Saturday, May 7, 2011

Acquainted with Night

  In Randall Jarrell’s essay “The Other Frost,” he reminds us that Robert Frost, at his best, was not the Farmer-Poet, “full of dry wisdom and free, complacent Yankee enterprise.”  Rather there is another Frost that seemed to have escaped notice of both the common reader of poetry (yes, there seemed to be such a public, once), and the intellectual followers of Eliot and Auden.  This other Frost was dark and uncompromising:  “many of these poems are extraordinarily subtle and strange, poems which express an attitude that, at its most extreme, make pessimism seem a hopeful evasion.”

I read this essay thirty-six years ago, when I was first smitten with Jarrell and his work—starting with Hannah Arendt’s essay about Jarrell in her book Men in Dark Times, recommended to me by my political science professor, Leonard Jonathan Lamm.   As the kids say—shout out to Dr. Lamm.  Many of the poems that Jarrell highlights have been among my favorite poems, especially “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” and “Acquainted with the Night.” 

Obviously, I have been reminded of this essay and Frost’s poetry lately as I read Paul Christensen’s new volume of poems The Human Condition (Wings Press).  In “Night Town,” Christensen writes his own version of “Acquainted with the Night” and adds a gentle allusion to Edward Hopper while he is at it. 

I am out walking again, hands shoved
into empty pockets, The city
at four a.m. rests like a lion
with ears pinned back.
I give it room, and walk the bright
side of town.  Everyone’s in their
first dreams, picking flowers
in a field, falling in love, buying
a house in the country after
winning the lottery. (page 13)

The first thing I need to say—there are so many things trying to squeeze through the door jams all at once—is that I admire Christensen’s uncompromising clarity.  The language of this poem is free of post-modern clutter. The first strophe of this 28-line poem consists of four simple, declarative sentences, alternating between the actions of the persona and the actions of the city, the people in the city.  At first, this poem appears as if it might be about the man walking late at night and his sad life, and it is, but it becomes more.  It turns midway with the line, “My beautiful life. / I didn’t seem to care for much till now.”

By the end of the poem, we know the poem is really about the town, about us—just as its title tells us it is—and about the uneasy peace in which we all live:  “The night hawks / sleep at last, falling into night / without parachutes or wings.”  Christensen’s repetition of “falling” from the first strophe is telling—dreams of “falling in love” become “falling into night.”  And there is nothing to save us; we are neither soldiers nor angels.

Christensen is sixty eight years old this year, and it is tempting to reduce this book to being the vision of the world through the eyes of a man seeing himself age. 

“I’m the last living member of my family. / I carry its meager history on my back” (page 24)
“shelves bend under a load of names / once borrowed by the dead” (page 30)
“Sometimes the past puts on its clothes / and walks back into my life.”  (page 41)
“the hard look in the mirror, / as if age were finally catching up.” (page 54)
“One’s life is no longer a self-portrait / . . . . Your face vanishes / in the mirror and the world takes over.” (page 76)
“I dine on all my memories / of death; I eat my friends at night,” (page 93)

This is a book that could not be written by a young man.  While the physical landscapes of this book range from College Station to El Paso to Provence to Beirut to Cap d’Antibes and to Iraq, the emotional landscape of this book is a wearied but active acceptance of time and trouble.  As he writes, contemplating the horrors in Eritrea,

. . . . I am always
waiting for a sign from god, a blazing figure
in the sky part fire, part cry of indignation
that would roll for years across the heavens.
We could all quake and sink to our knees
to ask forgiveness, but that day will have to wait. 
(“What I Think about in Summer,” page 74.)

The young are brimming with outrage and praise, and they pour whatever language they have upon our streets, like hydrants, to clear themselves of it.  Christensen’s cup overflows, but I imagine him patiently conserving his “spontaneous emotion,” bottling it, and letting it age for the right moment. 

His poem “A Hero with a Thousand Faces,” is as powerful as Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” in forcing us to see the cost of war.

Out of nowhere, fire snaked from a muzzle
cutting his arms in two,
pulling his guts apart until his shirt
was a taut sack of blood.  His buddies
pulled him by his collar out of fire,
left him there, to hunt a ghost
with lead and thunder. (page 88)

The music of Christensen’s poetry in this volume seems to me to be like Chopin or Scriabin, solo piano.  Clean melodic lines, the resonance of vowels and consonants.  Notice the u’s and o’s in this strophe, modulating in the tension between the t’s and k’s, on one hand, and the l’s, on the other hand.  There is such overbearing rage in this passage conveyed with patience and calm.

And just to make sure that we know the real source of the horror, Christensen brings us back home to our living rooms.  He concludes this poem:

Back home, Oprah in interviewing
five successful dieters with their doctor,
a sad man with baggy eyes, a wistful
look at all the ignorance staring back at him.
He promises beauty and sex for
fifty bucks, and hears the phones ring
like sirens singing, while our hero
naps in his soiled chair, knees jerking
spasmodically to his unbearable dreams.  (88-89)

We have a nice light allusion to Odysseus returning home from war to balance the strong irony of the title’s reference to Joseph Campbell's study of heroes in myth.

There’s more to say, but this is enough.  Except to point out that Christensen includes in this book two poems remembering two important poets who resided in Texas for many years, Lorenzo Thomas and Jack Myers.  This book contains several ghosts enlivened by Christensen’s imagination. And that is why this book is not finally a book written by a poet in his later years.  Christensen ends one poem wishing to be “one who / tested the imagination and found / it working after all” (“Revolution at Ten O’clock,” page 18).  It’s this line that I think tells us what this book is really about.  We are all caught in the trap of the human condition.  What saves us is our imagination.  If ours in inaccessible to us, it is the imagination of a poet that saves us, a poet like Paul Christensen, gentle, wise in his pessimism, and unafraid of the dark. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sheering Winds and the Gulf

I’ll admit it right up front:  Mary Margaret Carlisle responded to one of my previous posts, and I assume I will see her soon at the Walt Whitman Birthday Celebration at Lone Star College in Montgomery, hosted by David Parsons, himself a poet who will find himself mentioned again in these pages.  I have a couple of Mary Margaret’s volumes that I picked up previously at the Emily Dickinson Birthday Celebration, so Toss Me to the Waiting Sky (Poetry in the Arts) is the next volume to read.

I find an ekphrastic poem a good place to begin thinking about this book and the poet who wrote it.  Toward the end of the book is the poem “Branch of White Peonies and Pruning Shears” based on Edouard Manet’s painting with that title.  Below is the first strophe.

languidly sprawled
upon a sienna brown table
spreading petals
delicately curled at the edges
a branch of white blossoms
newly shorn
by a barely revealed
pair of pruning sheers (50)

Ekphrastic poems can be telling because they are a form in which a poet goes in search of subjects.  They are not poems written from immediate need or angst or joy, nor from current events, personal or political.  I hope someday to comment on Larry Thomas’s poems in The Skin of Light, and James Hoggard’s Triangles of Light (a book on Edward Hopper’s work), and Robert Wynne’s Museum of Parallel Art.  These books will probably tell us a great deal about their writers and what troubles them.

It is the last line of the strophe that opens up, for me, Carlisle’s poetry.  My reading of this poem and of so many poems in this book focuses on the “the barely revealed / pair of pruning sheers.”  We begin with a beautiful, closely observed scene, but there is always a realization of the effects of violence hinted at, barely revealed.  Life, the experience of life, is so wonder-ful, so sweet, but always in danger of being cut off, cut short.  Why select this painting of all the paintings to write about?  It’s the sheers, the homely, the everyday article, the tool in everyone’s garden, that hints at the fact that, somehow, beauty in its natural state is not enough for us.  We humans are compelled to possess, to own, to seek and claim and, often, to destroy. 

In the poem “Gadwall Duck Pond, West Texas,” Carlisle wrestles with a loss—“he won’t be back.”  It’s early winter, the pond is peaceful, like a mirror, with no one peering in.  Her temptation is to act, to control: 

I could chop another cord of logs
to stack beside the door before the flurries fall
or just give up, go home.
It’s just so quiet.  Can I make it through the winter?
Maybe I should close the cabin.  Sell it.  Buy a single condo
in the city.  Get a computer, TV, a telephone.  (page 21)

It just seems to be the net we are caught in as humans who live so much of our lives in noisy, distracting clusters of our cities:

This background of night
is the drone of highway traffic
hum of a neighbor’s air conditioner
songs of summer cicadas.
 . . . . The usual quiet stretch
between light’s out and dawn seems
endlessly interrupted by small noises
and the mockingbird atop
our fireplace chimney
opens and closes the golf umbrella
of sleep so often
silent midnight wakes us all. (“Is that Rain on the Roof?,” page 13)

You can’t get away from this being human—if you do, you wake and you’re back again and it is midnight.   As she writes about her son, in “Shearing”:  “Buddha smiling / before everything else follows.”

I wonder what the Gulf and living in Webster and so near Galveston has to do with this.  This is hurricane country, a place of temporary beauty and temporary terror.  Here you cannot expect anything to be permanent.

the roof tears off and up     the wind roars screaming
until a wordless silence drops
into the darkness
the only light a circle of stars until rain returns
followed by wind and it begins again  (“Rosemary for Remembrance,”  page 20)

There is in these six lines a narrative that I think peeks through many of her poems:  trauma, silence, trauma.  Or perhaps at other times:  peace, trauma, peace.  Time and place are both islands in which we humans live and work.

In “island girl,” Carlisle writes:

you are trapped
by the very thing
that has kept you safe
you cannot flee
beyond the harbor
of the tiny island
or yourself  (page 31)

In this poem, as in many of Carlisle’s poems, there are no capitals, no punctuation , no finality. 
“I become a solitary gull    a ship    a fish / a grain of sand upon the shore,” she writes in “Forming” (page 30).  Again, no punctuation, except for spacing, the blending and the isolation of syntax and white spaces. 

The title to this volume comes from the last line of a poem set on the Llano Estacado, another bare, isolating landscape.  She finds a mallard trapped, like the island girl.  In this case, the mallard is set free, and in this event Carlisle realizes she, too, is trapped, again like the island girl, in her own self: 

tethered tight by leather strands of memories.
I wonder—will I fly off alone
When life’s sharp knife cuts me free?
Or will I wait for someone else
To toss me to the waiting sky? (“Tethered in Llando Estacado,” page 42.)

What courage we have here!   Here is a woman willing to live in life’s temporary states, life’s isolated states.  Just toss me into the sky like a trapped bird set free.  There will be winds, there will be storms.  We are all shorn blossoms, cut from our root stock, petals lying on a brown table, birds set free.