Vast Lyric: Kurt Brown on Campbell McGrath’s Shannon


Shannon, Campbell McGrath, Ecco Press, 2009

Campbell McGrath’s new book-length poem, Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, will certainly take its place among the handful of important historical verse narratives written in the past thirty or forty years by American poets. Shannon is exemplary in many ways, not the least of which is McGrath’s ability to evoke a life lived in a radically different set of circumstances in a vastly different place and time. And McGrath’s recreation of a nineteenth century voice and writing style is pitch-perfect, nothing short of brilliant. One of the measures of his success is the fact that McGrath is able to create the illusion that what the reader is holding in his hands is not a poem written in the early part of the 21st century, but the actual text of a journal written by a young man in desperate circumstances two hundred years ago. One has to keep reminding oneself that this is so, and marveling again at the power of the deception.

In order to create the convincing sense of an historical figure, more than mere impersonation is needed. Anyone might inhabit a character using only the broadest strokes, the literary equivalent of caricature, which registers only that person’s most salient features. But, as any good novelist knows, people—whether fictional or historical—come to life through an assiduous and cumulative presentation of details, those small, precise strokes that reveal a character in all his or her complicated and manifold dimensions. So McGrath has created for us a young adventurer, George Shannon, who is (sometimes self-admittedly) vain, tender, philosophical, fearful, brave, lonely, resourceful, confused, needy and self-sufficient at the same time, someone who is capable of loving and missing his girl back home, while remembering the grave mission to which he is attached, and admonishing himself:

Startled awake stiff & dreaming
Upon the breasts of Constance Ebson.
Fine as they are, it disturbs me
To be tracked into this wilderness by such desires.

It’s just this kind of detail that offers a glimpse into Shannon’s prickly self: both sensual and puritanical, youthful and adult, fun-loving and practical, he’s everything you might think a teenaged recruit who is trying to impress his adult superiors might be. His is constantly referring to Lewis or Clark in reverent tones, looking up to them as models, as any young buck might who has been placed in the care of seasoned, knowledgeable veterans. He wants, desperately, to garner their attention with his prowess or, lacking that, his courage and willingness to accept difficult tasks. On the one hand, then, he is a capable young man proud of his reputation so far:

Eighteen and years in the backwoods
I am a better hunter than most back home.

And proud, too, of being the one who recovers two stray horses while his companion, a man named Drouillard, finally has to give up and return to the main company, having separated from Shannon as a tactic to cover more territory (this is how Shannon comes to be lost in the first place):

Again I do regret not obtaining provisions
Of Drouillard when we split our search party
Happy as I was to be shed of him
He being a master tracker & I so eager
For sole glory.

Yet later, after days and days of being lost and suffering from hunger, he is forced to exclaim:

Fain to admit but I did
Despair and weep
Some while this evening.

This multi-dimensionality creates what novelists call a fully, rounded character. Shannon appears to us in all his half-fledged youthfulness and bravado.

Besides Shannon’s emotional complexity, his intellectual life is rich as well for someone born and bred on the Kentucky frontier. Apparently, he has had some early schooling and he can read and write, accomplishments not shared by many of his companions on the Corps of Discovery. Shannon says of himself:

I wish I were supplied as Capt. Lewis
With notebook paper & as gifted
Alike with Capt. Clark
Though he is the less well-lettered of the two.
Capt. Lewis is a fine writer
Whose education exceeds my own
But he knows I might proceed to keep a journal
In his place if need be.

Later, he adds:

It is my intention upon completion of this journey
To continue my proper education
At the Transylvania University in Kentucky

and reveals the fact that he intends to study Law there, because “This is a country of freedom / From tyranny now / & of laws…” These may seem high ambitions for someone raised at the end of the 18th century in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. But Shannon, as McGrath has correctly portrayed him, was a man of some talent and ability and the descendent of a good family. One of his relatives was the governor of the state, and three of Shannon’s brothers served in both state and federal governments during the course of their lives. Both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark considered him a social equal, albeit younger and more inexperienced during their famous trek across America to find a river passage to the Pacific Ocean.

Shannon’s thoughts, in fact, revolve around several main themes that crop up in his mind as he wanders the prairie alone somewhere on the banks of the Missouri river in South Dakota in the summer of 1804. Besides dreams of continuing his education upon returning home following the Corps’ expedition west, Shannon recalls scene after scene of family life back east—memories of his mother, his father (whose voice and rustic homilies echo in Shannon’s ears), his brothers, and of course his would-be girlfriend, Constance Ebson. This is natural for a man lost and certainly homesick, separated from all others on one of the largest grasslands on earth. Those grasslands themselves constitute another focus of his attention, as he treks a landscape few other European settlers had ever seen. It’s hard not to imagine him as a new American Adam in a New World Paradise, as he surveys the land before him from horizon to horizon rich with resources and untold possibilities. As he himself acknowledges:

Thoughts and reflections flow through me here
Alone in these lands I might consider myself
The first American to have walked
Surely, & observations of the land generally
& such animals as I have discovered.

But as his ordeal continues, his thoughts turn more and more towards his deepening plight, and the hunger that threatens to destroy him if he cannot find a way to obtain food in that trackless wilderness. He has used up all his bullets, and most of his gunpowder, so he has few if any ways to find sustenance except by scavenging berries and trying to figure out a way to kill something—anything—prairie dog, deer, turkey, rabbit by whatever means possible. He sees buffalo, myriads of them, but knows it will be impossible to bring one of them down. Or elk, which he notices fording the river. It is a measure of McGrath’s narrative skill that Shannon’s obsession with food deepens, almost imperceptibly, as the narrative progresses and begins to eclipse all other concerns until hunger—and the necessity of finding the Corps again—become the only things on his mind. And as he becomes more desperate his mind wanders and he begins to hallucinate, to act a little crazy which, at first, he himself realizes, as when he observes a badger and imagines that he, too, is a badger. “Is it the hunger / thus drawing me out of myself” he muses, “or some deeper cause?” This is the first sign of his unhinging, though it will soon get worse and his reveries becomes as complicated as his rational thoughts upon theology or the law. A second sign occurs when he begins to lose track of time and the days blur one into another. He eats a grasshopper. He argues with himself.

Then, in section thirteen, it seems as though Shannon disappears altogether at certain points as McGrath the twenty-first century poet elbows Shannon, the nineteenth century journalist, aside and the verse becomes more self-conscious, more poetic—or perhaps McGrath means to indicate Shannon’s final dizzy descent into the madness hunger has brought on:

let there be light upon the prairie dust

light & the germ of it
within the dewdrop infused, parched light
of the moon reflected constellations

pearl on yucca, immortal diamond
crown of thorn & stars…

take this sword of light, this ruin…

dewdrop, the source, fog of breath
& the river of light widening towards sunrise
this astonishment of grass, this extravagance…

It’s difficult not to hear the voice of McGrath the poet here, instead of Shannon’s— the hungry pioneer from the backwoods of Kentucky. Difficult to imagine Shannon writing, or saying: “immortal diamond” or “this astonishment of grass.” And scattering the word “buffalo” around several pages is an effective typographical strategy to indicate the ubiquity of the herd, but a decidedly Modernist, even post-modernist technique. If section thirteen is meant to manifest Shannon’s deepening delirium, it is only partially successful because the poet’s willful management of the material is far more evident than in earlier sections. McGrath even chooses to drop the nineteenth century convention of capitalizing the first letter of the first word of each verse, thereby reflecting a more Modernist sensibility in the very look of the lines, their casual contemporary formality.

Whatever the case, Shannon seems to come back to his senses (and McGrath to withdraw again into his character) in the following section as he returns to the urgent necessity of finding food. Even Shannon’s wayward imaginings—he watches some ants and conceives of himself as an Ant-God—seem far more “reasonable” than in the prior section, as even he himself recognizes: “What purpose to carry on / About Ant-Gods, am I losing all sense?” Yet his discourse on ants and their behavior becomes a logical argument that brings him close to blasphemy, from a Christian standpoint, as he has in prior sections when pondering religious doctrine. As revealed by McGrath, Shannon seems to be a 19th century materialist, or Deist, a natural inheritor of the prior century’s clock-maker God, a late child of The Enlightenment like most of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, whom Shannon reveres. It’s little wonder, then, that he sees the ant as “a creature of laws / Orderly & warranted / In all actions by such directives” meaning the practical need for food and shelter, and to extrapolate from their condition and behavior a natural analog for human beings as well. This is what Shannon has been driving at all along. “See,” he finally says, “how I am transformed / From a believer / Into a Democrat & a Man of Science?” In this, he has become the first model for the new American in the new continent, self-reliant (a la Emerson), pragmatic, free of Old World superstitions and ready to found a new country based on reason and the law. God exists, for Shannon, but He resembles nothing like the ghostly, all-manipulative, irrational God of Parson Macready back home, whom Shannon has suspected of pious ignorance from the beginning. But these considerations pale, once more, as hunger returns to gnaw at Shannon and trump all other thoughts and imaginings. Shannon is quickly being reduced to a physical thing, like the skull of an antelope he sees in the grass, and this as much as anything else contributes to his political and theological outlook.

In the end, Shannon decides to give up and retire to the banks of the Missouri River in case a fur trapper or other boatman might wander by and save him. He thinks the chance highly unlikely, but resigns himself to his fate, giving up all hope of ever finding Lewis & Clark or any of the other members of the Corps of Discovery again:

I have a conception of my soul
Being taken up in [the prairie’s] austerity and solitude
To be devoured
By the stars
& mind it no longer.

He does not know, as he thinks this, that he has out-walked the Corps that had been struggling up the river at a slower pace and that they will find him, or he will find them when they catch up at last, just in time to keep him from starving.

There are only a few moments when, for me, the poem falters, as when Shannon’s otherwise sober narrative voice descends into frontier vernacular and he is in danger of becoming a conventional American prototype. “Git on, horse” he demands of his nag, “Git on.” Or the memory of his father intoning advice that prefigures Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking : “Soldier on, George my boy,” he hears the voice of his father chirp, “solider on.” Such language in the first instance hovers perilously close to stereotype (the American cowboy, still almost half a century away, hovers into view) and in the second instance a folksiness is introduced into what is essentially a more dignified literary style. I believe such alterations of character are meant to counter-balance the headier, more philosophical passages that precede them, or follow them. And they almost do. More successful in this regard are passages of situational humor, as when Shannon disturbs a family of skunks—which he calls pole-cats—in a thicket while searching for berries, and the mother skunk chases him back to his own camp “with no injury” but to his pride.” And later, he falls into the river stalking a swan and comments: “…the current is fleet. / It would be a poor idea & a peril to drown.” And once I almost winced at the use of one of our most cherished national clichés that might better have been left out or rephrased, as when George temporarily hunkered down on the prairie in a rain storm, muses about the future he envisions for himself:

…America
Is a land of opportunities
Best seized by those with schooling

a philosophy that might have appeared on a billboard in the same landscape years later, with the image of a father and a son depicted by Norman Rockwell. No matter that it was, and is, true. Poetry at its best depends upon originality of expression, not platitudes.
But these are quibbles when compared to what McGrath has actually achieved here. More often than not, Shannon’s observations of the pristine American heartland and his premonitions about the future are couched in historical poetry of the first order. Reading Shannon is a great pleasure, and adds to McGrath’s other achievement in the genre, “William Bartram Beset by Crocodiles or Alligators” in Florida Poems, which borrows that 18th century naturalist’s voice accurately. There is a caveat, however. Historical poetic narratives hardly receive the notice they deserve, any more than verse fiction, or even book-length meditative poems. Who remembers—or more importantly, reads— Stephen Vincent Benet’s sweeping verse epic, John Brown’s Body, a real literary achievement successfully mixing, as it does, many different forms to tell the story of the Civil War, or Andrew Hudgin’s more recent treatment, After the Lost War, depicting the life of veteran, poet and musician Sidney Lanier; or Benet’s other ambitious work, a poetic treatment of the early history of the United States and the opening of the country, Western Star, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1944; or Robert Penn Warren’s Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Who Call Themselves The Nimipu “The Real People” which only appears on page eight of his works listed on Amazon.com, and then without a cover image; or Winfield Townley Scott’s The Dark Sister which James Dickey hailed as a contemporary masterpiece, and tells the story of Lief Ericson’s sister, Freydis, and their journey to the New World in the 10th century (for that matter, who remembers Winfield Townley Scott); or Archibald MacLeish’s saga of Spanish conquest in the New World, Conquistador; or even John Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet compared to the almost universal acclaim he received for his later collection, The Dream Songs. The list might be extended, and I’m only mentioning a few examples of historical verse from the 20th Century. Why these important and ambitious poems should be almost entirely forgotten is anyone’s guess, but I would think it had something to do with the novel’s almost complete usurpation of the narrative form over the past one hundred years or so.

I suspect McGrath’s Shannon will eventually languish in libraries along with the rest of the historical narratives written by American poets and met largely with indifference by the reading public. And, as usual, this will have nothing to do with its quality. Americans seem to love learning about themselves and their history in novels, films, and television miniseries. But poetry in the 20th century has largely been confined to the lyric, and sound bytes have reduced attention spans to near zero. Long poems, on any subject, are difficult these days to market. Still, Shannon is worth anyone’s time, and will repay the reader with an engrossing view of America’s past and raise questions about this country’s origins at a particularly important juncture in its history. Private George Shannon, youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, is a lucid and intelligent guide to that past. His ideas about the new territory and the as-yet unformed future are incisive, and sometimes profound. Hunger, drowning, the threat of hostile Indians, to these he begins to sense another danger, one with which Americans even in the present age will be familiar:

For all my caution of drowning
In the Missouri River
It may be the vastness of this land
That consumes me.

*

Kurt Brown founded of the Aspen Writers’ Conference, and Writers’ Conferences & Centers (a national association of directors). His poems have appeared in many literary periodicals, and he is the editor of several anthologies including Blues for Bill, for the late William Matthews, from University of Akron Press and his newest (with Harold Schechter), Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems from Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series. He is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and No Other Paradise. A collection of the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck entitled The Plural of Happiness, which he and his wife translated, was released in the Field Translation Series in 2006.

Within the Mythic & Archetypal: Kurt Brown on Cees Nooteboom’s The Captain of the Butterflies


The Captain of the Butterflies, Cees Nooteboom, translated by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr, Sun & Moon Classics, 1997

Some poems are unreadable. Others, one reads out of a sense of duty, and therefore with some effort. But some are irresistible. They compel you to stop whatever else you are doing, and pay attention. This is the case with The Captain of the Butterflies, the first collection of poetry by Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom, translated into English by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr. Though published more than a decade ago, the book is worth revisiting, as any fine book of poetry is. Re-reading it is a lesson on how good poetry never ages.

A clear-eyed surrealist, Nooteboom sees the everyday physical world with one eye and the hidden, mysterious, abstract world with the other. This double-vision serves him well in poem after poem, reminding us of how divided consciousness really is, or may become. The firm, sparkling, manifest world of order and quotidian ritual floats perilously on an ocean of impenetrable depths, an abyss the human mind cannot possibly fathom. Nooteboom peers through the surface-sparkle of phenomena, again and again, to apprehend the movements of this indistinct, shadowy world, a world both threatening and beautiful where intuition and hunch are better guides—and more reliable guardians—than reason. The ancient role of poetry has always been just this: to glimpse the sacred through the profane and bring news of that other existence back to us in oracle and song.

One of the first poems in the book, The Poem of Death, demonstrates this admirably. It is a poem many poets might aspire to write, but few succeed with such eerie and evocative precision, and in such short order:

Along the cold thought of the moon
the light drifts
the wings of the birds are brilliantly painted

this is the poem of death
which begs and tumbles
in the long drawn arches of the evening,
nobody hears it.

nobody hears it, such winged sounds
fly right by the saints
silent, and stuck in the sand,
they are immobile in the drought.

on the hollow path
the painted birds.
in the carved white night
the enchanted voice.
among the swaying trumpets of the angels
those in masks whisper

a house is no house
a thing is no thing
life does not exist.

Among other things the poem restores an imbalance between the two primary realities we actually know: life and death. As far as death is concerned, life hardly exists; it is so tentative and short. How can life—with its frail houses and hallucinatory things—make any claim towards ontological value or importance? On the contrary: viewed from the perspective of death, life is illusory, fleeting, utterly negligible. A thing of little substance and staying power flickering across the dying mind. Death, on the other hand, is eternal. Life withers to a “cold thought” drifting across the face of the moon. The poem of death, the “enchanted voice,” cannot be heard by human beings, not even by those entrusted with our spiritual welfare. Religion is a human “thing.” The saints are “silent, and stuck in the sand” of limited human perception. “they are immobile in the drought” of human ignorance and error. And even when we get to see the angels, those who really know, they are wearing masks—so we can’t see them completely either. The poem both reveals and discreetly obscures final knowledge, which after all can never be apprehended.

The poems in The Captain of the Butterflies are haunted by the reality of death and night and our impotence in the face of them. Another poem, “In Memoriam Leo L.,” opens with a startling image of Nooteboom’s friend, to whom this elegy is addressed, curled up in a hospital bed awaiting his end:

Only a week ago
like a fetus in bed.
Real eyes. Real nails…

The smile of this dying invalid is “a lock,” something which cannot be accessed or deciphered. When the dying turn fully towards death, the living may no longer communicate with them. Whatever expressions their faces wear are enigmatic to those who stand around their beds, mourning. Again, the ineffectuality of religion for Nooteboom is stressed in no uncertain terms:

Tomorrow the dance
of the odd priest
Latin shaman
without magic

Once the forms and rituals that console those left behind have been accomplished, the dying may truly leave this world of houses and things, saints and ghostly insubstantial moons:

only then the fire
of inaudible voices,
the eternal tracks

toward home.

Again and again, we are reminded of the failure of religion in dealing effectively with absolute reality—or perhaps, a plurality of realities. In another poem, the gods simply sleep “in their gold-lacquered beds…wild and useless in their loneliness.” These are the old gods, the gods of the Greeks and the Romans, the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia. But they represent any gods, really, from any civilization at any epoch. The poem ends, “…a thousand years the gods sleep and then, another thousand / dreaming the merciful salt of death.”

For Noteboom’s Captain of the Butterflies, “Reality is the greatest contagion.” The self is “…established in its solitude / like a shipwreck cast in bronze.” “There is nothing pretty about these poems” Noteboom asserts, and we understand he is referring to their otherworldy, non-human character. No sentiment. No easy consolation. Only the self-alienation of human consciousness without its customary mask, without the protective layer of myths, rituals and fond dreams with which we surround ourselves in order to survive. It’s as though the blanket of ozone around our planet was burned away, once and for all, and we stood naked in a deadly stream of solar rays: the final illumination.

All religions prohibit looking directly at the gods. Rilke knows that he couldn’t survive even in the presence of an angel, he would “shrivel…next to [its] greater existence.” Even everyday reality, if we could truly apprehend it, would probably drive us mad. Nooteboom describes the shattered self in clear, unsettling terms: “someone, somebody scattered, / the uncollected persona / in converse with himself, dreaming and thinking / present, invisible.” In many ways, then, these are troubling poems. At least those in the first section, “Self and Others,” that depict the dissolution of identity, the very core of the individuated personality: “Midday of glittering hours / that will not fit together, / and himself cut up by himself / sitting in various chairs / with almost everywhere a soul or body.” Nooteboom observes that “no hand…controls all this,” emphasizing the chaotic nature of such an existence, akin to the harrowing pathology of schizophrenia.

The poems in section II, “Travels and Visions,” extend Nooteboom’s method of intense penetration to cities, sites and landscapes around the world. Nooteboom sees, not what the tourist sees, but the inner reality of a place, the ethos of a landscape, its hidden character compacted of history, culture, nature and geography. So in Arcadia, Greece he senses “the shepherds of noon” and hears “crickets argue for death / urns of annihilation.” In Bogotá, “the rooster is beaten a third time / because in the dark he saw the light.” At Mt. Fuji, Nooteboom observes that “all of Japan hangs on it like a gondola full of dreams / which it lifts and cherishes and carries along / through the sky / beyond the tract of time.” The least successful poems in this section are anthropomorphic persona poems in which the speaker is a rock, a plant, the sun, the sea. Perhaps this is because personification is too familiar a poetic technique to draw the reader in easily.

Section III comprises a number of poems that meditate on the nature of poetry and the poet’s art. In a poem entitled “The Page on the Lily,” the poet

…sits there posturing on the edge of his grave
and listens to the gulping of time
in the poem across from him,
the never-to-be-grasped.

In “Golden Fiction,” Nootebom refers to the poet as a “traitor,” ostensibly because he doesn’t live life, but merely sits apart in his study to record it:

The traitor sits in his room and writes it down.
Out of which lives does he write? Which time?
Will the real life ever come to him
and take him with it?

No it will never take him with it.
The traitor sits in his room and writes
what the voices tell him to write.

In “Homer on Ithaca, ” the essential poet is described—separate, dreaming alone, eyes blind to anything but the inward drama of Imagination. The poet is steward of memory, time’s amanuensis, slave to the Muse which bids him “Sing!”

Section IV of the book, the final section, includes poems about the mind’s ability, or non-ability, to grasp ultimate truth. Throughout the book, Nooteboom’s poems are seeded with references to locks, seals, distances, space, blindness and invisibility, all terms that indicate our inadequacy for discovering what is hidden or secret, what cannot be easily revealed—or revealed at all. The attempt to illuminate even a tiny fraction of reality requires Herculean imaginative and intellectual effort over years, often centuries, and by the most perspicacious minds available. This is best presented in Nooteboom’s poem, “Grail,” which is worth quoting in its entirety:

Remember the time
that we were searching for something,
something quite precise,
a concept, paraphrase, definition,
a summa of what we did not know,
something we wished
to assume or measure or tally
between all things obscure?

You know, don’t you know
how we always wandered off, dividing
the concept and the quest,
Augustine the brothels, Albert the Numbers,
Jorge the mirrors, Immanuel home, Pablo the forms,
Wolfgang the colors,
Teresa, Blaise, Friedrich, Leonardo, Augustus,
always tallying and measuring between words and notes,
thinking
among nuns, soldiers and poets,
breaking, looking, splitting,
till the bones, the shadow,
a glimmer, a narrowing down
in senses or images,
until in a glass or a number
but always so briefly
a hiccup of a thought, of a way,
so endlessly vague became visible.

All that vast effort to arrive finally at the mere “hiccup of a thought,” something so small and frail that—once again—human effort is portrayed as negligible, the entire history of ideas as insubstantial as a flicker of light. All things remain, essentially, obscure. The human mind is continually defeated in its effort to grasp even the edges of ultimate truth.

Throughout this review I have used phrases like “absolute reality,” “the sacred and the profane,” “ultimate truth,” and so forth. I have referred to “the hidden, mysterious, abstract world” as if such a thing were to be taken for granted. But many will find such ideas merely romantic, a naïve throwback to obsolete theories about poets and the poetic art. In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the editors describe the poet, in part, in the following way:

Some cultures make a formal distinction between the
sacred and the profane; others do not. In those that
do, the poet has a public and sacral status as the conveyor
of wisdom and knowledge of a very high order. In those
that do not, however—which includes all modern Western
industrial societies—the poet can present only knowledge
that is personal and private, appealing to his or her readers,
in essence, to judge for themselves whether or not the
knowledge and experience described is not also their own.

Not many people, at least those who wish to be taken seriously, would argue with such an assessment of poetry and poets in contemporary society. That there has been a diminishment of value, a contraction of cultural caché and influence with regard to the poet, is hardly deniable. Confessionalism, with all its limitations, is the result of a thoroughly discredited Romanticism. Yet, a poet like Nooteboom gives us pause: is it possible that, regardless of how the contemporary world views them, poets of real vision and insight, poets who can speak with ancient, oracular authority, continue to exist and do their work uninhibited by an almost universal disregard? This idea in itself may seem romantic, a kind of Harry Potter idea of poets operating secretly within the stifling milieu of suburban, bourgeuois society.

Yet here, at the opening of the 21st century, it is not so clear that the sacred has been so easily defeated, so completely relegated and cast side during the 19th and 20th centuries. Seemingly endless, festering religious conflicts—with more and bigger ones on the horizon—make us question whether the sacred might not be staging a comeback, whether the ascendancy of the profane in a scientific and rational age may not ultimately prove a chimera, something which seemed undeniable for a time until time reversed itself. No one would welcome back an age of superstition. But the poet’s otherworldliness is not religious, so much as intuitive, imaginative, psychological. What has been “sacred” to the poet of the modern era is not the received doctrine of organized religions, but the realm of the subconscious, and even deeper—the unconscious—where important human truths and realities may lie. More than personal, but less than absolute, such truth involves the very meaning of human consciousness and being. It all depends on how you define the sacred, and what we can possibly know—or guess at—with the limited instrument of the human mind.

Poets like Nooteboom operate within this area, within the territory of the mythic and archetypal. It is almost impossible to read Nooteboom and feel that he is presenting “only knowledge that is personal and private.” The images cast up and examined feel more universal than that, more unsettling but familiar, more like our own shadowy imaginings and doubts, our own fears and dreams. It has been said “A myth is a public dream, while a dream is a private myth.” Nooteboom, it would seem, is someone with a powerful enough imagination to dream for us all. To confine the substance and meaning of his poems to personal and private knowledge would feel not only like a misjudgment of his real achievement, but a betrayal of his gift—the gift of these penetrating, revelatory poems.

Beyond Description: Poetry That Stares–An Essay by Kurt Brown


It’s commonplace now to assert that contemporary experience has been broken up into fifteen second ads, rapid cinematic cross-cuts, bewildering language collages, and ephemeral sound bytes. Consciousness, we agree, has been fractured—perhaps beyond repair. It’s as though the whole culture were suffering from attention deficit disorder, unable to sustain collective thought. This frazzling of attention might be welcomed by experimental artists and merchandizing outfits of all kinds. Such shattering of awareness is relatively new, and as recently as a half century ago—certainly stretching back through preceding millennia—the human mind was capable of extended periods of concentration, of focusing itself on objects and events that moved relatively slowly, and which therefore yielded up more and more about themselves the longer the observer stayed put. A Zen-like meditative state might not have been widespread in the Middle Ages, but attention spans during that historical epoch were probably more durable than ours, and distraction—at least rapid immediate distraction—less a problem.

As one of the oldest human activities, poetry is still capable of evoking the meditative state, of recording an almost trance-like attachment to people, places, objects and events and allowing even ordinary experience to reveal depth and dimension, significance and substance, lastingness and solidity. Of yielding up, that is, the secret qualities of things—the deeper meaning of phenomena, the unseen reality that might begin to emanate from each object if only we could stay fixed and focused on it long and faithfully enough, for such subtle details, such essences, to be revealed. The modern mind, skating swiftly over the surface of things, making rapid surveys of all it sees, bouncing from perception to perception, cannot know—cannot get at—the secret life of things, to borrow a concept from Rilke. We might notice the gleaming torso of Apollo, while sprinting through the museum, but we can no longer experience the fact that it is also noticing us. That kind of dawning, radical awareness may now have been rendered passé.

All poems—at least traditionally—represent acts of attention more or less, though post-modernism delights in reversing conventional approaches to writing by favoring interruption, disjunction, floating pronouns, shifting grammar, fractured sentences, and so on, over what Tony Hoagland has called “the poetries of continuity.” The post-modern poem, then, seeks to imitate the fractured nature of contemporary experience, to mirror it in formal strategies and scattered syntax, rather than trying to reconstruct wholeness—to re-member the scattered corpse of the Muse—the dead Horus of all poetries leading up to Modernism which was the first to introduce fragment and collage into the mainstream of western literature. What I am calling “staring poems” then, is naturally inimical to the whole project of post-modernism. This is not necessarily a judgment, but an essential feature of post-modernism that excludes it from the possibility of producing poems of extended focus and attention and therefore separates it from the centuries of poetry that preceded it. Whatever virtues it may have gained by attempting to replicate contemporary experience, it can no longer partake in the qualities and discoveries of prolonged meditation.

A distinction has to be made, too, between poems of observation and poems that stare—though of course they are related, the latter being essentially a noticeable magnification of the former, a particular species of descriptive poetry that, by its sheer persistence, represents a higher degree of attention. The poem of observation has been with us for a long time, perhaps from the very first. All traditional poems describe things, and great poems describe them greatly. One of the glories of Homer, we are told, is the precision of his imagery—the physical, concrete, nature of what he presents to our senses—which critics have praised with such terms as “visceral” and “alive.” The wine-dark sea and the rosy fingers of dawn have come down to us almost undiminished in their imaginative rightness and surprising beauty. When Dante escorts us through hell, we shrink from the rippling tapestry of flames and the acrid smell of sulfur. Milton, too, allows us to see the huge body of Satan sprawled out in a lake of fire with the other fallen angels scattered around him “thick as leaves that strow the brooks in Valambrosa.” Modernism itself is founded on the idea of observation and representational aesthetics. Imagism, the movement that began it all, was fundamentally an effort to restore clarity and precision to poetry after the emotional fuzziness and haze of Victorian emoting.

More recently, Francis Ponge’s poems have received their fair share of admiration for the painstaking effort they make to focus attention on a single object—an orange, an oyster, a pebble, even roadside dung—though in Ponge’s treatment of things the mind travels side by side with the object, informing it, imbuing it with meaning, probing it and commenting on it at every step. The objects in Ponge’s poems are infused throughout with a fine, delicate subjectivity that heightens and illuminates them even further. One feels Ponge’s mind suffusing each article with an interior light, which is the dim light of partial understanding, an inkling as we say, even as the power of his attention surrounds each object with the fierce halo of his gaze. We are as aware of Ponge, the observer, as we are of whatever it is he is observing. That is to say, the presence of the observer is felt in every word of the poem; we are never allowed to forget that he is there.

But this is true of most poems of observation, whether immediately or at some point later in the poem. Take, for example, the following poem ‘Snake’ by Francine Sterle, a very fine poem of close description that appeared in her book Every Bird is One Bird from Tupelo Press in 2001. Here’s the poem in its entirety, because it will be necessary to talk about it at some length in order to note the qualities of observation that may be found in most poems of this kind:

Saw it hatch from an egg
like a bird, saw it surge
months later from a mud hole,
glide across a log, wave upon wave,
into a dark crevice in the rocks,
saw its feathery tongue flicker
as its eyes went cold,
and it swelled thick-bodied
until it burst from its skin
in one luminous stroke, saw
the undulating string of chevrons
shiver down its back,
saw it slip into the world
in roots and umbilical cords,
wheels and smoke and curling hair,
saw it in the whip-tailed wind
hissing behind me, in the uterine earth,
the Great Serpent writhing under my feet
when I walked. Saw it coil
into a wreath, and still it stirred
without arms or legs or wings, slithered forward,
unlocked its jaws over a mouse, unlocked
something in me: Lord of this world,
Lord who delights in blood,
and my shovel crushed its head,
and this is how I yielded.

The first thing to notice about the poem is how Sterles seeks to detach herself from what she is observing, to direct the reader’s attention, not to herself, but to the snake she wants us to observe with her, something she partially achieves by dropping the subject of these sentences—the “I”—which would normally stand in front of those anaphorically migrating verbs: “saw.” “Don’t pay attention to me,” she seems to be implying, “look only at what I have to show you.” The observing consciousness doesn’t enter the poem until after line twelve, which ends a long list of details about the snake’s physical attributes and behavior. After that point, however, the observer’s presence is detectable to some degree in the metaphorical forays she makes into snakiness itself, the curling and writhing of other things—smoke, roots, hair—that resemble in some way the creature she has just described. But metaphor, we know, takes place only in the mind of the speaker and, for the first time, not out there in the world. Line by line, she continues to come forward until, finally, she steps completely into the poem by revealing herself—for the fist time—with the pronoun “I.” And that is where the poem, for the first time as well, comes to rest, before pushing on towards its inevitable disclosure, the revelation towards which it has been tending. Observation has done its work, and may be left behind. Statement—the framing of an idea—is now in order, and takes its place: “unlocked something in me…and this is how I yielded.”

Much more might be said about this poem, about its prosodic features—those anapests that advance trippingly after the clogged spondees of lines two and three: “saw it surge / months later from a mud hole, / glide across a log, wave upon wave, / into a dark crevice in the rocks”— its numerous enjambments and positional vagaries of the verb “saw,” which enact or at least underscore the sinuous movement of the snake, and the single long line that describes how the snake “slithered forward,” even as the line slithers forward to tell us so. It is an adept performance, in almost every way.

And of course it reminds us of other poems about snakes: Dickinson’s great poem that ends in “zero at the bone”; Lawrence’s wonderful meditation about “one of the Lord’s of Life.” It hardly needs mentioning that the whole myth of Eden lurks behind the words and images of “Snake,” contextualizing it even further to give it resonances and meanings not necessarily present in the poet’s actual experience of her particular snake. When she yields, here, it is to that urge towards violence that we associate with snakes, especially snakes that represent the Devil. This is a strong poem, one that uses observation skillfully and for a very definite purpose. What I’m looking for, though, is something more radical than this. Poems or passages of poems in which the observer all but disappears, all but vanishes into the background of the text while we, its readers, are left alone completely absorbed in what we are seeing, hearing, and experiencing, albeit imaginary, as art. In poems that stare so hard we become, in Emerson’s memorable phrase, “translucent eyeballs,” no longer aware of ourselves, much less the observer who is describing what we see.

Let’s begin with Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “At the Fishhouses,” which describes one of the coastal fishing villages of her youthful Nova Scotia. It is not necessary to cite every line of “At the Fishhouses”, as Bishop does appear—memorably—at various places in the poem. But not until thirty one lines have been spent painstakingly and beautifully observing the details of the fishhouses and the interesting terrain surrounding them. The staring here is selective, but intense, unwavering. From an old man working on his nets in the evening, we move to the “steeply peaked roofs” of the fishhouses, to “the heavy surface of the sea, / swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,” to “the benches, / the lobster pots, and masts, scattered / among the wild jagged rocks,” to “The big fish tubs…completely lined / with layers of beautiful herring scales,” and so on, so that when Bishop finally enters the poem at line thirty two by handing the old man a Lucky Strike, we are startled, shocked, as if she had just emerged from the twilight at our elbow to break the spell we’ve been under, a spell cast by the powerful manifestation of the landscape she has just been observing for us. The scene has been so potently depicted, and we have been so deeply drawn into it, that we had forgotten she was even there. Even brief moments of subjectivity—such as that suggested by the word “considering” above (who has this idea?), and the lines “The air smells strong of codfish / it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water”—fail to destroy the sense of detachment, the impersonal feeling built up over so many lines of painterly description, that we pass over them almost without notice, without considering how they might imply an observer, a speaker standing nearby in the gloaming with us.

Staring poems, almost entirely, resist the temptation to turn the object(s) of their observation into metaphor. At least, not at first, and not for a long time. Often until the very last lines of the poem. Though she is present, more or less, at various places from line thirty three on, Bishop continues to observe the landscape and the creatures in it, until she finally gets around to the revelation she’s been seeking—the master metaphor that will deepen and enlarge the significance of all that has come before. The sea, finally, is figured as something other than itself, something abstract and uncontained:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

This is effective as far as it goes, but feels rather operatic and self-conscious—worked over—in comparison to the acute observations with which the poem began (“from the rocky breasts / forever” seems particularly forced). What we remember about the poem, I believe, is not this final rhetorical summation, but “the small old buildings with an emerald moss / growing on their shoreward walls” and the old man with “sequins on his vest and on his thumb” who “has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away.”

Perhaps the weakest moment in Bishop’s famous staring poem, “The Fish,” is its ending as well, which many critics denounce, feeling that it adds a note of sentimentality, a predictable gesture of sympathy at the last moment which feels tacked on, moralizing at the culmination of a much more interesting, and powerfully obsessive description of the fish. Though Bishop is present in “The Fish” in first-person pronouns scattered throughout the poem, here again the force of observation is so intense it tends to overwhelm the sense of an observer by aggressively directing our attention to the object itself. Who really cares about those intersecting, oily rainbows, and the notion of fishly victory, when we are presented with such astonishing detail, such minutely observed specifics, as in the magnificent passage describing the fish’s skin: “Here and there / his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper, / and its pattern of darker brown / was like wallpaper: / shapes like full-blown roses / stained and lost through age.” And she continues:

He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.

As if her obsession with describing the fish cannot stop at a presentment of its exterior details alone, Bishop now enters the fish’s body and describes what she can only imagine—but most surely has seen many times, while cleaning fish—that is to say, her depiction of these things is not fanciful, but literal. She speaks of:

…the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

The description, here, is riveting. Bishop’s gaze is so clear, so particular, that we again enter a kind of observational trance, an absorption in the object of contemplation so complete we forget about her and ourselves and perhaps even the fact that we are reading a poem, a representation of the thing, and not seeing the thing itself. After this interior survey of the fish’s principal organs, Bishop imaginatively exits the fish to take note of it’s eyes:

the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.

The notations here are so fresh and surprising, we feel that we could linger with her over every feature of the fish—lovingly, completely—until the creature has been thoroughly limned, thoroughly illuminated in words and images that possess the inevitableness Harold Bloom touts in his little book The Art of Reading Poetry as one of the most important values a poem might exhibit: the conviction that what is stated and presented could have been stated and presented in no other way. Nothing about the poem feels arbitrary. Everything about it feels determined, fated, having that exactly-this-and-nothing-else quality that satisfies our deepest sense of fitness and artistic achievement.

In what I feel is one of Bishop’s most successful poems, “The Moose,” she retreats even farther into the background to allow the landscape, other lives, and the moose itself to take center stage. In this poem, she is little more than a camera eye—perhaps a video camera, in this day and age—dutifully recording what happens during a bus trip through the Nova Scotia countryside at night. When she does enter the poem, it is not as a singular “I,” but submerged in a group, an indistinguishable member of the pronouns “us” and “we.” All her attention is directed outward, a mere amanuensis of what transpires, which is filled with both ordinariness and mystery, capped off with the appearance of the moose. Bishop is both eye and ear—both voyeur and eavesdropper submerged in the all-encompassing darkness—and even at the ultimate moment, when the moose steps out of the woods, sniffs the bus, and is left behind, she avoids drawing a moral, or turning the beast into a metaphor for primal nature, the unconscious, a pagan god or totem of any kind, or imagination’s awkward ambassador. All of these might exist as layers beneath the literal events of the poem, but Bishop remains an objective reporter throughout. She has been staring into the night for twenty-eight stanzas and is willing to let whatever emerges from it speak for itself. It is one of the great poems of prolonged attention we have, at least in contemporary literature, though it was written somewhat before the fracturing of our post-modern sensibilities had taken place.

Perhaps one of our most notable “staring” poets is C. K. Williams who, through a number of remarkable volumes since Tar, from Random House in 1980, has given us numerous examples of poems that are disciplined, alert, marvelously detailed, and unique for the way in which they can parse—not only physical actions and things—but abstract concepts, thoughts, feelings, as though they were as solid and visible as any object. Like Ponge, whom he has translated, Williams is capable of an obsessive, breathtakingly determined gaze. But unlike Ponge, Williams is almost exclusively interested in people—what they say and do, how they interact with each other, what they think, and feel. A poem like “Waking Jed,” will serve to illustrate the sheer hypnotic nature of his attention, a patience and dedication to getting it right that is almost preternatural in its power:

Deep asleep, perfect immobility, no apparent evidence of consciousness or of dream.
Elbow cocked, fist on pillow lightly curled to the tension of the partially relaxing sinew.
Head angled off, just so: the jaw’s projection exaggerated slightly, almost to prognathous: why?
The features express nothing whatsoever and seem to call up no response in me.
Though I say nothing, don’t move, gradually, far down within, he, or rather not he yet,
something, a presence, an element of being, becomes aware of me: there begins a subtle,
very gentle alteration in the structure of his face, or maybe less that that, more elusive,
as though the soft distortions of sleep-warmth radiating from his face and flesh,
those essentially unreal mirages in the air between us, were modifying, dissipating.
The face now is more his, Jed’s—its participation in the almost Romanesque generality
I wouldn’t a moment ago have been quite able to specify, not having its contrary, diminishes.
Particularly on the cheekbones and chin, the skin is thinning, growing denser, harder,
the molecules on the points of bone coming to attention, the eyelids finer, brighter, foil-like:
capillaries, veins; though nothing moves, there are goings to and fro behind now.
One hand opens, closes down more tightly, the arm extends suddenly full length,
jerks once at the end, again, holds: there’s a more pronounced elongation of the skull—
the infant pudginess, whatever atavism it represented, or reversion, has been called back.
Now I sense, although I can’t say how, his awareness of me: I can feel him begin to think,
I even know that he’s thinking—or thinking in a dream perhaps—of me here watching him.
Now I’m aware—again, with no notion how, nothing indicates it—that if there was a dream,
it’s gone, and, yes, his eyes abruptly open although his gaze, straight before him,
seems not to register just yet, the mental operations still independent of his vision.
I say his name, the way we do it, softly, calling one another from a cove or cave,
as though something else were there with us, not to be disturbed, to be crept along beside.
The lids come down again, ye yawns, widely, very consciously manifesting intentionality.
Great, if rudimentary, pleasure now: a sort of primitive, peculiarly mammalian luxury—
to know, to know wonderfully that lying here, warm, protected, eyes closed, one can,
for a moment anyway, a precious instant, put off the lower specie onsets, duties, debts.
Sleeker, somehow, slyer, more aggressive now, he is suddenly more awake, all awake,
already plotting, scheming, fending off: nothing said but there is mild rebellion, conflict:
I insist, he resists, and then, with abrupt, wriggling grace, he otters down from sight,
just his brow and crown, his shining rumpled hair, left ineptly showing from the sheet.
Which I pull back to find him in what he must believe a parody of sleep, himself asleep:
fetal, rigid, his arms clamped to his sides, eyes screwed shut, mouth clenched, grinning.

Anyone familiar with technical manuals might recognize the affinity this has to process analysis, whereby engineers or chemical workers might learn, step by step, how a particular sequence of mechanical or chemical events might unfold. With a crucial difference: no engineer would be expected to have to read, much less understand, the complex abstractions presented here. Even most poets might be satisfied to note that “a very gentle alternation in the structure of [jed’s] face” takes place without fine tuning this observation by pushing it farther, to include something “more elusive”: “the soft distortions of sleep-warmth radiating from his face / and flesh, / those essentially unreal mirages in the air between us, were modify- / ing, dissipating.” To be aware of such subtleties, much less finding the language to articulate them, is one of Williams’s gifts as a poet, and what sets his observations apart from many other poets engaged in describing the spectral or ephemeral qualities of things. Compare this, for instance, to Bishop’s beautiful evocation of the sea at dusk, in “At the Fishhouses”:

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque…

and later, again:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.

The point isn’t that Williams is a better poet, or a more careful observer. It is just that he is after more liminal, elusive phenomena, states of awareness almost impossible to portray because of their frail, shimmering brevity, their almost-not-hereness, that only the most refined sensibility can detect. Williams is one of the poets who have made it possible again to partake of the widest array of terms the English language has to offer. His poetry is a far cry from the primitive “stone” “wind” “ice” and “star” vocabulary, mostly symbolic, favored in the 1960s when he began to write poetry for the first time.

In fact, it might be argued that Williams clutters his lines with too many heavy, abstract Latinate words, to many hesitations, second-guessings, and qualifications, and that these actually distract from the object of his attention rather than bringing it into sharper focus. But if we look closely at Williams’s sentence structure, the wide array of adjectives and adverbs employed, and his use of what I call “triadic focusing (which I will define shortly),” we might begin to understand how the apparent complexity of his style actually helps, not hinders, the exactness of his descriptions. In “Waking Jed” the observer is patient, fastidious in the details he selects for us to regard, and rigorously fixed on an object that is essentially still, or changing very slightly over a short period of time. The drama here is provided almost completely by the force of the observer’s gaze. The language is lavish, intricate, sometimes concrete, sometimes attempting to make the abstract concrete and, therefore, graspable. The long lines allow, even encourage the observer to take his time, to inch over his material with no pressure to hurry because he has plenty of room to do so. Roominess is a quality, a condition of long lines and almost guarantees a slower pace than shorter lines would provide.

There is a constant imperative to keep qualifying and revising himself, in the interests of getting it right, of nailing it down, of finally capturing those aspects of what he sees in words and phrases that will serve when no language, really, will serve in the face of such transitory, gossamer-like phenomena. So, his doubts and self-interuptions are scattered throughout—“or maybe…” ““or…perhaps “although…” “or rather…” and are reflected in provisional words like “seem” “as though…” somehow…”, as well as in the periodic sentences that appear here and there in his examination of Jed, marked by suspended clauses that clarify, en passant, the main body of his sentence. We are often told that a poet’s style mirrors, in some way, his or her thought processes. This is surely the case here, with the caveat that Williams’s poems, like any poet’s, only present the illusion of the thought processes that made them—not the actual process itself, which was messy, imprecise, halting, and unavoidably incomplete. Williams’s chief technique, however, the mechanism with which he most strenuously tries to “get it right,” is provided by what I have called “triadic focusing.” When Williams employs this technique, he is not stumbling. He is allowing the reader to move with him from the most generalized expression of a thought to a clearer, more pointed formulization of that thought which is probably the closest he will ever get to actually articulating what he observes.

So, at the very beginning of the poem, Williams moves from “Deep asleep” (most general), to “perfect immobility” (more specific), to “no apparent evidence of consciousness or of dream” (most specific) in the course of a single line, ratcheting his observation down with each phrase—adjusting the lens, as it were—until he is satisfied that he has found the best way to embody his thought, to clarify it as far as it is possible to do so with the clunky, imprecise apparatus of language. Not much later, concerned with what he senses is taking place “far down within” the remote being of the sleeper, he does it again—how to describe this? He starts by saying “something,” (most general), then decides he will call it “a presence,” (more specific), and finally settles on “an element of being” as the most precise way he can articulate the insubstantialness, the vapory half-life of whatever it is that begins to stir deep in Jed’s slumbering brain. In fact, the word “something” occurs twice in the poem and the word “nothing” five times. It is how Williams gets from “something” or almost “nothing” to “what will suffice,” as Wallace Stevens put it—some final compromise in words— that provides the poem with its raison d’etre, its challenge, which Williams keeps asking of himself, and meeting, and going on, and which is a measure of the poem’s ultimate value and success. To find language for what occurs on the fringes of consciousness, at the border between what is speakable and what is not, is one of the poet’s particular tasks, a constant wrestling with language that—even at its best—favors the generic over the specific, the approximate over the exact. That is why language has so many modifiers. Adjectives and adverbs are specifiers, various choke-holds for grappling with the generality of nouns and verbs in an attempt to pin them to the mat.

So the list of modifiers in Williams’s poem is impressive, and flies in the face of Pound’s generally accepted advice to avoid adjectives as much as possible in poetry. Williams employs the following in his struggle with the ineffable: deep, perfect, apparent, partially relaxing, exaggerated, subtle, gentle, elusive, soft, essentially unreal, almost Romanesque, denser, harder, finer, brighter, foil-like, infant, mental, great, rudimentary, primitive, peculiar, mammalian, precious, lower, sleeker, slyer, mild, abrupt, wriggling, shining, rumpled, fetal, rigid, shut, clenched, and grinning. As we can see from this list, the comparative (denser, harder, finer, brighter) is often used by the poet in his attempt to narrow things down to the particular. Woven in with this array of adjectives is an equally impressive array of adverbs: lightly, partially, slightly, gradually, tightly, suddenly (twice), abruptly, softly, widely, consciously, wonderfully, ineptly, and almost. Taken together, then, this dense web of modifiers helps Williams clarify his subject—what Jed looks like and what he does. Strip away this layer of modifiers, and the poem presents only the archetype of a boy asleep in a bed, waking up. Any boy, doing what any boy might. What Williams has given us is not a portrait, but an account of a particular boy in a particular moment in time, without preventing us from seeing some of the universal in it as well. And I believe the urgency to pay more than usual attention goes beyond a father’s natural interest in his child, but suggests the artist’s obsession with a subject—any subject—so long as it piques his interest and engages his imagination.

If, as Malebranche asserts “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul, ”then each of these poems, more or less, is a prayerful response to some aspect of the world, quotidian though it may be, on which the poet freely lavishes his or her attention. Poetry that stares honors reality and implies a valuation of its commonness, suggesting that much of importance—perhaps all we might finally know—can be found there. It is not anti-metaphysical, but pro-worldly, devoted to the manifest, the here-and-now, as the only sure locus of understanding and truth. It is, perhaps, related to another Williams’s famous dictum: “no ideas, but in things,” yet it is more than that. It involves respect, acceptance, even love of the actual, a curiosity and delight in what is, what exists, without an accompanying sense of judgment or degradation. It does not deny the horrifying or the ugly, but seeks beauty in the most unexpected places, the lowliest things—in gray, weathered fish tubs spangled with herring scales; in the cocked jaw of a loved one’s face misshapen by sleep. Considered as a noun, the venerable O. E. D. defines a stare as: “the power of seeing” and “a condition of amazement, horror, admiration, etc.” (“Why stand you,” writes Shakespeare in ‘The Tempest,’ in this strange stare?”). As a verb its definition is even more explicit: “to gaze fixedly and with eyes wide open.” Is this so different than what we normally think of as being enraptured by something that stops us in our tracks and compels us to attend? In the poetry I’ve been considering, that something is the ordinary world.

*

Kurt Brown founded of the Aspen Writers’ Conference, and  Writers’ Conferences & Centers (a national association of directors). His poems have appeared in many literary periodicals, and he is the editor of several anthologies including Blues for Bill, for the late William Matthews, from University of Akron Press and his newest (with Harold Schechter), Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems from Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series. He is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and No Other Paradise. A collection of the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck entitled The Plural of Happiness, which he and his wife translated, was released in the Field Translation Series in 2006.

The Impostor Pulling Off the Great Forgery: Laura McCullough on Kurt Brown’s Sincerest Flatteries




Sincerest Flatteries, Kurt Brown, Tupelo Press, 2007

Kurt Brown is a poet’s poet, the kind who is immersed in the life of the writer, knowing his forebears, adept in the classics, in tune with the times, rubbing emails and blogs and pen and elbow with contemporary colleagues in the literary arts, married, even to a fellow poet, Laure-Anne Bosselaar. They both teach in MFA programs, and indeed, Brown is, in some ways, the father of the what many of us think of when we think “writer’s conference,” as he was the founder of the famed Aspen Writers’ Conference and the association of writers conference directors, the Writers’ Conferences and Centers group. Brown has edited numerous anthologies, most notably one on the poet Bill Matthews, Blues for Bill, one on poetry and cars, Drive, They Said: Poems About Americans and Their Cars, and one of essays on poetry and science, The Measured Word. Brown has a keen intelligence, is a connoisseur of poetry, his interests are rangy, and he respects many aesthetics, even those not embraced in his own poems.

Of his own poetry, Brown is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and the forthcoming, No Other Paradise, due out in 2010 from Red Hen Press. He and his wife, Laure-Anne Bosselaar translated a the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck and published a book together, The Plural of Happiness, in the Field Translation Series.

Which is why Brown’s littlest book, the charming and disarming, Sincerest Flatteries: A Little Book of Imitations might be easy to miss, or, even, to dismiss. On first blush, a book of what might sound like either parody or undergraduate creative writing assignments, to mimic noted poets, might seem un-serious. These poems are anything but un-serious; though they are bright, musical, engaging, and great fun, they are exquisitely rendered as only a person of great skill and authority could possibly pull off.

It is possible to read some of Brown’s poems—written with the authorial control, orchestration, gestures, quirks, intelligence, temperament, musicality, and tone of such noted and admired poets as Charles Simic, Stephen Dunn, Tony Hoagland, Kim Addonizio, Russell Edson, Sharon Olds, Jerry Stern, and more (there are 24 “flatteries” here)—and believe that these poems could have been theirs, to believe, in some cases, that the poems are the quintessence of the poets Brown pays homage to.

Make no mistake, these are homage, the kind when an intelligent colleague has bent his will upon the serious work of another, not to conquer, not even, perhaps to understand it, but to be inside it, to be, a little, in love with it. These poems do not parody; they do not satirize. They are intimate, as if someone has worn the clothes of another and while wearing them, inhabited a bit of your life. This might seem disconcerting if it weren’t for the fact of Brown’s great skill and range as a poet. The rigorously trained classical dancer can bring a kind of elegance to other dance forms; the Olympic skater can make ice dancing look effortless, even funny.

If you have read Tony Hoagland’s What Narcissism Means to Me, you will over hear the voices in Brown’s “Of Tony Hoagland” as characters you have met before. The domestic fact of the TV being on and being located in “Kathy’s living room,” will make you right at home in this poem, as you will be in “Frank’s Place, lined up at the bar” in the poem “Of Kim Addonizio,” and when the speaker says, “honey, we’re all on our last legs,” you’ll hear Brown and Addonizio with their arms around each other’s shoulders agreeing with that fact.

If you, like Brown, are a connoisseur of contemporary poetry, and have spent some nights with the vertiginous and hyper-aware poetry of Stephen Dunn, you will nod with the lines, “not/the self-knowledge of a mirror/and the mirror’s indifference,//but the self-knowledge of others’/indifference, which was always/greater and, somehow, more true,” and the cadence and the switchbacks and reprisals will make smile with then kind of appreciation the wine expert might have when he tastes a flavor down at the bottom of the tongue and knows it suddenly and well. Ah yes, that’s it. And when the voice of Brown’s Russell Edson exclaims, “my father was a lump of plastic…so shut up and have our baby” you will know in your bones something about the plasticity of language you didn’t know before because Brown has molded ways you thought only, only Edson might do.

Yes, that’s the problem isn’t it? But isn’t it also wonderful to see the impostor pull off the great forgery? Except Brown isn’t doing that. He’s immersing himself, not just in craft, but in soul.

In the end, Sincerest Flatteries is a book of love poems. Much like we “parody” family: Uncle George always dances like this (insert funny dance move here) at the family parties; Aunt Judy always gesticulates thus (you get it) when she tells an old family anecdote; Cousin Ginny always wears yellow, vintage dresses (canary, tulip, daisy, maybe ivory): Brown has been part of the family of poets, and knows them, and loves them, and can do them. Uncle Jerry Stern; Aunt Jean Valentine; crazy Cousin James “What a crazy stunt!” Tate.

Brown is exposing the family tricks, the humor, his affections and affinities. Read this Little Book of Imitations. Enjoy them. Then go read Brown’s poems.

TERSE, TENSE VERSES: Kurt Brown on Emma Jones’ The Striped World


the striped world

The Striped World, Emma Jones, Faber and Faber

When a new poet swims into our ken we take note, and make our adjustments. These adjustments usually require both a new angle of seeing, and a new texture of speech, to which we must become accustomed before we can begin to swim easily with them on our own. Subject matter is hardly ever the issue—who has really introduced new subject matter? How, even, could that be possible? Human nature has not changed since the ancients first began composing poetry. And rarely, except during true periods of foment in the arts, do we encounter genuine formal innovation. The line is the line is the line, as the stanza is the stanza. And all variations of scattering words around the page have seemingly been tried and are recognizable enough for us by now to be comfortable with them. An unconventional touch here and there—odd punctuation, spelling, syntax—but not radical change at the foundations of the art. A new “voice” announces itself not so much through tone, through attitude and opinion, as through imagery, diction, and personal obsession. A new mood is created, and we acclimate ourselves to it the way we adjust to anything we have not experienced before.

The texture of Emma Jones’s poetry, the sound and rhythm and peculiar feel of its language, is immediately recognizable as personal and distinct. There is a terse, tense, bitten-off quality to her verses, her way of thinking, that draws our attention first. We have the sense, almost immediately, that there will be scant room for excess, no posturing or circumlocutions of any kind. The lines seem to clip off units of meaning with little or no flourish, and move on:

When the sun, that gradual sepoy
rose, then clouds occurred;
the sea came, and hung like a man;
the tankers boiled,
and a wind rifled the trees.

The imagery here is singular, a personal way of seeing that arrests our attention because we are forced to look at the world from a new perspective, one which is not our own—and certainly not stereotypical—but to which we can accommodate ourselves with some imagination and effort. How is he sun like a “sepoy,”? The word itself is unique, at least in poetry. A dictionary will tell us that it refers to a situation that existed in India under British rule. Native Indians sometimes became soldiers, and served under British command. The word “sepoy” refers to them, especially, if they served in the British East India Company. So it is possible that the sun is envisioned here as a kind of lackey, or servant, that willingly submits to its task of lighting up the world each day. This has socio-political implications, though the poem does not go on to develop these. The following images are just as unusual: the sea that came and “hung like a man,” tankers boiling on the horizon, and wind that rifles (not “riffles”) the trees. It could be argued that all good images are unusual, so what’s so unusual about these? Perhaps the slight threat, or latent violence suggested in the verbs: “hung,” “boiled,” and “rifled.” Perhaps the fact that the images strenuously avoid the kind of sentimentality that often accompanies images of nature. Maybe even the rapid-fire succession in which the images occur, each adding another vigorous stroke to the landscape the poet is portraying.

Then there’s that curious phrase: “clouds occurred.” Why the abstract verb, where everything else is concrete? And why the use of “occurred” in the active tense, rather than the passive as in normal usage? Certainly the alliteration is pleasing. But it also has the sense of depersonalizing nature, of characterizing it in mechanical terms, rather than cozily anthropomorphizing it as is often the case. Clouds simply “occur,” they are not personified Actors on the great stage of Nature, playing their parts in the Grand Scheme of things. I am taking the time to point out these details because I think they help clarify the most prominent features of Jones’s style: abrupt phraseology; aggressive patterns of imagery; radical compression of thought; unsentimental depictions of nature and human experience; spare, everyday language mixed occasionally with unusual and surprising diction. Realizing all of this is part of the process of acclimatizing oneself to her work. Still, even with familiarization, it is possible for Jones’s poems to surprise. One never gets quite accustomed to the oddness of her style, the next unexpected word choice, the next far-fetched but astonishing metaphor.

These hallmarks of her writing might be found anywhere, in any poem, in any stanza. In a poem about a painter setting his easel up en plein air near the seacoast, a poem that might be about the relationship between reality and art, she begins:

Everyone’s souls, which didn’t exist, were playing up,
and they flocked as the shadows we left on the ground
when the tired sun — that midday man — was an artist.
And they surfaced in our sweat, which made, for us,
a soft lunar garment worn abroad…

Here, she contradicts herself immediately in the first line, but by doing so seems to be able to have it both ways: souls may not exist, but still they play and flock. The abruptness of the phrase at the end of the line is peculiar too: playing up…to what, or whom? Obviously she means something like “acting up,” or “playing around” but by phrasing it the way she does she is able to suggest more—that the souls had an audience and were behaving in a self-conscious way. The imagery, again, is entirely unpredictable. The sun is a “midday man,” an artist of shadows, whose chiaroscuro work is most visible in the afternoon. And, like swimmers, those same souls “surface” in sweat which is characterized as a ‘soft lunar garment.” These images couldn’t be more peculiar. And the diction, once more, arrests us: that word “lunar” stands out as an inspired choice, especially since the sun has just been the subject of the previous image, and it is the sun which brings sweat to the surface. Suppose, for consistency, Jones had written: “a soft solar garment.” Not bad, but the word “lunar” offers up another contradiction, one that adds complexity to an already complex image.

In a poem entitled “Window,” Jones presents us with one of poetry’s oldest enigmas: the inner life of contemplation vs. the outer life of action, and the problem of having to choose between the two:

His sadness was double,
it had two edges.

One looked out —
onto skylines,
and streets with ice-cream
men, and cars,
and clouds
like cut cotton.

The other stayed in
to watch
his memories unbuckle
and his hairs
all repeat
in the washstand.

Both were impatient.
Sometimes they’d meet
and make a window.

“Look at the world!” said the glass.
“Look at the glass!” said the world.

By conflating the idea of undressing inside the room with a person’s memories, Jones is able to devise another startling image made possible through an unexpected word choice: “his memories unbuckle…” And once more we find an abrupt, snapped-off phrase which suggests two things at once: “his hairs / all repeat…” Repeat what, you might ask? But she means that his hairs continue to fall out, that the word “repeat” refers to the aging process, and not to something said. Though, if they could talk, they would admonish: “You are getting old, old!” We are reminded that time is wasting for the contemplative, while the world outside passes by unconcerned.

Other poems in this volume address various definable subjects, but in truly idiosyncratic ways. There’s a kind of existential rant (“Conversation”) poised precariously on a short periodic sentence; a vast urban landscape completely void of people (“Hush”); a rambling, bizarre re-write of Genesis (“Creator,”) (Jones is fond of one-word titles); a hip, jazzy monologue spoken by the Virgin Mary to her dead son, Jesus, (“Pieta”) which might have been written by Lord Buckley; a perfectly conventional sonnet about spring, called “Sonnet,” in decasyllabics; and a rambling paean to writing, childhood, and geography (“Waiting”) studded with unforeseen, colorful terms. In the eleventh stanza, for instance, she refers to a “cracked gardenia / strewing its level scents.” What in the world could the adjective “level” mean in this context? And yet, the word seems apt, inevitable, if only because it sounds right, its short “e” setting up an echo with the next word, “scents.” In fact, a crisp, and clear-cut lyricism might be added to the distinguishing features of Jones’s work. She writes as much by ear as by subject, with the result that content often gives way to sound, an ongoing set of repeating notes, as in a musical score.

But the heart of the book, its center of gravity even though it comes near the end of the volume, is a long ambitious poem entitled “Zoos for the Dead” which substitutes animals for people—mainly an extraordinary blue parrot— who seems to take the role of Sybil or socio-historical-spiritual guide for the narrator of the poem, who remains unnamed. The poem’s subject is announced in an epigraph, which reminds the reader of the sad history of Australia’s aboriginal population — especially aboriginal children — at the hands of racist governments from the late 19th century to the 1960s. The parrot, named Narcissus, is the child of another parrot who is a surrogate for one of the aboriginal children who was captured and abused by the state. Confusing? Certainly the poem is complex —both in its quirky symbolism and narrative manner — but there are stunning images throughout that make the poem worthwhile reading whether it hangs together easily or not. For example, the narrator’s first description of Narcissus is astonishing in its weird particularity: “…his Goya -/ etching face was first scooped from the gloom of his shirt-front / and angled me two white eyes winched on a lamé collar.” When the two of them, parrot and narrator, scuba dive into the sea off Australia to inspect the wreck of a ship called Miranda the imagery is compelling: “We found the wreck, squinting, / and we’d move above it like birds in slow circles, stung by some centre, / and find the loam of its beams, the twisted skins of its coins…” The images may be clear, but the allusion is not. The only reference I could find to a vessel in Australia named Miranda describes a wreck in Apollo Bay in southwestern Victoria in 1881; the ship was loading potatoes when a huge sea swell dashed it against the rocks on shore. For some reason, the wreckage has never been found. The connection between the story of the Miranda and the deracinated and abused aboriginal children is anyone’s guess, but we have to make room for foreign histories and cultural cues which may not be immediately apparent to readers in other countries.*

Though she’s obviously influenced by current post-modernist theory, she hasn’t fallen prey completely to the non-narrative craze. Despite the eccentricity of her approach, her subjects are never far from view. She may improvise around them, as she does for instance with the sonic patterns or bizarre metaphors I’ve discussed, but she never entirely abandons content. Her poems are built up of layers of meaning, sound, rhythm, and metaphor none of which completely dominate and all of which play themselves out, more or less, as the poem progresses. The reader may feel intrigued, or temporarily puzzled, but never thorougly lost.

Though Jones’s manner of writing is highly stylized and self-conscious, her work feels natural, natural to her at least, and not overtly labored. Her incisive intelligence, her canniness, work together to assure that—while calculated—her poems seem fresh and uncontrived at the same time. That is one of the keys to her success. A twenty-eight year old poet from Australia, this is Jones’s first book. The question to ask of any young poet just launching a career might be: will there be growth? But some poets arrive more fledged than others. How much growth can we expect by way of innovation on an already accomplished style? Perhaps the question, in some cases, is more than the reader can ask.

* Further researches into the incident, courtesy of Wikepedia, turned up the following information, which may begin to suggest a connection between the “parrot” in the poem and the history of the area around Apollo Bay where the wreck of the Miranda took place: “The Gadubanud (Katabanut) people occupied the rainforest plateau and rugged coastline of Cape Otway in Western Victoria covering the present towns of Lorne and Apollo Bay… Gadabanud means literally King Parrot people. There has been no documented interaction with the Gadubanud since 1846… although there are Aboriginal people in the area today who trace their ancenstry to the Gudabanud.” A thorough grounding in Australian history would inevitably supply further information necessary to completely decipher Jones’s poem.