Be Frank, Franco
Do you smell the morning breath
And farts on the MTA as we all
Flutter to work?
Watch baseball on weeknights?
Write poems about kind
Looking homely strangers?
About Boners? Bombs? Do you think
You’re a quarter homo like me?
Do thoughts of Asian’s speaking
French and Italian occupy
Do the incredible backs of
Swimmers and legs of runners
Make you want to touch strangers?
Do the feet of babies look like
Chicken nuggets to you?
Do you live off a local train stop?
Did you hear what they did
To the “criminals”? Did you
Loose your appetite for war too?
Do you ever sleep enough?
Do you love mothers as I do?
Do you take back lies you tell
With the truth?
Do you count your push-ups and
Sit-ups? And do you feel your
Body sculpting from the inside
Out? Do you think everyone’s
Knees are different? (I said knees
What have you answered yes to?
All of it? Say yes, James.
Ashleigh Allen was born in Toronto, Canada and currently lives in New York City where she teaches and writes poems.
Seattle likes to pride itself on being one of America’s Most Literate Cities. I pay attention to these annual pronouncements for about 2 minutes when they inevitably make the news, or are posted on Facebook, and Seattle’s usually up there with Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. The thinking is that, what else are you going to do when it’s cloudy for the 99th day in a row? That’s also the excuse for the coffee consumption and suicide rate in Seattle, so locals can have their evening planned right off.
What interests me, however, is despite how literate it’s supposed to be here, Seattle got stuck in Modernism. Oh, we’re already way past the postmodern era in some ways, like when NPR interviewers with straight faces talk about how we’ll have a better quality of life in the future when we alter our genetics through some kind of bio-technology expertise. (Though I think that’s an extension of a modernist point of view. But a lot of people here buy that shit.) But when it comes to poetry, until recently, Seattle might as well have been in 1911. What’s interesting about this is that you might try to write that off as the West Coast of North America being a younger “civilization” than the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, Montreal, etc. But that leaves out San Francisco, with it’s Beat poets (a bridge from the modern to the postmodern) the Berkeley Renaissance (the first flowering of the postmodern on the West Coast) and the strong Language Poetry tradition. Not my cup of verse, but they (LangPoets) were trying for something different and many succeeded, though only time will sort out the wheat from the chaff there.
The notion of the West Coast as younger and less developed also leaves out Vancouver, which ate up postmodernism as soon as it started showing up there in the late 50s and early 60s with TISH and later the Kootenay School of Writing. Hell, Vancouver poet George Bowering half-jokes that Canada skipped right over modernism!
Portland had its Reed College innovators Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Leslie Scalapino. In the past decade the Spare Room series has given that town something exciting and Emily Kendall Frey’s new “occasional salon” The New Privacy promises to be open and innovative. Powell’s Books is, of course, a legendary indy bookstore and there are many interesting Portland magazines and presses, including the self-proclaimed maker and destroyer of books, Matt Stadler’s Publication Studios.
Seattle has had the UW, Theodore Roethke, Caroline Kizer, Richard Hugo, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds, Sherman Alexie and a good many modernist poets who must be respected for their contribution, for their time in the vineyard, as it were, if not for their innovation. The UW has always been disconnected from the community outside the Blue Moon Tavern and some readings at the Hugo House, but that’s about it. Even Denise Levertov, who wrote some beautiful poems about Mount Rainier in her late life when she lived in Seattle, reverted to more of a modernist aesthetic when she lived here. Maybe it’s the water, or the legendary “Seattle Nice.” Google that, scroll past the inevitable airline ads and see what I mean by that phrase. It’s a veil for repressed anger, mostly and anger is often confused with passion and intensity, essential ingredients in innovative art. Lord, let’s not have any of that here! they (the locals) must think.
But what we lack in innovation (& there’s some of that here now, more later in this piece) we make up for in our connection to the East. There is a higher Asian population in Seattle than in East Coast cities. Two great quotes say it better than I can about this dynamic:
If I open a magazine of contemporary poetry I rarely hear John Dryden, but almost always Li Po.
– Andrew Schelling
… the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically…
– Kenneth Rexroth
We know the Western cosmology of competition and domination has failed and is dying in a large way, perhaps taking humans (and many other species) with it. So it is only in this in this neck of the woods that we’d find someone like Sam Hamill, who has done much translation of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry, including what’s perhaps the quintessential translation of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. It is a book which resonates with Seattle in so many ways. Sam’s never lived in Seattle, per se, but has been a presence here for 30+ years because he founded Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend. His latest, Habitations shows a deep sense of place, a deep Zen aesthetic and may be the best thing he’s ever done. And his work is rich with duende, content-wise, and seems to be just this side of the line that separates modernism and post-mod.
As for readings in Seattle, you have mostly the modernist-type affairs. The city’s writing center The Richard Hugo House, mostly follows a mainstream path, and has been turning toward a slam aesthetic to court younger attendees. Their Cheap Wine and Poetry Series packs their cafe every session and a spin-off, Cheap Beer and Prose has a similar popularity and in-your-face New York attitude, thanks to transplant Brian McGuigan. How cool is it that they’re sponsored by PBR? (Sing with me: What’ll ya have Pabst Blue Ribbon.) But it’s rarely made new there, but tends to be poetry as entertainment. Elliott Bay Books has been re-born in a new neighborhood, Capitol Hill, but the new reading room suffers from the footsteps of book browsers on the floor above. Still the offerings have a wide range as long as there is a book to sell.
Open Books, Seattle’s all poetry bookstore, one of only three in the U.S., has a wide variety of poetics represented and the proprietors are fine poets who know their stuff. A little narrow, room-wise, but that helps create an intimate environment, so turn off your god damned cellphone before you go in there or you’ll set the sprinklers off, or so I’m told.
Seattle Arts & Lectures is the big show in town and they had Robert Creeley once, many years ago, but now gets about as innovative as Gary Snyder, Patti Smith and Martin Espada, modernists all, and quite mainstream. Of course they have to fill bigger halls, but if Seattle were as literate as it claims to be, you think there would be more daring, more of a desire to help lead the masses to something more open and challenging. Here, we claim to love diversity, so grant programs seek out the bland middle of every ethnicity, and these programs tend to turn into EEO affairs and do not push the art forward. In fact one could make a case for the opposite.
Once upon a time there was Subtext. It lasted 15 years and once graced the old Speakeasy Cafe, which is still missed. A tiff with Hugo House, their later stomping grounds, turned them to a venue that was cavernous and off the beaten path and the joy was sucked out of that series. While it lasted it did present the most innovative locals with an out-of-towner. From their blog, gathering digital dust over the last two years, here are but a few of the features:
David Abel, Will Alexander, Charles Alexander Charles Altieri, Rae Armantrout Eric Baus, Dodie Bellamy, Anselm Berrigan, blackhumour, Robin Blaser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jaap Blonk, Christian Bok, Curtis Bonney, Charles Borkhuis, George Bowering, Jules Boykoff, Joseph Bradshaw, Jonathan Brannen, David Bromige, Rebecca Brown, Lee Ann Brown, Laynie Browne, Mary Burger, Clint Burnham, Gerald Burns, Avery Burns, David Buuck, Brian Carpenter, Tyler Carter, Maxine Chernoff, Don Mee Choi, Susan Clark, Allison Cobb, Alicia Cohen, Norma Cole, Jen Coleman, Steve Collis, Daniel Comiskey, Lucy Corin, Martin Corless-Smith, Steve Creson, Michael Cross, Peter Culley, Crystal Curry, KT Cutler, Beverly Dahlen, Jean Day, Christine Deavel.
And this only gets us into the “D’s” so you get the idea. That list looks better with time.
There still is no answer to Red Sky Poetry Theater, a legendary open mic which died in 2005 after a 25 year run, the longest on the West Coast in that time. One person said: “There are a lot of open mics in Seattle, but Red Sky’s a poetry reading.” It was a workshop for many poets, myself included, and regulars included Marion Kimes, Charlie Burks, Paul Hunter, Judith Roche, Willie Smith, Carletta Wilson, Steve Potter, Jesse Minkert, Roberto Valenza, Phoebe Bosche (of Raven Chronicles fame), Robin Schultz, Belle Randall, Denis Mair (a prodigious translator of Chinese poets), Margareta Waterman (& her own Oregon-based press,Nine Muses), David Whited and others.
Our own SPLAB is a venue that seeks to build community through shared experience of the spoken and written word. We have a weekly writer’s critique circle (Living Room) and the visiting poets we’ve had since re-launching in Seattle’s diverse Columbia City neighborhood include Michael McClure, Nate Mackey, C.A. Conrad, Cedar Sigo and Brenda Hillman, so I guess you can stick us in the Black Mountain meets The Salish Sea poetic territory.
The latest glimmers of hope come from three sources. The first is a brand new reading that, according to organizers happens: “in conventionally too-small spaces, occurring around Western Washington. Basements. Attics. Vans. Coffee stands. The head of a pin. Lovingly curated by Graham Isaac and Rachel Hug.” It is called, oddly enough, Claustrophobia. They’ve had only one session, but it is promising. Second is a new indy publishing house called, perfectly, Dark Coast Press, which has threatened to make a splash in the poetry world, but whose soul is that of a poet, Editor Jarret Middleton. Expect them to do big things in poetry. The second glimmer comes from a reading series created by three guys who met at SPLAB and are, would you guess, recent transplants from “back East” as we say. New York, Philly and Virginia by way of Utah, exactly. These guys have collaborated to create The Breadline. (They chose the name months before the Occupy movement created its new Hoovervilles, or Obama-villes we might call them.) Mixing Slam, LangPo, music, Oulipo, Butoh and even the occasional Appalachian story-teller or molecular biologist, this monthly series is wildly popular and is just figuring out how to sustain itself. An off-shoot of that reading was an homage to John Cage called Communications Silence, which was well-attended and very well-regarded in the local press. It demonstrated that there is a base here for something more real, more daring and more satisfying. Maybe now we’re growing up.
A Review of The Pistol Tree Poems by Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
– Karl Marx
You must be the change you want to see in the world.
– Mahatma Gandhi
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Experimental writers can perform no more politically effective feat toward that noble Marxian goal of changing the world than imaginative collaboration. To the central tenet of the old Left that one must change the world, Gandhi adds that one must be the change one wants to see in the world. By collaborating to create The Pistol Tree Poems (Shearsman, 2011), Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh have intervened in the lyric poetry tradition to our benefit.
Whether or not Marx, Gandhi, and Shelley’s wisdom resonates with us, today’s philosophers (read readers) do not absorb such wisdom by osmosis. Such wisdom needs a shape and language shapes wisdom. Therefore, since language mediates wisdom, a philosophy, in effect, means a love of language. This way, philosophers love wisdom only to the extent to which they love language. A hermit, for instance, knows he is a hermit because of the echolalia of the word hermit which goes bounding inside his head. Along these lines, poets Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh use language for its aesthetic and evocative qualities to make poetry. However, these poems enact the change Hughes and Marsh want to see in the world because the poems are constructed and presented as collaborative. Whatever the medium, collaborative work tempts new subjectivities into being.
Poetic collaboration keeps the selves we think we know in motion.
Such grand framing may be all well and good, but how do poets manage not only to change the world but to be the change they want to see in the world? The process of imaginative collaboration can change the world by changing how we think we know ourselves. We know ourselves, like the hermit in his cave, by how we use language. Writers who use language as a fluid artifact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves: Hughes and Marsh make the possible more possible.
Two basic formal constraints score Hughes and Marsh’s The Pistol Tree Poems, full of that selfsame swirling that goes in and out of egos, places, and senses of craft: Hughes writes the odd poems in the UK, Marsh responds via email from Italy with the even poems. The second constraining factor has each poem end with one line less than the prior poem, thus the collection of 106 poems tapers into silence with the formal whisper of one line from each poet.
just time to pull on the feathered leggings (Hughes 105)
& swap love for light (Marsh 106)
Hughes has a gift for the telling chop of idiom while Marsh is an accomplished handler of the heft of figuration. Hughes’ boisterous humor is tempered by Marsh’s Latinate vocabulary and concrete poetry layouts. Thus split, the author-function twains the reader’s expectations and the actual reading experience of how she should know the author. Always the twain shall meet.
The following poems show how Hughes and Marsh become the change they wish to see in the world. To be clear, I certainly to not presume to know the writers’ political or aesthetical intentions: my claims are those of a reader discussing a text and the function of collaborative writing. Nonetheless, watch and listen to how they perform a shuffling together like a deck of odd and even subject positions, perceptions, local names and concerns:
what to you now are eyes
in nights to come will be stars
__________now the pickled onions are fantastic
___a first bite twists the spine 20 degrees
__anti-clockwise with left shoulder dipping
_so folks developed language & language
developed people which helped us knock through
but also dumped too much weight in the boot
_thus fucking up most front-wheel drives & those
__who squat in the backs of caves wondering
_______what star-light might be like in ideal worlds
______instead of smacking fat pigs with ping-pong
_____bats from which the rubber mat flaps free or
_______licking Swindon nymphs in the fairy-light
____________lit gloom of St Cecilia’s Day where
_______Purcell no it’s Mahler is humming you
___mustn’t enclose the night inside you you
_you must flood it in eternal light
Norfolk St. Cecilia’s Day 2009 (Hughes 75)
And below I include Marsh’s poem sent via email (our contemporary letter-writing medium) in response to Hughes’ poem above. These two poems show the call-and-response nature of the collaborative process. Converse to Chevy Chase notions of the lone genius working in his study in a cabin in the woods unmolested by society, these poems suggest the social nature of the creative writing process. After all, being hip means what more than being social? In collaborating to make special objects, Hughes and Marsh perform up to the potential of man as a social animal:
Happy birthday, John Abercrombie
__loft of sky
___from torrential rain
____& anchored slipshod
______to Earth’s off-centred girth
__________it’s my turn so
_________I stare as far as we can
________beyond where the jazz is
_______to warm tucks of
___hollowed out melodies
–and is gone
Varzi December 2009 (Marsh 76)
Readers will note the place and year of where and when the poem was written left justified under each poem. This information brands each passage with the mortality suggested by the passing of time and space during travel. Some readers may read such branding gestures as claims, however false or true, constructed upon the authority of the local or of the locale. Obviously, this kind of biographical information does situate the word-play in a specific place and time and such placing does invest the poems with that certain auratic glow of having been there. However, essentialism is not a weakness in art: capturing essence is the goal of aesthetics. The essence of places is alluded to throughout the collection with the names of local beaches like Old Hunstanton and local lunch specials like Norfolk Pork & Haddock Chowder.
On the one hand, a collaborative poetry sequence like The Pistol Tree Poems implicates readers in the flux of two writers becoming one writer. Moreover, this back and forth between political worldviews and aesthetic sensibilities offers an extended example for the reader of how two poets can work together to become one poet. On the other hand, more conventional lyric poetry with its tacit narrative realism accepts as established fact that market-driven illusion of the subject as a stable and knowable noun. Here, I define more conventional lyric poetry as the poetry of those who own the means of production who, because it would lessen their comforts, do not trouble the category of the “I.” But what can it mean to punch the Marxian ringtone of “the means of production” in present times, when every desktop PC is a publishing house? How must discussing “the means of production” shift when a playful epistolary dialogue transpires via email between two buddies across Europe? How does an epistolary conversation become a pistol tree conversation? And exactly how much “Jameson’s in jam jars” must have been consumed? (Hughes 103)
In The Pistol Tree Poems the word “soul” comes up 15 times (on pages 2, 15, 17, 18, and twice on 23, 25, 35, 40, 43, 50, 54, 58, 72, and 78). I bring it up not because I mind the soul metaphor: Emily Dickinson uses it to booming effect. I point to the word “soul” because I want to use it to illustrate how collaborative writing can destabilize the propaganda undergirding a certain kind of subject position.
Can one own the self, mind, or soul (like so many other nouns on the commodity market)? If one can in fact own these social constructions, it follows logically that one can also own the other, the foreigner, or the absent author as part of the free-market of human resources. What if I’ve been duped into believing that I am I? In other words, what if the I-function is an instance-location in the social fabric of time and space scored into being by the architecture of our habits? With the help of the work of writers like Hughes and Marsh who play with words and with the function of authorship, readers too can be the change they wish to see in the world. For instance, what changes if one thinks of the self, mind, and soul as attributes or qualities pivoting along the continuum of social conventions rather than as commodities to be possessed?
Am I my own property or do I have properties? Am I a piece of property with properties? Simply owning a self, mind, or soul requires no active engagement with the wisdom I receive about these objects or traits. However, weighing the attributes and qualities of a self, mind, or soul demands both critical and creative thinking. If the pre-Socratics, Immanuel Kant, and Jiddu Krishnamurti teach us anything, they teach us that it is bad to think of people as objects. Fine, but what do ethics have to do with two people writing poetry together?
Through its conceptual structure and effects, collaborative poetry inveigles us to consider the shattered and displaced condition of our subjectivities. Through the pleasures and surprises directed by the effects of cutup and syntactic enjambment of units of sound and sense, Hughes and Marsh show readers the aesthetic value that can come from relaxing the ego muscle. Many twentieth-century writers have used the jarring effects of parataxis from Ezra Pound’s adaptation of Chinese and Japanese poetry, to Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso’s work together, to the canon of experimenters represented in collections such as Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry.
To collaborate well as a creative writer, one has to give up the 500 year old idea of the Humanist self as a unique consumer of “the real” as defined by the commodity market from the beginning of European colonial aggression in 1492 up to the email age. This review does nothing new by pointing to the transitory properties of identity. Such a gesture has deep roots all over the world from Greece to Ireland to India as illustrated by the documents of Heraclitian paradox, Socratic doubt, and Romantic poetries. Sometimes these gnarled old roots sprout questions and suggestions as I’ve tried to outline by discussing the political implications of writing and reading collaborative poetry.
As formal innovation, Hughes and Marsh’s collaboration in the form of The Pistol Tree Poems entices and challenges readers of contemporary poetry to consider how they themselves could collaborate in order to face their own crises of form in the age of internet, easy travel, and increasing global hardships. How do we readers of the English language, all hermits in the caves of capital, face the freight of our received wisdom?
As Far as Height’s Concerned
There really should be more sugar
maples in the valley below. I don’t know
how we know, but we know they’d be perfect
as far as height’s concerned. Show me more
photographs of eccentric strangers
on your camera phone—more earrings,
more baggage, more footwear, more
than I can carry with these arms too short
to be viewed from the street’s perspective.
In the gaudiest museum stairwell, each plate
of glass reveals a doorway to a unit
of music & diction—a personal funhouse.
Patrons snap shots of Manets to capture
the shades, from brown syrup to white ash.
Kevin Shea is originally from Quincy, MA. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY and currently works at The New School for Social Research. He is also a recent graduate of the MFA program at The New School. His writing has previously appeared in The Alembic, Asinine Poetry, The Equalizer, and is forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety.
More capable writers have written about Robert Duncan and the circumstances surrounding The H.D. Book, notably the poet Lisa Jarnot whose review I highly recommend. It’s impossible not to concur with her on every point with regard to this, but I can’t speak to such a deep relationship with Duncan. As such, The H.D. Book, for me, was more a lesson on how to read poetry, perhaps at the most extreme.
Divided into three books, the short history of The H.D. Book is a somewhat common tale. One of those pieces that a writer is constantly writing, editing, tinkering, refining, adding to, etc., thus never really receiving a “finished” stamp of approval. Which is the exact way for a book like this to evolve, as it is essentially a record of Duncan’s two-step with poetry. This dance began with H.D. early in his life, and as such, she is present through all his thoughts on poetry and vice versa. Everything Duncan has pondered in poetry must first pass through H.D., not so much as a gatekeeper, but rather like a pair of glasses that put verse into focus for him. Thinking back onto my own experience with poetry I can (and often have) pointed to that first instance of poetic reception, the poet and poem that cracked the walnut of possibilities open. Like a scientist, or a theosophical philosopher scientist, Duncan approaches his walnut from every conceivable angle, often at the exact moment he conceives of each individual angle.
Which of course lends to the overwhelming magnitude of this tome, part of the multi-dimensional narrative going on here. A conversation in constant engagement was never meant to be read a second time. But how could this book have been anything other than what it is? There is no editing Duncan’s thoughts, references, asides, clips of Randell Jarrell and Pound and Williams and Eliot in turn faulting and praising and (ultimately) faulting H.D. again for her digressions against the flow of the academic canon. Duncan comes out firing in H.D.’s honor, though is not a qualifier by any means, casting no stones but rather approaching each point respectfully and discussing it through other evidence, references, and inferences.
The H.D. Book is larger than H.D. or Duncan then, a treatise on reading itself, as something between academic decoding and personal interaction between reader and text. Neither Duncan nor I seek to disparage criticism or academia, but this book doesn’t fill the needs of that style of literary interaction. Rather Duncan is writing down what he researches, thinks, and dreams about while working through H.D. and modernism in general. Book 1 is more akin to the historical reading of H.D. and greek mythology, working through the symbology she presents. For me, Book 2 was more engaging in that it investigated H.D.’s work directly and it was cross-pollenated with and within the work of Williams, Pound, and other and (post-)Imagists. Here we think along with Duncan, dive deep into quotes and references within and between sentences. It can be dazzling just by the enormity of his inquest, and rather than trying to take stock of his many references and asides, I took in this book as a direct call to knowledge.
In terms of describing this book as an argument for reading, though, I was primarily entranced by Duncan’s graciousness and patience. Even taking as long as I did to read this book I felt rushed, as every sentence was a thesis, an argument for the poetic and real legitimacy of the verse of not only H.D. but in many ways the 20th century as a whole. I wouldn’t know where to begin to quote from the book as it itself is comprised of so many quotes, inter-connected thoughts, and seemingly simple.
If nothing else, reading The H.D. Book has left me feeling something of a failure for not engaging so intimately with this art as Duncan had. Which is far from what Duncan would have wanted, I believe. This book is critical but suspicious of academia and the idea of “canon”. He was vested in readability but couldn’t help himself with regard to the density of his work, but such is the price of passion, and this book is the image not only of passion but of poetry’s impact on passion. It’s a life-long affair, and we are lucky to have this collection of thoughts. Though daunting and challenging, they’re intimately readable and inspiring for a poet such as myself. Trust no writer with a shelf that lacks this book, and spare the time to let Duncan show you that to write you must love to read.
It is not language that is arbitrary, but power itself that is arbitrary and this is perhaps the reason post-modernist latched onto the arbitrary sign. Power, in order to remain power, must be arbitrary–and this includes slavishly following rules at times in order not to be a slave to whim. The authority of the whimsical is total and can only be overthrown by an act of violence so great that it exposes itself as too earnest to be truly power. Power is the because I, we, or it said so, the “just because.” It is not only vapid; it is vapidity itself. At the most elemental level it is hidden behind many veils of order–which I call terministic screens. The three great veils are I, we, it, and of these three, the “it” is the most recalcitrant and dangerous in that, being without human accountability, it may be purely evil.
Here we define evil as that which blindly consumes and annihilates without remorse or mercy and, also, without pleasure in that which is. It is null–non-existence. It is abstraction without any ground for being. The bureaucracy of the death camps, the efficiency of drones, the present corporate nexus represent an it of this magnitude. This is why those who benefit from this “it” do their best to conform to the standard of an it–machines, uber-sociopaths, elite minds, perfect team players. Goldman Sachs is filled with elite minds all of whom have formed one collective idiot. This is the final attribute of the “it”: idiocy–the efficiency of one mind without remorse, without culpability, without true intelligence. No matter how efficient a mind bereft of empathy is, it must remain cold and lifeless and hidden at its center and eventually the axon and the dendrites of such a system become so virtual as to lose their elasticity and their ability to create the algorithmic semblance of true human consciousness. Right now, Goldman Sachs is reduced to the power tie, the suit, the expected tropes of family, the reading of information, the spreading of misinformation, the scam, the con, the manipulation of certain drives and desires, the seeking mechanism and all that aids and abets that seeking: positive thinking, mind control, the most advanced forms of personality typing, cult tactics for its employees. The “individualism” that Ayn Rand and her followers (Alan Greenspan among them) pretended to champion in Atlas Shrugged is little more than the silly robot like, perfectly six-foot prussian soldier–a laughable Übermensch. And this leads me to my last attribute of the it:
It is silly.
Silliness, mindlessness, and power are the tropes F. Scott Fitzgerald both envied and so wonderfully delineated in The Great Gatsby. It is not far-fetched to take one of our great novels on the enchantment of power as a sort of primer on the 1 percent. Let’s consider.
Tom Buchannan’s race theories, his rather vapid and smug faith in what were the faux expert opinions of his era. Tom is depicted as a careless man who can not be defeated in the end because he is already dead–dead in the “it” of privilege. He gets away with murder. This is the it as spouter of truisms, and third-rate economic/race theories. If you want to understand the basic mind-set of leading wll street power brokers, look no further than Tom. Unfortunately, Tom is a notch above the it types who now rule. They do not have it (as Fitzgerald never tired of stating); they are the it they have.
Daisy Buchannan’s lighter than egg-shell loveliness and her vapidity: Daisy is loveliness itself–an abstraction, a “sign” no less inhuman and vapid than the signs looming over East Egg. She, like her husband, can not suffer any permanent injury because she is already dead. Her behavior when in the presence of Gatsby’s silk shirts, her weeping over these and her heartlessness in all other respects should tip us off to how arbitrary she and her world is. Silliness and mindlessness is at the core. These people do not have money and power. They “ARE” money and power. Those who have, serve them–often bitterly–but it is only in serving them that the have money and have power folks can justify their worst actions. They bond with their abusers.
So how do you kill the gods?
You quit worshipping them. True power must remain invisible so that, at all times, what we perceive as the face of power is merely a mirage, a screen. Most of our economic history over the last 40 years is the American delusion that their management jobs were anything more than a terministic screen for real power. The college educations, the advanced degrees, the smug disdain for manual labor…all these were terministic screens behind which the true powers could remain invisible. We worship what lies behind the veil. We worship death and call it ultimate life. The most laudatory form of the word death is heaven/paradise. I have often told atheist friends it is more important to dismantle heaven than God because, if you get rid of God, and don’t find a proper fill-in for his chief terministic screens: heaven and ultimate power, something much worse than God will fill that void: power without virtue or even the semblance of virtue, might as right, a heaven of unremitting material display, a paradise grounded in an unremitting choice culture…ah, you got rid of God and replaced him with a CEO! Smart move. Brilliant. Really improves everything. So here’s where we are:
The Most Deadly Oreo
The 99 percent are, at present sandwiched between a reactionary fundamentalist corporate power that believes it is ordained by God to rule and without being questioned (this is actual fundamentalist teaching) and a secular atheist “elite” who believe they rule us by dint of their superior minds (they read Napoleon Hill and Atlas Shrugged, have no conscience, and an idiot savant’s ability for manipulating numbers and patterns and this is superior) and without being questioned (don’t sweat the small stuff is what the 1 percent consider the 99). Here is the truth:
Goldman Sachs is a collective idiot that does not understand limits, and it will keep sucking blood from the world until it and the world blows up. Dead things don’t fear death. Mindless things have no fear of death. Both are already dead. We are letting a corpse drive the bus. Why? Because, like Gatsby, for too long, we have been enchanted by that walking, talking, reality-show-starring corpse. Our college students have a thing for zombies. This is not harmless fun. This is indicative of a love and lust for mindless power among the 99 percent. I could get hundreds of students to participate in zombie games. As for Occupy Binghamton, I couldn’t get ten students.
So my advice? Make the 1 percent truly visible. When the arbitrary power has been truly exposed and made visible it is already no longer the true power. This is shape shifter 101. How do you know when the invisible has been threatened with true exposure:
1. A violent, over the top attack, display, or mockery by the “have” powers on behalf of the “are” powers. Examples from literature: When Odysseus breaks Theriste’s ribs in front of the other rank and file warriors.
2. If violence, display, and mockery don’t work, then an unholy marriage–a mating of the exposers with the have powers and a seeming overthrow of the “are” powers–takes place. This leads to chaos because human beings are hopelessly rank-obsessed. This means the “have powers” show a cosmetic difference. The thugs of the czar become Lenin’s secret police. Saming the changes reduces the stress. Sadly it also means the “are” powers are now hidden once more behind the terministic screens.
3. The actual slaughter of the gods–an act as pathetic and sad as any Kafka story. When we find the actual powers, they are silly, vapid, eccentric, often drug-addicted and don’t seem much worthy of the slaughter. They often appear sweet and even saintly because, let’s face it, being insulated from the brutality of their terminsitic screens, they are, for all intents and purposes, more and more like children. Here is the frightening possibility: the haves already long ago slaughtered the “are” powers and have been “defending” them only to justify their continued existence. This leads me to the “because it says so.” Why? Because. This is the ultimate idiocy of true power–it does not answer to any interrogation.
The people in Goldman Sachs behind the glass windows laughing as the police arrest protesters, are “have” powers–rather minor ones. The true power behind Goldman Sachs is invisible and, probably, dead–just as “God” is dead.
This is what we can expect: if enough force and protest is supplied, then the cosmetics of the have powers will change. Some corpses who seem alive will be sacrificed to the mob to appease them. “Free market capitalism” will have to die as a terministic screen. It will be either modified or re-named under a different order of seeming.
The gods do not die, but grow ever more feeble. And here’s the scary part of this truth: the atrophy of the gods, leads to the hypertrophy of their protectors and defenders. The less true moral character a culture has, the greater in number grow the moral reformers. The less joy, the more comedians. We seek a balance we can never have. As opportunity becomes more feeble, the protectors of opportunity (and this includes both the 99 percent and the enforcer/protectors of the 1 percent) swell. If we were wise we would dismantle opportunity itself–recreate incentive around something less vital than our basic needs, and assure those basic needs are givens rather than carrots dangling at the end of a long hot poker. No one should be working for food and shelter. A system based on starving over half the world is vapid and silly. If a man could toil in the fields all day, and, at the end of that day, simply walk to a grocery and procure the food he needs without paying, wouldn’t that be wonderful? If the prosperous farmer did not prosper so that his son or daughter could become a lawyer, and his daughter a president–if each remained farmer, yet took a vital place in the polis, wouldn’t that be lovely? Problem is, many men and women have overactive seeking systems and must procure more than their fair share. Others have under active seeking systems and will neglect their rights. A balance is aimed at only through a system which has the authority to punish.
And so we are back to square one. Or are we? Suppose we could create a balance of seeking mechanisms? This can not be done when power is invested in an “it.” A machine set on seeking will not stop until the plug is pulled or it has devoured everything and has only itself left to devour–the myth of the juggernaut. The question to pose to Goldman Sachs and to the rest of the global corporate powers is rather simple: “You are not intelligent. You are a plunder machine, who know only how to work off the fallacy of limitless opportunity. Who in your hive is still capable of independent thought and has the power to pull the plug?” The truth is, the plug must be pulled from within. Someone must convince someone within the structure that this pattern and method is counterproductive. But how? How do you explain that to a tie, a suit, a series of numbers, and an advanced degree with 150 IQ that certain types of genius, including the genius of pattern recognition, are forms of stupidity? How do you get these nerd-zombies to pause? What flowers do you explode over their heads? When they have finished eating everyone, who or what will they eat? Themselves?
No doubt they are already doing so. When we pierce to the core of what the police and politicians are defending against all honor and scruple and reason, we may just find a bunch of feeble Ivy league nerdniks feeding on their own arms.
Here’s a question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?
Here’s one that falls in that category for me, “The Doe” by C. K. Williams, a latter-day sonnet:
Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.
All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.
Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.
The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
Now let me qualify “perfect.” I don’t ask perfection to include striking innovation or veining a mine with new nugget. Good thing, because this poem is drippingly conventional. It’s definitely not McHugh-tragicomic or Joron-machine-surreal. It’s no New Sentence or newer freedom. But it does exactly what I was raised to think a poem is supposed to do: make my mouth water discovering its words, make my mind water discovering their meaning, and hurt me. The hurt is key. As the Greeks said, learning is suffering. So here is pain’s perfect translation-as-projection-and-or-illustration, for any deciduous-woods walker process-walking through some anguish or melancholy. Who doesn’t see a deer in the right light and feel all failings come to the fore—yours, the world’s, someone’s in between—especially when something hard has happened? (Maybe hunters don’t, or maybe they do before they don’t.)
But the perfection goes deeper (gets worse) than that. Look at the craft of the thing. From the opening anaphora on, you get the sense that each word was considered on its merits in some plenary session. Each lifted like Larkin’s votive glass of water, to congregate the any-angled light, just so. The brush crackles, the afternoon-oblique sun rakes, the alarm is incipient. Brush echoes dusk’s muffle. “I in disquiet” loudly pleads. “The suffering of someone I loved” quietly rubs. Late, rake, and pain, assonant, hit the final plangent note. There’s also a smart pair of -ings: suffering and reddening, neither too close together to seem contrived, nor too far apart to seem unrelated. And the reddening begins, early in the second stanza, to give us plenty of time to redden further (past Life magazine’s, or 2001’s, baby photo), slowly toward that burgundy finish. Even the word, rest, comes just when a slight pause is needed, to dehisce pain from itself, into pain that pain releases and pain that recognition keeps.
But it’s not just the words that are choice, it’s the movements and symmetries that are seamless. “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” is reflected (in cadence) at the end of the octave by “in a photo of a child in a womb.” Meanwhile “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” zooms in; “Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, / not the air” zooms out. Back at the last two lines, if we separate “the rest” and “stayed” from the rest of the words, as syntax tempts us to, a question presents itself: Which stayed more, the rest or the unrest? Both about equally, the poem answers in its ultra-efficiency.
I feel almost cheated, hoodwinked, like a focus group conspired to write a poem I couldn’t find fault with. So let me return to the opening question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?
And what if your idea of perfection makes you worry that you might be pretty boring, at bottom? I could say, well, the innovation here is to need none—to out-Frost Frost, if you like. Yet there’s always something innovative, if you look hard enough. For example, the octave doesn’t hit the sestet with any tension, as it’s usually expected to, but rather with a mild (perhaps mildly tense) stillness. The real tension happens halfway through the sestet, which is visually broken into tercets—to mirror riven pain?
But here’s the thing: I’m bored by trying to convince you, if that’s what I’m doing, that “The Doe” isn’t boring. What have I said beyond that it’s well crafted, emotionally savvy, and (to boot, in the good sense) self-aware? “Boring” isn’t much of an objective criterion, of course. (Boring’s boring apology?) The truth—as it tends to reduce—is that this poem came along when I needed a poem like it, a few years ago, having walked in the woods feeling sorry for a friend, never having thought to imagine my pain as both divided against itself and capable of self-kindness.
Insofar as the apple never flees
the shadow of its tree,
I need a new image
to sanctify multiplicity.
To make a start, not of particulars
but rather, the incidentals—
outlining the propriety of uncertainty
in syllogistic scree.
I like counting dust bunnies
while still keening from a dream,
reflecting when suggestion
barely holds a charge;
or, embracing the holding patterns
high over American cities—
to not accept but love one’s fate,
that is the genius of the Greek.
We know this from our teacher,
the Pisan from Green Lawn,
who was fond of the Yiddish adage:
in some way we’re all fucked.
Know it now as the imagination, what separates
my house from highway debris—
a flash of incongruity that laminates evening.
But tonight the sky is low not limitless,
projecting a simple myth,
like the show on obedient cats
emanating from the other room.
Aaron Simon is the author of Carrier (Insurance Editions, 2006), Periodical Days (Green Zone, 2007), and a third book in the oven. His poems have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Sal Mimeo, Insurance, Shiny, Gerry Mulligan, 12th Street, and Hyperion. He works in the financial services industry and lives in San Francisco with his two cats.
The visual has always been an important means of communication, from caveman paintings, to graphic novels, to IKEA instruction manuals. We know it fits in somewhere with poetry, beginning with how poets and artists have always looked lovingly upon one another, and ending somewhere more uncharted. It’s been proposed that the use of illustration with poetry is redundant, but what this forum is interested in is not translating the words, but a much wider vision: illustration as a kind of poetic form. Poetry and poets who interact with the visual has limitless implications, from traditional use of the comic-strip and comic book, to a much more experimental use of text and image. I wish to go boldly, willingly, into Poetry Comics, and see what people are doing out there. I’m not entirely concerned with defining what I mean by Poetry Comics, but rather seeing how many tiny silver arrows we can launch at it. And perhaps how many it can launch back at us.
Every month we will look at a new artist/poet(s). They will share some of what they love to look at and read. Let’s call it Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Poetry Comic. Let’s call it WTF is a Poetry Comic. Let’s call it The Fallacy of the Mental Image. Let’s begin.
We’re going to start with the amazing poet and artist, Sommer Browning, who has done several drawings for several poems by Noah Eli Gordon’s series of poems called “The Problem”
Links For More of Sommer Browning:
Sweet-ass Things Sommer Browning Loves:
Author Robert Benchley. This 75 year old comedy short is the British Office’s equivalent. It might take a little old-fashioned patience to enjoy, but the awkwardness and non sequitur humor feels very modern to me.
Sommer Browning writes poems, draws comics and tells jokes. She is the author of Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC; 2011), a collection of poems and comics. She also has three chapbooks out, most recently THE BOWLING (Greying Ghost, 2010) with Brandon Shimoda. With Julia Cohen she curates The Bad Shadow Affair, a reading series in Denver.
Noah Eli Gordon is the author of several books, most recently The Source (Futurepoem, 2011). Gordon is the co-publisher of Letter Machine Editions, and an Assistant Professor in the MFA program in Creative Writing at The University of Colorado–Boulder.
These two poems and illustrations are from the forthcoming collection, 62 Problems (1913 Press, 2014).
A work of art is a problem
It’s easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer:
the one who will come without appointment
remembering circles and maps of temperance.
Down the avenue of swift and invisible nudes
a thin, brittle demon the shade of an autumn leaf
is seeking imperfections.
Our prophets always speak too soon–
you know you want to own a picture of a man
carrying a drum made of human scalps.
Give me a little more time here–
A democracy of strangeness is
a reminder that the work of art presents not an expression
of identity but a problem
‘I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theatre.’
I’d like a word or two from you.
Sridala Swami writes poetry, short fiction. Her first collection of poems, A Reluctant Survivor,was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award in 2008. She has written three books for very young children, which were published by Pratham in 2009. Swami was the 2011 Charles Wallace Writer-in-Residence at The University of Stirling, Scotland.
Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.
Pete Winslow is a very minor Beat surrealist poet who died young and only published a few books, including Monster Cookie, which contains this short poem, “The Dada Scarecrow”:
Two crossed sticks in a field
This is the dada scarecrow
The crows gather around to wonder at it
No straw no old clothes
No floppy hat like scarecrows wear
Just two crossed sticks in a field
And a real man suspended naked
From its arms.
When reading poems, it’s always good to ask yourself how your expectations and assumptions about the poem changed throughout. This is essential with a poem that has a “shocker” ending like this one. Once the sticks become a Roman cross, it’s impossible to see the first six lines without Christ’s crucifixion in mind, which almost irreparably cuts you off from your initial reactions and thoughts.
Before I got to these last two lines my thought process went something like this: Two sticks in a field is quite Dadaist—it is a humorous and effective appropriation of an iconic America object into an “art object,” and, like Dada, it is the “act” of art that creates social and ideological implications without breeching political contexts topically. operates totally in the realm of symbolism.
And I saw the scarecrows. The crows can be taken literally, suggesting, intriguingly, that other animal species can, to however slight a degree, encounter Dada art like we do. Why not? Animals are aware of changes to their environment; they can sense when something an object is alien to its context and demands observation; and they might even be confronted with the inability to interpret such phenomenon. We go beyond this, of course, to conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, like these gawking crows, successful Dada art initially makes us ask, “What is it?” before we realize it is “art.”
These aspects of the poem, though, become background noise after Winslow blows up the poem with the final image. Suddenly, the harmless, funny dada scarecrow (which I took as being merely two sticks—without a doll or a body) becomes a horrific, perverse encounter. The metaphor creates all sort of implications that critics explore, but what is most interesting to me, though, is how the metaphor doubles back on itself and becomes a commentary on Dadaism. Christ is here “the Dada scarecrow,” a Dada artist who confronts his society directly and viscerally. And there is sense in which the crucifixion was a conceptual frame-breaking event dramatically changing human consciousness. In the religious iconographic sense, the crucifixion must be seen in a variety of incompatible ways. It is both art and not art, both something that must be gazed at and something that resists and delimits aesthetic distance. Similarly, Dadaism is re-seen as having unique and expansive metaphysical meaning, as affecting a paradigmatic shift in reality (in opposition to the popular view of Dadaism as “throw-away” art). Like the crucifixion, Dadaism, the poem suggests, transgresses and transforms through radical action that is simultaneously “art” and ideology.
If the Dadaist is a Christ figure and Christ is a Dada figure, they share the status of the cultural martyr. This might be seen as an aspect of Winslow’s Beat identity since the Beats’ premier metaphor for self-representation was the victimized prophet figure who willing subjects his body (and mind) to violence for the sake of humanity.
Finally, it’s important to appreciate the basic act of “re-seeing” at the heart of the poem. The conceit is simple: Winslow surveys the American landscape and changes utilitarian objects into symbols of the collective unconscious. The operation of framing “found” objects into aesthetic space may be one of the oldest techniques in recent history, but it’s one of the basic premises of modern poetry and surrealism.
Lessons in Solitude from Men
To be okay alone is to treasure time
like a lode in the stone day, but I can’t
figure out how the strong do it, fuse skin
to ore against loss that rains like rusted
bearings, like the recluse Geryon, the suit
he poured his frame into each day, the sheets
of impracticable iron he wore to make rounds
among sheep, a warrior’s carapace that could not
have been his nor do I think the loot of some
conquest, but, I suspect, a shepherd’s grief,
the weight to him of a lover’s solid clasp,
the weight to him of loss.
I learned about solitude from men like Aaron
in Parry Sound, rasping at canoes with his heart
in his heels, from Oliver after Saugatuck stunned hard
and heart sick, the timing for us ill, from Matthew
the summer I left Harlem naked and dumb to a chill
that would singe, and with each it was as though every
fraction of space each made in each day was always
more than each could spare, so that alone now
and shouldering my own heavy hull I hope,
as every Geryon since Hesiod must hope,
for the wind to die and keep love home.
Roy Pérez lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches Latin@ literature and performance studies at Willamette University. Three of his poems were recently included in the Best of PANIC! anthology by Fire King Press. He is a founding member of the birdsong arts collective and small press in Brooklyn, New York, for which he serves as contributing poetry editor. He is currently working on a book about sex, race, and art entitled Queer Mediums. Born in Los Angeles, raised in Miami, and fashioned in Brooklyn, Roy has now lived in all four corners.
1. The traditional book was based on a form that needed capital, influence, etc. This meant that gatekeepers were required. Getting through the gates endowed an author with certain benefits: editing, layout, publicity, and—perhaps most important—legitimacy.
a. The system inevitably mistakes its own guardians of capital for guardians of true literary value. Certainly these interests aligned sometimes (for better or for worse, depending on your views about the idea of “canon”—to many, the values of capital and canon are one and the same).
b. Some publishers were started with the expressed purpose of aligning these values, with varying levels of success based upon their capitalization. I think, perhaps New Directions if the best example of this. James Laughlin was a poet who couldn’t hack it according to Ezra Pound. Pound suggested he use his sizable independent wealth to subsidize a publishing house. Other reputable, non-commercial presses (Graywolf, etc.) have other ways of being subsidized, through membership programs, fundraising, grants, etc. Even for these non-commercial presses, though, capital is still a primary concern. These presses may not be looking to make a lot of money off their books, but they are at least trying to invest capital in something “worthwhile”—therefore they have gatekeepers.
c. Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon are the natural outgrowth of the book publishing industry since protection of capital was always a primary concern for it. These book sellers put the squeeze on the presses that try to align the values of capital and literary value. Eventually it has become a battle for the various middle-men between author and reader to cut each other out. Right now it seems Amazon is winning because it is most able to adapt to the coming systemic changes.
2. Self-publishing has always been a possible way to challenge this system, yet it was not fundamentally different. It still required a capital investment on the part of the writer (or perhaps a co-op) and respected the medium of the book as such.
3. E-books fundamentally change the game. E-books require almost no capital investment from writers, editors, publishers, because the system of creation and distribution is already existent and available to everyone. Until now, many publishers have treated e-books as an extension of the book: hardcover, paperback, e-book. It’s not; it’s an entirely different medium.
a. McLuhan said that new mediums always revive aspects of old ones (think about how the car reinvigorated the trope of the knight in shining armor). In this sense, the e-book is in the form of the book, but it is most definitely not the book, traditionally conceived. The information contained in e-books is limitlessly reproducible. Moreover, printers don’t produce them; readers do when they post, email, copy, send the works to each other.
b. “Tribal” (decentralized, more consensus/trend-based, foreign to the modern individuals who think of themselves as independent opinion machines that can vote) systems of distribution will rule. New power centers will be those who determine the rules of these new tribal systems. The new publisher redlemona.de recognizes this.
c. “Tribal” systems threaten modern, interiorized individuals. The book as it has existed up until now is based on the idea of an individual, rationally absorbing and considering the content contained in a book. Thus, the success of e-books will probably lead to the end of book culture as we have come to know it.
d. As e-books gain influence, people will read books differently, not to understand new ideas as much as to participate (this has actually been happening for a long time now, I think). Content will shift accordingly. People will “like” e-books more and more. E-books will be published for the same reasons people read them.
e. E-books will probably be eclipsed/absorbed by something within the same medium (i.e., still using “readers”) eventually. They may still be called e-“books,” but it will probably be like the way we still call an unpublished work a “manuscript” (Written with our hands? Really?).
4. Everyone will probably be a self-publisher in the future of e-books (or if there are still publishers, they will play a minimal role). People probably won’t make much money on books in the future, though they may acquire various forms of social capital. Whether these forms of social capital will feed them remains yet to be seen.
*I hope these thoughts will start a discussion, rather than be considered a manifesto (see point 3.d).
*A lot of these ideas are extensions of McLuhan, Joe Weil, and Kenneth Burke (mostly via Joe Weil).
1. Thus far, the only people I know that own Kindles are serious traditional book readers. They very much fit the model of the rational modern individual who reads.
Response: E-books are still gaining traction and it makes sense that those interested would be the people most invested in the older model (but desiring, perhaps, a more efficient, updated version). But as a trend, e-books are definitely on the rise and it’s only a matter of time until it grows.
2. Books are already dead. Who cares about e-books?
Response: E-books as an extension of print books share the mutual death. But my argument is that e-books are not extensions of traditional books, but rather a new beast wearing the mantle of the old one.
3. Other objections in comments box?
The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.
I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.
So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.
“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”
The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”
When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.
The Blue Dress in Mother’s Closet
Her blue dress is a silk train is a river,
is water seeps into the cobblestone streets of my sleep, is still raining,
is monsoon brocade, is winter stars stitched into puddles,
is goodbye in a flooded antique room, is goodbye in a room of crystal bowls
and crystal cups, is the ring-ting-ring of water dripping from the mouths
of crystal bowls and crystal cups, is the Mississippi River is a hallway, is leaks
like tears from window sills of a drowned house, is windows open to waterfalls,
is a bed is a small boat is a ship, is a current come to carry me in its arms
through the streets, is me floating in her dress through the streets,
is only the moon sees me floating through the streets, is me in a blue dress
out to sea, is my mother is a moon out to sea.
Saeed Jones received his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University — Newark. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Jubilat, The Collagist & StorySouth. When the Only Light is Fire, his chapbook of poems, will be published by Sibling Rivalry Press in November 2011.