California Sorrow, by Mary Kinzie. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.00.
Rare it is to find such a neat convergence in the dead center of two new collections: both Mary Kinzie's California Sorrow and Robert Pinsky's Gulf Music intersect at the poet's oracle, the dictionary. "I read the dictionary," Kinzie says in her book's centerpiece, "The Poems I Am Not Writing": "Words as ghosts of all who used them but are passed away." The first word she looks up is "attend." Meanwhile, Pinsky uses the dictionary definition of "thing" as the fulcrum for his meditations on the modern world and its pervasive sense of emergency.
thing, thyngan: verb.From Old English thyngian, to parley, to assemble, to confer, to reach terms. To address, to give voice. Compare Old Norse thyngan: to hold a public meeting, and Old High German dingôn: to hold a court, to conduct a lawsuit, to negotiate a compromise or terms of peace.
This is, as Pinsky says, "nearly opposite" of what we mean by the word thing now—"a concrete object." He comes back to it in his notes at the back of the book, remarking, "The very word 'thing' itself is an artifact, with a secret shroud or aura: the word—any word—is an assembly of countless voices that have uttered it or thought about it or forgotten it."
Kinzie: "Words as ghosts." Pinsky: "the very word . . . is an artifact, with a secret shroud or aura." While neither book can be reduced to these pivotal moments, their coincidence at the dictionary reflects the common need for both the public poet (Pinsky) and the meditative poet (Kinzie) to ground their imaginations in an objective source in the absence of any transcendent authority. The dictionary comes to stand for the only transcendence we can trust: a scholarly, impartial, and yet collective and historical document, a record of changes in language rung on cognates. (Since neither poet identifies the particular dictionary they are quoting, they really do mystify the concept, which has a vexed history of its own—there is no "dictionary," there are only dictionaries.) The hidden associations among cognates jolt poets into insights that surprise us and still maintain some truth-value. But that is where the two poets part ways. Kinzie's uncertainty leads her back again and again to attention with its implicit tenderness; Pinsky's uncertainty leads him back again to thing, and the process of history which the word itself has undergone: a hardening. These inclinations are fully present in their forms: Pinsky tending to condensare, Kinzie to air.
What is "Gulf" music? It's the music of the Gulf of Mexico and the Persian Gulf, Hurricane Katrina and Desert Storm, metonyms for chaos. Pinsky, the former poet laureate who has appeared on the Colbert Report, the Simpsons, and the News Hour; who has written a book called Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry; who has spearheaded the Favorite Poems Project: Pinsky is as public a poet as we've got, and Gulf Music is his State of the Union Address.
The book opens with a fragmentary clamor. "Poem of Disconnected Parts" braids together disparate strands of thought imbricating culture and torture. Pinsky alludes to prisons from Cape Town to Guantanamo, to Afghanistan, the Klan, the Trojan War, and Plath's suicide, among other torments. He creates an assembly, a "thing" in its old sense, and it is a hellish one:
At Robben Island the political prisoners studied.
They coined the motto Each one Teach one.
In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as "Profesor."
The first year at Guantánamo, Abdul Rahim Dost
Incised his Pashto poems in styrofoam cups.
Fragmentation in poetry has been contested since The Waste Land, but this is the first time I've heard it compared to Jihadist beheadings:
Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don't also write poetry.
"Disconnected parts" refers to the poem's jerky articulation and the tortured body's disarticulation. The theme is continued in "Gulf Music" and also "Keyboard," which reminds us of Orpheus. Beheaded by the Maenads, his head continued to sing as it floated out to sea. In the myth, that head wound up on the shores of Lesbos, Sappho's isle. In Gulf Music, where beheadings segue into forgettings ("The Forgetting" and "Louie Louie" insinuate that we behead ourselves with our trivia-cluttered, short memories), these singing fragments end up on Akhamatova's shore. She is the apotheosis: the only poet who cannot be made ashamed of poetry, because she has suffered the torments we merely read of, weeping over newspapers. Bodies may be rendered into parts (things); even culture (that hectic assemblage) comes together into a thing with the power to steamroller us into helplessness.
A quieter interlude (the "eye" of the collection) introduces "Thing," a found poem from the dictionary definition. Following it, "First Things to Hand" is a poem in seven sections, revolving around objects such as a book, glass, jar of pens, photograph—the things in one's field of vision as one sits at a desk. Then comes "Pliers," a literal grasping, with lines that mimic in length and rhyme the shape of pliers and, alternating, bolts:
When my mongrel palate, tongue, teeth, breath
Out the noise thing I become host and guest
Angles, Picts, Romans, Celts, Norsemen,
"Pliers" also combines Pinsky's favored measures: the eye sees tercets, but the ear hears it as couplets (it rhymes or echoes AA, BB, CC). This extraordinary condensing throws a backward light on the preceding poems: it illuminates his attempt to grasp, to seize, and to stabilize. Couplets and tercets are wielded as tools.
"Thing," with its paradoxical meanings kept always in mind, surfaces again and again, but nowhere so caustically as in "Inman Square Incantation":
With a mean elfin look one of the homeless carters
In Alfred Vellucci Park sometimes begs using
A stuffed dog, bear or bunny as a prop: the paper cup
Panhandled toward us passing marks puppetwise—
Can you spare a little for Teddy? Or The Doggie's hungry—
Crooning maternal parody, a wheedling mock-innocence.
Ugly facts, but ugly feelings too: "Remember, you rat-faced beggar: I dislike you. Forgive me." Pinsky wants us to understand he is only indicting himself. His dislike of the homeless man is just an extension of his own self-loathing. Poet and beggar cart around their things, and are surrounded by more things, both turned into things by each other's objectification.
The rage at this double abjection/objectification comes through the very lines of Gulf Music as through vents. Never mind poems like "Stupid Meditation on Peace," which ends with men as shit-throwing monkeys, or "El Burro Es un Animal," which dwells on racism and a foul-mouthed circus midget. There's bitterness in the way syllables of trivia are racked up to showcase their very triviality: "Lieutenant Calley. Captain Easy. Mayling Soong. Sibby Sisti." Words too are things; they clatter.
Gulf Music, by taking so much in, ends up partaking of the alienation it critiques. Condensare, Pound advised—but Pinsky condenses so that he can accommodate more words, more information, each isometric line a container for an idea culminating in an essay or allegory. There's a nagging sense, which "Pliers" illuminates, that Pinsky's organization of this material is manipulating (the opening sequence, for instance, laying out its argument that fragments resemble beheadings resembling forgetting); the manipulations produce their own tenor of despair. Thus the insights that end his poems seem like foregone conclusions. Pinsky has translated The Inferno a second time, reflected back as ourselves.
California Sorrow provides an antidote to Gulf Music, as sorrow is the antidote for rage, or quiet the antidote to clamor. In "The Poems I Am Not Writing," one of the anchor pieces of the book, Kinzie alternates between prose and poetry as she explores what is different about each of them. She thinks a poem has a kind of modesty that prose does not:
Explanations and the appeal to authority tear down the modesty of poetry. Its near invisibility. Its perfected impermanence. A scat of wind through a tall fir that knocks off all its caught-up snow and causes the branch to spring about . . . but in smaller, evaporated language that brings no attention to itself because it belongs to something greater—perhaps the greater "Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning" Eliot wrote of as part of his own world of debased, involuntary phantoms.
As the meditation proceeds, Kinzie mines memory and discovers false memory ("Oh darling . . . you've never been in that car; that was in the album"); revisits old notebooks, and discovers mere will ("confessions stiffened by self-consciousness . . . All of this avid pinning-down proved how great was the rift between the surges of will and the power of intuition"). These are failures of the over-reliance on self. She consults the oracle, Dictionary, as that which is not-self. She looks up attend:
Attend LAT tendere to stretch attendere to stretch toward: to take care of to look after accompany be present (at) await. Without attention, nothing can proceed.
Finally she sees "the lesson of Kafka's burrow: when you're in it (as you are in the present moment), you're afraid of losing it. In fact, with its walls about you, you must see it as already lost."
Kinzie here arrives at the intersection of form and insight: using language, we invoke ghosts; invoking ghosts, we realize our own tenuous reality in the scheme of history. This insight suffuses her use of the drifting phrase, the compositional field of the page, and intermittent resort to linguistics. If "avid pinning-down" is the culprit in "The Poems I Am Not Writing," then letting go is deliverance. The resulting form uses white space to break up her lines, let in air. The suggestion of air is everywhere, and she tips us off to it in "The Water-brooks," her opening poem, with its litany of air pollutants, those particulates rendered into syllables that fill the mouth: biosolid, transuranium, methane, sulfuric, slubs.
Kinzie's ideas aren't structured as arguments—they're looser, more playful. "California Sorrow" imagines the drama of T.S. Eliot's breakup with Emily Hale (their last meeting took place in California). She dwells at length on the sensual landscape, reveling in the linguistic pleasures of "lisp and wrinkle of water," palm and eucalyptus. She imagines Hale taking Eliot to that famous hamburger joint, the In-N-Out. Then a funny thing happens: "Kenneth Koch came there with Marianne Moore/ . . . /Daryl Hine/ . . . /Dickinson," Gary Snyder, Jerzy Kosinski, Katherine Mansfield, Gertrude Stein: the list goes on of twentieth-century luminaries coming to the In-N-Out. What does this have to do with the love story of Tom and Emily? One answer might be that this interlude (compared to something from a Buñuel or Fellini film) is Kinzie's imaginative figuration of the zaniness of an affair, one that has the Brahmin Eliot letting down his hair in a land of philistines and beachcombers. In the final movement of the poem, "Feminine Case," the narrator discovers that German suffixes indicating state of mind create feminine nouns. The "little countries of abstraction" like Unzuverlässigkeits (shiftiness) and Verträumtheit (dreaminess) bespeak arrested time; arrested time is gendered feminine. This abrupt change of scenery and subject matter is semi-resolved in the final image:
like the women in Ovid
each of their shadows thrown all one way
into the room
where all the words pile up
and the time of day
Thus Emily Hale enters history as an archetypal woman, like a character in Ovid. But it is hardly a ringing conclusion. It invites further thought, further attention.
Attention admits contingencies into the field, allowing them to linger in doubt, "up in the air," until they are answered by a related image or idea. Kinzie doesn't shy away from brutalities. But she doesn't answer force with force. "Like a Furnace" is another prose sequence blended with poetry, like "The Poems I Am Not Writing." It seesaws between considerations of tenderness and brutality. She contrasts Montale and Homer:
Affection also occasionally overflows the material world. Certain writers seem to meet its hard surfaces with such intuitive tact that these bend and open. Montale, for example . . . .
But then there is the world of Homer, in which brutality overwhelms composure and dignity, even if, far from the battle, the horses of Achilles weep silently at the death of Patroclus.
Kinzie's openness to prose, her exploration of the fluid boundary between it and poetry, provides a counterpoint to Pinsky's lines wielded as pliers. For he cannot or will not yield to prose in Gulf Music, despite his appeal to argument, to rhetoric.
A last word about the dictionary and its serving not as a schema to map a progression of ideas, but as an oracle, a reminder of what is and was. At the end of "Like a Furnace," Kinzie makes a discovery:
Ash (1) on askr IE osen LAT ornus
mountain ash; any of a group of timber and shade trees belonging to the olive family having pinnate leaves winged fruit and tough elastic wood with a straight close grain suited for the haft of hammers axes spears (2) ME asche akin to ON askr; the gray or silvery powder left by something after burning this color pallor.
Pinnate leaves drought
wind thirst pallor
the Pelian ash spear against which
Achilles leaned thoughtfully when Athena
promised him Hector
Like a furnace, indeed—or a crucible. Hector, Achilles, and Athena's fates are linked at the juncture where Achilles holds an ash spear, whose meaning spins out from the dictionary to encompass the goddess's gray eyes and the dust that Hector's corpse will be dragged through by horses—the same horses we met in the beginning of the poem that weep at Patroclus's death.
There's a tingle of delight when suddenly, emerging from the free play of thought, all the harmonics of a word resound at once, producing its ghostly overtone. That delight is no mere idea: it is a physical spark. A resonating ash spear has come to Kinzie as a gift in a poem that lays bare its workings and leads us, in its winding way, to a startling point. The gift seems to come simultaneously out of the air, and condensare, and nowhere.