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Last summer I was listening. To poets read, but not to the poems, to the things they said before, after, between, and to the introductions. I was curious about that between language: “OK, Charles, I’ll just jump right in.” Or, “The poem’s speaker loves obsolescence.” I was listening too to academic talks, their particular banter: “pinching and elliptical grammar,” said someone, “we’re spinning out of emplotment,” said someone else, “the standard view of modern science is a disarranged intellect that lacks an object,” “the triumphal narrative of the emergence of a rational-critical sphere.”
While listening, I was writing, getting down every third word or so, trying hard to keep my writing in time with my listening, so that I would write only what I was actually hearing at the time of actually writing, rather than write what was in memory (even if that memory was only half a second old). But I would write sentences, not fragments. The heard sentences would give birth to new ones that bore a resemblance to their source, but were not “the same.” What emerged from this process (and a number of other processes): a manuscript called Think Tank.
Three brief examples:
In the soft folds of derivation,
the spheres ring out, but muffled
That music, that music of affluence turned fluid
A man walks
into his daughter
Or take “the real” and shrink it
But what’s the point of being a mother if that’s all you get to do?
It’s 6:47 and magisterially the sky incubates easy gentlemen
& massive bitches
of cloud. Blue me blond; I am lost
The flattening of lilacs in the rain—
how our mind rebels against this painful evidence
from which we now suffer like teens who leap joyously
from a bridge
Think Tank: the tanking of thought and the mind itself, like a fish bowl, holding it, thought. But then someone said, oh, “tank,” like a vehicle of war? That manuscript needed to rest for a while, and then.
Been writing lines in which I take the first word from another poet’s line and continue from there. Doing this in order to disrupt my usual syntax, habitual structures. Forcing the sentence to begin where I would not normally begin it. Those whose sentences feel formally other than my own, Lisa Robertson, Keith Waldrop, Erin Moure. The “imitation” stops there, there at the first word.
At the same time, my nagging, jealous attraction to narrative. What makes a novel? Often, I begin one and am able to sustain my interest for about forty pages. Then the “and then, and then” exhausts me. The “novel,” the seduction of the story, could exist (I’ve seen it) in a single line, a single line of the poem. Pursuing narrative, like one might pursue a cat or a cloud. What’s interesting is to watch its evasions, its illogic. Why did it just get up and walk to another chair? Why shift, disperse, efface (as Plath would say)? What’s interesting is to watch it dissolve.
Then there is rhythm. Been writing in rhythms for a while now. But having written a series of poems (the “abstracts” in Sarah-of Fragments and Lines) that derive their movement from the sonic relations between words, and the Think Tank poems having a spontaneous or even spurious relationship to a beat, now I want to generate the line almost entirely through its attention to rhythm, its ghostly meter. And so I tap my foot when I’m writing them and also when I read them.
These three elements: someone else’s first word, a pursuit of narrative, and consistent (or at least deliberate) rhythm is enough to keep me returning to these poems. And then, after a number of weeks, clear “themes” emerge. Though I don’t like this word “theme.” It makes me think of movies and amusement parks. Of birthday parties. How about “predisposition”? They poems have a few predispositions and these assert themselves over time. They are predisposed to figure twins and doubles. To acknowledge fear. To make note of affluence and poverty. To notice the fear that resides in and between these terms. They are predisposed to be concerned with women, to “follow” women. They are predisposed toward austerity. Coming from winter, they have winter’s sensibility, its withholding. I prefer that and am not looking forward to spring.
There is no research. Except that of the first word. I research the first word in order to begin the line.
Then, after a while of this I get an invitation from my friend Richard Deming. He is editing a journal and collecting prose poems that deal in some way with abstraction. Could I send a few? This is almost funny to me. Nothing feels farther from my current “craft.” All these poems in lines. All these deliberate sentences and this “mad pursuit” of narrative. So I turn myself around and face the other way. “And so I am asked to be abstract. When I am straining toward narrative.” Is how I begin. The poem is called “At Shadows”:
And so I am asked to be abstract. When I am straining toward narrative. Just after cold spell, I am not a hand in the plumbing, neither medical nor mechanical, but at shadows, those lines of embarkation repeated and repeatedly ignored. Runners passed back and forth carrying steal beams for the construction. So I build my resentments my paper resentments my sugar and flour and my salt. Pressure gathers over centuries in the quest to know what space is. A thing or a non-thing. As to my left is Michael sleeping with Jose and to my right is Mandy sleeping with Gilly. As before me is Don sleeping with no one and behind me is Alice sleeping with Lucy. And so I am asked to become abstract. The pairing of thing and non-thing is everywhere before me made visible by winter light, its short burst of brightness on the tree and around the tree is what. As for drivers, they are warmed at the dash, in a golden sea thickened by mythology, we must remember that Orpheus is not a person but a god here and there among the carefully planted decorative grasses and what has happened to the underground bulbs.
A thing or a non-thing? A person or a God? I love naming my neighbors. Their true names have a kind of joy in them: “that is poetry really loving the name of anything.” But there’s another thing to love, and that is the non-thing under the name. For none of you know which of these names refers to a dog, which to a person—which to an imaginary person, which to an actual. None of you know this, but I do. And so the name is and is not abstract. A thing and a non-thing. Plath, foaming to wheat. Or Keats’s spirit ditties of no tone.
Now these two forms are in some kind of theater: “They are coming to the play. I must be idle.”