. . . . .
When I think of narrative poetry, I think of poets whose style is intimately bound to the manner in which the "I" of the poem is consciously directing our sight, thereby directing our insight. The action of the speaker, we trust, will direct us through a movement in language that at some point will become inward, orphic, will achieve that satisfying flight into pre-verbal irony--well, what Dickinson says about the pleasure that makes a "body so cold no fire can ever warm" it--and this environment of the poem is bound to the speaker's conscious choices. In other words: A movement of the eyes across the bare world translates into a movement of poetic insight.
Think Robert Frost's "Desert Places" where stanza by stanza we're looking with the speaker, outward at the "night falling fast, oh fast," downward at the blankness of "benighted snow," upward into "empty spaces / between stars--on stars where no human race is", blackward, and finally inward "so much nearer home." This is true in some of the poets I greatly adore, say Dobyns, Gluck, Stern, Ai, Clifton, Doty--in their work there is a voice driving the poem through the physical/historical world, which--by the end of the poem--results in a corresponding intuitive arc.
In Frost is a model that perhaps contemporary poetry hasn't forgotten:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs,
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
. . . . .
I'm trying to articulate this because I want to make a distinction in the poetry of Ralph Angel, whose consciousness in a poem is not one of action at all. In the way that the sensual elements themselves seemed to call forth an imaginitive consciousness in Elizabeth Bishop's work (a poet very much of the Eye, and one whose poems very much direct us), Angel too is summoned by the synesthesia of a few human worlds at once. Consider just the first lines of his new collection:
Whoever has a quiet mind
up on the roof the season turned the bath towels purple.
Quiet is the demolition.
Mind is how we filter and understand the sensual details of being. Mind is what we make of all the sensory information radioed to us from the Quiet. Between Mind and Quiet--that's where we exist. In the noise of body, and commerce, and community, where Angel's work captures incident and emotion. Captures, reflects, antennaes, recieves. These verbs enact Angel. His poems are like filters of experience from the mindside, as it focuses, listens, waits for, messages, tunes in to the mystery of wonder. Think Whitman: "I loafe and invite my soul".
Friends and Strangers, Angel's consciousness is a kind of invitation in the poem, that in the end snags moods. The thing about this guy's work is his exploration of complicated emotions that at times cross themselves out, leaving us with an attention to the mystery of chance and combination: "That / that the future is ashes / and a kiss on the cheek. This cup /of coffee goes down like chocolate. A footbridge / the eye leaves among cliffsides / of steam. // There is no shame / in failure. No lost, / or blue unfurling courtyard." These are poems of things coming together, and failing to collapse into a single clean aphorism. Surprisingly, this makes for very rewarding poetry. A poetry both vulnerable and curious. A poetry of the air, if one is at prayer. Our wonder, answerless, is wonderful.
. . . . .
I'm standing still on 10th Street. I'm not the only one.
. . . . .Buildings rise like foliage and human touch.
And so shall dig this cigarette as my last, and rattle trains, and
. . . . .rot the fences of the gardens of my body--
or without the harmony of speaking here the many sounds
. . . . .and rhythms that sound a lot like anger
when anger's silent, like a painting, though in the stillness of the
. . . . .paint itself the painter nods or waves or asks for help.
I'm not the only one. The pharmacy's untitled. The stars are
. . . . .there at night. In this humidity
the forlorn singing of the insects clings to anything nailed
. . . . .down. A whole bag of things I'm working
through, some set things that I know, like words I know that
. . . . .mean "from one place to another," the word that means
"to carry." I'm standing still on 10th street. I'm not the only
. . . . .one. The dark tastes of salt and oranges. Its eyes
wander round and round. I am its thousand windows. I think
. . . . .about the future and the sea. And stay.
This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
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