A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 18, due out July 2, 2014.//
The Life and Death of Poetry (Louisiana State University Press, 2013), is an ambitious title to fulfill, especially in 68 pages of poetry. I could write about how Kelly Cherry manages to achieve this, but instead I want to think about beginnings. I want to mainly focus on how this book of poems opens and then moves, because after my first reading, I wasn’t convinced the current opening poem was the best poem to open the book with. I thought it a good opening poem, but I thought there was a better choice with the poem “Underwriting the Words”:
Ousted from heaven, we crashed into language. Incomparable music gave way to words. Authors filled auditoriums with their friends. Orpheus wrote a novel. Some days we try to climb back. We search for the word that sings, the sentence that sings. It’s not the same. Remember the music? It lifted you up to the light and endowed you with understanding. None of us understands anymore. Commentators baffle, words reinvent their meaning, every voice contradicts another. In a city of deserted streets, where people hide like turtles, in their houses, silence is the one common denominator. The hidden theme of the book is silence. Between the lines, underwriting the words: silence. In every line we read the absence of perfect sound, the severed head with mouth sewn shut. The hidden theme of the book is our obliteration: that we are swept away like fallen leaves from the front steps, insect shells from a sill, drafts from a desk.
That’s a dynamite poem and it covers some of the themes of the book: language, writing, singing, relationships, silence, death. (These aren’t the book’s only themes, as it also explores nature, poetry, and love.) “Underwriting the Words” could deliver some of the necessities of opening a single collection of poems as it’s strong, it introduces themes, it gives a beginning (we fall from heaven), and anticipates the end (“obliteration”). I wondered why the book didn’t begin with this poem, and then I thought of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde – both the double album and its later reincarnation as a CD. If you haven’t noticed, the order of the songs is different on the album than on the CD. I particularly like the album’s order better. But why are the songs ordered differently on the CD? Not all the songs are rearranged, but enough are. The CD version still opens with a defiant, partying youth celebrating getting stoned in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and it still ends with a deeply in love, fully-matured adult who is singing one of the most passionate love songs “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Even the tones of the songs are completely different. The former is quicker paced, playful, and in a higher pitch, and the latter is slow, contemplative, and in a lower pitch. But back to the order of the album. The album is ordered so that each album side (all four of them) crescendos into a higher intensity. Each of the four sides starts at lower intensity than where it ends, and, overall, the album’s intensity reaches its maximum in “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” The CD, since it only has one side, has to rearrange the songs so the crescendo is more gradual. Oddly, one might think the CD’s order would work better than the album as it moves from song to song, but in my opinion, it doesn’t. It seems a little jerky. I think Cherry had a similar idea to the Blonde on Blonde-album crescendo effect when she chose to start The Life and Death of Poetry with “Which Is a Verb”:
We fell out of eternity into time, which is a verb. Life was rushing past us, and we began to rush too. Everything was a blur. In the confusion, some things got mixed up with others. A loaf of bread drove a bus. A longleaf pine swam in the pond. We grew so dizzy, light sparked beneath our closed eyelids, like rescue flares. We lay down on the red grass and clung to the world as it whirled. Wind whistled past our ears. Tears flew from our eyes.
This is a dynamite poem, too, but it lacks the powerful intensity of “Underwriting the Words” and its end. If the book started with “Underwriting the Words,” it would decrescendo not only in intensity but in facility (for lack of a better word, as some poems are more powerful than others, though I wouldn’t remove any one poem from this collection). “Underwriting the Words” is probably the strongest and most successful of the poems in the book, a book that certainly has many very fine poems. So the book, as a result, would descend (though subtly) on two fronts. Still the first poem needs to get the reader excited, it has to act as a frame of sorts, and the one Cherry did choose to start the book does.
The book opens with the fall, but not the traditional fall or the fall from heaven, but a fall from eternity. We are falling gods. Only gods are eternal, and non-eternal beings (like angels) can fall from heaven, as in “Underwriting the Words,” but they cannot fall from eternity. And we, as gods, fell “into time,” and time makes us mortal, human. But time is not an abstract noun here. It’s a verb. Time is active and acts on us, with us, and through us. Time is so active, we couldn’t see straight. We ended up in surreal world where bread drives busses and pine trees swim in ponds. We were pre-linguistic with one verb we didn’t yet recognize. And here is our and the book’s beginning. We are going to go through the evolution of language and poetry in this collection of poems. We are going to live and die in this whirling world and transform wind and tears, what we hear and what we see, into poetry. And that’s where it all begins. And this is why “Which Is a Verb” comes first. This is an effective opening poem in framing the book, leading us into the book, and establishing energy levels from which the three sections of the book will build on.
And so section I, “Learning the Language,” and the book begin with “Which Is a Verb” and crescendos into the section’s penultimate poem “Underwriting the Words.” In between, the section moves into steadying the world that was whirling by in “Which Is a Verb,” to discovering music, to vowels, to the first word (which is also a person’s last word), to more words, to singing, to language, to signified and signifier, to fiction, to poems, and to gods and heaven. During these poems, the section crescendos from crawl to dance in the gathering of experience and the development of poetry, which climaxes in “Underwriting the Words” and then gently settles in section one’s denouement “A Voice Survives,” which is a quiet meditative poem.
Section two, “Welsh Table Talk (A Sequence),” moves into using poems to create a land, a place. Not recreating like Olson in The Maximus Poems, but creating it much like I remember Robert Graves writing about in The White Goddess, the goddess of birth, love, and death. When I’m in this section, I feel Graves in the silences, or perhaps I feel the poems arise from analeptic thought, or unlived and forgotten events recovered/created through intuition, as this Welsh land often feels ancient, or with the echoes and hints of the ancient. This section then crescendos into an emphatic yearning that echoes the end of The Waste Land’s wondering what to do, but Cherry has an answer – “Carve.”
The book turns to section three, “What the Poet Wishes to Say,” which is a natural progression, because even if carving is the answer as to what to do, there is still the question of what to carve, as the opening lines of the opening poem, “On Translation,” indicate:
Be warned, I tell my students. A writer with nothing to write is in danger of falling into one or more of four pitfalls: drink, drugs, adultery, and translation.
The book’s concluding poems, including the one just mentioned, or essays in verse about poetry, help the reader arrive to the final realization that “A poem can move to love,” and love, which is a verb, is the ultimate crescendo and the last line in Kelly Cherry’s The Life and Death of Poetry.//