Tuesday, July 26, 2022


Thomas Lux fairly much defies description, combining the plain speak of dilligent journalism and the eloquence of an other wise taciturn poet who will use an word or a phrase that takes a contrary turn other than where you expect it to go. He is the Poet of Unintended Results, a story teller very much in the John Cheever mode where the omniscient narrator begins yarns of folks with ambitions, intentions, desires for all manner of things making their way through their routines, only to have them interrupted and , as a consequence, find themselves to the larger world ,with what were once nuances and pesky inconviences of fact now looming over them in a crazy state of I-Told-You-So.

Boil it down: feet, skin, gristle,
bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
it down, skim, and boil
again, dreams, history, add them and boil
again, boil and skim
in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
by the pencil sharpener
who looked at you, looked away,
boil that for hours, render it
down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
and sperm, and a bead
of sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
the fire, boil and skim, boil
some more, add a fever
and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
to add guilt and fear, throw
logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
it down and distill,
that for which there is no
other use at all, boil it down, down,
then stir it with rosewater, that
which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
which you smear on your lips
and go forth
to plant as many kisses upon the world
as the world can bear!

This is a poet who witnesses human experience and of life itself as process that goes on regardless of the fine personal and community philosophies we've written for ourselves to abide by. Life is a raw force that will continue to pulse, change, destroy and create anew regardless of how well can describe it. We can describe life's circumstances, we cannot control them. But there is heart in Lux's work, a sympathy, that sense of the struggle of humanity trying to create meaning in a world that defies logic and yet remains a species that continues to dress the world in a wonderful cosmology of expectations. There is wit, dark humor, tenderness, a wonderfully terse lyricism in Lux's finest writing. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022


 I am not a fan of Derek Walcott, and here I get the usual DW routine of reading a poet who spends an inordinate amount of time trying to make what he sees, smells, hears, tastes interesting in themselves, blessed only with an excess of qualifiers that the poem becomes something like perfectly fine cup of coffee ruined with too many spoons of sugar. It's not that I haven't tried to get acquainted with the man's work; he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all, and was at the time required reading for anyone thinking themselves up on poetry. The Nobel Committee isn't infallible, though, and matched Walcott prolix poetasting in 1992 with the selection of Dario Fo in 1997, a questionably lefty playwright I think never should have been allowed the small press. 

The difference, of course, is that Walcott has an audience, the same audience that sees poetry as a means to get to the Idea behind the Things we see, taste, and feel, the same audience Billy Collins more skillfully (and succinctly) caters to. And so, Walcott hams up the language with digressions that offer more silt than sunshine. It might be a dual problem between reader and poet--his audience thinks he's going somewhere with the elephantine mythology he constructs, and so does the poet. The issue, I guess, is that Walcott tries for elegance and transcendence and yet never convinces you that he's even looked out the window, let alone taken a trip anywhere. There is so much rocking back and forth between obvious extremes of situation, so many adjectives and verbs seeking to convince you that details being offered are more exciting and significant because DW perceived and categorized them. It is both arch and prosaic, a monotony of routine list making.

by Derek Walcott,
born in St. Lucia in 1930
Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill -- 
the net rising soundless at night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in the silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing 
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns, 
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

This is the kind of self-consciously literary language that ruins the literary experience for millions of readers who otherwise wish to be transported through a brilliant use of language. The theater advice applies here, "don't let them see you act", meaning that the effort to evoke conditions and states of experience through artistic means should seem effortless; the technique should be invisible, unnoticed. The artful should convey without the conspicuous essence of art. Walcott's poems make think of a man who wants to let you know that he's a poet, that he is a wordsmith. The elegance of elegance always seems more the subject in Walcott's poems, or the point of the writing; the subject exists primarily as a means to display  his  virtuosity. The net effect, in my readings of him on and off for twenty years or so, is a stalling tactic--the undecidability isn't an Ashbery like conundrum after one of his intense and relatively compact scrutinies between his Stevens-like formations of perfect Types and the world independent of the senses. In Ashbery's and Stevens' cases, the point of the poems was to evocatively ponder the distance between perception and a material existence that will not conform to the demands of brilliant language. That creates tension, suspense, irony; there is intrigue and there is reader interest in what the poet makes of it, if anything. Success, though, depends on how      well the language used to accommodate the subject and ideas being subjected to the kinds of extra-critical interrogation. For Walcott, it too often seems a case of indecision of what to settle on as a nest of notions on which to write and instead obscuring that blankness with sparkling qualifiers that, after a point, enhance not ideas or emotions but rather emptiness, a lack of anything interesting to say.  It's not for me to demand what this means because that's the least interesting thing to worry about in a discussion of a work, but I would expect a competent poem to at least be able to evoke sensations, associations, and the like toward a satisfying ambiguity; a certain genius with the language is required, and Walcott, Nobel Prize or no, hasn't that genius. The banal poeticisms of "soundless voices", "betrayals of falling suns" "the pause between dusk and darkness" and the like are arty rather than artful, It amazes a certain readership, but to me, this borders on kitsch.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022


It's interesting that some would rather argue with Wallace Stevens rather than grasping what he's writing about. Understandable: fans of Billy Collins , preferring their poems to be neat arrangements of common things highlighted with a smattering of clever erudition, find Stevens an indefinite perspective. They ask themselves, "where are these places he writes about, and where are all the people who ought to be inhabiting these piazzas or strolling these beaches?" It's precisely the lack of those things that intrigues me about Wallace Stevens' problematic take on the tension between mind and spirit. What we have in this world, his poetry informs us constantly, might be a flawed representation of the real thing, but for intents and purposes the inferior idea is all the reality we can handle. Falling short, we try harder to get to an ideal state which is elusive.

Beauty is momentary in the mind--
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.

Stevens' work is obsessed with the whole conundrum Plato introduced with the Ideal Forms, perfect in their unknowable terrain, versus the actual thing we see in front of us, aging with time, falling apart and eventually dying. The perfection , the beauty of the body we see, is a construct, a phenomenon we subject to our psychological preferences that make the world tolerable, livable. And when the body dies, it remains beautiful, in memory, in the mind that Stevens addressed in the stanza above it. Stevens , a realist, actually, and not a romantic, would suggest that "beauty" and "spirit" are actual concepts by which we arrange our lives, but that such things only have currency as long as there is someone still alive to remember the particular , place, or thing that embodies the previously mentioned qualities.

Stevens believed language, the vehicle with which we construct our complicated notions of permanence and metaphysical certainty, is finally inadequate to the task of capturing the things of the world as they actually are, in themselves, beyond the assumptions of our paradigms and censoring filters. This is what gave his poems their exquisite lyric tension, the pondering of shapes, concepts, places , arranged just so, altering and changing to other versions of "permanent" perfection as the personality changes , however slightly. Our heaven is a malleable place, he considered, eternal and ever lasting , ironically, only as long as there is someone who remembers to hold those thoughts in mind.