Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One Week After the Equinox

The first slightly cooler and drier air is filtering in at dawn this morning. This weekend, it's time to put the cool weather things into the garden: onions and leeks, lettuce and carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. The beans and squash and tomatoes and cucumbers are all blooming, and we're swamped with key limes.

I've been reading Debra Kang Dean's marvelous renku journal of a year in her book Precipitates. Here's a brief passage from the section framing the equinox:

A cup of coffee
to wake with, for a nightcap
two glasses of wine--

you'll find, instead of the silence
you were after, oblivion

like the flood waters,
muddy and thick, making of homes
islanded houses.

Here, a spring-blue sky above
Walden Pond, all aglitter.

Into the water
they faded. Footprints on
the path disappearing...

At trail's edge, a red-spotted
purple emerges, turns back.

This year, for the second
time in equal measure, daylight
clear and cool, cool night.

A time of balance--light and dark, temperate weather, and this year at least, no hurricane crossing the Carribean at the peak of the season. Yesterday afternoon a mockingbird was singing, as if it were spring.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Listening for Poems

I've been re-reading a collection of essays on poetry edited by Daniel Tobin and Pimone Triplett titled Poet's Work, Poet's Play. In Eleanor Wilner's contribution ("The Closeness of Distance, or Narcissus as Seen by the Lake") is this assertion: "Anyone who has ever written a real poem knows that the surprise of its significant form seems to arise in an odd in-between state of deepened attention when the will--which is the hammer of the ego--is relinquished in favor of some other shaping faculty, a passionate mindfulness....In the act of imaginative remove, the intellect serves not the ego but the life it illuminates." Yes, I thought when I read that. I've often been aware of that state when listening to a "real poem" unfold. There's the sense of being there/not there, of sensing things from a different perspective than usual. I "wake up" an hour later and think, Where have I been, and where did this piece of writing come from?

This is obviously not a startlingly new idea--Frost expressed it with his metaphor of the poem as a piece of ice on a hot griddle, finding its own unpredictable way as it melts. But for me, when this state occurs it is almost transcendent, partly because it comes on unpredictably but more because I experience a melding of intense awareness and the sense of not being completely in control--it is more like listening, taking notes from some source that is partly inner and partly outer, than it's like "saying something" that I'd consciously been thinking about.

Here's a poem I wrote in response to an assignment at the last residency for the MFA I've recently finished.

Ecce Homo
--Gerard Douffet, Flemish, about 1623

Behold the man, his forehead running blood,
halo hovering, as if it might ascend
the way they say he did after three days.
The man looks tired. His eyes upturned, he leans
toward Pilate on his left, as if about
to offer him a deal. The painter's lit
his face so we can guess just what he feels,
the mortal suffering he knows is coming.

But does he know what's coming in his name,
the wars, the knives and retributions?
No matter. The Bible says it was all planned
for him, and for us. They'll nail him up.
He'll taste the taunts, the vinegar, the spear,
and then the bloody centuries begin.

The assignment was to visit the Speed Museum of Art in Louisville, then write a poem in response to some piece of art there. Without really thinking why at the time, I was drawn to Douffet's depiction of the scene when Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd before the crucifixion. I took a few notes about the painting, then left the building, sat on a bench outside, and began work on the poem. Within half an hour I had the poem almost as it appears here, with only a couple of word changes.

While it might not be wise to try to analyze too rigorously how the poem came about in that way, I can say that my fascination with the sonnet form and the blank verse line provides an instinctive shape for me to fill when stepping into a poem. I've written a lot of poems that more or less take that shape, so I almost don't have to count lines, etc. as I go. But maybe more importantly, I think it's my long argument with Christianity that gave me the poem--not only drew me to that particular painting among the many in the museum, but provided the entry into the material, the way of "translating" the message of the painting into the language of my ambivalence.

Surely that too is a part of this almost magical process of listening for a poem--the idea that saving up, mulling over, images and ideas lets pressure build, so that when the "right" impetus appears, the poem is in some way already shaped, and that sensation of the ice on the stove top takes over. For a little while, the usual way of apprehending the world is sublimated or suspended, and that other, mysterious force, what Wilner calls "passionate mindfulness," puts the poem on the page.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Merwin's "Dusk in Winter"

W.S. Merwin’s five-line poem “Dusk in Winter” (from The Lice, 1967), contains qualities that helped make Merwin so influential at early mid-career: extreme compression, syntactical and syllabic balance, and a sense of mystery that is enigmatic yet evocative.

Dusk in Winter

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way

The poem focuses on the moment of sundown beside a stream. But though the atmosphere of the poem is one of stillness, of acute observation, the description is not static. The poem’s speaker asserts that the sun “goes down believing in nothing,” then he “hear[s] the stream running after it,” ending with the notion that the stream has to go “a long way” in its journey. As a complement to that tension between stasis and movement, the poem uses a carefully structured system of syllabic and syntactic patterns to suggest the steady movement of sun and stream and the speaker’s view of that landscape as one that is in equilibrium.

The poem’s first line contains nine syllables, and is composed of three grammatical parts: a phrase that delivers the subject and verb, “The sun sets,” followed by two prepositional phrases: “in the cold without friends.” Each phrase in the sentence contains three syllables, and the slight pause we are aware of between discrete phrases of this sort gives each syntactical unit equal weight, creating a sense of balance in the line, and introducing a pattern that might serve as a signal to the careful reader. Line two begins with a five syllable phrase (“without reproaches”), which tends to lend the phrase extra emphasis since the pattern of “threes” has been broken, somewhat the same effect as if an iambic metrical pattern had been varied. “Without friends” in the previous line had set up the personification of the sun, and “without reproaches” takes the personification further, suggesting that because the sun has done so much for the earth it has no need for any regret, and justifying the emphasis that results from the syllabic pattern having been shifted. The rest of line two breaks naturally into two four syllable chunks: “after all it \ has done for us,” and is followed by a line that re-establishes the pattern of threes that was present in the first line (“it goes down \ believing \ in nothing”). Thus line three is a mirror image of the poem’s first line, again suggesting balance and harmony.

The syntax of these first three lines is so balanced as to play against the syllabic pattern that is at work. Given that Merwin eschews punctuation in his poems, it is often possible to read them in the light of more than one syntactical possibility. That holds true in the first three lines of this poem. Two readings are possible: the first two lines could be read as one sentence (“The sun sets in the cold without friends / without reproaches [,] after all it has done for us[.]”), line three then being a sentence by itself (“It goes down believing in nothing[.]”). Or, the lines could be read this way: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / without reproaches[.] After all it has done for us / it goes down believing in nothing[.]” I find the second reading more satisfying and more likely as the one intended, both for the better syntactical balance it creates, since the two sentences are exactly the same length in their syllable counts, and for its implication that the sun believes “in nothing” despite the fact that it has been so beneficent to the earth during its daily arc: it does what it does because it is the sun, not because it cares for humanity. And read this way, the poem exhibits a kind of reverse echo in its syllabic pattern, since we first have three three-syllable units followed by one comprised of five syllables, then two four-syllable units followed by the same three/three pattern that opened the poem, each of these collective units being composed of sentences that are of the same length. These units do not perfectly mirror each other but they strongly suggest intention on Merwin’s part, a way of establishing a pattern and then reversing it to achieve a different kind of music.

Line four is a complete sentence (“When it is gone \ I hear the stream \ running after it [.]”) and breaks nicely into two four syllable units followed by one consisting of five syllables. Again, that pattern is easy to discern because of the way the sentence is constructed and the white noise between discrete pieces: prepositional phrase followed by subject, verb, and object, followed by a participial phrase. The two units of four are also emphasized as such because every word in them is monosyllabic, contrasted with the two two-syllable words that occur in the five-syllable unit, which tend to emphasize the movement of the stream that they describe. Each of the poem’s first two sentences contains fourteen syllables, and this one contains thirteen, again suggesting that Merwin is consciously striving for a sense of balance in sentence length while working to construct syllabic units that set up patterns only to vary them. Hearing such patterns, the reader comes to anticipate what variations might be wrought with them, creating a type of tension (through “attention” on the reader’s part) that stands apart from the poem’s allusive imagery and metaphor. It is also interesting to note the implication in this line’s opening phrase (“When it is gone”) that the speaker could not hear the stream until the sun was gone. While there was light, his attention was focused on the things he could see—the primary sense. But in the almost-dark, he must re-focus on what he can hear, and what he senses is that the stream is “running after” the sun, suggesting that each of them is alive, never in stasis, whether in relation to the earth or of it.

The poem’s last line reads as two sentences, each containing five syllables (“It has brought its flute[.] It is a long way[.]”) These sentences are delivered in the same declarative, unaffected tone as is employed throughout the poem, but because they achieve this syllabic equity, they beautifully enact the song that the speaker suggests in the trope of the stream’s having “brought its flute” on the “long way” that it must travel. The two phrases that describe the stream’s song are in perfect equilibrium with each other, and again the use of strictly monosyllabic words in this last line and the fact that the poem ends with the spondee (“long way”) suggest that the motion of the stream is steady, unhurried, constant. We even hear repetition and harmony in the parallel structures of the two sentences, the music of the “It has…” and “It is…” phrases.

The syntactic pattern that Merwin employs in “Dusk in Winter” (three sentences of almost equal length, followed by two of exactly equal length), conveys a sense of balance and cohesion that complements the speaker’s vision of the events in the natural world on which the poem focuses. And the poem’s use of syllabic patterns and variations on those patterns establishes a layer of tension that keeps the reader engaged and anticipatory. It is difficult to imagine a five line poem that is able to imply more than this one, and in such subtle ways.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Elizabeth Bishop's "The End of March"

Elizabeth Bishop's great poem "The End of March" (from which, of course, the title of this blog is taken) reflects both her fascination with and affection for the natural world and her acknowledgement of the aesthetic and artistic choices that determined the shape of her life's work.

The poem begins with the speaker (along with the dedicatees of the poem, John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read) walking on a New England beach on a forbiddingly cold day. Bishop uses minimalist descriptions to ironically convey the size and sweep of the landscape:

Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.

The sense of isolation, of vulnerability before the wind, and of the "shrunken" ocean render the beach a wide-open stage on which the three human actors all but disappear.

Then, as so often happens in a Bishop poem, an animal appears, or at least the trail the animal has left.

...we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost....
A kite string?--but no kite.

And, as again so often occurs in Bishop's work, the animal is imbued with an almost magical element--a dog as big as a lion, whose track leads to the mysterious "snarl" of string that, though "man-size" and ghostly, puts the speaker in mind of a kite string, a thing associated with airiness and leisure. Surely few activities are less associated with work and productivity than kite-flying. So at this point, not quite halfway through the poem, emerges the tension between work and play, acceptance of responsibility and the possibilities inherent in freedom that Bishop revisits over and over in her work. The kite, though apparently free from the effects of gravity, is in reality rooted to the earth by its thin tether, and, in fact, could not fly without the tension that tether provides.

What follows is the speaker's description of the perfect place in which to enjoy a kind of ideal freedom.

I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream house,
my crypto-dream house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener....

The description is vivid but laced with affectionate humor, the house being one she has seen often enough to hold in memory, to adorn with flourishes only the imagination could provide. And what solace might the house provide?

I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

After a lifetime of wandering--New England, New York, Key West, Brazil, and elsewhere--here is Bishop's understandable wish to settle down, to imagine a home furnished with the few necessaries the poet/artist needs. The description of the house proceeds for several more lines, with the speaker asserting that "There must be a stove" since "there is a chimney, / askew, but braced with wires, / and electricity, possibly." In the "must be" and "possibly" we hear the longing, the desire for the just-right setup, all of the basic elements that a "crypto-dream house" could provide. But almost immediately, the poem pulls itself back to the reality suggested by its title: "A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible. / And that day the wind was much too cold / even to get that far, / and of course the house was boarded up." Of course the house is still boarded up for the season; of course the travelers on the lonely beach aren't even able to make it within sight of the house--cold finality, perhaps tinged with regret.

But in its closing lines the poem offers an insight of clarifying beauty and affirmation.

On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
were multi-colored,
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
--a sun who'd walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.

Here is Bishop's habit of turning to the everyday for consolation, making jewelry out of the humble stones, then conflating the earlier images of the "lion" and the all-but-absent sun so that the poem can end with the metaphor of play. The brief journey on the beach becomes a meditation on a lifetime of choices, and though the reflection is tinged with regret, it can end with affirmation. The making of the poem takes precedence, and though this poem's title suggests termination, or limited possibilities, it can find its way to suggesting the joy inherent in creation. Even out of its element, the kite represents the possibility of a fresh start, a new poem woven from the fabric of missed chances and irrevocable outcomes.

Friday, February 27, 2009

An Omniscient Voice in Ellen Bryant Voigt's Kyrie

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s linked sonnet sequence Kyrie narrates the impact of the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, allowing a variety of voices to relate its effect on individuals and families. Careful reading indicates that there are at least eight different speakers interwoven through the book, most of whom seem to speak more than one poem. The poems are untitled, so the only way to connect those in the voice of individual speakers is by the allusions he or she makes to events and family members, and, in one case, because the speaker’s poems are epistolary, addressed to a fiancĂ© each time. In this way, the collection presents a challenge to readers, since though a coherent narrative is suggested (and in the poems in which we can recognize a recurring voice, individual stories are moving forward) we cannot always be certain who the poem’s speaker is. The reader’s inherent desire for linear structure is thus frustrated—the tantalizing pieces of discourse offered by each poem simply cannot be built into a coherent beginning, middle, and end.

In Voigt’s essay “Subverted Structure,” she posits that a narrative that reflects the way that “before/after, past/present, then/now continuously bleed into one another” in our lives can be as realistic as any more linear structure, and the frame on which Kyrie is built does just that, allowing the book to purposely intersperse fragments of many stories, making them subservient to the larger story of the widespread human catastrophe that the influenza pandemic became. Because the individuating voices are rendered as all but anonymous, we begin to hear them as pieces of a collective voice that tells a story greater than what happened to one person or family. But at least four of the poems in the collection are spoken by a voice that is omniscient, that seems to come from outside the narrative parameters of the characters whose lives unfold in the book. The tone of that voice is different from that of the other poems—there is no first-person singular speaker, for instance—and it often takes a long view, commenting on the action in somewhat the way the chorus functions in Greek drama. The book’s Prologue and Epilogue use this kind of voice as well, but the poems that will be the focus here are all much closer to traditional sonnet form than are those two poems, and are all structured using either an octave/sestet or a two quatrain/sestet arrangement. While the placement of these poems in the sequence does not seem to be important (again perhaps underscoring Voigt’s theory of disjunctive narrative structure), they serve as a kind of relief valve, providing a brief pause in the building tension that allows something like the voice of history to comment in the sequence.

The first poem that is identifiable as coming from that voice is “Thought at first that grief had brought him down,” on page thirty-four. At that first line, this poem seems to employ the same kind of colloquial address as those spoken by recurring characters, and the first quatrain seems to allude to the death of a character in the poem on page twenty-two: the man has dug his wife’s grave in bad weather, “under a willow oak,” and is dead himself by the next morning. The second quatrain details the death of this man’s cousin, who worked in town. But in the sestet, the poem suddenly telescopes its view, no longer presenting a list of individuals who have succumbed to influenza, but naming the victims by their occupations, suggesting the scope of the death toll: “Soon it was a farmer in the field-- / someone’s brother, someone’s father…then the mason, the miller at his wheel, / from deep in the forest the hunter, the logger.” Here the articles are specific, but because we know that the occupations named represent untold numbers of people in nineteenth century American culture, the list suggests the rapidity and lack of exclusivity with which the disease took its toll.

Having arrived at the sestet, we can go back to the poem’s first line and note the lack of the clarifying pronoun at its beginning (and note that the line would be perfect iambic pentameter if a pronoun were furnished there). “I” or “We” or “They” could be appropriate, and given the “local” focus of the poem’s first eight lines, either of the first two possibilities might be a good choice. But the formality that results from the knowledge suggested by the list of victims in the sestet, as well as the formal diction and larger scope of the imagery in the last line (“and the sun still up everywhere in the kingdom”), suggest that “They” might be the most appropriate pronoun with which this poem might open, a pronoun that implies a speaker with the distance from the events to comment on their totality and sweep.

The rhyme scheme and stanzaic structures of the poem also stand in contrast to the looser blank verse sonnet form employed up to this point in the book. While in many places the rhymes are slant, rather than hard rhyme (“down/ground,” “chill/boil,” “field/wheel”), there is a recognizable pattern: abab, acac, defdef. As will be seen, this blending of Elizabethan and Petrarchan sonnet structures is a trait that each of the four poems under consideration here shares. The formality of the structure, the lack of the first-person voice, and the sense that the poem is spoken by someone with greater knowledge of the pandemic’s outcome than those who speak elsewhere in the book, make this poem stand in vivid contrast to all of the poems we have encountered to this point in the narrative.

As in that poem, “The barber, the teacher, the plumber, the preacher,” on page forty, employs the technique of naming victims by their vocations, or by the daily activities they were undertaking when struck by influenza. But unlike the poem just discussed (and unlike many of those spoken by other characters), this poem makes no overt reference to the disease, as if the speaker can assume that because it falls where it does in the book, the reader will be aware of what is affecting the people of whom it speaks—the voice seems tinged with the knowledge that historical perspective can bring. It begins with the listing of the victims, the predominant dactyls imparting a near-nursery rhyme tone that stands in contrast to the grimness of the tally: “The barber, the teacher, the plumber, the preacher, / the man in a bowler, man in a cap, / the banker, the baker, the cabinet-maker, / the fireman, postman, clerk in the shop.” Not only the quality of the listing, but the liberties this speaker takes with tone again put this poem in contrast with the more plain-spoken voices elsewhere in Kyrie. Following the dactylic metrical pattern in the first eight lines, the poem’s ninth line is even further out on the tonal spectrum in its level of address (“O, O, the world wouldn’t stop”), and the same kinds of risks are evident in the ways in which the poem uses repetition—“laid them down and never got up,” “laid them down and never did rise,” and in the closing couplet, “fell into bed and never got up, / fell into bed and never got up.” No other voice in the collection—the voices of common townsfolk—would be capable of mourning in such a voice without sounding ludicrous or even daft, yet we do hear this as a voice that mourns the dead, a voice that, because it speaks from outside the narrative frame, has a flexibility and range of which the actual characters in Voigt’s verse drama are not capable.

This poem employs a structure and rhyme scheme very similar to “Thought at first that grief had brought him down.” The rhyme scheme again relies primarily on slant rhyme (“cap/shop,” “tailor/lawyer,” “rise/wives”), and can be scanned: abab, acac, ddeeff. Again, we have two quatrains followed by a sestet, and again the blending of the traditional sonnet structures. The fact that the two poems are similar in so many ways acts as a kind of signal—our antennae are now perhaps a bit more active, having encountered a sister poem to the first that again is so obviously different from the voices we are accustomed to hearing.
“Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame,” on page 45, again uses a two quatrain/sestet structure, though its rhymes are even further “slant” than the first two discussed. By this point, if one is reading the book straight through, this pattern begins to look familiar, and we more than half expect to hear a voice different from those common elsewhere. But three qualities distinguish this poem from the others with which it shares a similar voice. The first is that we hear a plural first-person speaker, though it doesn’t enter the poem until its sixth line: “which count the healthy strangers that we meet.” That trait might at first suggest that the speaker is one who has appeared previously, but that perception is belied by the ways in which the poem uses repetition to create an almost song-like atmosphere. In fact, the repeated phrase uses the word “song,” to open each quatrain and the sestet: “Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame,” “Sweet are the songs of envy and despair,” “Sweet are the songs of wry exacted praise.” This repetition elevates the voice and foregrounds the speaker. Along with the fact that (besides the lines that repeat the phrase) all but two lines here are perfect iambic pentameter, it seems almost impossible to hear this speaker as the soldier or the schoolteacher or the doctor whose voices we’ve experienced throughout the book, whose poems rarely stay so close to the iambic ideal. In the syntax and diction, a lyrical quality is present here that is unlike informal speech—that might, in fact, be heard as more reflexively “poetic” than in any other poem in the book. And again, the way that each discrete piece of the poem (quatrain, quatrain, sestet) is opened by the repeated phrase brings to the forefront the fact that we are looking at a sonnet, on the surface at least a more highly polished structure than in most of the poems in the characters’ voices.

The third quality that distinguishes this poem is the fact that it is one of less than half a dozen in the collection that is spoken in the present tense. We’ve become accustomed to hearing the various speakers tell us (at least in bits and pieces) what has happened to them and their families and friends—the events are recounted after the fact, with apparently varying lengths of time having passed to afford the speaker the opportunity to have reflected on those events. As suggested earlier, these poems that seem to stand outside the narrative frame can be seen as functioning as did the chorus in Greek tragedy. One of the conventional functions of the chorus was to voice thoughts and emotions that the characters of the play—whether from fear or reticence—were unable to articulate. In this poem, the speaker is doing exactly that, admitting that “the songs of bitterness and blame, / against the stranger spitting on the street,” or “the songs of envy and despair, / which count the healthy strangers that we meet,” are “sweet.” Even the songs of “wry exacted praise” must be “scraped from the grave,” or be occasioned by “the neighbors’ misery brought near,” and even directed “to the god who thought to keep us here,” presumably to live in continual doubt as to whom the disease might strike next. These are of course thoughts that most people would suppress, but here the speaker brings them out with no apparent self-consciousness, in a poem that is as musical as any in the book, and the fact that the poem is rendered in present tense implies that the book’s other characters, through this “substitute” speaker, are experiencing the unspoken emotions with more intensity because they are unable to articulate them.

The fourth poem that shares this distinguishing voice is “Once the world had had its fill of war,” on page sixty. With its division into octave and sestet, this poem is the most immediately recognizable as a sonnet, though again it uses an abab, cdcd rhyme pattern in the octave to blend the Shakespearean and Petrarachan forms. And the poem is organized around the classical Italian sonnet design of introduction and development of the problem in the octave, then the volta at the sestet, which focuses on the war’s outcome for the soldiers, once more displaying the kind of tightly wound structure that most of the blank verse sonnets elsewhere in the book do not exhibit.

More so than any of these four poems, this one speaks with an overarching historical authority as it comments almost cynically on the way World War One finally came to an end, the way in which “at the hour of the wolf and vole, in a railroad car, / the generals met and put their weapons down,” and how the victors “sat in a gilded hall, / dividing what they’d keep of what they’d won.” In the sestet, attention turns to the soldiers, who “trickled home to study peace.” And as in the octave, the speaker comments on the war’s outcome for the soldiers and their families, noting that “the old lives didn’t fit as they had before,” and that “where there’d been the dream, a stranger’s face, / and where there’d been the war, an empty sleeve.” While the poems spoken by recurring characters in Kyrie often do portray cynicism or envy, they convey those emotions in regard to the immediate circumstances of their own lives, in contrast to the more global view taken by the speaker of this poem.

An interesting question that arises about this poem is why Voigt would want to have her omniscient speaker focus primarily on the war, when most of the book’s thrust is the largely forgotten human wreckage caused by the pandemic. In one way this poem is a counterpoint to those spoken by Price, who went to the European Theatre, and Mattie, his fiancĂ©, who naturally focuses much of her attention on how Price is faring. But on a larger scale, this poem serves to point out that though the returning soldiers assumed that they would be able to pick up their lives where they’d left off, they discovered that “the old gardens grew a tough new weed,” a growth that would ironically prove more deadly for many of them than the bullets and poisonous gas that they’d faced in Europe. This dual focus underscores the ability to synthesize and comment that the omniscient speaker of these four poems possesses. Not only are these poems more formally arranged than those spoken by the other characters, and not only do they employ more formal diction, but they also allow what we might hear as a contemporary sensibility—whether of Voigt herself or another imagined cast member—to overlay the individual stories the characters tell with a kind of analytical and summary outlook that the people who lived through the told events could not have possessed at the time.

The speaker’s cynicism about the outcomes of the war is a late-twentieth-century attitude. Any history of World War One details the overwhelming sense of hope that the victors felt at the end of the war, “the war to end all wars” being the catch phrase of that time. They were convinced that the awful human sacrifice through which they’d gone would have a positive outcome. Voigt’s omniscient speaker, in this poem, is her way of injecting a level of “narrative” that dovetails with the stories of the actual events while also acknowledging that the world did not learn from those events, given the even greater cataclysm that engulfed Europe and the entire globe just twenty-five years later. And as the speaker points out here, again displaying a knowledge of history and a level of synthesis not possible for the other speakers in Kyrie, the soldiers faced a different kind of war when they returned home, a war in which they possessed no weapons to defend themselves. Because Voigt so completely interweaves the various voices in her book, she can insert these occasional poems that are spoken in a more omniscient voice with great subtlety, so that they blend seamlessly with the music that we’re already listening to.

In “Structural Subversion,” in partial answer to the question behind the essay (“How exactly does one avoid narrative?”), Voigt suggests that “One might start with a formal arrangement that counters the linear and sequential with juxtaposition: before/after, then/now, if/then, thesis/antithesis.” That sentence exactly defines her methods of arranging her material in Kyrie: the stories her characters tell are presented out of sequence (“before/after, then/now”), and the omniscient voice in the poems discussed here provides the book with the opportunity for “thesis/antithesis.” The invented people who lived (and died) during the events the book portrays give us the factual—what happened, and, more important, what it meant to them. This other voice, like the Greek chorus, provides the thesis and the antithesis—the voice of history—and its corrective and elaborative commentary on those events. Elsewhere in “Structural Subversion,” in analyzing a poem, Voigt notes that “the material of the poem—the true subject—is not what happened but what was felt,” a comment that rings true for the poems in Kyrie. Despite the disjunctive ways in which the multiple stories—and the overriding story—are told, we understand intimately what the various characters felt. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that we gain that understanding because the story is told “subversively.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Daniel Anderson's Drunk in Sunlight

Daniel Anderson's collection Drunk in Sunlight is a compelling blend of the formal and the colloquial, impulses that often seem to be in tension in the world of contemporary poetry. Anderson's poems depend heavily on the iambic line, and rhyme is usually present as well, though only rarely in predictable patterns. The poem below is a good example of these traits and also illustrates the ways in which Anderson relishes exploring how moments of heightened tension can be illuminated through the quotidian.

Elegy for the Dying Dog

Tomorrow he will die.
For now, though, see him drowsing in the shade.
A cardinal cracks the red whip of its flight.
Frail butterflies--the metalmark,
The spicebush swallowtail--are lobbed
Like painted tissue on the air.
The wind, as it might carve on fields of wheat,
Combs over his black coat. I've set him there
As water irises prepare
Their gold unfolding in the rain-fresh pond.
Last meal: steamed rice. Grilled strips of steak.
Last lazy afternoon. Last hour
To watch the clouds drift like meringues,
To watch them blended into tones of peach
Then deepen to the dusky tints of plums.
One last command to heed or disobey,
But it's not me who's calling Virgil now,
It's death who's calling, calling, calling,
And he comes.

The poem arrests the moment, speaker watching dog as his last afternoon unfolds. Perhaps my use of the word "colloquial" earlier is a bit imprecise, because there is a kind of distance achieved in Anderson's poems, partly by the slightly elevated diction, but also through the subtle self-effacement of his speakers. As often as not, the first-person speaker is plural, but even when when an "I" is present the experiences the poems record are rendered with gravity and the kind of tenderness reserved for things put down after much reflection. This reserve sometimes puts me in mind of some of Donald Justice's poems, though it must be said that "Daniel Anderson" is usually more obviously present in the work than Justice is in his.

And always in the background is the music of the varied syntax and the effortless manipulation of the metrical pattern, the trimeter line with which "Elegy for the Dying Dog" opens signalling the lack of sentiment, the variations of the tetrameter and pentameter in the heart of the poem, and the truncation of the dimeter last line to furnish a layer of inference.
The occasional rhyme, too, is part of the accompaniment, but rarely if ever does it intrude. And the sheer gorgeousness of the imagery and figurative language here--the "meringues" of clouds and the "painted tissue" of the butterflies--pulls me back into the poem over and over.

Drunk in Sunlight is Anderson's second book. His first, January Rain, is on my reading list.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Paul Zweig's Poetry

I've been re-reading Paul Zweig's wonderful book Eternity's Woods, which was published more than twenty years ago, shortly after he died, at forty-nine, of cancer. Zweig is better known for his prose--several volumes of memoir and philosophy. But as a fellow poet it's his work in that genre that I'm most drawn to. Here is a poem from Eternity's Woods:

The Perfect Sleepers

This light flooding my chair
Is too strong at six in the morning;
It was meant for the policemen prowling
In a room around some criminal,
His guilt a form of sleeplessness.

With half-shut eyes, I see horses motionless in a field
Except for their tails that flick away darkness,
Their eyes blazing like angels
On a beach in hell, bruised but noble,
For they left speech behind them
On their nightlong fall into the world.

Perfect sleepers, erect in the narrow field
Between thinking and dreaming,
Your large eyes merciful, but empty;
I take you with me into the grey milk of dawn,
Knowing your terrors are simpler than mine:
Afraid of puddles, rabbits, and the whip,
Not of promises kept or broken, not of breathing,
Not of love's forged signature
And its costly repairs.

The poem is pervaded by solitude, and melancholy, but also an unremitting clarity of vision and an honesty that can give us the horses' eyes "merciful, but empty," and "their tails that flick away darkness." In his postscript to the book Galway Kinnell says that whereas Zweig's prose came relatively easily for him, he struggled to get the poems on the page, and I think I can hear something of that struggle in many of the poems. But I don't mean that in a pejorative way. Zweig's poems are never glib, and, while they're relatively plain-spoken, they weigh each word carefully. They unfold steadily, with a kind of rueful self-awareness that is evident, for instance, in the way the speaker of "The Perfect Sleepers" implies that his insomnia is a kind of criminal activity, that he's been "caught" by the early sunlight, and that he is somehow guilty because he is unable to find the kind of peace that the horses experience, along with their "simpler terrors."

There is often a sense of the fragility of existence in Zweig's work, the narrow divide between "thinking and dreaming," between "promises kept or broken." Often, when Zweig's speakers look at other people, what emerges is affection conjoined with the notion of unbridgeable distances between them. In "Stanzas in an Emergency" the speaker observes his neighbor, who "emerges / In a clang of tumblers and doors, / With her sad nipples, her daughter vanished into permanent winter," and "the news seller on the corner, / His blind face, his daylong / Conversation with dimes and quarters." Zweig looks lovingly but honestly, no matter what he turns his attention to.

His books of poetry are apparently all out of print but can still be had from the "used" dealers online. C.K. Williams edited Zweig's Selected Poems, which came out in 1989 and includes his last work.