Wednesday, June 29, 2011

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We now return you to your regularly scheduled poetry critique.

Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": XII

I am reading Jennifer Vaughan Jones's biography of Anna Wickham alongside the poems. Quite horrified to learn that her husband committed her to a mental asylum for no reason other than the suspicion of an illicit liaison, her emotional outbursts and her stubborn desire to write poetry. In one of these outbursts, from the garden, Anna had shouted at Patrick her poem "Nervous Prostration," which begins:

I married a man of the Croydon class
When I was twenty-two,
And I vex him, and he bores me
Till we don't know what to do!
It isn't good form in the Croydon class
To say you love your wife,
So I spend my days with the tradesmen's books
And pray for the end of life...

Little wonder that Patrick was angered by Anna's poetry, an anger easily transmuted into a "concern" for Anna's sanity. Though Anna suffered much fear and many indignities in Brooke House, the asylum, she secretly carried out of it at the end of her time there 80 poems she had written. These were to form the core of the collection "The Contemplative Quarry," published by Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, who became a staunch supporter of Anna's poetry.

Jones's biography discovered an intriguing link between Monro and Brooke House. The mental asylum, a long-established and well-run concern, was one of the sources of Monro's income, and so gave him the financial independence to promote the profitless business of poetry. Jones could not determine if Monro knew of Anna when she was in Brooke House. The doctor who gave Anna paper to write her poems could have told Monro of his unusual patient, knowing Monro's interest in poetry, but nothing can be proven. What is clear is the irony that the man who owned the mental asylum also owned the press and the bookstore.

"XII The Affinity" is about Anna's marriage to Patrick, but in at least one stanza it gains additional resonance when Monro is brought into the picture. The poem begins with great bitterness:

I have to thank God I'm a woman,
For in these ordered days a woman only
Is free to be very hungry, very lonely.

The compulsion in "I have to" is both external and internal, or, more accurate, external pressure changed into internal willfulness. "Ordered" is sharp choice of word, for it connotes not just "orderly" (as in the regimentation of a mental asylum) but also "being ordered around." "Very hungry" and "very lonely," two different conditions, can be read as appositives for each other, due to the missing "and." I find the stark language utterly compelling. The same language animates the rest of the poem:

It is sad for Feminism, but still clear
That man, more often than woman, is a pioneer.
If I would confide a new thought,
First to a man must it be brought.

These lines make me think of Harold Monro as well as Patrick Hepburn, her husband. Does Anna have Monro, her publisher and supporter, in mind too?

The poem goes on to argue in crystal-cut quatrains that "the true male never yet walked/ Who liked to listen when his mate talked," and so the speaker-wife has learned from "a wealth of living" that she "must be silent, if [she] would be loved."

The poem turns at this point, for it realizes that female silence is a potential source of strength: it forces her to do all her thinking "by stealth," like the early Christians who pray secretly in the catacombs. If she were allowed to speak, "the things [she] spoke/ Would fill the air a while, and clear like smoke." Forbidden to speak, she has to write down her thoughts and so she can "show them to the Town," and not just to a husband, and so she can "re-read" her own thoughts in the future. I find immensely moving the idea that writing, for this woman, is not just for a public audience, but also for her private self.

The poem ends by repeating the opening tercet, which is a line shorter than the quatrains in the poem's body, and so enacts the diminishment that the stanza describes:

I have to thank God I'm a woman,
For in these ordered days a woman only
Is free to be very hungry, very lonely.

I said "diminishment," but Anna Wickham made much of little.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Walk in Victoria's Secret - The Hatching

I found this to be a very touching poem. Again it avoids dealing with polemics directly, unlike so many of her other poems and, therefore, avoids the pitfalls of what I consider her lesser poems. While it may not achieve some of the transcendental moments of Calvin Spotswood or the title poem, still, in its desperate, poverty-stricken domestic scene it hits a chord and does so from beginning to end -

Burning in our twin scarlet fevers,
we were laid out, feet to feet,
on the worn, gold sofa, my brother and me.

The poem goes on to detail the doctor's visit (yes, this was in the time when doctors still made housecalls), the family's desperate circumstances - no food in the house, the father at a bar nursing a beer and a broken furnace and it was COLD. The doctor gives them each a shot and tucks the blanket more firmly around the children's chins and then

-for reasons I cannot
conceive, and so I call it grace-removed from his car's
dark trunk, thick platters old music encased
in paper sleeves.

And he plays for them the Nutcracker Suite. And listening, N concludes of her own body

Something had once been painted there beautifully
and with care. And it had worn away over the years,
or grown encased in a kind of shell?

And N realizes, that through the beauty of music she us able to escape the small tight space and in an orgy of exit the shell will crack open.

I think this poem is the most beautiful of her shorter poems in this collection.

The Pismire Oration

Online here, with audio!

When I read this, I was struck by the distinctive voice, which came through clearly even without audio. The reading didn't sound quite the way I pictured it the poem in my head, or quite the way I pictured Griffiths in my head (I imagined both as less fairy-like and more warrior-like). Nonetheless, I thought the reading was well delivered and fit the poem beautifully. I would totally elect the bearer of that voice as queen of my troupe of magical fairies. (I'm glad Griffiths can't hear me, or she'd probably be inspired to barf on my shoes.)

The poem is written in the voice of a queen ant, whose anthill has just been raided by birds. She explains the situation in S1, and admonishes the workers for failing to give the alarm. In S2, she encourages the surviving troops to clean up the anthill, and promises to tell them rousing tales of their formic heritage. In S3, she tells off a caterpillar! And in S4, she gives a little pep talk.

While I discerned the basic outline of the poem quickly, I had to think hard to work out the details, thanks to all the puns, portmanteaus, obscure words, and neologisms. Here's a list of puzzling words, in the order in which they appear in the poem, and my best guesses as to their meanings.
  • pismire: an archaic synonym for "ant"
  • kreck: onomatopoeia for the noise the Plumeys make
  • Plumeys: ant-eating birds
  • valley-balls: eggs. Pun on volleyballs.
  • lupes: pupae
  • liplap danglers: larvae
  • mussled: portmanteau of "mussed" and "tousled"
  • distrayed: portmanteau of "distressed" and "disarrayed", with a nice coincidental "strayed" inside it.
  • "oakmost": something like "farthest". A portmanteau of "oak" and "utmost", but there's no meaning that lives halfway between those two points.
  • larum: an archaic synonym for "alarm"
  • beware: is not technically a transitive verb, but there's poetry for you. "Warn" wouldn't have worked as well in this context.
  • mordered in our buds: murdered in our beds, obviously. "Buds" is a pun, because you're more likely to find an ant in a bud than in a bed, and this poem is filled with nature imagery. (They're actually in an anthill, not in buds, but let's not kill it with excessive literalness here, eh?) "Mord" is an Indo-European root meaning, basically, "die". We get "murder" and "mortality" from it.
  • simlings: a portmanteau of "similar" and "siblings". Other ants are not exactly genetic clones of the queen: the workers are produced by sexual reproduction with drones and reproducing females, while drones are haploid and produced from unfertilised eggs (so really, they're sort of half-queens).
  • heedance: archaic word for "listening". (I'm reluctant to say "synonym" because they're a bit too different grammatically. I think it's standard but weird English to say "gather round in heedance", but you just plain can't say "gather round in listening".) I'm not sure whether "heedance" was ever common in actual usage, or whether it's one of those fake archaisms.
  • bellish: archaic synonym for "embellish". Again, I'm not sure whether it's a real archaism or a fake one.
  • bloomheads: blossoms; this one is just a new compound word.
  • sparkish: bright like a spark. Also, sparkly. This one breathes new life into a dead metaphor.
  • cusp and susp: Cusps are pointy bits. I don't know what "susp" means, aside from "suspend" or "suspension". I suppose the ants are going to stop at the top of the anthill to listen to stories?
  • trell: I don't know what this means, if anything. Urbandictionary says "trell is a term given to the most beautiful woman", which fits, but Urbandictionary is not a reliable source. Roughly "queens and trells and hellent warfor" must be kinds of ants.
  • hellent warfor: I'm lost here too. "hellent" sounds like "hellbent" and "warfor" sounds like "warrior", which makes the hellent warfor sound like brave soldiers. "Hellent" also sounds like "Hellenic", which gives this story a classical feel. "Warfor" sounds like "warfarin", but that's used to poison rats, and I don't think it has anything to do with ants. So I'm puzzled.
  • fattyfiller: caterpillar
  • seggy bodments: body segments.
  • munge: munch. Literally, though, to munge something is to muss it up.
  • Peel off: a pun--both what you do when you leave quickly, and what you do when you remove a caterpillar from a leaf.
  • mandicate: portmanteau of "masticate" and "mandibles"
  • clingdom: portmanteau of "cling" and "kingdom"--I suppose it's our kingdom that we cling to.
  • heapsake: portmanteau of "heap" and "keepsake"--I suppose it's our heap that's a keepsake.
  • sylvan lea: woodsy meadow. But also, I think, put there to set up punning resonances with "silver sea".
  • rejuice: portmanteau of "rejoice" and "juice". (I picture them clicking drooling mandibles.)
  • avids: aphids, but literally, to be avid is to be keen.
  • fallage: portmanteau of "fallen" and "foliage".
  • mead: can mean either "honey wine" or "meadow". I think it's meant literally as the latter, but intended to resonate with the former too.
  • ground and gladly: Obviously, in broad outline, this means "good", but I'm not sure what else the words are doing. Ants like things on the ground, and not, I suppose, their enemies in the air.
  • Magog: a name that occurs in the bible numerous times, under numerous guises. (It's not entirely clear whether Magog is an individual or a group.) Pretty sure it's basically an enemy of God--and therefore, a fitting enemy for plumey things that live in the sky.
  • smart: smite. Also, sting.

Walk in Victoria's Secret - Louisiana - Late Summer

This one is short and amusing. Two strophes, simple layout. There is a we, a hot summer day, because our bodies have been claimed/by humidity,we walk around in our heads and because, of course what else is there to do on this kind of a day or because even on a hot day, things must be done, the "we" are engaged in the mundane act of painting a baseboard and notice in the back of a closet, a light mold, transported here by some/primeval wind, festers on the toe/of a suede shoe. And plans the destruction of the entire world.

Daniels, in this poem, instead of taking on the large, political topics of feminism, racism, or poverty that she addresses in her other poems, has taken on a very small subject and she does so charmingly. I very much enjoyed her "small" world view and the tongue-in-cheek look at a bit of mold, that, after all, is not so tongue-in-cheek.

Blue Iris (poem) by Mary Oliver

I’m picking the title poem in this collection although it’s not the first one. I’ve read the whole book through once to get an overview and will definitely be returning to dwell on some of these further.

All right, onto the poem, Blue Iris, online here:

This is actually one of my favourite poems in the whole collection. There is a beautiful economy of words and evocation of strong images.

Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

For me, this question in the first line works as an opener because it is interrogative, but also simple and direct, communicating something that is nearly universal as an experience, the sense of dislocation that occurs when structure is removed from our lives. We often don’t know what to do with this newfound freedom, and the rest of the poem becomes an exploration of this anchored in the act of writing itself.

Can’t fly, can’t run and see how slowly I walk

Well, I think, I can read books

These lines suggest a more specific comparison between the narrator and nature, and possibly imply a gradual process of recovery from a long illness. The books provide a way of escaping from the need to be physically active. It could also be that the comparison is to a writer, and the swift moving creatures she is observing around her outside.

“What’s that you’re doing?”
the green-headed fly shouts as it buzzes past

I close the book.
Well, I can write down words, like these, softly.

Here we beautifully see a movement, within two lines, towards expanding the hinted at idea in the previous lines. Now it seems to be moving towards setting up a disjunction between the narrator, first buried in her book, then attempting to write, and the busy life going on all around her. Then:

“What’s that you’re doing? whispers the wind, pausing
in a heap just outside the window.

Give me a little time, I say back to its staring, silver face.
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden, you know.

This is still the build up to the end of the poem, reinforcing the sense of nature conspiring against concentrating on writing, before the volte face in the next lines:

“Doesn’t it?” says the wind, and breaks open, releasing
distillation of blue iris.

And my heart panics not to be, as I long to be,
the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.

I love these last lines because they completely turn on its head what the reader thinks the poem is about, and I love when a poem does this well. Instead of nature getting in the way of writing, it is recast as the centre of what writing might be about, if the poet can be still enough to listen instead of focusing only on the words on the page. Beautiful stuff.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Andrew Hudgins - A Soldier on the Marsh

I'll be honest.  This is an exhausting book.  There are no easy poems and Hudgins likes to lull the reader in with that old Southern boy trick that sweetly begs one to underestimate him -- common sounding words and plain speak -- then he sparks the trap and I find myself shaken and searching the poem to see how he did it again.

In A Soldier on the Marsh, one of five Marsh poems that anchor the book (Child on the Marsh, Soldier on the Marsh, Husband on the Marsh, Father on the Marsh and finally Christian on the Marsh)  Hudgins imagines Lanier, the soldier on leave, returning to the marsh of his childhood.

The marsh is no longer a place of wonder and bounty; now it is a place of flames, storms, blood. It seems wholly unhappy to have Lanier back.  I think Hudgins uses the colors red and green to symbolize the battle for Lanier's soul between the marsh (green) and the war (red).

Now, even blue is the color of  blood:

          Blue as blood hidden in the body,
          storm winds tore at oak leaves, which raged
          like green birds limed to whipping limbs,

Lanier sits in the marsh while the storm hurls leaves, acorns, and tree limbs at him.  As you might expect, he strips off his clothes and begins to play the flute. 

In the third strophe, it is sunset and the entire post-storm marsh seems consumed in the color red.  Lanier, naked and pale, is touched by this flame and becomes a flame himself:  a will-o'-the-wisp.  From the red on red on red landscape of the marsh at sunset, Lanier glows hot white.

The battle crescendos as Lanier makes his way home from the marsh.  The fields are on fire; a farmer is burning off his land:

         But where a dozen fires converged
         I found a bright green tulip tree.

Lanier watches as the tulip tree's leaves catch fire like torches, then inside:

         the green wood, hot sap chortled, sang
         until the branches blew apart
         like overheated cannon. The tree
         was opening itself to fire.

I have trouble here not just quoting the entire last part.  Basically, the tree explodes into the darkness and its embers burn like a "sprawled constellation" before burning out and giving way to the true stars and a song of a bobwhite (quail) singing "its stupid, cheerful name".

What does this mean?  Pretty simply, I think that Hudgins is saying that Lanier has survived the war but that a vital part of him has died.  Life will continue; but it has been irrevocably changed.

cadaver dogs, Eating the tender thing that will not fill

Sorry I've been less than stellar about updating and participating. Our next serving of Loudon is “Eating the tender thing that will not fill”.

Remember that postmodern stutter? Let's take a look at an excerpt:

There are odd punishments afoot.
For instance, the time you ate
your brother after cooking him
in a port reduction and fatfatfat
no take-backs.

By my reading, the voice in the first line is curious and slightly dated. I'll call it fairytale-ish. In the second line the voice is controlled and explanatory. Then on the third, psychotic. The fourth line breaks down into that gibber. The fifth line completely regresses into a childishness that is playful, lacks conscience, and remains literally true (as far as there are no take-backs when you eat your brother).

I'm not saying Loudon is formulaic, not at all, but I find the general thrust of her language here to be familiar after only four poems. It's something I've been struggling to express so far.

On the whole I'm reading this poem as being about insatiability and carnal hunger. The language is primarily food (and prey) throughout, with a touch of aggressiveness, but I think my reading is very much supported at the end where the poem is written “you can hardly sleep from all the racket in your bed / and spring, yes, the spring market is near”.

Also, there's something elided. The poem is in numbered sections. 1, 2, 4, and 5.

Finally, a little journey in trying to understand the line “Mars hangs above you like a meat chime.”

First, I started by picturing Just the planet mars above you (me):

Then I associated Mars with the god of war, so now I'm picturing the idea as emblematic:

Well then I'm wondering what the hell a meat chime is. So I ask Janelo, she says she doesn't know, but pictures it as a chime (like a dinner chime) made of marbled meat. So this image is interesting. I combine it with the others:

So I'm thinking that it's a a bell made of meat, that's triggering aggression, like an astrological omen.

Well, at this point I start talking to Jake S, who you might know from the PFFA. And he tells me:

i wouldn't overanalyze
poetry is meant to be kept simple
simple and clear
i believe was wc williams dictum
i got taht from someone
5. she's food
so 1) food eating part hurts/injured
2) eating is punishment (brother?)
4) eating is war
i think this is a pro-vegetarian poem
your brother
could be like
"brother wolf"
my brother the owl
sort of native american ish

“Well,” I ask him, “what do you make of 'hardly sleep from all the racket in your bed'?”.

Jake: N is food
twine around her feet
her bed is a meat locker
sh is meat

Which I had to admit is a compelling reading. So I searched “Rebecca Loudon vegetarian” and came up with an interview and this excerpt:

Reb: You're a vegetarian yet you wrote a book called Cadaver Dogs. WTF? Are you being political? Are you judging me cause I eat steak?"

Rebecca: Do you eat puppies? I won’t judge you for eating steak but if you eat puppies, we may have to agree to disagree. People are frequently surprised and somewhat disappointed when they find that Cadaver Dogs is not a book of dead dog poems. Cadaver dogs are police dogs trained to detect human remains. On the surface, Cadaver Dogs consists of poems exploring the way animals, all animals, not just our family pets, affect our lives. If you peel away a few layers, you may or may not discover that Cadaver Dogs is a series of poems about the perils of being a child in a dangerous world. I recently told my therapist that I liked animals better than people. She said she wasn’t surprised, so I fired her. But the truth is, when I was a child, my dog never told me that I have trust issues. He just put his head on my lap and slobbered. And the cats that live with me now love every single poem I write and never judge the way I dress."

I do think Jake may be onto something with his reading. And, maybe, as he says:

Jake: yeah dude
so here's the thing
you were overanalyzing big time
for meaning

Well. It is a compelling argument. Whether or not my reading holds water, I thought you guys might find the process interesting.

Now I can sleep.

The Business of Love is Cruelty -REDUX, Dean Young

I'm going to do something a bit different and come back to this last poem, and write it up some more. Re-examining this piece in terms of craft has been quite the learning curve!! - wanna join me?? The reason being, for one of his shorter pieces, there is just so much more I'm noticing that is so effective. I focused more on content and meaning earlier, but some of his technique is so intriguing, because I didn't much understand what exactly is at work here. Some could definitively label it, but I just know it works and very well indeed. Doing this Remo type Napo is sucha blessed learning experience, in the parsing out, and in reading the feedback and gleaning further from that (I also find I've easily written some decent drafts as a direct result, bonus). So my focus now is on the lovely musicality of these sections of extended analogy of his Acting out of his vindictive Cruelty. In a different way, he is using contrast as a medium, because the section where he's describing the Act of Cruelty, he could easily have went for harsh mirroring sonics, used tonal and rhythmic disjunction to make the lines clunk; in describing an Act of ugliness, he could have mirrored uglyness. But no - he went a total nother way. It reminds me somewhat of the trademark film style of John Woo, and how he would take an unusually brutal scene,but instead of portraying it as such, he would slow it down, make it dance, literally, to music that would not be seen as appropriate to such brutality, employ artful cinematography to make the scene somehow visually beautiful in all its ugliness. (Think Reservoir Dogs, dancing to "Stuck in the Middle With You"). mother kneeling and
she's kneeling and somehow I know

exactly how to do it, calmly,
enunciating like a good actor projecting
to the last row, shocking the ones
who've come in late, cowering

out of their coats, sleet still sparking
on their collars, a voice nearly licking
their ears above the swordplay and laments:
I hate you.

Now her hands are rising to her face.
Now the fear done flashing...

Notice the prevalent use of ing ending words. I'd somewhat noticed them, on subsequent reads, but they really popped when i finally read the piece aloud. I didn't know why this was so effective in creating such a theatrical effect, but I sure noticed it did. So I looked up the various ing-words and got a brushup in the difference between gerunds and participles. And also found this very helpful blog , that encapsulated the effect thus: "can be used effectively to add a sense of movement to poetry. To do this, the writer must pre-think (and often re-think) his choices of frequency and placement." And this encapsulates it more concisely than I could, so I shall end on that note.

Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": V

Sorry, everyone, for disappearing for days. First, saying goodbye to Singapore took up the time, and then Pride weekend in NYC. The new legislation for gay marriage was too exciting to stay indoors.

But back to Ms. Wickham. The fifth poem "Need to Rest" begins with an arresting claim:

I have no physical need of a chair

Not sure if she needs the word "physical" but it is there to contrast with the mental need she describes later in the poem. Why does she not need a chair? Because

I can double my body anywhere

Yes, witty follow-up. The body can find rest in itself, by acting upon itself, "doubling" as it were. Self-reliant, it can rest on a "stone" or the "ground," no chair necessary. But what the speaker needs is to "feed my wit/ With beauty and complexity." The emphasis here is on the feeding, and not the having. For if she thinks she already possesses "philosophy," then she were "high man without complexity." "Man" here means primarily humans, but I think by using "man" she also takes a dig against male complacency at having the answers to life. The complacent man, the "high" man, would fling himself on "any natural sod/ To scan the zenith and remember God." In other words, the "high" man would rest on his possession of wisdom. When he scans the zenith, he does not discover anything new, but merely remembers the old idea of God.

This reading about human complacency is confirmed by the next lines:

But it is needful man shall strive
With tortured matter, so to keep alive.

Life, for Wickham, resides in striving with tortured matter, and not with resting on any natural sod. It is a dynamic philosophy of will, not a static wisdom of possession. After this statement of its point--its need--the poem goes on to elaborate in six uninspired lines:

Idle man would never live to age:
He would run mad and die in rage.
When fat accumulations cloy,
War brings her sword to ravage and destroy,
That through the smoke of the consuming real
Man sees a clearer and more sure ideal.

The boldness here lies in the thought of war as a necessary destructive force to wake man to his ideal life of constant strife, but the expression of the thought is mundane and clumsy. The rhymes cripple the poetry.

Returning to the beginning of the poem, I now find it rather misleading. The central contrast in the poem is between those who rest in complacency and those who ever strive. The opening lines, however, posits a contrast between resting in a chair, and resting without a chair. I think this misdirection is caused by the common problem of discovering an arresting start for a poem, and then wandering away from it in the subsequent argument. One is naturally reluctant to delete the wonderful opening that gives rise to the poem, even if it does not lead logically into it. Wickham's editor comments that she seldom revised her poems. Her poems show the freshness of spontaneity, as well as its flaws.

Litany in Which Certain Things are Crossed Out, Richard Siken

‘Every morning the maple leaves.’

Man, I just love his opening lines. This poem is like a series of short storyboards, each with their own built in contradictions and negating alternatives (which I know you will love, featherless). Siken begins with mention of a hero who ‘shifts from one foot to the other,’ and quickly moves on to write apology notes to the host of a party (which totally sparked a poem idea for myself). Sorry I couldn't come to your party... Sorry I came ... Let the opposites party begin!

Siken then has the narrator tell a ‘better story.’ He begins a fairytale where he changes back and forth from the dragon to the princess, and then addresses himself as ‘just the writer.’ ‘I write things down. I walk through your dreams and invent the future. Sure I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow glass, but that comes later.’ He transforms back into the princess until she sees herself in the mirror, at which point he slips back into the dragon, and confesses it: “Okay, so I’m the dragon. Big deal. You still get to be the hero!’ The ‘you' being addressed is his lover, and the speaker sells him on this role:

‘You get magic gloves! A fish that talks! You get eyes like flashlights!

What more do you want?

I make you pancakes, I take you hunting, I talk to you as though you’re really there.’

Right then he shows a moment of insecurity or fear or neediness, and asks, ‘Are you there, sweetheart? Do you know me?’ Interspersed through the first half of the poem are these fleeting intimate moments of the lovers’ relationship (remember, the one that would not get boring?).

The writer as playful inventor and hero of fun and exciting relationships shows up in these next lines: ‘Inside your head you hear a phone ringing and when you open your eyes only a clearing with deer in it. Hello deer.’ This little interlude of boyish charm is interrupted by a car crash and explosions, and then more apologies.

But things do not remain playful. Things get sad and there is a scene in a stairwell, allusions to other difficulties, and more apologies. Just to keep his equations from becoming too predictable, Siken also uses a double negative that totally turns my crank: ‘Here is the image of the lover destroyed. / Crossed out.’

Then he addresses all of the apologies by delving into a series of lines about forgiveness. I think the title’s ‘crossing out’ is all about the desire for an apology to result in forgiveness. ‘Here is the part where everyone was happy all the time and we were all forgiven, even though we didn’t deserve it.’

He invents another scene, this one not quite so dear as the deer in the clearing: ‘Inside your head you hear a phone ringing and when you open your eyes you’re washing up in a stranger’s bathroom, standing by the window in a yellow towel, only twenty minutes away from the dirtiest thing you know.’

Happiness does not appear to be a sustainable state. The second half of the poem is an accumulation of dynamics between the two lovers over time, and a fight, and then a cascade of images about the lovers reuniting, where he comes to visit the other in another city. There is a series of comparisons and an elated strain between the lovers along with observations of discrepancies between them and their pent up internal and external conflict. ‘We were inside the train car when I started to cry. You were crying too, smiling and crying in a way that made me even more hysterical. You said I could have anything I wanted, but I just couldn’t say it out loud.‘ What a beautifully impossible mind fuck of a promise, that is. (taking mental note for future reference...)

Then he gives up. He gives the pencil up and says ‘Okay fine, if you’re so great, you do it --’ and then proceeds to give instructions about how to write the story, the positioning of things, and he says build me a city, that history can be told in 70 minutes, forget the dragon, he says, as he quickly begins to collapse everything. He says ‘let’s jump ahead to the moment of epiphany,’ and then he brings in this imagery of gold and blue, ‘lakeside and backlit’ and he concludes with a back and forth between positive/negative, with a high point being ‘there were some nice parts, sure, all lemondrop and melon ball, laughing in silk pajamas and the grains of sugar on toast‘ (‘Lemondrop and melon ball’ is now an all time favorite piece of sound play for me).

At the close of the poem forgiveness is personified as ‘milling about in the yard,’ presumably where the maple tree from the opening line is sited. It always leaves. Forgiveness is invited to come in, ‘I saved a plate for you.’ There are such tender and maternal moments like that, but they are so quickly overtaken by shocks like: ‘ we clutch our bellies and roll on the floor...When I say this it should mean laughter, not poison.’ The love/death theme is entirely worthy of his conjuring up any number of Romeo and Juliet scenes.

Well, once again I love a poem once I get inside and make myself at home. I was not fond of this one on first reading (dragons and princesses are not a big draw for me), but I’m a fan now. One thing I am noticing, though. There is no place to rest in these poems.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Business of Love is Cruelty, Dean Young

Don't think I can find this online, too bad because its a good one, finally got the book. I'd been looking forward to reading this from title list alone (y'all know how big I am on good titles), and wasn't disappointed. So he starts off w/ a bang:

It scares me, the genuis we have
for hurting one another, I'm seven,
as tall as my mother kneeling and
...somehow I know

exactly how to do it, calmly,
enunciating like a good actor projecting
I hate you./

He embelishes the good actor part, draws it out, not only w/ images, but hits several of our senses, of how the people who straggle in late from the cold and sleet still sparkling on collars, are extra shocked at walking into the penultimate moment. How the carrying voice nearly licks their ears over swordplay and other sounds of the play. The mother's hands rise to her face, fear flashes through him, but:

I wish I could undo it, take it back,
but its a question of perfection,/

carrying it through, climbing the steps
to my room, chosen banishment...

7 yr old N paints the hair of his Bride of Frankenstein model and then goes on a thought tangent which leads to Herr Doktor and what the infamous doctor wants after the fact, after his freakish creations are already out on the loose, a largely failed experiment w/ serious repercussions. I could not for the life of me make the connection w/ his tangent, even after repeated reads. But that's the beauty of NapoRemo, while writing up the analysis, bingo, connection made. Its summed up in this section of 2nd to last S:

his distraught monster's on the rampage
again, lead-footed, weary, a corrosive
and incommunicable need sputtering

Announcement: Travel and Comments

I'm getting on a plane for a conference the US this morning. (Yikes, should've announced something sooner.) I will be checking in at the Sydney airport in about 6 hours, and then I will be out of commission for a day or so. I will not have much energy to be very lively for the next week or so, but I'll be keeping up my moderating responsibilities, and hopefully my posting responsibilities too.

Suzanne's computer is doing some horrid thing with her cookies, which prevents her from commenting. I have not yet had to zap a single comment (the Internet does not notice that we exist, particularly), so I am going to enable anonymous commenting until the issue is resolved, or until I discover myself having to zap invaders.

What the Body Can Say

The fifth poem in the collection, this is the first one to interest me, but like the other four, it feels dashed off, undedited; and I keep asking myself why these poems should deserve my time if they weren't good enough for the author's. The crux of this poem is how well the body can communicate, particularly that of the narrator's mother:

that day not long before her death--her face tilted up

at me, her mouth falling open, wordless, just as
we open our mouths in church to take in the wafer,

meaning communion? What matters is context--

and the poem doesn't give us any context for the mother's body language.

By this point I'm only reading the book because I made a commitment for the month. Other than linebreaks, and perhaps the poet's politics or heritage, this is neither poetry nor good writing. And this book won a Pulitzer--what has our culture fallen to?

Osso Buco

Taking a step back to the second poem in the book (I think some of the best are arranged at the beginning of the book for impact), this poem had a mixture of fine, and grating, moments for me. The title is the name of a dish I had not heard of, cross-cut veal shanks, braised with vegeatables, usually on rice. So, the opening lines,

"I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,"

although sonically pleasing, does not seem well suited to the baby calf leg that is the central ingredient. Now, if it had been an old bull, there might be a hint of strength to it. In the same strophe, enter the metaphor--

"And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and swallowed down
with cold, exhilarating wine."

The privacy/prized combination halted me first time through, as harsh to my ear. Further, not everyone is going to like the marrow best of all, and the entire hunk of meat is pretty much the invaded privacy of the (very young) animal.

The second and third strophes were lovely. The second--

"I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach--
something you don't hear about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in the winter.

-- is Billy at his best, and highlights from the third strophe--

"But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest...
and the sound of my wife's laughter
on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso buco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I (am)...
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief's favorite son.

well, I guess the whole strophe was mostly a highlight, after all. I loved the lion's paw (now wouldn't that have been something to describe as a fortress in the middle of a moat of rice-- ditch the veal) the adoration for the woman who pointed to show the butcher, the contrast between the conversation with the faraway friend and the native (maybe even the chief's favorite son) who has a cup of tea as his only needed companion.

The next two strophes are opposing ones, the less fortunate of the world, and then a return to the current comfort at home. Strophe five delivered a slap to the face of logic with "the candles give off their warm glow...the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history." Light lights, other objects which interfere with the light cast shadows.

The final strophe has the couple heading to bed, there is a nice description of falling asleep as sinking into the earth, and then the final couplet forces an unlikely application of the metaphor down my throat--

"into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know."

Granted, the collection focuses on our struggle to accept mortality, I'm not buying that we find the marrow of anything by taking a snooze. As for death, how much do we become more one with the intimate parts of the earth at that point? Six feet down barely scratches the surface, let alone the marrow. In the spiritual sense, going down at the point of death has generally negative overtones to most faiths the world over. And that's about it, dear reader.


Another that I can't find online.

I’ve been enjoying Griffiths’ animal poems: she seems to share my fondness for dogs and cats. I think my favourite of the animal poems is “Carrier”, which considers the common dog habit of stealing from the garbage, and transforms it into a spiritual metaphor.

The lines divide naturally into six groups, each consisting of one sentence. The first five groups are three lines long, and contain lists--making this, I suppose, a type of list poem. Here’s a list of the lists:
  • Lines 1-3: things the dog carries (henceforth, “treasures”)
  • Lines 4-6: ways of discovering treasures
  • Lines 7-9: substances the dog sucks out the treasures, including the wonderfully disgusting “intimate juices of discarded tissues”
  • Lines 10-12: assonant descriptions of the care the dog takes over insignificant things
  • Lines 13-15: ways of recycling treasures once they have been confiscated and thrown away.

The final pair of lines forms an unrhymed, unmetered couplet. Although this poem is too long to be a sonnet, and does not have any sort of rhyme scheme, there is a volta between the first fifteen lines and the last two. The final couplet turns away from the dog, and toward God, expressing the wish that God will be as loving toward the author when she dies as the dog is toward the treasures.

So in conclusion, a dog’s a filthy animal, but a dog’s got personality.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Walk Through Victoria's Secret - When I Was the Muse

In this poem N becomes a nude model for an art class. She is surprised to find there is a second (male) model also present. Frankly, this second model seems superfluous to the premise and action of the poem, as he appears and then is never developed. Some interesting and startling lines, like this one

Someone fluffed/the crispy hair between my legs into a dark brown/bristling fan.

However, two thirds of the poem (and by now, this is what I am starting to recognize about much of this poet's "lesser" poems), is more about effect and set-up. The real meat of the poem, the "good stuff," as it were, is almost at the end. The lead up is N discussing why she decides to model nude and how she deals with being naked in front of strangers, then, while they take a break, she ambles through their renderings of her to see how she's been viewed and we get this

But someone serious and sad had shared a vision/of my head as a clotted orb of hair and mouth,/and brushed in underneath, a body headless/as the horseman in the myth. Then I seemed/to walk into the darkroom of my mind's own eye/and saw the disconnected self I'd always felt inside

and this makes the poem almost worth it. Almost.

Friday, June 24, 2011

I’m awfully behind here, though it’s not for lack of reading her. I think I have trouble writing about Loudon in particular because her poems make me so uncomfortable. They’re not easy, in any sense of the word, for me.

First, she has a voice that I can only describe as a sharp, aggressive, obsessive post-modern stutter and when you read it sympathetically the sensation just isn’t pleasant. I find I have to live with that voice for a while too; the frenetic and sharp little phrases that clatter about, usually without punctuation to guide, force me to read and reread. The language and ideas are consistently nightmarish. Often violent, as in Dear Extinguished Individual:

point shoes clacking down the stairs
Molotov cocktail down the stairs
flat on my face as usual
rag wick showing

Though, I’m usually more unsettled by the more quietly nightmarish:

I sleepwalk now wake washing
my hands in the kitchen sink
green light

                                                       (& eels under the floor)

The parentheticals are scattered throughout, and at one point she uses them as a typographical gimmick:

MY VOICE GREW ))))))))

Which seems to be me at once a statement of preference for the poem’s appearance and form on the page and against the poem as vocal tradition. I don’t mean, by the way, that she neglects sonics. From my examples alone it should be clear that she pays attention to that, but it seems to me that a big part of what she’s doing is working with the expectation that you will be looking at and reading these poems on the printed page.

I know it seems like I’m being negative, but I guess that’s because reading this is a negative experience. It’s dark. I really admire how effective it is. I wish I could do what Loudon does.

Directions by Billy Collins --Will this link? Dunno.

This is the third poem in the book, and having read some two-thirds of the collection, I would say this is the cornerstone. The obvious theme is our struggle with mortality, the excellent cover art features a dog barking at the ocean in a futile attempt to chase it off. The picture is repeated elsewhere as a negative, which gives the appearance of a now-white dog still barking away well into the night. So, to further state the general theme, "things we do to try to distract ourselves from our inevitable demise, or at least things we do to comfort ourselves in the face of the lurking inevitable".

I consider this poem one of my favorite in the book. Later, perhaps as filler, coping with mortality flutters too often around the author's personal consuming interest in writing poetry, and name and phrase-dropping of other well-known poets, which becomes irksome, especially when applied to an already bloated subject, five takes on "gleaning my teaming brain" where one would suffice.

That grumble aside, this one was well balanced for me, the slow, rambling pace appropriate here, as opposed to unapplied, pointless rambling elsewhere. The setting is autumn(what else), and there are plenty of pleasant facets of the metaphor used, beginning with "a heap of rocks, probably pushed down during the horrors of the Ice Age", which calls to mind a barrow. The journey takes one over "the small footbridge with the broken railing, and for an even more bittersweet tone, "you might have to grab hold of a sapling when the going gets steep."The end is "a long stone ridge", but while there, the distractions of life fade to where one can hear "a sprig of birdsong" (one of my favorite phrase in the piece). Another favorite is "how the earth holds us painfully against its breast made of humus and brambles".

The poem only gets better with rereading, as the images sink in via the gentle voice used.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Walk in Victoria's Secret - Beans on Toast

This poem talks about poverty meals. Beans on toast are compared to nasty haggis,/another meal derived from dregs my Celtic mother's kin/prepared in times long past-the boiled protuberant/stomach of a sheep stuffed with heart-and liver-studded porridge,/then oven-boiled for hours till it swelled with seasoned, gaseous pressure/and threatened to explode. Actually, this description of what (in spite of, is it Dunc's perennial claims?, is supposed to be food fit for the Gods), sounds like a truly awful meal, is one of the best parts of the poem. N goes on to muse that with prayers and toasts/ to Robbie Burns-the haggis on a bed of spud was a conquest of sorts.


if we had thought to serve our meager, almost-payday meal/ on our one and only silver-plated tray, we might have seen/ our lives in some kind of new relief, and bent our heads/to our beans and toast with a kind of pride,

I THINK she is trying to tie the service of the beans on a silver tray to the idea that haggis is uplifted by its connection to Robert Burns. The idea being that the beans didn't have anything similar, therefore, they were more onerous and life was more depressing. And the logical extension is, I guess that you can enjoy poverty and starvation more if you are Irish and you have romantic or heroic "stuff" to think about. Or maybe that's just the way it seems if you are a kid. Or nostalgic. Or that maybe her mother should have just tried harder to disguise their poverty. Or all the above.

Judas as a General Theory

Can't find it online.

The basic story is simple: the narrator's best friend has just kissed her unexpectedly, but the narrator is "so not gay", and does not welcome the kiss. (Neither the sex of the narrator nor the sex of the friend is made clear; I'm just going to assume for ease of pronouns that they're both female.)

This one hit me in the gut--which is a little strange, because I've never been in the exact scenario it describes. The narrator's emotional response to the kiss is both compelling and difficult for me to rationalise: she feels betrayed. I have trouble rationalising it because, while I do think it's wrong to kiss somebody who doesn't want it, I get the feeling that that's not the real issue. The betrayal seems to be that the friend was secretly in love with the narrator, and the kiss was just an outward sign of this. But surely you don't wrong somebody by being secretly in love with them. (Otherwise, I am going to have to start wearing a hair shirt to atone for all the evil I've committed. And that's not comfortable.)

The poem is divided into 6 sections. (Including a section 2 1/2, which was a little too clever for me.) The first (labeled "Prologue") introduces the narrator's predicament in a fairly literal and straightforward way. Section 1 introduces the deceptive "promises" of a beautiful natural world, and then the end brings us back to the harsh reality of the unwanted kiss, where "your lips are smeared and you want to wipe your mouth hard".

Section 2 moves the reader to a different scene: one where the narrator climbs a tree and feels the thrill of being high up, but wakes the next day with a miserable pain in her shoulders. This, too, is a sort of betrayal: climbing a tree convinces you that you have no limitations--the poem uses the metaphor of flying--but when you wake up with an aching body, you realise that this was a lie. This feeling of betrayal, too, is both compelling and extremely hard to rationalise. It's not like the world literally tells you anything about your abilities to fly, or owes you anything in the way of superpowers. And yet in my gut, I affirm what the narrator is saying. Section 2 1/2 elaborates on the pain that the narrator feels after climbing the tree. (And oh, this turn of phrase is magnificent: "Darkness seeped in like ink then,/ up the wick of your body..."

Section 3 moves away from the pain of reality and back to the world's empty promises, speaking enviously (and mostly figuratively) of the "innocent ones" who never suffer any sort of harsh wake-up calls. It is not clear, either to me in real life or (apparently) to the poem, whether these people really exist or whether they are the figments of an envious imagination.

After three strophes of analogy and figurative speech, the last section, labeled "Epilogue", brings us back to the scene that originally prompted the poem: the unwanted kiss. Section 3 said (paraphrase): "It is possible, for some people, never to suffer shattered illusions". The epilogue responds with (direct quote): "But not for you, sucker." There's a quotable bit immediately after this opening, complete with excellent line break: "The world is puckering/ up like a buzzard's anus for one great wet smacker." Yuck!

The two central scenes, then, are the kiss and the tree-climbing. I think the kiss edges out the tree-climbing as the subject of the poem (it is used at the opening and closing to frame the story), but the poem gets considerable emotional pull from each.

Ah, one more critical thing to add in at the end: there were places where the sound play felt excessive and indulgent. There's a bit of of "tick tock tick tock" and "pick pock pick pock"; that ought to be cut and never spoken of again. There's also "as if fresh muscles had grown solely to groan, solely/ to remind you that you were grounded" and "yowls and growls and jowls". I'm pretty tolerant of poetry that sounds like somebody banging on a can, but this was too much even for me. Still, when it's not hitting the occasional wrong note, this poem hits notes that are very, very right.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Andrew Hudgins - After the Wilderness: May 3, 1863

Since these poems are arranged in sequence, I'm having a difficult time choosing which poems to skip over.  So, my simple solution for now is not to skip.  After the Wilderness is the third poem in the book.  Maybe someone with better technical chops can help me out here; I think this is written in blank verse - iambic pentameter without rhyme.  I think I misidentified Child on the Marsh as blank verse.  After some research, I think it is actually free verse -- verse that does not follow a fixed metrical pattern.  Maybe some blank verse is also free verse? 

As I wade further into this book,  I begin to imagine Hudgins imagining himself inside of Lanier.  The Andrew Hudgins who is a son of the South, the son of a career military man, the Vietnam deferred college student.  Why did Hudgins choose Lanier as his vessel?  What does Hudgins have to say about the South, his father, his own choices in life?  It is interesting that Hudgins chose Lanier, who was both solider and poet.

According to Wikipedia, May 3, 1863 was the second bloodiest day of the American Civil War.  Although outnumbered more than 2:1, the Confederate Army, led by General Lee, fought to victory.  However, in so doing, they suffered an enormous casualty rate of 22%, lost one of their best generals to friendly fire and never recovered.

In After the Wilderness, Hudgins uses Lanier's brother Clifford's psychotic break to portray the sheer horror of the battle.  Just as in the preceding poem, Hudgins attacks the unnameable indirectly -- choosing an intimate if bizarre moment after the fighting is over. 

Lanier cannot find his brother and begins to search for him among the "fields of dead".  As he searches, he keeps tripping over men who are still alive and carries them to help or until they die on his back.  He spends the entire day and night peering into the faces of the corpses while imagining:

          the letter I would have to send our father,  
          saying Clifford was lost and I had lost him.

And I think it is significant that Hudgins is half way through his fourth page of poetry and his third poem before he pauses for his first strophe break here before continuing:

          I found him bent above a dying squirrel  
          while trying to revive the little thing.  

What a startlingly bizarre and effective image.  This is, I think, one of the first parts where I say to myself, "Well hello, Andrew"  I can feel him pushing through now, pressing up against this story. 

Hudgins continues his soldier as animal trope comparing Clifford to a "startled cat" and a "skittery mare".  When finally Lanier calms Clifford to a point, he helps Clifford kill and then bury all of the squirrels that had been left wounded on the battlefield. 

          We didn’t bury them all at once, with lime,
          the way they do on burial detail,
          but scooped a dozen, tiny, separate graves.
          When we were done he fell across the graves
          and sobbed as though they’d been his unborn sons.
          His chest was large — it covered most of them.  

So, the Lanier brothers show more respect and reverence for the burial of dead squirrels than of their own comrades.  In context, this isn't hard to understand as they and their comrades have sacrificed their humanity many days before.

After the burial, Lanier hugs and comforts his brother only to find that his brother has wet himself.

The image of two brothers carefully burying dead squirrels while surrounded by fields of dead soldiers will stay with me a long time.  I especially admire Hudgins method of working the fringes of the battlefield instead of throwing himself into the fray.  I find an element of respect in it.  Also, when one considers that Hudgins is attacking his own story tangentially through Lanier's; it starts to come together.

Bronzed, Dean Young

I'm running out of online poems from Beloved Infidel until the book comes in, which is why I'm doing this one. For some reason, this one is everywhere, I guess someone likes it alot. Me, not so much. Its about the finite vs. the infinite. I found it too often nonsensicle and a bit precious in spots, the ending esp. A few good spots of note for me:

...The sea
seemingly a constant to the naked eye is one
long goodbye, perpetually the tide recedes,


all is temporary as a perfect haircut, a kitten
in the lap,...

This last bit is the small flash of brilliance I see in this particular poem. The perfect haircut vs. the haircut from hell, thank God they are both temporary. A kitten in the lap, that's the sum of a lovely temporary moment. As for the rest, mwah.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Walk in Victoria's Secret - The Polack

You know, I was thinking today, that last time I participated in NaPoReMo, I picked a very difficult poet, a poet whose poems I had a difficult time parsing - Heather McHugh. I felt like I needed a magic decoder ring to crack the puzzle of many of her poems. In contrast, Daniel's poems seem deceptively, almost disappointingly "easy" to comprehend. The narrative, the metaphors, the messages are all pretty straightforward. Initially, I thought that they are so "in your face," that there were no layers to be plumbed, no messages beyond the - for want of a better term - shock value of addressing issues that few poets have dared to address in the way she addresses them. It wasn't until today that I realized, that this may very well be where the layers of her poems lie - in the readers reaction(s).

I have noticed my own tendency in many of her poems to kind of do a flinch and a gasp, a half turn away with, then like a guilty bystander at a particularly horrific accident, or a conservative Christian at a peep show, I will sneak another peek. At her best, her poems make me, at least assess my own reaction, then assess what it is about the topic, the approach to the topic, the language she uses, what she says or doesn't say that causes the reaction.

This next poem, is loaded from the title and moves into a beautifully loaded line filled with rejection

a big boy, always fighting, growing into the shape/of his father's despisal-the best part of you, kid,/ran down my leg-and hulking down, ashamed/inside his own body as if something essential/had been carved out of him and carried away,/and was moldering now, undiscovered,/in the decomposing garbage

and the boy goes to war and it really isn't all that different, he becomes an excellent soldier, blowing people he doesn't care about, losing count, while Around him, the jungle steamed fragrantly, indifferent/as a whore rising to bathe in the Quonset brothel outside Da Nang. And this, the jungle, the poem implies, is his understanding of the feminine.

Later we learn a different meaning, perhaps, to what his father said, in

And there he was, too, laboring on into the night/hunched above the body of the boy's own mother,/and pulling out, the son realizes now, to confound/conception, and rolling off and over in the dark/just a few feet distant from the body of his boy, curled/


his hands cupped on his groin to form a little sacramental space/devoted to the only place in life that gave him any pleasure.

Certainly, the boy, now a man and war-hardened, sees his father's insult as a bit more nuanced, though hardly as a compliment. But, on the other hand, perhaps, he no longer equates himself with the refuse. Quite.

A Walk in Victoria's Secret - Square Egg

The poem starts out with an e-mail from an old lover

there/you were:your e-mail style as distinctive/as the smell of your mouth I still recall,

an arresting and, perhaps, not altogether complimentary memory. I kind of like that normally, we don't think of mouth smells as a good thing. Perhaps, in N's world of resurrected young love, it is different. Perhaps not. The thing I think I love most about this poem is she uses the quirky gift of

a silly, orange-tinted,/plastic cube, trademarked Square Egg Maker,/and how perverse it felt to press the still-warm/ peeled-clean, hard-boiled egg inside, and close/the top, reshaping something as elemental as an egg.

to segue into

I called it Humpty for those few, brief weeks-/the little egg we turned, together, into a child. And N goes on to describe her abortion, musing

A Square Egg Maker might have saved our tiny egg/from Humpty's fate, and set it upright safely on the rim/


But it remained itself, /our little egg: unsquared and rounded, so elliptical and slick,/it could not resist the steep, declining edge of great, failed love.

I enjoyed, for once, reading a unique take on abortion that was all at once, nonjudgmental, private (I felt, as I feel with many of her poems, like a voyeur), regretful and self-aware. When she hits the high spots, she hits them well and truly.

Drips from Psyche's Lamp

Online here (posted by one of the author's friends shortly after her death, as a tribute. I hope it's OK to post the link; it feels a little uncomfortable looking in on what is clearly an emotionally difficult conversation among people who were close to her.)

The asterisks have been removed from the book version of the poem.

It took me a little while to work out what was going on, mainly owing to the title, which I think is thematic rather than strictly plot-directed. (For a very funny summary of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, go here. Everybody caught up on mythology? Excellent.)

I think the symbolism in the title is this: The love of ordinary mortals, like Psyche's love for Cupid, can't survive if the beloved is seen too clearly. Love contains an essential element of illusion. The poem is addressed to a beloved, and the message is, "Go ahead and deceive me; I'm happy to let you do it."

In an interesting parallel with Richard Silken's poem "Scheherazade", which Jane discussed earlier, the poem starts out "Tell me..." and invites a lover to tell the speaker something false. Both poems, too, address the conflict between love and reality, and come out in favour of love. Both have fantastic descriptions of what it feels like to be in love. (I was taken with Silken's horses that run until they forget that they are horses, and I am just as taken with Griffiths' brain whose thoughts turn to sparkles. Strangling your brain never sounded so glamorous.)

In the last four lines, the speaker promises to be anything the beloved wants, however ridiculous or farfetched. I loved these last lines for the sonics, the rhythm, and the way the two interacted. L15 reads slowly, with its knot of three strong syllables all packed together in "big sheep's eyes". Then L16 kicks in with its speedy, four-syllable feet. I scan it like this (putting in three levels of stress just for fun):
i'll be/ NO va/ NO va co deine/ NOD dy as a/ NOO dle
I think the breaks between words, and the N sounds, are giving me hard-to-ignore cues about where the stresses and natural units of scansion fall, and that's why I'm grouping the syllables into fours rather than twos. Next, we get L17, which repeats the same pattern of stresses twice, with very similar sounds both times:
TANG y/ TANG er ine,/ MAN go/ MAN da rin
Interestingly enough, the letter combination "ng" is a little deceptive; it gets repeated three times, but makes a different sound each time. The sounds are similar, but eye rhyme makes them seem more similar than they are. Finally, there's L18, which whirs itself up to speed with four trochees, and then ends in a BANG. Here, all the "ng"s except the last one make the same sound; the one from "mango". (The final "bang" makes the sound from "tangy" instead.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

From Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": II-IV

The next three poems, increasingly longer and more complex in thought, express Anna Wickham’s views of her art.

In “II The Singer,” the speaker does not have peace to sit and sing, but is “stung with goads and whips,” and so instead of making a lovely poem, she builds songs “like iron ships.” Goads and whips evoke horses and chariots, and so subtly prepare for seafaring vessels. Since the next poem refers to the old Greek myths, it is not too far-fetched to think that by “iron ships” Wickham had in mind Homer’s “hollow ships.” All this is to point out that the imagery in the quatrain is more martial than it may first appear. The poem concludes with a modest but affecting wish, built in a sturdy tetrameter couplet.

Let it be something for my song.
If it is sometimes swift and strong.

“III New Waters” is less successful a song. It is clunky and chockfull of abstractions: it is not sufficiently imagined. The speaker rejects the Greek myths as tales “over-told.” By a “new risen Attic stream,” a mortal singer dreamed a new dream.

There are new waters, and a new Humanity.
For all old myths give us the dream to be,
We are outwearied with Persephone,
Rather than her, we’ll sing Reality.

The quadruple end-rhyme is simply awful. The use of “we” is utterly unjustified: it loses the peculiar sympathy that Wickham usually elicits from a reader.

“IV The Egoist,” consisting of four stanzas, is structured as a somewhat rhetorical question and three answers of increasing depth. The speaker asks, in the first stanza, if she should write “pretty poetry” that is “Controlled by ordered sense” in her and with “an old choice of figure and of word.”

Her first answer is that she can make a “synthesis” of the dead poets and learn “poetic form” from them, but she will use the figure “that is real/ For me, the figure that I feel.” Intriguing here is her distinction between form and figure. I wonder from whom she got her terms. It seems Romantic to me to gloss “real” with “that I feel.” The desire to be both traditional and individual reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” (Is “synthesis” a self-consciously modern word, like the “objective correlative” and the chemistry images in Eliot’s essay?) But Eliot’s example shows that to be truly individual one needs not only individual figure (“Where the evening spreads against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”) but also individual form (like the disjunctive music of “The Waste Land”). Anna’s formal innovations are a smaller individuality.

She argues against ear-perfect rhyme in her second answer/stanza, but in a spirit of concession. She is not a “clerk” who “can list all language in his leisure time.” She does not have all the time in the world, but in her haste she can seize a pleasing infelicity. Or, as she puts it:

A faulty rhyme may be a well-placed microtone,
And hold a perfect imperfection of its own.

The balance in the couplet is reminiscent of Pope in “An Essay on Criticism,” although the couplet is in hexameter. But the diction, the figure of “micro-tone," sounds the modern note.

The last answer/stanza is the most general and philosophical. She drops her self-deprecation and asserts “A poet rediscovers all creation.” “Creation” here may refer to both Nature and Poetry. That a poet traces the lineaments of Nature in her poems is a Romantic idea. That a poet traces the lineaments of all past poetry in her poems smacks of Modernism. In this process of re-discovering, the poet’s “instinct” gives him “beauty,” which Wickham glosses aptly as “sensed relation.”

Then in a beautiful break-away from the common measures of five and six stresses, the poem concludes and justifies itself:

It was as fit for one man’s thoughts to trot in iambs, as it is for me,
Who live not in the horse-age, but in the day of aeroplanes, to write my rhythm free.

The penultimate line has nine stresses, the last has eleven. She won through to a small but significant freedom.

Andrew Hudgins - At Chancellorsville: The Battle of the Wilderness

This poem follows directly after Child on the Marsh.  Just the page prior, Lanier was a child caught in the sucking embrace of his mother and the earth.  Now he is caught in the suck of the earth as wilderness battlefield.  The comfort of his mother's breast is replaced by the encouragement of his brother, Clifford, to steal the fresh blue shirt off the dead body of a Union soldier.

Hudgins begins:

          He was an Indiana corporal
          shot in the thigh when their line broke
          in animal disarray...

Consider how much Hudgins accomplishes in these three short lines:
- Lanier is now in battle against a Union enemy
- The Union is losing this battle
- The soldier was shot in the thigh; setting up the coming temptation of the clean blue shirt
- The animals in this poem are not the catfish, snakes, and bees of the marsh; now the animals are men.

Lanier's own shirt is disintegrating on his body.  He has been at this a while.  Lanier curses his brother's attempts to persuade him to take the shirt.  He imagines:

          the slack flesh shifting underneath
          my hands, the other-person stink
          of that man's shirt, so newly his,

Even so, Lanier decides to go back for the shirt only to find that someone else has already beat them to it,

          So I had compromised my soul
          for nothing I would want to use -

Obviously, this is a critical moment in Lanier's life as Hudgins imagines it.  He will come out of this war carrying profound changes.  What I like about what Hudgins has done is he chooses a small, quiet moment on the battlefield -- not an explosion, an amputation, or a moment of stark violence. 

Hudgins ends:

          By autumn, we wore so much blue
          we could have passed for New York infantry.

cadaver dogs, don't you feel it's dangerous to want we're losing time hurry hurry

For Brown Dog, Poobah, Tom Dooley, Joe, Ginger, Teddy, Crazy Legs, Little Cat, Kelly, Bucket, Gideon, Baby, Ma, Smoky Joe, Fledge, Candy, Beethoven, Max Headroom, Pantages, Joe, Little out-of-the-wall, Simon, Shantie, Jeeves, Lloyd, Butch, Daphne, Zoe, Duncan, Buddy, Thelma, Megan, Winky, Klöie, Ophelia, Lars, Cruiser, Yogi, Bantu, Paris the Genius Cat and Orlando

That's from the apparent dedication to the book, and I think we can assume these are all pets. I'm including it now just in case it's relevant in future poems.

The title immediately brings to me the language of infomercials, oddly, but I'm also reminded of Eliot's "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME" from The Wasteland. I didn't get anything further out of that association though, it just made me think of it.

Anyway, not to lean too heavily on the title, the larger theme here seems to be danger and desire. Let me go ahead and bring up the dedication above, and this quote from the end of the poem:

paris the genius cat is in the yard stalking the bird
his heart clapping so fast
it's become                                               its own animal.

I think that I can take this to mean that Loudon may be the actual narrator of this poem. If so, it's further autobiographical in that she brings up one of her ex-husbands (my second husband whose name I stole / he of the golden body hair quiet as a pet).

Also, lets not ignore that remarkable last line.

I don't have much to say about the meaning of the poem, I think it's just danger and desire, as I said, but what's remarkable here is how she arranges this with such a collage of suggestive and horrific imagery. I do mean horror. Here:

my house drowns
I crawl naked toward you on the floor
white and dark meat the dark
full of blood

Thank you, Rebecca. I think I'll go watch Naked Lunch and eat spaghetti for dinner now.


(Attempt to post a link, its about 5th down). This poem is quite different in style than most of what I've seen so far from Dean Young. Its broken into quartets, I'm not quite sure why yet? but maybe that will become clearer as I parse it up. It also tells a quite concise story as well (narrative, Laurie?) and is not anywhere near as -stream of consciousness, lets throw lofty ideas out of left field- as his others. But true to Young, its more deep and insightful shite. So it starts out, pure story, actually totally true to the title and he utilizes more conventional poetic devices to great effect. The title is a clever triple entendre, which has to do w/ the waiting at the aiport to take off; having 8 beers, turbulent in itself; but mainly its highly metaphoric. The metaphor part has to do w/ all the bad news coming at him via the news, and another man also caught in layover, who gets N thinking some deep and turbulent thoughts.

There is also a strong central conceit centered around the act of drinking w/ continued related language dispersed throughout. He starts w/ a wopping metaphor of "sipping time itself":

Pittsburgh airport, early winter, my plane
socked in and the first two beers, 2.50 per,
I try to drink slow. The receipts tag the clock
precisely: 7:54, 8:18 so I could be sipping

time itself, lapping all the numbing events
puddled in the news like a shade of Hell

His also trapped in layover, drinking buddy shows him a girlie in a flesh mag, and claims its his daughter. But the look on the man's face says it isn't. N is tempted to confront him, set him free of his bs, but then lays some of his own bs out, claiming to go from funeral to funeral. The last few stanzas neatly complete his drinking/hell theme and end on some pensive moralizing.

...But it was snowing

too hard to be Hell and the music told us
we'd better not cry and I just swallowed,
didn't say much more, just fluttered his magazine,
recognized no one, read the columns about

people having sex in grocery stores, tollbooths,
airplane washrooms, places you'd think utterly
incommodious, hostile to whatever it is
we work so hard to give and take from and to each other.

For me anyway, this isn't high-handed moralizing, the kind that can make me bristle, and I found I agreed w/ his conclusion. Sure we sow our oats in youth, but in the end, when you really want to find something/someone special, well I concur w/ the incommodiousness factor. This one didn't capture me right away, like some of his others, but I did come to quite enjoy it as it was different from his usual.

The Torn-Up Road (Richard Siken)

"There is no way to make this story interesting."

In this opening line, Siken just out and out lies to the reader. It's a transparent manipulation that reminds me of a guy I once knew myself, a drug dealer who told me the best way to con a person was to tell them right up front that you were going to con them. This brings up one of the oldest defense mechanisms in the book: ‘You can’t fool me that easily! (What kind of a chump do you take me for, anyhow?)’

Siken keeps telling us in this poem how he wants to tell us this story without having to confess that he (narrator) "ran out into the street to prove something.” This something comes across as trying to make a very private thing very public. It feels like hysteria and desperation and an intense fear of losing something of vital importance. In my eyes he did not even have to include the lines that tell us what he set out to prove... “that he didn’t love me, that I wanted to be thrown over, possessed.”

The 'he' seems to be Max and Max is sketched out:

Max in the wrong clothes. Max at the party, drunk again.

Max in the kitchen, in the refrigerator light, his hands around the neck of a beer.

Tell me we’re dead and I’ll love you even more.

Siken tells us that the narrator responds to Max's direction in a way that seems almost Pavlovian:

I’m surprised that I say it with feeling.

The poem is written in five parts, the first part introduces the setting as a country gravel road that the narrator tastes and feels while he has the "sense of being smothered underneath a sack of lentils or potatoes;" the second part introduces the characters (as above); and each of the final three parts is like smoke and mirrors, a different angle on the narrator making his scene and running away and being subdued by another man. Because Siken switches POV -- and because Max seems to be a little withdrawn (or maybe passed out) -- it is not, for me anyhow, a forgone conclusion that this man is Max. It could be a scene from the narrator’s past, or a scene he recently observed and identified with.

The recurring image is his body being covered by this other man, who holds him down to coerce a promise that he will not run out into the street again. It is almost a parental level of control over a child who does not understand danger and will not practice common sense. It’s a fierce brand of care that comes off as a bit over the top, but as I read and re-read these lines I am reminded that I am being told a story that is uninteresting. Pshaw, right!

It’s uninteresting like your first visit to Manhattan. You’re in Chinatown, and you’ve just given your third $20 bill to some shaggy looking dude with nothing but a cardboard box and a game you don’t even know yet is called 3-card monte. You’re reaching for your wallet again because this time, you are certain. Well, no lousy street bum is gonna take your money like this, right?What are you, some small town hick? You lay down another $20 because this is the last time you'll need to, because he is offering to triple it this time. And now you’ve figured out his game, and this are gonna pick out that ace.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

From Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": "I Amourette"

The poems in Wickham’s second book (1915) are numbered as well as titled, giving the appearance of a sequence. Though the poems focus on recurring themes, they are written in different stanzaic forms, most often as a single stanza. They often rhyme in couplets too. This marriage of strict numbering and varied forms creates an impression of great spontaneity.

“I Amourette” is a dialogue between the Woman and the Philosopher. Unusual to the dialogue form is a kind of prelude in which the two speakers talk to themselves about the other before they join in “argument.” The Woman asks herself how she can please man best. Two options present themselves: “Shall I be silent? Shall I speak?” The Philosopher does not question himself but rather questions whether a woman can be wise when “her philosophy is but a lure.” The Philosopher thus sees wisdom as antithetical to love, or, more generally, feeling. He does not want his wisdom to fall to the “arsenal of charm” and the “ammunition of her thought.”

Desiring the “thrilling combat of the wit,” the Woman confesses to the Philosopher in sadomasochistic terms that she takes “strange delight” in being “beaten,” this right at the start of their argument. He rightly identifies her as a “sensualist” and kisses her. She teases him by calling his forwardness at their first meeting “husbandry,” a loaded word. She promises him that from this “first pleasure” that he “sows” in her, she has the power to raise a shady grove for him. It is interesting here that the poet assigns masculine imagery to the Woman as well as the Philosopher.

Charmed by her answer, the Philosopher promises to return another night. The Woman concludes the dialogue with a complicated wish:

Dreams, dreams, stay with me till I sleep,
Then let oblivion steep
My senses in forgetfulness,
That when I wake, I may forget my loneliness.

Does “dreams” refer to the dream of the philosopher’s return or does it indicate that the charmed philosopher was a dream, an impossibility? It is disturbing to describe sleep as “oblivion,” especially in the context of a philosophical dialogue. Finally, does she forget her loneliness when she wakes because she has forgotten the lover during her sleep? If so, she does not seem to have gained her objective at the start of the poem. Is she winner or loser at the end? Wiser or foolish?

Despite the (perhaps unintended) ambiguities, what is clear is the speaker’s intellectual and emotional isolation. She lacks a Philosopher-lover. By referring to her “senses,” she justifies the Philosopher’s description of her as a “sensualist,” and so perhaps feels even more acutely the absence of a man who understands her.