A HYBRID NOTEBOOK OF POETICS AND PORNOGRAPHIES

Pornography Disclaimer

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.

30.6.09

STOLEN SHALLOWS

Solitude and twilight on the late shores. Cold blaze
of the waves' steady visitations. Footstep, hint of moonlight

into the soft dark sand: fist, or halo.
If I leave something white there, if I stand

my body against the night's three darknesses, ocean,
wind, and black calm . . . what

will I call this hour? Of my flesh broken
against the fleshless machinations the always resonant

flooding of time? Storm. Sickness. Waste. Belief. My frail
small human breath in the loud and emptied, emptying, gleam.

The night-flooding mind. Milkweed.

. . . . . .

I come inside and read Carl Phillips and know what it is to face that boundary between mind and world, the sensual boundary where sex and prayer collide. Speak Low, his latest book, in unafraid of the difficulty of describing human emotion, human mind. Our predicament, they seem to insist, whether it is love or history, is a metaphysical one. That is, it is faced with an understanding of abstraction hinged to experience. Plato thought that what exists lay beyond experience, but these poems use nature as a kind of relative explanation, a pathetic fallacy which helps us to try and understand our human considerations of time, love, history, faith. What I love most about Phillips is his unapologetic use of abstraction as a way to consider human experience--he uses a language most poets (perhaps schooled in the standard "show don't tell" arena of MFA programs) avoid for the most part altogether.

Patterns are of particular significance to this book: the physics of light, water, shadow, as well as the movement of animals, birds, and how the human mind might observe or interpret them. His poems have this almost archaic quality that allude to historical moments and intellectual movements of the Enlightenment at once. They are wrought, moreover, in a way that describes what is most familiar to us, though private, intimate, and even erotic: this, for example, is from the poem "Rubicon", a political point of no return, a river Caesar crossed illegally in 49 B.C., devoting himself to war against the senate, and also a game in which the loser's points are tallied for the winner:

. . . that moment in intimacy
when sorrow, fear and anger cross in unison the same face,
when at first can seem almost

a form of pleasure, a mistake as
easy, presumably, as it's forgiven."


History and philosophy here take on a life in the face of the beloved in the most alluring and attentive way. The more I read Phillips' poems, the more dissatisfied I am with a poetry of narrative(?) description. There is a weight to these lyrics that demands a secondary attention, our experience of the abstract world of emotion. How is it we've interpreted not just what we've seen in the world, but what we've felt?

. . . . . . .

Beautiful Dreamer

And when the punishment becomes, itself a pleasure?
When there's no night that goes unpunished? The larger
veins show like map work, as in Here winds a river,
here a road in summer, the heat staggering up from it
the way always, at triumph's outermost, less chromatic
edges, some sorrow staggers. Parts where the mud,
though the rains are history now, refuses still to
heal over. Parts

Untranslatable. Parts where, for the whole
stretches, vegetation sort of strangling sort of makeshift
sheltering the forest floor. To the face, at the mouth
especially, that mix of skepticism, joy, and panic reminiscent
of slaves set free too suddenly. Too soon. --Which way's
the right way? New hunger by new hunger? Spitting
on weakness? Raising a fist to it? The falling mouth falls
farther. Opens. It says, I was the Blue King. I led the dance.

. . . . . .

Eliot, in his 1929 essay, "The Metaphysical Poets" makes a distinction between the Romantics and their 17th century predecessors:

"it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes."

This is precisely what I love about Phillips: his thought is his experience. Symbolic, or fragmentary, the world takes place in his poem, and his speaker feels them. He does not fail, even if he does not explicate, the many disparate parts of his knowledge and identity.

I'm not a critic, I'm a commentarist--I read so that my inner life can save me from the brutal ugliness of this outer one. I write here about what I love, in a shameless way that a real critic has good reason to berate. A real critic may say something about Phillips' abstraction in that it goes too far for an average reader, that it obfuscates issues of identity, gender, race, class, all of those realms of experience we hold so specific and dear in this age. But when I read him, I feel that his poems teach me to read in a silence I had not before considered, a silence like prayer, a kind of devotion to an inner life I crave. I think if you read closely enough, you'll find these identities: the historical self and the fantasist: the poet and the philosopher: desired god and beloved flesh: all are given semblance. Yes, they are difficult to learn to read, especially, I think, for a novice reader, but they are deeply necessary in that they refuse to simplify the complexity in which the human mind renders itself.

Much more can be made of the comparisons between Phillips and Donne, nowhere perhaps more evident than in Phillips' collection The Rest of Love, in which the lover becomes a god of leather, commandment, relentless conditional belief. But this later collection seems more allusive to spiritual hymnals. Its tone is one of sad reminiscence for a spiritual freedom: to love? To understand death? To be free of bodily suffering? I'm not sure, exactly, perhaps all three. I do know that the joy of these poems comes from the middle of a pain, an isolation, that is basic, something Frost might have written about, inherent, too human, often unspoken for.

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!

. . . . . .

Landfall

From here, I can see that ritual is but a form of
routine charged with mystery, and the mystery is faith--
whatever, by now, that might be. Twilight. The usual
eyeful of stars appearing, looking the way stars at first
always do: locked; stable.

My friend, to whom
sadness had once felt almost too familiar--Step into it,
he used to say, stare up and out from it--tells me now
he misses it. He wants to know does that mean
he's happy?

In the dark, he turns to me. The silences
rise to either side of us: silence of intimacy when
estranged from risk; of risk itself when there's no one
to take it--nobody willing to; silence, by which the dead
can be told more easily apart from the merely broken . . .

. . . . . . .

25.6.09

BEWITCHING HER BREATH

Read the first section of Jorie Graham's Sea Change after midnight. I don't want to admit this. Reading her poems aloud to myself. I cried. I don't know what for. Surf and sacrifice. They are not metaphysical so much as they are storm-full. Reading them aloud you get the feeling you are Lear, dethroned, naked, mad. Tearing your self against the elements.

I know she is unpopular to many poets who want a neat line, a nice stanza, the beauty of a clear image. I know I couldn't get through the book Never. But she's mad. She's on to something. These poems are daring for their risk in form, which I'll argue are not just pretentious, or didactic, or overly scaffolded. And if these poems are conscious of environmental politics, their politics is inward and not forced onto the reader like an agenda (much like another overlooked book, last year's Warhorses, by Yusef Komunyakaa: a timely, necessary consideration of our still warring nation.)

These poems are bewitching, I think, with a breath that reminds one of what it's like to read Whitman aloud. Whitmanesque is her breath, but not for any stylistic catalogues. Perhaps there is a likeness here in Graham's recognition that the body, in all its gross manifestations, is sacred fodder, but hers is no Whitmanian reincarnation of Blake's cosmic polarities. Graham's breath is large and contradictory and incantatory for its sheer expansiveness, its successive phrasings that are at once thought, description and prayer. Prayer, as in a seeking, a calling of the voice for a communion--with spirit, with the forces that are nature, the great instigator, the origin of movement, invisible, myopic prestidigitator, energetic, ionic, harp string. Hers is the human voice itself, thinking, moving, Joycean:

(I've copied the poem, including / to indicate indentations of smaller phrases at the right-hand margin and stanza breaks to indicate each new line at the left-page margin in her work.

Vendler remarks this is a kind of "brush work" in which each line ends with strokes of phrases. This kind of long line with "brush-stroked" finishes is stylistically consistent in Sea Changes, and one can't help but relate Graham's line to the crashing of waves, the tidal spill and suck, on and against, the shore of the page.)

Futures

Midwinter. Dead of. I own you says my mind. Own what, own / whom. I look up. Own the looking at us

say the cuttlefish branchings, lichen-black, moist. Also / the seeing, which wants to feel more than it sees.

Also, in the glance, the feeling of owning, accordioning out and up, / seafanning,

& there is cloud on blue ground up there, & wind which the eye loves so deeply it / would spill itself out and liquefy / to pay for it--

& the push of owning is thrilling, is spring before it / is--is that swelling--is the imagined fragrance as one

bends, before the thing is close enough--wide- / eyed leaning--although none of this can make you / happy--

because, looking up, the sky makes you hear it, you know why we have come it / blues, you know the trouble at the heart, blue, blue, what

pandemonium, blur of spears roots cries leaves master & slave, the crop destroyed, / water everywhere not / drinkable, & radioactive waste in it, & human bodily

waste, & what, / says the eye-thinking heart, is the last color seen, the last word

heard--someone left behind, then no behind-- / is there a skin of the I own which can be scoured from inside the / glance--no, / cannot--& always / someone walking by whistling a / little tune, that's

life he says, smiling, there, that was life--& the heart branches with its / wild arteries--I own my self, I own my

leaving--the falcon watching from the tree--I shall torch the crop that no one else / have it whispers the air--

& someone's swinging from a rope, his rope--the eye / throbbing--day a noose looking for a neck--

the fire spidery but fast--& the idea of / friends, what was that, & the day, in winter, your lower back / started acting up again, & they pluck out the eyes at the end for / food, & don't forget / the meeting at 6, your child's teacher /wishes to speak to you

about his future, & if there is no food and the rain is everywhere switching-on as expected, / & you try to think of music and the blue of Giotto,

& if they have to eat the arms he will feel no pain at least, & there is a / sequence in which feeding takes

place--the body is owned by the hungry--one is waiting / one's turn--one wants to own one's / turn--and standing there,

don't do it now but you might remember kisses--how you kissed his arm in the sun / and / tasted the sun, & and this is your

address now, your home address--& the strings are cut no one / looks up any longer / --or out--no--&

one day a swan appeared out of nowhere on the drying river, / it

was sick, but it floated, and the eye felt the pain of rising take it in--I own you / said the old feeling, I want / to begin counting

again, I will count what is mine, it is moving quickly now, I will begin this / message "I"--I feel the

smile, put my hand up to be sure, yes on my lips--the yes--I touch it again, I / begin counting, I say, one to the swan, one,

do not be angry with me o my god, I have begun the action of beauty again, on / the burning river I have started the catalogue, / your world,

I speck tremble remembering money, its dry touch, sweet strange / smell, it's a long time, the smell of it like lily of the valley

sometimes, and pondwater, and how / one could bend down close to it

and drink.


Reading these poems quietly in your head is useless. They must be spoken aloud, they must be spoken for you to lose and catch your breath, so that the whirling can become dervish, so the austerity of the voice can grow into Whitmanesque proportions, so the prayer of being can recognize the human Job, faced with the impossible task of overcoming himself, knowing and not knowing at the same time, caught in the tempest that is human nature, troubled and vulnerable and fighting, the body poised against the storms, world and Self.

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!

. . . . . .

16.6.09

STEALING THE DAYLIGHT

. . .
Summer. Let's see what we can steal from our sleep.

. . .
Daylight, white fugue, my face is shadow. My name, my name.

. . .
It Is Daylight, selected by Louise Gluck for the 2008 Yale Younger Poets prize, and published in 2009, is filled with poems of strange, lucid elasticity. Not quite confessional, not quite associative in its sensibilities, Arda Collins' first book smacks of both. Her colloquial monologues are filled with the impressive meanderings of an apparent housewife, or single woman, or contemporary witch. Which is to say, a woman who does the cooking for herself, watches TV, looks at the weather in the yard, drives nowhere and comes home before dark, and probably has to take a fistful of Xanax to ward off her serious depressions. This is the character I imagine.

Her straightforward tone is deceptive in that it almost feels as though you're going to read some boring confessional prose, but you're surprised by her adept maneuvering. Collins' speaker attaches herself to the domestic, mundane details of suburban life, and skillfully delivers the reader to moments of contemporary dryness, humor, even irony.

Spring

I was making a roast.
The smell wafted from the kitchen into the living room,
through the yellow curtains and into the sunlight.
Bread warmed in the oven,
and in my oven mitt, I managed to forget
that I'd ever punched someone in the face.
It seemed so long ago, I might not even have done it.

You can see in these lines a directness true of someone like Anne Sexton, without the imagistic flare. But in the confessional tone and in the volatile intentions of Collins' speaker there is something built over the feminism of the 60's. It almost feels as if you're reading the diary of a 1950's housewife, filled with, not quite restraint, exactly, but a politeness that neatly dresses some other psychological fervor.

There is a sisterhood too, to something like Frank Bidart's earlier poem "Confessional" in which his mother hangs his cat in Collins' longer poem written in sections, "Dawn". The title reminds me of William Carlos Williams' assertion that murder doesn't happen at midnight, that this is the classical error. Collins' poem surprises us with how it proposes violence and reason at the same time, with its psychopathic, calm invitation:

5.

It's wrong to kill.
That's why,
he explained to the person,
he was holding the person's
face and throat.
Nothing was supposed to happen,
not death and not pain. No one
should be doing anything right now,
that was what he was demonstrating
to the person, who didn't know:
this was an explanation.

One gets the feeling that Collins' speaker is something from a Flannery O'Connor story, a philosophical criminal, but really they are like any of us, filled with an attention to beauty, that somehow feels so far:

11.

Gentle, painful sound,
it's coming from his face.
He doesn't want to talk,
hates the air; it moves toward the same things,
beautiful night,
beautiful night again, best missed
from afar. He thinks his personhood
in the dark in a room is the same as the dark
inside a small bag or a drawer.

Essentially, there is a deep distrust between Collins' speakers and the civility of the cultural business of waking up, having a home and family, cooking dinners, watching the light die nightly, only to start over and do it again, again, again. These are somnambulist monologues in which Collins attunes to the ultimate order of the universe, which burns us alive:

January

A night fire,
and this one really burns the house down.
At dawn it's still smoking
and I love it so much,
like the world has happened the thing
I wanted;
not like it loves me, but like,
"I know, I know,"
it says, "calamity,"
like, "why not for you, too?"
and I feel so included and ordinary
like I know what real order is
and like it exchanges a look with me
together as the sky gets lighter.

. . .
Friends and strangers, steal it if you can.

. . .
If you can steal the daylight from the daylight, you will know what fire means.

. . .
The dog, the tree.
Blind mountains.

The darkness is me. Pulled from me.
Strange, migrant.

My shadow getting up from my body
like a man climbing out of his grave.

. . .
My photo
I've got one foot in the grave and the other's in my mouth.

Poetry Disclaimer

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.