Month: March 2016 (page 2 of 3)

So They Told You Not to Use Cliches: How Laura Kasischke’s “MY BEAUTIFUL SOUL” Breaks Rules & Kicks Ass

Almost any writing teacher will find themselves, frustrated after pouring over hundreds of pages of cliche, stock phrases, not just wanting to pull their hair out (if they have any left, hah), but repeating over and over the phrase: “avoid cliches.”  We’ve all heard it.  So when I first came to Laura Kasischke’s poem, “MY BEAUTIFUL SOUL,” which appears in her NBCC award-winning collection, Space, In Chains, in the fall of 2011, my readerly red flags were at high alert from the get-go.

I’m a skeptical reader (maybe more so back then than now?), so I couldn’t help but think,   “Are you kidding me? My beautiful soul? Is this some kind of gift-card poetry?” before I even read the poem.  And oh boy, was Kasischke using my own expectation against me like the sharpened spikes in a deadfall bear trap.  The poem starts soft with seemingly innocuous verb constructions.  The repetition of “It is” strangely leaves the sentences incomplete, and they establish a soft-spoken tone that doesn’t seem to be trying to exert its will over you–rather the tone seems like someone spitting out words in between not-quite sobs…the tone seems utterly defeated to me.  And because I’m me, that’s why I like it–that recognition of your own helplessness, your size scaled up against the universe.

My Beautiful Soul by Laura Kasischke

The moment of interaction with the beggar sparks a whole chain of imagined awfuls that winds from specific but indeterminate people–the crippled woman in the bath, the arthritic children and bored nurses–to YOUR “brief shot at the universe,” which, echoes the image of the toppled telescope.  And the toppled telescope matches the defeated tone of the universe, or the way the speaker’s perceiving the world.  But the poem shifts from the first person in the opening to the third, and then to the second person.  The use of the you in the middle of the poem suddenly yanks the reader into the position of the defeated.  It’s a bold move, but the dividends prove worthwhile for my reading because I feel like I can tap into that same emotional core that our speaker’s talking from, and when the voice suddenly seems to speak to me (though also reflexively–that’s the magic), I’m drawn in because now this voice is implicating me, almost daring me to challenge the assumption that my brief shot at the universe is gone.  Who hasn’t felt like that at some point?

But then she shifts back to the repetition of the more vague, “It is,” and takes us to a somewhat disturbing image of a fish swimming through the eyes of a skull underneath some water lilies.  The image of the skull underwater links back to the “sinking” in the second line of the poem.  That weighted feeling that things aren’t going to go right.  But it nuances that image with the sparkling goldfish like a sparkling change-purse.  Aha, change-purse!  Wasn’t someone just giving away a dollar? This poem’s so quiet in its mastery that only it seems simple but complicates as you investigate further.

And all of a sudden the voice of the beggar interrupts the image, and we’re yanked into the moment which occasions this poem.  And this is where we first hear the cliche “beautiful soul,” in the poem.  Not only does it provide a context in which that phrase is both cliche and meaningful, but it lulls us for perhaps my favorite moment of this poem: “It is as if I have tossed a postcard / of the ocean into the ocean.”  Good-goddamn.  If you can’t feel the helplessness and defeat in that metaphor (yes, I know it’s a simile), then you might want to check your pulse.  The way the repetition of “it is” has built slowly over the poem was almost unnoticeable.  That language isn’t flashy, and it breaks another bit of advice I give to my students: “avoid ‘to be’ verbs.”  Usually I would advocate for stronger verbs, but here, the construction intentionally uses simpler constructions to lull us for the punch of its final use.

And then, just in case that postcard of the ocean into the ocean image shocked you so much you forgot the way she used “beautiful soul,” she’s going to use it again, so that it opens (as the title) and closes the poem.  And can you find a more perfect word than “stupid” for that final line? It admits the defeat of the action, of the gesture, and it does it anyway.

When the title returns at the end, we have a completely different understanding of its context, but also the way it resonates.  I’m so jealous of Kasischke for pulling this off.  I wish I had thought of it/written it first.  It’s so amazing, and I’m partially amazed and frustrated by how this title/phrase shouldn’t work and does.  That’s part of the magic of it.  Kasischke’s using this moment of defeat to create something that sparkles and stabs, and part of why it’s so amazing lies in my recognition of how difficult it is to nuance and work with cliche.  Took the top of my head off with a phrase I could’ve heard from the Hallmark channel.  Because she implicates not just herself in the moment, but you and me too.  Now that’s skill.  Hot damn.

 

Taylor Collier
3/11/2016

This Is What: Some Words on Denis Johnson’s “NIGHT”

A few years ago Christopher Kennedy introduced me to Denis Johnson’s poems in a graduate class at Syracuse, and I felt a connection with his work, not just on technical terms (like the way his sentences side-wind across the breaks), but with his griefed-out tone and the remove he’s able to toggle despite being in the middle of things.

Johnson’s famous for his fiction and non-fiction, but his third collection of poems, The Incognito Lounge, definitely holds its fair share of good, if not great, poems.   My three favorite from the book are probably “Night,” “Now,” and “In a Light of Other Lives,” though almost every poem in the collection’s worth reading (which, as readers of poetry know, is rare).  I’m gonna take a quick look at the poem, “Night,” because it’s stuck with me for years, and I’m fascinated by the way he’s able to render a moment, achieve verisimilitude, and leave me bowled over at the end, almost as desperate with my questions as the voice in the poem seemingly is with his.  Here’s a recording of me reading the poem + the poem to follow along–(sorry if the recording is a little fast…I’m new to all this):

NIGHT

I am looking out over
the bay at sundown and getting
lushed with a fifty-nine-
year-old heavily rouged cocktail
lounge singer; this total stranger.
We watch the pitiful little
ferry boats that ply between this world
and that other one touched
to flame by the sunset,
talking with unmanageable
excitement about the weather.
The sky and huge waters turn
vermilion as the cheap-drink hour ends.
We part with a grief as cutting
as that line between water and air.
I go downstairs and I go
outside.  It is like stepping into the wake
of a tactless remark, the city’s stupid
chatter hurrying to cover up
the shocked lull.  The moon’s
mouth is moving, and I am just
leaning forward to listen
for the eventual terrible
silence when he begins,
in the tones of a saddened
delinquent son returned
unrecognizable, naming
these things it now seems
I might have done
to have prevented his miserable
life.  I am desolate.
What is happening to me.

I usually talk about poems chronologically, but I’m so floored by this ending that I want to start there.  I didn’t know how to read the end at first–I’m not going to lie…lil bit slow sometimes–because the period instead of the question mark confused me.  It just seemed more like a statement than a question.  But then Chris Kennedy was gracious enough to explain how Johnson’s using that moment to effectively say “this is what ‘what’ is…and it’s happening to me.”  The poem’s realization is chilling.

Back to the beginning: our speaker situates us clearly.  We know we’re out looking on the waters during happy hour getting drunk with a total stranger.  Johnson’s able to capture the weird atmosphere of the moment: the cheap-drink hour ending and night coming on, the ferry boats in between worlds, our speaker leaving the lounge-singer and going outside to talk to the moon.   I can’t lie.  I’m a little jealous.  Anyone who can get away with a sentence like “I am desolate.” in a poem (and in the penultimate line no less!)  earns not just my respect but a little of envy too.  The mastery here though is how all the little details in the poem–hell the occasion of the poem–lead us to this feeling of desolation.

Another reason to admire this poem (that Chris Kennedy pointed out) is how it skillfully walks the tightrope of vulnerability without teetering over toward self-pity.  Our speaker flat-out tells us he’s desolate, and somehow I don’t feel like he’s trying to drum up my sympathy.  And if we weren’t sold, then he kills us with that last line–the unexpectedness of it, the way it seems to answer the why-did-this-story-happen-today question often see asked of short stories.  Tonight’s the night our speaker, knee-deep in his drunk, comes to see his life with starling clarity.

One note: for years I was a little confused about the “he” at the end of the poem–whether the speaker’s referring back to the lounge-singer from earlier or the moon.  It doesn’t make sense that the moon would be moving it’s mouth, but it also doesn’t make sense that someone he just walked away from would still be speaking to him.  The way I read it: our speaker is drunk, and just at the moment where the surreal leans in, we reach a heightened state not only of awareness, but in that awareness, fright.  Our speaker uses the moon to project his own words back at himself.  It’s not the moon with the miserable life.  And even if it is, why’s our speaker responsible for it?

Johnson’s ability to pinpoint, with such beautiful phrasings, the emotional center of this poem astounds me.  Not only can we understand the situation, but we can understand how the speaker feels without even really knowing what’s what.  When you find out, you might rather you hadn’t.

 

Taylor Collier
03/10/2016

Love Song at Closing Time: Alan Dugan’s “CLOSING TIME AT THE SECOND AVENUE DELI”

Alan Dugan, a remarkable but somewhat overlooked poet, probably best known for (and he’d hate that I’m mentioning it) his marriage poem, “LOVE SONG: I AND THOU,”  has perhaps saved his best poem for last.  His posthumous collection, Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry, closes with perhaps the most subtle poem about death that I’ve ever read.  It’s so subtle that I didn’t even begin to see the intricacies at play until the third or fourth time I’d read the poem.

So let me save you some leg-work.  Read “CLOSING TIME AT THE SECOND AVENUE DELI” with the idea that the speaker knows he’s nearing the end of his life.  Think about the different containers in the poem, the ketchup bottles, the to-go container for the stew, the speaker and his wife–the body as container–inside the deli, inside the taxi.  Look at the setting and the overarching narrative–the time of day, the situation they find themselves at the end w/ the leaking stew), the concept of balance and emptiness, and the way the speaker cuts off his thinking again and again with “no,” which serves as a corrective preventing the speaker from overly aggrandizing the moment, or inflating its importance, which keeps both reader and speaker rooted firmly in a specific moment:

 

2015-10-07 18.10.08

Do you see how it can easily read as a short little anecdote about something an elderly man noticed as he and his wife were leaving dinner.  Not all that shocking, not the kind of thing you’d ever see a movie trailer for.  But Dugan’s subtlety here, the background elements so expertly threaded into the poem they don’t draw attention in a flashy or maudlin way, offers the kind of poem that only deepens and darkens with each reading.

The tone of the speaker at the opening of the poem builds from an almost hushed, delicate whisper, to a quick and decisive mocking of that impulse.  The question “like shall I say / a priest blessing the balance” provides the speaker for that window to undermine the voice from before.  The voice saying no proves insistent, determined to keep the lofty voice from drifting too far from reality, from making everything he notices precious enough to crack.

This poem about death never dips into the language of mortality.  But when you re-read, phrases like “balances out,” or “the store goes dark,” or “this ride,” or “this is the time / to turn out the lights,” or even the similes early in the poem with the priest and the rabbi, which try to attribute the scene with an air of the sacred (though the voice won’t allow itself), they take on more resonance.  We see the interrupting voice “The manager is not like,” which gives us an important tool for reading this poem.  The voice struggles to pin down the scene not only without aggrandizing, or dipping into the dreaded terrain of preciousness, but the voice also wants to avoid referent.  Things are not like other things; people are not like other people–they are like themselves.   The tension between the speaker’s two impulses here enacts yet another display of balance to add to the ketchup bottles, but more importantly we witness a speaker who understands the inevitability and proximity of death yet refuses to dwell.

Toward the end of the poem, we have yet one final question from our speaker, one last “shall I say,” which reads literally about the stew-container, but also figuratively about the body, how it’s a container which will soon no longer be able to contain “the thing” (the person) contained.  Dugan would’ve effectively killed this poem if he had been more direct, and that balance, that sharp and swerving, both internal and external, bob and weave seems to be what’s holding everything in place.  Our speaker’s body might be at the point where it “can / not contain the thing contained anymore,” but as we learned from earlier in the poem with the ketchup bottles as metaphor–this is about the balance “of emptiness, of fullness perfectly contained.”

The poem’s final line veers toward the unexpected, which resonates in comedic and severe fashion.  Like any good poem about balance, it can’t end too lopsided.  Perhaps I love this poem because it works so hard against artifice–funny that it actually requires a lot of artifice to achieve that effect.  The image of the soup spilling in the floorboards of the taxi at the end of the poem suggests everything we know: that our human containers only last for so long, & that we pay, in some way or another, for what we experience.

So thanks, Alan, for the poems.  For the balance.  For both the fullness and the emptiness.  For going in front of us and paying for this ride.

 

-JTC
3/9/2016

P.S.

Frank Stanford fans might appreciate this 1974 letter Dugan wrote in defense of Stanford’s submission of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You to the Walt Whitman Award competition, which was rejected on the basis that it was “significantly longer than 100 pages”:

2015-04-09 09.24.03

It’s inspiring to see Dugan, who, in 1961, won not just the Yale Younger Series  Prize and the National Book Award, but the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection, Poems, writing in defense of a younger, less established poet.  More on Frank Stanford soon.

 

Taylor Collier
03/09/2016

When I First Fell in Love with Ward: Some Notes on Ryan Vine’s “CONVERSATIONS ON A DECK”

I first stumbled upon Ryan Vine‘s poetry a few years ago when I read some of his Rule poems.  I think the first ones I encountered were in The Greensboro Review (available @ VerseDaily), but there was a voice that wouldn’t leave me alone, that kept whispering in my ear at night when I was trying to go to sleep.  The voice was hilarious, but dark at the same time.  Before I knew it, I was ordering Vine’s 2005 Weldon Kees Prize-winning chapbook Distant Engines, and I devoured it within hours of its arrival.     That’s when I first fell in love with Ward.

Vine, in the tradition of Kees’s Crusoe poems, Berryman’s Henry poems, to some degree Yeats’s Crazy Jane poems, builds a series of poems around a central character as a means of investigating both interior and exterior contemporary realities.  Often Vine announces Ward’s name in the titles of his Ward series; however, in “CONVERSATIONS ON A DECK,” we encounter a different kind of Ward poem altogether:

2016-03-07 16.09.40

The title prepares us for outdoor conversations, implying that more than one person will be present.  But the opening lines blatantly suggest that our beloved Ward is alone.  “It was too late” begs the questions: “what?…what was too late? too late for…?” Though the opening lines may at first come across as flat–we have two “to be” verbs–Vine’s using this tone in order to settle us into the mood, or the atmosphere, of the poem, which is ultimately somewhat somber.  Why else talk to the darkness on the hillside?  Though the sentences are very straightforward, Vine’s careful and skilled enjambs (linebreaks) suspend the tension of each sentence’s meaning across the breaks, creating a pulsing web of double entendres.  Look at the way we don’t discover the true nature of the second sentence’s meaning until we’re five lines from the end of the poem.   The final three words of that sentence, “let him down,” not only reveal Ward’s state of mind, his loneliness, his feeling of betrayal, but they heighten the feeling of darkness introduced in the third line.

Not only does Ward confront the literal darkness on the hillside, but he’s looking back at his life, reflecting on all the dark moments, the people who’ve betrayed him.  Once the speaker introduces that idea in general terms, he goes more specific: “Bitch, / he said to a woman / he once loved.”  The dramatic irony here plays itself out in a strange way.  The poem’s use of the third person removes the voice of the speaker from the voice of Ward himself.  We can see what Ward says, but at least within the scope of this poem, we have no direct access to his inner monologue.  So the irony is at play because Ward’s the only one who doesn’t seem to know that he’s the only one talking.  But because our speaker/narrator tells us “he said to a woman,” and also he calls “an old friend” a dick.  We gain a brief glimpse behind the curtain of Ward’s interior.  The third person works well here to create not only a level of remove and distance between Ward and the speaker, but in doing so, enacts the very difficulty Ward experiences in life: rejection, isolation, distance, removal.   We need to hear Ward’s voice in this poem–it’s absolutely necessary to see him standing outside on a deck in the dark talking to people who aren’t there–but the third person allows us to witness him in that setting instead of hearing directly.

I mentioned the seemingly flat language earlier in the poem, and I want to take a brief moment to point out why it works so well.  The simplicity of the language in the poem not only torques against the enjambs (linebreaks), but it also establish a steady tone that lulls us just enough so that when the poem veers at the end–when the distance responds–we’re jolted awake with greater power than if we’d just wandered through a linguistic pyrotechnics display.  The straightforward tone doesn’t prepare us for the distance to respond, but when it does, it makes the poem satisfying for a number of reasons: one, the way it alters meaning forces the title to suddenly make more sense (because it’s no longer just one person speaking anymore), and two, the distance speaking back to Ward just echoes Ward’s insult, highlighting the degree to which Ward’s projecting all of the frustrations and anger he has with himself onto other people (and even abstractions like darkness and distance).  The end startles me the same way I’m shocked when suddenly realize I’m being narcissistic, which is, ultimately, what I take away from the poem.  A little warning to avoid dipping into self-pity.  Don’t be like Ward, this poem says.  Ward’s throwing a little pity-party, and even he knows he’s a fool.  We all know the distance doesn’t really call him a fool.  He’s still projecting–even if he’s being more honest with himself in that moment, the poem reveals the disconnect because the realization seemingly comes from somewhere else.

I love this poem because it tricks me and fools me and teaches me a little something about blame in a way I’m not anticipating.  I think at some point we’ve all been a version of Ward, and it’s good to know, that even in our worst, most pitiable & pathetic selves….we’re not the only ones.   The poem calls out via a scene of a man confronting solitude and darkness as if to say: you’re not alone.  Funny sometimes how that works.  Deep down I love Ward because I want to love even the less likable parts of myself, or at least learn how to try.

If you like this poem, you should go read a few other of Ryan’s Ward poems up at: American Poetry Review (PDF via Proquest), The Cortland Review, and Ovenbird.

 

Taylor Collier
3/8/2016

 

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