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The Usable Field…Let’s try this again

By Lucia Perillo

I just finished Jane Mead’s new book, The Usable Field, and wanted to post a poem from it because I read with interest, chagrin, and both agreeable and argumentative impulses, the comments following Doug Powell’s post on Larissa Szporluk (it’s in the archive now, see “New Bat City.”) One reader made the remark that she found the posted poem “hermetic” and that touched off the blogostorm. I know I’m touching on the issue of accessibility, the discussions of which I haven’t seen yet (should dig in the archive, I know), but I was tickled to hear it described by one post-er as pies circling around in a display case at a diner.

We could say that meaning is collaborative—the writer does half the work and the reader does the other half in creating the poem. I felt that the post-er who had questions about Szporluk’s poem got some pretty old lectures, like the one about poetry as analogous to abstract-expressionist art (I’m not sure the analogy holds, given the poem is (isn’t it?) to be experienced in a temporal way, from start to finish, whereas the painting doesn’t give those kind of instructions. Daisy’s comparison to music videos is a better analogy because they too are temporal.)
What I thought would be more fun than arguing about accessibility (to use the carnival instead of the combat model) is if people who drift through here put up their readings of/responses to one of Jane’s poem as a way of creating collaborative meaning. Disclaimer: Jane is my friend. I always say: Jane, what are you talking about? And I suspect she thinks: Lucia, must you be so long-winded, you could take half the words in your poems out! But, seeing as we’ve known each other 25 years and are not going to change, we better come to collaboration soon or else we’ll be dead.
Now, a reader could say: “Hey, wait, I just came off waitressing at Denny’s, working graveyard (should have known when I majored in English thirty years ago that it was going to be tough to get a job). I’m too tired to collaborate; just let me just curl up with unfashionably-accessible poet X, at least I’m one of the few people who check poetry books out of the library.” Or the reader might say: “What, just because I’m a waitress you think I haven’t read Adorno?”
Anyway here is the poem. This is one that, for me, passes the memorability test the blog was talking about.
For just as there is alabaster
in the marketplace there is
the remembrance of gypsum
in the sun,—when the body
watches. If you listen
you will turn toward a remote
and ancient calling: alien:
you survive: beyond the brownish air
around the globe another
streaked sky waits—as if for
a flickering-of-wings which it cannot
contain. As if for the flinch
in your voice.—Which it can.

Comments (11)

  • On July 3, 2008 at 10:41 am Don Share wrote:

    This should be fun!! We just published three new poems by Jane in the October 2007 issue of Poetry, should anyone like to see more…
    I’ll start the ball rolling by saying that I love the way “gypsum” sounds. Not only that, it is quite lovely when it turns up like a sandy brownish flower in what’s called “desert rose.” Nevertheless, alabaster is a whitish, fine-grained variety of gypsum which turns up in all kinds of ornamental things – including statues and… poems.

  • On July 3, 2008 at 1:29 pm Daisy wrote:

    Just noticings, inconclusive:
    Gypsum’s also used to make plaster of Paris and also for fertilizer. (I don’t know things like this, I just looked it up.) So something industrial, perhaps, in addition to the ornamentality, to contrast with the more arty feeling of alabaster.
    Alabaster skin comes to mind when that watching body appears a few lines after “alabaster.” It’s a cliche when one says it like that–“alabaster skin”–but that hint of utility in the word in the context of this poem, and the way it attaches to “body” from a distance, reinvigorates it.
    I’m finding a delicateness and a poisonedness in this poem, in the “brownish” air and the sense of the industrial that attaches to gypsum. Two qualities that hang out together and don’t resolve. A linguistic lightness–gypsum and alabaster, for example, are perfectly tasty!–and an underlying doominess.
    This poem is all sonic precision. And surprise. In an understated way. Really nice.
    Because it’s the body, not the eyes, that watch, and because the next action is listening, I’m made to feel, reading this, a little bit blind. A sensation increased by the lack of visuals until you get to the streaky sky.
    The stanza-break after “remote” makes that word (in my brain, anyway) into the object we use to change the channel/turn on the A.C./etc. But we immediately zap away from that thingification when “and antique” turns “remote” back into an adjective.
    Survival (personal? of the species?) is an alien, and an ancient calling?
    There’s a privateness at the end that’s hard to figure out. The flicker-of-wings feels like some kind of visitation, but it might just be a bird. And feels like the only bird left, or something.
    I’m finding out I’m reading into, or out of, this poem, an environmental anxiety. Hmm. (Is Jane Mead rolling her eyes?) I think that last bit of syntax is thrilling. I think the sounds and meanings of flickering moving to flinching are thrilling.
    Is it good or scary that the streaked (beautiful? polluted?) sky can’t contain flickering wings but can contain the flinching? The ending seems possibly to be an affirmation of the negative.
    Who’s “you”? Me, the reader? “You,” the poet-speaker’s intimate?
    There’s an emptiness to this poem–an emptied-out-ness, I mean–and yet it starts in such a social place, “the marketplace.” I wonder if it’s a physical marketplace or the market as in financial markets.
    Obviously Mead would have said if she wanted us to know.
    I don’t know what to make of the arrival in the title, at all. Except that this poem feels set at a windswept airport, without ever saying so. I think “arrival” contributes to that.

  • On July 4, 2008 at 9:50 am j.h. stotts wrote:

    i think most people will find themselves latching onto the end, with the fine, typical device mead has made.
    the ‘you’ is receiving a gift when she arrives–where? in cairo? frankfurt?
    the flickering-of-wings that is too big for the sky does sound like an aeroplane (streaking the sky).

  • On July 4, 2008 at 10:46 am Michael Gushue wrote:

    These words seemed sonically connected to me: gypsum, listen, flinch, and, more faintly, brownish.
    To parse some of the action in a flat-footed way, the poem is speaking about going somewhere, that gypsum will be there at the arrival, because there is a remembrance of gypsum in the sun (which for some reason I see as the setting sun), that the reason gypsum is there is because it’s like alabaster (for sale, a commodity) in the marketplace. But I really can’t honestly paraphrase it, a sign of it’s success.
    Besides alabaster, desert rose (nice) and plaster and drywall, gypsum also forms into feldspar, twinned crystals, selenite (moonrock), satin spar, and crystals 10 meters long (http://www.galleries.com/minerals/sulfates/gypsum/naica1.jpg). Not that this has anything to do with the poem.
    I agree the syntax at the end was awesome. “Which it can” slammed into my chest.
    Maybe I’m reminded of a setting sun, because half the poem seems to be about an ending (remembrance, you survive, arrive), and half about something after the end (turn towards, waits). Maybe this is why it seemed connected to environmental anxiety? Global apocalypse. Or apocal(g)yps(um)e?

  • On July 4, 2008 at 11:53 am Sheryl Luna wrote:

    The poem is memorable for me because it welcomes memory, emptiness, and even human frailty. The memory of the gypsum is as important to the speaker as the alabaster in the market place. And yes, beyond alabaster as white, in my mind, I had to look it up and that it is powdery material used for ornament, the alabaster is material where the memory is not.
    It is the body watching, not the mind or the mind’s eye, but the material “body” and the “calling” is described as both alien and ancient by the speaker. The poem is in essence for me, representational and metaphorical. We do wait as sky waits for the flickering of wings, which in its emptiness cannot be contained. It reminds me of the Mitchell translation of Rilke’s first Duino Elegy about us flinging our emptiness up into the sky and how the birds would possibly fly with more affection because of it. But here the voice, even the flinch of the voice can be contained or not lost.
    The “flinch” in the voice echoes the “flickering-of-wings” for me. Maybe this is because they are both natural movements almost desperate and hurried. The word “contained” is positive as in fullness, rather than restrictive. In the act of speaking we become brave.
    One must listen before turning to the ancient calling. And the calling could be like gypsum in the sun or the flickering of wings. There is a slowing, a survival beyond “brownish air” and I do hope that another “streaked sky” waits. Streaked for me brought forth an image of clouds streaked across a blue sky as opposed to the brown one. Being from the desert, the sky is brown after a wind-storm rather than blue.
    I like the mystery and the ambiguity of this poem too since we don’t know if it’s a person arriving, but in essence it is about the concept of arrival and what seems an ancient calling or struggle towards it. It waits like “the flinch in your voice.” I think of the flinch letting go and the voice finding freedom.
    And I haven’t read Adorno, yet this very flinch does seem to question the authoritarian voice. Perhaps this is why I like it so very much. For me it is more post-modern than some would say, or perhaps it is my own life experience that leads me to read it in a post-modern way. I say “for me” and “I”. Some would say the poem isn’t post-modern, but for me, the “you survive: beyond the brownish air/ around the globe….” is interpreted as survival and the freedom to speak and to be contained rather than lost in the emptiness.
    I like it.
    Happy 4th!

  • On July 4, 2008 at 5:12 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    First reading:
    First line, I think of ED:
    Safe in their alabaster chambers
    Untouched by morning and untouched by noon

    Second line reminds me of Walter de la Mare:
    My mind is like a clamorous market-place.
    All day in wind, rain, sun, its babel wells;

    Third line, I think of Proust.
    I find the punctuation intriguing.
    Not annoyed by this poem,

  • On July 5, 2008 at 12:43 pm Lucia wrote:

    Alabaster makes me think of Dickinson, too. It is a luxurious sort of rock, as opposed to gypsum–which makes me think of wallboard. The reference to the globe–someone being round the globe–and the voice, makes me think of travel and separation, voice as heard on the phone. And the you might refer to the one from whom the speaker is separated.
    If you know Mead’s work, then you know that the body/soul dichotomy is one of her persistent concerns, as well as what the soul translates to, for a secular person. And so that’s the body I think of when she speaks of the body watching.
    But here’s the bigger issue: all this teacherly take-the-poem-apart does feel like a desecration of the poem (maybe because I’m not in the classroom). And I agree with whoever said the poem just must be read, as it is, not unlocked or transposed into something simpler. But if we don’t do that kind of aforementioned processing, how do we read a poem that seems somewhat bent on eluding us?
    Here, we’re supposed to be seduced by the sonic texture (alabaster melodious; gypsum glottal) as well as the metaphysical self questioning. Which, I suppose, concerns feeling alien to oneself.
    I should say that some phrases in this poem are italicized, but that didn’t transpose to blogland.

  • On July 5, 2008 at 4:19 pm Sheryl wrote:

    Yes, the poem also sounds nice. It’s like a piece of music we enjoy. We feel it. We enjoy it.

  • On July 5, 2008 at 4:29 pm Sheryl wrote:

    I just thought that it also gives us a sense of unease possibly, much the way music can and there is beauty in that too.

  • On July 6, 2008 at 11:13 am Daisy wrote:

    Lucia sez: “But here’s the bigger issue: all this teacherly take-the-poem-apart does feel like a desecration of the poem (maybe because I’m not in the classroom). And I agree with whoever said the poem just must be read, as it is, not unlocked or transposed into something simpler. But if we don’t do that kind of aforementioned processing, how do we read a poem that seems somewhat bent on eluding us?”
    I wouldn’t call it teacherly so much as writers-of-poems trying to figure out why this poem gets to us without its being particularly accommodating, and how it does it do that…
    Don’t all good poems elude us in the sense that they do refuse to unlock or simplify? Including the good ones where you feel like you know where you are and what’s happening at all times–but you come to the end of the poem and get that off-balance feeling that something important has happened and you don’t quite know what…
    Anyway, thanks for posting this poem Lucia–because it’s a pleasure of a poem and a pleasure to think about. I’ve always thought it’s harder to talk about poems than it is to talk about poetics, and a good deal more interesting, too.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 1:02 am Guy wrote:

    alien and ancient calling: (migration of birds); as another streaked sky waits as if for the flickering of wings which it cannot contain……………so incredibly beautiful!
    Thank-you Jane

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008 by Lucia Perillo.