Deceptive Yet Ultimately Fitting: James Reiss on Simone Muench’s Orange Crush


Orange Crush, Simone Muench, Sarabande Books, 2010

On first looking into Simone Muench’s “Orange Crush,” I can’t say that I felt like stout Cortez staring out at the Pacific. Reading Muench’s first poem’s opening lines, “Trouble came and trouble / brought greasy, ungenerous things,” I flashed on lyrics from the venerable Broadway show, “The Music Man”: “Ya got trouble / With a capital T / And that rhymes with P / And that stands for pool”!

Down-home America also plays its bit part throughout this book in Muench’s many variations on the word “sweet,” as in “Cedar / sweetness of skin instructs,” “like violet pastilles / so sweet,” “the faint sweet scent of bakery shelves” and so forth, including ironic uses of the word, plus the homonym “suite.” Based on her references to her stomping grounds in Arkansas and Louisiana, and her being a fan of horror films, along with her casual mention of things like “a dress / designated for dance, thin, / as cocktail napkins,” I jumped to conclusions: Muench was a Southern Gothic post-bellum belle of the ball, half–Scarlett O’Hara, half–Anne Rice.

The truth is far more complex—and simpler. In her third full-length collection Muench is as musically inclined as Meredith Willson’s music man, “Professor” Harold Hill—a con artist in “River City,” Iowa—and as hyperkinetic as Margaret Mitchell’s heroine. Thank goodness Muench doesn’t pine for Ashley Wilkes or Rhett Butler. If she doesn’t always succeed in carpe-ing the diem, at least she doesn’t hang around whining, “Tomorrow is another day.”

In terms of where she stands vis-à-vis The American Poetry Crowd, Muench is quite au courant. At just a smidgen over 40, she’s a non-card-carrying member of what Stephen Burt, in his seminal essay back in 1998, called the Elliptical Poets. Closer to the Arkansan C. D. Wright than to the Canadian Anne Carson or that quintessential Steel City-cum-New Yorker, Lucie Brock-Broido, Muench approaches her material sideways, as in the 2004 wine-aficionado movie of the same title. She sees things out of the corner of her eye. Which is to say her poems lack the straightforward focus of a poet like Elizabeth Bishop or Carol Muske-Dukes, though Muske-Dukes has often grown restless with the frontal nudity of events.

Like dozens—hundreds—of her poet peers who became adolescents during The Reagan Years, in her work Muench doesn’t much care about telling stories. Whether she heard too many tall tales told by the Gipper or reacted negatively to some of her predecessors in verse like Louise Glück and Diane Wakoski—both to a certain extent practitioners of the narrative—or, as may be the likeliest case, whether Muench abandoned full-blown narration because she believed that any one story was an reductio ad absurdum of The Big Story of the Universe, Muench and her fellow Ellipticals have said bye-bye to “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after,” as well as to the frequently tedious details between these signposts. Anecdotes, fables, parables: all are passé to poets able to leap from here to there, from now to then—and think more in terms of Picasso’s collages than of Edward Hopper’s mise en scènes.

On the other hand, Muench touches on bondage narratives. Without constructing sequential plots, she deals with women’s lack of liberation and some of its awful particulars. Condensing what could be the early slave years of Sojourner Truth, in a poem about a young girl’s suicide titled “You Were Long Days and I Was Tiger-Lined,” Muench initially lashes the reader: “master wear a mask when you break out the leather.” No need to explain the link between whipping and being “tiger-lined”; Muench’s work suggests a woodshed of lost connections in a single image.

A few years ago in an important mixed review of her second book, “Lampblack & Ash,” critic Joel Brouwer took Muench to task for her lushness, her “extravagant language.” There’s nothing in “Orange Crush” to indicate that she’s followed Brouwer’s advice to “rein in” the wild horses loping through these poems. Indeed, to call her a painterly imagist or an abstract expressionist with Fauvist tendencies—plus an Elliptical—begins to sound accurate. But the imagist Pound constructed a detailed chronological account of a river-merchant’s wife, based on a poem by Li Po, and perhaps the homiest of Pound’s successors, the Deep Imagist James Wright, fashioned a documentary about blue-collar desolation that featured high-school football players in Martins Ferry, Ohio. In contrast, one of Muench’s best poems, “I never was an orange girl; but I have the gutter in my blood all right,” conveys the nitty-gritty of being a twenty-first-century woman in a poignant pinup catalogue/collage of tercets. Notice, by the way, that despite her inclusive list, Muench never refers to “good girl” or, more crucially, to “bad girl.”

sweater girl, elevator girl,
factory girl unsnarling her pin curls,
gibson girl, varga girl

au pair girl, bunny girl, flower girl,
career girl, chorus girl, college girl,
cover girl, geisha girl, party girl

wayward girl, servant girl, bachelor girl,
campfire girl, working girl, give-it-a-whirl girl,
bar girl, call girl, check girl, farm girl

shop girl, street girl
sausage curl girl,
poor girl, you speak like a green girl

between two girls, which hath the merriest eye?
flint and pearl alike
my cold cold girls!

The italicized antepenultimate line here, with its shaky word usage—“which” instead of “who,” “merriest” instead of “merrier”—understandably underscores working-class substandard English. Elsewhere, too, the book could be a grammarian’s funeral, or at least his comeuppance. Muench mentions “Babies born / with clubfoots”; “We lay down [in the present tense] // fixed as wax”; and she plays switcheroo with an verbal that is ordinarily intransitive, “lilting the room into a red vivarium.” Her poems showcase complete sentences side by side with fragments, making the rhythm tilt almost like a pinball machine. For all her proletarian sympathies, her book bristles with such inkhorn terms as “cascarilla,” “portacath,” “tumulus,” “Kittlerian,” “alizarin,” “Marabou,” “bachata,” “brachial” “foehn,” “matryoshka,” “naphthalene,” “lenticular” and “versal.”

If I were William Logan, I might now make a snide remark about how these poems put Robert Desnos and Pablo Neruda through a blender and come out tasting like a smoothie—or, better yet, a Ward’s Orange Crush—from Victoria’s Secret! I could go on and rant about how Muench’s book is a spinoff of Karyna McGlynn’s 2009 Sarabande Books noir poetry collection recently reviewed in this journal, “I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl.” Luckily, I am not William Logan nor was meant to be.

In fact, I find a lot to like about Muench. First off, I find her versatility impressive. There’s plenty of musical atonality and dissonance in these poems, but once in a while they revert to old-fashioned, kick-ass trochees and iambs, as in “Hex,” which I quoted in the first paragraph of this essay. Willy-nilly, Muench’s final metrical quatrain reminds me of parts of e. e. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:

Trouble is and trouble was
and trouble came and sang
shush-shush or tell-tell
in a small small town

Then, too, although many of Muench’s poems use free verse, her third section/chapter entitled “Orange Girl Cast” starring personal women poet-friends whose names have been reduced in epigraphs to “kristy b,” “sophia k” and so on—this “recast” of the ambitious title poem “Orange Girl Suite” is a sequence of 13 prose poems that cannily use the second- and third-person points of view to describe their dramatis personae. Here’s the first prose-poem paragraph of “the bestiary (starring jackie w)”:

In a tongue-snap sky, waxwings unspool over the plains. He was a whisper, she was Nebraska. Her hands pepperweed, pebble, pearl to pearl, so tone-smooth. Her mouth speaks, a red canary to a dime cigar. Spittle sheen. There are worse things than being a pretty Catholic girl without any guilt.

One could do worse than admire the writing here. Muench’s “tongue-snap sky,” her waxwings that “unspool over the plains,” her male character who “was a whisper”—all this, and so much more, have the sweetness of unheard music, fresh sound and sense galore. Moreover—and perhaps most important for me—Muench’s evocations of women crushed by Taliban-like hordes of men yet somehow rising to converge empowered throughout history is something readers need to pore over.

On her book’s last page Richard Every’s photo of the author shows an attractive woman with horn-rimmed eyeglasses and a terrific smile. What a deceptive yet ultimately fitting portrait of Simone Muench, the Windy City vegetarian, the devotee of scary films, who, in her poems, carves bits and snippets for blood-and-guts scripts of unending, uplifting horror shows!

**

James Reiss, whose most recent book is “Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems,” is Emeritus Professor of English and Founding Editor of Miami University Press at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. www.jamesreiss.com

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The Heart of a Boy: James Reiss on Tim Hunt’s Fault Lines


Fault Lines, Tim Hunt, The Backwaters Press, 2009

For nearly 30 years Tim Hunt has been toiling in the trenches at the base of Mount Parnassus, mainly as a scholar devoted to publishing Stanford-University-Press editions of Robinson Jeffers’s poetry. Hunt’s critical study, “Kerouac’s Crooked Road,” initially published in 1981, has just been reissued by Southern Illinois University Press in March 2010.

With a Ph.D., a wife, two kids and a history of holding down teaching jobs from coast to coast, Hunt is no spring chicken. The crooked roads he’s crossed now find him professing at Illinois State University in Normal. He appears to be as normal a guy as anybody you’ll find between Bangor and Sebastopol, but he’s actually a sexagenarian harboring the heart of a boy not much older than 16.

Nostalgia may be an old man’s excuse for no longer kicking up his heels on Saturday nights. For Hunt it is the sequence of timeless moments that hold him in hopeful thrall, like a moth over a flame. With bittersweet delight and yearning, in his debut volume, “Fault Lines,” poem after poem revisits his prodigious past. But unlike that madeleine-mad Frenchman who spent almost a third of his 51 years confined to a cork-lined room, Hunt’s search for lost time has taken him to his father’s stomping grounds, Lake County, tucked away like a mini–Shangri-la inland north of the Bay Area. Of course his poems also return to where he grew up in Sonoma County—to the vicinity of Calistoga and Healdsburg—before their vineyards became ultra-gentrified by the 1980s, along with those of Napa County, already renowned as a viticultural mecca. Nowadays, while Governor Schwarzenegger is lamenting how the Great Recession has devastated the Golden State, Hunt reminds us that “The swaybacked barn, / like the eucalyptus, / seems always / to have been here.” Never mind that eucalyptus trees are not indigenous to California but were first planted on the Coast during the 1850s by people from Australia, where they grew in abundance.

The point is, “the eucalyptus / seems” to have been eternally a part of the landscape’s mystique. Hunt’s poems, so systematically plainspoken that they seem to completely eschew literary operatics, are in fact dreamy as midsummer nights. Hunt suggests this in one of his best pieces, an italicized prologue (whose structure coincidentally resembles that of David Ignatow’s in his stellar seven-liner, “The Sky Is Blue”):

Prescript (Poetry)

for Leslie Wykoff

“How clear,” my friend asks,

“is it okay to be?”

Do you remember

waiting for the yellow bus

standing a bit apart

from the others

the muddied water

of the puddle

gleaming through

a skin of morning ice.

That’s how clear.

It’s not as though Hunt aspires to sound like the Chicago blues legend, Muddy Waters. But neither is he, at least in “Prescript,” committed to pellucid photographic realism, the kind associated with certain West Coast visual artists who started painting gas stations and freeways a few decades ago. Still, it’s interesting to see that nearly half the poems’ titles in his first section, which mainly happens to focus on his beloved home state California, abound with epigraphs in parentheses, such as “California Coast (Sonoma County),” “High Desert Valley (Summer, The White Mountains, California)” and “Leavings (Cattle Ranch, High Desert, Eastern California”). Far from muddying up his canvases, Hunt takes pains to indicate their setting, to tie them to, say, some local epicenter of the San Andreas Fault—the final word of which comprises part of the resonant, self-deprecatory pun in his book’s title. If Hunt sometimes resembles a latter-day, early-1960s saint of deep imagism like Robert Bly, he takes his cue from James Wright, who undercut—or overlaid—a Rilkean epiphany with the matter-of-fact, homespun title, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

I wouldn’t go out on a limb and call Hunt’s poems derivative; that branch would break! As I see it, this book has allegiances, unavoidable and certainly not problematic when they enhance the work, rather than overwhelming it. Book-cover blurbers as distinct as Michael Davidson and Mark Jarman have pointed to Jeffers, Willam (Brother Antoninus) Everson and Gary Snyder, all of whom lurk somewhere behind “Fault Lines.” I’d like to add John Steinbeck to that list. The author of “The Grapes of Wrath” could be the Harold-Bloom Freudian papa of Hunt’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm: 1936 (Cimarron County, Oklahoma).” Then, too, Elizabeth Bishop’s ghost appears to float over the first lines of “Fishing”:

I cannot speak directly of

the wonderful mouth without words. . .

Despite Hunt’s intent to describe words in this self-reflexive poem that uses “fishing” as a metaphor, I was willy-nilly drawn to Bishop’s description of her “tremendous” fish’s lower lip “—if you could call it a lip—“ and mouth burdened with “five big hooks.” Similarly, the final lines of “Masks (Berkeley, California),”

There are reasons to hurry, reasons

to believe it matters where we are going

appear to pledge allegiance to Mark Strand’s last lines in “Keeping Things Whole”:

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

In Gently Read Literature I’ve already mentioned how the so-called Plain Style has dominated a great deal of mainstream contemporary American poetry; Tony Hoagland may be the most prominent current proponent of what William Stafford once referred to as “Talking along in our not quite prose way.” I won’t belabor my point again, except to say that Hunt’s toned-down grassroots verses, sparsely sprinkled with figures of speech, at times offer up zingers. In a poem that celebrates a festival honoring Jeffers and Everson, for instance, Hunt totes out more than an iota of sarcasm when he describes the fabled city of Carmel, California—where Clint Eastwood once served as mayor—as “a gauntlet of boutiques.” Hunt’s elegy for a wounded World War Two vet, “Above Fort Collins (Summer, 1972),” begins, “So thin, he was like a whisper walking” and goes on to depict gunfire in Normandy on D-Day: “the sound after the bullets tore him / was like looking through binoculars from the wrong end.” (Move over, Private Ryan, this ain’t no Steven Spielberg flick!) One of my personal faves, “Home Again,” goes way beyond nostalgia in its poignant and, for me, Andrew Wyeth–like opening stanza:

How saggy those springs must have been

if even then I slept rolled to the wall and twisted

as if uphill in the too-thin blanket

in that room with the worn wallpaper,

the bare bulb, the twirls of the cheap metal bed—

a visiting child’s restless sleep.

Or else, among several self-reflexive poems, Hunt takes a bracing coffee break from his long-lined, hardly longwinded, local landscapes and portraits:

Language

It is not the letters

marching

the matted white

of the page

in starched

black uniforms

as they try

to blend

the blatty

consonants

and reedy vowels

into more

than sound.

Rather, it is

the tongue’s

motion, the hand

riding the waves

as they spill

up the beach,

then lace out

into the sand

leaving behind

the broken

bits of shell

that mark the tide.

For me this poem’s first stanza is a hard act to follow, and the second, in its conventional beach imagery, disappoints, though I cotton to “lace out.” Obviously, I vote for Hunt when his imagery is offbeat and his diction offers up tidbits like “blatty.”

I’ll have to confess that I found the book’s second section, except for the masterly “Home Again,” the weakest of the four. I counted no fewer than a dozen uses of the word “old” littering the 12 poems in section two. Hunt’s preoccupation with “old gums” (page 38), “old bumpers” (39), an “old woman” (40), an “old man’s mouth” (42), “old wood” (43), “old names” (44), “old people” (45), “old words” (46) and so forth is something that I, no neophyte myself, understand. An obsession with oldness is central to Hunt, having grown up in the 1950s, needing to quote lyrics from that splendid 1917 golden oldie, “Darktown Strutters Ball,” which, thanks to Les Paul and Mary Ford, was still popular in the middle of the twentieth century; to this day it still echoes in my mind all too often.

At least the word “old” is inconspicuous in the book’s other three sections, even if Hunt has an inordinate fondness for the logistical and chronological terms, “here” and “now.” He likes the adjective “tiny.” He sometimes ends interrogative sentences assertively with periods instead of question marks. He frequently prefers the genitive over the possessive case, which makes for wordiness and many “of”s. Plus, he loves to use variations of the verb “weave” like a leitmotif, as in “weaving / this page into ours” (61), “the world we’d woven” (62), “the simple weave of things” (66), “my feet / weaving left over right” (67) and “two black men all but naked / weave in and out” (80)—as well as ending his book with the lines, “weaving / an unraveling cloth / of touch” (99). It’s a relief to come upon the line, “A story is a kind of knitting” (73) in a lovely poem about Hunt’s daughter Jessica’s play stove when she was a child—right across the page from a doozy about another war veteran, Verdon “Spur” Spurlock, whose very name is like a bell.

Sure, this book has its excesses and oversights, but most of them are as endearing as they’re annoying. I found nothing between the orange paperback covers of “Fault Lines” to be truly off-putting. Hunt’s poems are minus the pretensions that poetry readers and audience members at readings time and again have come to expect, for example, the putting on of airs when a poet plasters his verse with polysyllables, arcane allusions to Wittgenstein and descriptions of exotic nooks in Guangzhou, which the poet visited on a MacArthur genius grant. In fact, Hunt hardly advertises how ingenious he is. His aim has not been to wow us with what he’s learned at Cornell studying for his doctorate under Such-and-such or So-and-so. He’s read enough Jeffers to know that America has settled in the mould of its vulgarity, including the vanity of poets bent on impressing us with their greatness. Maybe Hunt wouldn’t go so far as to say, like Jeffers, that he’d sooner “kill a man than a hawk”—and thank goodness for that! Thank whatever gods may be for Hunt’s love for homo sapiens. His TLC has given us portraits of twentieth-century men and women, pioneer types we’ve already relegated to the Stone Age, now that we can ogle reality shows and “American Idol” on TV.

Although you’re undoubtedly not the grieving Italian daughter named La Figlia che Piange, Hunt may teach you, as one multilingual modern poet never did, to “Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.”

**

James (“Giacetto”) Reiss, who wrote a long poem that begins, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,” was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy. www.jamesreiss.com/

They Dreamed Their Words Would Last a Thousand Years: James Reiss on Jay W. Baird’s Hitler’s War Poets




Hitler’s War Poets: Literature and Politics in the Third Reich, Jay W. Baird, Cambridge University Press, 2009

The first three words in the title of Jay W. Baird’s new critical study are, to some extent, oxymoronic. You don’t need to go so far as to define poets as peace-loving “unacknowledged legislators of the world” to see that writers serving Hitler as their hero and their Muse were as anachronistic a species as dodos trying to fly. One of the major virtues of Baird’s book is the way it sheds light on how crucial propaganda from versifiers–-Nazi versions of today’s bloggers and spin doctors—is to any political party. Throughout history poetry has served politics: “The Aeneid” was to Rome what “The Faerie Queen” was to Queen Elizabeth—and Philip Roth’s novel, “The Plot Against America,” was to the Bush administration. If Baird spends an overabundance of time on the life stories of now-obscure verse mongers, it may partly be to illustrate how the devil is in the details of everyday life; how any one of us, enamored of a charismatic leader or an article of faith, could grow up to become a demagogue. All the more power to us if we’re writers as gifted as Milton, who spent most of his career spreading the good word about the satanic Lord Cromwell. Nevertheless, during the Third Reich the pen appears not to have been mightier than the sword; the German writers in Baird’s book may have roused Hitler’s rabble, but they ultimately had less effect on his regime than they may have wished.

The cover photo of “Hitler’s War Poets” shows a bespectacled young man sporting the subtlest Mona Lisa smile and a look that can only be described as “sensitive.” If you ignored his Waffen SS cap and double rune collar tags, you could easily mistake him for a 30-something freundlich guy you might expect to find at a poetry reading.

Truth be told, this innocuous-looking fellow, Eberhard Wolfgang Möller, is one of the half-dozen writers Jay Baird focuses on in his unique, encyclopedically jam-packed, slender tome, “Hitler’s War Poets.” Baird’s central thesis that poets who flourished under the Third Reich were mainly egregious pen pushers may, as I’ve hinted, sound obvious nowadays. At the time, however, the audience for these poets was large, perhaps larger than the audience for American poets today. German-speaking readers flocked to buy copies of books that extolled their Führer and lambasted his nemeses. Seventy-plus years ago the Nazis who placed “Arbeit macht frei” over the entry gates of concentration camps were part of a horde eager to read about lazy Jews, Poles, and gypsies. Given Hitler’s Weltanschauung, it’s remarkable that one of his Third Reich poets is eminently readable in 2010.

In the 1930s and ’40s Möller was regaled, then reviled, as a playwright-cum-poet of the German Volk. The fact that in “Coriolanus” Shakespeare referred to something like the British Volk derisively as “the many-headed multitude” suggests an Elizabethan/Jacobean skepticism, even cynicism, about common citizens (whom American poetaster Edgar Guest sappily referred to as “just folks”), absent in early twentieth-century Germany. Möller and his colleagues were convinced they could revive the moribund Geist of the German people after the fiasco of The Great War by stressing their identity as Nordic warriors and embracing National Socialism as the way out of Germany’s predicament.

But before you mistake Möller, whom Baird dubs “Hitler’s Muse,” for a Luger-toting hack capable of tossing off only jingoist ditties, here are a couple of his opening stanzas from “Der Tote,” which Baird translates as “The Corpse” (1940):

I have soil over my lips,
A big stone is in my mouth.
A gentle mole is moving in my ribs
and is my friend. I am no longer alone.
I lie still and cannot move
and do not know if I am even myself.
But I am not thirsty, the rain soaks me
and many roots are growing through me. (pp. 199-200)

And keeping in mind that Baird’s free-verse translations lose a lot of the musical power of their original’s metrically regular rhyming quatrains in German, here are some lines from “Der Sterbende” (“The Dying,” 1941) that describe a soldier at death’s door:

He lay in a little wagon,
I saw his mouth;
he trembled gently without crying out
like a woman giving birth.

His body was torn and bloody,
it was death that he was bearing,
and beads of sweat
rolled off his mangled hair.

His eyes quietly circled,
as if they were ashamed that he suffered so.
Then a comrade cried over him,
and the whole world cried with him. (pp. 202-03)

Möller may lack the terrific mega-amperage Wilfred Owen deployed in one of the greatest anti-war poems in English, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” but Möller’s close attention to detail, his daring comparison of death to delivery, his dirt-simple diction, and most of all the transcendent sentiment expressed in his last lines all suggest the redoubtable powers of a poet who nonetheless remains forgotten.

To be sure, “Der Tote” and “Der Sterbende” represent Möller at the tag end of his career. During his heyday in the 1930s he’d written his share of anti-Semitic, Aryan claptrap, mainly plays, which were vastly popular. But by the time Hitler’s war cries, echoed in the Nazi anthem, the “Horst Wessel Song,” turned into pitched battles, Möller began to look beyond the swastika. As Baird notes, “More and more he saw the war from the perspective of his own aesthetic vision, less and less from the point of view of ideology” (p. 199). In fact, he survived a virtual death sentence—the German High Command posted him to the Russian front as a war reporter—and lived into his sixties, only to die in obscurity; this is all the more reason why his story needs to be told here.

“Hitler’s War Poets” is apparently the first book in English to deal with Third Reich writers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Germans have not been eager to take up the work of nationalist writers such as Möller, and unlike that of such expatriates as Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Bertold Brecht, American scholars and general readers have ignored stay-at-home German writers of the 1930s and ’40s. Unfortunately “Hitler’s War Poets” introduces no other poet of Möller’s distinction. The work by the five other writers discussed here pretty much conforms to predictable stereotypes. Take the rakish, volatile street fighter with a face scarred from dueling, Kurt Eggers. He certainly must have appealed to the Führer with the following lines from “Ein Feuerspruch” (“A Plea for Fire”) (1941):

You, my brothers,
Take the torch
And lighten the darkness!
Set fire to the rotten world of lies
And light the flame of zeal!
Drive out with light and fire,
The spooks,
The sorcerers and conjurers
The bewitched in the darkness. . . (p. 241)

Although these lines served Nazi ideology in crying out for the elimination of Christianity—as officially detested as Judaism and Bolshevism—even considering the piece as more of a “chorus” than a poem per se, the writing is cliché-ridden drivel. As Baird notes, “The works of Kurt Eggers. . .were characterized more by revolutionary passion than intellectual depth” (p. 229). More than Möller, however, the short, Sturm-und-Drang-tossed story of Eggers’s life is riveting. Baird dismisses Eggers’s writing, focusing instead on how young Kurt, with wealthy parents, grew up on a farm, became an urban urchin, then studied to be, of all things, a Lutheran minister, although, alas, he was not one for long. He renounced his position as a man of the cloth to become Berlin’s man of the world, an officer in the SS Race and Settlement Central Office. While turning out numerous books of Nazi agitprop, he found time to earn his doctorate and serve the Wehrmacht’s Panzer division with Dionysian glee before dying in combat in Russia at age 37.

None of Hitler’s other war poets faced Valhalla as early as Eggers. The others managed to escape the Spruchkammern (post-war denazification courts) and survive as “disappointed old (men)” (p. 95). For that matter, the writers included in Baird’s study were not primarily poets. They mainly wrote fiction and essays, although each of them tried his hand at Nationalist poetry. Perhaps more important than the question of the accuracy of Baird’s title, I find it interesting that they were drawn to write poetry for the Party, as though lyrics and ballads did crucial cultural work that couldn’t be done merely in fiction and essays.

One salient feature of “War Poets,” which could be subtitled “Hitlerature,” is its photographs of each author. If Möller looks like a bookish chum and Eggers appears alternately sinister and innocent in his two photos, Edwin Erich Dwinger, in his double-breasted dark suit and necktie, with his impressive head of blondish hair and classic Nordic features, resembles a movie star or perhaps someone like the world-famous rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun. Sadly, his writing lacks luster. As always, Baird offers succinct précis of Dwinger’s written accounts of his experiences in prisoner of war camps. The irony of Dwinger’s life story is that, with a Russian mother, he spoke Russian and, as a Hanoverian Cavalry teenage enlistee, he survived several horrid long prison stints in Czarist Siberia, only to be liberated by the Red Army during what Baird calls “The Russian Civil War” (except on page 214 when he refers to it as “The Russian Revolution”). After escaping the chaos of Red and White Armies slaughtering one another, Dwinger made his way back to Germany and wrote a sequence of memoirs that vilified Bolshevism. Some of these books were bestsellers, but none, as far as I can tell from Baird’s able summaries, rises above its anti-communist rhetoric.

In contrast, expatriate World War One German veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” was a novel that all six of Baird’s “poets” knew. It rose so far above mere rhetoric, its “message,” that it was made into a superb movie and continues to be read as a multifaceted work of literature today. Hitler’s war poets uniformly denounced Remarque’s book because of its anti-war theme. Wrapped as they were in their mantle of self-pity and disgruntlement about Germany’s loss of the Great War, as young men they observed the decadent whirligig of events—the rampant inflation, corruption and ostentation taking place during the Weimar Republic—and they turned to an Austrian who contended that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by communists, Jews, and papists. Obviously, each of Baird’s writers, in varying degrees, went along with the Austrian. None of these writers, except for Möller at the nadir of his career, openly questioned their Führer, who, by the way, cared far less about writers than he did about artists, musicians and architects. All the same, his writers fell for the ultra-Romantic notion that they could be Führer-blessed Übermenschen. Mistakenly regarding Nietzsche as an anti-Semite, swept away by Wagner, Brahms and Beethoven as though these composers were chanting “Deutschland über alles,” they dreamed their words would last a thousand years.

Thanks to Jay Baird, we can get some sense of their words and mull over their thoughts less than a century later.

Purchase Hitler’s War Poets

**

As a War Baby, James Reiss remembers trying to grow a Victory Garden in northern Manhattan—while Hitler chomped on veggies in Berchtesgaden. http://www.jamesreiss.com/

With More Than a Little Bit of Care: James Reiss on Judith Valente’s Discovering Moons


Discovering Moons, Judith Valente, Virtual Artists Collective, 2009

A journalist’s commitment to facticity—the “who, what, when, where, why,” let alone the “how,” of a situation—is generally considered to be at odds with creative writing. Perhaps the most celebrated journalist to seriously try his hand at verse, Stephen Crane, ended up with a handful of canonical poems. Hardly anyone has argued that “The Black Riders” is on a par with “The Red Badge of Courage.” Still, Crane’s reportorial free-verse nuggets have tunneled their way into our culture, undermining many a Potemkin village of platitudes regarding religion and ethics.

In fact, if you Google the two words journalist poets without quotation marks, one of the first names on your list will be Judith Valente, who happens to cover religion and ethics for PBS and NPR. Twice she’s been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work in “The Dallas Times Herald” and “The Wall Street Journal.” It’s true, one of her Pulitzer nominations had to do with a “soft news story” about a religious conservative dad coping with his son’s fatal AIDS. Plus, Valente is well known as an interviewer of such dyed-in-the-wool writers as the poet/editor Ron Offen on Chicago’s WBEZ. Well, I’ve heard her on public radio and she sounds as though she cares a great deal about her day job as a member of the press.

She appears to have put together her long-awaited debut volume of poems, “Discovering Moons,” with more than a little bit of care. The book’s three-part table of contents is cyclical. The first poem deals with a potentially life-threatening event, as do five of the six poems toward the end. The middle section, “Walking with Dr. Williams,” is not riotously euphoric, but it doles out mega-doses of restorative details, the mundane ones that C. S. Lewis and William Carlos Williams relished—as does Mary Oliver, who has recently endorsed Valente’s work. What’s more, some of Valente’s liveliest poems approach the kind of Frank O’Hara “I do this I do that” Personism evident in his chestnut, “The Day Lady Died.”

In “The Book of 55,000 Baby Names” Valente doesn’t so much take us through city streets as guide us through the synapses of her brain. Whereas O’Hara marched through Manhattan inevitably toward the headline in “The New York Post” announcing the death of Billie Holiday, Valente plunges through a sourcebook of monikers, discoursing on the meaning and popularity of babies’ names: “how Emily and Emma reached the top of the roster”—at least until 2007, when Emma took third place and was replaced by Isabella! Part of the impetus for Valente’s research is her stepdaughter, pregnant, who finally chooses Ava (“Portuguese for grandmother”) as her child’s name. But mainly it is Valente herself as a step-grandmother—it’s her high spirits that are responsible for the surprise end of her slant-rhymed excursion in couplets, when she locates Ava and invents a name for an anonymous infant alongside her:

Some [babies] still enter this world nameless,
like the newborn preemie, dark-haired, restless,

lying in the crib next to Ava’s in the neo-natal ward:
no crayon-colored name on his white ID card.

He punches the air with a balled fist, then lifts
his swaddled bottom. Name him, Adia, Swahili for gift.

Another scattershot Burst of Judy—herself named “after the patron / saint of hopeless causes”—full of a madcap enthusiasm as “contagious” as the hospital Dr. Williams famously rode to, erupts in her 50-line tour de force, “Inventing An Alphabet.” Valente can barely contain herself as she contemplates letters in an alphabet that forms words, literary allusions and a crazy quilt of language, including lyrics from the Crystals, as well as at least two time-honored slogans [editor’s note, the second line of each couplet is indented in the original]:

Dante’s nine circles, Do ron ron ron ronda do ron ron and
Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale ytoold

Ask not what your country can do for you,
See the USA in a Chevrolet, What you want, baby I got it.

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E and Good night, Sweet prince
Odes and onomatopoeia, haiku and heroic couplets. . .

More than two of these shotgun blasts in one book could be excessive. Accordingly, taking her lead from the superb, soft-spoken Chi Town poet, Lisel Mueller, Valente murmurs, “What happens, happens in silence.” This line from a poem by Mueller comprises the so-quiet-you-can-hear-a-pin-drop beginning of Valente’s title poem, “Discovering Moons.” The situation is simple: Valente and her husband are lying in bed one fine morning. Certain offbeat particulars provide subtle conflict, enriching the story: “We wake in a room your daughter painted // sunrise red. Daylight drips through linen / curtains, feeds us intravenously.” The image of an IV is disquieting, especially considering health issues and the number of hospital poems in the book. Yet this image is far less violent than Robert Lowell’s opening couplet in “Man and Wife”: “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed; / the rising sun in war paint dyes us red.” Happily married, Valente finds it easy to keep a stiff upper lip appropriate for a tranquil aubade. The supine couple plays a hushed little game of charting “constellations of ceiling,” the hubby imagining a crack in the plaster is a ballerina while Valente says it “is Christ strung upon his cross.” Any possible conflict once again dissipates as lines drift toward astrophysics, which Valente prizes. The poem ends in a decrescendo; rather than proclaiming something like “Ah, love, let us be true to one another,” Valente sighs, “There is so much I want to say to you / in a language without words. We orbit each other // like the moons circling Jupiter / in unconjugated space: Europa, Callisto, Leda, Ganymede, Thebe.”

Space may be “unconjugated,” but as a child Valente conjugated Latin verbs. Her education at St. Aloysius Academy and St. Peter’s College in Jersey City has followed her all the days of her life. She is certainly not a lapsed Catholic and makes no bones about her faith in poems like “Faces of the Madonna,” though she’s far from a religious neocon and has a pagan’s appreciation of the things of this world. She’s never stopped following her freshman art teacher Mrs. Cirone’s instructions “to observe a beechwood / describe what we saw,” even if young Judy “said the branches / were the serpent tresses // of Medusa.”

Call her iconoclastic, call her late for the Last Supper: in one of her most ambitious theological meditations, “Body and Soul,” she ponders the Irish poet/philosopher John O’Donohue’s words about thinking of “death not as the breath / on the back of the neck, / but a companion with us since birth, / benign doppelganger who knows us / better than we know ourselves.” This memento mori might have been a comfort to O’Donohue, who passed away peacefully two years ago when he was 53, before Valente wrote her poem about him. Whatever the case with O’Donohue, his words have served Valente, who has had her share of run-ins with the Grim Reaper. Although she’s been continually drawn to what monks and nuns call the vita contemplativa—she is currently writing a book about the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas—she opts for more than the Vatican when she refers to a renowned British scientist [editor’s note, the lines below are indented differently in the original] :

I prefer physics. Julian Barbour’s concept:
time, a continuous tableau of many
different nows, each a single frame
passing an all-seeing lens,
so the instant of me in my kitchen
a few minutes from now,
stirring a can of Campbell’s tomato soup
for lunch in 2001 Chicago,
rolls out in simulcast
with Andy Warhol applying a splotch
of fire-engine red to his soup labels
in 1962 New York.
We are at once fetus and 44 years old,
molting in the Big Bang
and reading this poem.

You don’t need to know New Math to see that, if Valente was 44 in 2001, she’s in her early 50s in 2010. Nowadays if 50 is “the new 40,” you might as well subtitle her book “The Prime of Ms. Judith Valente.” There are poems here that travel to Maui, Cape Hatteras, and small Midwest towns—once in tandem with her husband, Charles Reynard, an Illinois Circuit Court Judge who’s also a poet. There’s a ghazal about traveling in the desert, where Valente appears to revel in what another middle-aged first-book poet called the “essential barrenness” of things. There’s a prose poem about a Thai Festival of Lanterns, the impact of which is compounded by another of Valente’s stepdaughters describing the Festival as “[c]reepy,” “some cult worship thing.” There are several sections in poems that evoke Valente’s mother Theresa, a bottle blonde with “olive skin so dark / that when she tanned, her sisters called her // netta in Sicilian: negress” (sic). There’s a wonderful rhyming love poem which takes off from a photo by John Matt Dorn, who’s responsible for the book’s haunting cover art—as well as a gritty winter diary cobbled together from disjunct, end-stopped lines such as “Inanition. Verbing. Words as salvation.”

Sure, there’s one—thankfully only one—lead balloon, a poem with an epigraph from Rumi (let his ashes and his verse rest in the 13th century, where they belong!) Let me not, in a positive review, admit impediments!

Instead, let me bow out by raving about Valente’s first poem; it’s the only one in the book that uses the second person (“you”) point of view:

“Green” is masterly in its deployment of indented triplets, like the ones in “Body and Soul,” which segue from sentence to sentence with a signature fluid grace. This hospital poem, notable for its mystery, manages to be right on target at the same time as it’s slightly out of focus. The main character may well be the autobiographical “I,” but the use of “you” distances Valente from the experience. Similarly, the use of “they” to describe the hospital staff—nurses and aides—avoids ER clichés, just as the anesthesiologist, mentioned explicitly, has a name the “you” character can’t remember. Even the brand names of anesthetics, “Versed, Sublimaze,” go beyond knee-jerk journalistic facticity and verge on being puns. Most important, Valente doesn’t tip her hand by mentioning the exact nature of the medical procedure depicted here. It is clearly an excision, but Valente isn’t about to reveal that the surgery involves the removal of a tumor. This isn’t just another poem about The Big C. If “Green” is about cancer—and I don’t think it is—the disease plays second fiddle to other considerations, including the poem’s cozy final stanza, in which the character awakens in a recovery room:

You drift back gently to a green world:
grass-colored scrubs, aqua chairs, mint walls.

What, after all, could be more important for a poet who goes walking with the doctor who wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow” than her devotion to another physician’s “grass-colored scrubs”? At night she dreams of “a bald blue man,” seemingly a death figure luring her “to the other side.” She refuses to go with him. She makes “the sign of the cross three times” and gradually “awaken[s], a penitent / to the gray, marsupial morning.”

Whew! Put that punch line in your pouch and smoke it!

*

James Reiss currently lives in the Land of Lincoln and never asks himself, “Why oh why oh why oh did I ever leave Miami of Ohio?” http://www.jamesreiss.com/

Not What I Call a Hail-Fellow-Well-Met-Person: James Reiss on Wallace Stevens’s Selected Poems


Selected Poems, Wallace Stevens, Edited by John N. Serio, Alfred A. Knopf

Of the three canonical American poets born in the 1870s and 80s, let us for the sake of argument call T. S. Eliot Top Dog. Let us go on to say that Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens come in second, uneasily heaped together as in the famous photo of them in their sixties, sitting on a bench at Key West: Frost squat and pleasant-faced, Stevens bulky and buttoned-up in a three-piece jacket and tie.

Despite Eliot’s preeminence, during the early 1990s there was a notable paucity of his poems in anthologies. This may have been the result of hefty permissions fees his estate charged to reprint his work, as well as his youthful overt anti-Semitism, outré in a PC decade. When The Academy of American Poets distributed free copies of “The Waste Land” at post offices during April 1996 to disprove the dictum that April was the cruelest month and to inaugurate National Poetry Month, the T. S. Eliot industry resumed chugging along.

As to Frost: his status as the most popular bard of the triumvirate—nearly a hundred years ago “North of Boston” became a bestseller—has earned him the kind of opprobrium I’ve heard more recently expressed by poets jealous of Billy Collins. I recall chairing a graduate student’s oral exam during which two of my distinguished poet-colleagues on the student’s committee lit into Frost’s “Home Burial” for being “not a poem” but the corny script for a melodrama.

In the halls of academe the poet whose initials are the same as Shakespeare’s has not suffered this indignity, at least as far as I’ve heard. Stevens’s continuing high standing among academics and with-it laypersons, much less poets, may have to do with his “philosophical” bent, his glacial stance when it comes to the confessional mode, “sentimentality” and other hot-button issues on the early twenty-first century’s list of poetry no-noes. Stevens can scarcely be called a “poet of the people,” even insofar as Eliot could claim that sobriquet. Comparing Prufrock to the woman in “Sunday Morning” is like setting a living, breathing young man alongside the prototype of an agnostic who resembles, say, Virginia Woolf.

With this first new edition of Stevens’s selected poems in 19 years, it’s time once again to reassess the “poets’ poet” who created “Domination of Black” (6) and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” (248). At the outset of his Introduction, editor John N. Serio says how fond he is of the way Stevens “personifies an abstraction” (xi), in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (195), which, according to Serio, “many consider [Stevens’s] best poem.” Like many Stevens devotees, Serio cares about “The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice” (135). He acknowledges Helen Vendler’s attempt to place Stevens’s abstract poems alongside their autobiographical contexts the way critics have long since viewed “The Waste Land” in part as an extension of Eliot’s marital problems with Vivienne. It’s unfortunate, however, that Serio appears not to be terribly interested in considering “The Snow Man” with the alternate hypothetical title, “Stoicism in a Failed Marriage,” which Vendler believes is crucial as the poem’s subtext.

Back in May 1968 in a “Modern Philology” review of two university-press monographs, I lamented Frank Doggett’s and Joseph Riddell’s tendency to immerse themselves in Stevens’s ideas. I hoped that, with Holly Stevens’s then-recent (1966) publication of her father’s letters and, with the then-imminent (1970) publication of Samuel French Morse’s official biography, that “an exciting new era of Stevens criticism [would] begin.” Likewise, in 1983 when Peter Brazeau published “Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered—an Oral Biography,” I hoped that off-the-cuff remarks about Stevens by people who personally knew him would answer questions about this extremely private insurance executive, and shed new light on his work.

It turned out that Brazeau’s account of Stevens’s deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism was apocryphal. And, except for Vendler’s insistence on coming to terms with such autobiographical material as his wife Elsie’s mental illness, the emphasis on explicating Stevens’s text and discussing his ideas has continued to be a major concern for Stevens critics. Granted, his poems are sometimes knotty and ambiguous, demanding close reading. For example, in one of the very last poems he wrote, “Of Mere Being” (318)—one of his best, I think—he describes a “gold-feathered bird” singing in a palm tree “at the end of the mind.” The bird sings “[w]ithout human feeling, a foreign song.” Lines seven and eight are:

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.

These lines may be parsed in either of two ways, depending upon the antecedent of the word “it,” which could refer to the bird. Or else “it” could refer to “the reason,” the “purity” of which Kant critiqued; recourse to rational things does not make us happy or unhappy. In his brief comment about “Of Mere Being,” Serio doesn’t untangle this knot. But my guess is that he—and most readers—would favor the former interpretation, i.e., “You know then that it [the bird] is not / What makes us happy or unhappy.” Either way you explain these lines, what they are saying is essentially congruent.

Nitpick, nitpick. Ever since 1990 when Holly Stevens published her own edition of her father’s selected poems, “The Palm at the End of the Mind,” she replaced the last word in the third line in “Of Mere Being” with “decor.” I balked. I grew up with that word being printed as “distance”:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

Holly may have been privy to her dad’s revisions, but in this case, as in many cases where poets “over-revise,” the simpler, earlier version seems to me a lot better than the fussy “decorator’s” version. For me, the word “distance” conveys a sense of the huge outdoors Stevens evokes in the first section of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (58):

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I’m also disappointed when I pore over Serio’s statement that Stevens’s “major achievement is the expression of the self in all its amplitude”; this remark is so vapidly general that it could apply to the “major achievement” of countless poets. I’m more comfortable when Serio says, “[Stevens’s] poetry is full of surprises, nonsense sounds, and a precise diction that frequently clashes and clangs.” In fact, I keep returning to Stevens’s poems—and they are mostly the short poems—in part because of their pyrotechnics, their dazzling precocity, painterly effulgence and stately cries of longing and nostalgia. If John Ashbery’s poems recall pop and abstract art, reading much of Stevens resembles taking a walk through the French Impressionist wing of, say, the Chicago Art Institute. Whatever trouble I have with the penultimate stanza in “Of Mere Being,” I bow to its last stanza—and especially the final (12th) Henri-Rousseau line:

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

This septuagenarian’s Platonic master-poem notwithstanding, I’m more of an aficionado of his debut volume, “Harmonium,” than of his later books; in my preference I side with Randall Jarrell and Yvor Winters in the 1940s and 50s. As Stevens grew older, not unlike Wordsworth and Frost, his poems became less surprising, more abstract—and humdrum in their use of blank verse, in their deployment of his signature tercets and in their theme-and-variations technique that electrified early poems like “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” (8) and “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” (63). As he moved through middle age, Eliot smartly turned to drama; only the Irishman who summered in Sligo continued to write poems that improved with every decade. Serio, like Vendler 40 years ago in her breakout book, “On Extended Wings,” appears to prefer the longer poems of Stevens’s “later phase.” I agree when it comes to “The Rock,” particularly the first poem in its trio, “Seventy Years Later” (296), along with such chestnuts in “Opus Posthumous” as the aforementioned “Of Mere Being” and “Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination” (313).

Speaking of “Reality Is an Activity…,” I should mention that Stevens is Top Dog when it comes to being the most playful, inventive titler of poems in the English language. Do I need to tote out such superb titles as “Of Hartford in a Violet Light,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” “Frogs Eat Butterflies, Snakes Eat Frogs, Hogs Eat Snakes, Men Eat Hogs,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “How to Live. What to Do,” ”Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain” and dozens of others, including “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” all of them tantalizing, some of them “dandified”—to bandy that creaky boulevardier term which several critics initially used to describe Stevens’s wit.

I should also add that, because of Serio’s culling, in this “Selected Poems” I missed seeing such pièces de résistance as “Metaphors of a Magnifico,” “Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks,” “The Load of Sugar-Cane,” “The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws” “The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade” and “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.”

Serio’s “Short Chronology” (319) of Stevens’s life presents four pages of exceedingly useful information. The fact that Stevens, as the second oldest child in his family, outlived his four siblings by as much as 36 years may not seem noteworthy. Yet when you realize that John Keats responded to the death of his brother Tom with “Ode to a Nightingale,” while Stevens appears to have written nothing about the deaths in his family, this says a lot about the man who, in the words of a co-worker, “never cracked a smile, never.” Another acquaintance said that Stevens “had difficulty relating to people” and “was not what I call a hail-fellow-well-met-person.” The photograph of Stevens on the cover of Serio’s book, as well as on the 1954 edition of Stevens’s “Collected Poems” and “Opus Posthumous” (1957), shows a good-looking middle-aged fellow in a suit and tie. When I handed Serio’s book to someone who’d never seen a visual image of Stevens, she glanced at the cover photo and said, “He sure looks like a businessman!”

Despite his exalted stature as a poet, Stevens is still largely unknown by young readers who are familiar with at least a little of Eliot and Frost. I don’t think Serio’s new selection will make much of a difference with the Facebook crowd, mainly devoted to less ghostly demarcations than Stevens provides. Still, let me for the sake of argument imagine a young person texting a friend about Barack Obama. Let me go on to say that the person, 21 years old, on first looking into an extraordinary section from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (204), laughs out loud and keys the following message into a cell phone: OMG WTF! Here are the 21 lines that provoke the outburst:

The President ordains the bee to be
Immortal. The President ordains. But does
The body lift its heavy wing, take up,

Again, an inexhaustible being, rise
Over the loftiest antagonist
To drone the green phrases of its juvenal?

Why should the bee recapture a lost blague,
Find a deep echo in a horn and buzz
The bottomless trophy, new hornsman after old?

The President has apples on the table
And barefoot servants round him, who adjust
The curtains to a metaphysical t

And the banners of the nation flutter, burst
On the flag-poles in a red-blue dazzle, whack
At the halyards. Why, then, when in golden fury

Spring vanishes the scraps of winter, why
Should there be a question of returning or
Of death in memory’s dream? Is spring a sleep?

This warmth is for lovers at last accomplishing
Their love, this beginning, not resuming, this
Booming and booming of the new-come bee.

**

James Reiss won the University of Chicago’s Academy of American Poets Prize in 1962 for his poem, “Homage to Stevens.”

WALKING THROUGH THAT VALLEY: James Reiss on Jonathan Thirkield’s The Waker’s Corridor


wakers corridor

The Waker’s Corridor, Jonathan Thirkield, Louisiana State University Press

I.

A poet in his mid-thirties whose first book wins the Walt Whitman Award has a lot to celebrate. His book comes wrapped in the blessings of its sponsor, The Academy of American Poets; it is all but guaranteed to be reviewed, not relegated to Dustville among dozens of other debut volumes; and it will forever be linked with Whitman, whom Emerson famously greeted in 1855 “at the beginning of a great career.”

At the start of his gig on Parnassus Jonathan Thirkield may not yet be our preeminent bard, who happened to be from Brooklyn – Thirkield’s a Manhattanite. But even a casual glance at “The Waker’s Corridor” reveals its awesome precocity, along with its flaws. From time to time if Whitman slipped, so does Thirkield – and who doesn’t? – even when the causes for their pratfalls are as different as banana peels and black ice.

From the get-go, let me say that I’ve seldom read lines of poetry quite as fresh as Thirkield’s. When George Orwell declared, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print,” he might well have been hoping for language as unusual as what you’ll see in the very first chiseled lines of Thirkield’s book; here’s the beginning of the sonnet-like “Streamside”:

A perfect scene: a voice unwarrantedly
sweet exiting the shade: a man’s red mouth
rough cheeks white skin: in wood – a gondolier
plays the scattered pieces of his fiddle-form
in broken light and audience estranged
from living sound: but sweetly arcs his song:

Aside from the opening gambit, “A perfect scene,” an essential but perhaps a slightly hackneyed turn of phrase – as well as “rough cheeks,” which could be scripted from a Gillette commercial – these lines sound new-minted. The man’s voice being described as “unwarrantedly / sweet” alters the common adjective “unwarranted” – as in “Your cruel remarks are unwarranted, Don” – to an adverb I find exotic. Furthermore, the man’s voice is “exiting the shade,” rather than “emerging from the shade,” “shining forth from the shade” or some such crap. In context “exiting” could almost be called a neo-geo locution. Lines 3–6 depict a man in the midst of singing an opera or an operetta like Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers.” But notice how the image, “the scattered pieces of his fiddle-form,” evades plainspoken photo-realism and evokes something more visually abstract or surreal. The penultimate quoted line in isolation, given its continued iambic-pentameter underpinnings, suggests the first canto of “Paradise Lost,” partly because of the inversion of the verbal “estranged.” At any rate, the sixth quoted line rounds off this portrait, which turns out to be of a son and his father, with panache and a nostalgia emphasized by the “sweet” in line two becoming “sweetly.” Please notice the Spenserian echoes in “sweetly arcs his song.” Considering these half-dozen splendid lines, I’m red-faced – red-mouthed? – when I say that the seventh line of Thirkield’s little elegy is sappy as can be. “[W]ith the innocent abandon of a child” is thematically central to “The Waker’s Corridor,” but that doesn’t prevent it from being the tritest line in the book. Thank goodness, it’s the only howler I’ve detected in sleuthing through 84 pages.

The opening sequence of eleven 14-liners, “Fatherland,” uses colons the way A. R. Ammons did lo these many years ago, to give the impression of a continuum. Rather than interrupting the “flow” of things with those stop-sign punctuation marks, periods, Thirkield creates the illusion of A giving the green light to B, B giving the green light to C and so forth. The result may be something like Whitman’s catalogues incorporating multitudes, although Thirkield steers clear of Whitmanesque parallel-structured lists. He doesn’t steer clear of sequential narration, rhyme, iambs and, as Mark Levine writes in his blockbuster blurb, “formal procedures.”

Still, Thirkield’s formalism is a whole nuther sort of ism than the one I associate with, say, the Expansive Poets of the 1980s. Of the 41 poems in this book, 23 have titles followed by numbers in parentheses as in: Upstate (7:127). If you’re citing a passage from the Bible, you refer to chapter and verse, i.e., Psalms (23:4). Yea, though Thirkield has walked through that valley – “The Waker’s Corridor” is surely about the shadow of death – in his day job he is a Web designer and refers to more than half the poems in his book by the number of their stanzas and lettered characters. To describe “Upstate” as having seven stanzas seems ho-hum enough. To specify that each line in “Upstate” has 127 characters, minus spaces, bespeaks an obsession with form unique to an era of Twitter. Not one line of the prose poem “Upstate” approaches the maximum limit of a Tweet, 140 characters, yet the poem’s choppy, retarded sentences and fragments suggest Twitter’s newspeak. Here is the first full basket case of a line from “Upstate” – count the characters (minus spaces) for yourself:

The mental institution was funny. The way the mad are funny. From the cement recreation area. She could not see beyond the figures. Left by felled trees.

“Upstate” is certainly not funny ha-ha! It recalls a boy – one of Thirkield’s high frequency words throughout is “child” – visiting his father in a sanatorium. Whereas the poet takes pains to depict the woman in the first stanza with a compassion he expresses in subsequent stanzas – only then to focus on his emaciated, exhausted father – his modus operandi is as cold-blooded as a king in his counting house. I don’t know much about the tools of a Web designer’s trade, but perhaps the “sodal” – a “modular java irc bot” – which Thirkield gives thanks to on his acknowledgments page, has something to do with formatting his “stanza/character” poems. Whether he uses a techie’s tool or counts out his characters on his fingers, his poems press the digitized envelope in ways I haven’t seen. Back in the 1980s, without using a computer, the excellent Cincinnati poet David Schloss labored to justify both the right- and left-hand margins of his poems. More recently, another Ohioan, now transplanted to Charlottesville, Kevin McFadden, came out with a strenuous first poetry collection, “Hardscrabble,” much of which is based on brilliantly recast anagrams. Well, Thirkield sings in his chains like a different sort of sea. In fact, to belabor the pun, he represents a kind of sea change in poetry.

What does Thirkieldian poetry entail? Two-thirds of the way through “Lilac (9:111)” a line and a half put forth an ars poetica: “You read. I am, for you in ink, the voice / undressed. Tear this sheet from this whitewashed stone. Wear it!”

First of all, then, these poems present “the voice / undressed.” Recall Yeats, in “A Coat,” celebrating the poetic “enterprise in walking naked. ” Recall also Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey’s 1969 anthology, “Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms.” Somewhere beyond Yeats and Berg/Mezey, Thirkield’s voice is attuned to bare feelings, particularly grief. The disorder and early sorrow of a twelve-year-old who lost his father to suicide pervades every single page of this book. The fact that its poems are “dressed up” in costumes sometimes as elaborate as Pavarotti’s only underscores their transparency, how well they fit a tragic libretto. To switch metaphors: as if robed in the emperor’s new clothes, Thirkield accompanies his father’s ghost across the stage in his very own revival of New York’s Circle Repertory Theater, which Papa Robert Thirkield co-founded in that same Berg/Mezey year, 1969. Naturally, “Hamlet” features prominently in Thirkield fils’s book, as do Edgar and his father, Gloucester in “King Lear,” along with Miranda and Prospero in “The Tempest.” Which brings me to Point Two:

More than a little of Thirkield sounds Shakespearean. Take, for example, Thirkield’s colloquial iambic-pentameter line, “Now turn our thoughts to bangers and to mash”; or else “A bout of grief whirrs the priest i’ the rib cage”; or certain lines that distill the essence of a song sung by a Globe Theatre actor: “I had a clock it woke all day / in hiccupped white embattled cries / I broke my glasses on the street / to blind my sense of dignity” – these four tetrameter lines are part of “Father’s Song.” Obviously, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree; young Jonathan is haunted enough by his dad to have inherited – or deliberately acquired – his old man’s thespian gifts. The thing is, the son’s grins and grimaces aren’t the poetic equivalent of “staged” gestures that derive from, say, Stanislavsky’s method. If all the world’s a stage, one thing seems sure: the emotions infusing Thirkield’s book are not programmed but real.

A dozen “Mystery Plays” constitute the poet’s homage to the medieval York Cycle of dramas popular centuries before Shakespeare. No wonder the superb scrivener of historical poems, Linda Bierds, chose “The Waker’s Corridor” as this year’s Whitman winner. Thirkield’s “Mystery Plays” pilfer from Bierds Territory, which is vast but includes the fifteenth century, as slyly as a cat burglar. Here’s one of them in its entirety:

IV. The Chandler’s Play (6:36)

On the wall, a horse tied to a change-house,

Tiny. A candle in the glass above, its flame

The same burnt hay sloping across the whole

Encaustic pasture: snow patched, trees to

Hazel strings, a bird trap. Unpeopled now,

Three crooks lean against a flat muted sky.

II.

Short but not sweet like “Streamside,” “The Chandler’s Play” is not so much a play as it is a description of a painting in a candle maker’s house. Notice the painted horse “tied to a change-house,” possibly a tallow factory, in synch with the sinister “bird trap” in line 5. Notice the “encaustic pasture”; this hot beeswax painting, a style famous as far back as 100 A.D. in Egypt, may well have been completed by the candle maker. If his landscape bristles with the hayfields and pastures Brueghel relished, the countryside is “unpeopled,” sans Brueghel’s vast unwashed crowds of Flemish peasants. Instead, three shepherds’ lonely “crooks lean against a flat muted sky.” Auden might have appreciated how these stringent musical lines complement his own deceptively nonchalant “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

Notice also that “The Chandler’s Play,” along with Thirkield’s eleven other mystery plays and some other verse here, is double-spaced. This style of printing has gained favor with various avant-garde writers. I can find no reason why the format is deployed except to give a poem some airy space between its lines. It may be merely a waste of paper, but poets are experimenting with ways of making a reader plow (like Auden’s “ploughman”?) through lines more slowly and deliberately. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the poem comprised of stanzas with an equal number of lines has lost favor among the new millennium’s upstart crows, who, like Thirkield, have resorted to other means of expressing their obsessions, their rage for order.

It’s as if the phrase “Alles in Ordnung,” as well as its Dionysian twin, “Gefühl ist Alles,” reverberate as rallying cries throughout this book. Accordingly, Thirkield uses German, at one point fractured, to set his ducks in order. He’s more of a Wunderkind than an enfant terrible, even if his surname is Danish, not Deutsch. And the title of the second section of his book, “Abendland,” reminds us that German speakers refer to the Occident, or New World, as “evening land.” Americans call Japan the “Far East,” despite its being west of Seattle. So it makes sense that, for Germans, the land of the setting sun is a locus of darkness.

No doubt about it: “The Waker’s Corridor” (as opposed to “The Walker’s Corridor”) is, in the mightiest sense of the word, a “dark” book. It is dense and sometimes nearly impenetrable, like an infernal dark forest. Its 100-plus-line title poem, like many of the most nakedly emotional pieces here, is not a stanza/character Kunstwerk. Rather, it is an insomniac child’s rite of passage, a sleepwalker’s tour of a house during a night of thunder and fantasy in New York City; his parents are away, while a neighbor woman baby-sits, cracks an egg in “a simple white bowl of German design” and tries to reassure herself and the child that “it was thunder,” not the world’s end. The child’s mind fills with names of distant places, and suddenly the waker’s corridor turns into the Wakhan Corridor, an area in northeast Afghanistan so remote that only Osama bin Laden and the CIA may have heard of it. As the poem chuffs and rumbles on its far-reaching itinerary with nary a blooper of a line, nary a phrase that is not musical or painterly, you may realize that the ”corridor” in Thirkield’s book title is anything but narrow and confining. Nope, the Northeast corridor – that parochial hall of mirrors – opens out onto a Great White Way reaching beyond the stars because, at under forty years of age, Thirkield is one of those precious few poets who has arisen from dogmatic slumber and is fully, intensely awake.

*

James Reiss, whose last name rhymes with “peace,” grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. http://www.jamesreiss.com/

QUALITY OF HIS HARVESTS: James Reiss on David Baker’s Never-Ending Birds


never ending birds

Never-Ending Birds, David Baker, W. W. Norton

Reading David Baker’s ninth book of poems is like stepping into a museum diorama in which fauna and flora, including such minutiae as the streaks of a tulip, are on permanent display. The setting is central Ohio, but where are its official Buckeye trees? Although Ohio’s state bird, the cardinal, is mentioned once and there are plenty of avian creatures throughout, the overall mood of the book is probably too somber for your ordinary latte-sipping ornithologist from Columbus. Many poems seem steeped in the zeitgeist of olde New England or give off the dank scent of a British fen during Cromwell’s reign.

Yet Baker is a dyed in the twenty-first-century American Midwesterner who has coped with such challenges as divorce and fathering a teenage daughter in an era of Ohmygod and Beyoncé. He’s also spent time in “the financial city”—Central Park and Madison Avenue in the Big Apple—and a woman named Page has advised him, “You should write about the city.” How is it, then, that a rural sadness clings to him like a scarlet letter sewn by Puritans? Rather than shrug and write urbane odes to joy, how is it Baker utters cris de coeur notable for their creepy élan?

First of all, take the book’s last poem, “The Resurrection Man,” a meditation on grief and death that begins with echoes of the obscure, wacko seventeenth-century health educator William Vaughn: “Let [this body] asswageth furie of the mind / with our hoard of bones.” The poem’s speaker busies himself rearranging dead deer bones he’s found on his property “in a sort of crèche / in the barn,” though an unnamed female companion, possibly his daughter, refuses to visit the site. Aware as he is that his “deeryard” is weird, toward the end of this 111-liner the speaker nevertheless returns to his initial exhortation, “Let this body taketh / away sorrow,” and urges his companion to join him in building “a footbridge over // the creek” near where he’s assembled the bones because “we will all lie down, soon asleep.”

It would be easy to call this poem surreal. On the contrary, “The Resurrection Man” comes closer to Poe in its use of Gothic elements to deal with anguish and mortality. Characteristically, Baker steers clear of the confessional mode in addressing midlife-crisis material as personally unsettling to him as the issues behind “The Raven” were to Poe.

One consequence of Baker’s viewing his autobiography through a glass darkly is that some of his work tends to rely on external sources. If Eliot provided endnotes for “The Waste Land” because his publisher needed material to fill out what would have been a skimpy chapbook with too many blank pages at the end, Baker’s antiquarian interests as an antidote to me-me-me confessionalism result in the reader flipping to the back of his book to four pages of Notes. Unlike some of my colleagues, I find such page-flipping tedious, just as I continue to find Eliot’s endnotes a drag.

But enough of esoterica! Two-thirds of Baker’s poems have no endnotes whatsoever and are a pleasure to read, even if their subject is heart-wrenching. For me the book’s title poem is a joy in every sense. It’s accessible, straightforward—not elliptical like many poems here—with only one possible dictionary toughie, “olio,” which means “hodgepodge.” Plus, it’s one of the precious few poems in the book I’d call optimistic, even cheerful. Here’s “Never-Ending Birds” in its entirety:

That’s us pointing to the clouds. Those are clouds
of birds, now we see, one whole cloud of birds.

There we are pointing out the car windows.
October. Gray-blue-white olio of birds.

Never-ending birds, you called the first time—
years we say it, the three of us, any

two of us, one of those just endearments.
Apt clarities. Kiss on the lips of hope.

I have another house. Now you have two.
That’s us pointing with our delible whorls

into the faraway, the trueborn blue-
white unfeathering cloud of another year.

Another sheet of their never-ending.
There’s your mother wetting back your wild curl.

I’m your father. That’s us three, pointing up.
Dear girl. They will not—it’s we who do—end.

How cunningly these couplets go about their business. Like a professor at his chalkboard with a pointer, the speaker shapes his tableau, initially by describing fluffy, amorphous clouds in a huge Gainsborough sky; segueing to one enormous swarm of birds on the wing in autumn; to his cast of characters, the three Baker family members “pointing out the car windows”; et cetera, et cetera. Please pay special attention to the way Baker revels in counting backwards, e.g., “three of us, any / two of us, one of those just endearments”—in addition to his terrific antepenultimate line. Like a couple of his Midwestern forebears, Theodore Roethke and James Wright, Baker everywhere risks sentiment, especially in “Dear girl.”

By the time you reach the end of this unique divorce poem—for instance, it totally eschews Snodgrass’s conventional stance in “Heart’s Needle”—you may be unaware that Baker’s apparent free-verse lines are actually anything but “free.” You may be used to blank verse sounding like “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” or “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” Nonetheless, the 10-syllable grid that underlies most lines here—and ever so many lines in other poems in this book—means that Baker and Milton share more than a Puritan ethos in their poems about lost paradises. But if Baker is a formalist, he’s far from unreconstructed. His sly blank verse is remarkable—ars est celere artem.

Moreover, Baker’s last line, split by dashes, has oodles of savoir faire. Throughout his book Baker punctuates lines with em dashes; at times he begins and/or ends a poem with a dash, as if to emphasize the poem’s fragmentary nature. Perhaps no one other than Emily Dickinson and Frank Bidart has relied on dashes as much as Baker, though Dickinson and Bidart use these punctuation marks quite distinctly. Baker’s dashes in the last line of his title poem are reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s parentheses in the final line of “One Art”: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Baker and Bishop’s use of what I’ll facetiously call “lineus interruptus” is a dramatic gesture, all but a caesura, which recasts the content of their lines drastically. In other places Baker’s nervous use of the em dash recalls a fastidious late-Henry-Jamesian obsession with qualifying each and every assertion.

In fact, Baker’s ability to hold several ideas in his mind simultaneously leads him, like Linda Gregerson, to use parentheses sometimes back to back (but always with the aim of opening up his poems) (to ghostlier demarcations). In the middle of “Tis a Fayling,” a poem about the failings and guilt of one of America’s greatest crackpot Puritans, Michael Wigglesworth, Baker flashes forward, in two consecutive parenthetical remarks, as well as a third, from 1669 to the Iraq War and the covert operations of the CIA in Venezuela: “Of my shame. . . , / I carry (see men / flying, as if swallows wing-shot) (a boy / in Baghdad coddling his mother’s eye in / his palm) blood on the egg (now of Black Ops / in a narrow valley, beneath the swept / mountains of Caracas).” For all this Gustav Mahler-like switching of time signatures—and Mahler changed signatures as speedily as he altered his walking gait—the coherence of Baker’s sentence is clear. Over and over, not just in “Tis a Fayling,” Baker resorts to the word “thus,” like a refrain, to establish a cause-effect link between A and B or Y and Z. Some poets, like Philip Schultz, rely on parataxis, often the ampersand, as a poem’s coat hanger. Not so Baker, a rara avis in his insistence on the whys and therefores of things. With frequent fragmentary syntax, despite his love for monosyllables, he’s one of the more conspicuous black sheep in his generation of mainstream poets enamored of the plain style.

Because of the way “Gently Read Literature” is formatted, I can’t quote a stanza or two of Baker’s to show how he deals with another trend prevalent among mainstream poets of his generation, the poem composed of stanzas with an equal number of lines. Well, Baker emphatically opposes the trend with his five-space indentations. All I can do here is describe how he takes quatrains and prints their first two lines flush left, while indenting lines three and four. Or else he prints the first ten lines of a poem with eleven-line stanzas flush-left and indents the last line. Perhaps most offbeat of all, in “Horse Madness,” he prints eight ten-line stanzas with the second and ninth line of each stanza indented. The effect of Baker’s indentations is not only visual; each indented line is a startling emotional leap.

These leaps comprise one important distinction between “Never-Ending Birds” and a book that could be its cousin, “Lord Weary’s Castle.” In his second collection, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Robert Lowell caught the intensity of the Puritan tradition in poems like “Mr. Edwards and the Spider.” But only Baker can leap two pages from his intensely dour first line that uses roman lettering, “I hate the world,” in “Posthumous Man”—a line borne out of anger and dismay because of failed marriage—to the italicized line, “I hate the world,” written by Keats in a letter to his lady love. Only Baker can credibly bring together Fanny Brawne and the ex–Mrs. Baker, poet Ann Townsend. I don’t think his empathy for Keats is in any way self-aggrandizing or patronizing. Likewise, when Baker juxtaposes bits of the nineteenth-century religious mystic Polly Collins’s story with his daughter’s, this doesn’t constitute, for me, evidence of what critic Joshua Clover, in another context, referred to as “compassionate condescension.” In contrast, I find Baker’s yoking together disparate characters and events evidence of a kind of neo-metaphysical poet, i.e., John Donne with an architect’s compass in one hand and a computer mouse Googling in the other.

To switch allusions from the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries to the Celtic twilight of the late nineteenth: at this point in fewer than two decades Baker has planted nine bean rows. Considering the quality of his harvests—they’re homegrown, they’re tasty and wondrous to behold—I hope he continues to work in his garden (as assiduously as he has) for at least another twenty years.