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Hanging Out With Cathy at the Bar
At the corner of the hill where our street meets a thoroughfare you can find a gallery, a vintage store, & bar. The vintage store, Nvision, is gorgeous. I stop in from time to time. Though often I just soak up the looks she’s arrayed in the window, especially pretty to see late at night as she keeps the displays lit after closing. The gallery, Thunder Sky Inc, hosts some of the city’s best art exhibitions & they’ve been kind enough to let me use their space to host my Cy Press readings. The bar, called the Comet, is important to me too. One of my closest friends, Paul, tends the bar, & I’ll go visit him when he’s on a shift. When people come through town we have our talks & drinks up there. It feels like an extension of our living room now, that home away from home thing that’s so nice about such places where it’s easy to relax & think & talk.
Of course I meet there with local friends too, one of whom is the poet Cathy Wagner. Cathy moved to southern Ohio some years ago now, a lucky thing for us in this river valley, & she & I have developed a friendship. When we’re free of our respective obligations & duties we make plans to get together at the Comet. We rally our spirits, share thoughts about writing, gossip, talk shit, drink, & generally have a lovely time. I look forward to these hang outs a lot. One of the many awesome features of our friendship is the way Cathy puts me onto poetry that’s new to me, or gives me a lead into things I’d only heard about vaguely before, things at the edges of my vision.
A few months ago we met up when she was just back from England. She’d attended group reading there, & she was filling me in on the details. She talked about this or that reading she liked before getting to the thing that astonished her the most–a reading Denise Riley had given of her poem “A Part Song.” Several factors lent themselves to Cathy’s awed response, an awe still apparent in her voice while we talked. First, Riley’s poem concerned the death of her son, a particularly bracing & upsetting subject. Also, Cathy’s an enormous fan of Riley’s work, so getting to hear her in person was a special occasion, made more so by the fact that Riley rarely reads in public. The result of her performance that night had been a kind of sea-sick group aphasia, Cathy said. Everyone was shattered by the poem. I hold Cathy’s sense of things in super high regard, so her narration drew me in, made me want to know more about Riley (whose work I knew of only vaguely), & especially to read for myself the poem that had so affected Cathy & the people at that reading. I asked Cathy where I could find the poem & sometime shortly after she sent me a link.
I’ll admit I was a little afraid of this poem. I didn’t click the link she sent for weeks. The subject of grief, what it is, how it functions, has pre-occupied me my whole life. Any grief is particular & general both, & where the former is concerned, my personal experience is different than Riley’s–my best friend took his own life. I’ve written about this explicitly before so I won’t go into much detail here. But let me describe something true about myself, the necessity of which is related to my reading of Riley’s poem. Where my friend had been while alive in the world is a hole inside me now & it wants everything since all I do & did relates to knowing & loving him, still. This absence is his echo shaped in me as needy void.
Anyone who’s ever grieved might know exactly what I mean while probably having an entirely different vocabulary for it, particular then to themselves as well as to whoever they mourn. I have to flinch sometimes from this part of me (him) so as to not be swallowed. Yet I also have to be deft & true, give adequate care to his form inside me; keep vigil, sing & talk, move the flows & sensations of living through that blank, & tend to its permanent infancy. Sometimes it consumes more than it gives & I grow weak. Other times there’s breathtaking fertility there. Mainly these things are in duet.
I mention all of this to substantiate my genuine reluctance, really my fear, of Riley’s poem & its power, how it might connect me to my own sense of loss. Of course, by way of the dynamic just described, I was driven by an equal compulsion. Poetry, obviously, can be & do lots of things, but one thing it can do is it can really fuck you up. Like, really really really fuck you up, especially when it engages the part of your being composed of tangled love & fear & horror, some part that’s volatile & sensitive, so much so that maybe you don’t know what to make of it. What you do know is–it’s dangerous. You address yourself to it with care when that’s called for, & dive toward it when you can. Sometimes (a lot of times) it dives toward you.
So it’s with all of that in mind that I arrived at Riley’s poem. I read it in a Starbucks in the town where I grew up. What did I find? Well, the word, & I don’t really know what this word, if anything, means, but the word that jumps to mind is (fucking) masterpiece. Maybe that word kept ringing in my head because of Riley’s ability to bring, like, the whole of English lyric tradition to bear on what is an impossibly wounding occasion–a parent’s grief for the loss of her child. Last time I wrote about Fred Moten, & he has that line that I mentioned— “Now the cold reckoning is tired & you’re waiting for a preferential song.” Riley’s poem is a cold reckoning in search of that preferential song, the contents of which, despite such ferocious & unyielding art, seemingly cannot be accomplished. This impossibility, this seeming, is crucial to the poem.
But first, the cold reckoning. Riley from the very beginning gives us to a double consciousness of grief & its longing, organized around two desires. One, she intends to not bullshit us or herself about death’s finality. On the other hand, she’s involved in that most human of wishes, one that pines for the most inhuman thing–resurrection. The interplay of these things animates the writing, & sets a stage for its remarkable breadth of intellectual & emotional engagements. Here’s the first section in its entirety, where an admonishment against such dreams & their lyric embellishments finds a riposte–
You principle of song, what are you for now
perking up under any spasmodic light
to trot out your shadowed warblings.
Mince, slight pillar. And sleek down
Your furriness. Slim as a whippy wire
shall be your hope, and ultra flexible.
Flap thinly, sheet of beaten tin
that won’t affectionately plump up
more cushioned and receptive lays.
But, little song, don’t so instruct yourself
For none are hanging around to hear you.
They have gone bustling or stumbling well away.
There’s so much here in these nine lines. They constitute a lyric theory about how song might ready itself to take on something metaphysically drastic, becoming pliant & tough, becoming perhaps a two-way antennae (slim as whippy wire/shall be your hope, & ultra flexible) to call & receive the lost child’s voice. Then desolation moves in–there may be no voice to pick up on the antennae, thus, no one there to receive the song’s call. Also there is perhaps a different but related way to read that last stanza: no one listens to poetry.
Exasperation with the mortal burden “motherhood” (a word so various & overdetermined, revered & brutally neglected, least understood & impossibly deep) carries— “What is the first duty of a mother to a child?/At least to keep the wretched thing alive.” Then a few lines later, confrontation with the mortal fact in real time–
My daughter lightly leaves our house.
The thought rears up: fix in your mind this
Maybe the final glimpse of her. Yes, lighting could.
I make this note of dread, I register it.
Neither my note nor my critique of it
Will save us one iota. I know it. And.
That last “And.” The poem has that as a pivot & engine. It arrives at an obstacle & turns. Not away from the obstacle that it cannot dissolve, but toward its next refreshed & novel form. Knowledge, critique. Sure, all fine & good. In this situation? They crumble at the impasse. They re-constitute themselves. They try the wall again from other angles.
Much of what I’m saying is addressed to the larger philosophical involvements of the poem. It’s wealth, while located there, is also situated in very small moments, some of which, certain lines, are so precise they quickly became refrain & structure inside me, ideal formulations I felt like I’d been grasping for forever: “It’s odd how boys live so much in their knees.” Then there it was, the poise & weight of motion held in all the boys I’ve known, god she’s right!, strutting & shifting, movement portioned out by those shocks through their bodies to reflect either shyness or swagger, whatever might be in them to reflect through the bending & straightening of posture & gait.
Then too, the vanished panopoly of anyone. Change & time. The way we consume our own multiplicities in order to be totaled as a self in the present, the rest of what we are now as bristling sediment or nutrient-echo— “Each child gets cannibalised by its years./It was a man who died, and in him died/The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock/In the unremarked placid self-devouring/That makes up being alive.”
“The unremarked placid self-devouring/That makes up being alive.” Here’s just some old fashioned bad-ass fucking art, the way devouring is qualified three times & yet still the phrase holds in the mind as succinct. Its perfection keeps pricking my skin & I realize that’s exactly what its sharpness means to do–unsettle the placidity haunting the process it describes.
Also, don’t let me mislead you, part of what makes the poem so complete is that no affective register is left unengaged. This poem is funny, & feminist to the core. There’s a great burlesque of the rainments of grieving, “women’s grief” & the codes that attempt to describe & contain it. She uses end rhymes to activate outrage & exhaustion around the demands for its public performance–
You’d rather not, yet you must go
Briskly around on beaming show.
A soft black gown with pearl corsage
Won’t assuage your smashed ménage.
The poem’s composure is part of what’s astonishing as well. I mean something different than a stiff upper lip (though that’s here too). I mean its experimental rigor. The poise it marshals is essential as the poem means to strain & test the senses & their lyric prostheses. Liminality, the gulf that is fixed between us (the living) & them (the dead) is exactly the site she means to challenge, both to call its shape forth for a sensory attendance, & to find the song able to bridge it. Yet the prettier romantic forms of natural reincarnation hold no solace, & in fact they only make the whole trip corny–
I can’t get sold on reincarnating you
As those bloody ‘gentle showers of rain’
Or in ‘fields of ripening grain’–oooh
Again, this poem means to turn loss, by way of art, into something that can cut through the down that only obscures what remains (& indeed, what remains?) of someone gone. We are haunted by the dead in our bodies. Call them from there where we hold their dearest aspects, as well as from their blank in the beyond–
Lighthearted presence, be bodied forth
Straightforwardly. Lounge again under
The sturdy sun you’d love to bake in.
Clearer eyed now, she surveys this (imagined) physical return, moving toward its impossible medicine–
Even ten seconds worth of a sighting
Of you would help me get through
This better. With a camera running.
As everyone knows, in our lives, the camera has an edgeless relation with the eye. It’s so obvious why we take so many pictures, film so much, but I feel like we forget because we’ve made it second nature. There’s a dream in our various narcissisms bigger than an unchecked self-regard. It’s an old dream, I think. A lyric dream. We’re still making amends for the senses & their lack, their inability to reach the other side, the tide of unbearable loss washing out, never washing back in. The photographic impulse is a moon in this thought. We make & constellate the satellite. We fabricate the glow. But we can’t get the gravity together, can’t have our say in the motion of those tides. Just an old lyric story as I said. Part of the genius of Riley’s poem is that one feels it not “for the first time again” but for the billionth time as if never before.
I sort of broke the first time I read that “With a camera running.” The pathos is in the way it hits as an aside. The metaphysical bargaining going on (“ten seconds worth of a sighting of you”) meets its limit too quickly. The palliative dies too human a death. Funny how the camera seems adequate to hold against resurrection’s brevity here. More than the lyric. More than memory. It’s hardness, inhumanity, is fit to resurrection’s.
I brought up the whole masterpiece thing before, virtuosity, of the way this poem seems to exhaust several lyric traditions in order to cast them aside one by one for their poverty in the face of loss. Near the end Riley hints (via another of her several nods to Modernism) that this is exactly what she’s up to, double consciousness of it still in tact–
She do the bereaved in different voices
For the point of this address is to prod
And shepherd you back with in range
Of my strained ears; extort your reply
By finding any device to hack through
The thickening shades to you, you now
strangely unresponsive son, who were
Such reliably kind and easy company,
Won’t you be summoned up once more
By my prancing and writhing in a dozen
Mawkish modes of reedy piping to you
–Still no? Then let me rest, my dear.
Technologies (lyric, metaphysical, photographic etc) spent, resurrection unaccomplished, a different & final wish emerges in its place, a twinned peace that would belong to the mourner & the ghost, a feat that can only be accomplished through unbearable détente, a resolution that would really mean the end. The poem’s title, “A Part Song,” amplifies the whole complex. The poem is formally & structurally complete but of course absence reigns, thus “A Part Song.” Death is implacable. Grief capacious, wracked & wishful. Their companionability–the source of our tragedy.
In the poem’s final stanza something extraordinary occurs. It’s not a secret, perhaps you can even guess at it. Still I’ll leave it for you to go & read.
So I understand now why Cathy responded as she did, why she said the whole room fell, froze, felt like their tongues had been cut out. I could point again to aphasia but I want a better word or phrase, something to describe the moment when your hand really does go to cover your mouth, physically, the occasion, not exactly of terror, but related, when the hand does that thing, as if by reflex. You hold your hand there for a moment. Maybe it’s shock. Not the impossible but the unthinkable has happened. Unthinkable for you in your life. Ordinary generally though. Extreme loss. But the hand does do that thing as if to shut the words in. Like the hand, almost as if it’s someone else’s, means to help you through gesture because the language, even if it were to come, wouldn’t do anything at all. That’s just a moment. The hand falls away from the mouth. Really though for hours, maybe days after or maybe for good its still there, a frozen image haunting your subsequent motion, a cold & flat silence that’s behind all your speech. Maybe when we sort of come up to that edge where we feel “the real” or whatever that’s our poem, the hand going over the mouth in that way, hard & fast choreography, the photograph–
[…] All that
Should flow is sealed, is poised
In implacable stillness. Joined in
Non-time and halted in free fall.
Then, in Cathy’s new book, already kind of a famous bit–
“Writing a poem is like reaching two prosthetic limbs out as far as you can on either side to grab something in front of you. You can’t grab it but maybe you’ll take flight”
Cathy goes on to deflate her own proposition. Like Riley, she poses a contrary determination, one that, in this poem at least, wants to refuse a binary settled on failure & attempt, though that too is its own marvelous terrain, still open, still incomplete. But I’d like to stay with the picture here, one of simultaneity, resurrected yet still dead, of grasping for something, of reaching & missing & being in flight, frozen in free fall yet buoyed by volition, agency, its cancellation, all that stuff experienced as fused into one congealed & mystifying state. What’s it like in that sky? What’s the weather of that? It’s crowded & dazzling & painful that’s for sure. It’s hot & glamorous too. Full of bittersweet compromise. Disaster. I want to move in the heat & flash of that next time, & think about how poetry attends it. It’ll still relate, by way of story, to this bar. I’ll still be here, thinking about all this stuff, & then I’ll write about it some, come next week. See y’all in a few days.