Ali Blythe, “Shattered”

twoism cover

The thing I like best about this poem is how it changes as I read it, so I don’t want to say anything as a prologue, except I already have by telling you that I love how this poem changes as I read it.

“Shattered”

 

Your eyes look like

beach glass fresh

from a pounding.

 

I wish I could float

you inside an empty

bottle and raise your

 

many tiny sails.

But one has to accept

the tense of a feeling.

 

You will never be

well enough again

to exist on anything

 

but a diet of thin ice.

You will recurrently

have the sense someone

 

is checking the time,

which you suspect

might be suspended

 

from nurse-clean clouds

by a delicate gold chain.

You will have to drink

 

meds from a plastic

cup. Next, you won’t

remember a thing.

 

— from Twoism, (Icehouse Press 2015) ©Ali Blythe, used by permission

 

When I started reading this, I thought it was a love poem, not an unreasonable first response when it opens with a simile about eyes. Even when Blythe undercuts the potential romanticism with “fresh / from a pounding,” I’m not sure where he’s going – it could be a brutal sexual reference, or a bit of tonal misdirection. But I’m also aware, as I’m sure you are, that when sea glass is sufficiently “pounded” it ends up smooth and almost soft to the touch, and its colour washes out. So after the first stanza, my imagination is holding these possibilities in suspension, waiting to see where the poem is headed.

The second stanza doesn’t exactly help, but rather introduces an even more elaborate metaphor: “I wish I could float / you inside an empty / bottle and raise your // many tiny sails.” It’s a wonderfully evocative image, but I’m still not sure what it signifies – something about how the speaker wishes he could open the addressee’s full potential? Then why the boat inside a bottle? Does the speaker think of his friend as constrained in some way? Or is this something about preservation? We’re going to find out in a second, but before Blythe clarifies it all, I want to pause a moment to appreciate how, by structuring the poem with these images – the sea glass and the bottle-boat – at the beginning, before the situation is explained, Blythe gives us a chance to bounce all sorts of possibilities in our minds first. For me, that’s a major pleasure, but these decisions also add to a mood of confusion, or of being off-balance, that hovers over the rest of the poem, even once the circumstances are made more clear.

Oh, and one more: what is the “tense of a feeling” that “one needs to accept”? Are all feelings only in the present tense? Can you have future feelings?

By the fourth stanza, then, a reader could be forgiven for being almost ready to give up on “Shattered” as too esoteric or self-referential, using imagery that only has meaning to the speaker. This is when Blythe pivots, at the exact centre, and things start to come rapidly into focus. Notice how flat and prosy the language of the next sentence is – “never be / well enough again / to exist…” almost sounds like a doctor’s awkward formality, the line breaks slowing us down even more, although the images from the first stanzas perhaps continue to leave a bit of a residual shimmer.

So now we know that the speaker is visiting a dying friend or loved one. Suddenly my understanding of the sea glass from the first stanza zeroes in on the faded colouring, and the “pounding” from that opening sentence seems to refer more to disease (or perhaps its treatment) than to any of the other possibilities I was toying with. The boat bottle might have something to do with suspending time rather than other kinds of entrapment. And the “tense of a feeling” – well, I’m still not 100% sure about that one, except that even grammatical “tense” is now painful to the speaker because he knows that his loved one has no future.

Once we’re on surer footing with regard to the “plot” of the poem, Blythe can go back to the image-making at which he excels. The speaker ventures into the mind of his companion, who senses those around her “checking the time.” The image resonates because the patient must be acutely aware of when her visitors are preparing to depart her bedside, but also of the more ominous ticking down of her own life’s clock.

By the way, I’m using a feminine pronoun for the patient and a masculine one for the speaker/visitor just for clarity – there’s no indication of gender or even of the exact relationship between the two figures. This kind of ambiguity works in a short poem, but for readers of fiction it can be a bit frustrating – we’re almost always aware, when reading a story, about the relationship between characters. But in a poem we sometimes only get “the tense of a feeling,” stripped down to its bare bones. Because Blythe doesn’t have time to explore the complications of the relationship here, he leaves it out. We only have images and impressions. (In fact other poems in twoism explore angles on loss that I believe are connected to this one, and that form a composite from which we can extrapolate a bit more, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)

As the poem makes its final turns, the sentences take on a parallel structure (You will … You will … You will…you won’t), but they also get shorter and shorter, with ominous connotations. Also, the flight of fancy with which our speaker enters into his friend’s imagination (time suspended from “nurse-clean clouds” by a “delicate gold chain” could be a medically-induced hallucination) quickly shrinks down to the narrowest of perspectives (“drink // meds from a plastic cup”) until at the close of the poem she vanishes altogether.

A clever grammatical move here is that these last four sentences are all in future tense – you will, you will – but they point toward a future that doesn’t contain the friend at all. The final reference to remembering is a painful act of separation – only the speaker will be able to look back at these moments he has described. His friend will be part of the past he is now remembering.

This realization is what connects the glass images at the opening of the poem to the circumstances the poem describes, and also to the title which unites them: “shattered” describes glass that can never be put together again, but “shattered” is also a feeling, in the irretrievable present tense. I return to the beginning of the poem as if revisiting the moment when the shattering begins.

 

Sara Holland-Batt, “Botany”

S HBatt Hazards cover

 

Before I begin I should mention that this is Griffin Prize Week. Last night was the shortlist readings at Koerner Hall in Toronto, and tonight the winners will be announced. It’s fun to be back on the audience side of the curtain, without the pressures and stress I had last year. But I also admit to a bit of nostalgia (already?) for my experiences as a juror, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which gave rise to this blog. I’m still open to discussions about the problematics of poetry prizes, or of “prize culture” in literary evaluation, but these events are among the highlights of my year, if only because the rooms are full of serious (and often brilliant) minds, who are palpably engaged with the art form, stretching always what poetry can be and do.

Sarah Holland-Batt is an Australian poet who has spent considerable time in the United States. If I had the gumption I might try to make claims about how her work straddles the poetic traditions of both nations, but it seems a bit premature – the poem below is from only her second book, The Hazards, and so I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from her before these kinds of evaluations become worthwhile. One thing I will say is that she, like many other Australian poets I’ve read, derives real delight from the natural world of her homeland, a world which often seems to me to be more beautiful, dangerous, and bizarre than my own.

 

“Botany”

 

After the rain, we went out in pairs

to hunt the caps that budded at night:

wet handfuls of waxtips and widows,

lawyer’s wigs, a double-ringed yellow.

 

We shook them out onto gridded sheets,

the girls more careful than the boys,

pencilled notes on their size and shape,

then levelled a wood-press over their heads.

 

Overnight, they dropped scatter patterns

in dot-and-dash, spindles and asterisks

that stained the page with smoky rings,

blush and blot, coal-dust blooms.

 

In that slow black snow of spores

I saw a woodcut winter cart and horse

careen off course, the dull crash

of iron and ash, wheels unraveling.

 

All day, a smell of loam hung overhead.

We bent like clairvoyants at our desks

trying to divine the message left

in all those little deaths, the dark, childless stars.

 

— from The Hazards, ©Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press, 2015), used by permission

How do we translate wonder onto the page? We all experience awe from time to time when we encounter amazing things in the natural world – a spectacular sunset, a bear rummaging in a wood, a tornado – but writing about those encounters rarely summons corresponding feelings in the reader. In fact I think it’s fair to say that, after the love poem, the ”nature poem” is the type most frequently done badly. Not just because it’s such well-trodden ground, but also because, like love, awe is a very difficult feeling to evoke or describe.

“Botany” tackles this problem in two ways. Firstly Sarah Holland-Batt has a wonderful ear, and her alliterative play, near-rhymes, and metrical savvy combine to give this poem real brightness and sparkle. The beginning of the third stanza is particularly rich: “dropped scatter patterns / in dot-and-dash, spindles and asterisks” just feels fun in my mouth as I say it, the percussive s’s, p’s, k’s, and t’s bouncing off each other. And so even though the natural phenomena that she is describing – mushrooms – don’t make a lot of noise (to my knowledge!), “Botany” translates some of their uniqueness into linguistic beauty, which we experience as sound.

One quick note about meter. This poem gestures toward a regular rhythmic pattern but never settles into it consistently. Many of the lines at the beginning are in a loose iambic tetrameter (four beats per line) and a few fit it perfectly: line six, for example (“the GIRLS more CAREful THAN the BOYS”), as well as lines eleven and thirteen. For me, when a poet flirts with regular meter like this, it gives a kind of pulse to the poem, but one that is open to movement and flow. It provides a steady walking pace that can accommodate the occasional stumble or brief sprint. It’s worth noting, then, that as the poet’s fascination increases at the end, the poem adds another foot to the meter, so that in the last stanza we’re mostly five beats to the line and the final line has six beats. It’s as if, when the children’s attention draws closer to the spore patterns, the speaker of the poem needs to cram more stress into each line to make room for her awe.

Can we also, by the way, thank the botanist who originally named a species of mushroom “lawyer’s wig”? Can that person please be honoured in some public fashion?

Coprinus_comatus,_the_shaggy_ink_cap,_lawyer's_wig,_or_shaggy_mane_mushroom

The other way that Holland-Batt evokes our wonder is by not limiting herself to the children’s perspective, despite the school-time focus of the action. The evocative species names, the brief gesture towards gender politics (“the girls more careful than the boys”), the magic of the mushrooms’ reaction under the wood-press – all of these are phenomena that most children would appreciate and understand. But something different happens in the fourth stanza. The mushrooms have made various spore patterns on the paper the students have spread under them, and the speaker starts to see images in the shapes that have been created by the “slow black snow of spores” (another wonderful lyric line). The speaker sees something wild and horrific in the spore dust: a crashing horse-and-cart. Is this really the imagination of a child looking at the patterns, or an adult drawing pictures in her memory? Perhaps the girl had just read Black Beauty? But it feels more like we are progressing from the experience of the school children to the more mature wonder of the image-making adult.

Similarly, and more definitively, in the final stanza, the kids become “clairvoyants” (even the word would likely be inaccessible to most school children) who are attempting to interpret the signs left by the mushrooms. And the poet brings to our attention the fact that the spores, because they have been deposited on paper instead of earth, won’t be able to germinate, and are therefore a display of “little deaths” for the individual mushrooms that have been harvested. Now I don’t think the speaker of the poem is trying to evoke regret in us for the demise of these fine fungi specimens. On the contrary, it seems to me that the fragility, the strangeness, and the resilience of earth’s life forms (from dust…) is what transforms the children’s awe into something that we adults might share. By leaving us with that weird bit of darkness, drummed home with the haunting final adjective “childless,” this poem opens up a layer that is beyond the reach of the students in the poem, but which is palpable and full of awe for those of us who read it.

 

Marilyn Dumont, “How to Make Pemmican”

Pemmican Eaters Cover

 

I’ve already written on a “recipe” poem in this series, back in the beginning of February when I focused on Phil Metres’ “Recipe from the Abbasid.” As I mentioned then, there’s something I like about how a “how to” poem forces us to be deliberate and specific in our writing. Also, the imperative voice used in a recipe (do this, do that) stands in fruitful contrast to most other kinds of poems.

But it’s never enough simply to reproduce a recipe or instruction and call it a poem – there needs to be some sort of tension added to the directions. In Metres’ poem, historical-political information is blended into the recipe to produce a surreal monstrosity of a meal. In Marilyn Dumont’s “How to Make Pemmican,” the tension is… well wait a second. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Marilyn Dumont traces her ancestry to Gabriel Dumont, one of the central figures (along with Louis Riel) who resisted Canadian authority in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the late 1800s, just after Canadian Confederation. The Pemmican Eaters explores aspects of Cree and Métis culture, retells episodes from the Riel and North-West Resistances, and challenges textbook versions of the history of western Canada. Apparently the title comes from a term then-Prime Minister John A. MacDonald used to refer to the Métis who were giving him so much trouble, but it seems to be a moniker that Dumont wants to reclaim. There’s lots to learn about this period in Canadian history and I am a novice here myself, but in addition to Dumont’s book, you might start here or here. (I will be happy to link to better sources online if anyone wants to call them to my attention.) I should also mention that it’s a bit unfair to look at this poem on its own, out of context from the rest of Dumont’s book. Like my discussion of Metres’ “Recipe for the Abbasid,” this essay only gives a narrow glimpse into what’s going on in this wide-ranging and ambitious collection. But I hope it might serve as a doorway in.

Pemmican (from the Cree word for fat or grease) is a protein-rich combination of fat, dried beef (usually buffalo) and berries which, because it is portable and doesn’t spoil, was an important source of protein for travelling trappers and hunters in the nineteenth century (and for native peoples much earlier). Nowadays it’s championed by a wide range of enthusiasts beyond its Cree and Métis origins, including wilderness campers, Canadian history buffs, and some spookier sites like “Off the Grid News” and “Urban Survival Site: How to Survive in the City When Disaster Strikes.” I’ll refrain from providing you all of these links, but you can find them on your own if you’re curious.

All this goes to show that even a “simple” recipe for pemmican carries a lot of baggage with it. So to the poem:

 

How to Make Pemmican

 

Kill one 1800 lb. buffalo

Gut it

Skin it

Butcher it

Slice the meat in long strips for drying

Construct drying racks and lay on tarps for pounding

Pound 1000 lbs. of dry meat

Mix with several pounds of dried berries, picked previously

Add rendered suet

 

Cut buffalo hides in quarters

Fill with hot dried meat, berry and suet mixture

Sew quarter-hide portions together with sinew

Bury in a cache for later   mmmh.

 

            — from The Pemmican Eaters (©Marilyn Dumont, Published by ECW Press, 2015), used by permission

 

On the surface, there is nothing particularly attention-grabbing here. The language of the poem is straight-forward, the lines clear despite minimal punctuation. Unlike Metres “Recipe from the Abbasid,” which spins off quickly into the bizarre, this one stays on task. One is tempted to blithely say to oneself, “With these instructions I could probably make pemmican too.”

Except that you can’t, because what’s missing is everything – every line only leads to more questions. “Kill one 1800 lb. buffalo.” How exactly does one set about doing that? Even an outdoorsman with a lot more experience than myself might be hard-pressed to bag the type of animal Dumont so flippantly starts off with here. And if we somehow manage to kill one, how are we to gut, skin, and butcher it?! Perhaps I’m revealing myself to be a city mouse without much worldly knowledge, but I suspect that the majority of poetry readers likely fit a similar profile to myself when it comes to buffalo butchering. So even the opening lines of this recipe become a way to let us know that we’re not going to learn how to make pemmican after reading a one-page poem. There’s a lot more to learn before we can even really begin.

This tone continues, with more slyly simple-sounding directions that open up further questions and challenges. What sort of drying racks hold 1000 lbs. of buffalo? How might one construct them? How does one pound that much meat? How does one render suet?!

All of this makes this short poem less of a recipe and more of a table of contents for a series of recipes and instructions. Because pemmican is so closely associated with the Métis, especially during the period with which this book is concerned, the implication is that we must understand pemmican in order to access the most basic aspects of Métis culture. However, obtaining that knowledge is going to require a lot more work than we might have previously thought. A reader might wonder to herself, If I can’t even imagine the taste of this staple food, how can I possibly get inside the culture of the people who developed it?

On the other hand, you don’t have to know how to make pasta from scratch to appreciate it. Ditto gefilte fish, tofu, or apple crumble. There’s ultimately, then, an element of invitation here as well. To my ear, the speaker in this poem is saying, You know almost nothing about what pemmican is, but if you try harder, keep asking good questions, and then listen, you might be able find someone to show you. This poem is only the beginning. Partly I’m importing this tone from other parts of the book, but the assured voice here seems to indicate that if the next poem in the book were titled “How to Kill a Buffalo” (it’s not), Dumont could list a series of similarly vexing, simple-sounding instructions that would lead us further in our study. I think of this mixture of rejection and invitation as one of the particular strengths of The Pemmican Eaters.

This is why that final “mmmh” at the end of the poem isn’t just a throwaway line, or a taunt. It is a taunt, but it isn’t only a taunt.

Quick explanatory tangent: My wife likes to watch cooking shows – Chopped, Iron Chef, that Chef’s Table show on Netflix that makes chefs look like the most fascinating and important people on earth. I admit I have very little patience for these shows, not because the people they profile aren’t interesting, but because we never get to eat the beautiful food we are seeing. When we watch The Voice or American Idol, we can hear the emerging virtuosity of the singers. When (if) you watch Dancing with the Stars, the proof is in the performance, and if you know anything about dancing you can judge and (perhaps) appreciate a contestant’s success right there on the stage. But there’s always something crucial missing from the experience of these cooking shows. Maybe that’s part of the appeal for my wife, leaving the final results up to the gustatory imagination. The “mmmh” at the end of this poem is a similar kind of tease. The speaker is letting us know that she knows the taste of pemmican, that she finds it delicious, that it’s worthy of a hum of satisfaction for her. Those of us who have never tasted pemmican can’t fully access the whole range of experiences, stories, beliefs, and cultural nuances that The Pemmican Eaters explores. However, it’s also a promise that the rest of the book attempts to make good on: if you’d like to know more, read on. By pushing me away (you know nothing about this), it also invites me in (come learn more). So in the end this poem/recipe is about confronting our ignorance. There’s a challenge in it, and it requires a certain amount of humility to accept that challenge. But the rewards promise to be very tasty.

George Murray, from “#DaydreamBereaver”

Diversion cover

List poems are fun. They’re fun to write, and they’re often fun to read. The poet has no obligation to follow a line of thought, or description, and so list poems lend themselves to free-wheeling non-sequitur, to invention, to play. And yet, no matter how weird, disparate, or far-ranging a list is, we cannot help but try to sculpt it into some kind of coherence. It’s the curse of being good readers: we are trained to find connections, and so, even if there are none, we find them.

Of course a good poet is aware of all this, and uses our expectations to her advantage. The late C.D. Wright’s terrific list poem “Personals” leaves enough of a trail for us to put together a portrait of a scene, a character, and a situation. The artist Jenny Holzer uses the form and language of slogans to create list poems in space that, among other things, parody corporate advertising.

Since I started working on this blog I’ve known that I wanted to write about George Murray’s Diversion, but I’ve had a problem because most of the poems are well over 30 lines long. For the sake of keeping my essays readably short, I’ve tended to stick with shorter pieces. And so finally I asked George’s permission to use just a section from one of the poems – you won’t get the full picture here, but I hope you can get a sense of how the poems move, and that it will encourage you to dive more deeply into this funny, inventive, often disturbing collection.

Diversion is a whole book of list poems with titles like “#CivilDisconvenience,” and “#SocialMedea.” The ubiquitous hashtag mark points us to the quick wit and quick rancor we tend to find online, the unpredictable mashup of the profane and the profound. In these two titles you can also see one of his recurring techniques – twisting familiar phrases into new creations. Here are the last ten lines from a poem called “#Daydream Bereaver”:

 

Homecoming queen becomes homestaying queen.

Disciples follow the guide with the umbrella and megaphone.

One flew over the cuckoo’s nest but the rest of us landed in it.

Death switched to a pistol after complaints a scythe wasn’t individual-enough attention.

I like big buts and I cannot lie.

Freedom is the space found after the last channel on the dial.

The sound of our culture is the sound of a fat ass flopping onto a toilet seat.

12 reasons you need to try this before you die! are 11 more than needed to convince me.

What you’re reading is a black box.

Bet you a dozen beers the first intelligent thought was a wish.

— from Diversion (ECW Press, 2015), used by permission

 

One challenge with list poems is how to keep them interesting – if there’s no story, description, or argument to pull us through to the end, the poet has to work very hard to vary the form, tone, and materials in order to keep the reader engaged, even off-balance, landing punches from different directions. So notice first how Murray plays with the syntax, the tone, even the pronouns in these ten lines. First person pronouns are used four times, second person in the last three. Two lines make sweeping generalizations (about Disciples and Freedom). Two lines report mini-narratives: about homecoming queens whose lives lose their sparkle and a cartoonish Death who can be influenced by popular opinion. Lines that start off like serious statements become jokes, and vice versa (especially the last line).

Murray’s most scatological images tend to disguise a more complicated point. While we may grimace at “the sound of a fat ass flapping onto a toilet seat,” we are compelled to confront a more ambitious, if somewhat facetious, comment about what sounds “our culture” actually makes. Even better is his repurposing of an early ‘90s rap masterpiece (Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”), which Murray uses to point to a core concept in Diversion – that reversals, “buts,” are an antidote to lazy and complacent thinking. It’s worth mentioning that “Baby Got Back” is ultimately a song about rejecting false-perfection and fakery in pop culture portrayals of feminine beauty, a problem Diversion also returns to again and again.

As we reel from Murray’s inventiveness and fun we also start to sense a recurring frustration with contemporary culture, even in the glib wordplay that the poems themselves utilize. Murray’s self-deprecation about how he’s a sucker for internet clickbait like “reasons to try this before you die!” churns along with “the rest of us land[ing]” in the metaphorical cuckoo’s nest. If disciples just follow whomever has an umbrella and megaphone, and the way to freedom is just past our ever-expanding channel selection, then our culture really will increasingly sound as grotesque as a fat ass on a toilet seat. The lines, which seemed so separate and chaotic at first glance, begin to speak to each other.

For me, this culminates in the quietly devastating line, “What you’re reading is a black box.” An airplane’s black box is only important to most of us if the plane crashes, as a record of what happened, so that we might discover what went wrong. So too this poem, and this collection. Diversion aims to be a sort of recording device that, with logorrheic glee, simultaneously mocks, preserves, and celebrates our contemporary moment. It might be tempting to dismiss it as a prodigious, bawdy gathering of witticisms and reworked detritus of popular culture and internet meme-making, but the poems also serve as a record of a societal vessel that might be careening toward destruction. Perhaps those who come to clean up the aftermath will be able to deduce something from this wreckage. It’s not a comforting thought, but it adds a layer of seriousness and challenge to the poems’ wit and fun.

Diane Seuss, “Free beer”

Seuss Four Legged cover

There are poems that are driven by narrative, by a story or situation. I can imagine a good short story writer creating a version in prose. Other poems lend themselves to music, or short films, or paintings. This is not to say that these poems are any less worthy, only that their subject matter is translatable across art forms. It’s a fun mind-game for me to think about the question, “If I were to remake this poem in another medium, which would I use?”

And then there are some poems, like Diane Seuss’s “Free beer,” that could only work as a poem.

Free beer

 

I’m the one who can hold a mouthful of salt.

Bring him here, the fool dressed in prison stripes.

I can pray for him, even though his eyes are wild.

I can de-louse the rat.

 

When I was a kid I invited them all to a puppet show.

There were no puppets; I’d planned no show.

Free beer, I said, and they came.

 

I’ve seen a puppet theatre.

It resides in the black cavern behind my eyes.

Thoughts are puppets, dangling from their tangled strings.

Bring him here, the one spinning on gloom’s rotisserie.

 

I’ll section an orange for the wretched bastard.

I’ll ladle him up a mugful of tears.

Free beer, I’ll say, though there is no beer.

from Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf 2015), used by permission

Let me start with a quick technical thing: notice the stability in the formal aspects of the poem. Each line consists of one sentence, meticulously punctuated. There’s no enjambment, and so each line functions discretely, as its own little nugget of thought. That helps keep things clear on the one hand, but it also allows Seuss to go just about anywhere from line to line – there’s no necessary logic that demands she stay on one topic, no argument or narrative that needs completion. The clear grammar and stable form serve as the scaffolding for the roller coaster.

There appears to be a consistent speaker throughout the poem, but we know she might say just about anything, from haunting truth to absurd lies. “Gloom’s rotisserie” is now permanently etched into my mind as a vivid way to understand depression, but I’m hoping the image of delousing a rat (how?! shampoo and a finetoothed comb?!) gets out of my imagination very soon.

The presumed “purpose” of the series of statements in the poem also seems familiar – a sort of invitation to “us” to “bring him here,” and a kind of resume of why we should bring our friend to her. But is it an offer to help someone who is suffering? Or an indirect seduction? Who is this poor fellow on gloom’s rotisserie? And who are we, to deliver him to this person who introduces herself in such a way?

If this were real life, we could be forgiven if we let this series of invitations slide to the bottom of our inbox. Our friend in his striped outfit could probably find more qualified counselors. But let’s not gloss too quickly over the promises she makes. There is a hint of tenderness that shouldn’t be dismissed amidst her more outlandish confessions. Sectioning an orange, for example, is something you do for a child, carefully and often with tenderness lest the sections break and bleed. And the best way to fill “a mugful of tears” is to produce them yourself, and so our speaker clearly has emotional similarities to our friend that perhaps we don’t share. The surreal logic of it all starts to make a certain sense – only someone who can ladle a mugful of tears could possibly share our foolish friend’s difficulties.

By the way, each time I type “gloom’s rotisserie,” I keep accidentally typing “grief’s rotisserie” instead, and as I turn the poem over and over again it seems clear that loss or loneliness is at the center of the speaker’s world as well as the object of her attentions. What sort of person would choose to introduce herself to us primarily by reporting her deceptions? Who would describe her own mind (where her memory of a puppet theatre resides) as “the black cavern behind my eyes”? Who would be so desperate for company that she would call out “free beer,” even if there was no beer, like a delinquent version of the boy who cried wolf? And who would admit all these things to us, and still beg for us to bring a friend to her, so she might comfort and feed him? Looking again, I see this poem as a desperate cry for connection.

It’s also ridiculous, and the speaker seems vaguely unhinged. But tell the truth: part of what drew you to this site, to this essay that you are reading right now about this particular poem, is “FREE BEER”! Right? See? It works! It’s the outlandishness that makes it appealing. By the way, now that you’re here I must admit that I have no free beer for you, nor (to my knowledge) does Diane Seuss or the WordPress platform or Graywolf Press. There is no free beer here.

But we do have “Free beer,” the poem, the suggestion, the lyrical absurd half-story. And let’s remember that the fourteen lines of this poem are not claiming to be real life, and therefore, in the poem, we are not required to behave responsibly. And so I say, YES, I’ve been waiting for someone capable of delousing the rat! Yes, I will attend your puppet show! Yes, I will bring my suffering friend to you so that you can carefully section him an orange. And whenever you say, Free beer, I will be sure to come, because even if there isn’t beer I’m certain there will be something else, something strange and inviting, a mugful of tears to baste me on my rotisserie of gloom.

Can any other art form do all that?

Jeff Latosik, “Aubade Photoshop”

865-8_LATOSIK_COMPS.indd

 

I’m aware that my audience for this blog is a mix of seasoned poetry readers and those who are less comfortable with contemporary poetry (hi Mom!). And while I want to be welcoming as a guide for the less experienced, I don’t want to shy away from more challenging material. So trigger warning: this is a trickier poem than the ones I’ve written on recently, and needs a bit more explanation. I also think it’s really smart and perceptive, and that its difficulty is crucial to its success, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

The speaker of Jeff Latosik’s “Aubade Photoshop” is rehashing a relationship that has broken down, and the fault is at least partly his own. His desire to replay events, even to revise his memories of what’s happened, leads him to some complicated syntax and metaphors. But they will also ultimately lead him to a hard-won nugget of insight. Here’s the poem:

 

Aubade Photoshop

 

That you might rope a past vacation’s sky

whose blue was not that well expressed,

hog-tie its gaffes and vacancies, drag it

to a place between that time and this.

 

Not quite plucked from the invisible spectrum

like galaxies bright as cellophane in Quality Street

or happened into suddenly like a lapsed god’s eye

staring back from light-year stacks of helium.

 

I could let a scrim of Red Label tint an afternoon

where things would give up shape and focus

and disclose, from a secret blush, all those vapoury proximities

so that shoals of my living and dead float up,

 

and all I said or didn’t say in tune with hindsight’s

unflappable A440 will be resaid, the way

it’s easier to be right once the moment’s fled

or how you expanded the range of your voice by aping Bocelli.

 

It was all just settling, lime stain on stone, or an ism

of which you’ve grown especially fond. Things I couldn’t detach

but didn’t know it yet. I had to write this as a kind of letter.

We put a screen in front of things to see them better.

 

— from Safely Home Pacific Western, published by Icehouse Poetry (2016), used by permission

 

Latosik’s oblique title starts us off with a pun: aubade and Adobe. Adobe, of course, is the company that makes and sells the computer program Photoshop that many use to manipulate images, whether cleaning up “imperfections” in a magazine cover or adding a missing family member into a group shot at a wedding. An aubade is an old poetic form, going back to the 1600s at least. It’s a morning poem, traditionally spoken by a lover who must depart. (My personal favourite is John Donne’s “The Sun Rising.”) There’s often regret, delightful longing, and a bit of a sense of danger or pressure on the speaker. Why does the lover have to leave? Is the affair illicit somehow or is it just the work day calling? Sometimes there’s also the more metaphoric sense that our times of pleasure on earth are fleeting, that the approach of death itself is like the harsh approach of dawn. Modern aubades (like Philip Larkin’s here) often follow the metaphoric path more explicitly, turning the romantic aubade into a meditation on mortality.

But what, then, is an “aubade photoshop”? Even before we truly begin, Latosik introduces a conflict: “photoshop” is a tool we use to control how and what we see, but “aubade” reminds us of our limitations. So how does this conflict play out?

We begin with the speaker musing on the power of image manipulation – the “that” that opens the poem is a shortening of a conditional construction like, “As if you could…” So, I could paraphrase (brutally) the opening stanza as something like, “As if you could change the background tone of the sky into something you’d seen before while on vacation…” What’s strange is that it doesn’t seem that the speaker wants to perfect his memories: the sky from the “past vacation” was “not that well expressed,” and he wants to capture its “gaffes and vacancies,” not its pleasures and fulfillments. So already the usual notion that we use Photoshop to improve our images seems turned on its head.

The next stanza lets us know that he’s not seeking something beyond the ordinary – not from the “invisible spectrum,” although it seems he’s more interested in narrowing down his choices (not this, not that) than in expanding them. Latosik uses language from quantum physics (helium can be used to measure the heat of stars, please don’t ask me how), but also refers to Quality Street chocolates, which are wrapped in brightly coloured – and easily differentiated – cellophane. What’s emerging is the speaker’s desire to put things in disctinct categories, to sort out the messy shadings that make up his life and to simplify them into more easily interpretable primary colours.

He muses in the next stanza that he could accomplish something like this if he drinks enough Red Label whiskey to put a “tint” on everything he sees and remembers. The impulse to want to put a different perspective on a situation (even by getting drunk) seems familiar and reasonable, but by now I’d guess you’re wondering, Why the dense language and roundabout syntax? Why is the speaker taking so much elaborate care to explain how he would like to see more simply and clearly? The desire for clarity, for tonal perfection (A440 is “perfect A” above middle C used as the tuning standard) is presented in a way that feels murky, filled with qualification. Our speaker is demonstrating, even when saying he wants clarity, that he can’t achieve it. But why?

The hints we have are when we finally see a glimpse of the “you” this poem has been addressed to all along. We learn two things about this friend at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth stanza: s/he has a talent for vocal parody (learn more about the famous blind tenor Andrea Bocelli here) and an attraction to isms. The first detail shows us that the addressee of the poem can have a bit of fun while still improving his skills, expanding his vocal range. (I’m going to assume the addressee is male for this reason – most women wouldn’t expand their vocal range nearly as much by aping Bocelli as they would by aping, say, Jessye Norman.) The second detail shows us that, unlike the speaker, the friend can do what our speaker cannot – he can see clearly, even if the ism he grows fond of is only a temporary solution. Because what is an ism (Communism, Feminism, Existentialism, Judaism, etc.) but a way of clarifying our sense of how the world works? So the person being spoken to is adept at doing exactly what our speaker has been tying himself into grammatical knots expressing his inability to do.

And now that we finally have another person in the poem, the context of the aubade returns. It appears that something has gone wrong between our speaker and his Bocelli-imitating friend. He’s painfully wishing that he could revisit their arguments (“it’s easier to be right once the moment’s fled”), but just as importantly, he can’t reach out to his friend in person, but “had to write this as a kind of letter” (Notice that even the categories “letter” and “poem” are blurry for our speaker – it’s not a letter it’s a “kind of letter.”)

The final line, “We put a screen in front of things to see them better,” works on a number of levels. First, it’s finally a moment of simple statement, in a straightforward iambic rhythm, and is the only line of the poem that contains, and is contained by, a complete sentence. So it seems that the loss of the relationship, if not the relationship itself, has finally taught our speaker to make a clear truth claim. Let’s call that progress.

Second, “We put a screen in front of things to see them better” is an admission of fault, a recognition that in his desire to see things better, our speaker struggles to categorize them more neatly than perhaps he should. We want to see things more clearly, and so we put barriers to our understanding of them, losing some of their complexity and nuance. Perhaps in this sense the line is a bit of an apology.

But “see them better” could also mean “better than it actually was.” The sense of nostalgia, of reluctance or longing, that often permeates an aubade, is here turned into something like a desire to remember something more fondly, as more significant than it was. Maybe our speaker is finally realizing that the friendship wasn’t all that great to begin with.

And finally the last line points to the poem itself, a screen of language which seems to be gradually helping our speaker to come to terms with what he’s lost. Forcing light through the screen of hydrogen gas helps reveal its chemical makeup. And forcing a complicated feeling through the screen of a poem might help clarify it as well, with all its difficulty and nuance.