Month: March 2016 (page 1 of 3)

The Narrative Design of Larry Levis’s “OVERHEARING THE DOLLMAKER’S GHOST ON THE RIVERBANK”

Anyone who’s talked with me about poetry in the past seven years has probably had to endure my going on and on obsessively about Larry Levis.  Levis often gets categorized as a poet’s poet, but when I read his work to my  biology, engineering, computer science, pre-med, and art students, they respond in much the same way I did when I first encountered his work.  I’m going to try to avoid being sappy here because poets are notorious for that shit, but Larry Levis’s poems showed me a different way of existing in the world.  They’re so considerate and lush with brilliant images and moments that will chill your marrow.  If you don’t have a copy of Pitt’s The Selected Levis, that’s probably something you should remedy.

One poem that I’ve been sharing with my students since I taught in Texas is the beastly, three-pager, “OVERHEARING THE DOLLMAKER’S GHOST ON THE RIVERBANK.”  Levis disrupts the narrative chronology, giving us details about the speaker’s early life in the middle of the poem, but more than that, the voice in combination with the brilliantly described images in the opening pulls me through the poem with such increasing interest, that I start to lose the beginning of the thread.  I have a very-early-morning voiced reading of the poem that you can listen to here:

OVERHEARING THE DOLLMAKER’S GHOST ON THE RIVERBANK

by Larry Levis

The Missouri is only a mile from this place,
But I haven’t seen it glint through the bridge railings
For two months, its back careless, flat,
And unaging.
Seen for the first time it moves faster
Than you expected, like the back
Of an animal you glimpse from the highway
But can’t identify.
And once, on its banks near Canada,
I saw a bear
Moving quickly through goldenrod glance up once
And judge me.    Then it
Walked off with a sort of arrogant peacefulness
In each stride.
And held for a moment in the contempt
Of its stare, hearing
The wind over the blind stones,
I learned only what I knew:
That the sun would go down,
The bread I was eating would be water,
And the river would flow under the creaking pilings
Until another shack came riding high
In the spring floods.
And trapped twice by rising water,
I was lucky enough to crawl into a cave and share it
With scorpions, and admire their selfishness,
And bless power.

*

But nothing could laugh fear out of my house—
It lived in the brown shoes I had to put on
Each morning, and in the cancer blooming under
My father’s lapel, and in my mother’s taking in laundry
All through World War I.
Fear was curious: it asked me
My name, asked me to sit down and showed me all the tools
In the shed, and asked me if I knew their uses.
And I lied because I needed the money;
And because they said someone had to place buttons
Carefully in the skulls of dolls,
and do this over and over,
I was a dollmaker.
Until each doll grew luminous and each inhaled
My gaze.  And then I gave those eyes
Everything they asked,
Which was nothing.
Which was thirty years.

*

And once, driving home, I saw a torn mattress
High on a riverbank, and wondered
Who had slept there, what love stains
Might be drying on it in the late afternoon sun,
And what lice might be sleeping inside it,
Unaware that their hosts had moved elsewhere.
And so strapped it over the roof of my car,
And got it home,
And sat there on it, drinking wine and grinning.
And it was my wide grin and all 29 teeth
That remembered who I had slept with
In 1947, and who was
Blinded at random on the street by acid thrown
Into her eyes,
And why the sky is for sale.
Because in the end it wasn’t a bear
Or a mattress on a raft that saved me.
It wasn’t my body
Like a graveyard glimpsed inside a sunset
While someone is writing a letter;
It wasn’t even my disappearance,
Or my cousins dredging the water.
It was the river moving all night under me,
It was the fast, black river
That didn’t care what I did,
That slowed when I looked at it closely
And carried twigs and shoes
And a rank stench like unwashed human hair and flesh
Past the abandoned freight yards of the Missouri,
And past the white hair of women who go mad on its banks,
Watching for my body to surface in the warming water.

And now I will sit here all night carving
At a dry stick of wood,
Ignoring whoever it is
That gets up slowly and walks back
To his car, and rolls up the windows—
So he won’t hear the grass dying all around me
In late August—
And drives away.

 

The title cues us in to our location and gives us at least a sense of the paranormal, since we’re told that someone’s overhearing a ghost.  But the opening lines present a clear, distinct voice that gets so caught in the elaborate description of the river–“it’s back careless, flat, / And unaging” or “like the back / of an animal you glimpse from the highway / But can’t identify”–so wrapped up in these descriptions that it takes us to the river and away from where we start.  My mind’s eye veers towards this river, and once it does, Levis quickly embeds the first little narrative to keep me there, as if in a spell.

The story about the bear, the underlying tension of the threat contrasting with the bear’s seemingly nonchalant attitude, the danger of the rising water, and the lovely detail of sharing a cave with scorpions.  Who can’t imagine how frightening that would be?  And why admire selfishness and bless power? This is about a way of looking at the world.  The speaker tells us he respects their aggressive behavior, but ultimately that he’s thankful that he’s bigger than they are.  But Levis squeezes that whole idea into a small gesture, which is one of his greatest powers as a poet.

Like I mentioned earlier, the exposition of the speaker’s life doesn’t come until the middle section of the poem.  At this point, I’m so drawn in by the speaker’s voice and the story that I’m committed to finishing.  The speaker’s already moved us from his location to the Missouri and then to another time and location altogether.  So when we jump back even further, it seems less disorienting.  If the poem had started this way, as a reader I wouldn’t have enough empathy for the speaker yet for it to be interesting enough.  Not that the details about the father’s cancer, the brown shoes (I read this as a reference to depression), or his mother having to take in extra work to make ends meet, or him working as a dollmaker aren’t interesting.  Those details are central to the poem.  Maybe that’s why they go in the middle, hah.  But the first section works like a fishook in a way that the second section couldn’t.  The narrative drama’s less palpable.

The details about the dollmaker’s life, the dolls inhaling his gaze, the way thirty years and nothing are weighted the same, offer us a tone of defeat and desperation.  Our speaker tells us he did this job because he “needed the money,” and I get a sense that this work was precious to our speaker.  How else would they grow luminous? The gesture at the end, him giving them everything they asked confused me at first.  The way I think of it is: these dolls didn’t ask for anything (how could they?), but he gave them everything he could (almost seems like he did it b/c they couldn’t ask?), which was thirty years of his life.  But the inversion of nothing = thirty years kind of pops whatever balloons are in the air.

The final story in the poem is perhaps one of my favorite images in a poem.  I’ve never met anyone who would sit on a used mattress they found on a riverbank, but for some reason, I can sense the joy that our speaker has about the act of retrieving it, of even imagining its history–down to imagining the ignorance of the lice who might be inside–, like this mattress is some great triumph.  And when he shows us the wine and the grin, Levis quickly moves the camera (think of how the camera has moved throughout this whole poem–it’s remarkable) away and chills us with a blip from the past about the woman who was blinded by acid thrown in her eyes.  And why is the sky for sale? my students often ask.  I dunno? I say.  Because everything is?

But the poem begins to funnel back through the previous stories to arrive at some point.  The momentum starts to build with the repetition of “It wasn’t,” which we see three times.  We see the images we’ve seen before, tying the bear and mattress stories together, and we see the speaker’s body “glimpsed like a graveyard inside a sunset / while someone is writing a letter.”  The simile here deepens as it unfolds across the enjamb to the point where I can imagine looking up from a desk out at the sunset and seeing light skitter through headstones, but more than just creating the image in my mind, the gesture is casual, which suggests that our speaker’s body wasn’t handled with the care that he gave those dolls.

So if it wasn’t all of those things, what was it that saved our speaker? He tells us it was the river, and the way the camera angle zooms in that moment “that slowed when I looked at it closely / and carried twigs and shoes,” brings us right to the riverbank.  I can see the water too.  The images just underscore how much the river doesn’t care what you do, how nature’s bigger than that.  And that’s ultimately what our speaker claims saved him.

And the final stanza wraps up a nice little bait-and-switch that the poem sets up.  The first few years I read this poem, I don’t think I understood it very well.  I didn’t understand that the voice of the speaker is the voice of the ghost.  The poet is overhearing the ghost talking, but because the poet has removed himself from the poem, the speaker is the ghost.  The final strophe takes us back to the beginning of the poem, about a mile from the Missouri, and our speaker tells us that he sees someone get up and go to his car and roll up the windows.  This is Levis’s imagining of how the ghost perceives/interacts with him.  The person walking to the car at the end has been recording our speaker, giving his voice to us, and when he drives away, all that’s over.  It’s also fun to think about the way the em-dashes seem to enact the rolling up of the window.

It’s magic.  The story as I understood it changes at the end.  I’m emotionally invested in a dead stranger who’s life, though filled with strange grief, teaches me about perspective, voice, dedication.  It’s one of my favorite poems, and I find something new to praise every time I return.  That’s how you know it’s gold.

Taylor
3/18/2016

 

P.S. Levis has been in the news more lately with the release of The Darkening Trapeze, which Graywolf published in January.

Where Even Birdshit’s Beautiful: A Few Words on Hayden Carruth’s “THE LOON ON FORRESTER’S POND”

Today I’m going to spend a few minutes looking at Hayden Carruth’s, “THE LOON ON FORRESTER’S POND,” one of my favorite nature poems.  Carruth’s poetry’s almost always engendered with a strong sense of compassion, and as you’ll see here, our speaker’s attention and the poem’s careful crafting lead us, by playing off the expectation established by the word ‘loon’ in the title, to a greater understanding of nature, relationships, and sanity.  When reading the poem, look at the way the first strophe establishes the setting and the circumstance:

 

THE LOON ON FORRESTER’S POND

by Hayden Carruth

Summer wilderness, a blue light
twinkling in trees and water, but even
wilderness is deprived now.  “What’s that?
What is that sound?” Then it came to me,
this insane song, wavering music
like the cry of the genie inside the lamp,
it came from inside the long wilderness
of my life, a loon’s song, and there it was
swimming on the pond, guarding
his mate’s nest by the shore,
diving and staying under
unbelievable minutes and coming up
where no one was looking.  My friend
told how once in his boyhood
he had seen a loon swimming beneath his boat,
a shape dark and powerful
down in that silent mysteries world, and how
it had ejected a plume of white excrement
curving behind.  “It was beautiful,”
he said.

The loon
broke the stillness over the water
again and again,
broke the wilderness
with his song, truly
a vestige, the laugh that transcends
first all mirth
then all sorrow
and finally all knowledge, dying
into the gentlest quavering timeless
woe.  It seemed
the real and only sanity to me.

 

The opening words “summer wilderness” establish a time of year and a location, and so from the beginning we know where our speaker is.  The speaker then gives us the images of the blue light in the trees and water, but more than giving us a location and an image for our mind’s eye to create, Carruth creates tension by the end of the first sentence.  Though we’re in wilderness, our speaker tells us that even that isn’t pure, but the tension lies in our not knowing why.  What’s deprived? Fortunately the poem’s constructed to show us rather than have the speaker tell us.

When the dialogue enters the poem, it interrupts the wilderness, but in my reading, the sound of the loon was the first interruption.  But our speaker’s just as uncertain about what the sound is as we are about what’s going on.  There’s a careful balance here in terms of the delay and release of information.  We see our speaker ask what this sound is, and it’s almost as if we’re with him in the moment when he realizes that the wilderness hasn’t been broken at all, that the sound he’s heard is part of it.

Carruth compares the bird’s music to the “cry of a genie inside the lamp,” which helps give the moment a kind of magical aura that carries throughout the poem.  But we don’t actually see the word ‘loon’ until the 8th line: “it came from inside the long wilderness / of my life, a loon’s song[.]” So the sound that startled our speaker initially now shares a strong tie to our speaker’s personal life.  This moment helps us understand why our speaker’s talking.  This “long wilderness / of my life” suggests not just a overgrowth and wildness, but the word ‘long’ at least hints that our speaker’s tired, feeling the exhaustion of a long life.

The poem then gives us images of the loon swimming.  We see it guarding its mate’s nest, and the magic returns when it dips under water for “unbelievable minutes.”  I find myself a bit confused about the next moment of the poem.  Up to this point, there’s nothing to suggest that there’s anyone else with our speaker.  But now a friend enters the poem and offers a story about a loon he saw as a boy.  Either the speaker’s remembering this story that friend once told, or his friend’s with him in the moment.  In my reading, our speaker’s with a friend in the present action of the poem because of the dialogue earlier, and also the immediacy of the phrasing: “My friend / told how once[.]”  If it’d read “My friend / once told how,” then I’d assume the story was from memory.

Whether or not his friend is with him in the present action is a bit of a side-track.  The important element to focus on in this moment is the story, the way his friend’s literally describing a loon defecating underwater, and how that birdshit was surprisingly beautiful.  That’s the transformative power of poetry.  We start with literal shit and somehow in this context, with these words, we arrive at beauty.  That’s a kind of alchemy.  A kind of genie-in-the-lamp magic.

After our speaker’s friend shares the story, the poem breaks into shorter lines to delivery its final two sentences, which are probably the softest, sweetest, and most beautiful descriptions of nature that I’ve ever encountered.  My mind’s eye can see this loon rising up out of the water and splashing back down, and like his body breaks the water, I hear his song breaking the silence.  In this final section, our speaker uses the word ‘laugh’ for the first time.  We see another transformation–from song to laugh.  But that laugh, our speaker tells us, is transcendent: not just of entertainment, or deep grief, but finally all knowledge.

Carruth gives us one of the most beautiful phrasings in the English language right here: “dying / into the gentlest quavering timeless / woe,”  The syntax and the enjamb both work to push ‘woe,’ to the end of the sentence.  Our speaker tells us that laugh transcends all sorrow, and so when ‘woe,’ punctuates the end of the sentence, it serves as a reminder that the reality of sorrow’s not only timeless but inescapable.  But the final sentence yanks us back into the mind of the speaker, affirming the beauty of the loon.  The speaker also suggests that the only real sanity comes after transcending knowledge.  Because we often associate the word ‘loon’ with insanity, or see it as synonymous with crazy, Carruth’s able to capitalize on the resonance of the word ‘sanity’ right at the end of the poem.

We have a sense from the beginning of the poem that our speaker’s dealing with some kind of grief, some kind of woe, or sorrow, just from the phrase “long wilderness of my life,” and this statement at the end of the poem seems to suggests the redemptive power of nature.  The song of a bird, by the end of the poem, the sound that initially “deprived” our speaker of the wilderness,  proves the only thing our speaker can identify with.  Not his knowledge, not his own sanity, not his friend (where’s the friend?).  The word “timeless” also reinforces the degree to which the emotional core of this poem is part of the human condition, something most of us will feel at one point or another.

Carruth’s poem is masterful, heartfelt, rooted in our shared world, and it resonates both intellectually and emotionally.  Sure, it’s just a guy who hears and sees a bird, but just as the phrase “stop and smell the roses” has nothing to do with roses and everything to do with you stopping to notice your own life, Carruth teaches us the importance of awareness, moving us from something unidentifiable to the one truth (if you want to read sanity as truth, hah).

 

Taylor Collier
3/17/2016

Where’s Weldon?: The Tone of Unease in Weldon Kees’s “SUBTITLE”

The first time I picked up The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, I had to do a double-take when I checked the date of publication.  Kees’s poems seem so contemporary, yet his books came out in 1943, 1947, and 1954.  I couldn’t believe I was in my second or third year of my MFA and hadn’t encountered these poems sooner.  They floored me, but there was some feeling I couldn’t pinpoint, like they created some kind of unease that would ride my blood.  Though a lot of Kees’s work uses rhyme and more traditional forms, his phrasings and language seems fresh, inventive, and rewarding not only to the ear but to the imagination also.

I want to look at the way Kees announces himself to the world with the poem, “SUBTITLE,” which is the opening poem in his 1943 collection The Last Man.   If you think about the book’s title and how it came out in 1943, it speaks to global conflict that took many men away from their homes, and since Kees was working as an artist in the U.S. at the time, in some ways the title fits him.  However, the opening of the first poem breaks away from this singular man, establishing a plural first person with a “we” that seems very similar to the kinds of disembodied voices you hear coming from a school intercom:

2016-03-13 10.14.47

The opening line: “We present for you this evening” sounds casual, inviting even, until you follow across the enjamb to find the presentation is a movie about death.  The speaker’s tone starts to shift after this initial turn into a more instructive, authoritative voice.  What strikes me about this poem is the way the tone of the voice seems to contrast the message of what’s being said, which creates a friction that only intensifies as the poem progresses and brings the second person into the poem.

The first few instructions use passive verb constructions with “must be,” delaying the use of the “you” (or 2nd person) in the poem.  The effect this achieves is a growing distance between the voice of the “we,” and you, the reader, the audience, the one preparing themselves to watch the movie of death.  What a way to introduce your poetry to the world, eh? Tell them it’s a movie, and then start in with the ominous messages like: “observe that / There are no exits.  This is a necessary precaution.”  How can there not be an exit? Somebody’s breaking the fire code! And then to follow that up by stating the precaution is necessary but not explaining why–that’s disturbing, unsettling.  There’s the unease that rides my blood.

Kees is preparing the reader for the rest of the poem, but also the rest of his book (and writing career).  He’s telling us to strap ourselves in and hold on because we’re about to witness something we didn’t anticipate.  The voice instructs us not to look for dialogue or any human voice, and the sounds that this unknown “they” has synchronized arrive in startling order.  First we hear pig squeal, which is sharp and fast and frightens and terrifies.  Then we hear the slow sound of guns, a much lower sound, a different pace, but what I find the most captivating about this moment in the poem is the way the “sharp dead click / Of empty chocolatebar machines” is somehow infinitely more ominous than the sounds of guns or the squeals of pigs.

And just in case you thought you might be able to get away, our speaker reminds you once again that there are no exits, but adds a little more information about how you can’t crawl out the washroom window or even bribe a guard.  There’s no end to this film “unless / The ending is your own,” which is a really dark way of saying you’ll have to die to get away from this place.

The last few lines of the poem seem to urge us back into a more settled and comforting place.  “Turn off the lights” and “sit forward, let the screen reveal” don’t hold that same ominous feeling that’s glowing in the middle of the poem.  The menace comes in the final line because how can a movie that you’re watching reveal your heritage?  How can it explain the logic of your destiny? It assumes a relationship with the audience that’s unsettling.

The voice’s confidence gives me an uneasy feeling that makes me want to continue.  After a poem like this one, how could you not turn the page to see what comes next? This is the only poem of Kees’s that’s center-justified (if I’m remembering correctly), and it’s also the only poem I can think of that’s centered that I really love.  Kees warps and toys with our expectations, and continues to make us wonder, over sixty years later, where’s Weldon?

Taylor Collier
03/13/2016

A Few Words on Frank Stanford’s “NAUTILUS”

Thanks once again go to Christopher Kennedy for introducing me to the work of Frank Stanford back in 2010.  Stanford’s short poems have always had a strange allure that seems to contradicts their straightforward delivery, but it wasn’t until I read the entirety of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You that I discovered the true genius of Stanford’s work.

The short poems are powerful and arresting, and after flipping through Copper Canyon’s recent release of Stanford’s published and unpublished work, What About This, I found myself surprised to see how almost every poem–even the ones that ultimately don’t hold together–offer some kind of magic, some burst of wildness like a horse pulling against the reigns…something to delight in and learn from.

It’s difficult to talk about the magic of Stanford’s epic poem that clocks in at over 15,000 lines (most of which run to the end of the page) because it dips from lyric fugue into straightforward narrative and in and out of dream and waking worlds.  It’s a very confusing book, and while there’s plenty to ignore (I’m not fan of the Beowulf references), the depths of this well are new and refreshing, and to quote Christopher Kennedy: “Stanford’s got some phrases in here that would make Shakespeare blush.”

Stanford’s work has been receiving more attention recently, which is promising.  His vision and voice, his intensity and relentlessness are palpable on the page.  You can feel the heartbeat of each poem.  I want to take a quick look at one of Stanford’s shortest poems to discuss, quickly, how he’s able to twist and warp and disturb a reader in a matter of just a few lines:

NAUTILUS

by Frank Stanford

a body comes apart in the bayou
like cardboard
in the lid of a jar
some kind of oyster
you take out with a knife
dogs tell it
the whole night sky
is an appaloosa

The opening line arrests the reader, but the verb doesn’t help us visualize (much) the way in which the body is coming apart.  The second/third lines answer that with startling specificity.  To compare human flesh to soggy cardboard works to devastating effect.  The comparison highlights the value of each, and the way they both come apart in water underscores how little a human life means…it’s just “a body.”  The tone the speaker establishes in the beginning is casual, which suggests this kind of scene is a regular occurrence.

Then we see Stanford compare the body to an oyster, and the image of the knife–though casual in the context of eating an oyster–takes on sinister resonance when you consider the occasion of this tiny little poem.  And, at least in my reading, we have a howling/barking sound enter the poem with the line “dogs tell it.”  Not only does the oyster link us back to the title of the poem, but it tells us about our speaker’s references.  Our speaker’s someone familiar with bayous and life around water.  But the phrase “dogs tell it,” helps us pinpoint the southern colloquial dialect perhaps a little more easily.

The strange phrasing here also avoids the normal and usual images of dogs howling/barking while describing the impulse of those images.  Their howling and barking is telling.  Just like Stanford’s poem is a telling, it’s own kind of howl into the night.  And our speaker directs the camera skyward in that final gesture (like a dog howling at the moon, perhaps?), only to find the night sky an appaloosa.  The image is startling, and not only does it animate and characterize the sky, but the language proves unexpected and brilliantly lyric.  It’s the burst we’ve been waiting for, the little lyric moment that the flat language has been building towards.

Stanford’s a poet of incredible imagination.  Spend a few hours with his work, and if you’re imaginative capacities are open enough, I promise you won’t regret it.

 

Taylor Collier
03/12/2016

 

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