Water to Wine to
and Flashing Daffodils
Sister of the prolific William and Henry, Alice James's gift for writing was recognized only with the posthumous release of her journal. To prevent similar oversights, her namesake press was founded in 1973 to promote emerging women poets, and is supported by the University of Maine - Farmington. Run as a cooperative, its editors cull manuscripts from regional and national competitions, and new authors so selected in turn become active participants in that process. Consistent with its goal of encouraging new voices, the Alice James Books recently published Matthea Harvey's intriguingly titled, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.
For better and for worse, Harvey’s first collection comes trailing clouds of the workshop sanctosphere. Granting that overemphasis on extra-textual considerations can unfairly distort the evaluation of a poet’s work, it is nonetheless undeniable that a writer’s life informs his or her language. (How indecipherable would the idiomatic Robert Burns be if we didn’t know he was a Scot?) With a degree in English from Harvard and an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, this young poet's pages bear the academic watermark. Fortunately, some aspects of her voice and vision have defied it.
Matthea Harvey’s poems prove that she knows that academia doesn’t teach poets how to sing soul-songs; but it did sell her a tool-belt of poetic devices and she uses them. One gimmick is her clever but annoying word play with line turns, as here in the title poem:
Pity the bathtub
its forced embrace of the human
The beginning of each line finishes the preceding sentence, and must be reread, repeated as the beginning of the subsequent one, thus, "of the human/ Form[.] [Form] may define . . ." and so forth. Clever, even artful, but is it useful?
Unrewarding too is Harvey’s pseudo stream-of-consciousness style. Rather than revealing as Joyce's prose did the uncensored interior monologue of an undefended narrator’s true state of mind, Harvey’s run-on sentences are obsessive. They read like the writing equivalent of a hand-washing compulsion that keeps feelings from emerging into consciousness or, like that ceaseless chattering Zen Buddhists call "the monkey mind," whose purpose is to obscure the perception of disturbing realities.
It is spring &
people are out repainting their front steps
The existentially and spiritually profound lines in Harvey’s volume come unadorned by gimcrackery ("I too am attracted by want, that glass-/ bottomed boat"), but they are nearly lost in a hodgepodge of effects: prose-poems ("Thermae"), poems divided into three columns of text ("Triptych"), into two columns ("Diptych"), poems consisting entirely of one run-on sentence ("Monoscenes"), a poem in the shape of a topiary shrub ("Ornamental"), poems which bear the influence of Concrete Poetry, of Language Poetry, a series of self-portrait poems which fit the poet out in an array of costumes and personae à la Cindy Sherman ("Self-Portrait with Glass Ball," "Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo," and others). The carpentry is post-modern, to be sure, but then so is a diner tricked out with Western, art deco and classical Greek décor. Despite the jacket blurbs proclaiming otherwise, one searches in vain among the book’s varied styles for a unifying theme.
When Harvey resists firing up the pyrotechnics for the sake of dazzle, she is very, very good. Most poets could stand to lighten up once in a while -- even stodgy old T.S. [Eliot] wrote bawdy verses when he wasn’t changing the course of Western culture.** A volume of unrelieved gravitas would misrepresent the varieties of experience as much as would a collection of superficial word games. In "The Illuminated Manuscript," Harvey takes as her subject one of civilization’s artistic follies, and skillfully uses irony and description in the service of a fine wit:
A master illuminator
once painted the Holy Virgin
Harvey is most affecting when she acknowledges that feeling at a loss can be a fit subject for art. In "bottle tower," clear imagery combines with just the right flatness of tone to express a metaphysical longing that is genuinely poignant. Her language is appropriately bereft in such lines as these:
is there any word
Matthea Harvey is a gifted, contemporary poet who stands at the intersection of numerous artistic roads cleared by the writers who preceded her. She has been an observant traveler on their roads. (We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. -- Wm James) Yet, in the best of the poems in her debut collection, she enters the dark woods at a spot where, in Dante's words, "there is no path." In "Ceiling Unlimited Series," she acknowledges the bewilderment and disappointment encountered on an authentic quest, and has the humility and courage to stand before the reader as vulnerable and confused as all the rest of us.
I choose my indifferent
[References are to Wordsworth's, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood": Not in entire forgetfulness,/ And not in utter nakedness,/ But trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home; and his "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud": They [daffodils] flash upon that inward eye/ which is the bliss of solitude. Ed.]
Web site: http://gladiola.umfacad.maine.edu/~ajb
Water to Wine
by Tim Scannell
Of the ancient triad, narrative poetry drowns in odd, millennial novels and dramatic poetry founders in the maelstrom of Hollywood, yet the lyric, protean, succeeds still in combining time and image into new -- and renewable -- poems of the human condition. Some of the authors of the twenty-two finalist and semi-finalist lyrics collected here, winners from the international competition judged by Dana Gioia, performed their work at the Lyric Recovery Festival™ (Carnegie Hall, April, 2000 / Producer: philophonema™) alongside headliners Galway Kinnell and James Ragan, in a program interspersed with poetry from hosts Maureen Holm, Margo Berdeshevsky, Robert Scott, and Adam Merton Cooper, and music, including new settings of Yeats, Rilke, and Valéry, and original songs "in languages real and invented."
The introduction asserts, "Huddled since mid-century as 'global village' around a dominant source of imagery, sound, even meaning, we must make uncommon use of language to ferry us beyond its perimeter to the essential, shared harmonics." Well, the struggle between the musical/visual 'weight' of the lyric has swirled since the Renaissance, so let us set that aside for the lyric’s essential 'heft,' which resides in its power to focus upon and evaluate the human condition. Modern exemplars are, of course, legion -- Eberhart’s "The Groundhog," Stevens’s "Sunday Morning" -- yet the quintessential lyric, for me, is Frost’s "The Most of It": "He would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech, / But counter-love, original response." [See Essays, this issue for Scannell's brief treatment of this Robert Frost poem. Ed.] For the most part, Water to Wine to Waterford® succeeds in this striving: the "recovery" of the lyric, not the voice of my 'I' alone, but rather, the world's, as "counter-love, original response."
In "Cantus for the Horses," Rob Wright employs ekphrasis under the older (and better) definition by Theon: "vivid descriptions of people, actions, places, seasons and festivals." The speaker is present at Waterloo in 1815, and describes in three parts the effect of the battle on the horses that bear it. In Part I, "The rye tops have been bleached in the heat / blond… / The hay is ripe. / Time for the first cut / but horses and soldiers / have been trampling the fields…" In Part II, battle raging, many horses fall, slowly, the bulk of each collapsing, begun with legs, body, neck, and "last the head / like a rug full of dust." At poem’s end, the narrator is not drawn toward the carnage of cannon and men, but to the horses alone: "One has fallen / not ten feet from the water carriers / belly up, eyes reflecting the wide sky / legs moving slowly / still running." An arresting epiphany, moving from pastoral to justified anguish, an essence of war obliquely captured.
In another poem, "The Music of Poetry," by Pulitzer-winner Galway Kinnell, the ever-malleable lyric can even accommodate New Age nonsense. Here, the poet is giving a talk in Minnesota and uses over half his 40-line poem for a litany of animal sounds, a Gaia-symphony of frog, thrush, whale, wolf, and then asserts, "…our poems / are of the same order as those of the other animals / and are composed, like theirs, when we find ourselves / synchronized with the rhythms of the earth." Still leaning on the podium, his syntax "tangles" as thoughts drift to his beloved in New York: "I imagine I can hear / her say my name into the slow waves / of the night and, faintly, being alone, sing." The lyric's potential is such that the reader almost looks forward to lyrics on out-of-body experience, channeling, astral planes, and UFO abductions -- almost.
But most of the twenty-five lyrics collected in this book are elegiac and easily garner the reader's empathy, for they present very human conundrums of death, unresolved conflict or a longing for inclusion in the scheme of things. In "Elegy for a Bird House," Diana Manister laments the loss of husband and father, both of whom were "makers," the one, "who built a bird house on Staten Island, / a radiance that now has disappeared…", the other, too, "a maker, / builder of bird houses, doll houses, / transmission-fixer, / valve-adjuster, / a radiance that now has disappeared." The poet uses other refrains as well to question where the radiance will go, and the limits of consolation for its loss:
and the father will
go under the hill
The reconciliation of time past -- and present memory of it -- has long been a fertile subject for lyrical expression. In "Hansel, Gretel and the Black Bird," Reese Thompson uses the refrain, "I remember, as far back as this morning," to link a distant childhood and an angry adulthood: mother and siblings - widowhood - and a new father, "…but then years pass…and already mad from hunger / and paranoia, Hansel and Gretel turn on each other. Like survivors / in a lifeboat, the outcome was inevitable… / my hunger is a black bird that will burn only at the chance to court fire! And / the hate whose home it made in my orphanage, was all too anticipated. / I muse - how easy things come about and are predictable." This sad lesion of antipathy is foreshadowed at the poem’s beginning: "nothing has changed, / even the thin scaffold, skeletal round my heart’s renovation." The poem uses an interesting conceit and is effectively constructed.
So too is "Haunts" by Mark Nickels: "One day, in fall, a toxin entered into me… / [causing] a maneuver / to become someone about whom nothing was known… // and sourceless grief, self-loathing in a short parade / that trails me with its panoply of fireworks, / a train of invisible pull-toys clicking, and whirring." The original self, and this "spell" of otherness, continue deeply into adulthood: "But I have weighed these things, and now / I work. It is what happiness costs." Though memory can be persistently malevolent, Jay Chollick, in "Old Babyface," traces infancy to old age in as persistent a good humor, "…but what is truly strange is / backward into deepest need: old mouths still seek a kind / and tender thumb."
Both practicing poets and poetry readers, interested in the imagery, structure, music and potential of the lyric, would certainly want to have Water to Wine to Waterford® on the shelf. It is a good book and is commended, also, in gathering together sixty-five sponsors -- mostly private -- for its Carnegie Hall production and subsequent paper publication (independent book stores, general businesses, media stations, individuals, and, of course, Waterford-Wedgewood®). Its poetry certainly illustrates a "recovery" for lyricism, and its many private sponsorships -- quite as vital -- indicate that serious poetry can succeed in the general marketplace of society. A recommended purchase.
[A prolific, independent reviewer,
Tim Scannell lives in Washington State. His piece on Frost's "The Most
of It" appears in this issue. See Essays. Ed.]
Jo Ann Wasserman's We Build Mountains
Hit 'Pause' to Tremble
Is it some ancient instinct? Is it something we almost remember from our caveman days? For we are a funny species, perpetually uneasy about ourselves in nature. Our weather can, uncannily, like that weather within us, be whimsical, hot then cold, wet then wild. Even as we graze and copulate, copulate and graze, our very earth, why it trembles beneath us, from San Francisco to New York to India, and we hit 'pause' to tremble, look up...Heavens! What? What is the language that names this unease? Has Jo Ann Wasserman found it, in a book ostensibly about living in that state of perpetual quakes, California? I say yes, indeed:
the doctor was trying
to help and asked me
Amazing how much in control of the language Wasserman is, although this is the language of out of control, this is the true inner language of us, you, me, our species, if we only listened to us, you, me, ourselves. Almost as it is almost absurdist, Wasserman catches it perfectly. Two people, the poet in search of at least the illusion of truth and beauty and safety, and the professional, the doctor, god, goddess, who somewhere must sadly help her to know of how fleeting it all is. this is how we really talk, over and around each other, never quite making it true, never quite making it truly beautiful. Is this wy and how we never find each other, mother anddaughter, father and son, God and the world? Is this why that world, inner and outer, trembles, and our very words, even as we speak them, conceal more than they do reveal, all this in our terrible and absurd effort to "feel safe"?
You read on and the language, exactly like the subject matter, grows every deepr, denser, quakier, and (strangely) more pleasurable.
over 2 million flee
or are ordered out
storm then storm
today snow so
they say it is the
price of a rocky coast of
And so on, and so on. By the end of We Build Mountains, we have truly climbed, in poem after poem, a most luminous "mountain"--there to gaze down deep into that most startling and strangest of all views: the trembling mirror of ourselves.
(Bill Kushner's latest books of
poems are He Dreams of Waters (Rattapallax Press) and That April
(United Artists Books).)
In the Parlance of
What does an American really mean when he says, "I, like, got a different answer for that question" or she says, "I think I'm falling in love with him, even though he'll be leaving town in a few months"? You'll find the translations in Maggie Balistreri's satiric The Evasion-English Dictionary, which parses the subtleties contained in our seemingly most inarticulate, often ungrammatical constructions.
The entires begin with an in-depth, 10-part look at the different evasions possible with the highly versatile "like." Compare the unvarnished "I got a different answer" (viz. "You got it wrong, you numbskull") with the apologetic, blow-softening effect achieved through the insertion of "like," thus, "I'm sorry I'm smarter (more diligent, more responsible) than you, but you know..." Balistreri penetrates the monosyllabic obfuscation: This use of "like" conveys the subtext, "I disagree. That is, if it's okay."
The smitten Ms. EVEN THOUGH is really the unwilling Ms. BECAUSE. With this usage, consequence is motive, Balistreri tells us. The meaning of THE HOUSE-PROUD 'IT', as in, "It needed a complete change," is made clear: IT = I, an oblique personification. My favorite is the very humorous, UNFORTUNATELY = UM, FORTUNATELY. Example: "Unfortunately, he died before we had a chance to resolve our differences. I feel that my life has been on hold every since then." In this usage, she tells us, obstacle is safeguard.
"So it remains to microanalysts of interaction to lumber in where the self-respecting decline to tread." Is this statement by Erving Goffman, quoted in the book's epigraph, Woody Allen teaming up with Noam Chomsky or is it the psycholinguistic truth told slant? Balistreri repeatedly points out the equivalents: THE RELATIONSHIP = YOU. "I felt that the relationship held me back." (Substitute the word, "marriage" and the equivalence works just as well, though the stakes get higher. We'll have to look for the next edition to see what Balistreri makes of the subtle shift to personal pronoun in, "my marriage.") Equations emerge and evasions hinge on one small alteration, even just the substitution of a single letter, which is as often unconscious as intentional.
Purists of the language (LIKE, the initial version of Balistreri's book, has been featured on National Public Radio-affiliate WNYC), as well as those linguistically more liberally inclined, will find many a chuckle in these expressions, whose subtext and revelations, similar to those discovered in the dramatic monologue, depend on the speaker's point of view.
Entries in The Evasion-English Dictionary are not alphabetized (but an index is provided). The book can be found on the, uh, consignment rack in the poetry section of, you know, quality (i.e., independent) bookstores like, well, St. Mark's.