Prose from Poetry Magazine

Semba!: A Notebook

by W. S. Di Piero
March, riding the New York to Boston Regional: the Bay Area back home so pounded by rainstorms that everything gets more tightly green, but here things are whippy and skinny with the season's denials. (From the first time I rode in a Pullman with an aunt who was taking me who knows where—to a ball game maybe, or the circus—I've felt a liquid intimacy with trains and streetcars.) Except for the evergreens, the only tickle of color is a witch hazel's tiny yellow leaf-sprouts in a Boston friend's backyard. New York to there, outside my window—all kinesis: passing trees mark time for the ratcheting wheels. The landscape is stripped, ghastly, then improbably lush with firs and pines, which look even more plaintive for all that browned-out scarcity. A stream in late-winter light gleams like coal facets, inlets along the Rhode Island coastline sluggish but silvered. The train's motion separates out everything that comes into view, separates one thing from another, frame by frame, without giving up the streaming imagery's streaky rub in time. Then a mash of birches with knobby tops, and pine trees that become just the horizontals of their branches, score lines in the air, or staves, a swift lyric continuity, then an old fallen stone wall, and scree. In the club car, while I'm watching all that twiggy speed scratch at the windows, behind me the hostess shouts: "Paterson!"

* * *


I meet a successful middle-aged poet curious, or bemused, about the prose I write (have written for as long as I've written poetry) as if it were a subtropical, carnivorous plant. I never knew any better. The poets I read early (Shelley, Keats of the letters, Leopardi, Yeats) developed prose styles, so I took it on faith that a poet had to be a writer. It's best to do it mostly for money—resistance sharpens things. Some shy from putting prose out there because it's a giveaway. You can't fake it. It reveals quality of mind, for better or worse, in a culture where poems can be faked. Find a faker and ask him or her to write anything more substantial than a jacket blurb, and the jig is up.

* * *


Poetry doesn't have much to do with other arts, but there are coordinates. I'm bored by theatrical prophecy, by poetry that makes one fraught statement then another, without shapely sound or rhythm, without an availably complex density of phrasing and patterning, and I'm bored by poetry that achieves its effects only tonally or by clever invention. A coordinate: De Kooning's brushstroke enshrines its own passage: in its moist, elided, sumptuous impasto we see color broken down and surging. We get, as in certain kinds of poetry (Weldon Kees, Alan Dugan, Louise Bogan), both dreamily episodic eruptions and the entire shapely course of the surge, the rush and flush of the whole.

* * *


The story we live out isn't the story others read in the facts of our lives. The hardest memoir to make is one that represents the flowing along of life felt from the inside out. But readers hear the tune they want to hear, not the one being played. I gag on the version strangers construct to explain my life—inner-city working-class person makes good: "How did someone like you become someone like you?" as someone actually once asked me—because it's pimped off American-style exceptionalism, which rots whatever it touches. It saturates claims made for poetry and other art forms. It dances its bouncy polka with boosterism, another wasting disease smiling forth as peaches-and-cream health. Their compound poisons every culture—political, artistic, personal. Why should we need a National Poetry Month, that merry annual act of cultural contrition, unless we had a deep souring anxiety about poetry's survival in an (historically formed) anti-intellectual culture? (See Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.) Boosterism serves up the Whitney Biennial and its striptease of competing voguish infantilisms. We get the culture we deserve and wish for. Can poetry matter? Why should that even be a question? It matters if it's casually subversive and alters consciousness without being righteous. It doesn't matter much to me if poetry doesn't matter too much. It's contaminated anyway by the huffy ethics of commerce, of peddling and consuming. All systems are the same system. Rumor forges fame, consumers have to be instructed (and really do want to know) what to pay attention to, and so reputations are made, desires shaped and fueled. Leopardi says somewhere that the sure way to become famous is by having someone tell everybody he meets that you're already famous. I take on faith that readers who are patient with complexity, who believe that poetry brings what we need to know, brings questions we need to ask or conflicts we can't resolve, and who care about patterned sound—such readers don't have to be huckstered or harvested.

* * *


The mind freights weather with its own confabulations and anxieties. Serial rainstorms here in San Francisco, intermittent blue mist—the Asian mist of screen-paintings of hillsides—infiltrating trees in Golden Gate Park. The lull between storms softens things. Then the rain starts up again like cat-o'-nine-tails thrashing my windows. A certain kind of depression, my kind—a Motown-ish lyric there: "My kind, my kind, my kind"—brings episodes that beat against the coastline of the sane or balanced self, baffled just so by meds and the talking cure. It's not curable because it's the nature of that particular self. (Or, in my own mental menagerie: the dragon of chaos must be fed, else he rip apart every order he sees; he never goes away; he sleeps in the gate.) Late one night, writing, I start to break up (who knows why? unknowability is pain's core; sobbing is the stupefied noise pain makes) and so lie on the floor waiting for the waves, the dragon-ish sea, the un-nameable hurt, to pass over.

* * *


Losing your way in writing is good and bad. Good is the possible finding of the way back, that shifty process of discovery, disclosure, random foraging. But being lost is free fall. You're out of control. One morning you wake to the sort of day or condition of soul when sensation is so heightened that it awes and frightens. Foliage whisking outside the window sounds like big breakers hitting the beach; bird-song so magnified it seems aberrant, more inside than outside the skull; bus doors hiss shut like pressure valves exploding; a plane so high and silent that it looks about to vaporize. Everything terribly keyed-up, and you feel at once exposed and protected. Your ears mute the sound and resonance of your own voice—you're talking into a scarf or stiff wind.

* * *


I get impatient with my own impatience and prefer accidental recognition, kicked-over revelation, to wisdom poetry, the sort that sighs meaningful things about the natural or spiritual order, even about carpentry, gardening, meditation, the need to come together and heal ourselves. Poetry that has designs on us and expects our admiration, the kind that expects to be petted. ("Need me, love me.") Poetry doesn't need neediness if it's doing its work of naming the things of the world, in their orders and messes, and our relations to them. And not only the things of the actual world. It can be a verbal axis mundi, the world tree that connects, through our middle world, the root-tangled, cellular underworld to the supernaturals.

* * *


Strange that in our time there's so little interesting poetry of religious belief, especially since world events more and more are driven by belief (or the fanaticism of Eastern or Western Fundamentalisms). Somebody asks me what I believe. I believe in the suspicion of transcendence, in the capacity of consciousness to imagine a transcendent order as an objective reality. I believe in my own unbelief.

* * *


Most days, writing takes on the emotional lucidity of dream life, its bite and garish clarity, but it's also bereavement, tracing or tracking what's no longer among us. The more you write, the more you feel something is missing, will always be missing; that ache makes you want to write more, inviting more of the same. So bereavement is a kind of grotesque bounty. Some mornings, gulping the oxygen of waking life out of a dream's suffocation, I feel bereft, though I can't remember what exactly has been lost, other than the dream state I wanted to escape, can't remember any shape of face or body, just an ectoplasmic force, the spirit of the human presence in the dream now transformed into a felt compulsion. Write it down, then. Write it out. Getting older, I don't so much want to remember things in poetry, I want to keep them.

* * *


Women and couples in Klimt's erotic drawings swim in their own sexuality and at the same time swim away from themselves in line and contour. They unveil their sensuousness. Schiele's erotic figures don't unveil, they expose themselves, angular and strung-out, like guilty things caught. Certain poems unveil themselves with an almost ceremonial patterning, while others are spiky and nervous, as if words were rudely taken hostage to feeling. Plath's are like that, and many of Williams's early poems. Then there are poems, the precious few, that seem long-prepared, arranged just so, with a deliberate rhetoric, but nothing in them feels inauthentic or worked up for the sake of writing a poem. Then there are others, the proliferating many, prepped and constructed for quick and easy consumption. Of these we remember none of the words, nothing of the noise or music, only the scene, or anecdote, or "voice."

* * *


Sometimes in cities the entire world seems to inhabit four corners. It's nighttime and I'm waiting for a bus at Haight and Fillmore, a mildly seedy, bump-elbows neighborhood—vintage clothing stores, beery dives (where smart marginal people hang loose), the best BBQ spot in town, an African-American barbershop next door to a cheap sushi joint. Like that. Tonight the air's raucous, sulfurous, trash-blown. On one corner, in front of an Indian restaurant that I've never seen anyone enter or leave, young solemn Black Muslims in their stiff bow ties and dark narrow suits distribute pamphlets. Chain-rattling gutter-punks leer at them. The Fruit of Islam stare back. Across the street a woman in a neat dress, hair loosely pinned up, orates to nobody in particular. There must be at least twenty people mousing around the intersection but none of us exist for her. And, kitty-cornered, why has that fat guy been leaning so long on the city trash receptacle? Ah, his exposed pud is snaked over the trash can's lip, pissing a strong stream. Did he vote in the last election? I think of Walt Whitman's Manahatta and Brooklyn and Camden, Civil War draft-riot lynchings, manure everywhere, sidewalk vendors, open street-side fires, chickens running loose in certain neighborhoods.

* * *


Overheard on the Boston T: "Last night the devil was flicking his lighter in my lower intestine."

* * *


Nearly everything in Lowell beginning with For the Union Dead is a process of appropriating the things of the world and breaking them down in the furnace of selfhood. Experience exists to feed the fire. Compare Reznikoff, for whom the things of the world were to be watched, tasted, archived, appropriated not so much by the raging disconsolate self as by the words that seek them out. Transparent testimony—we see the shaping hand and hear the intimate voice but don't feel bullied into place by the imperious first person. Sez Rez: "I let the reader, or listener, draw his own conclusions and make his own comparisons and analogies. They are sometimes better than the writer himself intended, and profounder. I remember a Hindu saying: 'A work of art has many faces.'"

* * *


Rereading Du Maupassant after many years, trying to find something, the perfume of another time, a slightly rank perfume, maybe, like fading jasmine. Bookworming and writing, I get interred, and my kitchen, where I work and spend most of my hours, stays unswept, unwashed dishes sigh from the sink, useless unfinished pages look up at me with pity. I catch an odor, essence of dust, mildew, gorgonzola, grease, boiled cabbage, and Lysol, though no Lysol has touched anything for some time. The smell starts to ooze from every porous surface while I'm in Du Maupassant, and I think of Ciccio.

Cicc', we called him. Cheech! When Annie Hall joins Woody Allen in a movie line, he complains about being hassled "by guys named Cicc'," and in the fungal desolations of Godfather II Frankie Pentangeli's gun thug is called "Cicc'." My Cicc' was caretaker of the American Legion Post where my father (who sometimes brought me along when I was, I think, ten or eleven) and his cronies drank and where Cicc' doubled as barkeep. I spent a lot of time doing more or less nothing. Cicc' lived in a small low-wattage space where he slept, prepared meals, and stored numerous dusty oddments, war memorabilia mostly: Kaiser helmets, ceremonial swords, cruddy medals, a bolt-action rifle, cartridges (blank, I found out, when one idle evening I loaded a round in the breech and, who knows why, pulled the trigger).

Cicc's cell held the smell my kitchen's giving off. Held shelves of books, too. (Houses in my neighborhood had few books.) I stroked them as people do fine carpet and pulled something at random, mostly for its feel—plummy velvet cover, satinish endpapers, gold-leaf edging—and started reading, though it was more a simulacrum of reading, skating my eyes across the lines of the page, much as I've been doing today, drifting half-consciously through Maupassant's "Boule du Suif" and "The Horla." So I noodled and dumbly perused until my father, with a lit-up glassy look, said we had to go. I have no memory of what I read, and what I'm reading now isn't throwing flares: the mystery is that some rhythm of the event, the texture of the experience, wove themselves into the Lysol air—the urinals Cicc' kept immaculate were next door to his room—and into the Jimmy Roselli songs pealing from the chrome-trimmed jukebox beside the horseshoe bar.

I caught a glimpse of that sanctum a couple of times and still get a little dreamy sitting in any establishment looking at the glacial vodkas, woodland whiskies, psychedelic schnapps and other macaw colors that double themselves in back-bar mirrors. How superbly literary it would be if the Maupassant of then crushed me of a sudden and became mysteriously the Maupassant of now. Not a chance. Not much is happening. Sorry firefly flashes suggest some dim restoration to consciousness of that originating experience, but it wasn't Maupassant that mattered. It was the activity of reading. That had somehow been remodeled into the sensation of reading a particular story in a particular book, but the object is only the material paperweight that held down momentarily the enfolding sensation of reading, of becoming a part of a rhythm of storytelling. But it was primal in certain ways.

I read poetry and fiction—the little fiction that I read—more for style than content, for the palpable sense of an imagination re-fashioning reality expressively, where the tics and chewiness and cadences of language are themselves all one passion. When someone recommends a book by saying "It's about a married couple who..." my eyelids droop. Style is the enclosure, the chrysalis, the cartouche crafted around me so long ago in Cicc's mean crib. I'm still there, reading, today.

* * *


Poetry, when human language has been reduced to its essential rhythm, is the expression of the mysterious meaning of the various aspects of our existence.—Mallarm


Cornell's art drills straight into the consciousness of poets because his boxes are resonance chambers, the things of the world pulled loose from their settings and redeployed as phantasmagoria—so much emptiness so busy with floating facts. "Memory is more important to me than my boxes," he says in his journals. He read Coleridge and Mallarm, attracted by preconscious or unconscious states of mind in their poetry. Cornell's stanzas, his little rooms, are memory's assembly halls. It's I-would-be-bound-in-a-nutshell-and-count-myself-king-of-infinite-space art: the more it includes, the more it contracts. (Soap bubbles, parrots, foreign hotel signage, stardust and sand, starry vaults, penny-machine mechanics, rods and rings and ribbons.) Cornell constructs evocative zones of relatedness (he always built the box first then put things in it); his consciousness is the porous interface. See Baudelaire's "Correspondences." Every fragment of sensual experience speaks to some other, fuses to it, becomes a third experience that compounds with yet others. Delacroix, in his journals, gave Baudelaire a sentence to love: Nature is my dictionary. Reading Cornell's journals is like stepping into one of his nutshell environments. Observations and questions slide across and around his preoccupations and passions: ballerinas to Breton to Boston cream pie. His words, like the work, call up the mysterious pulsing irreducibility of sensation: "The past: a feeling that a particular moment of the past was transmuting a present moment with an unnamed but significant touch....once in Bayside riding in car feeling an intolerable sadness at passing a blue house....the past became the present."

* * *


This thing of darkness I
Acknowledge mine.

—Prospero of Caliban


Takes one to know one. William Cowper cannily and amicably conceals his secret suicidal melancholia in the flowering shrubs of his letters, which craft a rather wholesome, amiable personality, but he admits to "[putting] on an air of cheerfulness and vivacity to which I am in reality a stranger." It was "the arduous task of being merry by force....Despair made amusements necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement." He lived with the unwanted companion and made himself a good one. His pain, his madness, was the raised, rough grain of his sense of failure in belief, in life as devotion. To feel unworthy of God is, in derangement, to be convinced of being unworthy of life.

* * *


(Transcendence as subject for poetry—the reality or the imagination or the impossibility of it—isn't moribund. Plus quarrels in and about the inner life—something and nothingness. How poems make an image or music of these motions.)

* * *


That life is lived between God and derangement? Fall from one, fall into the other?

* * *


Clinical melancholia doesn't color one's feeling for reality, it determines it. The fall of light, a child's laughter, a lover's whisper, wind unsettling curtains, a towhee hopping on grass—every moment is fraught with fatefulness. The most delicate things become fatty deposits of the worst-is-yet-to-come. Flight, the sight of it, induces the agony of impossibility: a gull oaring itself into the air makes you weep because it's a grandiose vision of the impossible. Gravity rules. It defines you, and you are null. The bed is the best and worst place. It's the island where you're safe, if not from the serrated confabulations of your own consciousness, at least from afflictions the world beyond the bed will, you're certain, bring you. It's the worst place because the longer you're there, the more it loves you, the more it renews its sticky torpor. It's a safe place to consider killing yourself.

* * *


"People have reason to be depressed beyond their neurotransmitters." (Glen Gabbard, Meninger Clinic psychiatrist). Weltschmerz. World sorrow. There should be a single word in English for that. If we're awake to the fact that human action is a way of serving a dream of existence, we're liable to feel an overpowering helplessness and irrelevance—the irrelevance of everything, a suicidal irrelevance—and its physical expression is cryptic silence and self-removal. (Cue sobs here.) It's systemic, a toxin in the circulatory system of spirit. You don't contract it, it comes for you, genetically and in the world— it weaves its tacky filaments into your temperament. When in melancholia, the body wakes from dreams feeling like a gummy slab, as if the effort of dreaming depletes the soul's energy to rise.

* * *


William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, confessing his own experience in the report of a fictitious Frenchman: during a depressive episode, he's overcome by "a horrible fear of my own existence" and recalls an epileptic he'd seen in an asylum who would sit all day on a bench, knees drawn up to his chin:

He sat there like a sort of sculpted Egyptian or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt. Potentially nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.


* * *


Dancing. Ecstasy. Get so far into your body that you feel outside it. Swing, salsa, samba—Dionysus is always on the move, and the torchlight gang follows wherever he leads, and he's out of control. (Cue the Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance." ) Close-dancing, line-dancing, jitterbug, waltz. Smell yourself all over your partner. Cut a rug, blow out your knee, go out in style. You have to stay in motion or you're finished. Annie Lennox: "Keep movin' on/I'm goin' on." Like poetry: to stay in motion. (Who wants poetry like freeze-dried coffee?) Poets, keep it close and loose. ("Let's Get Lost.") In 1920s Brazil, slaves—Bantus, Yorubas, Ewes—formed religious brotherhoods called irmandades that beat drums, sang, and danced themselves into trance states, rubbing against each other. The African word for "rubbing navels": Semba!

* * *


Eros—blissful confounding Eros—can be so soggy and bitter. It's sex and love. Or it's sex sniffing sex and nothing more. It can be practically anything we want it to be because, if we believe Jung, it's a field of relatedness, me to tree and sisters to sea and pussy to prick and any permutation or elaboration of these. Eros energizes the relation of the living mind to its images of the dead. "Field of relatedness" makes it sound like a stable or stabilizing medium, but we don't experience it as an idea or paradigm, it comes upon us as bliss or woe, a rush, all blood, saliva, pulse, and thirst. Our imagination is the excitable custodian of sensory memory. Late one night, in my early twenties, during months I spent in a hospital for a mysterious crippling ailment, a nurse stopped to look in on me. I was probably listening to Charles Lloyd or Morgana King or Oliver Nelson on Philadelphia's great jazz station WHAT. She told me I could stand if I really wanted to. That she would help. When with her support I got up on my pins, she turned her back to me, wrapped my arms around her waist, and snugged her butt against my groin. She hummed a little to the music, swayed just enough to rock my pain and make me hard, swayed protectively and invitingly with the young, mysteriously ruined white boy, who did his best to dance along. She said I seemed nice and promised, once I got well, to take me dancing. The slick crispness of her uniform stretched across her belly down to her heavy-tissued thighs and ass. Such a gentle manner she had, and the background music hummed straight through her into me. The moment planted deep in me the certainty that no sexual experience could ever satisfy the way that killingly bittersweet flirtation did. In that moment I must have given up the rest of my life—I thought, as a young man will, that I was going to die anyway from my undiagnosed problem: the twenty-year-old who shared my room died from bone cancer—she danced me into another kind of disorder, of complete unmediated pleasure that asks nothing but that you give the rest of your life to it, to the moment of it. Bliss is always loss, and we remember both as one trembling movement of the spirit. Eros fulfills itself by exhausting itself, it enlivens the life it's draining. After that encounter, after that full-body promise of a real dance someday, my nurse never came back.
Originally Published: October 10, 2006

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2006

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 W. S. Di Piero

Biography

W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of English and on faculty in the prestigious Stegner Poetry Workshop. Elected to the American Academy of . . .

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