A connecting principle

When I was younger, the Police popularized the concept of synchronicity, or the belief that an apparently random coincidence carries some sort of deep meaning or significance. Jung was of course beyond me at the time (though I would later take great interest in his theory of the collective unconscious), but synchronicity became a buzzword in every conversation (and a predictable prompt for charades). I also learned later that the song “Synchronicity II” owes a creative debt to Yeats, who held immense influence on my development as a poet. Can that just be a coincidence?

In any case, even if I hadn’t been listening to the Police again lately, I might still have latched on to the concept of synchronicity because in my last two journal publications, I shared space with another poet. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. The writer is Faith Shearin, and the odd confluence prompted me to grab her book, The Owl Question, from my shelf. That was her first book, published shortly before my own (in fact, it’s a safe assumption that I received the book because I also entered the May Swenson competition that year). The judge for the prize was Mark Doty, another poet I’ve always admired.

It was a great choice. Shearin’s poetry, even then, combined an unusual maturity with a youthful exuberance and sense of wonder. Many of the poems in this book look back on childhood events and memories with an eye that is not entirely critical or nostalgic. Rather, they read more like an examination or a documentary in which the poet seeks to explain—to herself, at least—how she came to be the person she is. One of my favorites in this vein is “Frogs,” which recounts a third-grade science exercise dissecting frogs. The poem bounces (leapfrogs?) around a bit, as her poems often do, providing bits of information that gradually form a larger picture. And the language is vivid: the frogs arrive “dead and soaked in formaldehyde / so they looked like wet vegetables dug up on some // other planet.” That fabulous description is another hallmark of Shearin’s work, as is the deft and unexpected turn of phrase. This poem, for example, extrapolates from dissecting the frog to dissecting her own life, with equal rigor but equivocal results: “And because of her I have taken my life apart many times, / to examine it, though I have never understood what it was.”

The first poem in the collection, “Piano Lesson,” ends on a similar crescendo: “I want to be like the girl upstairs who has braced / herself before a grand piano and taught her own blind fingers to sing.” Like many in the book, this poem speaks of both the unknown possibilities of life and the known tragedies—but it’s the optimism that wins out in the end. The view of an indifferent universe that piles life upon death shows up a lot, as in “Flat World,” which literally places a pregnant woman in a cemetery. Although wry social commentary is not a recurring trope, it is certainly on display in the line, “even without bodies, the rich slept better // than the poor.”

Which draws attention to another aspect of Shearin’s work. It is frequently quite personal, and tells of a genteel southern upbringing—but that family history is far from gothic, and the depictions never stray into caricature. In fact, it could be argued that the conventionality of her life became a source of underlying unease and self-doubt. We learn about her engagement and marriage in terms that are ambivalent, to say the least. In “Matrimony,” for example, she tries out the role of “wife” and finds it “like gaining / fifty pounds, all on my ass” (a phrase that is delightfully out of character in the book). Shearin also evokes the complicated mess of emotions that accompany pregnancy and birth in several poems, the most visceral being “Childbirth Revisited,” which conveys the sense of absurdity and helplessness when the one giving birth seems to have the least control over the entire situation.

The title poem puzzled me for a long time, until it finally dawned on me that it’s not a question about owls, it’s the question the owls ask: Who? Who are you really, in this world, which imposes such expectations and assumptions on you? How much of what you do—even falling in love—is the result of your own pure desires, your own pure persona, as opposed to the gestalt, the collective unconscious, you may have accepted without question or examination? “Surely I am pure beneath the layers I’ve grown for love.” Note that sentiment ends with a period, not a question mark—as though punctuation can differentiate between the real and ideal.

The world the Shearin grew up in was vastly different than mine, but I feel a strange affinity for her work. Granted, it is a bit more prosy than my usual fare, but it is carried off with grace and aplomb. Also, I think we can all get behind the desire for the world as “a picnic where the wine is free and sex / turns everyone to swans.”

AWP LA

The AWP conference is here in LA. Hard to believe it’s already been three years since I attended the one in Boston. Remarkably, depressingly, I recognize almost none of the presenters and panelist on this year’s program. That’s partly why I didn’t register to attend. Well, that and the fact that the real fun happens after the conference, in the off-site gatherings. I went to some last night (it was great to take the metro there, even though I have to drive just to get to the metro—this is LA, after all). First, happy hour at a cramped bar downtown that clearly was not prepared for the deluge of thirsty, penurious, literary types. It was sponsored in part by The Common literary journal, and I had the chance to catch up with my friend John Hennessy, who is the editor. Someone actually asked for my card. Do poets have cards?!? I suppose they should, especially in this digital age. There’s something romantically and quaintly anachronistic about it. I don’t get out much, especially not to literary gatherings (if such things even happen in LA). I must say, there’s a wonderful, comfortable feeling that comes from looking over a crowd and thinking, “these are my people,” even if you’ve never met any of them before, and may never see them again. Also, a fun game for literary gatherings: try to guess the genre of the person you’re meeting before they tell you. You’ll probably be right more than chance would dictate.

After happy hour, a brisk walk up Flower took us to the Standard hotel for a reading that included a very old friend from college who has finally found a publisher for the novel she’d been working on for well over a decade. Yet another poetry reading followed—it was supposed to take place in the Library Bar, but was relocated to the much quieter and introspective District, in the basement of the Sheraton. One poet from Brazil read long lyrical passages in mellifluous Portuguese; most of them seemed to be paeons to love, requited and un-, which seemed so quintessentially Brazilian. As for some of the other readers, many of their poems left me somewhat nonplussed, but it was all the more encouraging to see writers following their own muses, regardless of readership or critical acclaim. On the other hand, I also got to chat with John’s wife, the novelist Sabina Murray, who regaled me with tales of fine dining with her publisher. That sort of thing doesn’t happen to poets very often. Though I suppose that’s not entirely true—I’ll be heading downtown again tonight for a family-style dinner hosted by my publisher. Then, the plan is to head to the PEN party, where I hope to run in to a few more distant friends. It’s strange to feel part of a literary community. I think I could get used to it.

A poisonous wit

Today’s poet you need to know about–though if you’re reading this, you probably do already–is Andrew Hudgins. I’ve been a big fan for a long time. I recall how I devoured The Glass Hammer when it first came out, won over by Hudgins’ wry wit in recounting his Southern childhood. I have here on my desk Ecstatic in the Poison, which is sort of his most recent full-length collection. I say “sort of” because he has also published a book of what might be called “children’s poems for adults” and a volume of new and selected works. The children’s book sort of channeled Dr. Seuss and Lemony Snickett (does anyone remember him?), and really didn’t work for me, but even that book exhibited his characteristic thumb-in-the-eye approach to the righteous and self-satisfied.

Hudgins’ style in Ecstatic is conversational, at times breezy, in a way that belies the underlying formalism. His preferred mode is the abcb quatrain, and his poems often fall somewhere between the lyric and the narrative. What’s remarkable about Hudgins is his ability and tendency to laugh not just at the world but at himself laughing at the world. “Beneath the Apple,” for example, recounts an episode when the speaker (well, OK, it’s usually pretty clear that the speaker is indeed Hudgins, as it is most of the time) slips out of a party. He is, in many senses of the phrase, quite full of himself, a sensation that ebbs as he literally empties himself (or his bladder) against the titular apple tree. He sees himself momentarily as a “woodland god,” but drops the conceit with an audible guffaw. The language seems easy, but in fact displays a deft attention to compression, rhyme, and imagery. The speaker tells how he “leaned into the teeming tree, / fumbled, and emptied myself / onto its peeling bark.” I love how the one word “fumbled” conveys so much, being, as it is, shorthand for “fumbled with my zipper,” an image that expands both spatially and temporally (I do believe the right word is worth a thousand pictures). And note, too, how he manages to suggest the word “peeing” without ever actually using it, but by including the words “teeming” and “peeling.” And of course, the rhyming of “god” with “guffawed” is a pairing that any formal poet has to appreciate.

There’s even more laughter in “Come to Harm,” (which probably is not an allusion to Sir Patrick Spens, though it’s hard to hear those words and not think of the old ballad). The speaker here remembers his reaction to his mother’s assertion that she knew, felt, the moment when her father had died. Was her conviction spooky, or funny? Or, put another way, was it tragedy, or comedy? The answer, of course, is both. The poem, too, stretches from one extreme to another, from the irreverent depiction of “Death’s hootchie-cootchie girl” to the compact “We sang. We laughed. She died. I wept.” The poem ends with the flat statement, “There will be laughter,” and here, the ambivalence depends on how one understands that laughter–is death mocking us, or is life belittling death?

Any mention of Ecstatic would be remiss without a mention of “Piss Christ,” which certainly ranks among the best ekphrastic poems I’ve ever encountered. Still, a whole essay could be devoted to that poem. So let me conclude instead where Hudgins does, with “Out” (the two poems, “In” and “Out” serve as bookends to this collection). This piece recounts an incident in which the speaker, as a boy, is lowered into a well (presumably) to retrieve a dead dog. It is classic Hudgins–the rhyming quatrains, the recollection of youth and quizzical innocence, the mixture of Southern baptist and prechristian mythology. He descends through darkness and fear, encounters the water, embraces death, and returns to the light, reborn. It is, thus, an Orpheus tale, a Lazarus tale, a Gilgamesh tale. It’s also a descent from the present into the unfathomable past, a journey that’s supported by the language: the “father” of the first line becomes “Daddy” at the point of resurrection, the point where the speaker has fully embodied his childhood self. The ending rise into luminescence (“I … rose up to my father. / Then light. Then hands. Then breath”) rivals and echoes the ending of “Piss Christ,” which is not surprising, as both poems refer to a mythology of rebirth. Is it an optimistic ending? Perhaps, though I suspect that Hudgins would ultimately laugh at himself for allowing himself to be optimistic at all.

A Rich legacy

Adrienne Rich has died.

I must confess that I was never particularly fond of her poems. But if they didn’t speak to me (as a white man), well, wasn’t that the point? Also, I have always applauded her decision to refuse the medal of honor from the NEA (though of course, in doing so, she exemplified the position and privilege that her own work often rebuked; a poet of less renown could certainly not make the same gesture). It’s also both a testament to her work and a sad commentary on our current political discourse that the subjects and causes she advances in her poems are still a long way from being antiquated.

I suppose my ambivalence to her poetry can be summed up in her piece about Beethoven’s ninth. That symphony may well be the only irrefutable argument in favor of existence, or at least, the best vindication of civilization. To listen to the ninth is to hear an anguished soul crying out into the emptiness. And the universe answers. If you can’t take heart in such a work of art because your politics prevents it, well, I pity you your politics. But don’t try to ruin it for the rest of us.

Maxwell

Went to see Glyn Maxwell read at the Hammer last night. Fabulous reading, though the attendance was poor—perhaps because UCLA is on break, and perhaps because Maxwell is not well known so far from the prime meridian. He certainly should be, though. Maxwell pulls off the remarkable feat of embodying both Philip Larkin, with his plain-spoken cynicism, and Dylan Thomas, with his rapturous extended conceits. He also calls to mind Tom Gunn, who, like Maxwell, was an English ex-pat who found a home in the states.

Though I’ve been reading Maxwell for many years, this was my first opportunity to see him in person. Suddenly having a face and voice to accompany the words generally changes my appreciation for poems I’d come to love long ago. In this case, for the better (but that’s not always the way it goes). He certainly has great stage presence, and he’s clearly at home in front of an audience. In fact, when he took the podium, he stood there for what seemed like several minutes, arranging his papers, without uttering a word, before finally launching into a poem. In those expectant moments, he not only took the stage, he set it.

As for the poems themselves, I’ve always been a fan. Maxwell is unusually well versed in the formal traditions of poetry, but though he uses form to his advantage, he does not seem interested in pushing their boundaries. One device that Maxwell has mastered is the poignant repetition. Some phrases are repeated with subtle variations to reflect upon what has already occurred in a poem, or what is occurring in the speaker. In “My Grandfather at the Pool,” for instance (from The Breakage), the speaker focuses on his grandfather in an old photo and notes, “the only one who turned away is him.” Later, this assessment is revised: “the only one who looks away is him.” The shift in verb and tense serves to transport the reader, along with the speaker, from the present looking back upon the past to being in the past as it is unfolding. It also softens the editorial judgement of “turning away,” or rejecting something, to simply “looking away,” which could equally suggest a longing, a revulsion, a distraction, a preoccupation, or (as the speaker seems inclined to believe) a sense of foresight or foreboding. Maxwell also repeats without variation. The effect is a mind wrestling with itself, following one train of thought to its end, then coming back to ride a new one from the same starting point. The technique was quite pronounced in a piece he read last night, “Come to Where I’m From,” in which the title phrase repeats with increasing urgency and frustration as the long poem speeds on.

Maxwell also writes prose, and he shared a few sections from a forthcoming book or essay, On Poetry. As part of the composition, he envisioned a small poetry writing seminar, with students representative of himself at various points in his development. The writing is witty, indeed cheeky, and the “writing seminar” will be familiar enough to anyone who has ever taken one; nonetheless, it somehow perpetuates the American (?) conviction that poetry must have some sort of commodity value to be taken seriously, which means that there must be the equivalent of factories and journeymen and careerists, and that the whole enterprise can exist only as a subdivision within the education corporation. Maxwell’s own poetry on the one hand accepts and exploits this assumption—he’s apparently well connected, and his books have apparently brought the poetic equivalent of fame and fortune—but they also undermine this assumption, through demonstrating that poetry is among the most enduring means by which the human mind can make sense of it’s place in a world which, time and again, defies all logic.

I’ll go on…

OK, yes, this is, strictly speaking, a blog, and it will be updated occassionally, but for now, it’s mostly an opportunity for me to see what WordPress is all about. So far, I’m fairly impressed (I come from an old tradition of handcoding websites, but that model is pretty much outdated by now). Topics of discussion will mostly concern poetry, with an expected emphasis on poets of my generation (i.e., born in the mid-to-late ’60s). But then again, little in life ever turns out the way I plan it, so this blog will probably be no different.

Ciao!