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Poetry and Poetics

Blue Note

Because there is only interval quiet,
the impossibility of silence
even after midnight, I am reaching
for a distant tone: a single word, a sum
of melody and rhythm in their absence.
Clouds with glowing edges suggest
extension. Inaudible dust and moths
hovering around the floodlight offer
suspension. If I say sound alone
comprises song, which supposes
location, the committee of crickets asserts
intention. Great jazz only happens
in hard-hitting cities, another era.
Even minor sidemen knew that
to build a ballad you must
shape heartbreak, mimic the ostinato
of heart-pump and bloodflow, know
when to release a slow
brushstroke across the snare drum.
When to surrender a breath.
Night air streams in place of daylight.
A new variation of tired smells—
mown grass, a neighbor’s faint cigarette,
my perspiration—insists recollection.
Not everyone raised here stays.

X has not called in eighteen weeks.
It’s perfectly fine to be consoled
by a three-chord cliché, to circle
the darkening blocks until
your knees ache like the overplayed
pop song you can’t name or forget.
The far-off dog barking is never a stray.
This is no route through, this is not
a destination. And so the record collection
expands, the shelf sags lower.
The best jackets involve sad, beautiful
faces viewed through some blue lens.
Every blues is a plea for that face to stay.
The last window glowing blue goes dark.
This late pain is a light
metallic taste I want to vibrate,
and the dreadnought I play proposes
possession. This guitar’s as good as stolen.
I have scratched my name inside.
I own its mahogany body but not its tone.

________________________________________________
Jason Labbe‘s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Boston Review, A Public Space, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Dear Photographer (Phylum Press) and Blackwash Canal (H_NGM_N BKS). A drummer, he has recorded and performed with various artists in New Haven and New York, including Snake Oil, Charles Burst, Latitude/Longitude, Weigh Down, and M.T Bearington, among others. He lives in Bethany, Connecticut, where he makes music in his basement studio when he is not making it elsewhere.

Neither a memoir nor a novel, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton UP, 2010) by Andrei Codrescu measures the speed of our psycho-poetic times. It seems we are moving faster and faster knowing less and less where. On the sheen of it, the book runs through the first day of an Intro to Poetry Writing class wherein Codrescu narrates his process of assigning “Ghost-Companion” poets to students according to the first letter of their last names. Underneath the glaze of this conceit, however, the book prods for lessons about the American Academy’s marketing of the imagination through creative writing classes.

I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions. While I was peeing I didn’t think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can’t. I’d have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that’s exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. (98)

Codrescu, with his trademark humor and eye for the ladies, unleashes a number of schemes to shock his poetry students into making it new (here “it” also means their lives and not just their texts). Musing on our mania for the new, Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) A bit later, he expounds explicitly on the role of the poet in society: “The poets’ job was to cast a weary second glance on the world and to look fondly into eternal sentiments with a musical insistence that made them new.” (109) Upon critical reflection on Codrescu’s observations that we are addicts of the new, a question might arise: how can a poet ever be more than a hipster, a fashionista, or a mere bodysurfer of the new? Turning Walter Benjamin on his head, one might ask: what is freedom without fashion?

College students need the kinds of Humanistic insights that Codrescu offers throughout his diaristic recounting of the first session of his last class. For instance, Codrescu brings up linearity, that crutch of old-man positivism:  “I like to start at the beginning, I adore chronology even though I know only too well (and explain to my advanced classes) that chronology is arbitrary and that you can get to or at anything starting at any point, because all things touch on every other thing with at least one point of their thingness. Or maybe all things are round.” (116) I like to think that such an image (of how all things are really connected) lounging in the heads of young people might make it difficult for them to conspire to profit off of their neighbor. Eternal sentiments like the interconnectedness of all things or the sensuality of life or the transitory nature of all things are the functional purview of a Liberal education.

Though the form of Codrescu’s pedagogy seems based on a set of labyrinthine rules and draconian discipline; the content, represented through deft summary and talky quotation, suggests his abiding interest in learning what it means to be a poet from his students. Reflecting on his poetry-life, Codrescu writes:

If anything consoles me now it is that attached to these poets and their publishers and my friends and their work were stories. I had thousands of stories to tell about these people and their products because this was my life, a life spent hanging out, talking, writing poetry, alone or with others, seeing twisted shapes in the night and crisp aphorism at dawn. (103)

The book rambles through delightful scenes of perky soldier-students and feral cats that have laid siege to the LSU campus where Codrescu is teaching his last class before retiring. “Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.” (108)

Like the Romanian-born literary critic and professor Matei Calinescu, Andrei Codrescu, synthesizes the histories of European Avant-garde and American Modernism with calm lucidity. He chucks around terms like ideology, postmodernism, and kitsch with the cock-soreness of a smithy. Really? Take his word for it. Here Codrescu describes the perennial distrust between generations: “It had always been thus, but it was worse, I think, now, when every proof for one thing or another was intellectually available, but tips and hints on how to really live are rarer than asparagus stalks in Eskimo cuisine.” (57)

So, what is the poetry lesson? The poetry lesson is that poetry is a practice. What kind of practice? Poetry is the kind of practice that afflicts you with the microbe of identity crisis. If you don’t have an identity crisis, you have been rendered spiritually destitute by the readymade suggestions of capital. Seek the guidance of spirits.

 

Known Quantity

So it turns out you want
____________to know nothing
______and it frightens me.
It means you must
________know enough already.

For example, you must
_______know I’m calibrated
________________________to sit stiff
with my hands in my lap like flowers
______meant for someone who’s just done
____a tremendous job.

Someone’s just done a dance
_________with all of her strong arms
and legs in the air.
________________Someone’s just done
_____a big trombone solo.

Someone puts her nose
____________to the flowers
and in her excitement
______forgets to breathe in.

What did he bring you?
____________someone asks.
____They smell lovely, she says
___________instead of roses.

There are flowers
_______it’s possible not
to be wrong about. Their smell.
___The way they sit
___________doing nothing
in plastic in your hands.

__________________________________________

Laura Eve Engel’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, LIT, Cincinnati Review, Cream City Review and elsewhere. [Spoiler Alert], a chapbook co-written with Adam Peterson, will be available from The Collagist/Dzanc Books in the fall. She is the 2011 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can follow her on Twitter @hoostown.

 

Many young poets can not accept that telling a story, or relating some sort of narrative arc is conducive to the highest aims of poetry. Of course this is a confusion between story telling and narrative. They are not the same. Narrative is the pulse and rhythm of being. Whitman is an intensely narrative poet, as is Emily Dickinson. Stories stay in touch with this pulse of being in the most obvious ways. The great triumph of Chekhov is that he muted the obviousness of story, blurred the distinctions between plot and character, and took prose into territories of consciousness previously known only to the most subjective and simple of lyrical poems. Story may be destroyed, but never narrative. If I write

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree

I am, for all my pretensions to surrealism, still in the arms of narrative. The sun is doing something (batting its eye lashes)i This is the action at the scene. Oy vey is an ejaculation that means, roughly: “Oh brother,” or “For crying out loud,” or “Oh my God” so it implies an attitude. If I say I am a tired tree, then I am implying a state of being, and the reader will connect the dots. The batting of eye lashes is an age old signifier of vanity or flirting. I may not follow this line consciously, but it is there. So lets continue:

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree.
Strange omens creep forth from Canada.
The sky is dressed in drag.
How shall I desist from wandering the earth
in search of pomegranates?
Death to stars and cardboard!
Death to the wan smile of the lost.
Forgive me my trespasses.
I am a tired tree
half in love with sudden lightning
and the vagrant grin of years.

There is no story told here, but there is narrative arc. The poem might seem nonsensical, especially if you insist on logical exposition or a concrete point (which is journalism and information–not narrative). If you meet the poem on its own terms line for line, you may notice a strange lament. The tree is tired. It is half in love with lightning (death wish) and the vagrant grin of years. The voice is vehement in what it wants to die: stars, cardboard, the wan smile of the lost. This is an arbitrary list, but have you ever listened to a cranky sick person complain:? To quote my Aunt Mary two weeks before she died: “No soup! The hell with soup and styrofoam. Where is my bone china? You’re killing me!”

The problem students have with narrative is its mundanity. It is not the narrative, but the absence of verbal surprise they are missing. Verbal surprise is always overrated by young poets. They mistake confusion and flash for lyricism. Lyricism breaks forth when the narrative arc, the interior laws organic to the poem are compelled, even forced to sing and this singing is so close to insanity or sheer ecstasy as to risk the loss of sense. Take this snippet from Hart Crane that baffles many a sensible soul:

The mustard scansions of the eyes.

It is, indeed, a strange phrase, but let’s consider (beyond Cleanth Brooks) where Hart Crane lived. He lived in the same apartment that had been occupied by the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. He knew scansions (bridge abutments) like no one else. They could have been painted a mustard brown or yellow–in keeping with hazel eyes. When I first read this line I was in awe of his accuracy, a precision so intense it blighted the sense and construct of the actual thing described. Of course I was reading my own life into the poem. I once loved a girl who stood at dusk under the El, and she had yellow or mustard specks in her eyes, and the scansions were reflected in her irises. When I read this line, I thought Hart Crane had hovered like a ghost over my experience. I was reading into the poem which leads me to another point: even if you provide no story or narrative, the reader will provide one, and if not, then the reader is immured in a construct of non-narrative so pure as to be pissant.

John Ashbery, the darling of many poets opposed to story telling and narrative, is an intensely narrative poet. His narratives shift from line to line, moment to moment, disappearing and dissolving in the current of the poem. He is the master of the story that “Almost” happens. He makes a gesture towards story and betrays it, but he does not betray narrative.

Many poets try to escape narrative by destroying syntax. Lets try it:

Orion of graves
graves of the discontent
watermelons in the breeze
breeze absolving the moon
and the hermit
and the celebrity
and the soul survivor of the war
and the judiciary
and the past-enormous–lopsided tits
Pray! Pray for the thigh I am licking.
Pray for Betty Crocker!
And the and and the and and the and
loose cowboys
suspended adorations.

OK, only a couple of sentences. Why pray for Betty Crocker? Yet the poem obeys its own immutable laws of disconnection. That in itself is a ceremony and a narrative. ask: How do we make narrative beyond mere story telling? I tell you, no good story obeys story telling. It obeys narrative–the arc of being.

Love-Busker

I’ve got an ugly, but I’ll never tell,
how pretty your please.
I’ve got a screw
tight, and wheels for wheels,
and an *.

I’ve got a real good thing, going,
so pardon my by-
your-leave. A way of opening
ah and putting me
under. Over and out.

I’ve got muscles in there, somewhere.
A tooth that won’t grow in. Spit
whistle, thumper finger,
tin can clang I’m
your one man band.

A memory of lapses. A good cold.
A winterized grin.
My boutique hard-sell soft-core
will pink you in.
It’s rolled-gold bold.

If you want love in a king-size bed
beware my disease:
symptoms:
catchall goodwill
and a right knee jitter.

__________________________________________
Peter Kline‘s poetry has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, Poetry, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the 2010 Morton Marr Prize from the Southwest Review, as well as a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He is currently a guest blogger on the Ploughshares website.

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam. The first part, by poet and theater historian M G Stevens, appeared previously.

***

Staring out at the audience of the Pentameters Theatre, David Manson as the poet Robert Lowell distrustfully remarks ‘This is a two-way mirror, isn’t it?’  While in Alfred Corn’s play the Bostonian is informed he is looking at a window, part of the work’s triumph is that we obtain a sense throughout that the events we are seeing have been transfigured by a spectator who is both Lowell the artist and Lowell the man, tormented by his past.  Observation, here, is everything.

The ostensible setting of Lowell’s Bedlam is Pitney Akins Hospital, New York in 1949 where the writer is being treated for bipolar disorder.  The director Daniel Ricken, himself a New Yorker, reveals Lowell’s unconscious largely through offstage noises—muffled thumps, groans and sighs—and the insistent repetition of phrases.  Corn’s play has teasing references to his subject’s work too, to ‘very polite’ murderers in a Federal Detention Centre in Greenwich Village, one of whom is documented in Lowell’s poem ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’;  Czar Lepke was a gang murderer Lowell made into a dignified version of himself by giving him ‘a ribbon of Easter palm’.  In Corn’s searing drama, Lowell views himself as having ended someone’s life, too, through having been at the wheel in a car crash that left his first wife Jean Stafford disfigured and in considerable ongoing pain.

Most strikingly of all Corn’s summonings of Lowell’s poems, there is the avowal ‘I myself am Hell’, a phrase from Milton’s Satan famously adapted in ‘Skunk Hour’ with the addition ‘nobody’s here’.  That poem of Lowell’s describes a panorama of decay, finishing with the disturbing animals of the title, their  ‘moonstruck eyes’ red fire’ contrasting with ‘the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church’.  In Lowell’s Bedlam, the antagonist is very much the Catholic Church he tried and failed to get away from through divorcing Stafford after the accident; his new wife, the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (played by Lowri Lewis), is able to offer scant defence against the onslaught through her tender Southern tones.  The hellish eyes of those skunks loom large in the red light that suddenly floods the sterile bareness of the set when Clair Elsmore as the nurse transforms into Stafford to berate him for abandoning a ‘disgusting patient’ who became ‘too unattractive for a poet to love’.

Nevertheless, the balance of Lowell’s Bedlam shifts markedly with the arrival of Elizabeth Bishop in Act Two.  Bishop—whose quiet cheerfulness and wit are brilliantly captured by Hannah Mercer—provides the model for an alternative approach to both living and writing.  Red becomes simultaneously the colour of not only hell but of the absurdly huge scarlet nose of a Rudolf toy she gives him.  It is both and neither.  Palm leaves are exciting for her not as religious symbols but as part of the secular, tropical flora she includes in poems that reveal the workings of the mind through the observations it makes.  For all her own guilt about her institutionalized mother, she laughs freely about the way she repeatedly contradicts herself, being content to reside in flux.

Perhaps Corn’s boldest move is to explore this idea in ‘Mate’, a Bishop poem centred around chess that is actually the playwright’s invention.  Reciting the poem to Lowell, Bishop tells him that ‘If he found no white pieces, the black couldn’t see / To maneuvre, becalmed in ambiguous fog / With a chessboard and pawns who’ve turned aimless and gray.’  The risk pays off because not only is the poem immediately accessible and relevant to the audience but it is true to the metaphysical cleanness and playfulness of early Bishop poems like ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’ and ‘The Gentleman of Shalott’.  The galloping anapaestic metre is perfectly suited to both the poem’s depiction of a knight’s three-square move in chess and the alleviation of a great deal of the play’s tension once Lowell is in conversation with his great friend who may be, it hints, deeper in his affections than either of the women he has married.

Tennyson’s own writing is used to explain Bishop’s different way of looking through her remark that she is ‘immune’ to his physical charms like ‘”Mariana in her moated grange”’—a misquotation that is also a subtle reference to her lesbianism (in 1948, Lowell had told friends of his plans to propose to her).  To Lowell’s objection ‘That’s not the best Tennyson’, she counters ‘I’m not taking on responsibility for the whole poem, just the “moated grange” part’.  The individual phrase and the moment of saying it aloud take precedence over any grander schemes as so often happens in Bishop’s poetry with its love of details and focus on what occurs in the instant of perception.  All acts of observation are partial and reveal as much about the observer as the observed.  It is a portrait Corn renders with great affection, and the play is almost as much about Bishop as it is about Lowell.

Interspersed throughout is the loquacious narrator Dick Jaffee played by Roger Sansom, an unemployed story editor for film who looks back on his time as a fellow patient.  Far from being a simple comic counterweight, Jaffee as a stranger is a clever device for teasing out those parts of himself Lowell is still keen to present to society (he cannot resist the mention of his Pulitzer Prize) and situating the play within a broader dramatic and political context.  There is Bedlam not only in Pitney Akins but outside it in Hollywood’s blacklisting of Communist writers.  Their dialogue also enables Lowell to make a spirited defence of poetic drama—with his Marxist interlocutor adeptly puncturing, for all his dizziness, the Bostonian’s characteristically elevated notion that every writer should exist away from the realm of paying the bills.

Lowell’s Bedlam is an arresting play that brings to life the psychological nuances of two of America’s most celebrated twentieth-century poets with fire and insight.  To its very last, offstage word, it refuses to leave the audience with easy choices to make about what they themselves have observed; how hopefully or pessimistically we view the play’s conclusion says as much about us as it does about Lowell or even Corn.  It urges us instead merely to remain open to Bishop’s idea ‘that you have to live with both light and darkness in your experience, that they’re somehow … reciprocal’.

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam, which had it’s world premiere on April 7, 2011 in London. The second part, by poet John McCullough, appeared afterward.

***

The poet Alfred Corn has written a marvelous, sharply observed, and brilliantly imagined play about Robert Lowell’s stay in a mental hospital for his bipolar disorder. Corn includes the poet Elizabeth Bishop and the prose writer Elizabeth Hardwick in his dramatic tale, which is told from the point-of-view of one of the hospital’s denizens, a fellow who befriends Lowell over a card game. Pentameters is one of the oldest fringe theatres in London, famous for its relationships with poets, including Robert Lowell, so it was an equally apt venue to present the world premiere production of this work. Leonie Scott-Matthews, the artistic director at Pentameters for the past forty years, introduced the evening by giving the audience a thumbnail portrait of the theatre’s long history, including Lowell’s visit in 1974.

Robert Lowell, besides being a pre-eminent poet of the postwar years in America, also wrote well-received plays, as well as having a long association with Britain. (He taught for many years at the University of Essex in Colchester, England.) A so-called confessional poet, his mental disorders were handsomely chronicled in his poems. That being the case, what purpose a play about this one aspect of his life? Well, Alfred Corn makes eminently clear that when a life is dramatized, often very different things are revealed than in the poems or in a biography. For one thing, the life unfolds before our eyes—not the poet’s exterior world, but the turmoil of his inner life. We experience Lowell at the moment he reveals himself to us on the stage, and because Lowell is such a complex person, it takes an equally deft poet to evoke him. That is what Alfred Corn succeeds in doing so dramatically.

This is not just any bipolar patient in a hospital—the play is set in September 1949 in the recreation room for patients at the Pitney Akins mental hospital in New York City—it is the blueblood Robert Lowell. As he tells his newly met friend on the ward, he has just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Of course, the other patient thinks that Lowell is being delusional. After all, this other patient has literary illusions, too, and all he’s wound up doing is story editing in film. This Nick Carraway-like character, whom Corn calls Dick Jaffee, is as talkative as Lowell, and perhaps that is where the two make a human connection. The two Elizabeths, Lowell, and Jaffee are all thirty-somethings.

The stage is a great place for unfolding events, the slow revelation of a characters inner life. Invariably characters reveal themselves by what they say about themselves, about others, and what they do. Bipolar patients are famously verbal, but also physically animated during mania. I have heard psychiatrists and therapists describe the manic cycle as one of verbal brilliance, though usually followed by a crash. Lowell was not at Pitney Akins for being verbally brilliant, though, but rather for being mentally ill. He was famously not on the planet when he entered such bouts in his life. Alfred Corn is a poet of considerable verbal skills, too, so that he is able to portray these effects on stage, sculpting them into dramatic moments that reveal so much about Lowell’s inner state. Lowell is guilty and full of shame for leaving his first wife after a car accident that nearly kills her. Then he takes up with Elizabeth Hardwick, his soul mate. Or is Elizabeth Bishop his soulmate?

Bishop is the character with the most to hide, and thus is one of the most revealing characters as a result of that dramatic tension. She clearly loves Robert Lowell—but not that way. He is smitten as well. But she needs to make clear that she is not interested in romance. They are fellow poets. She loves his poetry, and she appreciates his attention to her poems. They are not so much soulmates—that role remains in Hardwick’s orbit—they are kindred spirits. They both love words, are made drunk on their effects. There is a wonderful scene, not dramatized in Alfred Corn’s play, but in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, in which a line from Racine’s Phedre which Lowell has translated actually comes out to mean the opposite from what the French dramatist intended. Lowell keeps it anyhow because he feels it is a better line of poetry now. That willful, confident poet is in evidence on the stage, but so is the wreck of a person, a man hearing voices, possessed by demons, wracked with guilt and shame, two corrosive emotions that seem to chip away at Lowell’s ironclad New England temperament.

Finally, here is why Alfred Corn’s play is such an important work. It gives us an inner portrait of Robert Lowell that is not found in either the biography or the poetry itself. Robert Lowell the poet is a persona, while Robert Lowell the man is a suffering human being, one ridden with an emotional wound that seems to rend him into two or more personalities. The Ian Hamilton biography, good as it is, gives us details of a life, its comings and goings, the surface narrative. The poems present us with Robert Lowell’s literary obsessions, his lineage with more formal poets like Robert Frost and his 20th century obsessions which align him more with a poet like William Carlos Williams. Towards the end of his life, Lowell once told Allen Ginsberg that both of them were the children of WCW.

If I have a criticism to make about contemporary American playwrights—I am thinking of writers like David Mamet and Sam Shepard—it is how one-dimensional and weak their women characters seem to be. Conversely, I have found so many women playwrights create the most stereotypical male characters. Yet being able to create full-blown characters of the opposite sex is almost a hallmark of great playwriting. Certainly Brecht, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov created women characters that dominated their stages with their complexity and humanity. Alfred Corn’s women are witty, verbal, real, and daring. Towards the end of this wonderful play, Elizabeth Bishop reads one of her poems aloud to Robert Lowell. But, almost like a play within a play, she reads a poem by Alfred Corn. The moment is luscious, and it reveals the character of Bishop to us, while also suggesting why a poet in the theatre is such a dynamic possibility for drama. This stage tableau becomes even more complex and fabulous, a truly dramatic fete.

 

Suleiman

A simple poem would be content travelling
Back from the future to transfer its burden
Of knowledge about the present, but this one
Stays in that present, unable to see
Anything beyond the overrun square.

Or mistakes seeing for having just talked,
Waits there with permanent demands….
That one too is ultimately simple,
As simple as having something to say
About death (it’s partially total),

As simple as Egypt if Egypt were
To live forever on the edges of the square
(Twenty years from now the square is gone).
The complex poem admits all this
From a counter-present the future denies

All knowledge of, where talking looks
Like seeing and seeing writes it down
Whether or not in the order it should
It comes. The peaceful transfer of
Power from the past to the future

Sees the end of a present, escorted
By sand. It’s also the complex poem
Made simple, so everyone can
Use it as easily as a banner
And the crowd a crowd of conductors

(In twenty years the poem will be music)
For a time held wide enough open
We were the palm trees near the beach
Whose edges are ragged and not yet
Betrayed. And then there is

The compound poem, what happens when
The simple and complex meet
In the middle distance of live feeds,
A wind in the palms. Totally at last
The present is all talking parts.

_______________________________________________
Geoffrey G. O’Brien is the author of Metropole (2011), Green and Gray (2007) and The Guns and Flags Project (2002), all from The University of California Press, and coauthor (in collaboration with the poet Jeff Clark) of 2A (Quemadura, 2006). He teaches in the English Department at UC Berkeley and also teaches for the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison.

First things, first. Full disclosure: Tom Sleigh was my teacher and thesis advisor at Hunter College.

* * *

Tom Sleigh’s method is art, but his end is anthropological. His vision is fully humane, an attempt to catalogue people, events, and his own place among them. Because of this, one might be surprised that this collection begins with a three part series of poems that picture a lively army scene populated by  cats. In this opening poem, readers find the sheer pleasure of reading Sleigh’s poetry. His idiom is musical, yet speechly:

Over by the cemetery next to the CP
you could see them in wild catmint going crazy:
I watched them roll and wriggle, paw it, lick it,
chew it, leap about, pink tongues stuck out, drooling.

Cats in the tanks’ squat shadows lounging
Or sleeping curled up under gun turrets.
Hundreds of them sniffing or licking
long hind legs stuck in the air…

The sounds ring back and forth along these lines, resonating with one another in a way that feels formal yet unrestricted: the various ringing sounds in these two stanzas are the closest poetry come to creating to a musical chord–the EEs, the EDs/ETs/ITs, the INGs–all rising and falling go back and forth like a metronome. There’s even some subtle bits of chiasmus (“cURled Up under gUn tURrets”). All this in the first two stanzas of the book.

I’m tempted to reproduce the whole poem, if only because its self-evident mastery could complete this review (If you want, you can find the rest of the poem here).

There is one question, however, that I have about this poem: why the cats? Does Sleigh betray his “calling” as a poetic anthropologist? Let me answer this question by means of another discussion: formality.

Sleigh’s poetry is often noted for its “classical” nature. I take this in two ways: first, Sleigh’s poems are drenched in classical allusion; second–and I think this is more interesting–there is a formality that extends beyond formalism in Sleigh’s writing. I am not totally sure how to express what I mean, but I think Allen Grossman gets at it when he says “all speaking is action which has a history” (from The Sighted Singer). What we call “formal” is an awareness of that history transferred by various ways in the writing: sometimes this comes as a poetic form, sometimes as an awareness of meter and sound a sort of imitation of forebearers (while, nonetheless, giving it a particular, perhaps unique, voicing). To me, this quality provides a very loose scale by which I can classify writers. There are some writers whose writing is more aware of this “formality” and there are some writers whose poetry seems to have very little concern for it, though I think we all participate in it, whether we like it or not.

Sleigh’s relationship to formality is not that of a purist who exalts the “tradition” as the benchmark of perfection. I would argue that Sleigh’s formality plays two roles in his poetry. First, it lets him put down one of the balls a poet juggles in the act of writing (and editing). For example, a poet who is translating is free from concern about the content of the poem–that is, the images, ideas, etc. already exist within the original poem, and content-wise, the poet is not concerned with generating “new” content. Put simply: the question of “what do I say next” is already answered while translating. Sleigh’s formality is often musical: in this sense, he does not have to ask himself, “what sound comes next” because the dictates of formality can answer that question for him. Now–Sleigh plays with this, of course, as is evident from the above selection: some lines have end-rhyme, some don’t; some lines are rhymed couplets, others are an ABAC scheme. Sleigh’s formal play is made possible by the form, in that we might not recognize his poetic choice otherwise. Inasmuch as we note Tom Sleigh’s writing to be “classical” (i.e., to openly have a relationship with formality), we come more to see Tom’s artistic ego/daimon at work.

The second way that Sleigh uses formality is as a way to interrogate his writing. When writing with formal intentions, one makes a choice: do I sacrifice this word/line/idea for the sake of the form? Inevitably there comes the choice to follow, break, or bend the demands of formality. This connects with the first point. Sleigh’s play with formality creates a rich musical texture, and it also is capable of revealing the actions of a poet in creating the work. Thus we see that Sleigh’s anthropology cuts both ways. Not only is he “documenting” others, he is documenting himself. Formality, in this case, allows Sleigh to achieve a reflexivity and self-awareness without the cloying injections that deliberately remind the reader of the existence of the poet. A dramatic mask need not be about the falseness of an actor; indeed, its presence can create a duality that highlights the actor.

So we can say that Sleigh’s role as an anthropologist is still in effect because he is documenting his own place as a writer among his poetic subjects.

But still, cats? It seems perhaps that Sleigh abandons his anthropological post with this one…let’s see.

After introducing an orgiastic, “big pregnant / female” cat who vamps in front of the horny (“cat fuck yowl” is one of the most memorable lines from the whole book) army cats, Sleigh instructs us to

Picture her with gold hoop earrings
and punked-out nose ring like the cat goddess Bast,
bronze kittens at her feet, the crowd drinking wildly,

women lifting up their skirts as she floats down
the Nile, a sistrum jangling in her paw.
Then come back out of it and sniff
her ointments, Lady of Flame, Eye of Ra.

It’s one of the many clever leaps in this poem series; we become part of the undeniably enjoyable act of gawking at the exotic (oriental?). It’s a bit like T.S. Eliot directing a scene from Indiana Jones (or Lucas/Spielberg directing Cats). The poem also sets the stage for the rest of the book. We remember that the Middle East has its own history of empire, a classical age before Islam, before Christianity, when the division between East and West was more porous.

Follow the poem to its end. As the series continues, the poems become decidedly less cat-oriented. By the end of Part III, the cats are no longer anthropomorphized; the “I” (a decidedly different one) re-enters the poem after a long absence:

And then I remember the ancient archers
frozen between reverence and necessity–

who stare down the enemy, barbarians
as it’s told, who nailed sacred cats to their shields,
knowing their foes outraged in their piety
would throw down their bows and wail like kittens.

Readers of Tom Sleigh’s essay “Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry” should recognize in Sleigh’s Protean subjects something he spoke about in that essay:

Dissonance of feeling, the disrelation of “I” to any settled viewpoint, which is a way of being that seems foreclosed to the “mind at rest,” is a quality in poetry that over the years I’ve come to prize more and more….the difficulty of pinning down Ashbery in his poems as anything other than the medium of language is one reason why he is such a bad model for other poets interested in the slippery relations of “I” to “the tale of the tribe.” The positing of a unitary identity is crucial to a process of questioning that identity. Ashbery’s associative movement is too strictly linear in what it is obliged to leave out: the sense that we are getting “the real John Ashbery,” illusory and as much an effect of language as that may be, is simply not one of the formal burdens that Ashbery’s poems are willing to take up.

And the winner [of who disrelates most to a stable subject] is: Robert Lowell. Robert Lowell again?….What is [Life Studies] but a gallery of family portraits in which the faces, at first highly defined, by degrees begin to blend together into the composite face of a crucial cultural and historical moment in Cold War American Life?

I apologize for chopping that passage up so badly (I highly recommend reading it–if only to read one of the most interesting justifications of Anne Bradstreet as a great modern poet you’ll ever see). The picture of Lowell in Ashbery’s relief is fundamental to seeing how Sleigh sees selves, subjects, characters, I’s, You’s, etc. working in poetry. The self-not-as-self in Ashbery can become gimmicky at times because it’s what you expect. The self-not-as-self in Lowell, however, is almost unnoticeable at first. The more you sit with the poem, however, the more the disconnects and fractures begin to show. Lowell’s depiction is more prized to Sleigh because it exists as part of a deeper texture, and is thus more capable of exploring the problematic aspects of self-hood.

I’ve said all that to say this: Sleigh’s poem “Army Cats” displays the same shifting: first we are only readers, then we are gawkers; first the cats are human-like, now the cats have become cats. Most noticeably, the I which established perspective among the army cats in the beginning has been drawn out and now ponders them, almost as objects in a history book. Commands come out of nowhere, completely new voices enter and leave the poem–yet it all flows unnoticed in the being of the poem. You only pin it down when you go back and objectify the poem, pick it apart and analyze it.

Combine the formality I spoke about earlier with the shifting self and one can see that Tom Sleigh is writing, fundamentally, about the same unstable self as Ashbery and others. Yet he does them one better, I believe: Sleigh uses formality to interrogate itself. Rather than creating new ways to enter the poem in order to critique the old ways, Sleigh expands the use of the “old ways,” showing that such formality is actually robust enough to transcend itself in a way.

If it is true that the highest art hides its artifice, then Sleigh is clearly a master; yet he even does not let us as readers fall prey to this dictum. Careful readers see that he never hides his artifice, but carefully documents it. Thus, we see that in using these cats, Sleigh is still in the business of anthropology: it’s an anthropology of himself and of us as readers.

There’s also a connection between these shifting selves and the way that Sleigh weaves allusion and history into his poetry. “Beirut Tank”–a poem that matches Bishop for craftedness–creates a textured, multi-layered subject, which is the result of other voices and histories blending together:

Staring up into the tank’s belly
lit by a bare bulb hanging down
off the exhaust, a mechanic’s hands are up
inside the dark metallic innards doing something
that looks personal, private. The tank is nothing
like the ones the ones the Americans deploy.
Those have uranium piercing shells that could melt
right through this tank’s armor and set off
the ammo box: nothing can withstand the American tanks.

What begins as the voice of an observer, slowly becomes the voice of the mechanic. Perhaps the speaker is just repeating what they’ve heard. Or perhaps they are actually becoming the mechanic in a way. This shift happens more noticeably in these lines:

The mechanic on his back in the dirt,
cursing in Arabic, sounds like he’s cursing
in a good-natured way: who was the fucking moron
who did the maintenance on this thing?
This tank, this tank, he should push it off
a cliff into the sea to bob for
half an hour before sinking under the Pigeon Rocks
where all the lovers gather in the shadows
near that little bar, lit by a generator, that serves Arak

and warm beer to soldiers hanging out on the Corniche:
mainly conscripts from down south, whose orange groves
rot because nobody can pick the oranges: try to pick
an orange and a cluster bomb lodged in leaves
comes tumbling into your basket. What weight
did this cocksucker use, anyway? And this engine,
it’s gonna blow.

Who knows how many possible voices are blending together to create the speaker of this poem? Here the speaker is really a series of selves who are speaking in a semi-narrative arc.

I’ve spent a great deal of time on the first two poems of this collection. There are, of course, many things to say about the rest, but the first two poems–for me–set the tone, ambitions, and goals for the rest of the work. In “Army Cats” we must confront our own selves and ask what is the meaning of the way we are drawn in; the answer is not always comfortable. In “Beirut Tank,” Sleigh’s careful attention to stories and details and his ability to weave in narratives testifies to his effort and observational powers.

Other poems to pay attention to on your own reading are “The Games,” “The Spell,” “The Chosen One,” “Money,” “On First Avenue and Sixth Street,” and “Mingus Reborn as Mingus.”

In His Tree

They are untold: the advantages of entangling
oneself completely in a place like this, up and beyond
all chance of discovery, here where untold means
not in the dark, but numberless, numberless not
without number, but many—and if I sit in the dark
now and wait without number, the difference is

I do it voluntarily. Not the way the yellow leaf
is chased by another but the way the word yellow
can be drawn by hand through the same pond air
and then across an open page. Here the one keeps
evolving into the next, like listening into seeing
thin layer after layer of nacre affix to (to whelm)

the body fastened to sleep in the heart of a pearl.
All afternoon a feeling needed to be described to me
before I knew what I felt. The very terms of this
predicament had disqualified me from the honest
work of that description—prior to my knowledge of
how could I describe a thing?—while the whole

burden of assigning the work to a desk not my own
promised nothing but to deepen the predicament’s
bite in my perception, and having watched hours
and even days turn out largely perceptual in the end
I would discover at this crossing no fast distinction
between seeming to be worse and actual worseness.

But an object absorptive of all my attention, a thing
outfitted with otherworldly fire, set to consume
more than I could ever feed it, might so completely
overtake the mind that there would be no room
available for feeling and therefore neither cause
nor way to describe what just wasn’t there. And so

I set out to find that thing, drawn down by an under-
water instinct true to the warp and weft of a small
false deafness, locked deep in the blue-green private
compartment broken up into shifts and strung in
accordance to the wiles of arachnid light, a light too
truant from its source to reflect a compact back

with fidelity: the sun its half-remembered lozenge
trapped among the birch. Everywhere suddenly
rivalingly glinting like a new place to contemplate.
Cobbled paths linked by garden bridges arched
over the pond’s narrows and ambled on to unusable
amphitheaters brightened by mats of continuous

aquatic vegetation: primarily macrophytic algae
fringed in eelgrass, coontail, and the American lotus
rising a child’s height above the water’s surface.
Suspended in the air on a firm stalk the enormous
round leaves shaped into bluish, soft-sided cups;
if floating, into plates; if emergent, they were as yet

unopened scrolls, a history of the pond’s bottom
unnoticeably written on them. Portions of the lotus
interknit beneath the surface provided habitats
for invertebrates not visible from bridges: cryptic
rotifers and hydras, the larval and the nymph
incarnations of mosquitoes, beetles, damsel- and dragon-

flies fast as horses as adults, but in their youth
sustenance for numberless fish, amphibians, reptiles,
and all the fervid waterfowl whose bills plunge
upward and down with untold destructiveness.
And I could tear my eyes from none of this, probably
because the mind kept seeing more than an eye

or kept wanting to, detecting in what it landed on
what it didn’t see but knew, sensing the relation
between things present and between present things
and those remembered or supposed: humanity
in the park’s stonework, messages raveled in
long bolts of music stampeding from the ancient

calliope at the heart of the carousel, and the future
bound in decay. A lost past beating in sago palm,
the hagiography of red caladium, and the resistance
to deterministic thoughts on identity implicit in
ten skipjacks convulsing from the shallows at once.
Always a stuntlike communiqué in the loop-the-

loop in which wind blows a paper cup across macadam,
deep in a mushroom, and in 108 sunflower faces
turned to face the setting sun, its diameter spanning
108 times that of the earth, here where we in turn
invest in 108 feelings: the first 36 pertaining to the past,
as many again to the present, and as many again

trailing off into the future, each coruscating dimly
as daystars, or as stars at night through exhaust, each
known by its own appellation, each with a unique
list of probable causes, cures, and a prolix description
reworked as history determines what we can feel.
All afternoon a feeling needed to be described to me

but the wording only veered it nearer to the word.
Or even just to check on it would change the way I felt.
Furthermore it constantly underwent self-started
evolutions I pretty much never managed to observe:
fluctuating on like a soft shifting mass, yielding
instantly to pressure and engulfing any object senseless

enough to have trusted in its surface, incorporating
whatever it can into the grand amalgam of itself
discovering itself and finding everything perfectly
indispensable and pointless as the rowboat comparison
builds for the landlocked hydrophobe in all of us.
Nothing terrestrial could be equal to a force like this.

No leathery general could ascertain its stratagem
squinting through binoculars across the scorched sands.
The TV might be getting warm, but police hounds
can’t track it down because it smells like everything.
To surrender to it means you taste its invincibility
deliquescing in your dune-dry mouth, its properties

becoming yours, as when vigilant in a cherry tree
one converts into the branches, the drooping downy-
undersided leaves, the frail umbrella-like flowers
and impending fruit, until you forget what you were
watching for to begin with, the need to know now
culminating not in dominance, not control, but liberty.

 

_____________________________________________________

Timothy Donnelly is the author of two books of poetry, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, and The Cloud Corporation. He earned a BA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MFA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Princeton University. He is also poetry editor for Boston Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and two daughters.

The two loves of Kalamaras’s life: Surrealism and Hindu mysticism (with a touch of rhetorical theory!). A serious look at his work would address how his poetry investigates the intriguing parallels between surrealism and Eastern mysticism, a relationship already hinted at in the origins of Pound’s ideogrammic method, which became the basis of the modernist image.  Kalamaras blurs the line between the poetic and mystic: “Central to my work as a poet is the exploration of language as a way to conjure ‘silence,’ or moments of discursive interruption and dissolve, in which all seeming oppositions are complementary rather than contradictory.”

Kalamaras’s thin volume from UDP offers two dozen poems, all in the same form: couplet stanzas where each line is a (usually) complete sentence. Part of a larger project called The Bone Sutras, these poems resemble Robert Bly’s recent ghazals. The poems are stoic, even, one might feel, mechanical. The method is pretty clear: self-contained sentences/lines that center on a contradictory or surreal image are placed almost at random into an anti-narrative, illogical sequence. The subject matter “emerges” through the images and linguistic gestures, relying heavily on symbolism and archetypes in a style reminiscent of Deep Image poetry. Formally speaking, it’s pretty formulaic stuff, which is probably why I feel guilty for loving it so much.

By writing each poem exactly the same way, Kalamaras creates remarkably even-handed and meditative thought “progressions.” Some images have little effect, but often he “hits it” for several lines, and it’s just “whoa!”:

And so, it came to pass that I discerned eels in my spine.
Memories of a previous birth night after night between the thighs of strangers in Tokyo’s
Shimbashi district.

Aristotle proclaimed the eel a sexless creature.
Before the 1920s no one knew how baby eels were even born.

Saddened, the hands of drawn space floated backwards flower to flower.
The most heart-rending bee blurred through wind, through Saturn’s fluid ribs.

And so, their ascetic monk mouths must have fractured me.
And so, the world is unsolved like a beautiful table.

Perhaps a more contemporary move, Kalamaras mixes in the occasional verbal gesture, pastiche, or otherwise “flat” sentence to vary his register. This is a good idea, in my opinion, as it juxtaposes various linguistic modalities, extending the disparity to language and not just imagery. It’s also pleasant aesthetically for reasons I don’t feel awake enough to articulate:

For a long time, we lived as a thief.

Not this rib, but that.

Okay, the domino theory was wrong.

Far too many people died far too young for his or her sins, or something like that.

I think the future of surrealism is in Language poetry, whereby surrealism’s psychological and metaphysical starting points merge with the theoretical and rhetorical modality of Language poetry. This would imply a move away from the Romantic ego as the author of the text, a position reflected in Kalamars’s non-egoistic voice, as he withdraws himself from the lyrical surface of his work. The mechanical, almost inhuman speaker of these poems, nevertheless, “chances” upon the occasional magic. So, while Bly and Deep Imagism is a fair comparison on many levels, Kalamaras forgoes self-consciousness, pretending not to know his phrases (such as the book’s title) are just as delicious as the butterflies on the cover.

And one can only hope to get a blurb like this: “The name Kalamaras means, as everyone knows, He Who Channels the Throat Songs of the Inflamed Detectives of Southern Surreality.” (Forest Gander)

No Real Than You Are

Not to know me is not to not love me. I could be anywhere near you. Lemon meringue? It’s no good unless it falls apart. It not you. Someone put a logo right over my face. Call for the opener of the mouth, Philip Morris. The words want to be alone together. It’s one way to put them through it. Ethics not aesthetics demands it. People yell, attracted by a gesture — personal, spontaneous, sincere. But jammed verbally. It’s all automatic, spooking the flowers. Are you asleep? The sleeper has two left sides. It wants no straps. Its dreams are light glowing up from under flowing water. We’ll finish the story later with the words at hand. Keep a top eye out for visions.

NOTE: The art is a sketch by painter George Schneeman, who recently passed away.

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Larry Fagin‘s books include Parade of the Caterpillars (Angel Hair, 1968); Twelve Poems (Angel Hair, 1972); Landscape, with George Schneeman (Angel Hair, 1972); Rhymes of a Jerk (Kulchur Foundation, 1974); Seven Poems (Big Sky, 1976); Poems Larry Fagin Drawings Richard Tuttle (Topia Press, 1977); I’ll Be Seeing You: Selected Poems (Full Court Press, 1978); Stabs (Poltroon,1979); The List Poem (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1991); On the Pumice of Morons, with Clark Coolidge (The Figures, 1993); Dig & Delve, with Trevor Winkfield (Granary Books, 1999).

I always think that a poem “off the page” becomes an “act” of language rather than a poem, a thing made out of words. As such, its visual appeal (or lack thereof) is lost, but its actions are magnified—how it moves within the act of being uttered. It is no longer a poem, but an act of language. By this way of thinking, even a modernist or post modernist poem—fully constructed for its visual as well verbal appeal, even a poem as a “made thing” becomes an “act of language” when read aloud. Such poems often suffer when translated from the realm of the page to that of the heard text. They were not meant to be heard. They are of the cognitive brain, and their affective, animal body is absent except as a structure of intelligence. This does not mean they become bad poems, but it does mean they are at least, flawed acts of langauge. They have a paucity of repetition, rhetoric, and tone. They have little or no mimetic force. The page poem is not poetry. Rather it is a construct in which poesis may or may not occur. By the same token, neither is the uttered poem poetry. Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form; poetry resides in something both caused by and beyond its words and this is true even when the poem is fully on the page as words. I call this something presence.

I strive for presence in my work—not for visual or oral appeal, but for a presence beyond the overt trickery of either. I am known for being a good reader of my poetry, but, if you listen to me on tape, you would not find my reading voice to be at all remarkable. I do not use acting or oral chops. I am actually reading with a far from mellifluous voice—but it is always a “Speaking voice.” It is the voice of my consciousness. There are three basic kinds of speaking voice:

1. The voice aware of itself speaking, and, thereby, speechifying. This voice will include various devices of rhetoric such as amplitude, hyperbole, adynaton, apostrophic address, extended metaphor, anaphora, rhyme, alliteration, cadence. Slammers, at least over the last few years, are prone to what I call “shot gun” metaphors—a series of extended metaphors that decorate a basic issue oriented trope—very much like menology, especially monology as it was evolved post Lenny Bruce—humor as recognition and identification rather than as punch line or story. Slammers have also fallen into a definite slam cadence, one which irritates the hell out of me unless it is done with some nuance. But the voice aware of itself speaking pre-dates slam. It is the voice of the orator, the con artist, the preacher, the rhetorician. It is exactly this voice that modernism and postmodernity sought to mute. Now onto a second form of speaking:

2. The voice as conversational lyric—the poet’s consciousness moving, and ruminating, and allowing an audience to overhear. This “voice” has been a dominant entity in poems since Coleridge and Wordsworth. Ginsberg, Stevens, wildly dissimilar poets, employ the conversational lyric. it may be formal, or casual, confessionalist or impersonal and vatic, but it has the one shared quality of being “overheard”—a voice caught in mid-consciousness. Such a voice enables the poet to mix registers of speech.

3. The voice as relaying information—without attitude, simply reading. Somehow this is considered the most honest voice by certain aficionados of poetry (especially those who hate spoken word or slam) but, in its radical rejection of any tone or attitude, it, too, is a literary conceit.

I have used all these forms of “Speaking,” sometimes in the course of a single poem, but I do not “perform” poems. I read them. They exist as scripts for me, and I often change them as I read—much as a musician might decorate a note, or leave out a chord passage depending on the mood of the moment.

So I am not a performative poet, and certainly not a slammer, but I am a reader of poetry—meant to have a speaking voice, a voice that often shifts according to my consciousness. I construct my line on the page as I am writing the poem, not for visual appeal, but as a sort of flow chart that changes and shifts in such a way that, if read out loud, the presence of a speaking voice will be the result.

I bring all this up because yesterday, after I had read at the West Caldwell magazine festival, a very nice woman named Bess came over to compliment and praise me. She did not buy my book because she already had it. She asked me where the poem “Poem for Advent” appeared. She said: “I loved it.” I smiled: “it’s right in the book you already purchased.” She looked surprised. “I read that book cover to cover… I’m sure I would have remembered it…” Then she paused and continued: “of course, it’s the way you read your poems. You’re such a good reader… you should do a recording… whatever you do, it’s not on the page.” I said: “you’re both right and you’re wrong. It’s both on the page and out loud, but it’s really neither. The force does not come from my performing the poem, or reading it with any special talent. My only talent as a reader is that I’m clear, and change speeds as I read… But thank you.”

This troubled me. Was “Poem for Advent” only good when I read it? The poem received a great crowd reception, and yet it was not a poem you would typically read to wow a crowd. It was not that I read it well, but rather that what I had written on the page (and always on the page) had managed to create a presence, a speaker. The speaking voice was not lost even in the page version. I write my poems as I think—they move with my thoughts. Now I want to analyze that poem as if it were not mine to see why it might go over well with a crowd of listeners—most of whom were published poets in their 30’s, 40’s and beyond.

The world takes us at its leisure…

This is the first line, not exactly a thrilling hook, but there are things going on here. First, it’s an opinion, a wager, a statement. Second, it does not yield its meaning immediately. What does it mean for a “World” to take us at its leisure? I am using personification, ascribing to the world a character. Taking is an aggressive act, whether it is sexual or a species of theft. To do so at its leisure implies a certain toying with us. Of course I was not thinking any of this when I wrote that first line. I was probably not thinking at all, but “sounding” my way into thought. I never have an idea I translate into poetry. I have sounding I shape, and within those shapes the thoughts of the poem begin to form. In this case, I had a title first (unusual for me) so I consider any poem that has a title first to be somewhat occasional—to serve the occasion, in this case Advent. If you are a reader of the Gospel, you will know we do not “belong” to this world, but this is my instinctive, rather than premeditated first act. Sound wise, it contains Uh, Er, long A, Uh, aah (the gag vowel), small i, high e, and er again. World and leisure share chiming sounds. IN terms of vowel sounds, it is only missing the long u as in ooh, the long oh as in boat, and the sound, Ah as in Ska. Note the dentals as in d at the end of world, t in takes, at, and its. So, in sonic terms, a lot more is happening than I might think until now. Still, this is not a poem seeking an immediate bang. I think takes is a strong verb. Much poetry on the page is wary of strong verbs. Floaty gerunds have somehow become more “lyrical.” Beats me, but let’s continue:

The world takes us at its leisure
by increments of infamy
or “virtue.”

Now the listener can’t see the quotes around virtue, but increments of infamy is a distant cousin of “weapons of mass destruction” or jack boot of the state. It uses the common sound of “in” as Joyce did with agin bite of inwit. In point of fact, Joyce is secretly hidden in my ear along with Stevens and Williams because I spent years reading them (and not out loud, though, sometimes). The ur sound serves as a rhyming function (world, leisure, virtue), but, as with hip hop, it is never in a predictable position. It’s sneaky rhyme, so sneaky I have no idea I am doing it. This helps create a speaking voice because people are often rhyming without knowing it. Still, no metaphors, no meter, and nothing that sounds like common speech exists here. The first two lines are 8 syllables, but not metered.

In short, there is nothing in this poem so far that makes it spoken word friendly. There are several unusual phrases that get developed later, there is a play with the idea of conning, and evangelizing, and the poem moves into the darkness of advent, into a sort of freely improvised meditation on what is genuine and holy and what is false in terms of the spirit, but nothing in this poem is overtly oratorical. If I had to think what makes audiences like this poem, it is probably the presence of a consciousness moving from thing to thing, yet never forgetting to circle an intention which is to meditate upon the false and the genuine, and more so, upon the merge points between them. At its close, it becomes a plea to God: Maranatha. It employs the mystical oxymoron of “despairing more deeply into joy. Somehow, I am able to convey my sense of struggle with faith and conscience. I also compare the “lascivious” grin of an old Chrysler to Burt Lancaster’s smile in Elmer Gantry, and that is a good simile, a very good simile, and visually accurate in an odd way. There are moments of anaphora, and alliteration, especially toward the end when the poem reaches its climax, but neither is used as a chief shaping agent. So why would my voice, a voice that is reading, not performing, win over an audience. I don’t think the answer lies on either the page or in the performance. I think it lies in presence. Presence is of a body—a form. I become my poem or my poem becomes me, and this thing of the body transcends either entertainment in performance or the sight of the poem on the page. This is the magic of the conversational lyric. Hell, beats me. I know I did not think the poem up. I wrote it one line and word at a time, not knowing ever exactly where I was going: the same way I talk. Maybe people were just being nice.

When charm works, the connection established between individuals is palpable. Flow becomes effortless and meaning is instantaneous. Hearing LaGrone read his poems out loud can deliver this, in a way. Such fluid links are also temporary, made all the more constrained by the instant in which they exist. Having this chance to really interact with Oyster Perpetual as a whole rather than through workshops with LaGrone extends the charming band-leader qualities of his poetry, but also elucidates the temporal nature of these poems.

He leads his parade of broken but non-pitiable scoundrels around urban, natural, and temporal topographies, usually branching off between lines. He has no qualms about naming the people, bars, drinks, smokables, poets, car parts, and more that populate his worlds.

Charisma can be a liability, though. LaGrone is aware of this. Throughout the book he casts wide for characters of all permutations but uses them as a foil for the “self” of the writer. This is the narrator’s world, and he understands his own limitations. Take the end of “Bonding”:

There was almost no wiggle room
around the dropper loops. Laid well,
there was enough temporary whipping
to hold me—so I fashioned a josephine
across my neck for a little flash.
When you got scared, running
into the shed for a Swiss Army,
I knew you’d never learn.

It’s due to the author’s earnestness that we, the reader (and the you of the poem) trust him, despite the fact that he’s volunteering for every conceivably uncomfortable position available in this sex dungeon. “Love is a gimp” is the kind of clever theme that wears itself out quickly, but this poem delves deeper into a position where one becomes non-charismatic, that the narrator’s very desire for shared pain when every partner acts to free him with a “Swiss Army”, showing that they will “never learn” his desires. Even LaGrone’s sweet talk has its limits, and it’s in those limits that this book becomes revelatory.

Part of good chemistry comes from balance, and LaGrone balances his sentimental conclusions with the grit that many of his influences touch on. Levis, Gilbert, Levine, and so forth, are all old men to whom the words of “common” men mattered greatly. LaGrone cracks the nut wider though, allowing not just the questionable decisions and epiphanies of flawed men but also women, oftentimes in juxtaposition. Charm and codependency blur throughout “Tableau with Rockets Redglare”:

… My ex-wife
sleeps with the television on,
says the flickering light
scares away the roaches.
We make love on Thursdays
as though we are still married.
It is comforting and effortless,
and afterwards we play ‘Deluxe’ Othello
and watch Down By Law with the volume
down. The Newton’s Roach and Flea Powder
I sprinkle on the floor makes little difference;
week after week they return
to an understanding.

That LaGrone can give us a tender catalog of bondage knots in one poem and a despair-soaked game night in another speaks to his versatility, not only in terms of setting and vocabulary, but breadth of emotional experience. The roaches return, “as though we are still married.” So too do we return to these verbose, complicated poems that swim in their syntax, though LaGrone never leaves us hanging. Believe the whistles and the winks, because though these lines may only love you for a moment, he makes that moment worthwhile.

Read Sarah V. Schweig on Oyster Perpetual here.

Slip

settle into found bona fides, interpretive transverse
plays meeting to embrace still pretenders filling an
interval – locus classicus – refurbished injury staying,
a stitch in the margin, a nerve- how seen, diverse as
a planet if one can re-member, one shiny token, a sparkle
in the eye between thoughts, expeditious, angular de-
natured curve- cupping slippage, circumference to radius
point being, to or not to come to a complete stop

___________________________________________________

Christopher Stackhouse is the author of Slip (Corollary Press, 2005); and is co-author of image/text collaboration with writer/translator John Keene, Seismosis (1913 press, 2006), which features Stackhouse’s drawings in philosophical discourse with Keene’s texts. His poems have been published in several literary journals including EOAGH, OctopusGlitterPonyAufgabe, Hambonenocturnes (re)view of literary arts, and The Recluse. He has a book of poems forthcoming from Counterpath Press (Denver, CO), and a collection of various texts on art, writing, and culture forthcoming from Sand Paper Press (Key West, FL).

Michael Montlack’s new poem collection Cool Limbo, for starters, looks really cool before it’s even opened. The collection establishes a definite and intentional first impression: with its sassy cover illustrating a bygone scene (addressed in the title poem): a certain sort of girl, luxuriating in her aloofness, sunning on a deck chair near some backyard pool–face wrapped up in her shades, brow kissed by big hair, lost in her radio songs, Marlboro dangling between painted nails; in the water a curious little boy floats in the pool, buoyed by giant inflated wings, gazing at this girl in his semi-lassitude with what might be the kind of fear, envy, and worship a kid can have for an older sister. Cool Limbo traces the emotional development of an awkward boy, adrift in a suburban childhood, into a gay man and a poet who, perhaps, now bobs reflective in the deep end of memory’s swimming pool. It’s pleasing to report this exercise dodges around the narcissistic, sentimental missteps it’s easy to make with this kind of delicate work–and, rather, hits upon a poetry entirely alive with wit, charm, and an unselfconscious voice; his attention is fastidious and oft focused toward the rendering of a sturdy confessional lens through which our everyday relations are decoded. What’s most obvious about this collection is that it is fun. That’s not an insult–fun poetry isn’t quite oxymoronic, but it’s damn hard to accomplish. There is a road that runs between the borders of silliness and the overwrought, and the humor of Cool Limbo cruises down it, ever onward, like a champ. Next, it also manages to carry a ton of weight–this creeps in unobtrusively but is fully evident by the end. The book is deeply touching in its ingenuous sensitivity, enabling the poet’s heavier verse-tales, along with even some of the funkier experiments, to pry apart the functions of remembrance, shine a light in those spaces. Montlack’s work is beguilingly comprehensive in its steadfast intention present through his diverse approaches. The heart of the book is always beating; we can hear it alike behind the cartoonish, the personal, the resolute and pensive techniques (and on).

At its most superfluous, the book offers us wry musings about what would happen if Hello Kitty had a mouth (“Maybe she’s just meow. / Or maybe …”), a prayer for the Golden Girls, or an apologia for Vanity Smurf; but the lightest pieces keep the whole buoyant and, moreover, prove a tonal gamut that runs from camp all the way to the end of love. The poems are divided into two sections: “GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS” and “BOYS, BOYS, BOYS.” The girl parts are full of dedications and percipient character studies of females famous and quotidian–a gay man’s poetic exegesis of his relationship to women and femininity (what he sees in them and what he sees of himself through them).

Montlack has an aptitude for flushing out an emotional condition through hazy lyrics about place, as in “At Tamika’s”:

In the tight kitchenette, petite like her mother,
whose wide face was heavy with frown lines,
rice and beans simmered but never boiled
on the back burner 24/7–a beacon, the house’s pulse.

And perfect details, like this snippet from “Running with the She-Wolf”:

She powdered her cheeks, suburban gothic:
Fully bedecked just to smoke in her yard.
Was this a duty as the town hot chick?
Her spikey galaxy: I the co-star.

And streams of meaningful but simple anecdotes, which especially fortify the character of a twin sister, Michelle, as in “My Twin Sister the Drag Queen”:

When the neighbor’s Dobermans
snarl through the chain-link
as Kimmie hoop-sifts the garden,
my sister automatically growls back,
silencing them as she did bullies
who were dying to shout faggot
whenever she let me bead necklaces
with her and the other “gals” at recess.

All of which is tempered with a sharp critical voice that drifts in and out to ground a thought, like here in this stanza of “The Break Up”:

But still, how scary it is–to find love
now when we have only ourselves
to blame for annihilating it.

The boy parts continue to develop upon the thematic work of the first section, switching the gender concentration, which introduces a milieu of figures including Peter Berlin, adult friends (straight, dead, aging, remembered), the poet’s father, some denizens of Fire Island, old hooks-up and past boyfriends–of predominant interest is Chris, the subject of several of these poems (generally, reflections in the wake of a rough separation), including “The Break Up” itself, which is atypically joyless. The poem employs a killer angle by ambiguously addressing a recently terminated relationship between two men through an unfamiliarly wide frame of reference. The end of a contemporary love sends the lovers’ narrative hurtling through possible contexts, different social and political climates where the love could have sparked and played out. What would their lives have meant to each other during the early days of the AIDS crisis (maybe they would be “watching each other waste away / faster than civilized countries / could give our disease a name”), or during the Holocaust, or during the worst of it in a dark age that our country is newly crawling painfully and glacially out of, where their love would suffocate under its required, permanent disguise?

In this remarkably enjoyable collection, is the poet really that kid we see bobbing in the pool, staring out at the enormous world–or is it more likely that the beautiful pool is empty and he’s projecting this collage of personal history into a blue container–between the pages of a book–filling up the pool again, feeding the ever-draining cavity of what’s happened to our families, our friends, our lovers, our lives? Cool Limbo concludes with a meditation on turning 40–Montlack, for sure, isn’t as old as those who saw the most of a whole gay century–through the furtive pathologizing and criminalization between wars, the stirrings of liberation and a new movement, the social destruction and death wrought by AIDS, the reemergence of a culture in the form of a mainstream marketing demographic, and onward. Older gay writers like Larry Kramer think the youths now are disassembling the homo subculture, turning their backs on history, in favor of the conformist line of being an individual exactly like everybody else. I can see Montlack’s take on identity and sexuality managing a tricky space between the historical narrative of gay men and the ahistorical post-everything world of queer kids. The backyard pool from childhood is empty, there is no swimming allowed, the beautiful pool is empty and still the poet makes a wonderful effort to remember what he has seen best, and felt most, onto the space of today.