Thursday, February 21, 2019


The problem with The Sweet Undertaste is the straining effort poet Philip Schultz takes to make it a significant, moving poem. Less poem than it is a narrative broken up with pained intellection and verbal padding, this tale of a WW 2 survivor suffering his end in a Stateside hospital seems like a small drawer into which Schultz tried to cram too much material. Perhaps a longer, more vivid form is needed for this storyline, a book, a novel perhaps, or a film where the thick language can give way to stunning, convincing visuals. We have is something that makes me think of the worst aspects of novelists Russell Banks writing, an absent sense of when to stop a description, of when to clip an adjective or a verb. Condensed though this poem is, it has overwriting to spare:

What accounts for the sweetness of human beings?
For the fragile, inexhaustible longing in the eyes
of the slowly dying, the sweet undertaste of
a tune sung in a moment of unutterable delight?
The attempt here is to be discursive and conversational at the same time, an achievable balance we know, but Schultz's word choices, his enhancements of the tone he attempts to construct, undermine the sentiment. "The fragile, inexhaustible longing.." would ordinarily be ring true if a sparer sentence were written, but the two qualifiers, "fragile, inexhaustible" indicates indecision ; Schultz doesn't sound convinced that he ' making his case and opts to use both terms, connecting them with another term, "longing", meant to suggest a state of being, a condition of unmet desire, but which is , in itself, a vague, indefinite description. A more concrete image for the Uncle's interior life would bring us to a situation that is already complex, where there needn't be the flourishes that gum up the works. The reluctance to pare this back to more definite language results too easily in comically arch writing:

What accounts for the ignorance and hate
that chased him from the German side of Poland
to the Russian side, from the honeycomb of innocence
to the boomeranging cold of a cattle car rushing through
the moonless Siberian night

The rhetorical question is a set for a rush of language meant to pick up the pace and create momentum, like the stock film cliche of showing calendar pages flying off the wall as time marches on through futures none could predict, but the effect is faintly ridiculous in the lack of sure footing. We have,  I suppose, an attempt at film montage, verbs turned into adjectives as in "boomeranging cold from a cattle car rushing through the moonless Siberian night". I confess to liking "boomeranging", although it's an imprecise use; boomerangs, if properly tossed, turn back toward their point of origin, and the implication is that Uncle Sigmund is traveling in circles. He is, though, going straight ahead into the future. But the issue again is the padding, the added weight inserted to lend the descriptions urgency and impact. I would have jettisoned boomerang, moonless and have the line read as a bare depiction of a cattle car racing along the tracks at night. A more vivid,if an unspoken sense of the horror that awaits might have arisen between the spaces where the excess once resided. And yes, I would have dispensed with the "honeycomb of innocence", an awkward line, a self-parody of a poet stuck for a phrase. There is the tendency to think that every line in a free verse poem has to ring with coinages, phrases that are quotable in other contexts. One might compare it to a virtuoso guitarist thinking that he is obliged to the most complex improvisations in all spotlighted situations. Monotony results, and the displays of craft, the insertion of particularized style, begins to have no effect. More Joe Pass, less Yngwie Malmsteen. 
...the unalterable fact that once a man has run for his life
never again can he sleep through the night, that once salvation
is torn out of us we continue to run, on one leg and two,
to crawl like a worm through the stony anonymous earth?

Some unifying truth about ideals and human resilience is being looked for in Uncle Sigmund's story, but Schultz doesn't bring us to the point of his realization about the culminating effects of adversity and aging , he begins to lecture us, a style that awards us with an awkward image of worm working its way through a "stony, anonymous earth". This approach gives this relatively brief poem a glacial pace, a thick brick of words. The hospital room at the end, I hope, has another bed next to the dying Uncle Sigmund, reserved for this poem.

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