Thursday, December 31, 2020


 Sometimes you can concentrate on something so closely that the thing or the idea becomes abstract, blurred or jagged at the edges, a layering of form and sound that makes for a crowded, frame busting tableau. "It Takes Particular Clicks" by the adroit and terse Christian Wiman makes me thing of a walk through a familiar set of scenes that are closely observed but briefly referenced, suggesting something of the narrative stream technique Virginia Woolfe employed in her novels Mrs.Dollaway or To The Lighthouse (among others),There is something odd and detached here that makes me thing of someone floating through an experience, as with Woolfe's prose at it's most sensory rich, Wiman's poem skips and jumps, highlights and moves on to other details. Woolfe, though, awarded her readers with a flood of associations, the world of hard substance negotiating terms with a mind attempting to frame and contextualize the minute particles of the everyday;It is an impressionistic undertaking here, and the way things seem to be as one passes them can be influenced by any one of many moods one experiences in a short order. Fine, I think, but what's splendid of your review is your attention to Christian Wiman's creation of sound; this poem has a soundtrack of clicks, scrapes that underscore a psychological restlessness that narrator/dog walker finds himself in. This is a noisy poem about a brief visit to a noisy world, and you've done a nice job assembling your examples. Good criticism here..Wiman's poem is more a fast , hard rain in spring. The briefness livens the nerve endings.

Flip-flops, leash-clinks,
spit on the concrete
like a light slap:
our dawn goon
ambles past, flexing
his pit bull. And soft,
and soon, a low burn
lights the flight path
from O'Hare,
slowly the sky
a roaring flue
to heaven
slowly shut.
This is a poetic situation captured in compressed essence, not enlarged, glorified, vulgarized, made philosophical, but presented instead with a flash-card alacrity Sounds against a sidewalk soon rise above as would a responding lift to note air traffic and the sky that is several tones of cloud-coded atmosphere.
At first reading they seem a jumble of incomplete thoughts, but you've gotten the sense that this is a poem of a mind in full stride through a familiar terrain. Perhaps a bit like the scenery that rushes by a passenger window, the recognition of details nesscarily conflate and color each other in succession, but there is a coherence here; noises, distractions, from planes to speed bumps and the seem to make the walk a peril for our narrator, who seems constantly to be catching with himself ; the onslaught of images and their contextual framing seems constant work. The dog he's walking, though, is unperturbed and is determined by instinct to locate what it's senses have locked on. The shape and meaning of the world changes with each step, but a dog remains a dog and will do what dogs do during walks on neighborhood streets, and in so doing brings a focus to the onslaught, provides the reason to stop, reassemble one's rattled senses and make a statement about the experience: Good girl.

There is a pull of many things on one's attention, and the effort to recognize, categorize, acknowledge the information from a familiar neighborhood walk goes efficiently, the things themselves in curt terms, associations hinted at, suggested, the walker moving along, persistent in their path.

Here's a curse
for a car door
stuck for the umpteenth
time, here a rake
for next door's nut
to claw and claw
at nothing. My nature
is to make
of the speedbump
scraping the speeder's
and the om
of traffic, and somewhere
the helicopter
hovering over
snarls—a kind
of clockwork
from which all things
seek release,
but it takes
particular clicks
to pique my poodle's
interest, naming
with her nose's
particular quiver
the unseeable
squirrel. Good girl.

This string of scenarios unfold quickly, in steady stride, and there is an attending narrative for each thing and a cogent linking between the very different items of speed bumps or the odd thing his dog uncovered during the time on the leash, very little of it explicable , but all of it coherent; this has the eliding sway of a narrative with small notes, cryptic asides. Not as cinematic as John Ashbery's associations have been, but that, I think, is the strength of the poem; Wiman minimizes rhetorical intricacy, concocts a shorthand which suggests unsaid pleasures or private disgusts, and creates in doing a collage of signifiers, the smallish incidents and contents made extraordinary in their banality. This is something akin to the old Modernist's decree that language be treated not as the audible sighs of a wise God speaking directly to us, but instead as a hard, malleable thing; Wiman's style has the mashed together beauty of junk sculpture, the condition of things that were formerly utilitarian and explicable in design and purpose but now, mashed together, cogs, gears, fenders, trash compactors and steak knives pressurized into a furious, creviced cube, approach an organic unity.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020


Back not so many years ago Slate had former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky work as their poetry editor, a task where he would post a weekly offering from a contemporary  writer and then lightly guide an online conversation about  the most recent offered for review. Believe  me, the conversations were intense, impassioned, sarcastic, hilarious, erudite, anything but genteel and reserved. Geniuses, liars, fools and true believers joined the contretemps that resulted with each week's poems, which is to say that one could rarely guess what sort of poem Mr. Pinsky would post that week. His selections were eclectic, and what we have here, in this post , are my responses to two particular pieces that set my fingers moving,  let us say, in respective opposite directions.

 "Riding Westward"  by  Carl Phillips is an extraordinarily good poem for most of its length, a knowing evisceration of a venerable American icon, a myth stripped of it's power and portent , with nothing left but dress, mannerism, the regrettable slush pile of  cliche    ;

Compromise his very own shoot-'em-up

tilt to the brim of his hat self, smirk to match,

all-for-love-if-it's-gotta-come-to-that half


half unintentional, I think, sashay. 

Phillips reads as if he's hung around a few country and western bars and had gotten fairly tired of seeing an endless stream of gas-station buckaroos strut and preen their big hat up and down too many sawdust and spit covered floors to put up with it anymore. But this poem becomes a ghost story of sorts, an observation of what's left on earth after the power of particular symbols cease of have any real, practical force:  

The silver spurs at his ankles where maybe

the wings would be, if the gods still existed,

catch the light, lose it, as he stands in place,

scraping the dirt with his boots: lines, circles

that stop short, shapes that mean nothing—

no bull, not like that, but scraping shyly, like

a man who's forgotten that part of himself,

keeps forgetting, because what the fuck?

What's left is all mannerism, gesture, cults that consist essentially of dress up parties among  those in later decades who rummage through the past trying to find or at least construct a useful set of props and stylistic tics with which they can create an identity and hence a purpose. Yet the hats, the boots, the song he sings bemoaning an idealized loneliness under red Western sunsets are iconic and empty; nothing of this comes from the need to survive, but rather the need to belong to something with a fixed certainty.  This is an interesting poem to contrast and compare against Ed Dorn's epic poem "Gunslinger", where the poet reconfigures a series of Western icons into a search for some real matter and meaning beyond what mere language can manage with it's crippling dualisms; it's an anti-epic poem that prefigures many post-modern gestures from its 60s era starting point. Funny, cartoonish, erudite to the extreme, it also locates a tuned lyricism in the Western vernaculars that Dorn uses: the metaphysical aspect of our legends, the sheer questing for answers as Euro-Americans come treading closer to a West coast that will stop them and force them to settle and create lives from dust and ingenuity, comes alive in way that never escapes the zaniness of Dorn's narrating inquiry into the nature of the search. 

Phillips takes in the same set of aggregated props and conventional wisdom and sees instead the gaping emptiness beyond the heady glee of being dressed up in the spare vocabulary of personal codes and principled ruggedness. It's all empty and bankrupt, a story we tell to keep the darkness away. Phillips hints at something more profound than the cosmic silliness he sees with the strutting, posing and atonal warbling of prairie songs: our costumes represent nothing but wishful thinking , and that such thinking is the closet we stand to being transported to a serene, transcendent place. The gods have died, Phillips states, and we are left with our lives to either accomplish something real, or to wander about deluded, reduced by stereotypical narratives of individuality.


It might be said that was impossible to make anger a boring subject for a poem until Aliki Barnstone tried her hand at it. "Anger", Robert Pinsky's selection for the week, is set in situation a good many --too many-- of us recognize as awkward, strained, thoroughly unpleasant, a dinner for two who, sitting presumably at opposite ends of the table as they cut and chew their food with controlled strokes and grinding, manage a language in which they put each other on trial. Each has a turn to outline their argument , to make their case, the casing of civility chipping away with every stroke of knife and stab of fork: 

Yet we sit together at the table, each to serve

the other artfully poisoned morsels, point a fork,

and go on and on, watching the widening distance.

This would work, perhaps,if this were a fresher take on a soured relationship, but the poem treads territory that is too familiar, and Barnstone's greatest mistake here is over writing the scenario her template provides. The poem reads like a set up for a knockout punch that does not materialize from the corner she's trying to fight her way out of. It goes on too long, and the device of comparing this meal and its discontents to a trial is less a metaphor than a reason to write further , to add stanzas. 

You say, "You should have listened to me,"

and, "But you had to be you, didn't you?"

Then I become the witness who testifies against me.

We deliberate all night, inventing counterpoints,

narrowing our vision at spears of candlelight

and we go on and on, watching from a distance,

as we appeal, go back to discovery, retry, seek

sympathy by recounting suffering and history,

though this defense may deliver the verdict against us: 

The prosecutable element would have worked if it were brief, even fleeting, and if it were a means to segue into something else about the world this couple thought they were living in contrasted the world they now perceive as they relationship, presumably, slowly grinds to a stop. Barnstone might have managed something genuinely poetic if there were a sign , in images, of how the reality has changed. Rather, "Anger" reads as if Barnstone were too fascinated with the mechanics of making her -trial conceit work; the poem is damaged by repetition, needless volume. It is a mistake of perception, the assumption that the length of a piece is a measure of it's value. This length equals a long wait in a doctor's office.Grating as well is the last stanza, where Barnstone's woman character, the "I" narrator, has a failure of nerve and instead wallows in the misery she and her husband/boyfriend make for each other:

our embrace will pull us down

through the shades, and we'll hold on to our grievances

and go on, too watchful, unable to get some distance,

reading and helplessly rereading the sentences against us.

 Who amongst us does want to yell "get your ass out of there"?Barnstone clings to the relationship less for affection than for a reason to continue writing poems like this one. Poems written in bad faith about bad faith give evidence not just of bad, self-pitying verse, but gives obvious clues to an underlying disorder.I prayer is that Barnstone gets a relationship that is everything she desires it to be, and writes a poetry that doesn't reinforce a pathology.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

 I've heard from what others have posted that the late Lyn Lifshin, a very good poet I've read for sometime, has passed away. I haven't located more details, but I will offer instead that she was a wonderful lyric poet, with sharp observation shown in spare but powerful images, with a frame of mind to observe, contemplate and find parallels between ideas and objects that  wouldn't inhabit the same sentence. 

Her poetry was not skeletal, not minimalist, it had rhythm , pace , a real pulse , but it was not cluttered; her best poems had the remarkable resonance of one those things a friend says to you in passing, a story, a notion, something that  was observed, something actually uttered , which had the accidental genius of having the right words for an idea that could just as easily been talked to death. Lifshin was a remarkable poet, and we are poorer both as readers and poets alike for the loss of her. 

Two poems:


that afternoon an

unreal amber

light 4 o'clock the

quietness of

oil February blue

bowls full of

oranges we were

spreading honey, butter

on new bread our

skin nearly touching

Even the dark wood glowed


A woman goes into the subway,

and for what reason

disappears behind rails

and is never heard from again.

We don't understand this.

She could have gone to the museum,

had cappuccino with a lover.

But instead has gone down the

escalator, without i.d., or

even a ticket and not 

for clothes or flowers. It was

a grey humid day,

very much like today.

It was today. Now you might

imagine I'm that woman, it 

seems there are reasons.

But listen, I don't live

anywhere near that metro stop

and who I am is already

camouflaged behind

velvet and leather


An ironic choice, I suppose, considering my post earlier against writing that reflects upon its own processes, but Auster's style is so clear of dead weight qualifiers that he gets across some of the mystery involved in composing a verse, a quality that eludes other writers. A novelist by trade, Auster's fiction often fashion themselves after mystery novels where every assumption and cover story is questioned, and in which action is moved forward by chance; whole chains of events and consequences in his best fiction-- The New York Trilogy, Book of Illusion, Leviathan-- that depend on the fickle choices of where one desires to place themselves, on impulse, on the spur of the moment.


No one here, 

and the body says: whatever is said

is not to be said. But no one

is a body as well, and what the body says

is heard by no one

but you.

Snowfall and night. The repetition

of a murder

among the trees. The pen

moves across the earth: it no longer knows

what will happen, and the hand that holds it

has disappeared.

Nevertheless, it writes.

It writes: in the beginning,

among the trees, a body came walking

from the night. It writes:

the body's whiteness

is the color of earth. It is earth,

and the earth writes: everything

is the color of silence.

I am no longer here. I have never said

what you say

I have said. And yet, the body is a place

where nothing dies. And each night,

from the silence of the trees, you know

that my voice

comes walking toward you.

White Nights likewise comes across as a detective novel , combined with a ghost story; within in it are the themes of someone writing something in isolation wondering if anyone will read, how anything will change if a readership is found, how the writing lives on in the writer's words haunting a stranger years later, in another part of the world. This is poetry Don DeLillo would write, I think, if he were more attuned to the associating residue the covers a landscape or neighborhood that was once familiar but is now estranged by time. There is a novelist's precision in declarative statements like " The pen moves across the earth: it no longer knows what will happen, and the hand that holds it has disappeared " that mimics perception itself, how something beheld can seem so clear and self-contained to its purpose, place and use and yet morph from the particular to a swirling ambiguity with the slightest alteration of mood. It comes , finally, to that flashing recognition a reader experiences when another's words confirms  refinement of feeling one has felt in their own travels through an amorphous existence. I think the poem is lovely but finally undecidable to  precise meaning. Add here that that most poetry that's worth reading is undecidable to major degrees .But that is the whole point, I would think.

Thursday, December 10, 2020