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Poetry and Poetics

Here’s a question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

Here’s one that falls in that category for me, “The Doe” by C. K. Williams, a latter-day sonnet:

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.

Now let me qualify “perfect.” I don’t ask perfection to include striking innovation or veining a mine with new nugget. Good thing, because this poem is drippingly conventional. It’s definitely not McHugh-tragicomic or Joron-machine-surreal. It’s no New Sentence or newer freedom. But it does exactly what I was raised to think a poem is supposed to do: make my mouth water discovering its words, make my mind water discovering their meaning, and hurt me. The hurt is key. As the Greeks said, learning is suffering. So here is pain’s perfect translation-as-projection-and-or-illustration, for any deciduous-woods walker process-walking through some anguish or melancholy. Who doesn’t see a deer in the right light and feel all failings come to the fore—yours, the world’s, someone’s in between—especially when something hard has happened? (Maybe hunters don’t, or maybe they do before they don’t.)

But the perfection goes deeper (gets worse) than that. Look at the craft of the thing. From the opening anaphora on, you get the sense that each word was considered on its merits in some plenary session. Each lifted like Larkin’s votive glass of water, to congregate the any-angled light, just so. The brush crackles, the afternoon-oblique sun rakes, the alarm is incipient. Brush echoes dusk’s muffle. “I in disquiet” loudly pleads. “The suffering of someone I loved” quietly rubs. Late, rake, and pain, assonant, hit the final plangent note. There’s also a smart pair of -ings: suffering and reddening, neither too close together to seem contrived, nor too far apart to seem unrelated. And the reddening begins, early in the second stanza, to give us plenty of time to redden further (past Life magazine’s, or 2001’s, baby photo), slowly toward that burgundy finish. Even the word, rest, comes just when a slight pause is needed, to dehisce pain from itself, into pain that pain releases and pain that recognition keeps.

But it’s not just the words that are choice, it’s the movements and symmetries that are seamless. “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” is reflected (in cadence) at the end of the octave by “in a photo of a child in a womb.” Meanwhile “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” zooms in; “Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, / not the air” zooms out. Back at the last two lines, if we separate “the rest” and “stayed” from the rest of the words, as syntax tempts us to, a question presents itself: Which stayed more, the rest or the unrest? Both about equally, the poem answers in its ultra-efficiency.

I feel almost cheated, hoodwinked, like a focus group conspired to write a poem I couldn’t find fault with. So let me return to the opening question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

And what if your idea of perfection makes you worry that you might be pretty boring, at bottom? I could say, well, the innovation here is to need none—to out-Frost Frost, if you like. Yet there’s always something innovative, if you look hard enough. For example, the octave doesn’t hit the sestet with any tension, as it’s usually expected to, but rather with a mild (perhaps mildly tense) stillness. The real tension happens halfway through the sestet, which is visually broken into tercets—to mirror riven pain?

But here’s the thing: I’m bored by trying to convince you, if that’s what I’m doing, that “The Doe” isn’t boring. What have I said beyond that it’s well crafted, emotionally savvy, and (to boot, in the good sense) self-aware? “Boring” isn’t much of an objective criterion, of course. (Boring’s boring apology?) The truth—as it tends to reduce—is that this poem came along when I needed a poem like it, a few years ago, having walked in the woods feeling sorry for a friend, never having thought to imagine my pain as both divided against itself and capable of self-kindness.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Pete Winslow is a very minor Beat surrealist poet who died young and only published a few books, including Monster Cookie, which contains this short poem, “The Dada Scarecrow”:

Two crossed sticks in a field
This is the dada scarecrow
The crows gather around to wonder at it
No straw no old clothes
No floppy hat like scarecrows wear
Just two crossed sticks in a field
And a real man suspended naked
From its arms.

When reading poems, it’s always good to ask yourself how your expectations and assumptions about the poem changed throughout. This is essential with a poem that has a “shocker” ending like this one. Once the sticks become a Roman cross, it’s impossible to see the first six lines without Christ’s crucifixion in mind, which almost irreparably cuts you off from your initial reactions and thoughts.

Before I got to these last two lines my thought process went something like this: Two sticks in a field is quite Dadaist—it is a humorous and effective appropriation of an iconic America object into an “art object,” and, like Dada, it is the “act” of art that creates social and ideological implications without breeching political contexts topically. operates totally in the realm of symbolism.

And I saw the scarecrows. The crows can be taken literally, suggesting, intriguingly, that other animal species can, to however slight a degree, encounter Dada art like we do. Why not? Animals are aware of changes to their environment; they can sense when something an object is alien to its context and demands observation; and they might even be confronted with the inability to interpret such phenomenon. We go beyond this, of course, to conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, like these gawking crows, successful Dada art initially makes us ask, “What is it?” before we realize it is “art.”

These aspects of the poem, though, become background noise after Winslow blows up the poem with the final image. Suddenly, the harmless, funny dada scarecrow (which I took as being merely two sticks—without a doll or a body) becomes a horrific, perverse encounter. The metaphor creates all sort of implications that critics explore, but what is most interesting to me, though, is how the metaphor doubles back on itself and becomes a commentary on Dadaism. Christ is here “the Dada scarecrow,” a Dada artist who confronts his society directly and viscerally. And there is sense in which the crucifixion was a conceptual frame-breaking event dramatically changing human consciousness. In the religious iconographic sense, the crucifixion must be seen in a variety of incompatible ways. It is both art and not art, both something that must be gazed at and something that resists and delimits aesthetic distance. Similarly, Dadaism is re-seen as having unique and expansive metaphysical meaning, as affecting a paradigmatic shift in reality (in opposition to the popular view of Dadaism as “throw-away” art). Like the crucifixion, Dadaism, the poem suggests, transgresses and transforms through radical action that is simultaneously “art” and ideology.

If the Dadaist is a Christ figure and Christ is a Dada figure, they share the status of the cultural martyr. This might be seen as an aspect of Winslow’s Beat identity since the Beats’ premier metaphor for self-representation was the victimized prophet figure who willing subjects his body (and mind) to violence for the sake of humanity.

Finally, it’s important to appreciate the basic act of “re-seeing” at the heart of the poem. The conceit is simple: Winslow surveys the American landscape and changes utilitarian objects into symbols of the collective unconscious. The operation of framing “found” objects into aesthetic space may be one of the oldest techniques in recent history, but it’s one of the basic premises of modern poetry and surrealism.

The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.

I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.

So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.

“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”

The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”

When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Bob Kaufman. It’s what happened to many of the Beats:

Cincophrenicpoet

A cincoprhenic poet called
a meeting of all five of
him at which four of the
most powerful of him voted
to expel the weakest of him
who didn’t dig it, coughing
poetry or revenge, beseech-
ing all horizontal reserves
to cross, spiral and whirl.

Rejection of social norms and ideologies is pervasive throughout Bob Kaufman’s work and is represented in the anti-conformity and “rejectionary philosophy” of Abomunism, a thinly veiled term for the beatnik culture of which Kaufman was a part. This process of differentiation comes at a cost, however, alienating the rebel from his cultural and ideological context. This necessitates a search for alternative contexts and discourses to provide interpretative frameworks for experience. One may search outward, looking for principles independent of the rejected ideology. This option is reflected in Kaufman’s interest in eastern philosophy and mysticism, an interest shared by many of the Beats. Alternatively (or additionally), one may turn inward toward the self as a repository of memories and thoughts to reinvent the world in a more holistic, coherent fashion.

The turn inward is complicated, however, by the proliferation of mediated images and experiences of modern society, and the poet finds in himself many aspects of the American social landscape that he longs to escape and transform. Problematically then, the self is implicated in the reality he rejects, and the struggle to transform America becomes approximate to reinventing the self. Thus, the poet finds himself at war with himself as he attempts to contain contradictory identities.

The negative manifestation of this dilemma is the poet’s frustration, which often takes the form of a variety of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and insomnia. Schizophrenia offers an apt trope of the self torn into multiple, conflicted identities, and Kaufman employs the pathology as a metaphor for society as well.

In addition to illustrating the dynamics of the relationship between Beat culture and political forces, the “cincophrenic” is the poet himself, one who is at war with himself, thus illustrating the reciprocal relationship between the poet and society. In this poem, poetry exists as protest and results from the conflict between conflicting identities. It is resistance itself (“revenge”) and generates chaotic energy (“cross, spiral and whirl”). Society and the poet are interchangeable frames of reference, and the contradictions of society are manifested in the poet as forms of madness.

de Toucqueville pretty much makes it understandable to me why I have not had my poetry embraced by The Paris Review or the so called gods of literary merit. He writes, conjecturing on a literature created by people of means and leisure (aristocrats):

Moreover, the long and peaceful enjoyment of such wealth will have induced a certain softness of thought and feeling, and, even in their enjoyments, they will avoid anything too unexpected, or too lively. They would rather be amused than deeply moved; they want to be interested, but not carried away.

This passage explains to me why I have often been shunned by grad students, and fellow writers–why my books are reviewed, often positively and as a form of qualified praise, as exalting the ugly and the incongruous. This explains to me why some of my best students, while learning everything they could, never showed the slightest inclination to respect me as a poet. My work is not “amusing.” I don’t like middle and neutral registers of speech for their own sake, do not find them comforting, nor will I embrace fake experimental poems that are “different” in the same way everyone else is different (Projection by field theory, non-linear progression anyone?). Although the middle class sees a huge difference between Fence and Prairie Schooner, I don’t. One publishes polished, within the norm experimental language poetry, and the other publishes polished, within the norm non-experimental poetry, and both do not venture into any nomenclatures, syntax, or diction beyond the usual careful and self-conscious MFA program. I do not consider them refined, but, rather, bland to the point of putting me to sleep. Most of the elite lit mags out there now, no matter what “camp” they belong to, share one thing in common: bland-speak, a fully professional and neutral register of speech that is intelligent, refined, competent, and devoid of poesis. Alexis de Tocqueville was writing in 1848, pre-Whitman, about an American literary scene that could not stop imitating the worst “aristocratic” pretentions of the Europeans, especially the British. He could very well be describing what passes for “excellence” in American poetry at this moment. Sad… Here’s some more excerpts:

It will sometimes happen that men of means, seeing none but themselves, and only writing for themselves, will entirely lose sight of the rest of the world, and that will make their work far fetched and sham. They will impose petty literary rules for their exclusive use, and that will gradually make them lose first common sense, and then contact with nature.

and

…wanting to talk a language different than the vulgar, they will end up with a brand of aristocratic jargon which is hardly less far from pure speech than the language of the people.

de Tocqueville is conjecturing on an aristocratic literature. Academic poetry has always embraced such an ideal, even when supposedly attacking it. Alexis goes on to prohesy that an American literature sprung truly from the soil of democracy would be lively, but unrefined, poor on rules of thumb, sacrificing refinement to vitality. He claims (and I think rightly) that the great moments in literature for any nation come during the transition periods, the brief but dynamic wars–in this case between aristocratic and democratic influenced literature. Just six years later, Leaves of Grass would make its appearance amid a flowering of works by Emerson, Thoureau, the New England Brahmins, and, at the same time, the first great regionalists, and the far more democratic and “vulgar” writters of the west (Mark Twain). de Toucqueville’s analytical abilities border on demonic intuition. I’ll leave you with a final excerpt in which he writes of a literature born of democracy:

By and large the literature of the democratic will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected if not despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.

Alexis could be defining the warring camps of advocates for the cooked and the raw, the formalists or the beats, the academics or the spoken word artists. He had us down to a science before we became us! He also is smart enough to submit these are extreme views of two tendencies, and to present the fact that there will be many gradations between these two poles, and some of the best writers will arise from the dynamic of these tensions rather than from embracing one or the other way.

Reading de Tocqueville is a lesson in astonishment. In a few pages he did much to clarify for me what the problems confronting American poetry, and my own poetry are. In my case, I am neither academic nor Spoken word, meaning both camps both encourage me yet consider me unpolished (or too polished). At any rate, I can’t recommend a book enough–especially if you want a measured, sober,intelligent guide to your own country.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca that could change your life, if your name is Euclid or Bernhard Reimann:

Spiral

My time
moves on in a spiral.

The spiral
limits my landscape,
leaves what is past in the shadows
& makes me advance
full of doubts.

Oh perfect straight line! Pure
spear without spearman.
How your light turns my solomonic
path into dream!

This little lyric turns a beautiful, minimalistic image into a philosophical meditation. If the spaker is imagined to be in a “landscape,” as he calls it, then it is a Dali-esque landscape. That is, it’s basically a vast desert with just a few important, unusual objects placed in our field vision. We must confront and make meaning of them. Here, we have the spiral and the straight line—two ways of interpreting experience.

The spiral is a mixed bag and quite ambiguous: it brings “advance” but also the discomfort of “doubts.” Does Lorca think “limits” or leaving the past behind are good? Is “advancing” a good thing? Is this a forced march or an existential embrace of the present? The perfect straight line is an ideal. It stands above and beyond time, caught in mid-air, as it were, a “spear without spearman.” But again, ambiguous: it is a “light” that turns the path into “dream”—but is that necessarily good? Is a “solomonic” path better or worse than a dream?

In any case, there’s no clear favoritism, landing us squarely in the dilemma and the paradox of the “real” versus the “ideal.” What is the nature of that relationship? Philosophers have given us little to sort that question out. This poem suggests they are both operative in life and sustain each other in a mysterious paradox. Who can say, though, what straight lines have to do with spirals? What grounds does the speaker have for hoping in the straight line, caught as he is in spiral reality?

Isn’t it curious that “time,” which most people think of as a straight line (or horizontal trajectories) is here called a “spiral”? That’s western thought for you, thinking something is linear when in fact it is curved, cyclical, centrifugal. Most non-European philosophies have something closer to the spiral model. Another thing we tend to think of as linear when it’s really not: writing. We write in spirals, not from start to finish.

A spiral is a corrupted line, a line finding its way back to straightness, its former state. On the other hand, a spiral turns on a center, creates its own gravity and identity. It is a line finding its way back to itself, moving inward and outward simultaneously, “advancing” but “full of doubts.” It “limits the landscape” by cutting itself off with its own curve/past, thus leaving itself behind “in shadows.”

Now re-read that last paragraph substituting “human” for “spiral” and “life” for “line.” Then re-read it, substituting “poetry” for “spiral” and “language” for “line.”

Photo by Marco Munoz.

Christopher Phelps: You mention in the introduction that you “had a hunch these poems existed but could never have imagined their scope.” Was there a specific conversation or event or book that inspired you to put together an anthology of faith-, religion-, spirituality-, belief- and non-belief-themed poems from LGBTIQ poets?

Kevin Simmonds: I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to pursue this, or why, but I’m certain my decision had much to do with Bryan Borland. He started Sibling Rivalry Press and, in my limited interaction with him, I had a strong sense that he could make this anthology possible. Bryan wants to gather and sustain the LGBTIQ community through our literary works. As far as I’m concerned, he’s doing something new in the publishing industry. Unlike many past and current queer publications / publishing houses, SRP actively strives to publish all kinds of writers, regardless of prescribed and more “mainstream” queer sensibilities. I respect and admire that.

CP: You also mention in the introduction that you “have come to prefer faith, which religion scholar Karen Armstrong refers to as ‘the opposite of certainty.’” Doubt has also been referred to as the opposite of certainty. Do you find faith and doubt to be intimately related? Do you think the LGBTIQ communities, in particular, having struggled to find their places in faith communities, are naturally positioned to write poetries that explore a connection between faith and doubt?

KS: Anyone who considers any kind of religion, especially those who grew up in the church, mosque, synagogue, coven, temple—wherever—should experience doubt. There’s such overwhelming hypocrisy, inconsistency, unanswered, unanswerable or badly answered questions. And being LGBTIQ generates more questions that are badly answered, modeled hypocritically by spiritual leaders and their respective flocks. It’s all a mess, really. As I say in the introduction, love is supposed to be the one common denominator, whether you’re Hindu, Jewish, Pentecostal or Muslim. When love and all its fruit come into question, you know you have a problem. A serious problem.

LGBTIQ people have been uniquely positioned—and “called,” even—to critically observe and then expound upon this messiness. Thankfully, mercifully, poets do their work in this and have been, like, forever. Many, like Whitman, took God back from the haters and re-gifted that Presence to us. Whitman made no distinctions between god and God or, for that matter, man, insect and beast. Others poets, like Seattle-based Crystal Ibarra, look at the God of Christianity and His followers and say, in essence, “piss off.” They distinguish themselves and their cherished beliefs from any capital or lowercase deity.

CP: To hate love is such a strange act, isn’t it? The contradiction of which leads haters to think it can’t be love they hate. So they think it’s sex they hate and that sex is what defines us, not love, and to my thinking this is the most destructive aspect of their hypocrisy (never mind the fact that there’s nothing wrong with the ways we have sex). For if someone is told not to (dare to) speak their love, how can it be known to exist? How can it be counted, let alone discounted? Historically and still, we are those for whom love has been a precarious fact, both a given and a problem: a paradox. In Collective Brightness, there are so many testaments to that love, so many paths into and out of the paradox, so many protean forms: tenderness, probity, irony, wistfulness, playfulness, anger. Some take the love paradox face-first, as in Steve Turtell’s “A Prayer”:

His book has a frayed, twisted ribbon.
Ah, the cover is Bible Black.

They sit opposite me,
a religious group visiting Sin City.

I eat my omelet, homefries, toast.
Halfway through the Book Review

I glance up. One of the boys
is staring right at me. Sadness,

maybe even desire in his glance.
I recognize myself in him,

as he wonders about me.
He is handsome and shy.

And afraid. And alone.
Please God, don’t let them

destroy him. Show him
he is loved and worthy.

Keep him from self-hatred.
Give him enough good fortune

to make him happy, enough
misfortune to make him wise.

Others repurpose the love paradox, as in Oliver Bendorf’s “The First Erasure,” redacted from a Westboro Baptist Church hate letter. Still others subvert it with Whitmanic kindness, as Ellen Bass’s poems do, or with Szymborskan sw(v)erve, as in Ana Božičević’s “Death Is All.” But perhaps my favorite of the Bs is Ari Banias’s “Some Kind of We,” how hard it reaches into the regress, into our bag of bags, to find a hypothetical ‘we’—hanging a lantern on what I love about our contemporary mess, its precariousness peeking out of itself to ask if things might be okay, if we might have some minimum in common:

These churchbells bong out
one to another in easy conversation
a pattern, a deep ringing that wants to say
things are okay,
things are okay—
but things, they are not okay
I can’t trust a churchbell, though I would like to
the way I can trust
that in this country, in every house and in most every
apartment, there somewhere is a cabinet or drawer
where it’s stashed, the large plastic bag
with slightly smaller mashed together plastic bags inside it;
it is overflowing, and we keep adding,
bringing home more than we need, we should have
to weave a three piece suit of plastic bags
a rug, a quilt, a bed of bags even, anything
more useful than this collection this excess
why am I writing about plastic bags, because
it is this year in this country and I am this person
with this set of meanings on my body and the majority of what I have,
I mean, what I literally have the most of in my apartment, more
than plants, more than forks and spoons and knives combined, more than chairs
or jars or pens or books or socks, is plastic bags,
and I am trying to write, generally and specifically,
through what I see and what I know,
about my life (about our lives?),
if in all this there can still be—tarnished,
problematic, and certainly uneven—a we.

Do you think things will be okay? What’s a poet’s political/critical role in this? Is private testimonial enough, or should we be testing our poetries less often in the college cloister and more loudly in the streets?

KS: Life is messy and things will never be OK. That’s my take on it. Yet something deeply observed and felt, something like the paragraphed observation you just made, can be transmitted beyond the “college cloister.” I’m confident of this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gathered all these resilient poets with their mind and spirit-altering poems. I’m their pusher. Remember that term? That’s what they used to call drug dealers back in the day.

I’m mixing metaphors like crazy but we need everything in our love arsenal—Ari’s “we,” Ellen’s wide, wide road, Oliver’s redaction and Steve’s quiet wisdom. Yes, that’s all complete metaphor but we live by assigning meanings to things, don’t we? Oliver turned an ignorant and hateful letter into a hymn…

I can’t speak for anyone but I’m fairly confident that every single poet in Collective Brightness feels called to “minister” to the unenlightened. They do it through their poetry, which is activism. Publishing and doing readings are activism.

We are taking it to the streets. I don’t know of any other anthology—shit, I don’t know of any book—that has a website with all these writers reading their work. And once we start these readings all over the world, there’s no stopping us. And we’re reading outside the rarefied halls of the academy or queer bookstores. We’re reading in museums and churches and temples and Islamic community centers for goodness sake!

CP: How do you feel about the role of poetry itself as argument or rhetoric? Many of the world’s religious documents are written in what is now considered poetry, but most of the fighting about religion happens at the level of prose—literal quotation, formulaic exegesis, anemic analogy. I sometimes wonder if the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins and company, might be more persuasive if they stopped using logic exclusively—the quotient of logic in faith is limited—and started using some poetry. (I don’t want to pass along that suggestion because I fear it might work. For disclosure, I’m a questioning agnostic: I like my God unknown, not excised.) Anyway, the argument has been made that the poetries in religions, the moderates among the fundamentalists, are what keeps them alive and kicking, and had religions just been their fundamentalisms, they wouldn’t have survived this long. They would have been simply debunked. But their (mostly undeliberate) “survival strategies” were to moderate themselves, to modulate themselves to the facts. So some atheists think the onus of bad faith is actually on the moderates—on the poetry, so to speak. What are your thoughts on this issue?

KS: Christopher, yes! Some will resent me for this, and I’ve said this before on the record: I consider the imperialists (ethnically or culturally Caucasian)—the people who want to control and enslave and codify—the enemies of poetry. All the unenlightened natives, with their ancient poems and songs and folk tales, know what they know in ways many of us never will. Yes, we need the imperialists for their logic and prose, their science and medicine and all that but not when it’s all wrapped around the throat and smothers those ideas that need and are poetry. Do you understand what I’m saying here? Push the spiritual beyond its poetry into prose and you replace mercy and grace with rules and edicts, healthy uncertainty into… you get what I’m after, don’t you?

As you know, all the poems in the anthology are organized solely by the authors’ surnames. So when something like Jen Hofer’s “Resolved” and Fanny Howe’s “The Apophatic Path” turn up on facing pages, I must raise my arms in surrender and praise! Both poems refuse to codify anything other than, well, the impossibility of pinning anything down. It’s like these poems are in perfect unison. Regarding Fanny, I know of no other contemporary poet who’s written so eloquently about and through apophatic theology, which defines God through negation.

My answers here are very circuitous, aren’t they? I resist talking about poetry as argument and rhetoric. Of course, my own work has its values and those values are obvious, I think. And I leave it at that. I’m interested in where the poems might lead instead of what their intentions might be. This may be unclear because my mind doesn’t work and process that way. I’m convinced that art can exist and function as argument and rhetoric but I don’t concern myself with that. Perhaps it’s because I’m stuck, in my own work, on what I see as two very different enterprises: explaining and expressing. Doesn’t rhetoric require explaining things? Having a complex series of wires? Whereas expressing is more abstract, open to interpretation and gestural? Ha! Do you see how funny this is? I’m returning to an earlier idea about codifying.

Moderates make me sick but the world would be gone without them. My partner is a moderate and he’s kept me from the window sill more times than I care to remember. You should know that I received many, many submissions for Collective Brightness and, honestly, I’m unable to remember any extremists—diagnosed through their poetry, of course. No ALL CAPS and !!!!!!!! or, conversely, those who had given in to apathy. In other words, LGBTIQ poets are survivors. Do you hear me? Survivors. And I’m sure there’s a scientific law or natural order of things that privileges life forms that, though able to survive on the extreme edges of things, subsists and flourishes in more stable and moderate conditions.

CP: Rhetoric need not explain. It need only persuade. But sometimes it explains in order to persuade. I’d tend to agree that rhetoric can get in the way of poetry’s other purposes. I suspect that many poets sometimes discover a rhetorical purpose in one of their poems after it was written, and that’s probably the way it should work. I do like when I feel I can discern at least some of an author’s intentions—so that meaning is shared, rather than separately brought, by writer and reader, to the table—but I also enjoy poetry that subverts intentions. In that mystery, other flowers bloom. I love Fanny Howe’s “The Apophatic Path,” how it speaks in the loveliest of tongues. In section 2 especially but in the whole poem I find a kind of rhetoric manifesting “what isn’t / is what is”—I might call it winning the argument by wiles, by charm. She even wins it by music, her rhymes irresistible because confident but unscripted. I leave that poem utterly convinced that not knowing is the way to know:

2

Basic science

will blend ghostness
among enemies.

Now bodies cemented

down in monster denominations
to be counted

one of the walking
corpses I see whitening

and emptying
under a sun

makes me know me
to be no one.

But of course a story, simply told, can be powerful rhetoric and testament, too. When I read Joseph Ross’s “The Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, June 24, 1973,” my stomach hurt and I began to sweat. Nothing rhetorical needs adding (if rhetoric is sometimes an afterthought). The story and its context and the lyricism of its unfolding already do the trick:

2

Someone poured lighter fluid
onto the stairs that rose

from the sidewalk to the bar,
then anointed those slick stairs

with a match, creating a Pentecost
of fire and wind

that ascended the stairs
and flattened the door

at the top, exploding into the room
of worshippers, friends, lovers,

two brothers, their mother.
The holy spirit was silent.

No one spoke a new language.

3

Some escaped. Many died with
their hands covering their mouths.

One man, George, blinded by smoke
and sirens, his throat gagged

with ash, got out and then
went back for Louis, his partner.

They were found, a spiral
of bones holding each other

under the white
baby grand piano

that could not save them.

4

Then came the jokes.
A radio host asked:

What will they bury
the ashes of the queers in?

Fruit jars, of course.
One cab driver hoped

the fire burned their
dresses off.

I think of the statement William Carlos Williams made in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.” Are there poems of especially fine storytelling that have caused a physical reaction in you?

KS: Joseph’s poem is striking because it’s so polyphonic. I appreciate poems that can manage poetry, storytelling and historical reportage simultaneously. I had a feeling Williams’s quote would make its way into this conversation. It had to.

The anthology is bursting, really, with poems erecting mythic stories and willing the reader into sublimity. Read that any way you’d like. Edward Debonis’s “Sacred Heart,” Amy Tudor’s “What We Love,” Dan Bellm’s “Brand new” and Moe Bowstern’s “I Give Up” transform the reader—simply by virtue of the momentary reading. The engagement, itself, must emit something into the universe: a heat, a wave, something measurable. And we mustn’t forget Benjamin Grossberg’s “Beetle Orgy,” from which the collection’s title is taken. We are exalted when he writes:

and God, also, comes to some knowledge
as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased
by the collective brightness of human skin. . . .

CP: “Willing the reader into sublimity”—I really like that. It does seem like willing, in at least two senses, is at the heart of both surviving suffering and salvaging from it. “I Give Up” strikes me as a powerful meditation that willed the writer (then reader) into sublimity:

Their wingbeats on the water
Sound like applause,
Like forgiveness.

Speaking of erecting mythic stories, how wonderfully taut is Joseph Legaspi’s “The Homosexual Book of Genesis”? And I’m glad you mentioned “Beetle Orgy,” a poem of such well-tended analogy: our being the accidental god of beetles, and not so different from them; God being like us, curious, distracted, pleased.

God leaning over the house on a casual tour
of the wreck of the world, noticing ornamentation
where it wasn’t expected.

May I ask my question in the form of an exclamation point?

KS: Joseph’s Genesis poem is funny, isn’t it? There are many other funny poems. R. Zamora Linmark’s “Bino And Rowena Make a Litany to Our Lady of the Mount” slays. And Megan Volpert’s tinybig poems are incredibly funny and deep. Here is “A place without work is no heaven to me”:

Sometimes during orgasm I see the faces of dead friends. They are waving and smiling with laughter from up and across, happy I have checked in by flinging a moment of condensed purity over the wall between us. I believe they are working as much as I am, finishing business and settling their accounts. Glad as I am to see them, sometimes one of these faces disappears where I can’t get it back again, and I celebrate that they have found enough peace to get recycled. Whatever the methods, a soul is the part of humanity that is a perpetual motion machine.

Compare those to Atsusuke Tanaka’s “Like a Fruit Floating on Water” and Seung-Ja Choe’s “I, From Early On,” two poems that are anything but funny. Rather, they are profoundly sad.

CP: I love how differently two people can read the same poem. You read Legaspi’s poem as funny, and I read it as ingeniously plangent: a tight little lyric, turning Genesis on its nose, and arriving at desire redoubled, with that choice word suggesting natural inevitability, “calcified.” I really enjoyed Volpert’s funnyserious, tinybig, prosepoetic epigrams, too. And to your list of funny poems, I have to add my favorite, Jill McDonough’s “My History of CPR,” which doesn’t resist being poignant in the midst of its humor:

In the 1700s, once we could print stuff, a guy
in the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned
posted broadsides like our cartoon Heimlich how-tos,
except they used fs for ss, suggested blowing
smoke up the patient’s ass. For real: somebody
should blow with Force into the Lungs, by applying
the Mouth to the Mouth of the Patient, closing his Nostrils
with one hand, while somebody else should throw the smoke
of Tobacco up the Fundament into the Bowels,
by means of a Pipe. At least they used a pipe.
That broadside says if you want to make mouth to mouth
less indelicate, it may be done through a Handkerchief.
Now I go to the movies, see Clive Owen punch
a fresh corpse in the chest. Human, angry with death,
at the dead, our puny lives. Imagine the first
time that worked, the look on the cavewoman’s face
when her cavehusband coughs a little, blinks, comes to.
Of course you’d hit the corpse, of course you’d try
to force air in, breath for the beloved, the lost
one, reverse everything. In Second Kings
Elijah mouth to mouthed a little boy,
revived him—maybe the first medical record,
first EMT: he put his mouth on his mouth,
his eyes on his eyes, and the flesh of the child waxed warm.

I’ve heard that some poetry workshops advise against that sort of thing. . . What’s the mantra? Be straight with your tone? (Homophone your tone?) I think I prefer my tones queer. Are there moments of tonal ambiguity in the anthology that you find particularly successful?

KS: Frankly, it’s difficult to write a funny poem. And today, there is no shortage of smart-alecky poems, which I find off-putting, juvenile and entirely forgettable. Megan, especially, seems to be a funny, razor-sharp person, so her poems happen to be funny. She’s not trying to be funny. There’s a difference. Collective Brightness is rife with poems that amplify the ironical. Irony is hilarious.

Choe’s poem is hideously dark and bleak and the dismal extremity makes me laugh. I’m familiar with Korean culture and it’s intense. Koreans feel and express very deeply. Yet, as an American, when faced with such absolute bleakness in a poem, a first-person lament like that, I can’t help but laugh. To be that down on your life and write about it. Do you understand where I’m coming from? The poem is much like one of David’s psalms. The sheer fact that the person has the wherewithal to write at all is cause for praise and thankfulness. From Choe’s “I, From Early On”:

No parents raised me
I slept in rat holes and fed on the livers of fleas
Blankly going to my death, anywhere would do,
I was nothing from early on.

We brush by each other
like falling comets, so
don’t say that you know me.
I don’t know you I don’t know you
You thee thou, happiness
You, thee, thou love
That I am alive,
is just an eternal rumor.

CP: I agree with you about smart-aleckiness. I prefer true playfulness, which it’s sometimes confused with: playfulness that isn’t juvenile, but is child-like in its curiosity and derring-do. I think there are too many gags in poetry, based, instead of on wordplay and insight, on a kind of literary sarcasm: irony’s jealous, passive-aggressive sibling that rolls a weary eye and works to undermine everything, including irony. Whereas in Tanaka’s poem, and in Choe’s poem, and in Kazim Ali’s “Home,” for that matter, and in dozens of others, the ironies don’t need opponents: they simply say, “here.” In this rat hole. Under this blanket. On this pond. Something has been found and lost, lost and found. Hear how many echoes patience knows. How absolute bleakness can remind us there is cause for praise. How few, but how sweet, the provisions of survival. Truly, it’s a beautiful collection, Kevin. Are there any final anecdotes, or wisdom words, or poem lines you’d like to share?

KS: “How few, but how sweet, the provisions of survival.” This is why I enjoy interviewers who are themselves poets, Christopher. These poets come from all over the world and find, conjure or imagine these provisions. In Kyoto. In London. In Singapore. In Australia. In San Francisco. In Atlanta and Cape Cod and Miami and Houston. Poets who’ve turned away from religion and those who are anchors of the congregation. These poets are surviving and their poems are proof, artifacts. Collective Brightness, then, is more than a book of poems. Of this, I’m certain.

___________________________________________

Kevin Simmonds is a poet, musician, and photographer originally from New Orleans. He majored in music at Vanderbilt University, and later received a doctorate in music education from the University of South Carolina and a Fulbright fellowship to Singapore where he launched the first-ever poetry workshop in Changi Prison. He wrote the musical score for the Emmy-Award-winning HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica and edited Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof (University of South Carolina Press, 2012), a posthumous collection of poems by Carrie Allen McCray-Nickens. His debut collection of poems is Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry, 2011).

More information can be found at www.collectivebrightness.com and www.kevinsimmonds.com.

I am going to use combative here in the sense of Jacob wrestling with the angel. All night, he stands locked in with the angel until the dawn approaches. The angel must depart. Jacob refuses to let the angel go until he has received the full blessing of heaven. The blessing is given, the angel breaks Jacob’s hip before departing as a sort of “sign” of both blessing and combat, and, afterwards, nothing is the same. 

This is true combat, true grappling. I tell you the point of any deep reading is contained both in the idea of not letting go until you have received the blessing, and, also, in being marked with the signs of combat–wounded and scarred in the best sense of those words. This is beyond effort. Jacob was naked. He brought no weapons or defensive armor to the match. If he was oiled up, it was only with his own sweat. What do I mean beyond effort? Effort implies forcing yourself, going through the motions, acting as if this was a drag. No man, in a life and death struggle with an angel would consider his combat drudgery: “Oh my Gawd, I have to read this stupid shit, and its wing night at the Happy Pig! Poor me!” I hate students like this. Fuck understanding them or thinking I was young once, too. The young student who thinks this way is already dead–dead to literature, dead to wonder, and alive only to doing the absolute minimum in order to get the A. He knows only what he already understands, already has mastered, whatever his prejudices have tricked him into believing is knowledge. Fuck him with a spoon. I hope he chokes on a fucking mushroom!

But why should a student not think this way when more than half his teachers think the same? Standards? When I worked in a mold making factory, a standard mold meant it could be mass produced. Even high standards (In a mold factory this meant tighter specs) were merely the perfect form of something mediocre. The word standard implies the expected thing in the expected way, with the expected results. Our government calls this excellence. This is not excellence. We do not like excellence. True excellence is wounded, marked with the signs of combat, abnormal. God forbid we should have children who didn’t do mushrooms, and fuck, and wait until the last week to cram in the  North Tower of the library! Perish the thought! Such a kid might even (can we say it?) love reading, engage a poem with all the passion with which he or she eats a hot wing. It would be way beyond hot wings–it would be agon, the birth pain, that agony which is beyond the power of even the gods to understand. Gods have powers that make effort meaningless. We allow our children to act like gods, and the result is boredom, sloth, smugness, arrogance, and hot wings. Fuck them and fuck the teachers–fuck normality. A culture that is not based on agon, on ongoing birth, is no culture at all. It is wing night at the Happy Pig (until the economy crashes, and the good times flow into a day of reckoning, and every one wants to understand, but the muscles for true understanding have already atrophied).

So ends my rant. I am about to model for you a form of close reading that does not need effort so much as stealth, and curiosity, and the willingness to wrestle with angels. It is the way I read when I worked a night shift in a factory, when I read like a prisoner condemned (which is exactly what I was). It does not matter what you do or accomplish in life. In the best case, you are going to die old and probably helpless with no power either to attract or to get yourself to the bathroom. You are a mortal creature, condemned to death. For this reason, only love, in the sense of ardor and passion, can lodge a proper protest against our lousy state of affairs. Achievements, and worldly success are the way of happy pigs. Love and ardor are beyond the effortless and eternal happy pig of the mind. Standing at the grill with your pretty spouse and little brats while the potato salad draws flies is not a dream worthy of being called human. It is not only sub-human, but sub-animal. You may as well have never existed. You wasted too much of the world’s energy, grabbed too big a piece of the pie, and we are better off that you are dead. If this is what the education system wishes to aid and abet, I’d rather see it dismantled. Amen.

Move Over
Charles Olson

Merchants.___of the sea and of finance

(Smash the plate glass window)

The Dead face is the true face
of Washington, New York a misery, but north and east
the carpenter obeyed
topography

As a hand addresses itself to the care of plants,
And a sense of proportion, the house
is put to the earth

Tho peopled with hants, New England

Move over to let the death-blow-in,
the unmanned or the transvest, drest
in beard and will, the capillary

Seven years with the wrong man,
7 yrs of tristus and vibulation.
And I looked up to see a toad. And the boy sd:
“I crushed one, and its blood is green.”

Green, is the color of my true love’s green
despite
New England is
despite her merchants and her morals

Olson’s poetry is considered difficult. He was poet of agon, not hot wings, and we must be careful of the word difficult. It could mean the following: 

1. I didn’t get it on the first read and I’m bored.
2. It sent me to the dictionary.
3. It didn’t do the expected things at the expected times that so comfort, and also bore me because my favorite thing in life is to be superior and bored. Boredom makes my eye lids and mouth look sexy. It’s the look of high fashion models!

This poem is not difficult. It is arduous, rigorous in its intentions and methods, and you don’t need a degree in post-modernist theory or experimental poems to read it. You just fucking enter. This is exactly how I devoured the poem when I was fifteen. Follow my lead.

First, it was hard for me to re-read this poem because I had written all over it, but I remember: I did what I always do with a poem, I read it first without worrying about its meaning–to feel the pulse of its being on the page. If the meaning was obvious, fine. If not, just as good. Then I re-read it to see if anything stood out in a different light. Only after this, did I begin to eat it line by line. Here’s how I ate it (these are from my notes):

“Merchants. ___of the sea and of finance.”

Ok. This Olson guy isolates the word merchants. He treats it like a sentence, with a full period stop. As if that is not enough, he puts a gap of white space between it and the rest of the line: “of the sea and of finance. Why? Is he being cute? Maybe. Is he ignorant of grammar? No. I don’t think so. A writer ignorant of grammar would have a run on sentence, not just one word with a period, so I am going to assume he has a reason for what he does. Maybe he wants us to think about the word: Merchants? What do poets think of merchants? Usually, not much. They depict them as flesh merchants, greed merchants, materialistic, corrupt, less than poets. Poets really give merchants a rough time. Is this Olson guy doing the same? Maybe. He certainly wants me to notice the word. Perhaps, he is doing it like a salutation and the poem is addressed to merchants–like the opening of a speech:
Dear Space aliens:
Friends, Romans, countrymen: 

That sort of thing. I don’t know. If this is the case, he will impart information or a directive: “Lend me your ears!”

Let’s look at the rest of the line: “of the sea and of finance.” 

Ok. “Of” means belonging to, so this is interesting. He obviously knows grammar, is even a little old fashioned because he puts the word of before each qualifier. He could have written: Merchants of the sea and finance. But he didn’t. Of must be important: it means to belong to a place. The Sea is a locale. Finance is an abstraction, a reality that is usually not spacial, but I think this Olson guy wants to consider finance as a sort of location, too, just as the sea. At the same time, he may want the term sea to have its abstract connotations as well. The sea: the vast, the unknown, the unconscious. Finance: the known, the numbered, the all figured out. If so, there is a tension here. The sea is traditionally poetic, and finance is not. So he is yoking a poetic locale to an unpoetic locale. maybe he is setting up a tension. These merchants belong to conflicting things. They are of the sea and of finance. It’s a little redundant to say a merchant is of finance. I mean, what other kind of merchant is there? It’s about buying and selling goods, right? So the best way to understand finance here is to see it as a place of origin, and it is tied to the sea by the word “and,” but the word “and” separates as much as it links: “Lips and lemons, dirt and the knee socks of nuns. Sea and finance.” The obvious meaning is that these merchants owe their livelihood to the sea and finance. The less obvious is that the sea and finance are conflicting origins, and the merchants will be torn on the wrack of failing to reconcile that contradiction. So, now, based on the evidence of whats in the poem (and not any pre-poem), I can make the following provisional assumptions:

1. This poet is not concerned with traditional grammar because he has a purpose in circumventing it.
2. This poet juxtaposes poetic and unpoetic things, and maybe he will use the tensions between them.
3. This poet may be doing a salutation in the first line, like: friends, Romans, countrymen… in which case it will be followed by something like: “lend me your ears.”

So lets move on to the next line: “Merchants.___of the sea and of finance // (smash the plate glass window)”

Ok. That’s a lot like “lend me your ears” in so far as it is an imperative, a sort of order or directive, but it’s put in parenthesis! Odd. Who should smash the plate glass window? The reader? The merchants? The poet? All of the above? A parenthetical can act as a stage whisper, a note to oneself, an aside. Parenthesis are always a paradox because they say the information is not part of the main body, yet they draw attention to the information contained within. And what is “the plate glass window?” It’s not “a plate glass window,” not just any plate glass window: it’s “the”–the true, the one and only ultimate plate glass window, and we don’t know who this is directed at. it’s ambiguous, a slight of hand. Hell, we don’t even know why it would be important to smash it. Who has plate glass windows, big ones, ultimate ones? Stores! Banks! Offices! Places of power and commerce, so I am going to guess that the plate glass window, the separation of the sea, and of finance must be smashed, and it must be known that these two locales impact, and infest each other with their different qualities. Perhaps the poet is saying it is wrong for poets to only understand the sea, without knowing the finance, the shadow, the flip side of the poetic? I don’t know. I know now I was right about the poet at least making some sort of gesture towards salutation and persuasion. So, in a sense, this poem uses the tools of rhetoric, the mechanisms of public address and speech, but towards no end: pure speech, pure rhetoric, a plighting of his poetic troth! Maybe. I don’t know. I like that he would put “smash the plate glass window” in parenthesis, and confuse the issue as to who should smash it, or why.

Let’s move on to the third line: “The dead face is the true face”

Sounds like an aphorism, a maxim, a thesis. How is the dead face the true face? Well, someone dead, can’t fake a smile or assume a look, an expression. Dead is dead, and this can not be false. Of course, he could be saying that, in this day and age, the look of boredom, of indifference is the true face. How does it relate to the other lines? The dead face is the true face of merchants? The dead face is the personification of the smashed plate glass window? All these are possible, and so I have a new hunch about this poet: he likes his meanings to be multiple. We could say unsure, or unclear, but I don’t get that. I get more a sense of violent refusal to say something plainly because that would take all the strength and complexity out of it and what he is driving at is not mere statement. He does not like either/ors. I get the sense that this is a political poem, a poem critical of something. so far it has merchants, and smashed plate glass, and a dead face. not exactly a pastoral.

So onto the next line: “of Washington, New York a misery, but north and east”

Ok. So the dead face is the true face of Washington. New York is a misery, but north and east… But means “yes this is so, but… a difference to the north and east. North of Washington and New York, and east (east of New York is the sea). So something is not dead north and east. What?

Next line: “The carpenter obeyed / topography.”

Who is the carpenter? Sounds like some mythic figure. Topography is the lay of the land. Rather than fighting or contending against the lay of the land, the carpenter, whoever he is, obeyed its contours, its demands, its essential shape and reality. I am going to assume the carpenter is a better alternative to the dead face, and the merchants.

Let’s move on: “The carpenter obeyed / topography // As a hand addresses itself to the care of plants, / And a sense of proportion, the house / is put to the earth // tho peopled with hants, New England”

Woah! What’s “hants?” I get out my big unabridged Webster’s (why not, its weight lifting) and look up hants:

1. Haunts, hauntings. If Olson means this, he means peopled by ghosts, by haunted and haunting inhabitants.
2. Hampshire: Hants is the dialect word for those from Hampshire, a part of England from which many early settlers came. So: peopled with those who came from Hampshire as in New Hampshire. He’s probably speaking of New Englanders.
3. Hant is an old contraction of has not, so peopled with “have nots”.

I decide Olson wants all three connotations since he seems to love multiplicity, and the not too determined. I’m thrilled because I’ve learned a new word and I am beginning to see how tricky and sly this poet is, and how well informed and smart. I like that. It does not displease me.

Let’s move on: “Move over to let the death blow in”

Ok. Another directive, another proposed act of violence. Something must be smashed and dealt a death blow. What? Move over, and let it happen! And why?

“the unmanned and the transvest, drest / in beard and will, the capillary”

Unmanned can mean deserted. it can also mean castrated, and robbed of manhood. Transvest can refer to passing through, or being caught between the sexes, or, rather, being under the appearance of a man (beard and will) without truly being one. The capillary–the blood. So the beard and will and blood of a man who is not truly a man. Let’s see how this plays out:

“seven years with the wrong man, / 7 yrs of Tristus and vibulation.”

Finally a period. All these sentences and statements are confused as to where they begin or end. Parts of statements may belong to one clause or another. It is not clear. There is a name for this. I look it up. Amiphiboly: the intentional, or unintentional confusion and ambiguity of grammar or meaning so that there is more than one possibility. Example: “He looked at the man laughing.” Laughing could refer to he who looked or to the man he looked at–it’s up for grabs. I realize now that Olson is employing amiphiboly as the chief structural device of his poem. Interesting because I have just read some poems by a student of his, Robert Creeley, which also employs a sort of radical amiphiboly. You need to be smart, and to know grammar well in order to do this. It no longer bothers me that I don’t know which part of the sentence belongs to which subject or action. It adds complexity. It is a justified artistic technique–and ancient. It is deliberate. I can see by the evidence how it adds rather than subtracts from the poem.

Now onto this weird passage: Who is seven years with the wrong man? I know Jacob labored seven years for the wrong woman. But who was seven years with the wrong man? Not Helen of Troy. The name tristus tips me off because I see it as an allusion to Tristan and Isolde. But tristus is also sadness or sorrow in Latin. And vibulation could be a play, a pun on tribulation, but it is also a problem with the capillaries of the heart. Oh this Olson dude is a motherfucker! He is going everywhere, and everywhere being sly, and, instead of just masturbating and showing off, he is adding depth and scope. So we finally get a period after all those clauses, and what next?

“And I looked up to see a toad. And the boy sd:”

Because I’d read a lot by age fifteen, I saw this as an allusion, a travesty of the famous moment in St. Augustine’s Confessions, where Augie is all weepy under the tree and begging God to convert him, and an angel in the form of a boy holds a book (the bible) and says read. The “And” tips me off because when ever a sentence begins with “and” it sounds biblical or mock-biblical: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” etc, etc. This is the first and only blatantly narrative moment in the poem. The boy says he crushed a toad, and its blood was green. This is the third act of violence: smash, move over and let the death blow in, and, now, crush the toad to know its blood is green. The sea is green. Money is green. Perhaps the poet is returning through this weird digression to the theme of tension between merchants of the sea and of finance. We see the truth of something only when we are willing to smash through its facade. We see its blood and know its green is truly green and sure enough: “Green is the color of my true love’s green.”

This is a play on a song popular at the time, “black is the color of my true love’s hair.” Green is green once we have smashed through all the bullshit. Perhaps…:

“Despite, New England is.”

You could read this multiple ways. The word despite means nonetheless, nevertheless, in spite of, but it also can mean spiteful, contemptous, without value. I think Olson wanted both meanings. Whenever he can, like Emily Dickinson, he wants all the meanings. It could be read as a sort of “yoda” sentence: In spite of all this, New England is, despite her merchants and her morals. In short, new England is still alive, still viable, unlike New York and Washington. But it could be read very differently as New England is contemptuous, especially in her merchants and her morals.

So I have come to the end of the poem. And I know a lot about the poet’s intentions and techniques without some expert having to tell me. I know he confuses and sabotages grammatical sentence structure against the line for the sake of creating multiple possible meanings. I know he is political, but not in an issue sort of way, more in a prophet sort of way. I know he likes ancient tricks of synecdoche, apostrophic address, and allusion. Most importantly, I know I enjoyed wrestling with his poem, and I could write essays now on ambiguity, the use of amiphiboly in Olson’s poetry, or on violence as a form of purifying and purgation. The poem is not difficult. It is complex–a very different thing. I enjoyed myself. I did battle. I now might look up other poems by Olsen to see if he uses the same tricks. I may read up on him, and find that this ambiguity, and open structure, and his remark on the carpenter obeying the topography are parts of a larger aesthetic/ philosophy. I have crushed the toad, and its blood is green.

This is how I want my students to read–because it is active, and no less thrilling than detective work, and they are going to die someday without ever having made true contact with anything. If they read this way they just might grow tired of what is easy, and obvious. Who knows? I didn’t get a grade for reading Olsen. There is no grade for passion and true engagement. It is the only true way I know to lodge a protest against death. The gods should be so lucky. I defy, thee, gods! I die, but you never fucking live.

 

What should we make of Plato’s old quarrel between philosophy and poetry? Does poetry think with philosophy? Or might we re-pose the question: does poetry rely on philosophy to think?

For Plato, the poem is dangerous for philosophy as it forbids access to the supreme truth, the truth that provides unity with the ultimate principle that allows the Republic to maintain its transparency.  The problem of poetry for Plato is deeper than that though.  It rests on the fact that mimesis is always tied to discursive thought, and this blocks reason and teleology in grounding the truth.  For Plato, the poem is opposed to the ideal of a perfect means for the transmission of knowledge, and hence is dangerous for philosophy.

Wallace Stevens declared the modern poet a “metaphysician in the dark, who must give sounds passing through sudden rightness, wholly / containing the mind, below which it cannot descend, beyond which it has no will to rise.”   The battleground of the poem becomes the poets mind.  But Stevens doesn’t give us clear sense of the relation between philosophy and poetry, he suggests that the poet is isolated to a performance of thinking in the poem.  In this post, I want to introduce the ideas of two prominent French philosophers working on the intersection of philosophy and poetry.  Judith Balso and Alain Badiou’s present two concepts of philosophy and poetry’s separation from poetry, the idea of presence, and the affirmation, that reveals that poetry indeed does not rely on philosophy for grounding its own truth.

Judith Balso has created a conception of poetry’s relationship to philosophy that helps us understand both Plato’s fear of poetry, and Stevens’ relegation of the modern poet to the dark recesses of the mind.  For Balso, modern poetry consists in the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity for thinking.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.  This theory of poetry, Balso refers to as the affirmation, and its based on a close reading of Heidegger’s work on philosophy and art, particularly his Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry, but she is suspect of Heidegger, and opts to put Holderlin into dialogue with other poets instead of locking Holderlin inside the discourse of philosophy alone as Heidegger does.

Balso’s intellectual and romantic partner, Alain Badiou, (in a way they are reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre of the 20th century), poetry presents a truth that is outside of philosophy’s capacity to integrate it.  Alain Badiou is probably France’s most influential anti-postmodernist philosopher.  In his book on philosophy, poetry, and art, Handbook of Inaesthetics, he claims that the legacy of Plato in modern poetry is alive and well, but that it functions like a ‘persisting nostalgia for the idea’. Every poetic truth in the poem, Badiou claims, is located in an unnamable core at the poems center that does not have the power to bring the idea into presence. He refers to this nostalgia for the idea as ‘presence’.

Pessoa offers an interesting example of this nostalgia for the idea in his poetic project, which he characterizes as ‘anti-metaphysical poems’.  For Pessoa, the idea of presence functions in the relation between the world and its representation in the poem.  He says, “when you see a thing in the poem, it is exactly the thing.”  The world becomes that thing whose presence is more essential than objectivity. As Stephane Mallarmé claims, the modern poem is centered on the dissolution of the object from its purity.

For Badiou, this play of presence in poetry gives poetry a privileged ground for the production of new truths by enabling truth to develop within the poem itself.  The poem produces a singularity for which philosophy cannot account for.  Each poem offers a singular type of truth, occurring as a sort of event.  Similar to Balso’s notion of the affirmation, the poem is like a decision of presenting oneself to the present.  The poem offers the possibility for the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.

Presence, the affirmation, or the nostalgia for the Platonic idea occurs in the immediacy of the poem itself, not through an artistic expression of the world, but as an operation. The poem’s operation is the vehicle for thinking, a thinking that is internal to the practice, a thinking of thinking itself.

If we visit Pessoa’s poetic project briefly, we see both this idea of the affirmation and presence in action.  Pessoa’s poems are diagonal, like a Cubist painting. They look directly into the light, in an anti-Platonic stance; they are opposed to any absolute idea.  Badiou suggests that the operation of the poem for Pessoa is tied to a hidden mathematical code that philosophy can’t yet integrate or fully understand.  As we see in this untitled piece by one of Pessoa’s over 80 heteronym’s Alberto Caeiro, the poem’s idea of presence contained within the poem alone becomes apparent.

To see the fields and the river
It isn’t enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each one of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.

This paradoxical play of a “metaphysics subtracted from metaphysics” in Pessoa enables poetry to enter into a new ontology of truth, and ultimately, a new relation to the Platonic idea.  Pessoa himself had a great depth of understanding of philosophy, and this may be in part why he continues to baffle our preconceptions and confuse any possibility of developing a coherent way to place Pessoa’s contribution to modernity.

What is at stake in the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is still a very Platonic question.  The poetic perspective opened up through the idea of presence represents an opening of thought to the principle of the thinkable, where thought must be absorbed in the grasp of what establishes it as thought – i.e. in the poem itself.  Yet the modern poet, as Celan tells us, must still wrestle with the recognition that the whole is actually nothing.

Secrets of the Garden of a Vacant House Seen in a Dream
(translated by Hiroaki Sato)

Things planted in the garden of a vacant house are
_______pine trees and such
loquat trees___peach trees___black pine trees___sasanquas
_______cherries___and such
prosperous leafy trees___branches of leafy trees that
_______spread around
as well under the leaves of those swarming branches
_______the plants that luxuriate continuously
all in all___ferns___bracken___fiddleheads___sundews___and
_______such
all over the ground they pile up and crawl
the life of these blue things
the garden of the vacant house is always in the plants’
_______shadows and dim
only what faintly flows is a streak of rivulet water
the sound of the running water soughing sadly and
_______low day and night
as well somewhere neat the soggy fence
I see the uncanny muculent forms of slugs___snakes
_______frogs___lizards___and such.
And above this secluded world
pale moonlight illuminates the night
moonlight flows in mostly through the planted groves.
Heart intent on thoughts of this late night deepening
_______ever funereal
my heart leaning on the fence madly plays the flute
ah___this secret life where various things are hidden
a world where boundlessly beautiful shadows___and
mysterious forms pile up one upon another
illuminated in moonlight: ferns___bracken___branches of
_______pine trees
the eerie lives of slugs___snakes___lizards___and such
ah___how I miss the secrets of the garden of this
_______vacant house I often dream of___where no one
_______lives
and its deeply suggestive seclusion its mystery ever
_______unsolved.

 

_______________________________________________________
Born into a wealthy family, Hagiwara Sakutaro (萩原 朔太郎, 1886-1942) was able as a young man to devote himself to poetry. Although he did not finish college, he read Western authors, including Poe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Dostoevsky. His major works of poetry, written in 1917 and 1923, were Howling at the Moon and Blue, both collected in this volume, along with a substantial selection of poems from other books and a complete translation of Cat Town, a prose-poem roman. These works transformed modern Japanese poetry, and changed forever the face of the future poetic landscape in Japan.

More of these translations are available here.

Photo by Marco Munoz.

I always liked making things up, improvising, using my “imagination.” I do not remember my dreams because I spend the greater part of my day restructuring the past and fitting it into schemas of relationship and disrelationships, and not to any discernible end. In short, I am always in a dream. Perhaps it is the ends of art I hate–the way it is “valued” rather than integrated into the dynamic of being alive. You have to be careful saying art is for everyone because this is a sales pitch from the creativity experts and another way to make money.

Art is not for everyone. Many people are happy never to have a moment with art if they can possibly avoid it. Hell, I am happy to never have a moment with art if I can possibly avoid it. If you define art as a judgement of aesthetic value, then this is the least interesting part of the experience of making things up, improvising, and using your imagination.This is the morning after when you look at the thing you made and say: “What the hell was I thinking?” Almost everything I have ever made–songs, poems, stories, has elicited this response from its creator. I am disappointed in all but perhaps 4 poems, one story, and a couple of music compositions. I have never liked the poem of mine that is most anthologized: “Ode to Elizabeth.” I know it is the perfect “representative poem”–not my best poem, and, honestly, all it truly represents is a moment in 1980 when the chemical fires in Elizabeth, New Jersey were inspiring Time Magazine to refer to my home city as “grimy Elizabeth.” In the poem I never talk about the chemical fires, and I never argue against Elizabeth being grimy. The whole poem is an answer to one question: given that something is grimy, can it still have value–and not the value of feeling sorry for it, or wanting it to be other than it is–but the value of what no one but a consciousness that has been formed by that place can see? The poem praises Elizabeth New Jersey by saying: yes, it is grimy, and unartisitc, and full of people who have lousy taste in furniture, but I saw Amarcord there, and with a bunch of friends who had no idea about the snobby distinctions between movies and cinema, and we had a true experience of the film. We responded to it: “if art moved us at all, it was with real amazement/ we had no frame of reference.”

Art then that does not delight, move, amaze, or engage one’s most active intelligence is what I call aesthetic bureaucracy–the means that have forgotten their original ends and serve only their own process as “value.” Such art needs experts and gatekeepers, and protectors and advocates. It needs prestigious presses, and “award winning authors.” It makes me ill–not because I have been excluded from it (I have been allowed through the back door of this world, and can flash certain badges such as a New York Times articles on my poetry, featured with Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Dunn, etc) but because I never thought I was insignificant to begin with. I consider my mind, flawed as it is, to be in communion with a living God, and know that I never wrote a single poem or song, or story for “publication.”

Everything I did was out of Lordly, Godly, arrogant impulse to waste time–to spend my time making things up, and using my imagination, and scribbling on my tomb so to speak. Death is coming. it will be our only permanent accomplishment. Everything then, beyond this, is a scribbling on the tomb, a sort of ferocious, and desperate, and, yes, holy/sacramental graffiti. Everything, including how your friends remember you, is a version of “Kilroy was here.”

This personal essay then is inspired by something that happened to me recently. One of my best friends, and former students, Adam Fitzgerald, wrote “call me!” on my Facebook. So, being me, I thought something happened to him, and, being an insomniac who had just enjoyed the only two hours of sleep I was going to get, I called him. He was en route. People in Manhattan are always en route. He was with Bianca Stone and going somewhere, but he wanted me to know that Bomb magazine had said something wonderful about the chapbook we published through Monk Books by Mark Strand called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka. Great! I tried to be enthusiastic, but all I really wanted to do was Google “Long Branch, New Jersey” and remember which president died there (James Garfield). I was a little ill, and a little weary, and the book is beautiful, and the fun part was instigating it, and funding it, and watching Bianca and Adam do all the real work, and seeing the result. Affirmation of Mark Strand seemed beside the point. The guy has had his share of affirmation. I was thinking, “what about Bernadette Meyer’s chapbook, or even more importantly, Ben Pease’s chapbook, which contains one of the best and most adventurous long narrative poems I have read in years?” I was being a party pooper, a role I find myself playing with increasing frequency. On paper I should be thrilled: I am the “publisher” of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the book I helped bring into being is being lauded by Bomb–a well known literary zine. But whatever this is, it didn’t register as deeply with me as my then urgent desire to remember that Long Branch was once the summer resort of presidents and that James Garfield went there to recover from a gun shot wound and, well, he didn’t recuperate. I attempted to imagine Long Branch then–late 19th century swimming, the anciently sudden and suddenly ancient smell of salt marsh and wave spume. It was a rude way to behave towards a friend. As Shakespeare said: “you treat comfort like cold porridge.” I behaved like my Irish relatives who, when informed that you won the Noble Peace Prize, would remind you that your cousin Pete was a state champion spoon player, and much better looking besides.

Wet blanket? Far beyond that. I realized that achievement to one who has lived all his life in loss and failure, and who has experienced more or less constant rejection, is, itself anti-climatic. The joy exists in the possibility of things–in their perhaps. Years ago, I read at an event called the Paterson Poetry Marathon. I did well, and Philip Levine, the headliner, came over to me and shook my hand and said: “I want to thank you both for your humor and your outrage.” I should have been thrilled. Instead I went into the bathroom and cried because my parents were dead and my grandmother was dead, and everyone who could have been happy for me and who I wanted to be happy for me (the people who stand and wave at you while you are going around and around on the kiddie ride) are dead. I felt desolate, destroyed. So-called success seemed to have all the flavor of cardboard. If no one had come up to me, it would have been worse, of course, but I realized the losses and years of being a tool grinder on the night shift had rendered me incapable of being achievement-oriented. I am possibility-oriented, doing-the-deed-oriented. While I am reading or writing, or playing a piano, all is possible. After that, it’s hard to take anything seriously. If I had to think of truly meaningful moments in my life as a so called artist, they’d be some of the following.

The last time Joe Salerno came over my apartment in Elizabeth with a mixed cassette tape of music he had been recently excited by: it was truly mixed–Hadyn, Mozart, and Charles Ives. We drank saki and talked about music for hours. Joe liked trees the way I did, and I took him drunk and a little unsteady up the block to show him a full grown American Elm (rare after the dutch elms disease of the 40s). I didn’t know it, but the city had cut the tree down that morning. There was only the stump. We held our glasses full of saki. We reflected like two grown men standing over a blown engine. “Well,” I said, “there’s the stump!” We laughed. Joe reminded me of the great Chinese poem in which the poets get drunk and go into the garden to admire the flowers and the flowers lament that they have gone to all that trouble of blooming to be admired by a bunch of drunks. He quoted the poem. We laughed some more. Joe was dying of lung cancer, but he had not yet been diagnosed. Six months later he was dead, and I played that mixed tape for years until it felt apart. The possibility of talking music and poetry late into the night with a friend and neither of you are talking about the art business… that has meaning. It is the not graffiti on the grave. It is the eternity hidden in transience–what Keats best expressed.

Back in 1988: Dave Roskos and I are in Manhattan placing our new magazines Big Hammer and Black Swan in a book store. It may have been St. Mark’s books. Anyway, Gregory Corso is in there talking with the manager, and he’s pretending not to be Gregory Corso, and we’re pretending not to know he’s Gregory Corso, and he leafs through our magazines and says: “I don’t know these guys… Wait, I heard of Keith Sheppard.” He reads the poem by Sheppard. “Not bad,” he says. We place the magazines on consignment and split into the hot summer’s afternoon and we are laughing because Keith Sheppard is one of my aliases, and I am new to the poetry scene and have filled one quarter of my first issue with poems I wrote under aliases (including a nun who is an expert on Hopkins and George Herbert). We have good Mexican food, and meet up with my painter friend Elieen Doster who has hair the color of new pennies. Great day–again, nothing to do with achievement, but with possibility.

1985: I’m with my friend Marco Munoz in a long defunct art gallery called Oroe Electric in Hoboken. The clarinetist Perry Robinson is playing with his father, Earl Robinson, winner of an academy award, and a man who played with Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and whose songs were performed by Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra. Earl is an old radical and union man and calls me brother when he finds out I’m a tool grinder on the night shift. The party after the event hosted by Susan Shafton, includes a lot of wonderful musicians, including Gary Schneider, conductor of the Hoboken Symphony Orchestra. I am young and arrogant and happy and drunk enough to play piano among them, and sing my songs, and Perry joins in, and Gary likes the way I play piano, and Earl shakes my hand and beams. No hierarchy, none of that stupid, God forsaken, spiritually bankrupt pecking order we call “The arts.” We play for hours–folk music, atonal music, hard bop, weird mongrel versions of all of the above. I am dressed in a cool suit and so is Marco who scats happily along. Joy, art. Not “the arts.” I hate “the arts.” It takes all the fun out of things.

1977: The year my mom died. My friend Huey is over my house, and I am playing a song I wrote. I hear blubbering, and I look over and Huey is crying–this big, good looking jock. he says: “that’s beautiful.” I never had a friend say that to me before. where I come from, it takes great courage and a good heart to say such things openly. 34 years later, it means more to me than getting nominated for Pushcarts. You can put Pushcarts on a curriculum vitae, but its not what makes you create. If it is, then you’re pretty fucking pathetic. Nothing is more pathetic than someone who achieves and is not alive except for their achievements. Such a person is a slave to the wrong master. It is terrible when no one appreciates your art or wants to hear or see or recognize it. It is more horrible when that’s all that matters.

1999: my first year as an instructor at arts high. The students don’t want the class to end and I teach a summer program (for free) in a wonderful place called Rutgers gardens. There are kids playing guitars, and writing poems, and hiking through cedar and bamboo forests, and I am not making a dime, and they are not getting a grade, and everyone shows up every Thursday for no other reason than we are making shit up as we go along, and enjoying the energy of making shit up as we go along. The next year, I have forty kids in the woods–Adam Fitzgerald being one of them. My former friend’s son, Danny Salerno comes by to visit and recites Beowulf in the Anglo Saxon and the girls (and probably some of the boys) all swoon because he is good looking. Later, at the pizza joint we repair to after working on being artists, Danny and Adam get into a huge fight over whether Falstaff or Hamlet is the greater character, and they almost come to blows. I am not there since I have to go to my 4 to 12 shift job in the factory, but I hear about it from the other students, and I am delighted. What teacher would not want 17 year old students almost coming to blows over Falstaff and Hamlet?

I am not knocking people who are achievement oriented. I wish I could feel proud of anything I achieve. I can’t. Even if I won awards, and became a “living legend,” I’d still be short and balding, and full of the griefs I experienced, and I’d still be most excited by a chord progression I accidentally stumbled upon. I’d still miss the people who died and who I loved–which is almost everyone I ever loved. The best thing about being famous would be the money. I’d blow most of it on instruments and art projects, and taking my wife out to eat. I’d give money to artists I thought were unrecognized, and I’d be able to shit on the heads of all the so called big shots who snubbed me over the years. Being “snubbed” is part of “the arts.” I hate the fucking arts. I love the possibility of 40 young people in a field fucking around with paints and guitars. Maybe only one of them becomes well known, but it took all forty to create that one well known artist. Desire is never isolated.

Three years after I started teaching the summer program, the school made it official and put it in doors, with air conditioning, and ruined the integration of painting and poetry and music, and put each in its proper hole. They had the best intentions. I hate intentions. I had only one–to waste time. I was teaching my students how to hang out. Who the fuck died and left the experts to decide what is significant or worthwhile? If no one invites you to the party, throw your own and fuck them! This is what I was teaching. I was trying to teach my students the necessary arrogance of art, and its humility. The humility is this: nothing will ever feel as good as actually doing it–not awards, not achievements, not anything that results from doing it–nothing, and if the other things begin to take precedence, you are in danger. I hate “the arts.” Right now, I wish I knew a good cello player, and one who could wing it, and they’d come over and play with me for a couple hours. Sometimes, while I’m playing the piano, I can hear the cellist beside me playing other riffs. I get excited and I start to dream of the possibility. if a real cellist came over they would want to work towards a goal. A truly accomplished cellist would probably snub me, so a half-assed cellist would do just as well. As my grandmother said: If the picture is crooked, and you can’t adjust it, adjust your head.” My standards are low. A 17 year old student so passionate about Shakespeare that he takes on a 22 year old guy who can speak Anglo-Saxon is as exciting to me as Bomb magazine praising a book I was involved with. Whenever that isn’t true, I begin to feel spiritually sick inside. So my apologies to Adam. What really thrills me is that I knew Adam when he chewed key chains incessantly and played Visions of Johanna 20 times a day. I am happy to see him flourish. It’s like being a parent and watching your kid go around and around on a ride and, suddenly, you realize he isn’t a kid, and he’s calling you up when you’re ill and tired and lonely for a world that was not all fucking achievements and kudos and you ought to wave–even if you’re half dead. I feel more than half dead. Possibility is hard to come by, especially when everything is to a purpose. I believe in wasting time. I am trapped in a goal-oriented, sick America of insane positive thinking and achievement psychosis… someone get me a half-assed cellist. Quick! Someone get me a park and 40 young artists wasting time. I love making stuff, writing, composing, fucking around with my garden. I hate “the arts.”

Three Prose Poems

1.

He begins the day with very strong, black coffee. He sits in his reading chair and stares at The Iliad. He opens it, reads: “As the fighter tore out the blood came gushing forth / and his heart sank.” He puts the book down and thinks about what the world is like. He thinks it might be a Connecticut chest with a heterogenic antiparticle in the left panel and a pool of dark steaming blood in the right panel. In the center panel, behind the sunflower, there is an inactive slipperette placed catawampus on an ostrich’s brow. In the end, Hector is dragged along the ground and Troy goes up in a blaze.

2.

He spent three days writing. On the fourth day he got a haircut. It was a day mixed with thinking and reading. On the fifth day he wrote some more. “For the next two days,” he thought, “I will do nothing but read.” Instead, however, he drove to Pittsburgh and talked to an old woman and broke her stool. Then he ate a banana and attended a shouting match in which one side represented yellow and the other, red.

3.

He went to a cemetery and looked for a headstone with a familiar name. After a while he went to another cemetery and did the same, without success. It was Sunday morning and everyone was in church. But there was no need for candles, as it was a sunny day and the sun kept bringing strong white flames of light to the world. He repeatedly attempted to cast himself into the flames, but the cemetery grass smothered the flames with kisses, and he could only anguish in dry heat, his skin remaining unscathed.

________________________________________________________
Brooks Lampe teaches rhetoric, composition and poetry. He has several experimental Twitter projects including @TheOpenField, @SurrealPoems, @Microdream, and @BrooksLampe. Currently, he is dissertating at the Catholic University of American in Washington D.C. on Surrealism in contemporary American poetry.

Most of the work I do in the garden is a sort of re-reading. I might stare at a spot for a good ten minutes, then go to another place and stare at that same spot again until either satisfaction, or displeasure, or further bafflement causes me to place a few rocks, or to plant a delphinium or conclude: “there’s too much there already. Let it be.”

I don’t know what I’m doing and that makes it all the more enjoyable and baffling. I have some vegetables in, but not for the purpose of feeding myself. I intend to give them away. To me, holding up a squash towards a stranger and saying: “here… have a squash,” is a god-almighty amazing experience. Me and the rain and the sun and days of weather went into that gourd’s existence. There’s a bit of the child in it: “See what I made, mommy?”

Of course, most people don’t know what to do with a squash. Those that do know what to do with a squash most likely already have squash of their own. My grandmother said: “The true message of all gifts is: I have seen you. You exist upon the earth. See me.” She claimed that once you realized this, any gift you received would be in good grace. ” It’s not the gift; it’s the grace.” She once watched a woman say to her child who had brought her a wilted dandelion: “It’s wilted, Mary. For Christ sake, don’t be an idiot. I have no use for a wilted dandelion.” My grandmother said: “After that, I had no use for that woman… She was a bad reader of the truth. She prided her self on her honesty, but she wouldn’t know the truth if it rose up and bit her on the arse.” My grandmother had a bone to pick even with God in this respect: “Cain gave his offering no less sincerely than his brother Abel, but God wanted to show his whim was boss. He spat on Cain’s heart, and so Cain killed Abel. To spit on another’s heart is to create a murderer. If you could look at the hearts of murders you would see them covered in spit… God let Cain live. God had a plan I suppose, but I don’t see much of a difference between God and that mother with the wilted dandelion. God forgive me, but I think God acted in poor taste… no wonder he let Cain live. Poor Abel… I don’t think he rubbed it in his brother’s face, and he should not have been murdered, but that’s what we do, don’t we? When someone too powerful to hurt, hurts us, we go and slit the throat of the next fellow, and on and on. Envy and the hurt of it makes a terrible mess. The rope coils and we get more and more tangled. don’t we? Ah ‘tis a truth; no use asking why. Y is a crooked letter won’t be made straight.”

I loved my grandmother. She smelled like dirt, and old newspapers, and cough drops. She died when I was 11, my first true death. As a member of a large Irish Catholic family, there were always the wakes of friendly but distant great uncles, but I had seen my grandmother and she saw me. We watched each other. We were vigilant as regards each other’s comings and goings upon the earth. When she died, the song “Bridge Over Troubled water” was a new hit. The lyrics Paul Simon later regretted writing because they seemed mere filler had great private meaning for me: “Sail on silver girl, sail on by. Your time has come to fly. All your dreams are on their way.” I would sit alone in my room with a transistor radio and wait for this song, and when it came, I would wail to my heart’s content. I knew then that loss had given me significance, and, more so, it had given whatever I loved significance. My grandmother had become enormous, even a little terrifying–a presence and a myth rather than an old lady who smelled like dirt and never stopped talking. She was in the landscape all around me, in the moody shifts of the weather. Winter was now her season for she had died in winter. I was almost angry at the spring for arriving.

A garden, like all true relationships, is a pact with loss, with effacement, and when we fear effacement, it already begins to give birth to power and envy and death inside us. This is the grasping that undoes all we might be given. Zen monks expend great care on creating a mandala they then erase. It may take weeks of painstaking skill, and then they just rub it out. Love does not fear effacement. It comes into the world to be erased. It comes with great trouble and care, and much reading and re-reading in order to die. The loss is in–not of–the loss in things. I see this in my garden. Nothing I do succeeds in the way of permanence. It is not change either. I hate change. change is the great whore of the present hour. I have no use for that whore. If truth is passed permanence, then it is also passed change. Permanence and change are both to be discarded. What we lose and what we gain have nothing to do with either. Permanence and change, upon close scrutiny, always yield their falsehoods. They exist to prove each other false. I call this the comedy of revision. By gardening I revise the landscape, and when I die, the earth will revise me. What I edit will become my editor.

Yesterday, I was away from my garden, reading for an anthology “Working Poets” in Paterson. My wife and I had some time to kill, so we wandered into a Barnes and Noble. I looked at all the hundreds of new books, and then I went to the poetry section and picked up Whitman’s Leaves of Grass–a work I have read and re-read many times. I was looking for a certain section, much the way you look for a grave of a relative you have not visited in a while. the cemetery always seems different. You can’t find the grave right away. Someone is always coming out with a new or final version of Whitman and many of these wish to be faithful to Whitman. And you cannot be faithful to Whitman, but, hey, why not? The versions did not have the usual section markers, so I read poems I had no intention of reading, and soon I was crying, and ashamed of myself for I am a big cry baby.

What I was looking for was the sixth part of song of myself. I intended to read it in honor of a woman named Arlene who had worked for Maria Mazziotti Gillan for many years and had once given me 200 bucks to get my car out of a tow yard when I parked illegally to do a school visit. She had died the week before after a six year battle with ovarian cancer. She had gone way beyond the call of duty for me, and, from what I understood, she was always going way beyond the call of duty for someone. I did not know her well. I knew her kindness–her grace, and I wanted to honor it. So after reading perhaps thirty pages and telling my wife to leave me alone (in a loving way) I found the grave I was looking for. For me, poems are graves. While you are there, the dead rise, and they speak to you whatever wisdom they have, and then they return to the earth. You are always both pleased and a little worried when you find the grave of a loved poem. What has happened to you since the last time you visited? Will the flowers you left still be there, albeit, browned and dry? Were you forty the last time? Did you weigh less, hope more? How will you approach–with reverence, or as casually as a child playing among the head stones? Will it still mean something to you, or will your visit be merely obligatory? The new books did not matter for I was on a mission to pay my respects. I found the section (which was not marked as a section). Whitman in this poem claims there is no death, but then he revises this claim and says that death is better than we could ever imagine–and luckier. It is a poem I have read perhaps a hundred times and cannot fail to be awed by. At certain moments of my life, it has seemed the only poem I ever truly read. Here it is. I offer it like a squash. If you know what to do with squash, you have most likely read it yourself, and have your own relation to it. If not, consider the grace of seeing and being seen.

A child said what is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the hankerchief of the Lord,
A scented remebrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say whose?

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same,
I recieve them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire form the breasts of young men,
it may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
it may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken
soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I percieve after all so many uttering tongues,
And I percieve they do not come from the roofs of motuhs for
nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere.
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And, if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at
the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
luckier.

It’s always a relief to me when I see a book published by somebody outside the “poetry ghetto.” Though I’m sure Troy Jollimore has been to his fair share of poetry workshops (who hasn’t?), he is (by trade?) a philosopher, teaching at California State-Chico. It might be wise, therefore, to keep Randall Jarrell’s words on Wallace Stevens (from Poetry and the Age) in mind as we approach Jollimore’s work:

Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of a philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem; the philosophical poet has an elevated and methodical, but forlorn and absurd air as he works away at his flying tank, his sewing-machine that also plays the piano….When the first thing that Stevens can find to say of the Supreme Fiction is that ‘it must be abstract,’ the reader protests, ‘Why, even Hegel called it a concrete universal’; the poet’s medium, words, is abstract to begin with, and it is only his unique organization of the words that forces the poem, generalizations and all, over into the concreteness and singularity that it exists for.

I think the primary concern here mirror’s Joe Weil’s opinion that “The idea for a poem competes with the poem. or worse, the idea of writing a poem competes with the poem.” In that sense, the idea, of a poem–of the arrangement of poems–can sometimes destroy the poetic. It’s possible that the arrangement of Jollimore’s book was influenced by philosophy, inasmuch as the poems seems to be grouped thematically, and this becomes a fault early in the book. The book begins with the clever poem “The Solipsist,” which assures us that “when you lay down your sad head / …you lay down the whole / universe.” Whether this is Jollimore, the philosopher, speaking or Jollimore, the poet who might be channeling other voices and personas, is not exactly clear. But the next several poems seem to indicate that solipsism is the primary concern of this book. Poems that alone may have contained a certain self-aware charm come dangerously close to beating the dead horse. Lines like “Where what I see comes to rest, / ….against what I think I see” (“At Lake Scugog”) ring the same thematic bell as ones like “I’d like to take back my not saying to you” and “I’d like to retract my retracting” (“Regret”); the reader may fear being sucked into yet another black hole of poetic solipsism, since many contemporary poets are solipsistic, whether they intend to be or not.

The shape of the book, if we are concerned with such things, might be a very slow moving line. Happily, though, even when Jollimore’s poems risk getting stuck in neutral, they do so with formal concerns, which keep the poems from drifting and

falling out of tune
like a disabled satellite

in a slowly decaying
orbit ____ abandoned
by its callous makers
who trusted it to do

the right thing, to burn up
before hitting the ground

Jollimore projects solipsism into numerous objects, situations, and personas. Most memorable is the image of purgatory (presumably a theme from this first work Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which I have not read). In At Lake Scugog, the purgatory image is best captured by the poem “Gate,” in which “A seraph with a clipboard sang, Hurry up and wait” in a strange sort of heavenly airport. One is also reminded of that pagan purgatory, the “dreary coast” on which the shades of the unburied wait, all jostling to get on Charon’s boat.

In a way, both the Christian and pagan understandings of purgatory is a mirror of sorts for the world of the living as well–since we’re all waiting on earth to be buried, waiting to enter into our rest. One is not sure what Jollimore’s solipsist is waiting for, though. At times there is the hope of “ascension” in his poems (as in “Gate”), while at other times his speakers eschew the Platonic vision, hoping for a taste of the ‘real’ (or something like it) right here and now (“Heaven can go to hell, my sweet”).

***

Thankfully, the book does not solely focus on the dilemma of the solipsist. In fact, it seems to move more toward the dilemma of the poet, who must rein in and focus the many voices and selves inside into something communicable. Later, the book moves toward a dialogue between the various selves that we contain within our self. It’s not so much an opening up, a revelation, but more a casting lots for the one-pieced garment. Again, the two primary poems concerned with this theme are next to each other in the work; this time, however, they converse more than repeat.

“Free Rider” dramatizes the sense that many writers feel when it comes to wrestling with their own inspirational “daemon”–something that feels like US, yet is also at the same time an alien presence: “He doesn’t like the way I use my mouth. (Our mouth?)” And in the poem that follows, he says “It all began to make sense / when the doctors told me / I had two hearts.” Later “Organ Music,” a hilarious sort of debate between the parts of the body seems to channel these various selves into the desire of the body and its senses.

***

One of the most mysterious poems in the collection is “The Hunter,” which I read as a sort of creation myth, in which the miracle of being is dashed as we are eventually “rendered foreign.” Readers should sense a strong connection to the idea of being “rendered foreign” and the “sound” in Jollimore’s “Remembered Summer” that “filled our atmosphere like the drone of some far-off / crop duster, like a universal headache, like the decrescendo / moan of a piano that has fallen to the street / from some high apartment window and smashed like a body” (the piano is one among many images that Jollimore repeats throughout the book with some success). These poems, along with the final, tend to suggest a sort of primal state, scarred by something (“the sound”…a fall? Manichean duality?). As a result, many of us turn inward, turn into solipsists, in order to avoid the pain.

We also begin to observe in “Remembered Summer” that Jollimore sees “all the little engines / we had so painstakingly gathered and constructed” as being part of our solipsism. The solipsist, it seems, is not just the person lost in their head, but the person lost in what Erazim Kohak describes as a world of “artifacts.” The world of artifacts is not personal and acts as a sort of mirror to ourselves. A TV is as valuable as we believe it to be. In Kohak’s opinion, nature is personal and resists the solipsist. Notably, one of the strong presences lacking in Jollimore’s work is nature. This is not a fault, per se, but one wonders where nature has got to. The one “nature” poem “At Lake Scugog” is so concerned with the “I” and “You” almost to the exclusion of natural surroundings.

***

It seems to me that At Lake Scugog does trip over the philosophy/poetry dichotomy, but this does not make it entirely unsuccessful in both regards. Jollimore brings insight to the dilemma of the solipsist, and he writes some interesting poems along the way, poems worth some chewing and multiple reads. I sense though that, in the end, the places where the book falters are the places where the philosophy daimon won the debate with the poetry daimon.

Hook

I tried to behave with my
teaching assistant, with whom
I was sleeping, as we laid out
fresh worksheets and took
positions front and back of
a never-so-peaceful classroom.

The kindergarteners knew
before us, like a game of house,
our sixteen inner-city children.
Which of those lost boys or
girls could be our Peter Pan
that year, I mean, if I returned

to the role of father Darling
after a mostly unnoticed turn
as the dancing pirate? Surely D—,
if anyone, with whom she
watched me slam my fists down
in a moment of pure Hook.

It should have been me,
not him, the janitor helped drag
down the hall while she took
over, then sobbing in the office
that it was me, not him,
the devil made do bad things.

____________________________________
J.T. Welsch’s poems have appeared or will shortly appear in Stand, Boston Review, Manchester Review, Blackbox Manifold, and the chapbooks Orchids (Salt, 2010) and Orchestra & Chorus (Holdfire, 2011). He grew up near St. Louis, and lives in Manchester, UK, where he teaches at the University of Manchester and the Open University.

Psalm for Third Base

Fingers have their own prayers,
often crossed, but also bunched

in pockets for warmth or comfort:
there, amidst the fumble-scratch

of eager hands, there where verbs
take root: touch, trace, fist. There

in the back pew of a filled church
with a skirt tented just-so, a boy’s fingertips

graze inside, the sanctuary couched
in beeswax-smoke. There, the salvation

of dim light, brass candelabras holding
their tarnished glow in the black flame

just above the candlewick. It is there
at the back of the chapel with the choir

singing hallelujah and angels on walls
shimmering fallen light that the boy

receives what he expects from religion:
fanfare, epiphany, movement. So

it is there that the boy lingers, the edge
of where he’s been before and what must

come after: the present, what the gospel
calls the kingdom: her lips dusting his earlobe,

whispering, breathing, as if she were chanting
that moment alone: there, there, there.

__________________________________________________
Luke Johnson is the author of After the Ark (NYQ Books, 2011). His work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Southwest Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. He has twice been featured in the Best New Poets anthology and has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, theAtlantic Monthly, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

NOTE: This poem originally appeared in New England Review.