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Brooks Lampe

Warning: mUutations are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk. See Uut Poetry for more info.

Here’s Matthew Zapruder’s “To a Predator”

I woke up early and saw a fox.
It was leaping and dragging its glorious
red and white tail behind it across
the road. It held a grasshopper in its mouth,
which it dropped when it saw the small
carcass of a young javelina. Last night
I was woken by their hairless rooting through
a field of cactus in moonlight. They all
stood together, ears rotated forward into
the breeze, protecting the single mother
protecting a pair of young. Their
mustachioed labium superius oris i.e.
upper lip protects a gentle tusk
the color of greywater. I almost sympathize
with their corporate need to snuffle
and roam in packs until dawn returns them
to hollows they made in the ground.
But my sleep does not. Thus I shone
a very powerful flashlight into their midst
and watched them scramble across
the highway, dispersing. Thus I walked
out into this morning, wearing a shirt
the color of a dandelion, whistling
an uncertain tune about the mild unequal
life I would like to know better of a rich
acquaintance in the Mexican city of Guadalajara.

I’ve been thinking about what Robert Kelly wrote in the early 60s about each image in a poem having “its field of force, its shadow moving darkly through the poem.” Arrangement, or sequence, for Kelly, is the key:

Basically, the fullest force is possible only by means of the successful employment of one image’s position in a context of other images… The subsequent image is conditioned, made to work, by the image that precedes it, and conditions, as it is finally conditioned by, the image that follows it: through the whole poem…

The whole poem is more than the sum of its parts. Very important for this superequivalence is the ORDER of images within a poem.

Kelly is thinking about images, but it is impossible not to see an overlap with narrative or dramatic sequence working the same way and being almost the same thing. In Zapruder’s poem, the most remarkable moment is not the encounter with the fox-mother and babies in the night, but the “shirt / the color of a dandelion” the speaker dons the next morning. The sensory and psychological tone in that detail gathers almost all of its meaning from the scene preceding it, the nocturnal encounter. “Thus” rhetorically aids the transference and reinforces the sense of a causality-link between this moment and the night before. We’re cognitively confused and delighted at the notion that a shirt’s color (or his choice of shirt) hours later had anything to do with the foxes. The tight, chronological structure of the poem amplifies this effect. What’s the “residue” of the previous images on the image of the shirt? It’s impossible to say—herein is the ineffable, almost magical trick poetry playing on the mind.

The effect also comes through a paradigmatic or contiguous relationship, much more directly having to do with what Kelly is referring to. Zapruder’s parallelism hints at it:

“Thus I shone / a very powerful flashlight…”
“Thus I walked / out into this morning…”

Synchronicity or simultaneity: two seemingly unrelated things happen in different places or times but are held together artificially. It’s more jarring when the things are further apart in time and space, such as the “rich / acquaintance” in Guadalajara. Somehow this new character belongs in the network of meanings with the foxes, flashlight and shirt.

This is more than, or something other than, metaphor. Zapruder’s metaphor of the foxes’ “corporate need to snuffle / and roam in packs” places a lovely, filtering veil of corporate America over fox-ness, opening all kinds of analogous correlations and possibilities. But corporate America is not the dramatic frame of reference, whereas the dandelion-colored shift and flashlight and foxes are and are thus forced into contiguity along a lateral axis. They share the same “ontological” status, whereas metaphor is figurative and removed. Obviously, metaphoric vehicles still lurks around “darkly through the poem,” but not as prominently.

This effect operates in a poem whenever there is a shift in discourse of subject matter. It’s not necessarily just Bly’s “leaping,” either, which requires emotional content. In Leaping Poetry, Bly wrote that Ashbery and his disciples didn’t properly “leap” because they merely change subjects without a “head-of-emotion.” But Zapruder’s shirt doesn’t have much emotional valence and it still works to bring that special aspect of reality to the fore: the paradox of the simultaneous unity of everything hidden in the appearance of disorder or chaos. So I’d take issue with Bly and agree more with Kelly, who says nothing about emotion. Merely changing subjects does seem to work.

Kelly sees transformation of the world as poetry’s function: “We are given: 1 world to transform, 1 language to transform it with,” and adds, “transformation is process, involves truth as emergent from process and not distinct from it.” Kelly was describing a new kind of poetry (deep image) when he wrote these ideas, but they have proven applicable to a whole range of poetics of disjunction.

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.

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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.

Last time, we saw that in his critical introduction to Unusual Woods, Gene Tanta wants us to approach his poetry both as immigrant poetry (which means a couple of things) and for its aesthetic value. I postulated that he accomplishes a dialectic between “local” and “universal” through strategies that extend and enrich Deep Image and surrealist poetics. Let’s see how this happens.

First, look at how these thirteen-line “ghost-sonnets,” as he calls them, are built:

The cavalry is always peering down into the ravine
whenever you’re not looking.
Someone is burping.
Someone is shirt-shinning the author’s coffin.
Someone’s nose or finger or toe
is playing in the underwater roots downstream.
Under the lean and starry sky
the fortune-teller
took your money, saying:
You seem far away,
like a cuckoo clock on a sunken ship.
If it consoles you,
you’ll die on an odd breath or an even breath.

Architecturally, this poem comprises fragmented, disjoined images struggling towards coherence. The second person pronouns and the indefinite pronoun “someone” establishes some cohesion of persons. But temporally, there are problems. The three lines beginning with “someone” borrow the surreal technique of the continuous (indefinite) present tense, in which multiple, seemingly disconnected actions are happening simultaneously. “Always” in the first line also suggests a continuous, indistinct present tense—in a sense, it is an eternal present, which is to say, no time at all. If one needs events passing over time to have narrative structure, this poem is putting up a fuss.

Even so, paradoxically, the simultaneity of the events forces a coherent reading. Parataxis aside, normal reading expectations demand that proximity (in the text) implies relationship. But here, at least within the narrative framework of the poem, persons and events are disjoined. Thus, like a collage, these images are simply asserted (placed by the artist) and readers are forced to make what they will of it. Implicitly, these seemingly disconnected things are envisioned as unified, which is the surreal experience of the “marvelous” or the Deep Image experience of the “deep image.”

So Tanta’s poems are built like surrealist collage; in addition, the images themselves are surreal in their catachresis and play. What is the meaning of that cavalry peering into the ravine? And what is to be made of the cuckoo clock on the sunken ship? Throughout Unusual Woods, Tanta freezes the reader with similarly obscure imagery:

Clearly, you are a severed viper head
and not as you claim

and

his eyes flickered (beaten)
in a gold-leaf epic splashed inside his skull

and

Yet another hooligan utopia
awaits its facial hair to grow.

and

My pulsebeat still listens for yours,
a ghost just leafing thru,
the library books of your body.

These images succeed not just because they are surprising and beautiful, but also because they are teasingly suggestive, even while their possible meanings are limited and redirected within the complex structure of the whole. As Tanta says in his essay, structure gives us the means by which we can approach the text aesthetically and thus as something universal (because beauty and structure are universal).

But what of the local? Tanta explores his identity as an immigrant and ESL poet in the courageous (but tasteful) exploitation of puns, idioms and other kinds of word play. In general, ESL poets tend to take things literally, resulting in images that are deeply ironic for readers even though they underscore the speaker’s innocence and naïveté : “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words on his inner thigh….” At times the poet admits to (not insignificant) gaps in comprehension: “It’s so hard to tell few from fewer” (47). Other times deliberate ESL-like misuse of language can create a new, interesting phrase: “A dash sparrows in to sip a little water / from the water-fountain” (85). The poet cannot resist playful manipulation of idioms: “He had an ax to pick / and a bone to grind.” Finally, and most rewardingly, the ESL vantage point exposes metaphoric relationships hidden within the language itself:

At night, lightning flashes its teeth
over the Seine.

Surely, whether consciously or not, the poet discovers the idiom “flashing a smile” to be congruently matched to lightning, which literally “flashes.” Thus, the teeth/lightning relationship was idiomatically implanted in our language without our (or at least my) noticing it; it took the eye of an immigrant to find it.

My final observation is that in spite of the obscure images, anti-narrative structures, and non-transparent language, Tanta’s poems project a clear voice that navigates the reader. While Unusual Woods could be analyzed thematically (there are numerous gypsies, firing squads, and dictators), I found the personality of the speaker to be a more important (perhaps the most important) unifying force in this collection. Whether it concerns love, family or writing, the voice’s sincerity gives the sonnets weight and timbre. Here is one example:

My father did not invent fire and I refuse to vote
the birds in thick alarm.
I am thru with my voice, here it is
like a fire:
About what you cannot sing you weep and sob and cry.
Along these atlases
we alter things all the time with our sexual conduct.
You don’t know me as a broken arrow’s broken diction
but by my desperate Dionysian catapult,
by my Grecian star map,
by my Assyrian aqueduct, by my Brooklyn bridge,
by my Yugoslavian copper, by my Sumerian plow.
Once a termite lived.

Sandwiched between the cryptic first and third sentences is a dazzlingly direct, emotional statement about the writer’s own struggle to speak (as immigrant and as poet). Then there is a catalogue of exotic items by which we will “know” him. Whatever it is these items collectively mean—taking note, meanwhile, that Eastern European and America are represented—their symbolic resonance clearly outweighs the brokenness of self and speech that is the mark of an immigrant (“a broken arrow’s broken diction”). And yet, it is this “broken diction” that is partly to thank for the success of his poems (not that Tanta reads like anything less than a master of the language). And even though the disjunction of the last line deflates the intensity of these personal, direct statements, the sonnet undoubtedly proclaims something vital about the speaker. The core self is at stake.

And this is the coolest thing about Tanta’s work—even though these poems are centered on a persona, the indeterminable and seemingly fragmentary aspects of the world co-exist with the self. That is to say, aspects of the self and aspects of the world are placed in relationship. “Once a termite lived”—in the context of the poem, this statement and what it signifies are appended to the self and become an aspect or extension of it. The self is neither merely “a broken arrow [with] broken diction,” nor even a compilation of architectural structures and tools; rather, and ultimately, these poems are about an introspective, enculturated, embodied soul who must interpret the world in order to make sense of its own existence. It is because the world—whether native or foreign—is such a strange place that one finds oneself looking for meaning within “unusual woods.”