Monday, September 22, 2008

Unspeakable Speeches

Poet Sam Rasnake posted Francis Bacon’s painting Head VI on his blog the other day, and accompanied the painting with a quote from Bacon: “If you can talk about it, why paint it?”

Great question. In some ways, I think it's a perfect question for poetry, as well—though an odd one, given that poetry trades in words; to transfer Bacon’s thought to our medium would be to say, If you can speak of it, why write it? Which seems only a small step from saying, If you can speak of it, why speak of it? and from there, one might descend down a long slippery slope of verbal insanity, at the bottom of which one would find Yogi Berra, explaining how he’d give his right arm to be ambidextrous.

For all the wackery in that line, though, to say that poems are unspeakable speeches seems very close to the truth—and not “the unspeakable” meaning solely "awesome" or "horrifying" (as many of Bacon's paintings are), but the things that simply cannot be conveyed in conversation or in narrative prose; what can be expressed that way is not poetry. And in fact, I find that the more I struggle to “say something” in a poem, the less happy I am with the outcome. When I try to say something, it often results in a highly crafted, overthought piece that doesn’t succeed at all in creating the feeling I get when I read a really stunning poem—namely, of having been momentarily removed from my body by a strange confluence of image, sonics, feeling, and idea.

Like so many poems, Bacon’s unsettling canvases are describable when it comes to method—you could talk about the thickness of the white and the purple here, the vertical dry brushiness of the black obliterating the figure’s eyes—but as with a poem, the painting’s final impact cannot be described or summed up the way an article or even a novel might. Many times that’s because poetry, or at least the initial impulse toward poetry, comes from somewhere else, a place even the supposed creator of the poem usually can’t explain. At least I can’t. Writing-wise, there’s little I dread more than having someone ask where I got the idea for a poem. (I’ve noticed other poets never ask this question.)

Jane Hirshfield’s “The Envoy,” from her book Given Sugar, Given Salt, captures this unconscious aspect of writing better than any other work I know; in fact, Hirshfield’s study of Buddhism seems to have led her to become an astute and precise observer of her own mind at work throughout much of her poetry.

What I want when I write a poem is to be able to access the “belled herds.” But they do not come when I call, I cannot look directly at them, and they often dissolve when I try to speak them into being, leaving in my mind a pungent bovine smell that will not turn up on the page. When it does turn up, I feel justified in cracking a beer and calling it a night. But most of the time my brews are unearned, opened because the magic isn’t happening rather than to celebrate its visit.

The Envoy

One day in that room, a small rat.
Two days later, a snake.

Who, seeing me enter,
whipped the long stripe of his
body under the bed,
then curled like a docile house-pet.

I don’t know how either came or left.
Later, the flashlight found nothing.

For a year I watched
as something—terror? happiness? grief?—
entered and then left my body.

Not knowing how it came in,
Not knowing how it went out.

It hung where words could not reach it.
It slept where light could not go.
Its scent was neither snake nor rat,
neither sensualist nor ascetic.

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.

Through them
the belled herds travel at will,
long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Temporary American Poetry?

We read different poets for different reasons. There are some I turn to (they tend to be old guys like Justice, Larkin, Auden) when I want a sense of solid ground, of comfort in high winds and waves. There are others I read when I have poetry block; for some reason, I can write fiction almost any time, but I have to be in a certain mental space to write anything resembling a decent poem. Reading Jorie Graham or August Kleinzahler often helps break me out of a prosaic tone that regularly threatens to creep in; the drive toward narrative is a tick on my belly every time I try to write a good lyric poem.

I read Campbell McGrath for pleasure, but also as part of an ongoing argument with myself about what cultural stuff belongs in poems. For some reason, poems that are filled with modern implements—the things we’re surrounded by right now—often turn me off. A poem that mentions Britney Spears, text-messaging, or Seinfeld may intrigue or amuse me, but I have yet to find such a piece that makes me want to go back and re-read it. All of these things are themselves, but in poems they’re often metaphors as well, and how long can they last as metaphors for anything but transience itself?

In college I had a used textbook called Contemporary American Poetry in which, on the title page, some wit had crossed out the first three letters of Contemporary. When I read poems that have such modern cultural minutia in them, that’s how they often feel to me: temporary. While we were in grad school, my then-boyfriend wrote me a gorgeous poem—delicate, restrained, yet passionate—but it mentioned the playing of a CD, and that word almost ruined it for me (he was kind enough later to change it to “album,” which helped—and now, sure enough, CDs are almost a dead reference point.)

I want to get the references in what I read. I know he’s a favorite of many, but John Ashbery’s a poet I’ve never been particularly fond of; many of his poems bar me right from the start with allusions to art or films I’ve never seen and have no charge or investment in. Yet Campbell McGrath uses the same baggage; his poems overflow with names and places and stuff. His book Pax Atomica, for example, contains a long poem called “Guns N’ Roses.” Yes, it’s about the band (or at least uses the band as a central image) and I really like it. It’s probably because recognize McGrath’s cultural baggage and have lived in it, where Ashbery’s seems like another planet.

I want to read (and write) something lasting, and it’s often hard to tell how much of right now will last. Yet what seems classic to us now was once tentative: Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is full of contemporary references. But it has lasted and is quoted regularly, in spite of the fact that few contemporary readers know “what occurred at Linz,” what Nijinsky wrote about Diaghilev, or even who Nijinsky or Diaghilev were. And on some level, I think my desire not to see cell phones or iPods or Donald Rumsfeld in poems is a ridiculous and maybe even harmful bias. Poets are regularly bemoaning how few people read poetry, but how many poets write poems that live in the world most people live in? Many poems I read seem a million miles from contemporary concerns and cultural touchstones. How can you tell trivia from culture, especially when much culture is trivia and there’s less and less of a difference between high art and pop? The line becomes more porous by the day; it’s almost become an irrelevant fiction.

Besides, who says something has to last forever to be good? Why do I have a bias insisting art has to be like Michaelangelo’s David—still standing centuries from now? Not only is it a standard most art will fail to reach, it fails to acknowledge that something ephemeral can have it’s own particular merit and bring, in the moment it’s viewed or read, all the pleasures of more lasting art. Given that everything is fragmented now, why try to build cathedrals? No one goes to cathedrals anymore. People go to the movies, the drive-thru, the grocery store. People go to Subway.

And on that note, here’s one of my favorites from McGrath’s Pax Atomica: funny, gross, utterly now (and on some level, I think, about the tension between high and low culture). You have to love a poem that includes both sandwiches and Wittgenstein. And while the sandwich chain may go out of business at some point (potential headline: “Subway Announces It Will Close 300 Stores; Jared Swells to 300 Pounds”), I would wager more Americans have interacted with Subway this year than they have with Wittgenstein. What’s lasting? And to whom?


Consider the human capacity for suffering,
our insatiable appetite for woe.
I do not say this lightly
but the sandwiches at Subway
suck. Foaming lettuce,
mayo like rancid bear grease,
meat the color of a dead dog’s tongue.
Yet they are consumed
by the millions
and by the tens of millions.
So much for the food. The rest
I must pass over in silence.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Beached Wails

Living overseas, my family fervently looked forward to returning stateside. Postings with the Foreign Service were of varying lengths, and if you were sent somewhere for more than three years, your family got “home leave” midway through—a trip back to the U.S., courtesy of Uncle Sam. Our trips back were most often to the South, specifically to Pascagoula, Mississippi, where my father’s parents lived. We would spend a few days in Pascagoula before hitting the road for the Alabama beach, usually driving in separate cars, my parents’ little rental and my grandparents boatlike Crown Victoria. It had leather seats—I still remember their smell—and power windows, which seemed incredibly decadent and luxurious to my sister and me.

Even when my mother and father were growing up in the South, their families were summering in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the Redneck Riviera. They’ve joked for years that Mom likely kicked sand in Dad’s face when they were children, with no idea of what lay ahead years in their futures.

We went back to Gulf Shores over and over throughout my childhood, sometimes just the six of us, other times joined by my father’s brothers and their families. My father and mother can remember when getting from the west to the east to see Fort Morgan required a short trip by ferry. There were hardly any buildings along the shoreline at all.

When my sister and I first started going, the beach was scattered beach houses, far off the main shore road in the dunes, each an isolated little retreat at the end of paths made of bleached and broken shells. We’d rent a small, stilted house from friends of my grandparents, and for a week we’d live barefoot on sand-scattered linoleum, windows open to the sound of the waves at night, small rotary fans cooling the rooms. We’d swim in the mornings and late afternoons, spending the long hours through the blazing heat of the day reading or working jigsaw puzzles or chasing the scores of lizards that lived in the sea grass beneath the house. We ate sandwiches and tomatoes bought roadside and cartons of boiled shrimp. Going out was a major occasion; we had to drive half an hour to reach our favorite restaurant, a little diner called Hazel’s Nook. We got stung by jellyfish, we stepped on sandspurs, we got sunburned and mosquito-bitten and once, running over the weather deck, I got a splinter the size of a sequoia that required a trip to the tiny clinic in Foley. At night we chased sand crabs and watched hundreds of stingrays haunt the floodlit water beneath the pier. We listened to my grandparents bitch at each other as they played gin and taught us to play hearts. It was about as close to heaven as anything I’ve experienced, and it’s always that little beach house that I think of when I hear the word home.

Over time, of course, most of the beach at Gulf Shores has fallen victim to the same fate as every beach town in America: condos, enormous reefs of condos as far as the eye can see, all varying pastel shades, with names like Summer Sanctuary and Seafoam Estates. And now that my grandparents have both died, there’s no longer a strong force pulling the family south for the summer. Virginia Beach—much closer to home—has become the new family rendezvous.

But the sand seems dirty, the beach crowded, the water murky and rough, and the weather this past week was the pits (the picture here was taken by my sister on the one pleasant day, and there was so much seaweed in the water it felt like swimming through a bathtub hair-clog). The beach certainly doesn’t hold up to our nostalgia about the Gulf, where the sand was whiter, the water calmer, and all of us younger. I wish that the family could go back there and experience that slow summer torpor, which these days seems as far away as the Gulf does—even at the beach this past week, I checked my work email several times a day. I never reached a state of relaxation; sometimes my stomach felt knotted with the same worries. I would love to be able to go back to the Gulf and kick that white sugar sand at my husband, but I suspect it would seem like a forced gesture.

I did go back to my grandparents’ old house in Pascagoula after Katrina hit. The beach road a block from their house had disappeared into the ocean. I had to find my way through a city with no signs, in which every yard was full of debris and all that was left of most houses was concrete slab foundations. My grandparents’ house was still standing, but barely. The yard was full of rubble, the lawn was dead and salty, and dazed-looking strangers were wandering through the battered, junk-filled streets. Most times and feelings and places we can’t recreate.

With Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast now, I’m hoping that Mother Nature has the same limitations.


This draft choked on seaweed and a bottlecap.