Prose from Poetry Magazine

"More Thinking and Less Streaming"

New books by Bidart, Stone, Gibbons and Boruch reviewed by Michael Robbins.
"This is slice-of-life Americana; somewhere a creative writing teacher is handing it out and admonishing his students to write what they know."
Watching the Spring Festival, by Frank Bidart.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.00.

“When the body got too discomposed, / I’d just jack off, letting it fall on her . . .”: for some reason, I haven’t seen Frank Bidart’s mind-of-a-serial-killer poem “Herbert White” used to promote National Poetry Month. Bidart has spent the last three decades forging a distinctive and bizarre art, less confessionalist than shock therapist, that privileges “subject matter” over Modernism’s legacy of stylistic affronts. In a useful interview with Mark Halliday included in In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965 – 1990, Bidart contends that a poem is not only a display of Aristotelian mimesis but an action in itself, an idea he expresses at the formal level by presenting his poems in a typographical frenzy of almost Futurist sheen. The poem is “a mind in action”:
I had to learn how to use the materials of a poem to think. I said to myself that my poems must seem to embody not merely “thought,” but necessary thought. And necessary thought (rather than mere rumination, ratiocination) expresses or acknowledges what has resisted thought, what has forced or irritated it into being.
A cerebral poetry, then, that endlessly seeks a demystifying uncoupling of thought from what passes for thought in a culture that (as the poem “Advice to the Players” in Bidart’s last book, Star Dust, has it) “does not understand how central making itself is as manifestation and mirror of the self, fundamental as eating or sleeping.”

Like Robert Hass and Jack Gilbert, Frank Bidart is a sparse poet with a taxing measure of workmanship, having published only seven books between 1973 and 2005. The poems can at times seem too labored over, too tautly vigilant of superfluous words, but they constitute one of the most painstakingly articulated and syntactically astute studies of emotional life ever undertaken in American letters. Best of all is 2005’s Star Dust, which contains many of the most elegant lyrics of Bidart’s career as well as “The Third Hour of the Night,” the most recent section of a poem begun in 1990 that has rightly struck many readers as one of American poetry’s enduring productions. “Third Hour” proposes the argument that absorbs Bidart’s later poetry:
After sex & metaphysics,—
. . . what?

What you have made.
And now Bidart has made Watching the Spring Festival, his first collection composed solely of shorter lyrics, in which making provides not consolation but illusion of meaning in the no longer theoretical light of mortality:
You believe not in words but in words in
lines, which disdaining the right margin

Out of ceaseless motion in edgeless space

Inside time make the snake made out of
time pulse without cease electric in space

Like the invisible seasons

Though the body is its
genesis, a poem is the vision of a process

Out of ceaseless motion in edgeless space

Carved in space, vision your poor eye’s single
armor against winter spring summer fall
               —From Winter Spring Summer Fall
Though this book largely eschews the idiosyncratic punctuation and typography of Bidart’s earlier work, his mastery of enjambment here is precision-tooled. Line breaks defer semantic resolution as syntax clots with possibility:
How those now dead used the word love bewildered
and disgusted the boy who resolved he

would not reassure the world he felt
love until he understood love

Resolve that too soon crumbled when he found
within his chest

something intolerable for which the word
because no other word was right

must be love
must be love

Love craved and despised and necessary
the Great American Songbook said explained our fate
               —From Valentine
Bidart’s snaky syntax forces the mind to double back and revise, mirroring and impelling the action of thought. Formally, it resembles nothing so much as the examples Noam Chomsky comes up with to illustrate the mind’s ability to make sense of complex referential relations: “The horse raced past the barn fell.” Like Chomsky, Bidart revels in the creative and literally infinite potentialities of language use.

With no long poem for Bidart to magic, the new collection is a bit slighter than Star Dust and 1997’s Desire. The centerpiece, a ten-page meditation on the Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova’s performance of Adolphe Adam’s Giselle—“Ulanova came to Pomona California in // 1957 as light projected on a screen // to make me early in college see what art is”—is the sole typically Bidartian amalgam of verse and prose set to heated italics. But no less than its predecessors, Watching the Spring Festival forces and irritates us into thought. Bidart is one of those rare artists, like Sonic Youth or John Ashbery, whose every new work is worth buying the day it appears on the shelves.

What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems, by Ruth Stone.
Copper Canyon Press. $32.00.

Author of twelve books of poetry and winner of the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, nonagenarian Ruth Stone can hardly be adjudged a failure. But as I made my way through What Love Comes To, I kept returning to Randall Jarrell’s observation: “to have failed as an artist may be a respectable and valuable thing.” Here is the three hundred and fifty page distillation of a life’s work, too much of it of no particular distinction.

Sharon Olds has praised Stone for her “image imagination,” a formulation unintentionally accurate in its emptiness. The book is a collection of poetry-effects: whitecaps “glitter,” leaves “flutter,” herons with “stick-legs” rise. Poems end on epiphanies of the kind endemic to MFA workshops. Often we are required to return to a meadow:
You can hear him crowing
When the wild mares
Come up out of the night fields
Whistling through their nostrils
In their rhythmic pounding,
In the sound of their deep breathing.
               —From Cocks and Mares
The horses are “wild mares” because this is a poem, their pounding “rhythmic” and their breathing “deep” not because Stone has observed mares closely (although she may have) but because this is the language one uses to describe wild mares. Metaphor is a breezy business; the nearest to hand will do: “Cocks and Mares” begins “Every man wants to be a stud” and puns on “cock” and “fowl.” Here is “Male Gorillas,” from what Copper Canyon assures me is Stone’s “fierce feminist” period:
At the doughnut shop
twenty-three silver backs
are lined up at the bar,
sitting on the stools.
It’s morning coffee and trash day.
The waitress has a heavy feeling face,
considerate with carmine lipstick.
She doesn’t brown my fries.
I have to stand at the counter
and insist on my order.
I take my cup of coffee to a small
inoffensive table along the wall.
At the counter the male chorus line
is lined up tight.
I look at their almost identical butts,
their buddy hunched shoulders,
the curve of their ancient spines.
They are methodically browsing
in their own territory.
This data goes into that vast
confused library, the female mind.
This is slice-of-life Americana; somewhere a creative writing teacher is handing it out and admonishing his students to write what they know. I suppose it’s too late to complain that “data” is a plural noun, but is there any excuse for writing that allows a “line” to be “lined up”?

I’m being hard on a ninety-three-year-old woman not simply because condescending to her would be worse, but because once in a while Stone produces something disturbing and exact. Some of her best poems address her husband’s suicide, as if such pain galvanized her language:
One day you followed a snowbird over the tundra.
You followed it beyond sight of the camp, of the others,
as if for a moment there was a choice.
As the bird, filaments burning in a web of moss,
its tiny skeleton, its skull
that searched ahead of you like radar.
               —From Happiness
At other times, she expertly mines the narrow vein that James Wright prospected in Tuscany:
My love’s eyes are red as the sargasso
With lights behind the iris like a cephalopod’s.
The weeds move slowly, November’s diatoms
Stain the soft stagnant belly of the sea.
Mountains, atolls, coral reefs,
Do you desire me? Am I among the jellyfish of your griefs?
I comb my sorrows singing; any doomed sailor can hear
The rising and falling bell and begin to wish
For home. There is no choice among the voices
Of love. Even a carp sings.
               —The Talking Fish
It’s always impolitic to pose loopy questions to coral reefs, and I wish sailors in poems could be allowed to enjoy the voyage, but the language here is unexpected enough to be worth remembering. “Snow, that white anesthesia, evaporates,” Stone writes elsewhere. “An entire mountain blushes. / Everything’s been at it.” The drop from the self-consciously elevated “white anesthesia” to the slangy “been at it” is nicely timed, convincing in its attention to craftsmanship. If only I could say the same of more of the poems in What Love Comes To.

Creatures of a Day, by Reginald Gibbons.
Louisiana State University Press. $45.00 cloth; $16.95 paper.

In his ambitious autobiographical “Fern-Texts,” the long poem that closes Creatures of a Day, Reginald Gibbons informs us that in the late sixties
I started reading Duncan,
                    Rexroth, Snyder, Neruda,
Wang Wei, Paz, streamy thinkers—
                    did the nerve of a culture
that was dying need thunder
                    to rouse it? (Everson).
If this gathering of poets were any mistier, they would find themselves in a drum circle with Robert Bly. This is the point of the lines—Gibbons has earlier given us Coleridge’s denunciation of the “streamy Nature of Association” that “Thinking . . . curbs & rudders.” Nevertheless, Creatures of a Day would have benefited from more thinking and less streaming.

“Fern-Texts” comes with a portentous subtitle, “Autobiographical Essay on the Notebooks of Young Samuel Taylor Coleridge (b. 1772),” and interweaves passages from Coleridge’s notebooks with reminiscences of the author’s own youthful dissipations. Gibbons introduces the distances that separate him from his model by assuming a historian’s tone: after quoting Coleridge’s droll recipe for what seems to be ginger beer—“then put in a Gallon Barrel—Close up the Barrel—Nota bene—you may do it legally the habeas corpus act being suspended”—Gibbons writes:
(One could tyrannically
                    confine the fermenting stuff
because in ’94 the
                    government had suspended
the right of persons not to
                    be jailed without being charged.)
I’m not convinced that explaining a joke is the best way to begin a poem.

That Coleridge followed a familiar trajectory from revolutionary idealist to crotchety “anti- / democratic man who’d come / to hate those in whose name he’d / fought” prompts Gibbons, a professor at Northwestern University, to indulge in Age-of-Aquarius nostalgia:
whirling metaphors flew from
                    Ginsberg, at loud group meals my
young friends contested, laughed, raged
                    under home-made murals of
Inferno at New Pisa
                    in San Francisco and at
the Basque Hotel, where shepherds
                    down from the Sierra ate
sheepless in corners
               and our crowds
                    massed, chanted, threw stones to break
reactionary windows.
This sort of thing is why punk rock had to be invented. Gibbons halfway redeems it by a winking acknowledgment of his romanticizing tendencies. At his best, he crafts a steely photo-capture of natural and human processes that disclose their identity, as in “Confession”:
Down in the blue-green water
                    at nightfall some selving shapes
float fluorescing, trance-dancing,
                    trembling to the rhythm of
theodoxical marching-
                    music that they hear over
the mere noise of the breaking
                    tide. Above, stars in certain
places; along the shore roads,
                    cars carrying people on
uncertain errands.
The attention to nuance here lifts the poem above its more pedestrian moments (“a poor man” is selling a “no-news- / paper”). But for every hard-earned observation like “The bad dust on everything is like powdered herbs of neglect and death-money” (“Ode: At a twenty-four-hour gas station”), there’s a poem like “An aching young man” in which some panhandling kid or halfway-house refugee is conscripted into Rilkean service.

Gibbons often seems to be channeling A.R. Ammons, and he’s very good at it, right down to the grating faux-folksiness. He is given to meditating on moments of “wonder while we all are standing in our muddy back yards.” Wonder is a saleable commodity in a certain strain of contemporary American poetry. It is all too easy, writing within this strain, to fetishize banal and condescending encounters with ordinary folk. In his “Ode: Citizens,” composed in long Howl-like strophes, Gibbons describes an exchange with a student in a class he taught “at a literacy center”:
               how could I help her? she said, if from as early
     as she could remember, for her whole life, nobody had told her
     nothing ?

Nothing. Her strong somehow crooked face, her chipped tooth.
     Her solitary path to this moment—we all understood that she
     had come all this way without mother or father.

And an older woman sitting next to her put an arm around her
     after she had asked the unanswerable questions and together
     they cried softly.

Softly I said the word that I had learned was her scarred name,

Betty, I said, What you have just asked us all, this is what you
     know, this is what you have in yourself to tell us, to give to
     us, that we need.
I have no trouble believing something like this happened, although I do hope that some more practical advice was forthcoming. Elsewhere in Creatures of a Day we learn that “CEOs, celebrities, / flacks, flakes, pimps, war patriots,” “steel patriots / and undertakers, ad-men / and fallen vice-generals” wield a generically corrupting influence; that “our denounced / religions of conquest” have been “violent and . . . / self-acquitting”; and that fundamentalist Christians tend to be somewhat intolerant of nonbelievers. But as the author of Biographia Literaria knew, there are truths that “are too often considered as so true, that they lose all the life and efficiency of truth, and lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors,” unless they be rescued by “the strongest impressions of novelty.” There is much that is true in this book. Only some of it is novel.

Grace, Fallen from, by Marianne Boruch.
Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

Even the title of Marianne Boruch’s new book demonstrates that she is practiced at the art of deflection, an indexer of minute changes that gradually make larger differences. Grace, Fallen from gently replicates its sense at the formal level: grace gives way to past participle until the fall is inscribed in the preposition’s lowercase initial. The astonishing opening poem, “A Moment,” is a showcase for Boruch’s strengths. It begins:
Maybe it’s common, this sort
of first meeting. But once, before a guest house
in Germany, the friend
of a friend to come by, and dinner—
that’s it, we’ll go to dinner, have the famous
spargel, that rare white asparagus, only
in May, our evening pre-arranged by phone,
by email. I need to say again we
hadn’t met.
So far, a skillful little poem, not bad. Only the edgy distractedness of the lines—that deceptively off-handed quality of reported speech—suggests the transformations to come. Boruch is waiting at the door for the man she hasn’t met, while another woman waits at the curb for someone else:
               Then the friend
of my friend — could that be?—his
parking, his pulling himself
out of that tiny car.
Please understand. I’m usually
right there rushing in, because the world
requires that, loves the quickening
of that. But I was
or I wasn’t. Or I was small
but there is smaller. To my left, a door.
Some tree flowering at my right.
I watched as he
to that woman said my name
so charmingly, a question, tilting
his head, are you ...? sorry to disturb,
are you ...?
And in that pause—
her vague focusing on him, her loose
finding him now—I leaned forward,
simply curious: what
would she say? smile? yes? tell him yes?
So thread breaks. So water in a glass
clouds and maybe it clears.
There is so much that is right in this passage—the man “pulling himself” out of his “tiny” car; the opaquely mimetic “But I was / or I wasn’t. Or I was small / but there is smaller”; the precision of “her loose / finding him now,” which exquisitely nails the way a person looks around for the source as she realizes she’s being addressed, her expression changing as she lights upon it. Few writers would so deftly have identified the multiplicity in such an ordinary, even boring scene.

“Some tree flowering at my right”: a lesser poet would have looked up the tree’s name, or used the most mellifluous or metaphorical one she could find. But the poet doesn’t know what sort of tree it is, so it remains an open marker of her experience, a possibility that partakes of the Ashberian without creaking beneath symbolism or music. Other poems similarly defer the allure of the readily poetic:
Somewhere out there, those crows
won’t shut up. Maybe they can’t. And then
they do. Which is why the thrush—I think
it’s a thrush—comes out
from underneath with its weird
echoy thing, huge now but—plaintive,
my mother might have said.
               —From In the Woods: a Suite
Like Elizabeth Bishop, Boruch refuses to see more than there is in things—but her patience, her willingness to wait for the film of familiarity to slip, allows her to see what is there with a jeweler’s sense of facet and flaw. The call of what might be a thrush—what am I, an ornithologist?—is a “weird / echoy thing”; “plaintive” is a poetaster’s word. Boruch inhabits that Stevensian space between the beauty of inflections and the beauty of innuendoes, when the world is weird and reverberating, before thesauruses have been consulted. “Because beauty’s / not generous, isn’t anything / but its passage.”
Originally Published: December 1st, 2008

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014), as well as a book of criticism, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his...

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  1. December 3, 2008
     mark fletcher

    I enjoyed these reviews, even if I think Robbins is a bit hard on Gibbons - it's nice to see such candor. How do you pronounce "Boruch"?

  2. December 10, 2008
     Daniel D'Arezzo

    Here's hoping Michael Robbins will come up with a complete list of poetaster's words, which will be useful not only to poetasters attempting to poemaster but also to such as would elevatemselves into the pure empyrean.

  3. December 10, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Hi Mark - "Bor-OOSH" is the correct pronunciation, I believe. Thanks for the kind words.

    Daniel: Not sure what point you're trying to make, but if it's a dig, I accept it in good humor.

  4. December 12, 2008

    I just want to congratulate the author for his literary skill in writing. His background and interest, along with his vision and sense of imagination, make his literary craftmanship something to be appreciated and valued.

    Kudos and more power to the author. mark escobar

  5. December 16, 2008
     Bianca Stone

    I think Robbins makes some good points about Ruth Stone’s new book "What Love Comes To", but it bothers me when he resorts to pretentious, evasive criticism that seems more intent in belittling the poet then making a good assertion (More Thinking and Less Streaming, by Michael Robbins; Poetry Magazine Online). He undermines Ruth Stone's “Male Gorillas,” sneering at her ability to capture the American male so simply and honestly. I find “Male Gorillas” commanding for its effortless humor and realism. (She comes in seeming more concerned about her fries not being browned then the line of men). Besides, in his comment “but is there any excuse for writing that allows a “line” to be “lined up”” I would be more than happy to provide one. It is incredibly important to have the “line” “lined up tight” in this poem. It is the men’s uniformed, primal feeding line that sets the speaker apart from them. We are made to see clearly the line become a tight line up because she enters the diner in hopes of remaining “inoffensive” but as the line tightens up we see her mere presence is found offensive, and the males tighten to exclude her. It’s the repetition that divides her from the men, and moreover is paralleled with the idea of the poetic line which she wields.

    She never wholly rejects these men. She takes a moment to appreciate their “ancient spines,” how they are “methodically browsing.” It is truly an admiration, as well as a parody of the human condition. It is ultimately a feminist poem because it implies the evolution of women who think rather than rely on primal instinct and are autonomous rather than park of the pack. But since the female mind is “confused” we also get the sense that it is also still evolving and animalistic.

    Plus. “Data” can be used as an abstract mass noun (like information), taking a singular verb and singular modifiers (as this, much, little), and being referred to by a singular pronoun.

    What Love Comes To, was intended to supply England with a taste of her books. However, it should have been more honed in, more loved. Stone a strong poet, an original voice that has been grossly overlooked. And I’m afraid this book hasn’t helped.

    My animosity lies with Copper Canyon for their vapid editing and hands-off policy.

    When helping a 92 year old, blind matriarch down the stairs you don't hold back hoping she'll be OK getting down to the red carpet to the limo—you make sure she has what she needs to get to the damn Pulitzer Prize party in one piece.

    --Bianca Stone

  6. December 18, 2008
     A. A. Fisher

    So we should admire Bidart because he writes poetry about...writing poetry? Hey bud, there's a big world out there beyond the theoretical echo chamber.

    A.A. Fisher

  7. December 18, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Mr. Fisher: Bidart actually doesn't write much poetry about writing poetry . . . don't know where you're getting such an idea. He does write a lot about making art - something poets have been writing about since, uh, Homer. (Read Horace if you want some poetry about writing poetry; in fact, name a single poet, from anywhere in history, who doesn't write about writing poetry sometimes.)

    Nor do I know what this "theoretical echo chamber" is, although if you'll alert me to its whereabouts, I'll be sure to avoid it. Sounds like you've got a beef against literary theory for some reason - it's not a beef I share at all, but my review hasn't the slightest thing to do with theory, so I don't see the relevance.

    All in all, your comment is a non sequitur.

  8. December 14, 2013
     Joseph Scott

    Regarding Mr. Fisher's comment, or rather, the reviewer's response to
    same, I was struck that more lines of reply were spent on this seeming "non
    sequitur" than anything else on the comments page. Don't you find that

    Mr. Fisher may have been echoing Marlowe (I don't know much about that
    genre myself), but alas I think poor snakebite Michael Robbins came all
    undone with one little jab from this world-weary, theory-weary, hardboiled
    poetry detective...

    Ever on the trail of the critic. Who will decide?
    That's an ancient fight.

    But, oh boy, Mr. Fisher...when theorists and the poets start agreeing,
    (and I've been on the planet a good little while)
    then I think I've seen just about everything.