Friday, November 16, 2007


What little time I now have for poetry—reading and writing it—I find on the commuter train, a new textural dimension of my life. Every weekday morning (except for Mondays, when I sometimes drive) I rise in the gradually increasing cold (which offers a kind of spurious relief from my fears of global warming) and stand on the platform at Main and Chicago Streets in Evanston, facing the sun that rises on my right shoulder. The shock of the urban is still with me after three months here, though neither Evanston nor Chicago have anywhere near the level of street intensity that I associate with the ur-city of my childhood, New York. Still it's a discombulation and a rush to find myself jostling with the other reverse commuters (outbound in the morning, inbound at night) onto the sleek silver Metra train, to find a seat (I prefer the upper level, solus, facing the direction of travel), settle in with my briefcase on my lap, and slip a slim volume out of it to read until the Lake Forest stop, thirty-five minutes later. The inside of the train is quiet in the morning, except for the occasional hissing tenor of someone's earphones or the conductor calling, "New riders, up top!" Evening trains are another story: crammed full of people talking loudly to each other or into their cellphones, I find it easier to concentrate on fiction, generally some novel I've borrowed from the little lending rack that the Lake Forest Public Library keeps thoughtfully stacked inside the train station there. Mostly it's thrillers and romances, but last month I grabbed a copy of Robertson Davies' The Manticore and was persuaded enough by its Jungo-Canadian oddity to reread the whole Deptford trilogy. This week it was Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying: heavy-handed and leaden in its prose but still utterly affecting in its portrait of African-American life in 1940s Louisiana. I've attempted more ambitious prose on the train—I'm finally reading Bolano's The Savage Detectives, and I was amused the other morning to see a buttoned-up buisnessman reading it while waiting on the opposite platform, Chicago-bound—but as a hardcover it's not an ideal commuter's volume.

(As content perhaps it's another story: the novel depicts innumerable picaresque wanderings and encounters, yet never suspends for a moment the atmosphere of doom and fate that hangs over characters who can only play at autonomy. They're all riding the twentieth century Latin American train, whether in Mexico City or Barcelona or Paris, and they can't get off.)

At any rate I've had time for some poetry: the new issues of Chicago Review and Xantippe, and now a couple of books I've long meant to get to: Kimberly Lyons' Saline and Bradley Paul's The Obvious. I've sung the praises of CR often enough; here I'll just say that I was particularly moved and excited by the continuation of C.D. Wright's "Rising, Falling, Hovering"; the wholly unexpected Book V of Ronald Johnson's Radi Os; Georges Perec's still-relevant call "For a Realist Literature"; and Allen Grossman's pervesely elegant "On Communicative Difficulty in General and 'Difficult' Poetry in Particular: The Example of Hart Crane's 'The Broken Tower'" (I aspire to somehow unite the concerns of Perec and Grossman in my own writing). The new Xantippe demonstrates Kristen Hanlon's almost pitch-perfect editorial ear: it's a splendid mash-up of postmodern lyric and antilyric. Standouts in the first camp: Julie Carr's "(Equivocal)," Karla Kelsey's "As Fire Unto Fire," Sharon Lynn Osmond's "Door to the River" (I would gladly use this poem the next time I was trying to teach the concept of ekphrasis), and Sandra Miller's "Ad Halcyon"; the anti-lyricists of note are Jasper Bernes (with several poems that appear in Starsdown), Tanya Larkin's "Market Day" and "Villa Maria," Kasey Mohammed's disconcerting "The Poordom" (successful example of the kind of poem in which a coinage or abstraction is made to bear increasingly heavy fardels of metaphorical weight), and Rodney Koeneke's "Eerie Wampum" and "Larry's House of Brakes" (okay, that last one has a big lyric push inside it: "a heroic and enormous effort to nudge the myth forward").

Also of note in the new Xantippe: excerpts from Lisa Jarnot's forthcoming Robert Duncan biography, and a mess of book reviews, many of which I'm happy to see are of books more than two years old but which nevertheless deserve attention: the Lyons book (that's why I took it off the shelf), Brenda Iijima's Around Sea (I'd like to reread that now that my head's flush with Thoreau), Rachel Zucker's The Last Clear Narrative (might give me a little insight into the experiential territory of pregnancy and motherhood), and Dan Bouchard's Some Mountains Removed (in which the reviewer, India Radfar, surprisingly and usefully compares Bouchard's versions of pastoral with Bernadette Mayer's).

I haven't opened the Lyons yet—the book has merely graduated from the shelf to the briefcase, where it will ride around with me until I've absorbed it in the literal fits and stops of the train. This morning I read half of the Paul book—I recognize in him a kindred Stevensian ephebe. His poems present a kind of daylit surrealism to the reader. Ashbery and the language poets represent one degree of poetic movement that's lodged almost entirely within language; you come down from that mountain to the degree that your words attach themselves to representable images and situations (in Grossman's terms, you embrace more and more the violence of representation, a curious index of poetic value that logically redescribes the most abstract poems as pacifistic). As John Yau describes him in a back-cover blurb: "In locating the speaker in words, rather than placing him (or her) in stories, Paul compels the speaker to contempalte whether words lead one to knowing someone else or to recognizing further mysteries." But the shapes of stories, or the habits of knowing associated with narrative, are more strongly discernible in Paul than in the poets of higher elevations—at the same time he's above the linguistically quiescent narrativity of a Charles Simic or Russell Edson. To wit:
Frantic Lights, Terminal Lights: The Man Who Invented Paper

Paper was made because Tsai Lun
said it should be made.
He was adamant, like a fable,
yet vague, like a fable.
The rabbit asked "Why?"
and "In what city?"
and as the blanket proffered its answer
everyone said "You're a blanket,
stop talking." Inane,
peregrine, all those things.
All was bright
in the bay window's yawp:
that is how I remember our street.
The bricks were brown
and the sidewalk was plugged with elms,
like Tsai Lun saying
"We didn't know it would be light green,
but we knew it would be a moth."
So Paul is a child of Stevens and Ashbery insofar as he deframes his sentences and disorients the reader; but the whimsical consistency of his voice prevents you from getting too disoriented (that's how one kind of reader sees it) or it prevents you from becoming sufficiently disoriented (that's how another kind of reader would put it). There's a lightness here that delights but also threatens to disanchor the poetry from sources of greater power (the extrapoetic institutional context for a poem that Grossman talks about: Rome for Horace, Anglican theology for the metaphysicals, academia for Grossman himself, etc.). You might also simply ask what occasions these poems. My instinct is to celebrate the poet's freedom from any obvious context—after all, that's why most political poetry is bad, because it's too dependent on the immediate context that gives it the illusion of use-value. But it may also disencumber a poetry to the point of rendering it minor.

Since Mark recently expressed nostalgia for the days of work in progress, here's something I scribbled on the train this morning. No title yet:
This person sat smally kicking his legs against the stall, while above him loomed The Looming Carl. This person could not meet The Carl's eye but went on shrilly kicking. The Carl was one of those people who assume that all other people feel just as they do; he had a toothache; he roared Open your mouth and opened his own; his tongue lolled horribly. This person kicked faintly the stall, which I might as well tell you was really The Carl's left shin. For why should we hold secrets from each other: from this person, from I who write this beside a pot of yogurt at daybreak? I'll teach you, The Carl howled, beating his mitts against the stall doors—and he did, and he did, and he did.

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