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A Formal Party
Posted By Bill Coyle On November 14, 2010 @ 6:16 pm In Reviews,This Month | 1 Comment
After the Revival by Carrie Jerrell. Waywiser Press, 2009.
Domestic Fugues by Richard Newman. Steel Toe Books, 2010.
There are a number of striking similarities between these books: for starters, there’s the preference both poets display for traditional meters and forms, as well as the variety of those forms—sestinas, sonnets (Petrarchan, Shakespearean, terza rima and otherwise ) blank verse, rondeaux, villanelles. It’s no longer a shock to run across a collection of American poetry written largely in metrical verse, but we’re still a long way from being able to take for granted the kind of facility these poets display.
With both poets there’s an obvious parallel between verse music and music proper. Jerrell’s book is prefaced by epigraphs from John Donne and Tom Petty, and there are references scattered throughout the book to Country, Gospel and classic rock. The last poem in Newman’s collection bears an epigraph from Woody Guthrie, and as the title Domestic Fugues implies, the contents of the book are conceived in musical terms, with more than half the poems designated as fugues, songs or lullabies.
As for the speakers we meet in these books: Both know how to party. Both have endured, and perhaps inflicted, a series of heartbreaks. Both have close friendships with domestic (or at least domesticated) animals. Both obsessively reference religion, most often the Evangelical Christianity of the American Heartland and South (though one is a troubled believer and one a not-unsympathetic skeptic). And finally, both spend enough time driving to contribute significantly to their country’s greenhouse emissions. Both books begin, in fact, with poems in which the speaker is headed down the open road.
Carrie Jerrell starts fast out of the gate in this, her first collection, with “The Poet Prays to Her Radio for a Country Song”, cramming three of her main preoccupations—poetry, religion and music—into the title, while touching on a fourth, sex, before she’s finished with the second line:
O guardian of the well-lunged, purveyor of lies,
enabler of the backseat horny, I am sorely afflicted.
Travelling the long tongue of highway 40,
I fear the bottomless black sky of loneliness
has hawked me from the back of its throat
and doomed me to land, wet and without notice,
in the dust-bitten spittoon of Oklahoma.
It takes a good deal of confidence to risk that poet-as-long-range-loogie metaphor, but Jerrell has confidence to spare, and for this reader, at least, the metaphor works, in large part because of the way she knowingly and skillfully parodies the (often over-) extended metaphors of preachers and songwriters. That’s not particularly subtle, maybe, but look closer, and you realize you’re dealing with a poet skillful enough to let the verb “hawked” mean both “pawned” and something like “hunted from above” before reducing it “spat,” even as she arranges the chain of assonance that stretches from that initial “O” through “loneliness,” “throat” and “notice” before ending in “Oklahoma.” Oklahoma okay? Sounds like as far away from okay as you can get.
The speaker goes on to say how she needs “a song tonight—the kind that’s all curves, / that’s two parts sex and one part scripture”—a pretty apt description of the proportions these things are allotted in the collection—before ending with this invocation:
Descend, you blue jean honky-tonk angels,
and play my pain in 4/4 time on fiddle and red
birdseye-aproned steel guitar. Let my voice be open
as a screen door, all latchless and breeze-blown,
all invitation. May it reach like a revival choir
my man standing by the entrance, and may he tug
at his collar from the heat. Minor spirit,
I have been blinded by love’s late night hallelujahs,
but I hear the blue notes coming. I’ve had enough
measures of introduction. Let me testify.
In other words, Sing, Muse. To which the reader might reply Amen, or, with equal appropriateness, if not propriety, Hell yeah. This linguistic energy, along with the promiscuous appropriation of regional and popular culture, are typical of the book as a whole. What do you call this? Sprezzatura? Panache? Neither sounds very Country. Both the book’s introduction, by the poet Alan Shapiro, and one of its blurbs, use the word sass to refer to this quality, and that sounds about right: Sass, raised to the level of Art.
Jerrell seems able to write expertly in any form she chooses—blank verse, rhymed couplets, taut free verse, and she has a humdinger of a sestina, “The Country-Western Singer’s Ex-Wife, Sober in Mendocino County, California.” But the sonnet—exactly half the poems in After the Revival, if I’ve counted right, are sonnets—is her form of choice. The centerpiece of the book, in fact, is a sequence of seriocomic sonnets on the subject of modern American weddings. It’s a commonplace that rhymes in contemporary poetry ought to be unobtrusive, but rhyme is first and foremost something for both writer and reader to take pleasure in, and provided the poet has the chops, there’s nothing wrong with him or her showing off now and again. Witness “The Maid of Honor”:
As leader of your best friend’s satin posse,
your duties include pre-photo makeup checks,
guarding the gifts, preventing the Triple-sec-
soaked in-laws from doing a risqué Bob Fosse
number on the table-tops-a job
akin to that of foiling evil spirits,
like Roman maids first had. Here, evil rears its
ugly head in many ways: the poor slob
hoarding the hors d’oeuvres, the screaming kids,
and even when your friend shows up months later
with a suitcase and a boutonniere-size bruise,
the groom. She’s stunned, in danger, trapped on the skids,
and you’re still playing the hero, the Mitigator,
a shield from trouble she does and does not choose.
The poetic charms of the above are obvious enough not to need enumeration. Successful as the poem is on its own merits, though, it suggests one of the dangers of Jerrell’s approach, and one she falls victim to here and there in this middle section. Given her delight in language and her tremendous facility, it’s natural that she should write more poems than she strictly speaking needs to publish, and that she might have some difficulty telling the very good from the merely good. Granted, that’s a nice problem to have. And granted, too much of a good thing is still a good thing, but I think this sequence would have been more effective at half its present length.
The final section of the book is dominated by encounters with the sacred, whether in Nature—typically represented here by horses, or the God of Nature. Interestingly, these are the poems where Jerrell’s formal virtuosity is least obviously on display. What to make of this? Humility in the face of sacred subject matter? A sense that rhymes might prompt her to make declarations she can’t back up? In any case, it’s hard to argue with the results: In quoting from “I Am Thinking of My First Horse” I began by typing the final six lines, then couldn’t bear to leave out those immediately preceding them, and ended by simply capitulating. Here’s the whole thing:
A dun, his body the only kingdom
I know the whole of. His cheek broader
than the shoulder blade he rubs it against,
my shoulder blade. I braid his hair
like my hair: mine, the color of sweet feed;
his, night river black. I bathe his saddle marks,
cinch marks, bridle sores, though I cannot
give him back his body unbroken,
the way I have been promised mine,
in heaven. Because each morning the world
nuzzles me awake; because my breath
and sunlight and the wind-lashed shadows
of branches outside my window form
a tangled braid of tributaries I will one day
ride to a river dark as a horse’s eye;
because I imagine he waits on the bank
to carry me, I am thinking of my first horse,
how we will leave our scars in the water
behind us, entering a kingdom we praise
but cannot ever fully know.
I am thinking of my first horse
because I want no heaven without him.
Subject matter that might easily have sounded sentimental or cornpone, practically bumper-sticker material, becomes a deeply moving mediation on that the resurrection of the dead—and the life of the world to come.
It’s both odd and entirely apt that After the Revival should have won the 2008 Anthony Hecht Prize. Apt in the sense that the virtuosity, wit and erotic and religious concerns on display in the collection would likely have delighted Hecht. And maybe it’s not that odd: Maybe I had in mind too simplistic a contrast between Hecht’s high style—east coast, oriented toward Europe—and Jerrell’s southern and western twang. Overemphasizing that dichotomy would mean forgetting how much Hecht owed to southern poets like his teachers John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, not to mention, come to think of it, the extent to which an arch-formalist like Yvor Winters was a poet of the American west.
Still, none of those poets mined the resources of the demotic as extensively as Jerrell does. Country music and the language of sermons and the Bible are more than comforts to the speaker of these poems, they’re rhetorical resources. In drawing so successfully on the texts to which many of her fellow citizens resort, with varying degrees of self-awareness, in times of heightened feeling, she’s created a poetry that’s at once genuinely popular and unabashedly literary. Not bad for a first book.
Domestic Fugues is Richard Newman’s second collection of poetry, his first being 2005’s Borrowed Towns (which come to think of it would make a great title for a Country album). The titles of the two volumes give some sense of the shift in the author’s preoccupations, and even his formal means. Whereas Borrowed Towns often read like the work of someone who’d given up on finding his place, Domestic Fugues is very much a mid-life book, the work of a man reflecting on an existence that’s far more routine than he had wanted or imagined, but which has considerable meaning. The first poem in the book, the sonnet “Old Bird,” is one of its most upbeat, a salute to a fellow survivor:
His old Impala burned more oil than gas,
slowing traffic back to the exit ramp,
and I saw as it finally came my turn to pass,
sticking through the window, a stump—
his arm rounded off above the elbow
and wrapped up in the long, cool highway wind—
and bobbing on his shoulder, all bright yellow
and red, a rooster. The man turned and grinned
as we travelled, even, between tall green seas
of cornstalks that threatened to crash over the road.
His rooster’s feather’s fluttered in the breeze .
Through his farm-dusted windshield, the bird glowed.
And though it took me miles to understand,
he’d raised his arm—a friendly wave of his hand.
Compare this poem to any of Jerrell’s quoted above, and you’ll have a sense of how different their voices are, despite the many similarities I noted at the beginning. Newman’s rhymes are, with a few notable exceptions, more muted, even if he does get a few bonus points for using “Stroh’s” as a rhyme word, and even more for rhyming “cereal” and “ethereal.” His metaphors are evocative—those “tall green seas / of cornstalks” call up everything from the Red Sea poised to swamp the chariots of the Egyptians, to the inland sea that European explorers expected to find in the interior of North America, to the sea that was in fact there during the Cretacious period—but they’re rarely outrageous. The rooster is gaudy; the poem in which he appears, isn’t.
Still, in his more restrained way, Newman is as much of a smart-ass as Jerrell (I don’t think the speaker of any of these poems would describe himself as sassy, exactly). It’s surely no accident that “sticking through the window, a stump” is the one line in “Old Bird” that can’t be scanned as a full iambic pentameter (James Merrill would have liked that joke: he did something similar once with “missing [metrical] feet.”) And titles like “Man Drives with Shark Attached to Leg” and “May All Your Christmases be White-Knuckled” give some sense of the wry engagement with pop culture that’s typical of the book as a whole.
Repetition and variation are both key themes of this book and the technical means by which those themes are articulated. I have to quote here, as Newman does in prefacing his book, the definitions of “fugue” from Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary:
1: A polyphonic musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts 2: a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected performs acts of which he appears to be conscious but of which on recovery he has no recollection.
The repetitive forms Newman favors—fugues, a sestina, two pantoums two villanelles—make up the majority of the book and are ideal for his purposes. The one-step-forward-one-step-back form of the pantoum, for instance, seems perfect for “The Final Fuck,” a poem about lovers who know it’s over but are, pun intended, stuck in a rut. A billboard that says “Love your babies, born and unborn,” passed each morning on the way to work, provides one of the refrains for a villanelle dealing with regrets and rationalization. There’s a cast of recurring characters, too—a wife, a daughter, an ex-wife, a dog—and their appearances, together with the speaker’s changing responses to them, serve to make the book as a whole another, larger kind of fugue.
This obsession is taken to an (admittedly comic and self-aware) extreme in “Insestina,” a poem in the voice of the editor of a literary journal (Newman edits River Styx). Poems about poetry are risky, poems about po-biz riskier still, and this is the least successful poem in the collection. It may not be impossible to be funny on the subject of incest (though I doubt it’s easy) but the jokes here are too heavy handed to work—at least without a drummer in back throwing in rim-shots.
More often, Newman manages just the right balance of mordant humor and deep feeling, as in “Solitary Drinking Song”:
Surrounded by our bed of weeds
that thrive in the shade of Jesus Church,
I take in the night and Rolling Rocks
out on my sagging wooden porch,
observe life’s little consequences
through the chinks in wooden fences.
The sirens trigger barking dogs.
The brewery boils its cereal,
the steam making the neighborhood
yeasty and ethereal.
A helicopter sweeps the sky,
its spotlight sifting right from wrong.
The wind blows over my empty bottles
and sets the nothingness to song.
There are formal and tonal echoes throughout the book of the late Weldon Kees, who was similarly addicted to villanelles, and who wrote several “fugues.” Newman, though, is both more generous to his fellow humans and more grateful for his own lot than Kees, at least in his verse, ever managed. Kees famously ended his poem “For My Daughter” with the line “I have no daughter. I desire none.” The speaker of Newman’s poems does have a daughter, though, and seems glad of the fact, even if, in poems such as “Lessons from the Garden,” she’s turning into a handful:
inside, my daughter’s forced to practice.
Her fingers blunder down the keys,
ignoring accidentals. She’s
thirteen, more prickly than a cactus.
Outside the yard is newly mown—
I hear the chirps of brazen birds,
wrong notes accented by swear words
and realize lately how she’s grown
almost as moody as my ex-wife.
A year ago she loved to play.
She hates it now and pounds away
a stubborn song of loss and life.
This is as sophisticated as it is seemingly effortless. Look at the way the enjambments after “She’s” and “grown,” particularly the latter, stretching as it does from one stanza to the next, make almost palpable the growing pains both daughter and father are suffering from; or the rhyme of “mown” and “grown,” with its suggestion that life (though not necessarily any individual human life) wins out over attempts to pare back or control it; or the fact that “mown” and “grown” are homophonic puns for “moan” and “groan”, and as puns really, well, groaners; or the way that the In Memoriam stanza, rhyming abba creates and then delays the expectation of forward movement in a way that suggests the speaker’s attitude toward his daughter’s progress; or the way that our recognition that the poem is written in the stanza that Tennyson made famous reminds us of his famous verdict that “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” You couldn’t get away with saying that in a contemporary poem, of course, but the glancing allusion to it certainly heightens this poem’s poignancy.
In closing, I’d like to just briefly note the ways in which Jerrell and Newman remind me of certain of their near contemporaries, among them Erica Dawson and Eric McHenry. Grounded in the classics, technically brilliant in the way that the generation of Hecht, Hollander, Merrill and Wilbur were, this more recent group of poets are more at home, if not always at ease, with American popular culture, and more likely, at least at this point in their careers, to set poems in Maryland, or Kansas, or Ohio, or Texas than in New York or New Haven, let alone in the Old World. That three of these four poets should publish their first books with a British press is either a sad commentary on the state of American letters or a heartening sign that globalization needn’t come at the expense of the local and distinct. I suspect it’s both.
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