Wednesday, December 28, 2005

chorin' round

I think I begin to see the days getting longer. No more than a couple of nanoseconds per day, maybe, but already moving. Christmas came. And went. It was miraculously unfussy once it arrived. I keep reading Proust. Those close to me think I'm trying to impress somebody. Who, I wonder. I'm still amazed--even in translation--at the endless carpet of words that come off the roller, the microscopic examination of everything, beginning (and sometimes ending) with the examination of the examining. All that looking keeps one at a remove or twelve from what the rest of the world might call living. I'm sure I'll disagree with myself in a few days.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

c.d. wright's "rising, falling, hovering"

Ron Silliman suggested a few blogs ago that we gather round C.D. Wright’s poem, "Rising, Falling, Hovering" to see what it was about and to sing its praises. It took me a week or so to get a copy of Chicago Review (Autumn 2005) where it appears, but, having read it three times, I think it an interesting experiment, at least, to try to see a brand new poem as one fully in the cultural bloodstream. Given the usual practice, this is highly–what?–tendentious, but fun. And, as Ron indicates, it might just be deserved.

So, briefly, I see the poem, first, as an anti-war poem, specifically anti-the current Gulf War. It is a feature of the culture that we live in that this anti-war poem is not coming from a soldier, but the mother of a son who, in the worst of all possible worlds, might find himself one day in a uniform shooting and being shot at. More than anti-war, this poem, for me, folds those sentiments into a more generalized, and anguished (the tone is tight and subdued, almost mournful), assessment of "what’s happened to America," much of which has to do with our ingrained racism and imperialism. The title, I feel, is meant to echo The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Lines that stand out in this regard include:

What’s going to become of us Is the beauty used up then

The momentum of lives shifts into the absence of thought
The first task is to recover the true words for being

In the event of our death You will have to roll your own poetry

I am willing to take "the beauty" as a term for what our culture promised and, as she sees it, promises. I put it that way, since having asked if the beauty is used up, she answers her own question by assigning us our "first task." Which is to "recover the true words for being," a fascinating term for a project of many years, if not decades, and of many minds, not just poets.

One of the most killing moments comes with her use of Akhmatova’s famous line, put to her by an old woman outside the huge prison in Leningrad: "Can you describe this?" This move throws that image and state of being, from Stalinist Russia, back at us, as people who are possibly (probably) under a kind of siege like that endured in the Soviet Union. Terrible thoughts to have, but in the current circumstances, certainly warranted.

I would like to mention, in the shadow of this, a review I just read in North Dakota Quarterly (Summer 2005, which just came out) of an anthology of war poems, Old Glory: American War Poems From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terrorism, ed. Robert Hedin. The review is written by James Scully and is one of those writings that I think all of us should read. Scully has much to criticize about the anthology, but he is just as vocal on the state of our poetry and behind it, of course, the state of our national mind. Here’s a fair sample:

"Despite declared political values, most American poets have trained themselves as poets not to see, never mind deal with, the historical, social, and political realities that inform and condition everyone’s existence including their own. The immaturity induced by compartmentalization, the constriction of vision and context, disables the poetry. Having put on blinders, yet faced now with significant social, moral, and spiritual crises, that poetry can only twist its head every which way, trying desperately and too late to make out what is happening all around it. "

Praising Baraka’s "Somebody Blew Up America," which is not included in the anthology, Scully reminds us that Baraka was talking, not about two buildings being blown up, but "civil rights, human rights, constitutional rights in general, habeas corpus, separation of military from police, insulation of criminal law system from that of military law, Geneva Convention, Nuremburg precedent, legal constraints on torture, etc." Parts of the "beauty" that we hope will always belong to America. Ways toward, perhaps, the "true words for being."

Friday, December 16, 2005

Dean Young, Elegy on Toy Piano

Reading another Dean poem ("Rabbit, I Love you"), I'm once again thrown out the window--a great ride. The connection between language and feeling "skids." Feeling is there, usually sadness, but there is a refusal of sadness. This may be because coherence itself is a lie, particularly the kinds of coherence that allow poetic posturing, usually around sadness, as in "I'm a terribly sensitive (read, "sad") person with feelings out to here" (add gesture). "Having feelings allows us to do nothing/ but still feel something is getting done." A comment on poetry? You bet, but also a comment on a culture driven by narcissism. Note, too, that it IS a comment. In the middle of a poem in which a glacier "demurs," an octopus is glad, and Superpoet, even in a dream, fails to "grab the arrow/ about to pierce [his] father's chest." Death of the father: a large occasion for sadness. Further comments on poetry include the ironic use of "poetic" inversions to "elevate" feeling, as in the opening line, "The capacity to feel is good to have." ("Something there is that doesn't love a wall," too.) The poem then goes on to show us what shaky ground feeling is on which to stand. "Feeling--you can have it/ under control them wham-o..." the point being that you can't. Unless, that is, you make it your life's goal to be sure you do have it under control and speak only the partial truths ("the best that has been thought and said," as Arnold said) that makes up most of literature. If, as Yeats said, the poet is not the same person who comes downstairs for breakfast, but some enhanced version thereof, is it any wonder "nobody reads poetry." Dean's poems, among other things, take on the job of dismantling this deceit. Notice I did not say "deconstruct." The book is in many ways an homage to Kenneth Koch, who had similar incentives. Dean's elegy itself--the title poem--pulls the rabbit of happiness straight out of the hat of sadness.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Just to let the world know that I haven't fallen off the end of the pier, let me mention some of the things that have kept me away. A stretch of compulsive poetry writing, one of those "visitations" one dare not get in the way of (or away from), plus reading my usual mass of mixed stuff: more Proust (of course), Lorine Niedecker, Ted Kooser, Dean Young, plus a few mags. None of this has yet jelled into anything, though I am, as always, astonished at what Niedecker was able to strip away from perception and still perceive. More than that, the getting close to the geology and plant/bird life of her place, which makes her work sink down in. And, of course, said he realizing it, this is one of the reasons the human presence in her poetry is, though definitely there, thin. As in, thin as a knife blade. The outlines of a hard life are certainly there, but hardship aside, the hard life turned into the lens through which she could see.