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The Ecstatic Discipline of David J. Rothman

James Matthew Wilson reviews two books by David J. Rothman, The Book of Catapults (White Violet Press, 2013) and Part of the Darkness (Entasis Press, 2013)

In the last several years, David Rothman has established a reputation as the great enthusiast of poetic form. In his prose and public appearances, he argues with passion for the virtues of counting, the poet’s searching out of form through the myriad sorts of repetition that populate our speech, and the scholar’s delight in coming into the presence of number within the mystery of words. A scholar of prosody himself, his conversation draws fluently on an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. And, in an insistent but natural way, his discussions of a poem’s meaning always return to the poem itself as the final cause of its making: syllable-counting is not a mere instrumental activity, because poems are ultimately about themselves. Whatever their complexity, quantitative or otherwise, they are the meaning they express.

During this same period, his poems, most notably his tightly packed, colloquial, chatty, even slangy, sonnets, have been appearing in journals associated with the new formalism or the West Chester Poetry Conference, and in other venues closer to home, on the western slope of the Rockies. Those already familiar with his work were unsurprised when Rothman was appointed the founding director of the first graduate creative writing program with a specific focus on versecraft. And those who know his history as an alpine skier (about which he has just published a memoir) will understand why such a program had to be begun at Western State Colorado University—as it was, in 2009.

Enthusiasm, the mountain West, and poetry also converge in a further interest of Rothman’s, the almost quintessentially anti-prosodic poet Robinson Jeffers, of whose literary association Rothman is president. These two strains of Rothman’s interests merit attention, I think. They help explain several of the curious features that make, and sometimes mar, these two new collections, the first by Rothman to appear from a publisher besides his own small Conundrum Press. And the reader may rightly require explanation; for, despite consistent thematic obsessions and certain familiar ticks in his style and voice, Rothman has produced two striking and strikingly different books.

The Book of Catapults and Part of the Darkness not only appear in the same year, but include poems that, so far as I can determine, were being published concurrently in various magazines and journals. We do not have an instance of an older, long-delayed collection and one more recent, but a division of Rothman’s work into two separate but frequently overlapping thematic and formal loci. I would like to define those two poetic places individually before making an assessment of the whole that emerges from them.

Rothman’s Catapults is a book of visions in three canticles, each one beginning with an epigraph from Dante’s Commedia. Nearly every poem in the volume manifests or at least echoes iambic meter, as for instance does the first tetrameter line of the opening poem, “Breaking the Jug”: “I held the jug in my right hand.” And as does, “Not My Leg,” which goes through the poet’s anatomy in an effort to bargain with God over what parts he could or could not bear to lose. In the third stanza, he pleads,

Not my eyes,
Dear God, not my eyes.
Don’t poke them out,
So I grope about
Like Homer, Milton, Joyce.
If you have to be blind
To have such a voice,
I find
I want my eyes.

Again, nearly every poem at least echoes iambic meter and some, as is the case with this one, constellate into measured and rhymed stanzas. But measured form is not the most obvious feature of the poems. Most lines of “Jug” resolve into five or six stresses, but the lines consistently overflow with anapestic substitutions or are truncated into shorter, punctuated lines. “Not My Leg” looks as if it will be composed entirely in dimeter stanzas, until, in the fourth, Rothman intones, “Not the urethra, not the anus, / The avenues that meekly drain us.” It is as if a squeamish Ogden Nash has suddenly decided to grow into A.E. Houseman with a dirty mouth. In this collection, nearly every form overflows; Rothman establishes meters or other patterns early in his poems only to have them come unbuckled, unraveled, unfurled by the end. The enthusiast of prosody would seem, on each occasion, to find the enthusiast in him overwhelming the prosodist.

Is this a criticism? The book as a whole gives us reason to say otherwise. For, as I say, Catapults is a book about vision, not about seeing or jealously guarding one’s physical sight, but about poetic vision. In poems such as “Theories of Decay: A Translation,” “The Year of Wind,” and “The Owl and the Nightingale,” we find echoes of the homey and deflated surrealism of James Tate. Everywhere else, we find visionary image or metaphor after metaphor, phrase layered upon phrase, that seems constantly to be reaching after a purely poetic, by which I mean in this case, a purely figurative vision. Rothman emerges at times as a poet of duende, that hallucinatory and inconstant vision of soul associated with Latin American poets such as Garcia Lorca. Rothman himself helps us on the way to this comparison in “News from Granada,” which is dedicated to Lorca:

You will lie alone, darkness
Surrounding you, on your back,
And realize it is not light
You desire, or Spain, that place
Created by foreigners
To satisfy a style’s need.
You will dream or remember
Blood, phantasmagoric guns,
The forms of endless travel
Over stony road, blind seas.

Even here we find an accentual trimester guiding the poem, but also giving way as detail accumulates over detail, drawing us ever farther not only from a measured form but from the literal into the oceanic depths of the phantasmagoric imagination.

As David Yezzi argued back in 2006, the legacy of Continental surrealism and Latin American duende, at least in the American context, has generally been a poetry that reduces the poet to a maker of metaphors wherein the vehicle has become entirely unloosed from the tenor. “Unrealist verse,” as Yezzi called it, impoverishes both the function of the poet and the quality of poetry, by robbing metaphor of meaning, vision of implication, and language itself of anything but the most flaccid and tenuous signification. Rothman’s poetry does not fall into the vices of this lamentable period style. Rather, with a passion akin to Jeffers, he begins from intriguing narrative and lyric moments before working into the lather of dream.

Sometimes the result of this ecstatic movement into the visionary seems on the verge of overcoming even the hallucinatory free-play typical of poetry touched by the Latin duende tradition. It then enters into a more sustained and provocative mystery. That is surely the case with the ingenious Abecedarian poem, “Building an Alphabet,” which includes such letter-reflections as

God is the letter
That is not a letter.
Do not be afraid.

And

The Letter of the Law is the Law of Letters.
Love, a kind of Law,
Is not the Letter of the Law.
Love is the Letter of the Letters.

Rothman opens up abysses within the finite in a way that reminds one of the rabbinic hermeneutics of Jewish tradition. He suggests this consonance, when he writes,

Explanation is the wife
Of these letters,
Which cannot be explained.

The poem’s form is driven by the ordo of letters rather than the metrum of verse, but then, at the end, as with most of the poems in this collection, it sprawls out and violates the form:

At last I have built an alphabet.
Little pieces of the world flash from its eyes.
What wonderful words I will write
With these magical letters!

The stanza runs on from there. If Rothman violated his forms somewhere in the middle of his poems, it would seem like a purposive and helpful variation, but because so often the chief variations come at the end of the poems, it seems like an unwinding. At times, it seems like a falling apart, as is the case in “Not My Leg” and also in “Something Goes Wrong,” which begins as a witty poem whose form serves as a tight container to give us a vision of interminable disasters:

Something is always going wrong—
A twist, a turn, a day, a song.
No matter how wise you are, or strong,
The doorknob break, you don’t belong,
You and your love don’t get along,
You are Fay Wray, life is King Kong.
Something is always going wrong.

After three more dark and smartly clamped stanzas, an envoy follows on the page, but not by way of any organic necessity. It is metered and rhymed, but is in a different meter and marks a total syntactic departure: “So, doctor, drink with me, come drink with me” and so on. “Birdsong and the Old Night” begins in loosely metered cross-rhymed quatrains, but in the last quatrain all formal resonance goes “flickering out.”

The looser form of “The Shape of Water Most Like Love” compares favorably with this. The poem is guided by the visionary inquiry suggested by the title and, after reviewing rain, ocean, ice, lakes, comets, and other shapes of water, Rothman crescendos with

And you, who are mostly water,
In your unrelenting solitude coupled with movement,
Although you might do anything,
Still resemble a spring
More than you resemble a comet, or a drop of rain,
Or an ocean, or an immense distant river of ice.

In such a condign, if not revelatory, conclusion we witness the duende tradition in poetry maintaining its ties with the life out of which it springs. So also do we in the volume’s final poem, “What Must be Done Again Today,” which hints again of vision as a kind of gnostic or rabbinical hermeneutic of reality with its vocative

So come, my dear dead rabbis, stand and pause.
Remember us as your beards curl in patterns
Of complex sleep on disputation’s pillow.
Arise from the wreckage of the past, return.

Here and throughout the volume, Rothman seems to be exploring by way of form and vision the possibility of happiness, the pleasures of honest drinking and sincere song, and the self-extension of romantic love in a life habitually disposed to skepticism if not cynicism. As we shall see, this thematic quest recurs in Darkness, but the distinctive feature of Catapults is the way in which form so often gets swamped by an enthusiastic accumulation of words and syllable.

I would not fixate on this tendency of duende to overwhelm form and undermine it, were it not for Rothman’s frequently compelling suggestion in these poems that it is indeed in the poem as a form that the work of art comes to rest. It is true that some poems celebrate enthusiasm and vision explicitly at the expense of the poem as actualized form. “Admire Sandburg” does, with its lakeshore length lines and final exclaimed imperative. But, a few pages earlier, that aboriginal yawper of democracy, Whitman, is praised in a sonnet (“New York”), and a consistent suggestion in Rothman’s poems is that, whatever the exciting reality of life and the most intense of experiences, they find their subsistent, their permanent form, in the lines of a poem. The sonnet contains and so preserves the Whitman who has long since otherwise disintegrated into the soil beneath his leaves of grass.

“The Avocado” begins as a short sketch in blank verse intended to recall vividly an unrepeatable moment of marital love: “I pulled my shirt and lay down on my back . . . She laughed, / She brought cool chunks of juicy avocado.” He recalls it precisely because it was a moment “we two became so utterly / Alive via that wet, green avocado.” But recollection by itself is lost; the poem’s form makes the memory permanent and, in the process, the poem comes to be about its way of retaining what otherwise will be lost:

And let me tell you, that look and those words
Have stayed, while darkness, enemy of things,
Has swallowed so much else, as it will one
Day swallow . . .

. . . though when it does, one thing the dark
Will leave behind, indigestible
Like a diamond or a rubber boot,
For years, because I have inscribed it here . . .

What lasts is measured language; experience ultimately dissolves so that it can be re-formed in an alphabet that has something of the eternity and mystery of God. My criticism has been that Rothman’s poetry seems to accept this claim, but then lets that act of re-forming be overpowered by an excess and enthusiasm that sometimes makes a line too long and sometimes makes an entire poem too long without its becoming any more precise and indelible.

Sometimes, he manages to make the conflict between formless vision and poetic measure enter into tense and intense partnership. In “Joe,” “The Death of the Chair,” “It is Spring” (with its fine echo of Bishop: “Birds, beasts, and flowers open their mouths to sing. / Plural, plural, plural!”), and “Jacob Asleep,” formal discipline seems to make possible a kind of vision an overwrought enthusiasm cannot. In “The Unicorn” the fantastic is rendered vivid through a terse stanza in which rhyme and meter serve to critique and explore the visionary. It begins,

The sentence, “Unicorns do not
Walk, gallop, canter, run, or trot,”
Is true, because their soft hooves press
On nothing more than emptiness.
The unicorn does not exist.

A couple stanzas down, he drolly observes, “Even words have greater force / Than this vain, blank, unreal non-horse.” The three (or four) adjectives in the second line seem to fill out the form with a redundant excess to superb effect: we revel in the piling on of statements of the unicorn’s non-existence as we do in waiting to hear how Rothman will finally pull off his rhyme. “The Next Poem I Will Read Is ‘Justified’” brilliantly suggests that it is just this power of poetry to give permanent form to the evanescent that makes it a suitable medium for the exploration the nature of self-giving. By attending to the poem as form, we may ultimately find a new and indirect path into the reality of moral truths. But, the poem’s blank verse suggests, that path is “indirect” precisely because our consciousness must be focused on the poem-as-poem.

If there were any suspicion of Rothman’s poetic excess in Catapults as being a mere sign of incompetence and bad taste rather than of one possible, if often unsuccessful, attempt to give poetic vision a suitable form, then Part of the Darkness puts it to rest. This substantial book (of whose contents surprisingly little has appeared in magazines) is composed almost entirely in sonnets—Petrarchan and Shakespearean—, villanelles, a couple instances of terza rima, along with a handful of nonce forms, most of which look like sonnets that have slightly overshot or undershot the mark. These latter, in contrast with the excesses of Catapults, add variety and counterpoint to the collection, giving Rothman’s voice added texture or range, rather than interrupting it like a cough.

The book begins,

Older, wiser, more knowing and now sad,
Let us marvel at confidence and joy,
Marvel at the long-extinguished boy
Who woke each day and all at once was glad.
Where is he now? Why are some nights so bad?
How did time earn the power to destroy?
Who hauled the awful horse up into Troy?
For now his smoldering mid-life world’s gone mad:

Here is a poet in full possession of his powers. In a suave Petrarchan octave, he assumes a public voice that moves limpidly between the fleeting position of the personal to the enduring classical form of that consummate story of historical devastation’s path to rebirth in the eternal city of poetic form, Virgil’s Aeneid. The sestet pursues the analogy: this whole book will be a journey through the kingdoms of experience, even through the underworld of the self, toward some kind of hard-earned but real resurrection:

There’s sorrow here and more hard times ahead.
Silent, he watches the city go up in flames.

The reader will note in this poem Rothman’s tendency to put a heavy stress at the start of his lines and the unfortunate slackening of the meter in the last—just when it should be most taut, perhaps. Here, the leading stress (with one exception) resolves into a trochee, but more typically Rothman simply writes in a headless iambic pentameter that conveys a colloquial, chatty voice: a woman is “Lovely in that Maxfield Parrish dress” and he addresses her: “But,” I said, and she said “Let’s not fight.” In “Arrival,” “I was lost in thought when he arrived / Through that picture window like a star.” This is how the visionary enthusiasm and excessive lines of Catapults has found a place for itself in these masterfully controlled sonnets. The almost trochaic or headless meter gives many of these poems the ring of a short anecdote suddenly and tensely bursting forth.
This effect is also caused by Rothman’s tendency to fill out his lines with multiple short periods. Most people do not speak in complete sentences, but in fragments, and so his narrators do as well. Only slightly less frequently, his sonnets will comprise a dialogue between two persons with sudden interruptions that replicates well the typical exchanges of casual or tense conversation. In “This Bright Edge,” the poet is confronted by a rather abusive guardian angel:

“No problem!” She raised her radiant hand and struck
Me smack down back down in the frozen mud.
Oh wonderful, great, this is just my luck,
My own guardian angel out for blood.

The sonnet in its classical conventions tended to cleave syntax closely to verse form, with the periods concluding at the end of lines, and usually each of the first two quatrains constituting a single, distinct statement, while the final six lines would comprise a turn toward one longer reflection. In the English sonnet tradition, the rhyme scheme normally guides the syntax to make a less dramatic initial shift after the first eight lines, but then to conclude with a grammatically independent couplet that, in understanding or viewpoint, stands apart from and turns back upon the rest of the poem. Since Milton first let a single sentence trespass from octave into sestet, this conventional synthesis of meter and grammar has enjoyed all kinds of innovations and violations. And since Howard Nemerov’s “The Daily Round,” poets have treated the conventional demarcations of the sonnet primarily as sources of irony and meaning by way of violating them.

Rothman is typical of contemporary poets in this, but especially in his use of the short phrase as a means of preventing the form of the sonnet from becoming entirely audible. One used to be surprised by a single sentence that exceeded the four lines of a quatrain; with Rothman one is not surprised to find four phrases rounding out a single pentameter line. In the typical Rothman sonnet, we halt so frequently in the middle of lines that we are pleasantly surprised when the conversational voice suddenly delivers a resonant—usually witty—rhyme.

“The Question” is exemplary in this regard. “Doc,” I said, “it’s so confusing now. / My life . . . my family . . . I can’t make sense . . .” We halt like this continually for twelve lines: “Took deep breath. / No good. Began to cry.” But then, grammar snaps-to and the final couple runs, “X-rays in hand, puzzled, he said “I see. / But aren’t you here to talk about your knee?” This is the kind of skillfulness that keeps an ear grown used to, and suspicious of, the sonnet interested. For the reasons I have mentioned, Rothman’s poems attract one with their capacity to simulate the rapid, alternately halting and breathless, pace of real monologue and dialogue. On balance, though, it must be said that this is a pretty uniform feature of the poems. They render vivid voices that are familiar but compelling—but this richness of particular strains of the auditory imagination is seldom complemented by either a rising to a more mellifluous and formal register or an imagination that is visionary in the more basic sense of formulating in words striking sensory images. And so, for all the virtues of his poetic voice, Rothman’s sonnets do suffer some limitations not intrinsic to their form.

How striking though to see that the poet of excess who wrote Catapults has found strategies to discipline enthusiasm with form, sometimes exacting forms. Two pairs of sonnets, “When the Wind and Dark Waves Come” and “What You Carry” test the limit of how few words one can change from one sonnet to the next while achieving a remarkable variation in tone and meaning. So, also, he excels at sonnets formed as lists (a contemporary convention that funnels light verse into the traditionally serious container of the sonnet), as in “Your Name Here”:

Can you please tell me what this is about?
I didn’t realize that it was so late.
You know I really want to help you out.
The other guy quoted a lower rate.

So, on the next page, we find, “In Your Dreams”:

You’ve missed the boat. The train has left the station.
The machine is blinking, too bad you weren’t here.
I’ll pass your message on—he’s on vacation.
The kitchen’s closed. Sorry, we’re out of beer.

In these listing poems, the halting rhythms clip the sonnet’s lyrical wings, but the stichomythic periods add point to the rhymes. Their finality formally reinforces a central theme in the volume as a whole: the hard landing of youthful idealism into total unbelief, cynicism, and finally a therapeutic stoicism that finds a certain wisdom in balancing love with disillusion.

“Too bad I don’t believe in anything,” Rothman complains in “Too Bad.” Life merely offers us events, not sense, and “Even matter doesn’t matter.” How, the volume as a whole asks, can we make real kissing possible for cynics? One answer comes in “Lower Your Expectations,” which admonishes,

Regard the weatherman with skepticism.
Remember money is, for many, God.
Think of your family as a shattered prism
At best, at worst a clumsy firing squad.

Education would seem to be no pilgrimage to “truth and beauty” (“Too Bad” again), but training in the detection of hucksters and anticipation of heading from bad to worse. This answer gets repeated in a number of poems, with the additional proviso that one had better throw one’s heart into life anyway. So it is in the villanelle, “Get Tough,” which waxes ski bum to advise us

Let’s stoke our days so full no fact can snuff
A single quark out of beatitude.
I’m sick of people dying. I’ve had enough.

Crucially, the other repeating line in the poem is “And I say let’s live large. Go big. Get tough.” These poems impress because they are attuned to the limitations of life that are akin to the limitations of a fixed form; Rothman shows us that fixed forms are not artificial but are precisely the concentrated analogue for the fix we are all in.

But, as in the poem just cited, this frequently settles into a therapeutic stoicism that is hard to countenance as the final word. If one can count, one has already one instrument for outlining the rational architecture of reality. If one has rhyme and meter one has another. The truth and beauty of these things is in no way the sales pitch of a charlatan but the ready entrance of reason into being, fact into significance. So, one is gratified to see Rothman’s forms at their most complex push beyond cynicism as truth and love as a saving therapeutic lie, as they do in “What You Carry,” where one sonnet ends, “But the love we make, / Though it embolden grief, grief cannot take.” And the next, “Make love, and the love you make, / Though it will come to grief, grief cannot take.” A later reflection in free verse on Anne Frank’s statement that she still believes “people are really good at heart” just before the Nazis come to send her and her family off to the death camps, similarly challenges the stoic discipline of these poems to enter into one that is ungrounded not by visionary excess but faith: “But let this not be a prayer. Let it be a promise / To ponder what you wrote.”
Many of the poems that conclude the volume show a similar depth, especially the wonderful sonnets on fatherhood, depicting Rothman’s son Noah (recall that his other son appears in a fine poem in Catapults). The most intriguing of this bunch is where the father’s sense of poetry as the permanent locus of evanescent experience gets emulated, after a fashion, by his young son:

Noah is making letters. Well, one letter.
Out of chaos everything has changed.
Before, there wasn’t any worse or better,
Just incoherent scribbles he arranged,
And when we asked he’d tell us “that’s a cat!”

This is well observed, giving us quotidian narrative detail to complement the ever-present colloquial speech rhythms, but it also touches on a central concern that emerges in both these volumes. As I contended at the outset, a poetry of pure duende would be one of pure vision, pure metaphor, and would always be at risk of becoming anything and nothing, an exultation in meaninglessness. In Catapults, Rothman tries to maintain as much of poetry as ecstatic vision as possible, while allowing it to enter into often compelling and witty forms. More often than not, enthusiasm breaks loose at the end and undoes the poem.

In Darkness, though there is a small number of poems with slack endings, Rothman’s prosodic mastery holds everything in place. The result is, on the surface, a less dangerous and ambitious poetry, but one that more readily rewards its reader with taut surfaces, an intricate weaving of speech rhythm into the pleasures of meter and well-turned rhyme, and finally a constrained but admirably straining moral vision. When Rothman directs his talent to the epic vision, the rhyming satire, and the persistent reality of love even in a life inclined to cynicism, a formal and thematic intensity occurs that makes him one of our best sonneteers and most intriguing new poets.

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James Matthew Wilson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His poems, essays, and reviews appear regularly in a wide range of books and journals, including, most recently, The Dark Horse, Pleiades, and Modern Age.

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