An Omnibus Review
In Praise of Diverse Voices
Martin Galvin, Sounding the Atlantic (Broadkill River Press, 2010), 89 pp.
Mary Ann Larkin, The Deep & Steady Hum (Broadkill River Press, 2010), 74 pp.
Barbara Goldberg, The Royal Baker’s Daughter (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 72 pp.
Myra Sklarew, Harmless (Mayapple Press, 2010), 87 pp.
Grace Cavalieri, Sounds Like Something I Would Say (Goss 183: Casa Menendez, 2010), 93 pp.
Beth Joselow, Begin at Once (Chax, 2007), 104 pp.
Rod Smith, Deed (University of Iowa Press, 2007), 87 pp
By Merrill Leffler
Reviewing several books of poetry criticism some years back, Helen Vendler reminded us that all criticism is filtered through an aesthetic point of view, whether or not we give voice to it or are even conscious of what that point of view is. So this is my nod to Vendler – I’ll come back to her later – in writing about recent collections by seven poets from the Washington area: Martin Galvin, Mary Ann Larkin, Barbara Goldberg, Myra Sklarew, Grace Cavalieri, Rod Smith, and Beth Joselow (who after many years in D.C. now lives in Delaware).
Here’s my point of view and what I propose to do: first, characterize their books, as best I am able, and second, to get at the distinctiveness of each. My aesthetic is a broad one, embodied in a question: is there something special I am left with – not mere information, but “something” special or unique in the language. Why else go to poetry? For me, that “something” has to do with astonishment, “poems that would climb out of their skin/ and crawl into mine, bore a hole in my heart/ knock me out of their way, buck like a wild horse,/ or brutalize me word by word and tear away/ all illusions and reveal/ an essential truth amidst the rubble/ and maybe beauty to boot.” Too much? Probably! Hyperbole? Of course. But don’t all poets want their work to stagger their readers, let alone themselves? Many are the roads to astonishment – from the simplest Tang-like lines to the most baroque to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sprung rhythms to Dadaist stunting.
* * *
I’ll begin with two books from Broadkill River Press, a new publishing venture that Jamie Brown and Sid Gold have brought into being, Martin Galvin’s Sounding the Atlantic and Mary Ann Larkin’s That Deep & Steady Hum. Both poets have published widely in magazines – Galvin with some 400 poems according to Rod Jellema’s introduction – anthologies, and chapbooks. Most of the poems in both are linear and “mimetic,” which is to say that the syntax of the language mirrors lived experience, whether what is observed or experienced, inner and outer.
Galvin’s nearly 70 poems are not memory-bound but most often about others, some in first-person persona such as the 15-year old girl of “Passive Aggressive, ” or the teacher in “Teacher’s Pet” (“These mountain women. Come in here, I swear,/ Like wild goats and tell us how to teach their kids.// The men are just as bad, grunting and belching/ Straight through my preparation. The pigs.”), or “Doorman”:
The night we heard the news from space,
my daughter, who is three, remarks
with no surprise but careful to instruct:
“The moon is like a doorknob,”
to that other self all children seem
to have an have to answer to
I sit trying to construct a poem of praise.
Spacemen and women stumble down the page.
She says again, impatient to be gone,
“the moon’s a doorknob,” and,
already dressed to play outside,
waits for me to open up the sky.
Many others are in third-person – they give us characters, for instance, ”Clam Shucker,” “Marathoner,” “Leaf Raker,” “Clown, “Tehran Hod-Carrier,” “Blind Girl,” “Doorman,” “Artisan,” and “Blueberry Woman” (five 7-line stanzas):
The blueberry woman has wrecked her week
and the kitchen, baking muffins, baking pies.
She reeks of blueberry jam, has steeped herself
with thoughts of blood and bloody butcherings.
What she comes to at the end, and prints
in blue juice on the bathroom door,
is the family’s menu for the harvest month
Several poems, not many, are in the poet’s voice or so I assume, such as those in which the subject is art, e.g., “Mary Cassett,” “The Burghers of Calais,” “Guernica at the Museum.”
Common to nearly all is a kind of storytelling or portraiture that may derive from specific encounters Galvin has had and then generalized. Rod Jellema writes appreciatively of Galvin’s ear for “syntax and cadences in the plainness of speech, [the] voice almost quirky and folksy.” They seem to go deliberately for the plainness of speech, but “folksy”? I’m not so sure of that. In any case, the poems are lean and carefully made – I well understand why so many poetry editors have been eager to publish them – I did happily in Dryad magazine in the early 70s.
And yet, reading all these poems together as a book my attention kept flagging. Why, I’ve been asking myself, when each poem is so sharp in its clarity and precision? If I don’t have answers that I can defend unquestioningly, I’ll offer some provisional thoughts and questions. Except for a handful of poems – “Parting the Air,” “Epiphany on a Gentle Day,” “The Big Leagues,” “Cranes in Flight Over Warsaw” – there is little mystery in these poems that beckon us, those suggestive perturbations underneath. What we read is what we have – moreover, the rhythms seem to be essentially similar from one poem to the next. It’s not that I need flashiness or wild metaphor – I have long been reading Pound’s translations, and more recently David Hinton’s, of Chinese classical poets like Li Po and Du Fu. There is a marvelous simplicity and directness that can transport you by the “pure clear word.”
Does the book “needs” more variation in its music, I’ve asked myself? What if it was divided into sections and organized dramatically or even musically around themes? As much as I admire the poems in and of themselves, I don’t know about its coming together as a whole. I could well be missing something here and would like to hear from readers who think differently.
* * *
Mary Ann Larkin’s poems in That Deep & Steady Hum vary in tone and movement but especially in its sensuous diction. A recurring subject is the death of loved ones and friends – at least seventeen poems (of the fifty-six), e.g., “Death Watch,” “Death of a Friend, “After You Died,” “You Could Have Lived”) – other subjects are love, sex, and domestic life; there are poems of homage (“On Reading Jack Gilbert’s ‘Bringing in the Gods,’” “Letters to Clint Eastwood”) and poems about God and Catholicism, and children.
Larkin’s poetry evokes feelings, often through its physically lush language. I could quote almost randomly, for instance, the first stanza of “This Is a Song”:
This is a song of grief
for the red wet boy
who didn’t come screaming
out of my womb to light,
for the red-haired daughter
who doesn’t sulk dreaming
by the plums above the sea.
Or “Bodies,” which has the epigraph, “All my members felt His in full felicity./ I wholly melted away in Him” (from Hadewijch of Brabant):
Even the solitary mystic –
it was her body God came to.
Loves knows no abstractions.
It licks and sucks,
wounds and devours.
Even the infant stiff with desire,
tensing and mewling, roots
in tumescent flesh, hungry
as the mystics
that pure white milk
Many poems are rooted in autobiography and name people, friends of the poet-speaker – so we have a Dianne Cargill, Angell, Joanie Costello, Raymond and Mitchell, Grandma Lily, Michael Grant, etc. This personal naming is to give a sense, or so I think, that the poems are not merely literary but arise from “authentic” experience – it is hardly an uncommon among many poets, only more pronounced it seems in That Deep & Steady Hum. And yet for the most part, Larkin’s work is not self-absorbed, rather disarmingly direct, inviting readers of these poems into an intimacy with the poet:
I wake from sleep and sex,
and the show last night,
the encore we all sang
Oh, give me the beat, boys,
and free my soul
And the part about drifting away.
We sang it trailing off like clouds:
I wanna get lost
in you rock ‘n’ roll
and drift away.
“The chorus is profound,”
the singer said, “just ‘cause it’s popular
don’t mean it ain’t profound.” Like sex,
I think – sex and a song –
always racing the loneliness
that drags us back,
however we drift away.
This is a warm book – I can’t say it surprise in its tropes, nor does it jar our sensibilities; it is compelling largely in the tenderness of voice. While most poems are conventional linguistically and unfold in a quite linear way, what they do is vivify experience recognizable to us all. They evoke the phenomenal moment – readers will have to decide for themselves whether they exude a meaning larger than that moment.
* * *
Barbara Goldberg’s The Royal Baker’s Daughter won The Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin Press – she has published three previous collections, has edited and translated books of poetry from the Hebrew with Moshe Dor, a major Israeli poet who has also brought some of the most prominent American poets into Hebrew. Some full disclosures first: I have published one of Barbara’s books of poetry, Cautionary Tales (Dryad Press), as well as a couple of anthologies that she and Dor have edited, and a book of poetry they translated by the Israeli poet Ronnie Someck; I’ll add here that many years ago I also published Myra Sklarew’s From the Backyard of the Diaspora (Dryad Press 1976, 1982).
I’ll note at the outset that Barbara has divided her book into three sections that vary widely in intent and tone. Her subject in the first is a daughter’s relation to father and mother. Ever since Wordsworth’s Prelude – his autobiographical “Growth of a Poet’s Mind” – poets have been writing (if not writhing) about their childhood, refining the narrative of who they’ve become and how. For some years now, I’ve become increasingly less a fan of such memory poems, though like many of you reading this I have written more, much more, than my share. At one extreme, they can become self-indulgent, the poetry of me me me, the poet’s self-absorption that he or she drags into the light for everyone to see – at the other extreme, intense personal poems can evoke powerful revelations. We write such poems out of various needs, to memorialize an event or episode or idea in our lives, to pay homage, to illuminate transformative events, i.e., this is what helped make me who I am. Haven’t we had enough of this kind of poetry, I’ve said to myself on more than one occasion – how much more elaboration do we need of Lowell, Sexton, et al. So this is a screed and now that I’ve gotten it out of my system I want to say that many poets still take draw on childhood experiences and make them jump and astonish.
I’ve read few contemporary poets who have taken this childhood material in as surprisingly delicious ways as Barbara has: in spare diction, in darkly comic outrageousness, and in off-handed directness that catches me off-guard. For instance, the opening of “My Father’s Mistress,” which is made of three poems:
Maybe she wore sensible shoes, unlike our mother
of the high heels. Maybe she had a booming voice
and onions did not upset her stomach. I see freckles
and a pug nose, sky-blue eyes and flaxen hair, she
making him laugh with imitations of Peter Lorre
and Zsa Zsa Gabor – “She of No Name”
Then again, it could have been Herta Himmelreich
who lived in the Alps in a rustic chalet. We met her
one August, my sister and I, fresh from a month
at a Swiss boarding school where we were sent
to learn French – “Herta”
Had it been me, I would have chosen Lily Robinson
for her cigarette holders and thin Pall Malls, the only
one in the refugee circle who drew a beauty mark
next to her mouth, wore slinky black tuxedo pants
paired with a satin blouse. – “Lily”
What we have here is the exotic, the delicious detail, the unexpected, e.g., “she had a booming voice/ and onions did not upset her stomach”; “Had it been me, I would have chosen Lily Robinson/ for her cigarette holders and thin Pall Malls.” The poems contain the comic and dark at the same time – this is serious, the poet implies, but to my ear, this is play as well. “Poets write to cheer themselves up,” wrote John Bayley, “and in so doing, the good ones can cheer their readers as well.” After all, this is poetry, not a psychiatrist’s couch
The second section “Cedar Tree. Starfish. Beautiful Eyes” leaves childhood memories behind and includes poems of loving and its discontents, poems of being a Jew, poems related to Jewish texts (Biblical – “Burnt Offering” and Abraham, Isaac, and the impending sacrifice on Mount Moriah; “Sarah Reflects” “Milcah”; folklore – “Dybbuk”), among others that I cannot classify. They often incorporate the off-hand I’ve referred to that gives a sense of conversation – bringing us into a circle – where ordinary language sparkles in its gusto. For instance, “The Blonde Goddess of Saravan,” which opens this way:
If you’re looking for a story you won’t find it at the bar
in the one ritzy hotel in town. Rather cruise the consulates,
get to know the help there, maybe the phone will ring
and you’ll hear something – it was the man behind
the desk who told you of “the blonde goddess of Saravan,”
wife of one of the kidnapped doctors, even had her number
so you called and yes, she would see you, so you drove there
and yes, she was blonde but hell, no goddess.
Also here are daring poems, such as “Sarah Reflects,” in a voice that ripples with love, admiration, and anger, over the knife that Abraham takes with him on hearing God’s command to sacrifice his only son with Sarah, Issac:
I like to watch him use the knife,
wield the blade just so the rind
falls away in segments, leaving
the shivering fruit. It shows
his hands knows when to stop
and when to let go.
“Fortune’s Darling,” the book’s third section, brings together poems that for me are, as a whole, especially compelling. Why? Because here the imagination is operating on all cylinders with invention, not simply on the level of provocative diction: poems seem to start with an improvisational line and find their way to meaning. Over and over again, we’re in for surprise, linguistically and thematically: “The Master of Chance is the only master/ in the Kingdom of Speculation, sole keeper of odds, of track, of coffers. Three cheers// for the Master, his fine mustache!” There is buoyancy and pleasure in the poems here, not a backtracking over memory, as intense and sharp as Goldberg makes such poems, but following the line where it needs to go – not memory but the poem in the present, the now. Here is the simple “Flock”:
The Lord is my shepherd
He rides a red tractor
His work boots caked
With earth and dried dung
He leadeth His sheep
Beside the green pastures
His black dog yapping
To keep them in line
They bow their heads down
To nibble the clover
And lap still waters
They do not want
Nor fear any evil
Grazing in shadows
Their guttural baahs
Akin to amen
I can imagine the beginning of this poem, whether true or not: Barbara seeing a farmer out in the field – in Israel perhaps -- that first line leaps into the mind and then the real world takes over with the echoing 23rd Psalm running through it, making it new, bringing the psalm into the present and giving it life. Yes!
The poems that make up “Fortune’s Darling” compel in their fabling, where the linear story making is off and running. In these poems, to take a line out of context, Barbara Goldberg is “Our Lady of Perpetual Surprise.”
* * *
I have been reading Myra Sklarew’s work since the 1970s, first in magazines and in books that followed From the Backyard of the Diaspora, among them, The Science of Goodbyes, Altimira, Lithuania: New & Selected Poems, and now Harmless. Through all these books, Myra has continued to deepen and elaborate a poetic voice that was distinctively hers from the beginning, a voice recognizable in its themes (the Holocaust among them), its standpoint – “I am faithful,/ making my rounds, telling/ what it means/ to be a Jew, a woman,” she writes in “News” (Altimira) – its seriousness, even when comic, its Jewish folklore, its biblical allusions, especially the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac (in Hebrew, the Akedah), as in ”Crossing Over”:
In the fall of that year
the feet of Abraham
went overhead – Isaac his son
at his side, the wood
for the burnt offering sprouting
leaves at one end, root hairs
at the other. And the fire
in the father’s hands
sent up its bright alphabet,
a signal to Sarah.
I refer to the Holocaust, though I don’t think of Myra writing so-called Holocaust poems as many other Jewish poets – the death camps, the terror, the brutality, the selections, the ovens, the ungraspable immensity are an extricable part of her vocabulary and grammar, whether in a poem from the early “holocaust” (1976):
could you register birds
could you count them all
or ants in the ant hill
or bees returning to the hive
or the dead rocking in the earth
or in the these lines:
We have come late. Only here,
at last mourning the death
of a friend in America,
dreaming of him on Didjoiji Street
in Vilnius. Curious devoured land.
Beneath its delicate surface
where the footsteps of women
sound out a hurried rhythm
along medieval cobblestones,
the dead are waking slowly,
they are rising in their earthern
nests. Do you hear their names? Nothing
can murder them now.
Leiser is singing the song they sang
when they went to their deaths.
And now he is singing the song from Vilna: Shtiller
Shtiller. Tell me the words, I say.
Now he speaks in three languages.
. . .
And he laughs.
And he can hardly stop laughing. This time
I almost laugh with him. But I can’t.
Only this one, risen from the cellar
of the murdered, this blind man
who has outwitted death can laugh.
While Myra voice is an American one, it carries the past not merely as a subject but in itself as a living consciousness:
Though I have not known exile
I have never felt fully at home in my time
or place. High up in a mountain
where the small houses toss
on their stone moorings, where the language
was not my own, I have sometimes
belonged. Or in the land of my mother’s
people, no matter the massacre places,
the brutal untimely deaths: I lay claim
to their lives. (from “So Far”)
These poems are profoundly moral, speaking not out of ego but calling to us from our distractions to pay attention to the world as it is in all its dangerous and benevolent multitudinousness.
* * *
In 1975, Grace Cavalieri’s Why I Cannot Take a Lover was one of three books that the Washington Writers’ Publishing House opened its doors with (the other two were by Deidre Baldwin and Terry Winch). Since then, amidst a fulsome work and family life, her Poet and the Poem interviews on WPFW (for more than 25 years), playwriting and theater productions, anthologizing, publishing (The Bunny & Crocodile Press), her books of poetry have been coming regularly, among them, Bliss, Trenton, What I Would Do for Love (poems in the voice of Mary Wollstonecraft), and Anna Nicole, in which she set out, in more than 50 poems, to imagine herself into a character who was desperate to be someone:
one day, standing at the free continental breakfast
dragging her sleeve in the jelly,
someone walked by, touching her waist like a prayer,
like an enfranchisement,
and she was on her way,
in a dress made for someone much smaller,
trusting a stranger because he said,
The Good Lord can’t see what happens in Hollywood.
Now in Sounds Like Something I Would Say she is back in her own voice. The thematic spine is the living presence of the dead who have mattered personally. I say presence because it’s not the past that the poems are fixed on – we are in the present. All poetry is about loss, a poet wrote; but all poetry is also about what is not lost. There is a difference in tone between these poems of presence and Mary Ann Larkin’s elegies and Myra Sklarew’s “collective voice.” Grace’s friend through a lifetime, Jan, is subject of the first poem, “If So, I’ll Be Grateful to You” (“How one morning in May she lived beyond sorrow,/ we’re remembering the deceased, how they used time.”) and of seven more through the book – there are other living presences as well, Robert Sargent and Hilary Tham. “Everything is still alive --/ her mother in the kitchen cooking --/ someone playing the piano, it sounds like// yellow trees, and yellow bushes where a yellow cat/ lies in a yellow hedge.”
What I have long loved in Grace’s work is the way her poems will accommodate whatever they need – it may be a seemingly quirky line or movement that drops in unexpectedly, or it may be one-liners, as these from her Cora poems in Swan Research:
Charlie, you just don’t
occur to me
Hello Square Deal Sewing Machine Company
I’m calling because I’m sad
Such lines catch you off-guard – even her most linear poems trust the inexplicable, the quick changes of direction, not fulfilling expectations that have been set up, the mind in movement, as in “Visiting Fields”:
I knew Summers.
Mysteries were also part of my faith
I want to talk about exile from all that, its sanctity,
how I close my eyes, but find the world
filling the air with its ambition and grief.
The dead have no feeling for the living.
If you own something and release it, it will come back
shining in pink. I guess nothing of yours was mine
so it stays, clinging in black.
The strange light of morning on its wings brings
me our spirit surrounding my sleep.
I say to the bright goldfinch
I’m here with you –
your happy song remains.
I ask my friend: What are you doing
with your death
your bright red hair flying like a fountain.
“What are you doing/ with your death/ your bright red hair flying like a fountain” -- these are the mysteries that poems, not wholly understandable, that have excited me. They may frustrate some readers. I have carried with me for a while Hart Crane’s reply to Harriet Monroe who rejected a poem for Poetry magazine that included these lines:
Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeathed
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured
“Tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy,” she asked sarcastically. Crane replied, “as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplays in metaphor on this basis) that I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid specifications at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem.”
What you come to appreciate is that the voice from poem to poem is not monolingual: it takes what it needs. For instance, the form of “Translations,” in which Grace explores what the silences in between words will call up:
We are said to be theoretically
Allowed to utter, then fade, then soar
into or should I say past the impasse . . .
. . . .
Together these invisible meanings held me
and carried me toward this reaching this amethyst
universe without doors the unobscured motion
Call this accommodating the improvisational in order to see where the language can take you (“Owning the Not So Distant World”; “What I Meant to Teach”; “A Brightening Note”) – it’s opening the doors that many poets writing “linear poems” pass by but that Grace often opens, then walks through to see what’s there.
I’ll add a P.S. here: in 1976, I reviewed the first three books from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House in the Washington Review – having written these remarks, I went back to read what I had written about Grace’s work. “The poems explore the geography of intense feeling,” I wrote. “What these poems capture as much as they create [is] the elusiveness of charged and heightened feeling, love, pain, and betrayal.” If I was as smart now as I was then, I could have written the same today.
* * *
Before going on to the books by Beth Joselow and Rod Smith, I’ll begin with a large generalization: different as the work of these five poets is, they might be characterized, prosaically at least, as a configuration of words that aims at expressing feelings and emotion. Their strength of such poetry – according to Helen Vendler (via Marjorie Perloff in Poetic License) – “consists in giving presence, through linguistic signs, to absent realities, while insisting by the very brilliance of poetic style, on the linguistic nature of its own being and the illusionistic character of its effects.” One might call this academic writing – still, Vendler is clear; she goes on to say, “The poems stand before us brilliantly photographic and brilliantly verbal at once.” We cannot read Beth Joselow and Rod Smith’s work in this way – and if we try, we’ll feel ourselves out at sea without a rudder. For these poets, the concern is language itself, “not the allegorical dream it evokes”; to draw on Perloff further, “language is the arena of production rather than representation,”
In the poetry of Joselow and Smith, the poet’s delight, or so I imagine, is when the narrative is sidetracked by the seeming “needs” of language to cut loose from the straitjacket of linear expectations and head for the territory of possibilities not yet charted or imagined. A process of “defamiliarization,” in contrast to the familiarization of “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” The-needs-of-language aim can make for so-called “difficult” poetry – that difficulty often arises I think from trying to read it through the lens of how we read the poetry of representation, or mimesis. Although this may sound like a pejorative – I don’t mean it to be – the poem is not a vehicle for expressing feelings, ideas, and emotions. The poem is poem, so as Beth Joselow writes in “Mockba,” from Begin at Once:
Soap is soap
Bread is bread
Car is car
Thief is thief
. . .
Dirt is dirt
Dog is dog
To begin with, these poems often move by indirection, by finding their way, not by imposing themselves – they require an active reader, one who must help create the poem’s meaning. This is especially so of Rod Smith’s work. So depending on what you bring, from time to time even, the poems are elusive, protean, and not explicable in the way we might explicate a poem by Myra Sklarew or Barbara Goldberg. Here is Beth Joselow’s “Tantrum,” a poem of 22 four-lined stanzas which opens with child-like soundings:
hoopla benny burden
crack crinkle spine
Big bobba loo day
kick crappy foo
still wagon crash kickel
“Ordnance fray” takes us into another world of tantrums, with no transition: guns, fighter planes, B-2 bomber, Blackhawks, Grenade launcher Browning, Kalashnikovs – stanzas full of world murder tantrums, e.g.,
Bradleys Abrams Scout
Sparrow Phoenix Harm
Nike Stinger SLAM
You get the idea: the play of words and their referents carry the irony, sarcasm, anger into the final two stanzas and “body bag depot” without the imposition – the poem is transmitting itself at different levels but requiring us to respond to the words themselves, where the emotional reaction is not wholly guided by the narrator’s voice.
hoopla benny burden
crack crinkle spine
Kickapoo joy juice
blood orange spew
body bag depot
baby come too.
We don’t have the poet mediating, e.g., what man has done to man. We have the poem that can arouse by not naming. “To name is to kill,” wrote Mallarme. Well, sometimes.
In “Car Trip: Eastern Maryland,” we read stanzas that are multi-voiced where the identified speakers or views are a multiplicity of fragmented language – maybe actual, maybe imagined. We’re not signaled. What’s what here? And why do I “like” it so much? Each time I’ve read the poem, I hear it differently – again, so much depends on my active collaboration, on what I bring to reading or hearing it.
There are poems I found myself frustrated with in the beginning, as though I had entered a path marked out by the first stanza; then by the second and third, I was on another trail (I had typed “trial); and then another. Lost. And then all of a sudden I find myself in a clearing and am struck by the clarity of perception, as in “We Startle Things”:
need an ambulance
every day of their lives
which way is up
and even then
I couldn’t – or perhaps the poem, couldn’t – have gotten to what I am calling clarity without all that precedes it. The more “traditional” poet might scrap the preceding and hold these lines in his/her hands (as Grace Cavalieri does in the lines I quoted from Swan Research). But that’s a different poem – here we’re along on the process itself; and the process is integral to the poem.
Consider these lines from several poems in Begin at Once:
Walked into the void
and found everyone there already –
from “My Romance”
(His images are boring. He strives
for the familiar.)
(Her images are hard to find
in a swamp of mimicry.)
from “You Don’t Have to Like It
You Just Have to Eat It”
need an ambulance
every day of their lives
which way is up
and even then
from “We Startle Things”
In poems such as “Self-Regard,” we get conversations, quotes, he’s, she’s, I, you – they will seem to cohere and then don’t. And yet, this is the world we live in. Multiple voices, shifting points of view, you almost think you have the story but it eludes you. There is charm here – not trying to figure things out, not trying to impose order, but staying with the line, hearing it breathe, following its perambulations to see where it takes me – and I find the work in Begin at Once takes me to places that keep changing and I keep going back to, though so far it’s difficult to adequately explain why.
* * *
Rod Smith is the long-time editor of Aerial, a poetry/literary magazine and publisher of Edge Books that has continually brought the latest from the poetry frontiers of non-referential, and related poetries that move by a studied non-linearity, a-chronology, etc. And Deed is of this world, as is Beth Joselow’s work, though very different – for me (so far at least), the “charm” I experience in Joselow’s poems are not how I would characterize my experience in Smith’s: whereas hers seem to find their way to what I have called “clarity,” Smith’s work seems determined to avoid it.
The book is composed of the following: “The Good House,” a seemingly long poem, though its 40 pages have a good deal of air; “The Spider Poems” – 20 pages, some with only one line (e.g., “Nothing left, ‘cept chapstick”; “it is a lazy spider to be placed on the fellow with the rat for a head”); “The Given,” each made up of smaller poems, including prose pieces; and the last section, “Homage to Homage to Creeley.” So this is a condensed table of contents, which I serve up for context.
Deed is not only enigmatic but often, I feel, deliberately opaque. What’s going on here, I ask myself? Have I wandered into Gertrudesteinland where sentences are a flock of chickens who’ve just had their necks wrung and are running around looking for their rightful heads? If you’re attuned to the poetry of linearity and mimesis, this poetry could seem like gibberish, at least for those on the outside. I say this and yet, truthfully, I do find it compelling. Why? Because it’s puzzling? Because it’s challenging me to understand? Partly, maybe. But there’s something more.
I am taken by the laying down of lines – first one, then another and another that will sometimes elaborate, sometimes wholly reject any scent (and sense) of logic. This is what I mean by deliberate, though I haven’t read Smith on his methods (if he has even written about them). I’ve read “The Good House” at different times, feel that I “get it” – its improvisations within improvisations – then find it slips away. It begins in what I take to be a kind of prologue, in third person omniscient, “the egret says”:
the egret says
the house, it is something to eat or sunlight, the egret
thinks, the house, it wills, is a subcanvas I can scribble, the egret moves
or is awake, loving the familiar solution of loving, this explains the egret to the egret in the house
to the house & sunlight, we become intelligible because egret says elliptical,
in beckettland or geography, in small mammals & planets
the egret also “thinks . . . wills . . .scribbles . . .[is] loving; by the fifth line, “we become intelligible because egret says elliptical.” The lines are drawing on words, on constructions we know, but creating their own interior world, a world that is continually shifting in point of view, a world that accommodates disruption, interruption, a world that eschews cause and effect. You might think that Smith has taken a paragraph related to egrets, cut up sentences, then divided the words as nouns, pronouns, verbs, etc, and set up some rules for himself, picking a noun, then verb, then . . . . he hasn’t done this as far as I can tell but that is the feeling for how the lines move.
After the two-page prologue of “House,” we begin with the poem itself. It seems to me it is continually trying things out, trying out different formulations – some make sense, some don’t. In ordinary writing, we discard what doesn’t make sense – this poetry doesn’t discard (which says nothing about revision). So consider these early lines:
The good house feels bad about
– the house seems
to be a verb though it dislike
the term ‘housing’ – the house
seems to be a bad dog & a
live wire – the house is bored
until people come over – the house
is anxious to pleasure guests –
I read “The Good House” as an improvisational flight, a sax player going off on a lonnnnng riff – taking a line and seeing where it goes, off on its own, the player a kind of musical amanuensis. So there are elements that get repeated from one section of the poem to the next, maybe as in a reverie:
It does not matter if we trust
the house. Because I am the one
speaking right now I can say
we. Therefore I think, to the
degree that you can, you should
As a listener/reader, you’re either along for the ride or not – it will conform to expectations at times but then disconform. There is excitement – again, a letting loose, a freedom, and every once in while, as in movements in Beth Joselow’s poems (again, their tones are wholly different) – and utter frustration.
The house contains whatever the poet or poem will(s) (“in being, the house we will . . . //this is where we will, & home”). “Though the house is willed it is also shiny – though it spares others, some it doesn’t, though it has a child, it is clear, stolid, imperious . . . there is no false in it, again it houses as it had & has house being, green eggs or ham, & puts Peloponnesian here, shiny, holding the deranged oracle by he ear, making its wishes, housing the one it loves, with a sound.” Green eggs or ham, Peloponnesian – is this all dadistic reverie?
this reverie noodles the lovely house
like the pleasure of not reading
a badly written headline.
The technology of transcendence
is a speaking, infinite, rescindence.
It does not matter if we trust
the house. Because I am the one
speaking right now I can say
we. Therefore I think, to the
degree that you can, you should
Dislocation, distortion, jokes, mock soliloquies, perorations – whatever comes up, that’s what we get
you there – pinebare
of want & stuffed
. . .
O house the waves
kill he weak, wash awake
the unspent hurt
. . .
O house, o o o, &
house of verb & house of
go, the house now dormants done its
better love . . .
“What is poetry’s essential nature,” the magazine Fulcrum asked of poets some years back in a feature, “Poetry and Truth.” There were as many answers as there were poets – one that’s stayed with me is this from the Scottish poet W.N. Herbert, “I believe poetry’s essential nature is to change us using language, but not in the manner we associate with magic spells or powerful rhetoric. Not just change our momentary perceptions or our opinions but to affect that constantly mutating thing we think of as our self, to the way it alters.”
So take “The Spider Poems,” which opens with anything but spiders:
Nothing believes Korea.
Nothing turns into it, & leaves your salt there.
For it to fade, for it to ask casually, how’s your Rothko?
how’s your thrift store
painting? how’s that? Nothing believes Korea.
& believing it believes also
that to be afraid is accursed, caseladen, peripatetic, inchworthy &
glown. That’s what it believes.
Nothing much worse than that.
Nothing much worse than for it to fade that way.
Is “Nothing” the subject? Substitute “He” or “She” for the moment, then go back to Nothing. Why does nothing leave “your salt there”? And where is “there”? This is a constructed world that still has nothing to do with spiders, until the second poem in the series:
In the second part Korea disappears, becomes
quasi-angular, like a filter, like a soup, like a spider
suddenly in your face. Suddenly, this is the poem
in which the sudden spider is suddenly in your face.
Like a spider.
I take Smith at his word – “suddenly” the line leads to a spider and he is off on the riff that lets comedy in as well, that doesn’t discriminate. And so there is the play with words and the poem becomes a thing-in-itself, not a representation, not mimetic in any way. One could call this solipsism, the opposite of communication – I am not ready at all to say so: the poem is communicating itself as poem, taking the things that we are familiar with and making a construction of them that is there for our pleasure (or not) in the things themselves. I’m trying to stay with that. There may or may not be glimpses of meaning, even if you’re not sure just what is meant.
* * *
So much of our response to poetry or all art is a matter of taste, which itself is complicated: we generally like what we know or are accustomed to and can be put off by what we don’t. But what is the job of art? To break through that which we can become too comfortable with – to jar and enchant us at the same time. There are lines near the beginning of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that I have long read metaphorically, in this regard: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,/I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,/ The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.” Whitman could easily stay behind but wills himself not to – the open road and what he might find there was everything. But there is no one road: you can sit in your own backyard and discover the world in a grain of sand. I’m with Coleridge who repllied to a question on how he could appreciate poets so diverse as Pope and Wordsworth with this: “Do not let us introduce an act of uniformity against Poets — I have room enough in my brain to admire, aye and almost equally, the head and fancy of Akenside, and the heart and fancy of Bowles, the solemn lordliness of Milton, and the divine chit chat of Cowper. . . .” Ah, that divine chit chat!
Whatever the differences among these seven poets, finally what matters is that in their distinctive ways, they are continually refreshing the language that would otherwise sink into cliché and pap. Just turn on your television news for a depressing example. Whether through the understated precision of Martin Galvin’s work, the quietly moral voice of Myra Sklarew’s, or the determined illogic of Rod Smith’s, what we have is an affirmation of language – to adapt the marvelous critic Hugh Kenner, a poet’s work is an act of attentiveness, evoking our own. Or as Robert Frost said, “poetry is the renewal of words forever and ever.”
Merrill Leffler has published two collections of poetry, Partly Pandemonium, Partly Love and Take Hold; forthcoming in Spring 2011 is Mark the Music. He’s guest edited an issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and for Shirim, "The Poetry of Eytan Eytan," which he translated from the Hebrew with Moshe Dor, and "Dryad at 40." He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.