Elizabeth Whittlesey for Word for Word Poetry, May 27, 2014
Featuring Blue Flower Arts
Since the clouds threatened possible thunderstorm, the evening's proceedings sought last-minute shelter inside the high-ceilinged, echoey foyer of The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesman, a magnificent space I'd never before entered, replete with beautiful, wrap-around balconies, bookshelf-lined walls, and a bonus grand piano. These readers definitely deserved a heftier crowd, but then again I could probably say that about most poetry readings in the city on any given night. I do know of at least two other formidable events that were happening elsewhere at the same time, and by formidable I mean because my friends were in them.
Stephen Burt tinkered a bit on the piano while we waited for latecomers and stragglers from the park. Rowan Ricardo Philips took a turn on the keys for a moment too. I suppose had Katha Pollitt tried her hand and exhibited any kind of proficiency, we would have had a surprising hat-trick of musical talent in the house. After a nice introduction by the generous-hearted Paul Romero, the readers proceeded in alphabetical order, poetry appropriately sandwiched there between leaf-bound book and musical instrument, with a large banner overhead declaring them tradesmen and tradeswomen, mechanics of the word.
I'd never heard Stephen Burt read before, and it was a treat. Clearly this is someone who is comfortable performing in front of—and satisfying—a classroom full of hungry Harvard undergrads. Minutes into his reading he decided to forego the microphone altogether so he could move about freely. I found his animated, emphatic style refreshing and engaging. I felt transported back to the origins of poetry as oral tradition and theatre—it was a welcome deviation from the typically staid, somber approach, with reader hiding bashfully behind the microphone rarely looking up at the audience. (I am usually that reader.) As Burt paced to and fro in that space, dare I say it all felt—for a moment—mildly Shakespearean?
He commenced with a new poem,“My 1979,” and the lines, “I was Mr. Spock being raised by Dr. Spock,” which garnered a hearty laugh from the audience. I laughed too, even though I'm ashamed to admit—especially in front of Stephen Burt—that I've never watched a Star Trek episode in its entirety, not even once throughout all of the 80s or 90s, otherwise known as The Great Age of Syndicated Star Trek Reruns, so I didn't know exactly what he meant. But I did know what he meant. I felt what it meant to others and to him through the sheer force of it, because that's what poetry is: you don't always know exactly what it means, you don't always get the reference, but you feel it, even if sometimes via the rhythm and sound alone: it is an experience occasioned by words that occurs beyond the words, or as ineffable sum total.
His next poem “Cicadas” began, “They wanted the same thing: to be born and then turn seventeen.” I related to that sentiment keenly. I've long felt the bulk of my childhood consisted in biding my time until I was old enough to do all the things adults could do of their own volition, such as eat dessert for three meals a day, or transport myself independently to the mall. (See, that was the whole purpose of requesting a go-cart for my birthday that one year, Dad. As much as I appreciated your sweet gesture of building with your own two hands that wooden cart with wooden wheels that I could pull up Regency Street using the affixed rope in order to then let gravity work its magic down the hill, my aim all along had been vastly different: I had wanted REAL, AMERICAN, PETROLEUM-BASED-LOCOMOTION-REPRESENTING-FREEDOM, DAD!!)
Thanks to the New York Times profile of a few years ago, I was aware of Stephen Burt's reputation (as a critic) as enthusiastic supporter or "fanboy" of often younger, under-appreciated poets, so it wasn't entirely surprising when at one point he interrupted his reading to say, "I believe the author of Crowns of Charlotte is now in the audience, is that correct? One of my favorite books from last year—Lee Ann Brown, everybody. It's a really good book." At another point he sought pronunciation help from his charming wife of fourteen years, Jessie, who was also in the audience. I appreciated this easy fluidity between performer and audience. I find it delightful the delight Burt takes in his children—his unabashed inclusion of them in his poetry. Of course, whenever they appear, we instantly recognize that we are all still those children: "I threw my hat in the river. I would like my hat back now," says his two-year-old son, Cooper, at the close of "A Covered Bridge in Littleton, New Hampshire," and there we all are, standing by the glistening river, having just discarded something we cared for.
Now comes the inevitable moment when I feel compelled to report on Stephen Burt's appearance. True, I could just as easily not do so, too. After all, purple, low-top Chuck Taylors, gray jeans, and a blue-and-white floral button-down shirt easily fall within the normal parameters of standard, male 'literary casual.' I’d rather interrogate why I might feel more inclined to mention his appearance and not that of the others. Simply because Burts' ensembles are known to contain (often far louder) gestures towards the traditionally “feminine,” and he is male? Well, tricked you all, because this has all been merely a ploy to talk about his charcoal-colored, glitter nail polish. I admired it. I like the challenge posed by a little flamboyance. I admire people who have the courage to dress in whatever way the mood strikes them in whatever given moment. Of course we are all always making statements through our clothing choices, even if that statement is simply that we don't care all that much about fashion, or that we are too poor to care, or that we don't care enough to test the boundaries of whatever received ideas of male/female acceptability govern our specific cultural moment. Perhaps Burt’s lines from "1979" provide some useful insight into his own particular gestures: "I was free to be me, but only me . . . I wanted to stay at Annabelle's house and wake up as a new girl or a new mutant or a new kind of humanity engineered to travel at more than half the speed of light, but I wasn't allowed—my bedtime and I were both eight." Here is a poet interested in otherness, play, superseding of boundaries. And with perfect comedic timing, just as I was noting his sparkly nail polish in my notebook, he shot out the line, "Too many people care what we are wearing" from his poem "Draft Camp," which he likened to the showmanship involved in competing for academic tenure: "Don't we all wait through life, 'Choose me, choose me?'" Yes, yes we do.
|Rowan Ricardo Phillips|
In "Tabula Rasa," Phillips asks the poem itself whether it can ensure his poetic survival, "Tell me now poem, if you know, in the end when I'm gone will you go too? Or are you your possible answer?" I respect writers who openly scrutinize/lay bare their artistic ambitions in their writing. And by respect, I mean, of course, because I still feel compelled to do so in my own work, too. Thanks to some of Phillips’ stunning imagery, I realized we still seem to need metaphor and simile after all: "We live like the one sequin / In a sequined dress that thinks it's the dress." Yes, yes we do.
And then there was that moment when the ghost of Bob Marley entered the room. Marley's appearance in Phillips' loose translation of the 26th canto of Dante's Inferno is his equivalence for the only time in all of the Inferno that Dante abandons his "rich Tuscan Italian" to break into another language (Provençale) in homage to Arnault Daniel—which moment Phillips deems "one of the great examples of love for another writer." Apparently this poem came to Phillips in its entirety one night in a dream. (Also, can you please teach me how to dream an entire poem like this, sir? Thanks.) And now comes the obnoxious moment when I say you just had to be there for what unfolded. All I'm saying is it was the kind of experience you can't get from reading silently to yourself in your bedroom. Especially, because, let's be honest, there are very few of us who could pull off as convincing a Bob Marley accent as that.
Phillips closed with "Aubade, Vol. 2: The Underground Sessions,” "about the last time I went clubbing in Barcelona." Little did he know that this blogger is a hobbyist DJ in her spare time who has spent way too much over the years in dark clubs and warehouses the world over, including Barcelona—a fact that makes me all the more wary of others' attempts to capture a scene I know so intimately and hold so dear to my heart. But I was quickly forced to cast aside my ready dismissiveness when he dropped this sonic treat: "The DJ rubs the mood of the room as though it were his womb." I've often likened the feeling of being in those dark muggy rooms, engulfed by that incessant 4/4 beat pumping away (= heartbeat) to a kind of communal return to the primeval womb—just with a lot more drugs. When Phillips hit the refrain, his voice crescendoing and crescendoing and then almost breaking into song, I think it's safe to say the entire room was riveted: another had to be there moment. Here, how about I help you be there right now:
The sun is a sequence of flash and din
In the sunken club’s slack black ceilings.
And where once the crowds were mere pent peacocks,
Twiddling half chatoyances, shimmers in the dark,
Now only dancers remain.
The DJ rubs the mood of the room as though it
Were his womb. We dance: we ripple in place.
The twin black lakes of vinyl blend
Stirred to life by the dipped needle.
No one I know knows the real ends of when. (What?)
No one I know knows the real end of when. (What?)
No one I know knows for real when to end. Again.
No one I know knows for real when to end. (What?)
No one I know knows the real end of when. (What?)
No one I know knows the real ends of when.
And when we thought we’d reached the end
It was remixed again.
No one I know knows for real when to end. . . .
(I would like to take this opportunity to confess publicly that this was the first time I'd ever heard the word "chatoyances.")
Pollitt commenced with “A Walk,” from The Mind-Body Problem. She preambled, "One of the things that you notice if you've lived in New York a long time, you walk down a street, and the street you know is just gone, they've just torn it down and are gonna build something else—and I just hate that. I want everything to stay the same." But she quickly retracted, “Well, not the people, but the things—people have to get better." Known for her avidly political, feminist leanings as showcased regularly in her columns for The Nation or The New Yorker, Pollitt has clearly been working in the "people have to get better" mode her whole life. “A Walk” wasn't so much political, rather it was a pleasing meditation on impermanence, that tried-and-true obsession of the poets: "I admire more than ever the ancient Chinese poets / who were comforted in exile by thoughts of the transience of life . . . A melancholy restraint is surely the proper approach to take in this world." (Speaking of impermanence, Lucie Brock-Broido loves to joke with her students that 'all poems are about love, death, or the changing of seasons.' She then continues along a deductive path like so: And what is any poem about fall or winter about, anyway? And what is love but the thought of its loss or end? So, really, in the end, there's really only ever one poetic topic: death.)
Pollitt's next poem, "Playground," which starts out as a seemingly innocuous poem about mothers at a playground, startled me with these tremendous lines: "A man could slice his way / through us like a pirate! / And why not, didn't we open our bodies recklessly / to any star, say Little one, / whoever you are, come in?" She continued:
Broad-hipped in fashionable sweatpants,
we discuss the day—a tabloid
murder, does coldcream work . . .
and when we talk
not one of us isn't thinking
Mama! Was it like this?
Did I do this to you?
But Mama too is busy,
she is dead, or in Florida,
or taking up new interests,
and the children want apple juice
and Cheerios, diapers and naps.
We have no one to ask but each other.
But we do not ask each other.
"So that's a feminist poem," Pollitt said after reading the above, "People often say, oh you're a big feminist, Katha, how come your poems aren't so feminist? But I think they are, in a sort of subtle way." After the reading, Rowan Ricardo Phillips laughingly asked Pollitt, "What do those people need—for a woman to kill a man in your poems or something for them to be considered feminist?"
Pollitt is a master of retelling, reworking. In her slightly sinister "Rereading Jane Austen's Novels," she writes, "At least he's got some land and gets a joke—but will her jokes survive the wedding night?" Apparently this poem ruffled a few feathers in the Jane Austen scene, a tidbit I find highly amusing: "When my book came out you'll be pleased to know The Jane Austen Society read this poem and found every single detail was wrong that I had carefully selected from her books." I also thoroughly enjoyed all of Pollitt's 'remixes' of biblical material. In "The Expulsion," "Even God was secretly pleased: Let / History begin!" I especially loved this brilliant twist at the end, "Only the Tree of Knowledge stood forlorn, / . . . How pleasant it had been, how unexpected / to have been, however briefly, / the center of attention." Who, in all these years, ever thought to empathize with the Tree? All three of the evening's readers dealt with the foibles of the ego with refreshing humor and honesty.
I adored Pollitt's cheeky new poem "Angels." "Have you ever wondered how your guardian angel feels about guarding you?" she queried the audience as introduction. (Well, yes, yes I have, very much so recently, but that's a different story for a different day.) Since I don't have the text of the poem in front of me and am transcribing from rickety smartphone recording, I'll refrain from guessing at her line breaks:
They thought the job would be more musical. Rainbows and trumpets. They'd burst through clouds of marble streaked with flame and offer blinding demonstrations of the ontological truth of God. People would look up and say "ineffable." Instead they swooped through the mall calling 'Ashley? Cammie?' Fished Mrs. Bain's wedding ring from the drain, again, and suspended the laws of physics on the freeway while simultaneously fielding the collective pleas of Sister Perpetua's seventh grade. . . . "Why don't you just study?" One angel would gripe to another, "She told you Latin America would be on the test." Eventually, they stopped showing up. They moved into studio apartments and took day jobs working with plants and animals.
Pollitt's charming irreverence illuminates a commonality I noticed in all three of the evening's readers' work (not that there had to be one.) Although all dove rather unflinchingly into the dark, difficult parts of this river we call existence—into the very real sufferings, inequalities, heartbreaks, lonelinesses—I nevertheless sensed in all of their work a lightness hovering just above the troubled surface, or wry sense of humor running as undercurrent just below. These are serious poets who know how to embody, in life and on the page, that old adage (or at least one my yoga instructor likes to repeat frequently) that, at the end of the day, life is too serious to be taken—to take ourselves—too seriously.
Elizabeth Whittlesey's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Gulf Coast, jubilat, Western Humanities Review, POOL: A Journal of Poetry, Jerry, Two Serious Ladies, Explosion Proof, Phantom Limb, and Noncanon Press. Elizabeth grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and lives in Manhattan.