Cerise Press | Vol. 2 Issue 5 | Fall/Winter 2010-11
Nietzsche once wrote: “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” This dilemma poses a particular challenge to new poetry: can one ever speak truly—much less write?, much less sing?—when language is a prejudice of precedent, when there is nihil sub sole novum and all sayable things seem already said? This question is also poetry’s great virtue, for no other medium is so self-aware and self-justifying. Successful poems are their own apologia, and, by exhausting the fecundity of words, strike at the experience of mystery that lies behind words. I want to keep this in mind while examining some of the poems in Cerise Press‘s fall/winter issue. Every poem published in this issue is written with a mature handle on craft, which means each is already pushing the limits of the medium and approaching quiddity. The poems are of high quality, and for me to select one over another will be merely a matter of taste. For this reason, rather than praise what is already self-evidently praiseworthy, I want to approach this review with rhetoric in mind, with the goal of evincing how my favorite poems from this issue work and what they have to say about their own process.
Retelling the Expected
Patty Seyburn’s “A Year on Mars” is a kind of model of the conflict I’m describing. Seyburn takes up a tired theme—disillusioned love—and makes it linguistically new. Thematically, the human world is narrated with a vernacular of astrology: “I orbited you,” “this igneous adventure,” “everyone . . . bumping into the sun,” “lass stranded on that mythic isthmus,” “Mission Control // is still giving orders,” and so on. This naturalization of metaphor is a conceit of modern poetry, a fantastical irony: we know that people do not orbit one another, but the poem’s liveliness convinces us that indeed they do. The poem’s speaker narrates her courtship and breaking-up, which we can generally deduce, and makes it vivid precisely by depicting what it is not. Each time we ‘get it’ and connect metaphor to perspective, we undergo a constructive experience that brings the poem to life. The language of the poem (at its most distancing when “stranding a preposition, / widowing a noun”) is regulated and balanced by the speaker’s playfulness. The opening fact about Mars stretches into a metaphor—“as I orbited you / before I began to degenerate”—which would be hard to take if not for the next line, which is cute and colloquial and grounds us in the speaker’s personality: “You must be awfully affable . . .” Thus the language keeps us straddling what we may call the common and the poetical. Alone, either would be prolix; juxtaposed, we synchronically experience both a relationship and a cosmos. Metaphor functions on a physical level, as studies have long shown; when we think of ‘hot’ as in ‘sunny,’ we are activating the same part of the brain that thinks of ‘hot’ as in ‘spicy.’ So, when the red color-theme emerges in this poem, our perception is adjusted to include all that it encompasses, not merely that which it refers to.
Form and Content
Adrienne Su’s “Downward Dog” and Kirk Glaser’s “Practicing Tai Chi While News Plays from Tiananmen Square” are superb treatments of form and apply metaphor into the very cadences of reading. “Downward Dog” uses the pantoum to illustrate its subject, yoga, as a process of discovery in repetition. The stanzas are interlaced and each line must be experienced a second time to fully unfold. The opening and ending say it all: “Through the changes, the forms persist.” Most of the lines undergo slight transformation in repetition; for instance, the speaker’s question, “How many times must I start from scratch?” becomes nature’s question: “how many times can I start from scratch / as bodies pile up?” Any repeating form is immensely difficult to master, and Su confronts its demands admirably; very seldom are there moments of lull. The use of formal poetic convention today calls extra attention to itself, and we see one of its fundamental premises in Su’s poem: that predictability can always surprise us.
Glaser’s poem takes a more relaxed form with loose dactylic tercets, but his convergence of form and content is equally impressive. The title situates the poem in the counterpoint of self and other, individual and masses. The opening stanza is another counterpoint: one hand forward while the other draws away. Glaser’s description of Tai Chi is very accurate, not only regarding the body but also the intent; nearly every stanza makes a statement for the practice. From the first four we see: “focusing on the narrow path,” “turned away from custom,” “[my mind] finds itself moving down my legs,” and “far beneath my feet where my chi rises.” The fluidity of awareness is matched in prosody: though most lines are enjambed they tend to end on a soft accent, as though pausing before the next form; and each time the mind moves, a verb guides us to reshift focus. There is so much movement in the opening stanzas that nearly each line has a new verb; though this is difficult to manage, Glaser achieves remarkable profluence. The poem ebbs between the speaker and Tiananmen Square with inextricable concatenation; like the fable of the river and the bank, “Each makes it[s] claim on the other, but who can say / how we make ourselves?” Adjectives, such as in “brittle men” and “fear by its sharp edge,” couch a political opinion within the poem’s language of softness and openness; in the microcosm of the poem, there may be no difference between the speaker’s perspective of Tiananmen and the event itself for they cannot exist independently.
“A Day in Lavender” by Jeanne Marie Beaumont is a prose poem that also closely follows consciousness. We circumambulate a hint of death (“some stains of the recently departed,” “You must have loved her a lot”), and the poem’s intense concentration on images and objects may be a method of avoidance. Each short sentence departs to a new examined object. But, “having a fondness for frames and what one sees in them,” the color lavender frames each image; through it we experience the speaker’s inner eye, and whenever the color reappears, it modulates so we see it differently. As manifested in literature, the ‘stream of consciousness’ is a myth—William James’s coinage of the term posited consciousness as more than verbal—and the use of lavender in this poem is an example of how we require an external point of reference by which to understand our experiences. The lavender in this poem is unnatural, which is to say it occurs as paint or ink only, a layer of pigment added or divested. The recurring color, like poetic language, is a means of connecting and imbuing reality with our thematic understanding of it.
Julie Marie Wade’s “What Nimrod Should Have Known” alludes to the Tower of Babel story and confronts the estrangement that became language. She gives body to voice, calling it “wood” and a “Jenga puzzle of speech,” even gendering it by polemicizing “Eve’s garments” and “the sword of / Adam’s violent vernacular.” The poem favors pairs, as exampled by the ampersands: “porous & prone . . . forthcoming & forgotten . . . the eminent & the imminent . . . reef & wave . . .” Despite the discrete and occlusive nature of words, the poet shows us how alliteration, assonance, imperfect rhyme and so on—the organization of words by similar sounds—can be a kind of discovery, a kind of music. That speech is a Jenga puzzle suggests that we are re-structuring toward an inevitable collapse, but the goal nevertheless is stability, harmony. The poem ends, however, in final brokenness, the failure of two halves to reconcile: “one boasting / Silence, the other Cacophony.” We either speak unclearly or not at all.
What follows are three poems that deal with the past in terms of larger-than-life figures. Annie Finch’s “Longfellow” begins with a spondee and dactyl that make it hard not to start reading aloud. Indeed, the transference of voice is essential as the speaker, too, reads sound into Longfellow’s words and house, hearing “a low and earnest voice, wind in fir trees, burning / through this room . . .” Finch’s poem is a resurrection: beginning with the epigraph’s falling dead leaves and Longfellow’s cold edifice, it ends in verdure and flight. Longfellow is treated as a construction, pieced together by historical memory. He is therefore present but amorphous, “a monument” and then “more like a forest,” and as a figure of the past he is dismantled, reassembled, reimagined until he is apprehensible. The speaker of the poem, like the seagulls of the last stanza, calls out to renew and vivify the past with a new voice. It is the voice of the present generation that carries forth the voices of the past.
Ye Chun’s “The Day of Qu Yuan Drowning” also reaches out to the past to personalize Qu Yuan, the legendary figure for whom dragon boating began. The speaker of this poem, a child learning about the Duanwu Festival, spends the day under the shadow of influences: the first two lines present an anonymous crowd of “They” preparing for the festival, and in the second section the speaker’s father teaches another custom silently. Aside from the speaker, who is full of questions, the only person foregrounded is Qu Yuan, “our loved one,” who is present in the river but unseen. The poem is both apostrophe and dialogue between the speaker and Qu Yuan, whose answers can only be heard in the “one hundred and seventy questions [that] crowd the water,” a reference to his Heavenly Questions: questions directed to the most infinite subject which can offer no response. So, too, does Chun’s poem address itself to an august silence. But Qu Yuan’s empty “stomach calls pure, pure” and it would appear that reverence has invoked psychic closeness.
In Tomás Q. Morín’s “Pagliacci,” a grandfather is brought to life through the wonder of a child’s perspective. The memories of him are terrifically lighthearted, and for most of the poem he is a magnificent clown at a birthday party. The first time he is described, we must look upward to see him and the “fuzzy black snowballs climbing // the hem of his shirt to the point of his hat.” His departure has a similar verticality and is almost cosmic:
As a cloud moved and the sun
swept their faces, I watched my grandfather
rise out of the grass like a dark star
hurrying to cleave the light from the light.
As though vision or experience must be illumined by shadow, the grandfather replaces the cloud’s cover. The narrative of the poem also works by a kind of obfuscation, conveying the scene with synecdochal idiom. For example, the speaker is given “an orange blade / from the garden. Its leafy tassel swinging wildly,” and though we can guess, not until a stanza later are we told that what’s “plunged . . . through his heart” is a carrot. This playful unfolding of the facts trusts in the reader’s suspension of language; it allows the poet to perform illusions of perception and then unveil them to great effect.
These readings do not necessarily girdle the poets’ intent; the aim of my argument has been to show that poetry is charged with an inherent restlessness. In a very different way from, let’s say, fiction, poetry’s primary confrontation is with the manufacture of vision and the relationship between reality and the words that make it. These poems in Cerise Press have allowed me to take this approach because they are finely crafted, the product of perspicuous minds at work. I am remiss not to mention Robert Thomas’s “The Manufacture of Music,” my favorite from this issue, and about which I can say little but to quote from its music:
and I swear no one was more amazed
than I was by the effect. What is that?
Something not sacred and not profane.
Something else. And Cecilia lets fall
her tambourine like an orange rind . . .
His gnomic statement about “indescribable / complexion: complexion and velocity” is what I’ve been getting at. Poetry’s desideratum is the indescribable, and its best efforts recognize the limits of verbal cognizance. Pound’s dictum to “make it new” means that language is ongoing and insufficient, that, by invention, poets evolve what we can say and therefore what we can see. Read Thomas’s other poem, and Alicia Ostriker’s, and Randall Couch’s. Better yet, read them all.