Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Things I wish I'd written

I recently came into a lot of good poetry books. I only had to buy one of them (I ordered Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me by Mark Leidner during SPD's "Editors' Picks" sale), the rest were either gifted by the author or came to us as review copies. This is one of the benefits of knowing poets (though trust me, it's not all sunshine and rainbows; as Matthew Simmons once said, "Hell is author people."). And it's a funny thing about poets; you can know one by name or their work only for years, and come to think of them as a kind of distant celebrity, and if you are ever in the same city as that poet for more than three days you will probably become friends (assuming less than a 20-year age difference).

Anyway, here are some bits I liked from my recent reading. From Snip Snip! by Tina Brown Celona:

How can you let
Them see what you
Think you look like?
What you think it is
OK to look like?

That's almost the entirety of a very short poem called "Snack." This is the last stanza of a longer prose poem called "Event Diary":

There's a field full of nasturtiums and a ratty columbine and the headlight crashes down the trash chute to land in a quivering pile of filaments and Tic Tacs. I light a little pyre in the yard and wander around aimlessly thinking about things. Then I realize the things are actually thinking about me.

The last sentence in both cases strikes me as a kind of move or variation on a move. The second one is obviously a reversal (of both syntax and expectation); the first is not exactly but it has a similar effect, taking the words and ideas and rearranging them slightly to get at a different meaning (you could call it a "pushed idea"). This kind of move is often a good way to end a poem because it sounds good even if you don't think about it too hard. The trick is to do it so it still works if you do bother to think. In "Snack," it's interesting because even the first version is not what you expect (the more obvious "what you look like").

Here's another move from Amy King's new book, I Want to Make You Safe from Litmus Press. This book is full of very good titles which would make John Ashbery proud (or did make him proud; he blurbed it). Though I want to highlight a particular stanza, and the transition to that stanza, I'm going to go ahead and type up the whole poem here because, as usual, context matters. Hopefully Amy and her editors won't mind but if they do, well, I'll take it down or get a lawyer. Anyway:

The absence of casual banter does not require a missing
connection, if only the triangles of our bodies would intersect
where the pupil's eye returns
our stare. We shook hands in the language we meant
to speak, until God's mischief caught
us unaware. We couldn't quite sweep the wallets free
of our museums by then. We let salt
water calm leftover wounds,
we gave honorably in the halls of sailors land-buried, 
So much so, I envy the rice to consume sturdy husks
and an ache that sits between pacifists, big as the Loch Ness,
as invisible and paradise -- we pat the head, "There there is
nowhere" -- have sex dreams of not quite climactic
proportions, and awaken never quite anywhere. 
I don't know. A bunch of things. The mail, a bi-racial couple,
songs about a boyfriend who doesn't understand, Thai people
gathered, mostly transsexual, sushi for the masses, bacterial
moments of half-crazed drunk when no one touches
your bag or wallet across the bar, a lovely candle refusing
to flicker, one wind, one shirt, one sky teeters
fireflies asleep between paperbacks,
their names that SOS me,
a painter's bird red as plumes,
a bodily silence in dead-layered flesh,
and a hole, among other things, as I am a learning actress. 
I dreamt myself awake to see the face in her shoes, she
who will carry this parcel world
on its wire waltz in brown paper creased?
Submission is the only window
we can take
the dead moth asleep between us,
you who fingers its arched back, a spinal keyboard,
and sound out the words, "He's dead" before
we reach for the needle
that will sew the coffin shut.

The part I want to focus is on is the third stanza. As far as I'm concerned, the rest of the poem is basically throwaway, in that it didn't grab my attention, but nor did it bore me or push me away: it exists in order to let the third stanza happen, and the third stanza to me is breath-taking, magical. (I'm actually not sure if this poem has three stanzas or four due to a page break after "actress." If four, I like the final stanza too, especially the broken, nearly unparsable syntax.)

The thing is, you couldn't just start the poem with the third stanza; it partly works because those two staccato lines ("I don't know. A bunch of things.") interrupt the wordier flow of what's come before, and what they precede is an outpour. It's like you can see the poet breaking down, losing control -- she wants to put everything in, to show you everything, and the carefully crafted, subject-verb-object sentence with dependent clauses aplenty can no longer contain all these elements. Those monosyllabic lines mark a sudden shift in tone/style from erudite to something I'm hereby dubbing tragicasual -- it's not funny or absurd exactly but it is loose, unstudied, and yet the whole list that follows seems imbued with emotion and profundity. That is so hard to do! A rambling list is a common move, but this list strikes the ideal balance between meaning and randomness -- just as it starts to lose me in its mess, it wins me back with that "SOS me," a reminder that this person is (like all poets) lost and lonely. "I don't know." IDK. The moment you can't explain, that's what I'm looking for in poetry. Beyond sense. Coherent enough.

I'm also reading books by Jeff Alessandrelli and Joshua Ware and will say more when I've spent more time with them.

P.S. Please refrain from leaving comments of the unsubstantial "This poem didn't do anything for me" sort, nothing is more tiresome.


  1. Huh—I know poets too, but I ain't gettin any free books!

    I am looking forward to Amy King's though... In fact I'll take any of these when you're done with them;) (except Snip Snip! which I already have).

  2. I often swap books with poets when I read with them, stuff like that. So, much as you have to love yourself before anyone can love you, you may have to give books away before you can get them. Or become a regular reviewer.

  3. Yup, I trade my book for other poets' books at readings, AWPs, etc.