Saturday, February 16, 2008

besmilr brigham

Every now and then you stumble into a poem that gets it right. I mean the kind of poem that wants to "tell" something and manages to do that with deftness and quickness. The nice irony in Besmilr Brigham’s "Our Sons," from RUN THROUGH ROCK, ed. C.D. Wright (Lost Roads, 2000), is that what she wants to tell us is that maybe the best thing you can do in bringing up boys is teach them to find out things, as she says, "by watching." Don’t tell them anything, she tells us. Ignore, or at least start by ignoring, the old ways and conventions. Sweep the over-riding abstractions out of the way, and just look.

Our Sons

tell them
it is best to start with

not the value of money
or power
or what it is to be a man

let us
find out a few things
by watching

aren’t we
getting tired of reproducing


it is best
to take the uninformed
look at the rock
how firm it stands
yet when the rain
touches its sides
how the hidden colors

it is best we tell our sons nothing

[Blogger’s comment.] Not too many parents have tried this, I believe.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

some thoughts on Garrigue's "Grand Canyon"

The poem that came to typify or best represent Jean Garrigue was one that tried to present essences or states of perception and feeling just beyond the reach of language, almost always of a kind that called for exuberant joy. To try to reach beyond language means, paradoxically, that what we finally hold in our minds is not so much a thing in nature as a construct of language or, as we used to call it, thought. "Grand Canyon," for instance, is not a portrait of that geological marvel. Rather, it is a rapture about being in the world, the occasion for which is experiencing this most unusual example of what she calls "the brute Sublime." That state is oxymoronic, brutal but sublime, as the condition of being is both exhilarating and terrifying. Garrigue makes no allusion to herself in the poem except the simple (and repeated) statement, "I am lonely," a bald utterance which looms larger once we know that she had just been diagnosed in California with cancer. Out there on a short teaching assignment, she nevertheless rushed back home to New York City to ready herself for what little life she had left. The poem, of course, turns immediately away from its bald utterance toward an elaborate, operatic performance of astonished joy.

Taking the switchback trail,
slipping and sliding,
forever slantwise descending
into new confrontations of parapets,
chimneys, mantels, segments of angles,
modelings of rock of slacknesses and accidental tensions
combined with the effects of its weight--
the total effect never total for never can you see it all, not even guess
at mazes of the proliferation...

To take an almost random sample which nevertheless conjures up a Dantesque descent into death.

In discussing "Grand Canyon" in her excellent review of SELECTED POEMS [Parnassus, 18/19 (1993)], Lorrie Goldensohn reminds us that in line 11 Garrigue begins a sentence that doesn’t end till 108 lines later. This is one way to push beyond the representational purposes or boundaries of most language, loading it down with detail, qualification, and repetition to the point where we lose touch of what "point" is being made or even what the subject of the current verb might be. Or, we come to believe that the point is less to make a point than to sustain a rhythm, a feeling, a verbal equivalent of the thing which is brutal in being without consciousness or language and perhaps for that reason also sublime.

This is a strategy in several of Garrigue’s best poems and reminds me of an exercise Marguerite Young used to give her students in fiction, namely, to write a sentence that went on for two or three pages. Jean and Marguerite, of course, were old acquaintances from girlhood days in Indianapolis and roomed together for a while as students at the University of Chicago. Pure coincidence, I realize.