Disching It Out

About the Size of It by Tom Disch. Anvil Press Poetry Ltd, 2007.

As Reviewed By: Dan Brown

Tom 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.

[private]Sometimes 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 set free.

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.

Boyish 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

With Muqbar-ibn-Wallah-Quaid-i-Azim?-

Becoming in that instant of misapprehension

Not even he or she, for Urdu has transcended

Gender, but only someone here now and gone

Tomorrow, which in Urdu is the same as yesterday [. . .]

Lehman’s 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.”

As 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 “Coming To”:

‘Actually,’ said the mountain, ‘what we are

mostly interested in

talking about

is old movies. The drive-ins

have made an enormous difference up here.

Have you seen Beau Geste?’

Another 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,
‘a [drive-in] movie instantly becomes part of the landscape.

That’s a theme that has yet to find its Manet,

much less its Michelangelo.’

This 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.

The 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.

Timor mortis conturbat me.

Note 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 power.)

Given 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 he loses)

[. . .] 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;

Item, this poem for what it’s worth [. . .]

The 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.[/private]

About Daniel Brown

Daniel Brown's poems have appeared in Poetry, Partisan Review, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, The New Criterion, and other journals. He won the New Criterion Poetry Prize for his collection Taking the Occasion (2008), and has also received a Pushcart Prize. His work has been anthologized in Poetry 180, edited by Billy Collins, and the just-published Swallow Anthology of New American Poets, edited by David Yezzi. He holds a masters degree in musicology from Cornell University and has taught music history and theory at Cornell and Dartmouth College.
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