Sarah Schweig, neighbor to airfields, estrangement, mythology, imagination, opens up about how she came to be a poet of departures. Pardon my inability to pronounce Catullus.
Sarah Schweig, Part 1
Sarah Schweig, Part 2
Sarah Schweig, neighbor to airfields, estrangement, mythology, imagination, opens up about how she came to be a poet of departures. Pardon my inability to pronounce Catullus.
Sarah Schweig, Part 1
Sarah Schweig, Part 2
Rachel B. Glaser is a rule breaker, which is a terrible way to start off talking about this, Pee on Water; bland as more haughty platitudes, but, whatever: when I was reading this book, the most promising short fiction I’ve encountered in near forever — I was, like, What am I going to write on the Internet about this rakish, precious creature; or Where am I going to put, in my understanding, the way this thing makes everything feel, in this room, on this bed, holding these stories, in the world. Two possibilities, in the matter of even figuring out how to open my mouth about it, occurred eventually. One mentions the technical mutant-ness (product of an implicit, albeit devious, acumen) of the book upfront or one’s smitten foremost with the charm, wit, emotional derring-do, hilarious truth, and clever bruises in the thematic treatment of woolliest angles of this human problem/definition. Whatever approach, the major accomplishment is really how fiction achieves in all this.
Here is a special book; I read it, it made me feel happy, and I had to write a friend an email asking her why nobody else contemporary or comparable to the young Rachel B. Glaser writes as epiphanic structures as these or plays with the purpose and effect of fiction with such verve. In the consideration of recent stories, I want to read Rachel B. Glaser all the time instead of anybody else her age and range who somebody publishes — even though I am wracked for anything cognizant in the way of my response or critique. She woke me up sneakily, Glaser, in a fashion hard to articulate — or, like, just put things out of order in a way that made it all hurt and shine. Something like this, as has been pointed out, is not supposed to work. Given more general attention, the Pee on Water stories might meet with some critical harrumphing over the giddy-rude-earnestness, the diamondy lumpiness, the sophomoric timbre. These are the sort of stories that flip backward through the glass of tall windows instead of taking the stairs.
She remembers, for us, fiction can do anything, actually, and just forgets to — lethargically flopping shy of new capacities because we don’t desire what we don’t expect. The opportunities allowed the form are incredible: as long as a writer architects for her fiction a hermetic operational math (whatever that is… I guess I mean, as long as a readable method is presented for the prosaic world we’re accessing), she can tear it the fuck up: laterally, through the bizarro dark places of the heart, wormed about at witchy exercise. The narrativity of a kind of story like Glaser’s spews contrarily and wide — astonishing readerly expectations for how literary structures ought to play out. Glaser’s debut collection punches open with “The Magic Umbrella,” a laughing, stitched-up ramble that’s, closer looked into, the upsettingly smart and adventurous intro to a whole new kind of way to get at us and leave it all crumpled and amazed. A cute snatch of grade school juvenilia — “One day there was a girl whose name was Jen. She was a secondgrader. Jen was running to catch the bus when she saw that it was raining. She ran back to get her umbrella” — provides a site for launching into a textuality that, umbrella-like, springs into a dream song on authorship, on authoring, out to where the fictive realizes.
“If I don’t know what is going to happen in a story, it feels like it is happening to me,” said Rachel. Read Pee on Water: it’s surprising — accessible, even friendly, it’s far away from callow complexes, morbid distancings: the more fun-house it gets, the less rote, the riskier its whole shtick pulls it off. Glaser’s technical moxie demonstrates most “experimentally” in the toy-like, fluidly intricate, textual prowess of, for one example, “Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance: Italian Representations of the Flagellation of Christ,” wherein the essayistic unspools into vociferous considerations of repetition/transmission. The piece jumps from site to site straying after its thematic resonance. We discover how there is room, in a consideration of the flagellation of Christ, for Kobe Bryant describing an alleged sexual assault, and before it really makes sense, everything is dancing together, everything, put up, is poetry.
Pee on Water takes the upsettingness and glory of the information used to puzzle out what we are, takes this stuff and, with existential sass (rather than sickly irony and mock criticality — looking at you, hipster writers), puts chunks in a car together, or programmed within a video game, or trapped in an escape pod adrift in outer space, or confusedly standing in front of an old lady’s cadaver, or yearning out on the lawn, desperately sentimental; the familiar and its opposite toss around and turn out mirroring each other. In a standout story “The Jon Lennin Xperience,” a regular-esque, semi-uncomfortable guy is introduced to an immersive bootleg video game that simulates the daily experiences of John Lennon; the gamer, increasingly obsessed, eschews his participation in the dimensional world to assume the virtual identity of the musician-character. What the Lennon experiences and those outside the simulation mean for each other, nested further into each other, trouble the narrative; and, whether the game life is an analogue for the “real” life, a commentary, or whatever — the technology and the humanity wrap around each other imperfectly and significantly. There are miracles in every story in this book, seriously, and still I’m overwhelmed too much to attempt cataloging them comprehensively.
When done with Pee on Water I wanted to keep holding it, I wanted to gift it away quick to friends, I wanted to watch the author answer some emails, but then I didn’t immediately have anything to say about it, though I knew that Glaser’s formal temper and emotional intelligence, and everything else, here in this Pee on Water are definitely, now that we know, what we need. I almost didn’t remember reading a chapbook of her poetry some months back, so maybe her verse doesn’t fascinate as readily (as to be forgotten blithely) as this, but damn is this collection a loud promise that there’s still something left to do, right now, with this form, here in America; easily, it’s one of the most notable titles released in ’10, also, which piques my interest in the small venture called Publishing Genius for putting it out. There is, yeah, Gary Lutz, but besides him I’m not confident I’m wetting my pants over any living American short fiction writer in recent memory the way that it happens when I think about this gorgeously written book and its author. So let me say this: These are thirteen stories that will be read and believed in.
He’s like those children who take apart a clock in order to find out what time is
“Fog forgets. Fog is forgetting.”
This was hard for the drunk man
on the shuddering train to say
clearly, but he managed in fits
and spurts—thoughts through
a kinked hose. In a past life,
when you wiped the counters,
the dogs stared up with saucer
eyes from the hardwood floor
as if you were a cleaning deity.
I was in the kitchen, too, waiting.
You’d stare into the vacant lot
through a window on the socially
awkward sycamore disrobing amid
frozen beer bottles and losing lottery
tickets. You were your own
undocumented fog. Years pass.
I’m still an inverse of the spiritual—
still feeling merciless forgetting
can’t mean joining cosmic order.
Above, a building rakes sky
as if it were the obscure index
finger of want, losing its end
in a belly of low, concise cloud.
Evan Hansen lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a public high school teacher. He has work forthcoming in Issue 50 of The Cortland Review.
Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
A student, choosing to write a two page paper on this poem, quoted a critical authority who had managed, by the magic of stupidity, to turn it into a comment on racism. The crow is not described as black, and this apparently, is Frost’s way of saying that such stereotypes are evil. Now how this interpretation could exist is beyond me, but what could the teacher say to the student? The critic is stretching her own agenda beyond all proper bounds? Well, I wasn’t the teacher, so I told him that. I said: “experts can be stupid, too, you know… especially when they are trying to shove everything into their own theory, even if it does not fit.” The kid went on for two pages about racism and Frost’s remarkable foresight given that he had lived in a lilly white section of new England. His essay never quoted the poem.
We can go any number of ways, some of them might even include the actual poem,but what of it? If we know something about the literary tradition pertaining to crows, we can see the crow as a trickster, an intelligent creature who likes to cut the unsuspecting down to size.In a sense, even a sane interpretation of this poem is a distortion of it. Even if we go all Brooks and stick strictly to the poem at hand, as if nothing else by Frost existed, as if historical context and the life of the poet did not matter, we would still offer only a distortion. Interpretation is distortion. Some distortions are useful. They makes sense. They offer a new way of entering the poem, of understanding and enjoying it. Others make us shake our heads in dismay, but all interpretations are digressions and re-writings of the text. It is unavoidable. And this is what a poet should keep in mind: when we have an “idea” for a poem, a desire to do something or express something in a poem, the poem must win over the idea or both will be lost. An idea for a poem is always a competing poem. So, instead of just editing our poems after the first draft, we should do a close reading. And it is sometimes helpful to refer to ourselves as “the poet.” What is the poet trying to do here, and why, and how? What is his agenda? I am going to take a poem I admire by one of my students, Melissa Liebl, and model this method of first revision:
She lifts her
sharp collar bones
in a shrug
the rain so hard
the spaces between
I lean toward
the edge of her body
and one sweet
defers me to
So what can we say about the poem at first glance? It is short, and thin, never more than five words per line. This might be considered the law peculiar to this poem. The longest line is five words. Given the rules the poem implies, is five too long? I re-write the poem, shortening the five word line just to see what happens.
I look at it visually and decide the poet is justified in having that five word line because, otherwise, the poem is too funnel shaped. So why so short, and so thin? Re-reading it I think: it’s a single action, a brief moment, and it would not make sense to have the poem any longer or fatter than it is. I comb through my thinning memory bank and think of two poems by Williams: “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” and “The Locust Tree in Flower” (second version). Ok, the single gesture, the sense of a small and intimate moment justifies the choice of line and proportion. Good.
Now, I ask myself: what is the sonic action of the poem? Experience has taught me that a writer often goes wrong in a poem in terms of lineation and sonics before any other failing. So I investigate the sounds. Ah, two sibilants (s) one in initial and the other in terminal position! One has the h added to create the “sh” sound. Only the first vowel sound is pronounced– high e, the highest pitched vowel in the language. So “she” is the star in sonic as well as narrative terms. The i in lifts and the e in her are muted. There’s a labial in the L of lifts. So, in terms of sound, the chief action so far is muted vowels, and sibilants,as well as a labial.This creates softness, euphony, a sense of the delicate– as much as what she says. The meaning is also in the sound! Will this be the case once more in the next couple lines?
Yes! Here’s comes “sharp,” (sh again), here comes L in the medial position (collar), but note: there’s now a hard c, and the ominous arrival of plosives: p in sharp, and b in bones. The vowels have also gone a little violent here with the two “ar” and the one”Oh sounds. There is a subtle form of what I call ghost rhyme going on. At the sonic level, a lot is happening. Let us continue:
Following this trail of sounds we find out that S and sh are the stars, with a brief but memorable cameo appearance of plosives, and the lowest vowel sound in the English language: “Uh.” “In a shrug.” H also figures in all its many guises. The question is why?
Here’s a nice conjecture: if there is a turn in the poem, I bet the s and sh sounds go away, and if there is a return or climax, I bet they show up again. One more thing about the plosives: this is hard rain. it no doubt “pelts.” Now, let’s see if the s sounds disappear:
Voila! They, indeed, do. In the middle section of the poem, for three and a half lines, there are no further s sounds until the word sip. Fricatives appear in form and find. Also, dentals show up in the t and d sounds.: Sip, sweet, sigh, and then for the very last lines, our hero, the s sound is gone forever, replaced by the rise of the dentals in sweet, turns, defers, and to. If we reduced the poem to only its s sounds in initials position we’d get:She sharp shrug spaces sip sweet sigh.
Turn that into two sentences: “She sharply shrugs. Spaces sip sweet sighs”. The s sounds alone almost carry the tale. So I say: this writer, however unconsciously, was moving through the sonic as well as the narrative fairy tale of her poem. The ghost rhymes, and effects are so subtle, no one but a nut job like me might notice them, but this is the pleasure of poetry when you stop paying attention to only what the poem means.
Now, onto the grammar: the poem has no punctuation. To me punctuation controls the speed at which beauty moves through the room. If there is no punctuation, two questions must be asked: are the lines well enough constructed, and lucid enough using only the white space to justify no punctuation? Question two: if there is a grammatical ambiguity created by the lack of punctuation, does that ambiguity lend a greater possible meaning to the poem, and is it justified by the law of greater complexity (rather than mere confusion)? Is the writer conscious of the effect (ok. That is a third question)? So I put punctuation in: She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard the spaces between form cups and fill.” A nun would kill me for that sentence because, if read in terms of grammar, the spaces could refer to the rain or the collar bones. How would you “fix” that? She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard, the spaces between her collar bones form cups and fill.” Too wordy.
Definitely, this is not prose, and, in spite of the ambiguity, I’d let it stand as is. This is a complex sentence with the greater part of its length given to the dependent clause. The lineation, and white space, by breaking the parts up, actually helps rather than hinders, and so it is justified. Now the next sentence is compound: “I lean toward her body to sip, and one sweet sigh and turn defers me to the air.” The “and” is a beautiful pivot here. Because, in the poem, there is no punctuation, I initially thought the speaker of the poem was turning and sighing, which, in emotional terms, she is, but it is the object of her attempted sip who turns and sighs. This is nice. This is using uncertainty to best advantage. Ok. Finally, possible objections to the poem:
There are vulgar readers who will ignore all these virtues and say: so what? What’s the ontology of the poem? The ontology is rejection, but a rejection so soft and nuanced that it is also an unforgettable gesture. The speakers action is also an impulse, a reflex of the moment The use of the verb “defer” gives both the hint of rejection and the sense of a course diverted, not a final rejection. Wonderful! If she had written “leaves,”instead of “defers” I, too, might be tempted to say: “Nice poem, but so what?” Delicacy, if it be truly there, defeats philosophy, and thwarts despair. We do not ask the ontology of a swallow swooping at dusk. So, I give this student an A. And now some assignments:
1. Go over one of your poems the way I just went over this. See what you might discover that you didn’t realize.
2. Decide that a certain number of sounds will be threaded through your poem. Let their appearance and disappearance mimic a turn or change of meaning.
3. Read “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper,” and “The Locust Tree in Flower.” Try to render a single moment, bereft of punctuation, but in such a way that the white space, and the mabiguity will increase the possible meanings.
4. Go and read some favorite poems, and forget the meaning for a moment. Enter them through sound, through detail. Then return to meaning and meditate on how closely sound shadows sense. Good luck.
A tenth grade student of mine recently commented that he felt anaphora to be a crutch weaker writers use. He didn’t see the point of repeating a word or phrase over and over again, especially if he didn’t agree with that word overall. I couldn’t really agree with him out loud since the entire lesson was built around anaphora, but I didn’t exactly disagree either. Like most poetic devices, anaphora’s strength lies in how its use draws something out of the writer that she might not have otherwise have drawn.
In that way I can see how something like anaphora can be seen as a crutch, a way to trick one’s self into writing because they have nothing to write about. Of course, to a young writer like this student, with so much to say about his world, the idea that someone might need to be self-coaxed into introspection might be incomprehensible.
But that seems to be exactly where Jen Bervin is coming from with The Silver Book, which the imperative anaphora of “write” followed by the exact instructions of what is to be written. The word changes color throughout the chapbook, shifting through commands that range from command to plea to sigh, engaging every permutation of what it means to write—to communicate through the written word.
write to get lost in the day — get
the time from friends — make them a
memorable meal and forget what you made
— write – we are tasting new peaches
— all the time —write you waste
nothing — write nothing is wasted on
This poem appears early in the book, and while the others range in size not much else shifts formally. But within each word and phrase the reader is slipping, getting pulled by the current of the river that the paper wrapping this book originally was meant to mimic. It’s imperative how the dashes and the shifting commands and focus of each statement keep the reader constantly balancing out her sea legs, finding the center of each line only to get bumped by the next. And while there’s a constant need to re-stabilize, I never felt cast off.
The Silver Book is small, post-Emily, elusive, and playful, which is a lot for such a tiny chapbook. It’s the kind of thing that chapbooks are meant to be. Ephemeral, almost spirit-like, this book can be read in under 15 minutes if one rushes or pondered for days and cannot be fully appreciated on a Kindle or as a pdf. It’s affordable art from a talented writer and phenomenal artist book maker, and perhaps could even change some minds about the use of anaphora.
He’s just a west-coast boy, living in New York City, he took the express train to where good poems reside. I must be tired or going insane, but Josh Bettinger is without a doubt on his game in these five poems—five because he claimed they were all shorties, but it’s not long into the interview that we see how stocky these poems are—look at these guys the wrong way and they’ll tear your face off.
Josh mentions this movie trailer several times in part 2, he insists you watch it: It’s all about the three parts of the trick.
Josh Bettinger, Part 1
Josh Bettinger, Part 2
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Thomas Lux’s poem “Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy.”
Symptoms of Island
Sometimes in the morning your hand
finds the dip in my side. For the moment
we’ll call it happiness. This does not
account for weeks spent cursing
the apple trees, their sticky bloom.
The man on the bus gaping
at my slack lip knew. Plump dumb
stone in my mouth. I’m sure of it.
That afternoon you were a brisk,
starched thing. We slipped out
the back way, screen door banging
cruel on my slim-boned grim. Today,
like most days, my mind arrives
an island, tongue-numb, child wishes
ivied onto me. God takes away,
it’s said. Call it what you will.
Camille Rankine is the author of Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, she is featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet. Her poetry has appeared in American Poet, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM and POOL: A Journal of Poetry. She is Program and Communications Coordinator at Cave Canem Foundation and lives in New York City.
The history of my reading life (and I consider it a life, somewhat independent of my so-called “real” life) has been littered with strange and utterly intuitive encounters with what now seem, in retrospect, the very things I needed. And so, when I had just turned fourteen, and was well-built and morose, and spent long hours staring in moody silence at nothing in particular (perhaps a pimple), I came upon a poem by a dead French man (or maybe he was Polish, or a gypsy, or an alien come down from the stars) named Apollinaire. A cousin had left it on our kitchen table. She was “in college” and planning to be a nurse. She came back for it only at exam time– such was her disdain. By then, I had cached it away in my underwear drawer, and the pain of giving it back to this nurse pending was palpable. The book contained Apollinaire, and George Trakl and Rilke, and I think it was an anthology of 20th century European poetry, but that detail is lost. What caught me first, and last, and has stayed with me for 38 years is a poem by Apollinaire called Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge):
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
Our loves flow too
Must it recall them so
Joy came to us always after pain
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
Facing each other hand in hand
Thus we will stand
While under our arms’ bridge
Our longing looks pass in a weary band
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
Love leaves us like this flowing stream
Love flows away
How slow life is and mild
And oh how hope can suddenly run wild
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
May the long days and the weeks go by
neither the past
Nor former loves return
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
I must describe the physical sensation this poem had on me. It was a hot and humid day, and the house was full of fans whirring, and flies buzzing, and no one was home. My mother and father were out shopping. My sister was with them. My brother was off somewhere putting hickies on the neck of his girlfriend. I lay on my bed, trying to find the cool spot on the pillow, sun burned, a little feverish, and goose bumps rose on my skin because I knew this poem was true. I did not know what the particular truth was, but there it was–in all its sad and whimsical, and undeniable glory–light, and yet heavy as a stone you have just plucked from the bottom of a river. What grabbed me was the way that, each time the refrain returned, everything had somehow changed, as if the laws of repetition led not to regularity, but had, instead, provided the pulse, the throb of what can never be fixed, made stable, made “whole.” I read it again, and on the second reading, I was even more excited. As is my habit, I just kept reading it until my mother yelled up the stairs for me to come down and help bring in the groceries. It was now as if I had a mistress upstairs, and everything in the universe was interfering with my hidden love. I knew I must behave myself, and the attempt to “behave” myself, triggered my mother’s intuition: “What’s wrong, Joseph? Are you sick?”
I guess I had that startled look, as if I had been caught at something (masturbation, grand theft auto, making moody faces in the mirror), I said: “I feel a little weird.” She said: “Lay down for a few hours. Don’t go in the pool. Rest up, Joseph.”
And so I had more time with the poem, all the time I wanted. I memorized it. I took it with me on my bike. I brought it with me down to the deserted train tracks glutted with chicory weed and Queen Ann’s lace, and old shoes, and used condoms. It seemed at home there. I waited for the Angelus to ring at six o’clock, from all the churches of Elizabeth, and I said the poem aloud. Poetic truth can not be pinned down, and I already knew that. It is a pulse under things– not the things themselves. Years later, when I spoke to my students about the use of refrain, I said it was all about “circular transformatives”– circling back to see how everything has changed, how the repetition gives a pulse to movement– not a stop, but a pulse. This is the power of song, and music. The return, if justified, creates rather than impedes suspense. I used this poem as an example, and I also used a song I first heard done by Johnny Cash called Long Black Veil:
Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light.
I wasn’t there, but they all agreed that the slayer who ran
Looked a lot like me.
And she walks these hills in a long dark veil,
She visits my grave when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.
The judge said son, what’s your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life.
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife,
This morning, after waking up earlier than usual and drinking the gas station coffee that my husband bought for me (I love gas station coffee), I settled into the enormous chair at my desk in front of my computer. Suddenly, I had no idea what I meant to do. It occurred to me that if a poet or writer is to develop discipline, he or she must have some sense of assignment. And so bereft of direction or purpose, I called downstairs to my husband and asked him to provide me with an assignment. He said, “Write an essay on Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight,’ and enter the poem in a new way.” It sounded interesting to me, but ultimately too huge of a project to suddenly launch into at 6:30 in the morning.
The truth is that as writers and poets, we all discover what it is that we want to write about by what presents itself to us as a deviation from an assignment, or a method of getting around an assignment in order to actually fulfill the assignment. I needed my husband to provide me with an assignment, not because I wanted the confinement of specificity or structure, but because I needed the inspiration to begin from somewhere, even if where I began was completely unrelated to the assignment. From where does a poem arise? I think for each of us, our poems are born by way of our own mysterious processes. And yet when we attempt to intentionally enter into mystery, we often don’t know where to begin, nor do we even understand the mystery.
When I am without a formal assignment or prompt, it’s like attempting to trespass on something where there is no territory to trespass. I’ll stare out the window at the evergreen tree in our backyard and hope that the first line will somehow be infiltrated into my consciousness simply by sitting still. This is a peculiar device which is contingent upon the premise of “waiting for something to happen.” I’ll watch the sun spread itself on the snow, and then slip again into the shadows. Once in awhile, our neighbor will wander through the backyard with her dog. Yesterday, I heard two rifle shots. And then sometimes there are divine moments when a flock of geese will fly over the river and honk out a cacophonous sound.
But sometimes, nothing happens. I bite at my cuticles and wallow about being blocked for the rest of my life. So here’s a trick: I’ll pick up somebody’s book of poems and read something they’ve written. I’ll find two compelling words, or perhaps just one. And then I’ll begin the poem with those one or two words and see if it inspires me. After all, words implicate ideas, and if you begin sorting through all the words that pass through your mind, you’re bound to eventually come up with a phrase. Once you have a phrase, the trick is in contextualizing it into story, concept and form. But the other trick is, it’s probably not a good idea to write poems deliberately. Some of the best lines and images are often not deliberate. We arrive at them completely by accident, and that it what makes them resonant, entertaining, and unique.
Even mechanisms like enjambment and rhyme are better when they aren’t deliberate. Once I wrote a poem all in slant rhyme and wasn’t even conscious that I was doing it. The fantastic thing about having a husband who is both a poet and a critic is that after he reads a poem that I wrote, he exposes it as conceptually complex, as if I had determined the concept before I began to write it. He has an uncanny knack for seeing the poet’s intentions even as the poet is unaware of them. He sees the consciousness of the poem. I am never conscious of the poem’s concept until someone has the insight to see it as a whole and complete entity, operating in terms of oppositions, disparities, and reconciliations. This is why I think it is the poet’s advantage not to outline or premeditate a concept before the poem actually conceptualizes itself.
So what is my assignment this morning? Oh, right “Frost at Midnight.” So the first line (which is one of my favorites in the annals of all poetry) “The frost performs its secret ministry,/Unhelped by any wind” is Coleridge’s very perspicacious manner of identifying something in nature and personifying it so that it retains its ethereality. The irony is that the very idea of something “performing” almost implies that there would be something auditory involved—something perhaps loud and showy, and yet the frost performs in silence. In fact, as the whole poem is somewhat of a performance of nature, all of this is performed without sound, except in two places. First, “the film that fluttered on the grate,” (“the sole unquiet thing”). What Coleridge achieves by emphasizing the only thing in this performance which makes any sound is the reinforcing of just how quiet everything else is. The second place in the poem which references noise is only in the memory of the church tower, “Whose bells [are] the poor man’s only music.” What this does is juxtapose the quiet of the present with the memory of a great influx of music, thus also reinforcing the calm and soundless moments of the poem. The last line of the poem, “Quietly shining to the quiet moon” allows us to actually “hear” the quiet moon shining, along with contrast of the fading echo of those church bells and the almost indecipherable fluttering of film on the grate.
So, was Coleridge thinking consciously that he would juxtapose quiet with sound in order to reinforce these mysterious performances of nature? I doubt it. A poet never writes a poem with the intention of predetermining how any given reader will interpret it. A poet should never say, “this is how my poem should be interpreted.” The poem is simply an extension of the poet’s arbitrariness, and often, if the poem is good, it doesn’t even make sense to the poet. After that, it is up for grabs and out of the poet’s hands. No one will ever know what the poet was thinking. But, they can conjecture and twist it into the meaning which suits the poem as a whole, whether by imposition or simply innocuous speculation.
The way I would harness this poem as inspiration for my own poem would not be to say, “I think I’ll write a poem about the way nature performs,” or “I want to juxtapose quietness and sound.”
I would take the word “ministry” and the idea of the slumbering infant, ascribe it to a present situation and begin like this:
For the time being, we will exist in separate rooms
lest we should be inattentive to the literature.
The hidden ministries of our holy languages
spin their separate webs–
allow our imaginary child to sleep without babble or fuss–
allow the morning to call itself into its order.
There is no trumpeting or wail–
no storm or fallen branch–
no love that desires itself more
than the awareness
that I can hear you drop a coin by accident
in the other room.
So for now, I think I have more or less completed a part of my husband’s assignment, and that assignment has provided me with a sense of orientation. And it was exactly that orientation I needed in order to disorient myself. And yet, by way of that disorientation, I still managed to address the Coleridge poem.
Since I began writing this, not a thing has occurred in the backyard, except that the sun slipped into a winter shadow. But I did hear my husband’s coin drop. I don’t know what that really means in the context of the poem, and yet I have a vague idea that it means I can be assured with the certainty that he is there. I didn’t say that explicitly in the poem because I was hoping that this might be implied. But the poem is out of my hands now. It spoke for an occasion, and the occasion has been documented. So now I must wait for the next occasion. After I make my husband breakfast. :-)
“Whatever it was I had to say,” Charles Wright writes on the first page of Littlefoot (FSG 2007), “I’ve said it.” Two years later, in 2009, Sestets, his most recent book, came out.
“Instead of going over poems today,” Charles said one day a few years ago as our small, always-awestruck-in-the-presence-of-Charles-Wright class gathered around a seminar table at the University of Virginia, “I’m gonna read you some John Cage.” He then began to read John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”
“I am here,” he said, “and there is nothing to say. If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking.”
Thank god he does. If he had nothing to say at the beginning of Littlefoot, a beautiful book-length poem, then he certainly had much more nothing to say in Sestets. For, in Sestets, we find the God-hunger and dark humor from Wright’s other works—“What’s up, grand architect of the universe?” he writes in “Terrestrial Music”—but in a new form for him, and an interesting contrast to Littlefoot’s length. Sestets is a book of brief poems, each just six lines long, the brevity of which harkens back to his much earlier work, which is similarly condensed. However, the poems that compose Sestets retain Wright’s signature long and long-winded lines that often split and drop down midway through.
Another distinguishing element of Wright’s work is his titles, which often act as little poems in and of themselves. One of my all-time favorite examples of this is the poem “If This Is Where God’s At, Why Is That Fish Dead?” from the previous book A Short History of the Shadow. And here in Sestets, this element continues, as we get similarly brilliantly layered titles, such as, “Like the New Moon, My Mother Drifts Through the Night Sky” and “Autumn is Visionary, Summer’s the Same Old Stuff.” Even “Homage to What’s-His-Name,” wonderfully humorous, opens up to suggest that even the people we most admire we forget when we age and memory falters. “No one’s remembered much longer than a rock / is remembered beside the road / If he’s lucky or / Some tune or harsh word / uttered in childhood or back in the day,” he writes in “It’s Sweet to Be Remembered,” a title inspired by Lester Flatt.
Many of Wright’s poems are inspired or informed by songs and song lyrics, which contributes to the playfulness of Wright’s work, even as it addresses the direst of last things. “Time Is a Dark Clock, but It Still Strikes from Time to Time” begins, “Whump-di-ump-whump-whump, / tweedilee tweedilee tweedilidee, / I’m happy as can be…” and he means it—I heard him read it once and he went ahead and sang the line. The poem goes from this playful beginning to an impulse to remember the details about the song, and who sang it, and then a reflection about the faults of memory in the face of lost time, as then settles, as Wright often does, on a heartbreaking ending image: “Pretty nice, but that was then, / when our hearts were meat on the grill. // And who was it, Etta James or Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker? / The past is so dark, you need a flashlight to find your own shoes. / But what shoes! and always half an inch off the floor, / your feet like the wind inside them.”
The brilliance of these poems lies in the way they at once comment on human existence in a flawed, rough world while also commenting on poems, songs and art itself, on why art exists, and how. “The metaphysics of the quotidian is what he was after,” reads the first line of the book, an ars poetica for this book of poems, rife with thoughts and images that occur everyday and often go unrecorded.
Sometimes, when the formal feeling comes after an encounter with the void, after, as Nietzsche would say, we look into the abyss and the abyss looks back into us, we reach out, then, for something that will console us honestly, something that goes beyond apologies for what’s newly missing, beyond the assertion that the person lost has gone to a better place, or that the relationship ruined was all for the best, the easy crutches tossed off at times of loss that actually perplex and paralyze thought. Wright consoles us for the losses of this world honestly and almost cruelly frank at times—“We live on Orphan Mountain, / each of us, and that’s how it is”—and at other times darkly funny in the language’s colloquial tone. “We haven’t heard from the void lately,” he writes. And it’s implied that it’s just a matter of time until we do hear from it again. And that’s how it is.
And around the workshop table, we listened as Charles went on, reading Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.” “We need not fear these silences,” he read, “—we may love them.” This, for those of us in the workshop who felt that we didn’t deserve to be there and still had to turn in each week mediocre poem after mediocre poem, was incredibly consoling to hear Wright say. And it is something many of us from the workshop, I’m sure, still go back to, just as, I think, Wright must also do during the inevitable silences.
After a loss, there is always a particular kind of silence. I finished 2010 reading and rereading Sestets using sympathy cards, whose consolations always come up short, as bookmarks. “Twilight of the Dogs,” a poem almost dead center of the book, begins, “Death is the mother of nothing. / This is a fact of life, / And exponentially sad. / All these years—a lifetime, really—thinking it might be otherwise.” We get the sense that Wright uses writing as a way of filling the void, of making his way down Via Negativa trying to reconcile his hope of what might be otherwise with what simply is.
John Cage writes, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.” And we get the sense that Wright’s work comes from a place of urgency, a personal need to be consoled by language, even as it is arranged by him. And we too need these poems, because, as Wright tells us early on in Sestets, “If you can’t delight in the everyday, / you have no future here. / And if you can, no future either.” And I’d assert that we need these poems especially in the dead of winter, after what was for many of us a rough year, and at the beginning of a new year whose occurrences remain hidden from where we now stand. We need these poems especially when “Everything is what it seems to be and a little less.”
Sestets is what it seems to be and a lot more: a small book of small poems that resurrect what they can from the nothingness. Sestets is Charles Wright at his best, yet again. Read it with a sympathy card as a bookmark.
Of course, the first guest on the show to grow up in one of the largest wilderness preserves in the United States, Yosemite National Park, provides me with a photo of herself taken indoors. Dawn Marie Knopf’s poetry feeds off a particularly American mythos: old wives’ tales, Farmer’s Almanacs, the revered stories of American pop heroes before they made it big. Playing both sides of the coin, Knopf enjoys both the extension of these fables to a magical extreme and the reduction of them to a sorry tall tale. Does the ball ultimately land in- or out-of-bounds? Listen to the interview to find out.
Dawn Marie Knopf, Part 1
Dawn Marie Knopf, Part 2
Add Clark Coolidge to the list of great American poets that nobody is talking about. He has been writing quietly for over four decades and gained prominence among the Language school poets. This Time We Are Both is another masterful accomplishment that further explores his unique form.
Since the 1980s, he has been composing copious amounts of syntactically-innovative poetry. It might appear, at first, that nothing has changed since his acclaimed works of the 80s, like At Egypt and The Crystal Text, and his current work. The Coolidge poem is easily recognized: at least several pages long, written in medium-length lines, lacking a subject, narrative cohesion and distinct imagistic content, and, most of all, containing a disjointed, fluid syntax that ignores grammatical norms.
Like any Language poet, most readers will, at least at first, find Coolidge’s work to be a garbled mess and devoid of lyricism. Most Language poets, like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews, deliberately abandon traditional grammatical norms and generic convention for political or scientific purposes. Like most (high) Modernist poems were in the early 20th century, contemporary Language poetry is very important and very inaccessible.
Coolidge fits in this paradigm, but with a huge exception—he is, in my opinion, immensely rewarding to read. If John Ashbery functions on the level of the sentence, Coolidge makes his living with the phrase. Like an Ashbery poem, the Coolidge poem has no discernable subject, symbolic clarity or transparent meaning. Unlike an Ashbery poem, the reader does not feel manipulated by elaborate rhetorical constructions and shifts in narrative or discursive content. Rather, a Coolidge poem is all texture. Here is a stanza chosen almost at random:
But the neighborhood where the people, smoke
where the pole wires, a fist of needles and says
we extend farther than you do and will get you
no doubt of those poles wires in a fist
and I have the urge to shake you
flats of sun fill blind vitamins simply
share the urge to seize stars violet like soup from
that rail, pretend flat out those vistas are alarming
trolley pack, and spring, flat bait, wait and we wave
broken gum, a flat frock of sugar
The most prominent feature of this language is the syntax, and several remarkable things seem to be happening. First, the connections between phrases seem to be basically arbitrary. Why does “smoke / where the pole wires” follow “[b]ut the neighborhood where the people…”? Second, Coolidge is bending the bounds of the phrase—the syntactic units themselves are ungrammatical and innovative. Finally, in spite of these conditions, the language has “fluidity,” though it is hard to specify exactly how. Phrases fuse into each other with the points of juncture disguised, and at times double or triple syntactic breaks are compressed into fragmented, almost stream-of-conscious word strings. In sum, every five to ten words or so, the reader finds herself in a very different kind of syntactic structure but can’t explain how she got there. Unrelenting anacoluthon yields continuous metamorphosis. It would be like channel surfing, except there are no clean distinctions or noise between channels. There’s just a river with partially-dissolved pieces.
Coolidge impresses me with the way he reworks imagery and description. Most of the phrases do not last long enough to sustain complete images and metaphors. Instead, there are imagistic gestures or “half-images,” or some such thing, like
when all the world does its thinking, mysterious
crayon stream in which world prong, the eating club put out
by word metallic raised the point, if that was an author (21)
A distinct image begins to form, “mysterious / crayon stream,” but deteriorates at “world prong” which has no or minimal meaningful content. Coolidge’s phrases tease—giving us the beginning of images, actions, and declarations that never fully form or find a correlative. This technique might seem to render the semantic content irrelevant—as with other Language poetry, which, crudely put, is just a study in linguistics. But good Language poetry, of which this is a fine example, does not surrender semantics. This partially-dissolved imagistic language in part creates the texture, counter-pointing the syntactic disruption. The disjunction between these two levels of operation in the text—the syntax and the content—harmonize by pulling against each other. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other.
It is both a musical score and a lyric landscape: It is musical because the sounds of phrases burst forth, denuded from their grammatical hideouts; it is lyric because there is a discursive, image-generating mind at the root of these word strings. This hint of lyricism comes out sometimes in fragmented glimpses of a lyric “I,”
I go by as ever on pencils
underneath of every leaving sun reveals
twigs in bottles in threes, elsewhere an etching erasing
grease for the eyes, that they take away nothing (19)
and is eluded to in the pronoun of the poem’s title. Coolidge’s poems are filled with human voice and personal feeling. To me, this voice is very clear and almost overwhelming. It is a paradox of language—perhaps the paradox that Coolidge’s career dares to explore—that something personal and compelling can persist in language deprived of normal syntax, rhetorical markers, subject matter, narrative and imagery. Like the rest of his oeuvre, This Time We Are Both shows that, while Language poetry doesn’t care about lyricism and aesthetics, it can sometimes still give pleasure. It a strange, wonderful achievement, even if too few are paying attention. Though, perhaps Coolidge is reconciled with this outcome, knowing that he is digging in a lonesome mine for disregarded stones, as he writes:
at the flat rock of syntax
huge factory knock lines all stub night long
and trouble to smear all the oils that swells, abatement
crosshatch in memory with sums of all railings by jewels
but only have I come to the marble gates
everyone stop at these walls
You do what you want,
I’ll do what I want,
and we’ll see which one of us
gets to the twenty-dollar window
in time for the fourth race at Del Mar.
On the goddamn radio
that’s always playing
in my bitch’s kitchen,
I heard some East Coast big-shot author
say he needs to jerk off before he can write.
All is I can say is fuck that shit.
I hate poets who beg you
to like them because you feel sorry for them.
Do not feel sorry for me.
I won on Bitches’ Brew in the fourth
and went home and drank
a fifth of bourbon
and got laid.
David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford American Book of Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He teaches at The New School.
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Late Ripeness.”