Thursday, March 27, 2008
When I talked to Robert Wrigley after the reading during the book signing, he asked me if I was the guy online who was making the baseball cards of poets. I said, “No.” But it sounded like a good idea to me.
Armed with my two sidekicks, sons Soren and Reiner, I sat through a 45-minute set with my younger son yawning only twice. But later that night, with an inscription from Robert Wrigley to him in Wrigley’s Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems, he fell asleep with the book next to him, slightly displacing his stuffed Sammy Sosa bear.
My older son began to smother the dog with affection after we reread “Do You Love Me?” together. It was a night to remember, the kind that kids (and others) want to keep talking about (even more than the new Alvin and the Chipmunks movie!).
Wrigley started the evening off with “Writer’s Block” about a young man who is uninspired by his girl friend. He then proceeded to ”Kissing a Horse” [0:59], followed by “Moonlight: Chickens on the Road” [5:04]. He then turned to his family porition of the show and read two poems about his daughter, now 20 but who was 3 in the one poem and 12 in the other poem about the dog. The first of these was ”About Language” [3:11] and the latter was ”Do You Love Me?” [1:42]. These two poems about his daughter were followed by a poem about his wife’s fondness for a ventriloquist’s dummy ”Mouth” [2:03]. Next, he asked the audience if they thought they would like to eat a cow’s pancreas. Many of the attendees, not of Depression-era age, were not particularly taken with this idea, but it led Wrigley to introduce ”Sweetbreads” [3:17] and relate his grandmother’s claim to fame for expert preparation of the internal organs of a cow.
With the end of the family portion of the reading, Wrigley turned to one of his favorite subjects: nature. He read a poem about camping entitled “Discretion” that originally appeared in The Atlantic. Then he told a tale of how one moves the carcass of a dead horse with nothing other than one’s wits in ”Horseflies.” He ended his section of the reading from Earthly Meditations by reading “The Pumpkin Tree” and “Dark Forest.”
The last part of the program consisted of quite new and unpublished works or as Wrigley described them himself, “pretty green.” And they were a pretty green, kind of a kelly green, but maybe that’s not what he meant. The first was “A Lock of Her Hair” which, during the intro, Wrigley wondered what one should do with a lock of hair. He briefly went into a 18th century British affect to parody what “a lock of her hair might summon to him.” He further explained that the poem was the closest thing he had written to rap. He apologized for misspeaking a little, but all in all, listening to the recording again, there was no apparent discernible glitch. The audience was very appreciative, sensing that Wrigley was trying to meet them and their aesthetic concerns. This was followed by the short “Cemetery Moles” and finally, the evening was capped off with ”Progress.” [3:48]
Yet, after giving my consent to Wrigley for him to fully ply his poetic trade in its multiple dimensions in front of my kids, there was a line in “About Language” (I’ll let you decide which one it was), that was repeated as a mantra on the way home in the car, which just goes to show—you can dress ‘em up, even make sure their zippers are zipped up, but you can’t take ‘em anywhere. Yeah, they’re dangerous at 3, but still so at 7 and 9.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
During contemporary poetry’s daily calisthenics of undermining deep meaning (even deconstructing signification entirely), devaluing image, eradicating continuity, erasing allusion, Ann Killough’s Beloved Idea endeavors to provide the next exciting installment of empty device—that of metaphor. Her project in Beloved Idea is to expose the stability of metaphor. In Beloved Idea, Killough endeavors to short circuit any connection to a stable single metaphor in a poem by exploding the possibility of a single metaphor in her poems. The poems present a seemingly stable metaphor in their titles which then are deconstructed throughout the body of each poem, usually in very self-referential ways. The deconstruction usually occurs in two ways: (1) the initial metaphor in the title starts to take on so much metaphorical weight so as to render it useless as metaphor (i.e. it is used as a metaphor for this and that and the other thing to the point where its stability as locus of insight breaks down; an infinite metaphor) and (2) other items in the poem sneak up on the title metaphor and compete with it, draining it of its power the way Superman is drained by Kryptonite, attacking it as the central focus until it is nearly dead. So is Beloved Idea really another venue to play the dead metaphor game?
Killough’s text works on another level as well, and this redeems its project masterfully. The central metaphor in the book (her beloved idea) is that of “the nation” (presumably our United States). Killough is set out to expose this metaphor as adeptly as she does the more solitary ones in her poem titles. In doing so, she is asking “what is a nation?” “what is our nation?” In this way Killough’s book ceases to be just about textuality and breaks through to our actual experience of hanging this absurd little title of “nation” onto all of America’s disparate populations. She asks how could it possibly fit (which is a question I have kept asking myself since 2003 . . . along with who gets to define how that metaphor of the nation is used).
It is this questioning of authority that Killough also echoes in the last line of the first piece “[The Wound]” in the book.
When the mob gathered and wrestled her to the ground she just kept yelling and pointing at visible articles of metaphor. the metaphor of the mob, for example, and of the ground, which was so repulsively comforting. She knew the metaphor of the wound was still safe in her poem, which was turning out to be a manger like all the others.
As though the poem had begun to cooperate with the authorities behind her back, which it undoubtedly had.
The notion of comfort and safety in metaphor which the poem addresses, of course, is similar to the kinds of feelings that we expect authority to project in terms of, say, national security. The fact that her own creation, her own offspring is complicit with such authority behind her back must be discomfiting for Killough. She acknowledges this discomfort and seems resigned to it, the way, I imagine, we might resign ourselves as readers to the discomfort of not being able to hang anything heavy on the metaphor for fear that it should slide off.
In ”Body in Evidence” Killough employs the similes “like a lynched man” and “like a lost sheep” in such a way that provides an insight into her technique. In the first case, the hanging metaphor is compatible with the idea of a tenuous “fabric of ideological evidence.” In this case we are given a metaphor that works reasonably well. However, just when we expect other metaphors to behave, they don’t. The second simile is more like this. How does a lost sheep hang? The obviousness is dealt a severe blow. So, as readers our expectations that metaphor will work are built up by the first usage and then dashed by the second. Of course, one might point out that by allowing the first simile to behave properly she is setting us up as readers to stretch ourselves past the apparent incongruity. We tell ourselves, “Well, it must fit. The other one worked pretty well. Maybe if I just stretch and tax my imagination more.”
The ”White Whale” is an obvious reference to Moby Dick a book so rife with metaphor, it serves as an irresistible target for Killough. Here we are reminded “one likely referent for the whale was the leviathan obsessions of the entire metaphorical body of her nation.” Here American desire seems to be implicated. Even more so in the next stanza/paragraph: “With its vast apparatus of conquest and its high-frequency cries of longing.” Moby Dick and the nation conflate, which points to the endless metaphorical chain she is building. It is endless like the “national desire.” and finally, the insanity of Ishmael is brought into the picture as it is mirrored by the collective insanity of the nation. Ishmael is alone in the water, tilting at windmills, so to speak the same way the U.S. has had to more or less go it alone in Iraq. The question remains whether we up to our collective arse in blood or oil.
By the end, “her nation” has its “relative sanity questioned to the point that there is some confusion about whether its relative sanity ever existed at all.”
Of course, what send-up of metaphor would be complete without a look at the grand master of them all, The Bible. In ”Holy Ghost” Killough explodes the notion of the “holy ghost” all over the screen. She seems to be duplicating the effect of television and how its duplication of image serves to concatenate metaphor, hyperlinking one image to the next through a few wonderful jump cuts. The holy ghost is the body politic. The holy ghost is a garment. The holy ghost comes upon the tongues of fire. The holy ghost as the actual process of consumption. Etc. This is reminiscent of seeing a car in five back-to-back commercials. What do all those cars mean? Why nothing, but such a comforting image sure does help in pushing the product. As Killough points out near the end, the holy ghost-become-body politic, become-garment, become-process-of-its-own-consumption becomes, finally, the site of its own annihilation. I wonder, though, if this means that I don’t have to pay attention to it anymore the way I don’t pay attention to commercials? Or, conversely, does it mean I have to pay strict attention to commercials to decipher how they may be manipulating me? Is it OK to feel manipulated? If one is manipulated without knowing, is this what is called pleasure? Or is that too old-fashioned?
I believe there may be a brand new form of pleasure packaged and ready to be delivered. This would certainly be in accordance with my experience up to this point in my life, though I might not be able to articulate how it has happened. If I accept it is my duty to attempt to articulate it, will my impulse to live solely within the frame of my own present experience be seen as negligence of duty? But what if this makes me happy?
Alas, I digress into a chain of babble which is fed by suspicion, a suspicion that I might not be happy, but that I could be happier if only I did or didn’t watch commercials.
There are other pieces in Beloved Idea which relax the speculative eye turned against Killough’s nation. One of these is “[Underpants].”
Underpants as necessarily referring to the manly underpants of startling size that regularly were hanging in a row on the porch across the alley from her bedroom.
As though a row of overweight fathers had flown through Brookline in their underpants and gotten caught in a clothesline.
The kind of fathers that run the world means of secret meetings on every continent flying over the seven seas in formation like Canada geese.
But that now had to fly with no underpants, their international penises hanging down like unusable landing gear.
She always rejoiced at the sight of the underpants.
They seemed to offer a kind of hope, although she wasn’t sure what.
Perhaps the kind of hope that is normally offered by undergarments hanging on a clothesline with their scanned faces broadcasting a story of organized and intimate renewal.
Of how somebody is thinking ahead.
Or perhaps the hope was more foundational, so to speak, and had to do with the sturdiness of the operation that produced the recurrent row of underpants.
Not just the dependably loud and Russian argumentation out of which the underpants appeared to be extruded like a row of continuing and faithful facts, but also the unvarying style and whiteness of the underpants.
As if they were a testament to some rigorous belief, perhaps in the absolute.
Perhaps just in the indisputable rightness of at least one thing.
Which brought her back to the migrating fathers in the original hypothesis and what it was exactly they had lost.
What it was exactly they had left innocently hanging across from her like a succession of mute and outmoded pronouns.
Like a succession of hopes of protection from the humiliation of nakedness, a succession of humiliatingly naked and public hopes.
Without which they flew shamelessly over the seven seas but would never again be able to land.
In this poem Killough takes herself less seriously unless, of course, you are one of those people who takes underpants very seriously. Which I sometimes do. For example, I am of the opinion that boys wear underpants but those who sport “international penises” probably wear “underwear.” In fact, I would bet that any man over the age of 20 who referred to himself in a locker room as wearing “underpants” probably would be looked at as “not right.” This small detail aside (which, however, does cast some doubt on whether Killough has tread closely enough to that form of divine inspiration that is male idiocy she is criticizing) the fear of the Trilateral Commission is writ large in this poem. If only the kind of masculine junta that Killough refers to existed. Unfortunately, my perspective reveals no such thing. Mostly, I see male confusion exhibited during the game of “I’m wearing the pants.” But not only are none of them wearing the pants, so to speak. They aren’t wearing any underpants either. Which isn’t such a bad thing. I mean, really, why do any of us even wear underpants?
Finally, there is the Statue of Liberty, that most grandiose metaphor for the US that can be had. From “Statue of Liberty” Killough assures us that The Statue of Liberty is essentially plastic. It has “begun to change something even in you, even in me.”
Beloved Idea is a concept book. It rides mostly on its ideas and the situations it imagines. It is never afraid to take on weight and then dump it in a heap by the side of the road Killough is traveling. It is an interesting trip through the minefield of metaphor. Each one you step on has the possibility of exploding.
However, if you are the kind of reader who reads to have a poet map on to your experience, she may not live up to your expectations. Similarly, if you expect a linguistic tour de force with as much music as there is concept for the mind to chew on, then you may find yourself still wanting more. The music here is not gutsy solos with a lot of flashy eighth notes and moments of syncopation but quirky minuets.
My main question is whether after we have emptied texts of all their devices whether we will want to read any of them anymore in their present condition or whether we will want to acknowledge them and embrace their shortcomings as we invite them back, one by one, into our texts, even, god forbid, into our narratives. Killough distrusts the glorious metaphor when she writes:
That if one feels compelled to pursue a glorious metaphor and defoliate the hell out of it one should probably go away and reexamine one’s linguistic priorities.
While her unkempt garden speaks to my desire to let the oleander overtake the highway median, I can’t help myself too often in awe of the last few riverine oaks poking up out of the floor of the Valley into this Valley air. If someday I might get lost in the upper branches of its canopy, please help to remind me to come back down to the ground. Meanwhile, onwards with the birds . . . may someday they land somewhere.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
The “very determined” Edythe Haendel Schwartz arrived in Sacramento on a lovely evening that saw a few of her cohorts in the Davis Aquatic Masters come to see her. The first piece she read was a new piece entitled “Olympics,” and it was an homage to the notion that “the prize goes to the last one alive.”
The next piece she read was from her chapbook put out by Finishing Line Press entitled Exposure. The piece was called “Chromatic” and it was dedicated a couple she had known some years ago, Jim and Marion.
Nest was “Body Project” and “Does it Hurt?” which focuses on a child’s lesson about pain, such a profound question to a 5-year-old child.
The title piece “Exposure” dealt with water themes and fear, fear that comes from the external environment and the fear of the bureaucratic machinery in the city. The poem was a composite of voices she heard and internalized growing up.
“Reprieve” involved Edythe’s husband, Sy, encountering a sparrow that had struck the window.
Edythe’s father was a civil engineer and “Suspension” was triggered by Edythe’s memory of her father stopping the family car at various suspension bridges and discussing the details of them, in particular the difference between stress and strain.
“Care” was about a former student of hers who became sick, and then came two ekphrastic pieces: “Still Water” (about the indiscriminate placement of a figure in a landscape painting) and “Francois Gilot Tells Picasso He Must Paint Peace” (about Picasso’s “War and Peace” at Stone Chapel in Vallauris, France).
In “Rafting” Schwartz explored the flow of the Limay River through the Patagonian Steppes and the current of intolerance leading to massacre through the centuries. The final line asks, “What’s to come?”
“Habanera” was written in remembrance of the time when her mother had died. the poem reflects on friendship and art, the two keepsakes from her that are objectified in the poem by a friend’s flowers, yellow jonquils, brought to the house and the presence of the music of Carmen.
Finally, “The Conchologist and the Shoemaker” was inspired by the conversation she overheard between a blind professor at UC Davis and a shoemaker. In the poem the conchologist makes the reader he is very aware of his world despite the loss of one of his major senses.
Monday, March 3, 2008
Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover came to Sacramento State to do a bilingual reading of some of the pieces from their anthology of post-1956 Vietnamese Poetry entitled Black Dog, Black Night on Milkweed Editions.
They initially spoke of the importance of poetry in Vietnam as a vehicle to carry important information in Vietnamese culture and of the importance of belonging to the Vietnamese Writers Association, a distinction which confers immediate unquestioned status to its members and gives them the equivalent rank to that of major in the army.
In particular, the anthology examines the work of members of the Nhan Van (“Humanities”) movement, whose emphasis on freedom and expression found them at odds with the official poetry culture of the Vietnamese Writers Association and the government.
Van Cao, also a member of Nhan Van, and a composer found himself on the outside of the accepted norm in spite of the fact that he is the composer of the Vietnamese national anthem.
Nguyen Do was, himself, asked to leave Vietnam in the early 90’s when he came to the United States. Nguyen Do’s work reflects an urban melancholy full of despair, if not downright nihilism. You can see and hear this in the poem he reads both in Vietnamese and in English ”Unlucky Days” [2:14]
Another one of his pieces read by the author in Vietnamese and Paul Hoover in English is ”Headache” [1:39].
Hoover talked of his experiences in Vietnam meeting the top members of the Vietnam Writers Association and noting the extreme respect for authority that exists there. He also spoke of the great amount of cultural authority that poetry possesses in Vietnam, how, for example, he was whisked through the streets of Hanoi with the help of police cars in front and back of the “poetry motorcade” sounding their sirens all the way. For the American poet, his tales bordered and then crossed over into the surreal.
The two of them ended the evening by reading two pieces by Hoang Hung, one of the leading figures of the Nhan Van movement. The first one, Untitled [Where Do the Stairs Lead Us] was read by Nguyen Do in Vietnamese first and then by Paul Hoover in English [1:43].
Finally, Paul Hoover read Hoang Hung’s “The Smell of Rain [1:35] and offered a brief commentary on how he came to be trusted to participate in the translations of the work in the anthology.
At one point Nguyen Do chided Paul Hoover that Paul would sing the English translation of the poem. To which Paul looked up and rather quizzically asked “Sing?” so it is with heavy heart that I must inform everyone there is no digital record of Paul singing any luc bat that night.