Waking in Foreign Surroundings
What sort of executive would want to tamper with poetry? Aren’t the verse and business universes skew planes, nonoverlapping magisteria? Not so, says Slate. “Corporate communications are typically urgent and concise; there’s always something at stake that must be expressed effectively because the audience is impatient and distracted. It’s a busy world, so one tries to speak in a way that’s worthy of attention. This can be enjoyable work—and probably has had some influence on my poetry techniques. Corporate work can also be very trying. When George Voinovich of Ohio said during the recent Senate appointment hearings that ‘John Bolton would have been fired if he worked for a major corporation,’ I guessed correctly that the senator had never worked for one either.”
Slate’s poetry writing didn’t coincide with his executive work, as did that of Wallace Stevens. When he quit EMC in 2001, he hadn’t written a line in 20 years, so his poetic practice was all over the place. “I tried out a variety of approaches and voices,” says Slate. “This accounts for the multiplicity of sounds, stances, rhythms, and topics.” Diverse realities inspired the jumpy associations of these poems: Argentine inflation, 21,000 crows invading Tokyo, a 1958 Dean Martin ditty, Jasper Johns’s The Watchman, the OD of the shah’s daughter. Other realities existed in his head: memories of a solo firefly, the lifting of a bridge, a leap into the waters of the quarry, a plunge into the Tristia poems of Ovid, Osip Mandelstam, and Stanley Kunitz.
The work is not just disjunctive from poem to poem: there’s a jittery jumpiness from line to line, syllable to syllable, associative leaps that remind me of jet lag, only stimulating. Slate’s “Essential Tremor” plausibly likens “champagne / gently juddering on the table / on the Eurostar speeding through Normandy” with the Nazi conquest (“The Germans shook things up”), a neurological shakiness that runs in the narrator’s family, and JFK’s assassination. “The Demise of Camembert” traces a connection between the decline of slow-ripening traditional cuisine, the rise of fast food and communications, and an impatient terrorist “eating an engineered salty snack, / planning deaths designed his way, / getting more and more thirsty. / So hear me, Compassion begins in the pasture . . . do you and I have a patient nose / for the creamy inwardness of things?”
Slate has a patient nose for cultural news, and his snapshot style is the ripe product of decades of musing, presumably in business class. “The dramatic pretense is: A man wakes to find himself in foreign surroundings and unexpectedly makes remarks to the person beside him,” Slate wrote in a recent e-mail “He’s a bit glib, nervous, incredulous—not a distinguished traveler at all.” Reading Slate is like sitting next to a talkative businessman on a transatlantic flight, only he’s not a simple soul, inclined to salesman’s patter or MBA speak. Slate’s narrator’s head teems with elusive and allusive poetic analogies.
The book also teems with hortatory oratory about failed watching: failures to glimpse and grasp the significant amid the welter of irrelevancies racing past the traveler. “On the ride back to London, the river / may give off instants of glinty light,” he writes. Without this insistently glittery assonance and alliteration, we might miss the moment and remain in darkness.
The moment cannot be seized or presented straightforwardly. Slate’s quest reminds me a bit of T.S.Eliot’s urge to escape from personality. “A poet friend read some of the poems in draft and told me they lacked the ‘personal’ element he had liked in poems I wrote long ago,” says Slate. “Just at that time I looked at the Jasper Johns painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In my poem [“The Watchman”], the watchman is a corporate security guard, monitoring the world through hidden cameras. The watchman watches the screens, the speaker watches the watchman (or is he spying?), and the poem’s reader watches the speaker. For the poet to do his job, the idea is not to be unduly distracted by the personal—that is, the already determined, the ready-made memory, the quaint narrative. . . . The idea is to keep one’s eyes on the empty stretches and watch for what intrudes. That’s where the real ‘information’ comes from. The Johns piece deprives us of a small and convenient meaning, then confronts us with a big, ungainly one. I love art that knows how to withhold the right information.”
Achieving the book’s tensely artful balance of information and mystery took plenty of revision. “In early 2003 I met Louise Glück and the work entered a second stage. Of the 36 poems in the original manuscript, we kept 15. Sometimes her suggestions involved striking or moving lines or stanzas. Sometimes the required changes were more extensive. ‘Lose the drum roll’ was her advice for the revision of the didactic or off-putting endings of some poems.” She suggested the book’s title and reordered the poems’ sequence.
Another signal literary influence was Richard Zenith’s translation of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which incited Slate’s poem “Shame,” another broadside against the “shame of the insensate rushed hour.” Slate calls Pessoa’s work “a disjointed, inspired series of remarks and observations, with a loose narrative thread, by a man who works in an office. He talks of history, art, office life, anonymity, solitude, and the oddness of his psyche. He doesn’t go for the squalid moral victories claimed by defeated people in a humiliating world. On the other hand, he barely seems to have a self to defeat in the first place. Next thing I know, I’m voicing a poem about shame. That’s what I love about great writing: it sets you up like a rich uncle.”
Robert Pinsky, who wrote the foreword to the book and awarded Slate the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, was an influence on it too. Slate’s title poem, “The Incentive of the Maggot,” is in part a response to Pinsky’s “9/11.” Unlike so much of what one reads these days, Pinsky’s and Slate’s responses to tragedy are not dogmatically political.
“The nurse in my poem (inspired by my oldest daughter) is excited because she has seen gangrene for the first time. The patient is pathetically ill, but the nurse peers at the infection as if seeing the other side of reality.” The poem meditates on the paradox that gangrene can be treated by the very maggots associated with death. King Herod was one victim: “The brains behind / The Slaughter of the Innocents died of gangrene / in his penis and kidneys.” So did age-old English soldiers—and yet some “were saved by green blowflies, / their larvae made a soup in the gashes and rips, / dressed the wounds and farmed our flesh. . . . Timelessly they stirred, rose up, staggered in boots / and quickened their steps, as if they had discarded / the dead parts of themselves.”
So what’s the maggot’s motive? “The maggot’s incentive is simply to turn into a green blowfly,” explains Slate, “enter a new phase, take a new shape. Our contemporary tragedies come with embedded incentives—for occasions of deeper understanding and more clear expression.” When the poem decries TV’s refusal to show the coffins of dead U.S. troops, it’s not a conventional, artless liberal political critique. It’s an argument for the subversive and healing power of seeing, and the transforming power of art.
Currently the chief operating officer of a biotech startup, Slate may transform himself back into a literary creature—or not. “It’s not uncommon for writers to make their living outside of academia, though it is common for those in academia to view business life as anomalous and corrupt,” Slate says. “My preference now is to return to teaching, but perhaps my résumé is suspect.”
Seattle's Tim Appelo has been an editor at Amazon.com, EW's video critic, a film critic for The Nation, a People music critic, and a contributor to the Washington Post and the Timeses of New York, LA, and Seattle.