Monthly Archives: August 2011

Mercy

book by Lucille Clifton

annotation by Glenis Redmond

During my first semester at Warren Wilson College, I was assigned to write a pastoral poem — a poem that addresses the bucolic aspects of nature more specifically, rural life.  When I attempted to write one, I became incredibly distressed, because I could not keep my gaze solely on the positive aspects of nature. Clifton’s poem, “surely I am able to write poems,” in her book Mercy, helped me investigate my complex relationship with the natural environment. Clifton in ten swift lines imagistically demonstrates why the pastoral poem is so challenging for me. Clifton places the reader in the speaker’s mind.  The reader is given access to the speaker’s most private thoughts, while she is grappling with her ability to write poems about “celebrating grass.”   In this first line Clifton’s deft hand is busy layering the work and later on we will discover it is fraught with biblical allusions.  This feels disarming, as it is delivered in conversational plain-speech, yet Clifton is doing just the opposite. She applies tension in the first line as she queries “surely I am able to write poems / celebrating grass.”

The emotional tone of the poem is still quite warm and welcoming at this point, especially with the first word of the poem.  The word “surely” washes over us, with reassurance.  It is the first word that we encounter.   Generally the word conveys confidence, but in this instance coupled with the world should, the speaker declares too much, so we as readers sense doubt in this phrase and one can sense a but not too far off in the future.  At the same time, Clifton cleverly layers this line with a biblical allusion. I reminded of Psalms 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”    This texturing ignites the poem and signifies not only doubt, but also implication. Everyone is implicated:  the speaker, man and whole the racial history of America.  All of this is tied up in her inability to write a pastoral poem, but Clifton implicates God as well.  This taboo takes us to a precipice.   This implication asserts goodness and mercy does not follow the speaker, but unrelenting fear and hate does. As the House of God is nature, Clifton implies the speaker is not at home anywhere, for nature is everywhere.  Therefore, there is no escape.

In this poem, even when the reader thinks there is breath or rest, there is none.  Clifton employs her classic poetic signatures such as: sparse punctuation, no capitalization and plain-speech that lends to these moments of faux respite.   The casual and relaxed language only gives the reader the appearance of space or rest. Every tree, rock and person resonates as an obstacle between the slave and freedom.    This rest in the poem amplifies in a deceptive manner, by creating space that is only a figment.  This strategy allows Clifton to metaphorically cover much ground, by placing the reader in the middle of an antithetical pastoral poem rife with historical land mines.  One cannot step in this poem, without setting off a charge.  Clifton demonstrates what it is like for her to write a pastoral poem.    The enjambments in this poem create a breathless run-on experience disorienting the reader.  The reader starts with a seemingly harmless image of a person “celebrating grass,” then Clifton offers the opposite of celebration.  The reader finds themselves in the middle of mourning and fear in the most unassuming images such as: “the blue /in the sky, flowing green or red /and the waters lean against the / Chesapeake shore like a familiar.” Yet, the pacing and the lack of punctuation speed the poem up and lends to the foreboding imagery.

Clifton amplifies the imagery through personification.  Water leans against the shore.  This is a peculiar way to describe water.  As the reader goes in for a closer look, Clifton embodies The Middle Passage with this imagery. She creates lulls through repetition of the word surely in the poem.  Yet, this second surely is followed by the conjunction but which indicates a turn.  This turn ratchets up the temperature in the poem full blast.  The trees become personified too.  They “wave their knotted branches.”  She does not mention lynching in the poem, but allows the impression of the images to do that work. The “knotted branches” invoke pain. The waving connotes swinging and Billie Holiday’s, Strange Fruit comes into view, as the lyrics from this famous song come to mind, “black bodies hanging from the Poplar tree.”  The poem’s success is in its subtle impressionistic nature.  Clifton implicates without outright telling or pointing. The images bleed through layer after layer.   The last three lines of the poem, Clifton pressurizes by using the interrogative, why.

why
is there under the poem
always another poem?

I coined the term anti-pastoral after this poem as Clifton  addresses  the precarious relationship that many African-Americans have with nature.  She links the tree imagery to historical wounding, by weaving into the narrative, the weighted African-American plight. Though slavery is never mentioned, Clifton implies it through pressurized imagery alongside plain-speech.   Studying how she compresses has instructed me craft-wise.  Her spring-loaded approach creates the element of surprise, which allows the meaning to reverberate and create a haunting effect. She has inspired me to continue to search for ways to pressurize my poems, to create freshness and unpredictability without forsaking my narrative drive and understand how resisting a form, can be a powerful means in which to create.

Face

book by  Sherman Alexie 

annotation by Lisa Cheby

Alexie’s poetry is a hybrid of formal poetics and experimental genre bending compounded by the often-conflicted aesthetics of these various traditions.   In the guise of formal poetics, Alexie challenges the reader’s place in poetry and mocks almost all schools of poetry – reader response, biographical, confessional, historical, and formal.

Alexie divides his book into four sections.   The first section, “War Stories,” establishes conflicts to be woven throughout the text:  life versus death (“Avian Nights” and “The Father and Son Road Show”); fathers versus sons or old generations versus new; nature versus humans; whites versus Native Americans; Alexie versus his own histories.   In the second section, “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” Alexie examines the multiplicity of cultures at his disposal as an artist and the multiplicity of worlds he must negotiate in asserting his identity.  The third section, “Size Matters,” moves into a celebration of mundane moments of humility.  The final section, “Ten Thousand Fathers,” gives us new and old mythologies of his origins as a poet.

The book declares war between the poet and critic, between the oppressor and the oppressed through a battle between formalism and experimentation.   Alexie appropriates the rules of form to undermine the history of literary domination by white men.   “War Stories” and “Vilify” are highly crafted formal poems dismantled and disrupted by extensive footnotes, a risky move, flirting with pretension and imitation (didn’t Eliot already challenge the folly of footnotes in “The Wasteland?”).  Alexie’s footnotes are commentary, digression, and political protest.  The reader must decide how to read the poem: straight through, or do we follow the trail away to find our way back to the base poem?  In “War Stories,” the first footnote undermines the speaker/poet’s authority, “He wasn’t really my uncle.  I lied” (18).  This footnote leads to another footnote to tell the true story, the truth of law, turning this poem about something akin to a bar fight into a dialogue with history.   Unlike Eliot’s footnotes that mock the self-referential nature of literature and academics, Alexie exploits allusion and exposes how poetry and literature often mask the stories that lie beneath.   While subverting dominant traditions, Alexie shows off his mastery of them:  the poem’s six tercets are matched by the six tercets of the numbered footnotes, which lead to a tercet of prose footnotes.   (Later it the book, he makes a similar move where the footnotes for a sonnet create a separate sonnet that adds commentary to the original sonnet.)   For Alexie, form is not just a tool; there is a deliberate link between form and content.   The form is a means for him to speak his truth in a world that wants to suppress his voice.   This forces me to examine how form functions for my poems and challenges me to see how form does not just add structure, but can actually subvert that from which it came.

Similarly, Alexie mixes formal verse with prose segments throughout the book.  In “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” Alexie poignantly merges Native American storytelling with Western/American poetics.  The poem starts with a prose section whose mythic voice blurs the lines between truth and reality;  “Six years ago, or maybe it was eight or ten . . .” the speaker begins by inviting the audience to let go of the need for precision, a very western, formalist requirement (79).   Once the scene of the powwow is set, Alexie transitions into an English sonnet that recounts his encounter with a former bully.   At the end of the sonnet he relapses into expository prose to reflect on the lesson of this incident, the sonnet.  A pattern of dialogue between cultures and the two selves of the speaker is established between the prose and the sonnets.  The next sonnet focuses on another character that he must battle in his quest for identity.   He again uses the natural argument structure of the English sonnet to make the point that “It was all shoe goddamn texts / By all those damn dead white male and female writers / That first taught me how to be a fighter . . . ” (80).   Alexie resists the idea that his identity and power comes from only one culture; he claims the voice of both the Native Americans and western literary traditions.  To emphasize this unity of self, each sonnet and prose section is enjambed.  The next sonnet praises Dorothy Grant, who, through fashion, like Alexie through his poems, creates hybrids of Native American and mainstream expressions.   Interestingly, Alexie ends on a sonnet:  “This sonnet, like my reservation, keeps/ Its secrets hidden behind boundaries / That are simple and legal at first read . . . ” (81).   Though his prose seems audaciously honest and exposed, it is in the control and boundaries of the formal verse that Alexie reveals the more vulnerable, raw emotions and insights, like the quiet clarity after a storm of rage or grief, like the unspoken truth of every joke.   Likewise, the prose creates the mythic stories we create to explain our world, which may be just as true, or even “more impressive” than actual truth.   With constant play of language and story, the reader eventually gives up on the idea of absolute truth and autobiography or confession, is forced to meet the poem eye to eye, at face value, as we all want to be met in life.

There is much more to be extracted, for the writer, from Alexie’s Face:  the examination of his use vernacular, his depiction of the body (reminiscent of Olds), and his exploitation of the confessional voice.   Yet, for me, Alexie exemplifies how form can be used to serve the poem and the voice, rather than finding a poem or voice to serve a form.

The Moon Reflected Fire

book by Doug Anderson

annotation by Lauren Schmidt

This is by far one of the best books of poetry I have ever read. There are so many memorable moments in this text that after only one reading, I am able to quote some of the poems in here. Yes, the success of the book is partly a result of the book’s subject matter—the Vietnam War—but in an undertaking such as this, success becomes incredibly difficult. A poet runs the risk of sensationalizing or exploiting the horrors of war. A poet might be accused of being opportunistic or too singularly-focused. Anderson avoids these criticisms completely in this book. It is, as a result, a harrowing and heart-breaking portrait of a period in our history. I said of Tony Barnstone’s book Tongue of War that every American should read it: I would say that even more emphatically of The Moon Reflected Fire.

What I admire so much about this book is its honesty. The reality of the stories and people found here is startling and often hard to read. (I will admit to crying a few times.) But these moments are often balanced by the tender moments that reveal these characters’ humanity, most often in the form of regret, sorrow, and the suffering the speaker endures many years after the war is over. The book, therefore, is a complete scope of this terrible experience and is most appropriately dedicated to the soldiers on both sides of the fighting.

The first poem, “Night Ambush,” establishes the tone that runs throughout the book—emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. The book begins in medias res. Based on the details of the poem—“I have forgotten the why of everything. / I sense an indifference larger than anything/ I know. All that will remain of us/ is rusting metal disappearing in vines”—it is clear that this speaker has endured an awful lot by this point. Anderson has effectively conveyed the “indifference” that will permeate many of the poems to follow.

From the first poem, Anderson moves to “Infantry Assault”—a poem that gruesomely portrays an American solider killing a man who is already dead. The poem is more of a glimpse into the psyches of the soldiers at the scene—some of them rueful, some of them enjoying the carnage—rather than a narrative of a man doing something terrible. It examines the “why of everything”—“I thought maybe/ he was killing all the ones he’d missed.” The poem concludes on the haunting line, “how our bones knew what we’d done,” a motif that will resurface in many of these poems. The poet appears to be more concerned about expelling these stories through these poems as a way to free himself than gratuitously sensationalizing the horrors of war.

There are a number of poems in this collection that show the speaker’s humanity. One such poem, found in the first section, is “Purification.” Rather than condemn a speaker who admits to having a sexual encounter with a fifteen year-old Taiwanese mother, the reader pities him. Perhaps it is, in part, due to the fact that the sex is never really mentioned—only a moment where he tastes the young mother’s breast milk. However, I’d argue the reader’s sympathy comes from the fact that the speaker tells the story in such exhaustion and with such honesty, a reader cannot help but be moved by the poem’s final two lines: “I want to be this child’s child. / I will sleep for the first time in days.” Another poem that achieves this same sympathy is the first poem in the final section, “Rain.” The speaker admits to masturbating beneath his sheets as a way, perhaps, to feel human again, or relieve himself of all the angst he has stored during the war. It is a very real moment, one many poets might shy away from for fear that it is too human, too shameful. Even more remarkably is the presence of the nurse in the poem. We see her humanity as well.  Nowhere in the poem does it suggest that she’s disgusted, yet it is clear she knows what he’s doing behind her back. Her permission for him to be as vulnerable as he needs to be is a stunning moment in this book.

The quiet, tender poems in this book balance poems such as “Two Boys,” a narrative that details the efforts one of his fellow soldiers went to in order to shoot Vietnamese boys and the “wistful damn” at his failure. It’s no surprise that a poem like “We Sweat” comes immediately before it, because it is also one of those quietly brave poems. It details the speaker’s fear and his need to pray in a place where “the gods are not familiar. / Who knows what prayer provokes? …When you cannot scream, pray.”

The second and third sections are truly unexpected approaches to telling the stories of this war. The second part, in effect, explains the artist’s role in revealing the truth around him, no matter how difficult. He does this through the Spanish Romantic painter, Goya. The allusion to Goya achieves a few things. First, it demonstrates the parallels between the times these two artists expose in their work, thus showing that nothing changes. Second, Anderson reveals the need for books like this to be written and paintings like Goya’s to be painted. Finally, he illuminates the struggle of having to do it.

The third part of the book reveals the Vietnam War through the Trojan War and characters in Homer’s Iliad. By doing this, Anderson is again drawing parallels between not only these two wars, but all wars and all the horrors these men endure in fighting them. Poetically, these two sections break up the narrative that was established in the first section while continuing along the same themes. Though we are not reading about the war solely from the speaker’s perspective, we are engaged by the same obsessions we found in his voice.

The final section returns to that speaker to show what happens in the aftermath of war. In this section, there is recklessness, alcohol and drug use, fear, an inescapable haunting, and ultimately, redemption. His redemption stems from the hope that what he has done in writing this book has freed him and others who read it from the toxins of that war. (The Biblical note that precedes the entire collection is proof.) By book’s end, the speaker does not claim that he is cured of what he has seen and done, but that he will survive all he cannot purge.

This is truly a startling book in that it characterizes a certain consciousness for many men who survived this or any other war. Books like this are necessary to our own survival.