Live All You Can
Michael Robbins on Susan Wheeler, Jack Gilbert, and J.D. McClatchy.
Assorted Poems, by Susan Wheeler.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.00.
“Civilized is about having stuff,” Frederick Seidel wrote a few years ago. In Assorted Poems, Susan Wheeler follows the exuberant, destructive logic of capital to its endpoint: “pass the box of Fannie Mae / said Freddie Mac.” She is an imp loosed in the garish cereal aisles of poetry, where Count Chocula is on sale alongside “Nickel Cadmium Postgraduate Ice Cube Waldrop / Exile Witness Nike Iowa Snapple Foucault.” This volume selects poems from Wheeler’s four books—Bag ‘o’ Diamonds (1993); Smokes (1998); Source Codes (2001); Ledger (2005)—and adds two minor pieces written for exhibition catalogs. The presiding geniuses are John Ashbery (on Dexedrine) and a Wurlitzer jukebox.
Boy blinking in noise, with coupon trails, veers at the hand
Wipeout near Yo-yo and Claw; Graviton, Zipper, Chaos,
Rok & Roll—
this: major ride row. Slime Buckets. Orbiter. Night
sear of crayon through ink. Boy in the spill of shapes liquid
When I went out to look for you the reductions had begun.
A demento took a shopgirl to a raisin dance for fun,
And f’r you, for me, for our quests ridiculous and chaste
The lead sky leered in every cloud its consummate distaste.
The mayors queued for mug shots while the banner rolled
That beat at bolted windows and bore down upon the thin,
And everywhere warped deliverers got bellicose and brave,
When I walked out to find you in the reconstructed rave.
—From Shanked on the Red Bed
For Wheeler the poem is an information processor. But as often as not, the noise is indistinguishable from the signal: “He yells at me in Norse. Over and again / the instructional stews / confounded me.” The philosopher David Chalmers has suggested that where there is information, there is consciousness, however rudimentary: “I might loosely say that a thermostat has experiences or is conscious.” When Wheeler asks, “Yeah but how does it know? That Thermos, / there,” the seemingly throwaway joke (how does a Thermos know whether the liquid it keeps from cooling or heating is hot or cold?) encodes a suspicion that awareness bathes us like neutrinos. Thus her desire to catalog every last datum—ostriches, Mick Jagger, fiberglass igloos, Motel 6—“That forever describing experience, / on and on, the stuff of conversation / forgetting to the last, losing it, unhinging.”
The recent poems from Ledger move toward a long form resembling Jorie Graham’s (though without the pretentiousness of Graham’s recent work). These elastic lyrics are attentive to phenomenology and, above all, to the theological properties of money: “The dark night of the statement / Mercy in direct deposit.” “The Debtor in the Convex Mirror” is a bright and fitful meditation that deftlylinks Matsys’s portrait of the moneylender and his wife to early modern credit markets, teenagers shoplifting Teen Beat, and Manhattan traffic, all via the magic of coins and convex mirrors. The poem owes its lucidity and art-critical affectations, and not much else besides its title, to Ashbery’s most rigorously argued long poem: it sounds like little else that Wheeler has written—for long descriptive passages it is entirely comprehensible, and it elegantly develops her occasional tendency to enjamb meter and rhyme across line breaks.
This book’s a beaut, but it’s better at short stretches than the long haul. Partly this is because the style is exhausting as well as exhaustive; from the beginning Wheeler traffics in “much bric-a-brac to upset,” “one loosening tool listing into another, / each bearing its affects like wands, like tricksters’ cups.” There is a sense that anything must be relatable to anything else by virtue of its composition, its arriving festooned with attributes, which can lead to a caffeinated glossolalia:
DOZE DOLL DOES WIZ BIZ—a century that, her sleeping,
a stenotic century self-circling, noodling its tunes, drug
by the scruff, its kitchen, to stand, squinting, at thing
coherent, drooping from clouds, bungeeing to boot.
—From Fractured Fairy Tale
To read the collection straight through is to risk synaptic haywire: almost every poem is keyed to frenetic overload, an iPod crammed with nothing but Girl Talk and Dan Deacon. But those who complain that this poetry does not make sense must imagine that they live in a world that makes sense. Wheeler holds a funhouse mirror up to commodity culture, and it reflects a funhouse: the games are rigged, the rides not up to code, the whole thing mortgaged into the next century. But you can sometimes win a dinky stuffed gorilla, choose pink or blue spun sugar, cheer the dazzling strongman as he lectures the G-20 on the need for carbon caps. Susan Wheeler is a realist, representing this world, alight in info and agency, where money is “no object”—not an object at all but a fantasia, a chocolate vampire, “the jangling discourse of our nation.”
The Dance Most of All, by Jack Gilbert.
Alfred A. Knopf. $25.00.
Jack Gilbert writes as if he has never been in a cereal aisle: his occasional reports from “the giant granaries / this world is” are confined to a conventional set of lyrical problems—love and death in olive groves, beauty and mortality in Japan and Greece, love and death among willows, beauty and loss in Pittsburgh. Now in his eighties, Gilbert has published only five books of poems, a concept unthinkable within the data-soaked hive activity of real-time status updates—I know people who published their fifth books before they were thirty. After winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition with Views of Jeopardy in 1962, Gilbert, instead of compulsively overflowing with paper, set himself to Strether’s challenge in The Ambassadors: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” His second book, Monolithos—half of which was a reprint of his first book—appeared twenty-two years later; his third (and best), The Great Fires, ten years after that; it’s a bit remarkable that The Dance Most of All arrives just four years after Refusing Heaven.
Gilbert’s abiding theme is Zarathustra’s: if you have said yes to one joy, you have said yes to all sorrow. In The Great Fires’s “A Stubborn Ode,” this premise receives harrowing elucidation:
All of it. The sane woman under the bed with the rat
that is licking off the peanut butter she puts on her
front teeth for him. The beggars of Calcutta blinding
their children while somewhere people are rich
and eating with famous friends and having running water
in their fine houses. Michiko is buried in Kamakura.
The tired farmers thresh barley all day under the feet
of donkeys amid the merciless power of the sun.
The beautiful women grow old, our hearts moderate.
All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.
The poem ends: “And I say, nevertheless.” Well, the beggars of Calcutta might see things a bit differently. The moral risk is not trivial—he is writing about his second wife here, Michiko Nogami, dead of cancer at thirty-six—but it yields a phenomenally specific accounting. This is what he is best at, registering the most sensitive seismic relations of equivalence, retooling home truths by adding finely tuned details until they resemble Qur’ans inscribed on grains of rice. “Trying” begins characteristically with a heavy-handed thesis statement, then opens out onto an expansive vine-covered trellis of association:
Our lives are hard to know. The gardens are provisional,
and according to which moment. Whether in the burgeoning
of July or the strict beauty of January. The language
itself is mutable. The word way is equally an avenue
and a matter of being. Our way into the woods
is according to the speed. To stroll into loveliness,
or leaves blowing so fast they would shred
birds in an explosion of blood. It’s the Devil’s
mathematics that Blake spoke of, which I failed
all three times. Everyone remembers the wonderful day
in Canada when the water was perfect.
Gilbert occasionally indulges a penchant for mystery-mongering, which is related to his totemic reliance on women—or, as he has it in “A Fact,” “the woman”:
The woman is not just a pleasure,
nor even a problem. She is a meniscus
that allows the absolute to have a shape,
that lets him skate however briefly
on the mystery, her presence luminous
on the ordinary and the grand.
How nice that the woman is not just a pleasure, even if her only other function is to serve as a poetic Zamboni machine. Sarah Manguso has argued that “conventional feminism is the wrong filter through which to read [Gilbert’s] works.” I agree. My objection to treating women as ciphers is based less in “conventional feminism” than in a concern that women not be treated as ciphers.
Still, the best poems here are valuable bulletins from a distant, private war fought over the resources of affirmation, in which the most precious weapon is the capacity to
say grace over
almost everything: for a possum dead on someone’s lawn,
the single light on a levee while Northampton sleeps,
and because the lanes between houses in Greek hamlets
are exactly the width of a donkey loaded on each side
Mercury Dressing, by J.D. McClatchy.
Alfred A. Knopf. $25.00.
The first line of J.D. McClatchy’s “Poem Beginning with a Line Spoken, I Am Told, in My Sleep” is “The names of every place were once so cold.” I hoped the next poem would be called “Ode to a Bridge in Brooklyn I Will Sell You for a Quarter,” but no, McClatchy is serious. (McClatchy is often very serious.) The poem gets worse:
The names of every place were once so cold,
And the moon rises over memories no later
Understanding can bring to life—or what passes
For breath in the being here.
The book is full of this sort of accomplished, high-minded nonsense, Deep Thoughts about “the damask of time” (you know, the being here). McClatchy is acclaimed for his technical mastery, but the forms seem sepulchral because the poems read like exercises. “Indonesia” seems to have been prompted by nothing more than the author’s noticing a resemblance between the shape of the islands on a globe and some blotches on his leg. You know how “The Seven Deadly Sins” is going to proceed before you’ve read a word—not that such knowledge could prepare you for the opening lines of the entry on gluttony:
When just one apple was too much,
The flesh would feast upon its fall,
And sated senators succumb
In perfumed vomitoriums.
A finger down the throat will stall
Satiety’s tenacious clutch.
Somehow I don’t think this was meant to elicit sniggers. Other such moments, worthy of inclusion in an updated Stuffed Owl, are to be found in “Sorrow in 1944,” a sonnet sequence imagining the life of Madama Butterfly’s son: “The years in Wyoming, she said, have been ‘okay.’ / He stared at her mittens, love’s own internee”; “Though for herself she asked nothing, like love / Or like stars, those wounds in the tender flesh above.”
What elegance McClatchy’s poems contain is fustian; what admiration they prompt is reserved. “That’s done well enough, I suppose,” you think, but you wonder whether it needed to be done at all. Our best contemporary poets, from Paul Muldoon to Lisa Jarnot, are urgently responsive to the present moment. When McClatchy tries for something of their fire, his powder is all wet:
The charge of the light cascade
From the disco globe’s orbiting
Spray of incandescent pricks
Had electrified me long enough.
—From Light Cavalry
It is a bit of a shock, then, to come across, late in the book, a poem you actually want to read to the end. There are lax passages in “Trees, Walking” (“TV’s talking heads on mute all look the same,” you don’t say), but for once McClatchy’s compulsive resort to classical sources (in this instance Seneca) seems demanded by the exigencies of the theme, the poet’s relationship with his father. The language finally seems motivated by something more than the desire to fill a quota of poems:
If the sun were a hot bright blue, the daylight
Would shine on a planet cold-blooded
To the spectrum of what we can now make out
Of shapes in the distance—the sun itself, say,
Or the blighted ash over there near the, the...
Whatever it might be.
McClatchy might do well to employ this trope in more of his poems, since it forces him to curb his tendency to offer overripe fruit to an overripe moon, saying too much while saying much less than he is able to say when, as here, he can’t make out the shapes.
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...