The Persistence of Poetry

I have just returned from the 2015 AWP Conference, along with the other 12,999 writers, publishers and editors who likewise attended the 3-day event in Minneapolis.  In my shady past, I have visited neuroscience conventions that had maybe twice that number of attendees, drawing as they did on a world-wide community of neuroscientists. But 13,000 people from the continental US conjoined around one loosely defined discipline was impressive. Hotels city-wide were totally booked. Restaurants everywhere were packed. And given the bacchanal nature of writers, the pubs were over-flowing. Continue reading “The Persistence of Poetry”

Easter at the Willow Brook Dairy

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Please descend with me, you sentimentalists
and pilgrims, through our temperate grange smelling
of the vegetation, with the gravid
mare turned out among the strewing herbs,
which have their own names in French, and with our wedge
of day before us. There are so very many
different graduations of vitality
in life that logically it’s hard to say
where death exists. The risen Christ, we’re told,
appeared unto the Magdalene while looking
like a gardener. That’s hard to credit, but
I’m pleased to be here, hat in hand, among
the opiate philosophies, and seeing
how the windmill spins, the lister rusts
in Elam’s primeval barn. Continue reading “Easter at the Willow Brook Dairy”

It Occurs To Me That

in this season of unlikely miracles, we might enjoy the occasion to add to our concepts of spirituality:

FAT SPEAKS

Unlike the mirroring eyes, the pom pom heart,
I’m opaque, an oaf with no taste for driven individuation.
I’m blamed a lot these days,

I dumb down your cheekbones,
I assuage your nerves, calmed with my myelin sheathes,
your cells are founded upon my lipids. Continue reading “It Occurs To Me That”

Market Day in Santa Cruz

Along the thoroughfares
approaching town, astrologers were offering
to read the stars, already confident
in Sarah, Goddess of Fruit-Bearing Trees,
according to their zodiac, though she
was humanly stricken by the troubadours
intoning hymns, and blowing flutes
on every corner of the market square all
the time, constantly. In cages, parrots
praised the red day. Continue reading “Market Day in Santa Cruz”

Body Image

At two in the morning one summer day in 1983, in Cambridge, Frank Bidart asked me to telephone the nearby Seven-Eleven to order a grinder, and just tell them it was for Frank. I don’t recall what kind of grinder that turned out to be, except that it consisted of some nondescript meat covered in onions and peppers. It reminded me of something you might get in a parking lot during a Red Sox game–if you were crazy about the Red Sox. Even then I was impressed by the implications here: a. that whoever was at the Seven Eleven knew which ‘Frank’ this would be who called at 2 a.m. to ask for a grinder; b. that Frank knew the guy would know him; c. that both of them knew what sort of grinder was called for. There were no questions asked on either side. It meant, of course, that Frank ate like this, at this hour, all the time. Continue reading “Body Image”

Thresholds

     Last Spring I enjoyed lunch in Santa Cruz with an learned, conscientious relative of mine, who is an uncomfortable transplant from the East Coast into Northern California, and who occasionally feels compelled to justify herself before a kindred spirit. Since I was myself a transplant from Southern California onto the stones of New England–a metaphorical reversal of her journey–, she sometimes has this idea that I possess a native understanding of her shame: she actually likes California, with its eternal sunshine, its sensual beaches, the endless mild summer days, and vineyards everywhere. Everyone is mellow, or tempted to be, which she instinctively mistrusts as a shallow, unconsidered, inadequate response to the dire state of the world–which everybody on the Northeastern Seaboard knows is better served by angry competitive sarcasm, and a sort of crowbar analysis that pries into every aspect of daily life. There are too many dudes in California. Continue reading “Thresholds”

When I Was Still a Freudian

 

I kept a night journal as you were supposed to do in those days, recording dreams and the alter egos that appeared in them. Then later in the morning when I woke up, I’d look for insight hidden in the slew of events–like the time when

Sarah disemboweled
a member of the serpent clan tattooed
with ugly snakes–and strangling Elam
at the time. She was quiet with that death,
and for a while went hand in hand with red
dreams, until the centaurs came, and freed
other proclivities.

Call them centaurs,
if you like. The females with their painted
lips were handsome in an eerie way,
ghostly milk-white-skinned—really
seriously pale—, with vestigial breasts,
and every nipple pierced by thin, delicious
ornaments of pain. A few wove bones
into their mane of hair. It’s how I sometimes
think my mother would have looked before
she stopped herself from being cruel–except Continue reading “When I Was Still a Freudian”

Southern Man

 

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I. Apologia

     Charles Wright, as many of you possibly know already, has been recently installed as  our national Poet Laureate, which has suggested—to me, at least—that it might be fun to look at events early in his career when he was just sculpting his poetic voice, and just growing into his vision. Inevitably, by the time any given artist has ascended to the national stage, he or she has long since established their creative persona, finalized aesthetic decisions, refined their set of themes, polished  their style—and in many instances left their best work behind them in the formative, early periods of private struggle with their craft.

     What I have here is an article I wrote in 1981 for an encyclopedia of contemporary poets, which as far as I know is long out of print. The Southern Cross had just been published—and had yet to be named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—so my critical view was limited to Wright’s first five books: The Grave of the Right Hand; Hard Freight; Bloodlines; China Trace; and The Southern Cross. He published these collections—along with a translation of Eugenio Montale’s La Bufera e altro—in the 11 years between 1970 and 1981. This is a remarkable body of work produced within a constrained period of creative ferment.

     During those years he was on the faculty in the English Department at the University of California, Irvine, where he directed the budding MFA program with another terrific poet, James McMichael—along with occasional interference by the late Robert Peters. In his free time he liked to golf. Wright was in fact a very good golfer, and so was Jim McMichael, and on one occasion I was invited to form a threesome with them to play 9 holes on a local course one late summer afternoon.

     On one occasion only was I so invited, because I was awful at golf, just awful, and they did not play friendly games. Their genuine collegial cooperation in the English Department, their united front against the haughty English profs (who looked down upon the tasteless poets, neither of whom taught Critical Theory), their sincere friendship of years duration—all were suspended as they focused like crazy on their next shot. Because each wanted to beat the other. Each fucking wanted to fucking win.  Whoa. At the second hole, I picked my ball out of the rough, again, and walked discreetly behind them in the intense California sunlight. I would have shown even further discretion and left for home, except I needed to ride back to campus with Jim in his Volkswagen bus.

     I mention this before anyone reads Wright’s poetry of transcendence and concludes, erroneously, that he did not also have his rooted competitions, his commitments and social passions.

II. The Right Transcendence: The Romanticism of Charles Wright

     Charles Wright’s most recent book of poetry, The Southern Cross, throws in relief the postures toward transcendence that he has held throughout five collections now. The possibilities of escape from temporality continue to work his imagination as he measures the security of his individual being against a final freedom from the natural world. The incentives for that freedom are legible enough, even if the nature and means of it are not: he often announces a weariness or impatience with the quotidian debris of his life; he is discomfited by his evident lack of place in an earthly community where even “the spider has received her instructions.” (The social world of human politics, history, economics and ideologies he excludes from his imaginative interests.) Finally, he laments his absence from a grace that he persistently envisages above him in the physical heavens among “the cold stars of the Virgin,” the “rapturous windows” of the stellar bodies. There, he claims, the “business is radiance.” By dialectical implication, “here” is the province of gloom and obscurity.

     Although his endemic malease amid earthly contingency aligns him with such notable modernists as Eliot and Stevens, Wright’s truer allegiance is to Williams, Pound and the Imagists: those who, in fleeing Victorian embellishments, rooted their poetry in the things of this world. Their technique, biased against abstract statement, places the burden of meaning on description: it seeks to condition language with an objective reality. Wright shares in this aesthetic, at times so thoroughly that he reduces cognition to the aphorisms that introduce his displays of memorable imagery. But unlike his predecessors, he does not harness his descriptive gifts to the stipulations of a factual landscape. He is no realist content to disclose dependable wheelbarrows, but rather is a romantic who attempts to locate beneath the veil of the particular the vital principle that is withdrawn from him. His special transcendence, then, is not an escape per se into a Christianized apotheosis, but instead is a flight into the ineffable core of materiality. His religious diction, lifted from his Episcopal childhood, directs him away from the spiritual realms–about the existence of which he is ambivalent–and toward the proper, nourishing relations between an essential self and an essential nature.

     The means of this escape from the dispersions of history into infinite essence is the poetic medium itself, language, the inadequacies of which Wright typically hopes to remedy by concentrating on the concrete. His imagist technique is yoked to his metaphysics, banning such mental activities as reflection and argument because they betray the program of his aesthetic. They disclose the imperialism of the imagination by expressing human desire, by declaring human reason, both of which falsify the world he wants to fathom, whose order he longs to articulate: what we want or think may not be what is there. Yet even by excluding the discursive from the appropriate realm of the poetic, Wright can only disguise the separation between word and thing, self and object. The so-called concrete language of the image defers, rather than gathers, the presence of the object he wants to name. The relation between noun and its material referent is an arbitrary one established by nothing more than our systems of linguistic and cultural traditions. As Paul Valery has pointed out, the word “horse” no better signifies the animal to which it refers than does “equus.” Consequently, the word does not summon the animal’s being, as is hoped, but in fact by offering itself as an incidental substitute calls our attention to the absence of being.

     Such inessential connections doom the attempt to secure material essence–a fact that has not escaped Wright: hence the bereaved voice we hear in the poems. Words, he writes in “Definitions,” are the “Disjunctive edges of things,” which is to say they are of little real use to him not only because they are merely the periphery of things, but especially because they are severed (“Disjunctive”) from their objects. His aesthetic, which first led him to dissociate his poetry from the continuities of logical structure, also leads him to remark the separation that still inheres between his silent images and the unknown to which they allude. The new poem, he repeatedly tells us in Hard Freight, “will not be able to help us.” The imaginative act is a tragic one, spurred on by his sense of personal loss and, on occasion, by love. He wonders at the birth of his first child, “What can one say to a son?”, and offers only his recognition of the privileges denied to him but possessed by an impersonal nature. “Indenture yourself to the land,” he counsels, “Imagine you touch its raw edges/In all weather…” but do not delude yourself–we can complete the ellipsis–by thinking you actually do touch them. If the poem at all draws the object nearer, it does so only by spreading out human being toward it like Whitman’s spider launching forth filaments out of itself.

     To privilege reality with a presence that is outside of common experience, and then to counsel an imaginative servitude to it, is to define the self outside of history and its temporal determinants. In this Wright revises Pound’s personalized historicism in which the poet construes the fragments of past cultures less as a repressive disintegration than as the occasion to rummage among the debris for untried possibilities. For Pound, the self was to find its freedom in the heterodoxy of time and its opportunities. Wright, on the other hand, even in so recent a poem as “Ars Poetica” in The Southern Cross, prefers to treat that debris as debris: something to be rooted out, or rooted under. Though he begins the poem by stating “I like it back here” (“here” signifying the commonplaces “under the green swatch of the pepper tree”), and though he admits he is “better here than he is there” where “The spirits are everywhere,” yet he is still pressed to ask, “What will it satisfy?” To pose the question is to furnish the answer: nothing much. He still has, he concludes, “this business I waste my heart on./And nothing stops that.”

     By discarding the “business” of experience, Wright treats the past neither as a locus of times nor as a succession of events, but as an unhistorical condition for being. History is simply Time, the principle of duration that precedes and makes possible all social content. Consequently, in his poetry seldom do people or localities or events appear in their individuating particularity. Even so intimate a past as his childhood and adolescence, imagined with singleness of purpose in Bloodlines, discloses a home that is not a place but an essential origin, and parents that are recognizable chiefly as fellow victims of emotional and material closures. Mother and father both are significant in this collection for their deaths, which clear away what is incidental and contingent, and leave what is indelible in experience. These ineradicable patterns Wright calls “Tattoos”: the metaphor entitling the the twenty remembrances he has selected from an intermittent span of thirty-three years. What unifies his memories is the stitching of self-consciousness as the poet seeks to defeat the dualism that separates him from an objective, original presence. This has not been a chronological quest: the poems do not disclose an optimistic youth that experience gradually sours. Indeed, no such continuities are biographically pertinent. Because Wright has dated each incident and in an endnote identified the local circumstances of each, we learn that he has been buoyed by optimism as late as 1973 (the present of the poem) and scarred by despondency as early as 1940. So the tattoos are arranged according to dramatic proprieties that, in following a thematic decline from optimism to defeat, preempt the temporal flow of the poet’s life. They are not subject to the erasures of time and subsequent experience.

     The thematic continuity on which he strings the disparate beads of his experience has itself two strands. The first (sections 1-10) comprises those epiphanies that disclose, across the abrupt fact of his separation from it, a “Nameless, invisible” presence that “pulls the vine and the ringing tide.” “And what pulls them,” he concludes, “pulls me.” The baldness of that conclusion equates dissimilar experiences–varying from an hallucination induced by blood-poisoning (#6) to his father’s death (#2) to his critique of Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection (#7)–without assaying the differing weights of the poet’s “temporary evangelical certainty” to which they contribute. We are left to wonder what he thinks about those differences, particularly since the sources of his visions often have occasions that abrade his physical and psychological well-being. The puzzle is not fruitful. When, for example, he addresses his dead father, “Between us again there is nothing,” two distinct readings are available, but their contradictions arrest significance rather than usefully double its conviction. One the one hand, the line has idiomatic resonance, everywhere consistent with the poet’s diction and voice, that suggests that differences have been reconciled between two previously hostile contenders. They are “even,” mutually offended and now mutually satisfied. Their presence before each other is purified of their divisive history. On the other hand, the line emphasizes their absolute difference: not a reconciliation but a silence inheres between father and son, who have no means of relating to each other since they now inhabit separate realities. They are absolved of relations, sundered, as Stevens might say, by “the nothing that is.”

The latter reading is more appropriate chiefly because it introduces tonally and intellectually the themes that close the poem. The second thematic strand (sections 11-20) compromises the first not by attacking the hope of presence, but by frustrating its attractions. In section 11 he cringes from his near death in a car wreck that would have fed him, as his father was fed before him, into the natural cycle: “The pin oak has found new meat,/ The linkworm a bone to pick.” It is unclear why, in Wright’s present scheme of things, this brush with death “Trails into the cracked lights of oblivion” while the earlier danger of his blood poisoning produces the visionary “face…at the window.” Why should one trauma offer a different metaphysical insight than a prior though similar threat? The disparity here suggests the beginnings of revised vision that wait for their development in the companion poem, “Skins.” But in “Tattoos,” the different conclusions appear relegated, somewhat inconsistently, to differing intellectual maturities: in 1941 when he was poisoned, he was six years old; by 1958 at the time of the accident, the poet has had an addition seventeen years to consider his severances and decide to inhabit this side of his losses. “We stand fast, friend,” he writes, “we stand fast.”

     He believes that he is penalized for this sturdy habit. “Regret is what anchors me,” he writes in the penultimate section, and if we observe the remorse that he voices, we should note as well that he is anchored, or thinks he is anchored, amid his historical being. He is not pitying his life–the quickest solution to which would be his death, an easy remedy–but lamenting the many absences in it: those of his parents, of his own innocence, and of his sensation of authentic presence underlying human structures. His regret moves him to save these losses, if he can, from the dispersions of time, and so situates him in their fragmenting midst. Memory provides the inventory on which his regret works. It acts as a conscience that tattoos the self with its lists of his deprivations. As he regrettably works his rescues, memory reveals his deteriorations, testifies to his failures, and exhorts him to shore things up against the disconnections and accidents of daily life.

     Though he is moved to unify, after recognizing the compromises of historical being, “Tattoos” yet ends with no inkling of how he is to begin. That is reserved for the subject of its companion in the collection, “Skins,” which takes up the search, amid the provisional debris of time, for a principle of unity by which the self might regather its world. Central to this quest is the Gnostic belief that the self already embodies the needed means of emancipation from a fragmenting temporality. The initiate properly vaults over the dualism alienating him from authentic presence not by an outward expression of the ego, but by an inward journey toward his own essential center: “You try for the get-away by the light of yourself,” Wright explains. The act of centering the self is a metamorphosis or a series of metamorphoses, a repeated casting off of the temporal skins: all those selves conditioned by exteriority, constrained by its accidental, inevitable bereavements. What will be uncovered, the poet tells us in the tenth and pivotal section, is the “Androgynous tincture, prima materia” that is purged of historical distractions and even of its sexual identity. In this pristine circumstance can the elect discover “one glint of the golden stitch,/The thread that will lead you home” out of the labyrinth of a dark and devouring time into the Plantonic safety of the sun.

     The light from that star illuminates an apocalyptic place “Upriver…past landfall and watertrace,/Past wheels, past time and its bufferings….” There the purified self will greet its companions in the neighborhood: “Two men with their six-foot flutes, two women behind them,/Their dance, their song ascending like smoke and light/Back to the sky, back to the place it came from….” As Wright immediately confesses, this is a disappointing vision: “Of course,” he says, “it’s unworkable.” That is an unusual word in this context, “unworkable”; we would expect something other than the diction of pragmatism. But his choice introduces an empirical element in the midst of his idealism, and with it recalls the contemporary world of his day. Indeed, for a great variety of reasons such a primitivist vision will not bring the self into its essential condition. Wright is not so nostalgic for an origin that he can long delude himself to the distinction between the metaphorical value of those aboriginal lives–the mythology of intuitive being unpatterned and unfenced by a civil reason–and the real injuries endemic to those who live in technologically primitive circumstances. The poet has simply uncovered another “skin,” another contemporary fiction of presence that misconstrues the temporality (“Past wheels, past time”) of the political and social structures present in even so-called primitive, tribal societies: those two men and two women inhabit the same world as the poet does, though perhaps in a less temperate corner of it.

     The lesson that “Skins” teaches is the futility of the imaginative act, a moral that also resounds throughout Hard Freight. The poet is a fellow sufferer of Sisyphus, rolling his stone: “Go up and go down, what other work is there/ For you to do, what other work in this world?” Or like another mythical inhabitant of Hades, Tantalus, the poet is teased by the sweetest objects of his desire: “Phrases, half-parsed, ellipses and scratches across the dirt.” We behold, he claims, the goal of our quest–the indications of cosmic significance everywhere associated with presence–but its meaning is withheld. Unlike either of the two mythical victims, though, Wright is not necessarily damned to the endless repetition of his discontent. He has imagined two divergent strategies for his escape: he can either try to perfect the purification of the self by inducing an orphic certainty; or he can retreat from purity entirely and instead inform his lagging historical sense by examining the continuing options of human being that the past defines for him.

     The first alternative is taken up in China Trace, which completes Wright’s trilogy by bringing to their logical conclusions the themes introduced in Hard Freight and elaborated in Bloodlines. The collection, therefore, has much the nature of summary. In it we detect the familiar privileging of the natural, at the expense of the human, world and the poet’s remorse at his inability to penetrate the veils of multiplicity. “And I turn in the wind,” he complains, “Not knowing what sign to make, or where I should kneel.” “I’ll never know what the clouds promised,” he writes in “Nerval’s Mirror,” “Or what the stars intended to say.” Sentiments such as these beg the question of cosmic significance. The poet cannot lament his ignorance of a particular promise without challenging his grounds for thinking that there is a promise or intent of which he remains ignorant. How can he know? Its presence would manifest itself through its expression, which he finds unintelligible: precisely the state of things we would expect if the stars intended nothing at all. Strictly speaking, there is no promise, hidden or otherwise, save that which he himself has posited there beyond his apprehension of it. His is a self-defeat, then, one that illogically frees him to locate the ground of the sacred outside of the place of human working and willing. There in its transcendent, physically indeterminate being, it is liberated from the contaminations of the marketplace, the unlovely workshops of politics.

     Once he has infused the natural ground with this holy presence, it then repays the privilege by enticing the poet to submit himself to its universals. “The dirt is a comforting,” he explains, and wants “to be bruised by God./I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out/…I want to be entered and picked clean.” He is “Waiting for something immense and unspeakable to uncover its face,” We cannot be insensible to the malignancy sugared by this mysticism, or by the many other examples of it in China Trace. The Godly immensity is bruising and unspeakable not only because its size transcends conception but particularly because it is antithetical to human being. It twice silences the poet, once by its sundering magnitude, and once by its alien senselessness. This quietude has the earmarks of intellectual impotence. As Wright has warned us from the beginning, vision is of no use to anyone; poetry, he insists, “will not be able to help us.” The insights gained from it are not sayable, and are therefore–if we are to take him at his word–non-sense; nor are they redemptive since they do not amend human error or sin: “There’s something I want to say,/ But not here…/I don’t move. I let the wind speak.” What it might howl, of course, can have little bearing on human promise as it withers or flowers in time.

     What poetry can do, at least in China Trace, is rescue him from the temporal world and the responsibilities of those who abide in it. He is “Released in his suit of lights/lifted and laid clear.” Wright’s flight from responsibility, though mollified by the flourishes of his arresting and nostalgic imagery, is nevertheless a personal impasse. He himself has hidden in the natural ground the values that he retrieves by sacrificing his will and his wisdom. This is a singularly barren field to till, promising only the bitter yield of frustration. For all the obvious attraction the evangelized, hermetic self-exercises over Wright, his most compelling poetry is made not of his purifications, but of his interest in the contingencies that in other moments he refuses willingly to divest.

     A handful of poems in the poet’s latest collection, The Southern  Cross, discloses a rekindled attention to what is valuable–if perishable–within experience. “Homage to Paul Cezanne” in particular promises to resurrect him from his intellectual defeatism. The debt to the painter that he voices in the title is not thematic, but stylistic. In an interview given in FIELD, the poet explains that “I’ve been trying to write poems…using stanzas in the way a painter will build up blocks of color, each disparate and often discrete, to make an overall representation that, taken in its pieces,…seems to have no coherence, but seen in its totality…turns out to be a very recognizable landscape, or whatever.” The aesthetic described here is adapted from Wright’s earlier homage to the Imagists’ dedication to the sensual object. Indeed, it refines certain strategies that the poet has already developed, particularly those aimed at minimizing the dualism inhering between his poetic language and his poetic subjects. His stanzaic pointillism retreats from the falsifications of narrative: the subordination of the paragraph to the generalized purposes of the whole, the necessary cognitive voice of the narrator who orchestrates transitions and adjusts perspectives. Rather, in his painterly technique, vision becomes architectural, not verbal, and depends upon the purposeful arrangement of those “blocks of color.” The simultaneity of the structure creates a present that, though vitiated by the linear act of reading, is nevertheless central to the poem’s theme: the contemporaneity of all human life whose modes of being are informed by and repeat those of our predecessors.

     That we have predecessors, that, in other words, individuals die and so enter the past does not violate Wright’s sense of the contemporaneity of human being, for as “the dead” these individuals continue to exist in an atemporal conglomerate of possibilities by which the human present is continually shaped. We the living inherit and, to a certain degree, choose from the past: in this way is history “present-ed,” introduced into a contemporary household of opportunity. “They carry their colored threads and baskets of silk,” the poet explains, “To mend our clothes, making us look right,/,..they hold us together.” We are hemmed (“they hold us together”) by what has passed before us, which can disadvantage our freedom since not all ancestral decisions benefit, morally or materially, those who derive the consequences. But the dead also extend to living souls the privilege of closure: the cessation of the train of consequences, the presentation of finitude that admits qualitative judgments. To redirect Santayana’s words, if we are domed to repeat history, however a select one, then Wright would have us able to distinguish authentic from inauthentic repetition.

“The dead are with us to say,” he claims, but only as limited partners. Their attendance on the living is conditioned by their rival allegiance to the insentience into which they have perished. They are part of our landscapes, not only our moral ones, but our material ones as well: “Over our heads they’re huge in the night sky./In the tall grass they turn with the zodiac.”

     Therein lies their fear (as Wright attributes it to them), that having vanished from the volitional, living present they be absorbed by the natural world: “through clenched teeth, they tell/Their story, the story each knows by heart:/Remember me, speak my name.” Only through remembrance, the burden of present generations, can the members of the past be recalled into the temporal community, dredged from the obliterating universals of existential being. There is justification for their apprehension since the means of the recollection, language, is incompletely able to retrieve the dead from their darkness: “Whose unction can intercede for the dead?/Whose tongue is toothless enough to speak their piece?” These are rhetorical questions that imply their own answers. Wright expects no one to be savior enough to redeem the dead into other selves. What they are saved for is the self-interest of the living, who retrieve from the attic of history the old clothes of preceding generations. In so doing, we multiply our present options, fecundate our current potentials, but as always in Wright’s vision, fail to exorcise the sorrow of our condition.

Even My Bad Ideas Are Good

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     For the last three-plus years, Gary Young has been working on a limited fine press edition of the late Zen priest Kobun Otogowa—who is probably best known in the United States as the spiritual advisor of the equally late Steve Jobs.* As news of the project spread, an invitation was extended to Young to come to Japan itself, where he could work as well on a poetry translation of that calligraphy. And so in the summer of 2011, immediately prior to the publication of his book, Even So, Gary Young journeyed to the mountains above Ono, Japan, where in the Hokyoji Temple he sat ZaZen for weeks, participated in general temple life, and met with multiple Buddhist scholars, who together explained some of the textual origins and metaphorical meanings embedded within the calligraphy as Young worked out his translations.

     I offer this biographical tidbit to introduce you to the respect that Young has gathered in far-reaching communities that are at once outside the traditional academic centers in which poetry is largely embedded these days, and beyond the national confines of English-speaking poets. In Japan, in the esteemed environment of an ancient Buddhist temple, Tanaka Shinkai Roshi declared that Young was “a Bodhisattva, whether he wanted to be or not.”

     And indeed to read the poems of Young’s latest collected works, entitled Even So, is to be introduced to a natural affinity between Young’s contemporary prose epiphanies (certainly in his last five books), and the elaborate, wonderful millennium of Buddhist poets writing haiku and other, later forms, whose tonal spirit hovers within and behind Young’s poetic efforts. When Young writes, for instance–

Queen Anne’s lace crowds the air; cicadas call from beyond the stream. Monkeyflowers rouge the hill below a pasture where six horses crop sage; and beside the road, between riprap at the river mouth, down gullies and the wasted ravines, thistles are showing us their hearts again.

–the East/West interpenetration is self-conscious, almost an homage. As a benchmark, here is the Monk Jakuren’s poem, written sometime near the end of the Twelfth Century:

The hanging raindrops
Have not dried from the needles
Of the fir forest
Before the evening mist
Of autumn rises.

Young is characteristically honest regarding his influences, in which he delights rather than broods resentfully. Nevertheless, he is using his distinctly American hand to point to those past masters. Notice that both poems are written as one sentence, but Young in that last clause employs a syntactical mimesis which the Zen monk would never imagine because there is too much rhetorical effect. Young’s winding sequence of prepositional phrases leads us to the end of ravines, where the metaphor is blooming: “thistles are showing us their hearts again.” This syntax, and the use of metaphor, distinguishes Young’s work from the Japanese. In both poems we find that simple, focused, direct  natural observation, but there is less a delight in metaphor in the monk’s verse, less device. Instead, there is the intent to create a sensibility whose simplicity allows experience to register at once delicately, but indelibly. Young, on the other hand, uses the quiet Zen-like attention to arrive at a definition, a declarative statement, a captured truth. There are revelations in his poetry, but you have the sense that he set about to capture them, a silent predator after an elusive prey.

     And that, I think, represents the essence, the essential characterologic friction Tanaka Shinkai Roshi is indicating, as he observes that Young is an enlightened being (Bodhisatva) “whether he wanted to be or not.” Because Young would not necessarily prefer to know what he has learned, or choose to feel what he has experienced. He is not benignly tolerant.  Many of Young’s empathies are disagreeable to him: he doesn’t want to like these hateful people he often portrays. Similarly, his clarities are ambiguous, his loves are dying, his loyalties make him angry, his persistence is as much resignation as courage. He is full of surprises when you least expect them—which of course is what constitutes the surprise. For instance, I suspect that most of his many students in general (not to mention this reviewer in particular) would admit it is hard to imagine Gary Young sitting still for hours at a time with an empty mind. I don’t see it happening—even in the Hokyoji Temple. He is the kind of poet who does not empty his mind, so much as clear away a bit of space in his perception for yet another insight, one further observation, a second look. Nothing is lost on him.

     In this he reminds me of a resolutely American poet, Emily Dickinson, who also spent her time crafting finely wrought moments of perception, paring away the inessentials to capture a necessary truth. “I like the look of agony,” she writes, “because I know it’s true./Men do not sham convulsion”. Well, actually they do—at least in contemporary mass civilization, pseudo pathologies have arisen—, but her point, really, is that you do whatever it takes to arrive at conviction, which is pleasing even when it is unpleasant. Young writes in a poem I will fully quote later “Even my bad ideas are good,” and both poets agree—over a century and a half apart—that life is built upon contradictions, that empathy is hard to reach, that truths are not self-consistent, that pleasure may contain horrors. Insight is a bitch—but it is also to the purpose, the heart of the poetic act. Both poets as they write concentrate each poem upon one act of clarity, a sole idea realized, a single event captured. Accordingly, each instance of imagination is encapsulated; there is no narrative provision made to connect one poem with another.

     With that said, because he himself organized the sequence of poems in the individual volumes comprising this generous selection he has entitled Even So, Young can create a sense of thematic connection that may generalize over his untitled prose poems—an opportunity that Dickinson’s lack of publication denied her.  Young’s early work is a bit more traditional than his subsequent prose poems, and offers an early  taxonomy of themes that Young explores in more detail, in layers of nuance–and as the mood strikes him–, in his later poems.  Open the book, and we first encounter  “Walking Home From Work,” which introduces the cardinal points, the coordinates of Young’s poetic world.

Asphalt and gravel flex with my shoes as the heel
hits and pulls the rest of my body forward.
Ahead of me, twilight is ending
and the ragged outline of the mountain
is glazed with iridescence, each tree
singular and sure.
Each night the same. Or if not
the same,  then part of one long night
that leads me to my house, there
on the high ground of the foothills.
A thin streak of gray smoke
rises from the chimney,
a string from which the house
is suspended in the darkness.
I am a block away before shadows appear
moving against the fogged
windows in the kitchen.
My wife is baking bread. A hand
reaches up and wipes away the steam.
Light spills out of the kitchen
and begins to fill the world.

Work, we are to gather from the title, is important: it is the source of material well-being, the means to keep the wolf from the door, the opportunity to insure the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy of human necessities.  We have food, water and shelter, possibly bread—and there Young draws his imaginary line in the civilized gravel. On his side we find the means of life; on the other there are hazards.

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     What exactly constitutes the nature of those threats to the domestic image is left  to be explored in many subsequent poems of this volume. But for now, the quiet, lovely tone of the poet in “Walking Home from Work,” focuses on the positive things—once the possibility of menace is acknowledged. We are to notice, as he does, that there is an inchoate pressure of darkness: the impenetrable stuff that remains opaque and inhospitable. In the midst of this unlit gloom, the house—his native place–is suspended on a thread, a sort of inverse Sword of Damocles. Cut the thread, and vitality is swallowed once again into the inessential night. This time, however, he makes it home to the promise of sensual intimacy. The house is warm. His wife is beckoning through the window, bread is baking, the windows are steamed with the aroma, and the light of all this affection spills into the Biblical darkness. We sense at once the immense importance of Young’s protected space—which is a shared territory. The scale is not sublime, but human and individual, because it is within domestic rooms that personal identity is made possible. Indeed, domesticity is the very horizon of identity. It provides the setting, and the opportunity, for intimate knowledge: of one’s self, and of others. It allows a person to enjoy sensual pleasures, to form friendships, build habitual associates, establish a familiar network, create a social status, enjoy a civic stature.

     Young is systematic in his exploration of these themes, and their corollaries, in his subsequent quartet of books– Days, Braver Deeds, If He Had, and Pleasure—though he does so by intensifying his thematic focus to a degree that omits history, with its material clutter of specific dates, different names, separate places. None of the poems are titled in any of these four books, and so there are no identifiable places or grounds, no generic frame of reference, no executive authorial contextualization. Indeed, to take Days as an example, we immediately observe that we are given no information to identify the people appearing in the book, whose lives and conditions nonetheless comprise the book’s material.  Days in poem after poem elaborates the scope of social possibilities: marriage, separation, health and illness, mothers and fathers, wives, friends both male and female, life and death,  babies, infants who are acquiring language, and elderly stroke victims who are losing theirs. An unnamed stranger accosts him in the street to request that she hold his infant son:

I’m a mother, too, she said, and took the child in her arms. She closed her eyes, kissed his head, smelled his neck. My baby is twenty-nine, she said, and she handed him back.

That is the whole poem. Because there are no stated identities (and indeed, Young’s wife, who is holding the baby, is not even specified, her presence merely indicated  by that inclusive adverb “too”), we are able to concentrate on the ways available to us to connect our communities. A stranger can assert primal identifying events that survive temporal changes (her baby is twenty-nine—i.e. an adult), and collapse over individual differences. The two women have intimate connections, a shared experience, a common body of knowledge, similar loves and commitments, even though they do not know each other. And, we should notice, it is an act of kindness to allow these communal ties to be acknowledged: presumably Young’s wife does not need to hand her baby over to a stranger.

     Acts of trust and kindness are part of the privilege of living in a related body of other human beings, part of the means by which the scope of personal life is magnified. Vitality itself is a privilege—a miracle, not a right:

Two girls were struck by lightning at the harbor mouth. An orange flame lifted them up and laid them down again. Their thin suits had been melted away. It’s a miracle they survived. It’s a miracle they were born at all.

When they were lifted and laid down again, unclothed and baptized by fire, their status reveals the essential wonder of things inhering beneath the illusion of human control. Their survival in the wake of the atmospheric random blast is a miracle because unpredicted—both in the sense that they were the ones stricken by the lightning, and not someone else, and in the sense that their survival defeated the odds for such a thing.  Nothing about their lives is in fact predictable. No biological law will create an individual personality, no social authority will control lightning, no government will legislate consequences to random natural acts. Most people do not get hit by lightning (though these girls do), and those who are so stricken commonly do not survive it (though these girls did).

     The nature of miracles is a continual theme running through all four of his books of prose poems. In the instance above, the miraculous is to be understood as an event that is at once statistically unlikely and also (unexpectedly) beneficial. Its occurrence operates within the perceived laws of nature, but it nevertheless discloses values obscured by quotidian oversight or inattention, until they are illuminated by the extraordinary persuasive event itself. Whether lightning strikes you or not, just to be young, just to be able to stand in the sunshine in your bathing suit is a miracle—an opportunity that is temporary, and that is not given to everyone to enjoy (check out the burn units, the neurology floors, the ERs in any given medical center, or the battle field of any theater of war. There are lots of them.). Nor is it an opportunity that is guaranteed to be given twice. You never know when or where lightning may next strike—or in what form, or with what force.

The bodies of men and women sometimes ignite from within, and burn from the inside out. Nothing remains but a pile of ash where only minutes before a girl had been lying on the beach, or a young man had complained of the heat and then burst into flame. How can we explain the world? My heart is beating, I can feel it. God loves us more than we can stand.

In one sense, this poem is a revisitation of the lightning, occurring in another book—Braver Deeds–, in another mood with a darker cast to the advent of miracle. Again we have the abrupt arrival of unexpected revelation, but the violence of the disclosure is not to be withstood. It is, to say the least, a mixed blessing to be the recipient of so much affection.

     Indeed, in Braver Deeds, as well as in If He Had, Young explores just how various the qualities of his experience can be within this miraculous life. I should probably mention here at the outset that Young can write more bluntly about the presence of God than I, for one, am quite comfortable with. But then again, Young also writes bluntly about the pleasure he takes in looking down the blouse at the exposed breasts of an unaware young woman, and about how many times his wife orgasms–which for my part I would not openly discuss either. You know these events are sure to have happened; it’s just that there is often a decorum about admitting it. But Young won’t have any of that. He is kindly enough, generous in his empathy, but nonetheless unsparing about what he does, what he values, what he believes. Because he is equally direct regarding what he presents in each of his poems, regardless of the niceties of his reputation, he is all the more persuasive about the mixtures he imagines, the inescapable paradoxes by which people are at once redeemed and gravely tested, saved but pretty much left without gratification.

Tom Bone fell from deck, and watched as the ship sailed on without him. He tried, at first, to convince himself that he wasn’t there, then he swam all night. He drifted with the current, and in the morning saw an island, and swam to it, and was saved. There’d been a moment, before dawn, when he’d lost all hope and lowered his head into the water. He was about to take a breath, when he heard a voice say, you’re going to live, don’t give up, you’re going to make it. I have listened to that voice all my life.

The voice that tells Tom Bone ‘don’t give up’ says nothing at all about happiness that might accrue if he perseveres, nor are there promised satisfactions, no guaranteed rewards, no escape from pain, no immunity from fear and terror, no assurance that he will survive the next challenge. This is an old-time–an Old Testament  poem that critiques the orthodox conviction extending from our original Puritan fanatics to our contemporary evangelists, who expect privileges to attend to their religious conviction.  You are saved, therefore you can expect happiness and wealth. The corollary is also professed: if you are not happy and wealthy, then you are a sinner who deserves to burn at the hands of an angry god.

     Tell that to the Apostles, each of whom died violently: some crucified, some stoned to death, some flayed alive. Young insists that love—divine or human—does not protect from the malevolence of pain, the injustice of circumstances, the trauma of disease, the extreme conflicts of interest.

I discovered a journal in the children’s ward, and read, I’m a mother, my little boy has cancer. Further on, a girl has written, this is my nineteenth operation. She says, sometimes it’s easier to write than to talk, and I’m so afraid. She’s left me a page in the book. My son is sleeping in the room next door. This afternoon, I held my whole weight to his body while a doctor drove needles deep into his leg. My son screamed, Daddy, they’re hurting me, don’t let them hurt me, make them stop. I want to write, how brave you are, but I need a little courage of my own, so I write, forgive me, I know I let them hurt you, please don’t worry. If I have to, I can do it again.

None of the reassurances in this poem actually relieve anyone. That nineteenth operation does not signal a freedom from the girl’s fright, or her release into confident health, but—as with Tom Bone’s certain voice—it testifies only that she will make it to the next island: the twentieth operation. Young ‘s reassurance to his son—‘please don’t worry’—is not likely to put his son’s mind at rest. Nor isYoung reassured against his own guilt and remorse, because he knows he may be called upon to hold his son down again to allow further torment. That’s why he needs his own courage: it is the case with all survivors that they live in order to face further shocks and challenges. Risks are never taken from them, and what they are given is the opportunity to keep swimming against despair.

     There is, in short, nothing sentimental about Young’s belief in revelation, or in his conviction regarding the essential value of life over death. Even during casual promises that arise during any given day, the occasional satisfactions, the momentary bursts of small joys—nothing grandiose–, even then Young prefers to acknowledge the thrill of coequal sorrow.

Every Wednesday, Fidel brings oysters to market. I like to eat them with salsa, cilantro and lime. I like to run my tongue along the slick lip of the inner shell and suck them into my mouth. I love knowing they’re alive. Fidel wants to know, how many? And when I tell him, I’ll start with two, he taps his blunt knife against a block of ice, and shucks three.

The Epicure confesses here, ‘I love knowing they’re alive,’ as he consumes the material of living things. Whether you enjoy oysters as much as he does, Young nevertheless conveys his relish in unabashed, thoughtful detail. He means us to admire, as much as he himself admires, Fidel for knowing him so well, who is not fooled by Young’s initial profession of modest enthusiasm. Neither man is to be mistaken for half-hearted, tepid creatures insecure in their pleasures. We are meant to respect—as Young himself respects—Fidel’s confident pride in the quality of what he has to offer, the source of a pagan delight.

     At this point I think we ought to return to Tanaka Shinkai Roshi’s summer observation regarding Young’s status as a Bodhisattva—which is to say, one who has attained enlightenment, but who postpones his entrance into Nirvana in order to remain among the confused, blundering souls on earth, so that  he might assist them in attaining enlightenment for themselves. There is a benign heroism in a Bodhisattva, but Roshi’s observation—‘whether he wanted to be or not’—indicates a double meaning. The first, of course, refers to the understandable reluctance to renounce Nirvana. But the second meaning, I think, acknowledges Young’s unseemly pleasure in the mixed blessings of sublime, ugly struggles. Here is that poem I promised you earlier:

The world is at home in my mind. I can spell Detroit. I know where my cats are buried in the orchard. I know the quadratic equation, my mother’s maiden name and the  suicide squeeze. I know all the words to A Good Woman’s Love and I can hear them in my head at will. Every thought is like a sweet rolled over the tongue. Even my bad ideas are good.

To many of us, it may seem unusual, if not outright quirky, to renounce Nirvana in order to learn the quadratic equation, of all things. But fortunately we have an entire, generous, persuasive  book of poetry—Even So—in the course of which Young produces for us his many reasons why this is his free choice.

* Just so you know, an edition of this book is forthcoming from White Pine Press.

Summer Gardens Somewhere Else, With Gardeners

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Elam picked among his clarities

to find the first black apples oozing

out their mutant blooms inside his nervous

garden. Rows of brainflowers, fat as cabbages,

were throbbing on their stems in full sun

beside grotesqueries like rosewood skeletons,

the pulmonary shrubs, and venous orchids

gorgeous as stained glass.

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                                                         Honestly,

he must have thought that sanity would bring

him peace of mind, because he never did

prepare for instinct in his enterprise.

Few if any knew about his creatures,

starting with the birds: out of uncountable

panicles of some forgotten bloom,

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he cloned a pigeon that would flit erratically

amid the equinoctial fogs on lobed,

primitive wings he fledged in tendrils and leaves.

That was his baptismal try at flight.

Pigeons. Afterwards he rooted his

Cerulean warblers in the combs of grasses

edging every patio–where musically

they classified as news, though ecologically

they were unsound, like his cranes before

he got the hang of it, painted like

Max Factor, cloned from water plants

as pink as harlots, as carnivals, and floating

over goldfish. Loons in the long canals

crooned their funeral songs.

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One morning

while he stoked the nursery stove, his hunger

spoke for a time, and noted that he hadn’t

seen the end of his manipulations–

and though he later brought his wolves to birth,

and jimmied bears from various and insectivorous

sundews,

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and had the nightly fruit bats depending

from prodigious fuchsia, and suspended his

amphibians within elusive tubers–

all of which signaled a crescendo–,

yet what he’d understood of his desire

was meant as fair warning. Let us walk

a little while together, he would say

to Sarah as the wasps would carry on

around the apricots, and serpents were,

like subways, hissing beneath them among

the mushrooms. Everything is still dying.

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