Claire Bateman's Poetry of Matter and Spirit.
The Bicycle Slow Race was a moderately good book, I thought, but it didn't especially grab me. The two new books are something else.
There is a greatness caroming around in Bateman's two new books, a greatness flashing within and between many of the poems. I say this uneasily, because I try to maintain a conservative and even dourly guarded relation to the idea of greatness, cherishing it as a possibility even in the po-mo postcolonial worldwidewebbed carnivalesque cacophony of post-twentieth American culture, while remaining intensely skeptical of the claims made for most big-name (and middlesized-name) poets of the Seventies-Eighties-Nineties.
A greatness in the work of Claire Bateman. Uneasily I say it, also because I've found myself hazarding the g-word in the past year with reference to several poems by Larry Levis, and "The Glass Essay" by Anne Carson. Am I getting soft?
One indicator of the presence of greatness is that you turn to great writers instinctively in your effort to take the measure of the work at hand. Blake, Shelley, Whitman, Dickinson--such giants walked in my musing while I read Friction and At the Funeral of the Ether; not because of any facile allusions by Bateman but because of her fierce blatant obsessive engagement with the eternal theme of the relation between matter and spirit.
Another g-indicator is that you want to ponder the poems over and over, you want to think and re-think about them, you're not content to rest in a cloudy overall impression; you sense there's a meaning waiting to be gathered, as you re-read the poetry, whose richness goes beyond the ideas you've had about any three or four individual poems.
Of course, several big vague things would have to be said (about alteration of one's essential sense of life, for instance) if the task were to define greatness, but luckily my hope now is just to show why Claire Bateman's two new books got me started on this g-buzz.
As everyone knows,
they started out enormous,
even, some say,
You could travel
your whole life--
on a single one,
never even catching
a glimpse of
the punctures marking
entrance & exit.
Now, of course,
things are different;
the eyes of the Lord
run to & fro
throughout the earth
seeking a wound
small enough to
This poem from At the Funeral of the Ether, though considerably shorter than most of Bateman's poems, displays characteristics which we'll notice frequently in her work. It seems to offer itself disarmingly as a transparent summarizing declaration of a familiar state of affairs-- "As everyone knows," "Now, of course, things are different..." But its tone of conviction turns out to have an occult quality, professing an awareness of reality on such a vast scale, and with such strange assurance about its metaphor, that the too-popular word "visionary" seems called for. Like Blake's "Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau" or Yeats's "News for the Delphic Oracle," Bateman's poem startles us with its unexplained explanatory authority, whose confidence seems to disdain any decorative elaboration. "Stitches" is cosmogonic and cosmological, proposing an account of the making of the world and the principle of the world's ongoing condition. The poem's short lines seem not at all (as the short lines of some poets do) an attempt to look poetic, but rather a registering of the infinity of the subject and an attempt to help the reader take it in.
"Stitches" concerns, I think, the relation between matter and spirit. Admittedly, a reader encountering this poem apart from Bateman's other poetry could be forgiven for not guessing matter and spirit to be the two essences that are imagined as sewn together. Bateman's poetry builds a context of attitude and predilection that sets us up for each next poem; in this respect she is like other powerful poets who teach the reader, cumulatively, how to tune in; Dickinson and Stevens are especially marked examples of this. "Stitches" assumes from the start that the mystery of matter/spirit is on our minds, as if Bateman can hardly imagine how anyone could escape her obsession.
Once upon a time, the poem says, the match-up of matter and spirit was somehow so easy, healthy, smooth, as to be imperceptible, so that the two essences seemed identical; but even then there was an essential split; there was already the dualism that thinkers like Emerson would labor mightily to approve; and God already must have had work to do to stitch His two inventions together--but dreamily easy work with rare application of His needle. As far as anyone ("you") could tell, this was Paradise without a bad apple. Then change came, and now God works overtime closing countless tiny rips with countless stitches in a perpetually anxious campaign. God's achievements in this campaign seem to have become desperately inadequate.
Wait--maybe I still haven't caught the stitches metaphor. If we notice the word "wound" and think not in terms of two fabrics being stitched together but rather one body whose skin needs to be stitched shut, the metaphor works out differently: the troubled relation is then between interior and exterior, an interior which "Now" can no longer, for some reason, stay safely enclosed and protected by the surface of embodiment. Still, the problem we are contemplating remains a version of matter/spirit, body/soul. Some force, unexplained by the poem, grew stronger in the cosmos and now apparently produces many eruptions of interiority into the forbidden air of God's realm outside embodiment.
Is the seamster God a healing doctor or a jailkeeper? Closing wounds would seem to be benevolent activity, but there is something frantic or even fanatic about this Lord whose eyes "run to & fro / throughout the earth / seeking a wound / small enough to match." Perhaps this is a God who insists on what investigators call a massive cover-up, repressing constant fresh outbreaks of hidden truth. A perpetual anti-Glasnost. If so, then the poem calls to mind Emily Dickinson's many poems (such as #690, "Victory comes late--") critical of a Creator who creates love and hope only to betray them with loss and death. Bateman's Lord seems "Now" to be able only to make tiny stitches--is this due to a diminution of His powers, or is it because He has found the big wounds too difficult to close neatly?
"Stitches" has turned out to be puzzling, but I hope to have shown its ambiguity to be richly suggestive--in a Dickinson-like way--rather than irritating. It has led us to the disturbing idea of wounds that perhaps ought not to be closed, and this idea connects with a disturbing energy throughout Bateman's poetry which tends to advocate openings, exposures, transmissions, emissions interpenetrations, flows of all kinds, at any cost. "In My New Life" is a poem in Ether which, like many other Bateman poems, adopts the tone and stance of a credo, a bold announcement of belief or commitment (as if for Bateman the excitement of existence would overwhelm her unless she could meet it with a brazen full-face all-inclusive response); here she commits herself to a refusal of any sublimity that leaves the earth behind. "In My New Life" begins this way:
In my new life, no matter that all one hundred ten
Levitation Queens still flutter & swoop around me,
calling, Come higher!
I will not go higher.
Instead, I'll take my stand
here with the sanctified spillers of history
laboring to spill in tenses past, pluperfect, & inexcusable,
by crack, by puncture, by the most gentle tipping over-
freon, spurt from your rusty coil, &
shatter, beaker, humming on your
small blue nest of flame.
Universal leakage is the true work of these times,
Or do you think it easy to everywhere endure
the secret travail of containers
as they await their turns, pleading,
Release us, sisters!
The passage exemplifies the way Bateman's poetry calls to mind strong poets without leaning on them or forcing allusions. We hear her choosing not to be like the early Yeats of "The Hosting of the Sidhe" but more like the late Yeats who claims he is content to live in the fecund ditch of folly (in "A Dialogue of Self and Soul") so as to stay real; and we hear the zestful urgency of Whitman crying "Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!" (in "Song of the Open Road"). In the life of "Universal leakage" Bateman advocates, Levitation will have lost all attractiveness because a dichotomized reality will have been revealed to be not only dull but untenable.
The mood is exciting. But as with some of Whitman's excited proclamations, we pause to wonder whether the poet intends to take full responsibility for her metaphors. The spurting freon, the shattering beakers--do we entirely want that life? What about the canisters of radioactive waste in underground military installations? One doesn't have to be Yvor Winters to worry that some forms of ecstatic embrace are crazy.
Here's a lighter example of the same issue. In "A Few Assertions I No Longer Believe" (Ether), Bateman rejects the proverb "Too many cooks spoil the broth."
Bring on the cooks!
A concatenation of cooks, a caucus, a quorum.
Brandishing ladles, may they lavishly labor
in manors, cafes, & the labyrinthine
kitchens of the dead,
that the soup may be stirred into being,
that the plot may thicken,
tough, savory, rich
with paddling, swimming, gasping
spooks & cooks.
Bateman is more whimsical than usual here but the impulse to say Yes to everything--pour it on, the thicker the better!--runs deep in her, as it does in Whitman. In the best Whitman we sense that the relentless affirmation is driven partly by a fear of some dark alternative: perhaps the injustices of selection, or perhaps the unbearable uncertainties of selection; or perhaps what he fears most is the terrifying acknowledgment that reality's huge processes will continue regardless of any human view of them, and this acknowledgment would become starkly unavoidable if we ceased to shout Yes. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" can be read as a dramatic escape from the sense of time's utter indifference to us. In Bateman's poetry of affirmation the awareness of a darkly distorting need to adopt the sweepingly affirmative stance sometimes seems to be missing, or repressed. In the "cooks" passage quoted above, there is no space for asking "Why do I want to say this?" nor for asking "What price will I pay for this attitude?" There is no pause to allow for the suspicion that in some frame of reference "too many" might indeed be nightmarish. Can there not be too many poets, for instance? After all, the proverb about cooks is meant to remind us of the valuable creativity of individual makers working alone, each cook thus having a chance to concoct a uniquely interesting soup rather than the gray sludge which might result from collaboration. But Bateman is not in the mood to worry her metaphor from that angle. She is in the grip of an intuition, and she will let it carry her on its wave.
The same may be said about many of her poems. An index of her power is that her versions of Yes almost never seem merely fluffy and feelgoody. (Even in the "cooks" passage, there is on second glance something a bit alarming about those chefs, some of them perhaps already dead "spooks," not only stirring the soup but swimming and gasping in it.) There is a wild-eyed skittishness in the voice and there is a quality of battered defiance, the sound of someone scarily brave who insists on returning to a fight after too many blows have been delivered by some giant enemy (an enemy whose name might be Common Sense or Prudence or Resignation or Cynicism), and still refuses to admit the enemy is a giant. I think this sound is audible even in the absence of the kind of detailed autobiographical inventory of losses and defeats which would be the obvious way to justify a tone and stance of often-knocked-down-but-never-vanquished. Indeed, Bateman is only fleetingly and elusively autobiographical in these two books. To the extent that her poetry does convey awareness of darkly distorting need behind the affirmations (the awareness I was saying Whitman conveys at his best), Bateman achieves this much more through metaphor and manner than through narrative (autobiographical or otherwise).
"Credo," the next-to-last poem in Friction, is a tour de force of comic-vatic summation; it is the kind of poem you can easily imagine being loudly declaimed to a pleased audience, and poems of this kind often become too slackly aimed at applause. "Credo" presents a barrage of declarations of belief, a few of which do seem simply comic ("That it is virtually impossible to find a real job through the want ads"), but most of which induce the tingling sensation of encounter with a vitally idiosyncratic point of view--for example:
That the energy within a resolution becomes available only as it is broken.
That piety is wholly indigestible, even for God, especially for God.
That the lit wick, burning at one end & drowning at the other, sings the only word it knows: More!
That the law of physics by which I flicker in & out of being approximately a billion times a second
is an inconvenience but not, in fact, a problem,
God having been ever a sucker for any strobe.
The constant flickering between being and nonbeing is one metaphorical way of getting at her sense of infinite restless contact between natural and supernatural, between matter and spirit, between the mortal human and eternity; being and nonbeing trade places in the human so rapidly as to be, if not indistinguishable, then wildly fantastically intimate.
In her "Credo" voice Bateman is entertaining but not just entertaining. I think the voice is a brilliant amalgam of Christopher Smart, Blake, and Whitman with Bateman's own defiant pluck. "Credo" culminates in a prayer which constitutes a third of the poem, and I will quote it all, plus the final four lines which follow the prayer. I propose that the total effect is of something stronger and deeper than peppiness.
That there is only one prayer I am capable of saying, & it goes like this:
From my name today, which is so far Claire Bateman,
from my borrowed house in Tennessee, home of pawnshops,
discount fireworks retail extravaganzas, mountains
floating blue inches above the horizon, & the International
Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum-
O universal fantasy of timely rescue,
from my stitched ribs,
my soul overflowing the skin's slack mesh,
the prosthetic museum of my limbs & vital organs,
the silicon chip implanted in my cerebellum,
& the steel plate in my tiny electrified skull,
on behalf of the entire food chain,
the unborn & the undead,
all mineral proliferation & vegetal excess,
from the alligator hatchlings wriggling into the heart's sewers
to the mystic physicians at Tech Support who hourly part the
raging information sea that the chosen ones might,
dry shod, pass through,
on behalf of the 13 sacred secretions,
& white swamp whiskey:
I am here to pronounce purgation
for creation's clogged arteries
that there may be an increase of delight in the world!
An increase of delight, I do now declare it,
& to this I dedicate myself,
for this I take responsibility,
be it either too heavy
or too devastatingly light.
That there is accumulation & breakdown,
clearing & occlusion,
coagulation & flow.
There is shaking & being shaken.
Earlier I raised the question whether Bateman seriously considers the consequences implied by her many metaphorical flourishes on behalf of "leakage" and purgation--and the question will stay on the table. But when she says "for this I take responsibility, / be it either too heavy / or too devastatingly light" she does not sound like someone blithely ignorant of costs; rather, there is a gravity of tone here which suggests not only that she knows "delight" can be expensive--people can be "shaken" by delight, and by being excluded from others' delight--but also that she knows the amount of delight truly attainable by means of prayer and other efforts (such as poetry) may in the end be desperately small. The chord struck by the last four lines of "Credo" is not triumphal; helplessness is in it.
And after all, what kind of prayer arises "from the alligator hatchlings wriggling into the heart's sewers"? That would have to be a dangerous prayer. Do we judge the metaphor to be hyperbolic? Your answer will partly depend on how your heart has felt recently. Also it will depend on your sense of the drivenness of the voice--when you feel a poet is truly driven into her metaphors (like Dickinson claiming "Our Lord-indeed-- made Compound Witness-- / And yet-- / There's newer-- nearer Crucifixion / Than That--" in poem #553) you are less likely to complain of hyperbole. Anyway, Bateman is clearly much less wary of hyperbole than of passivity and numbness in response to life. In a poem called "Holes" she notes that any voice is an outpouring through a conduit from interior to exterior, and momentarily celebrates yodeling as an utterance in which
...the voice, aware that it is always full of holes,
wants to revel in hyperbole--why not celebrate
its unstable & internally spacious nature,
rather than always strain to fill the holes
with self-deprecations, snivelling disclaimers?
How do we take her avowal in "Credo" that her prayer arises from "the silicon chip implanted in my cerebellum, / & the steel plate in my tiny electrified skull"? Well, not literally. Bateman is drawn to metaphors involving monstrous artifice, metaphors which violate the boundary between natural and artificial, between the human and the invented, between body and world. (If her poetry were a seventeen-year-old person, its hair would be bright blue and its skin would be decorated with shiny metal.) The feeling behind this impulse seems to be an inflamed denial--sometimes laughing, sometimes howling--that ordinary human life in a "normal" human body is sufficient. Enough? her poetry says about healthy daily life, with an unnerving smile, Enough? Of course it's not enough! She is with Yeats on this. In "Under Water in the Orthopedic Waiting Room" she says "Most days, the acceptance / of what can't be changed seems to me / obscene." And goes on unhesitatingly to request various artificial improvements of her body .
To see that Bateman professes this attraction to enhancements of the merely natural, even if monstrous, helps us to understand why the astonishing centerpiece of Friction is a set of eight poems (twenty-one pages) spoken by the Monster created by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Bateman is fascinated by the idea of a constructed human being, a person both supernatural and horrifically incomplete, someone who can't help but defy normality, someone by whom the entire project of human life is suddenly confronted all-at-once as an enterprise of extremely dubious design and value. We come to realize that this summary of the Monster also summarizes Bateman's intuitive sense of herself, or rather the dark version of her sense of herself. Thus the Monster poems comprise a multifaceted self-portrait via comic-monstrous exaggeration. Bateman's Monster evinces tremendous curiosity, sensuality, intelligence, and loneliness, and a permanent amazed aggrievedness. He knows he is a botched experiment, a magnificent walking deba cle: "Either the body could be bearable, or the soul. / Together, neither is bearable." Yet we hear him bearing up and raving on, sustained by the poetry of his case against the creator (Dr. F.; God).
A full essay should be written about Bateman's Monster sequence; here, I only point out how fully at home the sequence is in the context of Bateman's many versions of the sleepless wired spiritual/sensual self, semi-daffy, finally heroic. At the end of "His Tumescence," a poem in which the Monster laments his lack of mate and child, he reports a dream of all the lives that have ever been cut off from fulfillment, including "infants dead of fever before they ever beheld the light"--and then cries out:
I live to celebrate the great spillages of history!
And to surpass them
in you, reader,
from my imagination overflowing,
Much of Claire Bateman lives in the dash at the end of that poem, refusing the resignation of a full stop, remaining at a high pitch of present feeling while pointing toward something as-yet-unembodied.
But her self-portraits can be less alarming than the Monster. In "Life on Earth" (Ether) she imagines herself as a gigantic flightless blue bird whose "assignment is to grow / lighter & lighter without rising." Whimsical, you may say, yet the poem's unpredictable flow of associations is impelled by a search for self-accounting deeper than any desire to be impressively surprising. Earthbound she is and will be, while never unaware of something within her (and within us) meant for flight in a blue beyond. Here is the unforeseen ending of "Life on Earth":
Blue as the threshold rose,
which, thriving only in ruined places,
is, like me, grounded,
& constantly trembles
as if it needs to release
a violent internal heat,
just as light streaming
through a crumbling doorway
rises trembling on the opposite wall
so that in ever slower motion,
a matching rectangle of rippled plaster
grows first dim, then bright,
pre-blue, as if hoping that one day
after precise exposure
& sufficient patience,
it too might become a door,
This lovely passage has a low-key wistfulness different from the main vein of Bateman's originality. The passage's metaphors of flower and light and doorway don't jab at us the way her metaphors mainly do, they don't force us to wonder what social interaction with such a yearning person would be like.
Constant focus on possible/impossible transformation into the transcendent can make a person horridly uncooperative, contemptuous, remote, or boring--or all of these. Befriending Yeats, or Dickinson, must have been awfully bumpy and fatiguing (even if delightful on occasion). Images of human relationship are remarkably few in Friction and At the Funeral of the Ether, and when Bateman writes what could be called a love poem, "Saint Blue," it describes an endlessly tantalizing separation from the beloved, calling to mind both the hard-earned serenity of Stevens's "The World as Meditation" and the tenser courage of Dickinson's "I cannot live with You--/ It would be Life." "Saint Blue" begins this way:
Each time I read your letters, something different is missing.
This is the way absence works. It is not fixed,
just as the world's center is not fixed,
but roams freely. Is it, then, still the center?
Yes, because of the heat in the soles of your feet
when it rests on the spot where you happen to be.
Isn't absence related to fire by virtue of negation?
When I see the missing passages in the letters,
I imagine my heart is on fire.
The poem continues trying to protect the speaker from the spear-point of yearning by developing a professorial meditation on how absence is actually necessary to relationship, an idea which merges into the even more sublimatory idea that absence-from-mind is necessary to imagined relationship--but at the end we know the pain of yearning has not all been dissolved:
The more I think about you, the less I know.
Is this the same as if I missed you?
Maybe if I read your letters less often,
that which is lost might return.
All the words in one place, intact,
& I walking around not reading them,
keeping you safe.
Plangent. But in the very next poem in Friction Bateman reminds us that romantic-sexual yearning can be comically absurd when you're not caught in its bluest throes. "It Must Have Been Heat Before It Became Weight" reports on the secret midnight union of the souls of separated lovers, a union which is not chaste--Bateman's souls have the sexual robustness (though, alas, not the graceful satisfaction) of Milton's angels who enjoy "in eminence" what good human lovers can enjoy. Where do the two souls have their tryst? At the exact midpoint between the bedrooms where the bodies of the separated lovers sleep--thus on the roof of the K-Mart in Advance, West Virginia. The poem explains that contrary to genteel myth, the hungry souls are obese with desire: "The gross weight of the soul cannot be calculated." The tryst is not idyllic: "The roof is pebbly & uncomfortable, / even in a noncorporeal sense. Where / are the white feathers, the rushings of wings?" Union lasts only a second and then the souls must return, " pebble-&-tar encrusted, into their slack bodies, / inflating them once again / with the radiant gritty clouds of their desire."
Unlike the bodies, those souls will never get to relax. They want the joy that is supposed to be only for bodies, the ecstasy of caress and orgasm. Conversely, bodies elsewhere in Bateman's poetry can't rest in embodiment's limits, as we have seen. Every thing craves to be--and even can't help becoming--the other thing too, and the friction of the interchanges is perpetual.
Thus when the corporeal Wolf eats Red Riding Hood's celestial grandmother, it turns out in "Waiting For Red" that Grandma is delighted:
Hadn't she always
dreamed of a little
extra speed, a certain
In the dark, she closed
her eyes & gave herself up
to muscle rhythms & the remembered
scent of streams along the timberline,
the remembered scent of blood.
The Wolf, meanwhile, gets in touch with his Dickinsonian potential:
In himself he recognized
a certain suppressed
of light through lace
curtains, weight of quietness
on that kind of afternoon.
Definitions and differences and boundaries are exciting in Bateman's view because they create the possibility of crossing. Everything important to her involves the yearning to cross over from one condition to another--though the desire is often made even more torturous by the insistence on smuggling over the beauties of the original condition. No rest for the crosser! But again, we may ask: what about intactness, integrity, "having one's own space," the nobility of solitude, renunciation of desire, stoical acceptance of fate? Where does Bateman give full consideration to these possible values? She doesn't. In this regard her work is, so far, lopsided--though not (as I hope to have shown) carelessly or capriciously so. After saying YES to the universe and all its mutability in a set of amazing ways, what can a poet do next?
This is a problem Whitman did not solve perfectly, sliding into rehashings like "Passage to India." His once-barbaric yawp tended eventually toward blather despite his huge talent. In the process, his "Myself" became too blurry. Like Bateman's personae, Whitman's Myself was always a strange combination of brazen idiosyncrasy and limitless impersonality. Can Walt be everyone and still be Walt? At what point does he disappear in a smoke of endless yesses? Can Claire approve and embrace all ecstatic leaps, leaks, and transformations and still be Claire? To watch where this strong poet goes next will be fascinating.
Meanwhile, Friction and At the Funeral of the Ether deserve lots of attention. They include many good poems I haven't mentioned--including "December 31, 1999," a funny proclamation of unbowed Yeats-like millennial yearning which deserves to have become famous months before this review was published. Claire Bateman's poetry has a frontally thematic quality--she wants you to get it--as the quotations I've given show. To me this quality seems brave, in the postmodern Zeitgeist of infinitely recessive doubt about whether we can say anything, and it distinguishes Bateman from, for example, Jorie Graham, whose powerful poetry tends to insist on a disorienting immersion in bafflement while broaching the same matter/spirit issues which Bateman more openly seizes and shakes. Where Graham lingers, however brilliantly, in anxious epistemology, Bateman plunges ahead into nervy juiced ontology. Why is there sky? In "Sky" she offers a funny flurry of possible answers, which can't undo the fatefulness of her first answer: "So we could remain caught between what we stand on that will not let us in, I & what falls down upon us, that will not let us go."