Doorbells and Sleighbells and; or, Reading A. R. Ammons’s Garbage

I love when literary synchronicity happens, that is, when I’m thinking about a thing or have just written about it and suddenly, randomly stumble on someone else thinking or having thought about the same thing. I decided, spurred by a mention of him in an essay on the long essay/poem, to finally explore the poetry of A. R. Ammons. He’s someone whose work I’m surprised I haven’t sought before, as his interests in science and the land are right up my alley. But it’s always been one of those, oh, yeah, I’ll get to that.

But I got my hands on Garbage, his booklength, multipart poem. And there in the first section were things I had written about that very day in my own notes: the competition of trees, the dismay of overabundance, and what has also been on my mind, which he puts this way: “…we tie into the/lives of those we love and our lives, then, go//as theirs go; their pain we can’t shake off…”

The book as a whole contains a lot of…well, stuff. Quite a bit of it is about itself, Ammons being clever about writing about writing, amusing himself to no end. So I have had to plow a bit through it all and hard-to-follow meanderings but just as I would get impatient and start to mutter words like “self-indulgent” under my breath, he’d hit me with something like this from section 3. We are watching the driver of a garbage truck on top of the municipal mound of garbage:

…the driver gets out of his truck
and wanders over to the cliff on the spill and
looks off from the high point into the rosy-fine
rising of day, the air pure, the winds of the
birds white and clean as angel-food cake; holy, holy,
holy, the driver cries and flicks his cigarette
in a spiritual swoop that float and floats before
it touches ground: here, the driver knows.
where the consummations gather, where the disposal
flows out of form, where the last translations
cast away their immutable bits and scraps,
flits of steel, shivers of bottle and tumbler,
here is the gateway to beginning, here the portal
of renewing change, the birdshit, even, melding
enrichingly in with debris, a loam for the roots
of placenta…

That “gateway to beginning” found among the ends of things, the detritus, the beginning found in the ends of things, as a tree grows outward from the center and rots that way too, having absorbed a lifetime of nutrients, having shared what it had.

I didn’t love much of Garbage, but it taught me something about the glory of excess, and the boldness of pouring it all into the poem, carrot peels and rotten meat, old receipts and fancy packaging, and having the patience and faith in the process to make a path and find a pattern.

 

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Lingua Franca, Alfie; or What Poetry is All About

“It’s all about language!” Nancy exclaims.

“Yes!” I cry, “That’s it exactly!”

Her undergraduate poetry students, apparently, balk at this. They’re sure it must be all about their experience and their emotion. And, of course, yes, it is, AND ALSO…and yes, it is, BUT THEN…, she tries to explain. Without attention to language, we run the risk of writing prose and sticking random line breaks in and calling it a poem. Possibly with tortured and obvious end rhymes, just to make sure the moniker sticks.

Well, that’s her battle to fight. I have my own: I started thinking surely I could now come to appreciate more of the contemporary poetry I struggle with if I could only remember that it’s all about language.

But actually, often that’s the problem I have. It seems to be all about language…and not much or enough about experience or emotion…much less the other basic building blocks of poetry’s towers, huts, bridges, and many mansions.

A quick tally in my own mind of these blocks include: image, diction and tone, rhythm, silence, placement of words visually on the page. Oh, and intention.

So, language, yes, AND…or I’m left dangling in a language soup. Throw some croutons to this drowning fly. Give me a little logic, some sense of depth of meaning, some boogie woogie; and image, please, give me a flower or a piece of dogshit on the sidewalk or a surgeon’s scalpel under the light, something to grab onto, even if it bloodies me.

I know I’ve lamented this again and again in this blog, and encouraged myself to read more slowly, read with a broader mind and spirit. But I keep forgetting, and getting frustrated all over again when I read the next inscrutable (to me) volume. But I’m ready to dive in again, armed with the battle cry “Language! Language!”

But lest it seem like I only read poetry I don’t get, let me take a moment to mention a few books I’ve read recently or are in the middle of which I am very much enjoying: Lisa Bellamy’s The Northway, Jackie Craven’s Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, and Sarah Giragosian’s Queer Fish. Oh, and rereading Anne Carson’s fascinating Autobiography of Red. Huzzah.

Easy on the Eyes; or, Book Report on Recent Reading

I find myself in the midst of some terrific reads right now, piles of jewels of books that I’m rolling around in like Midas.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is a gentle murmur of profound wisdom, the breeze ticking the corn leaves, quaking the aspen as this botanist and member of the Potawotami people braids together different ways of knowing. I’m taking small bites of it, rare for me, a voracious eater. But it’s the proper way to absorb this book.

Ruth L. Schwartz’s Miraculum is poems of close observation, of some duende, and the intimacy of conversation with an old friend. I love encountering books whose authors seem like someone I’d like to know.

Bruce Beasley’s All Soul Parts Returned is quick becoming a new favorite, sprawling, witty poems considering the soul and the sanity, tweaking the sacred mutterings of catechisms. Love his work, which always makes me laugh and be amazed at his creativity.

Lucia Perilla’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths is so full of life, often wry, vivid. Mortality is much on the mind of these lively poems, so it was especially startling for me to learn that this wonderful poet I just discovered died a few years ago.

David Sedaris’s new book Calypso is funny and poignant, as we spend time with his wacky family whom he loves to the bottom of his twisted little heart. I am reading more and more slowly, as I don’t want this book to end.

And my guilty pleasure: I read Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island in two days. It’s been a while since I indulged in a page-turner and it was worth it.

The Best Revenge: or, Writing the Human

I’m not a forgive-and-forgetter. I’m more of a I’ll-let-it-go-this-time-but-it’s-going-in-your-permanent-record type. So you’d think I’d enjoy a good revenge fantasy poem. But, having encountered a couple recently, I find I feel impatient with them. Why? Do I think art should show the best we can be, not the worst? The best AND the worst, maybe. But revenge fantasy, nor even actual revenge, is not the worst of us. It’s the pettiest of us. And for that, perhaps, it has not, at least in these few poems I read, fulfilled for me the act of art. I can do petty any old day. It takes real strength of imagination to conjure the worst of the human impulse. And the best. I ask from poems this kind of imagination. In a revenge tale, there’s always a bad guy and the victim, even if the roles reverse. And the victim’s act of revenge has an aura of holy justice about it, no matter how bad is the act. There is a god-like nature of the revenge act that is not as interesting to me as the exploration of the flawed and contradictory human nature.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I saw the movie I, Tonya recently, and found it fascinating. The filmmakers gave us no heroes, nor anti-heroes. Every character is fucked up. But somehow not entirely unlikeable. At least not 100% of the time. It’s a crazy story of crazy people in a crazy subculture in a crazy world. Just as cartoons sometimes reveal the world more truly than a photograph, so this cartoonish movie somehow showed the tragic nature of humanity. It’s billed as a comedy, but only in that comedy and tragedy are so closely aligned. I found it a deeply sad movie. And satisfyingly so, because of the manifestation of gray areas, the beautiful chiarascuro of the human plight of living with ourselves.

 

 

Another Round of Notes from the First Round

It was time again for my task as first-round reader for a poetry book contest. Once again I approached with self-doubt and angst. Once again, I learned some things to apply to my own work.

The twenty-five or so manuscripts I looked at were uniformly pretty well-written, which tells me that people are taking the time to learn something of the craft of writing (or at least reviewing the rules of grammar) and the art of poetry.

But I found that several of these full-length manuscripts felt more like solid chapbooks with other stuff stuffed in around them. This is interesting and a useful cautionary tale. I need to examine my own current full-length ms to make sure I have truly a full group of good poems and not a core of good ones and some bubble wrap.

A corollary to this is that it seems like collections are getting longer and longer. And I’ve noted in an earlier post that contest rules are asking for mss that are of higher and higher page count. I just don’t think this is a good thing. I want a book of poems to be a small world I live in, roaming around, revisiting streets and vistas. I don’t want to wander forever in strange terrain. Too many times I’ve encountered collections that after a while make me say “Enough already.” This is not good for poetry, already fighting an uphill battle for readers. Too many poems invites too many weak poems. I favor shorter and stronger throughout. Whack ’em with some good stuff and go.

“Ahem ahem”: I found that, no lie, 80% of the manuscripts were chock full of epigraphs: epigraphs for the ms as a whole, for sections, for individual poems. And 98% of the time the epigraphs added nothing to the experience of the poem. Why why why do people do this? It seems like a lot of throat clearing and paper shuffling. Unless they provide some vital context, I just don’t see the point. I began to resent this imposition on my time. They’re unnecessary ruffles. Think of Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. If you want to use someone’s line in your work, have at it; just give them a nod in an end note. But epigraphs? Enough. Stop hiding behind someone else. Just start the poem, poet.

I also found often that I didn’t understand people’s line break decisions. I tried counting syllables or beats, in case I was missing a form or something. But an awful lot of the time the line breaks seemed suspiciously random. (I’ve written about line breaks before: Line Item) So I need to go back and stare down my line breaks, justify them to my now line-break crabby and hyper-vigilant self.

Finally I read a couple of mss that were interesting in content but in the end never transcended their own material. I talked about this a little bit last time with regard to essays. Where is the emotional center and how is my vision being shifted? The same goes for poems: experience has to launch to something beyond itself. Otherwise a cigar is just a cigar. And where’s the art in that?

On the Other Hand; or, Some Poems I Like

To counteract my lament from last week, here are some poems I’ve encountered recently that I quite enjoyed. I’ll collect more as I go along, to keep us cheery and hopeful. Well, okay, I know these are cheery and hopeful poems themselves, but I quite liked them, which itself makes me feel c and h.

Coda

The first tumor distends
through his shirt like a cartoon
heart beating out of its chest–
others wrangling liver & spleen.
We are carrion & meteor, our meat
dress in fire & diaphanous gas.
How to measure dark matter
amidst bright coordinates of stars?
At the cusp, as breath constricts,
slows–we betroth to zero,
held in a dilating spotlight.

— Willa Carroll, Nerve Chorus, The Word Works

 

A Violence

You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays
fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window.
They sound like children you might have had.
Had you wanted children. Had you a maternal bone,
you would wrench it from your belly and fling it
from your fire escape. As if it were the stubborn
shard now lodged in your wrist. No, you would hide it.
Yes, you would hide it inside a barren nesting doll
you’ve had since you were a child. Its smile
reminds you of your father, who does not smile.
Nor does he believe you are his. “You look just like
your mother,” he says, “who looks just like a fire
of suspicious origin.” A body, I’ve read, can sustain
its own sick burning, its own hell, for hours.
It’s the mind. It’s the mind that cannot.

— Nicole Sealey, Ordinary Beast, Ecco

Lost in the Tachana Merkazit; or, Embracing Changing Poetic Tastes

I’m starting to feel a twinge of dread every time I open up a newly published book of poems from some of my favorite publishers. I read the blurbs and raves, think okay! as I open the first page. Read a poem, and hm. Read a poem, and falter. Read a poem, and fade. Read a poem read a poem, and I am lost in a maze, I cannot understand the announcements over the loudspeaker, I am in the Tel Aviv bus station again — a great place to get felafel (something about the added taste of diesel fuel?) but an easy place in which to feel confused.

I have this sense that the publishers are moving farther and farther away from work that I connect with, much less work that resembles my own. I am paranoid that I’m falling out of touch with the kind of poetry the modern world wants to publish, wants to read. I feel like people are connecting to poetry all around me and I’m standing in the middle of it lost. Is there a shift in taste happening? Or is it my tastes that are changing?

I guess there is indeed a kind of grace in contrast — this disconnected feeling makes it all the more wonderful when I stumble upon a book I do connect with, poems that inspire me, that cause me to wonder, to envy, to just enjoy. I fall upon them as a starving person. These are poems I can learn from, I think. These are poems toward which I can work.

It feels like I have to revisit my A-list of publishing houses because maybe it’s no longer worth it for me to fling my poems against their walls. I’m just not doing work they’re going to be into. The good news is that I need to keep reading and reading more widely among the many fine small publishing houses in the contemporary poetry world. In poetry’s house there are many mansions.

I appreciate Small Press Distribution’s lists of bestsellers and staff favorites. These have been great sources of publishers and authors new to me. Grace Cavalieri’s best-of lists in the Washington Independent Review of Books also has great leads.

Creating a new A-list is an opportunity. My bus is around here somewhere. But until I find it, there’s some good felafel to be had.