Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Nodal and Bicameral

coverThe Creation of the Night Sky by Nicholas Christopher. Harcourt Brace, 1998. $22.00


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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.     Nicholas Christopher's previous five books of verse, capped by the highly praised 5 (1995), which the reviewer of the San Francisco Review of Books felt "deserve[d] a place next to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land," have not only earned the plaudits of the Famous Three poetry blurbists— Anthony Hecht, Harold Bloom, and W. S. Merwin—but have garnered significant recognition, not least of which the coveted Guggenheim Foundation and Academy of American Poets awards. Not bad, you think, but there's even more to come. The inside cover of the book under review identifies Christopher as "one of the five most important 'magic realist' poets writing today" (we are not told who the other four are), and beneath a photo of the author (oddly recalling similar "portraits" of Tennessee Williams when his Streetcar Named Desire first hit Broadway) we find the inevitable short list of the magazines in which this poet's work has appeared—The New Yorker, Paris Review, Esquire, the New Republic—followed by the geographical squib (almost needless to add for a poet not tied to a university): "He lives in New York City."
     Clearly, this is a writer whose career has ticked along smoothly since his first book of poems On Tour with Rita came out in 1982, and having negotiated skillfully all the hurdles the obstacle course for American poets has presented him with, he has established an 18-year track record of keeping reviewers enamored with his style and eager to pay him court as a poster boy for the NEA. And why not? He has more arrows in his quiver than the usual down-at-feather shaft or two hoarded by your typical young poet on the make. He's put out two novels, along with a collection of essays on "Film Noir and the American City," and edited two anthologies of contemporary poetry, all at a measured pace, without the merest hint of sweat. In fact, to find the equal of Christopher's relaxed demeanor in print one would have to reach back to the mild surrealist purrings of Anas Nin's Solar Barque, Ladders to Fire or other works of hers like those from the 1950's. Christopher's bent is also manageably surrealist, meaning that its allurements are comparably aligned to the needle promptings of the poetry of today's true magnetic north, the "This-used-to-be-Elizabeth Bishop-country-but-is-now-John Ashbery's" effluent of a New York school once the freehold of free spirits (names like Ron Padgett, Tom Clark, Frank Lima, Edward Denby, Kenward Elmslie, and Ashbery as well, spring to mind) and now a catchall stuffed mostly to the gills with freeloaders.
     Not that there's any hint of that kind of thing hovering over Christopher's work, or anything calling the wrong kind of attention to itself in his curriculum vitae as it stands. To the contrary, everything about it seems perfectly in order. Or is that perhaps what's mildly disconcerting about it, that everything in The Creation of the Night Sky has the look of being too perfectly in order—a look which, for a surrealist like Christopher, is hardly comme il faut. And, one feels obliged to add, vaguely disturbing—as most assuredly is his tendency, also, to use "nodal terms," such as sea, room, window, clouds, stars, door, wind, light, beach, to either establish a mood of foreboding or eeriness or provide a symbolscape with just the right blend of parallax and moonshine.
     One hates to dwell on this kind of thing, but it does pull into focus the not very well hidden tie-rack of trigger points that many Christopher poems are hung on. In virtually every poem a door to a room is either locked or opens out onto landlocked scenes where "grass sizzles" or onto sea-tormented beaches where "sheets of foam hiss." Clouds billow, light declares itself splinteringly or is silent amid cascading stars that twinkle or subside, depending on whose mind is at the end of which tether. Thus is emotion portentously localized around trigger points which grow ever more ponderous and symbolically predictable as poem follows poem, culminating finally in "Night Journal," a fantasist's chronicle in 35 "calendar entries" taking up half of the entire book. The ploy in question may be seen at work from the first poem, "X Rays," on out:

A door creaks open
a few inches
and light the blue of the sea
streams in from far away
from beyond the sea
dividing this empty room
with its four sealed windows
one in each wall
and its floorboards
like bars of iron glowing

     In poem after poem Christopher chips away at the detritus that clings to nightsweats and lets the true perspirations of dread pour forth. Reaming psychic pores seems to be his itch as a poet, reaching down to the whiteheads which ordinary Clearasil culture, be it Bellow novels and Dante translations or sandpaper surgery as performed by the Outlaw Poets, can't root out. With a rapaciousness that at times seems over-civil, he seizes on fancies soured into fantasies, letches curdled into nightmares. Take "Della," for instance, where flowers of circumstance become a funeral bouquet as mindlessly as desperation among the quiet:

                                                       . . .
and the blind vendor in the skullcap roasting

almonds in honey by the hotel where the married
couple (each married to someone else) who had become
the morning headlines were found back to back under

icy sheets after sharing a bottle of sleeping pills,
and the breezy clerk with ink-stained fingers
and zip-up boots playing ticktacktoe on the #2

express train beside the pregnant girl
who was dreaming openly with an upturned face
and parted lips, hands clasped on her belly . . .

     We've all had experience with this sort of poetry. Each poem encases its own scorpion-tailed scenario and makes a neat metallic sound as it clicks shut. We know that sound because it's the sound smooth makes as it curlicues into slick. And isn't it, too, the sound the door of an expensive car makes, closing on some dream of upholstery, as human voices wake us and we drown? And speaking of drowning, "Where She Drowned" manages to maroon us on yet another promontory of horror—or rather, "horror," the scare quotes intended to remind us that this sonnet by Christopher importunes an imago and not something actually withdrawn from the account of suicide on which the Sylvia Plath of the Ariel poems found herself terminally overdrawn—delimited by the "trigger terms" alluded to earlier. Here, with the liberty taken of italicizing the keywords in question, is the poem in its entirety:

On the path of broken shells through the forest,
light pours from the door of a shack

where someone spooned tea leaves into a black pot
and left a kettle whistling on the stove.

The clock on the shelf has not been wound for years,
But just now it began ticking.

Down the beach, where the wind sharpens
Itself along the sickle curve of the bay,

Where the clouds have parted jaggedly
On some stars streaking earthward,

Where the sheets of foam hiss
Over stones glowing like embers,

The sea swallows a woman in a rush of steam,
Her hair marbled like a wave about to break.

In poetry's palmier days Shakespeare, Whitman, Hardy, Frost, Lowell and others like them might have been seen wading about these shallows; but then, given their stature as poets, the shallows wouldn't have been shallows and so couldn't have been waded about in. But even if they had been shallows and they had been waded about in by such poets as have been mentioned, writers of that ilk would most certainly not have allowed themselves to be seen doing what poets do, being surely artful enough to keep the mysteries of their craft away from prying eyes and wagging tongues.
     Not Nicholas Christopher, however, whose signal manipulations remain up front and centered where it is virtually impossible to miss them. Not without some queasiness is one reminded of the famous demolishment by the critic R. P. Blackmur of E. E. Cummings's facile-bordering-on-obsessive use of certain words in Tulips and Chimneys. The crux of Blackmur's argument as stated in "Notes on E. E. Cummings' Language" is worth quoting at some length:

If a reader, sufficiently familiar with these poems not to be caught on the snag of novelty, inspects carefully any score of them, no matter how widely scattered, he will especially be struck by a sameness among them. This sameness will be of two sorts—a vagueness of image and a constant recurrence of words. Since the one depends considerably on the other, a short list of some of Mr. Cummings' favorite words will be a good preliminary to the examination of his images.

What follows is a list of no fewer than 50 such words—almost all adjectives—including: thrilling, flowers, serious, absolute, sweet, unspeaking, tremendous, fragile, and so on, until all 50 are trundled out onto the stage of Cummings's iniquity. And then Blackmur envenoms the point of his indictment with these well chosen words:

In listing these as favorite words, it is meant that these words do the greater part of the work in the poems where they occur; these are the words which qualify the subject matter of the poems, and are sometimes even the subjects themselves. Observe that none of them, taken alone, are very concrete words; and observe that many of them are rather abstract, which is to say typical names for precise qualities, but are not, and cannot be, as originally important words in a poem, very precise or very concrete or very abstract: they are middling words, not in themselves very much one thing or the other, and should be useful only with respect to something concrete in itself.

     "Ah!" the defender of Christopher's practice might be heard exclaiming. "This is not at all akin to what you've been saying about the poems in The Creation of the Night Sky. Cummings's ostensible sin, to hear Blackmur tell it, was to have passed off certain favored epithets—the satellite moons and lesser planets of language—as the very stuff of suns and radiant stars. Christopher's verse is all but void of such qualifying language. Where are the adjectives and adverbs doing double duty as subjects in his poems? Where, for that matter, are the abstractions doing single duty as typical names of things not precisely themselves? Your charges are a libel and an obscurantism. His work is unencumbered by all such blague and is wholly entitled, without lien or forfeit, to its many plaudits and fame."
     Not so fast, the depreciator of that same practice might well reply. No one is claiming that Christopher has duplicated Cummings's lapsus into banality and distortion. What is being alleged is that Christopher obverts Cummings's travesty of language by using nominals as though they meant something. The author of Tulips & Chimneys on the other hand wrote as though he meant something by the words he used. This is not a sophistry; the distinction is a real one and has legs in the recent history of Anglo-American verse, going back at least as far as Swinburne. In fact it might be useful here to recall T. S. Eliot's indictment of Swinburne's habitual conflation of sound and meaning:

. . . Now, in Swinburne the meaning and the sound are one thing. He is concerned with the meaning of the word in a peculiar way: he employs, or rather "works," the word's meaning. And this is connected with an interesting fact about his vocabulary: he uses the most general word, because his emotion is never particular, never in direct line of vision, never focused; it is emotion reinforced, not by intensification, but by expansion. . . It is, in fact, the word that gives him the thrill, not the object. When you take to pieces any verse of Swinburne, you find always that the object was not there—only the word. . . .

Only the word, and then only in place of whatever significant emotion the particular contexts in which these nodal terms of Christopher's appear are ultimately cheated of by having mere formulas substituted for their objecthood, and yes, even their chance to become symbols. Note how the trigger words operate in this poem, whose title constitutes its first line:

                              The Anonymous Letter
suggests it was in a previous life
I emerged from a long tunnel
echoing sharply with horses' hooves

and a cradle moon just a sliver
in a bracelet of stars
was poised above the steep cliff

from which a cloud of birds veered
pitch-black toward the breakers
a ship's light rising and falling over the horizon

and someone on the bluff calling to me
the wind drowning out the words
I hear now years later when I approach the sea

     Another beach-and-bluff poem, this time with the varying transformation of clouds (which normally billow ominously) into a "cloud of birds veer[ing] / pitch-black toward the breakers" and extending Christopher's recurrent trope, dissolving metonymy, to encompass light lost to the horizon and communication lost to the wind. As a further variant, the ubiquitous room of so many poems is changed into "a long tunnel," with the lamps and candles of interiority nominally exteriorized into "a cradle moon [that is] just a sliver / in a bracelet of stars." The things are there—bluff, breakers, cloud of birds, the moon and stars—but they are denied all quidditas and are instead suffused with an aura of private mystique, which from this distance looks a lot like mystification. There is a pressing need to quote Blackmur on Cummings one more time:

. . . By his eagerness Mr. Cummings' relation to language has become confused; he has put down what has meant much to him and can mean little to us, because for us it is not put down—is only indicated, only possibly there. The freshness and depth of his private experience is not denied; but it is certain that, so far as its meaning goes, in the poetry into which he translated it, sentimentality, empty convention, and commonplace rule. In short, Mr. Cummings' poetry ends in ideas about things.

The strongly emergent implication here is that Cummings composed in a kind of code whose inherent dynamic revolved around encipherment rather than decipherment. His poetry was written for an audience of one, and that one was clearly not the reader, who, being largely ignored by the poetry, was abandoned to the poet's own devices and left to forage as best he could among the shed chrysalises.
     Experiencing verse like Cummings's—and Christopher's—then, is to be stranded in the midst of a designative ex post facto that is all deserta and no Arabia, all moth and no flame. Everything, Christopher's poetic mien seems bent on declaring, is divorceable from everything else. Nothing that is not grafted on to something else would want to merge with that something else, would wish to become part of its intrasubjective life. The postmodern imago gravitates toward either the libidinized somnambulism of a Paul Delvaux or the time-warped anomie of an Edward Hopper. As Christopher's poem "Divorce" harshly suggests, E. M. Forster was wrong in his choice of motto: it should more accurately have been "Only disconnect":

In the solitary house in an open field
hidden objects have been brought out
and placed on the floor of the bedroom:

half a pair of scissors;
a thimble filled with worn phonograph needles;
a triangular stamp from a country that no longer exists.

All the windows are open.
On the taut bedcovers a woman is lying on her back
counting the birds in flight painted on the ceiling.

In the corner a man in a rocking chair grips his knees.
A storm is approaching and the sky has darkened
to the same purple as the woman's irises.

No points anywhere can be connected, she remembers
saying, as the rain, sharper than needles, slants
through the windows, filling the air with broken lines.

Here, yet again, is the characteristic Christopher frieze of life as a frozen gel-cap caught between thermal hypostases. The radiant nodes are mostly in place, the usual suspects have been rounded up, and the solitary inducements to symbolism-as-Damoclean sword all polished and bright as a pippin. But there is no point in further belaboring this. One either likes and expects of a book of verse that it will vary from poem to poem precisely as tossings of the I Ching vary one from another, or one does not. Most readers of poetry would in all likelihood agree that poems are not yarrow stalks, and that the readings given poems, while not of the sort they would stake their lives, or even a day's events, upon, do somehow matter in the long existential haul. Likewise, most would probably go on record as preferring that poems not exile them to places of the mind and heart that the poems' creators would as soon not find themselves frequenting. Does it therefore need to be made a point of that yarrow stalkers are more likely to like Nicholas Christopher than the control group?
     But what is depressingly true of the first half of The Creation of the Night Sky is certainly not true of the book's second half, which is devoted to a fictitious personal daybook-in-verse that Christopher has titled "Night Journal: January I—September 24." The work is introduced by the following compositional note to the reader:

The thirty-five calendar entries dividing the poem are the actual dates of its composition. I made these entries, each in its entirety, on the nights listed, in 1996. I only began an entry when I knew I would complete it that same night in one sitting—exactly as I would keep a personal journal. At the same time, the action of the poem occurs on a single timeless night, and the night journal, far from being a conscious compendium of my own worldly activities, is a chronicle of those events which I set in motion in my imagination on the first day of the new year—the traditional starting point for a personal journal. In retrospect, I see that this night journal became far more personal than any such traditional journal I might have kept over those same nine months.

The journal enacts "cere-belleslettristically"—if such a portmanteau word can encompass Christopher's unique stylistic effects—the interwoven fates of four protagonists who double as one another's antagonists across a whole spectrum of physical, subcutaneous and psychological levels. Operating within a corresponding plenum incorporating symmetry, simultaneity, complementarity, and various alternate and parallel universes, the poem plots, in language by turns matter-of-fact and ornately surreal, the labyrinthine byways and dreampaths of an entumored brain in extremis.
     The organ in question is that of a physician who is fatally struck by an icetruck, driven by "a man with a felt cap," just after midnight on New Year's Eve. The driver, we are told,

. . . has come from a room
in which a blind woman in a black hat
served him boiled potatoes laced with palm oil
and calabash soup in a cracked bowl.
He sat alone at a square table
eating with a wooden spoon
before lighting a thin cigar
with a wooden match from a box
picturing the King of Sweden on horseback
in a blizzard four centuries ago.

The matchbook picturing the King of Sweden on horseback and the blizzard (there is a similar snowstorm in the present picture, "burying the foothills of Pennsylvania / and the mountains of Virginia") are motifs that will recur at intervals during the course of the poem, impinging on the lives of all the participants in this muted drama and helping to interweave their destinies, one with another.
     The physician with "a tumor the size / of a plum in the back of his head" isn't immediately killed in the accident (which, when seen as governed by complementarity, is not an "accident" at all), but he does die soon afterward, on an operating table in a hospital where a nurse, with long golden hair and "the image of a hooded falcon / tattooed on her left wrist," is in attendance. (She is first encountered near the beginning of the poem, scurrying across an icy street and clutching a bag of lemons.) This tattoo will later take on a life of its own, joining an unnerving chorus of fluttering wings and hovering bird presences. (In the middle of the physician's brain surgery, right at the moment when the auxiliary power came on during a blackout caused by the blizzard, "a pair of blindingly bright / wings sweep out of the physician's open skull / and disappear through the closed / glazed window, into the snow.")
     In fact, such presences attain a liveliness and an immanence largely denied the "human" actors in Christopher's dark mummery. It's not they who are wholly there; nor is the "there" whose precincts they haunt really there in any definable way, either as ethos or as locality. The habitus evoked, without putting too fine a point on it, is a large American city, with megalopolitan horrors always lurking or pouncing. It is a place, to quote an old Nichols and May routine, "where there is proximity but no, no relating." Apart from sporadic mentions of Christopher's nodal "rooms," such as

                                                         . . .
and in a black room under a white blanket
someone who cannot sleep
screams at the moment the truck's brakes squeal. . .

nothing resembling a domus, where meals are cooked or sex domestically undergone, ever appears.
     The physician, anesthetized and having the first of several filamentary probes enter his brain, dreams of a stranger with a burning key on his palm, who has escaped from a prison "built at the edge / of an immense tundra under the midnight sun" and "laid out in a double helix / on an east-west axis." This stranger and escapee, having lain down on "a bed of icy pine needles," is dreaming also—

of fish swimming against the current
up black channels with the pinpoint
reflections of stars on the surface,
away from the bottomless bay
where the sunken freighter is still spinning
downward years after hitting an iceberg
blue as lapis speckled with starlight . . .

"On that freighter," which now sits at the bottom of the ocean, "in an airtight compartment,"

the ship's doctor is till sitting upright
at a small table
reading Gray's Anatomy
in the yellow glow of a lamp.
Before him a clock with no hands is ticking.
And a silver toothpick rests between his teeth.

One of the physician's "personal effects" discovered when he is rushed into surgery at the hospital is "a silver toothpick driven into his palate."
     The journal entry for March 1st informs us that the physician had earlier on taken some photographs at night with an infrared camera—photographs which would later be found after his death locked away in a drawer. Among the subjects were:

                         . . . a woman clutching a bag
while hurrying across an icy street;
a man with a felt cap changing the tire on a truck;
the same man in convict's stripes zigzagging through trees;
a school of fish veering into shadows, deep underwater.
And a portrait of himself,
snapped with the camera held at arm's length,
in which his eyes are opened wide,
his lips are tight,
and the shadow of a bird's wing
is darkening his brow.

In the same locked drawer with these photographs will be found a journal in which the physician had expressed the belief that he was "in a prison of correspondences / and multiple contradictions." Elaborating further, he wrote:

I am leaving one labyrinth after overcoming countless difficulties—
blind
alleys, dead ends, trapdoors, stairways that double back on
           themselves—
only to enter its mirror-image,
which will be doubly difficult to escape
since my every action must be the opposite
of the complementary action I took in my first labyrinth:
that is, an exit route comprised of a negative chain of events.
This is the only prison in the world
That must be escaped twice.
Except for the human mind, of course, whose byways
must also be negotiated and left behind:
once to attain (or attempt) enlightenment
and again when it quits the body once and for all,
at death . . .

The journal goes on to draw multiple analogies and homologies out of the symmetrical organization of cytoplasm and site-oplasm, of

brain cells that are also prison cells,
in a prison laid out in complementary halves,
dual halves spiraling forever inward,
like the lobes of the brain.

     But also not unlike the twin lobes of Nicholas Christopher's The Creation of the Night Sky, with its incarcerative isolation of trigger motifs throughout its first half and double helix-plotting of dream-tissue DNA marking its second. The city of cubicles that "Night Journal" brings to life constitutes another simulacrum of this strange, two-hearted river of a book—single-minded, yet double-brained; assaultingly aggravating as a symbolic primer, yet delivering an aggravated assault on every complacency of the postmodern simplex, from the culture of suspicion to the surplus value of poetic consciousness and how it might even be outmoded in this our "virtual age." Devouring this strange bicameral book in one sitting tends to leave one feeling like the physician sealed in the freighter compartment at the bottom of the ocean. Having half-endured a sinking, one's exhilaration experienced in reading "Night Journal" is somewhat mitigated by the sense of suffocation one had getting through most of the book's first 50 pages. In the end it all seems worth it, the agony and the proto-ecstatics of a new kind of post-psychological novella-in-verse. For readers unfamiliar with Christopher's previous experiment in this genre found in the earlier collection, Desperate Characters: A Novella in Verse & Other Poems, this more recent book might reoriginate its experience of originality for them, and then some. For all its flaws, The Creation of the Night Sky, riding high on its own mechanized quanta, propels its low-riding coincidentals through some very thought-provoking particles of light. Blurbists Hecht, Merrill, Merwin, and Bloom may have been on to something after all.


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2001 Contemporary Poetry Review