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New York School

The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Edited by Ron Padgett, with an introduction by Paul Auster. Library of America. 535 pp. $35.

In the first volume of her diaries, Susan Sontag, on an off day in 1957, begins listing, in no particular order and with no reason stated, an odd assortment of memories from her childhood and early youth. It may be that the desire to write down (and ransom from oblivion) moments on the face of it trivial but somehow still persistent in memory comes occasionally to all reflective people.  Certainly it does to many writers. Four or five years after Sontag’s journal entry, the painter and poet Joe Brainard began a work composed of several hundred disparate vignettes drawn from his past, each recorded in a thumbnail paragraph, each beginning with the incantatory phrase, “I remember.”  Not billed as either poetry or prose, the book can be classed as a prose work simply because it’s not composed in lines; yet its directness and foregrounding of autobiographical experience remind us of Song of Myself , as well as the conversational poems of Frank O’Hara. Haikus of recollection, we might call these brief notations; but Brainard’s minimalist title is, simply, I Remember.  Two of them should give the general flavor:

I remember butter and sugar sandwiches.

I remember Pat Boone and “Love Letters in the Sand.”

Part of the work’s appeal resides in its evocation of the 1950s, the twentieth century’s most unironic and blithely American decade, the decade of I Love Lucy, Elvis, and Sputnik. Unironic, that is, until revived by an artist alert to the camp aspect of phenomena like Fifties movies, advertising, and pop music. Brainard’s best known work, it occupies the place of honor in this new edition of his writings even though putting it first violates authorial chronology.  Included along with it are a number of short poems, lineated and sometimes fanciful; a dozen or so drawings; a few short prose works; two journals that were published during his lifetime; substantial excerpts from diaries never before published; and two interviews.  I also want to mention “Self-Portrait on Christmas Night,” a prose piece written shortly before Brainard’s twentieth birthday, appearing for the first time in this volume.  It’s probably the most passionate and painful text he produed, touching on nearly all the themes he would, in more considered pieces, return to later on. What themes?  His dissatisfaction with himself as a visual artist and writer; his poet friends, in particular, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman; the importance of generosity; honesty, imperfectly attained; money; and love.

His reflections on these topics pour out in no particular order, according to the “free writing” method, and when he runs out of steam he stops without reaching any concrete conclusion except the stated desire to get on with his life as well as he can. He briefly comments on the topic of “pills,” which he began taking regularly when he moved from Tulsa to New York.  Noting his own growing dependency, he says, “But I nevertheless think they are basically evil; the effect they have on us is not ‘the way things are’ but ‘the way we’d like them to be.’  It would be so easy if I always took them and don’t know why I don’t want an escape. I don’t owe myself or the world an honest memento of life. God only knows most people don’t give it. In fact those of us who occasionally do are resented.  We know too much.” Brainard believed that truth and beauty were the same thing, so in order to create beauty, he had to be truthful.  His commitment to honesty sounds admirable, but it made life difficult for him, not just because he didn’t like hurting his friends’ feelings, and not just because pills distort the “way things are,” along with the way we report them. He fairly soon caught on that, however resolutely sought, honesty can only be a goal; it isn’t a mode of discourse ever fully realized.  Though words may intend to reveal the truth, in fact, they also inevitably conceal it.  To state is always, if only slightly, to falsify.  All social actions are, in varying degrees, compromised by deception; and language is social.  A decade later he commented on the question in a diary entry dated February 8th, 1971 (from Diary 1970-1971):

Brigid Polk said to me last night that I was the most honest person she knew. I wanted to say, “No,” but somehow more than just “No.” I don’t remember what I said, but this morning I was thinking about it and it came to me what I should have said. That honest is only something you can try to be. (If you want to be.) And I do. But I don’t want to have to take the credit for being honest. Because, even if it were possible, it would be too much to have to live up to. Another impossible weight.

Full disclosure: I knew Joe, admired him and liked him.  At some point in the mid-1970s I read I Remember, not expecting much. It finessed most of the aesthetic criteria I knew and cared about. It avoided metaphor and memorable images. The rhythms were unremarkable, the syntax overall flat and declarative.  I couldn’t discover any significance in the ordering of his memories; they arrived randomly, flickered, burned out, to be followed by a jumpcut to the next memory.  Yet this slyly humorous and sexually candid work was gripping and left me with a strange, triumphant glow hard to account for.  Until that reading I’d thought of Joe as a visual artist only, but the estimate clearly had to be revised.  Reading him was a pleasure not like any other, and his honesty was part of the reason for that.

Our circles of friends differed, so I didn’t get to know him well until 1981, and then by accident.  I happened to end up with a country place in Vermont about an hour’s drive from the house near Calais where he and Kenward Elmslie spent every summer.  My partner and I used to go there once a month for dinner, after which we went on to some card-playing, contract bridge, to be specific.  (In an interview he says that he learned to play bridge with Frank O’Hara, who was devoted to the game.) We, on the other hand, were anything but bridge whizzes, yet surprisingly enough came out more often than not with a higher score than Joe and Kenward.  I’d forgotten the I-remember that reports Joe’s habit of letting opponents win when he played.  In any case, the game provided an occasion for low-key, amusing conversation.

What I don’t understand now is why, once back in New York, we never made any effort to see each other.  As said, our social sets there were very different, and I’d always felt that the (as they are called) New York School of poets had a rather exclusive code about who belonged and who didn’t.  Being a poet in New York indifferent to middle-class values wasn’t enough to qualify. Admiration for Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, and Koch wasn’t enough. Being gay wasn’t enough. It seemed to require something like pledging Nu Gamma Sigma fraternity, where you agreed to get to know, admire and uphold all the other brothers (some of them pretty obscure) and to regard the NYS as superior to all other literary coteries and their approaches to writing. Further, to constantly mention the names of the other members in and outside your poems. From the first, the New York School (much like the Beats) exhibited enthusiastic team spirit, a reflex that has served them well. Not much of a joiner, I never made the effort to pledge and, if I had, would probably have been blackballed. That said, I liked Joe, his paintings and his writings, and the same goes for several of the others—not on the basis of their being members in good standing, but because of what they wrote.  Is it necessary to point out that, when Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler and Koch were starting out in the 1950s, nobody referred to them as the “New York School”? The term had been used by art critics for the Abstract Expressionists, but its application to poets was the invention of John Bernard Myers, a gallerist and small-press publisher of that era who produced the first anthology of their poetry in the late 1960s.  This was followed up in short order by one that Ron Padgett edited, its cover designed by Joe Brainard.

Joe, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, David Shapiro, Kenward Elmslie, Eileen Myles, and several others made up the “second generation” of the School, and their work (with the exception of Shapiro) tended to resemble O’Hara’s and Schuyler’s more than Ashbery’s and Koch’s.  Joe sometimes wrote lineated poems, but his works much more often were cast in prose format—not only the I-remembers, but also his mini-essays, diaries, and travel journals.  Influenced by his writer friends and by the rise of Pop Art, he moved away from the emo intensity of his “Self-Portrait on Christmas Night” towards something dryer and funnier, reminsicent of the “Oh wow” flatness of Pop.  It was the era of deadpan minimalism; a favorite restaurant in SoHo was called FOOD.  American commercial brands, cartoons, and advertising were suddenly the stuff of “high” art.  Andy Warhol had put a big cardboard Brillo box in one of his shows and painted Campbell Soup cans. Susan Sontag’s influential “Notes on Camp” appeared and was singled out for special praise in her successful first collection of essays.  One of the reigning artistic modes of the time was the “faux naïf,” a wide-eyed cluelessness adopted as an enabling mask by artists of considerable sophistication.  Of course American naivety is real enough, fostered by hit-or-miss education, provinciality, and the rigorous conformity imposed on our middle-class, at its most oppressive during the high-school years. But the 1960s artists taking the faux naïf approach were hardly Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday or the eponymous Forrest Gump.  They were savvy urbanites who saw the humorous potential in dumbing down and saying things that could easily have been jobbed into cartoons or TV soaps, this time surrounded by invisible quotation marks.

Humor aside, the pose of naivety plays out as a peculiarly American feature in the arts, an anxious reaction, I speculate, to a never fully resolved doubt in our consciousness: Can American civilization stand comparison with the complex achievements of the cultures that preceded it, and of Europe in particular?  It’s as though many artists have decided it doesn’t, and therefore have beefed up our supposed cluelessness, as a way of turning it into a virtue.  At this point in history, the notion of American cultural deficiency is strange given our extraordinary achievements in government, industry, science, technology, scholarship, and the arts. The USA, considering how new a nation it is, has accomplished incredible things. Yet the intimation of inferiority has been persistent for nearly two centuries, surfacing in bizarre ways—for example, the 19th-century fad for American heiresses going to Europe to marry themselves a title, rubber barons building French châteaux in Newport or the Hudson Valley,  or the way natives still gush when a visitor speaks with a British accent. The insecurity can also take the aggressive form of dismissing anything transatlantic as a toxin produced by “dead white European males.” The hard-shell American attitude is: “I may be a rube, but I’m a good person—anyway, a lot better than y’all sophisticates.”  The idea is that if you’ve very clever, you’re not going to be as straightforwardly goodhearted as your blank-slate counterpart.  It takes a Mammy Yokum to come up with formulas like, “Yep, good is better than evil—because it’s nicer.”

Strangely enough, American naivety has been welcomed by Europe as a possible escape from the quintessential European dilemma. Which can be summed up this way: “If my culture of origin gave to the world a Homer, a Sappho, a Dante, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Velasquez, a Bach, a Goethe, a Tolstoy, a Proust (add names here), what could I possible produce that might deserve the admiration those figures command?”  It’s a crushing legacy to have inherited, so no wonder if many European artists have snubbed it. Granted, the USA has itself originated a few sophisticates fully conversant with the European tradition—Henry James, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Moore, to name only the best known. But these don’t, in contemporary Europe, generate the same enthusiasm as our so-called primitives—Whitman, Mark Twain, William Carlos Williams, Raymond Chandler, the Beats, Bukowski, et al.  How the rating game will play out in the 21st century, though, is anybody’s guess.

A provocative feature of Brainard’s writing is its dialogic character, composed always with a cautious awareness of possible future readers. In journal writing, when he mentions a friend’s name in a third-person sentence, he often then switches to “you” and addresses the friend directly, as though absolutely certain that his remarks were going to be read by the person commented on. Sometimes he anticipates a reaction from his subject and responds to it as though it were actual. It’s a curious rhetorical strategy and certainly dispels any notion that Brainard’s journals are private, spontaneous utterances. They are designed to be read by friends and eventually by people he doesn’t know.  Unless you conclude that otherness, in the form of the internalized personalities of his friends or some abstracted General Reader, a nonspecific “you,” was a permanent fixture in the diarist’s mind. I sense that it was. Brainard’s other-mindedness peopled his solitude  just as it prevented him from ever being entirely offstage. The following entry from Diary 1970-1971 (dated December 28, 1970) shows that mental configuration in action:

If I have anything to “say” tonight (a bit drunk) it is probably just this: to like all you can when you can.

Or, don’t think about things too much.

I don’t know who I think I am, giving you this advice. Actually, when I “talk” to you I am really talking to myself  (mostly) but I guess I wouldn’t be writing it down if I didn’t think that—you might want to know what is going through my head too.

No, the truth of the matter is, that I want you to know.

Yes, Brainard did want us to know. He honestly did. That included exploring the topic of his good luck in having a rich patron in the person of Kenward Elmslie, heir to the Pulitzer fortune. They were sexual partners for a while and loving friends thereafter. Brainard tries on a couple of occasions to go into this subject and admits he likes the freedom from fear, indeed, the luxuries that Elmslie’s sponsorship afforded. But it seems clear he also felt some guilt about having an advantage over others equally deserving.  Not that he wasn’t generous. I remember once being invited to dinner by Joe and not being allowed to pay.  In an almost theatrical gesture, he slapped down a couple of bills with Grant’s portrait on them, smiled, and stood to go.

Why did Joe stop producing artworks at the end of the 1970s?  The explanation often given is that he swore off amphetamines and couldn’t then recapture the intensity they gave him for the making of art.  But there seems to be more to it.  His dissatisfaction with his painting, oil painting in particular, grew steadily.  He decided that he could never do as well as the Old Masters, and, if not, then he should just pack up his brushes.  Yet I don’t find any record of his saying the same thing about writing.  It’s possible, though provocative, to say that his I Remember is an American’s faux-naïf answer to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the great European epic of heroic recollection.  Since Brainard didn’t have to earn an income, and he had pretty much stopped painting, there was the problem of how to use his time.  He spent a couple of hours every day at the gym, maintaining his washboard abs, and the rest of his leisure hours absorbed in Victorian novels.  The choice of reading matter seems telling: not poetry and not the avant-garde novels of, say, The Fiction Collective or the Dalkey Archive, but instead Mrs. Gaskell and Anthony Trollope.  (His pronounced preference for the Victorians may explain a couple of British locutions in his own writing, for example, “at any rate” for “anyway.”)  I sense that he wanted to equal not only the Old Masters of oil painting but also the equivalent for literature.  I wish he hadn’t regarded his own work as unworthy of the tradition. His writing is an achievement of a different sort, not earthshaking, but real and compelling, one than can count admirers as disparate as Paul Auster (who provides the introduction to this edition), John Ashbery, Georges Perec, Edmund White, Craig Raine, Frank Bidart, and obviously the members of the NYS, who all seemed to have learned from him.  He is the second of their number (after Ashbery), to have received the Library of America treatment. Well, not quite. Instead of that series’s standard cloth binding, the book has a pasteboard cover and instead of Bible paper, a less delicate stock.  For the series’s uniform black dust-jacket with red-white-and-blue stripes, this edition substitutes a pale blue cover ornamented with gold stars drawn by the author.  You could say it was less pretentious than the routine Library of America format, more amusing, more down to earth. But if Joe had lived to see it, I think the difference would have disappointed him: for him it was Old Master or nothing.  On the other hand, the text is there and perfectly readable, with all its drollery, honesty, and surprise, which is the main thing.  His pages speak to you; and they will be remembered.

If you’d told me that the ultimate line of a wonderful poem could be, simply, “Doctor Wong,” I would’ve looked at you skeptically.  But that’s exactly the case in Matthew Rohrer’s latest collection, Destroyer and Preserver (Wave 2011).  I both laughed and felt outfoxed by Rohrer’s nasty knuckleball wit when I read the last line of, “Marque Nùmero Dos.”  My laughter elicited an is-there-something-wrong-with-you look from the woman next to me on the plane, but I cared about as much as the clouds outside.

And Destroyer and Preserver is more than witty and strange.  These unpretentious lyrics are deft expressions of where the personal meets the political, where the mundane meets the profound—documenting a multivalent poet’s quotidian as his nation wars abroad.

Destroyer and Preserver shares many of the concerns of Rohrer’s earlier works.  I was introduced to his poems some years back, when a mentor suggested I read his first collection, A Hummock in the Malookas—which was Mary Oliver’s selection for the National Poetry Series in 1994.  I checked the slim volume out from the library and found myself rereading it weekly for the next six months, only returning the book the way that one who’s been drinking coffee every day for years gives up caffeine—with reluctance and anxiety over his rather pointless act of sacrifice.  So I bought my own copy.  To me, Rohrer’s poetry has been easy to live with, incisive, and sustaining ever since.

In the manners of the sometimes jokey, New York School-y, sometimes cryptic, sometimes surreal poems of prior collections, Destroyer and Preserver offers an assortment of breezily deployed formal variations with thematic interests.  In the first piece, “From Mars,” quick enjambments and an absence of punctuation muss up syntax:

We have some sad news
this morning
from Mars
the imagination thinks
in phrases but the universe
is a long sentence
according to our instruments
the oldest songs
are breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement…

What strikes one immediately as a spoken quality in this diction, familiar in Rohrer’s work, is disrupted in two manners.  First, by the poet’s lineation—invoking his agency to ‘break apart’ the ‘long sentence of the universe,’ thus reshuffling how we see the cosmic order and assign meaning to its individuated components—and second by his refusal to obey prose-y conventions of punctuation, et cetera, which allows for a lot of bait-and-switch play from line to line, from idea to idea.  These strategies are fairly consistently applied in this collection.  Coupled with the statement on the surface of this first poem, we’re at least superficially given a glimpse of Rohrer’s personal cosmos.

Rohrer’s is a cosmos of the mind, of course, in a Stevensian “I am my world” sense.  The surprise synaptic leaps in “From Mars” seem to mirror those of the speaker in the poem.  This happens again and again in Rohrer’s work—rather like surprise hands pushing us forward or spinning us sideways, he subjects us to his own leaping fixations and associations.  The ride is exhilarating, confusing, and thought-provoking at different turns.

In fact, these poems are not so breezily presented, and pay off with a kind of full immersion.  “Marque Nùmero Dos” is a great example.  Employing similar enjambment to “From Mars,” “Marque Nùmero Dos” is less grand in terms of scope.  In this piece, Rohrer documents his own cognitive experience while on the phone with an automated system.  Infusing the banal with the reflection of an interesting poet’s consciousness, we readily accept such statements as:  “a sunny day / is a sufficient cathedral.”  These poems do this again and again—dilating on tedium and infusing it with grander meaning, sharing an experience of our shared world from the point of view of a unique wordsmith’s mental jumble, seemingly effortlessly organized on the page.

The pieces that leap less are no less charming.  “Casualties,” for example, is a meditation in the bathroom that demonstrates how the characters of Rohrer’s domestic life inhabit the perspective of these poems:

My son says
are soldiers good or bad?
I say it’s very complicated.

He brushes his teeth
with a toothbrush
that looks like a whale.

I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together

in the hold of a ship.
He looks just like me.
The rain slows outside.

One cloud turns pink at sunset.
A bomb falls on a house in the desert.
The plane that dropped it

glides through another blue
and returns to us
to be washed and put away.

Some readers of contemporary poetry might bridle at Rohrer’s spartan, utilitarian diction, and the lack of political restraint in reference to U.S. bombing of civilians.  But just as the wonderful poet Bob Hicok writes in a recent piece of his own, “As I was masturbating, more rainforest disappeared” (from “Life,” in Words for Empty and Words for Full, University of Pittsburg, 2010), Rohrer’s poems document how we as individuals move fluidly between domestic and private concerns, with a sometimes-helpless bemusement about the world around us.  Without judgment, and with a seriousness that is either a rendering of reality or an excellent facsimile of Reality, Rohrer’s poems are great examples of such human instants.  Thus Destroyer and Preserver is a subtle and entertaining lens through which to view our moment, and well worth your perusal—especially if you enjoyed Rohrer’s previous, fine collections of poems.

faginlong

When gaining a foothold among the establishment, it is important the so called “outsiders” or mavericks have a figure fully anchored within the establishment who can be “acceptable” to the degree that he is:

1. Friendly to their cause, or, at the least, suffers their presence gladly.

2. Perceives himself (or herself) as being “forward thinking” (it does not matter if he or she is truly forward thinking as long as he or she considers his or herself as having a nose for future value).

3. Often someone with disposable income or privilege fully willing to dispose of it.

4. A disgruntled, black sheep member or son or daughter of the highest inner circles willing to defect and lend their support and contacts and influence to the “new” order.

In terms of the Black Mountain school let’s fill out that order. William Carlos Williams, especially in his more objectivist, socialist form was perceived as friendly to the cause of poetic innovation, and was enough of an outside/insider to prove acceptable as a substitute for Eliot whose triumphant followers in the form of the post-war formalists, and metaphysical poets had a lock on academic positions and public adoration. As the Agrarians had done twenty years before, the Black mountain school found a camp in the wilderness, but, unlike the agrarians (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, etc, etc) they did not embrace a local, southern aesthetic, but used the isolated camp in the mountains of North Carolina as a meeting ground for international figures of the “new.” The romance of this camp caught the imagination of one of the most “inside” figures in all of poetry: Robert Lowell. Lowell, bi-polar and supremely gifted, and from one of the most powerful and gloried families in New England, was the chief darling, along with Randal Jarrell of the late thirties and early forties elders. In post-war poetry, he was dominant.

His “conversion” to free verse and to writing from life in mid to late fifties put a stamp of approval upon what had been the outsider’s position. I forgot to mention the idea of the “sacrificial lamb” or “innocent victim” around which the outsiders rally, and thereby seize power. In this case, the most comical, and unlikely lamb in literary history: Ezra Pound. Lowell’s championing of Pound, and the defense of Pound, the fight to get Pound out of jail for treason, brought Williams, Pound’s college buddy, and the Black mountain school, as well as Lowell into alliance, putting the final seal of “greatness” on Williams which had begun with Jarell’s introduction to his selected poems, and the rich James Laughlin’s interest in publishing Williams’ work,  This rallying around Ezra brought certain poets into prominence much as the Vietnam war protests of the sixties brought Bly, Merwin, and the Deep Imagists to the fore. So that’s the other condition for outsiders becoming the insiders: a proper “victim” or martyr they can rally around. (“Free Mumia” t-shirt anyone?)

We will be studying these mechanisms in detail through both the poems and essays in the following movements:

1. First and second generation romantics.
2. The Imagists.
3. The Black Mountain school
4. The Beats/ San Francisco/Confessional schools
5. New York School/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Surrealists
6. Deep Imagists
7. Multicultural (or the cannon warriors)
8. Gender, queer, and green theory

And their various alliances, misalliances, temporary marriages of convenience, hybrids, and finally:

9. Slam and spoken word, and its mixture of multi-cultural, beat, gender/queer identity and post-Lenny Bruce menology (as well as aspects of the self-acceptance movement).

Certain suppositions:

1. With the possible exception of spoken word and multiculturalism, none of these “mavericks” were truly outside the power structure, and all of them depended on converts within the power structure to gain a foot hold.
2. All movements, once gaining a foothold, take on the characteristics of power against which they rebelled, and the re-affirmation of elitist exclusion/inclusion tactics. All end up being part of the academic and publishing establishment, and are distilled beyond their original definitive traits into what I will call “establishment and normative” sea. All rivers run to the sea, and that sea is both the death of a dynamic, and the force of the power in all dynamics.

We will be studying these power games through certain theories of co-operative evolution, and one thing the evolutionists are never interested in and ought to be: the tendency of movements and isms to create abnormative, non-breeding “heroes”– not unlike priests who function in the realm of  what I will call “virtual mate selection” and produce “virtual” progeny. The way this is done bears many common traits with actual mate selection and the bearing/raising of children. So we will study these movements in relation to “courtship.

In The New Tourism, Mathews lets the loose cohesion of his poems suggest profundities that seem unlikely coming from often mundane subjects. His poems are cohesive because of formal structure and theme, but it is a deliberately incoherent kind of cohesion. The effect is delicate and oblique, and it is growing on me.

Mathews likes wandering off the topic (or, really, having no real topic, no subject of discourse), a familiar strategy of Ashbery and other New York poets with whom he is associated:

For me the identification of trees has always been a puzzle, one not really made easier by consulting the tree book inside my house, where no trees are. I can certainly remember the caramel color of beech leaves in fall, the cropped silhouettes of plan trees along the highway . . . the purpled boughs of Judas trees where no swallow ever perches.

But do swallows ever perch? It seems that every swallow I’ve seen out of its caked nest is part of an ever-changing, bug-eating swarm—a puzzle too mobile to decipher, tumbling and soaring over the cross of a church in Tuscany or Touraine, with pink evening light inside the bell of the air, an image that saddens me when I return to a highway leading north into the night think and empty as caramel custard.

Gorgeous images without a narrative thread to speak of. The speaker digresses smoothly and almost imperceptibly from trees to birds to cake. It’s pleasant and deceptive.

That is part of a prose poem called “Crème Brûlée,” which is not, despite the title, really about custard. Mathews is only teasing you with references to caramel; he’s also thrown in quite a bit about swallows and wine and modern life and the dark side of the psyche:

There are no demons inside you, just your addiction to any puzzle that will addle your contentment, like salt in caramel. You swallow your last glass of wine and return, not unhappily, to the highway.

All the themes have recurred and been recapitulated, but the poem’s point is elusive. Yet, we can’t very easily write off all these wonderfully suggestive images as meaningless, and there does not seem to be any deliberate (and certainly no malicious) trickery. Something’s going on even in the absence of argument and story.

How do the poems gain their highly suggestive character? It is through a highly developed sensitivity to both the literal sensations of the body and the “sensations” of thought. In The New Tourism, Mathews is a conscientious, intelligent hedonist. He is a wine lover, food connoisseur and lover of picturesque landscapes. (If the ability to write breathtaking description is a sign of a skilled poet, he got skills.)

Mathews the hedonist is especially into gastronomic pleasures. In addition to the wine-centric haiku, Halal lamb, and Genoese lunch, the book’s first section, a single poem called “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem,” is a rather simple litany of about five different ways of making eggs. My favorite part is the scrambled eggs:

When the fat sizzles and smokes
at maximum heat, the skillet withdrawn from the flame,
the eggs are poured into its center and there with a fork or wooden spatula
immediately stirred and turned so that no part of them
stays long in contact wit the scorching surface but the whole
is uninterruptedly mixed and remixed until, attaining a soft solidity,
it can be folded upon itself and promptly flipped onto a plate.

Mathews is just talking about how to cook eggs. He’s paying really close attention to both the delicate things eggs are the delicate process of cooking them. What for? Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Shut up and enjoy the eggs.

And if you don’t appreciate these simple activities, you’ll never appreciate the highly oblique pleasures of Mathews’ complicated, mid-section poems. Whereas in Part I (“Eggs and Butter”) the subject matter itself provided savory delights, in Part II form and structure are the source of titillation. This is evident in “Waiting for Dusk”:

Whoever in the span of his life is confronted by the word “pomegranate”
will experience a mixture of feelings: a longing to see at least once the face
of a Mediterranean god or nymph or faun; the memory of an old silver mirror
decorated with images of varied fruits; a regret at never having known the spell
of a summer picnic ending with the taste of acrid seeds spat over the bridge
parapet . . .

. . .
. . . But here now is Simon, with his smiling silly face
from which he extracts tough seeds from his teeth with one awkward forefinger, a spell
of not unsympathetic bad manners that, if truth be told, is a mirror

of our own, perhaps more furtive acts. Then he puts on his mask, made of mirror-
like chromed metal, and I think, why, he could face an kill Medusa! Any weather
has its charm, even the green tempest surrounding her writing snakes that spell
death to the unwary traveler, snakes like a wreath of leeks in a Dutch still life where a pomegranate
cut in two glows idly near the table edge.

It’s a sestina. And it wanders. But that’s what sestinas are supposed to do. The form brings you back to an elusive center, which extends and builds the theme even while the strictures of the form almost inevitably lead to incoherence. (In other words, sestinas tend naturally toward cohesion without coherence.) In Mathews’ sestina, we are washed into meditation by the long lines, complicated sentence structures, striking details (like an “unvarnished table,” below) and the nostalgic, pastoral atmosphere. Profound philosophical gestures lurk near the surface and leap out suddenly but dissipate in the contingencies of life:

. . . Remember the pomegranate
sliced on the unvarnished table, I tell myself, that’s something sharp and real! But the spell

of the season and the melancholy hour, sweetened and damped with wine, spell
another revolution of my afternoon regrets, far from Mediterranean . . .

Ultimately, there is a kind of coherence to poems like “Crème Brûlée” and “Waiting for Dusk” that is reached through an almost aesthete-like attentiveness to sensation and thought. And this includes not only literal sensations but human thoughts and discourse. The twists and turns of the mind are like the delicate flavors of breakfast.

I was looking at an old copy of the Black Swan Review, which I founded and published many years ago (1989), and came across a poem by the Cuban American poet/novelist, Pablo Medina. It’s short, written a bit in one of the three types of lyricism that were prevalent back then (call it minimalist deep imagism). In deep imagism, you expect certain tag words such as wind, dark, bones, shadow, stones, sky, etc. This is also true of Spanish surrealism, a form of surrealism as influential on deep imagists (and later, Larry Levis) as French surrealism and dada are on the New York school.

At any rate, in this poem, we have wind, darkness, snow, bones, shadow…pretty much all the basic ingredients for minimalist deep imagism ( or Spanish surreal lyricism) with the exception of angels, ashes, and blood. Let’s have a look-see:

Cadwalader Park, Late Fall
Pablo Medina

The strollers hunch
against the wind, call to their children
from lengthening the shadows.

The parents turn to each other.
More lines in the face,
more of the tinge of age.

When the man wants a kiss
his eyes open to his mate’s bones,
slow of speech, eyebrows frail as horizons.

The harvest is done.
The year darkens into snow.

It’s sort of a moody haiku on steroids. It uses some of the mechanisms of haiku: reference to the seasons, above all, short, paratactic sentences. It is neatly packaged in a series of tercet, concluded with a couplet. The trajectory of the poem goes from a long shot of strollers in a park, to a close up of lined faces tinged with age, and then some odd tercet in which a man eye’s open to his mate’s bones, and someone (the mate, or the man, or the bones) is “slow of speech, with eyebrows frail as horizons. It is scene painting, and mood painting. Now here’s the sampling game. First, make a poem in which you use Medina’s three tercet and a concluding couplet structure, but mess with his words, and make the sentences a series of directives, with a concluding couplet of questions:

Hunch against the wind.
Call to the shadows
of lengthening children.

See how they grow
tinged with age in the
day’s last light.

Know they are the bones
of a kiss. Open them slowly,
weather them frail.

Are they the horizons of your eye brows?
Are they the year darkening into snow?

This ransacking is far more surreal. Instead of the shadows lengthening, the children lengthen. To call children the “bones of a kiss” is not so inaccurate if you reduce their life to bones, and the sex that leads to their life to a kiss. In point of fact, it’s far more original—kind of resembles Wordsworth’s contention that “the son is father to the man.” The poem is as gloomy as Medina’s, but it does not so much paint a scene as turn Cadwalader park, late fall into a strange sort of surrealist hymn to mortality, to transience, a theme latent in the initial poem. Here, the children become the main focus. The voice of the poem is issuing orders: Hunch, call, see, know.

I have not used a single line of Pablo’s poem. I have used words, images, re-constructed them. I could call the poem, “A Directive.” Medina never said the children were the bones of a kiss. He never said they were the year darkening into snow. We took the structure, and, in a sense, the mood painted by minimalist words. We took the parataxis, and made it more pronounced, but this is a wholly distinct poem. The lineation is far less regular, with the couplets being far longer lines.

Assignment: Find a poem and do the same. Cop its structure, and even some of its key words, but change the type of sentences, and fool with the images. Good luck.

I don’t feel bad when poets are forgotten. We are highly forgettable beings. Very often, the children of poets try to forget them and fail. Poets can be pains in the ass. I once dreamed that poets became discarded shoes without a match when they died—the kind of shoes you often encounter while walking down a street or by the rail road tracks. Sometimes, these shoes are still in good shape, and are your size, but they are always missing their partner. Oh Alas! If we lived in a world where it was ok to wear unmatched shoes, I might value poets more.

But, putting this aside, discarding it like a three inch “fuck me” pump, I will say that I get very sad when good poems are forgotten. And so, I want to remember a good poem by a poet who was once prominent, and who is now seldom on the lips of graduate students (unless they think their professor will be impressed): Michael Benedikt.

Michael Bendikt, like many prominent second generation New York School poets, was involved in the visual arts. He was a true New Yorker, and spent the last few years of his life fighting eviction, and never leaving his apartment for fear they’d put a padlock on it. He also had advanced emphysema, which often puts a permanent damper on a man who inhabits a city where people walk everywhere.

His companion for the last 20 years of his life was Laura Boss, the editor of Lips magazine. Laura was good to Michael, and that’s an understatement. If Laura was a country song, she’d be “stand by your man.” It is not easy to stand by an agoraphobic poet in an epic eviction proceeding. As I said, poets are unmatched shoes.

I met him once. Laura runs a reading series out of a Barnes and Noble in New Jersey. I could not believe love could get a true second generation New York poet who had been widely anthologized and published by Wesleyen to come out to a Barnes and Noble in Jersey, but love has some strange powers. There he was, like a rare European bird blown off his migration route by a fierce ocean storm and perching on the neighbor’s satellite dish. He had a nice head of hair (I always notice hair). He was one of the first contemporary poets I read. I read him in the anthology Young Poets of 1965. This was September of 1995. This meant the young poets of 1965, of whom the youngest was Louise Gluck, were now in their fifties and sixties, and so it looked to me as if he were dressing up as an old person when, in fact, he was an old person. He was a nice looking man, and well mannered—not at all full of himself. He even sat through the open reading. Apparently, he was listening because he approached me and said: “I really like the way the way you make hyperbolic structures and then poke pins in them.” I did what you should never do. I asked him to sign his book, Sky, which I had purchased at a used book store for fifty cents (It had cost two dollars when it was first published). I explained that I hardly ever buy the books of single poets, and prefer anthologies, but had felt compelled to get his book when I read him in Young Poets of 1965. I larded on the compliments, hoping he would fail to notice that I was not buying his most current book (I had only six dollars and twelve cents in my wallet—not much wiggle room). He was gracious, and signed it: “With best wishes to Joe Weil, a really interesting, and skillfully droll poet.” Here is a poem I enjoy from that book called, “Go Away:”

Go away, go away, and as soon as you come back
Be something better.
For example a shell– one that has lain for days on the edge of a
beach, overturned and sparkling, light captured on an edge,
An oak-leaf-like cluster of sunlight that filters through elm
branches,
An earring bobbing like a float at high tide, against the neck of
somebody very sweet,
A weather beaten, moth eaten coverlet,
Or the arrows on the arm of a diving suit or a space suit
indicating
where to thrust through the arms.
Think: in reference to the mainstream of human desires and
wishes
What would you know now, if you briefly waved goodbye to the
world?

Go away, go away Michael Benedikt and come back as something better: for example, one of your poems. Go—and whisper to roses.