by Kevin Clark
from The Georgia Review, Spring 2013
Is it possible to know who among living poets will be remembered long after we're all gone? Probably not. True, we can safely assume that, say, fifty years from now readers will still be discussing the always-anthologized John Ashbery. But one hundred years from now? Two hundred? We can't know for sure, because we can't know the aesthetics of future readers. We can't know what will be considered "memorable."
Matthew Arnold, in his 1880 essay "The Study of Poetry," tried to address this question, citing Aristotle's notion that poetry is superior to history because the former offers "higher truth" and "higher seriousness." Arnold famously argued for poems that provide both "truth" and "beauty." He also asserted that excellent verse possesses "liquid diction" and "fluid movement." Today, many of us would be quick to offer counterarguments to Arnold's pronouncements. Living in a more skeptical age, we might question his use of "truth." Aren't most readers of modern poetry accustomed to believing that there is no one truth; that each person holds to ever-changing beliefs and assumptions, often provisionally; and that the notion of an absolute truth is untenable in an age of science and materialism? After reading Arnold's examples from Homer, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton, mightn't we note that his own perception of "beauty" is too narrowly drawn? For instance, why does he explicitly deny Dryden, Pope, Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth the same status as those on his A-list? By what measure of his twin standards—truth and beauty—do they fail? Today, the terms "liquid diction" and "fluid movement" can mean something entirely different than Arnold's conceptions. Consider for instance the intentionally staggered and hesitant movement in W. C. Williams' Paterson or Anne Carson's conversationally and typographically inventive verse. How might we think of these, given Arnold's call for full-flowing expression?
Standards constantly change. An earlier Arnold essay, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1865), assures us that critics must be "disinterested" observers who let their minds "touch upon" works without being excessively influenced by the historical moment or by personal inclination. This standard is laudable but impossible to achieve. The trouble with Arnold, and indeed with the myriad critics who've taken up the challenge of delineating criteria for lasting greatness in poetry, is that laying down a manifesto in aesthetics almost inevitably leads to absolutes in taste. Because we all have differences in taste, such a standard is either a nonstarter or too broad to matter much. We might all agree, say, that good poetry requires tension, that conflict is necessary, that language used efficaciously is helpful—or we might not. There are plenty of accomplished poets who would challenge one or more of these seemingly bottom-line prerequisites. What is memorable verse for one may not be so for another. Still, we can assume that any particular period typically owns some broad consensus agreement on aesthetics. Pope, Byron, Williams, and Carson may all have produced poems that are, in the eyes of their appreciative readers, original and pleasing, but they represent different, even oppositional, verse characteristics. It's likely that one reader may find something to appreciate in all four poets, though it's equally likely that the same reader will prefer one or two while rarely returning to the others.
A divisive, even polarizing aesthetic split exists today between a large contingent that favors symbolist or referential poetry (say, Bob Hicok or Denise Duhamel) and a smaller group that prefers "Language" or materialist poetry (say, Susan Howe and Ron Silliman). Each camp may occasionally dismiss the other entirely, but today's readers tend to enjoy a wide variety of contemporary poets, ranging from the comical Billy Collins to the enigmatic John Ashbery, or from the lyrical Rita Dove to the Language-oriented Peter Gizzi, or from the epiphanic Linda Bierds to the philosophical John Koethe. Although readers may ultimately spend much more time reading in one mode than in another, taken together they reflect a broad consensus of taste—and the umbrella aesthetic of any era emerges from the panoply of poets who invent new styles around which readers gather.
How does a generation of poets—say today's generation—influence aesthetic consensus? Virtually every seasoned poet is deeply aware of the tradition in English (and often other languages). Reading voraciously, most poets spend years at their craft before attaining any kind of success. Over time, a poet establishes increasingly swift runnels of access into the imagination and, after modeling early work on predecessors, achieves relatively intuitive pathways to imagery, voice, sound, etc. Then the poet begins to stretch outside of pre-developed modes of expression, finding new ways to direct his or her writing—but rarely does the transformation take place in one giant leap, as it did with Robert Lowell's Life Studies. In most books we can find only a few poems that seem to map out a new direction; in most single volumes there's overlap between an earlier style and the next. Nevertheless, all generations of poets go through this transformative process, and when taken as a kind of loosely grouped collective they can move the larger canonical aesthetic incrementally in one direction or another. If we examine new books by four well-established poets, can we detect any sort of trend? Does each book represent a change? What, if anything, does it contribute to the larger aesthetic consensus?
The poets under discussion have all published at least four books. The diverse group includes two women and two men; one is African American, three are from the South, and one is from the Upper Midwest, though all have traveled extensively and no longer live in the regions of their birth. Some write in metrics, but all write in free verse as well. Their poems have appeared widely in prestigious American journals, and they've all won significant awards. They can be quite different in voice, subject, and form, but all work within the "referential" school of poets, meaning they believe that meaning exists (even if provisionally) and is conveyed by language. To a greater or lesser degree, all have changed their writing styles since their early efforts, and what is most telling in this regard is the extent to which they've resisted the pressures of the canonical tradition as well as their own younger habits.
Lisa Lewis has always written in the voice of a brazenly righteous heterosexual woman highly resourceful in her dealings with male antagonists. Her poems are verse barnburners—adamant, flesh-and-bone, quick-paced stories about sexual politics. One of the consistent features of Lewis' poetry has been her willingness to make clear that her persona, knowing she is far from perfect, nonetheless struggles with individual men because they are too self-indulgent, self-involved, or outright stupid to examine the patriarchy that privileges and imprisons them. She stands for all women who've experienced such struggles—which, from one point of view, means quite literally all women.
Although her verse differs dramatically in tone and style from that of highly accomplished poet Norman Dubie, Lewis' first book, The Unbelievers (1994), placed her alongside him in the highest category of contemporary narrative poets. Perhaps the most striking of many powerful poems in that book is "The Accident," a winding, violent work in long free-verse lines, some reaching seventeen and eighteen syllables. The first half of the poem involves the kind of scene all of us witness from time to time: eating lunch with her husband in a restaurant, the speaker sees a woman who's clearly been beaten. The abused woman's husband acts as if her wounds are the result of an accident:
Left cheekbone swollen to a baseball, the same eye blackened,
Heavy make-up, front tooth out in a jack-o-lantern grin
As she tried to look friendly to the young waitress
Her husband motioned over.
Upon leaving, the speaker announces loudly in the restaurant, "If I had a gun / I'd blow his brains out." At that point, after the only stanza break in the poem's 113 lines, she recalls two far more personal events: how she was hit by her "redneck" boyfriend and retaliated by knocking him out with a "foot and a half of inch-thick pine," and how years later a male writing teacher told her not to write about such things. Here's how the poem ends:
My teacher, who meant for me to learn to write well,
Who meant for the world to think well of me,
And I am not sorry. If he asked why I would say
I had to do it, and that lie would be like the lie of living
Without telling, till one day seeing the beaten face,
What scared me most, the missing tooth, the tangled hair, vertebrae,
The daughter. There is no use thinking what it means
About me to say this: I am not sorry. I might have killed
That man. I might have blown his brains out.
"The Accident" illustrates not only the inequities of many male and female relationships, but also the price a woman pays, the tenderness she might permanently forsake, when standing up for herself.
Throughout her third book, Vivisect (2010), and her new one, Burned House with Swimming Pool, Lewis examines the ramifications of that price. In "The Accident" she admits to being "a little bitchy" when she entered the restaurant (perhaps because she'd been "putting on weight"). Lewis' recent work acknowledges her ornery, not-very-pleasant personality, to which she has become resigned. Furthermore, she now demonstrates a seamless capacity for reflection on the fly, her verse stories threaded with lyric moments that add tension by slowing the story and provide resonance by radiating implications from beginning to end. The interior life of a fascinatingly honest woman comes into surprisingly sharp relief—as do, by extension, the lives of other women, especially those who have experienced poverty.
Lewis' long "Travel Plans for Social Outcasts" from Burned House with Swimming Pool is not merely one of the best road poems of the last quarter century; it's a no-bullshit feminist anthem. Right off, the peripatetic speaker, who often feels she needs to get away from her Midwest town, tells us she wants to get back home fast:
There's no good in this, I thought each mile
Like onionskin the Toyota tires unpeeled—
But I wanted home. Asheville's naked bikers
Leering out motel room doors froze forever
In the rear view mirror and time sped
Like a scooter.
For 230 lines of ghost pentameter—lines approximately iambic—the poem speeds as fast as a muscle car, its rhythms mimicking a visceral rumble through the American night. The poem's velocity seems compelled by the speaker's conflict over what she likes and can't stand about her hometown ("I wanted home so badly / I didn't care how I needed to be away"), which in turn is a stand-in for the nation.
Her central problem is the impossibly combative state of heterosexual relationships, not to mention the way too many women buy into patriarchal stereotypes. Halfway home she meets a friend named Sara for an "innocent rendezvous" at a motel, where they eventually watch TV before falling asleep. In the morning they watch the news and a female anchor announces that a woman who slapped her daughter in a mall was arrested for child abuse. When the friend says of the mother, "the bitch deserved / Everything she got," the speaker's self-admitted ire emerges:
That talk fast with feminist analysis.
What a way to treat my oldest friend.
I'm too mean for men, but Sara took it
Well, briefly wide-eyed, later thankful
I teach new perspectives. She said so,
Verbatim. I could get it on videotape.
The speaker repeatedly asserts that the world is aligned against women, then repeatedly anguishes over her quick-to-anger reactions. The poem derives much of its power from what can seem like a Catch-22: a strong woman is trapped by patriarchal restrictions. She sees the inequities and acts against them—but in doing so she overreacts, in turn invoking her own self-loathing, which brings on yet more self-criticism and anger. The punishing cause-and-effect loop creates a self-destructive mentality.
Lewis' speaker believes women shouldn't lie, especially if lying is a form of capitulating to men. At one point she pulls off the road for gas and is approached by one of those people you sometimes meet who ask for money, claiming they just need a few bucks to get home:
I handed over a ten to buy my peace,
But the other woman he pitched smiled big
And begged off: My husband holds the money.
At least I scowled. And did not lie. Which
Enchanted my thoughts five hundred miles [...]
But after she listens to a CD of Robert Lowell, whom she (mistakenly) feels is "loathed by scholars," and sees billboards with "Girls' photos captioned DO YOU KNOW / WHO MURDERED ME?" the enchantment fades:
And me sailing
Through the ribs of the plains, burning
Like a Comanche arrow, my face wet
With Lowell's stoic jokes and the loss
Of my ten dollars and pride at my refusal
To lie, worth at least that much: to be female,
Unmarried, and forty-six is to give up
Money to lying men.
She links her building rage to what she initially senses as defeat at the hands of a culture determined to keep women from rest and quotidian pleasure. If women lie, if they capitulate, they sustain the forces arrayed against them:
The other woman at the gas pumps
Said no but lied. I said yes but did not.
They smile, I scowled: I work this equation
To the story of our defeated lives, intricate
Hairdos, thighs we try to work off
And have since youth, we fail and will
Till death melts them: there's no good
In this, I thought, and was right, but I sped
Anyway, and where did the day go?
The verse speed here functions as an anodyne. Lewis uses that speed (and her own fast car) as a kind of transient pleasure to buoy herself above personal and public impediments to any kind of steady happiness.
One of the consistent problems inhibiting what Lewis perceives as a normal life is sexual stereotyping. In the course of the poem she mentions several times that because of her short hair, her demeanor, and her women friends people often believe she's a lesbian. The people at the college at which she teaches and in her town are "the lonely and smug who need / Someone, something to hold themselves above." She imagines what they think of her: "too mean / For men, odds are, closeted lesbian." At school, "students all say / I'm a lesbian." She's bothered by the consistent misconstruing of her way of being. She thinks other women, especially those who haven't considered the effects of a misogynistic culture, see her as strange: "Who is this stranger, how does she bear up / Under our longing looks and our loathing?" It's as if she fears demonstrating any behavior that can be perceived as female passivity; thus, she always has her guard up: "You catch my drift. I don't trust anybody." Such ongoing vigilance is both depleting and nerve-wracking. She's tough, she speaks her mind, she takes no guff—and therefore she's perceived to be sexually uninterested in men, whom she both desires and distrusts.
Of course, she knows herself well enough not to trust her own self-conflicts; her perseverance and righteousness, no matter how flawed, are the imperfect tools of her everyday survival. She knows there are few good answers to her predicament: "... there are no reliable tests for life. / What's known can be dreamed / In the after life, if that's how it works, / And who knows until they're there?" For Lewis, the only answer (and a provisional one at that) is movement: "With those options, one only knows to go." Thus the American road, so often a symbol of male freedom, becomes a temporary haven for female consciousness under threat. In the closing four lines of "Travel Plans," the "stranger" thinks of herself as a different kind of existential hero:
And, whoever she is, maybe just me, suffers
The close embrace of the automobile's
Tight cell racing the nation's tough arteries
Where so many before her have died.
As literary critic Richard Slotkin showed us four decades ago in Regeneration through Violence, the American male hero of the westward movement re-creates himself, often with violence, thereby claiming his identity and freedom. In the case of Lisa Lewis, the female hero finds refuge from the cultural violence around her by claiming her own "cell" in which she's safely pumped through the blood vessels of the nation. Unable to feel comfortable at home, unable to avoid permanently the social grotesqueries of patriarchy, she gains buoyancy in transit. The temporary freedom she achieves derives from high-speed forward motion, usually in the land-eradicating night.
"Travel Plans for Social Outcasts," easily the best poem in a book that consistently offers up rough treasure, counters Lewis' usual portrayal of the ride as saving grace in and of itself. Here the ride is key, but it's nonetheless subordinated to all of her angst-ridden reflection. Although there are moments in other poems when we might feel the writing could have been more polished, less rough-hewn, many works in the collection offer some of the same kind of surprise by combining acute description and harsh deliberation—especially "American Dream," "Little Despot," "Story Box," and "Coupled." Breathless, honest, and sweeping, "Travel Plans" alone makes Burned House with Swimming Pool worth its modest price.
David Wojahn's early poems are smoothly paced, highly textured explorations reminiscent of the work of Philip Levine and others who employ the free-verse lyric to examine the personal and political in the twentieth century. Take for instance "Pentecost," which describes the poet's father stationed in 1945 at an allied POW camp in Pisa where Ezra Pound, the treasonous writer who crucially helped to shape modernist poetry, is being kept. Here is the father's first encounter with Pound:
Some nights he smuggles
cigarettes and chocolates to the old man
who claims that he's American himself,
who speaks in whispers from within
the bars, in the corny mannered slang
of a movie cowboy.
The language flows along in the seamless cadence popular in late modernism, a movement popularized in the late 1950s and characterized by conversational free verse. We discover that the poet's father, wounded earlier and now healed, wanted to be a writer, drinking grappa and trying to capture the "white piazza light" on paper. But the soldier can't seem to get the words right: "What is it he could say?" His brain is agitated with random thoughts he can't convert to language.
The poem ultimately implies that the father's conversations with Pound have created a strange kind of writer's block:
the trance of grappa for
the oddness of thought—
how he felt, for a moment,
he'd had the power to speak in Greek,
Italian, and Chinese, his thoughts
churning forth in swirling cadences,
like oars striking brightly
against a sea so vivid
he's blinded and must turn away.
"Pentecost" has a kind of relaxed sentiment, suggesting perhaps that what the father heard scrambled in his head became a source of poetry for the son. When it was published in 1987, free-verse ruminations were virtually a received form, and Wojahn's effort is comfortable within its blend of narrative and lyric.
In his new book World Tree, however, Wojahn continues his recent trend toward long-lined sinewy narratives and fragmented lyrics, both of which express his personal mourning as well as larger socio-political concerns. The poems are rarely as closely focused on one event as is "Pentecost." For instance, "Mudlark Shuffle" begins with the speaker reading from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, a book that describes mid-nineteenth-century "toshers," men who scavenged the city's sewers, and "mudlarks," children who did the same along the banks of the Thames. By the end of the third couplet (out of twenty-three), the scene shifts to a twenty-first-century jet:
Behind come the mudlarks, children mainly, snatching
from the ooze what the toshers discard. Cabin doors shutting,
iPod on shuffle. Sweet Thames runs softly, on whose banks
Thy gatherers bend to scoop pure into their sacks—
"Mudlark Shuffle" effectively employs many more allusions than the earlier "Pentecost." In the later poem, for instance, Wojahn includes an iPod, a line from The Waste Land, and the word "pure," which we learn is an old term for "dogshit sold to tanners & employed to soften leather."
Wojahn is a master at jumping from one scene to another without overt transitions, enhancing his wide-ranging allusions and demonstrating an inclusiveness that dramatizes social inequities. Within the poem's back-and-forth reach, the rich and the poor are contrasted with devastating effect:
The specialties abound. The Suit to my right is in finance,
Suit to the left, technology. As we crawl from the gate,
they power down their cells in unison, the ringtone of finance
being the wail of Janis Joplin begging Yahweh for a Benz.
The steward clicks shut his seatbelt lariat & conversation ebbs.
At low tide they'd flock along Blackfriar's Bridge. A mudlark might,
reports Mayhew, earn a penny per day. Beside me columns
shimmer from a laptop. Below, the eggwhite clouds [ ... ]
The synthesis of references—twenty-first-century financial and technological jobs and terms, a 1960s singer and song, the ancient Jewish term for God, a nineteenth-century author, a London place name, the old terms for scavengers—produces an expansive effect: time collapses and we're able to view the ongoing subordination of the struggling many to the wealthy few. We're also able to see how those of us who can afford to take planes across the country can be detached from the suffering of the many over whom we fly.
And so the speaker is indicted along with the "Suits." His iPod "on shuffle," he listens to a John Berryman poem and a Jimmy Kimbrough blues song before falling into a trance:
Low tide & the fog hangs rank,
pewter swirl against the pilings of the bridge, & the Parliament spires
distant in the dawnlight, blazing. The mud sucks at my boots,
I stumble always bent & watchful. The lanterns of the toshers
firefly the humid soup we wander in, voices of our little multitude [...]
Ultimately, he hasn't simply fallen into a dream in which he's a mudlark. His switch suggests that the life of the regular flyer is itself a new form of numbing, one that is virtually consecrated at the poem's end:
The specialties abound, busily seeking, bob & scoop & bend,
& before me the shine, the glint. Behold the grail of button, o grail
of buckle, grail of a fine ladies' hatpin. A good day; tonight
I will eat. Pry out the star, aglitter in the shit.
"Mudlark Shuffle" engrosses by way of braided stories, voluminous allusions, a-transitional leaping, the collapsing of time, and, as in the final line, deft imagery that asserts both the speaker's culpability and his victimization. If that poem casts in sharp relief the difference between Wojahn's older and newer styles, "August, 1953" represents yet another approach. Wojahn juxtaposes his own birth with the mid-twentieth-century turbulence of the Cold War and observes that those global dramas took place far from the lives of ordinary people—such as his mother:
A nurse gathers up the afterbirth. My mother
had been howling but now could sleep.
By this time I am gone—also gathered up
and wheeled out. Above my jaundiced face the nurses hover.
Outside, a scab commands a city bus. The picketers battle cops
& ten thousand Soviet conscripts in goggles
kneel & cover their eyes. Mushroom cloud above the Gobi,
& slithering toward Stalin's brain, the blood clot
takes its time. Ethel Rosenberg has rocketed
to the afterlife, her hair shooting flame. The afterbirth
is sloshing in a pail, steadied by an orderly who curses
when the elevator door stays shut: I am soul & body & medical waste
foaming to the sewers of St. Paul. I am not yet aware
of gratitude or shame.
I do know the light is everywhere.
Across just fifteen lines, this broken sonnet—like "Mudlark Shuffle"—sets the poet's life against the larger historical context of "the Red Scare" in a time when many Americans feared the Soviet Union and the threat of atomic war. But whereas "Mudlark" moves with alacrity, the idiosyncratically shaped "August, 1953" is deliberately paced in order to emphatically convey its sense of fear and detachment.
In his other books, Wojahn has occasionally used visual markers between lines to hamper the natural drop-down progress of reading. Such enforced pauses add gravity to every line, as if each must stand as its own unit of poetry. The effect is to work against the natural speed of the braided narrative: the story is slowed, and the import of each element appreciates.
Both kinds of poems—the long-lined story with reflective interludes and the staggered lines with visual symbols as breaks—demonstrate Wojahn's most recent styles. Employing many of the devices in "Mudlark Shuffle," the title poem "World Tree" is a beautifully effective eight-part sequence tracking the manner in which music has enveloped and encoded the poet's life. On the other hand, the twenty-five-part "Ochre," the longest sequence in the book, represents a third, less successful style. Part poetry and part photomontage, each section comments on an image that precedes it. The poem feels reduced by the photo-and-response device, in part because the chosen sonnet length of each section seems too constricting. The sequence as a whole is certainly inventive, but even though certain passages are sharply evocative, the larger whole feels somewhat forced and therefore less natural than "Mudlark Shuffle" and "August, 1953."
Nevertheless, World Tree is a stunning accomplishment. It offers depth, risk, and judgment in viscerally compelling expression. David Wojahn is one of those poets whose work is widely known but not celebrated widely enough. His formal developments, his control of tone, and his wildly animated language all contribute to a poetic achievement that deserves far greater attention.
In The Book of Ten, Susan Wood continues to demonstrate that she is among the best elegists we have. This talent has been evident since her second book Campo Santo (1991), composed almost exclusively of deeply threnodic poems in long free-verse columns. The title poem of that volume comprises six irregular stanzas and focuses on the relationship between two women—a mother whose child has died and the other poem's speaker. The best poem in the collection, it's an immersion in adult sadness. Note how the deceptively plain speech of the fifth stanza manages to convey so nakedly the many folds of grief and empathy:
When I drove away from your house that day
I heard the Bach concerto for two violins,
the first violin low and then another,
higher, piercing, and then both of them
together, answering what will not be
consoled. I stopped the car and wept
because I could do nothing else.
There were months we had been like strangers
to each other, distant and awkward, though
I could not say why. Now it had ended,
and I remembered a story a friend had told me,
how when he was young he had loved
a Beethoven sonata so much he had played it
every day, again and again. And then, somehow,
he didn't play it anymore—went away, maybe,
or lost the record, and in time forgot.
Driving across the Bay Bridge ten years later,
he heard it suddenly, after all
those years, on the radio and was overcome
by grief for all that he had lost.
Wood's voice aspires to the American speech equivalent of the somber sections of a Beethoven sonata (say, "Pathetique"), and her line breaks convey implications beyond what's merely described ("answering what will not be / consoled").
In The Book of Ten, Wood returns to many of the same elegiac tones, but occasionally she's even more directly revelatory and more baldly confessional about human self-delusion. She asks probing rhetorical questions in a way she hadn't before, and rather than focus exclusively on her own life, she continues a trend she began with her third book, Asunder (2001), expanding outward from the first person to include a broader view of human experience. Nowhere is this expansion more successful than in the exceptional "Soledad," which focuses on the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, who wrote many inventive tangos—in particular a famously melancholy piece that gave Wood's poem its title. Piazzolla was known for investing sections of his tangos with moments so unusual as to seem like improvisation; in fact, he improvised occasionally in concert but rarely while recording. Wood renders him playing from memory—"a la perilla, freely, without a score"—then provides the poem's central theme: "Improvisation is like grief, / you never know when it will take you by surprise."
What's most striking about the structure of "Soledad" is that the speaker does not insert herself until the thirty-first line. Before this point, we could read the poem as being entirely about Piazzolla:
It is December, summer, hot and sweet, and he is sweating now,
a thin film like milk on his upper lip. He imagines a woman—
he'll call her Mercedes—floating near the ceiling like an angel
in a painting by Chagall, except she's no angel and the clouds
she floats above are smoke. She had no mercy,
raking her red nails across his back when she came,
moaning his name, "Astor! Astor!" He remembers that.
This marvelously wrought stanza captures the solitude implied by the title of both the song and the poem: the composer imagines having sex with an uncompromisingly passionate woman, and then the last lines suggest the depth of the artist's commitment to imagination. The great composer is so at home in his solitude, so involved with his interior world, that his memory holds on to what he's persuasively, dramatically thought up: "He remembers that."
Because the speaker feels a similar commitment to the imaginative life, she is inspired to enter the poem and consider her own immersion in an imagined world. After she notes that Piazzolla "longs to postpone the moment of release, / to make it go on and on the way grief can," she senses that he "postpones the resolution / of harmonic sequences until I think my heart will break." Not only is this one of the most convincing recent poetic marriages of sex and grief, it's also a remarkable marriage of historical and personal realities:
It's as though I've found at last a house I dreamed of once,
found it down the side street of a dream in Buenos Aires,
a place I've never been. Still, I know the house is mine and I find it
there, find it behind a wall of brick and jacaranda,
but when I open the iron gate I see it's deserted now,
Peron has taken everyone away and no one knows me anymore.
Inside the dusty rooms, I can still hear his song, a phonograph
playing it over and over in the empty air. Soledad.
The mention of Argentina's repressive president Juan Peron provides historical veracity and explains why the imagined house is deserted. More important, the composer's way of being is also the speaker's. Just as he is stricken within the solitude of his song and his imagination, so the song sends the speaker into reverie. The poem's reliance on a public figure, its finely moderated threnodic tones, and the fact that its speaker enters so late are all perfectly suited for representing one view of the artist's life: because art requires improvisation, it requires solitude—and solitude is a grief-filled business.
Just as "Soledad" stretches to include the personal and the historical, a sequence of poems spread throughout the volume (each with the prefatory title of "Decalogue") also moves beyond the personal to encompass a wider perspective. The sequence is inspired by and loosely modeled after a series of ten one-hour films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieglowski—which are, in turn, based on the Ten Commandments. Wood's eighth poem in her sequence, "Decalogue: Ethics," corresponds to the eighth Kieslowski film and to the Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. The poem is primarily about personal transgression, specifically concerning a Jewish woman who confronts an older Christian woman who'd refused to falsify a baptismal certificate for her when she was a child and the Nazis were closing in. Not until the tenth stanza (of thirteen) does the poem's speaker reveal that she had betrayed "a son . . . who now seems lost," suggesting that she left her husband and in doing so also left her son:
In the movie inside me, the one I rewind again and again,
he runs into the house, five years old, his eyes
black and muddy, he's looking for me everywhere,
wants to tell me about the battlefield, Gettysburg,
he's seen that day. He waves his toy rifle in the air.
But I'm not there. I will never be there again.
The language here is as plainspoken as that of "Campo Santo," as is the direct engagement with an almost irrevocable sadness. But this poem is far broader in scope and structure than the earlier one. Wood doesn't change her conversational expression and is still obsessed with grief, but she is developing a wider frame of reference that enables her to enlarge the poem so that its confessional aspects are subordinated to a more inclusive, more universal perspective.
Wood has always enjoyed the rhetorical question as device, and her new book elevates its use. In "Decalogue: Ethics" she poses seven different questions, and the poem's penultimate sentence is a question in the form of a couplet: "And if to save one life is to save the world, I think, / then is to lose one life to lose everything?" In the context of both the personal and the universal, this question adds resonance while enlarging the scope of Wood's concern. Readers, put in the place of the people in the poem, must come up with their own answer—and thus the poem gains an enriching complexity. Wood doesn't let the question stand on its own. In the final two lines she tries to answer it obliquely: "To forgive oneself is a work that never ends, every day / cutting lilies, putting them in a cheap crockery jar."
In a few poems Wood seems comfortably installed in her old, perhaps narrower confessional style, but virtually none strikes a false note. One might hope for more emphatic closure here or there, but the poems have a lyric integrity that overcomes such minor deficiencies. All are convincing, many are quite moving, and the most moving—such as "Soledad," the "Decalogue" sequence, "In America," "The Magic Hour," and "Gratification"—find ways to expand their frames of reference beyond the private life of the speaker while still including that very life.
The earlier poems of Yusef Komunyakaa display colloquial speech comprising American wisecracks, blues turns-of-phrase, and elegant lyric reflections. He also makes plenty of references to the Vietnam War as well as music and sports. Often set in a strong narrative foundation like the early poems of David Wojahn, they move fluidly, laced with American vernacular and a flood of concrete images. In his new book The
Chameleon Couch, Komunyakaa is more overtly concerned with archetypal expressions of physical and romantic love than he has been previously. More lyric in impulse and more likely to resist the temptations of colloquial Americana, these poems employ less local and regional texture and include more historical and even classical references.
Komunyakaa's first books are famous for the way they explore the intersection of race and war. Perhaps no other poem demonstrates this marriage of concerns better than the short-lined, free verse "Tu Do Street," published in 1988 and spoken by an African American soldier in Vietnam. Off duty in a bar in Saigon, the man closes his eyes to see "men drawing lines in the dust"—of the present place, where the bartender hesitates serving him because the white soldiers have appropriated the dive as their own, but also of his past home in Mississippi, where he was "a small boy / again in Bogalusa. White Only / signs & Hank Snow." Down the street at another bar, "black GIs hold to their turf also," and the speaker is fascinated that white and black soldiers have so much in common, that they are all looking for women of a certain profession:
There's more than a nation
inside us, as black & white
soldiers touch the same lovers
minutes apart, tasting
each other's breath,
without knowing these rooms
run into each other like tunnels
leading to the underworld.
Most good poetry relies, of course, on effective imagery and/or symbolism, and "Tu Do Street" is no exception. The poem moves quickly, carefully tying together its temporal and political motifs.
In the time since he worked primarily in this short-lined narrative style via which he would ruminate on his own past, Komunyakaa has expanded his frame of reference far beyond period and locale and his formal devices have become more sophisticated. For instance, his lines throughout The Chameleon Couch are typically longer and syntactically more complex, his transitions quicker. Consider "The One-Handed Concerto," about the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost a hand and became famous for commissioning left-handed compositions, including one from Ravel. Here's the second of four seven-line stanzas:
Phantom fingers played the bridge
between ivory, allegory, & wood.
If the left hand can't forgive or forget
its brother, blood seeps from the song
when white bones peer out of earth.
He rehearsed the Concerto in D
till Pan & Beauty danced in a grove [...]
Komunyakaa's earlier work was unlikely to combine image and abstraction; here, the blend expands the poem's context so that we understand the way Wittgenstein's imagination perceives playing before he actually begins. He needs to imagine the full sense of what the missing hand could play in order to channel the dramatic sensation to his left hand alone. The resulting sound might be an eerie dirge seemingly emitted from the missing hand: "blood seeps from the song / when white bones peer out of earth." Such an imaginative assertion is beyond even the wonderfully unifying idea expressed at the end of "Tu Do Street," with its smartness of imagery; this new poem requires a more elastic, more intuitive leap.
The differences between the two poems are certainly not limited to this kind of swift associating. "Tu Do Street" offers images of Bogalusa and Saigon—we might be tempted to note the last three letters in the former city's name—but "The One-Handed Concerto" includes local references ("gazing at an orange sunset when a grackle / flew into the glass") plus references to history ("the Great War") and mythology ("Pan"). The more seasoned poet sees the larger implications of art's making as well as the psychological realities of the wounded artist. By the end of the poem, the pianist witnessing the grackle hitting the glass has a resigned epiphany: "Okay, / I may have learned to articulate the silence of silk / falling, but I cannot teach my shadow to stop / limping three paces behind when I take a bow." Komunyakaa's Wittgenstein accepts that, though his art has been changed by his condition, he'll never feel his art is of his own making or that the final composition is as good as it could have been.
Komunyakaa still writes about his racial experience, but now the associations grow wider in their implications, and the structures of the poems help to foster such a broadening. The title of "Cape Coast Castle," possibly the best poem in The Chameleon Couch, refers to a seaside stone castle in Ghana that was used by the British in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to hold slaves in extremely crowded conditions before they were sold and shipped overseas. The castle haunts Komunyakaa, its image traveling everywhere with him after he visits that country with his lover:
I made love to you, & it loomed there.
We sat on the small veranda of the cottage,
& listened hours to the sea talk.
I didn't have to look up to see if it was still there.
Then he travels to Europe, where the castle and its grotesque history interrupt again:
I was standing in the airport in Amsterdam,
sipping a glass of red wine, half lost in Van Gogh's
swarm of colors, & it was there, brooding in a corner.
Clearly the speaker is riven by the unalterable history of slavery, and the Ghanaian castle reminds him not only of the horrors of the slave trade but also of the remarkable nature of his own comparative freedom—and thus the image yields a complex amalgam of emotion:
That last word implies so much without being explicit: perhaps a desire to be with his ancestors, or to protect them against all hope, or to bear endless witness to the terror. "Longing" may also suggest survivor's guilt, as if the visit to Ghana has resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder.
Why did I taste salt water in my mouth?
We stood in line for another plane,
& when the plane rose over the city
I knew it was there, crossing the Atlantic,
Not a feeling, but a longing.
In most poems, we'd expect the metaphorical implications of the castle to carry through to the end. But, like the inventive poems in Susan Mitchell's Rapture (1992), "Cape Coast Castle" abandons its main metaphor to close with an entirely different image. The speaker imagines the slave ships once again, then the white governor who "stood on his balcony, / holding a sword, pointing to a woman / in the courtyard. saying, That one. / Bring me that tall, ample wench" The castle is no longer the predominant focus of the poem, but the speaker can't stop thinking of the rape. Because Komunyakaa begins the poem with two lovers, he's now blended an elated sensation with a dirge state. The price of his race consciousness is this onerous mix of love and anger.
What can the speaker do with his wrath? He simply plays it out, giving himself over to the stream of the governor's invective. If, as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison have reminded us, the bestial behavior of the oppressor can be assumed by the oppressed, what's challenging and courageous is the way the speaker's rage enables him to enter the consciousness of the barbaric governor:
There's a tyranny of language in my fluted bones.
There's poetry on every page of the Good Book.
There's God's work to be done in a forsaken land.
There's a whole tribe in this one, but I'll break them
before they're in the womb, before they're conceived,
before they're even thought of. Come, up here,
don't be afraid, up here to the governor's quarters,
up here where laws are made. I haven't delivered
the head of Pompey or John the Baptist
on a big silver tray, but I own your past,
present, & future. You're special.
You're not like the others. Yes,
I'll break you with fists & cat-o'-nine.
I'll thoroughly break you, head to feet,
but, sister, I'll break you most dearly
with sweet words.
The poem ends here, without the speaker entering as himself to make any final reflection.
Though Komunyakaa doesn't offer commentary on these final lines, the mention of "poetry" connects us to the poet-speaker. The reference to "the Good Book" calls up divine justice and retribution, and we can fairly easily see that the "past, present, & future" are not just those of the slave woman and her fellow slaves, but also of their descendants, including the speaker. Thus, the ending provides multiple options for interpretation. The last lines might be read simply as the words of the governor as imagined by the speaker. But because the governor mentions poetry and the Bible, we might also see that the poet-speaker's longing for retribution (which is, of course, impossible) might be as visceral as was the governor's need to "break" the will of the woman and her people. After all, it is the speaker inhabiting the voice of the governor, placing himself in the consciousness of the barbaric master. The first and last sentences of the poem hold the singular pronoun you, leaving us with the possibility that this living descendant of slaves could be seeing in himself simultaneously a potentially redemptive tenderness and a capacity for horrific ire.
"Cape Coast Castle"—a remarkable poem in structure and voice, in image and association, in empathy and mimicry—is an advance even on the very fine, much lauded work of the younger Komunyakaa. Some poems in The Chameleon Couch are not as fully realized as "Cape Coast Castle" and "The One-Handed Concerto," but there are certainly others that maneuver readers into new ways of seeing—among them "Canticle," "Aubade at Hotel Copernicus," "Begotten," "Nostalgia, or Between Lovers," and "Dear Mr. Decoy." In the end, inspired by the subject of romantic love and an outsized sense of history, these works as a whole create a break from the more conventional form of the poet's first lyric narratives.
To determine if and how these recent volumes reflect trends in American poetry, it's helpful to consider the broad movement in poetic form and subject over the last one hundred years. From roughly 1912 to the mid-1950s, high modernism broke from the puffy abstractions and archaic diction of the preceding decades. Although their work was often marked by fragmentation and a more formal rhetoric, Pound, Eliot, and others preferred language that was more "modern" in diction. They still rhymed for the most part, but they didn't typically adhere to traditional forms. As in the past, the poet's personal life didn't openly enter into the poem. The work often focused on large subjects: alienation, economic inequities, metaphysical uncertainty, the decay of nations, etc.
After the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) and Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959), poetry in the early 1960s took a turn toward personal introspection and more conversational expression. While many of the characteristics of high modernism continued to appear, late modernism was marked by more of an interest in common speech; there was less rhyme as well as less overt fragmentation. The confessional mode was perhaps the predominant style for more than a decade, and it continues as an important style today.
So, we may again ask the key canonical questions regarding new work: having examined four new books by four well-established poets, can we detect any sort of trend? Does each book represent a change? What, if anything, do they contribute to the larger aesthetic consensus? As we read the poems of Lisa Lewis, David Wojahn, Susan Wood, and Yusef Komunyakaa, we can see a desire to bridge high and late modernism. It's as if these poets wish to retain the conversational free verse and personal authenticity of late modernism while expanding their poems to include the wider reach of high modernism. Based on this admittedly small sample of new books, we might in fact be able to identify broad trends. Certainly, poets remain interested in socio-political issues. In fact, all four poets discussed here directly engage the question of social injustice, of haves and have-nots and the personal effects of widespread inequity. These poets also write almost exclusively in the first person, often in an intimate tone; to a greater or lesser degree, all are personal, and even confessional.
All four are attempting to break from the style of poetry that predominated in the 1970s and '80s and is still prevalent today. Philip Levine and Maxine Kumin, to name but two, are among the older generation of poets who practice the narrative lyric in which a first-person protagonist explores an event within the parameters of his or her own personal experience—Levine using "traditional" free verse that generally employs a syllabically controlled line, Kumin making often-subtle use of the rhyming techniques she employed more overtly and strictly in her early years. The language in such poems is usually casual rather than ornamental or significantly musical, and the poet's implicit contract with the reader assumes, even if the poem's attention is exclusively limited to one person, that the "wholeness" of the experience may apply to all. Forty years ago, such poetry resisted the canonical tropes of high modernism—fragmentation, pervasive allusions, formal expression.
Today, the narrative lyric is itself a kind of received form, and Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" is being played out by this next generation of poets represented by those I've examined here. They recognize the need to communicate about the experienced life rather than the philosophical implications of materialism, and they are breaking from their literary parents who practiced the kind of personal poem that grew out of the confessional movement. If we can detect in the collective later work of Lewis, Wood, Wojahn, and Komunyakaa any trend, it is an attempt to subordinate narrative itself and to broaden the self-reflective impulse so that the poem is more inclusive, less solipsistic, and thereby deliberately broader in its application.
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About the Author
Kevin Clark’s Self-Portrait with Expletives (Louisiana State University Press, 2010) won the Pleiades Press Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize. His first full collection In the Evening of No Warning (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2002) earned a Greenwald Fund publication grant from the Academy of American Poets. His poems and reviews have appeared with regularity in The Georgia Review, and in Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, and Crazyhorse. Clark teaches at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
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