We have a collection of very talented guest bloggers to cover the Word for Word Poetry series this summer. They capture a first-hand account of the poetry readings, as well as help to interpret the work of our visiting poets who present at the Bryant Park Reading Room sponsored by HSBC.
Elizabeth Whittlesey for Word for Word Poetry, July 1, 2014
Featuring the poets of W.W. Norton and Persea Books
"To try to imagine someone
else's pain using your own as a model is misleading, Ludwig [Wittgenstein]
suggests," says the protagonist of Philip Schultz's latest book, The Wherewithal a "novel in
verse" which dramatizes the experience and philosophical ponderings
of Henryk Stanislaw Wyrzykowski, born in Jedwabne, Poland, a town
where the Poles voluntarily slaughtered all of its Jews except for the seven
his mother hid in a hole on their farm.
Elizabeth Whittlesey for Word for Word Poetry, July 1, 2014
Featuring the poets of W.W. Norton and Persea Books
Most of The Wherewithal 'takes place' in San Francisco in the 60s, however, where Henryk is dodging the draft, working as a welfare clerk, and translating his mother's diaries (the mother, Schultz noted, is based on a real person). The poem continues, "Such a transition isn't practical, or even possible . . . pain isn't a description of a mental state but a signal, or metaphor for for sensation, because, Ludwig says, the real subject of pain is the suffering that gives it expression. Is empathy, therefore, an illusion? Is there no grief but our own? Potentially are we all monsters?"
Although it is clearly an artificial act to select one particular lens through which to view a reading consisting of four unique voices, overarching themes do tend to bubble to the surface—I think it can still be nevertheless a fruitful way to consider a particular collection of anything. The subject of empathy—interest in the experience of the other—called out loudly in all four of the evening’s readers’ work. I am most-certainly not the first to wonder whether a capacity for empathy isn’t requisite for the writing of all great works of fiction and poetry. Perhaps the poetic impulse can often be reduced to "I'm suffering, are you suffering too?” Or "I witness others' suffering." (Or: “I witness beauty, love, or happiness.”— Life isn’t all suffering, now, is it?)
Is empathy, an illusion? I personally don’t think it is, but I'm no Wittgenstein either. “Poetry is a satisfying of the desire for resemblance,” said Stevens. Don’t our most wonderfully mystical poets like Whitman remind us of the likeness in all things, that we are all everything, anyway? Can the individual, as microcosm of the Whole, suffer without the Whole suffering too? I don’t think so. Perhaps the experience of empathy is simply the act of acknowledging this. (Ommmm.)
With uncanny timing, just as Schultz uttered the lines, "I'm now employed by lugging a cargo of dissolute souls from one hostile shore to another for no reason other than to sustain myself to the next paycheck," an ambulance raced past blasting its sirens. "You all hear that right?" Schultz interrupted, "I wanted to make sure it wasn't just me. I hear that all the time—they're coming to get me."
Introducing some selections from Heroin and other Poems, Smith prefaced with the caveat: "People always think my poems are autobiographical, but they're not. I've never found my own biography that interesting." This statement opens up a whole other can of worms, in my opinion. Readers often assume a close connection if not equivalence between the 'I' of a poem and the poet. I, for one, do it all the time, and I don’t feel all that apologetic about it. Should I? Yeah, yeah, I know: the ‘I’ of a poem is a performance—a fiction; there’s never just one ‘I’; there’s no one ‘self’—but I’ll be damned if I don’t believe there isn’t a close connection to the actual biography, if it isn’t often in fact the poet him or herself. I’m old fashioned like that.
Does it constitute betrayal—break some unwritten code between poet and audience if a poet presents extreme experience like addiction or rape in the first person, with a voice that seems to be speaking from a place of actual experience, but isn’t? I'm not going to answer that. The beauty of this being a blog and not an academic paper, is that I can simply pose the question and then go on my merry way, leaving the rest of you to come to conclusions, make grand pronouncements, trouble the internet waters all on your own.
"Any thought of another is godlike, is grace,” declares another of Smith’s poems. (By the way, it was rather delightful to hear Smith’s poems spoken in his own charming Southern lilt, sprinkled with amusing, mildly self-effacing remarks such as “so if I just keep going and I just keep goin’ and goin’, someone please come and knock me to the side” or, “This book goes on and on like that, poem after poem.”)
I felt the sting of my own laziness when Smith remarked, "I try to write a new poem every day, so I don't get worn out reading the old ones." Then he dropped the astonishing “Bontemps,” which stunned me with its galactic, all-encompassing reach. I think it was the surprising return to everyday human life at the end, preceded by the vastness and impersonality of creation, that I found most poignant:
Figure you could spend a thousand years
studying one speck of butterfly dust, then go on
to the next and then ten thousand on the water drop the speck floats in . . .
spend ten milleniums tracing it back to the source which of course is a sumptuous
spangolem in itself and includes the burning gases just now passing
Jupiter’s third moon . . . and wait your turn with the five billion others who have themselves spent eternity doing exactly the same
thing, at a slightly different place, and while you are waiting
under the one trillion billion stars upon which
the molecules—worlds aspin—all quake, each with its own separate
and sonorous rhythm, each awaiting its turn at the mike,
each impatient, put upon, outraged, desperate . . .
and while you are waiting think how one
moment of time is enough in which to understand everything . . .
and then turn back and start over because you remember a miscalculation
somewhere in the third era to the left of the beginning,
and do this several times, all the time maintaining
your place in line, and then you realize it’s been going on like this
for years, like somebody’s idea of the good life,
or the way each night the cooks and the busboys gather
on DeLawter’s back steps and smoke and tell stories
passing a bottle around, eating crab legs, and summer never ends.
I imagine giving birth to or parenting a child provides one of the most intense experiments in empathy, in slippage between self and other. Suddenly you have charge over a being you brought into existence who is composed of half your genetic material, half the material of your partner (in the typical scenario.) You witness your own child-self growing up again through your child; you witness your partner’s childhood; you witness the new creature’s experience. You attempt to relate appropriately towards—get inside the mind of—the two-year-old: if you only you could feel so much wonder about objects again, the joy of taking them off shelves, putting them in containers; if only you could feel the same unadulterated infant delight in rattle-sound….
After remarking with her characteristically intense-yet-cheerful voice, “I think it’s always been a dream of mine to read in a place under trees like this, with a breeze like this, with poets like this,” Sarah Gambito commenced with a poem about her son: “I have a son who’s three, and it totally changed my life. I felt blind in my life, or maybe I was seeing my life for the first time.”The poem’s title, “Hapa,”means half-Asian. Gambito is of Filipino descent; she moved here from the Philippines as a young child, if I have gathered correctly from making that crude leap from the ‘I’ of her poems to Gambito herself (gasp!):
I said, who would be dunked
into that code of a polypeptide or RNA chain
like a pearl without eyes
like a son with blue eyes
pushing the soul through bicycle spokes
it spoke with a vibrato
that embarrassed me
a function in the organism
orangutan nanny in the garage . . .
your child who I choose
to love like a dreadnought
a sailor with braids on his body
lonely for us both
Although Gambito frequently explores ‘otherness’ in terms of immigrant experience and identity in her work, the theme of parenting stood out most-prominently for me this reading (although Gambito’s child being bi-racial probably engages in those themes by default anyway.)
The penultimate poem she shared was written, or at least finished, that day. I always find it courageous when poets share such fresh work. Then again, such an act places Gambito in good company. I’ve always loved the anecdote about Frank O’Hara scribbling the classic “Lana Turner” on the Staten Island Ferry a few minutes before arriving to read one evening, much to Robert Lowell’s chagrin.
She prefaced by saying, “I’ve wanted to try and write a mother poem, but it’s really hard, I’m till so staggered by the whole thing…I just can’t believe it.” It contained as surprising and fresh imagery as I’ve come to expect from Gambito’s work. (I transcribe):
I want to carve an image of a mother like a pearl into a chicken nugget. I’ll peel the natal paper away from a baby, the island crocus, the wary gorilla, all those muscles just from eating berries. I can barely handle all the dials and switches on myself, what more on the bright-eyed chick-eating creature that says mother. . . I hunt my mother like a mother, like a rusty scuba gear, a jazzy assemblage of roast potatoes, clumps of protein and sugar. Basically my wish is that you never, ever are pierced through the heart. My aim is ordinary, my anthem open, my berries crying together in pie.
Who called out to me when my pace slowed? “Skank,” the voice said . . .
The thing is I’m a thing walking, another nothing, can to be crushed, bone to be chewed. . . a swirl of trash, I’m dodging it, a gust of nasty wind, now you’re about to be even more remote . . .
Look at me, complete bitch, with nowhere to go. . . . My people wear sneakers while they hunt and fish, short perms, cuntish, so I shouldn’t say that something is wrong with you because you grew up in an asshole place. Together we made our way here, where the neighbor’s noise drives you deeply inside.
Towards the end of the poem, in a remarkable merging between self and other, the speaker seems to become the voice who has just called her skank:
Or wait, am I the man? I am, asking the price, setting the time? He moistens his lips in the street light and waits . . . Every tank top is frayed and too tight, summer too deep to come out of, every thought overripe. I will use the two more years of youth I have, spendthrift, waste them, trash them.
I loved the frankness and audacity of Cronk’s poem, “What to Eat,” a humorous send-up of our cultural obsession with thinness:
The way to be a powerful fifty-year old woman is not to eat. The way to be a powerful forty-year-old woman is to order sparkling water. The way to be a powerful forty-five-year-old woman is to cross your arms and stand back when the birthday cake is passed. To be incredibly powerful at twenty: don’t eat. At thirty: it helps not to eat. At sixty, you can be incredibly powerful not eating. To be powerful and artistic and a man, it is also good not to eat. I can see the wonderful things that would happen for me if I would also not eat, just like my sister. She locked herself in her room and stayed there for months. She had her baby, gave it away, she ate only boiled chicken and apples . . . emerged with just enough suffering legible on her face to make her truly beautiful.
Cronk closed with “Ancestry,” which ties into my chosen theme of empathy rather perfectly, wraps everything up all nice together for me with a big ‘ole bow. She wrote the piece out of an experience I’m sure all of us city-dwellers can relate to:
“I’m normally a pretty nice person, but there was a moment during the polar vortex when I was trying to take my daughter and two neighbor kids to the bus that I just lost it. There was a tantrum happening and it was almost like someone was speaking through me, that some kind of crazy ancestor…the words coming out of my mouth weren't mine, and I didn't know where they came from. So this poem is kind of about the experience of being inhabited”:
I never know who is looking out from my eyes, sadistic German Catholic or silent Appalachian clockmaker. The sky is so blue today as I drag the neighbor boy to the bus, the onion farmer in me against the army vet in him. There’s the army vet in me too. He gets things done, like taking my laughter and neighbor boy to the bus . . .
There’s the one who war furs and Shalimar, and the dairy farmers, there’s the poet who had séances and the dead who talked to everyone but her. . . There are the wild game hunters, the banjo pickers, the football coach. The general manager of the factory and the factory lineman are both here as I look into the mirror and pin my hair and put on earrings. There’s the hairdresser and the twins, the painter who stopped painting when her sister died, the other painter who only painted strange things, eyes peaking out from a forest of deformed trees.
I put on my coat, say goodbye to my son. The onion farmer’s vicious wife is putting on my gloves. There are the hockey players, but they’re not helping me now—it’s so cold, this cold might break me . . . Now I’m inhabited by a whole group of the good-for-nothing ones with their sidelong looks and wispy hair who never made their mark or never had a trade. Every day we leave together, they walk me to the train.
When you stop and think for a moment about the multitudes we all contain in our DNA, all tracing back and connecting us to those first two; when you consider how many pairs of eyes are looking out through your own as you peer out into how many other pairs… Maybe indeed we go to poetry in search of resemblance—for a reminder, via metaphor and simile, of the connectedness between all things, or to feel a sense of recognition in like experience or emotion—what some might call empathy.
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, andNoncanon Press. Elizabeth grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and lives in Manhattan.