When I was in my late teens or early 20s, I was at Rich’s Cigar Shop in Portland, Oregon, which had the best magazine selection in the city in those days, and I picked up a copy of a magazine called Adbusters. The magazine had a hole in it, and a card insert with just a black spot on it, both of which were part of that particular issue’s design. I liked it. The subtitle was: “A Journal of the Mental Environment,” or something similarly boldly rhetorically Structuralist. I was surprised. I was excited. The articles were different, advocated for political agency in a way different than any I’d experienced. I felt that naïve vitality that, at 31, seems more and more difficult to kindle.
Today, I find Adbusters kind of stupid. Its lefty academicese smacks of the do-nothing superiority that masquerades as contemporary liberal revolutionary spirit. Honestly, Adbusters and your flock, what revolution has your “culture jamming” actually accomplished, other than inspiring many people to spend their money on your magazine and schwag and to read with a sense that they’re doing enough because they know enough to be in on the dark joke of the present? I enjoyed the snarky Obama-with-a-clown-nose cover, sure, but your magazine is a waste of time.
In any case, I was at Powell’s this week and saw another magazine which transported me back to the original geeky, excited tingle I felt when I saw my first Adbusters. This magazine, The Baffler, is less revolutionary in its rhetoric and sharper in its content than Adbusters. Volume 2: No 01, which I couldn’t help but purchase, contains an essay about what the Internet looks like, a follow-up to No Logo by Naomi Klein, images of “feral houses,” a “motor city elegy” written by a Detroit native, articles on finance, politics, social networking sites—the usual sort of upper middle class political stuff—and poems by Rae Armantrout, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Jack Spicer, and Devin Johnston. Poems!
I leave you with encouragement to check The Baffler out, should you be in need of baffling (or in need reading for the train or plane), and the second section of Armantrout’s fine, “This Is”:
This is a five star trance
To have this vantage
from the cliff’s edge,
to get drunk on indifference,
at a bright succession
raised from nothing
by Frank O’Hara
So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping
our mouths shut? as if we’d been pierced by a glance!
The song of an old cow is not more full of judgement
than the vapors which escape one’s soul when one is sick;
so I pull the shadows around me like a puff
and crinkle my eyes as if at the most exquisite moment
of a very long opera, and then we are off!
without reproach and without hope that our delicate feet
will touch the earth again, let alone “very soon.”
It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate.
I start like ice, my finger to my ear, my ear
to my heart, that proud cur at the garbage can
in the rain. It’s wonderful to admire oneself
with complete candor; tallying up the merits of each
of the latrines. 14th Street is drunken and credulous,
53rd tries to tremble but is too at rest. The good
love a park and the inept a railway station,
and there are the divine ones who drag themselves up
and down the lengthening shadow of an Abyssinian head
in the dust, trailing their long elegant heels of hot air
crying to confuse the brave “It’s a summer day,
and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.”
Dorothea Lasky is a poet of petulant grace. The particular way she does is she carves into the alphabet for poetry’s hurtfully buried, metastasized epiphanies of black life. Thence comes the fragments of jagged wonder she strings together to decorate her verse with pretty conflict. Her wonder (love and awe) is heavy and plain, stilted like she’s writing after a concussion, but the generalness of language (many fundamental ideas repeating, put forth directly) is thick—it spills over the edges of its meaning into the scary beyond. She meets herself in conversation with the space outside experience’s edges. That is the damaged holiness brought out: a haze of dirty purity like a cough toward an inaccessible God. It hurts like joy. I remembered, reading her previous collection Awe, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—an answer in there re how people change: “Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.” Lasky stitches her love and confusion, rent cosmically, together monster-like into her pages—along with shards of fuzzy relationships, tropes, emptiness, fears, wishes, loss, pride, doubt, desire, nature, the supernatural, the growling universe, the black life… and this under the shadow of a ruddy divinity barely glimpsed at for the shriek of its own confusing light.
Lasky does a lot minimally: her language, like Stein’s, is sophisticated in its retardation, pent up in its surface simplicity. Her craft is easy to read things under. Most of what she is doing, technically, is elementary. She doesn’t write, purplish, away from the nerve. The directness brings on resonance. The shapes pulse meaning, the word an animal though it’s read, “every poem full of blood and guts.” She goes mercurial between bruised-up frowning-confessional and witchy-theological/pastoral-abstract modes, of sorts, as she squishes colloquial and antiquarian postures together smoothly in her verse lines, pouring style into a page-shaped receptacle. I cannot read this as an ironic device or postmodern flourish—rather, she wants at what’s squinted at between kinds of language. What she’s reaching for is a way to wash the residue of an insincere poetics away from her truth (I would fain place such an ideal in quotes; not for her). Thence truth would be naked and cherished like an evil toy. She writes, “Maybe we are not so much false children / As we are conduits for the truth.” For Lasky, poetry is not a project and the author is not a function. She warns academic poets their line will knife: “The real life is wild and the animals will bite you.” (Moreover, “Whoever those postmodernists are that say / There is no universal have never spent any time with an animal.”) This essentialism, facing the brutal animal, doesn’t solve her existential upset—her melancholy threads through the fabric of the work, the veins of love and nothingness entwined, the I of the poet piercing her heart: “I am no I.” Like Rimbaud, here hinted, Lasky is a tortured seer. Today she is damaged by an experiential angst and the negative space around it, where lives a lonely God crying: “I am nothing.”
Lasky is after awe; being weird is so significant, like a power; her darkness is a special gift that she holds; she will know love— “That’s Love and Awe. / Say it / That’s Love and Awe. / There is nothing better. / Or if there is / Then I don’t care.” This stubbornness is godlike, her way, and (thus godlike) the fact of her, so put, chafes and grows threadbare in parts. She revels so in herself in Black Life, though it’s tempered with a glorious brand of primal anxiety, the audacity of some poems, when taken honestly because we trust her, assaults that our trust and sensitive transference. She teases, derides, and criticizes scathingly in places. She admits to a manipulative character in the poem “I Am a Politician,” blurting: “I only speak of myself when I smile at you / And when I smile at you / That is the scariest thing of all I could ever do.” Elsewhere, the incongruous tone pinches ugly still: “Do you wonder what I am? You are reading the work of a great poet, possibly one of the greatest ones of your time.” More examples read that bratty. How are we, then, to fully reconcile this poem, titled “The Poetry That Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead,” with another one titled “I Hate Irony” that ends in a statement of ideological contradiction, “I am only being real”? I look for an answer… settle on the concluding lines of the book’s title poem: “This life made me / This thing that I am.” A weird, dreadful loveliness governs her abuses, like the soul-eating monsters in Awe: “This is a world where there are monsters […] And there is nothing but fog out the eyes of monsters.”
Lasky elucidates a position she believes in, as a poet and about poetry, in her chapbook-length essay Poetry Is Not a Project: “Poetry has everything to do with existing in the realm of uncertainty. […] In a poem, the poet makes beautiful this great love affair between the self and the universal.” The grief and worship she achieves this way is, melded, an ambiguous religiosity of the self she intuits in the other’s marring dark. She is spelling out the negative turns of love… that form a word shaped so familiarly as to be unrecognizable. Ibid: “[T]o create something, like a poem, means that the outside world of an artist and the internal drives within her blend and blur. But there is something so human, so instinctual about the drive, that it might be hard to be conscious of it enough to name it.” Furthermore, back out of Black Life, “It just feels like love / It really does / I don’t know / I must have said it all wrong.” With Awe and now Black Life we see a poetry wrought from self experiencing ugly audience with God, where the poet’s tongue is ripped from her head, as blood drips pearling the front of her shirt—before the shameful promise of a universe. Men slip like drink in and out of proximity, becoming inconstant measures of sex and devotion (“Poem to My Ex-Husband”); a father is falling apart, fragmenting the narrative with his quietness and absence (“Some Sort of Truth”); thoughts explore their threats like prophetic amateurs; things are exuberantly appreciated, things are happening together; love hangs as a mocking plume off the corners of perfect despair—let the poems raise up “from the earth into the brain,” let beauty’s revenge be worn like a fancy hat. Black Life is important poetry.
Listen to the following as you read: A Love Supreme
It is almost impossible to read Michael S. Harper and not feel as though you are missing out on some sort of gnostic gospel of jazz history. Haper’s poem “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” would be one of the passages from this gospel. When you consider the history of the phrase “a love supreme,” the title and incantatory phrase from John Coltrane’s own album of praise, some of the “gnostic” implications are clear. Indeed, much of Harper’s work proceeds from history and art, particularly the history of African Americans and the art of jazz music. In “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” Harper models his lines and rhythm, as well as content on John Coltrane’s exultant album. This essay will draw the parallels between “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, particularly focusing on the incantatory nature of the poem and album. Both are songs of praise. A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s love poem to God; Harper’s poem is to Coltrane. One important difference remains, however: while Coltrane’s art is inspired by the transcendence of God, Harper’s poem, for all its hiddenness, springs out of particulars, the flesh, the events of Coltrane’s life, a decidedly un-gnostic source of inspiration.
Coltrane’s album/opening song opens with a gong and cymbal swell and Coltrane riffing on the pentatonic for a moment, before leaving the cymbals alone to hearken the entrance of Jimmy Garrison’s bass line, the riff from which the album takes its iambic name. Harper, too, begins with this as his epigraph in italics, setting it apart from the rest of the textual tone: “a love supreme, a love supreme / a love supreme, a love supreme.” It is an incantation, and it couches the rest of the poem’s meditations. That Harper’s language becomes almost a musical drumbeat is no surprise, as it mirror’s Coltrane’s saxophone in A Love Supreme, which almost speaks. Indeed, the fourth movement on Coltrane’s album is based on a poem he includes in the liner notes, “Psalm.” When listening to “Pt. IV – Psalm,” it is possible to hear Coltrane literally playing through the poem, continually coming back to the minor third, the incantatory dactyl “Thank you God.” Not only this, but Coltrane actually speaks the phrase “a love supreme” in the album’s first track, repetitively, incantatorially. While Harper’s epigraph certainly alludes to this unexpected moment in Coltrane’s album, it also alludes to the bass line continually thrumbing this rhythm throughout the first movement.
Harper’s meditations on the many particulars of John Coltrane’s life make up the rest of the poem. The poem could be seen as an attempt to rectify the particulars of Coltrane’s life with the phraseology of his music that seems to sum things up so well. Harper opens the poem with the words “Sex fingers toes” (1). It could be a list, undifferentiated by the lack of commas to set the words apart, or it could be a mishmash of all those things: the use of it as a whole line indicating a singularity of these items. The latter seems more likely (and infinitely more suggestive) when one considers the contained completeness of the lines that follow:
in the marketplace
near your father’s church
in Hamlet, North Carolina—
witness to this love
in this calm fallow
of these minds,
there is no substitute for pain (2-8)
Contrary to “sex fingers toes,” each line is rhythmically contained, ending on downbeats, suggesting their end stop. This downbeat end stop continues until line 14, when he ends with the deliberately accented end stop, the first incantation “a love supreme;” (14). Although the line ends on an accent, it is grammatically completed with a semi-colon. But its accent, in addition to the slant rhyme with line 15, sends the reader into the next line with the incantation still echoing, the surprisingly haunting question: “what does it all mean?” (15). This question is perhaps the starkest line in the whole poem, both an angst ridden cliché and startlingly honest plea for understanding.
The next set of lines (16-24) serves to establish some more of Coltrane’s history, a picture of him playing A Love Supreme in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This section ends with the incantation, introduced with a colon, similar to its previous use with the poetic text at line 14. Both are loosely linked to the content of the previous phrase, grammatically worked into the sentence. There is a difference this time, though: “a love supreme—” (24). The long dash at the end indicates a sudden stop, a change in thought even. This dash also brings about the break in stanza, indicative of the larger shift.
The next stanza does not contain much in the way of literal personal history, although many implications could be drawn, especially if one is familiar with the life of John Coltrane and his abuse of heroin. Again, there is the mishmash of words grouped in these lines:
thick sin ‘tween
impotence and death, fuel
the tenor sax cannibal
heart, genitals, and sweat
that makes you clean—
a love supreme, a love supreme— (26-31)
The pace of the phrases increases, due to the assonance that appears in the first part of these lines. Harper also cuts the phrase “fuel the tenor sax cannibal heart” after fuel and cannibal. These line breaks add to the increased pacing and shift in intonation. Harper’s intonations shift with the various meditations, always coming back to “a love supreme,” which shifts with the various tonalities of Harper’s language, the same way Coltrane’s saxophone explores the phrase’s various modalities through “Pt. I – Acknowledgement.” Once again, there is the almost frenetic mishmash of words: “sax cannibal / heart.” It is almost incantatory, almost senseless. The words together, though grammatically absurd, form a cumulative effect, like the repetition of “a love supreme.” It also helps establish the theme of body in the poem. This idea of body is continued with the phrase “genitals, and sweat / that makes you clean— / a love supreme, a love supreme—”. Again, slant rhyme connects the incantation with its neighboring line. Whereas before it connects it with the question “what does it all mean?”, here it is connected with phrases of the body, emphasizing this theme of body, particularly its sexuality.
The theme of the sexual body continues in the third stanza, a playful one, repeating “cause I am” in response to every question as to why a particular person (Coltrane presumably) is so “funky,” “sweet,” and especially “black.” The sudden intrusion of this out-of-character stanza is set off by the dash after “a love supreme” in line 31, performing here a similar function to the identical phrase in line 24. The dash allows for the change in voice and intonation. In the third stanza, Harper is mixing themes of race and sexuality, creating another incantation within the incantation of the whole poem: “because I am.” More interestingly, he is mashing the lines together with little respect for grammar. The first word is capitalized, and there are question marks throughout, but the stanza is largely run together grammatically. This is indicated, primarily, by the lack of capitalization. The lines are cut in ways that would be expected, giving the sense of grammar to one who only hears it, but this whole stanza could be considered a continuation of the mishmash technique Harper employs throughout the poem.
Harper ends the third stanza, once again, with “a love supreme:” connecting it to the song as a whole, acting in many ways, like a chorus of sorts. This time, however, “a love supreme” is followed by a colon, a first in the poem. This colon connects the very final stanza with the penultimate stanza, even though there is a significant visual break between them, and the last stanza lacks the italics of the penultimate (excepting, of course, the final lines). Harper is subclausing the whole fourth stanza to the third. It is a reversal for the poem in that the song-like italics have always been subclaused to the generally fact-oriented non-italics. Before, all the song lyrics were proceeding from the facts of Coltrane’s life. Now, the finality of Coltrane’s end (which seems imminent), proceeds from his music. The tail is wagging the dog, so to speak, and the speaker is disappointed that Coltrane can barely play (43-45). This makes the final two phrases, incantations of “a love supreme, a love supreme—”, all the more poignant. It’s as if Coltrane is trying to gasp out the last phrases himself, but ultimately comes off “flat” (45). The poem comes full circle to the epigraph, only this time, the phrase is cut off by the dash, suggesting the possibility, the hope, of more. But the reader is left hanging by the final dash, an interruption, rather than an end.
Harper’s poem is ultimately rooted in the body and its life in the world, the “sex fingers toes” of Coltrane’s life, the mashing of the saxophone keys that produces his music. And, ultimately, it is Coltrane’s body that betrays him, snuffs out his particulars, rumbles over him, the same way his incantation continues even after he is done. Though “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” was written before Coltrane’s death, it foretells the continuation of the artist, his incantation that arises out of the particulars of his life after it is over.
A Love Supreme
I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord.
It all has to do with it.
Thank you God.
There is none other.
God is. It is so beautiful. Thank you God. God is all.
Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses.
Thank you God.
In You all things are possible.
We know. God made us so.
Keep your eye on God.
God is. he always was. he always will be.
No Matter what . . . it is God.
He is gracious and merciful.
It is most important that I know Thee.
Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts,
fears and emotions—time—all related . . .
all made from one . . . all made in one.
Blessed be His name.
Thought waves—heat waves—all vibrations—
all paths lead to God. Thank you God.
His way . . . it is so lovely . . . it is gracious.
It is merciful — Thank you God.
One thought can produce millions of vibrations
and they all go back to God . . . everything does.
Thank you God.
Have no fear . . . believe . . . Thank you God.
The universe has many wonders. God is all.
His way . . . it is so wonderful.
They all go back to God and He cleanses all.
He is gracious and merciful . . . Than you God.
Glory to God . . . God is so alive.
May I be acceptable in thy sight.
We are all one in His grace.
The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement
of Thee O Lord.
Thank you God.
God will wash away all our tears . . .
He always has . . .
He always will.
Seek Him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday.
Let us sing all songs to God
To whom all praise is due . . . praise God.
No road is an easy one, but they all
go back to God.
With all we share God.
It is all with god.
It is all with Thee.
Obey the Lord
Blessed is He.
We are all from one thing . . . the will of God . . .
Thank you God
I have seen God—I have seen ungodly—
none can be greater—none can compare to God.
Thank you God.
He will remake us . . . He always has and he
He is true—blessed be His name—Thank you God.
god breathes through us so completely . . .
so gently we hardly feel it . . . yet,
it is everything.
Thank you God.
All from God.
Thank you God. Amen.
Dorothea Lasky’s POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT made huge waves when debuted at this years AWP. The newest book on UDP‘s Dossier imprint, Lasky lays out, in 19 quick pages, a theory of poetry that reaches back through High Romanticism into a more hermetic time. Illustrated beautiful throughout by Sarah Glidden, Lasky’s theory pushes against the limits set out by conceptual writing, striding toward a more cosmic and otherwordly approach to artistic creation. There’s a lineage of deep thought coming from poets back from Blake to Spicer’s ideas of poetic dictaction and Barbara Guest’s short collection of writing on art, Forces of Imagination. I was graced with the wondrous task of editing this book, and I present to you a soundbytey narrated version of the greater text, so you can get a flavor of what’s happening here.
“I once heard a scholar use the term “project” as he introduced another poet at a reading. He went on and on: “Her project echoes Dickinson’s project [blah blah blah].” The comparison seemed fine, but I wasn’t really sure the poet in question really had a “project” per se. Nowadays, poetry critics and scholars often refer to an entire body of work by one poet as a “project,” but I don’t think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain”
“One day, many years ago, I was walking along the street, minding my own business, thinking of my future, and all that. As I turned the corner, I ran into an acquaintance of mine. He happened to be a poet. This acquaintance asked me what I was doing and I think I said “nothing much.” I asked him the same and he told me that he was working on a project where his goal was to go to the local art museum every day for a month and write a poem about a different piece of art each day. I told him I thought that was nice, because I thought it was. I like when people write poems about art. I like the idea of poetry being alive in museums. Months after our meeting, I went to see my acquaintance give a poetry reading. He was reading from his museum project and I was interested in hearing his poems, especially because I knew the museum he had written them in and liked a lot of the art there. Before he started his reading, he read an essay he wrote about his project. His logic was interesting. Then he read his poems. I did not like them. After the reading, people talked to him about his project and in general, most people liked the idea behind it, as did I. No one talked to him about his poems. His poems were not important to his project. His project was important to his project. Everything that mattered was in the idea.”
“being able to talk about the process of your work as a poet can sometimes breed its mediocrity”
“I am indebted to and in love with Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments, with the experiments and exercises of the Language writers and the French Surrealists, and with beautiful forms of Flarf…but the poems were the most important parts of the whole thing. If a project does not get to a real poem, then it is not that important to your work because it generates nothing.”
“In a great poem, there is no certain beginning, middle, or end to the real human drama which incited it, propels it, and will finish it. What differentiates a great poet from a not-great one is the capacity to exist in that uncertain space, where the grand external world (which means anything and everything) folds into the intense internal world of the individual. In this moment, the issues of the self become one with the universal. In a poem, the poet makes beautiful this great love affair between the self and the universal. And like all kinds of love, linear intention (a plan) has nothing to do with it.”
“When people talk about poetry as a project, they suggest that the road through a poem is a single line. When really the road through a poem is a series of lines, like a constellation, all interconnected. Poems take place in the realm of chance, where the self and the universal combine, where life exist. I can’t suggest to you that going through a line that is more like a constellation than a road is easy—or that the blurring of the self and the universal doesn’t shred a poet a little bit in the process. The terrain of a poem is unmapped (including the shapes of the trees along the constellation-road). A great poet knows never to expect sun or rain or cold or wind in the process of creating a poem. In a great poem all can come to the fore at once. It would be worse yet, if none are there at all.”
“Poetry is not the project of a poet—it is the very life of the poet.”
When they say, “Spring is in the air,” they aren’t kidding. New York City is fully abloom–and it is most certainly in the air.
Yes, the tulips and daffodils are afoot in the city! Perfectly coiffed Park Avenue flower arrangements trumpet out enormous lilies at pedestrians. Petunias and pansies galore! Primped poodles in their fluffed white glory don’t give damn about signs directing them away from the flower plots, it’s all the same to them—they’re just happy to be out of winter coats. Bees of all kinds are quite busy. Poets are everywhere with little black notebooks, scribbling furiously at the crocuses sprouting up around trees in the parks.
But most New Yorkers (poets included, we just persevere and suffer later) are walking around in a Claritin daze, and it’s worse than ever. Itchy eyes, sneezing, throats ablaze. Doctors are saying this year’s pollen boom is the most prolific one in years.
Lately, reading poems about spring, and flowers, I’ve concocted a new fantasy “condition,” or maybe it’s a genre (same thing?): The Pollen-Poem. What does this marvelous thing entail? First and foremost, the Pollen-Poem is occasional: it is written only in spring and concerns only spring, in depth. And I mean obsessively in-depth, full-on obsession, rapture (if you will). Dysfunctional relationships with flowers, things of that nature. Then, think of the effects of a severe pollen allergy. Heightened sensitivity! Irritation of specific registers of the body (being)! Moodiness! Sometimes, a good Pollen-Poem will make your eyes itch. Couple all this with a poet’s faculties and the Pollen-Poem is born. I exemplify here for you some of the most perfect Pollen-Poems written to date (At least the ones that appeal to me–and not just in my fleeting, second-dose-of-the-day, non-drowsy, appetite-suppressed opinion).
|Little Lion Face|
|by May Swenson|
Little lion face I stopped to pick among the mass of thick succulent blooms, the twice streaked flanges of your silk sunwheel relaxed in wide dilation, I brought inside, placed in a vase. Milk of your shaggy stem sticky on my fingers, and your barbs hooked to my hand, sudden stings from them were sweet. Now I'm bold to touch your swollen neck, put careful lips to slick petals, snuff up gold pollen in your navel cup. Still fresh before night I leave you, dawn's appetite to renew our glide and suck. An hour ahead of sun I come to find you. You're twisted shut as a burr, neck drooped unconscious, an inert, limp bundle, a furled cocoon, your sun-streaked aureole eclipsed and dun. Strange feral flower asleep with flame-ruff wilted, all magic halted, a drink I pour, steep in the glass for your undulant stem to suck. Oh, lift your young neck, open and expand to your lover, hot light. Gold corona, widen to sky. I hold you lion in my eye sunup until night.
|by Emily Dickinson|
Come slowly—Eden Lips unused to Thee— Bashful—sip thy Jessamines As the fainting Bee— Reaching late his flower, Round her chamber hums— Counts his nectars— Enters—and is lost in Balms.
|Nothing Stays Put|
|by Amy Clampitt|
|In memory of Father Flye, 1884-1985
The strange and wonderful are too much with us. The protea of the antipodes--a great, globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom-- for sale in the supermarket! We are in our decadence, we are not entitled. What have we done to deserve all the produce of the tropics-- this fiery trove, the largesse of it heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed and crested, standing like troops at attention, these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons grown sumptuous with stoop labor? The exotic is everywhere, it comes to us before there is a yen or a need for it. The green- grocers, uptown and down, are from South Korea. Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson; as well as, less altered from the original blue cornflower of the roadsides and railway embankments of Europe, these bachelor's buttons. But it isn't the railway embankments their featherweight wheels of cobalt remind me of, it's a row of them among prim colonnades of cosmos, snapdragon, nasturtium, bloodsilk red poppies, in my grandmother's garden: a prairie childhood, the grassland shorn, overlaid with a grid, unsealed, furrowed, harrowed and sown with immigrant grasses, their massive corduroy, their wavering feltings embroidered here and there by the scarlet shoulder patch of cannas on a courthouse lawn, by a love knot, a cross stitch of living matter, sown and tended by women, nurturers everywhere of the strange and wonderful, beneath whose hands what had been alien begins, as it alters, to grow as though it were indigenous. But at this remove what I think of as strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom, a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above-- is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood. Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel. All that we know, that we're made of, is motion.
God save thee, my sweet boy!
KING HENRY IV
My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.
Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?
My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
KING HENRY IV
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenor of our word. Set on.
Exeunt KING HENRY V, & c
Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound.
Yea, marry, Sir John; which I beseech you to let me
have home with me.
That can hardly be, Master Shallow. Do not you
grieve at this; I shall be sent for in private to
him: look you, he must seem thus to the world:
fear not your advancements; I will be the man yet
that shall make you great.
I cannot well perceive how, unless you should give
me your doublet and stuff me out with straw. I
beseech you, good Sir John, let me have five hundred
of my thousand.
Sir, I will be as good as my word: this that you
heard was but a colour.
A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John.
Fear no colours: go with me to dinner: come,
Lieutenant Pistol; come, Bardolph: I shall be sent
for soon at night.
Re-enter Prince John of LANCASTER, the Lord Chief-Justice; Officers with them
Go, carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet:
Take all his company along with him.
My lord, my lord,—
Lord Chief-Justice I cannot now speak: I will hear you soon.
Take them away.
Si fortune me tormenta, spero contenta.
Exeunt all but PRINCE JOHN and the Lord Chief-Justice
I like this fair proceeding of the king’s:
He hath intent his wonted followers
Shall all be very well provided for;
But all are banish’d till their conversations
Appear more wise and modest to the world.
LORD CHIEF JUSTICE
And so they are.
The king hath call’d his parliament, my lord.
I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?
Spoken by a Dancer
First my fear; then my courtesy; last my speech.
My fear is, your displeasure; my courtesy, my duty;
and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look
for a good speech now, you undo me: for what I have
to say is of mine own making; and what indeed I
should say will, I doubt, prove mine own marring.
But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it
known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here
in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your
patience for it and to promise you a better. I
meant indeed to pay you with this; which, if like an
ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and
you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promised you
I would be and here I commit my body to your
mercies: bate me some and I will pay you some and,
as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.
If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will
you command me to use my legs? and yet that were but
light payment, to dance out of your debt. But a
good conscience will make any possible satisfaction,
and so would I. All the gentlewomen here have
forgiven me: if the gentlemen will not, then the
gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which
was never seen before in such an assembly.
One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a’ be killed with your hard
opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is
not the man. My tongue is weary; when my legs are
too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down
before you; but, indeed, to pray for the queen.
- Sir John Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest invention.
- Sir John Falstaff is great because his wit is as vast as his waist, and his prose is some of Shakespeare’s finest, which makes it also, some of the finest ever written.
- James Joyce is but an offspring of blustering Falstaff.
- Leopold Bloom is Falstaff recast as a tragic hero. Stephen Dedalus is Hal (Henry V).
- Leopold Bloom cannot compare to Falstaff. (Though Dedalus can to Hal.)
- People lament that Shakespeare was not born in the 20th century to make films.
- Shakespeare did however make films in the 20th century.
- His name was Orson Welles.
- Orson Welles’ greatest film may well be his last: Chimes at Midnight.
- It took Orson Welles many years to complete the film, owing to his Falstaff-like poverty, due to his Falstaff-like debts, and certainly unhelped by his Falstaff-like obesity. Welles would shoot scenes and edit privately, which has resulted in a masterpiece of a film that is not only hard to find, but at times difficult to watch. The sound is often distorted (sometimes only slightly). The picture can go wonky.
- Joe Weil once told me that to understand Hamlet you need only combine Hal and Falstaff into the same person.
- Harold Bloom has quoted Orson Welles as saying he was born a Hamlet in America, and retired in Europe as Falstaff.
- Chimes at Midnight is indeed hard to find on VHS or DVD.
- Chimes at Midnight can in fact be found on VHS and DVD, through Amazon.com, and other online websites.
- Chimes at Midnight can be watched in its entirety in decent quality on YouTube.
- If you have not seen Chimes at Midnight, you should go to YouTube and watch it.
- If you have already seen Chimes at Midnight, you should watch it again.
- There have been many Shakespeare film adaptations, some good, many mediocre, even more not worth watching.
- There have been many adaptations of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2—these include My Private Idaho, by Gus Van Sant (recommended), as well as scenes from Javier Marias (recommended).
- Javier Marias is as obsessed with Falstaff as any of us.
- Correction: Than most of us.
- The great moment to be understood and analyzed is the coronation of Henry V (formerly Hal) at the end of Henry IV Part 2. It is famously the rejection of Falstaff.
- In case you would like one, a quick summary: Hal is the son of the King of England, and spends his times in pubs and brothels with unsavory characters, petty thieves and womanizers, a rabble of men lead by one fat fat fat man named Falstaff.
- Falstaff is perhaps the greatest name for a comic character ever thought up.
- It was Oldcastle, based on a historical person, named Sir John Oldcastle—but Shakespeare had to change the name, and add a disclaimer in the form of an epilogue at the end of Henry IV Part 2 because Oldcastle had powerful heirs and descendants that threatened Shakespeare’s company and business.
- Just as well. Falstaff is pure Shakespeare. And Falstaff sounds better than Oldcastle.
- Don’t worry about The Merry Wives of Windsor, it’s a curiosity but it has nothing to do with the actual Falstaff. Some scholars believe in fact that Shakespeare wrote the play at the request of the Queen of England, who enjoyed Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and wanted to see “Falstaff in Love.”
- Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 were in fact Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and demonstrated the maturity of his talents, both dramatical and poetical. They were performed often during his lifetime, and earned him great acclaim (in the middle 1590s).
- Why is Falstaff such a great character? Why is the play so entertaining to watch and read? Why is Chimes at Midnight such a great movie?
- I don’t know: you tell me. Read it. Watch it. Then you can be skeptical and argue.
- If you have any brains, or heart, or sensitivity to Language, or Cinema, you’ll probably agree.
- What I’m saying is not legendary or landmark.
- What I’m saying has been approved by Harold Bloom.
- How can I be wrong?
- Aside from many amazing moments in the two plays, and scenes in the Welles film, what it all comes down to finally is the coronation scene.
- In it, Hal—now Henry V—is King of England. Falstaff of course is hoping for recognition, a title, power, some money, but most importantly—he wants to be recognized by his friend, whom he calls sweet wag, his honey Lord, and other such names that are among the most earnest interjections spoken by a character in the play.
- The irony: the great conman, charlatan, huxster Falstaff is an earnest man. He loves Hal, though he also loves life, and money, and pleasure, and the easiness of self-interest, and the boast of self-privilege, and the fluid swelling at all times of his own voice in witty procession.
- The irony: Hal is a much more complicated character than we have yet considered.
- On the one hand: He is your typical adolescent badboy antihero; his father is King of England, he spends his time in bars and driving late at night, doing drugs and fooling around with women, and his grades can’t be too impressive.
- On the other hand: He is heroic and noble, and never unaware of the power he will yet assume. There are many cues throughout the Henry plays and the film that let us know—he is not mindlessly wandering in his devious peregrinations. He is biding his time. He is trying to avoid what he is also restless to assume: Power.
- It is the nature of power to be both indulgent and arbitrary, to be selfless and self-absorbed.
- It is the privilege of power to do what it wants, when it wants.
- When the time comes for battle, Hal fights and defeats Hotspur, surprising and honoring his father’s wishes.
- But Hal has two fathers—one of the political world, and the court, which is Bolingbroke, a usurper himself of the English throne, and another, Falstaff, the master of revellers in a court no less full of intrigue and ritual. That court is a boarding house, that intrigue is picking people’s pockets, the ritual is getting drunk and staying drunk.
- Welles’ genius is to distinguish between these social worlds and their pressures by the type of actors he casts in his great film.
- On the one hand, there is John Gielgud, arguably one of the greatest British actors and interpreters of Shakespeare ever.
- Gielgud, in the true English style, was known for his beautiful speaking of verse, a high stentorian, enunciated, articulated, masterfully subtle and with feeling and richness of tone.
- Alec Guiness likened his voice to a “silver trumpet muffled in silk.”
- Alec Guiness was right.
- I am stealing some of my information from Wikipedia.
- Wikipedia, much maligned, is as good a place as any to steal things from.
- Okay, well sometimes.
- Nevermind all that.
- So Welles chose Gielgud for the part of Hal’s father, Henry IV. It gives an air of authority and royalty and regalty to that role, and the persons of the court.
- Welles chose himself in the part of Falstaff, an American vaudvillean actor, who began in shows and plays, did Shakespeare in Harlem, did Radio Operas and Sagas, and contributed more to American cinema than anyone except Charlie Chaplin.
- The tension in high and low, between kings and hustlers, is showed in the contrasting styles of acting.
- It is not a matter of better or worse.
- It may be a deliberate matter of superbly refined and superbly vulgar showmanship.
- It is also a matter of America and England.
- Theater is an English thing, really.
- Film is an American thing, really.
- We produce actors who are celebrities, matinee idols.
- The Brits produce actors who are thesbians, masters of the stage.
- Both are necessary.
- Both in the same production are rare.
- Chimes at Midnight has both.
- Hal speaks like an American, acts like an American.
- When he becomes Henry IV, he pronounces and declaims like an English actor.
- It’s a marvelous change and directorial decision.
- Now to that Rejection.
- What’s it all about?
- Well the King of England can’t really spent his time rioting in a tavern.
- And Falstaff, smacking of the people but really just oafishly and splendidly himself, comes from that world and represents that world.
- Part of the play is a symbolic allegory about power and politics—are politicians may start like us, but they are not allowed to continue like us, because we want kings and presidents and leaders to be like gods.
- Gods are supposed to be inhuman and all-powerful.
- That is, power is inhuman.
- The more you have, the less like a person you become.
- Rhetorically, Shakespeare had his own stylization for these differences: he may not have had film vs. theater, American vs. British, but he certainly had a better tool.
- That is, language.
- In the Falstaff scenes, you hear a lot of prose.
- Amazing prose.
- In the courtroom scenes, you hear a lot of blank verse.
- Immaculate, gorgeous blank verse.
- For Falstaff scenes: Think Joyce. But better than Joyce.
- For Henry IV scenes: Think Marlowe. But better than Marlowe.
- Hal operates in both worlds for a time.
- For a time, Hal is Falstaff’s father. Hal, which is almost like Fal(staff).
- Then he becomes Henry V. Which is very like Henry IV.
- The friendship between Hal and Falstaff depicting in Chimes at Midnight, is romantic, but not in any sexual sense. Rather, it’s the essence of all friendship and comedy—two personalities that require each other to function. Falstaff performs, Hal commentates. Falstaff sins, Hal chastizes. Falstaff jests and boasts, Hal satirizes and mocks. They are seen drinking and walking, running and laughing, acting and plotting. They relate and complete one another, comically.
- This is what life promises.
- But power promises an elevation at the expense of all that. Especially, most sadly, friendship. Friendship is equivalent, and power is shared, mutual, reciprocated, given and taken. Royalty is absolute, and singular. Whenever there is one, there is violence.
- Or as Shakespeare says in Henry IV Act 3, Scene 1: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
- Shakespeare was obsessed with the nature of selfhood—was it public, or private? How did the nature of performing effect everything we do, with others, and how we see ourselves? Shakespeare’s greatest consciousnesses tend to be actors in their own plays, able to shape their destinies, create or resolve dramatic climax, see into the motives of others as well as self-consciously write their own lines. Hegel said something smarter and more eloquent, which captures this, about them being free-masons of their own selves. Something like that. Hal is such a character. He keeps talking about his true self, his old self, his new self. Who is he? He wears a crown, he dresses in a robe, he carries a scepter, and his part has changed. His verse alters. His tone is solemn. He does not want to joke. He does not want to riot and have sport. He rebukes Falstaff. He rebukes anyone who was as he was once. He becomes what he hated and loathed, and the lesson can’t simply be he’s a horrible friend. Is this just a case of absolute power corrupts absolutely? What is the corruption? Falstaff is a braggart, a cheat, a thief, a drunkard, and insolvent.
- In all of our lives, we’ve had these moments. People we’ve known have attained things, and gone places, received honors, and been privileged. And always, no matter what, like Falstaff (except without his crimes, without his generosity, without his genius, his mirth, his irreverence), we EXPECT to share in that, to be entitled, to remain equals. It is not just a matter of greed and ambition. It is a matter of love.
- Friendship is based in a love of two people for two people. Love is always between two people.
- Power, political and earthly power, is the reality of an individual representing everyone.
- But who cares?
- Haven’t you ever been expecting, on bended knee, a friend, a lover, someone, anyone, to acknowledge you? To honor their love? To privilege that bond? Shakespeare may have set out to write a political drama, a history play, appropriate to courts and battles, fighting and chanting speeches, which he does astonishingly so in Henry V, but in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, he writes something greater. Plays about history are plays about fate. Henry IV and Chimes at Midnight is about personalities—and the personality that is about foremost is Falstaff: the width of what it is to be human. Most of the play deviates from that law of genre, and takes to somewhere much more entertaining—two people who exist to know each other, share their mind, and enjoy nothing more than each other’s company. But the play has to end; Henry IV’s son has to become Henry V. And personalities like Falstaff’s (there are no others!) are too large a scope, too wide a berth. Fate and power and politics and monologues are vertical; personalities and dialogues and horizontal. Shakespeare may have been honoring a convention, finally, and rushing to a close, hastily, but he also left an audience (and a Queen) who loved this English buffoon aware of a sober truth. Our friendships like our love are commodities, accessories, ways in which we waste our mental and physical time. To those who are called to “serve,” to lead, there is no leisure to live life. (Ironically, Shakespeare had to please the Crown to promise to bring Falstaff back, the very Crown he depicted by dismissing that great man.) Henry V promises to give Falstaff advancement (a promotion of power). A few lines later Shakespeare puns on this word, as Falstaff is speaking of the advancement he owes Master Shallow. Earlier in the play, Falstaff jests: “Banish Falstaff and banish all the world!” But who would ever want to banish the world?
- But Shakespeare and Welles show us that for the chance of control we do.
Dear an hour north the trees
are already shuttered leaves
whip my face and the lake
is lashed to whitewash while
back home our initials grow
dim erosion smoothes cement
and names and your lover writes me
letters detailing your predilections
in colored pencils asking for friendship
I suppose she does you well out here
in the forest the season is brewing
and no one minds the strange
accent the new girl wears around
her neck with a cross our senses shatter
on punctuation and dropped Roman
vowels streetlights and shadows
follow sirens deep into the maze
of named streets while here a fox
has been eating chickens one by one
in the skeleton night where once
a shiv of moon grew flat on our lake
while snow fell and held the light
How do you know when you’re “done” a poem?
I’m not speaking about revision, but rather, the act of writing, particularly lyrical free verse. Donna Masini once described it to me (or a class I was in—can’t remember which), as a settling in the body: a literal sense in the poet’s body that there is no more to write. What a strange way to describe it—yet, I find it has been true with me. I’ll be sitting in front of a computer, write a line, and suddenly, intuitively, I know the poem is finished. It’s a sense of relief, that sighing experience when you’ve just removed a splinter (though the process of removing a poem from your body is usually more pleasurable.
Grossman speaks about the silence from which a poem comes. Silence is the place where “all men agree.” Not only this, but one must overcome silence, the gap between speech and no speech (more on that later). But once you’ve broken this barrier, how do you know when to shut up the stream of words? Often, it seems there is no end to the multiplicity. Once you’ve entered a poem, how the hell do you get out?
Grossman speaks about “closure.” Perhaps this isn’t the same as the closing of a poem, yet, once you’ve reached closure, how much further could the poem go? (Does anyone know of a poem that begins with closure and goes from there?) Grossman says:
The poem achieves “closure only when some new cognitive element has been added to the relationship of subject and object. Terminal closure is “something understood.” Closure brings the poem to an end as apocalypse (“dis-closure”) brings Creation to an end.
There seem to be couple different ideas Grossman is drawing on here. “Something understood” refers, perhaps, to an almost Buddhistic sense of Nirvana. The achievement of enlightenment brings about the end: one has finished becoming and is only being. Naturally, this seems like an ending place for the poem (especially if we understand a relationship between being and text—again, more on that in post 5, which is forthcoming).
On the other hand, there is a strong Judeo-Christian understanding of narrative here: the apocalypse, the end that must come (as the diver must eventually finish his dive). Strange to think of a poem and apocalypse as being in the same category, but it makes a certain sense: the poem is an act of a person (godlike) who breaks the silence (ex nihilo?) and at some point comes riding in on a white horse and ends the poem. On the other hand, is it fair to separate the beginning of writing from the myriad of things that inspire it?
Let’s look at an actual poem. I love David Ferry’s translations of Horace’s Odes, and it always amazes me how Horace’s poems seem to snap shut at just the right moment. (Note: I have been unable to get WordPress to get the exact formating of this poem–apologies to David Ferry.)
Horace (trans. David Ferry)Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome comingOf spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boatsDown to the water; in the winter stables the cattleAre restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless skyVulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.Now is the time to garland your shining hairWith myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth has given;Now is the right time to offer the kid or lambIn sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whetherHe’s going to knock at a rich man’s door or a poor man’s.O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don’t put your hope in the future;The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;The walls of Pluto’s shadowy house are closing you in.There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,What will it matter there, whether you fell in love with Lycidas,This girl or that girl with him, or he with her?
There is one clear arc through this poem that indicates the end is coming: it moves from dawn (of spring) to evening (of life). While not about a literal day, the movements of a day are naturally contained (and what a beautiful and subtle shift from the seasons to life here—one that’s been done a million times, it’s true—yet so perfect and worth repeating; c.f., Joe Weil on the Ballad. Joe’s post reminded me of a poem from Wendell Berry’s Given—the title of the poem escapes me at the moment—in which an artist states that he would be perfectly content painting the very same river over and over, that this was the ideal of every artist.). The ur-movement from morning to evening, and the association of it with the seasons (and thus life itself) is, I think, what Bly was getting at when he referred to “deep image.” I suspect such “deep images” that are arguably shared between even wildly diverse cultures have something to do with the where and when of our poems, the sense of when a poem “feels” “closed” to us.
But this movement from day to evening is not everything. If it were, the poem would not contain the “new cognitive element” of which Grossman speaks. The whole poem is an address, yet the addressee is not revealed until the very end. Indeed, grammatically, there is no clue that it is a poem of address (as opposed to private musings “overheard” by us, the audience), until the very end. The convergence of the “deep image” of day and the revelation of Sestius helps achieve, perhaps, what Grossman referred to as a “new cognitive element” that is “added to the relationship of subject and object.”
There is more going on here that indicates the ending (the repetition of words and the question are a rhythmic indication), but I suspect the address to Sestius (culminating in a question only) combined with the movement from day to evening is the basic structure of the poem. Horace is allowed to end on a question, not because it is open-ended, but it is the natural completion of the thought. Nighttime brings about both closure and anxiety (What will come tomorrow? Was today sufficient?). Thus it is entirely appropriate to end on this note, and not at all a (deliberate) incomplete ending.
On one other note, Grossman believes that the “occasion for generative speech” (i.e., poetry), is “some dislocation or ‘disease’ of the relationship of a subject and an object….Creation is not the speaking itself but the primordial disease or fall which thrusts me into a predicament in which speech is the only way.” This idea seems to conflict with the idea that Wendell Berry articulates, that a poet should be content to stare at the same river, rejoicing continually in it, painting the same thing over and over (though really, is a river ever the same?). For Grossman, poetry comes out of a problem; for Berry, ideally, poetry comes out of a sense of fullness, of completion (not to the exclusion of problem poetry). Interesting to note that in the creation narrative of Genesis, creation is sung into existence (or rather, the creation narrative itself is a hymn).
(Note I’ve skipped from Part 4 to Part 6. Part 5 is still in the works.)
Ben Lerner is damn smart. In case you aren’t convinced by my saying so, you need only stop and examine one his books the next time you have a chance. Just the titles of The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and most recently, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) suggest that the enclosed works have elaborate scholarly underpinnings. Lerner’s cerebral poetry isn’t chip-on-the-shoulder intellectualism or self-conscious hipsterism, however, and to shy away from his books because of their rigorous erudition would be to miss a difficult, witty, utterly sincere contemporary writer.
Lerner’s latest project is a sensitive exploration of how our inherited war- and commerce-freighted language might be capable of intimate expression. According to the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the book, which is the most succinct explanation I could find of the title: “In physics, the “mean free path” of a particle is the average distance it travels before colliding with another particle.” In adopting this phrase as his title, Lerner appears to be making an analogy to our language: particular words and phrases bear residues of prior use. For example, since “shock” and “awe” were appropriated by 1996 military doctrine and then repeated all over news media in 2003 as the U.S. military bombed Iraq, we may not use these words (and certainly not the phrase “shock and awe”) without the tarnish of the over 6,600 casualties—many of them civilians—of the “invasion phase” of the U.S. campaign. And this is just one example involving rather commonplace words—night vision green, this time with feeling, perfect world, prisoner, and a host of other problematic phrases and words recur throughout Lerner’s book. They do so, however, in the interest of expressing himself to a particular addressee—his wife—in a manner that creates fresh intimacy for the reader. Surprisingly, through fracture, repetition, collision, and repeated recontextualization of particular words and phrases, Lerner’s new poems work to liberate love poetry, elegy, and poetry in general from commercial and military connotation.
This project is full of surprise, including humor. Lerner can’t seem to help but barb his poems with sometimes-desperate, dry wit and knuckleball pop reference. The first poem, a “Dedication” to his wife, whose name lovingly recurs throughout, reads, after its central break:
For I felt nothing,
which was cool,
totally cool with me.
For my blood was cola.
For my authority was small,
in my face.
For I had had some work done
on my face.
The idiomatic use of “cool,” the surprising, practically Objectivist (insert your own long sequence of analysis here, à la Zukofsky, whose name appears at the end of the first section) use of “cola,” and the sudden reference to plastic surgery all constitute a deixis to the commercialization of language (not to mention the ominous suggestion of “authority”), in a personalized, loving frame. How can these bits of language belong in a love poem, if not to say, “I care so much about you, let me use my terrible inherited palette self-consciously, athletically, and baring my preoccupations. It’s all I have.”
In the end, however, extrapolated earnestness is not all Lerner offers his wife and reader. These poems are also absorbingly formally innovative. The book is divided into five sections. Following “Dedication” (which is a doubling of the “Doppler Elegy” form)—the second and fourth sections are called “Mean Free Path” and the third and fifth “Doppler Elegies.” Both “Mean Free Path” sections are comprised of sequences of 36 stanzas. It’s hard to call these stanzas individual poems, as none are marked by a title. Each is nine lines of relatively similar length, somewhat akin to Spenserian stanzas, although not patterned by stress or meter. These stanzas are challenging bits of poetry, however. Each line of “Mean Free Path” may or may not enjamb sensibly with the next, and enjambment may break a given phrase off from its expected, idiomatic conclusion. There is never punctuation at the end of a line, and often as we read the meanings of fractured phrases are transformed through Lerner’s collage-like stanzas, which are part of a great mosaic of repetition, fracture, juxtaposition, and ellipsis. The reader must work to make sense of the leaps in subject, tense, grammar, lost predicates, or might read smoothly from one line to the next. This game of making, not making, and changing sense continues over the marked breaks between stanzas. For example, the second section of “Mean Free Path” opens:
What if I made you hear this as music
But not how you mean that. The slow beam
Opened me up. Walls walked through me
Like resonant waves. I thought that maybe
If you aren’t too busy, we could spend our lives
Parting in stations, promising to write
War and Peace, this time with feeling
As bullets leave their luminous traces across
Wait, I wasn’t finished, I was going to say
Breakwaters echo long lines of cloud
Rununciation scales. Exhibits shade
Imperceptibly into gift shops. The death of a friend
Opens me up. Suddenly the weather
Is written by Tolstoy, whose hands were giant
Resonant waves. It’s hard not to take
When your eye is at the vertex of a cone
Autumn personally. My past becomes
Of lines extending to each leaf
Citable in all its moments: parting, rain
A similar game of meaning-making and -breaking is afoot in Lerner’s “Doppler Elegies,” which formally attempt to mimic the “shifts” that Christian Doppler described in terms of the frequency of waves for an observer moving relative the source of the wave—the source, of course, may be the mover, too, and the effect may also be created by a change in medium through which waves travel. In addition to this scientific framing, Lerner’s “Doppler Elegy” form is comprised of three nine-line stanzas, the second, seventh, and ninth lines indented and shortened to create a sense of shift. The shorter lines of these pieces—some of which are very short—create an even more dramatic effect on readability as one proceeds through each piece. The difficulty of making sense in these poems by amplified in Lerner’s process of fracture and juxtaposition—essentially collage. Self-reference is even more insistent and intense, as well. The penultimate “Doppler Elegy” of the book’s third section reads:
Somewhere in this book I broke
There is a passage
with a friend. I regret it now
lifted verbatim from
Then began again, my focus on
moving the lips, failures in
The fuselage glows red against
rinsed skies. Rehearsing sleep
I think of him from time
in a competitive field
facedown, a familiar scene
composed entirely of stills
to time. It’s hard to believe
When he calls, I pretend
he’s gone. He was letting himself go
I’m on the other line
in a cluster of eight poems
all winter. The tenses disagreed
for Ari. Sorry if I’ve seemed
distant, it’s been a difficult
period, striking as many keys
with the flat of the hand
as possible, then leaning the head
against the window, unable to recall
April, like overheard speech
at the time of writing
soaked into its length
And the poem continues into another challenging section. I would love to keep going with such fascinating (to me) examples, but I believe this is a book worth owning and spending a fair amount of time with. Novel, exciting, sometimes funny and always strangely intimate, Mean Free Path is constantly and repeatedly intriguing. Lerner’s deep well of scholarship and charming wit are marshaled toward a sincere, personal mission (military connotations inescapable) here, and the result is a difficult, winning book of poems that, rather like Nabokov’s best work—although nothing like Nabokov’s best work—are endlessly rich with discovery. If you aren’t familiar with this astonishing 31 year-old poet, it’s in your interest to become so, as his past and future work will be with us for a long time.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
- John Keats
Feeling like “a very village of sorrow,”
Just like Franz Schubert, with each sad bourgeois
Dolorously doleful, I only said
When you asked me for my life-story,
“Well, the world is a funny place, un
Pleasant things can happen.”
The silence, cryptic and stupidly.
I felt diminished by myself, much like
The passport photographs that make you look
Like an escaped convict or
The victim of circumstances.
Am the oyster shell, after the
Succulent seaworm’s been devoured,
With only the pretense of sea in your cupped
The next day you wore a
Corsage of pansies.
Exultantly alive, serious scholars
Of melancholy, brave and lionhearted
With thoughtful thoughts.
In this well of eyes before me, icy eyes,
Now in the Broadway 7th Avenue Van Cortlandt
Subway, feeling quite walled in, Henry
David Thoreau breaks the ice, says
“Time is the stream I go a
Fishing in—what about
I, Henry, will study
These pansies, profoundest
Professors of the world’s woes.
ANOTHER POET CALLED DAVID
I reached a point where there was no
Use going on: my companion said, “Do not waken
The watchman, do not shout, he will die
Of shock if you make the slightest
Sound.” I stood in the utter darkness,
Cold. Without evidence of myself.
The technique of diversion con-
Founds the rival by simulating friendship or
As the Victorians might say, worming
Affections. Then, at the point of trust,
As on this dark stage where on man sleeps
Slumped by the flashlight, to change the
Mode of address, from friend-
Ship to a complete stranger, to shriek-
Ing subtlety, to innuendo, and back to
Friendship. The executive wishes to
Demoralize his employee, perhaps he is slightly
I do not know. At the same time I could not enjoy
The enchanting silly coffee waves, sometimes
Sapphire, which is the fluid stream of our life.
Since then, like William James, I have learned
Ice-skating in my August, after—
At that point I returned;
Since there was no point going on I went back,
I spoke again to the marvelous friends of
My youth: for a short while it was a life.
That you were not willing I am sorry.
REFLECTIONS ON VIOLENCE
I dislike going with a woman
Into a restaurant. There is
A plot of mirrors
All designed to make me self-conscious.
Please top looking at yourself
In your exquisite Cloisonné compact.
Your lips, your hair is
Very nice. Everybody’s eyes say
O voyeurs! intruding
On my domestic date, do you see
Any glory in this ancient
The unshuttered nudes of accidental windows.
I would like to ask that dumb ox, Thomas
Aquinas, why it is, that when you have said
Something — you said it — then they ask you
A month later if it is true? Of course it is!
It is something about them I think. They think
It is something about me. It adds up
To my thinking I must be what I don’t
Know . . .
— The park is certainly
Tranquil tonight: lovers, like ants
Are scurrying into any old darkness,
Covert for kisses. It makes me feel
Old and lonely. I wish that I were
All of them, not with any one,
Would I exchange my lot, but the entire
Scene has a certain Breughel quality
I would participate in. —
Do I have to repeat
Myself. I really mean it.
I am not saying it again to convince myself
But to convince the repressed conviction
Of yourself. I think. I think. I think it.
Easier Than Learning Klingon
Jason Crane reviews John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World
In the realm of wrong answers, someone
always has the radio on.
– “I Will Sing the Monster to Sleep, & He Will Need Me”
I’ve been watching the middle seasons of Stargate SG-1 again. If you’ve never seen the show, the premise is that there are Stargates that allow instant travel between planets. You step into one and step out into a completely different landscape.
To get around the problem of having to invent new languages for every race of aliens encountered, the producers cut the knot this way: They explained that a particular race of evil aliens had captured many humans from earth and sprinkled them throughout the galaxy to use as slaves. So most of the folks you encounter are human. And most of them speak English, albeit with some interesting variations in dialect. And no, that last bit doesn’t make any sense, but it sure is easier than having to learn Klingon.
Which brings me to John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World (University of Akron Press, 2009). Gallaher has managed to create a language all his own using English words. Reading his poems, I felt like I’d arrived on some other world where the linguistic building blocks were familiar, but the physics of assembling them was completely different, surprising, otherworldly.
Map of the Folded World gathers momentum as it goes, and traveling through it I was quickly swept up into Gallaher’s deft use of language, not really needing to know what something meant so much as to hear how Gallaher had opened up the possibilities of the words by putting them next to one another in surprising ways.
I don’t feel it’s helpful to quote sections of his poems (even though I began this review with my favorite line from the book) because his poems are so dependent on wholeness. To remove any piece for study under the microscope would be to miss the point. Gallaher is sculpting, constructing, imagining, transporting the words. And while I’m sure these poems would be captivating individually, Map of the Folded World is a book; it is held together by the strength of Gallaher’s imagination and by the cascading wash of the language through the volume’s entirety. By the time I reached the end, I felt almost as though I could speak the language, as though I could understand what some of the natives were saying, and maybe even try to carry on a rudimentary conversation of my own.
All of that said, though, it’s worth giving you a chance to experience Gallaher’s linguistic achievements for yourself. Here’s the entire poem from which I quoted above:
I Will Sing the Monster to Sleep,
& He Will Need Me
In the realm of wrong answers, someone
always has the radio on.
Someone is eating, and someone
walking about the room, in the dim café
which ends in a distant range of snow-capped mountains.
There are vanishing people
meeting at the diving board off the window sill,
and a cloud pierced by windows.
There are a lot of things you don’t get to decide.
At first, the evenings were filled with stories, music,
or both, with a beige floor
shaded here and there with red.
And then the children are walking across the gravel
in the dark. Always small footsteps
in any manner of realms.
And they quiver like the moon.
Let’s look for them awhile, and see what we find
beside the intimidating tower at the summit
of the gently rising square.
There will be water in this pool soon.
And we’ll know what happiness is.
There’s time, and figures
moving among the arches.
We will take some questions now, they’ll say.
Please raise your hand.
I love clear, narrative poetry. For me, this is not that. What it is, instead, is something equally valuable and maybe more rare — a transformative experience that occurs through nothing but the careful placement of word blocks on a landscape of Gallaher’s own devising.
Jason Crane hosts the online jazz interview show The Jazz Session (http://thejazzsession.com) and writes poems at http://jasoncrane.org. His first book, Unexpected Sunlight, is forthcoming from FootHills Publishing.
It’s been a year since that goddamned horse died
and I have yet to pick up the pieces.
It brought me water on down that road.
It took the tarp with buck’d teeth and made a tent
by lifting it over the low branches of a nearby tree.
It’s been a year since that goddamned horse died
and I’ve used all the lessons he taught me
during our time together braving the elements.
My right arm has burned off from the sun’s radiation
and I can no longer call out at night in pain like I used to.
It’s been a year since that goddamned horse died
from swallowing the last of the Brita filters.
And even if having clean water did nothing
it made me feel safe, like we were able to improve our
own condition. It’s been a year since that goddamned
horse died. Triple crown I lost my body, mind, and soul.