More Than Meets the I
There are many kinds of poetry; poetry performs many functions; poetry is more plastic than sculpture, has more microtones than any formal musical system — with fewer rules. Poetry embraces the whole world. What can match the polyamory of language?
I offer these propositions not as an apologia or disclaimer for what follows — I don't pretend to love everything — but as a foundation for judgment. Language is always larger than the poet, so I read these books with an ear for the proportion of self to world; pleasure in language and pleasure in others; and a hunch that there is much, much more to life than meets the I.
New and Selected Poems (1965–2006), by David Shapiro. The Overlook Press. $21.95.
One can usually count on a musician to grasp intuitively the sublimation of ego required to make a thing of beauty. David Shapiro was a professional violinist at the age of five. His achievement, and renunciation of it, haunt the verse he started writing as a teenager. Shapiro's key signatures, ventriloquizing child's talk and allegorizing the violin, offer insight into what it means to be marked at an early age by the demands of mastery:
A certain violinist had a beautiful violin
But before he had had time to play her long and listen
To her tones as such, he was compelled to renounce
And sell her, and go on a far journey, and leave his
violin in the hands of the violin case.
What was there to do? It is said the violin was a swan,
seized the boy, falling upwards to some height above
— From Falling Upwards
The figure of the violin sails through his verse like a green Chagall fiddle.
Like another youth who took a sharp turn from music to poetry, Frank O'Hara, Shapiro searches for a structure of emotion, one that transposes music's rubatos and coloraturas, cadenzas and glissandos, to a range of forms, from the villanelle to the ample romantic ode. The tyranny of psychological verismo (Lowell); the penchant for hoary plainspokenness (Stafford) — those mid-century legacies never touched these children of music, who intuited that even the loftiest requiem is first and foremost a pleasure of the senses. For them, what enters the poem by way of dream, chance, and fancy — and the effect of ecstatic bewilderment they arouse — is the traditional purview of the poetic. “And nothing in language is strange, to me,” Shapiro declares. The play on Montaigne's aphorism “Nothing human is alien to me” implies that his brand of experimentation is in the humanistic tradition, liberating possibilities.
Even so, in Shapiro's work the liberating possibilities of form (taken in its widest sense) are counterpointed with the bondage of content: the family. “About This Course” litanizes the problem:
My father's viola, my sister's cello, my
My uncle's piano, my mother's piano, my sister's
My father's violin, my sister's cello,
my grandfather's voice.
Shapiro's grandfather was, indeed, a famous cantor. Hedged in by fathers and father figures (even in his academic field he is haunted by the unrelated but homonymous Meyer Schapiro — see “Song of the Eiffel Tower”), poet Shapiro devises a style of lyrical child's talk, sometimes subsumed in Mother Goose rhythms, and subjects that invoke school. In one of his poems about snow he rhapsodizes:
At the end of the street I hear a snowy song;
Snow birds are lost in Chinese white snow;
In a single night parts of the car have turned to snow;
Another car moves forward for science.
Snow has fallen into the old bottle of eraser fluid.
— From Snow
This boyish voice seems constructed to express as flexibly as possible the maximum amount of play and the maximum amount of anguish. “In times of pain, I open the dictionary,” he says in “To a Muse.” “You do your griefwork, dreamwork, like homework,” goes “The Night Sky and to Walter Benjamin.” Addressing his fathers thus, Shapiro may also be ventriloquizing another David, the youthful musician in the Bible who mollified a melancholy king with song.
When eventually the agonistic son turns into a father himself,
a wild and self-immolating love turns out to be the antidote to the loss of wholeness Shapiro experienced when he gave up the violin:
I love you so much
I am going to let you kill me.
Your clubfoot that I have pierced
is more beautiful, to me, than your mother's breast.
— From To My Son
The allusion is to the etymology of Oedipus: his father Laius had pierced and bound his feet in attempted infanticide. Here Shapiro seems to join the Laius / Oedipus and Abraham / Isaac myths, acknowledging the Oedipal infliction but choosing self-sacrifice over self-preservation. “I fear every narrow road / on which we will eventually meet,” he admits, but his love is overpowering. In another poem for his son sleeping, “Bambino Ebreo” (the title of a Medardo Rosso sculpture translated as “Hebrew Boy”), Shapiro echoes the refrain “But you are mine” until the poignancy is unbearable; you'd swear you were hearing a Portuguese song of saudade, not a Daddy poem from an apartment in Riverdale.
I wish that, instead of a selected, these books were collected and reprinted whole. When a poet invests each work with ingenious sleights and risky gambits, a “best of” leaves me preoccupied with what I must be missing. Still, this volume fairly vibrates with emotion and esprit: from the vale of soul-making Shapiro has created a sprechgesang of anxiety and ecstasy surpassing the Beats. The family
romance in his oeuvre functions as a motif: autobiographical data is subsumed in music, real music: not rhymed prose, not enjambed journalism. Shapiro enchants.
Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey. Mariner Books. $13.95.
But what of elegiac works that reject the premise of art's enchantment? At barely fifty pages, Native Guard nevertheless aspires to monumentality, memorializing both Trethewey's mother, murdered at the hands of her stepfather, and the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first black Civil War regiments.
Native Guard is structured like a dialectic, in three parts: the autobiographical as thesis, the historical as antithesis, and the intertwining of the personal and the historical as synthesis. First she limns her relationship with her mother, who dies; then she imaginatively reconstructs the experience of the Native Guards in the 1860's; finally, in the strongest section, she combines the personal and the historical in recollections of her childhood in the South in the explosive sixties. The dialectic is used to allegorize her very person: Trethewey is a synthesis of a black mother and white father. Their marriage was illegal in Mississippi, and her birth thereby illegitimate. But the illegitimate daughter refuses to give up her legacy, which encompasses the land and its history, its mess and its murderousness. She comes back again and again, rooted to the source of trauma, and in an act of equal parts reconciliation and defiance, creates a tribute for the Native Guards, whom the state has neglected to memorialize whatsoever.
The story is heroic; the architecture is contained. Between the dialectical structure and the variety of carefully crafted patterns she brings to the matter — blues, ghazal, villanelle, sonnet, and even an ingenious palindrome — Trethewey brings together race and ratio, or the racial and the rational, as if to heal the old irrational wound inflicted by the state. However, the insistence on symmetry and pattern becomes too pat, such as when she sets the book up to begin and end with passages to Gulfport. “Theories of Time and Space,” her opener, seems written solely to launch the plot:
You can get there from here, though
there's no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you've never been. Try this:
head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion — dead end
Sprezzatura this is not. Like Lowell in Life Studies or For the Union Dead, Trethewey does some heavy lifting, and taking poetic flight is not an option when you are ruled so fatefully by reality, by facts. Although it is almost unacceptable to say so ( say it! ) monuments are by definition static and therefore risk being staid. Memorial art is of a piece with death, at least if you think, like me, that even representations should be allowed their portion of autonomy. If the poem is simply a vehicle, a means to an end, there's no need to ensure that every line conveys vitality, but only that it communicates its point.
Then again, as a first-generation American who's done my share of bouncing around, what do I know about passionate attachment to a native land? When Trethewey dreams that she is being photographed (in whiteface) with the Fugitive poets and they turn on her with the question, “You don't hate the South?” (“Pastoral”), I am moved by the drama's authentic strangeness. Elsewhere, I admire the force of a transverse association: in “Miscegenation” she tells us that her name, Natasha, means “Christmas child” in Russian. A few pages later, the cross that is burned on her lawn one night is “trussed like a Christmas tree” and the whole phantasmagoric scene has the effect of a nightmare version of The Nutcracker. There's a lot of portentous symbolism in Native Guard, but that unforeseen jet redeems poems weighed down with message.
I blame Lowell's legacy for the traps that snare Trethewey in
a sometimes suffocating elision of closed form, close relations,
and closeted history. Trethewey does not match the knowing egocentrism of lines like “I myself am hell” or “I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil.” Implicit in her project, though, is Lowell's pinched notion that poetry begins with a psychological “I,” piquing prurient curiosity, then elevates that “I” beyond memoir by placing it in
a larger context of recovering cultural memory. It's a formula by
now, and it wasn't a good idea even when it was new: it reinforces
the prejudice against “mere” poetry (lyric, that trivial thing) by
requiring that poetry keep memory alive or raise consciousness. If poetry does want to achieve those things, it also has to give us new ways of experiencing pleasure, which, after all, is what makes lyric impossible to ignore.
Next Life, by Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.
How is it that a poet who rarely uses the pronoun I is one of the most distinctive “voices” in the field? Rae Armantrout's tenth book of poetry explores a conundrum: what does it mean to be both utterly singular and utterly ephemeral? Appealing to both science and religion for explanations, Armantrout ends up only with more metaphors, the chain of resemblance ultimately meaningless — as Borges's fictional Averroes says, “There are infinite things on earth; any one of them may be likened to any other.” Poets take for granted that they may liken, compare, mimic, echo, and ventriloquize with impunity; this is our way of knowing, our epistemology. Armantrout turns around and confronts the daemonic principle behind it:
For lack of which
we put ourselves
in a cop's place
as he puts himself
inside the head
of a serial killer rapist
who appears to be
teasing the police.
Then she offers her own idea of a police procedural. You can compare a bare tree to a human skeleton, Armantrout says, but
To quick-step up the street
in a knit red cap
one time only.
Red cap is to
one time only
— From Tease
The trail goes cold quick — the poem ends on that fragment. If life, or being, is a “serial killer,” then poets looking for clues to its meaning are the obsessed detectives baited by a madman.
Yet there's much good humor in observations that juxtapose brute facts with human eccentricity:
The way the ancient
has arranged itself.
At the bus stop:
a hunched woman
above a Peter Pan
a blue jumper,
— From Arrangements
Although the observer foregrounds the old woman in vaguely schoolgirlish clothes, the comedy really lies in the speed with which she travels from the origins of the universe to a random stranger at the end of her life cycle, whose atoms are soon to be redistributed in a newer “arrangement” yet. It's as if the empathetic exercise of imagining how a fellow human might have looked as a baby got dtourned by a graphic of the Big Bang.
The acerbic “Parse” makes hash of the “epiphanic” poem ^agrave; la Mary Oliver:
Backwash of revelation:
to see these articulated,
as one thing;
to hear bird-chirps
parse the plenum.
Whether the epiphanic poet's impulse is to collapse distinction and see the world as a rapturous manifestation of Being, or whether it
is to name and celebrate the particularities, Armantrout casts a cold eye on it:
Then God diddles us
with this sunset,
its pale pinks and
tender blues. This
reminds us of something,
if only our own
This sort of blasphemy (against the poetry of sunsets as much as God) sets the stage for an examination of what is truly awesome — the terrifying asymmetry between our bodies and empty space. If there are epiphanies, they are full of dread, not affirmatives.
Next Life is Christian — or culturally Christian — in its allusions to the “soul,” Jacob, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth. Armantrout herself plays the role of Doubting Thomas, sticking her finger into wounds, breaking lines as though they were physical objects which must yield some eschatological evidence. She wields her religious references unsentimentally, yet they're no less real for the purposes of her inquiry than concepts from physics:
In the last analysis,
at the Planck length,
the energy required
to ask the right question
is so great
the inquiry itself forms
a miniature black hole.
— From Shine On
Poets who detail their personal lives, who make their own dramas the center of their verse, may do so in rebellion against the increased bureaucratization and mathematization of our world — the world of cost-benefit analysis, risk management, demographics, and probabilities. I sympathize with that. Nevertheless, I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout's. There's more pathos in a poetry that recognizes the universe is central; the poor human, eccentric.
Halflife, by Meghan O'Rourke. W.W. Norton. $23.95.
Meghan O'Rourke has taken to heart Gaston Bachelard's belief that “Being starts with well-being.” Poetic creation finds its source in a childlike confidence in the world:
From where I stood, the tree, de-leafed and nude,
appeared to bow to me.
—From My Life as a Teenager
Our house was built in a valley where the storms
shook it. As if God were thinking of me.
—From A Further Sea
How lucky it is I was born
to tell you the way it all turned out.
A proper Bachelardian analysis of Halflife, her first book, would also reveal her poetic temperament to belong to the undine. Water imagery presides, in lakes and streams and beaches of summer houses, even the uterus. Twice she imagines the womb, once as a place of protection she is flushed from and another time as the site of a twin sister's loss.
But it's not just imagery: it's the mode of reverie itself that suggests ebb and flow. One image melts into another:
I could swim underwater. I could make trains rattle with speed — could close my eyes and press the cold center pole in the first car, the living tendril in it, and find what fed.
—From Two Sisters
Water reveries specialize in the disjointed scenarios of memory and dream. Since so much of O'Rourke's subject matter is preoccupied with adolescence, its intensity of sensation, its intimations of mortality,
this is a nice feint — it feels intimate without being too confessional, like this sweetly coy ending:
Let me live offshore, where the water is low.
Strange, and then so much less so.
I was seventeen. Do you want
to know what I didn't know?
—From The Lighthouse Keeper
A clue to O'Rourke's method can be gleaned from her epigraph, a quote from W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. “The sudden incursion of unreality into the real world ... kindled our deepest feelings, or at least what we took for them.” It's that “at least what we took for them” that signals her wary stance toward the mainstream confessional as handed down from Lowell. She understands that the presentation of an “authentic” self is suspect; feelings do not translate into words but are transmogrified into new experience by words. This stance toward authenticity, this dreamy scrim of language, allows her to blur the boundaries of her ego. She wields it distinctively in the poems where she contemplates a newspaper account of another “Meghan O'Rourke” who was raped and almost murdered in Vermont in 1988, or when she imagines the subjectivity of a non-surviving twin who dies in utero. The “partial outlines” of other people's disasters haunt the edges of O'Rourke's happiness.
My only disappointment with Halflife is that it has no real quarrels with form, with poetry itself. I don't mean that it should have been peppered with an obligatory villanelle, sestina, pantoum, and sonnet (I'm glad it isn't). I mean that O'Rourke doesn't strain enough against the limits of language. While she's enough of a Modernist to let that “incursion of unreality” disquiet her work, it never quite shades into a real difficulty with the world — the kind of difficulty that drives poets
to take extraordinary chances with the medium. And, in the end, I'm too much of a Modernist myself not to choose an all-out quarrel with poetry over a Bachelardian well-being.
Blackbird and Wolf, by Henri Cole. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.00.
Henri Cole's sixth book shares a sensibility with O'Rourke's first; both discover the same metaphor: “my red thoughts in a red shade all I was,” says Cole; “The light of the mind is red,” O'Rourke says. (It's like Marvell and Stevens sunbathing!) Both do summer in proximate mental spaces. Here's Cole again:
A pink butterfly capers
over the cosmos, where it got lost this morning.
Is it straight from God, the freedom?
I want to write something highly controlled
that is the opposite, like a dizzy
honeycomb gleaming with amber light.
— From Dune
And here's O'Rourke again:
Is the blue the blue you think of when I tell you?
Do ghosts have neuroses?
What is the point of the haunting they do?
Here — look. No, look.
I am trying to rid myself of myself;
to see past the tumbling clouds.
— From Meditations on a Moth
The poets share a kind of period style, conventional and psychologized, taking themselves as center and God as circumference. But O'Rourke takes more pleasure in the world as it is, delighting in the frescoes of the Chrysler Building, for instance, where in Cole's poems the environment — usually bucolic — stands for something else. In this he, like Trethewey, is sojourning still in Lowell country. The heavy-handed symbolism of “American Kestrel” harks back to “Skunk Hour”:
I see you sitting erect on my fire escape,
plucking at your dinner of flayed mouse,
like the red strings of a harp, choking a bit
on the venous blue flesh and hemorrhaging tail.
With your perfect black-and-white thief's mask,
you look like a stuffed bird in a glass case,
somewhere between the animal and human life.
The love word is far away. Can you see me?
I am a man. No one has what I have:
my long clean hands, my bored lips. This is my home:
Woof-woof, the dog utters, afraid of emptiness,
as I am, so my soul attaches itself to things,
trying to create something neither confessional
nor abstract, like the moon breaking through the pines.
The harsh parallel between kestrel and poet as two creatures in limbo — one existing “somewhere between the animal and human life” and the other between the confessional and the abstract — was arresting enough to make me pause and wonder if the comparison really holds. But so much intrudes — the narcissistic “No one has what I have” and the final simile, whose loveliness seems a kind of backpedaling after the “dinner of flayed mouse.” Like many of the poems in Blackbird and Wolf, this seems too precious to be spontaneous, too vague to be a full-fledged thought.
“Like an outdated map, my borders are changing,” Cole writes in “Birthday.” The preoccupation with the boundaries of the self — self and parents, self and lover, self and nature — is always its own impasse, but Cole circles back again and again, driven by a deep-seated but obscure injury hovering behind the gorgeous scenery, the flowers and trees and ponds. While he recognizes that “to be a person who fully loves” (“Hymn”) is the only redemption, he hyperdramatizes his inability to break through the solipsism:
“Mr. Weed,” I said, “I'm competitive,
I'm afraid, I'm isolated, I'm bright.
Can you tell me how to survive?”
—From My Weed
How much longer will we have to endure these variations on “I myself am hell”? In my dreams, students of poetry across the country read Blackbird and Wolf and revolt against the pronoun
“I” and tortured Oedipal conflicts. The word “bored” (c.f. “my bored lips”) is repeated over and over until it dissociates from meaning. Metaphorical identification with animals, particularly dogs and kestrels, is forbidden, at least until poetry rights the balance between self and others, a balance that should be tipped toward others in a gesture that is at least as aesthetic as it is moral.
Music's Mask and Measure, by Jay Wright.
Flood Editions. $12.95.
Music's Mask and Measure is Jay Wright's first book of poems since his six-hundred-page collected, Transfigurations, came out in 2000. Beautifully produced in an edition that looks almost handmade, the reduced scale and quiet tones, short lines and simple vocabulary, are designed to mask (hence the title) Wright's epic vision in intimate measures. In truth, these new lyrics — grouped into five “Equations” — allude to gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Eastern religion, and pre-Socratic thought: far from being miniaturist lyrics, they propound a mystical correspondence between the physical universe and the human soul, mediated through math in music and measure in dance. The equations, as in algebra, allude to the unknown quantity x or, alternately, the invisible dancing partner:
dresses our faith. If ruin
has a small beginning,
there is still the far-shining promise
of a mortal altar
and a welcome dancer
who will not betray us.
Call this a surrounding fiction,
a transformative disposition.
—From Equation Five
There's an echo of Robert Duncan's “fictive certainties” in those last lines, as well as in the shared vocabulary of dancers, roses, measures,
and transcendent love. Quoting Suzanne Langer in Elaine's Book (collected in Transfigurations), Wright lays claim to her insight: “and the triumph of empiricism is jeopardized by the surprising truth that our sense data are primarily symbols.” For poets of this tendency, the world is occult, and poetry's attentiveness helps tease out the hidden reality:
What we call
our own might only be
the first stroke upon
clock, an instant shift
of center, a notion
the Cusan could
propose and stir
in the atom.
—From Equation Three
Nicolas of Cusa posited the existence of an intellect comprising more than that which sense data and reason tell us. Now that science tells us that “our sense data are primarily symbols,” translated to the brain via nerve impulses and reassembled in the frontal cortex, the Cusan's truth is confirmed. Appearances are deceiving. What we see is just an interface. The very building blocks of matter are in flux.
Although Music's Mask and Measure is a highly distilled elixir compared to some of the more sprawling and explanatory poems in Transfigurations, it is only an obscure book if you have no ear for the sensual delights of language. Every page sings with a grammar that mixes determinate and indeterminate meanings:
With wet snow
in the nearest birch,
October writes under
Punch that for God's trace,
or the cozy
fire of harvest
—From Equation Three
Wright is like Armantrout without the terror. For him, consciousness and sentience aren't anomalies; we are continuous with stardust in a cosmic masque. And, like Shapiro, he sees poems as musical compositions embodying the marvelous. Since masque and music are precisely what poetry can do that other genres, like memoir and journalism, cannot, I don't see why I shouldn't ask for more of this, and more and more...
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...