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I live in a nation that has three year olds becoming life time members of the NRA, and anti-bullying seminars that force a draconian language of the politically correct so technical and nit-picky as to be a form of bullying in its own right. Guns to the right of me! Jargon to the left of me! All volley and hold the thunder (after all, thunder may be perceived as a semiotic indicator of male patriarchy). I look at my daughter and say: “I’m so sorry, but I wanted you to exist.

Into this vale of tears, I have introduced a magician giant who lifts the vale and give me moments of clarity and peace–he’s the friendly giant of old poems I can return to, the Giant who goes “presto!” and behind the vale of NRA nut jobs, and academic jargon spouters, there appears my mother’s favorite Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite poems by Theodore Roethke, a couple of poets whose names will never be on the lips of microbrew swilling grad students: Walter De Lamare, Robert Francis, May Swenson, JV Cunningham, Kenneth Patchen, Carolyn Kizer. Sometimes I return to them by picking up the books, and sometimes by the faulty yet passionate vehicle of memory: I remember lines or whole poems, or the time of day and the quality of light when I first read the poems. A jet plane scratches its autograph across a blue Saturday afternoon spent down by the railroad tracks, reading where no one would bother me. I forget current poets then (I don’t always like poets. They sometimes wear capes and sweep into rooms and piss me off). I forget that I became a poet and remember that I am a reader of poems–not a poet. To be a reader of poems is still a lovely thing–a better thing. There is little ego involved in it compared to being a poet. It makes me forget the borderline sociopathy of English department brag fests–kudos to Henry, hype for Margie, and blah, blah, blah. Some working class anger in me denies the idea of “major poet.” I don’t believe in them. I believe in major poems.

Long before Centos became a fad, long before I knew what a Cento was, I was dicing and splicing in my mind as I walked to school or rode my bike, or drove my first car. I used to play like this:

Winter uses all the blues there are,
yet the wet sides of stones can not console her
She runs out of the sea, shaking her long green hair,
runs from the bleached valleys under the rose
this maimed darling,this skitterry pigeon.

It would be a paratactic (one short line after the other) recall of lines or mish-mash from poets I had been reading. In this case, A poem “Winter uses all the Blues there are” by Francis, a paraphrase, of Elegy for Jane, a splicing of Joyce’s I hear An Army with Olson’s The Lonely and Isolate Satyrs.” It’s what I did for pleasure or distraction, or the pleasures of distraction.

I never wanted to express myself in a poem; Fuck the self. Of all the things I know, the self is most fraudulent. I wanted to express the light on bricks at dusk, a certain ghost presence on a wintry day, the eyes of someone peering at me over a broken down fence, characters I made up, most of all–the haunting veracity of presence: what it is that is there in the world, but you do not know exactly–that haunted and haunting energy we might call the felt-life.

I’ve failed miserably to accomplish any of these goals. Whatever MFA programs teach poets to be, I pretty much don’t get. I blame myself–not the MFA programs. I am pretty stupid. All I ever had to go on was the faulty ardor of someone who liked the soundings and whisperings of things. Poetry now seems military to me. “Careers” are plotted out. Magazines march out their contests and fees and winners. Awards are given to the usual suspects. Most poets aren’t poets–they’re A students, a whole different species of excellence. They achieve. Whenever I hear the ghastly shriekings of “Achievement,” I recall Auden’s concept of “Achieving your corpse.” That puts it in perspective.

Today, when I woke up, I wanted to see a construction site. I wanted to pick up a clod of turned over dirt and throw it at the ghost of my own childhood–whack my ten year old self in the back of the head with a dirt bomb–the way my big brother used to do. I wanted to look at the crane and bulldozers sleeping in the early morning frost, glistening with their bright reds and yellows. I didn’t wanted to be young again. I never wanted to be young. I desired the power of a shape shifter. I wanted to be the milkweed pods on the verge of the site, and the point of merging where the crane’s neck met the sky–but all of it as consciousness, dizzy and reeling with consciousness. I wanted neither return nor recompence, but the presence of a thing made out of words.” It’s a strange courage/you give me ancient star/ shine alone in the sunrise/ toward which you lend no part.” I wanted that. Three year olds are being taught to shoot guns and confuse them with manhood. On the other side of the absurdity, words like globalization and transdisciplinary studies, are wrenching the arms off poetry. The poets have meetings and win awards, and sail passed their lesser brothers and sisters like Williams’ yachts. Who will sit with me at the table of our sins and breathe his word? What poetry will be found in the ears when I die? Who will make me forget how much I fear for my child who is asleep in the kitchen as I write. On flows the river/ A hundred miles or more/ other little children/ shall bring my boat ashore. I sure as hell hope so.

The Food Pantry

Don’t have to go to the food pantry anymore.

Got a job
bringing people to the food pantry.

____________________________________________
Dave Roskos is the editor of Big Hammer Magazine & Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books. He lives in his home state of New Jersey where he works as a Life Skills Specialist in the mental health field. His most recent chapbook, INTENSIVE CARE, was published by Black Rabbit Press in 2010.

I.

How can we define the philosophy of pragmatism?  What is the relationship between the philosophy of pragmatism and the poetics of John Ashbery?  Is there one?  Ken McClelland cites Cornel West’s citation of C.I. Lewis as “being one of the best characterizations of pragmatism ever formulated” (Opening Truth 12).  Lewis writes,

Pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action. (qtd. in McClelland 12)

McClelland goes on to comment that, “with the words, ‘the justifiable ends of action’ in mind, we clearly see that pragmatism’s philosophical impulse is inextricably tied to temporal consequences, with the idea that the future is of ethical significance” (12).  McClelland then cites Dewey’s essay, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” in a long block quote, an excerpt of which reads, “The doctrine of the value of consequences leads us to take the future into consideration.  And this taking into consideration of the future takes us to the conception of a universe whose evolution is not finished, of a universe which is still, in James’ term “in the making,” “in the process of becoming,” of a universe up to a certain point still plastic” (qtd. in McClelland12-13).

This notion of the universe “in the making” and “in the process of becoming” might resonate with readers of John Ashbery’s poetry, a practice of art that, in the able and nimble hands and mind of Ashbery, is constantly in flux, in process, suggesting a seemingly irrational “lack of coherence” that in Ashbery, as William Watkin writes, “does not deny a lack of cohesion” (187).  As Watkin points out,

it is almost always the case that within his poetic units the semantic short-circuiting at the level of coherence is made up for by the two key factors of cohesion which often serve to undermine thematic semantics: lexical groupings and syntactic process. (187 my italics)

This “processual aesthetic” of Ashbery’s poetry is later described by Watkin as “a process of putting down and moving on” (214).  And it is this process of becoming, noted by Dewey in terms of a characteristic of the future, and therefore in terms of the primary orientation of the philosophy of pragmatism, that Ashbery embodies in his poetic praxis.  Ashbery’s work is a radically open-ended language game (language games in the plural seems more appropriate), that seems to give one the experience, through language, of the future in the immediate process of becoming, of things beyond our awareness coalescing, forces turning and tuning up, like a great orchestra just about to begin, as we sit at the edge of our seats and experience

The great, formal affair[…]beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact. (Ashbery 427)

Better yet, as Ashbery himself has said, first quoting an essay by Borges entitled, “The Wall and the Books,” then commenting on it,

‘Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights in certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed or about to tell us something. The imminence of the revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.’ The imminence of a revelation not yet produced is very important and hard to define in poetry and probably is the source of some of the difficulty with my own poems. But I don’t think it would serve any useful purpose to spare myself or the reader the difficulty of that imminence, of always being on the edge of things.  (qtd. in Hubbard my italics)

“The imminence of a revelation not yet produced” is a remarkable formulation for describing the process of the future unfolding, and it is what I hope to signify by the term the “pragmatist sublime.”  Such a phrase (“the imminence…”) conjures images of openings, or landscapes glimpsed, waterfalls or canyons, suddenly or slowly, possibilities rising up with inexhaustible and astonishing energy, potentials parting like curtains to reveal further potentials, more dazzling drawing rooms, a hall of mirrors of what-may-come-next.  This is the world of Ashbery; and it is also the world of William James, one of the founders of pragmatism, who wrote in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (a book that David Herd has called “a guidebook to American poetics before and since” (13))

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest.  You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience.  It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.  (28 his italics)

“Pragmatism,” James writes a paragraph later, “unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work” (28).  The same can be said, of course, for Ashbery’s poetry, and also for our experience, when we are more sensitized to it.  Indeed, it is one of Ashbery’s greatest virtues as a writer that, in the way which Gunter Leypoldt describes Martha Nussbaum’s take on Henry James –  “moral intelligence….understood as a heightened perception of complexity…[an] ethical progress [becoming] a question of improving our aesthetic powers of discrimination” –  Ashbery augments our powers of feeling, perception and imagination, placing us more immediately within the variety of contexts which constitute our world (Leypoldt 146).  Ashbery, like both James brothers, makes our experience more powerful, more intense, more interesting, more enriching.

This is what David Herd means when discussing Ashbery’s “poems of occasion” – the notion of the “defining Ashberyan ambition” being “to write the poem fit for its occasion,” or “to achieve a poem appropriate to the occasion of its own writing” (7, 10).  It is the idea that currently, as I type, there are more than ten books situated in various alignments on my desk: books about the New York School of poets, books about Richard Rorty, books about Ashbery, and three books in Spanish, one of which I have to translate for a Spanish exam in order to graduate from my master’s in English program at the University of Toledo; there is an orange washrag near the books, a knife coated with stale hummus, a phone peeping out from behind a stack of articles; there are trees outside the window, their leaves, to paraphrase Ashbery in “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat” “yellowed by the sun”; the sounds of cars driving on the road in front of my apartment, the refrigerator in the kitchen humming, a guitar leaning against a bookcase, etc.  All this is part of the “occasion” of which I write right now (not to mention the culture(s) of everything in my apartment, lurking behind or afore everything, making everything somehow a part of a disjointed but connected picture) – and it is this richness and plurality of detail that Ashbery, more than any American poet (with the exception of Whitman, Ashbery’s primary Bloomian precursor), drenches his poems in and with.

This notion of the occasion, written about wonderfully and helpfully by Herd, is what William James also intuits with astonishing insight, returning our thought back to us with Emersonian “alienated majesty,” when he writes in his deservedly famous chapter in Principles of Psychology, “The Stream of Thought,”

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water.  Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow.  It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists [Ashbery might say poets as well] overlook.  Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water [the occasion] that flows round it.  With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of wither it is to lead.  The significance, the value, of the image is all this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it,- or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood. (255)

Therefore, as James writes earlier in the same chapter, “The truth is that large tracts of human speech are nothing but signs of direction in thought” (252-253).  James, like Ashbery, redescribes the climate of our mental environments; in so doing, he gives us, as Ashbery does, a more nuanced, more complex, richer sense of who we are and how we are.  James, like Ashbery, enlarges us.

II.

So how do James and Ashbery achieve such a powerful effect?  How do we understand the consequences of this effect?  The answer to the former question is, of course, their language; for, as McClelland has written, “Experience is linguistic top to bottom (and side to side).”  (Opening Truth 20)  The answer to the latter question demands that we now introduce the figure of Richard Rorty, a neopragmatist whose work sheds incredible light on Ashbery’s poetic praxis, just as Ashbery’s poetic praxis embodies those pragmatist doctrines as mentioned above, just as James’s work sheds incredible light on Ashbery.  But what is it, more specifically, about Rorty’s philosophy, or even his vision as a thinker, that elucidates so well what Ashbery is doing, or Ashbery’s vision as a poet?  More concisely, How does Rorty’s revolutionary philosophy help us understand Ashbery’s revolutionary poetry?  What does it mean to write revolutionary poetry or philosophy?

Let’s begin with what many have deemed an important aspect of Rorty’s thought: his notion of metaphoric redescription as inquiry.  What is “metaphoric redescription as inquiry”?   Christopher J. Voparil writes,

Under different names this work of redescribing was a part of Rorty’s thinking since his earliest published work, where he calls attention to the fact that “any metaphysical, epistemological, or axiological arguments can be defeated by redefinition” – the pihlosopher’s ability to “change the rules” of the game largely by altering the relevant criteria. (33-34)

This approach, Voparil continues, “looks to the imagination, rather than to inference” in order to recontextualize, a process that is “not unlike what takes place in Kuhnian periods of revolutionary science” (34).  And seismic shifts in culture, Kuhn and Rorty might say, happen not through logical argument, but through a different style of imagining and imagination, that reweaves contexts into new, revolutionary tapestries.  This has much to do with James’s notion of temperament, as well as Harold Bloom’s notion of the agon of influence.  James writes in Pragmatism,

The history of philosophy [and poetry] is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments[…]Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament.  Temperament is not conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusion.  Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. (8-9)

And Bloom, whose lifework might be said to be involved with developing a thickly pataphysical and Freudian account of the process of metaphoric redescription, writes (calling redescription “revisionism”),

Poetic Influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets, – always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction [redescribing] that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretationThe history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. (30)

The notion of redescription thus allows us to somehow hold in our minds the paradox that there is no precedent for a Shakespeare, a Whitman, or an Ashbery, just as there is no Shakespeare, Whitman or Ashbery without the tradition they inherited.  The same can be said of other world-changers, figures like Einstein or a Darwin; or as Rorty writes,

Hobbes did not have theological arguments against Dante’s world-picture; Kant had only a very bad scientific argument for the phenomenal character of science; Nietzsche and James did not have epistemological arguments for pragmatism.  Each of these thinkers presented us with a new form of intellectual life, and asked us to compare its advantages with the old. (qtd. in Voparil 35)

But redescription, as Voparil points out, is not just a “method of inquiry”: citing Rorty, he writes, “’speaking differently, rather than arguing well,’ on [Rorty’s] view is ‘the chief instrument of cultural change.’ In a word, redescription is political; redescriptions have the power to change our minds” (35).   Here is Rorty, writing about redescription in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. (9)

An awareness of this method is an awareness, Rorty might say, of the contingency of language –  that language has no intrinsic nature – and therefore of “a picture of intellectual and moral progress as a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are” (Contingency 9).

III.

            We find this sentiment – that intellectual and moral progress happens as a result of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies – articulated over and over in Ashbery’s poetry.  In fact, I would hazard the argument that, in the terms of William James, metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s “voluntary thinking” a “topic or subject about which all the members of the thought involve” (259).  James goes on to write in his Principles that

Half the time this topic is a problem, a gap we cannot yet will with a definite picture, word, or phrase, but which, in the manner described some time back, influences us in an intensively active and determinate psychic way.  Whatever may be the images and phrases that pass before us, we feel their relation to this aching gap.  To fill it up is our thought’s destiny.  Some bring us nearer to that consummation.  Some the gap negates as quite irrelevant.  Each swims in a felt fringe of relations of which the aforesaid gap is the term.  Or instead of a definite gap we may merely carry a mood of interest about with us.  Then, however vague the mood, it will still act in the same way, throwing a mantle of felt affinity over such representations, entering the mind, as suits it, and tingeing with the feeling of tediousness or discord all those with which it has no concern.  (259)

Again, notice how James, through his own metaphoric redescription, enlarges our understanding about what our individual interests mean, how they feel, how they operate within the idiosyncratic consciousness that forms the matrix of our deeply private selves.  This is exactly what Ashbery achieves in his greatest works, for his poems make redescription their content, even as their form and process enact redescription as their primary way of unfolding.

Metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s earliest “self-portrait” in Some Trees, in “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” where he writes,

Still, as the loveliest feelings

Must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them, so I am not wrong
In calling this comic version of myself
The true one. (14)

It’s in “Illustration,” also in Some Trees:

Much that is beautiful must be discarded
So that we may resemble a taller

Impression of ourselves.  (25)

The sense of the new replacing the old can be found in The Tennis Court Oath, in “White Roses”:

So put away the book,
The flowers you were keeping to give someone:
Only the white, tremendous foam of the street has any importance,
The new white flowers that are beginning to shoot up about now.  (66)

And the sense of the contingency of language can be found at the opening of “A Last World”:

These wonderful things
Were planted on the surface of a round mind that was to become our present time.
The mark of things belongs to someone
But if that somebody was wise
Then the whole of things might be different
From what it was thought to be in the beginning, before an angel bandaged the field glasses.  (83)

We find the sentiment that there are no neutral starting points for thought in “The Eccliast” in Rivers and Mountains: “There was no life you could live out to it end / And no attitude which, in the end, would save you” (135).  And perhaps one of the most famous of Ashbery’s “utterances” in terms of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies can be found in “Clepsydra,” in a passage which reads,

Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment:  (140)

But these are only fragments; and what we find, when reading through Ashbery’s ouvre, is that these are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pragmatic temperament that shapes the poems in such a way as to suggest, in the unfolding of the poem’s inner logic, the redescription of what it means to be alive through a new vocabulary replacing an old vocabulary.

Quickly, What was the old vocabulary?  That depends on the critic.  Bloom would say Stevens and Whitman; Ben Hickman would say the English tradition; David Herd cites Randall Jarrell’s description of Robert Lowell’s poetry as

the coiling violence of its rhetoric, the harsh and stubborn intensity that accompanies all its verbs and verbals, the clustering stresses learned from accentual verse, come from a man contracting every muscle, grinding his teeth together till his shut eyes ache.  (qtd. in Herd 33)

Herd goes on to write that,

The way Ashbery, along with O’Hara and Koch, solved the problem of not being Lowell was by reading widely in pursuit of alternatives, revitalizing American poetry as they did so – and in the time-honoured fashion of Whitman, Eliot, Pound and Stevens – by absorbing influences from elsewhere, France and Russia in particular.  (35)

It does not concern my study here to delve too deeply into the impact of the French and Russian influences on Ashbery, as this has been chronicled elsewhere, especially in the work of Herd in regards to Pasternak’s influence on Ashbery.  But I do want to stress that Ashbery is almost abnormally preoccupied with change, with what progress might mean, with the way in which change and progress and difference happen through metaphorically redescribing the world.  To look at this issue more closely will require closer readings of the poems throughout his oeuvre.   For the sake of this essay, I will be focusing on Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees.

IV.

            If the majority of Ashbery’s work is concerned with the way in which the future, like a horizon, spreads out before us, (though we do not know which direction it will take us in), then we might say that each of his books presents various strategies for conveying this feeling to us aesthetically.  In Some Trees, as Catherine Imbriglio has pointed out – though in the context of “closeted spaces” as opposed to the “revelation not yet produced” – this feeling is often transmitted via the notion of reticence, silence, and secretiveness – or, as David Shoptaw writes, “Some Trees is as remarkable for it excludes or slights as for what it represents” (19).  Since we don’t know what the future will bring, it follows that we must be, to some extent, reticent, silent or secretive – reticent, because we don’t know what will happen, and therefore do not want to overstep our boundaries, not necessarily in a fearful or quietist way, but certainly in a vigilant way; silent, because perhaps in our silence we may become more attentive to what is about to happen; and secretive, the etymology of which suggests a hiddenness, and therefore an awareness that the future itself is secret, is hidden, is somehow magically undisclosed.  This hiddenness has less to do with the cryptic way in which Some Trees “encodes a gay network of friends circulating among enemies and possible informants” (Shoptaw 20), and more with the cryptic nature of the future itself.  Thus we read, in “Two Scenes,” (a title that itself betrays a reticence about being too specific, about naming; as Shoptaw points out, “nearly half [of the poems in Some Trees] indicate the form or mode of their poem” (19)):

I.

We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn’t heard so much news, such noise.
The way was warm and pleasant.
“We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains.”  (3)

For a long time I have wondered about the first line of the first poem in Ashbery’s first published collection: “We see us as we truly behave”.  It troubles me, because Ashbery strikes me as such an anti-essentialist, an anti-foundationalist, a la Rorty, who would therefore be uncomfortable with notions such as Truth or a monolithically true perception.  Therefore, I do not read the line as Imbriglio does, as “one totalizing visionary moment,” such a phrase being, as I deem it, an unhelpful oxymoron, as a visionary moment, according to Ashbery, would not and cannot be totalizing (279).  I’d like to suggest that we posit that “to see us as we truly behave” is a way of saying, “when we are oriented towards the future, wondering what will happen to us, then we can “see us as we truly behave”, as most people are acting in such ways that suggest they are aware of their future and are making decisions in the present to realize what they hope for in the future.  Going along with this interpretation – which implies that, even if we are oriented towards the future, we do not and cannot know what it will bring – is a sense of child-like wonder and magic in the poem, an almost forced naiveté, an enormous Joseph Cornell-like innocence.  “From every corner comes a distinctive offering” we hear, and “The train comes bearing joy; / The sparks it strikes illuminate the table”.  Furthermore, “Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny”, and “For long we hadn’t heard so much new, such noise.”  Each line works with the lines before and after to create a tapestry of novelty, of exciting things occurring which are hard to place.  The notion is repeated in the second stanza, in which we read,

This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.  (3)

Ashbery is calling our attention to the unprecedentedness of the future, and he is conveying this notion to us through language that redescribes this feeling in a new way.  The poem ends, “As laughing cadets say, “In the evening / Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.”  I do not read this line as suspiciously as Imbriglio does, as signifying a secrecy necessary because of Ashbery’s homosexuality, although I do find such a reading compelling.  Nor do I read the poem, as Marjorie Perloff does, as a kind of fantastical polyphony of dream-logic – i.e. “Not what one dreams but how – this is Ashbery’s subject” (252).  Again, Ashbery’s poems do suggest, as Perloff has written, the logic of a dream; but here it is a matter of emphasis; and I wish to emphasize that his poems also suggest, with a florabundance rarely exhibited, the multifariousness of conscious lived experience reflecting on the future.  (Of course, this reflecting on the future is also a kind of dreaming; and in that sense my argument dovetails with Perloff’s.)  The evening can be interpreted, then, not as a metonym for dreams, nor as a metaphor for a pernicious shadowy presence of homophobia, but rather as a trope for the future, when the darkness suggests a wide-openness, commensurate with the sublime expansiveness of contemplating a future that is already somehow happening, all the time, though in some ways unbeknownst to us.

We find this same reticence, secretiveness and silence evident in “Popular Songs,” which ends,

There is no way to prevent this
Or the expectation of disappointment.
All are aware, some carry a secret
Better, of hands emulating deeds
Of days untrustworthy.  But these may decide.
The face extended its sorrowing light
Far out over them.  And now silent as a group
The actors prepare their first decline.  (4)

Here, we might say that “the face” is a trope for evening, for the horizon of the future, for it is a metaphor with, again, a certain wide-openness, a vastness that suggests the power of memory, feeling, imagination.  (“Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination” Ashbery writes later, in “The Recent Past” (136)).   There is no way to prevent “this” – perhaps a pronoun referring, in its ambiguousness, to the ambiguity of the future – just as there is no way to live a life without disappointment.  Everyone is aware of the powerful dangerous imminence of the future, but some, as Ashbery writes, “carry a secret / Better,” perhaps implying that for some, this awareness leads to powerful creations.  But why the metaphor of the theater and acting in the last line?  What does this calling our attention to artifice have to do with an awareness of the imminence of the future?  Perhaps our very secretiveness makes us actors and actresses, acting a certain way on the surface, though all the time we are “nursing some private project” (Ashbery 125).

Ashbery’s reticence does not only manifest itself in lines that directly refer to the word “reticent,” such as the end of “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” where we read the oft-cited, “But night, the reserved, the reticent, always gives more than it takes” (428).  Reticence is part of his overall strategy, as Imbriglio points out, and can be found in his willingness to supply us with details of a narrative, combined with his unwillingness to fill out these details into some kind of totalized story.  We see this reticence about narrative in “Popular Songs,” a reticence about filling in the gaps, or the way in which gaps are filled; and we also find it in “A Boy,” a poem whose suggestiveness is far more powerful than its completeness.  We also find it in “Album Leaf,” where Ashbery asks three questions –

What can we achieve, aspiring?
And what, aspiring, can we achieve?

What can the rain that fell
All day on the grounds
And the bingo tables?  (12)

without directly answering them.  Even in a poem like “The Instruction Manual,” where the narrative we are given, the picture of the world, feels somewhat complete, the poem is written in a tone of such ferocious irony that it is very difficult to read the overall picture of the poem as in a way a serious attempt at capturing totality.  We might even say that Ashbery’s reticence plays into the astonishment of his images, for what makes Ashbery’s images so dazzling is their imaginative unexpectedness, their visionary unprecedented-ness, which seem to be the reward for being reticent, for waiting, and therefore exhibit the other side of reticence, which is boldness, courage, the willingness to adventure, to manifest in the greatest possible way the beauty of one’s own idiosyncratic character.

This reticence, which translates at times into the shocking novelty of Ashbery’s images, can be found in a wonderfully memorable way through Ashbery’s “The Picture of J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” a poem that begins with an epigraph from Pasternak that reads, “He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered early and apparently without great difficulty” (13).  “Picture” is divided into three sections, and the first one begins,

Darkness falls like a wet sponge
And Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch
In the pajamas.  “Aroint thee, witch.”
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.

“He clap’d me first during the eclipse.
Afterwards I noted his manner
Much altered.  But he sending
At that time certain handsome jewels
I durst not seem to take offence.”

In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.  (13)

The first stanza oscillates between images of reticence, wonder, and silence, combined with a cartoonish form of violence.  Genevieve, who appears like a cartoon character, is punched “in the pajamas,” yet she is so taken by some “previous ecstasy” that she “releases thoughts” (assumed to be either words or cartoonish thought boxes) “like little hats.”  Then Genevieve speaks, and mentions another trope for the future, an eclipse (perhaps the “darkness [falling] like a wet sponge”); a change in behavior on the part of Dick; and then a silence on Genevieve’s part about being punched.  After we hear that Genevieve exhibits her own style of reticence, perhaps out of wonder at the “handsome jewels” given to her, we hear that “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.”  The images are juxtaposed so strangely and suddenly, there is a hilarious absurdity of the poem that seems to muffle the fact that the poem is also exorbitantly silent and almost abnormally reticent.  For what better way of expressing unexpected silence than the implacable image of monks “in a far recess of summer” playing soccer?

The second stanza then takes these themes of reticence, wonder, and silence, along with the tonality and modality of cartoon violence, and changes into a meditation on re-description (“So far is goodness a mere memory / Or naming of recent scenes of badness”) which varies with a tonality and modality of fantasy (“as dirty handmaidens / To some transparent witch, will dream / of a white hero’s subtle wooing, / and time shall force a gift on each”).  This makes sense philosophically, for a radical orientation towards the future will carry with it an emphasis on the imagination, since the future itself (“moral and intellectual progress”) is largely a product, Rorty might say, of what we imagine in the present.  Yet a radical awareness of the future also has its costs, which we find out in the third stanza, where Ashbery’s philosophy of “acceping // Everything, taking nothing” seems to lead to an almost morbid trauma, where silence and revelation, like Elizabeth Bishop’s experience in “In the Waiting Room,” take on traumatic hues.  In this situation, Ashbery imagines his past self as a “pale and gigantic fungus,” perhaps a metaphor for a certain kind of sickliness owing to a constant vigilance pertaining to what may come next.  Yet the poem ends on a note of re-description again, where “only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  This suggests that only as new vocabularies replace old vocabularies (“lost words”), can we begin to imagine our aspirations and what these aspirations might lead to.

Shoptaw reads this ending differently.  He writes,

Virtue, so the saying goes, is its own reward.  For Ashbery, however, virtue is rewarded only retroactively, in the fame of published poems in which the past is irrevocably lost and recaptured: “And only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  As Proust says, in what becomes another encrypted moral for “Picture,” “the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”  (28)

Yet I cannot help but feel that the locus of meaning for the last phrase in the poem pivots around the meaning of “lost,” which Shoptaw seems to interpret as something missing or absent that consequently produces nostalgia in the speaker, a nostalgia that allows the speaker to create or imagine a poem out of its longing.  It’s really a matter of emphasis.  Shoptaw does, importantly, draw our attention to the fact that Ashbery is not only a poet concerned with the future, but also one fascinated by nostalgia, by the past.  Yet for all Ashbery’s interest in these matters, the ending of “J.A” has less do with nostalgia (“the light of lost words”) and more to do with dead metaphors (“the light of lost words”), which is to say, more to do with an emphasis on imagination than memory.  I also wish to add to David Herd’s potent interpretation of “J.A.,” when he writes of the poem as “the self-conscious product of the various influences that constitute its aesthetic background” (45).  Yes, the poem is that, but it is more as well: a meditation on the influences that helped to create it, as well as a meditation on the contingency of language itself, whereby virtue can be re-described as “stubbornness,” and a “comic version” of oneself can be designated (with irony) the “true one.”  Perhaps our best interpretation of this ending comes from James Longenbach, who writes, “’Truth’ is not undermined by these realizations; it is reconceived [or re-described] by the adult Ashbery as a contingent quality even as his former self, frozen in the photograph, continues to think of it as permanent and unchanging” (92, my italics).

What is clear from all this is that pragmatism, as a philosophy oriented towards the future, and therefore towards an undisclosed, disclosing open-endedness, can be used in helpful ways to interpret the challenging but rewarding poetry of Ashbery.  Thinkers like William James and Richard Rorty, as well as John Dewey, must be used to help us understand Ashbery’s important, influential, amazing poetics.  For as Ashbery’s ouvre develops, we find new strategies, new genres, new ways of discussing the aesthetic power of the “revelations not yet produced.”  And the more we can understand how Ashbery helps us to reach this remarkable pragmatist sublime, the more we can begin to understand what Borges called the “perhaps, the aesthetic reality,” (though one cannot help but feel that Ashbery would change this to “perhaps, an aesthetic reality”).

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.  London: Oxford UP, 1975.  Print.

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry.  New York: Palgrave, 2000.  Print.

Hubbard, Will.  “In Which We Enter the Double Dream of Spring.”  This Recording.com  27 April 2008.  Web.  10 May. 2013.

Imbriglio, Catherine.  “’Our Days Put on Such Reticence’: The Rhetoric of the Closet in John Ashbery’s Some Trees.”  Contemporary Literature 26. 2 (1995): 249 – 288.  Print.

James, William.  The Principles of Psychology, Volume One.  New York: Dover Publications, 1950.  Print.

James, William.  Pragmatism and Other Writings.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000.  Print.

Leypoldt, Gunter.  “Uses of Metaphor: Richard Rorty’s Literary Criticism and the Poetics of World-Making.”  New Literary History 39.1 (2008): 145 – 163.  Print.

Longenbach, James.  Modern Poetry After Modernism.  New York: Oxford UP, 1997.  Print.

McClelland, Ken.  “John Dewey and Richard Rorty: Qualitative Starting Points.”  Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society 44.3 (2008): 412 – 445.  Print.

McClelland, Kenneth A.  “Opening Truth to Imagination: The Pragmatism of John Dewey and Richard Rorty.”  Diss.  Brock University, 2006.  Print.

Perloff, Marjorie.  The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981. Print.

Rorty, Richard.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2009.  Print.

Shoptaw, John.  On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.  Print.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.).  The Rorty Reader.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  2010.

Watkin, William.  In the Process of Poetry The New York School and the Avant-Garde.  London: Associated University Presses, 2001.  Print.

Like I Said

Okay, so it’s Sunday. I didn’t
go to church. I’m an Irish Catholic,
I know about sin, but I was tired and
just didn’t feel like getting dressed.

On Thursday night, I fell and broke
a slat from the garden fence. My
hip still hurts – the bruise is as big
as my Yorkie’s head.

That would have been enough, but
this morning the vacuum coughed up
a hairball and quit. The only food in
the fridge is a bearded yogurt.

The washing machine refuses to spin.
There’s no clean underwear left, so
I’m not wearing any. Like I said,
I was tired; I didn’t feel like getting

dressed, so I didn’t go to church and
abdicated rights to all that grace.
I put on a pair of dirty jeans, a dirty
shirt, and sat outdoors all morning.

I did nothing but talk to my dogs,
watch squirrels, and wonder what it
might be like to nibble Prozac from
Johnny Depp’s lower lip.

(From What Matters, Welcome Rain Publishers, 2011)
_______________________________________________
Adele Kenny is the author of twenty-three books (poetry & nonfiction) with poems published in journals worldwide, as well as in books and anthologies from Crown, Tuttle, Shambhala, and McGraw-Hill. A former creative writing professor, she is founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series and poetry editor of Tiferet. Among other awards, she has received two poetry fellowships from the NJ State Arts Council and the 2012 International Book Award for Poetry. Website:  www.adelekenny.com Blog: www.adelekenny.blogspot.com

So this morning I wake up, give my daughter a long bottle of formula (she is now able to wield the bottle on her own) and await my wife’s return from Dunkin Donuts. Yes. My wife has gone out to hunt. I am reading Across The Land And Water (Selected Poems, 1964-2001) of W.G.Sebald, Author of Austerlitz (that’s what’s on the cover). Austerlitz is a very trendy book among graduate students for I hear them dropping Austerlitz the way they dropped George Saunders or Anne Carson: long sentences I hear, like Henry James (only not)–German dude.

So I am reading poems by the author of Austerlitz. That way, I can say to someone: “but have you read his poetry?” They will say “no… no I haven’t,” and then I can raise an eyebrow, give them a significant stare, and respond, “You must” and walk away, having avoided mentioning that I have not read Austerlitz of the long sentences.

I open the book to page 74 because I am sick of hearing all about the arc of the book. Next to the pretentious rock albums of the early 70′s many of which I loved and which were all “operas” there is nothing more loathsome to me than the arc of the book. If you can’t enjoy a book of poetry in a non-linear fashion, then the hell with it. Poems exist in dynamic relation to each other–but not the relation the author chooses. They exist in the reader’s mind–a dynamic relation that is from the book but not of the book. A poem is an isolated particular until some blue spark shoots forth from the poem Z to the Poem q and you start to see how the poet’s poems are wired–but forget his arc. That is not organic. If he or she really has an arc, it will begin to show itself as you proceed skipping about. This is an age when people read from page one until the end because we are a fascist country in love with order. As we fall apart, we keep sending roses to order, and inviting it to dine. Then we prattle on about how there is no real order. Of course, there is no real order. Order is imposed. Order of this sort is date rape. The author is not a prussian general. He does not know the true order of his troops.He probably never even asked their permission. If I am wrong (and I probably am) then poetry books are unified works of art and each individual poem adss to the overall artistic effect, and reading the book out of order is a mistake at best, and evil at worst–or both, an evil mistake. It is 6:30 am, give or take a few minutes, and my wife shall soon return, and my baby daughter has thrown the long bottle to the floor, and I am making an “Evil mistake.” Evil error is even better. I am making an evil error. Somehow that fills me wth mute mirth. So page 74 of the selected which because they were culled from other works, from other “arcs” should not have to have an arc. Page 74:

Poetry For An Album
Feeling my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars which guide us
only when the sky is clear
but reason is a
magnetic needle
driving our ship on
until it shatters on the rocks

Because I often read stupidly, and because there are no italics, no quotation marks, etc, I see this as “feelings wrote Schumann.” Schumann is the composer I judge the merits of all pianists by. You can not merely show off with Schumann. He isn’t a show offy type. You have to play the middle voices, and your true talent as a pianist rather than a show off comes forth. You can’t hide in the fast notes. Anyway, I like the idea that feelings wrote Schumann. Was he not a man written by feeling? Can we not be authored by our feelings? But it makes no sense syntactically and so I realize this is being attributed to Schumann the writer–and, furthermore, it is “reason” that leads us to shipwreck–not feeling, the mind whose compass of reason is both infallible and infallibly leading us North to our doom. Very nice moody idea. Might even be true. Schumann goes on to allude to his crippled hand that ended his career as a pianist (the real Schumann, or, rather, the historical Schumann, made a crazy device he thought would extend his reach, but which maimed him). Suppose he had not been maimed, and the hand’s reach had been extended, and Schumann was able to play 12ths, and do all sorts of crazy fancy tricks? (his wife Clara could bend Florins with her bare hands) Would he have become just another show off? Would he have developed the inner voices that make him the criteria for all my favorite Pianists? Beats me, but one could make the case that injury lead to the sort of choral piano Schumann wrote–deceptively simple. I remember a story where Schoneberg defended Traumerei against the charge that it was simple. He showed all its inner voices. It was a favorite encore of Horowitz. I am sailing away from the poem–sometimes a good thing. I already want to put the poem next to Transtromer’s Schuberttieden which begins: “So much we have to trust just to stay alive.” So let’s read the rest:

It was when my palsied
finger stopped me playing
the piano that calamity
came upon me

These are very drab sentences, but as I tell my students poetry draws attention to itself as language first and last. Uber flatness–a prose denuded of character or flourish certainly draws attention to its manner of utterance first: the dead pan makes everyone look at the face. The rest of the poem reads like a show and trell of some student who is dressed up as Schumann for the purpose of a fourth grade history project, except that the North–the compass, the mathematical basis of a mind gone to ruin is the main theme. In this poem Schumann longs for the North:

I know I shall steer
for the North I have yearned for
though it be colder there
even than the ice on
gemo metry’s intersecting lines

My mind begins racing. I think of Fellini’s Casanova starring Donald Sutherland, that last scene of the seducer left to circle for ever on a frozen lake–his hell being the cold reasoning of seduction, the ultimate inability to feel anything except desire to achieve the target. Music is mathematics. I think of that. Schumann, the arch romantic, the one who had characters for all his piano pieces, the composer of Manfred , the one who envisioned his music as unified with the feelings that arose in him from literature,,, was he taken North by reason? The very flat, deadpan informative quality of the poem makes me bounce all over the place–but I know schumann’s music and I know the tricks of post modern deadpan, and I think of Oppen’s bright light of shipwreck, and of Gatsby’s green light across the bay–longing as a trope of doom, and all of them, in a way, calculating rather than passionate: “a rigorous test of sincerity.” I think of reasoning–some sort of inability to feel except in fine weather. I am staring into a camp fire and imposing images so I must wonder: perhaps I have read too much to truly read this poem except as part of a tradition–the arc of post-modernity, the inability to say anything except in pieces, in Empson like fragments of ambiguity. A lay person would say: “So what?” Must one be trained to Sebald’s art? Must one know he is the author of Austerlitz?

So I think of what I told my students: all poetry, all of it is on a spectrum between the poetic and the prosaic–neither of which is better or worse than the other. The more toward the poetic, the more the language is drawing attention to itself as language, either by sounding poetic or by being intentionally flatter than most prose. The more it exists to convey information, or meaning, or an agreed upon concept, the more it leans towards the prosaic. Non-cognition is always an attempt at pure poetry–and it most often fails. Narrative is often an attempt at coherent, linear reality and it, too, often fails. The best poems use both poetic and prosaic elements. But what about Sebald? This is certainly flat. It draws attention to some details and a couple of ideas but abandons them. It draws attention to its own flatness but does not heighten that by any particular ritual. So I go to the intro to see if anything is said about poesis or prose. and sure enough the intro begins speaking on that subject:

’My medium is prose,’ W.G. Sebald once declared in an interview, a statement that is easily misconstrued if a subtle distinction the German author added is overlooked… ‘not the novel.’

Sebald does not write the novel. He writes prose–and he writes prose even when he writes lyrical poetry–flat, speculative prose bereft of character, plot, all the usual suspects. This is not an artistic failing; it is, rather, an artistic intention. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes… MArianne Moore who, decades before the author of Austerlitz, called her poems “lucid prose.” The intro goes on to bring forth the name of Said and the idea of the exile inhabiting the “median state”–that place that is neither here nor there, but somehow between–liminal spaces that can not be defined yet call forth an almost obsessive trope of attempted definitions–all failing in the end.

Ok. So I have a bead on Sebald, but what do I think of his poems. I have read Trakl and I prefer Trakl. I have read Celan and I prefer Celan. But Sebald has his merits–the merits of shipwreck. So I skip around a language washed up on the shores where the water is neither salt nor fresh. So I skip around again, and land on page 1 (where the junkies of order think I should have landed to begin with):

So hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish

So now I want Transtromer, and Schumann’s Carnaval, a couple of paintings from the German expressionists, the last scene of Casanova, and I want to know how reason and feeling, prose and poesis cohere or fail to cohere. I want someone to talk to me–someone so smart I will nod my head and say, “you must be right,” but even then… not believing the rightness. My wife thinks Sebald is pretentious, but that he can’t help but be pretentious because he is Sebald. His name writes him, determines him. He is a brand of rock dropped into the pool so that ripples will ensue. He is pretentious in his poetry (she liked Austerlitz). I don’t know…Does feeling write us? Does the landscape watch us vanish without trying to understand us? Are certain modes of stupidity genius? And If it is hard for us to understand the landscape, then how much time does the landscape spend on understanding us? Is watching a form of understanding or, is it a form of vanishing? I will have to read more poems to find out, and I may never know. It’s 7:49 now, and I have gone from breakfast to a speculative essay. My coffee is cold–the way I like it when I am writing. So much can be built upon a poem once you abandon the question of whether or not you think it is good, or whether or not you like it. I think I’ll go listen to Schumann. I will sit in the living room, listen to Schumann and read more of these poems by the author of Austerlitz. Should I listen to Traumerei? Sure.

craghead_poemcomics_page1craghead_poemcomics_page2 craghead_poemcomics_page3
Things Warren loves:

______________________________________________
Warren Craghead III lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA with his wife and two daughters. See more at www.craghead.com.

IMG_0753The two women in the adjacent garden, draped with thick woolens, braids hanging down from both sides of the skull, hitched together with a string between their shoulder blades. They pause their spade, their hoe, or their small hand trowel and admire a mating pair of Hoopoe birds, audaciously mohawked with tangerine and flashing zebra stripes, as the birds drill their beaks into the sheaves of a wooden shed. The garden stops. The women stop. I stop, though I don’t know if I was moving at all. And aside from the birds the only things that seem to move are the clouds, scraping their bottoms against jagged Himalayan teeth. For a moment it looks as if we are all characters playing out a scene in one great, gaping jaw of rock and sand. It looks like the world is trying to eat the sky.

___

At the airport there is a sign advising the steps one should take to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness. I know the steps: rest on day one and maybe on day two, as well; drink plenty of water; avoid strenuous activity; ascend to further altitudes with great caution and only after acclimatizing. I IMG_0767have landed in Leh, at 3500 meters, it’s a city that sits between dusty, ragged mountains which, in turn, sit in the lap of massive summits capped with snow. The air is short on oxygen. Should one feel dizzy, or get a headache, one should consider ceasing all activity. Should one become disoriented, confused, develop a dry cough which produces a foamy pink sputum, one should immediately seek medical attention. All of this can develop gradually or with unpredictable speed. Often the more insidious symptoms exhibit themselves at night when one’s breathing is less deep, so avoid sedatives, which is what one might naturally reach for because one also will likely experience disruptions in one’s sleep.

The first night I am sure that my breath stops every time I doze off. Also, I am dizzy. My hands get tingling cold and I’m certain that they are turning blue.

The following evening I develop a pain in my chest, behind my sternum. It could be indigestion from the chili sauce that I added to my Thentuk soup at lunch. It could also be a definite sign that my throat is closing, that my lungs and diaphragm are infuriated by the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Somehow I sleep. I wake the next morning and cough up pink. I am sure I am dying. The nice man at the Hayan Himalaya tour agency did advise me to see a doctor when I told him about this dull, clenching ache. He was probably right. I have got to find a hospital. I should have found one last night. Then I drowsily remember that I chewed several Pepto Bismol tablets the night before in a desperate attempt to alleviate the pain. Three Advil later in the day make the pain disappear. I have not died. Also, once I stop the altitude medicine Diamox, the dizziness and hand tingling subside.

By the third evening, I accept that I most likely will not die from AMS, but decide that I am not going to tempt fate. I avoid seeing far-flung beauties like the quaint Ladakhi villages of the isolated Nubra Valley or Pagong Tso—a lake surrounded by salt flats said to inspire near-tears in those who witness it by the light of a full moon, which it almost happens to be during my trip. They are too high. My bravery only functions at sea level. I do not want to die, alone, in a cold bed in the Himalaya.

___

 

IMG_0526 (1)I am lonely. The room at my guest house is huge and empty except for a low table, a plastic lawn chair, and two twin mattresses pushed together for a bed. I only sleep on one side of the bed, having left my partner David behind in New York. After nearly four years, and despite thinking that I love solitude above all else, it seems that I’ve lost the ability to comfortably sleep alone. The power goes out every hour or so and this can last for minutes or hours. I buy a bootleg of Seven Years In Tibet because in the black silence I do not know what to do with myself without television or the internet or a light by which to read a book. I waste the charge on my laptop down every night, watching Brad Pitt abandon his life in Austria for a dream that turns nightmare that turns dream. At least this is what I think happens. I never make it through the film, but only see it in waking snippets, usually when the score swells and a momentous event has transpired. I know enough to know that Brad Pitt’s German accent bothers me, and that one should not lie about injuries, physical or otherwise, when high in the mountains. And that the Dalai Lama, as a child, liked music boxes, as children often do.

___

 

No, I am not Buddhist.

            Then why are you visiting all of these monasteries?

            Because I chant.

            What do you say when you chant?

            Om mani padme hum. Nam myoho rengekyo.

            Those are Buddhist.

            I know.

I discover a small, modern temple at the top of a dun colored hill outside of town, adjacent a monumental stupa built by Japanese Buddhists. I am telling two British girls who have invited me to eat with them about the place when the inevitable line of questioning comes: are you Buddhist?IMG_0579 It’s hard for me to say what I am, where I stand, other than somewhere between a vehement atheist and an agnostic in search of a source and a meaning. I need more definite answers.

I hike back up the steep, switchback stairs the following day. I’m sure this hike is part of the process, as these temples always seem to be atop crags and rocky spires. I stare at the placid face of a gilded Maitreya Buddha. Om mani padme hum. Nam myoho renge kyo. I freely switch between the chants—Tibetan then Japanese and back—appreciating their similar syllabic cadence, however, I’m unsure if there are proscriptions against this sort of freewheeling. I switch between those Buddhist chants and Hail Marys because I know of no other way to approach holiness or the sacred. I chant until my jaw hurts, until my face aches. And when I stop, I notice the way my cheeks seem to vibrate, the way my head feels syrupy and light. I notice the comparative stillness in the rest of my body.

This must be what they mean by serenity.

And Indian family takes several photos of me, with flash, as I hold my eyes shut and clutch the string of wooden Mala beads.

Say the mantra.

Say it again.

___

I hang up the phone with David. I’ve been choking back tears. It has been hard to talk. I feel as though I’ve done something I shouldn’t when in truth I’ve done nothing wrong. The only thing I’ve done is decided to travel by myself, far from home. I’m regretting the choice. I hate that I can’t truthfully say that I am in awe every day, that I’m inspired every second. It is hard to be here, to be present, to take it all in—these huge mountains and churning turquoise Indus and the wide swaths of stars at night—the way everything feels so static and shaking at the same time.

IMG_0575I walk up the hill from the phone booth and see an advertisement for a company that drives its customers to Khardung La—the highest motorable road in the world—and then lets them ride mountain bikes down, back into town. It sounds awesome, and doesn’t require long stays at high altitudes. But I’m sure that this is something I should do with David. For a moment I forbid myself to have any fun. That moment lasts a few days. I restrict myself to the monasteries because I know he wouldn’t care if he missed that sort of thing.

I’ll come back and do the bikes some other time, though I know I’m not coming back at all.

___

I make traveler friends. The British girls, another man from the U.K. in town to teach, an Israeli, a couple Indians in Ladakh for trekking, a German guy, and a French man, as well, I think. We eat dinner together and sometimes lunch, too. At first I hate the conversations: where have you been, where are you going, what have you seen, what you should see, how much you’re paying IMG_0617for your guest house, how there are a million cheaper places, how there is always something better, more amazing, more peaceful, further away from the rest of the world. Everyone has their best, favorite places. Everyone has their knowledge of the world and its secrets.

But eventually, these friendships accelerate and pass the usual backpacker one-upmanship and note-comparing. Eventually the conversations turn towards families, towards the way they approve or do not of our collective wanderlusts, towards illicit international romances, towards how we feel as we celebrate a birthday so far from home and the people we love or think we love, how we latch on to one another so quickly in grungy little restaurants that serve killer Tibetan momos. We find out about another’s careers—their starting or failing or refusal to present themselves altogether. Inevitably, we are all flight risks, we have all come running from something and towards something else. This is what forces us together in these high mountain towns. This is what makes me stop feeling lonely.

___

 

From the big balcony attached to my room, I look out on the Zanskar Range. I’m saying thank yous to the world, to the skinny poplar trees and the valleys and ravines and impromptu mountain blizzards. In these eight days the moon has grown steadily brighter, on its way to an engorged show for Buddha Jayanti, which I will be celebrating in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. But as the moonlight grows louder, the million and one stars in the sky seem to die. They disappear and fade until on this last night it is just a blaring round hole in the inky sky. The light makes the snowcaps glow, makes the shadows heavier and the rest of world a dark quiver.

Now that it is time to leave Ladakh, I would like to stay. The enormity of this chance hits me all at once—that this is something once in a lifetime; that I’ve spent eight days wound up in baseless worries and simple human longings. I wish I could have put myself to the side. I would like another shot at all of this, way up here, in this part of the world so very cut off from the rest.

My skin prickles in the cold breeze. I wonder which glaciers the wind has passed, exactly which version of cold is caressing my arms. This is something I would like to know. Did it come from Tibet? From that holiest peak, Mount Kailash.

Tell me that’s where it came from; that the wind I’m feeling means something more than wind.

Pictures of a Fireman

Grandma said his eyes rose
like moons above the rim of his glasses
when he leaned over the table
at the pool hall the first time they met,
called every shot. I remember him
descending from a cloud
on a ladder of flames
with a woman in his arms,
clipped from the front page
of the Newark Evening News
and framed on their living room mantle.
Or as he was in the photograph I found
in an attic album of him tending register
behind the bar of a speak-easy,
his eyes dark, cheeks flushed,
grinning back at the camera
as if he owned the place.
I see him seaside, sometimes,
up to his knees in weekend surf,
his white, button-down shirt
flapped open like the wings
of a Great Egret, fishing pole bowed,
tip sparkling like a cufflink on a cloud
as he tugs at the ocean, hair black
and slicked back, as it always was,
even at his wake. I can’t recall his voice
or a single thing he told me,
but I dangle on the soft lines of his face,
the dark-spotted skin, drawn thin
about his hands, how they would shake,
his cup and saucer rattle, steaming coffee
splash against the rim, and how his eyes
would rise above his glasses
like apologetic white flags,
then fall away from mine
as he leaned in cautiously for a sip.

NOTE: This poem originally appeared in NYQ.

_________________________________________________
John Smith lives in Frenchtown, NJ with calligrapher Catherine Lent. He has three daughters. John Smith’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has also been anthologized in Under a Gull’s Wing: Poems and Photographs of the Jersey Shore and Liberty’s Vigil: The Occupy Anthology. His poem, “Lived Like a Saint,” which appeared in The Journal of New Jersey Poets, was set to music by Philadelphian composer, Tina Davidson, as part of a choral work, Listening to the Earth, commissioned by the New Jersey Parks Commission. John’s poetry has been in NJ Audubon since the late 1980s. His poem “Birding” was commissioned by New Jersey Audubon for their centennial.

I have done physical labor in my life, and never found it harsh or unrewarding except when it was under the scrutiny of a manager (foremen, overseer, take your pick). They’re job was to make sure I was “doing it the right way,” or that I was doing it quickly, or that I was doing it both the right way and quickly (a contradiction in terms that causes almost all the heartbreak of blue collar life). It was never right enough or quick enough for my boss, even when it was right and quick. I am strong, but not well coordinated, and I am also slow to catch on to things. When it comes to anything in the physical world, I need to be stupid before I am smart. When it comes to piece work, this does not bode well.
I am verbally intelligent, and that helped me get by on being “comic relief” and charming until I learned to be competent. I relived the life of the most ancient bards as a result. My theory is that the original story tellers were often maimed, or clumsy, or old, and to earn their place at the fire, they needed to be ingratiatng, funny, wise,able to act as emotional buffers and consolers in times of stress..I dont trust when writers make themselves the heros of working life stories. I’ve known very few verbal folks who were the best machinists or tool makers, or riggers or fishermen. Some were middle of the pack,, and some held their own, but that’s about it. On the other hand, Musicians were often top notch at the more skilled forms of labor (eye/hand dexterity) and I knew several great tool makers who could play piano, guitar, banjo, and any combination thereof with great skill. So now I’m going to theorize further and submit that the original bards fell into two camps: those who were verbal in the communicative, prosaic way, and those were not verbal except where verbal was a conduit to pure sound–to rhythmic, musical grunts, to cadenced words, to the mimicry of animals (vital to a hunter): to pattern, and spatial/kinetic awareness. Let’s say both theories were right: if so,then, you have two trends in poetry from the very beginning: that which is social- manners, narrative, and communicative, and that which is ritualized, lyrical, and not based on the cognition of social order but on what Whitman called the Barbaric yawp–he tribe in its state of trance, its impersonal possession by a God. One is fully conscious, the other recieved as if via the intuition. If you’re not good at physical labor, at hunting, at weapon making, you better know how to compensate and have value in some other way. Ineptitude and adjustment to ineptitude thereby constitute the beginning of subjective consciousness. The other type of non-verbal yet vocal expression is not conscious, but a sort of received acumen for pattern–a sort of intuitive knowledge of pattern and rhythm, and the ceremony of verbal being within space.. Such poets are not facile with words. They experience words the way a toolmaker experiences raw material–as something to intuit. I would not privilege the conscious or the unconscious–divine aflatus, or native stealth and conscious shrewdness, but I would say one developed from the compensatory need to be a character, a personality, and the other from the impersonality of divine aflatus and what Plato called possession by a “demon.” Being physically inept, I compensated in two ways: I was very strong (could out wrestle most people), and so I was good at brute force (a bull in a china shop), and I was very verbal and this made me a force for comic relief by being able to “talk shit.” I couldn’t put these two together since, their togetherness is contingent upon grace and I was an oaf.
Brute force is hardly ever needed in its pure forms. All labor I know is skilled labor. A good ditch digger does not just have a strong back; he has a singular fineness and grace of motion so as to conserve energy and avoid being injured. To be strong in the way I was strong was to accentuate the clumsiness and create an incongruity between force and grace. When I learned to hide, compensate, or make light of this, I developed my verbal intelligence beyond normal, but living there was always a sort of ongoing sadness: I was strong, and loved the physical, but did not flourish in the skilled trades. I was verbal, and could get away with a lot of things because of it, but I felt cut off by my jester’s personality from the part of me that was physical. Jesters are often lame, or blind, or somehow malformed, as are clumsy but strong giants. The jester retreats into logos–the conscious verbal universe of the mind: sarcasm, invective, travesty, melancholy, whimsy. The giant hurls rocks, has his one good eye put out, and cries “no man” to the sea. Caliban is oafish and not adept at skilled work. For this reason he is called lazy, and beastial, and uncouth, yet Shakespeare shows Caliban has an advanced hunger for beauty (both in wanting Miranda and by his reaction to music). He has no ability to express this hunger except in forms that make others feel contempt. To be in a factory where even the graceful are often told they are not right or quick enough is to exist under the yoke of third rate Prospero–to be always compelled to do what one would do without being asked if the world were not glutted with managers and something needed doing.
As for those who “receive” words, far from being inept or maimed, they were often the ones in the group with the greatest fine-motor skills, hunting abilities, and intuitive sense of pattern. This creates a different kind of poesis: a poesis of intuitive ceremony, of hyperbolic praise, and the free play of word-puns, repetition, and call and response. Poetry did not privilege the lyrical or the narrative for thousands of years, but rather emphasized the lyrical in the mysteries of religious ceremony, sympathetic magic, and group lamentation, and emphasized the narrative in terms of reenacting the story and news of the people. One played out the rhythms of the hunt or the planting, the sacrifice, the pattern of emotions, while the conscious form of verbal ability (what we associate most with prose) played out the mythos and history of the people. One was far more mimetic and invocatory, and the other was far more based on an evolving cult of personality, individualism, and on cognitive, sequences of meaning. One was intuitive and sensing, the other thoughtful and feeling–one received from the gods, from an unconscious, the other worked out by the machinations of those who needed to be ingratiating in order to have value..
The trend in modernism and post modern poetry has been to return to a privileging of the received, the unconscious, the automatic, the ritualized, the irrational, the “primitive” forms of the lyrical voice–to put intuition and the “derangement” of the senses in prime place over the rational functions of feeling and thought. The phrase: No ideas but in things, could be rephrased as: All ideas from totems–from fetish, from the intuitive reception via physical stimuli of the objects and patterns. I think modernism’s largest error is this hangover from the romantics: that they see one system as superior to the other. Both systems have flourished from the beginning. One (the intuitive and sensing) based on physical/pattern genius, and the other on the genius of compensating for a lack of physical/pattern acumen. The two are blended now for the most part–a remnant polarity that has lost any truly clear lines of demarcation.
In the factory, after I became competent at what I did, I no longer needed to play the joker, but people preferred the joker to the merely competent tool maker. My rep as a really smart and funny fuck up never went away. When men needed tools they came to me last. When they needed advice on a fight with their wives, or in how to handle the death of a mother or father, they came to me first. I don’t know if I was ever as incompetent as I felt. After all, I play a decent piano and I play by ear. I can fake guitar fairly well, and harmonica, and have a good singing voice–so my sense of pattern must be better than I think, at least for sequences of sound. Sound is vital to a toolmaker because you can “hear” when a piece is wrong. It just has a different way of sounding. My visual intelligence and my ability to learn by watching always sucked. I need to fuck up in order to learn. Error is my friend. Left alone, with no one to watch my sorry ass, I figure things out or find a new way to do them. The modern world rewards quickness rather than depth and slow knowledge. This I know. What does it reward in terms of poetry? Nothing truly new looks like anything to most people except for error. Error must find a way to charm bias. I have lived my life through adjustments as per error. Do workshops allow error? I’m afraid they work too often like motion study experts. It not the quality of the work, but its facility and quickness that gets confused with quality. I don’t know. I started this essay wanting to meditate on how joyous physical labor can be when there is no overseer to threaten you with being fired or calling you a lame ass. perhaps the same holds true of poetry.

In Caroline Knox’s nimble new collection Flemish, a poem entitled simply “They” begins: “They live in a mobile home/made of Adobe Caslon.” The elided antecedent here could very well be Knox’s poems; while maintaining a healthy awareness of themselves as constructed objects (“black and white graphic art,” Knox has called them), they simultaneously feel in constant, and deliriously unpredictable, motion. Vehicles, metaphoric, historical, or embroidered on pillows, abound in these poems. In “Harley Lyric”, Knox has somehow managed, with her characteristic wit, to conflate a medieval manuscript of miscellanea and the eponymous “chopper”—and with a tonal palette at once brassy and arcane. There is something playful, almost giddy, in these poems—they create the sense of setting out on a road trip, purposeless and hopeful.

Flemish is Caroline Knox’s 8th poetry collection, her third from the excellent Wave Books. This year, six of her poems were included in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry edited by Paul Hoover, the occasion of whose publication was recently celebrated by an epic reading by Knox and twenty three other of the most exciting poets in American letters at the New School in New York City. Although a span of continent kept me from being able to attend, the wonders of electronic mail and Caroline Knox’s generosity of spirit allowed me the privilege of a vivacious dialogue with the poet, the transcript of which follows.

SE: I want to mention first of all that Flemish is a physically beautiful object. I am fairly sure you didn’t design it, but whoever did seems to have gotten something of the spirit of the poems into the physicality of the book itself. The idea of the book, or the text, as an object, does this make sense to you in the way you think about and make poems?


photoCK
: Wave Books is adamant that their books be beautiful, and I’m so glad they are. Wave’s are all done by Quemadura, who is one poet named Jeff Clark, from Ypsilanti. The speckled white cover is recycled material, and the focus is modernistic typography. I was invited to choose end papers for Flemish (strawberry). (But I do like very much Wave’s emphasis on doing a great deal of its work online, on its website and in social media, even though it publishes hold-in-your-hand books, not ebooks. This is in tune with the excellent goal of parity between print and online works.)

My great aunt was a college librarian, and I spent a lot of time with her when I was in school. She was connected with the Arts and Crafts movement, with book designers and typographers, so I got a good look at all that thinking and making. And a respect for it.

 

SE: I was excited to come upon Francis Ponge’s cameo in “Stove Seasoning”–you call him, aptly, “an advocate for things”. He is one of my favorite poets, and rarely does he get much mention. I would guess that you are also an “advocate for things”, but the relationship you engender to the “objectified” is much more complex, I think, more nuanced. I think of Ponge as something like a lepidopterist, pinning the objects down with words.; whereas, in your poems, the words seems to hover about the objects, or the other way around. It’s like a dance. So can you talk a little about how objects make their way into your poems, and what you do with them there?

 

CK: Ponge’s thing poems seem like short art history essays defining the thing. He is like a lepidopterist. Maybe I’d try to approach the thing from a lot of angles, trying to obey Stevens: Constantly see the world in a new way, and It Must Change. (So style is what changes it, if you can get the right style.) I’d like not to be bound by any diction level or syntax while I wrote about the object, so that my poems about objects or about anything else, could try to have a changing and changeable kind of beauty, changeant.

In “He Paves the Road with Iron Bars,” (Verse Press) I was trying to do something like this. We think of Emerson as singlehandedly inventing a new philosophy rising above the material. But he loved stuff, and was enchanted by the railroad. (It has such great shop talk.) I love Emerson, who changed the language with the marmoreal paragraphs, but also, oh, the material world! And I think the language of jobs is so interesting as a lexical source for poems. Maybe especially if you don’t know the mysteries of other people’s jobs.

 

SE: Something that struck me in many of the poems in Flemish was the juxtaposition of the long-lived, if not to say eternal, and the ephemeral–a Carrara marble font full of construction paper fish, a mobile home made of Adobe Caslon. Your poems often have this quality of being at once solid, etched, and as slippery as one of the sloe-eyed dolphins in “Subjects”. How does time figure into your poems, and into your use of language?

 

CK: I thought in my youth that I would become a medievalist (which didn’t happen), so I was drawn early to languages then taught – French, Latin, Old English – so I keep (fragments of) these in my head. I don’t see why they shouldn’t show up in poems occasionally to give some sense and some beautiful or at least interesting sound.

I feel drawn to switches in diction levels and in syntax, no matter what the poem subject. It feels inclusive. I think I learned this from Auden, and from the New York Poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Stevens and Ashbery often appear to qualify or as some say “cancel” their statements. I think that’s hugely interesting, and the switches can make it happen. Valley Girl talk might be another good lexical source. My son-in-law’s aviation magazines are, too – “docile stall characteristics/ and retrofit fuselage utilizing/ a semi-monocoque construction” (“Who’ll Buy,” Quaker Guns).

SE: Speaking of Auden, in an essay you wrote about how he has influenced your work, you describe his syntax as sounding almost as if it were English in translation. Even better, you described it as “slightly cracked”. This phrase works perfectly with the poems in Flemish, and in your other books as well. The language is recognizable, but, yes, slightly cracked. Is this something that you are consciously pursuing in the act of writing, this feeling of translation?

CK: First, I want to point out that in the section of the essay “2. Syntax” that I’m talking here just about the poem “1929.” I don’t think that Auden did this kind of “crackedness” or distortion often. I think he was experimenting with it, enjoying it probably, in this investigative poem. The crackedness suits the theme of exploration and discovery. The crackedness or translatedness helps deliver the anxiety!

And I definitely feel influenced by Auden’s experiment – to distort the language slightly, making it as you say recognizable but slightly cracked. (No one would want to do this ALL the time – it would be mannered and boring.) Yes, as you say, I do want to make my poems in Flemish as elsewhere sound slightly translated from Eng to Eng – a lot of the time but not all the time.

 

SE: In “He Lives in Bayonne”, “he” emails a blank screen; in response, “she” emails him her trash icon. These lines are very funny, and that is at least partly because they communicate something that we somehow understand, and yet it is in a language in which we are not quite fluent yet. Can you talk about how things like the Internet and texting, which are certainly altering not just our language but even, so they say, our brains, have changed your writing?

CK: I admire so much a book by Janet Holmes called f2f –it is ALL in texting, how charming, what a tour-de-force. Language certainly will gradually absorb the new technology, won’t it? It certainly has begun to.

I guess that collecting fragments – words and phrases – has a whole lot to do with method (I suppose all writers do this). It’s inductive.

One more point about the New York Poets – I think their interaction with abstract painters and painting made me want to situate on the page a lot of elements that don’t necessarily belong together, but might complement or clash with one another – this goes along with picking words and phrases that don’t belong together. The surface of the poem should offer a lot of interesting elements. It has to be done without sounding showoffy or bathetic.

SE: In the Auden essay you liken the speaker in one of your poems to a pilgrim. I loved this idea–because often the poems seem like pilgrimages through the landscape of our shared language. Does the speaker come out of the language for you, or does the language arise out of a certain stance that the speaker has adopted towards the material? Or some of both?

CK: I was talking about a sort of pilgrim narrator in “Souvenir de Roc-Amadour” because pilgrims do go there, and because I was writing a poem – since poets are always pilgrims during the writing process of the poem, wondering whether it’s going to pan out into anything, or into something you can put your name to.

The speaker in any poem has to come out of the language, and also the language comes out of the speaker – both of these, just as you say. Isn’t it a balancing act; you have to do both at once, and remember what you’re doing. It’s dangerous and exciting and you don’t want to wreck something good that’s half done. The speaker has to change all the time! In “Boiled Snow,” the person who says, “A distinctive new gelato” is not the same kid who says “Flavor of the Month for March!”

 

SE: Something I have noted before about all of your poems, and these new ones perhaps even more, is that they are completely unpredictable–there is simply no telling where a poem will end up from first line to last, and every move in between surprises. You have a startling array of nouns at your disposal, and do wonderfully unexpected things with prepositions, not to mention pronouns. But there are, it turns out, far fewer verbs than one would expect in such dynamic poems. I have often felt that English was a language somewhat deficient in the verb department…can you shed some light on how you create movement in your poems, what propels them forward?

 

CK: I don’t know where the poems are going myself.

As well as the New York Poets, Marianne Moore often does not come back to her beginnings, to a subject or a statement. I always liked that; it’s daring.

Examples from two poems from Flemish: in a poem called “Key,” I wrote, “You can knit direct from a photograph, it’s like an atlas.” The directions are supposed to help, but they didn’t – and then the photo made everything instantly clear! Who could have predicted this?

Comedy rests on unpredictability; we expect x, but we get y. Our expectations are upset, and we burst out laughing; that’s the recipe for comedy, isn’t it? So if you can choose the right x and y, you give delight, or puzzlement, or slight awe. In “Harley Lyric,” I was so stunned by these two facts: 1. BL Harley MS 2253 = a collection of top-drawer love lyrics, 14th-15thc. 2. Harley motorcycle. The ms. ref. sounds like a motorcycle model! The first lines of the poems sound like biker songs! Koch said of his and Ashbery’s and O’Hara’s work, “We didn’t see any reason to avoid humor.”

Another example: it may be funny to put your dogs’ names, “Wuffy” and “Chips,” in double quotes – are the dogs really named Rex and Fido? But sometimes the unpredictable isn’t funny or important – it’s just believable. It doesn’t prove anything or lead to anything, so it must be there for its own sake, and the moment fulfills itself. In my book Nine Worthies, somebody’s little brother tells at some length to a room full of grownups all about shad and shad roe and shadbush. The people sit and listen. That’s all there is to it.

You can also plan the appearance of unpredictability. Right now I’m writing a sestina which tries to obscure the fact that it is one, though a lot of internal rhyme and other distractions.

 

SE: It seems that form allows you to make poetry out of the material of the everyday—not “poeticized” but direct—the language simply lifted directly from the vernacular but “lifted into art” through the form in which it might be re-experienced. Can you say a bit about your use of forms, especially traditional ones, in Flemish?

 

CK: The traditional forms I use in Flemish are (upon reflection) these: tercets, libretto (including a sonnet of sorts), (short) prose poems, song. I don’t obey the forms very strictly. To use a form, with all its expectations, creates a place to upset those expectations, usually only slightly.

Tercets seem comfortable for the writer to ease into; they have a leisurely and even meditative feel and look, I think. In Flemish there turned out to be four poems in tercets: “He Was a Chartist.” “Stove Seasoning,” “They,” and “The Font.” (I’d like to be able to do such a poem that went on for pages.) The small and regular-looking stanzas allow you to put in some surprise material for contrast. The stanzas look like strung beads, and maybe act like them.

Cantata libretto: I adapted the libretto (by Picander) of Bach’s Coffee Cantata very, very loosely. It was a game and a dream at the same time. I wanted it to be too short, and it was. I wanted it to be full of notes of today – the wedding nonsense, the Starbucks nonsense, the poetry reading of opaque work.

Short prose poem: “Key” and “The Scottish Play” seem to be nuggets of wisdom, definitive blocks on their subjects – but they really don’t do the reader any good! They’re probably just an excuse for playing with language, a valuable activity in itself. “The Scottish play” is a nickname for Macbeth, but using it as a title turns out to be thoroughly pretentious, and nothing to do with the poem, really, just a way into it.

About “Key” – The bold face section of “Key” is one of Poor Richard’s sayings, one of Franklin’s “scriptures,” made into the shape of a key. Quemadura graciously spent a lot of time on typesetting this! The proverb is hidden in plain sight. But there’s no key to “Key.”

Song – “Aragon” seems to be an elegiac piece (a “fragment”?); when I wrote it I remember being very interested in sound, and in putting the French refrain in as a piece of folk poetry that someone else learned from someone else. (You can’t do this too much – it gets too adorably precious.) Maybe the speaker is a pilgrim – to Santiago da Campostela?

So, to sum up, I think one of the reasons to use any traditional form is to introduce surprise material into the form, surprise material that sits comfortably with the form’s other aspects.

To drink boiled snow

To drink boiled snow is good science.
It may affect the water table
to manufacture boiled snow on the rocks
218º Fahrenheit for however many minutes.

To skate on black ice is hard science
looking down through it to a broken and frozen rowboat
six feet under in Davy Jones’s Locker
in black tie in the middle of the night,

walking on thin ice, to skate on the
leading edge of thin ice, as abraded maple
leaves’ patterns trip you up.  To drink
unboiled sap as the deer do, clandestinely

out of sap buckets, starting on Birthington’s Washday;
to discover in frozen sap
a distinctive new gelato!  Flavor
of the Month for March!  To write

most of a poem out of
infinitive clauses, to discover
in brackish tidepools much too early
harbor seals in camouflage on the rocks,

and to marvel at these seals’ poise and grace
as they blunder diffidently into and under the ocean.

I’d love to teach a course centered on The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Tolstoy’s great novella cannot be studied in isolation from certain foundational texts standing at it were behind Ivan, and pushing him into the literary foreground. These are, but are by no means limited to, The Confessions of St Augustine and Rousseau, Tolstoy’s own tortured diaries, Paul’s Romans, Christ’s teachings on the world as opposed to the kingdom of God in the New Testament, and sundry Russian books and essays on the nature of the peasants, their aristocratic “fathers,” and this new dominant professional class to which Ivan belongs and which has neither loyalty to the land nor the simple faith of the peasant, and which has neither the refinement nor complicated decadence and aesthetic taste of the nobility. This “functionary class” is co-optive, incapable of originality, grafting onto its evil and mundane tree the native “shrewdness” and greed common to the worst peasants, and the pretentiousness and faux complexity/ haughtiness of the worst nobility. They are a class in love with Poshlost–forerunners of smart sets and hipsters. They are not merely middle class, but the Professional class. This is important to remember: They are the executors of the state and civil society–functionaries, masters of the machine of civil process. Tolstoy as a Christian anarchist can think of no more distasteful creatures. Their life is a form of death for him, and Nabokov is right to submit that, to Tolstoy’s mind, the characters who survive Ivan are the truly dead.

Through most of the text, Ivan fits the Biblical category of the lukewarm: “I would that thou were hot or cold, but being lukewarm I shall spit you forth from my mouth.” Being lukewarm, moderate, steady on the wheel is considered necessary to professional success. The motto might be mediocrity of the very best sort. He also enacts a narrative arc of two sayings attributed to Christ: First, the parable of the rich farmer who plots to build an extra barn for his abundant harvest and is told by God “thou fool! Does thou not know that your life is required of you this very night? Store up riches in heaven, and not on earth.” The second is more attributable to both Ivan and his so called “friends”: “And they were buying and selling, and giving and taking in marriage unto the last hour, and were caught unaware.” As for the surface of Ivan’s friends and family and world, we are reminded of the ruling citizens of Christ’s Israel (Pharisees and Sadducees) who were, according to, Jesus, like tombs: “all white on the outside, but on the inside, filled with all matter of decay and filth.” Finally, the question that goads Augustine into ontic crisis also lurks behind Ivan Illyich: “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his only begotten soul?”

In addition, we must understand that Tolstoy himself was terrified of death–especially after his own brother’s horrible illness–and, at the same time, obsessed with death in its most clinical details, not only in its spiritual mysteries, but in terms of its pathology and sheer progression. Ivan’s death is very much a clinical as well as spiritual process and it is this long, drawn out, agony–in some ways as mundane as the false world it unravels, that is one of the marvels of the novel: the boredom of the dying, the tedium, the way it reduces a person to a corpse pending, the dying man’s exclusion from the living, his interminable otherness–this is all beautifully imagined in this masterpiece.

In the course, we would read subsidiary texts that go with some Tolstoy. Here are some possible examples that share common ground with the quotes from the text:

“He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace”

“Blow, blow thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Also, Elijah in the cave.

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil.

“Morning or night, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, everything was the same: the gnawing, excruciating, incessant pain; that awareness of life irrevocably passing but not yet gone; that dreadful, loathsome death, the only reality, relentlessly closing in on him; and that same endless lie. What did days, weeks, or hours matter?”

Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job.

”The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.”
“But it seems to me that a man cannot and ought not to say that he loves, he said. Why not? I asked. Because it will always be a lie. As though it were a strange sort of discovery that someone is in love! Just as if, as soon as he said that, something went snap-bang – he loves. Just as if, when he utters that word, something extraordinary is bound to happen, with signs and portents, and all the cannons firing at once. It seems to me, he went on, that people who solemnly utter those words, ‘I love you,’ either deceive themselves, or what’s still worse, deceive others.”

“Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”

“He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

Paul: death, where is my death, where is it’s victory?”

“In place of death there was light.”

“All who attempt to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall have eternal life.” and “All that is brought to light shall be made into light– John’s Gospel

“At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

Augustine Confessions, where the boys steal the fruit.

“But that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence.”

Auden’s “Beaux Arts”

“The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kieswetter’s logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.”
“Death is finished, he said to himself. It is no more!”

Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“Come, what did I say, repeat it? he would ask. But I could never repeat anything, so ludicrous it seemed that he should talk to me, not of himself or me, but of something else, as though it mattered what happened outside us. Only much later I began to have some slight understanding of his cares and to be interested in them.”
“He was much changed and grown even thinner since Pyotr Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than than when he was alive.” (zen saying: nothing is more valuable or dignified than a dead cat. Or the Native American tradition of praying over the killed game, or the religious injunction to witness to the dead, even in so far as witnessing to road kill.

Almost any Buddhist teaching.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
“When the examination was over, the doctor looked at his watch, and then Praskovya Fyodorovna informed Ivan Ilyich that it must of course be as he liked, but she had sent today for a celebrated doctor, and that he would examine him, and have a consultation with Mihail Danilovich (that was the name of his regular doctor). ‘Don’t oppose it now, please. This I’m doing entirely for my own sake,’ she said ironically, meaning it to be understood that she was doing it all for his sake, and was only saying this to give him no right to refuse her request. He lay silent, knitting his brows. He felt that he was hemmed in by such a tangle of falsity that it was hard to disentangle anything from it. Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, and she told him she was doing for her own sake what she actually was doing for her own sake as something so incredible that he would take it as meaning the opposite.”

“That is not what I mean/that is not it at all”–Prufrock.
Hopkins: Spring and Fall.
Also husband and wife relations in the Bible (Sara and Abraham, Job and his wife) as well as wives and husbands in Russian folk tales.

There are a couple subsidiary texts we would have to read in addition to Ivan, all having to do with the dying or the spiritually dead: King Lear, Issa’s memoir of his father’s death, and Chekhov’s “In the Ravine.” We would also look at Augustine’s Confessions and relate Tolstoy’s exaltation of the peasant to variations on the myth of the “Magic negro.” How does Tolstoy’s sometimes sentimental fondness and adoration for the peasant differ from Gunga Din? How does it differ from takes on the noble savage, or for that matter, from often sentimental tropes on the poor? How does his disdain for the middle class differ from Marxist views? How does it resemble the Marxist view? Why does Tolstoy attack simple and ordinary here, when in most works, and even in this text, he lauds the simplicity of the peasant. What sort of simplicity and ordinariness is he calling most terrible?

We would consider Kierkegaard’s teachings on despair: despair of not being oneself, despair of being one’s self, and the sickness unto death: a despair so deep and total, that one is not even aware of being in despair. And so in addition to King Lear, Issa memoir on his father’s death, and Chekov’s The Ravine, we will be reading The Sickness Unto Death.

For historical background, read up on Christian anarchy, the post-liberation/pre-revolution civil life of Russia, and various works on chronic illness and its pathology.

Is this the kind of class you’d take?

don mee choi bio pic

from Diary of Return

August 8, 2002

I arrived below the 38th parallel.  Everyone and every place I know are below the waist

of a nation.  Before I arrived, empire arrived, that is to say empire is great.  I follow its geography.  From a distance the waist below looks like any other small rural village of winding alleys and traditional tile-roofed houses surrounded by rice paddies, vegetable fields, and mountains.  It reminded me of home, that is to say this is my home.

Close up: clubs, restaurants, souvenir and clothing stores with signs in English, that is

to say English has arrived before me and was here even before I had left.  PAPA SAN, LOVE SHOP, POP’S, GOLDEN TAILOR, PAWN.  I followed the signs and they led to one of the gates to Camp Stanley, a heliport, that is to say language is not be to believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.  A woman in her seventies lived next to LOVE SHOP. She was taking an afternoon nap.  She has never left below the waist and eventually came to be regarded as a great patriot by her government, that is to say she followed the signs and suffered from lice infestation during the war and passed the lice on to the GIs.  I followed the houses that reminded me of home.  They led me to another metal gate and barbed wire.  Another woman was having lunch at My Sister’s Place.

She did not remember which year she had returned except that she remembered hearing about the assassination of our Father, that is to say she was here and I was still elsewhere and the unity of language is fundamentally political.  She told me a story with her right index finger.  Her finger fiercely pointed to her mouth, then between her spread legs, and then her behind.  She had no choice under the GI’s gun, that is to say she had no choice about absolute choice, that is to say her poverty was without choice and when absolute choice was forced upon her she chose a GI, that is to say she chose empire because empire is greater than our Father, that is to say she followed and left her daughter to its geography and her index finger had no choice but be fierce under absolute choice, that is to say she had arrived home.

 

Italics: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

__________________________________________________
Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and the recipient of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award. She has received the 2012 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon. Her translations also include Anxiety of Words published by Zephyr, When the Plug Gets Unplugged & Princess Abandoned by Tinfish, and Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers by Action Books.


ONE

 

Delhi is hell. It is hot. It hits one in the face like the exhaust pipe of a long-haul trailer spewing thick blackness into a pristine sky. It smells like ruin.

IMG_0489The impression is delayed, of course, as the city puts one its best feet forward at first. The sparkling, new T3 at Indira Gandhi International—the second largest air terminal in the world, they point out with great pride—greets arrivals with four giant gold hands in lotus positions, and a shining, gleaming, blazing white expanse of an epic duty free. It all feels very proper and clean. But as one exits through the swish of sliding glass to a throbbing mass of hired drivers and calls for taxi, taxi, taxi, one first smells the flaming soot. The sweet burn of wood and diesel. The Delhi bonfire. And yet, the pulse races because this is it, the most foreign of foreign places. It is the rush of unknown possibilities.

Misters! Misters! Here please, yes! and suddenly we are in a car. We are being bounced from one side of the road to the other. Horns blare. Lights flash. The roads grow narrower and more crowded and the whole mass of traffic moves faster. Buildings zip past, haphazardly stacked on top of one another so that one concrete block looks as though it has tripped over another.

There is Red Fort! Purana Qila, Sir!

A mass of red, Agra sandstone lurks in the distance. We careen and weave until we slam to a dead stop. This is it, sirs, Hotel Tara Palace. There is a bonfire—an actual bonfire—of trash and books its appears. Emaciated children scamper off into the tight, unlit alleys, beyond this main road. Goats chew through knee-high rubbish heaps. Swarms of flies tick the skin—flies at night, I think. The smell of propane and burnt milk; the blaring horns; ringing bicycle bells; white eyes in brown faces glued to the to white bodies of the men who’ve just stepped out of a cab and into the crumbling, choked bazaar known as Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.

IMG_0499We will be shoved and beckoned, Sir, please, you come look, you like, as we are pushed from behind for the sin of stopping, or run off of the crumbling sidewalk porticoes to hop like froggert across the choked boulevard through a broken iron fence to the other side in search of the liquor stand. We will be surrounded by a pack of screaming children putting stickers on us, clasping and unclasping their hands for money. We will be scolded in Urdu or Hindi or Punjabi for letting them do this.

On the Rajpath a parade-route boulevard connecting the houses of Lok Sabha, or Parliament, with the massive triumphal arch of India Gate, a man with a wicker basket will stop us—Sir! Sir! Please, you have look. Look! Look!—as he dashes the basket to the ground so that a hooded cobra springs up hissing and bobbing in the dusty, gold afternoon. Three transsexuals might walk by, giggling in their saris and heavy makeup. They are considered mystics here, or something like mild witches. They are hired for weddings to say prayers and tell fortunes and are known to aggressively solicit money for services, wanted or not. They might bee-line for us.

Sir, sir, where are you going? Says the rickshaw driver

Sir, that is such and such road. You are looking for such and such other road, says the nice, paunchy, balding man in a crisp oxford shirt. I am just helping you with your going. You go this way for nice pashminas, saris, ali baba pants. The ticket off is this way. I can take you. He follows and follows and finally gives up.

Packed like sardines against the window of the metro. The shoving in and out at the same time. Elbows. Forearms.

The way it costs different for Indians and for us—for soda, for sites of archeological significance, for rickshaws, and water and anything.

The way it made him never want to come back.

The way I swore I never would either.

 

TWO

 

Backpacker ghetto. Paharganj. Just west of the train station which is really an open-air sleeping facility for anyone in transit or not. Whole families pile on top of themselves and on top of their belongings. Everything seems held together by tarp and string. It is six months later and I’ve returned, telling myself that I have unfinished business with India. It harbors secrets. It made me run to quickly. I must know why.

This way, sir.

            I will take you to your platform, sir.

            That office is closed, sir, I will show you new office.

            You need to come this way for that train, sir.

IMG_0495Backpacker ghetto, because this time I’m not staying in Old Delhi and I promise myself that I will only stay in this city as little as possible, and if a night can be avoided I will avoid it, but that can never be the case because everything in India runs through Delhi. So I stay on the cheap in an airless, windowless room in Hotel Cottage Yes Please, a name I love. At least it is clean. At least the air conditioning works. At least is feels separate from the chaos of the bazaar outside where anything bootleg a mind could conjure is for sale.

But they have no rooms on my next pass through Delhi I must find somewhere else, somewhere recommended by a hostel booking website, a website with real and honest reviews according to their banner. Another windowless room, barely fitting a bed. A room up steep, dark, wet stairs with holes in the wall opening onto the stench of the alley and open sewer below. I spend as little time there as possible, afraid to touch anything. I wake in the morning to find a bedbug, dead, surrounded in my blood, having been crushed by my head in the course of the night. I am sure I will have to put everything into plastic bags when I get home. I’ve lived in New York City for nine years. I’ve never seen one and according to the billboard and subway signs there, those fuckers are an epidemic.

Delhi. Damn it.

 IMG_0492

THREE

 

I haven’t stopped talking about India, so I am back. I’ve collected a holy trinity of visits by now. Ask me why I keep coming back and I have ten thousand answers because I love this place and I hate this place. I think this country has some secret teaching, some small pebble that is the key to setting things straight—me and the thousands of backpackers that stream through T3 every month.

Being back means Delhi. And As I’ve seen enough red sandstone mausoleums and forts and shrines, as I’ve been hassled in the outdoor mall of Connaught Place, as I’ve been jostled amongst every living beast in the world in the strangled, collapsing alleys of Old Delhi, as I’ve tried slumming it with the dreadlocked hippies in Paharganj, I’ve decided to see some new aspect of the city. It’s a neighborhood I’ve heard about and read about, but never seen as it lays way out in the never ending sprawl. Hauz Khas Village—south of the madness, surrounded by trees. Artsy, say the blogs. Hip, writes the Lonely Planet. And what that means is that while it is still India—still a dusty mess of a crumbling road, still concrete blocks stacked too high on one another, still a bit fly-riddled and sometimes the air is punctured by the scent of rotting vegetal matter—it is westernized. It’s the Williamsburg of Delhi. It has cafes and art galleries and bars and swank restaurants and intentionally grungy ones and little shops packed tight with bright, kitschy wallets and shoulder bags trimmed with leather, and smart t-shirts emblazoned with the wry winks a New Yorker would appreciate. Half of it looks out onto crumbling Mughal ruins and tombs and beyond that a lake—a clean lake with swans and ducks—and manicured paths and shrubbery and peacocks and monkeys and owls and flowering vines and roses. It is gated off from the rest of the world—rickshaws can’t get in; honking, hulking Ambassador cabs are forbidden. In fact, no cars may enter unless with the permission of the village.

IMG_0502So just like that, Delhi becomes immediately easier and more palatable. My hotel serves fish and washes their vegetables with filtered water and has local artists hammered up all over the walls and oversized pillows are dashed on wide benches and the wireless internet works and the air conditioner, too. So I have come all this way, come to this place I swear I need because it is exactly the opposite of my ordered life—this place where gods jump off of every surface or can be in any stone or tree, where one can always smell incense and sandalwood on the air, where the smell of burnt milk means wafts down wide alleys as a temple bell clangs into the heavy air, where the world is a magical realist bonanza—I’ve come all this way to finally say I love Delhi because of its proximity to my own life: its New York comforts and American happinesses.

And, like that, I hate it all over again.

I am not a secular poet, have never been a secular poet, and my work is a journey through both the imagery of my working class Irish Catholic background and my sense of the the incarnate word as Shema Mitzvah–the oneness of God within the act of love toward neighbor. First Shema:

Hear O Israel, the lord, the lord is one.
And you shall love the lord
with all your mind and with all your heart
and with all your strength

and the Mitzvah is

And the second commandment is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.

All other commandments are contained within these two, the whole of the law, the spirit of the law. They are the ontology of my poems, and to truly enter my work, you must understand it in the context of Shema Mitzvah. I do not believe in the separation of faith and works, but, like James, believe faith without works is dead, and works without faith is merely materialism as a form of the dole. Given a choice of which I’d prefer, I’d take works without faith which makes me a radical, but I would not take it happily since I think bread without spirit, and material comfort without conscience is barely worth the bother.

Jesus Christ incarnates into the broken life and impurity of the world. God descends downward, infusing all people, landscapes, and things with the presence of divinity. At the same time, God, having taken on the manner and appearance, and real flesh and needs of the world, is infused with the world which is broken, impure, profane, often ugly, and far from pious. It is also in this world of the broken that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, waits to be recognized. Christ is not to be found so readily in the “purified” realms, but in the midst of the broken, those who are fucked up, strange, unable to live either fully in the world (highest level of Arete–prowess) or fully in God (highest level of Xenia–care for the other)–my poems seek to witness to those who are imperfect and less than fully human but given full humanity by the incarnate word, also to those who are imperfect and less than fully divine, given divine resonance by God come to dwell amongst us: the motley, the dark, sometimes grotesque comic force of the demi-god, the half-God, Half Monster, neither fully man nor fully divine–us, the half assed. The moment in which Christ (fully man and fully God ) is seen in the “least”, is the moment that the unity of Shema Mitzvah is fully realized–the ground zero of being, which, for me, is Eucharistic reality. To put it simply: I seek in my poetics the moment when the divine is seen in the other, and the divine is not Jerusalem, the expected place, but Bethlehem, the lowly place, the place unsought, but stumbled upon, the “slip of the pen”–that is a moment of Eucharistic reality–grace. Grace appears under the following signs in my poems:

1. The Visible Signs beneath which the Shema Mitzvah lies concealed and revealed: failure, imperfection, exile, ostracism, the ugly, the lost, the comic and inept, the unrequited, the kindly, the motley and in the Falstaff-like bluster of certain of my poetic voices. There are also choices of lineation, and language by which I seek this out: mixed registers of speech, hyperbolic utterances punctured by deadpan understatements, comic or ferocious rants, ungainly one word lines, lines that wobble between long and short– all of this is towards my thematic core:the presence of the divine afflatus where it seems least likely to belong.

I use characters, dialogue, and narrative in an almost novelistic way. I believe poetry has abdicated its perfection as a vehicle for getting straight to the heart of a story to prose which, by its very nature as a conveyor of information, must be far more expository. Prose informs and expounds. Poetry incites and enacts a more immediate ceremony. Most poems, especially free verse poems, are a combination of poetic and prosaic elements, on a spectrum between poetry and prose–demi- gods. I will use an undulating line, an ungainly line because I am not after symmetry. I am after some order within sprawl–the great sprawl of the living and the dead.

2. Personified I, Vatic I, Personal I, and the mutt of all three: Many of the I-voices in my poetry are personifications. In a few poems (“Morning at the Elizabeth Arch”, for example) the I voice is Vatic– the sound of one speaking with authority and almost impersonal gravitas, the I invoking (look! Shemah–listen up!). Sometimes I will employ the personal I as in a memoir (Fists (for my father), or “Elegy of Sue Rapeezi”), but this personal I is likely to blur with the personified I. The mutt I make of all three may confuse a reader who wants the voice to be a genuine contemporary personal voice, or the voice of a character, or that sort of “Wise white man” voice you get with Stephen Dunn. There is also the intentionally stupid, or know-nothing voice of the speculative post-modernist, influenced both by the surreal, comic shtick, and dadaism. I am prone to using all these I’s and mixing them up. It’s important to know that in order to understand my emphasis on the motley. I am doing my own: I contain multitudes. My version also entertains the the darker possibility of “I am legion” (possessed by many demons and conflicted).

I write this not as an apologetic for my poetry, but as an aid to entering it with a greater awareness of its intentions. Of course, each reader misreads differently, and each brings to a body of work his or her own sense of the author’s intentions,successes and failures. To a more secular mind, all I might be doing is writing about losers. To a more sociological type, I may be showing my preference for the underdog. To those who like their lines symmetrical, and their words in a consistent register, many of my tunes may seem full of wrong notes. To those who judge the lyrical merely by the absence of the narrative, I may fail to be lyrical enough. So be it. This is my essay on my intentions. Poem by poem, those intentions wait to be realized or unrealized. On that I rest my case.

basile pic

LOURDES

Matthew is plain on the tongue and fleeting.

Lourdes sits, instead of sex, on two blue crates,
feeds herself blue lemons. Lips sodden,

she bathes. She tastes the burn
in the lantern of her chest.

Lourdes snakes straight through the garden into her own bed

opens her dignities and pleasures
like guava

white cotton underwear
___to the side
open with pulque

wet of cachaca
without the sugarcane,

& boys with biblical names
make no appearance,

especially Matthew,

a worn worm soldier jamming its way
into the core of a ripe melon.

____________________________________
Lisa Marie Basile
 comes from the bloodline of Giambattista Basile, the fairy-tale writer. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program. She is the author of Andalucia (Brothel Books) and Triste (Dancing Girl Press). Her chapbook, war/lock, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press in 2014. She is the founding editor of Patasola Press, an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal and a managing member of the Poetry Society of New York.  She contributes to a few secret projects and wears Joseph Quintela’s #bookdress.

ISBN978-0520259263

It’s hard to justify a $50 book nowadays. Unless you’re a scholar looking to pore over every character in an author’s archive, a volume of collected work can easily overwhelm. Is there a non-academic audience for a tome like The Collected Early Poems and Plays by Robert Duncan (University of California Press)? I can’t speak for the market, but as a young poet scrambling through the poems of the past, as well as the growing morass of contemporary offerings, I finished this beast of a volume feeling refreshed.

It’s clear that UC Press has a plan for Duncan’s collected works, which are stylistically in tune with The H.D. Book. While poems often share pages, pages rarely feel overwhelmed. Economy of space is understood. This book feels like a chronological collection of published and uncollected works, so we are given a particularly instructive timeline of Duncan’s growth as a poet.

The breadth of that poetic growth is in itself a fantastic teacher. Duncan burst out of the gates hungry, publishing as an undergrad beginning to engage with the politics and metaphysics he would engage with throughout his career. But his line is inquisitive rather than didactic; he chose not to build a pulpit, but to immerse the reader in his investigations. The Years as Catches then shows, if anything, that all poets must start somewhere, and it’s comforting to see the seeds from which Duncan’s poetic dexterity would grow, while at the same time appreciating that this is the work of a young man with much to learn. In every stanza, his potential glimmers: an inexperienced poet, winding his way through language until his own voice emerges.

It does so quickly, as Heavenly City, Earthly City slips into the picture and Duncan more fully embraces his political opinions. His voice takes shape, as does the melody within his lines, and, along with the poet, we learn the strength of verse as a spoken activity. Melodious, rhythmic, and willing to take risks linguistically and stylistically, the book moves into Medieval Scenes with the assuredness of a man who more fully finds his footing after every line.

Duncan—and by extension this volume—really begins to shine with A Book of Resemblances. The strength of this book, and the argument for the price tag, is not only the accessibility of all of Duncan’s work between two covers, but the process of working along with the poet as he searches for his ultimate expression. He earns the poems in Resemblances, which sing and swell and traverse emotional and metaphysical landscapes. But these poems were not born out of a black hole. Duncan climbs to this height, and ever higher, throughout these pages and those in the next volume. The true joy in reading a poet like this is the journey. Duncan walks with Pound, Williams, and Stein as influences, wearing them proudly on his poetic and fanciful flights through drama and poetry. If ever there was an argument for an oeuvre, this is it.