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Postmodernism

So what is this thing called free verse? Is it highly cadenced and rhythmic but unmetered lines? Maybe. Is it a series of utterances lined, but without any beat? Perhaps. Is it prose written with line breaks? Sometimes, sure; why not? This last one is a charge poets seek to avoid because… well, because they are poets. They want to make sure they are defined as poets and not as prose writers who decided to forsake paragraph structure. They want to get away with murder. Marianne Moore claimed she wanted to write “well ordered prose.” Moore was gutsy. She decided the best defense for supposedly free verse was to admit it was prose, but to add the proviso, “well ordered.” In her case, she often employed what is known as syllabic verse. In syllabic verse, poets count syllables, not beats. English is what they call a syllabic/accentual language. You’ll get arguments from people about that, but people argue about everything. One might go as far as to say that postmodernism is little more “exceptionalism as its rule.” It’s all aporia, a fancy Greek term for all things containing an essential contradiction within their structures so that all things break down (deconstruct). How clever! It allows postmodernists to study the gaps in texts and seldom have anything to do with the texts themselves. This is called theory.

Anyway, to understand free verse, it might do us some good to understand unfree, oppressed, over determined, enslaved verse, verse in chains, so to speak, verse before we liberated it. Here’s an example:

when IN disGRACE with FORtune AND men’s EYES
I all alone beweep my outcast state.

Now there are ten syllables here in both lines, and five of them are accented. This is called iambic pentameter. It means ten syllables, but five accented beats (syllables). Usually, the unaccented syllable precedes an accented one in strict iambic pentameter. If we exaggerate the emphasis on “in,” “grace,” “for,” and “eyes,” we’ll find the pulse of the accents in iambic pentameter. We can even clap them out (instructor claps them out). Unaccented syllables are lowercase, and accented syllables are uppercase. Some people use little U-shaped and accent marks. These go over the words. This is called scansion. This is not an exact science. If it was, English would sound pretty boring. Rhythm, especially good flowing rhythm, is all about playing loose within a specific structure, but not so loose that the structure disappears. When the beats get too predictable, poems sound boring. If the beats are not somewhat regular, then we have to force them to exist. We will call this wrench rhythm—a rhythm that is unnaturally imposed upon a line to make it fit a pattern. Anyway, let’s see what happens when we change the first line a little:

When in disgrace with men’s eyes and fortune
I all alone beweep my outcast state.

Does the rhythm seem off to you? Suppose I also change the second line:

When in disgrace with men’s eyes and fortune
I beweep my outcast state all alone.

If you are listening, you will hear that the rhythm known as iambic pentameter is gone. Each line still contains ten syllables. By Moore’s calculations, this makes it well ordered prose, but its regular pulse is gone. Amen. Of course, some people can’t tell. Why? Because, like people who are tone deaf, they are rhythm deaf. If you don’t grow up reading lots of poems written in iambic pentameter, you may not be sensitive to its presence. It has nothing to do with rhyme. You can have unmetered poetry that rhymes. Hell, in Persia, they have rhymed prose. At any rate, many poets who are grant winners are rhythm deaf. They cover it up with imagery, or by making the poem look “visibly appealing.” This appeal varies. Some magazines don’t want anything that looks eccentric. Others don’t want anything that looks normal, and some editors are ego maniacs and insist they know when a poem is “organic.”

A lot of free verse is about how we use space. Prose writers don’t have to worry about that. They go from left to right until the limit is reached and then keep going, but poets use lines, and lines draw attention to a unit of measure, even if that measure is irregular, without a pattern. All the white space around those lines creates contrast. Free verse writers have to worry about the gaps as well as the words. It’s a real pain in the ass. I know. Forgive me. But the first thing you should do after writing a free verse poem is ask yourself: does the white space it leaves appeal to me? Do I even care about it? If I don’t, what do I care about in this particular poem? Suppose I say what most novices say: I care about expressing my emotions. Well, then you should act like a scientist and apply a series of questions to those emotions: if this emotion were a thing, how would it be shaped? If the emotion is wild, what would happen if I caged it in a regular structure or pattern? Would it take the wildness away, or would it add a sort of good tension between the wildness and the form? We should ask no questions when we first write a poem. We are answering a hundred hidden questions, and cool, objective questions will only get in the way of those, but afterwards, after the frenzy of our creative moment, we need to step back, and be scientists. What questions apply to this particular poem? What are my images doing? What is my structure doing? How do I like the shape of the poem? Do I care? Why don’t I care? Etc, etc, etc. So I am now about to perform a feat of magic. I am going to take the opening lines of Salinger’s “Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters,” and meter it, then unmeter it, just to give you permission to manipulate language and structures and stop thinking it some sort of accident:

“One Night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps in our enormous family, my youngest sister, Franny was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ free room I shared with my eldest Brother Seymour:”

One night, now more than twenty years ago,
during a siege of mumps, my sister Franny,
was moved out, crib and all, from her own room,
into the room that Seymour and I shared.

OK. That’s rough iambic pentameter–blank verse. Here’s syllabic with me changing very little:

One night some twenty years ago during
a siege of mumps in our huge family
my youngest sister Franny was moved crib
and all into the ostensibly germ
free room I shared with our brother, Seymour.

Now pattern it as free verse:

One night, some twenty
years ago
during a siege of mumps
in our enormous family,
my youngest sister, Franny
was moved crib and all
into the ostensibly germ free room
I shared with my eldest brother,
Seymour.

Read this last version, which is exact to the prose, by pausing at the end of every line. You’ll start to hear a ghost meter, a cadence, but only if you pause. If we treat the white space as what poets call a caesura (a pause) we can shape our poems by more or less natural speech rhythms–by the breath. This is only one way of shaping free verse. It is the first we are going to learn.

Here’s an exercise: take a piece of prose and do two of the three things I just did to it, dropping or changing words, but nothing that would get rid of the most vital information. Then take one of your poems, and do the same, playing with its structure, breaking the lines according to the breath/ pauses you hear. Good luck.

It is not language that is arbitrary, but power itself that is arbitrary and this is perhaps the reason post-modernist latched onto the arbitrary sign. Power, in order to remain power, must be arbitrary–and this includes slavishly following rules at times in order not to be a slave to whim. The authority of the whimsical is total and can only be overthrown by an act of violence so great that it exposes itself as too earnest to be truly power. Power is the because I, we, or it said so, the “just because.” It is not only vapid; it is vapidity itself. At the most elemental level it is hidden behind many veils of order–which I call terministic screens. The three great veils are I, we, it, and of these three, the “it” is the most recalcitrant and dangerous in that, being without human accountability, it may be purely evil.

Here we define evil as that which blindly consumes and annihilates without remorse or mercy and, also, without pleasure in that which is. It is null–non-existence. It is abstraction without any ground for being. The bureaucracy of the death camps, the efficiency of drones, the present corporate nexus represent an it of this magnitude. This is why those who benefit from this “it” do their best to conform to the standard of an it–machines, uber-sociopaths, elite minds, perfect team players. Goldman Sachs is filled with elite minds all of whom have formed one collective idiot. This is the final attribute of the “it”: idiocy–the efficiency of one mind without remorse, without culpability, without true intelligence. No matter how efficient a mind bereft of empathy is, it must remain cold and lifeless and hidden at its center and eventually the axon and the dendrites of such a system become so virtual as to lose their elasticity and their ability to create the algorithmic semblance of true human consciousness. Right now, Goldman Sachs is reduced to the power tie, the suit, the expected tropes of family, the reading of information, the spreading of misinformation, the scam, the con, the manipulation of certain drives and desires, the seeking mechanism and all that aids and abets that seeking: positive thinking, mind control, the most advanced forms of personality typing, cult tactics for its employees. The “individualism” that Ayn Rand and her followers (Alan Greenspan among them) pretended to champion in Atlas Shrugged is little more than the silly robot like, perfectly six-foot prussian soldier–a laughable Übermensch. And this leads me to my last attribute of the it:

It is silly.

Silliness, mindlessness, and power are the tropes F. Scott Fitzgerald both envied and so wonderfully delineated in The Great Gatsby. It is not far-fetched to take one of our great novels on the enchantment of power as a sort of primer on the 1 percent. Let’s consider.

Tom Buchannan’s race theories, his rather vapid and smug faith in what were the faux expert opinions of his era. Tom is depicted as a careless man who can not be defeated in the end because he is already dead–dead in the “it” of privilege. He gets away with murder. This is the it as spouter of truisms, and third-rate economic/race theories. If you want to understand the basic mind-set of leading wll street power brokers, look no further than Tom. Unfortunately, Tom is a notch above the it types who now rule. They do not have it (as Fitzgerald never tired of stating); they are the it they have.

Daisy Buchannan’s lighter than egg-shell loveliness and her vapidity: Daisy is loveliness itself–an abstraction, a “sign” no less inhuman and vapid than the signs looming over East Egg. She, like her husband, can not suffer any permanent injury because she is already dead. Her behavior when in the presence of Gatsby’s silk shirts, her weeping over these and her heartlessness in all other respects should tip us off to how arbitrary she and her world is. Silliness and mindlessness is at the core. These people do not have money and power. They “ARE” money and power. Those who have, serve them–often bitterly–but it is only in serving them that the have money and have power folks can justify their worst actions. They bond with their abusers.

So how do you kill the gods?

You quit worshipping them. True power must remain invisible so that, at all times, what we perceive as the face of power is merely a mirage, a screen. Most of our economic history over the last 40 years is the American delusion that their management jobs were anything more than a terministic screen for real power. The college educations, the advanced degrees, the smug disdain for manual labor…all these were terministic screens behind which the true powers could remain invisible. We worship what lies behind the veil. We worship death and call it ultimate life. The most laudatory form of the word death is heaven/paradise. I have often told atheist friends it is more important to dismantle heaven than God because, if you get rid of God, and don’t find a proper fill-in for his chief terministic screens: heaven and ultimate power, something much worse than God will fill that void: power without virtue or even the semblance of virtue, might as right, a heaven of unremitting material display, a paradise grounded in an unremitting choice culture…ah, you got rid of God and replaced him with a CEO! Smart move. Brilliant. Really improves everything. So here’s where we are:

The Most Deadly Oreo

The 99 percent are, at present sandwiched between a reactionary fundamentalist corporate power that believes it is ordained by God to rule and without being questioned (this is actual fundamentalist teaching) and a secular atheist “elite” who believe they rule us by dint of their superior minds (they read Napoleon Hill and Atlas Shrugged, have no conscience, and an idiot savant’s ability for manipulating numbers and patterns and this is superior) and without being questioned (don’t sweat the small stuff is what the 1 percent consider the 99). Here is the truth:

Goldman Sachs is a collective idiot that does not understand limits, and it will keep sucking blood from the world until it and the world blows up. Dead things don’t fear death. Mindless things have no fear of death. Both are already dead. We are letting a corpse drive the bus. Why? Because, like Gatsby, for too long, we have been enchanted by that walking, talking, reality-show-starring corpse. Our college students have a thing for zombies. This is not harmless fun. This is indicative of a love and lust for mindless power among the 99 percent. I could get hundreds of students to participate in zombie games. As for Occupy Binghamton, I couldn’t get ten students.

So my advice? Make the 1 percent truly visible. When the arbitrary power has been truly exposed and made visible it is already no longer the true power. This is shape shifter 101. How do you know when the invisible has been threatened with true exposure:

1. A violent, over the top attack, display, or mockery by the “have” powers on behalf of the “are” powers. Examples from literature: When Odysseus breaks Theriste’s ribs in front of the other rank and file warriors.

2. If violence, display, and mockery don’t work, then an unholy marriage–a mating of the exposers with the have powers and a seeming overthrow of the “are” powers–takes place. This leads to chaos because human beings are hopelessly rank-obsessed. This means the “have powers” show a cosmetic difference. The thugs of the czar become Lenin’s secret police. Saming the changes reduces the stress. Sadly it also means the “are” powers are now hidden once more behind the terministic screens.

3. The actual slaughter of the gods–an act as pathetic and sad as any Kafka story. When we find the actual powers, they are silly, vapid, eccentric, often drug-addicted and don’t seem much worthy of the slaughter. They often appear sweet and even saintly because, let’s face it, being insulated from the brutality of their terminsitic screens, they are, for all intents and purposes, more and more like children. Here is the frightening possibility: the haves already long ago slaughtered the “are” powers and have been “defending” them only to justify their continued existence. This leads me to the “because it says so.” Why? Because. This is the ultimate idiocy of true power–it does not answer to any interrogation.

The people in Goldman Sachs behind the glass windows laughing as the police arrest protesters, are “have” powers–rather minor ones. The true power behind Goldman Sachs is invisible and, probably, dead–just as “God” is dead.

This is what we can expect: if enough force and protest is supplied, then the cosmetics of the have powers will change. Some corpses who seem alive will be sacrificed to the mob to appease them. “Free market capitalism” will have to die as a terministic screen. It will be either modified or re-named under a different order of seeming.

The gods do not die, but grow ever more feeble. And here’s the scary part of this truth: the atrophy of the gods, leads to the hypertrophy of their protectors and defenders. The less true moral character a culture has, the greater in number grow the moral reformers. The less joy, the more comedians. We seek a balance we can never have. As opportunity becomes more feeble, the protectors of opportunity (and this includes both the 99 percent and the enforcer/protectors of the 1 percent) swell. If we were wise we would dismantle opportunity itself–recreate incentive around something less vital than our basic needs, and assure those basic needs are givens rather than carrots dangling at the end of a long hot poker. No one should be working for food and shelter. A system based on starving over half the world is vapid and silly. If a man could toil in the fields all day, and, at the end of that day, simply walk to a grocery and procure the food he needs without paying, wouldn’t that be wonderful? If the prosperous farmer did not prosper so that his son or daughter could become a lawyer, and his daughter a president–if each remained farmer, yet took a vital place in the polis, wouldn’t that be lovely? Problem is, many men and women have overactive seeking systems and must procure more than their fair share. Others have under active seeking systems and will neglect their rights. A balance is aimed at only through a system which has the authority to punish.

And so we are back to square one. Or are we? Suppose we could create a balance of seeking mechanisms? This can not be done when power is invested in an “it.” A machine set on seeking will not stop until the plug is pulled or it has devoured everything and has only itself left to devour–the myth of the juggernaut. The question to pose to Goldman Sachs and to the rest of the global corporate powers is rather simple: “You are not intelligent. You are a plunder machine, who know only how to work off the fallacy of limitless opportunity. Who in your hive is still capable of independent thought and has the power to pull the plug?” The truth is, the plug must be pulled from within. Someone must convince someone within the structure that this pattern and method is counterproductive. But how? How do you explain that to a tie, a suit, a series of numbers, and an advanced degree with 150 IQ that certain types of genius, including the genius of pattern recognition, are forms of stupidity? How do you get these nerd-zombies to pause? What flowers do you explode over their heads? When they have finished eating everyone, who or what will they eat? Themselves?

No doubt they are already doing so. When we pierce to the core of what the police and politicians are defending against all honor and scruple and reason, we may just find a bunch of feeble Ivy league nerdniks feeding on their own arms.

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.

 

I had a few reasons to pick up Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing. First, it’s a new book by a semi-important author, which has received mostly good reviews in major newspapers. Second, it takes place at Harvard, and I thought it would be a good read for my trip there for a conference. But most importantly, I have just begun a dissertation on contemporary novels that take place in the colonial period. So, Caleb’s Crossing, the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, seemed to fit the bill.

It does and it doesn’t. My work focuses on the novels, which have come to be called “historiographic metafictions,” that fall under the umbrella of postmodernism, novels like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Vollmann’s Argall.  Through the depiction of historical events and figures in an ironic light, they foreground the fluidity and downright unknowability of the past. Brooks is not so interested in that here. Like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (and I find it very difficult to make this comparison in good conscience, but bear with me) Brooks has taken an obscure historical event and extrapolated it into a fleshy, dramatic narrative. But while Jones’ novel is a veritable masterpiece, Brooks’ premise is problematic, and sometimes disingenuous.

It is told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield (a completely fictional invention), a pre-adolescent girl growing up on Martha’s Vineyard. Stifled by her puritanical father and brother, she sets out frequently on her own to explore the coastline. She eventually befriends a Wopanoak of similar age named Cheeshahteamauk. They discuss their mutual frustrations with their respective communities, in turn engaging in debates over religion. These are convincing, in that they exhibit the types of attitudes characteristic of people that age (“But aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” Etc.).  Throughout her narrative, Bethia evaluates her experiences, no matter how extreme or trying, under the auspices of her Puritanism, which too is convincing. She is a precocious storyteller like Jane Eyre (while the entirety of Jane’s story is told in retrospect, Bethia’s keeps hers like a journal, writing sometimes only hours after the events she’s addressing), and her impetus to self-expression and feminine identity is reminiscent. But the way Brooks has her stop short and remain within her value system, out of fear mostly, is key to capturing the ethos of the period.

But this is where things do become troublesome. Bethia continually refers to her adventures and conversations as sins, deviations from the obedience she only pretends to foster. But so too does she label as sins her questioning of her faith, and her keen interest in the all too stereotypical worship of nature on the part of Cheeshahteamauk. She wavers between her fascination (often verging on subtle eroticization) and a more typical condemnation of his religion as witchcraft. Again, we can chalk this up to accuracy, but things become blurrier after Cheeshahteamauk is slighted by his family, and debates assimilating with the Puritan community. In an early scene the friends decide to re-name each other, he acquiring the Caleb that he would be referred to as throughout the novel, she becoming Storm Eyes, “since my eyes were the color of a thunderhead.” She eventually sheds this title as Caleb becomes more indoctrinated in the Puritan way of life and religious education, but Caleb only becomes more Caleb-like. That is, his assimilation is celebrated, even by him, as an abandonment of his culture’s pact with Satan, and thus “Storm Eyes” must be discarded as child’s stuff, if not heresy.

The novel from there is relatively plotless. (And Brooks’ attempt at stylistic accuracy is commendable, but compared to the virtuosity of Pynchon and Barth’s achievements in this territory, she falls disappointingly flat. Consider “I suddenly felt so light that I thought I might lift off the ground and float away like the seeds of a blowball,” or “This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet.” A lot of the time you feel like Brooks is digging for excuses to use archaic terms like “sennight” just to prove she’s done her homework.) Happily, Bethia and Caleb don’t engage in a romantic relationship (thus avoiding the utterly stereotypical and unrealistic), and this allows for a significant chunk of the later plot to be devoted to Bethia’s dilemma over her choice of husband. In the meantime, as Caleb matriculates into secondary school and eventually into Harvard, the plot centers on death and its aftermath, another nice accuracy on the part of Brooks. You see how daily life, and the Puritan attitude, is refined by the imminence of plague, famine, or, on Martha’s Vineyard, shipwreck.  Many important people die throughout the story, and this is not a device to sustain emotional virility–it’s the norm of the day. That said, there is not much beyond this to indicate a plot trajectory per se, and elements of desire and controversy are introduced haphazardly. We meet new characters, such as potential suitors for Bethia, at the last minute, and we have to drag ourselves up to believe that these people are actual human beings, and not devices. There is a core mystery in the Harvard scenes that involves the impregnation of a Wopanoak servant at the school, but this potentially most interesting issue is dismissed almost as rapidly as it develops. This is very clearly not a novel about the issues of colonization, assimilation, miscegenation, etc. but about Caleb’s so-called triumph.

And triumph he does. The climax of the novel is so mawkish that its downright dismissal of the fraught implications of his “achievement” are extremely troubling. At the commencement ceremony, Bethia asides, “Well, I thought. You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, and your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man may say that the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable. Here, in this hall, you stand, the incontestible argument, the negat respondens.” This type of proclamation is only convincing if we are made privy to Bethia as a naive observer of Wopanoak relations, but we are clearly encouraged to trust her wisdom, as a mouthpiece for Brooks herself. Toward the end, she again proclaims, “Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer’s courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs. He won the respect of those who had been swiftest to dismiss him.” Nowhere amid this unabashed celebration of the “modernization” of the natives is there an indictment or at least a challenge to the cultural assumptions of the Puritans (“an explorer’s courage” is a particularly bold phrase, considering certain famous explorers’ treatment of their conquered. Again, this is not posed ironically). Sure, the discipline and the repression thing is addressed, but nowhere is the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible as proof of one’s intellectual capacity called into question. It’s taken as a given, so Caleb’s mastery of his subjects at Harvard becomes the categorical evidence that he isn’t a savage. I don’t need to tell you how problematic this type of assumption is, and how anesthetized the pain and tension underlying all this becomes. King Phillip’s War is glossed over toward the end, and any discussion of the social and political aftermath of Caleb’s graduation (there were other native people in his class, including the valedictorian) is buried under the continuation of the death-and-grief trajectory of the plot. It is not until the very end, when Caleb himself is on his deathbed (only a month after his graduation), that the real issue is called into question. I hinted at adolescent notions of the afterlife earlier in this review, but it does become central here as the ultimate stakes of any belief system. As Caleb is dying, Bethia can’t help but wonder to what home he’s being called back, and her consultation with his people’s de facto witch doctor for a remedy for his consumption throws into doubt her devotion to her own set of values. This type of ideological inquiry, I think, needs to be central to a novel that’s going to address the history of native peoples. It’s largely missing here, even though Brooks handles it nicely in their childhood, toward the beginning. In a novel that attempts to address the “crossing” of cultural barriers, a more accurate title probably would have been Caleb’s Passing, because that’s more to the point here. Assimilation is heroic in Brooks’ imagination, and this attitude ultimately dooms her novel.

Poem In Which Spring Returns (or French peasants who are really from Cobble Hill)
Melissa Sheppard

Spring comes
or maybe it doesn’t,

or I come—a sort of spring,
painful shoots sticking out of the ground—
a woman of shoots, and each one painful.

This is the tulip song I sing to my daughter.
I say daughter: tulips must break soil.
Twiggy stuff pokes the ground

from below, while
sun spikes the ground from above:
it’s all a spiky operation—

just as you drew in your first grade class!
A world of piercings!

things piercing and being pierced—
that is as good a theory as any other—

out of being: a sort of ongoing power point demonstration:
Poke the pertinent facts! Say: grass! tree! Woman bending over
in imitation of a peasant in France.

She is not in France. She is in Cobble Hill.
She is not a peasant. She is a lobbyist
for a multi media corporation:

And this is her husband Swen who makes
metal sculptures for the lawns of major rock stars.
And this is her time off, when she

imitates a peasant and admires her husband’s
art installations:

This, too, is an installation.
We will add yoga and a vegan diet.
We will call it a life style.

It is a tulip that has thrust its spear of green
up through the body of earth: someone will say

phallic and dismiss it. I never think of a penis when I
think of Tulips. But suppose it was a penis balancing

a tea cup, and the wind spilled the tea all over this page,
and we were stained by longing, and went forth into the garden
to learn how to be more at home with nature, or to

calm down after a busy week of being successful?
Ah, I think I’ve come to the point of my argument!
After being successful, we return to the earth,

or the earth returns to us, or something returns.
I like the idea that something returns.
I think its a good idea.

What is Sheppard doing here? First, I think she is taking some of the goodies of Dadaism and absurdity, and comic shtick, and being playful. Second I think she is affirming the very cliché ideas she tweaks, something comedy does. It affirms by tweaking; it doesn’t just destroy or mock. Comic perspective takes our sacred categories and dismantles them for the sake of making us have a perspective by incongruity. In this case, the poet implies “being”, as a power point demonstration. I like her sense of play. There is even a little nod to E.E Cummings in these proceedings—of what I call speculative verse. I define speculative verse as follows: verse in which the poet conjectures, improvises, steps out of the usual structures and categories of logical priority not to destroy meaning, or artistic effect, or artistry, but, rather to relieve the system of some pressure, to let off steam, to return to a sense of play. This conjectural, playful verse is an evolution from the conversational poems of Wordsworth, the sort of poem that has dominated the last couple centuries: subjective consciousness on the page, looking at, or experiencing something outside the self yet in reference to the self, while , at the same time, allowing consciousness to roam. The common denominator between poets as diverse as those in language poetry and those writing normative free verse in which emotion and subjective consciousness hold sway is this sense of the improvised. It is rarely if ever truly improvised.

Part of the 20th century revolution in poetry was an interest in parody, pastiche, send ups, cut ups, a constant recapitulation of tired tropes in such a way as to reinvigorate them, and this poem is no exception. If I had to put Melissa’s poem in a poetry camp, it would be with those who have learned to use the modes of Dada, the surreal, the ditzy, the childish, the incongruous, the comic, the speculative, without abandoning hope of emotional effect or depth. If we look at poetry aesthetics as tools rather than as truths, then everything becomes available to us—all the thousands of years of utterance. Sheppard says part of this poem’s inspiration comes from the great ditzy yet pointed ramblings of thirties screw ball actresses like Carole Lombard, the stream of consciousness ramblings of Gracie Allen—as much from them as from French Dadaists. She is a conscious artist. When she begins “Spring comes,” she is not unaware of Chaucer but she quickly adds instability to that notion by having the voice of the poem make a corrective: “Or maybe it doesn’t.” She says she moves through the poem in a speculative way. The daughter offers a foil to the traditional parent/child routine. She sees the poem as an incongruous melding of disparate “routines” that lead to an ancient idea of Spring as return, but which make that idea unstable. Return means death as well as new life. Spring hurts—it pokes through structures. It intrudes. Sheppard also plays with identity: the pastoral peasant who is really a lobbyist for a multi media corporation, the idea that a child’s drawing of a spiky sun and spiky shoots is a truly accurate depiction of how things are interpenetrative—piercing and being pierced. The “this is” trope conveys the “being” as a power point demonstration. A lot is happening in this poem, and it moves, flits about, but has an overall tone of someone being wise by pretending to be witless—the Socratic “towards” rather than “at” wisdom.
Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Rosanna Warren, very different, but also using a “towards” rather than “at” wisdom/technique—in this case, a series of seemingly random questions. The poem is called “A Questionnaire for Bernard Chaet”:

Can a scar emit light?

Can objects slide off the curved surface of earth?

And later in the poem:

Can a sword of sunlight crack rocks?

Have we lost the sky, looking down?

Were we ever safe here?

Warren’s seemingly random and even childish or absurd questions create a cumulative effect anything else but childish. So here’s the challenge:

1. Write a Poem like Melissa Sheppard in which you flit from one thing to the other, yet, somehow, create an overall implication of a meaning, a mood, a tone.

2. Write a poem like Warren’s in which the seeming randomness of questions adds up to a serious theme, or implication (In Warren’s case—the instability of everything).
Good luck.

Home work: YouTube Gracie Allen and Carole Lombard. Listen to what they do to language. Read the last section of Job with God’s questions. Did Warren have these in mind? How do they differ? How are they the same?