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Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:Kenyon Review, Volume 16, Issue 4 (1994)
Keywords:Materialism; lyric; American; Muske; Santos; Ammons
Materialism. By Jorie Graham. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1993. 146 pp. $22.00.
Red Trousseau. By Carol Muske. New York: Viking Penguin, 1993.82 pp. $18.00.
The City of Women. By Sherod Santos. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1993. 84 pp. $18.95.
Garbage. By A. R. Ammons. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1993. 121 pp. $17.95.
After disparaging the predominance of the confessional lyric mode over the past several decades, a number of poets and critics have lately turned to the long narrative poem as a popular antidote to the supposed self-absorption of the contemporary lyric. Would that it were so. While the impulse of this loose coterie--I refer mainly to the New Narrative poets, but to others as well--may be laudable in attempting to broaden the scope, subject, and stance of contemporary poetry, too often I find their means to be unimaginative. It is quite true that, like nearly every poetry school, a few fine poets do work in this mode; but in general the work of the New Narrative poets is graceless, formally stiff, rhetorically unremarkable. Too often the formula of their strategies is merely chronological, a sort of proselike clockwork, plodding through plot, arguing that sequence is event. But surely, we must know that there are many ways to measure experience and idea. It seems obvious that, after Bors and Jung, after Riceour and Cage, after virtually every theoretical physicist and mathematician, story-telling must reconsider and refigure the notions of time, progression, sequence, narrative, and ultimately idea.
Perhaps what these poets do sense is the need to "push" the lyric poem, to extend its capacities both formally and thematically. That does seem to be the project of many poets currently--from the New Narrative poets to Language poets to the myriad of others exploring ways to make the contemporary lyric less pure. Few poets have embarked on a more serious, more substantial reconfiguration of the lyric episode than has Jorie Graham. She is, to my mind, one of the few contemporary poets who ought to deserve a label like "new narrative"--or "new formalist" for that matter--since her project is nothing less than to reformulate the elements of story, structure, drama, and idea, within an expanded and highly speculative lyric frame.
Since her 1987 The End of Beauty Graham has written in an extended, prose-like line, dotted with parentheses, ellipses, and open spaces; much of the work in her distinguished new Materialism follows that method, though other, shorter poems here recall the more compressive lineation of her earlier Erosion and Hybrid of Plants and of Ghosts. In Materialism, she desires to take us deep into a lengthening lyric matrix itself, inside its fragments and its apparatus, and inside the creative, shifting imagination as it weighs, values, and makes aesthetic decisions:
What do you
want, you, listening here with me now? Inside the
what would you insert? What word?
What mark upon the pleating blacknesses of hotel air?
What, to open it? To make it hear you. To make it hear me.
How heavy can the singleness become?
Who will hear us? What shall we do?
("In the Hotel" 57-58)
Her attempt is to situate a voice, a "self," and a readerly partnership with the presence of other (both competing and aiding) voices and factions. She wants to make an expanding poetic field that includes, and withstands, the pressing facts of politics, economics, and science. Indeed, in the manner of Milosz's Unattainable Earth, Graham has interspersed among the twenty-two poems of this book actual texts by Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, Wittgenstein, Dante, an extremely germane passage from Bacon's Novum Organum, and others from the patriarchy of high Western thought. Even in her own poems, the polyphonous voices of others rise and fall inside her own; in the passage above, I can clearly hear Whitman's passionate attempt to situate himself and his readers within the fluid yet constant tide of time in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Whitman's own phrase "the push of reading" especially suggests Graham's resolute, dramatic method.
In many ways Materialism reads like a single, sustained poetic effort, a long poem whose methods strive toward a coherent stability, but Graham brings to bear so many forces against each other that we must see her ultimate stance as dynamic, fluid. Materialism enacts this constant "push" throughout, a persistent negotiation among competitive energies. Hence her predominant tropes are that of expansion and growth, on one hand, and compressive tension or power on the other. Bacon describes these impulses, among others, as "motions": "When bodies, for instance, being placed not altogether according to their natures, constantly tremble, and arc restless, not contented with their position" (24). Even the "materialism" of Graham's title negotiates between matter-as-mere-substance and matter-as-consequence. As she warns us in "Who Watches from the Dark Porch" from her last book, Region of Unlikeness, these arc the two basic forces of history, of being: ". . . mother Matter--the opposite of In / terpretation." From her earlier The End of Beauty, in "Pieta," she identifies this same conflict: "the spirit of matter, there, where the words end." Her poetry skirts the edges where these forces collide, as if in search of a son of unified field where meaning and being--or where history and the transcendent can be conceived of as complementary parts of a single, phenomenal law: "like a vast silver page burning: the black hole / expanding: / like a meaning coming up quick from inside that page" ("The Dream of the Unified Field" 84).
Over and again Graham probes the relationship between the still, lyric instant and the inevitable push of history or matter. In "Event Horizon," a domestic scene initiates the poem, as the speaker washes a red dress in a basin where "sunlight hovered . . . in the chasm of the millisecond" and where she sees "two still jays in the swelling instant" (50). For Graham, every instant "swells" into chronos. Within the initial stillness of this scene, the necessary continuities of nature instigate the speaker's meditation on history: "Strutting of sun over fencepoles, river.//Strutting of wind over tops of pines.//There is history--the story of the man carrying his father / on his back. . . ." This distinctive leap is decidedly non-narrative, barely associative; it depends on the mere motions of phenomena and therefore of time. The "strutting" of matter and the consequential passage of time conspire to threaten the simplicity, even the possibility, of a transcendental instant. Instead,
Inside, the anchorman's back, the minutes tick by.
The government in Beijing has cut off all satellite
and all we get is the anchor's face
and sometimes voice-over onto the freeze-frame
was interrupted. (52)
From its serene, lyric beginnings the poem has become a speculation on light, radio signals, news reports, the revolution in China, warfare, and imperial domination; even "the face of the most beautiful woman in the world" ends in the fires of collision, "a smile on her face as the hair starts to burn" (54). The momentum of history quickens until all of experience is flung together due to its hastening proximities. Graham fruitfully employs the language and imagery of physics to enact this view of history. The definition of an astrophysical "event horizon," in fact, holds that as matter nears a black hole, it quickens until it becomes invisible, flung into the area around a black hole too dense for light to escape--and the speaker's TV screen fades to black.
Every poem in Materialism bears a similar gravity and high seriousness. The language and imagery of astrophysics animates her rhetoric; but so does the discourse of economics ("it is plain / that commodities / cannot go to market / and make exchange / of their own accord . . . that commodities are without / power of resistance against man," 122), politics ("What is it, the spot inside Mary, the punched-out spot of / blood which is not her? / to whom does it belong?--immaculate / garden--red idea; truth held self- / evident / through which the crowd can cross//and take possession / of the earth" 19), as well as theology, aesthetics, cultural history, and philosophy. In "Manifest Destiny," a title she also used in Region of Unlikeness, even a simple trip to a museum results in Graham's reimagining the history of America, from James Town to Shiloh to the present. In this poem, as throughout Materialism, Graham superimposes an entire field of colliding, worldly impulses over the purest, isolated lyric sensibility. America is her perfect laboratory, with its history of growth and attendant guilt, with its romantic politics and its eminently more practical methods. She makes use of McGuffy's Reader, Audubon's journals, and Whitman's encouragements, in order to frame the fullest expression of the American dilemma: that the insatiable taming and ownership of open spaces has depended on cruelty, repression, and loss.
Materialism is a book about America, its Old World heritage and its perilous New World freedom and responsibility. In a sustained apostrophe to a cluster of trees, as well as to her companion Reader, Graham identifies in "Young Maples in Wind" this driving impulse in her work:
And you, green face--mournful, tormented, self-
navel-and-theory face, what is it you turn towards, green
where is your migration from? (138)
This book is a weighty, often brilliant achievement, characterized by long, speculative poems and difficult readerly tasks, an intermixture of songs and stories, of meditation, experiment, and assertion, of Graham's voice amidst the polyphonic chorus of others. Throughout, Graham's wish is to make a complete examination of the empirical evidence in her search for a coherent and compassionate self (five of her twenty-two poems are entitled "Notes on the Reality of the Self"). This is a very ambitious task, and in a few places the poems with their over-extended lines and absolute tones seem ponderous, heavy-handed; sometimes all the visible apparatus and mechanism can inflate the poems' effects. Further, since Graham's tactic is to provide this book with its own critical context--employing many quotations, allusions, and references--readers might feel occasionally beset rather than invited. But at more generous durations, Materialism is moving, often chilling, and surprisingly passionate. Jorie Graham is a challenging and important poet, and Materialism shows her working at the height of her powers. I can think of no other current American poet who has employed and exposed the actual mechanics of narrative, of form, of strategic inquiry more fully than she has--at least no other readable poet--and no other poet able to deploy so fruitfully and invitingly the diverse systems of philosophy, science, and history. If anyone can unify the disjointed fields of contemporary discourse, I think it might be Jorie Graham.
Carol Muske is by far the most lyrically pure of the four poets under consideration here, the one whose governing impulses have always been more compressive, enclosed. That has been her method and her strength; yet even here in Red Trousseau, her strong fifth book of poetry, Muske pushes her own lyric inclinations toward inclusive and expanding destinations. While this is a more miscellaneous collection than the other three, still it is similarly driven by several longer poems. Rather than, like Graham, to stretch her poems by infusing them with colliding tropes and complex speculations, Muske makes longer poems out of a sequence of shorter sections. It's as if she wants to stitch together a poem's peaks of dramatic action and forego the duller narrative valleys. As a result, her poems have the clarity of narrative poetry without much of the discursive framework.
Muske's intimate and familiar poetry is charged by two primary proclivities: they are driven by highly visual imagery, and they are animated by a performative impulse. They are self-conscious but rarely self-centered; intelligent, not pedantic. And throughout Red Trousseau they are sparked by the title's color--the red heat of passion, the flamboyance of action, and the fires of the decadent or decaying. In "In-Flight Flick," a motion-sick traveler is beset by a drunken fellow passenger who recounts to her the story of his estranged family. His story quickly takes on the drama of a performance:
His mouth opens
above the red slash of his silk tie.
He imitates, hands flat, a plane
taking off--zoom--so split
the wife and child. Then to show how
they broke him. he slumps in his seat . . .
and this whole narrative is superimposed on the cabin's lowering movie screen:
Together, they watch his made-up plane
bank before the dropping movie screen . . . .
Finally, when the movie begins, the whole scene becomes a densely textured palimpsest, text-over-text, one history transcribed onto others:
Now it's dark. His drink flashes in the blue-
and-flesh beams shot from the credits.
His hands work in the air before Pompeii:
a long shot of ancient courtyard and whole
families frozen in domestic poses. One fall,
he says, flashing a wound, a torn screen scarred
him. He was only putting on storms.
Before us, the time-traveler turns an Uzi
on the plane, the robot girl cracks a smile. (13)
His anger is reflected in the terrorist's weapon; the cinema screen seems torn, three-dimensional, like the drunk's ripped window screen back home; and the history of one brutality reflects them all. Muske's dense, exacting final line captures the essential sameness of each narrative's inevitable conclusion: "Every motion a betrayal, every gesture a fall into fire" (13).
The world in Red Trousseau is comprised of images and appearances--an intimate's account of friendship, marriage, and parenthood, on one hand, and a resident's account of the fabrications and dailinesses of contemporary Hollywood, on the other. Where Graham's voice is speculative, probing, Muske's is more descriptive and tightly interpretive. Graham pushes through the static image toward the more dynamic motivations of history and interpretation; Muske doesn't so much push her poetry outward, but rather opens it from the inside, looks for the play within the play, admires the highly artificial center because it depicts, not detail, but abstract desire. Few poets have made more of the fascinating collision of surface imagery and real, knowing intimacy. There are actors, performances, glitter-and-gilt everywhere, but Muske's stance toward them is engaged, not awed or culpable. Hers is the perspective of the resident and critic, not the tourist or the naive viewer; and she writes with a gorgeous lyric voice and a fine-tuned ear for phrasing and modulation. Here is another poem, printed entirely, a good example of her drive toward insight and her talent for song:
Two A.M. and we're on Lucifer, arguing, drinking,
one of us a Believer. I say if that beautiful
light-named angel, once most loved of God,
fell, he must have kept falling into insight--
scattering his illumination, plummeting, coming apart
into a broken new deity, one that divides
as the woman's face in darkness,
that man's face in quick rip-slashes of light.
Starry dark: down and down She falls into her empty glass,
the night sky lights up with all He refuses to let go.
Muske's several longer poems are characterized by this same tight phrasing, these leaps of association and analysis; they are extended dramatizations composed of compressed parts, like still photos arranged into a film. In "My Sister Not Painting, 1990," Muske brings together her strongest talents to produce a terrific nine-page poem. It is a study of repression and of memory's powerful insistence, a portrait of the speaker's sister: "She lives in a little town. She's afraid. / She imagines herself facing some ignorant, powerful / tribunal: giving advice on how not to paint" (40). A broom, a story, a brush "skin-painting / over her belly, over the unborn body within," each of these provides the sister with a tool for "painting not painting," for a kind of metafictional representation of creation and erasure. At the poem's center is a long narrative about the sisters' uncle who was the lone survivor of a war massacre in the Alps, whose eventual savior was "a young man in a military uniform, standing / before him in a bright light. Then the youth's clothes / melted away and the boy became a woman" (37). In his dementia, he sees this figure as, simultaneously, a "man-woman," a lover, a Christ-figure whom "he longed to fuck." Later, after subjection to electrotherapy, he is driven to alcoholism and random obscenity by his experiences, finally is "walled up in the family business, a man / in a glass elevator" (39).
Through the framed absences of the sister's not-paintings, Muske's speaker sees the origins of her sister's fear. These pantomimes of the act of creation serve as compelling figures of memory, of the family's nightmare. The unrelenting presence of the sisters' shared horrors--their virtual co-authorship of the story--is depicted by the sister's rush of negations:
Terrific, she says, how not to paint this story:
Not paint here: the snow fiddled with holes,
shrapnel pocks, little yellow lacework of piss
of here, not paint Uncle bearded, raving,
on his knees? Not paint here, his friend, the corpse,
boots and helmet, mouth open in song--half of
a silent aria, the cement duet of pain, sky, pain,
sky?. Here. Not paint the soldier-Christ-woman
with her removable heart atorch, her black brassiere,
sheer black stockings?
Not paint here, the center,
bruisecolored, tumescent, his bloody hand on himself? (40)
Re-enacting her own "skin-painting over her belly," the sister portrays this final figure as half-erotic, half-tortured--created and destroyed. Muske's own striking visual imagery, her subtle conversion of one narrative into layers of others, her flair for performance and for metafictional representation, all unite in this frightening, brilliant poem, which becomes an extended excursion into the regions of repression, memory, and artistic creation. As here, throughout Red Trousseau, Muske's poems are driven not by the structures of chronological sequence or narrative formality, but rather by the "plots" of non-temporal memories and by leaps of imagery and association.
Muske's constant reminder in Red Trousseau is just this: the most self-conscious representation of artistic expression, the most artificial of surfaces, yields the most effective and acute emotional trigger for an audience. As she writes in "Unsent Letter 4": "Presented with the mirror of our sentiments, it seems / possible to believe that we love the world, ourselves" (79). In a few poems I feel Muske's drive toward meaning or metapoetic drama to be forced, an insistence on self-explanation that can seem arbitrarily connected to the poem's local or narrative situation. Abruptly shifting from a description of her daughter's backyard play, the speaker of "Stage and Screen, 1989" informs us:
Misunderstanding passion (the old poet told me),
a poem goes wrong in two ways: first,
like an amateur tragedian milking
the best lines for emphasis,
pushing quite innocent everyday dialogue
into enormity. Then what remains to be seen
can't be. (6)
Though she turns this sudden, theatric advice knowingly against the feigned innocence of her own poem, still I feel that the speaker has insisted on, rather than discovered, this intellectual exercise. In a book, one of whose primary strategies is to interpret, such moments are few. Carol Muske's new collection is best characterized by its more wholly realized achievements--its lyric grace, its fiery desires, its startling and effective connections, and its original mixture of dramatic pizazz and serious, brooding love:
Like Art featuring Life, the real
sky behind the starry backdrop fills with stars. The lovers kiss.
I want to cry out How much? How much do you love each
other? But the director in his cherry~picket signals another take;
The sky grows light. It's late.
("Unsent Letter 4" 79)
Sherod Santos's third book of poems, The City of Women, permits us to see the effects and fine successes of another method by which to "push" the lyric poem. Where Graham is speculative, compelled by rhetorical exercise, and where Muske is connective and interpretive, Santos is extendedly meditative, the most deliberate, inner, and anxious of the poets under consideration here. His book-length work The City of Women is a foray into the erotics of memory and memory's access--and its invention--through language. Comprised of blank verse lyrics, prose poems and fragments, journal-like entries, a variety of other formal tactics and arrangements, Santos's poem sustains itself by its diverse, contrapuntal method as well as by its compelling depth. Like Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse, Santos's book is a sort of plotless novel, an intense, personal discussion into complex webs of erotic encounters and relationships as well as into the intellectual and emotional provinces of love, language, and representation. It is a love poem to a wife--and to women--but more so to the imagination, its fancy, its hunger, its obsessions.
In his book's first poem Santos seems to be following Barthes's description of a "lover's discourse," which is to Barthes "no more than a dust of figures stirring according to an unpredictable order"; still, Barthes says we can "assign to love, at least retrospectively . . . a settled course: it is by means of this historical hallucination that I sometimes make love into a romance, an adventure" (Barthes, 197). Santos's book begins in a similar paradox, with an image thirty years past, at once inexact and meticulous:
She is seated somewhere--I can't recall where
Exactly now, the young Algerian shopclerk
From a bookstore Mother frequented those days--
And she is seated alone, in a care, let's say,
Looking out onto a crowded square in Chateauroux,
On a market day in the early fall, a shifting
Fretwork of pushcarts, string bags, makeshift stalls,
The gutters a rubble of spoiled fruit, rinds,
Bread crusts, dung, stray dogs snuffling at
The entrails too bruised to lay out in the pans,
An acrid smell off the pissoirs. . . . (7)
In what must refer to one of the speaker's first enamored encounters--here his youthful enchantment with a bookstore clerk--Santos depicts the doubleness of Barthes's description: an indistinct, purposefully fictionalized scene which, nonetheless, begins to take on the remarkable clarity and sensual detail of actual memory. She provides this book with an initial muse-figure, whose memory Santos evokes, and creates, "Across that time which in some ways / Does not exist, will never exist, the story of my life / In love, the buried life I know little about, / Perhaps know nothing at all" (7-8).
Here, and throughout the rest of the book, such figures of and abbreviated encounters with women function in two ways. They establish a kind of linked, non-narrative history of the speaker's various experiences with love towards women--erotic, matrimonial, fantastic, mundane, the loves of a child, a son, and a man. But further, they are the primary mirror through which the speaker identifies his own personality, his own being, as if only in the proximity of others does he exist at all. This "self" is the fundamental fiction of Santos's book, a figure created by story and desire. Barthes concurs: "I cannot write myself. What, after all, is this 'I' who would write himself?" (Barthes, 98). While The City of Women seems to assume characteristics of an autobiography, through its detail, its confessional richness, its vigorous exploration of "memory," it is more accurately a moving, impersonal representation of eros in general, where every figure is an erasure of the actual or particular, where each scene is an unfolding seduction between the duplicate fictions of writer and reader, "as though you and I were somehow united in the fundamental joy of creating a self' (26). Santos's "as though" reinforces the playfully serious artifice of language itself which Barthes, again, identifies: "To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive . . . and impoverished" (Barthes, 99).
Though its project is to inspect the role of women in his life, the speaker of The City of Women does not fall into the trap of voyeurism or exhibitionism, nor does he allow his speculation to become a pleasure-dome for male heterosexuality. Indeed, he exhibits more sympathy and patience toward the women figures, more willingly allows them to wield power over him, than the reverse:
Following a late-night dinner and a bottle of wine . . . Zoe asked
if I would do something to her.
I said yes, anything. Anything she wanted. This is what
I wanted too. Whatever excited her. Whatever she most desired.
But what if it repelled you? What if, secretly, it filled
you with disgust?
I told her again I wanted what she wanted. However dark
it was. There was nothing she couldn't ask of me. (19)
Santos's speaker avoids tropes of adoration or wish-fulfillment, and his tones and stances--of peril, humiliation, grief, as well as of intimacy and discovery--are more expressive of his own exposure than of the women's. When they reveal themselves to him, it is through their stories. In one prose episode, the wife-character L. narrates an event from her childhood but reveals--or invents--herself with the name Marianne; then, before finishing her story and "faraway now . . . [s]he said nothing more about it, but from then on I believed she carried a name she'd chosen, in time, for the shy, lost boy she'd missed the chance to love" (64-65). The personal stories to which the speaker is audience are, in the end, often enigmatic or concealing, parables of mystery or suspended drama; yet their purpose is intimately connective: "The loss in her voice awakens, simultaneously, a loss in me" (64).
I mention this rhetorical strategy because it is one of the many risks which Santos seems purposefully to suggest and fruitfully to employ. He wants to expose the speaker, the rawness and confusion of his identity as it is created through the histories of others:
My mother's family was Southern, affluent, aristocratic; my father's, working-class, immigrant, resettled near the hops fields in northern California. When they met in 1942, at the height of the War, they were both, so to speak, in disguise: my mother in the somber, pin-striped outfit of the volunteers at the USO; my father in the full military splendor of an Air Corps pilot on R & R. (43)
Elsewhere we follow these parents' divorce, as well as the speaker's many other involvements with family members and lovers. Santos seems acutely aware of his own rhetoric designs and its qualities. Through a number of devices he instructs us to see not only his but our own pasts as useful fictions, and further encourages us to share the representative burden of the book's speaker. Referring to another episode of apparent "memory," he speaks now in plural:
Already, in advance, our lives owe something to those moments [out of the past]. An induction. A knowledge. An unlikeness between ourselves (before) and our-selves (thereafter). And a barely perceptible disharmony with all of our surroundings, as though the world had just contracted around a newly engendered set of senses. As though the world, in vast but incalculable ways, had put a DIFFERENT FACE ON THINGS. (9)
The "different face" is a profoundly important difference. He refers, I think, not only to the changing faces of loved ones-like Yeats, "who loved the sorrows of [his love's] changing face"--and not only to the self's changing face, but to the essential conversion of both memory and imagination into "the world" of a work of art whose "newly engendered set of senses" arouses and tutors us. He urges us to see the introspective details of autobiography--with its confessional foundation, its inquiry, its sometimes unbecoming honesty--as a means by which to understand each other's desires and fears in what Barthes calls "the lover's anxiety: it is the fear of a mourning that has already occurred, at the very origin of love" (Barthes, 30). The City of Women is an obsessive scrutiny into this phenomenon, into the emotions of language and art, and into the self-sacrificing relationships of lovers and of poets and their readers.
Not only is Santos masterful at weaving the rhetoric of lovers, their intimacies and fears, but he also demonstrates the lovers' myriad moods and inquiries through his formal tactics. Form functions to establish and enhance rhetoric, as if Santos deploys each form's conventional strength to turn those strengths against themselves. The many blank verse sections of The City of Women demonstrate Santos's most finished, highly glossed articulations:
Early morning, a woman sits up in bed
With a cup of coffee and an ashtray in her lap,
Though she isn't smoking and the coffee
Has long since cooled. For the last two months
She and her husband have slept in separate
Rooms, and now, by habit, it's decided this room
Is "hers." Outside, the sky is overcast,
As it usually is in the mornings in the fall,
And there's a stillness on the world, which
For once she doesn't find threatening. (72)
The restraint of the woman's posture is captured, formalized, by the gravity of the writing and by the ode-like form itself. It's a way of dignifying the scene and, at the same time, of estranging it, like the woman who "manages once more / To turn a loss into the semblance of a loss" (72). Santos uses his prose sections for other purposes: to be more instructive or theatric, full of stage directions of self-conscious inquiry, or to suggest the note-like intimacy of a private journal. Or, as here, to invoke the reader's complicit curiosity:
Imagine, for a moment, that in matters of love everything we're told is a lie. . . .
Then imagine--if only for argument's sake--how BEING IN LOVE might well depend, not on each of us coming to know each other, but on each of us actually struggling to guard that which knowing would give away. And imagine, moreover, how love may not be a "union" at all, but the willed preservation of that otherness. . . . (38)
It's as if, in Santos's hands, the forms themselves take on the aspects of dynamic, distinct personalities, like characters in this fascinating drama.
Sherod Santos's The City of Women is a passionate and powerful study of love and desire, as whole, as intimate, and as knowing as Barthes's A Lover's Discourse. For its rhetorical range, its formal variety, its remarkable insight and sympathy, and its intensely focused concentration, I can think of nothing to compare it with in contemporary American poetry; and yet it feels as disturbingly familiar, and as thrilling, as the subject it so beautifully explores.
A.R. Ammons's new Garbage is a brilliant book. It may very well be a great one, as fine as, or perhaps even superior to, his previous long masterwork Tape for the Turn of the Year with its massive, connective inquiries or Sphere, that most dense and eloquent longer poem. To be honest, this book has caught me off-guard, following, as it does, fairly closely on the heels of Ammons's The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons. Garbage is a 121-page poem in eighteen sections, composed in couplets, and nearly composed of a single, winding, astonishing sentence. Ammons is famously capable within the short lyric mode--distinctive, intelligent, quirky--but the long poem extrapolated from a lyric base is his genius. Sherod Santos's book-length sequence is an intense concentration on a single motif; Garbage is about, well, everything--especially since, as Ammons insists, garbage is the primary building-block of the universe. In the wonderful cosmos of this poem, there is nothing that is not "garbage":
garbage has to be the poem of our time because
garbage is spiritual, believable enough
to get our attention, getting in the way, piling
up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and
creamy white: what else deflects us from the
errors of our illusionary ways. . . . (18)
Beginning with a description of a trash dump alongside a Florida highway, Garbage soon finds itself evolving into a series of connected meditations, each about a different order of refuse, of the wasted, whatever is unused, overgrown, or cast aside. Ammons's speaker discovers that nature everywhere is composed of the decadent and entropic, the aged, the tired--"toxic waste, poison air, beach goo, eroded roads"-- and sees in nature, then, enough models to be able to state that "this is a scientific poem//asserting that nature models values" (20). The speaker himself, nearing retirement from his professorship as a writing teacher, feels discarded, decaying, worried about social security and disease:
a pain in the knee or hipjoint or warps and
knots in the leg muscles, even strange, binding
twinges in the feet ought to cause you to include
in the list of possibilities that the high
arch in one of your feet has slipped, shortening
you shortlegged, your weight misdistributed (40)
But Ammons knows his science well; he knows that no amount of material substance ever vanishes, only converts into other matter or energy. And this is the magic of Garbage. We become witnesses to something of a generative and evolutionary process--the turning of garbage into utility, decay into new life, an idea into further ideas. A sort of latter day, practical optimist, the speaker transfers his initial observation into aesthetic and pedagogical usage: "I say to my writing students--prize your flaws, / defects, behold your accidents, engage your//negative criticisms--these are the materials on your ongoing . . ." and then takes his own advice, instructing our readerly expectations as well:
this is just a poem with a job to do: and that
is to declare, however roundabout, sideways,
or meanderingly (or in those ways) the perfect
scientific and materialistic notion of the
spindle of energy . . .
in value systems,
physical systems, artistic systems, always this
some disposition from the heavy to the light,
and then the returns from the light downward
to the staid gross: stone to wind, wind to
stone: there is no need for "outside," hegemonic
derivations of value: nothing need be invented
or imposed: the aesthetic, scientific, moral
are organized like a muff along this spindle,
might as well relax: thus, the job done. . . . (24-25)
As simply as "thus," a story about aging, about worldly disgust, sharply converts into an encouragement to see that the world is necessarily composed of such leavings. An early morning's "senseless" vision of the future with its "strokes, hip replacements, // insulin shots, sphygmomanometers" brings with it "a tiny / wriggle of light in the mind that says, 'go on': // that's what it says: that's all it says" (46). And death's own inevitability becomes an invitation to see, in essence, the entirety of time within the space of a moment:
[if] death is so persuasive, can't life be: it is
fashionable now to mean nothing, not to exist,
because meaning doesn't hold, and we do not exist
forever; this is forever, we arc now in it; our
eyes see through the round time of nearly all
of being, our minds reach out and in ten billion
years: we are in so much forever (88)
By the poem's end the speaker has so thoroughly embraced the connectedness of things, the cyclic give-and-take of matter, that he sees his own body now, even in old age, as a kind of garden, a place where life is not lost, but nourished:
if you've derived from life
a going thing called life, life has a right to
derive life from you: ticks, parasites, lice,
fleas, mites, flukes, crabs, mosquitoes . . . (98-99)
Many of the values of Garbage seem to have their foreground in the practical, encouraging romanticism of Emerson. Emerson's insistence on the values of utility and frugality precede Ammons's own compulsion to see that every iota of material substance is used and appreciated, every bit of waste turned to order and meaning. Emerson spoke of this notion in 1844 in a lecture to the Mercantile Library Association of Boston: "Nature is the noblest engineer, yet uses a grinding economy, working up all that is wasted today into tomorrow's creation--not a superfluous grain of sand . . ." (Emerson, 218). There is coherence in such a universe, where a natural order of "work" performs the tasks of converting matter and energy into more of the same, and where, for both Emerson and Ammons, these physical transformations signal similar transformations in understanding, improvements in the spirit. Even in its more skeptical moments, and even in the ironized language of postmodern wit and banter, Ammons's Garbage enacts an Emersonian cosmology where the wastes of the contemporary soul are converted into consolation, connection, and even hope: "I have a low view of us: but that is why / I love us or try to move to love us" (106).
Still, this does not begin to characterize the brilliance of the poem itself, its tremendous variety of tones, its astonishing range of subject matter, its sheer readability. The voice in Garbage is almost disarmingly direct, neither the mundane voice of an "average" person as in so much contemporary lyric verse, nor the hyper-dogmatic expression within a scholar's texte, nor the epic-like inflations of a character like Paterson. I almost want to characterize this voice, again in Emerson's terms, as Man Thinking. He is brilliant, interested in the political and personal, in hard critique as well as praise, fascinated by science and philosophy but also by the day's weather and market fluctuations. He can be very funny but, even so, uses his hilarity for multiple means:
I just want you to know I'm perfectly
serious much of the time: when I kid around
I'm trying to get in position to be serious:
my daffydillies are efforts to excuse the
presumption of assumption, direct address, my
self-presentation: I'm trying to mean what I
mean to mean something: best for that is a kind
of matter-of-fact explicitness about the facts (54)
He can wink at us with his self-aware presence; "(check that rhyme)" he nudges at one point. He can let rip the most inventive, spirited catalogues of "stuff":
The heap of knickknacks (knickknackatery),
whatnots (whatnotery), doodads, jews-harps,
belt buckles, do-funnies, files, disks, pads,
pesticide residues, nonprosodic high-tension
lines, whimpering-wimp dolls, epichlorohydrin
elastomotors, sulfur dioxide emissions, perfume
sprays, radioactive wiiliwaws . . . (108)
and then minister to our most practical necessities. Here he employs (and mimics) the instructional pragmatism of Franklin's Autobiography and of Walden in his enumerated "elaboration to prize the essential":
(1) don't complain--ills are sufficiently
clear without reiterated description: (2) count
your blessings, spelling them over and over into
sharp contemplation: (3) do what you can--
take action: (4) move on. . . . (55)
Ideal and useful, punning and pensive, this voice is a dazzling dance of purposes and speculations, made of whatever material it finds at hand, a patchwork of the cast-off, the trashy, the high-brow, the stern, the inventive, and the true.
This poem's technical style is as sinuous and connective as its subject. Speaking about the cyclic patterns in nature, which "likes a broad spectrum approaching disorder so / as to maintain the potential of change," Ammons also reminds us that such is the method of his writing: "things that go around sometimes go / around so far they come back around: if you//like my form, experience my function" (100). In this way, subjects transmute into others, often recurring, and winding back around to themselves. Where Sphere was composed in triplets, Garbage is made of couplets, open-ended, highly enjambed, cracked open, making for dramatic momentum. The connection of phrases here illustrates a sort of formal curiosity and encouragement, a push of aesthetic energy. This is not blank verse or syllabic construction (lines here range from seven to twenty-four syllables, most often running between ten and thirteen) nor a reintegration of Williams's triadic line, though I have heard each of these explanations supposed. Nor is Ammons's lineation accentual, though a five-stress line predominates. In fact, I find the most consistent and remarkable formalization in Garbage to be, not the line, but rather the sentence. Indeed, in a poem whose length is nearly 2,500 lines, there are only a handful of sentences. Ammons much prefers the colon to the period, as if to suggest the evolving pattern of his vision. Ammons's colon serves two important purposes: it is connective, extending the imperative relationship of one idea or image to another; and it is explanatory, indicating that each new discourse or narrative is the result or solution of the last, and that each new clause will serve as the forebear of the next. The result is a tumbling, dynamic, resourceful rhetoric and form, able to contain and employ whatever comes its way:
leaps and halts, listenings, are prosody of
a poem floating through the mind's brush: I
mix my motions in with the mix of motions, all
motions cousins, conveyors, purveyors, surveyors,
rising from the land, eddying coils of a wash,
bristling with fine-backed black clarity as with
brookripples over stone, spreading out. . . . (84)
Garbage may be one of the central poetic accomplishments of our time. With The Book of Nightmares, with Rich's achievements, with Merwin's dark lyrics, this poem can tell readers of poetry far into the future what our lives were like at millennium's close, what we thought, what we feared, where we looked for hope. When their archeologists assess our rubble, they will find this simple dignity there: "to pay attention is to behold the / wonder, and the rights, of things. . . ."(94).
Barthes, Roland. A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. Trans. by Richard Howard. New York: Farrat, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Young American." Essays and Lectures. New York: The Library of America, 1983.