Prose from Poetry Magazine

Public Poetry?

Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Skin, Inc., Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation, C.D. Wright’s One with Others, and Elenor Wilner’s Tourist in Hell.

All poetry is public, in the sense that every poem implies an audience. But some publics are more public than others. Most contemporary poets, for example, address a public that consists only of close friends, professional acquaintances, and a few handy abstractions like the Ideal Reader and Posterity. This kind of public is very different from (and much smaller and more homogeneous than) the one that buys novels by Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen. And of course both of these audiences pale beside the public that we usually think of as “The Public”—the ocean of humanity that votes in elections, watches the Super Bowl, and generally makes America what it is, for better and worse. Poetry has famously little contact with this last and largest public. Indeed, the only such “Public” appearance by a poet in recent memory was Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at the inauguration of President Obama, which earned a predictably ambivalent reaction from segments of poetry’s own public.

But if poets don’t often find themselves reading before a million citizens on the National Mall, that doesn’t mean they don’t address issues of national concern. The question is, which public gets to hear those public thoughts—and exactly how public are they, anyway?

All poetry is public, in the sense that every poem implies an audience. But some publics are more public than others. Most contemporary poets, for example, address a public that consists only of close friends, professional acquaintances, and a few handy abstractions like the Ideal Reader and Posterity. This kind of public is very different from (and much smaller and more homogeneous than) the one that buys novels by Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen. And of course both of these audiences pale beside the public that we usually think of as “The Public”—the ocean of humanity that votes in elections, watches the Super Bowl, and generally makes America what it is, for better and worse. Poetry has famously little contact with this last and largest public. Indeed, the only such “Public” appearance by a poet in recent memory was Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at the inauguration of President Obama, which earned a predictably ambivalent reaction from segments of poetry’s own public.

But if poets don’t often find themselves reading before a million citizens on the National Mall, that doesn’t mean they don’t address issues of national concern. The question is, which public gets to hear those public thoughts—and exactly how public are they, anyway?


Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems, by Thomas Sayers Ellis.
Graywolf Press.$23.00.

Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Skin, Inc. follows up his 2005 collection The Maverick Room and focuses on the always fraught issue of race in America, particularly race in American literature, and even more particularly, race in American poetry. The book is roughly 170 pages and is divided into seven sections, some dominated by eponymous long poems (“The Pronoun-Vowel Reparations Song,” for instance), others organized around a theme (“Gone Pop” consists of fifteen poems about Michael Jackson). The work here is conspicuously public in the largest sense, which is to say that Ellis talks about issues of obvious societal concern in a manner that smart general readers might follow, and possibly even admire or criticize. He is blunt, rude, sometimes intentionally clumsy, and determined to get some awkward things said, fair or not. It’s an admirable and sadly unusual thing for a contemporary poet to attempt.

Nor is it easy to pull off. As Ellis realizes, speaking broadly isn’t a matter of writing simply or straightforwardly; on the contrary, there’s an appealing slyness to Ellis’s best poetry that recalls the cagey work of Gwendolyn Brooks, who remains one of the touchstone poets of the modern era. Indeed, in the strongest poems in Skin, Inc., Ellis proves himself a true heir to Brooks’s uncanny talent for addressing multiple audiences while still remaining faithful to her own ambiguities and ambivalent feelings. Most poets, faced with the challenge of such audiences, produce poem-by-committee blandness (q.v., September 11th, poetry thereof). Ellis’s approach, however, is utterly distinctive, even as he happily tosses everything but the kitchen sink onto the page. The diction here ranges from “discourse” to “mo betta” to “eeeeeeeeeeeyow”; forms run the gamut from the villanelle (“A Few Excuses”) to visual poetry (“The Pronoun-Vowel Reparations Song”); and as if that weren’t enough, Ellis throws in photographs and footnotes. The overall effect is of a table sagging with the day’s labor of a manic chef, and individual results can sometimes be similarly excessive (the visual poem is better as an eye chart). But the best work is enriched by its sense of superabundance, as in the beginning of “Or”:

Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
of category


or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”


Ellis has an excellent ear, and he uses it here to convey the uncertainty and possibility that surrounds any discussion of race (as Ellis is well aware, the conjunction “or” can be both prison and key). The strongest poem here is “The Identity Repairman,” which takes up the labels—for example, “Negro” and “Colored”—that have attached over time to African-Americans. Here are its final sections:  


My heart is a fist.
I fix Blackness.
My fist is a heart.
I beat Whiteness.

  african american

Before I was born,
I absorbed struggle.
Just looking
at history hurts.

So the heart is a fist (as in Black Power) that “fixes”—repairs—Blackness. But “to fix” also means “to hold in place,” and “to neuter,” allowing Ellis to quietly suggest both the strength and the limitations of the label. Similarly, when the fist becomes a heart that “beat[s] Whiteness,” the victory is necessarily incomplete, because it requires the perpetuation of the thing beaten: the idea of Whiteness is circulated like blood (the heart beats it) even as it is overcome. In work like this, Ellis is writing some of the finest, truly public poetry of our time.

But there is, it has to be said, another, less interesting side to Skin, Inc. This is the side that still clings to an exalted idea of the public that we call the poetry world, and especially the poetry world as filtered through the lens of Cambridge (Ellis went to Harvard). It’s helpful here to pause and think again about the idea of a poem’s “public” presence. When Ellis writes as he does in “The Identity Repairman,” he’s writing for almost anyone who’s ever thought about what it means to talk about himself or herself “as” something. That audience is large, heterogeneous, and interesting. And when he’s writing about poetry—not the poetry world, but poetry itself—that audience, too, is heterogeneous and interesting, if not necessarily large. But who’s the audience for lines like this from “The Judges of Craft”?:

Someone in charge decides.
Someone in charge

A someone considered worthy of width,
wider than content,

I have disappointing news, but there’s a big silver lining. We discussed your poems at length and with admiration and excitement, but in the end we didn’t find one in this batch that we felt would be a great début for you in the magazine. It’s just that so many of them are about writing, and we try to shy away from poems explicitly addressing the subject of writing—much less the politics of the writing scene. But you are definitely on the screen here, and I’m only (and deeply) sorry I took so long.

Yes, there is actually a poem in this book that includes the text of various rejection letters that Ellis apparently has received from poetry journals. Imagine a gifted and widely acclaimed operatic tenor pausing mid-song to deliver a rant about how Opera News once failed to mention him in an article, and you’ll have some idea of the jarring note this performance strikes. Along the same lines, Ellis pauses elsewhere in Skin, Inc. to compare John Ashbery’s rhythm and imagery unfavorably to that of “bling-bling,” and to snipe at “the Grolier,” a poetry bookstore in Harvard Square where he apparently worked as a college student.

The problem is not that these criticisms are undeserved. Maybe the editors who sent Ellis rejection notes are indeed insensitive. Maybe Ashbery does pale in comparison with Lil Wayne. Maybe the bookstore was a lousy place. The problem is that these criticisms seem unambitious when compared with the provocations in Ellis’s better work. Who, after all, even knows what “the Grolier” is? Contrary to Ellis’s suggestion, one odd local bookshop isn’t symbolic of “American Poetry,” much less “American Literature,” and considerably much less “American Society.” At most, the store is representative of a provincial subculture in the American poetry world, and on the list of things that are of great cultural import, that probably puts it about even with wherever Boston-area Renaissance Faire participants go to get their tunics hemmed. A writer this good ought not spend his time peeling potatoes this small.

That said, the motivation here isn’t hard to fathom, or to sympathize with. There’s a lingering insecurity behind the swagger in some of these poems, and because Ellis is a tough-minded poet, he’s reluctant to admit (much less surrender) to that uncertainty. So he stands his ground; he pushes back. The instinct is entirely to his credit, but when the thing that makes you feel belittled is itself tiny, then the consequences of such a response can be unfortunate. And there is almost nothing tinier than the poetry world, just as there is almost nothing bigger, stranger, and more disturbing than the bloody country that contains it. It’s clear throughout Skin, Inc. that Ellis is equal to this latter, larger challenge; in his next book, maybe he’ll make it the sole focus of his considerable attention. If so, we will all be, if not repaired, at least made slightly better.


The Cloud Corporation, by Timothy Donnelly.
Wave Books.$16.00.

Timothy Donnelly, like Thomas Sayers Ellis, is a talented writer who has recently released a second collection that isn’t short. But for the most part, the similarities end there. Donnelly’s new book, The Cloud Corporation, is a nearly immaculate exercise in haute academic style, from its aggressively quirky titles (“Team of Fake Deities Arranged on an Orange Plate”) to its deliberately affected tone and pose (“Roll back the stone from the sepulcher’s mouth!”), to its frequently Jamesian syntax (sentences here regularly wind through six or seven lines). On top of that, we have diction borrowed equally from business-speak (“optimize my output”) and the vernacular (“I was totally into it”); the deployment of bizarre phrasing generated by collage (“a consistent sweat paragraph”); a mood of pessimism, anxiety, and unhappiness (“We revolt ourselves; we disgust and annoy us”); general distaste for finance and / or capitalism (“To His Debt”); and finally, a fundamental reliance on abstraction (“the sky again // the temple of the mind perceiving it”). If you were trying to concoct a recipe involving every flavor in the cupboard of the hip contemporary poem, you would come up with The Cloud Corporation. It is the epitome of Our Moment.

And it is, in many respects, a strong statement on the vitality of that moment. That may seem an odd way to put things, given that Donnelly spends roughly 135 of the book’s 140 pages being depressed in some way or another. He is depressed by conspicuous consumption (“the circuitry that suffers me to crave // what I know I’ll never need, or what I need but have / in abundance already”). He is depressed by empire-building and militarism (“that photograph / of women and children shot down by an American / battalion”). But mostly, he’s depressed by the fact that he spends a lot of time inside his own head (“thoughts / lilt back to the terms of this existence, its fundamental // insignificance”). This could all easily end up as sub-Stevensian moping, a sort of “Auroras of Ugh.” But Donnelly is an astonishing technician who is capable of finding nearly infinite shades in the gray of his malaise. Consider the beginning of “Antepenultimate Conflict with Self”:

The times the thought of being pulled apart from
you comes as a relief have now come to outnumber
those it startles me like light from a hurricane
lamp left burning unattended dangerously near
the curtains of the theater we both attend and are.

To unpack: the thought of being separated from his own self now relieves him more often than it threatens him with a sense of impending dissolution (and, of course, who is “he” if not himself). Also, the thought of dissolution is worrying like the prospect of a hurricane lamp threatening a theater (Metaphor #1) that is both attended by the poet and his self (Metaphor #2) and composed of the poet and his self (Metaphor #3). The key to this stanza is its speed, which Donnelly intends to mimic the crazy tilt of the ideas he’s assembling. The lines, with their heavy breaks (“hurricane / lamp”) and densely-packed, interrelated metaphors, come out almost as an exhausted gaspor gulp (it’s not surprising when Donnelly later defines a unit called the “snailsdeath” as being “roughly // equivalent to the pause between swallows in a human / throat”). And if Donnelly’s technical skill is impressive, his humor can be winning. “The world tries hard to bore me to death,” he notes at the beginning of one poem, “but not hard enough.” You can be as mopey as you like when you write this well.

What makes the book more than simply an example of highly polished competence, however, is its peculiar combination of whimsicality and desperation. “Desperation” isn’t a word you’d expect Donnelly to be fond of; it’s all too often a euphemism for naive self-regard, and Donnelly is anything but naive. But it seems the right word for the opening of “Fun for the Shut-in”:

Demonstrate to yourself a resistance to feeling
unqualified despair by attempting something like
perfect despair embellished with hand gestures.

Is this funny? Well, yes. But it also puts Donnelly at risk; it breaks up the pattern of smoothly unfolding aestheticism. Even more interesting is the conclusion of “The New Hymns,” which is both a rejection of certain kinds of poetry and a statement of principle:

                                          I don’t want to have to
locate divinity in a loaf of bread, in a sparkler,
or in the rainlike sound the wind makes through

mulberry trees, not tonight. Listen to them carry on
about gentleness when it’s inconceivable
that any kind or amount of it will ever be able to

balance the scales. I have been held down
by the throat and terrified, numb enough to know.
The temperature at which no bird can thrive—

a lifelong feeling that I feel now, remembering
down the highway, half-hypnotized in the
backseat feeling what I feel now, and moderate

happiness has nothing to do with it: I want to press
my face against the cold black window until
there is a deity whose only purpose is to stop this.

There have been many versions of Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” written over the decades by many poets, but Donnelly is more than up—or down—for the task.

Strong as this collection is, however, there are things to question about it and, more broadly, the sort of writing it represents. And this is a good occasion to do so, both because Donnelly is a gifted writer (who therefore can take the criticism) and because The Cloud Corporation already has been widely and rightly praised. Here is what a skeptic might say: This is a collection that is frequently fixated on the sort of vague melancholy and technical bravura that captivates certain audiences in the poetry world, but leaves other readers cold or, worse, bored. This is a collection that takes up subjects of great public import—the political economy, the environment—yet talks about them in ways that don’t risk judgment from any public without a subscription to Fence. And if Ellis sometimes lapses into bluster, Donnelly has a habit of suffocating poems with exquisite, cheerless noodling. As in:

I dreamt in complex packaging that posed no less a threat
at the factory warehouse than up among my cupboards
or dropped in the superabundant trash bins at airports.

Found it simple and good to forget that threat by letting
perception of such objects eclipse true knowledge of them.
Any worry washed in umbra. Like being in the moment
only endlessly. I hear the naked hands of strangers make

my dumplings but experience insists what makes them
mine is money. I open the door and I extend good money
into ancient night.
     —From “The Rumored Existence of Other People”

Sure, there are things to praise in writing like this. But it’s also coy and pleased with itself (nor does it help much that the above poem goes on for five pages). It almost makes you want to go order lasagna at an Olive Garden—made, no doubt, by “the naked hands of strangers”—just to spite the poem’s disdain for the world in its sloppy, awful, unfair actuality. Or how about this:

Meanwhile we wanted the sentence to continue
fading as we thought another would begin
only after the first had finished and the last
vibrations seemed not to extend from the sentence
anymore but the fact that we had heard it
fading there together.
     —From “The Last Vibrations”

There’s plenty of good work in this book, to be sure, and any critic should welcome the opportunity to talk about that work in front of any audience anywhere. But there are other poems that, like the lines above, are harder to talk about. Not because they’re too complex, or because the audience for poetry is too ignorant, or because our cultural moment won’t allow it, or because of capitalism or Sarah Palin or food courts. No, it’s harder to talk about some of these poems because they just don’t say much. They’re the equivalent of playing scales, and fresh paint on the guitar doesn’t change that fact. For all Donnelly’s many strengths, this is a potential weakness that his rapidly forming legion of imitators ignores at its peril.


One With Others, by C.D. Wright.
Copper Canyon Press.$20.00.

Few books have nobler intentions than C.D. Wright’s One With Others. The collection attempts to capture events occurring in Wright’s native Arkansas around the time of a protest march in 1969 led by a Memphis activist called Sweet Willie Wine; it also serves as a memorial to Wright’s friend Margaret Kaelin McHugh, who is referred to by her nickname, “V.” V, a white woman, apparently participated in the march and suffered the scorn of her community for it (as Wright puts it, “While she was in jail her husband bought airtime and denounced her. When she was released she was served with papers for divorce and custody”). Though the bulk of the book focuses on V’s town in the late sixties, Wright occasionally returns to the present day, and in particular to the apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in which V died.

This is, by any measure, extraordinary material. Wright’s approach to it is the one that has become her signature: she creates an enormous (150-page) collage of voices, historical notes, fragments from “Dear Abby” (allegedly), lists, asides, quotations, discussions of copperheads, cookie prices, temperatures, you name it. The idea is that the picture that emerges gradually from this assortment will be all the stronger for lacking narration; that its repetitions and occasional bursts of clarity will enable us to understand a person, an area, and a time better than if we were simply told what happened. In this sense, the book is similar to Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, which details a tour across Georgia and the Carolinas, and One Big Self, her book on Louisiana prisons. And of course, the roots of the strategy extend back to Williams’s Paterson and (as Joel Brouwer observed in an excellent essay on Wright) Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead.”

This approach is unfortunately less successful here. To be sure, there are many passages in One with Others that are equally lyrical, funny, enraging, and tender. For example: 

the brother to whom a certain injustice was done [who lives in Reno]: One night after the conviction, the police let me go in the middle of the night. Just like that. I showed up on Mother’s porch. The police told me to get out of town before dawn. So the family pitched in and bought me a one-way ticket to San Francisco and I went. Believe you me, I went.

How did you feel when you first saw those golden gates.
You got me there.

People wore purple pants.
Come again.

In California, people wore purple pants.

The excerpt, presumably taken from an interview, shows Wright at her most perceptive. A man who’s been unjustly imprisoned, exiled, taken from his family, doesn’t think, upon reaching potential safety, of a capitalized abstraction. No, he notices that Californians wear purple pants. It’s a human, genuine response, and Wright knows well enough to leave it alone.

But there are several interrelated problems that prevent a hundred and fifty pages of excerpts like the above (plus many considerably less interesting ones) from cohering into a satisfying whole. First, the structure of the book is itself problematic. Wright’s methods work best in short pieces, in which her electric leaps are startling enough to carry a poem on their own. Here, however, the pressure of the story overwhelms the sprawling collage framework—you find yourself saying, as you encounter another grocery list, “This might be fascinating, but could I hear more about the riot at the school?” It’s not that Wright’s disjunctive approach is too confusing, but rather that the actual facts are at least as moving and disturbing as the pirouettes Wright makes around and above them. Consider Wright’s fullest description of the imprisonment of high school kids at the local swimming pool, an appalling episode that she references several times:

After the pool was drained for the season, they arrested the kids who marched to the white school. Who stood and sang “Like a Tree Planted by the Water.” They took them to the jailhouses in school buses. They took them to the drained pool in sealed 18-wheelers. The sheriff told them they were to be taken to the woods and there shot. Then the sheriff told them they were to be taken to the pool and there drowned.

Here is the same incident as described by a historian named Randy Finley:

On September 16 [1965], police arrested nearly 200 students and sncc workers for disturbing the peace. The arrests overwhelmed the St. Francis County jail, forcing authorities to hold many protesters at the swimming pool, the civic center, or the dog pound. The jail included the “Bullroom,” a filthy, dark cell teeming with lice and chiggers. Toilets overflowed. Meals consisted of peanut butter sandwiches. As parents and sncc leaders scurried to come up with $25,000 bail, city officials reportedly told parents that charges would be dropped if they signed documents promising to keep their children away from sncc’s Freedom Center and out of future demonstrations. On September 20, the school board broke off discussions with local black leaders. The next night, police broke into the Freedom Center at 1:30 am to harass workers. By September 22, the town “crawled with state troopers.”

This incident doesn’t need, as Wright puts it, “the borrowed-tuxedo lining of fiction.” In fact, that’s arguably the last thing it needs.

In Wright’s more mysterious poems, one feels there is a story not being told, and the withholding is appealing, almost erotic. Here, one knows there is a story not being told, and the withholding is simply frustrating. The parceling out of information makes the book needlessly confusing and obscures rather than reveals its central characters. For example, Wright mentions that the march itself consisted of “six Negroes walking to Little Rock and [a] white woman driving a station wagon,” and she rightly (and amusingly) mocks the officials of a town along the route who summon up a massive police presence to face this tiny, courageous group. But why was the march so small? Wright doesn’t say. Perhaps part of the explanation is that Sweet Willie Wine appears to have called the march on his own, without the support of the naacp and against the wishes of the two local activists, Cato Brooks and J.F. Cooley, who had been working as leaders of the black community in V’s town. (Wright actually mentions Cooley in the poem—he’s the teacher whose dismissal caused a riot at the all-black high school—but she never uses his name, and he and Brooks are otherwise strangely absent from the book.)

This kind of omission matters. Not because it demonstrates that Sweet Willie Wine’s march may not have been the symbolic triumph that Wright implies it was—on the contrary, it was surely an act of bravery and moral force. The omission matters, rather, because it causes the poem to lose complexity. One of the obvious questions the poem raises is why V chose to participate in the march in the first place. In many ways, it’s the puzzle around which the entire work revolves. Here’s Wright’s take:

V, what spurred you to get involved.

    It was when they put the kids in the swimming pool. My babysitter’s granddaughter. They put her in the pool.

Fair enough. Then one thinks: But the babysitter herself didn’t go on the march. Nor did the babysitter’s daughter. Nor did the overwhelming majority of the African-American population of the town (which apparently was fifty percent black at the time). So why did V? The answer, whatever it may be, is almost certainly to the credit of Wright’s friend. But the answer has to be something other than, “V was an amazing person with great integrity who knew right from wrong.”

Yet that’s more or less what Wright leaves the reader with. Lines about V tend to look like this:

She was guilty of no fear, no envy, no meanness and when if once-in-a-knocked-up-again moon she felt a twinge of desire for a certain silk blouse, she was sure to touch the wearer, to touch the other on the sleeve that she not be afflicted by any such shallow tendencies.

*     *     *

She was not an eccentric. She was an original. She was congenitally incapable of conforming.

*     *     *

Yeats she knew well enough to wield as a weapon.

*     *     *

Something else—lie, was not in her vocabulary. The pure inflammatory truth she could take it, and Gentle Reader, she knew how to inflict it.

All of this was likely true. But it’s also flat and banal; one gets no sense of V beyond the feeling that she was a tart, brave, hard-drinking bookworm—which makes her sound like a sitcom character. The difficulty here, at bottom, is that as a poet Wright is inclined toward compassion and preservation; her desire is to hold close and to keep safe. These are fine qualities for any writer to possess, but they’re dangerous when applied to an elegy (which is, by its nature, already bent on preservation). And they’re even more problematic if the elegy in question is going to be tied to the history of the civil rights movement, which raises grand questions of good and evil. The death of a friend and the greatest sickness of our country: These are two subjects that overwhelm compassion, that turn it toward sentimental memorializing. And the result in One with Others, sadly, is a lovely cartoon.


Tourist in Hell, by Eleanor Wilner.
The University of Chicago Press.$18.00.

Eleanor Wilner doesn’t like war or violence, which is understandable, since most people don’t—at least, not when they’re on the receiving end of it. Her new book, Tourist in Hell, opens with two sections focused on bloodshed from the historical (“Back Then, We Called It ‘The War’”) to the symbolic (“History as Crescent Moon”) to the contemporary (“Cold Dawn of the Day When Bush Was Elected for a Second Term”), with another two sections on slightly less bruised material closing out the book. Wilner’s preferred form is a clean free verse line that exists in the shadow of pentameter, and her diction ranges from the assertively everyday (“the soul is not so clean & white / as Kleenex”) to the self-consciously poetic (a shriek is “heart-scalding,” alas). The beginning of the very good “Magnificat” gives a sense of the stately tone she often adopts:

When he had suckled there, he began
to grow: first, he was an infant in her arms,
but soon, drinking and drinking at the sweet
milk she could not keep from filling her,
from pouring into his ravenous mouth,
and filling again, miraculous pitcher, mercy
feeding its own extinction . . . soon he was
huge, towering above her, the landscape,
his shadow stealing the color from the fields.

It’s Yeats’s rough beast, slouching hither again. Wilner is a cerebral poet by nature, and the more her work relies on symbolic arguments (as here), the better it tends to be.

This is regrettably not the case with many of the anti-war and anti-violence poems in Tourist in Hell, the majority of which are run-of-the-mill contemporary public poetry—which is to say, they’re intended to speak on a subject of great public importance to an audience composed almost entirely of poets. There’s much bearing witness without much worrying over who the witness gets borne to. This isn’t to suggest that Wilner’s poems are especially oblique or esoteric; on the contrary, it’s usually fairly clear what she’s getting at. The problem is simply that she appears to find violence as incomprehensible as the behavior of lions or Martians. As she writes in the second stanza of “Back Then, We Called It ‘The War’”:

For though, when as a child, I watched the news unreel
at the movies: the smoke and guns, the stirring symphonic music
rousing the blood, the black-and-white legions marching
on film, the flare of anti-aircraft guns, the little planes turning
in a slow spiral as they went down in flames, the heavy-bellied
bombers opening their doors, and the bombs falling,
and where each one fell, a rising pillar of fire; and though
the voice of the announcer was manly and confident, the news
always good, we were winning, we were certainly winning, and
everyone was so proud, and collected cans, and went without
nylons and chewing gum and butter, and clustered around
speaking in hushed tones as if in a holy place:
nevertheless I did not understand.

Wilner plainly believes that her failure to understand war (wwii, no less) is virtuous. It’s not. As a poet, you don’t have to countenance our violent tendencies—you can, in fact, argue vehemently against them. But you do have to understand them. Otherwise, you find yourself ending poems with sentimental scenes involving

                                      a little girl
who will never understand, who
is picking up stone after stone,
trying to piece it together again.

More likely, that little girl is picking up stones in order to peg them at her brother. Kids are mean.

Fortunately, Tourist in Hell ends with stronger material, and it’s hard not to applaud Wilner’s intelligence in poems like “The Minotaur” (a rare example of perfectly executed shaped verse) and “Restored to Blue” (which riffs on the inadvertent marring of a work of art during the process of restoration). But the best poem here is “Encounter in the Local Pub,” which begins:

As he looked up from his glass, its quickly melting ice,
into the bisected glowing demonic eyes of the goat,
he sensed that something fundamental had shifted,

or was done. As if, after a long life of enchantment, he
had awakened, like Bottom, wearing the ears of an ass,
and the only light was a lanthorn, an ersatz moon.

No, the goat is not explained. The bizarre encounter continues with the man’s realization that he can no longer be confident in “every Large Meaning” and is now at the mercy of “the great hole in the heart of things.” Wilner concludes:

                                                      The goat,
he noticed, had a rank smell, feral. Unnerved,

he looks away, watches the last of his ice
as it melts, the way some godlike eye might see
the mighty glaciers in a slow dissolve back into sea.

He notes how incommensurate the simile, a last
attempt to dignify his shaking gaze, and reaches
for the bill; he’s damned if the goat will pay.

The poem is strange, funny, and troubling in equal measure (and it’s technically elegant—notice the clever play above on “ice” (eyes), “godlike eye,” “see” and “sea”). If it’s not clear from this collection that Wilner is a reliable tourist in hell, she brings with her a more than welcome perception of the darkness in the dailiness of life. Which is where, after all, most publics are at home.

Originally Published: April 1st, 2011

David Orr writes the column “On Poetry” for the New York Times Book Review. He is the author of Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (HarperCollins, 2011).

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  1. April 13, 2011

    What a different tone Orr takes when reviewing the men's poetry compared to the women's. With the former, criticism is so cautiously given, and carefully bracketed with laudatory analysis. With the latter, disdain dominates his approach, and his criticism isn't fully supported, perhaps thinking it doesn't need to be. I found it especially strange that he finds it hard to believe a girl (not an adult poet yet) could not make sense of war, and helplessly want to piece things together. To say the girl would more likely want to throw stones at her brother is a cartoonish simplification that he accuses both women poets of. Girls are complex, and wanting to caretake and make things better is not an uncommon impulse. His projection of cliche he is guilty of seems in line with the general tone of disdain.

  2. April 13, 2011

    We have our discourse and discipline of poetry trying to count in a world of countless other disciplines from which poetry takes content. The humanity of poetry is that it takes from any and all ways of seeing the world. David Orr’s writing is impressed with itself, as most writing is. When writing is great enough in comparison to tiny spots of belittling criticism, then its author may need not feel compelled toward exhibiting a stormy response. A trying thing about highly polished writing is when its paltry conclusions come slamming down from passages of competent writing posing as quality criticism, gaining fame in the aftermath. Meanwhile we wanted the sentence to continue fading as we thought another would begin only after the first had finished and the last vibrations seemed not to extend from the sentence anymore but the fact that we had heard it fading there together. —From “The Last Vibrations” The trouble with Orr’s conclusion that the above verse is empty of meaning is that Orr does not judiciously explain why; not only does he not comprehensively analyze the text in question, but more importantly he does not question whether these lines do in fact read richly when viewed through a discourse Orr himself may not be competent with. Rhetoric suspended, Orr would do well to open his view of poetry to thinking in disciplines (philosophical, perhaps) which may reveal seemingly vapid lines as vital. Possibly, the symptoms Timothy Donnelly describes in his melancholic diagnosis of contemporary existence are the same symptoms belonging to the prime cause of contemporary existence, the profit motive beating in all of us, compelling us to march a line of negative criticism. And so it belongs. The call of popular criticism, America’s mechanical song. *If this comment were criticism proper, then it would include ample evidence supporting its evaluations, in addition to its coy words all too pleased to be publicly posted.

  3. April 14, 2011
     Kevin Simmonds

    The Ellis review is layered and makes me what to look more closely at Skin, Inc. But those hard stops Ellis inserts, shooting the flares of rejection (in letters and Grolier), shine the light on the adage "A little bit tells you what aplenty means." Those rejections aren't rarefied. That's pobiz in America -- for Ellis and a host of other non-white, non-hipster poets.

  4. April 21, 2011

    Given the allotted 'microreview' space, I think Orr does a commendable
    job, and is quite probative. He is not charged with levering positives
    against negatives (though he often does just that), and, for my part, the
    very idea that a critic ought be a darling before he lays the barbs (if
    they are rightful) feels disingenuous. I'd love to see a comment here that
    questions Orr's sensibilities with verse-based proof, rather than the
    shadow of sexism, or racism.

  5. March 25, 2012
     Elizabeth Wilson

    David Orr's interest in the kind of audience a poet chooses to cultivate interests me. The question of 'intended audience' is a risky cliff-walk, both for him and for any poet listening, as it's a technical question and a moral question. He asks whether contemporary poetry is a club in which its practitioners cultivate primarily each other while disregarding the possibility that a poem could or should appeal to several audiences at once. At the same time, he asks what is lost by such a choice, and one loss is the "public poet".

    Orr seems to be asking if poets have the courage to assume the role of public poet - that is, to take on the dilemmas or tragedies of a nation or a region. That would, of course, also imply the presentation of moral perception, moral awakening and perhaps, the exercise of moral persuasion.

    Of course, in our experience, moral suasion has often proved itself to be myopic, false, misleading, hypnotically deceptive, fascist, murderous, and all the more dangerous because talented rhetorical skill has been mis-employed. Given that such territory has already been thoroughly discredited by history, politicians, the church, and bloviators of every stripe, poetry could rightly abhor the risk of taking the political position. And yet, Orr points out in his new book, "Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry", Martin Luther King was able to summit the peak. King was awake to his moral positions, awake to his own poetic strength, and awake to the risks of making himself clear. Regardless of the risks, he found ways to frame his beliefs so that he spoke to a variety of audiences in a variety of ways.

    Orr's book clearly suggests that although poets consider themselves political beings, they often demonstrate a lack of serious interest in being understood by a variety of people. It is possible, of course, to reveal oneself, when speaking clearly enough to be understood, as amateurish, self-glorifying, hackneyed, simple-minded, emotional, greedy, selfish, blind, destructive, or just plain wrong.

    So Orr is watching for the poet who can once more speak reliably, to the nation, in a public poetic voice. What would that sound like, he asks?

    Orr is asking for courage from writers. Not just the courage it takes to join an elite club, not just the courage it takes to speak in a new style, but also the courage it tkes to locate a (complex) voice that risks engagement, reply, and confrontation.

    Oh well. As an amateur writer and an armchair reader of poetry, Orr's questions interest me the way a good teacher's questions interest me. He makes me wonder about that batch of six poems I've been working on.

    Orr's essays appeal to me: they are thoughtful, unpretentious, unacademic, well-read, complex, honest, amusing, provoking, accessible. I find his question of 'intended audience' a particularly useful sieve for thinking about a poem.