Stephen Burt
POETICS
 
Response to Four Poems from the next Drunken Boat

I like the games "Orchis" plays, the details it accumulates, and the switch in readerly expectations it creates: if you've read a lot of recent poetry you've seen plenty of poems whose built-up details correspond to nothing consistent in nature, whose sequence seems designed to disorient. "Orchis" initially seems to be one of those poems—its initial run of sentences even includes objects (an ovary, corpses) associated with Surrealism, from which those disorienting poems often descend. Then we realize that the sentences, the details, the descriptions, hold together with a consistent logic: these are the kinds of orchids, a plant family (the largest family of flowering plants, says Wikipedia) notorious for the outlandish behavior and appearance of some of its members: orchids are collectible, outlandish, "fickle," sometimes hard to cultivate. One metabolizes rotting flesh. Another prefers early stages of second-growth forests, I gather (thus excitement when trees catch fire). Some seem to have "purple lips," some have asymmetrical extensions which hold fruiting bodies (thus the pleasantly asymmetrical first sentence), one "reeks of carrion," another self-fertilizes, and so on. Once the family orchis has impressed us and declared its collective pride, the poem's orchid speaks as an individual: "You swear you won't be another table pet"—this "you" doesn't want to be treated as mere ornament, the way many collectable orchids are.
            By this point, "you," the orchid, is also you, the poem, and perhaps you, the reader of poetry: no poet wants her poem neglected, but almost no poets want their poems (whatever a Wildean aesthete may say) to be taken home and cherished only and always as an ineffectual ornament. The orchid is the poem which doesn't want to be treated that way—but how does a poem want to be treated instead? This orchid gets nostalgic for Greece, and in particular for the preliterate Greece where poetry (supposedly) emerged from a matrix of ritual, with wine, and a priestess, and a sexual dance, and, apparently, an orgy.
           The word orgy sounds as if it could be distantly related to "orchid," from classical Greek orchis, "testicle"—"orchis," in English, is an obsolescent synonym for "orchid," the name of the family being Orchidaceae, though according to the OED orgy comes instead from orgia, a plural deriving from ergon, "work."
            The poem is a work, and the earlier part of this poem involves work—the work we do to put it together, the work the scientists did in studying orchids—but the end of the poem concerns not conscious work but preconscious desire and the rituals that seem to respond to it, the Dionysian rite not of sex but of slaughter, as in Euripides' Bacchae: the "guests" become Maenads, dismembering the poem-orchid-reader who wants only to be respected, feted, allowed to do (sexual) work. At this point the poem almost loses me: I can imagine an orchid having a "leg" (an extended), or getting "secretly excited," or drinking fluids (even wine), but I have a hard time visualizing an orchid with two arms, skin, muscle, and a sleep-wake cycle analogous to ours—the extended metaphor linking orchid to person to poem seems to have broken down, though it is almost redeemed, for me, by the final phrase, in which the ritually dismembered orchid (whose current, bizarre forms perhaps reflect ancient dismemberment) cannot scream, nor speak, with his or her "exploded tongue."
            The other poem that stands out, for me, is "Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day": like "Orchis," it seems incoherent at the start until we realize what it depicts, which in this case not only explains how the figures of speech (fewer are metaphors than we might first think) fit together and portray a scene, but also explains the extreme aural effects that mark the poems start :"fireflies flaring flatted fifths," with an F-F-F hufflepuff that might sound both comic and incompetent until we realize that the comedy lies in the practicing jazz musician's attitude towards his imperfect, not-yet-rehearsed art. The trumpet (though it could be any brass instrument) which the musician is practicing (outdoors, apparently) may be played with an empty bell (the end of the trumpet out of which sound comes) or with a mute. The first throes of practice generate not harmonies but dissonances, "flatted fifths" or tritones. The musician-poet, for all his moments of complicated, alliterative confidence, seems to me undecided between art-for-art's-sake, which would permit a long solo, and art as a way of playing with, of joining, others, "the rest of the boys": does he want to catch up to them, or to blow solo?
            "This"—that is, this decision, and also the larger question of for what and for whom we learn and practice our art—"isn't as complicated as it appears," in part because, once we recall (or Google) the title, we will realize that we are reading a love poem: "Maybe Tuesday..." quotes the bridge from the Gershwins' standard "The Man I Love" (1927), whose lonely speaker expresses an almost pathetic faith that "he'll come along," though to date he never has. "One/ Then one/ Then two" thus becomes not just instruction to musicians but a description of human life as we moderns want and expect it to be: growth in solitude, followed by lucky courtship and companionship or marriage. We don't know the trumpeter's gender or orientation, though we can expect that the trumpeter seeks a man: "The rest of the boys" could be competitors or rejected suitors, or, in a gay context, both. Those flirtatious fireflies introduce, in miniature, the "fire pit" of dangerous love observed. The poem becomes (1) mostly-outdoor tribute to jazz, with a series of bravura riffs; (2) an ars poetica of sorts, a vision of the poet-musician practicing (compare Wordsworth's Boy of Winander); (3) a torch song, a poem of patient, painful, as yet unrequired longing, if not love. I wonder, though, why it ends with that curt last line: is love, or writing, or musicianship, "that simple"? Are they simple at all? Would the poem do better to end with a full line, on the ironies and double meaning of "one/ Then two"?
            Two other poems seem to me not quite as ambitiously accomplished as "Orchis" or "Maybe..." but memorable nonetheless: "Theory of Escape from the Old Country" manages the odd feat (Richard Hugo managed it too) of sounding like a pantoun without being one, its end-stopped, one-line sentences rolling onwards with deliberate emphases, one after another, describing not a plot but a location, one somewhat Norwegian, somewhat oneiric, from which I, too, would probably wish to escape: buildings resemble their tenants, gestures I make with my body (as in Dylan Thomas) affect the world as a whole, and it may be that the whole of this Norway is dreamt: maybe "nothing exists." Maybe the bar-by-bar, line-by-line procession of local details, as inescapable as they sound, means that the poem describes not a country but a mindset the poet wants to, tries to, leave, and cannot leave: behind the bars, as Rilke says in "The Panther," no world, and inside the cage the bars form, "all the trees are connected."
           It must be hard to live inside one poem, to find the entirety of one's psychic life described adequately in one set of lines—in fact, every real human being has more psychic life than a single lyric can hold, even though any good lyric describes part of the psychic life of its poet and of its sympathetic readers: we may feel that the consciousness in a poem is a consciousness trapped, as one might be trapped in a mountain valley, however beautiful the snowy landscape, however clear the atmosphere. That kind of entrapment is, I think, one subject here, one way this poem becomes an ars poetica. Another involves the Lillehammer Olympics: to build a poem is at once to make a structure an imagined consciousness can inhabit, out of which that consciousness speaks, and to engage in a kind of competition, to do something diffiicult according to rules. The poem is an exclamation of protest, an attempt to escape from the everyday, and also an attempt to ski faster, better, more elegantly than the other poems: "I think you will take part."
            Finally, there is the prankishness of "Mortal Combat," whose rapid, frequently-enjambed, and strenuously colloquial absurdity reminds me (though I do not think she could have written this one) of Amanda Nadelberg. The poem turns out to comprise a series of jokes, first against the idea that we have much control over our thoughts, that we are self-directed or autonomous agents, and then against the idea that the poet has any more control than the rest of us over the powers assumed by his or her speech: this poet may seem "more powerful/ than" salivary glands, but how much power does that claim imply? Not much: "I am/ a squinty old fool stooped over/ his keyboard," poor thing. I don't think the echo of KC and the Sunshine Band adds anything to the ending—in fact, I wish I hadn't heard it, just as I wish I had not read the title as the name of a video game: allusion, like saliva, seems here to have overcome the poet's control. On the other hand, the poem ends with the best justification (some say the only justification) for that finally individual and individualizing, inexpensive art form we call lyric, both for writers and for readers: the last line also paraphrases Marianne Moore, whom I hope but do not expect the poet had in mind: "I do these/ things which I do, which please/ no one but myself."
           

Stephen Burt

 


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