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.

 

Bren Simmers, “[night of nesting dolls]”

Hastings_Sunrise-COVER

 

How do you evoke a sense of place in a poem? How does a poem communicate what it feels like to be somewhere, not just as a tourist, but as a local, an inhabitant, someone who belongs? This seems to me especially tricky in an urban landscape. How do you trace belonging in a space that is poor in the flora and fauna that usually bring magic and specificity to a poem of place?

Bren Simmers’ second book, Hastings-Sunrise (Nightwood 2015) makes its home in the Vancouver neighborhood of its title, and it unapologetically, even possessively, inhabits that neighborhood. My friend Paul tells me that Vancouver writers have a special knack for evoking their neighborhoods in poetry and fiction, and I will defer to his wider reading on the subject. So maybe it’s something about Vancouver? I can’t say, but there’s a dissertation in there somewhere for somebody.

Most of Simmers’ poems in this collection are untitled, and are organized around the time of year, so we trace Hastings-Sunrise over the course of a seasonal cycle. She starts with a table of contents that is actually a rough diagram of the “21 x 13 blocks” of her neighborhood, and adds playful maps of valuable local information such as “Map of Neighborhood Swings,” “Map of Open Doors,” lists of businesses recently opened and closed, “Map of Christmas Lights,” etc. Cumulatively, over the course of the book, we start to feel at home in some of the recurring cross-streets and sightlines, but before we get to that point, here’s one poem from the first section of the book which takes place during spring:

 

Night of nesting dolls,

many layers held

inside this one:

cocktails on the balcony,

supper at eight, the after-

dinner doubles games,

while kids pump legs

on swing sets.

At sundown, an old man

shuffles three times

around the park. Nightly,

I’ve started to look for

his cross-country gait,

tan paperboy cap,

started to call him ours.

Then falls the deep blue

scrim and the few

stars we can spot

amid shipyard cranes

and lights on Grouse.

So brief,

the smallest doll

is sleep.

 

from Hastings-Sunrise, published by Nightwood (2015), used by permission

 

There’s some lovely music and image-making here, but I want to spend most of my space unpacking the way Simmers organizes this poem, via the overarching image of nesting dolls. I find something delightfully odd in the progression and believe it reveals some real insight into how we encounter our little near-dwellings (neigh/nigh = near, bur = dwelling), our neighborhoods, and ultimately ourselves.

If I were to tell you that I was going to write a poem describing a landscape using nesting dolls as a metaphor, you’d probably assume that I would use the first, largest nesting doll to represent the world, the sky, the wider topography, elevation and longitude and such things. Subsequent “dolls” would narrow the focus in space until the smallest dolls might represent my street, my house, my living room, my couch, etc. Organizing the poem spatially would make a certain logical sense, but it would also be pretty predictable and boring.

It would also, ultimately, be a dumb way to explore how we connect to our landscape. On a day-to-day basis, we don’t relate to our neighborhoods thinking about elevation and longitude, but rather through the lens of our own lives, what we’re doing in the landscape, how we are living in it. So Simmers scatters the spatial, and starts with “cocktails on the balcony, / supper at eight” etc. The largest nesting doll, the one that contains everything else in the poem, is the set of actions that the speaker is performing on what seems like a pleasant, leisurely spring evening near a park.

We might also read the largest frame for the poem as being one of mood or tone, setting us up as readers to view the world here through a lens of ease and affection. Subsequent poems might reframe our encounter with Hastings-Sunrise through gloom or anger or worry or frustration (as indeed some do), but for now, for tonight, at the opening of this poem, we get to see the area at its most welcoming.

Once we know what we’re doing, and how we’re feeling, we can start to see the world around us, and the next nesting doll contains a living neighbour, “an old man” who daily “shuffles three times / around the park.” Our speaker knows him well enough to expect him every night, to recognize his “tan paperboy cap” (notice the nice assonance of the flat a’s there), to know how many times he circles the park, even to weirdly think of him as “ours,” but not well enough to know his name, or where he’s arriving from. It’s worth pointing out that even here, during the course of the poem, our speaker side-steps the opportunity to introduce herself to her old man, so there are clearly limits to the spirit of neighborliness that she feels, even under the ideal circumstances of this poem. Why not take a break from playing doubles to say hello? In another poem from the book, the speaker feels a tinge of jealousy when, at a coffee shop, the barista calls out to another customer by name, but the tinge isn’t enough for her to go ahead and make herself known. Something of urban personal boundaries, or a desire for privacy, or just plain-old Canadian embarrassment, remains, which also speaks to the kind of life our speaker has in Hastings-Sunrise – a life whose connection to those around her is not absolute, or fully without mistrust. There are good reasons for this which appear in other poems from the book, but here, given the lighter mood, it’s just a lingering reticence.

Meanwhile, if we are back-and-forth in space, we are fairly consistent in time, moving through the evening, cocktails on the balcony, after-dinner activities in the park, and ultimately, inevitably, darkness falling and night coming on.

Oddly, as night approaches, the description of the landscape is at its most specific – the shipyard cranes make this a fairly unusual cityscape, and I assume “Grouse” refers to Grouse Mountain, the well-known Vancouver landmark that can be seen quite clearly from the parts of Hastings-Sunrise that approach the water. (Feel free to click here to see some nice promotional images.) Again, notice the reticence, though – our speaker is willing to locate herself close enough to the harbour to see the cranes and the lights on Grouse, but she won’t tell us which street she lives on herself. Even to us, her readers, there’s a slight holding back.

(Can I say as an aside that I believe the word “grouse” to be one of the ugliest words in the English language? I mean that in a good way.)

The blessing and curse of belonging to a place, any place, is that it shrinks our horizons – if you belong somewhere, especially in an urban environment, you’re only going to see a narrow slice of sky. And so as the poem starts to close down, Simmers gestures towards the limitations of planting herself in Hastings-Sunrise knowing that doing so very literally narrows her vision of the rest of the world.

The final image, “the smallest doll / is sleep,” evokes the satisfaction we feel at the end of a good day, shutting down our outward-gazing selves and hunkering into our smallest spaces, the spaces that are most our own. But it also gives voice to complaint (sleep “so brief”) and to the limitations of our individual selves, trapped in the narrowness of the world inside our eyelids. We might dream of a wider world but we can’t build a home there.

I admire this poem, and indeed the whole collection Hastings-Sunrise, because it explores the richness and limitations of being at home in a neighborhood, but also being at home in an individual self who (in most cases) must choose just one place in which to make her life.

 

Ross Gay, “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands”

Ross Gay Cover better

 

Odes are songs of praise, to a person or an event or an object – a wedding poem, or epithalmium, is a kind of ode, as are a lot of nature poems. Often, an ode can be a way to meditate on what makes the subject worth praising, so the topic can be less direct than the title implies. For example, the way I read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the real subject of praise is how we lose ourselves (briefly, fleetingly) when encountering something truly beautiful. You could say the nightingale is a vehicle for the poet’s praise of the feeling of losing oneself. There are also contemporary poems where the term “ode” is used ironically, as in Damian Rogers’ “Ode to a Rolling Blackout,” the subject of my last post.

The great 20th century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a series of Odes in the early 1950s that are some of his most plain-spoken and accessible poems. If you’ve had trouble getting past the lush surrealism of Neruda’s Love Sonnets or the more epic scope of his Canto General, the Odes are a great place to start. Partly motivated by a political desire to speak to (and on behalf of) common people, Neruda wrote odes to mundane things like “Ode to My Socks,” “Ode to Broken Things,” and “Ode to the Tomato,” praising their usefulness and lack of pretention, but also elevating their commonness by focusing his lyrical attention on them. The poems are also full of whimsy and joy and often a bit of nostalgia. He expresses regret that we have to “assassinate” the tomato to enjoy its freshness, and wonders at how his clothes “make me what I am” and vice versa (I’m using an old translation edited by Nathaniel Tarn). A teacher of mine once remarked that Neruda wanted to eat the world, and there’s something boldly loving in these poems that is only matched in my reading experience by Walt Whitman.

I mention Neruda because he’s clearly one of the presiding spirits for Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, the book from which this poem is drawn, and which contains a number of odes and praise-songs. The impulse to praise the simple and straightforward, even perhaps a socio-political desire to elevate the mundane by focusing poetic attention on it, is similar in both poets. But there are also some interesting points of departure. For one thing, Gay’s odes are mostly about actions rather than things. Neruda’s tomato, clothes, and yellow bird become Gay’s “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes,” “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” and here, drinking water with his hands. I want to explore this difference, but first here’s the poem:

 

Ode to Drinking Water With My Hands

 

which today, in the garden,

I’d forgotten

I’d known and more

forgotten

I’d learned and was taught this

by my grandfather

who, in the midst of arranging

and watering

the small bouquets

on mostly the freshest graves

saw my thirst

and cranked the rusty red pump

bringing forth

from what sounded like the gravelly throat

of an animal

a frigid torrent

and with his hands made a lagoon

from which he drank

and then I drank

before he cranked again

making of my hands, now,

a fountain in which I can see

the silty bottom

drifting while I drink

and drink and

my grandfather waters the flowers

on the graves

among which are his

and his wife’s

unfinished and patient, glistening

after he rinses the bird shit

from his wife’s

and the pump exhales

and I drink

to the bottom of my fountain

and join him

in his work.

 

— from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) 

 

If you’ve perused any of Neruda’s Odes, you can see right away that the form here is a direct imitation/homage – the short lines, the straightforward language. The form forces us to slow down, but not in a way that feels pretentious – to me it reads more like the deliberate, present-tense wandering of the imagination as it connects back to memory. The act of drinking from his hands, which the speaker is doing “today, in the garden,” reminds him of his childhood when he first learned this skill from his grandfather.

A little side-note about those first few lines – he’s telling us he’s forgotten these things (drinking from his hands, being taught how) as a way of telling us that he’s now remembered them. Just a neat little reversal as we go along, especially because it’s not only the skill that he’s now remembering.

So back to the question of actions versus things. In this poem, and in the other odes I’ve seen by Ross Gay, the action being praised isn’t significant in and of itself. This is in contrast to Neruda, who seems to want to elevate the subjects of his attention, in part just by virtue of his attention. This is a little unfair to Neruda, but I get a vision when reading his Odes of all the little items of the world – marbles, pieces of string, dead mice – waiting outside his study hoping for him to bestow his poetic attention upon them. And that he would make time for them all if he could. Neruda’s vision (like Whitman’s) is all-embracing, and a little self-important.

Gay’s odes, on the other hand, don’t presume any kind of universalism. When he praises “drinking water with my hands,” there’s no presumption that this activity is as meaningful for everyone else as it is for him. (Notice how all of the titles of the Ross Gay odes I mentioned above include the word “my.” They are intended, without apology, to be specific to his own experience.) Drinking water with his hands today, in his own garden, reminds the speaker of his own grandfather watering graves – “mostly the freshest,” but also his own – and it’s that reminder that makes the action worthy of praise. The action calls forth a whole host of feelings of grief and love, not to mention the sensual memories that get brought up with it – the sound of water coming up the pipe with “like the gravelly throat / of an animal,” or the “lagoon” that appears in his grandfather’s hands. I love that word “lagoon,” how it evokes the massive size – in the speaker’s childhood memory – of his grandfather’s hands. These memories and feelings are what’s really being praised.

So weirdly, by focusing on an activity that is meaningful in his individual way, Gay’s efforts feel welcoming, open to participation by us as readers. Instead of a line of little items waiting for Neruda’s attention, I get an invitation: “This is how drinking water from my hands is meaningful for me; what simple actions are meaningful in this way for you?” I don’t personally have any strong memories connected to drinking water out of my hands, but reading this poem I’m reminded of cracking my knuckles with my own grandfather, holding up my hand to his to measure its size, and am tempted to write my own “Ode to Cracking My Knuckles,” to participate in a dialog with Ross Gay. So the poem evokes not just his own memories, but summons similar ones in a total stranger – that’s no small feat for a praise song. What might your memory be?

 

Damian Rogers, “Ode to a Rolling Blackout”

better_dearleader_rogers_cover

Cover image courtesy of Coach House Books.

 

Ode to a Rolling Blackout

 

Teachers in Oklahoma seek to stop students

from discovering the gateway of digital drugs.

 

We’re all having a hard time, but some problems

are preferable to others: the problems of the very rich,

 

for example. Some swear the pile is the only known

enemy of the hole. O pretty girls tripping on night,

 

enjoy this next round, as your pupils pour out

past last call. One of you will soon stop caring

 

for your hair and your delicates will start to sour.

You will pick your teeth clean with your coke nail.

 

Now you crackle like a coal, lips slick with petroleum.

Little pots of hot pink clink like crystal as you travel

 

down the black tube toward morning. Did you kiss

the devil’s ass in the alley? Please, no more questions.

 

            — from Dear Leader (Coach House, 2015)

 

Despite what literary scholars and theorists have been telling us for decades, it’s still a common natural impulse when reading poetry to look for the poet’s authentic experience in the subject matter. Knowing that Anne Sexton committed suicide adds a certain aura of authenticity to the anguish in her poems. But are poets under any obligation to deliver this kind of confession? Can we still be moved by a powerful poem about, say, a father’s death, if a poet writes it while both his parents are living? Of course. And yet, many readers still crave to connect a poem to the poet’s biography.

But in an age when over-sharing personal information is ubiquitous to our culture, then what avenue of self-exploration can still feel daring, powerful, even just resonant? The family secrets Robert Lowell unearthed in Life Studies are child’s play compared to the tell-all memoirs of the last few decades, and Sylvia Plath’s daddy issues are on full display on the internet. If all is revealed on Instagram, then what artistic purpose could a confessional mode provide? Or, to put it in another way, how does a lyric poet respond to this new situation? How can we touch on, or gesture toward, personal experience without descending into cheap diaristic navel-gazing?

One strategy that Damian Rogers employs in this poem, and one that I see a lot of elsewhere (including in my own work, I admit), is a coyness about how much of a dark truth is truly personal. We aren’t sure how many of the experiences being referred to here are “confessions” and how many are just within the realm of the poet’s imagination. And the blurriness of that line seems to be exactly the subject of the poem itself.

Starting with the second stanza of “Ode to a Rolling Blackout,” Rogers employs a war-weary older-sister tone that mixes flippant generalization (“We’re all having a hard time,” “some problems are…”) with the implication that real darkness lurks beneath the surface. Nothing personal is yet revealed, but she nevertheless lands on a brilliant, biting discovery: “Some swear the pile is the only known / enemy of the hole.” It’s a new aphorism that could be applied to everything from road repair to sexual politics to drug abuse and it hovers over the rest of the poem like a guiding principle: a pile of words in a poem fighting the hole of meaninglessness, a small pile of cocaine fighting a feeling of emptiness in the addict, etc. etc.

The speaker then turns her attention to address some “pretty girls tripping on night,” and this is where the poem really takes off. Forgive me if, to my English professor ears, this phrase reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with its “O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” The failed Romanticism of the two passages, and the warning that contains elements of longing, feels similar.

But the source of disappointment in Rogers’ poem is not quite so abstract or hifalutin as in Eliot’s work. The images that follow are of the various ways that some young women put themselves at risk in search of a “pile.”  Notice all the p’s in the next sentence: “O pretty girls tripping on night, // enjoy this next round, as your pupils pour out / past last call.” In a poem that hasn’t yet called a lot of attention to its musicality, it’s a notable moment of alliterative play, one that will recur later in the poem. But the music in use here is not a pretty one: multiple p sounds don’t really sound “beautiful.” They evoke something more like rough laughter or spitting.

Most of these “pretty girls” will likely survive their youthful misbehaviors “tripping on night” and the speaker seems to wish them well, but her interest zooms in on the one who will more dangerously lose her way: “One of you will stop caring // for your hair and your delicates will start to sour. / You will pick your teeth clean with your coke nail.” I love how the prim euphemism “delicates” contrasts with the more brutal and slangy “coke nail.” It’s as if the speaker herself can’t decide whose experience she most relates to – the one who strays too far or the one who observes her fall. The speaker’s knowledge is intimate enough that we wonder if she has been through it herself (how else would she know?) but she refrains from saying so explicitly.

In the next stanza the camera lens pans back out to the group of girls, and the image of their primping is almost repulsive – “lips slick with petroleum” – as she observes them leaving the bar “down the black tube toward morning.” The black tube could refer to the lipstick tube from the previous line, a subway ride home, or the more metaphoric tube/hole beckoning the young women out to the future. Within that space is the flashiest sonic music of the poem – “little pots of hot pink clink like crystal…” – that evokes for me both desire and disgust in the speaker who may view these younger women with something between worry and desire.

Her identification with the girls reaches its climax with the accusatory (or is it just gossipy?) “Did you kiss the devil’s ass / in the alley?” But that question seems to trip a protective wire in the speaker. She’s gone far enough, she doesn’t want to go farther, and so she shuts down her line of thought with “Please, no more questions.” It’s a wonderfully surprising line, because of course we haven’t been asking any questions. Nevertheless the speaker seems suddenly to feel our curiosity upon her, and she turns herself away. Weirdly it’s that moment of refusal that reveals the most vulnerability in the voice. We know that, in her opinion, “We’re all having a hard time,” and so we can guess she has problems of her own, but until she puts her hand up, it doesn’t occur to us to wonder how deep those problems go.

In some ways this turning away exposes more than any explicit confession might. I remember an acting teacher once saying that watching a performer struggle to hold back tears is often more moving to an audience than watching her cry on stage. It’s our sense of the forces in conflict that connects us to a performance. Similarly, in “Ode to a Rolling Blackout,” we feel the desire in Rogers’ speaker to claim connection to the “pretty girls” and their adventures, but we also feel her desire to refrain from divulging the sources of her hard-won wisdom. Her reticence, her refusal to “dish,” is as much what makes the speaker an adult as her ability to sidestep any ass-kissing in alleys.

This returns me to the question of authenticity. The speaker’s position between confession and restraint, identification and distance, seems to me the central subject of the poem. And so whether or not the speaker of the poem, or the “real” Damian Rogers, knows what it’s like to pick her teeth with her coke nail is less important than the feelings of trepidation, of empathy and worry, and even a bit of nostalgia for an earlier, more dangerous and exciting life, that the poet reveals and explores. How much does she really know about it? The sufficient answer for the poem is “maybe some.” And the more complete answer is none of your damned business.