Posts Tagged ‘Surreal

28
May
20

On Rick Bursky’s Let’s Become a Ghost Story

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

“‘Convulsive beauty’ . . . associates surrealist beauty with the unknown, with desire and with the promise of revelation” – Krzysztof Fijalkowski

Rick Bursky Let's Become a Ghost StoryRick Bursky’s Let’s Become a Ghost Story (BOA Editions, 2020) is a story convulsing in reality. It is a story that begins with poems grounded in surreal, sexual desires and ends in poems exploring death and the afterlife. It’s a story about making stories about relationships, and “Relationships,” according to Bursky in “Like Many Other Technologies, My Dreams Are Now Obsolete,” “are stories / two people write at the same time.” Most of these relationships are with the speaker’s various lovers, but at times, especially in section II, are about relationships with the speaker’s father, sister, women, and war. Let’s Become a Ghost Story, seemingly, is Bursky’s strategy for creating his “ghost story” that irrupts into the real.

One way to confront this repressive hold of reality is to provide surreal images like:

     Lovers have used my tongue as a red carpet.
     It’s been said my elbows glow in the dark,
     and on hot, humid days I sweat fireflies.   
                                               (“The Scaffolding”)
 

Or:

     A woman asked me to swallow a compass
     so I would always find my way back to her.   
                                               (“I Could Have Been an Inventor”)

The latter recalls (perhaps by way of homonym) John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but unlike Donne’s simile of two lovers “As stiff twin compasses,” the surreal presentation works by association that combines the desire to consume, the desire to return to a lover, and the desire to satisfy a lover’s request. And in this we can see two stories. One story is a woman requesting an act, and the other is the accommodating act. Images and experiences like these are not found in the waking world, but as they are read, they blend smoothly into the waking world. The surreal irrupts into the real, is accommodated by the real, and changes what is real.

Another way to confront the repressive hold of reality is by creating moments where the reader is not sure if what is presented is true. For instance, in “Sooner or Later, Everything Comes Out,” Bursky writes, “a single pencil / can draw a line thirty-five miles long.” I didn’t know if that was true or not. It felt like it could or could not be true. I looked it up. It’s true. When one of Bursky’s characters says, “the padlock was invented in ancient Egypt” (“There Were Many Luxuries Involved”), that seemed too early for the invention of the padlock, but I looked it up and it was true. Also true is “The earliest dentist known by name is Hesi-re. He practiced in Egypt, / five thousand years ago.” Because of this, Bursky establishes credibility, and this credibility will allow him to subvert the privilege of conscious reality. An example of the height of conscious reality is Albert Einstein, and so Bursky confronts that reality with another pencil in the prose poem “The Arrogance”:

“If you stand on the beach, reach out and rub the horizon with a pencil eraser, earth and sky become one,” Albert Einstein wrote to his sister, Maja: “catastrophic possibilities, I’d rather not consider walking barefoot in the sand.”

While Einstein did have a younger sister named “Maja” and was concerned with the “catastrophic possibilities” of atomic power, he did not write this passage. It seems real, and it seems real enough, that the speaker tries to erase the horizon, and the reader wonders if he will, but he fails. But instead of recognizing the impossibility of erasing the horizon, he thinks:

Instead of the eraser I should have brought the whip to the beach. I believed if I stood in surf and cracked it the whales would know I was there.

Bursky has created truths, fallacies, and half-truths that all blend into a truthiness. Whatever he writes feels true. The reader can experience these situations in the mind, and if they can be experienced, they must be true. His earlier credibility allows him to undermine what is considered reality. The pencil will appear again in “This Is Another Version of Heroism.” In this poem, his porn star wife gave him a “box / of pencils imprinted with my name.” In this case, a lover gives him a gift with which he can create possibilities and realities. But in this case, he doesn’t use the pencils, as expected. He concludes the story of the pencils:

     I never used the pencils until today
     when I sharpened all of them to down to nubs.
     She would be flattered by this:
     everything was a compliment to her,
     even my name, a pile of shavings in a silver cup.

He shreds his signifier and destroys the potential to create with language, as classical surrealists were haunted by the idea that language is not speech but is reality. Bursky breaks down reality into an action that creates a symbol in an unconventional way. He transforms from one reality (life) into another (afterlife), which is significant because this poem opens the section “Four” that explores the afterlife and how to create a ghost story – his own ghost story. He speaks from the dead. He speaks the dead into the living. In Let’s Become a Ghost Story, Rick Bursky eventually dissolves conscious antinomies to allow for revelation and for a truer story to emerge. //

//

//

//

//

Bursky, Rick. Let’s Become a Ghost Story. BOA Editions, 2020.

//

//

//

//

Works Cited

Fijalkowski, Krzysztof. “Convulsive Beauty.” Surrealism: Key Concepts, edited by Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson, Routledge, 2016, pp. 182-192.

//

09
Mar
18

Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason is Marvelous

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

Jenny George's The Dream of ReasonThe surrealist’s idea of the marvelous varies from surrealist to surrealist. For some, such as Andre Breton, the marvelous is “always beautiful . . . in fact only the marvelous is beautiful,” it can be something wonderfully unexpected, and for others, like Georges Bataille, it is the sacred. My definition frequently varies in nuance but usually revolves something like: the marvelous is an unexpected accident, like Roland Barthes’ punctum, which is transformative while, and perhaps because, it confronts reality. This confrontation is momentary. The perception, or act of witness, is momentary, but the effect(s) resulting from perception may endure in society for a generation, as society digests the marvelous object until it becomes ordinary, or something like ruin a tourist might visit. Thus, it is temporary in scale for the individual and temporary in the longer context of human history. The marvelous appears frequently in Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). One could even anticipate this from the title which brings together the dream/unconscious and reason/conscious, the two realms the surrealists want to join and give equal privilege to both.

In section 4 of “Death of a Child,” we can see how the infectious moment of the marvelous moves from individual to community:

     The conductor’s baton hovers
     for a moment in the alert
     silence (a silence that leans forward
     saying Now…! Now…!) and then it drops
     into the chasm.

     Sound enters the bodies
     of all the people simultaneously
     calling them to fell together
     an unconcealed fear, a cup over-
     flowing, a sense of absolute love     (14)

The Dream of Reason is divided into three sections, plus a frontispiece poem. Section I is focused on the loss of a child, Section II main focus is on the slaughter of pigs and cows, and Section III is the speaker’s transformation into accepting grief and brutality. The book really takes off in section I’s third poem “Everything Is Restored.” The poem opens in a mundane environment of feeding a baby prunes, cleaning his mouth, and putting him to bed in his crib, and the marvelous enters as the child slips “into the silvery minnows / of dreams, disorder of shine” (10). A transformative event is about to occur, the child appears to die in his sleep, which becomes more obvious in the following poem “Death of a Child.” The child’s death is wrapped in the beauty of “silvery minnows” to which “Harm will come.” It ruptures classical concepts of beauty. It transforms the child and then the mother who in a concluding surreal moment “folds up the ocean / and shuts it in cupboard,” as if pushing the event into her subconscious, but an event that undoubtedly will transform her. It’s a marvelous movement from the one experience to the other’s experience. Many of the marvelous moments in Section I, however, are contained in each a poem’s speaker, such as section 5 of “The Gesture of Turning a Mask Around”:

     The opposite of language is not silence
     but space.

     It’s dawn; the dark unjoins
     and drifts into light.
     I enter the house and see
     with astonishment the difference
     between my rooms.    (16)

Section I focuses on the transformative event of the loss of a child through semi-surreal imagery, and section II abruptly shifts to the slaughter of cows and pigs, where brief moments of the beautiful marvelous appear that will affect not just the speaker but the community of readers.

In Section II’s poems, there is very little enjambment. The effect, at times, creates a type of slide show (where each line in the poem is like photo slide) that slows down the actual event so the reader actively participates in the experience. For instance, in the “The Traveling Line,” each line is end stopped to create a snapshot moment, but by the end of the poem, it feels like it was continuous experience. Lines 3-8 provide an example:

     The pigs are loaded onto trucks.
     The pigs are prodded through a passage.
     They roll their many eyes.
     They see the hind legs of the one ahead.
     They call to one another like birds.
     The pigs become a traveling line.              (24)

And the poem becomes a traveling of lines pierced with horribly beautiful moments, like “They call to one another like birds.” The line on its own is beautiful, a beautiful punctum in the scene of slaughter, and within a series of snapshot images that create a unified experience, like a movie. The poem recreates a moment to awake the reader to the horror we’ve become numb to, that we take as ordinary, when in in fact it is extraordinarily cruel. In Section II, many of the poems use snapshot lines to create a fluid and lived experienced.

Section III opens with the possibility of hope in the poem “New World” and its first line “There are no slaughterhouses,” but the end is filled with indifference, “In the morning, the sun may rise. / Who knows. / There is nothing to be longed for” (41). Then the poems move into the marvelous, as defined above:

     Someone strikes a match. Briefly
     the earth is illuminated.
     Then it goes out, just the drifting flare of memory.
     But our eyes hold it – for a while
     it will be all we can see,
     the dark will stream with it, the nerves
     will salvage back the light until they can’t
     and we are bodies again.                               (“The Cave” 42)

And in “Winter Variations” there is the moment “In a vast theater: one note played on a piano. / It vanishes under a drift. // Briefly the trees hold the light in their arms” (46). All of this anticipates transformation in the following poems. She inhabits the brutal and violent and the points of beauty within them, and she learns to live in it. This happens, for example, in “Revelation,” where she and her father dissect a frog whose heart is “like a gray pearl on the tip of a knife” (56), and after they clean up the speaker says, “I’m not sorry / for the frog. I’m not sorry to know this” (56), where “this” is life sputtering out of the frog before it “drifts toward stillness” (56). The marvelous moments in the previous sections have left her in the ruin of the ordinary, where “The way to keep something is to forget it” (58). The marvelous has lost its magic. All this, in a sense, recalls Goya’s Capricho aquatint image “The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters,” which is where the book finds its title. In Goya’s image, a man sleeps with his head on his artist table as evil-looking bats and owls hover over and stare at him, while a lynx stares directly at the viewer. The artist is at ease enough to sleep despite the horror around him.

Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason does end on hope, though. After a winter turning into spring that is reminiscent of The Waste Land, the speaker of the final poem, “Easter,” realizes that the first part of a human to rise from the winter thaw is not the “brain” or “heart,” but “the image.” It will most likely be a new marvelous image, as she begins another transformation, which I hope to read in her next collection of poems.//

//

//

//

//

George, Jenny. The Dream of Reason. Copper Canyon Press, 2018.

//

19
Mar
17

On Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

//

Knowing Knott: Essays on an American PoetMy first encounter with Bill Knott was reading a review copy of The Unsubscriber (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) in a yurt in or nearby Newport, OR. I was dazzled and amazed at his wildness and technique. Next to the collection’s third poem, “Neckognition,” I wrote:

He has mystical line breaks. They do what we try to make them do. Give them a split-end quality. One line is appearance A, the next line changes appearance A into B and into C, until you’re left with A+B+C=an action or event of fluidity. He’s stopped time into discrete parts, but by the stanza’s end, the fluidity of the act is realized. See stanza one. Harmonies in the last stanza.

Here’s the poem:

     In love the head turns
     the face until it’s gone
     into another’s where
     it is further torn

     from its own mirror
     and grows even more
     erased and lost and though
     the former still yearns

     to be his/be hers
     it sees these lovers
     over your shoulder show

     whatever disappears
     can also go as verse
     whose shape’s nape-known now.

This is also a sonnet-variant. I fell in love instantly with this master of forms, language, style, Surrealism, and freedom to explore unlike any other poet, at least any poet I’m aware of, since Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet (Tiger Bark Press, 2017), there are essays from 16 other poets and friends of Knott, who also write about their love for him. The essays are short, and vary in length from three pages to 35 pages, although most tend to be around five to six pages. The essays are mostly filled with anecdotes that portray the complexities of Knott’s personality, his generosity, and self-sabotage at success. There is also some analysis of his poetry in Michael Waters’ essay “What Had Made Us So Whole: ‘The Sculpture’ by Bill Knott” and in Stuart Dischell’s “On Human Stilts,” but mostly the essays are sketches of Knott as complicated human being. The book also includes six color images of his art, as Knott “was as serious about his painting as his poetry” (113), as Robert Fanning notes in “May Eagles Guard Your Grave.”

In Thomas Lux’s essay “Bill Knott: Can My Voice Save My Throat,” Lux asks, “do you think Knott’s self-deprecation, his self-denigration, his self-abnegation, might have anything to do with his childhood?” (84). In the 83 pages prior to this, I was realizing much of Knott’s actions are the classic traits of someone who suffers from abandonment trauma. According to some of the authors with varying degrees of detail, when Knott was young, his mother died giving birth (though Knott “always suspected she might have died during an (then illegal) abortion” (91), then a few years later, his father sent him and his sister to an orphanage because he couldn’t take care of them, and then the father committed suicide. I believe this contributes to what Jonathan Galassi in “(Not) Publishing Bill Knott” identifies as Knott’s “serious self-esteem issues.” For instance, as Star Black in her essay “Loving Bill” points out, Knott:

[s]omehow felt betrayed by his own accomplishments and connections, as if to be a self-published outsider was not quite satisfying, yet to be an insider was fraudulent. Making a decision and then reversing the same decision after he made it was one of his traits. (44)

There are consistent stories throughout the anthology about him pushing away his success (and sometimes pushing away others before they could push him away) as if he wasn’t worthy of it or them, a classic defense move by someone who suffers from the trauma of abandonment.

Perhaps this is why he started to self-publish numerous chapbooks in small print runs, sometimes even only one copy. Knott published at least 11 books of poems with publishers such as “Random House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the University of Pittsburg Press, Sun Press, and the American Poets Continuum Series at BOA Editions” (Dischell 71), but he was so prolific and printed so many self-published chapbooks that probably no one knows how many books he really released, maybe not even Timothy Liu or John Skoyles who tried to collect everything Knott published.

Knott was a poet’s poet. He was a master of the craft and was always revising, and was even known to put “errata slips into books of his in bookstores” (Lux 85). Despite his constant revisions, Knott’s poems arrive to the reader with the energies and wildness of a first or second draft, which to me is a major accomplishment.

Knowing Knott is a pleasure to read, and can be read in one sitting because it is so engaging and only 114 pages of essays (126 total pages), and it’s very inspirational, too. Prior to reading this collection of essays, I thought Bill Knott was a semi-obscure poet, as not many poets I have met who are my age or younger know of him. After reading this book, I realize how important he was to the generation of poets before me and the generation before them. According to Robert Fanning in Knowing Knott’s last essay, Thomas Lux declared “Bill Knott our greatest living poet. ‘Bill Knott has more talent in his pinky finger [. . .] than Any Poet of his Generation” (115). I believe this book, in some degree, is a calling to future generations of poets to not overlook this poet whose “art lies, in part, in living inside the language, and lies, in part, in viewing it from the perspective of enduring outsider” (Waters 13), and whose poetry is so “hard-core surrealist” that, according to Lux, “If Bill were French and born a few years generations earlier, he would have kicked André Breton out of the [Surrealists] group for being counterrevolutionary” (80). I believe after reading Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet that Knott can teach poets how to be unique, wild, energy driven, as he fully embraced and triumphed in the many forms of poetry, and perhaps more importantly, Knott’s actions will inspire us to be generous members in the poetry community, as he was consistently helping poets with their poetry or helping them financially. In the words of Skoyles, “When we lost Bill, we lost a person with an uncompromising integrity and an enormous compassion for the underdog. [. . .] When we lost Bill, we lost what could be called the conscience of poetry” (97). Knowing Knott will keep reminding us of this and Bill Knott.

//

//

//

//

Huff, Steven, ed. Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet. Rochester, NY: Tiger Bark Press, 2017. Print.

//

26
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Charles Simic

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

//

Charles SimicCharles Simic (May 9, 1938) was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and immigrated to the United States in 1954, and he is considered an American poet. He lived through World War II, where his town was bombed, and was even bombed by the American poet Richard Hugo. According to Simic in an interview with Grace Cavalieri:

Charles Simic: So, I met – bumped into [Richard] Hugo in San Francisco in a restaurant, and we were talking, and he said, “What did you do this summer?” And this is 1972, and this is the first time I went back to Belgrade, and I said, “Well, I went back to Belgrade.” “Ah,” he says, “Belgrade!” And he started describing Belgrade. He says, “Here’s the Danube; here’s the Sava River, here’s the main train station, here’s this bridge, that bridge.” So I had no idea how he knew. So I said, “You’ve been there. You’ve visited Belgrade.” And he said, “No, never in my life. I used to bomb it two, three times a week.” So then I just exclaimed – blurted out, I said, “I was down there!” And he was very upset. He was very, very upset.
Grace Cavalieri: Of course. It’s one of those amazing little things. And you became friends.
CS: Yeah. I mean, I understood it was wartime; bombs fall on your head.
GC: But there he is looking at you.
CS: He wrote me a poem, he was apologetic. It troubled him a great deal. (14-15)

Simic is the author of many collections of poems, including The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (1989), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, the author of a number of books of essays, and he has translated French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian poetry.

When I read Grace Cavalieri’s interview with Charles Simic, two surprising things were pointed out. Surprise one, Cavalieri doesn’t “feel comfortable when people talk about [Simic’s] poetry as ‘surreal’” (12). To which Simic replied, “When you’re young, you get a label” (12), and he, too, didn’t think he was surrealist, which led to surprise two. Simic said he’s “a hard realist” (12). I had not read Simic in well over 10 years, but I remembered him being surreal, and so I assumed, like most poets, he didn’t want to be labelled or nailed down to any one particular aesthetic. Then today I read his Selected Early Poems (George Braziller, 1999). I, too, recognize that he isn’t a surrealist.

When I think of surrealism, I think of some surreal thing that invades and takes over a poem. The object/subject asserts its presence and its logic, like in a dream when the images invade your mind against your will and you watch. With Simic, however, he creates situations. He, along with language, controls how things will behave in his poems. Simic, among a number of techniques: creates situations; mythologizes or animates objects; manifests abstractions; or through his hyper-attention to the real, he brings forth what might be overlooked, and in that presentation, the object might appear surreal, when in fact it is just Simic looking at it a new. Simic is visionary in that he envisions his own realities.

“The Chicken Without a Head” (Selected Poems 74-77) is an example of where he creates a situation and mythologizes it. The poem opens with him imagining old realities when “the earth was still flat,” “When there were 13 signs in the zodiac,” and when “The chicken without a head was hatched.” The latter premise he uses as his scenario for which to follow with his imagination and creativity to make the rest of the poem. And in this poem, he creates the world, the possibility of a world, with a living “chicken without a head.” So it doesn’t come to him like an uncontrollable surreal dream. No, Simic, with all his fantastic imagery, is in control, and he reminds us twice. First in the middle of section 2, when he writes, “No, I’m lying,” which confirms to the reader that he is making up this story and that it is not a surreal projection from the unconscious of which he has no control. The second time is at the end of section 4, where he again reminds us of the lie when he writes, “I swear it by the yolk in my hair / There’s no such thing as a chicken without a head.” What Simic does do is to push the headless-chicken scenario as far as he can. He does a similar thing in “Brooms” (45-48), too. The initial scenario is that “Only brooms / Know the devil / Still exists,” and then what follows is something like his journalistic or documentary account of the history of the broom. It’s the realist’s approach to the mythologies of the broom, some of which come from “dream books” and some of which he imagines. In this poem, too, is an example of hyper-attention to the real presenting a seemingly surreal-like image. In lines 4-5, he writes, “That the snow grows whiter / After a crow has flown over it.” That’s a real perception that most of us have encountered, or have encountered something similar. When you look at the snow, it looks white, but when contrasted with black, it suddenly becomes whiter, especially after the juxtaposing black is removed. So it seems surreal, but it’s an optical illusion grounded in the real, but more on this later.

Sometimes Simic will animate an object, which in turn creates a surreal-like scenario. For instance, in “My Shoes,” the poem opens with a unique re-visioning of a pair of shoes:

     Shoes, secret face of my inner life: 
     Two gaping toothless mouths, 
     Two partly decomposed animal skins 
     Smelling of mice nests.

Then he begins to mythologize their existence by projecting his dead brother and sister into the shoes, and then says:

     I want to proclaim the religion
     I have devised for your perfect humility
     And the strange church I am building
     With you as the altar.

He has made the shoes the center of a religion, his religion, for they are “The only true likeness of myself,” Simic’s self. Sometimes, however, Simic will just animate objects to see what they can do in his imagination, such as “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand” (21-22), “Fork” (23) where he also gives it a mythic origin, “Spoon” (24), etc.

On other occasions he will similarly manifest an abstraction, as in “Dismantling Silence” (20). In this poem, he takes the abstract idea of silence and gives it a body. It takes on a dream-like presence as it manifested with ears, which are quickly cut off, and then in the brilliant image “With a sharp whistle slit its belly open.” By continually adding human or animal like features to the “silence,” he is able to bring it to life while at the same dismantle it. He makes us it hear it by seeing it.

In yet other poems, Simic will create a seemingly surreal-like scenario because of his hyper-attention to the real. For instance, “Summer Morning”:

     I love to stay in bed
     All morning,
     Covers thrown off, naked,
     Eyes closed, listening.

     Outside they are opening
     Their primers
     In the little school
     Of the cornfield.

     There's a smell of damp hay,
     Of horses, laziness,
     Summer sky and eternal life.

     I know all the dark places
     Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
     Where the last cricket
     Has just hushed; anthills
     Where it sounds like it's raining;
     Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

     I pass over the farmhouses
     Where the little mouths open to suck,
     Barnyards where a man, naked to the waist,
     Washes his face and shoulders with a hose,
     Where the dishes begin to rattle in the kitchen.

     The good tree with its voice
     Of a mountain stream
     Knows my steps.
     It, too, hushes.

     I stop and listen:
     Somewhere close by
     A stone cracks a knuckle,
     Another rolls over in its sleep.

     I hear a butterfly stirring
     Inside a caterpillar,
     I hear the dust talking
     Of last night’s storm.

     Further ahead, someone
     Even more silent
     Passes over the grass
     Without bending it.

     And all of a sudden!
     In the midst of that quiet,
     It seems possible
     To live simply on this earth.

Here, there are a number of occasions where the speaker is just acutely aware of his surroundings that are out of the normal range of perception. For instance, normal senses would not be able to see schoolchildren “opening / Their primers,” or far off smell the “damp hay, / Of horses, laziness,” or far away hear “Where the dishes begin to rattle in the kitchen,” or more importantly, “hear a butterfly stirring / Inside a caterpillar” or hear someone pass “over the grass / Without bending it.” These are all real images but ones that could only be seen with his acute awareness, a hyperawareness, and because of that, their presentation, especially the butterfly, seems surreal-like. In a few places, he enhances his hyperaware perception by decorating it with surreal images of his making, such as “Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses,” or “A stone cracks a knuckle.” And so we have a speaker so attuned to his environment that it overwhelms him like the end of a James Wright poem, “And all of a sudden! / [. . .] It seems possible / To live simply on this earth.” That closing epiphany along with being situated in a real environment that slowly overcomes him, turns this into Deep Image poem, perhaps the only one in this selection. I note this because Simic if often considered a Deep Image poet, but Simic has too much humor and too much of his own creating of reality to be a Deep Image poet. Simic creates situations, whereas Deep Image poets re-create situations with a sincere tone. One can also find hyper-awareness of the real creating a surreal-like scenario in “Solitude” (66), where the speaker notes that no one can hear a crumb hit the floor, but he knows the ants can, and when they do, they put on “Their Quaker hats” to come and collect the crumb.

Simic is often animating or mythologizing an object or subject. He is in control, especially in his hyper-awareness of the real. There is at least one poem, however, where he is not. It’s one of the few poems where the subject of the poem gets its own voice, and this happens in “What the White Had to Say” (90-91). Right from the start, White speaks and tells Simic, “Because I’m nothing you can name, / I knew you long before you knew me.” Simic is confronted with something he can’t control or animate for the White will “not answer to your [Simic’s] hocus-pocus.” The White will animate Simic. The White takes on the qualities of fear and anxiety, and it’s so powerful, that even Simic’s “shadow / [. . .] has not stirred on the wall.” To me this means either there is so much white and so much brightness, that a shadow cannot be cast (which in Jungian terms might mean there’s so much self-conscious awareness in that fear/anxiety state, that the unconscious (the self) cannot be projected). Or it might just mean that there is a shadow, but Simic is scared stiff and can’t move, thus his shadow can’t move. Simic is paralyzed in his inability to animate or create.

There are also a few ars poetica poems that can help shed light on what I am getting at overall. One is “Description” (111-113), which begins:

     That which brings it
     about. The cause.

     The sweet old temptation
     to find an equivalent

     for the ineffable

This describes the process of creation of a Simic poem, as I see it. There’s the inspiration or scenario or subject/object that has yet to be seen in a unique way, and Simic will find a way to represent those unseen qualities by finding equivalent language and images, which often appear surreal. Then there’s the ars poetic “Elementary Cosmogony” (42), which is even closer to describing Simic’s poetic process.

     How to the invisible
     I hired myself to learn
     Whatever trade it might
     Consent to teach me.

     How the invisible
     Came out for a walk
     On a certain evening
     Casting the shadow of a man.

     How I followed behind
     Dragging my body
     Which is my tool box,
     Which is my music box,

     For a long apprenticeship
     That has as its last
     And seventh rule:
     The submission to chance.

Here we see Simic treating the writing of poetry like a “trade,” and he even has “toolbox” (the tools of his writing craft) and a “music box” (a poem is musical). As part of his trade, he will observe the invisible (“the ineffable” from the previous poem) like a scientist or investigator, “How I followed behind / Dragging my body.” He’s staying close to that invisible realm, or what others might consider invisible, but Simic has hyper-awareness and is able to track the invisible. This doesn’t come easy though, as it is “a long apprenticeship.” Even though I’ve been noting that Simic likes to control his renderings, he’s not immune to letting “chance” enter his poems. A good poet likes to be surprised, and often that surprise arrives luckily, unconsciously, from some place else, from the chance of language and imagination, and Simic has learned to allow for this.

I bought this book well over ten years ago. On the title page, under “Selected Early Poems,” I wrote, “He sleeps in the mind.” I don’t know why I wrote it, or what it means, but it feels right somehow.

//

Works Cited

Cavalieri, Grace. “Interview with Charles Simic.” Paterson Literary Review 37 (2009): 9-22. Literary Reference Center. Web. 24 Sept. 2015. PDF.

//

25
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Mark Strand

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

//

Mark StrandMark Strand (1934 – 2014) was born in Canada, but he is considered an American poet. In 1990, he his collection of poems Blizzard of One won the Pulitzer Prize.

I picked up on four themes while reading through Mark Strand Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). The selections begin with poems from his first book Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) and ends with The Late Hour (1978), plus some New Poems from 1980. What I picked up on is that Strand is concerned with living a life that can be reflected on without regret, the idea of time (especially the present), the intersection of the surreal and the real, and the “I” of existence.

The concerns with living an unfulfilled life are most present in Sleeping with One Eye Open and then in The Story of Our Lives (1973). In “When the Vacation is Over for Good” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), Strand uses vacation as a metaphor for life, and when one is on vacation, one sometimes acts as if “There was nothing to do,” which is a waste of a vacation and a life, especially when the unforeseen “weather turned” and then one really couldn’t do anything. And eventually the vacation is over and the vacationer is left wondering “why it is / We are dying,” the closing lines to the poem. “Violent Storm” (which is the next poem in the Selected Poems) comes to a similar conclusion after a dialectical movement between dream/fantasy imagery with the imagery of the real. And it ends, “Already now the lights / That shared our wakefulness are dimming / And the dark brushes against our eyes.” Strand will throughout his poems give examples of how to be active, especially in the present.

For Strand, the present “is a place / you’ve never been” (“Black Maps,” Darker, 1970), it is “emptiness,” and it is something to inhabit, if it can be inhabited. For instance, Strand has what I call “temporal loop” poems. These are poems you read and feel like you are moving through time, but by the end, you are where you started, and you not sure if any time has passed. This occurs in “The Tunnel” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), where the speaker sees a man “standing in front” of his “house / for days.” The speaker tries to get him to leave, but the stranger will not. The speaker then tries to protect himself and escape to his neighbor’s house by digging a tunnel. Eventually, he comes “out in front of a house,” and he gets the sensation that:

     I feel I’m being watched
     and sometimes I hear
     a man’s voice
     but nothing is done and I have been waiting for days.

The speaker and the man at the door are the same, despite the shift in time and place. Or there is the psychological thriller in “The Mailman”:

     It is midnight.
     He comes up the walk
     and knocks at the door.
     I rush to greet him.
     He stands there weeping,
     shaking a letter at me.
     He tells me it contains
     terrible personal news.
     He falls to his knees.
     “Forgive me! Forgive me!” he pleads.

     I ask him inside.
     He wipes his eyes.
     His dark blue suit
     is like an inkstain
     on my crimson couch.
     Helpless, nervous, small,
     he curls up like a ball
     and sleeps while I compose
     more letters to myself
     in the same vein:

     “You shall live
     by inflicting pain.
     You shall forgive.”

This poem is from Reasons for Moving (1968). This looping idea and uncertainty of presence in the present will really come into full being in “The Untelling,” the nine-page poem from The Story of Our Lives, but more on that later. The poems that play with time and try to define the present are also poems that blend the perceived with the misperceived and how the misperceived becomes real, much like he does with the surreal and real imagery he uses.

The intersection of the surreal and real is introduced in the title of his first collection: Sleeping with One Eye Open, so as to suggest the real (one eye open) and dream world (sleeping and surreal) coexist. Often the poems move in a dialectical movement between the real and surreal, such as in “Violent Storm” (Sleeping with One Eye Open) or in “The Man in the Tree” (Reasons for Moving, 1968). Often after alternating between surreal and real imagery, there is a moment of analysis, but eventually, the reader (or the speaker, maybe) are left wondering what is real or surreal, or how is the surreal successfully posing as the real, or how the surreal became real? For example, in “What to Think Of” (Reasons for Moving), the poem opens:

     Think of the jungle,
     The green steam rising.

     It is yours.
     You are the Prince of Paraguay.

The poem begins by asserting the imagination and the reality it can create, and it’s so real, one can own it like a prince. And as a prince, as the poem shows, the people worship you (the imaginer) and the “air” you inhabited as prince. In fact, you as prince are “almost a god.” The imagined realm, however, can come alive without your consent. It’s something you can’t fully colonize. Soon the “bats / Rushing out of their caves,” and the “coral snakes,” “crimson birds,” and “tons and tons of morpho butterflies” arrive “Like the cold confetti of paradise.” In this case, the reality is harsh, because the imaginer tried to rule over it like a prince. This poem is also a poem about how to inhabit a place.

Inhabiting a place, especially the place of “I,” is a significant theme in Strand’s poems, where things are often being filled or emptied and where there is liminal imagery like doors, windows, and horizons. Much of Strand’s poetry is concerned with what I is or can be. There is the concern with the physical I, such as in “Keeping Things Whole”:

     In a field
     I am the absence
     of field.
     This is
     always the case.
     Wherever I am
     I am what is missing.

     When I walk
     I part the air
     and always
     the air moves in
     to fill the spaces
     where my body’s been.

     We all have reasons
     for moving.
     I move
     to keep things whole.

He is not a field, but he inhabits the space that is the absence of the field. He fills the void of wherever wherever is not. He is presence where once there was absence. He’s always walking into what is missing and his presence is erased by the moving air filling his spaces when he leaves. And so he moves to keep things whole. However, as I read more of Strand, I find the physical I that fills spaces to be only a container of the life of I. The body is not the I but is a storage unit for the life of I. This sounds confusing, so let me give an example.

     The Remains

     I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
     I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
     At night I turn back the clocks;
     I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

     What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
     I say my own name. I say goodbye.
     The words follow each other downwind.
     I love my wife but send her away.

     My parents rise out of their thrones
     into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
     Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
     I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

This poem is from Darker (1970). By the end of the first two lines, it’s as if he is without ego (how he interacts with “others”), without an id (as he has emptied himself of possessions and thus desire), and when he leaves his shoes, it’s like he’s walked out of himself. He tries to find himself through memories and through language, but those are all fleeting ways to make a self. He realizes he, but not his body, is his “change,” his growth, his experiences through time. And if he empties the shell of the body, his life still remains, in a way similar to a photograph. It’s the living that matters, not the body or appearance or presence of body. It’s what one does while inhabiting the body. It’s the body moving through the moments of time, for in each moment “There is the sleep of one moment / inside the next” (“The Sleep,” Darker, 1970) and each moment keeps birthing another moment until the final moment, which is death, which is “like another skin which I shall never be found, / out of which I shall never appear” (“The Sleep”). Death is another space into which one grows, as he says in “My Life,” “I grow into my death” (Darker, 1970). But if one doesn’t live that life in the body, then there will be regret.

Perhaps the one poem that brings all four of these themes together is “Elegy for My Father” (The Story of Our Lives, 1973), which has six sections. The first section is titled “The Empty Body.” This section along with section three, “Your Dying,” speak harshly to and about his dead father, who did not inhabit the one body he was given, as the opening lines indicate: “The hands were yours, the arms were yours, / But you were not there,” or later where he more clearly states it, “The body was yours, but you were not there.” According to the speaker, the father found pleasure in not filling his body with life experiences because, among many things, he “went to work let the cold enter your clothes. / [. . .] But nothing could stop you” from dying, and “You went on with your dying.” Slowly, I start to realize, or conjecture, that his father is the cause for Strand’s themes of living, the presence of I, and inhabiting the present. In section four, “Your Shadow,” real and surreal imagery enter the poem in the form of the father’s shadow, which in Jungian psychology is the unconscious part of the personality and everything that one cannot directly know about him- or herself. It is repressed substance, whether good or bad. In this case, it is the father’s will to live, for the shadow, after the father dies, is excited and “rejoiced among the ruins” of the dead host. The shadow is free and feels it can finally live. The shadow makes it presence known to the speaker as the speaker recounts what happened, “It sat on my shoulders. / Your shadow is yours. I told it so. I said it was yours. / I have carried it with me too long. I give it back.” (Where “yours” is his father.) Which to me seems like the speaker is saying something like, “I’ve been living enough and trying to fill both our lives (his and his father’s). Stop projecting on me. You had your opportunity to live, and now it’s past.” In the last section, “The New Year,” he tells his dead father in the winter of the new year, “Nobody knows you. You are the neighbor of nothing.” His father failed to fill the empty body with something.

Later in Strand’s writing, the surreal imagery occurs less often, and he also starts considering how language can fill the I or the present. In “The Untelling,” for example, the poem narrates how a character is trying to write and narrate and existence through writing, which continually fails in whole, but it does minutely affect his surroundings, or so we think until we arrive at the end of the poem, which is really the beginning of the poem again. We have entered another temporal loop, but his one is more of a narrative loop driven by language, which leaves the reader wondering, again, about perceptions and misperceptions and how they affect each other. This time, however, unlike the surreal-real interactions of his earlier poetry, it is the interaction of language with the real.

//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

Enter your email address to subscribe to The Line Break and receive email notifications of new posts.

Join 2,818 other followers

November 2020
M T W T F S S
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

Archives

The Line Break Tweets


%d bloggers like this: