vain delight.
So unawares comes on perpetual night.
And puts all pleasures vain into eternal flight.

Human life, already a flash, is lessened by pursuit of life. Night comes and satisfaction recedes into its “eternal flight.” In a manner worthy of Solomon, stanza 17 treats of the vanities of human action and pursuits. And also like Ecclesiastes, this recognition moves the poet to consider how the man’s fleeting pursuits contrasts with the seeming inexhaustability of nature (“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”). The result of this is stanza 18, which, for my money, is one of the more beautiful articulations of the mystery of death in English:

When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green,
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come and greenness then do fade,
A spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he’s laid.

There are possible echoes of Milton here, but the poem undoubtedly ends with Job:

For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?

In both Ecclesiastes and Job, as well as in Bradstreet, humanity’s ambition to sate its appetites by nature manifests the limits of human persons, exposing the meaninglessness of such pursuits (“the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”). The depthless void of man’s appetites cannot be filled, even by nature’s unending renewal: this is the sum of ancient wisdom literature. The pain of this realization, profound as the insight is, cannot lead to Bradstreet’s deep “groan in that divine translation” (the piercing and painful sweetness of holy ecstasy). Such a conundrum forces the question: if man cannot be sated by nature, what can possibly fill him? The obvious answer is God–but Bradstreet does not go there quite yet.

Rather than turning to God, she moves to the undoubtedly zen image of the river: as Siddhartha perfectly demonstrates, the river is an image of the emptiness of Nirvana; it is present at its beginning, middle, and end, and, confounding time, is thus outside of time. It has escaped the vicissitudes of life and therefore can be said to be unchanging, without desire, passionless. Bradstreet addresses the river as “Thou emblem true of what I count the best.” In the river, Bradstreet observes, fish naturally do what they should: “So nature taught, and yet you know not why, / You wat’ry folk that know not your felicity.” The fish is zen; I’m reminded here of Chuang Tzu’s poem, which Merton translated as “The Joy of Fishes.” But, of course, the fish is doubly symbolic as it was the symbol of early Christians. Inasmuch as Christians participate in the life of God, they share the joy of fishes, living in “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.”

All ascetics must go “through the river,” so to speak. Having pierced the wisdom of the river, Bradstreet’s soul is now ready for its final ascension:

While musing thus with contemplation fed
And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain,
The sweet-tongued Philomel perched o’er my head
And chanted forth a most melodious strain
Which rapt me so with wonder and delight,
I judged my hearing better than my sight,
And wished me wings with her a while to take my flight.

For Augustine, sight is the sense of sensual perception (“the lust of the eyes”). Hearing, however, is the sense of faith. Christ told doubting Thomas “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” And Paul says “and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” In Bradstreet’s Christian tradition, God is not made perceptible through sensual perception (“Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”), but only through the testimony of others, through hearing. Bradstreet has been seeing this whole time, observing nature and pondering its sights: this has prepared her heart for what comes by another sense: her soul in the proper state, having reached a sort of Nirvana by the river, can now clearly hear the call of her master’s voice and follow that voice “into a better region, / Where winter’s never felt by that sweet air legion”.

Bradstreet ends the poem, appropriately enough, with an image from Revelation: “he whose name is graved in the white stone / Shall last and shine when all of these are gone.” This is appropriate not simply because it is the end of the poem, the unveiling of all things, but because it channels the apocalyptic geist that has been with America since its inception. The vast and final regions of the United States opened before man a final panorama over which to play out his desire to consume nature. This forces mankind as a whole, like the author of Ecclesiastes, to the “overwhelming question”: “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?“ Or, in other words, what possible thing after this? In the narrative of growth and exploration, America is–in a sense–the last step before that narrative ends or must reinvent itself.

AND THEN WE SAW THE DAUGHTER OF THE MINOTAUR

Poet, comma. It is thus the delay,
which is also a beginning. That we can link eyes
across her time-space continuum is another hyena.
The female elongates, bares fangs, and a trash
compactor recycles. Hyena gives
in the recycling fashion. Phoenix, no more false
flight from holes; now balloons eat at decay.
Hunger denuded us, too. But will you give
up your death for me? With surgery, I outright hollow
the monster to breathe across windows. I don her hollow
whole. She writes back in the pauses of haze.
Her and her tragic magic. We are all cross-dressing
in tiny wings with the machines of bones to go on.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRjYIPLUiKY&version=3&hl=en_GB]

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Of her most recent book from Litmus Press, I Want to Make You Safe, John Ashbery described Amy King‘s poems as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” Safe was one of the Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011, and it was reviewed, among others, by the Poetry Foundation and the Colorado Review. King co-edits Esque Magazine and the PEN Poetry Series with Ana Bozicevic, has conducted workshops at such places as the San Francisco State University Poetry Center, Summer Writing Program @ Naropa University, Slippery Rock University and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and interviews for VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts. She was also honored by The Feminist Press as one of the recent “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees and received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.

The Mimic Sea
By Erica Bernheim
42 Miles Press, 2012
ISBN 978-0983074724’

I hope the Monarch butterfly I released this spring landed in Mexico tagged with
the ending line of the opening poem of Erica Bernheim’s Moonrats:

I’ve got rights and I should look into them.

This is the fewest of the “first books” I’ve read that feels completely self-interrogated and worked upon. It shines and it never presumes its own rescue. Dear Baby, I am held up/by anchors and antlers: one holds me down, the other/keeps me alone. There are statements all over this collection one could theoretically hear from NBC News’s Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel if he’d been released from captivity after five years instead of five days. Laid end to end, seven million hummingbird/eggs will take you to the bus stop and back. Ask the bodies I stand beside on any public transportation and they’ll tell you: I don’t toss about a term like interiority often.

Opening of The Superstition of the Clean Glass:

A cross-section of a tough person seems/touched in the middle of an island, and/we like it.

Bernheim’s is an interior lyric, on par with the elegiac verse of the late Larry Levis. Reading this book is not dissimilar to overhearing a soliloquy on intimacy pieced together by tape-looped recordings of “empty” residences visited and perturbed by The Atlantic Paranormal Society. I miss part-time investigator Donna, who also used to run the Ghost Hunters front office. Sometimes the Connecticut female accent is the only reason I remain in this country.

There’s a newer lyricism stirring around and around the Large Hadron Collider Chamber.
The newer lyricism is more about vibration and less about experience and feeling, experience and feeling having gotten humans squadoosh. This book continually reminds me buoyancy is better than tone, or being right. Bernheim challenges her reader to be intimate. She’s going to be intimate whether you choose to participate or not. I tried to impart to my Navy town how high on the courage-scale that ranks, but most of my neighbors care more about watching me fall off the fiscal cliff.

In the poem Fifteen Beautiful Colors, Bernheim examines light. I didn’t think that kind of magnification was possible anymore in poems.

XII. Two arms reaching make little sound grasps at smoke.
Nothing here will/bloom or rise, planetary faces.

Speaking of light, whenever sunlight is mentioned, something terrible has happened or something wonderful is about to happen. I love that. Prediction: Bernheim will win the third season of Spike TV’s Ink Master. Her championship tat will be whatever life form eventually emerges from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. She’ll pull on host Dave Navarro’s goatee and it will come off. As Ink Master, she’ll tattoo whoever she wants whenever she wants however she wants. As Ink Master client, my mother may desire three-dimensional Wedgwood buttons on her eyelids, or nipples? I’m praying for behind the calves, Mama.

I want the following gem from the poem Dialogue for Robots (pg. 67) tattooed on my pelvis:

In front of our eyes are too many ways to breathe.

It’ll be a cover-up for the botched Soul Train choo-choo.

There are poems addressed to a day-lily, a zookeeper, and a bellhop in here. They’re all provided the same equality of respect.

Let’s dig deeper into the Bernheim/Levis comparison. Here’s three lines. Pick which ones are Bernheim and which ones are Levis:

We go & there’s no one there, no one to meet us on the long drive lined with orange trees
You can recognize the words and not understand the sentence.
Put me in a scene and watch as nothing changes.

Try these:

It’s like your bones died two weeks before you did.
We was just two tents of flesh over bones.
Sex should be no more important than a glass of water.

Don’t worry, Good Will Hunting is still working all this out too.

Having appeared in the 2006 anthology Legitimate Dangers, Bernheim legitimately waited nearly two presidential terms to publish this full-length collection in 2012. She took her sweet time, I suspect, in order to release something rare, special, and dangerous — a finished book.

The assertion that “Contemplations” is primarily concerned with the ascension of the soul may bump against prevailing notions. Some critics have said Bradstreet was more in love with the earth than heaven since the lines that directly address the idea of heaven often fall short: “too often merely traditionally rendered passages pale before some of the more deeply felt lyrical passages in praise of Phoebus and the things of earth”. Indeed, the poem begins with the rapture of the poet as she views nature: her gaze begins with the autumn leaves, then moves upward toward the sun:

Thou as a bridegroom from thy chamber rushes,
And as a strong man, joys to run a race;
The morn doth usher thee with smiles and blushes;
The Earth reflects her glances in thy face.
Birds, insects, animals with vegative,
Thy heat from death and dullness doth revive,
And in the darksome womb of fruitful nature dive.

“More heaven than earth was here [on earth]” Bradstreet says. In fact, stanza 8, which immediately follows a four stanza paean to the sun, seems to contain Bradstreet’s inadvertent admission that she cannot express genuine feelings about God, as opposed to her clearly inspired stanzas about nature:

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.
My great Creator I would magnify,
That nature had thus decked liberally;
But Ah, and Ah, again, my imbecility!

Bradstreet is clearly not describing nature anymore any more than she is bushwacking “pathless paths” through the forest. She is traveling an inward landscape now. This stanza and the ones that follow are a flock of neo-Platonist images. Gazing toward the (inward) sky, her Muse thinks it appropriate to inspire song. And yet, divine though the Muse may be, Bradstreet is unable to perform. Is it because Bradstreet harbors the unspoken belief her ecstatic paean to the secular cannot match what she is able to say about the sacred? To me this interpretation only resonates if you harbor the assumption that the one need crowd out the other. But in Hopkins, for example, the ecstasies of the “secular” are sacred. Think how seamlessly Hopkins moves from the image of the dawn to the Holy Spirit and back to nature again in “God’s Grandeur” (another poem that shares many affinities with “Contemplations”):

And through the last lights off the black West went
_____Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
_____World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins is testing the sundered connection between the natural and divine. “Contemplations” does indeed have several passionately felt stanzas dedicated to the sun; yet this is hardly crypto-pagan nature worship. More to the point, though, those who engage in this reading of “Contemplations” are missing the clear neo-Platonic overtones of the whole poem (thankfully, not all critics have missed this; this particular essay makes some similar arguments as mine, but with different concerns).

[Two side-notes for picky readers:

1. For those familiar with Puritan doctrine, it might seem a little strange to connect Bradstreet with the mysticism of Plato, especially inasmuch as it sounds dangerously close to the analogy of being and/or similar ideas which protestants general eschew. This is an impossibly complicated topic to argue here, but I'm hoping to show that the neo-Platonic reading just makes sense. For those who want more of the historical scaffolding, you can return to the aforelinked essay at the end of the previous paragraph, which argues Bradstreet inherited her neo-Platonism from other poets, or you can jump down this rabbit hole, which argues that Jonathan Edwards--that arch-Puritan--more or less bought into the analogy of being.

2. For those who think I'm being sloppy with my use of the term neo-Platonism, you're probably right.]

Other critics have read this passage (along with others in the poem) as Bradstreet conforming to Puritan expectations of feminine weakness. I don’t doubt that patriarchy played some role in shaping this line, but the link to neo-Platonism really helps us see that something else is happening here. Bradstreet’s admission of imbecility is certainly tribute to Bradstreet’s Puritan modesty; but it’s deeper than that: the modesty is also neo-Platonic. Such imbecility is the stupidity of ecstasy. Bradstreet is unable to speak not because she is a woman or because she secretly loves nature more than God, but because one literally cannot speak about these things.

Nevertheless, femininity is an important theme in this poem. The relationship between femininity and ascesis is complex. One sees similar sentiments throughout Interior Castle, in which Theresa constantly chastises her “feminine” inability to be articulate. On the one hand, it is true that such modesty befit the social expectations of femininity in that time; but it is important to note (without denying the marginalizing influence of such expectations) that these expectations contain a subversive corollary: it is only the feminine soul that reaches the heights of ecstasy. According to Theresa, only by not desiring divine gifts can one receive them, can one pass from speech into that deeper eternally spoken Word. That is, only the unassuming, “feminine” soul is actually able to ascend. On a related note, it is no accident that in the very next stanza speaks of crickets and grasshoppers, insects whose classical associations are that of phoenix-like beings entranced by divine song. Bradstreet notes that creatures praise by “their little art” while she remains imbecilic. Bradstreet’s wit here has actually fooled many critics, who assume that on some level she really believes “warbl[ing] forth no higher lays” is a weakness. In fact, this should probably be read as an ironic reproach to the masculine drive to build towers of babble.

But we’re ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to where Bradstreet begins her poem–personal contemplation, a poet called forth into song by the enrapturing beauty of autumn leaves (anyone who has seen the Massachusetts in Fall knows what Bradstreet is talking about):

The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

I’ve never taken shrooms, but I’m told they make color “more real,” as if a veil is lifted and one experiences the sensual uninhibited, unmediated. Similarly, Bradstreet sees the colors that seem “painted,” enhanced as if by artifice, and yet they are confoundingly “true.” This vision stirs up the passions within Bradstreet, the appetites. The appetites and their desire to consume completely is unattainable, however. This inability of the human person to fully sate a desire creates a fundamental confusion because the existence of desire implies its object. This confusion is one object of Bradstreet’s contemplations, one focus of her attempt to come to deeper knowledge of being. Therefore, the next stanza begins

I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is He that dwells on high,

If such desires cannot be sated by the earthly, certainly there is a richness that transcends earthly riches where there can be no barren “winter and no night.” Bradstreet’s gaze then moves upward, from leaves, to sky, to sun, treating each with due reverence. Undoubtedly, Bradstreet is riffing on Augustine’s Confessions:

And what is the object of my love? I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God, look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek,’ And I said to all these things in my external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ And with a great voice they cried out: ‘He made us’. My question was the attention I gave them, and their response was their beauty. (X.vi.9)

Having begun in such contemplation, Bradstreet moves backwards to the story of Eden. She does so by means of that contemplation:

When present times look back to ages past,
And men in being fancy those are dead,
It makes things gone perpetually to last,
And calls back months and years that long since fled.
It makes a man more aged in conceit
Than was Methuselah, Or’s grandsire great,
While of their persons and their acts his mind doth treat.

Again, Bradstreet mirrors Augustine: memory–both personal and historical–is the primary means of introspection and ascension toward the divine. In returning to the palaces of memory, one finds truths that actually transcend the personal, that impart a wisdom preceding one’s individual being (Plato thought the human ability to recognize truth was actually remembering what was forgotten from the previous life of the soul). However, while Augustine travels back to the creation narrative, Bradstreet returns to a time just after creation: Cain and Abel.

To the Night Shark

Past dusk I dived

Fled without flashlight

Went against the current I knew

Would bring me to you

Tooth-skinned from nose to fin

Mortal and counter

Clockwise across you

Skin I gave up to touch

Streamed against the current

One moment still mortal

I was without struggle

without air instinct speech

Skin dissolving between each

Snaggle-toothed stroke

Touch babbling bled

Only then

With the current

Immortal

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znmhzy6FU6g&hl=en_GB&version=3]

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Rosebud Ben-Oni is a playwright at New Perspective Theater, where she is currently at work on a new play. Educated at New York University, the University of Michigan and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ms. Ben-Oni was a Rackham Merit Fellow and a Horace Goldsmith Fellow. She is also co-editor for “HER KIND,” the official blog of “VIDA: Women in Literary Arts”. Her works have appeared in Puerto Del Sol, Arts & Letters, and The Texas Poetry Review. Her first book of poems SOLECISM is forthcoming from Virtual Artists’ Collective in 2013. Find her at rosebudbenoni.com.

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Michael Homolka. Mike reads his poem “Family V,” which appears in the inaugural issue of Phoenix in the Jacuzzi Journal.

http://archive.org/download/TheEggshellParadesTheNoisyReadingSeriesMichaelHomolka/MichaelHomolkaTnrsFinal.mp3

When I was 4 or 5, my grandmother loved to ask me where I was from: “Pittsfield, Massachewits” I’d say. Like a sneeze. She took a special delight in my inability to grasp and order all the necessary phonemes. We moved from Massachusetts before I turned 10, before I really appreciated the important literary contributions that state had made to American literature. I do remember visiting Herman Melville’s estate and finding, appropriately enough, an arrowhead half-buried in the ground. Presumably another child lost it after buying it from the gift shop, but that object must’ve buried itself deeply in my psyche because I’ve felt compelled to recover my heritage. There’s Frost and Dickinson, of course; Moby-Dick is becoming a psychic and artistic anchor for me. And more recently, I am growing into deeper relationship with the “small triumphs” of Robert Francis.

It’s part of this Massachusetts ressourcement, I suppose, that I have discovered Anne Bradstreet for myself–a poet with few advocates these days. In my cursory and rather sloppy overview of critical opinion about her, I discovered that she’s read by different critics as proto-Romantic yet also derivative bibliophile, as subversive proto-feminist yet also conformist American Puritan. The contradictory interpretations are to be expected since Bradstreet is an outlier of most received literary groupings. I suspect this is also a reason why–perhaps Berryman aside–she has few advocates. I’m sure all these debates are important in their own ways. But there is one literary grouping–a personal one–of which Bradstreet is definitely a member: she’s a Massachusetts poet.

There’s an ‘essentialist’ definition we can use: the presence of themes and qualities that she shares with other notable Massachusetts writers. Consider the opening stanza of her long poem “Contemplations,” which most critics consider her finest work:

Some time now past in the autumnal tide
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

Yes, she loves and writes nature in a Romantic manner parallel to Wordsworth, but she also demonstrates a penchant for naturalistic observation more akin to Francis or Frost: meditating on nature as an emblem of the mystery of being. Nature is not romanticized as a means of insight; rather, in the moment of perception, nature is caught up, as it were, in the larger schema of what is. The human eye becomes the means of transfiguration. Bradstreet fuses this tendency with the extended metaphysical conceits–similar to Donne, of course, but also similar those Dickinson was so fond of using. For example,

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.

Like Dickinson’s, Bradstreet’s psyche becomes a space in which the author roams and encounters thinking as a series of events along the journey.

There’s also a less essentialist definition to this term: “Massachusetts poet” can loosely gesture toward the in-betweenness of Bradstreet, in the same way that Massachusetts was at the intersection of two empires. Bradstreet was steeped in classical education, yet she lived on the frontier–almost beyond the reaches of the civilization that shaped classical sensibility. In this space, readers can recognize that Bradstreet works with themes and images that come to fruition in later American literature.

In this series of posts, I want to do a reading of Bradstreet’s poem “Contemplations” and trace these two aspects of Bradstreet’s “Massachusetts”-ness in order to achieve a few broad goals:

1. Interpret Bradstreet as an intersection point between a more classical and modern poetics, between old and new world. Doing this may help modern readers appreciate where we are in contemporary poetics as well as where we’ve been.
2. Help readers appreciate how Bradstreet foresaw many future American literary impulses.

THE FORM & ITS FUNCTION

I think one hurdle for modern readers is that Bradstreet’s thematic interests and method of exploring those interests has more in common with pre-modern sensibilities. This is a really broad statement, but it’s mostly accurate if you squint your eyes right. The way we moderns conceive of the self is entirely different. Read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self if you’re interested in more of this. I’m more interested in how this understanding of self affects contemporary poetics. Here’s how I see these shifts affecting contemporary readers: modern readers prefer speakers with highly individualized voices, because moderns have a more privatized sense of inner life, of the irreproducability of individual experience; we associate highly individualized voices with “genuine” feeling. 

Not so much for the pre-moderns. I’d argue that this sensibility is still evident in folk music. The speaker could easily be you or me; the singer may inhabit a voice and the performance makes it individualized, but a different performance is a different individual. The words and themes are a bit like generalized grooves into which singers pour the real individualized feeling. This isn’t to say that Bradstreet’s poem is “pre-modern” in the sense I describe above, only that it shares some of those sensibilities. One area where this understanding is important is when exploring the form of Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” because it helps readers see the poem on its own expectations.

“Contemplations” is composed of 33 individually numbered seven-line stanzas, each a sort of self-contained half-sonnet or modified rime royal. The stanza is composed of a quatrain of alternating rhyme pattern (ABAB) followed by a fully-rhymed tercet (CCC). Generally, the quatrain seems to pose an emblematic idea or image to ponder, and the tercet, with its triadic finality, deepens one’s perception of the image by drawing some conclusion or responding to it. In this pattern the form is indeed similar to the sonnet, yet this stanza simply does not have the room to sustain the intellectual acrobatics (read: the stamp of individualism) of traditional sonnets. Moreover, the sense of conclusion is more final and mysterious than, say, the standard Shakespearean couplet, which often feels provisional at best (that’s a feature, not a weakness). Also notable is that while the first six lines are iambic pentameter, the 7th line is alexandrine.

The lines are incredibly well-wrought in places, her voice working within but also freely moving across her form. The language is so formally satisfying at times that one can float right by the wonderful strangeness of some lines: “All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.” That line, in addition to its strong intimations of Dickinson, suggests perhaps that Bradstreet’s feelings have yet to dissociate from sensibility, a rupture that Eliot pins on Milton, an almost contemporary of Bradstreet. There are, indeed, moments when Bradstreet, like the metaphysical poets, feels her thinking.

But unlike the Metaphysicals, Bradstreet’s “feeling knowledge” is not focused on the almost sensual pleasures of thought–and it is here here we must temper our modern expectations. I would argue that the goal of this form is geared less toward solving problems and more toward contemplation (surprise!): of an emblem, an icon, a mystery. That is to say, each individual poem-stanza does not achieve resolution, does not try to rectify infinite paradoxes within the vanishing point of the individual. The form extends beyond the insight-inducing koan, but is less focused on the act of thought than a sonnet: thus a critic could rightly call this form “contemplation.” I’ll use this name for it, since I haven’t been able to find any name for the form itself. If Bradstreet did not coin this form, its name seems obscured by time. The only other use of this exact form I’ve been able to locate (and only then after consulting some of the most knowledgeable poets I know on Facebook) is “The Purple Island” by Phineas Fletcher (an obscure find if there ever was one, Joe Weil!). I suppose there is a chance Bradstreet would have known this poem, since she was deeply read and seems to share Fletcher’s affection for didactic poetry. Moreover, the two poems are also works of natural theology, both attempting to come to understanding of the divine through nature and life experience.

The mention of theology brings us to another hurdle for modern appreciation of Bradstreet, but it gives us a chance to see how understanding the form helps overcome this hurdle. Despite her fondness for the natural world, Bradstreet seems to privilege divine revelation. Because of this privileging, critics accuse Bradstreet of a restrictive piety: that her religious convictions bind her to fall back on and rehash the establishment line when the paradoxes of the world become fraught. But I suspect such critics fail to appreciate, on some level, the sense of devotion that Bradstreet was likely to possess. Here an appreciation of the classical influences helps. In this sense, dogma is not merely a code for following, but itself an object worth contemplating, something to be entered into, to have written on one’s heart. If my read on the form of the poem is correct, then we should not approach these as similar to Milton’s attempts to “justify the ways of God to men.” Instead, the end of each stanza is a lot more like the “selah” of the Psalms, a pause inviting reflection rather than demanding an intellectual choice.

Let’s take a specific example and see how this works out. In stanza 31 Bradstreet describes how a sailor that fancies himself himself lord of the seas is forced by a sudden storm to tuck tail between legs and make for port. It’s an image of the sudden and ugly turn of nature. To most readers today, the stanza that follows lands with a pious thud, a theocratic spike in the end zone:

So he that saileth in this world of pleasure,
Feeding on sweets, that never bit of th’ sour,
That’s full of friends, of honour, and of treasure,
Fond fool, he takes this earth ev’n for heav’n’s bower.
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here’s neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security.

It would be easier to forgive Bradstreet that last bit if were the result of an lyrically compelling passage in which mere force of will somehow wrestled this insight from the nihilistic abyss (as Herbert does in “The Collar,” for example). This preference is a modern bias because of our latent preference for the logical (or at least lyrical) virtuosity of individuals. I think this desire is related to the importance of (what Charles Taylor terms)  ‘moral sentiments’ for modern individuals. In short, an account of reality (in this case a poetic one) must appeal to and satisfy our sense of, say, inner religious longing.

This is not to say that pre-moderns didn’t feel inner longing in the sense that we term it today (in fact, this sensibility is probably found in embryonic form in Augustine, that first modern). But they understood it differently. The source of those sentiments arose from a direct ontological connection. For moderns, this connection is impossible, so the source of sentiments is completely subjective. This is a crucial point because it should change even our subjective expectations of what is poetically ‘satisfying’ in a sympathetic reading of poetry.

Given the icon-like nature of Bradstreet’s poem, it seems then that she should not be judged by how well she navigates these images or marshals them toward a conclusion that satisfies our moral sentiments.  Now we may realize that this stanza is an invocation of a well-tread theme, one she does not try to overcome or even lyrically transcend: it’s about the opposition of the law of nature, with its chthonic demands of ritual sacrifice, to the law of grace and its ability to bestow a peace that passes understanding. We must also note that this poem is not a rejection of life’s pleasures. These pleasures receive a powerful treatment in the poem. We know without a doubt that Bradstreet loved to feast on the “sweet” of life as much as the next poet–if not more (“Rapt were my senses at this delectable view”). If we moderns insist on a glimpse into the world of the writer, we can imagine how bittersweet the final statement is for Bradstreet to affirm: indeed, readers must imagine because that is what the form asks of us: contemplation of that mystery. The force of truth does not come from within but exists in an objective order. One does not believe in that order; one can only recognize it.

In this series, each “contemplation” gathers, one on top of another, like a pile of inscrutable stones. Bradstreet, of course, threads themes and stories across the contemplations; once or twice she even puts the stanzas into direct conversation with one another. But moving through “Contemplations” is more akin to strolling through an ancient church that is full of mosaics or gazing upon an iconostasis. This is the classical bent manifesting itself in Bradstreet. This is not to say the stanza-poem remains in stasis. In fact, the movement of a narrative does emerge: it is the story of the soul’s ascesis (ascent to the divine) through the deepening perception of each stanza.

FIRST SNOW

Split peas simmer to a chalky paste when held
long enough over fire. Suspended over heat

I’ve been known to change properties: I said
I would never forgive. Beside my pot the silver knife

blade longer than my hand smells like onion
& crushed garlic; I have held this same blade out

toward his chest. A year ago I knew cold,
but now I marvel at how winter brings

wanderers inside: the scurrying mice
through the walls. The quilt collected

at the foot of the bed like old receipts. Last night
I slept on the higher side of the mattress,

let him back into open spaces. Outside the first snow
falls; we might have melted.

__________________________________________________
DéLana R.A. Dameron is the author of How God Ends Us, a collection of poems selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Dameron’s poetry, non-fiction and fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and she has received fellowships from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the Cave Canem Foundation, Soul Mountain Retreat and New York University where she received her Master in Fine Arts in poetry. Dameron has conducted readings, workshops and lectures all across the United States and Europe. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, she currently resides in New York City. http://delanaradameron.com

Dear Uncle Sam

He’s not your type.
He kisses men with eyes
open, talks with them
shaded or averted
to acquiescent asses.
When cordoned
& questioned, he laughs.
Beware. His laughter beguiles.
Beware. He never shoots
straight. Always curls
fetal in the arms of any one
who can still him. Never sleeps
alone. Give him a gun,
& he may turn it into a prop
for a plié. Give him a gun,
& he may turn it on himself
& every fool who believes you.
He’s claimed bodies in every
major city east of Chicago, saw mine
heaving among strobe-lit throng
& marked me: his sweat clinging
to my nape, our silhouettes
on bedroom walls,
now a mirage blurred
by desert dunes, now
only the caress of lines
hardened hands scrawl:
I’ll be home next
month … I’ll be home
next year … I’ll be
… I’ll …

_____________________________________________
L. Lamar Wilson is the author of Sacrilegion (Carolina Wren Press, 2013). Poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review, Los Angeles Review, jubilat, The 100 Best African American Poems, and other journals and anthologies.

PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

jarrell

Mary Jarrell, left, with her husband, Flannery O Connor, Peter Taylor, & Robert Humphrey. Courtesy of UNC, Greensboro

 

Mary Jarrell’s late husband, Randall Jarrell, is well known to literary people for his wonderful satirical novel, Pictures from an Institution, for his ingenious criticism, for his translations of Rilke and Chekhov, for his endearing children’s books, and, of course, for his poetry.

In 2002, I had the privilege of interviewing Mrs Jarrell for a proposed documentary on the World War II air war, and the literature that had defined it. Though the project never came to fruition, the interview was, of course, invaluable in its own way, and took on a life of its own. Though in many ways Mrs Jarrell—from the POV of anecdotes alone— didn’t reveal anything that hadn’t already been exhaustively covered in various biographies (including her own memoir, Remembering Randall) being in her vibrant presence, and in the presence of her husband’s memorabilia, was a rich enough experience.

The following interview took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, in October of 2002, at Wellspring, Mrs Jarrell’s assisted living community.

***
Mary Jarrell has survived almost all of her scholarly contemporaries. In person, she is tall and slim, with a face (as was said of Zelda Fitzgerald’s) that is far more beautiful and enigmatic than one would gather from viewing her photographs. It’s apparent that she must have been quite something in her youth, but, as seems to be the phenomenon of old age, all that beauty has migrated to the eyes, and it is through them that one can see her as she must have looked at the time she shared her life with her husband. She lives alone in a retirement community, closely surrounded by neighbors, with a dachshund as devoted to her as a child.

Moments after Mrs. Jarrell (“Mary please”) welcomes me inside, we are joined by a tiny black and tan dachshund that is not a puppy, she says, “but a full grown mini who weighs seven pounds.” She lifts the creature in her arms.

“Meet Schatzi,” she says. “It’s the diminutive for Schatzel; means ‘little treasure.’ Half the dogs In Germany are called Schatzi.”

I’ve already noticed that she seems a little hard of hearing, and as I check the sound level on my recorder, she says, “I’ll just get closer to you…some people have a gentle voice that I don’t pick up very well.” By now I’m ready to start asking her questions, but something tells me not to lead off the discussion of her husband’s work with The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, and I remark instead on my liking for his treatment of the surrealism of the passing of time in his poem The Face.

“Oh yes…. ‘I haven’t changed/you haven’t looked.’ Randall dreaded it, getting old. He didn’t want it to happen; so the passing of time was very real to him…and he was sorry to have to live through it”, she says.

Though I’m glad my remark has stirred such easy and immediate candor, her response also sets off a tremor of alarm: it seems to steer us in a direction I’d resolved to avoid (or at least not to broach this early in the interview): the lingering speculation that Randall’s death in a traffic accident at age fifty-one had been semi-suicidal.

In her memoir, and in many interviews, she’d of course dealt summarily with this conjecture (it wasn’t so, according to the coroner’s report), and I reassure myself that by now any resentment she may once have felt toward those still perpetuating the rumor in literary circles might have settled into the almost dispassionate objectivity she’d consistently shown on the subject in her writings.

So I decide to start out with Ball Turret, after all.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
(“The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner”)

In Remembering Randall, Mary had elaborated on the fact that the poem was for Jarrell both a triumph and source of consternation, as it was the relentless public demand for the piece that inspired him to worry that he might become a one hit wonder.

“At present, you know, it goes for $250.00 a shot, and is in steady demand for TV as well as the printed page,” she says, gently touching the dachshund’s nose.

“Randall’s poem can be interpreted as being both anti-war and anti-state. But I presume he didn’t question the necessity of the second World War?”

Her answer is immediate and somewhat surprising. “He did …he really did. I was just dealing with that in one of his letters in which takes that up. He was very critical, especially of the Army, because to him in a way… it was an institution, sort of like Academia. And it had certain routines and inescapable requirements. Instead of looking at his past …you know, they knew he had been a teacher…they sent him to interviewing candidates and finally decided to train him to instruct cadets… and when they saw his teaching ability, they trained him for celestial navigation.”

I’m not sure I understand her answer, and rephrase the question. But she frames her reply in terms of her own feelings about the war (Hitler had to be stopped, etc), not Randall’s; and I drop the topic and remark that Jarrell’s brilliant criticism could eviscerate the loftiest reputations. (“Auden is like a man who keeps showing how well he can hold his liquor until he becomes a drunk.”)

“He finally moved away from that sort of thing”, Mary tells me, “He said, I’m not going to write any more severe criticism…it’s not worth it. It happened with his teaching, too. He only taught people that he really admired. Never mind the bad poetry. He didn’t teach bad poets.”

Abruptly, she laughs, relaxing. “You got this on tape?”

I tell her that I do, and ask her if she believes that Randall would have viewed the poetry of this day and age as being in a state of decline.

“Ohhhh, I’m afraid he would,” she answers quickly. “I have a friend that I often see… he’s retired, and divorced and teaches poetry at the Shepherd’s Center. And he likes poetry. But just this past weekend he told me that nobody, even the faculty over there, was interested in poetry. It’s always been a small minority, but it’s marvelous to see those who have lived on.”

Some modern poets (like Jarrell’s good friend Robert Lowell) who have done so, I observe, were surely helped by Randall’s honest praise.

“After some of his {Lowell’s) breakdowns… and after some time had elapsed…he wrote more and more of that ‘my life confessional’ sort of thing… Randall would’ve hated that. But the public liked it. Randall wanted it lyric and he wanted it visionary, and he wished that Cal had stayed with his marvelous historical poems like The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

“What about the Beats? In your book you discuss a visit by Kerouac and Gregory Corso to your home, but it would seem unlikely that Randall would embrace the Beats as a legitimate literary movement, judging from his tastes. Can you expand on this?”

She adjusts the dachshund on her lap. “Randall wrote about that better than I could, and he acknowledged that they did have a part in those years; but he never liked the fact that they wouldn’t revise. We met Corso out in San Francisco, and liked him a great deal. But again, he was constantly submitting poems to Randall, but he wouldn’t revise. He’d quit, and start another until he had ten half-written poems, and Randall couldn’t stand that.” We both laugh.

“There’s a quote you might like… just this morning, on the cover of… well, it’ll be on the cover of the book that’s coming out. It deals with Randall’s…high demand on others.” She rises quickly to look for the excerpt and is gone for several minutes, but returns empty handed. “Well…it’s somewhere. But it’s a quote by Robert Penn Warren, and he acknowledged Randall as a very great critic, said that he was generous with his criticism, but that he had such high standards for other poets, and himself; and of course the critic Helen Vendler said that ‘Jarrell put his talent into his poetry and his genius into his criticism.’ And I think he just thought people didn’t spend enough time; he knew how much time it took. He would use the Army phrase ‘wash out’ to describe something in a manuscript that needed to be removed. He’d tell somebody, ‘I think I’d just wash that out’ And he told Eleanor Taylor {poet and wife of writer Peter Taylor} that about her own poems a couple of times”

(Draft page from ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’, by Randall Jarrell)

 

My research in preparing for the meeting had given me the impression that for some literary historians, Randall Jarrell’s place in modern American letters had been secured as much through his criticism as his poetry; so if I had true journalistic instincts I’d try to keep Mary talking about that aspect of his career.

But I was afraid (perhaps groundlessly) that she was becoming tired, and I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t leave without asking about what, aside from his criticism and one novel, I personally liked best of all her husbands creations…his children’s books.

“Randall’s lovely poem The Lost Children deals not only, like Peter Pan, with the inevitable loss of childhood from itself, but with a parent’s loss of a vicarious childhood through the children that grow up and away from them into adulthood. I get the feeling from some other of his poems that romantic love, for Randall, was maybe also somewhat a vicarious childhood….and this certainly seems to be the case in The Gingerbread Rabbit. Do you feel that’s true?”

“Yes,” she smiles, and looks out into the garden for a bit.

“Two little girls, one fair, one dark

one alive, one dead,

are running hand in hand through
a sunny house…
They run away from me…

But I am happy…

When I wake I feel no sadness, only delight.

I’ve seen them again, and I am comforted

that, somewhere, they still are”

(“The Lost Children”)

Surely this is Mary’s voice, the voice of his beloved speaking through Jarrell (dubbed “Child Randall” by Robert Lowell in an elegy) and it is this that gives the poem its empathetic tenderness. When, in The Animal Family, the hunter brings a “baby” home, the family unit, so coveted by Randall Jarrell, comes full circle:

“In two days he was sitting on the floor
by the table when they ate, eating with them…

in a week it was as if he had lived with them always.”

***

We walk out into the sunshine toward the awning where we are to board the vehicle that’s to take us to the resident’s dining room (I had been expecting a minivan driven by a retirement home employee) and I get a kick out of the fact that Mary Jarrell, a woman of a certain age, not only drives, but drives a svelte, compact sports car, flaming red, bearing the personalized license plate, “POEMS”.

Since long before writing Remembering Randall, Mary von Schrader Jarrell has, emphatically, been herself. And her answer to my final question strikes me with the realization that maybe it’s her story that I’ve mostly missed.

It had been arranged that we part company after lunch, “not so much for a nap, but to rest my eyes and lie prone with one arm over Schatzi at my side and practice my yoga deep breathing.” As we wait for my cab outside, I apologize for tiring her.

“I’m tired, yes. But happy,” she replies. “It links me to once again quote Benjamin Franklin’s observation to the signers of the Constitution, ‘I’m so old I am intruding in posterity’.” She smiles, and her remarkable eyes are as bright as a child’s in the sun.

“How do you think Randall would have felt about 9/11?” I ask her impulsively.

“Oh, he’d feel it”, she says, “but I can’t presume to say what his feelings would be. I mean, one’s opinions do change, and he didn’t live to see that. He died at fifty-one. But I didn’t.”

Download a PDF of the strip here.

Mother puts on my lipstick

standing behind me, dragging the lipstick
across my lips as if they were her own.
Her free hand steadies my face. It is the red of her nails
I want on my mouth, the nails so lacquered
they catch the flash of my camera and hold it.
Mother puts on my lipstick and I stare
into the mirror, my lower lip glowing
beneath her hands. Her hands which are all of her,
and which hold me this way, as she wants me.

________________-after a photograph by Elinor Carucci

________________________________________________
Matthew Siegel is a poet and essay writer living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, Southern Humanities Review, TheRumpus.net, and elsewhere. He is a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and currently teaches writing and literature at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He can be found online at http://matthewsiegel.us/. He tweets at @MatthewSiegel_.

Photo by Kari Orvik

So what is this thing called free verse? Is it highly cadenced and rhythmic but unmetered lines? Maybe. Is it a series of utterances lined, but without any beat? Perhaps. Is it prose written with line breaks? Sometimes, sure; why not? This last one is a charge poets seek to avoid because… well, because they are poets. They want to make sure they are defined as poets and not as prose writers who decided to forsake paragraph structure. They want to get away with murder. Marianne Moore claimed she wanted to write “well ordered prose.” Moore was gutsy. She decided the best defense for supposedly free verse was to admit it was prose, but to add the proviso, “well ordered.” In her case, she often employed what is known as syllabic verse. In syllabic verse, poets count syllables, not beats. English is what they call a syllabic/accentual language. You’ll get arguments from people about that, but people argue about everything. One might go as far as to say that postmodernism is little more “exceptionalism as its rule.” It’s all aporia, a fancy Greek term for all things containing an essential contradiction within their structures so that all things break down (deconstruct). How clever! It allows postmodernists to study the gaps in texts and seldom have anything to do with the texts themselves. This is called theory.

Anyway, to understand free verse, it might do us some good to understand unfree, oppressed, over determined, enslaved verse, verse in chains, so to speak, verse before we liberated it. Here’s an example:

when IN disGRACE with FORtune AND men’s EYES
I all alone beweep my outcast state.

Now there are ten syllables here in both lines, and five of them are accented. This is called iambic pentameter. It means ten syllables, but five accented beats (syllables). Usually, the unaccented syllable precedes an accented one in strict iambic pentameter. If we exaggerate the emphasis on “in,” “grace,” “for,” and “eyes,” we’ll find the pulse of the accents in iambic pentameter. We can even clap them out (instructor claps them out). Unaccented syllables are lowercase, and accented syllables are uppercase. Some people use little U-shaped and accent marks. These go over the words. This is called scansion. This is not an exact science. If it was, English would sound pretty boring. Rhythm, especially good flowing rhythm, is all about playing loose within a specific structure, but not so loose that the structure disappears. When the beats get too predictable, poems sound boring. If the beats are not somewhat regular, then we have to force them to exist. We will call this wrench rhythm—a rhythm that is unnaturally imposed upon a line to make it fit a pattern. Anyway, let’s see what happens when we change the first line a little:

When in disgrace with men’s eyes and fortune
I all alone beweep my outcast state.

Does the rhythm seem off to you? Suppose I also change the second line:

When in disgrace with men’s eyes and fortune
I beweep my outcast state all alone.

If you are listening, you will hear that the rhythm known as iambic pentameter is gone. Each line still contains ten syllables. By Moore’s calculations, this makes it well ordered prose, but its regular pulse is gone. Amen. Of course, some people can’t tell. Why? Because, like people who are tone deaf, they are rhythm deaf. If you don’t grow up reading lots of poems written in iambic pentameter, you may not be sensitive to its presence. It has nothing to do with rhyme. You can have unmetered poetry that rhymes. Hell, in Persia, they have rhymed prose. At any rate, many poets who are grant winners are rhythm deaf. They cover it up with imagery, or by making the poem look “visibly appealing.” This appeal varies. Some magazines don’t want anything that looks eccentric. Others don’t want anything that looks normal, and some editors are ego maniacs and insist they know when a poem is “organic.”

A lot of free verse is about how we use space. Prose writers don’t have to worry about that. They go from left to right until the limit is reached and then keep going, but poets use lines, and lines draw attention to a unit of measure, even if that measure is irregular, without a pattern. All the white space around those lines creates contrast. Free verse writers have to worry about the gaps as well as the words. It’s a real pain in the ass. I know. Forgive me. But the first thing you should do after writing a free verse poem is ask yourself: does the white space it leaves appeal to me? Do I even care about it? If I don’t, what do I care about in this particular poem? Suppose I say what most novices say: I care about expressing my emotions. Well, then you should act like a scientist and apply a series of questions to those emotions: if this emotion were a thing, how would it be shaped? If the emotion is wild, what would happen if I caged it in a regular structure or pattern? Would it take the wildness away, or would it add a sort of good tension between the wildness and the form? We should ask no questions when we first write a poem. We are answering a hundred hidden questions, and cool, objective questions will only get in the way of those, but afterwards, after the frenzy of our creative moment, we need to step back, and be scientists. What questions apply to this particular poem? What are my images doing? What is my structure doing? How do I like the shape of the poem? Do I care? Why don’t I care? Etc, etc, etc. So I am now about to perform a feat of magic. I am going to take the opening lines of Salinger’s “Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters,” and meter it, then unmeter it, just to give you permission to manipulate language and structures and stop thinking it some sort of accident:

“One Night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps in our enormous family, my youngest sister, Franny was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ free room I shared with my eldest Brother Seymour:”

One night, now more than twenty years ago,
during a siege of mumps, my sister Franny,
was moved out, crib and all, from her own room,
into the room that Seymour and I shared.

OK. That’s rough iambic pentameter–blank verse. Here’s syllabic with me changing very little:

One night some twenty years ago during
a siege of mumps in our huge family
my youngest sister Franny was moved crib
and all into the ostensibly germ
free room I shared with our brother, Seymour.

Now pattern it as free verse:

One night, some twenty
years ago
during a siege of mumps
in our enormous family,
my youngest sister, Franny
was moved crib and all
into the ostensibly germ free room
I shared with my eldest brother,
Seymour.

Read this last version, which is exact to the prose, by pausing at the end of every line. You’ll start to hear a ghost meter, a cadence, but only if you pause. If we treat the white space as what poets call a caesura (a pause) we can shape our poems by more or less natural speech rhythms–by the breath. This is only one way of shaping free verse. It is the first we are going to learn.

Here’s an exercise: take a piece of prose and do two of the three things I just did to it, dropping or changing words, but nothing that would get rid of the most vital information. Then take one of your poems, and do the same, playing with its structure, breaking the lines according to the breath/ pauses you hear. Good luck.

TORCH SONG: QUIT SONG

Men isn’t there always the dead
letter office yes wasn’t your wage
a hogwash wage & there’s always
a furnace waiting for men who’ll
burn our undeliverables for pay

Eureka if you want to look past
the mist back into the timberland
you squint like you’re muscling
your way through the scab yard
& wish on your fly ash at the gate

___________________________________________
Torch Songs 
is a collaboration between Allyson Paty and Danniel Schoonebeek. Poems from Torch Songs have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin HouseDenver QuarterlyGulf CoastThe AwlColorado ReviewFailbetterLoaded BicycleBridge, and elsewhere. Both poets live in Brooklyn.

Paul Breslin, in his introduction to The Psycho-Political Muse, outlines the psychological theories influencing the radical poetry of the 1950s and 60s. Finding that the psyche is culturally conditioned, recent psychological theories found that neurosis can be identified as a type of resistance to social norms. Correlatively, art was seen as counter-acting repression, freeing consciousness from the constraints dominating the acculturated ego. In this context, the rhetoric of the New Left shifts, according to Breslin, from focus on class struggle to the opposition of “the falsification of consciousness in all classes.” Liberation from “the system” or “the establishment” was thought to come, not so much from the overthrow of economic relations, but through the individual’s “relative immunity” to society’s interlocking network of illusions.  As such, poets “had only to look about [themselves], or even into [their] own soul[s], to be confronted with the crisis of American society,” making the private and public realms effectively interchangeable. In this context, Breslin argues, poets chose to either

<blockquote>become radical Fruedian versions of the poète maudit, exhibiting their distorted consciousness as representative of society’s distorted consciousness, or to speak from the unconscious, which is untainted by acculturation but, for that very reason, has no language.</blockquote>

With this framework we can understand the emerging trends in experimental American poetry during this period, including, especially for the Beats, the proliferation of surrealist themes and techniques, who often alternately positioned themselves as pathologically warped or as transmitters of an “untainted” consciousness. I would include with these responses identified by Breslin a third approach particular to many of the Beats—the poet as alchemist, transmuting the socio-political reality using the mundane elements found in the (social) environment with the transformative energies of consciousness. The Beats attempt to repair society intrinsically by conjoining its disparate elements in inventive combinations, or, as Ginsberg may have termed them, “reality sandwiches” (a phrase he used for the title for his fourth collection). This approach reflects surrealist tradition, positing that consciousness itself—even the acculturated consciousness—contains the necessary ingredients for its restoration, if it is allowed opportunity for free association and play. This “alchemical” approach, like surrealist collage, imbues acculturated experience with new meaning through the synthesis of its fragmented parts and immediacy of presentation.

Gregory Corso is considered one of the founding Beats met Ginsberg in Greenwich Villagein 1950 and, who over the next few years encouraged and mentored him. This happened after a prison term Corso served for an adolescent mishap, during which he read the dictionary, Shelley’s poetry. Corso’s reputation began growing with the publication of his second book, Gasoline (1958) and blossomed after he published The Happy Birthday of Death (1960). Around this time Corso spend several years in Europe, especiallyParis, deepening his appreciation for modern and Romantic poetry and further exposing him to the surrealists.

Corso’s single most important influence is Percy Shelley. In addition to his frequent allusions to him in his poetry, he is reported to have reverently kissed the carpet in the poet’s old quarters at Oxfordand had his ashes scattered near his tomb in Rome. For Corso, Shelley is a “revolutionary of the spirit” who transcends the mundane through poetic imagination. Corso’s surrealist poetics can be seen as a continuation of Shelly’s poetic model in a 20th century context. In his Defense of Poetry, Shelley analogizes poetry and the imagination as the dialectical counterpart to reason. Whereas logic is analysis, poetry is synthesis, a harmonious blending of external and internal impressions. Poetry recaptures life’s immediacy and “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehendable combinations of thought.” This process is alchemical in nature, making good and beautiful out of what is corrupt and ugly. Shelley envisions the poet as a word combiner, who, through his imagination, synthesizes thought in vivifying and regenerative ways.

Surrealism provides Corso a way of applying Shelley’s model to modern experience. In the poem, “No Doubt What He Saw,” Corso presents the image of the “Daisytaur”—a bull conjoined to a daisy—an icon of the imagination’s ability to unveil the wholeness and harmony of the world. The speaker recounts his childhood memory of seeing a horse with a daisy in its mouth and being struck by the juxtaposition of beast’s power and the flower’s fragility. The child interprets the sight as anticipating the eventual synthesis and harmony of the plant and animal kingdom. But his “playmate” is skeptical until the child Corso takes his friend to “a field of burning hay” and shows him “[a] pastoral metamorphosis! / A Daisytaur” (46). As Gregory Stephenson points out, this story puts “[s]eemingly strange attractions and affinities, incongruous unions of unlike things…in full accordance with the deepest natural law,” suggesting that “all life and being…is ever seeking to restore itself to its original state, the disparate parts striving to come together again”

Corso’s poems are filled with many variations of the “Daisytuar,” including the list of “Saleable Titles” to The Happy Birthday of Death, which Corso provides opposite the book’s title page. These alternate titles, some of which he was genuinely considering, form incongruent adjective-noun pairs such as “Fried Shoes,” “Pipe Butter,” “Radiator Soup,” “Flash Gordan soap,” and “Gorgoyle liver.” Like “Daisytaur,” these constructions isolate the basic surrealist technique of forming incompatible, transformative juxtapositions, and like Shelley, Corso plays the role of the synthesizer and alchemist, transmuting images of experience through combination and metamorphosis.

In The Happy Birthday of Death, he deliberately confronts many of the destructive and erroneous concepts at work in contemporary society and weighs them against a surrealist vision of transcending and transforming modern experience. The longer, popular poems of the collection explore, in an unorganized but encyclopedic way, the subjects identified in their titles: “Marriage,” “Bomb,” “Food,” “Hair,” “Police,” and “Army.” Corso’s troubled or sarcastic treatment of these topics—which, for contemporary audiences, represent sources of modern anxiety—forms a layer of implicit criticism through a light-hearted iteration of the poeté mauidit. Stephenson names these poems “anti-odes.” They depict a mentally unstable speaker who reflects a modern collective consciousness, revealing layers of psychosis and absurdity. They are humorous and incisive in their treatment of their subject, representing what Michael Skau calls Corso’s “peculiar strain of surrealism, with its combination of humor and threat.”

In “Marriage,” Corso give a free rein to worries about marriage, loosely following an imaginary chronology of events in which the speaker is introduced to the parents of his love interest, gets at the ceremony, is teased by in-laws at the reception, and eventually finds himself trapped by fatherhood and domestic malaise. The situation is comical but poses sincere questions. The speaker’s opening query, “Should I get married? Should I be good?” typifies the modern adult male’s social situation in existential and moral terms. Skeptical of established cultural traditions, he is unable or unwilling to be subsumed into prescribed roles, and thus he imagines himself resisting expectations through various clownish pranks. This pattern is established at the dating stage: “Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood? / Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries / tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets” (29). He thinks about “Flash Gordon soap” while meeting his fiancée’s parents, he substitutes “Pie Glue” for “I do” in the ceremony, and defiantly rejects sexual consummation on the wedding night because everyone knows and expects it happen: “Everyone knowing! I’d be almost inclined not to do anything! / Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye! / Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon!” (30). The speaker’s rejection of social norms stems from a perceived contradiction between his autonomy as an individual and social customs. To him, the concept of marriage and all its trappings are “obscene” and threatening.

Yet, the speaker is obligated to attempt to reconcile himself to marriage because the alternative—a life of bachelorhood—promises a lonely demise in old age. Thus, his imagined compromise is resistant participation characterized by arbitrary behavior and displays of irreverence. He baldly asserts his autonomy and freedom through spontaneous declarations and through substituting appropriate interaction and communication with verbal non-sense. Later in the poem, for instance, he imagines himself incapable of normal fatherly discourse, shouting, instead, absurdities to his children: “Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!” To fend off suburban ennui, he executes Dadaist pranks:

So much to do! like sneaking into Mr Jones’ house late at night
And cover his gold clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
Like past Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence

And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When you are going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust— (30-31)

He identifies himself to others as one who defies and rejects authority or only grudgingly participates in domestic rituals. Thus, whether he foregoes marriage, accepts his social roles or does so with qualification and resistance, the result is the same—he is stripped of his identity and alienated from others. Given the impossibility of his situation, with none of these alternatives being adequate, absurdist humor is perhaps the most expedient response, as it foregrounds his resistance and affords him, at least, the consolation of retaining a degree of integrity and identity. These acts deflate the social situations in which they occur; their spontaneity exercises and preserves the speaker’s imaginative vitality and playful innocence. In other words, creative surrealist clowning is his vehicle for coping with the dehumanizing influences of social institutions.

Yet, behind the humorous mask is a lonely, paranoid persona—the modern individual who, due to a variety of social and psychological forces, does not know who he is or what he wants. Even when the prospects sound nearly ideal, such as the “beautiful sophisticated woman” in the New York City penthouse, he is dismissive and subjective: “No, can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream.” In as far as he remains without companionship, his wellbeing is threatened, explaining his sense of urgency and his tone. He becomes a mentally unstable figure, a poète maudit forced into “madness” by modern life. Corso thus amplifies the implicit critical function of surrealism by positioning himself as the maniacal figure oscillating between resistance to society and ironic embrace of the absurdity of his condition.

In many of the poems of Happy Birthday of Death, Corso writes like he does “Marriage,” from a pathologically warped or maniacal state of mind, projecting a persona who, as Stepheson puts it, “unleash[es] an arsenal of antic, vatic babble and bombast.” Corso’s style generates an accelerated tempo that stem from both the uninterrupted progression of images and their discontinuity. The combination of spontaneity and breathless forward movement generate a “hysterical” vision that disrupts and decomposes reality. In several of these longer, subject-based poems in Happy Birthday of Death, Corso synthesizes mania and alchemical transformation through this stylistic technique, which one might term the hysterical catalogue: a litany of images often expressed with strained syntax and with increasing intensity and semantic disparity, emulating frenzy or ecstasy. This hysterical tone is often visionary, elevating the poetic utterance to the register of prophecy or shamanic chant.

Corso’s “Bomb” is the quintessential articulation of the hysterical catalogue. He articulates society’s absurd and psychotic relationship to the bomb with the hyperbolic but sincere observation that

All man hates you     they’d rather die by car-crash   lighting     drowning

Falling off a roof     electric-chair     heart-attack     old age     old age     O Bomb

They’d rather die by anything but you (Happy Birthday of Death, insert)

The speaker reasons that he “cannot hate” the bomb because it is shares the same purpose and affects the same end as other weapons and fatal forces: “Do I hate the mischievous thunderbolt     the jawbone of an ass / The bumpy club of One Million B.C.”?    He even argues that dying by an explosion is superior because of its suddenness, quickness and “extravagance,” and pays homage to the bomb with a litany of images that catalog the details of an apocalyptic explosion. The images are fantastically hyperbolic:

Turtles exploding over Istanbul
The jaguar’s flying foot
soon to sink in arctic snow
Penguins plunged against the Sphinx
The top of the Empire State
Arrowed in a broccoli field in Sicily
Eiffel shaped like a C in Magnolia Gardens
St. Sophia peeling over Sudan

Similar images throughout the poem, whether it refers directly to the effects of the explosion or not, create a wild, associational texture, reflecting the bomb’s disruptive force. But as the speaker progresses through the vision, the images, rather than outlining horror and death, turn toward non-threatening, pleasant scenes. First are “the temples of ancient times” are restored through “Electrons Protons Neutrons / gathering Hesperean hair / walking the dolorousgulfofArcady…” The speaker envisions the explosion not merely effecting physical reality but also collapsing time and space, bringing together historical and psychological realities. The bomb, in other words, turns reality into a dream-world wherein any imaginable associational possibility can be realized. This sur-reality, moreover, is depicted in utopian terms, wherein all aspects of reality are reconciled. At one point in the poem, this vision becomes a baseball game:

Lo the visiting team of Present
the home team of Past
Lyre and tube together joined
Hark the hotdog soda olive grape
gala galaxy robed and uniformed
commissary     O the happy stands
Ethereal root and cheer and boo
The billioned all-time attendance
The Zeusian pandemonium
Hermes racing Owens
the Spitball of Buddha
Christ striking out
Luther stealing third

Seemingly contradictory religious figures and ideas are re-contextualized into an innocuous contest, trivializing their differences and historical identities, and emphasizing instead their common humanity.

The bomb becomes cosmological and spiritual. The speaker “stands before [its] fantastic lily door” with offerings of roses and musk. In the final, climatic thirty lines, the speaker shifts into Psalmodic rapture—“BOOM ye skies and BOOM ye suns / BOOM BOOM ye moons ye stars BOOM / night ye BOOM ye days ye BOOM /”—which devolves into hysterical babble: “Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM / Ubangi BOOM orangutang / BING BANG BONG BOOM bee bear baboon / ye BANG ye BONG ye BING…” At this moment, the poet is simultaneously ecstatic and manic, in both adoration and blind hysteria. He functions as a prophet or shaman, allowing his consciousness to be subsumed by its subject, and the bomb’s chaos-generating powers, reflected in the poet’s hysteria, are integrated into a transcendent vision.

The poem’s form mimics its subject, not just in its pictographic imitation of a mushroom cloud, but in its “explosion” of stimuli, overpowering and disorienting the reader. Cutting against an illusory order in the progression of thought, the poem, vortex-like, cascades aurally and visually, overpowering its logical structure. Through the catalog of images, lack of punctuation, miscegenation of diction registers and shifts in semantic reference, the poem disarms and imposes its will, catching the reader up in its forceful sweep. Rather than persuading through argument, the hysterical catalogue immerses the reader in visionary energy. As a result, the audience “experiences” the bomb—both as a fragmenting and chaotic force and as a vehicle for spiritual ecstasy in its trajectory of transcendence. The poem transforms the deathly powers of the bomb into an experience of rapture and beauty.

The poem demands different interpretations in different realms of discourse—on the political level, it is an invective against weapons of mass destruction and the “culture” of the bomb. But in order to see the poem’s implicit critique, one must perceive its sarcasm and humor. Corso assumed no reader would take his bomb “worship” seriously. In this sense the speaker’s embrace of the bomb is sardonic, a parody of a society so petrified by the bomb’s threat that it effectively idolizes it, paralyzed by fear. The poem attempts to liberate humanity from its terror by showing the futility of this kind of abstract anxiety. Of course it also implicitly critiques the political ideas and choices responsible for creating fear in the first place.

Conversely, on the philosophical and existential level, the poem is partly sincere. Although the bomb is made and controlled by humans, the average person’s experience of its dormant threat is passive and intangible; seemingly, it is “[n]ot up to man whether [the bomb] boom[s] or not,” as the ordinary person has no direct control over the arms race. In a letter to Paul Blackburn, Corso writes that, although the poem is “very much against the bomb,” his approach is the “right way” because “one must not hate, for that which one hates is apt to destroy.” In this context, the poem confronts the dilemma of post-atomic man and offers an alternative to terror and paralysis. The alternative is not literal bomb worship but an embrace of the totality of human experience, including mortality—a position implicit in the title The Happy Birthday of Death and in many of the book’s poems. Rather than urging abstract, philosophical resignation or mere escapism, Corso overcomes the psychological crisis by transforming the bomb into a symbol of primal energy and imagination. Contrary to expectations, the bomb’s detonation actualizes, in a cosmic sense, the conditions of the imagination, creating a space of total freedom and play.

Thus, like “Marriage,” “Bomb” responds to and transforms the threats of modern civilization through a bold assertion of the alchemical powers of human consciousness. This interpretation supports Stephenson’s claim that “[p]oetry for Corso is a mode of rebuking, rebutting and refuting the pheonomenological universe and of imposing inner desire on the external world.” The poems of The Happy Birthday of Death achieve both these objectives, partly through employing the technique I have called the hysterical catalogue. Through it, Corso introduces a new, distinctly social application for surrealism, absorbing destructive, dehumanizing forces of the psycho-social conditions of the mid-century.

LANDSCAPE

 

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Tom Sleigh has won numerous awards, including the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters,The Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Guggenheim Foundation grant. He currently serves as director of Hunter College’s MFA program in Creative Writing. He is the recipient of the Anna-Maria Kellen Prize and Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin for Fall 2011. His most recent book is Army Cats.