Friday, August 18, 2006

Blogging has fallen low on the priority pole as of late, not so much because of busy-ness as because of stress over anticipated busy-ness. To wit:

- Teaching Shakespeare to freshmen starting Thursday (the plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and The Winter's Tale);

- Getting married (30 days remain);

- Beginning the search for an academic job;

- Finishing the sorely neglected dissertation.

That's a lot of a lot.

Still I'd like to record something of my impressions of Montana, especially the powerful nostalgia and sense of recognition I felt in Missoula and Helena, the two towns where I actually lived. Helena was where I picked up the pieces after the end of what had become a disastrous relationship, and after I found myself twenty-six years old with no career to speak of and no accomplishments save a dead novel in a cardboard box. I found a little furnished apartment just off the main street, which bears the melodramatic name Last Chance Gulch, licked my wounds, and returned to poetry after six years' absence. Certainly I was under the influence of Richard Hugo, whose work I'd first discovered while shirking my duties as messenger for an evil law firm at the New Orleans Public Library. And the landscape itself is a powerful influence, literally expansive after youth and young manhood in the East. In retrospect, it's clear I was also being influenced by a Helena poet who I worked with for a time at a guidebook publisher there, a man named Rick Newby. Last week I picked up his most recent book of poetry from The Montana Book Company just after breakfast at one of my favorite Helena haunts, the No Sweat Cafe. The book is The Suburb of Long Suffering from a local press, Bedrock Editions, and I was surprised by how good it was, how moving I found it. Surprised not because of any perceived deficiencies in Rick's earlier writing, but because I'd come to assume that my taste had evolved to the point of unrecognizability from that of the poetry reader I was ten years ago. Well, it isn't so: Rick Newby practices a sly, elegiac, thoroughly post-Modernist (by which I mean his sensibility has been woven and charged with the work of the modernists: painters as well as poets, and Europeans as well as Anglo-Americans) poetics that charms, pricks, and delights me. He risks sentimentality and also a surprising degree of Orientalism that he seems to get straight from Pound (there's a prose poem in here about how Jeanette Rankin, Montana's Congresswoman [first of her kind], was introduced via letter to Homer Loomis Pound, Ezra's father) but generally evades the charge through precision of imagery and careful attention to the Montana landscape in which he, his town, and European civilization are but precariously perched. Here's another prose poem—I find them the most quotable:
Montana Landscape Hypnotized by Solitude

for Peter Merts

The cast-iron stove gleams dull in diffuse light. The cobwebs, the antic breezes stirring curtains, the cattle rummaging in the tall grass. Nothing can capture the tranquility of this moment, not oils, not water-soluble resins, not the ready presence of a small camera tucked in a canvas bag and shuttered. It is so quiet you hear the squeak of a rabbit under the floor. Alert to your silence, a lover leads you to a cot open to the sun. Dare to shiver in this cool weather. In Japan, you encounter—erupting out of a bay—the snake-like profile of a sculptor's fancy. In your side yard, deer nibble, and a cougar glides through eucalyptus and lavender. Solitude is a savage word. Wear it faithfully, like a mendicant monk who dons his paper raincoat before setting out. Great cast-iron objects cast adrift on sand. Slim legs of a girlish firgure. Footsteps marching to the edge of continents. Verge of the sea. Gleam of seaweed. Rumble of breakers. Harsh wind. Tenderness at the knees.
The most remarkable work in the book is the title poem, which is among other things a pastoral meditation—I shouldn't be so surprised to realize that my interest in that genre dates back to Montana days, but of course it does. The imagining of Helena, a small (but it appears to be growing with dismayingly rapid speed—subdivisions everywhere, and I saw this also near Missoula and in the Flathead Valley) state capital in what most people wouldn't hesitate to call the middle of nowhere, as a suburb comes to seem apt, as suburb itself seems perfectly to describe that which is defined by its separation from the urban, traditional home of a polis which is nowadays nowhere to be found, just as no one is willing to define themselves as anything other than "middle class." Newby's suburb of long suffering is inhabited by strangers and wanderers: the Great Emperor, now seemingly in retirement from his career of domination and violence; the Strange Ones of Rose Alley, who represent the always only partially domesticated Other to be found in so-called open societies; Anna, a painter and the speaker's muse; and Newby's favored persona, the Man in the Green Loden Overcoat, alternately protected and isolated by his fears, his lusts, his aloneness. The poem's melancholy pleasures seem to me to come close to that synthesis of social formalism—the thinking-through-fragmentation of the contested place of subjectivity—and the poetics informed by myth that I have given the unsatisfactory and tentative name of wisdom poetry. It's good now to express my apreciation for Rick's work, and also to discover, as I did with Hugo, that strong impulses toward innovation can be found in the work of poets who some might dismiss as avatars of masculine quietude.

More later, maybe.

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