The Great Wave, Ron Slate, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
There’s a memorable and enigmatic line from Ron Slate’s new book, The Great Wave, that reviewers seem to like quoting: “How far I am from what I’d cure with words.” Gail Mazur sees the line as “an insight into his profound aspirations and the stark universal simplicity of his grief” whereas the anonymous reviewer for Publishers Weekly takes the line as a symptom of Slate’s “regrets and self-chastisements.” Although I agree that Slate’s poetry displays all of these traits, I would prefer to begin with a recognition of the radical ambiguity of this particular line, an ambiguity which I take to be representative of his overall poetic project. How might we start to paraphrase this muted exclamation? Without much effort, I can think of a few different, not necessarily mutually exclusive ways:
—How uninterested I am in the uses of poetry as therapy
—How emotionally distant I am from the things I write about
—How conflicted I am in my attitude to words
—How conflicted I am in my attitude to the world
All of these paraphrases could be fairly accurate, or perhaps none of them comes close enough to bother about. Much depends on what Slate means by “I’d” i.e. “I would,” an expression that might connote eager willingness or mere scanty potential, or something in between. What is important is that Slate refuses to tip his hand in any particular direction except towards the poetic: the gentle thumping of the line’s iambic pentameter is finally more persuasive than any single interpretation of it could be. It is, as Wallace Stevens (Slate’s first great poetic influence) put it, the cry of its occasion.
The poem in which this line appears does not clear things up through helpful context: “Saturnesque” is a typically shadowy meditation on Slate’s mother and her traumatic early life, as well as being an account of a reasonably pleasant evening near the ocean, and an invocation of brutal tyrant referred to only as “El Presidente.” Here are the last lines, which bring the major ideas of the poem together in a subdued but evocative manner:
When the dark tides rose,
no one could reach her, except harshly.
How far I am from what I’d cure with words.
Yet I welcome this blithe drift away,
what’s seen in a quick squint,
and the crazing, shattering path gleaming back.
In the last two lines, we have what I take to be Slate’s two modes of writing brought together, albeit in a certain tension: the perception and the memory. The simple view afforded by a “quick squint” is all a poem about a given moment can really offer its reader, but Slate notes the far more complex and emotionally challenging nature of the deeper meanings the past affords us. The adjectives “crazing” and “shattering” are brilliant choices, since they not only convey the irregular movements of water in the wake of the cruise ship but also point us to the emotional effect of painful familial reminiscences. No wonder there is no word-borne “cure” in sight for this poet, though the metaphor of water is a consistent source of both symbolic insight into life’s mutability and poetic self-confidence.
As its title indicates, “The Great Wave” thematizes the power and ubiquity of water, though there is danger implied here too; after all, the title poem refers to a tsunami, and prophecies that “all small worlds will be dashed and drowned.” The last two lines of this poem (which are almost as multifaceted as those of “Saturnesque”) are apparently addressed to the reader, and they form an important fragment of the ars poetica Slate offers us: “I would swamp your world with wreckage, / I would hold fast to you and you would be saved.” Here the poet seems to offer both a threat and a promise of salvation: poetry, it seems, is a way to “swamp” readers with news of the disasters of history, but it can also provide a crucial link between the otherwise doomed “small worlds” of isolated individuals. Though the slippages inherent in the word ‘would” are still present in these lines, they (and others like them in The Great Wave) nevertheless provide perhaps the best excuse for poetry in an age of all-too-prosaic disasters. Indeed, Slate’s project has a distinctly messianic quality, at least in its more abstract and hypothetical moods. Of course, his consistent use of irony and ambiguity undercut all such utopian ambitions; in my eyes, his wry worldliness (which some have mistaken for world-weariness) is thus a mark of self-corrective sanity and realism. To return to that line from “Saturnesque,” Slate knows too much to believe that he can cure the world with words, but he can’t resist the impulse to show how a cure might look or sound. If poetry can help us, in Slate’s words, to “accommodate the mechanism of catastrophe” (“Dinner for my Sixty-Fifth Birthday”) then it can do a great deal indeed.
The Great Wave is written in much the same style and mood as Slate’s prize-winning and much-praised first book of poems The Incentive of the Maggot (Mariner, 2005), which will no doubt be good news to those who have admired Slate’s previous work. It is tempting to look for moments of symbolic alteration, however, and to note that the incentivized “maggot” of Slate’s first book (which dealt with largely public issues, both historical and contemporary) has become a “corrosive worm of remembrance” in The Great Wave, which spends a good deal more time exploring the poet’s private life, especially his family history and its tragedies (both external and internal). This is not to say, however, that The Great Wave is exactly confessional in tone; Slate is artful and self-conscious enough to know that personal revelation is not enough to justify a poem. Indeed, he seems to find in poetry a kind of concealment, as he makes plain in “Fast Ferry,” where his speaker says: “I’ve decided it will be by these words, / not my silences, that I will disappear towards you.” This disappearing act raises more questions than it answers, however, the most obvious one being: what is the nature of Slate’s poetic voice? He is a successful corporate executive who stopped writing poetry for twenty years, then began once more. As with Wallace Stevens, we are forced to ask: what part or parts of Slate do we glimpse in these poems, exactly?
Tim Appelo has written that “Reading [Ron] Slate is like sitting next to a talkative businessman on a transatlantic flight” and this does capture one part of Slate’s persona: the poised, urbane globe-trotter who seems to understand finance and international politics (past and present). A poem like “Khrushchev’s Foot,” where Slate revisits the former Soviet premier’s famous shoe-banging gesture at the United Nations, fits nicely into this profile, since it affords us a privileged look at a misunderstood event (according to his son Sergei, Khrushchev was apparently indulging in a “parliamentary flourish” he thought the British Prime Minister would appreciate) ”Yet Slate is not content with this authoritative pose, and calls attention to the gap between the person he seems to be and the poet who lurks behind that image. Indeed, even in “Khrushchev’s Foot,” Slate juxtaposes himself with Sergei Khrushchev and thus presents himself as a puzzled son of a “harsh” and “resolute” though perhaps unjustly mistrusted father. The poem ends with a confession that poetry itself is partly intended to fill a personal void left by family mysteries or silences: “Years later, the child may explain / exactly what the father meant to say.” Whether that explanation is the truth or mere wishful thinking is left for the reader to ponder.
“Khrushchev’s Foot,” like many of the poems in Slate’s new book, contains hints of problems in Slate’s own family, but these never quite escape their metaphorical trappings. For instance, we read of a “massing of mistrust / between father and son” that has “something to do” with “our standoff in the Divided City.” This is an echo of the Cold War and the “standoff” between East and West (of which the divided city of Berlin was a symbol) which lends context to Khrushchev’s gesture, but the echo is a distant one, because the family’s situation is left very vague. We are told that the speaker’s father woke him at three A.M. “to scan the sky for the coming / of the satellite, Khrushchev’s star,” but we have no special reason to believe that the father is like Khrushchev, or even unusually “harsh” or “resolute.” If Slate is using the Berlin wall as a kind of shorthand for the tensions and divisions of his family, a symbol of the relationship between his father and himself, he should probably have given us more particulars of that relationship. As it stands, the conceit seems a trifle forced, and it takes something of an effort not to marvel at the world-historical chill that seems to have set in where this particular Oedipal confrontation is concerned.
Indeed, Slate’s work is remarkable for the relative absence of powerful or overt emotional commitment. This is not necessarily a fault in and of itself; we might think once more of Wallace Stevens, who held the world, and his own family, at arm’s length while he created his masterpieces. Yet much of the familial and memorial project undertaken by The Great Wave seems to demand more of a response than Slate’s speakers seem willing to provide. Perhaps this is merely a matter of missing information: The Great Wave might have benefited from a few pages of explanatory notes of the kind found in The Incentive of the Maggot. One often feels as if one might have missed an allusion or misconstrued a reference, and this acts as an obstacle to profound emotional identification. Yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Slate is writing not to exorcise the demons of feeling, but to cauterize the scars left by its ravages and to prevent its return. We might read the following lines, which conclude “Ici Mort Robert Desnos,” as typical of Slate’s attitude and its limitations:
your grieving matters less
than an eyelash of the woman you dream of so much,
and a desperate love drifts down on you
like ashes in a forecast of sunlight.
One wonders why grief should be forcibly relegated in this manner, unless there is a kind of dogmatism at work that suppresses mourning before it is properly articulated. The poem takes a rather dishearteningly skeptical view of poetic mourning as its starting point:
In the anthology of elegies, every voice moans:
I am not yet a dark shape, my mourning
is not maudlin, and I feel the full weight
of the casket and its content of memory.
No doubt some elegies may be paraphrased in this manner, though this sounds like a dismissal of the entire mode. When I first read this poem, I thought I detected a kinship with another penetrating meditation on the victims of Nazi concentration camps, Geoffrey Hill’s “September Song.” In this powerfully compressed poem, Hill describes “[t]he smoke of harmless fires” which “drifts to my eyes” as he revisits (in reality or in his imagination), the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. Hill interrupts his account of the sufferings of these victims to confess, in parentheses, “(I have made / an elegy for myself it / is true.)” Both Slate and Hill seem to take seriously Theodor Adorno’s dictum that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” but instead of silencing themselves as poets, they incorporate a guilty self-disgust into their poems about atrocities (and other occasions of “grieving”). This adds a bracing caustic edge to their work, and certainly makes Slate a nearly unique figure on the American literary landscape, which often seems to be populated by well-meaning people who seem to enjoy wringing their hands tirelessly.
The Great Wave is a difficult book to summarize or to characterize in succinct terms, but (like The Incentive of the Maggot) it does achieve a remarkable consistency in terms of the high quality of the thoughts on display in each poem. Slate’s poetry does not depend on verbal magic or sound effects for its impact, and therefore there are few exhilarating highs and still fewer bathetic lows in the book. The downside of this uniformly polished surface is that the verbal stakes are never especially high in any given poem or line; the dramatic tensions that (in my view) ought to animate a truly great poem’s negotiations with poetic form, tradition, and history are never fully present here. There is no rhyme or regular metrical agenda to speak of in most of the poems; a more sensitive reader than I might have noticed that “The Transit of Mercury” is written in syllabics, but I needed some help to recognize them. Yet neither is the verse “free” in the exuberant, unpredictable, entirely spontaneous manner of many contemporary writers; the lines have a general sameness of length and emphasis that makes them feel constrained by some mysterious power not quite reflected in their sound or sense. In short, Slate is too adroit ever to fall flat on his face, but that very adroitness means he seldom works up enough momentum to move us very far or very fast. When his speaker asks, in “At the Swedish Embassy” (one of Slate’s more Stevensian efforts), “Must my approach be so clever, so facile?” this reader is tempted to wonder why facility would ever seem like a necessity, unless the poet’s aim were evasion rather than revelation.
Of course, evasion is itself a respectable poetic strategy; Stevens himself once famously observed that “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully” and although we might choose to emphasize the word “almost” in Stevens’s dictum, most successful contemporary poets seem inclined to emphasize the word “resist.” In this regard, Slate’s tendency to impersonality, his avoidance of obvious autobiographical information, and his unwillingness to trust (let alone evoke) emotion all show him to be a poet swimming with the current of mainstream poetry. The thoughtful ironies of his work will ensure that he gains the ear of at least a few serious readers, but they do not guarantee that he will hold their attention for more than a few years. Perhaps ironically, The Great Wave is self-consciously avoiding anything like greatness, as a book, and that is no doubt one of its charms. Yet one suspects that the self-effacingly obscure juxtapositions that mark so much of Slate’s work (and that of many of his contemporaries) will one day seem like another outmoded poetic style, a slightly antiquated mannerism that refuses to say what it means, or that questions the very possibility of meaning.
Yet for now the evasive style holds, and it has its virtues as well as its vices. One suspects that it has given Slate back his poetic voice (after twenty years of silence), even as it has made Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Billy Collins into the models of a generation of writers far less patiently insightful than themselves (or Slate). Moreover, while this style dominates the more respectable American poetic landscape, we should be grateful for writers such as Slate, whom its disjunctive modes leave free to expose their self-doubts as writers and observers, even as they offer us an unapologetically cosmopolitan smorgasbord of words and images. So we should not judge the poems in The Great Wave by their slightly shell-shocked times, but rather by the subtle, almost fugitive ways in which the poems try to keep a larger vision of poetry alive, despite everything. At least for Slate, triviality, aimlessness and self-deprecation are not ends in themselves, though they may well be our end. To make even a provisional stand against these forces is laudable, and Slate’s poetry does so in certain well-turned, quotable and haunting lines like the one I quoted at the beginning of this review. As the equally gnomic (though fiercer and more mournful) Geoffrey Hill once put it, “This is plenty. This is more than enough.”