The horse(neck) whisperer

It wasn’t that long ago that the great debate in poetry was between the proponents of formal and free verse (the cooked and the raw, as it came to be known). While there were, of course, extremists on both sides, most of us felt that great writing could be found in either camp. Unfortunately, the debate also was framed as a struggle between the patrician, white men (you can’t say straight white men because so many were not straight) and the demotic multicultural masses. I say “unfortunately” because it unfairly tarnished a whole school of writers, most of whom were anything but provincial and reactionary in their worldview.

Some of them, however, were definitely not writing for the popcorn-munching crowds, but pursued an aesthetic that rewards a discerning palate and a contemplative atmosphere. William Logan is just such a poet. I’ve recently been reading The Whispering Gallery, a book that unabashedly seeks to realize the full potential of poetic form and language. This poetry is not just cooked, it is haute cuisine.

Logan’s poetry can be both lush and pointed at the same time. I am awed by his ability to craft the perfect phrase or select the perfect word (I’m sure he would prefer “le mot juste”), describing scenes and actions in ways that are at once surprising and obvious. Among my favorites: “Sand crabs scrabbled from our tightened palms” (from “Horseneck Beach Odalisque”) and “In an hour, the bats would batter through darkness” (from “In the Swamp”). Those verbs—scrabble and batter—not only conjure the action, but evoke the sensation in a visceral way. I can practically feel the little critters burrowing through my fingers trying to get back into the wet sand. And it’s wonderful how the name of the actor is framed in the name for the action—crab and bat. Imagine how different those lines would read if he’d instead said “scrambled” and “blustered.” Logan, at his best, embodies Pope’s admonition about sound and sense.

Though not, in any sense, a Nature Poet, Logan is an astute observer of the natural world. He apparently makes his home, at least part of the time, in Florida, and the local denizens—manatee, alligator, anhinga, coral snake, etc.—all make an appearance. Still, he saves his most piercing gaze for his most intimate associates—his parents, or grandparents, his wife and lover. These are often viewed with a nostalgic exasperation, or tragic poignancy.

Logan can render some rapturous descriptions, but sometimes, he’s most moving when he’s most pared down. Consider these lines from “After Easter”:

I saw the faintest passion in your eyes.
The doctors found new cancer in your blood.

Even here, though, it might be noted, he does not abandon the formal structure—the iambic pentameter that frequently supports his poems. A poet like Logan needs to keep his mooring.

I know that Logan has a reputation for being “difficult,” but I really don’t find that to be true. I suppose that’s because I am familiar with many of the references, even those that border on the obscure. For example, I have fond memories of Ostia Antica, the subject of one poem, and have always been a great admirer of LaRochefoucauld—not a name you encounter everyday.

That being said, there is a long sequence in the middle of the book entitled “Penitence.” Although the components are all intriguing in their own right, I can’t quite figure out what ties them all together. Sure, they all share a common structure—sort of an extended sonnet—but there must be more that I’m just not getting. Penitence implies an introspective examination of past sins, mixed with a genuine remorse, hopefully leading to redemption. There are 24 sections, which naturally invokes the 24 hours in a day. Is it, then, a book of hours? A day in thew life, in the mode of Joyce? The references are all over the map—from Coleridge to Garbo to Pol Pot to Austen to Fermat to Shackleton….

Well, this is definitely poetry for the well-read and well-traveled (which perhaps amounts to well-heeled?) References to the classics are sprinkled liberally throughout, with Dante’s Inferno well represented, and Shakespeare of course, along with the Greeks and Romans. Biblical references also abound. And yet, you’ll also find an occasional dab of the pedestrian, a spattering of brand names reminiscent of Lowell (e.g., “immortal as Saran Wrap” in “Adultery,” or “a foamy SOS-pad blue” in “Under the Palms”). Poetic language knows no bounds.

Logan’s is ultimately a grim vision—a philosophy pulled in two directions. On the one hand, an epicurean sense: enjoy the pleasures of life while you may, because they and you will soon enough be gone; and on the other, a nihilism: don’t bother trying to enjoy yourself, for even the stately pleasures are always tinged with the specter of death. The first poem in the collection, “The Rotting Stars,” ends with the line, “I could see everything that was to come,” a sentiment laden with foreboding and inevitability, as nothing good can be expected. The final poem, “The Old Burying Ground,” includes the stanza,

the mourners each spring resurrected
to words no longer said
but memory of the dead will never
resurrect the dead.

A devastating admission for a poet, who uses words, in part, to keep the past from disappearing entirely.

I mentioned that Logan is a keen observer, and the notion of “the gaze” recurs throughout the book—sometimes introspectively, as in a mirror, but often more ominously, as in the “odalisque,” a trope that appears more than once. The odalisque, in European art, typically depicts a recumbent, half (or wholly) nude woman of the seraglio. Deeply steeped in the orientalist tradition, it places the observer in the position of the sultan, with ultimate power over the observed. In a sense, every memory is an odalisque, enticing the rememberer, who chooses what to see and what to ignore, positioning everything to his satisfaction—perhaps a little petulantly, imperiously. My favorite poem in the collection, “Horseneck Beach Odalisque” (already mentioned) encapsulates all of this, particularly in its description of the sand castles we all have built at some time:

Our castles rose, dark and raggedly Gothic.
The dribbled turrets capped a moated wall,
and then the Muslim tide came roiling in
and took the holy cities one by one.
By August, we were Moor-wasps,
each boy a white-toweled sultan of the waves.

Logan is clearly writing for an audience that shares his desultory interests, his erudition, and maybe even his particular life trajectory. If you don’t get the references, you might feel a bit left out—like being at a party where everyone but you shares the same inside joke. But if you can get beyond that, the work is truly engaging and rewarding.

The horizon has been defeated

Much has happened since my last missive. I lost a job, found a better job, and moved into a new house. As I was unpacking my books, I grabbed one to write about, but after carrying it around for a few weeks, I realized I really couldn’t recommend it. I was reluctant to admit it, because I have met the poet, and we had a wonderful conversation. But I would much rather focus on books you should read, books that have impressed and influenced me. So I chose another one–this time by Andrew Hudgins, and greatly enjoyed rereading it. But I have already discussed the work of Hudgins in these pages, and much though he deserves all the attention I could give him, there are still many worthy poets who have not been mentioned here. Which brings me at last to the real subject of today’s column: Rhina Espaillat. Anyone who shares my poetic sensibilities will probably already know her work. She is strongly associated with the modern formalist tradition, and is proof that formalist poets are more diverse than many would believe.

Espaillat hails from the Dominican Republic, one of the Spanish-speaking nations in the Caribbean chain of islands that includes Cuba and Puerto Rico. Though she emigrated as a child, Spanish is her first language. Many of the poems in Where Horizons Go deal directly with the difficulties, ambiguities, and opportunities of straddling two languages and hence two cultures. “Bilingual/Bilingüe” is an obvious place to start. The poem describes both the thrill and shame of learning English as a second, soon to be dominant, language. Thrill, of course, because the new language is associated with a new world and new life; I don’t know much about the Dominican Republic in the late ‘30s, but I’d bet it was a far cry from the perpetual frenzy of New York. Still, that part is largely assumed; the shame is more directly portrayed. Learning—and learning to love—English was something of a betrayal of her father, who would never master the language as well as she. As such, she is essentially leaving him behind, and postulates his own dual emotions—the one that recognizes the need for his daughter to navigate the English-speaking world, and the one that fears the English-speaking part of her identity will always remain inaccessible to him, and that she would “lock the alien part… with a key he could not claim.” Interestingly, Spanish words are initially encased in parentheses, literally cordoning them off from the surrounding English, but by the last couplet, the parentheses disappear: “he stood outside mis versos.” In that simple device, Espaillat cleverly marries the two languages and reaches the synthesis of the two conflicting positions.

Of course, the conflict between English and Spanish is especially complicated, given the connections to colonialism and imperialism. Though we typically think in terms of American/English imperialism with regard to Latin America (Monroe doctrine, anyone?), Espaillat is acutely aware that Spanish was also the language of invasion. Columbus never actually reached the mainland U.S.–he first set foot upon Hispaniola, the island now occupied by the Dominican Republic (and Haiti). Espaillat addresses Columbus directly in “Six of One,” but although she describes, bemusedly, his many errors and ultimate neglect, she can not quite condemn him outright. “Should you regret the trip? Well, that depends.”

The imperial and colonial legacy is also examined to wonderful effect in “Bra,” a poem that I love even more because it is one that I could never have written. In it, Espaillat works through the quandary of finding the perfect bra that happens to be made in Honduras. Here, she must weigh her needs and desires against her principles and ideals. Was the bra made in a sweat shop, using child labor? How do these practices undercut living conditions in the United States? Is it ethical to purchase such items? On the other hand, how would the Hondurans survive without the wages, however paltry, that they earn? A further complication stems from the connection she feels, knowing that the seamstress “speaks that language that I dream in,” i.e., Spanish.  I love the way Espaillat condenses the split personality of the American consumer: we want cheap stuff, but we don’t want to support the practices that result in cheap stuff. Or as Groucho might’ve put it, “I’d never buy anything that I could afford.”

The poems in this book are, as I mentioned, generally formal. But while they are by no account elitist (as I hope I’ve shown), they do exhibit much of the precision and delicacy that is often used to discredit formal verse. Espaillat acknowledges as much in several poems. For example, “For Evan, Who Says I Am Too Tidy,” is on the surface a defense of ordinary neatness and organization; but it is also a defense of Espaillat’s poetic sensibility. “Tidy’s been blamed for everything we suffer,” and “tidy seldom goes where genius goes.” Ultimately, though, she embraces the label, noting that a solid consistency, and the commonplace tasks that consume our daily lives, is what connects us all. As with most formalists, Espaillat seems well aware of her tradition, and her debts are well acknowledged–directly through epigraphs or with a stylistic wink and nod. Several poems carry epigraphs from Dickinson, while others (including the introductory poem) are written in a style suggestive of Dickinson’s work. Others, such as “Poetry Reading” and the final “‘Why Publish?’” are reminiscent of the apologias of Herrick and the Cavaliers. I’m sure you can find echoes of Wilbur in there, too, if you look for it.

One final note. Where Horizons Go won the 1998 T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State. Espaillat was born in 1932, according to the bio on the fly sheet. That means she was more than 65 when it was published (there is a delightful poem about being 65 years old, but I can’t say for sure that the speaker is the poet in this case). The book bio says nothing about an earlier book, though I did find mention of another one published in 1992, though it seems rather obscure. In any case, this arguably marked her debut into the broader poetry community. I find it remarkable, and encouraging, that she was just hitting her stride after six decades. Perhaps that’s why many of these poems speak with such unruffled wisdom and compassion. I hope I can achieve the same in my time.

Old gold

While I was searching through my shelf for Mary Oliver, I chanced to notice a book by Sharon Olds: The Gold Cell. I must’ve had it for a long time, but as I flipped through it, I realized that I had never really perused it. My loss—here’s another poet that everyone should read again and again.

It’s a long book, as far as poetry collections go, clocking in at 90 pages. It’s divided into four sections of thematically linked poems. The first section is something of a grab bag, including poems about the seamier side of life in NYC as well as meditations on the violence that underpins the human condition. Though many of these are engaging, they offer only a glimpse of the extremely powerful writing that is to come in the second section, which focuses on the poet’s early life with her father. Yes, the mother figures in, too, but mostly as a foil for the father.

The writing here exhibits what I most look for in poetry—a raw emotional intensity combined with a deft handling of form, even if the form is simply a tight narrative technique. This is old-school Confessional poetry, which can be truly moving when done right. Olds is a master of the extreme metaphor, as evidenced in the first poem of this section, “Saturn,” which compares her father to the titan devouring his kids. Goya’s painting immediately springs to mind, though this Saturn seems more pernicious; he does not simply swallow his children whole, but rather cracks them open like shellfish, needing not only to consume them but break them in the process: “My brother’s arm went in up to the shoulder / and he bit it off, and sucked at the wound / as one sucks at the sockets of a lobster.” The father is shown to be passed out on the couch every night, so perhaps alcoholism was part of the problem, though that is never expressly stated. A similar hint appears in a later poem, “June 24,” which states, “You died night after night in the years of my childhood, / sinking down into speechless torpor.”

One of the highlights of this section is “History: 13,” which describes the father coming home late one night covered in blood—perhaps from a bar fight? The cause is never made clear, though the image of the blood-covered father reoccurs in other poems, where the father assumes overtones of both victim and butcher. Plath famously compared her father to Hitler in “Daddy,” but in “History: 13,” Olds compares her father to Mussolini (who seems to be fading more and more from our collective memory). The effect, I’d argue, is more visceral in Olds’ poem, as it shifts seamlessly from the injury of father to the death of the dictator, whose body suffered all the abuse of a traumatized nation waking up from its war-torn nightmare. Just as the desecration of Mussolini’s body served as a watershed for Italy, so the unexplained violence against the father marks a defining moment in the poet’s life: “I turned my back / on happiness, at 13 I entered / a life of mourning.” In the last poems of this section, the poet achieves some sort of rapprochement with her parents—or at least their memory—and seems to reach a point where the tyranny of the past no longer controls her. Of course, such reconciliation can be oddly unsettling, necessitating a hefty dose of soul-searching. Olds makes this starkly evident in “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood,” where she writes, “I could not / see what I would do with the rest of my life,” and later, “I hardly knew what I / said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.” Even pain and anger can be hard to let go, when they’re the two qualities that have defined your entire life.

The third section pivots to more sensual concerns, with a lot of poems about sex, desired and consummated, in all its messy glory. These, too, tend to be unabashedly straightforward in their description. As I’ve said before, a straight man cannot write in such terms, using the same sort of diction and imagery, without inviting accusations of toxic masculinity. Of course, these poems were written 30 years ago, so prevailing sentiments were different. I’m sure they must’ve seemed even more scandalous at the time.

The final section completes a natural progression from the third; that one focused on making babies, the final one focuses on raising them. Some of these seem a bit self-indulgent, with references that presumably hold more meaning for the poet than the reader. Still, the description is masterful. I suppose that’s no surprise. Olds specializes in focusing on the smallest but most telling details, and as a parent, she’s predisposed to notice the infinite minutiae that define her kids. Consider these lines from “When My Son is Sick”:

… his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold…

I could’ve selected any passage nearly at random and found similarly engaging language. That deft turn of phrase is what I love about Olds. Annoyingly, though, I was recently working on a poem and composed a phrase that seemed perfect and unique, and smiled at my good fortune to have discovered it. Then, in reading this book, I found the exact same phrase! Olds had beaten me to it!

If I have any gripes at all with this book, I would say that it might’ve been even more powerful if it had been a bit shorter. Perhaps some of the poems in the first or fourth sections could have been omitted—though it would, admittedly, be hard to choose which ones. And what about that title? Well, there is a poem entitled “In the Cell” but that doesn’t seem representative of the collection overall. The cover shows a snake curled around a gold circle that resembles the sun. So on the one hand, it conveys a sort of alchemist aesthetic; but on the whole, it looks rather like an ovum, a round human egg cell, which makes a lot more sense, given the focus of the poems.

This was Olds’ third collection of poetry; other books received greater acclaim, but I’d say that this one ranks among the best of them. Even after 30 years, it has not lost its currency or freshness.

More lilies

I don’t want this to become an obituary blog, but I need to note the death of another of my poetic luminaries: May Oliver.

I think I first became acquainted with her work through the Poulin anthology, Modern American Poetry (the same can be said for a number of my favorite poets of the last generation). I felt an immediate affinity, as I considered myself (and still do) a nature poet at heart. Still, whereas I sometimes feel compelled to include the occasional human in my poems, Oliver did not.

I’ve been flipping through House of Light recently, and I’m struck by the general lack of human contact. Most of the poems stem from a walk by the poet through secluded woods and fields, and center on an observation made during the excursion. That may sound a bit formulaic—and OK, if I have one gripe with Oliver’s poetry, it’s that it is forumulaic—but the insights are beautifully rendered in sparse language that speaks directly to my inner sensibilities.

Sparse, direct, plain language is a defining feature of her poetry. She adores flowery plants, not flowery language. Adjectives are typically simple, and often simply indicate color. Interestingly, the main colors found in House of Light are white, black, and red, with occasional patches of green and blue. And again, it’s just “red,” not “blood red” or “cherry red” or scarlet or fuchsia—just “red.” She gets away with this partly because the objects she’s describing are so familiar, they hardly need describing at all. We all know what color is a crane, or a bear, or the sky; any attempt to portray them with more specificity would mar the image. I started flagging all the poems that mentioned white, black, or red, but I ran out of stickies.

And it’s not just colors that appear throughout. The familiar woodland creatures make multiple appearances: deer, cranes, owls, frogs—not to mention lilies, her favorite flower (lilies for Oliver are like ballerinas for Degas). These are not exotic creatures, and that’s partly the point. Nature is not what you find in zoos or on safari, it’s what you find in your own backyard. On the other hand, you don’t find many dogs, cats, and squirrels—such creatures are far too domesticated. Nature is not the antidote to civilization, it’s the default state. Buildings and structures and mechanical devices are the anomaly, and though they may distract us from our natural state, they do not erase it.

Her poems often convey the serenity of nature, which, on its own, does not typically change in human timescales. Death is ubiquitous, but it’s typically a quiet, and sometimes quick, death: a heron nabs a frog and moves on, a turtle gulps a duckling and is gone. And afterward, the quiet returns. Death is to be welcomed as an opportunity to return to the earth and set the cycle of life in motion again. In fact, when she declares in “Foxes in Winter,” “I never said / nature wasn’t cruel,” I’m suddenly taken aback by the defensiveness of the line and the surprising truth to it. Yes, she never said nature wasn’t cruel, but that’s because she didn’t need to; cruelty is a human construct, implying some sort of malicious intent or pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Nature can’t be cruel, though we may perceive it to be. She also says, perhaps with a bit irony, “I think this is / the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind / a little dying.” Of course, most people do mind a little dying, especially when they’re the ones doing the dying.

I sometimes find myself starting to write a poem, but then stopping and saying, “Wait a minute, are you really going to write another poem about snakes? Shouldn’t you try something different?” Oliver’s work repudiates that advice. She returns to the same subjects, the same tropes, time and again, following a well-worn path through her poetic woods, literal and figurative. But as with a favorite hiking path, I never get tired of following her.