Disching It Out
About the Size of It by Tom Disch. Anvil Press Poetry Ltd, 2007.
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Disch’s first book of poems in ten years has the heft you’d expect of
a collection so long in preparation: eighty poems spanning almost 150
long-format pages. The book is divided into sections whose titles speak
their preoccupations: “About the Size of It” (all of whose poems are
literally about the size of something), “Love and Death,” “Ars
Gratia Artis,” “Theories of Other People,” and “The Great
Outdoors.” The poems vary widely in length, from near-epigrams to
leisurely expostulations. As befits Disch’s renown as a formalist, many
of the poems make use of rhyme and meter, though he tends to handle these
devices in a loose, even slapdash fashion—an approach in keeping, as
we’ll see, with other aspects of the collection.
a book’s blurbs are startlingly precise about its virtues; the blurbs on
the cover of About the Size of It
absolutely nail them. David Lehman credits Disch’s poetry with “wit,
invention, boyish wonder, and intellectual sophistication.” To find
examples of all these traits in Disch’s new book, one has but to invert
it, shake vigorously, and pick at will from the plethora of specimens that
drop to the desk. Wit? There’s Disch’s acknowledgment, beneath
obesity’s “bobbing, semi-solid fat,” of
. . . the wistful lungs,
The heart, so trusted and abused, the scapegoat
Glands, the coiling bowels – all of it still intact
And waiting, like South America, to be
Or his reference to “the crags / Where eagles dare—though really, where’s the daring / Of it for an eagle?” Invention? There’s the conversation between “The Chameleon and the Butterfly,” in which the former questions a young man’s likening of the latter to the eyes of a young woman. Here’s the piece’s ending stretch:
‘Her eyes are spherical,’ the chameleon objected,
‘and you are wafer-thin.’
The butterfly gave its wings
a little flutter and spread a spritz of spit on its antennae:
‘It is the way her glance (he told her) rests on his face—
like that butterfly (meaning me) that has lighted on the nose
of that licheny Minerva (that’s who that statue is, you know),
at once so goldenly bold (his words, not mine) and so oblivious.’
‘Oblivious?’ the chameleon blinked. ‘Of whom?’
But the butterfly had flown off, so as not to be eaten.
wonder? In “Symphonic Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day,” Disch posits a
heaven in which “We will listen forever / To fantastic symphonies. /
Forever: imagine / How long that must be!” As for intellectual
sophistication, the book is steeped in it. I open its pages at
random—honest—and light on the following tumbling-run of erudition:
[W]hat is my western Rolodex to do
Becoming in that instant of misapprehension
Not even he or she, for Urdu has transcended
Gender, but only someone here now and gone
which in Urdu is the same as yesterday [. . .]
fellow-blurber, Dana Gioia, is equally on target when he says of Disch’s
poetry that “the flow of ideas is never predictable.” In “Coming
To,” a man sitting on a rock regards a mountain. He takes out his
notebook: “The mountain is falling / to
pieces, he wrote, and so am I.
/ He considered adding the adverb ‘slowly’.” Now comes the sort of
mental move Gioia is talking about: “He tried to imagine the manner / in
which a mountain / might write poems.” With characteristic generosity,
Disch muses his way further into the conceit: “It would be like Gertrude
Stein / with repeated phrases / undergoing / minimal variations of tone
and inflection / as did the hemlocks / and mosses on the rocks.”
I hope these examples suggest, there’s plenty to admire about this book
(not least, its plenty). It’s true that my admiration for it can
occasionally be clouded—usually in spots like one a little further on in
‘Actually,’ said the mountain, ‘what we are
mostly interested in
is old movies. The drive-ins
have made an enormous difference up here.
Have you seen Beau Geste?’
example of Disch’s “never predictable” flow of ideas. But as
compared with the earlier leap from looking at a mountain to imagining
“the manner . . . in which it might write poems,” this move could use
some predictability: as it stands, it’s too free-floating, arbitrary,
untethered. (The difference between the earlier leap and this one calls to
mind Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and its lighterweight
cousin, fancy.) Having tossed this new and dubious ball into the air,
Disch tries hard to keep it aloft:
‘I love the way,’
the mountain went on,
That’s a theme that has yet to find its Manet,
much less its Michelangelo.’
further turn may interest initially, but if you think about it, why would
so narrow and eccentric a “theme” find its Manet or Michelangelo? And
if Disch is going to name painters’ names, why Manet (not particularly
known for his landscapes) and Michelangelo (who never painted a landscape
in his life)? A small but damaging addendum to the laxity here.
guiding ideal behind such loose proceedings would seem to be the
improvisational: thought triggering thought in a free, spontaneous ride.
But, experimentalists like David Antin to the side, one doesn’t
improvise a poem; one composes it. Not that this distinction is hard and
fast: a composer, in fact, does nothing but
improvise as he spins the thread of a work forward. But he also harnesses
his improvising in the service of coherence. Disch’s poetry could use a
little harnessing at times. That being said, a freedom of flow is a
legitimate poetic strength, and a clear strength of Disch’s. He may
sometimes indulge this freedom excessively, but you can blame him only so
much for doing so. (If you’re going to knock Disch for this tendency,
make sure to knock Schubert too.) Plus Disch can tighten things nicely
when he wants to. A poem called “In a Time of Plagues” demonstrates
this, and also shows Disch’s masterful way (when, again, he wants to
show it) with strict meter and rhyme:
Deer reck not of the hunting season.
Sheep can’t imagine shepherd’s pie.
Smokers scorn the voice of reason.
No one knows the day he’ll die.
Gays there were who never heeded
All the headlines about AIDS.
Drinkers drank, and still they speeded.
Every color finally fades.
Power lines are thought to kill
People who live too close by.
Look at your electric bill,
Then think about the day you’ll die.
No life’s secure: oaks may defy
Death for a century, but they,
Too, in the course of time must die.
mortis conturbat me.
in particular the fine management of movement against
the meter in the final stanza. (The return to a forceful, trochaic
regularity in the last line helps account for the ending’s uncanny
Disch’s penchant for wit, invention, and intellection, a surprising
aspect of About the Size of It
is the strong current of feeling running through it. Disch is commendably
unafraid to display his vulnerability (vis his above-quoted remark that
it’s not just a mountain that’s “falling to pieces”), though
he’s equally willing to express more positive emotions. A beautiful
example of this willingness is the final section of “The Return to
Nature.” During a week-long, artistically productive stay with his
companion in a mountain cabin, Disch goes on a hike and loses (or thinks
[. . .] my Mark Cross pen, a present
Infinite Christmasses ago from Charlie.
‘Oh no!’ I cried—then wondered if
My muses had extracted it in payment
For their manifold largesse, the which
In prelude to a proper thank-you
I here enumerate (Ye Nymphs and Dryads,
Bend your ears!): Item, one novel resumed
After a lapse of several years; Item, another
Newly conceived, a sequel of sorts to Clara Reeve;
this poem for what it’s worth [. . .]
Muses have “really got / My juices flowing.” The next day Disch
retraces part of his hike in search of the lost pen, but returns to his
cabin empty-handed. Whereupon
There—that’s to say here—on my desk
It was. And I could swear it wasn’t here last night!
And Charlie swears too, by the laurels on the table
(Charlie, who wouldn’t lie if he were able),
That he didn’t find it and plant it there.
Which means it must have come from you, the geniuses
Of the place. So, Muses, that is why,
As I end my song, it is of thee I sing—
To thee I offer thanks for everything.
Has “everything” ever encompassed more? Disch owes all he has, and has ever had, to a saving engagement with his art. What I particularly admire is the gamble he takes, and wins, with those ‘thee’s at his conclusion. In less accomplished hands they might have been distractingly archaic, but here, defused by the beautifully plain and heartfelt “thanks for everything” into which they flow, they connect back to the great tradition from which Disch has drawn strength—not just artistically but personally, one feels—throughout one of the more impressively sustained careers in contemporary American poetry.