Monday, February 27, 2006

Poem of the Week 2/27/2006: Liquid Paper

Liquid Paper

Smooth as a snail this little parson
pardons our sins Touch the brush tip
lightly and abracadabra a clean slate

We know those who blot their brains
by sniffing it which shows
it erases more than ink
and with imagination anything
can be misapplied . . . In the army
our topsergeant drank aftershave squeezing
my Old Spice to the last slow drop

It worked like Liquid Paper in his head

until he'd glide across the streets of Heidelberg
hunting for the house in Boise Idaho
where he was born . . . If I were God
I'd authorize Celestial Liquid Paper
every seven years to whiten our mistakes:
we should be sorry and live with what we've done
but seven years is long enough and all of us

deserve a visit now and then
to the house where we were born
before everything got written so far wrong

Peter Meinke 2003

This poem mixes sadness and love, shock and whimsy, and aurally leads us every-which-way in its presentation of compassion. Its music is astounding; I highly encourage you to read it out loud to yourself, or at least pay attention when you are reading it quietly. Slam poetry seems to have informed it in cleverness, cadence and structure. Slam often tweaks a word or common phrase (herein, Meinke changes "with imagination anything is possible" to "with imagination anything can be misapplied"). Like "Liquid Paper," slam communicates form through alliteration, rhythm (not just end-rhyme, which is an old, used form, if that makes sense), volume, and pauses; on one level, the white, blank spaces on the page recall these gaps. On another, as my friend Dustin pointed out, they are like little whited-out spaces on their own, perhaps suggesting that the poet himself has been blessed with liquid paper.

Reading this poem several times will cast the first stanza differently. Read lightly, the image of a snail creeping across the page is sweet and whimsical, it being amusing to think of the squat Liquid Paper bottle as the plump priest come to redeem us. With a measure of sobriety, however, it turns into a quiet miracle-worker; "sins" conveys a moral flaw, something important and guilt-worthy. Then, too, the repition of the S sound in "smooth," "snail," "sins," and "slate," the P sound in "parson" and "pardon," and T sound in "touch" and "tip" add an aural intensity that oversteps the fanciful opening images. This edge hints at the next stanza's darkness.

Other than its rhetorical techniques, this section is clear, if somber. Meinke touches on the human capability to distort and destroy. Taken with the white-out's previous association with a parson, this capability appears more sinister; things that were light and amusing in the first stanza are suddenly fragile, corruptible. Humans can thus turn aftershave from something to save us from the horrors of stinging skin or smelling bad to something that saves us from the horrors of war. This leap from the micro to the macro is one of Meinke's most effective strategies. He funnels despair into everyday things. The consonance (repeated consonant sounds) in the final lines literally evoke what it is to be squeezed, pressed, compacted, drained.

Thus, the next line's slowness stops us in our tracks. The breaks between two and three-word groups slow the reading to a crawl, forcing us to think about what it is to have one's memories erased. The toxic smell of white out comes to mind, suggested by the earlier allusion to drug abuse.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Poem of the Week 2/20/2006: The Cold Green Element

The Cold Green Element

At the end of the garden walk
the wind and its satellite wait for me;
their meaning I will not know
until I go there,
but the black-hatted undertaker

who, passing, saw my heart beating in the grass,
is also going there. Hi, I tell him,
a great squall in the Pacific blew a dead poet
out of the water,

Crowds depart daily to see it, and return
with grimaces and incomprehension;
if its limbs twitched in the air
they would sit at its feet
peeling their oranges.

And turning over I embrace like a lover
the trunk of a tree, one of those
for whom the lightning was too much
and grew a brillant
hunchback with a crown of leaves.

The ailments escaped from the labels
of medicine bottles and all fled to the wind;
I've seen myself lately in the eyes
of old women,
spent streams mourning my manhood,

in whose old pupils the sun became
a bloodsmear on broad catalpa leaves
and hanging from ancient twigs,
my murdered selves
sparked the air like muted collisions

of fruit. A black dog howls down my blood,
a black dog with yellow eyes;
he too by someone's inadvertence
saw the bloodsmear
on the broad catalpa leaves.

But the furies clear a path for me to the worm
who sang for an hour in the throat of a robin,
and misled by the cries of young boys
I am again
a breathless swimmer in that cold green element.

Irving Layton 1940

Before I begin, a note about the form: the fourth line in each five line stanza is indented, though Blogger absolutely refuses to show it.

Irving Layton died earlier this year, but it seems that he was thinking about death long before that. Not that this should be surprising - I have heard it said that what defines humans is our knowledge of our deaths. "The Cold Green Element" deals with a dreamlike vision of death, moving through surreal images of death and sadness, fear and despair. There is not quite a cohesive plan; rather, the poem's consciousness moves like thought, flowing from one thread to the next, always retaining a consciousness of the whole. Layton preserves the hopeless tone through the various hallucinogenic scenes, emphasizing the fragmented tale of a lost young man.

Well, there's a question. Is this man lost? The first stanza, at a glance, indicates no, for he is clearly on a garden path. But humans are constantly on paths. Being lost is not knowing what path you are on, or perhaps if that path is the right one. This narrator recognizes the path but not the meaning, so I would argue that he is no less lost than you or I. Am I being broad and preach-y today? I have felt like that the entire day. Ah well.

As the speaker continues his narrative, he meets the first omen of death: the black-hatted undertaker. This undertaker is headed down the same road, suggesting that this path is indeed death. This undertaker saw the narrator's "heart lying in the grass," an image that accomplishes several things at once. It is first shocking in its frankness; we almost glide over this observation, accepting it as true. Then, too, it intertwines humans and nature, continuing the garden imagery and perhaps alluding to death's part in the natural order of things.

The next image is delivered just as casually and is perhaps even odder. Layton writes of a dead poet "who now hangs from the city's gates." Both the gate reference and the allusion to the Pacific evoke images of San Francisco, lending this poem its first definite sense of geography. The realism ends there, though. Crowds who, "if it twitched its feet in the air / ... would sit at its feet peeling their oranges" flock to see this poet. This strange scene relays a phobia, perhaps, of voyeurism, or an intense awareness of being viewed. The "oranges" inclusion lends the diorama a twist of suburban oddity. The people sit and eat their California snack watching a dead body like TV. It distills people's fascination with destruction and the grotesque.

More importantly, I think that the scene is one of defeat - the poet is dead out of water, perhaps lambasted by his peers - which would explain (in part) the next stanza. Because the narrator turns to the tree "like a lover," and because it has a crown of leaves, this stanza is positive. He may be turning to it in comfort, for it survived a shock of lightning just as he hopes to survive a shock of voyeurism, death, or humiliation.

It doesn't give him much comfort, however, for the rest of the poem is an agglomeration of fragmented, despairing images of fear and death. The narrator sees himself emasculated through old women's eyes. I choose the word "emasculated" because Layton employs old women and "manhood" in this stanza of loss. The crones seem to represent a loss of fertility, a deadening of sexuality. We again see the narrator's very human concern for his loss of virility, for he has of late "spent streams mourning [his] manhood."

The next line, "in whose pupils," could refer to the women's pupils or his manhood's pupils; in any case, the viewed image is one of blood and death. Layton again reveals a consciousness of man's eventual tumble into death by twisting the sun's rays, associated with life and growth, into smears of blood. Life turns to death, inevitably. The poem is fixated on this image; its reappearance in the seventh stanza underlines its thematic centrality.

The line "my murdered selves" is interesting, because not only does it again connote death, but it conveys the sense that this narrator has been thinking of his death for a long time. He has accrued possible selves that died in different (probably horrific) ways. These images bang together "in muted collisions / like fruit." Layton again mixes death and fruit, creating a tension between the morbid and the bright. It also again brings together an image of death with that of fertility, nodding towards the cyclical way of things.

This order is terrifying to the narrator, however. He sees death as a black dog with yellow eyes, forever pursuing him. This dog can smell his blood, we learn, because somebody inadvertently showed it the smeared catalpa leaves. You know how something can almost feel crueler when somebody didn't think about what they were doing than when they pointedly did it? That kind of coldness and utter disregard can (though of course won't always) cut deeper than calculated malice.

All of this said, the poem ends hopefully. Despite the path that fate clears for all of us, the narrator will sing even as he falls down into the abyss like the worm in the robin's throat. This recklessness is due to "the cries of young boys:" perhaps the childlike belief in immortality, or a kid's hope. There is a kind of desperate tenacity to the final lines, "I am again / a breathless swimmer in that cold green element."

There is more to the final resolution than some American beat-the-odds mentality, though. This poem was a personal journey to a fierce resolve, one filled with a kind of love, if that makes any sense. You may find that almost every poem in this blog has something to do with love, and this poem has a very strange form of it. I feel love for this narrator's will to overcome his fear, and I think that he loves himself, too, enough to try, at least.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Poem of the Week 2/13/2006: Canal Bank Walk

Canal Bank Walk

Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

Patrick Kavanagh 1960

Today is my sister's birthday, and I could wish her nothing more than the passion found in this poem. It is a love sonnet, in its way. Not directed at any single person, it rushes headlong into the world of the senses and experience. There are Romantic overtones here - a man walking alone, commenting on his surroundings, wishing to imbibe nature, to live on the edges of his nerves. Kavanagh updates the traditional lyric format, though, in giving the poem a pulse, at once musical and corporal.

** I will finish this poem up within the next several days - Happy Birthday Emmy, and Happy Valentines Day to the rest! **

Monday, February 06, 2006

Poem of the Week 2/6/2006: Want Bone

Want Bone

The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth's bell.
Blue rippled and soaked in the fire of blue.
The dried mouthbones of a shark in the hot swale
Gaped on nothing but sand on either side.

The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.

Ossified cords held the corners together
In groined spirals pleated like a summer dress.
But where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?
Infinitesimal mouths bore it away,

The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.
But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
my flower my fin my life my lightness my O.

Robert Pinsky 1990

"Want Bone" is aptly titled. From sexual desire to paucity to simple, innocent longing, Pinsky's poem explores different states of wanting, though it emphasizes erotic desire. Underlying the erotic images and sharply tailored details is that want implies some mode of absence. The imagery, diction, and cadence explore the ache of wantingness.

The first stanza establishes the poem's eroticism, theme (wanting), and central image. It opens with the "tongue of the waves [tolling] in the earth's bell," which is blatantly sexual. The bell is not just a suggestive shape, however; its tolling conveys emptiness, hollowness - that space of absence inherent in desire. The next line, "blue rippled and soaked in the fire of blue," presents the kind of simple, energetic, dense imagery appearing throughout the poem. Repeating "blue" simplifies the visual field, readying us for the poem's central image, the shark's jaw.

The jaw, named "the want bone," actualizes wantingness. The bone is described by a series of "nothings," both connecting the jaw to longing and linking desire and absence. The jaw "gaped on nothing but sand," "tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing," and is "uncrushed, unstrung." In defining the jaw by what it lacks, Pinsky reiterates the connection between the jaw, desire, and absence.

He springloads the tension in the poem with his acute attention to detail; there are very few filler words like "and" or "the." Each line is packed to the brim, but, paradoxically, packed with nothingness. This tension, too, heightens the vibrancy in the lines. The phrase "scalded toothless harp" is at once jarring and brilliant; it juxtaposes the searing (scalded) with the impotent (toothless) with the musical (harp). This jangling set of images sends a shock of energy through the poem, heightening the desire. Pinsky emphasizes the erotic nature of this desire in describing the jawbone as "the shape of birth and craving" that is forever "mouthing O."

The following stanza reworks the same devices; Pinsky focuses the beam of energy with his marvelous consonants and twists that force with sexual imagery. Notice the strength of the phrase "groined spirals." Tack on "pleated like a summer dress" for a little erotic content and juxtaposition and you have a line absolutely packed with desirous energy. Pinsky redirects our attention to the absent inherent in wanting by asking "where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?" He openly wonders where the shark has gone, perhaps gesturing at our own lost gashes of pleasure. Is this a little trip into nostalgia? It certainly borders on yearning, that heart-lead lean to the past.

The next lines, "infinitesimal mouths bore it away, / The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean" demonstrates self-similarity across scale. Just as Pinsky has pared away any extraneous imagery, so the billions of bacteria nibbled away at the shark. Then, too, the action and rhythm in the verb choices "scrubbed and etched and pickled" encourage the energy of desire, its strong focus. Perhaps the poem's energy reflects the strength of sexual desire or simply wanting. Perhaps, the poem suggests, wanting is absence strung with energy.

In the final three lines, the verb tense suddenly switches to present, indicating that this desire is ongoing. I find this list fascinating - it departs the terse, sexualized images of previous stanzas, approaching a wider set of desires. Each "my" phrase implies something different, though I will let you find those for yourself. Broadly, they touch on innocence and comfort, protection, ownership, joy, and, finally sexuality. The case could be made that the poem leaves the realm of erotic desire here, but I would argue that these elements are incased within erotic desire. That is, any sexual feelings will immediately or eventually include some mode of innocence and affection.

I had a very hard time writing about this poem, partially because it was difficult to make myself focus and write for a couple of hours, and partly because the poem is so rich. I struggled with the alternate (and equally valid) thesis arguing that the poem, while acknowledging erotic desire, was more diverse in scope, addressing the energy inherent in wanting, the absence of wanting, and different modes of wanting. However, these all fit within the sexual desire thesis I chose. I thought that I would make you aware of the other argument, though, so that you can see how beautiful this poem is. I think there is a lot of beauty in brilliant craft and complexity. So who knows. This PotW is descending into my little ramble, so this is when I bid you all a good night and start working on tomorrow's poem!