Conversations in a Language I Used to (Sort of) Know
So here comes this packet of a dozen poems I’m supposed to write about, and what I feel is… anxiety, strangely enough. Something that rarely afflicts me at the keyboard.
The thing is, I’m rusty with poetry, way rusty. And so digging into a bunch of them feels like facing a conversation in Swahili. Long ago I spent two years in Africa and spoke Swahili passably well. But if you told me someone was about to knock at the door and start talking to me in it, I’d feel nervous. I know as an autobiographical fact that 25 years ago I conducted friendships in that language. Now and then I dream about those friendships and the people I shared them with; and I wake up to realize they are removed from me not only by distance and time, but by a still further remove of language. They are memories caught and held in the amber of a language I no longer know.
And now here are these dozen poems, knocking at my door, and I’m not at all sure I’ll know how to talk back to them, or even what they’re saying to me. Because I don’t speak poetry any more.
I did once – at least passably. In high school and in college. I read Milton’s Paradise Lost as an 11th grader; Shakespeare’s sonnets; Donne and the Metaphysical poets; sad Victorians like Ernest Dowson; WWI poets like Sigfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas; Hardy; Frost; Philip Larkin. Elizabeth Bishop. ee cummings. Robert Lowell. James Dickey. Some of the easier poems of James Merrill. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
But I went on, moved on, to be a fiction reader and a fiction writer. And that was a different thing. I remember a professor of mine, David Sofield, who was a poet, explaining (because I asked him) that he never wrote fiction because “I never wanted to submit myself to the tyranny of what happens next.” I understood that. I could understand that poetry might be considered more than narrative – more than one-thing-and-then-another-thing. Poetry was the distilled essence of literary language: metaphor, music, intuition, mood. It was all about unexpected movements, connections between words and ideas, words and words, and words and emotions, that hit you with an immediate perception of rightness. What was Frost’s phrase? Feats of association. For me poetry was really a matter of individual poems, often single lines, whose feats of association did something to me. “The scrimmage of appetite all around.” “Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me…” “Busy old fool, unruly sun…” “The dull need to make some kind of house/ Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.” These and many other lines are still with me, or within me, somewhere. They’re like a deep substratum of my literary consciousness. If I ever miss speaking the language of poetry – which I do sometimes – it is because I miss the process of acquiring (for want of a better word) more lines to add to that deep level.
I’m not sure when exactly or why I stopped. It wasn’t a renunciation, but a dwindling. My pleasures became hit-or-miss, and then more miss than hit. I realized I hated poetry readings. The mood of poetry readings, and the manner. That grave, earnest quality; and most of all that noise, the one I came to think of as the “poetry-reading noise.” You know the kind of hushed and reverential gathering where the poet would read some obscure, exquisite and earnest lines, and after he or she was done there would be this moment of exquisite silence, and then everyone in the audience would nod, gravely, and sort of go, Huhhhhnnhhh… — this group utterance that went around the room, this little collective noise that acknowledged the profundity of the poem. But nobody wanted to say anything; nobody knew what to say; and nobody (God forbid!) ever dared laugh. Occasionally a poet like Billy Collins or Thomas Lux would come along and make it clear that the poetry was meant to be enjoyed, to make you laugh, talk, question, blaspheme, whatever. But they were the rare exception. The rule was Huhhhnnnhhh. It made me want to do something loud and raucous.
So my four or five dozen slim volumes of poetry got relegated to the shelf in the guest room, which is where they sit today, literally collecting dust, alongside my Swahili dictionary.
And now here is this packet.
Notes on Poems
A bit of a guessing game. An ovary kept in “one good leg.” Something that grows on corpses. What is an orchis, anyway? The lines toss out a series of hints, almost a “Jeopardy”-like rhetoric – as if I am supposed to push the buzzer and say, “What is… orchis!” And what is it? (Googling now)… OK, a genus in the orchid family. That makes the poem a little bit witty. “The aunt who reeks of carrion, or the uncle/ In the Yunnan who won’t stop fertilizing himself.” So what we have is the orchid family, with all their embarrassing, obscure, farflung relatives. The poet ups the stakes on the conceit by having the orchid dream. A poem about a flower dreaming some kind of passionate, floral transcendence – then waking up to find itself still itself. I like that.
This poem reminds me, as a prose writer and reader, of the particular kind of patience that poetry requires. You have to muster more negative capability than prose by and large demands of you, so that you can hang in there not really “getting it” at once, but rather assimiliating and amassing meanings until (if it happens) a critical mass of meaning accumulates. I resisted this poem at first, but partway through the second reading, I flipped, and made myself available to its delicate but insistent charm.
“Theory of Escape from the Old Country”
A poem like this starts right in the middle of things, and reading it you have to figure out where you are, project your attention forward, backward and sideways, well beyond the edges of the poem. It makes you be alert. There’s a different kind of calisthenics involved in reading poetry, and you have to be in shape. A prose writer should keep this in mind. Not to be too obvious or explicit. To leave as much as you can out.
Anyway, to the poem. I read it through once, and it is totally obscure and opaque to me. Norway. Guard house. Sledding. Bowling. Numismatics – coin collecting, right? – as “the science of flung metal.” “…We shall go to the library,/ then later a film. You must sit still, and laugh for health.” Huh? And what about the Olympics? And why do the children have to leave their dolls at the guard house? And what is the “it” that is lowering the speaker’s eyes in line 4?
The sentences seem willfully unconnected from one another – as if each sentence was torn from some different text and simply laid down together. The rhythm of disruption is the prominent feature; the poem reboots with every sentence. I jump back up to the title. “Theory of Escape from the Old Country” Escape. Hmmm…. the bits and pieces you can take with you when you leave somewhere? A few coins, the memory of snow?
I’m doing way too much guessing. There’s a fine line a poem has to walk, between obviousness on the one side, obscurity on the other. If the calisthenics become too arduous you reject the drill. I’m bailing.
“Johann Sebastian Summoned to the Royal Court”
Is this poem going to require my knowing something about Bach and whatever Bavarian or Prussian or Austro-Hungarian prince was his patron? I hope the poet won’t do that to me. I myself am fascinated by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich; but if I wrote something inspired by one, I wouldn’t require my reader to know anything about the man, his life, or the work beyond what I included in the narrative.
Just a bit of readerly anxiety there, I guess.
The poem is elusive and dense. The speaker, Bach presumably, complains of having to play what is commanded, and imagines what it would be like “to play what we desired to play for once.” Instead, he – or rather “we” (who is this plural speaker? Is this an ironic play on the royal we? Is it all artists?) – have become “performing elephants and fleas.” What I can hang onto in this poem is the evocation of self-loathing and, beneath it, a dreamy longing for “The life which is, which only is, which never changes into what is not.” That is the key line in the poem. The idealism of the artist that has been curbed, pushed, bought out, corrupted, or diverted into something else – a negation, the what-is-not. I get that.
Still, a lot of the poem eludes me, and not in a good way. There’s a mixing of levels of language, the formal alternating with the lyrical and then with the casual and conversational: “as white as foam dreamed on the lips of famed thalassa never seen or heard…” followed, half a dozen lines later, by “Not that there’s no desire to play the friends, but it is hard to read two scores without four eyes.” Indeed! This alternation strikes me as awkward. And the ironic actions of parentheses and quotation marks clog things up even more, e.g. “the way in which a ‘god’ [specified as God] bleeds out its life into the universe.” Finally, there’s a lyrical cadence to the end in which, to me, sound overwhelms sense – especially given the elusiveness of the authorial interpolations with all that punctuation. So the poem ends up sort of speeding up and slowing down at once, and the effect is like clashing gears. It’s noisy. Difficult, but not in a good way. I keep thinking the poet isn’t wholly in control here. At one level a poet has to be totally in control of language, so that at a deeper level, it can totally control her.
To me this poem is like a picnic table piled with a lot of things I don’t like, but a few I really do. So I pick the three things I like and go away happy.
Seeing a short lyric on the page makes me hopeful. So far the poems have tended toward wordiness and density. This poem has fewer than a hundred words.
OK, I’ve read it… and I’m not crazy about it. Am I finding too much fault with these poems? Sometimes something small about a poem can sway me against it. I’m picky. Snobby, maybe. It’s the same with people. Reading them, in a sense, to try to see whether their sensibility is sympathetic with mine. And wincing when some seemingly small point of taste or preference, some way of using language, turns me off.
What I don’t like about “Swarm”: “My hunger sings the stridulant percussion of limbs.” To me, “stridulant” is an obstacle, placed right in the middle of the line. I used to follow this argument between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson in their letters – about the function and necessity of obscure words. Wilson always accusing Nabokov of being willfully impenetrable and, in effect, showoffy. Of course, it is nice for a writer to reach to the back shelves of language, dust off the archaic word and stick it out there for us. But this line is already difficult enough, busy enough metaphorically – with hunger singing a percussion of limbs. Throw in a strange adjective, and once again – for me – it becomes indigestible.
Same with “a fuse of verdant instar.” I looked it up. It’s a developmental stage of insects, when they are still larvae. So the question is, if you’re the poet, is it a good thing to make a reader stop reading and click on Wikipedia? My vote is no – no to Wikipoetry!
This is a slight poem, not trying for profundity. And I’m glad. The poet – “a squinty old fool stooped over his keyboard” – is presumably trying to get some work done, but finds himself hungry instead, thinking about… an English muffin. He indulges a slight reverie over the fortitude, indeed heroism, that battling this temptation entails.
Again, I find something to complain about. The switch of address: the “you” in the first five lines is the generalized second person, both reader and poet; it is the-person-in-this-predicament. Then, in line seven, “you” becomes that person’s salivary glands, then the idea of eating… and the former you is now “I.” To me this is a slipup, a little glitch in the poem. On the other hand, I like the playfulness involved in the listing of nemeses: 1) salivary glands; 2) idea, and 3) thoughts-that-kee-coming-like-an-invading-army-trying-to-pull-me-away-from-who-I-am. He plays around with parallelism to create a wholly syntactical humor. I like that.
I wonder about the last line – “And that’s the way I like it.” It’s very plainness is a little mysterious, and in this case, again, that’s a good thing. The speaker says he is “a squinty old fool” who is “stooped” over his keyboard… and yet he has this fresh, youthful, exclamatory way of gently making fun of himself, and of stating his simple preference. It makes me warm to the voice. The poem is tongue-in-cheek – the title, “Mortal Combat,” nicely ambiguous; anyone over 40 is preoccupied with diet, so there’s the combat with one’s mortality… but also the fight with the idea itself, the temptation for a snack.
Nothing big here, but something small and nice. The poem itself is a snack.
“A Night At High Spur”
My favorite so far, and by far. There seems hardly a word wasted, ill-chosen, or out of place in this poem. Only seven sentences, and each one does good work. The spaces are left blank where they need to be, and the questions I’m left with are tempting ones, not befuddling or annoying ones. How does a poet manage that, making the things you don’t fully understand enlarge your experience of the poem, rather than impede or diminish it?
There is a mix of humor with other elements – lyrical, erotic, and religious – that keeps the poem unexpected and makes it rich. “Mara tempts the Buddha/ to disappear wholly in love/ but the compassionate one shuts his mind…” Well, if he weren’t so compassionate, he might be passionate — might come down off his perch on the stool and make love to her, right? That’s funny. A wry chiding. “The lovers in their sleeping bag/ Are constrained by the zipper/ to huge slow lunges.” Constrained by the zipper – yes! And those huge slow lunges, both sexy but also ungainly and a little bit weird, like fish underwater.
Or calling your lover’s name softly even when you are out, alone, in the wilderness. Passion has an inherent secrecy. I wouldn’t have had that thought, in that form, were it not for this poem.
I like the rhetorical shift between the second and third stanzas, from description of the lovers to the lovers’ prayer – an entreaty offered really on behalf of all lovers. What’s nice is how the poem keeps us with this couple, on this camping trip, but also generalizes mightily, so that it is specific and universal at once. All our loves, our passions, carry with them the hint of our own extinction. Is love real, and abiding, or will we wake from the dream? I really like this poem a lot. When I go to quote it, I find I am quoting every line… which seems like the sign of a perfect work. Also, I appreciate the fact that while the poem is engendered by a specific religious reference – the story of Buddha being tempted by Mara, the personification of change and death, whose daughters dance seductively in order to tempt the Buddha (unsuccessfully, of course) – it still works fine even if you don’t know this. To me this poem represents an accomplishment of a higher order than the others so far.
“Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day”
This poem is a little ditty, a piece of musical murmuring, complete with comical alliteration: “Fireflies flaring flatted fifths.” “Belfry bats could be blowing bebop.” The situation and intention are elusive. Is the speaker an “actual” musician, tuning up to play while sitting on an “actual” fence; or is this an extended metaphor for some state of being – uncertainty (i.e., being on the fence) amid a night that is musical (“offers this much and not an F more”)? Who is the other person, playing a solo with smoke catching in his hair? And “those cats in the alley” who, it turns out, are not “skatting.” Another play on words – scat singing, but also, what – something scatological? By the end of the poem, the predecessor’s solo is over, and it’s the musician/ poet’s/speaker’s turn to play. “It’s that simple.” But not quite simple enough for me.
“Angel of Bethesda I”
At first read, almost totally impenetrable. Interesting, how similar reading a poem like this really is to reading a foreign language you hardly know. You cling to a few intelligible words and phrases while the rest just whooshes by. With these few secure elements you begin to build a meaning. Next time through, you attach a few more words and phrases to what you already have; and you keep doing this in the hope that eventually you’ll reach the tipping point where the poem opens and you can enter. I remember feeling this way about Shakespeare, back in 9th grade when I first read him. And how exciting it was, to get to that critical point where suddenly the sense of it opened up.
But “Bethesda” doesn’t get me there. A second reading, and a third, leave me doubting I will ever break through a poem (or want to) that includes such lines as “You are/ shrinking, little Bobble. Try this/ Gargarism of common Mallows, try/ this Clyster, strong as you can handle.” First of all, I’ve been meaning to complain that this poet’s line breaks seem random, and that bothers me. But I have other complaints here. Why the italicization? Who is the little bobble? Is the “Angel of Bethesda” a nurse administering poisons? To a dying patient whose head bobbles? That seems grotesque – both the image, and my effort at guessing.
This poet has a fondness for the imperative mode, and in this case I am unsure whom he is ordering around. “Let a Boy piss on your favorite shirt/ & Wear it. Better, find a group of Boys.” (There’s that italicization again). “Try this Poultis. Long as you can stand.” Isn’t it… poultice?
And why call the afternoon or evening – PM – the post Meridian? And why “wherefore that/ &wherefore this.”??
Results of another Google run: A clyster is an archaic term for an enema, administered with a big steel syringe. Ergot is a poison derived from a fungus, and can cause all sort of dreadful effects. A gargarism is a gargle. And a common mallow is a weed, resembling ground ivy, which in turn resembles whatever it is that keeps invading the grass in our back yard.
So at least I learned that.
“This is Not a Bill”
Another witty title. I like it when a poet takes something from everyday use, plucks it out of context and does something with it. It’s part of the writer’s project of making us notice things. To give something a “twist” is to take it and reposition it slightly so that we in turn are repositioned: seeing things differently; seeing things anew; seeing them at all. Billy Collins does a lot of this, usually to gently humorous effect. One of the qualities that has made him a breakthrough poet in terms of popularity is an ability to make us laugh even as he is making us more alert.
As for this poem… well, again, the poem and the poet don’t make it altogether easy for me. Do I want easy poetry? Maybe I do. Mostly I want a relatively unobstructed way into the poem. Let its difficulties gradually present themselves, and its implications deepen, as I go. This poet works the other way. Throws up a lot of obstacles right away. Consider the first three and a half lines: “The glass waist of this whist-day/ is prised in a vise of oaks, bloodied/ glimpse of paradise lost to us,/ thank God, else we’d be forced/ to destroy it…” Distracting things are going on with the look and sound of the words. Waist/ whist; prise/vise. A sort of G.M. Hopkins sound, lightly skipping along – and taking me away, for a moment, from the work of trying to get a grasp of a “whist day” (cards, anyone?) with a glass waist… that furthermore is prised (is this poet British) in a vise of oaks! Are we talking about an hourglass here? That may be more work than I want to do – especially when it morphs into not only a glimpse of paradise lost, but a bloodied one. Are we talking about time?
I’m glad when the poet moves on to a specific beloved, the object of desire, calf, lips, groin-timbre (sounds like Rilke!)… and a “memory of my body burning in your hands.” The last two couplets round off a recollection of passion and address someone – fate itself, really – with an imperative: “never allow me to be cured…” This time I know who is being ordered around, and why. Love and passion are an illness from which we do not wish to be recovered. (I am sort of editing out what the poet does not wish to be cured of — namely, his “whet”— which to my ear sounds too much like a diaper predicament. Sorry, but I’m the dad of a baby.)
So: The speaker writes to his former lover, or perhaps to his absent lover, evoking her, and pleading to the fates for the prolongation of desire. Don’t let this message get mistaken for a bill! Love is free – and that is what makes it so precious and so endangered. I get it… but I find myself wishing the poem were as playful in executing this idea as its title is in announcing it. Instead, what I get is a Rilkean solemnity (and indeed it reads like something translated from German.) I read a lot of Donne back when I was reading poetry, and as a result I value playful and even showoffy wit – the performance – more than earnest solemnity a la Rilke. It’s just my preference.
The poem opens, “I was born in the Christian South/ of a subcontinent mad for religion” – and I breathe a sigh of relief. The prose writer in me, the reader eager to submit himself to the tyranny of what happens next, leaps up. Tell me a story!
And this poem does. Call it a Bildungsgedicht – a poem of education. One’s past viewed from the distance, in time and space, of one’s present. This poem nails the way time and experience radically simplify the past, so that however complex and marvelous, and awful, your youth may have been, it now can be summed up in a sentence or two: “The cities I grew up in were landlocked… One was old, one poor; both were hot.” Boom. That’s it. And the heat “vaporized thought and order,/ drained the will, obliterated reason.”
Who wouldn’t want to leave?
I like the touch of rueful and ironic self-awareness – the young man, “20 and morose… over conscious of my rhyme…” And the specific evocations of objects that also serve the broader evocation of a place (India, presumably) and of the forces in that place that proved, ultimately, oppressive to the spirit. “On the kitchen step/ a chili plant grew dusty in the wind.” The train pulls in each day, the platform is empty, the sun is brutally hot, the hot wind blows and the peppery spice that is life grows neglected. This is all very nicely done. It evokes a place that is surely missed, because it was the poet’s own place – but that also gave ample reason for him to leave it. And so, again simply: “I made a change: I traveled west.”
A shift of scene – to New York, presumably – and of time as well. “Now 45, my hair gone sparse… I’m a poet of small buildings.” The movement in the poet’s consciousness parallels his movement in place and time, the changes in his outlook and spirit match changes in his body. As for his immediate surroundings, he has moved from the epic-but-starved to the small-scale-but-flourishing. Not the temple architecture of his native land, but a flourishing urban neighborhood with its common secular structures. The sea brings water, and does so explicitly poetically; the poet lives not amid the dry dustiness and heat of his past, but in a living, thriving place. But it’s not an unmixed blessing. The poet is “a baffled Moghul in his cell” who mixes Hindu and Christian names; and when he calls out in Hindi – Badshah (meaning king?) – no one is there to hear; and hearing a barn owl, he thinks it is a bird from home –a “koel,” a kind of Asian cuckoo.
“All things combine and recombine,/ The sky streams in ribbons of color./ I’m my father and my son grown old.” That’s really lovely. The poem records the passage of time and the process of making peace with one’s destiny. A necessary escape, to a place (literal and metaphorical) where one finds nourishment, may bring relief — but also a certain scaling down, dead grandeur exchanged for something like a vivid pedestrianism. And beneath it all, the inevitable mixed emotions of exile. Nice. There’s a whole world in this poem. Two worlds, actually.
A Wallace Stevens kind of poem. Short, epigrammatic sections numbered with Roman numerals. Some of the sections take a jotting, listing manner. The first stanza does so playfully, letting us know what the program is going to be. Lets see, which item does not fit on this list? Red leather, gold flowers. Morocco, beauty of palm trees, towels, minarets, breasts.
Second stanza, and the poem into the imperative. The third stanza switches to interrogative. Keeping things moving. Eventually it proceeds to the erotic – hips plush/selfless/the eyes/thrown back/and legs/akimbo. I love that last word – it evokes Lolita and Humbert Humbert, who used it with reference to his nymphet. “I’m not afraid of love/ This morning,” the poet says, which is a line that gets more interesting the more you think about it. Why be afraid of love? Well, there are a number of reasons to; but they aren’t laid out here at any length. Where he takes us finally is toward the mystery, the metaphysical aspect, of erotic love – “My coming to you/ is never kind/or over, or quite begun/ to make you a sea/in my keeping.”
Well, it’s nice. A visual poem, spare but also luscious as well.
In the end I am left liking two of these eleven poems very much, five moderately to fairly much, and four not at all. Does that matter? Lately when reading book reviews in the New York Times, I’ve been complaining about Michiko Kakutani and her imperious and magisterial judgments. I get done reading her reviews and I say, OK, I understand the point you are making, I see how comprehensive you are in arguing it… but isn’t there more going on in this book than whether you like it or not? Isn’t there more to reading than evaluating? What would you say in response to a book (or a poem) if you weren’t allowed to say whether it is any good?
So it makes me slightly nervous to have all my responses oriented toward saying what I do – and don’t – like. But I’m not sure I know a way out, or want one. I recall Wordsworth’s comments about “the grand elementary principle of pleasure,” and about taking “a pure organic pleasure in the lines.” To me as a reader, and especially as a reader of poetry, that’s what it comes down to. It’s all about what my teachers in college kept calling “the experience of reading.” A poem either does something for me… or not. And I tend to know pretty quickly. I may not understand at first reading the whys and hows, but I know whether something is there for me – whether this poem has it in it to give me pleasure.
What a remarkably hedonistic basis on which to read! But life is too short, at age 49 and a half, to spend much time with poems – or people, for that matter – that you don’t like and aren’t delighted, consoled, surprised, moved and amused by. These writers got me back to speaking Poetry again, and in the process gave me two poems that do all those things. And that’s something to be thankful for.