(An Occasional Series: Part One)
Poems reviewed in this article:
- “From a Window” by Christian Wiman, from the Atlantic (July/August 2008). Reprinted with permission of the author.
- “Gesundheit” by Robyn Sarah, from Maisonneuve (Summer 2008). “Gesundheit” is in Sarah’s forthcoming collection Pause for Breath (Biblioasis, 2009), and reprinted with permission of the publisher.
- “Infomercial 2,” by John Ashbery; “When the Fog,” by August Kleinzahler; and “The Polling Place” by Joshua Mehigan, from the New York Times Online (November 4, 2008).
- “Forty Acres,” by Derek Walcott, from the Times Online (November 5, 2008).
- “Selected Monsters,” by Steven Heighton, from the London Review of Books (July 3, 2008). Reprinted with permission of the author.
Recently, I asked the American poet Samuel Menashe what he was reading—a simple enough question, I thought. If you’re familiar with Mr. Menashe’s concise poems—poems that usually occupy no more than a few lines, masterful poems that have been, quite literally, honed to within an inch of their lives—then you already know they’re unlike any other show in town, and you’ve probably wondered, like me, what the author of such ascetic, exacting poetry reads for his pleasure. But Mr. Menashe has little interest in discussing what’s on his bookshelf. In the past, he would even throw a sheet over that shelf to discourage visitors from inspecting his books’ spines. He’s certainly not a voracious consumer of recent volumes of poetry. (That telling word of mine, “consumer,” would not have occurred to Mr. Menashe.) When I pressed him on his recent reading, however, he eventually conceded a “wonderful” poem he’d come across in one of the bigger East Coast magazines. Thinking I would look up the poem, I asked him if he remembered the title. “No, no,” he said. “But the point is it was one poem. One poem can nourish me.”
It’s a simple point but one worth reaffirming nowadays, when the perfection of the individual poem has largely been abandoned in pursuit of the book-length collection. One good poem is often more than enough (even, oddly enough, when we can’t recall much about the poem itself; but more on that, below).
This new column, “The Hard to Get Rid of,” will appear in the Contemporary Poetry Review on a semi-regular basis, and will make it a point of reviewing only poems that have been recently published in magazines, though not just those of the East Coast—“semi-regular” because, as Mr. Menashe demonstrates, one shouldn’t feel compelled to talk about poems if one has nothing to say; and “only poems” because the individual poem almost never gets the attention that’s reserved for its larger (and usually more dysfunctional) family, the book-length collection, an inevitably uneven affair. We turn to poems, not collections; we clip them, recall them, and, if they prove to be keepers, inflict them on others. Shouldn’t we also review them, without any obligation to the duller siblings with which they’ll eventually have to share space?
Nearly a decade ago, in the late-1990s, I stumbled upon an anthologized poem—which I would’ve, at the time, called a keeper—about some leaves turning in the wind. The thing is, though, the keeper didn’t keep; for years, I couldn’t recall the poem’s title, author, or even much about the poem itself (the anthology had fallen into the hands of an ex, and I couldn’t conjure its title for the life me). Hopeless, to be sure, I retained just one doozy of a detail but one that nourished me for a time: a simile which described some leaves “turning all at once / like a school of fish.” It only recently occurred to me to submit the simile to one of our better oracles, Google, and of course the search engine spat back, in all of 0.28 seconds, the poem it had taken me years to forget: “The Suitor,” by Jane Kenyon. But my memory, it turns out, had been reliable enough; it had remembered the best bit of Kenyon’s poem while discarding the rest, which didn’t stand up to a second reading. And anyway, I’m pretty sure I’d known, on first reading “The Suitor,” that I would never again encounter a better description of a loose cadre of leaves, changing its mind. Kenyon had succeeded in taking the image of turning leaves off the table for good. How could one better that school of fish?
I’m already having trouble remembering the title of Christian Wiman’s recent poem, “From a Window,” which I’ve been calling (when recalling it to others) “That Marvellous Christian Wiman Poem that Was in the Atlantic Last Summer.” Wiman’s far less awkward title will do, but it gives no clue as to the keeper it fronts, a poem that gets down on paper a visual event we’ve all witnessed—gets it down and, more importantly, gets it right:
From a Window
Incurable and unbelieving
In any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
As if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
To the pane as I could get
To watch that fitful, fluent spirit
That seemed a single being undefined
Or countless beings of one mind
Haul its strange cohesion
Beyond the limits of my vision
Over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
Exactly as it had and would
(But why should it seem fuller now?)
And though a man’s mind might endow
Even a tree with some excess
Of life to which a man seems witness,
That life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
Much is made of the poet’s ability to bear a special kind of witness to history. But much of the work that trades under the fashionable label “poetry of witness” is little more than second-rate journalism in the form of free verse. And anyway, it’s easy to play Associated Press and report a ribbon-cutting, the results of an election, the red-letter. It’s not so easy to identify, as Wiman has, an everyday event we’ve all witnessed and yet taken for granted, an event for which we’ve never found words—an event for which we’ve never thought to find words. Birds leaving a tree’s limbs en masse, for example, and maintaining a tracing of the tree for a few moments. Anyone can witness the obviously extraordinary—a shoe lobbed at a president, say. Anyone can fit it with some prose, upload it to some satellite, file it. Poets are those people who think enough of the seemingly mundane to find for it a language that, like a live current, will jolt it (and us) to attention.
A painstaking poet, Wiman satisfies a rhyme scheme, a loose iambic tetrameter, and some alliteration, but it’s his counterintuitive imagery—
I saw a tree inside a tree
As if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
—that should be remembered long after the title of the poem, or even Wiman’s handle, is forgotten. This is the original poetry of witness, and if you want more of it, Wiman’s are the sort of lean, respectful collections that ensure the company their individual poems keep is up to snuff. Wiman’s poem may even, to borrow Frost’s words, lodge itself where it will be hard to get rid of. It may even lodge itself in memories as faulty as mine. After all, unlike “The Suitor,” “From a Window” is, line by line, fully realized. At the very least, a model poet has taken an image—birds taking flight—off the table for the foreseeable future. How could one better it?
Montreal’s Robyn Sarah also presents an exemplary model for the painstaking poet. Like Wiman, Sarah publishes little but what she does publish tends to be fully realized (which means you get the feeling, reading her words, that she can account for the choice that led to every one of them) and necessary (her poems stopper a gap, a need). In retrospect, it was necessary for Wiman to draw our attention to that flock of birds, wasn’t it?, and in “Gesundheit,” published in Maisonneuve, last summer, Sarah draws our attention to the banal business of sneezing, perhaps as no other poet has:
Orgasm of the nose
builds to hairtrigger pitch
and sweet release.
Echoes itself, betimes.
Atchoo . . . aaaatchoo! (it rhymes),
or comes in multiple,
whole strings of sneeze.
Sneeze ladylike, in a hanky.
Sneeze workmanlike, in a grab
of the grubby shirt.
Or (caught unawares)
sneeze a grand unprotected sneeze
in open air.
Some with a toothpick or a twist
of tissue, tease a sneeze,
a private trick to clear the sinuses.
A sneeze rattles the face.
Loosens the mucus.
Paves the way for the trumpeting
honk and blow—
A pepper sneeze, a pollen sneeze,
a feather sneeze, all alike
pledge to untickle in a rush,
give leave to raise
a just-a-minute finger
before succumbing to the flush—
a microsecond’s uncontrol,
a dispensation to go blotto
going where it takes us,
making the noisy noise
it makes us make.
A sneeze bobs the head.
Single or double bob,
or strings of pigeon bob,
brings blessings down on it.
That “grab / of the grubby shirt” is a delight as is the extraordinary, sonically intricate last verse paragraph, whose repetitions and internal rhymes bear the reader irresistibly along as if she, too, were committed to a sneeze from which she couldn’t pull out, a launch sequence that’s “brakeless, / making the noisy noise / it makes us make.” Unlike Wiman’s poem, though, which carefully rolls out an argument, Sarah’s poem is all perception, choosing to approach its subject from multiple angles. In the process, “Gesundheit” catalogues more sneezes than we knew existed, like an ambitious, unblinking anthropologist let loose among previously undocumented behaviors. The result is a showy, shameless, but, finally, wonderful splurging of real talent.
Still, those more topical public events need their witnesses, too, and on November 4, 2008, the New York Times Op-Ed editors asked five poets—John Ashbery, August Kleinzahler, Joshua Mehigan, Mary Jo Bang, and J.D. McClatchy—to consider what might be left to say about this year’s election. With pundits as thoughtful as CNN’s David Gergen (a good reason to have tuned in to Anderson Cooper this past fall) and as downright bulldoggish as James Carville a click away, I wondered what poets, even the big ones like Ashbery, could hope to add to an already crisp and lively national discussion about the future of US policy and politics. Nevertheless, I clicked on the link to Ashbery’s opinion, only to be directed to, of all things, a poem. This was kind of annoying. One who is navigating the New York Times Online is not necessarily in the mood to read a poem (especially a poem with the predictably cynical title “Infomercial 2”). Further, one doesn’t ask Charles Barclay to articulate an opinion in the form of dribbling, or Brad Pitt to discuss his charity work in dramatic monologue. Why can’t a poet weigh in on current events without having to versify?
Of course, I read the poem, which, if you’re familiar with Ashbery’s playfully indeterminate voice, sounds a lot like Ashbery’s playfully indeterminate voice if it was asked by Op-Ed editors to comment on the electoral process. Which means you get some meandering, followed by a vague allusion to a horse being stolen. (You’re online, Google it.) Kleinzahler’s piece, “When the Fog,” also offers little more than schtick:
When the fog burnt off this morning
Outsize JumboTron screens were hanging off the clouds,
Scores of them, huge, acres and acres of screen,
Pixels the size of wagon wheels, damaged, flickering
Off and on, red, blue and green;
Faces, flags, county fairs—like pointillist cartoons,
Melting away, reconstituting,
A continuously mutating liquid crystal montage:
The old warrior’s frozen grin,
The popped, saffron Star Trek collar,
Kawasaki 704 eyeglasses,
Disembodied, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile,
And there, the golden one, the adored, in silhouette,
Drinking it in behind bulletproof glass;
Crowds, crowds in hats, t-shirts, delirious,
With drumsticks and banners—
Us whom we’ve been waiting for,
All of it smearing into vibrating puddles of color,
Then dissolving, like jet exhaust, into the air.
While outside the streets were empty.
Who is to say where everyone has gone?
Only the occasional sound truck, its barked entreaties
Too garbled to make out.
Two scrub jays making a racket in the honey locust.
Sky darkening as weather gathers off the coast.
Quiet as an abandoned summer playhouse.
“When the Fog” presents the prepackaged perceptions of an otherwise great poet on autopilot. It buzzes the sort of urban, pixellated landscape Kleinzahler’s poetry often buzzes—a landscape scored by trucks, a racket of jays, and a sobering, post-election day silence. (By the end, I was half expecting some jazz musician, a mainstay in Kleinzahler’s work, to step in and scribble a solo over the scene.) But surely the cynical allusion to “the golden one, the adored, in silhouette, / Drinking it in behind bulletproof glass” would have been a bummer to read on a day as historic as 11/4/08, whether you voted for the winner or not.
Only Joshua Mehigan seemed to take the Op-Ed assignment seriously enough to file some fun, durable lines worth passing the time with:
The Polling Place
Same place as four years ago. The people arrive
tired by daytime. Nighttime is ten after five.
The flag is lit, and the sculpture of who knows who.
Here’s the fire door, wedged open with Voting and You.
From inside, a floor-wax smell. Shy people come after.
I walk past them into bright light and social laughter.
This could be Bingo. It could be a twelve-step meeting.
It could be a bake sale. I could be home eating.
The bathroom is closed to all but volunteers.
Democracy is slow. It can take many years.
Somebody’s take-out cancels the floor-wax smell.
I could be eating and doing laundry as well.
Suppose the will of the people was as heavy
as our bag of laundry out in the back of the Chevy.
Measured on that scale the will of the person counts
a fraction of a fraction of an ounce,
and if that’s correct my will is not very strong.
Still, if the right one wins I was right all along.
The bathroom is closed to all but the volunteers.
Three tons of dirty laundry is made in four years.
Today my will is the weight of a grain of salt.
But then if the wrong one wins it’s not my fault.
“The Polling Place” might not be a classic – look, few poems are – but it’s pretty good, hinging on a fine turn, a reminder that the most effective topical poems rely on a slightly light verse, meaning they have designs on us, on reaching and entertaining an actual readership.
A more solemn—and less enjoyable—poetry appeared in the Times Online, the next day, and will likely continue to appear for some time, I suspect, in the sort of anthologies that observe, like, a theme. You’ve probably already read Derek Walcott’s Obama poem, but if you haven’t it, it goes like this:
Forty Acres: a poem for Barack Obama from Nobel winner Derek Walcott
Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving—
a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,
an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,
parting for their president: a field of snow-flecked
forty acres wide, of crows with predictable omens
that the young ploughman ignores for his unforgotten
cotton-haired ancestors, while lined on one branch is
court of bespectacled owls and, on the field’s
a gesticulating scarecrow stamping with rage at him.
The small plough continues on this lined page
beyond the moaning ground, the lynching tree, the tornado’s
and the young ploughman feels the change in his veins,
heart, muscles, tendons,
till the land lies open like a flag as dawn’s sure
light streaks the field and furrows wait for the sower.
The subtitle says it all. There will be many poems written about Obama, but “Forty Acres” comes canon-ready, even if it is a little sickly, a victim of Stockholm Syndrome (see below). There’s something telling, too, about that label “Nobel winner,” an unintentional reminder that your average Joe the Plumber—or even Times reader—needs a nudge if he’s to remember that Walcott is, in fact, one of our most acclaimed living poets. Which is not to judge our Joe the Plumbers so much as the newspaper editors who seem to think Joe ought to read something good for him. As Frank O’Hara reminds us, “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them.” And as Kleinzahler himself insists, “Poetry not only isn’t good for you, bad poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas and, in extreme instances, pancreatic cancer, in laboratory experiments.”
Nevertheless, Walcott’s bad poetry, “Forty Acres,” will be printed (or clipped) by many who will have felt they’ve done something good for themselves. But that image “dawn’s sure / light” is a touch sentimental, if not cliché, and “furrows,” in this sort of poetry, are always being inseminated by some “sower,” aren’t they? There certainly ought to be a statute against poets, especially Nobel winners, likening ploughs and other farming implements to pens working their page. (How come no one ever compares an open field to a Word document? You can do far more with a single Word.doc than an entire ream of the real stuff.) Also, Walcott’s zany supporting cast—the “court of bespectacled owls” and the “gesticulating scarecrow”—belong in Oz, not the Times. And one hopes it was the Times’ Web editor, and not Walcott, who mangled this poem, resulting in an odd, sic-able lineation. Either way, the questionable formatting suggests that the poem was an afterthought, barely worth a copy edit on the Times’ part or a revision on Walcott’s. “Forty Acres” means to be important, durable, but is, finally, occasional. It should be visited in scrapbooks or those sections at the back of a poet’s collected, to which the minor poems are relegated.
As Walcott’s poem proves, poets need a little distance from the world they witness, and in “Selected Monsters”—published in the July 3rd London Review of Books—Steven Heighton, one of Canada’s best working poets, fits fresh words to some 15th-century spectacle:
for Barbara Gowdy
In Florence, circa 1460, Cosimo de’ Medici enclosed a mixed group of animals in a pen and invited Pope Pius II to attend the spectacle, which was meant to determine which beast was the most ferocious: the lion, the fighting bull, the bloodhound, the gorilla, or perhaps the giraffe—an animal then known in Europe as a Camelopard.
“Holiness, with these monsters in close quarters
we’re sure to have a brawl.” But the new Caesars
lacked some Roman secret—razors
in the stable straw, or a bonus
bout of starvation, glass goads in the anus
or a goon squad of trainers
who knew how to crack a good whip.
So this static, comic crèche—this flop—
a Peaceable Kingdom with cud-chewing bull, ape
absently wanking, lion asleep, bloodhound’s
limbs twitching in some wet dream of a hind’s
stotting fetlocks, and the giraffe, free of wounds,
hunched by the fence, its trembling yellow ass
not enough to coax an assault. Pius
cleared his throat. “The Florence heat, I suppose,”
he yawned. “I’ve seen sportier feats
at a Synod. When’s supper?” Trailing hoots
and loutcalls, the mob drained out at the exits,
the boxseats emptied, the media crews
taxied elsewhere, till finally Cosimo’s
bloodpit was a high-shelved archive of human refuse—
handbills, tickets, peanut shells, all set to motion
by a new wind, as if performing for that pen
of blinking inmates, who remained there . . . still remain
in the blinding empirical lens of the sun
and uranium rainfall, centuries on.
Expect exotic cuts. And excellent wine.”
When one considers the bold claims made for poetry, it’s easy to forget that the stuff should be at least a little entertaining. “Selected Monsters” is wicked fun, as “useless,” from a social standpoint, as the very entertainment it describes—but far more humorous and humane. Clearly, the mind arranging these tercets’ half-rhymes—“Caesars/razors”, “ass/Pius”—is having a grand time. (Perhaps the axiom ought to be “No grand time for the writer, no grand time for the reader?”) The alliteration, too—“bonus” with “bout,” “glass” with “goads”—is as wonderfully over the top as the bit of big top bloodshed which de’ Medici and Heighton have cooked up. Like Sarah’s poem, “Gesundheit,” “Selected Monsters” reminds us that great poetry is greedy. It grasps for ever more resources to use and use up. I love how the word “assault” conceals, and is provoked by, the preceding “ass,” how the “mob drained out at the exits”—a superb, subtle metaphor for the sort of sports mobs Williams warned us about—and how the makeshift arena resembles a “high-shelved archive of human refuse— // handbills, tickets, peanut shells, all set to motion / by a new wind, as if performing for that pen.” Of course, the title, “Selected Monsters,” implies that each monster is a kind of poetic creation. But Heighton’s poem is not listless, not “hunched” or “trembling” like that poor giraffe. It surges forward, a full-bore and very forward-able affair. Which means it’s merely what a poem ought to be.