Thursday, May 08, 2003

I think what I enjoy about Robin Caton's book is the way it comes off as the diary of a reader in love with the sometimes ascetic, sometimes lusciously indulgent self-divisions of the poets listed in Michael Palmer's blurb: Rilke, Stevens, Jabès, Ponge, and Duncan (not to mention Palmer himself). At first I was taken aback by this catalog: doesn't anyone have anything new to say? Are other poets and other poets' poetry all we can write about any more? This is probably why, after buying the book in 2001 in an intial blaze of curiosity (I think I got it at Diesel in Oakland where Richard used to work) I felt the same weariness I feel when confronted with a book dominated by ekphrastic poems, and put it away. (This is probably why I haven't been able to really engage yet with Cole Swensen's Try or Such Rich Hour, which derives from an engagement with the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, or her little book Oh, which seems to be about opera.) Howzabout an originary engagement with the world, as Emerson pleaded for, and not just a rereading? But Caton has changed my mind; I find thinking about the book as rereading reduces the stakes the same way a book of funny poems deflects and subverts the highest and headiest expectations of "being Poetry" (that's why I can give a pass to Gabe Gudding's book, or Loren Goodman's Famous Americans, or even Gary's How to Proceed in the Arts: tweaking the nose of our internalized Harold Blooms is central to their project). These books present themselves as being primarily engaged with the literary (including, in the latter books' case, the "literary world" or po-biz), as opposed to trying to be literary, to be Rilke or Richard Wilbur or whomever. Caton's primary mode is not comic or satirical (though she doesn't lack a sense of humor); instead she seems passionately interested in the visionary territory that these poets opened up for her, and she has no need to Oedipally shove them out of the picture that they've uncovered for her. And she takes that picture seriously enough to be a genuinely metaphysical poet in both senses of the term. She is interested in discovering the underpinnings of the overlapping understandings of the world that her totem poets had—their overlapping totalities. And she has that metaphysical wit, though her conceits are not so much concerned with analyzing emotional experience (as Donne's flea or stiff twin compasses are) as they are with exploring the gap that yawns between poetic language (the semiotic, the excessive), words themselves, and the reconstruction of some kind of world done by a reader who is less interested in recuperating poetry back into communication than she is in letting that language bloom and stir some kind of reaction within herself. The book is full of white space which in this context feels more luxuriant than withholding—I feel as though she is recreating her own experience of reading for me, an experience I believe similar enough to my own that it creates a kind of warm companionable glow around poems that can seem otherwise stripped and precious. Her confidence, at this lat date, in poetry's ability to be numinous reminds me of Ronald Johnson's, especially when she writes a concrete poem (like a part of "Blue" that I won't attempt to replicate here). Here's something a bit Johnsonian, though, from "Green":

a wind


the streets
are falling

once   the bells
twice   the bells

     I am not able


     sorrow of light
     the color
     of grass
Too thin for you? It really works best as a book, though there are some marvelous individual poems. A God, Old Testament in His absence, presides over the book, but he is occasionally directly and lately addressed, Rilke-style.
In the Museum

We keel left. Verticals
protruding from the green

This works. This unreels.

The process undulates.

Only when the lights go out,
only when we huddle
in the semi-erotic darkness
does the vein hit.

Pergamon. The frieze.
Marbled heads captured
in their looming white.

Situated here, inside
themselves, Degas' horse,
the Russian bride.

Something's pushed against us—

We re-make God.

Sentence us, Lord.
Tell us the next
thousand years.

And then the next.

Lavender body, tree
pouring from its root.

Can this be memory?
Okay, she almost loses me there with her breathlessness. But the book as a whole persuades me, and is richly intertextual enough for the blanks to be charged and overflowing instead of just blanks. And the "poetic" words she uses (light, field, dancing, garden, and of course all the colors of dusk: gray, purple, green, red, orange, white, blue, black) are never solely shorthand for the poetic (though they can, playfully, be that). Words end up talking and rubbing logopoetically against each other, producing new readings of the old vatic Sayings.
Preceding Series (Duncan)

Often I am permitted   unwingd O   to re-turn

groping   often, often   a certain shaped thing

seeking its longitude   and the permission?

light falling on said meadow   arms out-stretchd

as if from no thing   rising   oft oft often

is the per mitting   is the I of ten   to excavate

this eadow   to un-leaf   headless, heedless

the obscene green   so much in the rhythm

of these sounds precedes us   came into the world

came forth   a meadow   often, often   obligd

permitted   re-turnd   re-tumbld   arms out-

strechd   oblique, obscure   I ecstatic   take

O and walk her through a dark center to this the light desiring
Such a gorgeous evocation of Duncan and her experience of Duncan, of the permission he grants us postmoderns to go around dazd asking the big questions all over again. I feel enlarged by this book. It makes Poetry possible again in poetry. And Caton the reader is someone I feel fortunate to have encountered as a writer.

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