Unusual Vision of Tradition & Individual Talent: Tony Trigilio on Aaron Belz’s Lovely, Raspberry


Lovely, Raspberry, Aaron Belz, Persea, 2010

“The roses this June will be different roses,” writes James Schuyler his long poem, “Hymn to Life.” The line is a simple enough assertion of the cyclical rituals of spring to be unremarkable. But like much of Schuyler’s representations of the everyday, the emotional stakes of the poem are at their highest precisely when they seem unremarkable. These will be different roses, Schuyler writes in the next line, “Even though you cut an armful and come in saying, ‘Here are the roses,’ / As though the same blooms had come back, white freaked with red / And heavily scented” (215). In Schuyler’s poems, nothing of course is too mundane to be rendered in precise physical detail; through our immersion in the ordinary we experience the emotional complexity and gentle weirdness that arises from the tactile world. Schuyler is a key poet for mapping the wonderfully tilted world of Aaron Belz’s poems. It is easy to call Belz’s poems strange—which they are—but this only partially explains his work. Like Schuyler, Belz is a poet who absorbs the unremarkable particulars of dailiness and makes the quotidian radiant. In both poets’ work, the everyday is praised, a deliberate hymn of sorts, and then immediately complicated. The emotional and intellectual tangle of the everyday is valued because it is experiential, not discursive, and because it is for these poets undeniably tender. And what makes the poem linger is the way strangeness undergirds the ordinary—the way, for instance, Schuyler’s roses are “white freaked with red” and their presence in the room “heavily scented.”

The poems in Belz’s second collection, Lovely, Raspberry, pivot on a deliberate paradox in which the everyday is both mundane and luminous. At times it seems no ideas really inhere in things, as in the beginning of “Ginkgoes”: “It was a weird weekend weatherwise. / Stuff touched down, from funnels to hail kernels” (13). The purposefully unpoetic “-wise” suffix in “Gingkoes” crucially anchors the opening line and cinches its breezy alliteration, yet the poem shirks particularity in its rendering of the weather maelstrom of the second line as mere “Stuff” from the sky. The coyness of Belz’s deliberately unpoetic poetics barely flashes before revealing the poem’s complex interconnected relationships. Within the language-play of “Ginkgoes,” a serious love affair grows, wearies, and dies—the kind of “Stuff” that has touched down for centuries from poets. Belz is a poet of minute specificity, too, as in “Beard Beard,” which fixes itself so determinedly on the particular that it could seem unable to move past its hermetically sealed close-up of the “strange mustache” that remains of the speaker’s shaved goatee (15). Yet the poem’s deft manipulation of tradition suggests that much more is at stake than an ironic dramatization of the uncanny, as “Beard Beard” builds toward a final, iambic stanza that yearns to reverse chronological time and repair what love and loss shave off our lives.

It doesn’t take long to see a delightful bait-and-switch at work in Lovely, Raspberry—luring readers with weirdness to illustrate just how “normal” the strange can be. Some of the first poems in the book, such as “Critique,” “The Love-Hat Relationship,” and “My Chiquita,” begin as if they were smart-alecky one-offs or extended puns. But Belz’s unadorned (and hilarious) phrasing draws the reader into the increasingly nuanced world of each poem—a world in which, significantly, the poet is more concerned with the lives of others than with demonstrating his own wit. “My advice to young people is to like hats but not love them,” the speaker of “The Love-Hat Relationship” explains. “Try having like-hat relationships with one another. / See if you can find something interesting about / the personality of the person whose hat you like” (3). As in poems such as “In Verity” or “Looking at Ducks,” the speaker’s seemingly languid self-interest masks a deep curiosity about, and intimacy with, the external world. Belz is a poet of interdependence, rooting for the collective as he lingers on the integrity of the private individual.

As in his first book, The Bird Hoverer, Belz is drawn to ordinary people at the same time he seems to praise the aloof singularity of celebrity culture. Hollywood stars and celebrity politicians ascend beyond us, it seems, until Belz reveals that we are all “waiting / for the same bus,” inhaling the same diesel fumes as the celebrity who boards the next bus (17). Celebrity culture imposes its self-interested muses upon us in this volume, but these muses eventually are as accessible as one’s fellow bus riders. The speakers in Belz’s poems actually are spurred into imaginative production by the presence of stars: the aura of another’s stardom seems to make us stall, but, as in “Asking Al Gore About the Muse,” this initial passivity is actually a prelude to art-making. As he ascends into the bus, Gore “casts a glance over his shoulder as if / to say, aren’t you coming darling?” but the speaker of the poem decides to stay behind at the bus stop to make something more lasting than the ersatz productions of celebrity spectacle (17).

Like The Bird Hoverer, this volume has no use for a mythologized, abstracted muse. Instead, the poems fuse ironic distance and Romantic earnestness, reminding us how concrete the imagination was for the Romantics and how concretely the imagination talks back to us as postmoderns. Belz’s idea of the canon is one in which we quarrel over cocktails with celebrities—and at times with poets—and kiss their cheeks on the way out. This isn’t evasion masked by glibness, as can be the case sometimes in contemporary poetry. Instead, it is an act of glibness in the service of a more serious purpose—as if, like Frank O’Hara, the poet suddenly discovered “that if [he] wanted to [he] could use the telephone instead of writing the poem,” a realization that of course leads him back into the poem with an even greater commitment to it (O’Hara 499). Marjorie Perloff reminds us that “beneath the bravado, O’Hara is quite serious” (26). What seems like bravado in O’Hara’s “Personism” is, for Belz, a faith that the internal voice of the Romantic imagination manifests outwardly as talkiness and conversationalism, as in his version of “The Waste Land”:

If I had been T.S. Eliot, I wouldn’t have written ‘The Waste Land.’
As myself, however, I do plan to write it, but not with a typewriter,
and I will never turn it over to Ezra Pound’s manic red pen.
In fact, I will not even publish ‘The Waste Land.’ Instead,
I’ll whisper it to white doves that constantly appear at my window
wearing bib overalls and green mesh trucker caps, the ones
chewing bits of hay and sighing that they’ve had a scant harvest. (53)

As if preferring the telephone to the writing of a poem, the speaker vows to “whisper” the poem to the white doves outside his window rather than publish it. The tendency with such a poet is to seize immediately upon the humorous, but Belz’s humor depends on its commitment to plausibly realistic detail rather than just to one-liners or gags. Wearing overalls and trucker caps in a poem otherwise saturated with irony, the doves might seem anthropomorphized upper-middle-class hipsters slumming at a bar drinking PBRs. But in Belz’s “The Waste Land,” these doves instead are truly listening. They are part of the speaker’s bizarre journey backward from Eliot to Chaucer, where he passes out wine “to the dames of Kent with the expectation / that they would get really drunk and try to pants me” (53). They are, in short, peers, whether as mythic doves “sighing that they’ve had a scant harvest” or as the women of Chaucer “pantsing” the speaker “as the Kentish stars winked down at us” (53). Much the same is at work in “Tilling Charles Reznikoff’s Back Yard,” where the speaker’s nurturing of artistic influence produces “cartoony animals” that leave him “look[ing] like a startled duck” (27). Where Pound demanded cold “commerce” with his artistic inheritance in “A Pact”—and confessed his attitude was like “a grown child / Who has had a pig-headed father”—Belz’s relationship with his precursors is, in contrast, playful rather than anxious, and relational rather than competitive (Pound 27).

In the world of Lovely, Raspberry, our poems are as serious and nonchalant as our telephone calls. They must be protected from Ezra Pound’s “manic red pen,” and they are meant for a non-hierarchical audience of peers. And in Belz’s unusual vision of tradition and individual talent, we get pantsed by these peers before we could even consider picking up our manic red pens and correcting them on matters of poetics, history, or canon formation. When we return to our sources—for inspiration, for a cohesive tradition, for a secure sense of self—we find instead a provisional unity always undone and remade, a mutual re-tilling of shared soil, like the ongoing (and utterly ordinary) relationship between the self and its world: “Every human body faces the same basic challenge: / What to do with all those sensory impulses” (44).

Works Cited
Belz, Aaron. The Bird Hoverer. Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX, 2007.
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald
Allen. Berkeley, U of California P, 1995. 498-99.
Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.
Pound, Ezra. The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1957.
Schuyler, James. Collected Poems. New York: The Noonday P, 1993.

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Tony Trigilio’s newest book is the poetry collection Historic Diary (BlazeVOX Books, 2011). With Tim Prchal, he co-edited Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (Rutgers University Press, 2008). He is a member of the core poetry faculty at Columbia College Chicago and co-edits Court Green.

“Teetering on a Necessary Boundary”: Tony Trigilio examines George Kalamaras’ Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors


Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, George Kalamaras, The Bitter Oleander Press

For those already familiar with George Kalamaras’s work, it should come as no surprise that his fourth full-length collection of poetry, Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, portrays the meeting of East and West in glimpses of meaningful cacophony rather than as scenes for artistic colonization. The book emerged from a 1994 Fulbright Fellowship in India and reads as an extended maturation of the experiences initially chronicled in his first collection, The Theory and Function of Mangoes. Kalamaras has been a student of the traditions of India for 36 years and has practiced Hindu yoga for almost 25 years. Rather than write as just an observer (and, thus, flirt with aesthetic imperialism), Kalamaras composes with the honest gaze of a religious writer making art from the intersection of devotion and doubt.

 

The poems are smart, warm, and technically sharp. Kalamaras’s relentless use of the second-person “you” in his interior pilgrimage could be an alienating gimmick in the hands of a less polished writer. Instead, the pronoun of direct address accumulates throughout the book as a nimble mode of self-scrutiny. No matter our varied religious backgrounds, the body is our shared, universal heritage in these poems. In What is Open the speaker’s tonguing of his raw canker sore (a recurring image in the book for India’s ability to disinhibit the body) reminds him that, no matter how far he might physically be from his home in Indiana or how deeply felt India might be, each experience is one in which “[y]ou melt at this moment of mixed blood, / the incision point of sun in rain.”(31) This incision point is a stable, albeit prickly, frame of mind to which the traveler aspires. Yet stability is not possible in the deliberate dialogic messiness of this speaker’s journey as he loses a little of the self and continuously refashions subjectivity in nearly every poem.

 

Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors is suspicious of our desire for mastery, especially in the important sequence of poems that includes A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things, A Theory of the Origin of Birth, A Theory of the Choke of Dust, and A Theory of the Shape of Palms.  These poems are not idle, navel-gazing excursions as their titles suggest; instead they grow more tactile as the speaker’s pilgrimage continues, reconsidering the abstracted “function of the confusion of things” as, eventually, the embodied experience of “the choke of dust” and “the shape of palms.” A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things establishes this tension between abstraction and physicality with the speaker imagining his sudden death and eventual cremation in an Indian charnel ground:

                   . . . .  You feel your skin begin

 

to burn, the fragment of time called Me

drop away, Mother Ganga clock through

 

your no-longer-ticking heart.  For hours and hours,

rich volcanic lapse spins black butterflies

 

that catch the Banaras breeze like bits

of burnt air, that settle tiny birds

 

into the hair of a passing stranger, in the dhoti

folds of a pilgrim with brass bowl, that bathe

 

the banks of this most holy river

with the dark light of your death. (51)

Kalamaras’s kinetic line trajectories move with circularity, befitting the cyclical logic of the Subcontinent rather than the propositional logic of the European tradition. The speaker’s imagined death shines a “dark light” on cycles of creation and destruction, on seeds planted in the holy river Ganges and continually reborn as “a sadhu in holy Hardwar, // a computer analyst in Eureka, California, / a cowboy on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a flea in the fur // of a Mongolian pony, some swatch of dust / above an Indiana doorway.”

 

For Kalamaras, collage is both an instance of broken syntax and a way to re-suture meaning from the fissures of language. He re-imagines the traditional narrative of discovery in the lyric poem with innovative linguistic and structural schemas enacting in the poems the disorientation that accompanies the dizzying cultural exchanges of this particular journey. After all, the speaker in these poems is half a world away from his home; he is ash at the banks of the Ganges and dust above an Indiana doorway. The title poem of the book is a collage itself as material from the first section of the poem reappears in the second section cut-up and rearranged as a way of linguistically dramatizing the cyclical nature of death and rebirth in Hindu tradition. In this way, the misapprehensions of speech become just as valuable as our fictions of lyric transparency:  I am an underwater underside, you hear in the street, // certain you’ve mistaken the scrape of a bicycle tire / for salt.” (The Underwater Underside, 44) In one of the most important poems of the book, Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve, Kalamaras extends linguistic chance and play to the sacred speech of mantras. “What makes a word or phrase / change or skew?” he asks.  The answer is spatial and experiential as much as it is verbal; it emerges in the way the body moves in space and in the way a word can “consummate the curve / of sound you now mouth to be.” (121)

 

Like most of the poems, Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve is composed through enjambed couplets, staging the meeting of East and West in fractured lines and the self-reflecting white space between stanzas. However, the poem also incorporates traditional quatrains and Olson-like projective lines (reminding us just how closely the score of Projectivist Verse on the page resembles the one speech-breath-thought of Ginsberg’s East-West fusion). Like Kalamaras’s Buddha in Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve, the poems unfold in a landscape where postmodern indeterminacy collides with sacred language. What remains from this collision is a malleable self mapped in variable speech:

          [. . . .]  Or do you need something more?  The shift

 

and vowel of two letters more?  You consider those two

remaining sounds, n and a, rolling them into a single point

 

of negation:  na.  India-na, you say, India-

na, you repeat over and again, mouthing the syllables

 

in the slow motion of a goldfish testing borders

of a bowl. (123)

As a space of play and linguistic flux, the “India/Indiana” pun projects onto the subjunctive world of the “as if,” suggesting that the visions of this pilgrimage are, at best, provisional. Unlike conventional poetry of the sacred, these poems prefer variance over verity:

          [. . . .]  India-na, you tongue once more, as if

 

you are saying no to dust, sweat, religious wars,

quiet, poverty, Pepsi, peace.  As if none of these exist

 

back home.  As if you are affirming Indiana — a place

you’ve never really loved — and dismissing what you know

 

of where you are right now.  And where you are is

at Ashoka’s pillar, moved by the cut of the letters

 

charting The Middle Way, but unable to decipher

the script.

The poem dramatizes the Buddhist middle-way between attachment and aversion, chronicling how the uncanny and troubling can be quotidian in both India and “India-na.” At any moment in the book, a holy man might emerge from isolation and, remarkably, lift a stone block with a cloth tied to his penis “to demonstrate / his transcendence of sexuality.” (The Milk of Shadows, 24) You might drop dead suddenly on a Banaras street as in A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things and be reborn as dust mites Indiana, or you might find yourself reduced to trading malaria pills on the black market for your lunch (The Lamps are Brought In). The speaker cannot master the uncanny residue of his cultural exchange in a land that he knows, ultimately, is not his own. With Indiana always in the offing, the speaker’s pilgrimage blurs the boundaries between West and East into the “shape of dissolve” that is crucial to this spiritual practice.

 

It is too easy for the critic to argue that the Western artist who writes about Asia is succumbing to an “easy Easternness,” as one of the earliest reviewers of Ginsberg’s Buddhist-inspired poems once wrote. For a poet such as Kalamaras, the writing process is inextricable from spiritual “dissolve”: writing is not a dissolution of the self, but an investigation of the allure and limitation of self-attachment. The result is a linguistic and spatial “dissolve” that is much scarier than the transcendentalist religious experience—and is something readers of contemporary poetry have come to expect. In the Orientalist narratives that emerge too often from Western writers, the cultural colonizer recasts Asia in relation to himself, but in Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, Kalamaras teeters necessarily on a boundary between ambiguity and certainty knowing, “You can’t imagine ever going home / and you can’t stay” (Icon, 95).

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Tony Trigilio’s recent or forthcoming books include the poetry collection The Lama’s English Lessons (Three Candles), the chapbook With the Memory, Which is Enormous (Main Street Rag), and the anthology Visions and Divisions:  American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (co-edited with Tim Prchal; Rutgers University Press).  He teaches at Columbia College Chicago, where he directs the program in Creative Writing – Poetry and co-edits the poetry journal Court Green.