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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.

“The artist is a receptacle of emotions come from no matter where: from the sky, the earth, a piece of paper, a passing figure, a cobweb. This is why one must not discriminate between things. There is no rank among them. One must take one’s good where one finds it.” Picasso wrote this well before Mary Ruefle started publishing books, but if his words could be an egg, Ruefle’s Selected Poems would hatch right out of it. Her speakers—obsessed both with beauty and with their inability to “attain a balance/ between important and unimportant things”— over and over fuse the world’s grandest abstractions and minutest details in efforts to find meaning somewhere in the middle.

Naturally, with so many things to include, Ruefle’s poems jump around a lot from one place/time/feeling/speaker to another. In “Timberland,” we go from “Paul’s Fish Fry in Bennington, Vermont” to “the delta/ of the Pearl River” to “Actually none of this has happened yet”—I think in this poem we’re simultaneously in the past, present, and future—but this movement, however quick, never feels random just for the sake of randomness. In each of Ruefle’s lines we find the perfect amount of surprise: enough to disorient and delight and keep our synapses firing, but not so much we get frustrated with nonsense or lack of a larger poetic context. This tightrope act of simultaneously balancing and sorting—and of course, the sheer beauty and originality of these poems—invites us to fully take part in Ruefle’s attempts to make sense of the world (and feel enchanted enough to want to keep doing so).

Because the entirety of the world Ruefle wants to encompass is so overwhelming, it is often the little details that give her speakers something they can use to ground themselves. In “Thistle,” for example, a “we” travels around the world, unexpectedly finding thistles in every location, which grants the thistle the critical roles of creating meaning and connecting the world, kind of like the horn symbol in The Crying of Lot 49.

But Ruefle’s search feels much less unidimensional than Pynchon’s. Her conclusions—while sometimes arbitrary—don’t just lead you on a wild goose chase. At the end of “Thistle,” you’re fully aware the thistle is a kind of random stand-in for meaning, but the ending still feels thrilling and complete:

O ruthless thistle, match in the dark,
you can talk to anyone about the weather
but only to your closest friends
can you mention the light.

Ruefle’s speakers struggle with questions of balance and meaning in multiple forms: Embrace togetherness, or seek isolation? Accept the risk of loss in exchange for aliveness, or don’t? Stay in the imagination, or move into the real world? On one level, each poem chronicles a constant process of decision-making. But the poems aren’t just saying yes or no to a world, whether real or imagined. They’re exploring the price associated with each answer—and because everything in Ruefle’s world is ultimately connected, yes and no aren’t even separate answers. To make the process more complicated, Ruefle acknowledges that choosing an answer or ascribing meaning to something could be based on a fiction: We aren’t omniscient, and we may never know the price of our choice (or really, even what questions we’re answering). We just have to make peace with guessing and assigning meaning.

Ruefle doesn’t usually examine “no” as an option (because unless you’re going to kill yourself, it isn’t, and because her world is just too darn magical not to), but she does spend whole poems asking what if yes could be less troublesome, more embracing. Why does yes have to be so costly? Imagine what could be possible if it weren’t! “One wants so many things,” says the speaker in “The Intended.” And those things are both greater and smaller than any one person can have in any one life. Ruefle intimates this by constantly disorienting us—changing geographic location, scale, speaker, and who the speaker is referring to, as if trying to embrace it all and write it down before it disappears:

One wants simply, said the lady,
to sit on the bank and throw stones
while another wishes he were standing
in the Victoria and Albert Museum
looking at Hiroshige’s Waterfall:
one would like to be able to paint
like that, and Hiroshige wishes
he could create himself out of the
Yoro sea spray in Mino province where
a girl under the Yoro waterfall wants
to die, not quite sure who her person is

The omniscient speaker starts out talking directly to the reader (or maybe herself), with “One wants so many things …” and then quickly moves into narration about other people and their inner lives. In just a dozen lines, we hear the most intimate thoughts of no fewer than five people; move from an unnamed body of water to London and then to Japan; and engage with both the simplest human desires and some of the most complex. Notably, all these desires feel equally painful and urgent—Ruefle makes no value distinction between wanting to throw stones and wanting to die. These quick transitions portray a world in which not only does “one want so many things,” but all those things are interconnected and important. By not valuing one desire more than another—and by connecting them—Ruefle makes them feel universally difficult and totally human. (Even the structure says so; the whole poem is one long sentence.) Eventually the poem returns to “the lady” and ends on a single, concrete, graspable image, as many poems in this collection do. The implication is that even though the world is full of things and every day is “thrown in the sieve” to figure out which ones are important, one way to make the world real and survivable is to focus on a single thing and ascribe meaning to that thing:

one can barely see the cherry blossoms
pinned up in little buns like the white hair
of an old woman who was intended for this hour,
the hour intended to sit simply on the bank
at the end of a long life, throwing stones,
each one hitting the water with the tick of
a hairpin falling in front of a mirror.

That last image is so crisp and mundane, so earnest that “life goes on no matter what we do,” that in my Whitmanesque high I nearly missed the fact that just before it Ruefle slipped in that nagging word from the title: intended. Sure, the speaker put the day through a sieve and came up with lots of unfulfilled human desires, but this “intended” bit is the biggest desire of all—the desire for our desires to have meaning, to be part of some larger picture. We want access to all the possibilities, but we want them to mean something. We want our “yes” to count. Crucial to Ruefle’s poem-world, though, is that she didn’t end on the intendedness—she didn’t totally commit to it. The possibility of a larger picture, or even the desire for one, is just another desire to be weighed against all the others.

Ruefle is not reticent about her struggle between wanting the safety of certainty and accepting that life is uncertain (and that embracing life means embracing that uncertainty). In “Why I Am Not A Good Kisser,” she literally embraces the world too much to function well in it and then reacts by shutting it out altogether, in a yes-then-no move:

Because I open my mouth too wide
Trying to take in the curtains behind us
And everything outside the window
Except the little black dog
Who does not like me
So at the last moment I shut my mouth.

At first, the physical opening and shutting—certainties both—are the only possible responses to the situation, neither of which satisfy. But later in the poem, the speaker champions simultaneous certainty and uncertainty, both physically and spiritually:

… what quality goes to form
A Good Kisser, especially at this moment, & which you
Possess so enormously—I mean when a man is capable
Of being in uncertainties, Mysteries & doubts without me
I am dreadfully afraid he will slip away
While my kiss is trying to think what to do.

So perhaps rather than deciding something so stark as yes or no—between “letting go/ all the animals at once/ from his bosom, or welcoming/ them one by one/ into his arms” (“The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi”)—these poems are explorations of what it means to accept the uncertainty of the world (the yes and no) as it really is. On one hand, the “dark risk” of rejecting the world “is not to grow” (“Patient Without an Acre”). On the other, embracing it could mean that “The porcupine went into a culvert and didn’t come out/ And that was the end of my happiness.” For Ruefle there is no definitive answer but to struggle against her own sensitive, perceptive nature, and in this way find beauty without grasping the world too tightly, as in “The Cart”:

Yet I admire its gloves. Hands are unbearably beautiful.
They hold on to things. They let things go.

What do animals dream?

Do they dream of past lives and unlived dreams
unspeakably human or unimaginably bestial?

Do they struggle to catch in their slumber
what is too slippery for the fingers of day?

Are there subtle nocturnal intimations
to illuminate their undreaming hours?

Are they haunted by specters of regret
do they visit their dead in drowsy gratitude?

Or are they revisited by their crimes
transcribed in tantalizing hieroglyphs?

Do they retrace the outline of their wounds
or dream of transformation, instead?

Do they tug at obstinate knots
of inassimilable longings and thwarted strivings?

Are there agitations, upheavals, or mutinies
against their perceived selves or fate?

Are they free of strengths and weaknesses peculiar
to horse, deer, bird, goat, snake, lamb or lion?

Are they ever neither animal nor human
but creature and Being?

Do they have holy moments of understanding
in the very essence of their entity?

Do they experience their existence more fully
relieved of the burden of wakefulness?

Do they suspect, with poets, that all we see or seem
is but a dream within a dream?

Or is it merely a small dying
a little taste of nothingness that gathers in their mouths?

________________________________
Yahia Lababidi is the author of a collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street Press) selected for ‘Books of the Year, 2008′ by The Independent (UK) and the critically-acclaimed essay collection, Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing. His latest work is the new poetry collection, Fever Dreams. To date, his writing has been translated into Arabic, Slovak, Italian, Dutch, Swedish and Turkish.

So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.

IN A FAMILIAR CITY

where the grass and the gravel tic-tic-tic
on the pavement, the morning
sprinters, or on the mountain
where there are no trees, or just one,
grown light and thinned out of the rock:
there might as well be music.
There might as well be a certain resting
sky, and a picnic to which we are invited.
There is plenty of room.
The flowerboxes are full of ice. At home,

where the loss has always already happened,
and the birds have only just come back,
the trouble and clench of your fingers
are irretrievable in the room’s
studio-bright light. There are onlookers:
white dress left over a door. Day-moon,
hole in the sky’s blue body-armor.
How small the road seems
in comparison, the lean starts
of redbuds spiked up the drive.

_______________________________________________
Brittany Perham’s recent work may be found in TriQuarterly, Lo-Ball, Linebreak, and Drunken Boat. Her first collection of poems, The Curiosities, will be available from Parlor Press in November 2011. She is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University, where she held the Wallace Stegner Fellowship from 2009-2011, and she lives in San Francisco. You can visit her website at www.brittanyperham.com.

An encounter it would have been gripping to see: the 1875 reunion, in Stuttgart, of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, at the conclusion of the older poet’s two-year imprisonment in Belgium. (He had been convicted for firing on his lover and giving him a flesh wound in the wrist.)  Verlaine told his friends that, as soon as he was released, he made his way to Germany, hoping he would be able to persuade the younger poet to resume their travels and adventures together. When they stood face to face again, did they cry, did they jump up and down, cackling with laughter? Or, if there were bitter reproaches, did those come more from Verlaine or from Rimbaud?  Until time-travel is invented we won’t have answers because neither poet left a detailed record of the meeting, nor were there any witnesses. So much about relationships that crash and burn must always remain undiscoverable, even when the breakup happens in our own time. Fact in these cases abdicates, replaced by gossip, rumor, and, often enough, malice.  This universally acknowledged truth doesn’t seem to prevent us from assuming we’ve got the lowdown on what really happened, even when we’re not close to those involved.

Assuming Verlaine’s account is accurate, it seems that the 1875 meeting was the moment when Rimbaud entrusted the manuscript of Illuminations to him, with the request that it be sent to a friend of his in Brussels, who might be able to arrange for its publication. If Rimbaud didn’t trouble to send it himself, does that mean he wanted Verlaine to read it first and perhaps regard the work as some sort of compensation for the disaster their relationship had been?  Should we see in this book another literary transformation of their shared experience, the follow-up to A Season in Hell?  Or was Rimbaud seeking helpful critiques of the poems, still unaware that he had already outdistanced his poetic master? Did Rimbaud put the poems in the order assigned to them when eventually published, or did Verlaine and later editors who handled the ms. change that order?  Few books have been as persistently dogged by enigmas as Illuminations, a fact that puts it in a paradoxical relationship to its title.

If it’s true that Verlaine kept his promise and sent the poems to Rimbaud’s friend Germain Nouveau in Brussels (a letter of Verlaine’s complains about the postage costs), then at some point he must have retrieved them. We know that they eventually turned up in the hands of his brother-in-law in Paris.  Not Verlaine nor Germain Nouveau nor the brother-in-law, but instead editors who weren’t intimates of Rimbaud a decade later arranged for their publication in the Symbolist magazine La Vogue. Because the loose pages of the ms. weren’t numbered, these editors admitted to an uncertainty as to the order of the poems, except for a few that Rimbaud had transcribed on the same page.

Also, we have to take Verlaine’s word for it that the title his friend  wanted was Illuminations because the sheaf of poems Verlaine forwarded to others lacked a title page.  The book has sometimes been published under the title Les Illuminations, the standard form for a French-language title. However, Verlaine said that Rimbaud was using the English, not the French word, as he did in several individual poem titles (“Bottom” and “Fairy,” for example).  The older poet explained that “illuminations” in English referred to printed, hand-colored engravings, which were common at the period. Of course the term in both languages carries the more general sense of light and even mystical enlightenment, one version thereof being the occult belief and practice known as “Illuminism.”  In English “illuminations” can also refer to the hand-painted pictures and decorations found in medieval manuscripts, but whether Verlaine or Rimbaud was aware of this extra meaning, who can say? (The French term for these is enluminures.) Considering Rimbaud’s ironic and challenging temperament, it’s possible he wanted to make both senses of the English term available, as a way to suggest that his mysterious and even quasi-religious texts could also be compared to cheap popular prints.  The strategy of the young and not yet established poet is often to “have it both ways,” defending his most exalted thoughts with an electric fence of high-voltage irony.  Since we’re on the topic of electrical equipment, consider this interesting coincidence: the first incandescent light-bulb was made in 1874, and commercial distribution of the new invention began in 1886, the year when La Vogue first brought Illuminations to the French reading public. If it seems fanciful to conflate the two phenomena, recall that the most widely distributed light-bulbs in twentieth-century Europe were called Mazda bulbs, after the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda.

The central conflict in Zoroastrianism is figured as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light.  It seems fair to class Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell as a book about the forces of darkness, and so perhaps we can understand Illuminations as the poet’s effort to evoke—at least for poetry—the forces of light.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t flashes of beauty in the earlier book or that all is serenity and effortless ascension in the later one.  That would be too neat and monotonous, and besides, as Stevens put it, “No man of imagination is prim.”  The prose poems in Illuminations are rather short and the sequence develops no discernible narrative; instead, a series of dreamlike vignettes or meditations whose context is never provided.  More than half are descriptive, surveys of landscapes or cityscapes too imaginary and protean to exist in actuality, though they often include the equivalent of Marianne Moore’s “real toads.” The tone is generally exalted and hyperbolic, a cornucopia of images and words tumbling out rapidly in sentences with loosened syntax.  Apostrophes introduced by the exclamation “O” are frequent, yet the mosquito whine of irony is found in almost every poem, provoked in part by hyperbole and acting in part to neutralize it.  Thoroughly enigmatic as they are, the poems are the last to be aware of the fact, judging by the prevailing tone of confidential assurance and the absence of any fumbling efforts at explanation.  We may not understand them, but it’s clear that these poems understand themselves, giving meanwhile the curious impression that they can survive and even thrive without our assistance.

Rimbaud is an often-translated poet and many distinguished hands have made versions of Illuminations, Louise Varèse and Paul Schmidt among them.  Ashbery’s versions are strikingly better than his predecessors, which isn’t surprising when you consider that he resided for a decade in Paris and that he has also successfully translated the poetry of Reverdy and of his friend Pierre Martory.  Add to that Ashbery’s own unconventional literary mastery, and he would seem to be the ideal author to negotiate the difficulties of a poet who inspired a century of poetic experiments, continuing up to the present.  Ideal for us; but you have to wonder why a poet so eminent, so thickly swathed in laurel (he has won every important poetry prize except for the Nobel) should want to take time away from his own work to provide us with this topnotch version of Illuminations. The brief introduction Ashbery provides for this book offers no explanation apart from his thorough admiration for Rimbaud. Still, admirers can admire profoundly without bothering to translate.  I’m guessing that he undertook the task as a way of reminding readers hostile to his own poetry that experimental (or dreamlike, difficult, fragmented, disjunctive, enigmatic—whatever term seems applicable) poetry has been around for a century and a half. If you want to dismiss Ashbery, you also have to dismiss Rimbaud and the Surrealists, plus all the Modernists in various molds who were influenced by him.  It no longer makes any sense to call this kind of poetry the “avant-garde” or the “poetry of the future,” at least no more so than the poetry based on narrative, spoken language, prosody, and sequential reason. Both approaches will be used in the future, as they have been during the past. Some readers will prefer experimental, and another part, mainstream approaches, so there’s no point in trying to legislate an aesthetic Prohibition against either.

It goes without saying that some practitioners of mainstream poetry are better than others, just as it’s reasonable to assume that experimental poetry is sometimes good and sometimes not. Yet critics of experimental work don’t seem to have arrived at a practical criticism capable of sifting the large amount of experimental writing now being produced in order to put aside what’s not worth reading and to make a case for the part of it that’s good. All the alternative critics seem to be able to do at present is repeat any number of times that traditional approaches to poetry are old and therefore irrelevant or inferior. When it comes to the experimental aesthetic, they don’t offer a set of evaluative principles as familiar and dependable as the criteria used to analyze and assess mainstream work.  Given the antinomian and deconstructive nature of experimental writing, its resolute effort to undermine orthodoxy and consensus perception, we can question whether any individual or critical school could ever develop an agreed-on set of yardsticks applicable to it.  However, if adequate critical tools aren’t devised, then criticism will simply amount to “I like this” and “I don’t like that.” A purely personal criterion might be acceptable if we weren’t faced with the real-world problem of public rewards. Which poets should be published, and, among those, which should receive prizes and artist fellowships, including grants based on state funding?  Perhaps most experimental poets write without conscious concerns like these; but critics who ignore them aren’t acting responsibly.

 

Almost all of the Illuminations are prose poems, a form first tried by the French poet Aloysius Bertrand, then taken up with notable success by Baudelaire and Mallarmé.  That the poems are short and don’t rely on traditional French prosody lightens the burden of translation, with the result that a lot of time can be spent on finding the aptest word choices and pleasing sentence rhythms.  Ashbery handles both with cool but remarkable skill. A sample:

In an attic where I was shut up at the age of twelve I got to know the world. I illustrated the human comedy. In a cellar I learned history. At some nighttime carnival in a Northern city, I met all the wives of the master painters. In an arcade in Paris I was taught the classic sciences. In a magnificent abode surrounded by the entire Orient I accomplished my immense opus and spent my illustrious retirement. I churned my blood. My homework has been handed back to me. One must not even think of that now. I’m really beyond the grave, and no more assignments, please.

(part III of “Lives”)

Without arguing that this is the strongest passage in Illuminations, I can still see in it many of the work’s preoccupations, not to say obsessions: singular and perhaps visionary experience recalled from childhood; the mind’s susceptibility to rapid scene changes in space and time; a chest-thumping celebration of self that is nevertheless undercut by sly mockery; and the sense that the poem’s speaker has gone beyond the normal confines of human experience into something beyond reason and civility.

To translate is to interpret, and the reader who knows French will see that Ashbery’s “My homework has been handed back to me” (his reading of “Mon devoir m’est remis,”) could also be rendered as “My duty has been restored to me.”  In the poem’s final sentence, “pas de commissions” becomes “no more assignments, please.” But it could also be rendered as “no errands/messages/shopping lists.” Ashbery has added “more” and “please,” for sense, rhythm, and tone, but those words aren’t found in the original.  I cite this not as a fault but as evidence that he has tried throughout to make versions that are plausible as poems in English.  I was struck again and again how he passed over a reflexively dull equivalent to the French word in favor of something more idiomatic and non-routine.  That said, I also noticed several instances where non-cognates were translated as though they were cognates. Non-cognates are what the French call “faux amis,” “false friends,” words that look as though they meant the same in English and French, but actually don’t; for example, “actuellement,” which doesn’t mean “actually” but instead, “at present.”  Here are a few translations I had doubts about in this version: désert isn’t usually “desert,” but instead “wilderness”; pourpre isn’t so much “purple” as “crimson”; honnêteté isn’t merely “honesty” but rather “probity” or “integrity”; sciences need not be limited to “sciences” but can also mean “studies” or “disciplines”; cellier isn’t strictly “cellar,” but more properly “wine-cellar” or “storeroom.”  Apart from the “false friends,” there are a couple of other misleading translations. For example, faubourg and banlieue are both rendered by Ashbery as “suburbs,” but the right sense for the first is “district,” (as in “Garden District”) or “quarter” (as in “French Quarter”); and for the second, “outskirts of town” or “periphery.” Also, the word jour, when translated as “day” isn’t necessarily wrong; but in many contexts it means “dawn,” “daylight” or simply “light.” As the last word of Illuminations (at least, in the editorial order for the poems that Ashbery has adopted here) it seems probable that Rimbaud meant “dawn” or “light” when he wrote of the emblematic and redemptive figure that he calls “Genie”:

He has known us all and loved us all. Let us, on this winter night, from cape to cape, from the tumultuous pole to the castle, from the crowd to the beach, from glance to glance, our strengths and feelings numb, learn to hail him and see him, and send him back, and under the tides and at the summit of snowy deserts, follow his seeing, his breathing, his body, his day.

Translations of poetry are always in one way or another inaccurate. The reviewer with a sense of responsibility to the author being reconceived in English has the uncomfortable duty (homework?) of pointing out instances where the translation isn’t perfectly congruent with the original. This is done not in order to show superiority but to suggest that real interest, real love for a poet must inevitably inspire readers to learn the original language. When people tell me they don’t care for Dante, I ask them if they know Italian; none of the translations conveys all that can be found in his own idiom. By the same token, any reader astonished and moved to tears by Rimbaud will, I hazard, want to acquire a knowledge of the language and culture thatproduced the strength and beauty they’ve glimpsed through a door that translation has partially opened.  It goes without saying that the project demands a large commitment of time and energy that few can spare.  Meanwhile, those who haven’t had the luck to acquire a true working knowledge of the language and the thematic preoccupations of French literature can even so get a very good sense of Rimbaud’s Illuminations from Ashbery’s version, which is the best we have in English so far.

 

Blue Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Known Quantity

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________________________

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mustard scansions of the eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

Love-Busker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Suleiman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In His Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

_____________________________________________________

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