Monday, May 15, 2006

Mercutio on the Lam

Recent enthusiasms:

- I Remain: The Letters of Lew Welch, both volumes of which I picked up at the Friends of the Library Book Sale a couple of weeks back. It sometimes makes for sad reading: young Welch goes from being a bright-eyed and ambitious Reed student (who writes a full-length monograph on Gertrude Stein for his senior thesis) to an alcoholic self-hating advertising man in Chicago to a homeless lurker in northern California cabins, and will apparently end with Welch's walking into the Sierra Nevadas and vanishing forever in 1971. The man did a lot of damage to himself, as though in rejecting the stifling norms of 1950s America he was also forced to reject some vital part of his own body. But there's wit and an engaging ingenuousness about the possibilities of poetry too, and an affection for the world and his friends (who included Philip Whalen, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Joanne Kyger, and Gary Snyder) that has me rooting for him, though I already know the dismal end.

- Geoffrey Nutter's Water's Leaves & Other Poems. I was a fan of Nutter's A Summer Evening too; it and Cort Day's The Chime alerted me to the possibilities today in writing a sequence of short, verbally intense poems (I think I heard somewhere that the two of them in some way collaborated on the ten-line form that they use in those books, though to different ends). Water's Leaves abandons the ten-liner for a more discursive free verse that charges its language through a lush, supple diction and rapid leaps in association, but some of my favorite poems in the book are the short ones that achieve a kind of baroque condensare:

What is the shield of Faith, and the breast-plate
of Hope, to the fruit of the date palm?
For the fronds are like pellucid ramparts.
And the speal-bones used in divination quiver
on the back of his hand, for the future
quivers theron like a feather. The sidewinder
shucked off the shroud like a farm-girl eating maize,
like golden-leafed applique left on the floor.
And you will apprehend a covert thought, that
somehow in the music's pause comes the cadenza,
in the slab-like silence where it seems no music could survive.
You are called upon to listen for it, and when you hear it,
as you will, it will be yours. Fronds sway in the air
over Comb Jelly City.
On the back cover John Yau proposes the following over-the-top rhetorical question: "Could it be that Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein met in Elysium and had a sun named Geoffrey Nutter?" It's accurate, though, to see Stevens and Stein as two points of the compass that rotates around Nutter's work. Here's a poem that could easily kick off a volume entitled Harmonium II:
El Arco Iris Olmec

Talking about the Mayan rapture
rain fell on an ancient civilization
just as it now falls on the green grass
it has abandoned. Many were eating papaya
every morning, just like I was.
Many one's child got lost in the market
and were dozing for hours in vegetables pushed
into pyramid candles and prisms like I was.
The instress eats them away like beowulf.

Then someone buying a papaya rooster.
All frisson in its plumage, all unusable like ghosts.
Fifty thousand wraiths glow orange above the hills
and then a rainbow. Something agave
is revived. The shadow
of a luna moth behind the window.
More rarely is Nutter overtly Steinian, but I hear Stein, maybe via Lisa Jarnot, in this poem, as self-parodic in its attempt to name the beloved as Yau's blurb is:
Giant Water Bugs

I'm talking to giant water bugs... and they're built.
Yes, they're beautiful; yes, I'd marry them all if I could.
My moods change all the time.
I am a white car shooting a blue spotlight into the sky!
Then I am a small animal with wet hair, a cat with feathery wings.
You're beautiful, astonishing, unbelievable, amazing,
     hypnotic, terrific.
You're giant, enormous, bigger than a tree, of marvelous stature, a
towering, giant flowering bird!
What's that flaring out of the sun-rooted rigs?
A tree of great stature.
With what loveliness you loom with rapture over me.
There is nothing like you anywhere.
It seems to me that the true love child of Stevens and Stein in our time has to be John Ashbery, and often reading this book I got the same pleasure of tickled synapses that I get from Ashbery's whimsical, death-haunted late work. But if Nutter's an Ashberian he's at least very good at it, and I get the sense of a genuine wonder—at the world and at the mysterious sources of inspiration—struggling through the chinks of his ornate verbal surfaces. There's a there there, in other words, an imaginative landscape (the "instress") that feels like Geoffrey Nutter, a private Oz. I liked visiting it.

- If "enthusiasm" can encompass grief, there's my mother's poetry that was on my mind all this Mother's Day weekend. My mother loved poetry, wrote poetry, read my poetry; I have often felt myself to be somehow living her afterlife for her. Sometimes I return to the collection of her poems that my father and one of her closest friends put together and had bound, inexplicably, between mauve covers. Are they good poems? It doesn't exactly matter to me, because this is the landscape of poetry as it was given to me. My mother gave me to understand poems as evocative, in the fullest senses of that word: summoning, recalling, naming, voicing. Most of her poems don't have titles: here's a kind of ars poetica that she wrote:
I have (wr)it
A coming
sort of Poe am
I think, therefore
(you know the rest)
ing in the bosom of the
sea (oh say can you)
I mean everything
I say is real
camp-ing on the old
tent round circuses
and bread
and Caesar in partes tres
divided is conquered
poor Mercutio
Anyway it's all words.
I was haunted for years by that single line, "poor Mercutio," for the way it completely revised Romeo & Juliet, turning the archetypal tale of star-crossed lovers into an elegy for Romeo's fey and gorgeous friend. I actually went so far as to try and write a novel about Mercutio in my early twenties, Mercutio on the Lam, in which the Mercutio character (now a troubled high school student in Verona, NJ) tries to escape the fate that's written for him. As it happens, he was obsessed with the band Queen, which made me feel a strong sense of connection with Dan Nester when I first met him. The novel's now sitting in a box gathering dust under the bed. But as a record of my mother's reading, the poem is priceless to me. There's another poem of hers whose lines seem to me to contain an entire novel, under pressure as it were. Perhaps someday I'll try to unfold it:
They walk the battlements
visors down
it is a truce, though wary

none is left

the doctor and chaplain
are roaring in the kitchen

Even as I wake
I am fully conscious of history
Still asleep
he squeezes my thigh with affection

I move away
and watch a cardinal,
which turns out to be
a fall leaf,
through my window
The rhythm of that line, "the doctor and chaplain," has bothered me for a long time—it seems to me the stanza ought to go, "the doctor and the chaplain / are roaring in the kitchen." But that's not what she wrote. She never to my knowledge published any of these poems, except perhaps in the newsletter of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship to which she belonged. But she knew a thing or two about literary politics:
Bronx Cheer

last time I saw
my friend, the poet,
he was emceeing a cataclysm
his exuberant beard
alive with words
in his eye

       "the hieroglyphs swam quickly up the Nile"

I have heard
he is published
and clean-shaven
Hardest to read are the poems written in the year and a half before she died from cancer—it was the second time she'd had cancer:
When I die
it will be
from surfeit
of daily detail
and vagrant
chewing their way
to my core

but not

I am not afraid
of death
but of
the long
Are these poems? I really don't know. They're epigraphs she wrote for herself, maybe. Here's one of my favorites, dated eight months before her death:
I have never tasted
Sweeter lips than yours

O melancholy
O patience on her monument
O jocund day
O Niobe, all tears
O the bones of rivers
O tempora, mores
O life!
Oh shit.
Good poems or bad, my mother is the mother of my writing. Happy Mother's Day, Mom.


Jessica Smith said...

oooh, the Welch letters sound interesting. Thanks for posting what you're reading other-than-poetry, I like to hear about the possibilities available in other genres (esp. nonfiction that isn't about national politics).

oh, i won't be in ithaca for kunin, but i'll be there next week; i'll send you an email in hopes of meeting.

shanna said...

i put that on my list too...sounds really interesting...danke.

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