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It might be that, for a literary historian from the future, the most interesting technical development in American poetry in the last two decades of this century would be the refinement of (largely autobiographical) narrative. It would be a little surprising, since "confessional poetry"--almost from the moment that unfortunate term was coined--has been the whipping-boy of half a dozen newer schools, New Surrealism, New Formalism, Language Poetry. Yet it has remained the staple of what comes near to being poetry's mass audience--the earnest beginners, in small cities, on college campuses of all kinds and sizes, for whom poetry is a way of setting their lives in order. On the more sophisticated level, all the negative attention may well have stimulated poets to approach the self's story with a tact, a self-awareness, an eye to exclusions and thematic "figure in the carpet," fiction writers have taken for granted for generations (think of To the Lighthouse, "Prelude," A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). One reads the best of the newer narrative poetry with a sense of point of view, of strategic timing and delayed exposition, that makes even the great poems of Lowell and Plath feel like raw lyric by comparison.

Yet I wouldn't entirely agree with Alan Shapiro's sense, in a fascinating recent essay ("In Praise of the Impure: Narrative Consciousness in Poetry," TriQuarterly 81, Spring/Summer 1991), that recent narrative poetry, being more social, is in reaction against the concentrated interior moment not only in High Modernism but even in Lowell and Ginsberg. That seems to me too absolute an either-or; from another point of view, all three could be seen as instants along the same vector, an extension of Pound's "the natural object is always the adequate symbol." Heaven knows few poets are working in High Modernist modes at the moment; but some of those who are-peter Dale Scott, for instance--have made significant contributions, by their very ellipses, to the art of storytelling.

I've spoken of fiction as a model; but it may be useful to notice two other, opposite models, both a little beyond the spectrum of the fictional. One would be movies, which explain nothing, but convey both interpretation and feeling-tone by a series of immensely subtle visual and spatial cues. The other would be the essay, which does nothing but explain, but has a freedom to switch anecdotal subject, setting, and mode of address allowed to almost no other genre. Movies are a model for poetry--as for fiction and so much else--simply because they are our culture's most popular, and most technically inventive, mode of storytelling. Essays may have become a model because of the heated discussion surrounding the term "discursive" after the publication of Robert Pinsky's influential and controversial book The Situation of Poetry. (Indeed, Shapiro's sense of a new narrative school might be brought into sharper focus by calling it an essayistic school.)

One could trace this mode back to the poets who have most shaped it, poets like Pinsky, C.K. Williams, Frank Bidart. But I'd prefer, in this column and the succeeding one, to look at the mostly younger poets who have been able to take the mode for granted, and have brought to it a new finesse, variation, assurance. The title poem of Alan Shapiro's own new volume, Covenant, is a spectacular instance of the interweaving of fictional, essayistic, and cinematic possibilities. (I'll concede, at the start, that I have no reason to consider this poem "confessional," other than the similarity of atmosphere to certain poems that are explicitly about the poet's own family.) "Covenant" tells the story of a Jewish family reunion from the terrible perspective of the "youngest sister"'s death "three months away." We know from fairly early on that she will die, but it takes us most of the length of the poem, and many hints, to learn exactly what happens. (Affected, either mentally or physically, by a stroke, she drops a lighted cigarette and sets herself on fire.) But the focus of the poem, while this appalling story is being postponed, is on the inner violence within the family, the tensions around food, around giving and taking, control, intrusion, and contamination. "The oldest sister, her two hands on the table,/ about to push herself up," waits grimly while the others go on talking,

Her gaze so tense with purpose she can almost

see germs spawning in the mess of white fish

flaking from the spines, the smear of egg yolk

and the tom rolls disfiguring the china;

as if the meal, the moment it is over,

the meal she made a point of telling them

she shopped for, got up early to prepare

were now inedible, because uneaten. Down the long sentence unwinds through the lines, with a muscular effort that imitates the work of arriving at, and formulating, a psychological insight, as well as the tense insistences of the sister's own harangue. And from the middle of this sentence the horrid, unforgettable visual details flash out--this much, at least, has been learned from the revolt against imagism--with an off-guard vividness they could never have had if the poet's main, declared intent had been to describe.

Shapiro is usually a formal poet, but aggressively, not a New Formalist. The difference lies between the little lick of self-conscious pseudoelegance that tends to get laid down on every line when form is an end in itself, and the immense variety of tones it can take, uses it can serve, in the hands of a poet whose eye is on something more serious. At one extreme, there's the puzzled, driving, working-things-out Larkinesque kind of line we've just heard; at the other, the Frostian syncopated line that catches the lilt of colloquial speech by setting it against a metrical expectation. "Listen, she would be saying, listen, Charlie"; "What can you do? What are ya gonna do?" A great deal of Shapiro's poem is taken up with capturing, in pentameter, certain Jewish-American storytelling mannerisms and the emotions they reveal--bewilderment, pain, self-importance, the triumph over experience by reenacting it--more or less the same range of reactions to human misfortune caught by that famous "Yes" in Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose," a poem Shapiro has written about eloquently.

All of this imitation, and examination, of storytelling reaches its horrid fruition when we finally hear the story of the youngest sister's death in the older sister's voice:

And selfish. She was selfish, that one After

all those years of living with that bum,

her husband, may his cheap soul rest in peace,

didn't she deserve a little pleasure?

And anyway, what could be done for her?

Didn't the stroke just make it easier

for her to sit all day, and smoke, and not care

ashes were falling on the couch, the carpet;

her bathrobe filthy, filthy? It sounds like the worst Jewish-mother joke one has ever heard: the youngest sister, it would seem, has died just to burden the older sister's life more, to "(sit) there,/ the queen of Sheba," establishing that "she was there, she was always there,/ her big sister, to clean up the mess."

Yet at this very moment of grotesque satire, Shapiro's essayistic, explanatory tone comes in to move the poem toward the lyrical, and toward compassion. The bad mother becomes the child, her hostility her way of defending herself against guilt, helplessness, and self-reproach:

and now they will hear the old unfairnesses,

old feuds and resentments come to her voice

like consolation, like a mother helping

her recite the story of that bad last day--all

that smoke, and running in with nothing

but the dishtowel to beat down the flames....

What seems to me cinematic in the poem is the way light and temperature function throughout, both as a foreshadowing--or a reminder--of the youngest sister's unspeakable fate, and as a subtler emotional index of the "wavering frail zone it" ("the body," but, by extension, the ego and its anxieties) "needs/ to be forgotten." Early in the poem "sunlight" is "only just now catching on/ a corner of the window" (italics mine); later it "burns brick by brick all morning toward the window/ like a slow fuse"; until finally

the sun has only just now

caught in the window, and its bright plaque warms

the air so gradually that none of them

can know it's warming, or that soon someone,

distracted by a faint sheen prickling the skin,

will break the story, look up toward the window

and, startled by the full glare, check the time.

What saves this from being gimmicky is partly that this last, most brilliant recurrence comes after the flash-forward to the death narrative; and partly that it so profoundly encapsulates the deepest issues in the poem. The "figure in the carpet" is "the harm that's imperceptibly/ but surely coming for them," time itself, the unnoticed flowering of causes and possibilities, always at once too slow and too quick for our attention. On the psychological level, control is the theme the poem settles on, the impossible wish that makes the claustrophobic atmosphere of this family comprehensible, even as it also provides an avenue for its aggressions:

Nothing bad, right now, can happen here

except as news, bad news the brother and sister

mull and rehearse, puzzle and fret until

it seems the very telling of it is

what keeps them safe. And safe, too, the oldest sister...

dreaming of how the soapsuds curdle and slide

over the dishes in a soothing fury,

not minding that it scalds her hands to hold

each plate and cup and bowl under the hot,

hard jet of water, if it gets them clean.

Temperature, again. What a savage ending it is--as if the self-punishing energy in the family became the fire that burns the sister alive. And yet a compassionate ending, in its willingness to enter, identify with, and explain the labyrinth of motive.

I've loved Shapiro's work--its Larkinesque measures, its truthfulness-ever since Happy Hour, an interrogation of the psychology of love as severe, in its way, as Proust's. This new book is immensely richer and more varied, turning on our covenants with God and Fate as well as the grimmer, pettier trade-offs within the family. It will please differrent readers in different ways. Some, I know, are most taken with the Miloszian poems on historical irony, commonplaceness, and terror. My own favorites, aside from "Covenant," are "The Lesson" and the series on marriage and fatherhood running, approximately, from "Owl" through "Separation of the Waters." The former takes up the explosive theme of child sexual abuse without self-pity, concentrating instead on the glamour the pedophile is able to conjure up for the group of boys. The latter are healthy--as the great marriage sequences in recent memory emphatically are not--and for that reason all the more devastating in their sense of the daily bargain with Fate.

Tom Sleigh's poem "Fish Story," like "Covenant," has unspeakable violence and pain, slowly disclosed, as its core subject. I take it up as a much clearer instance of the essayistic way of organizing a poem, its oddities and its advantages. (Sleigh's book, like Shapiro's, appears in the University of Chicago Press's Phoenix Poets series, which also publishes Lloyd Schwartz and Anne Winters, among others. The series deserves praise for having identified itself, more than any other publisher, with the best of newer narrative work.)

"Fish Story" begins in the unapologetically intellectual way Frank Bidart's work, more than anyone else's, has made thinkable to younger writers.

I was reading Plutarch's Lives, about the gods,

When I remembered someone I once knew, who came to our home

On Sundays for dinner with his girlfriend Kay

The leap, of course, is anything but accidental. The work of the poem will be to define, through this "someone," what the gods who "come down to us disguised" would be like. At first, the definition seems heroic and uncomplicated, if a little hackneyed. The man, a fisherman, a contrast to Kay's gay ex-boyfriend, is superhuman in his appetites and strength, if also in killing; he talks about

How the deck gets slimy with scales,

And the sixteen-ounce steaks you eat morning, noon and night,

And how you need that kind of nourishment

To gaff hundreds of fish and club them to death "A fish story," the speaker thinks, when the man shows his "Bloodsoaked socks"; but later, when he himself is seized with the archetypal adolescent ambition of running away to sea, those socks become enviable, the "badge or token/ That I was more than what I seemed," and finally "As much an emblem as a thunderbolt or trident." But the moment the theme of divinity is finally, explicitly articulated, it takes a darker turn--an unlikeness to, perhaps even a deficiency in, human consciousness:

So that sometimes I wonder if he himself

Weren't a kind of god: He had the face

Of a sleepy animal, heavy lids and bushy hair and his eyes

Went blind when he talked, his spoon hesitating

Halfway to his mouth and the steam

Off the soup curling upward in the sunlight

He talked about the death penalty as a good thing,

And here, with wonderful black-comic timing, the poem releases its thunderbolt--

Which seems strange considering what later happened:

He was separated from his wife, with two kids,

When he'd met Kay, and one night, with a flensing knife,

He stabbed his wife twenty-seven times,

Face, throat, chest, back, stabbed her even in the eye

Like Marlowe.

(I sometimes wonder what future readers will make of such ostentatiously "literary" effects as "Like Marlowe." For us, I think, they depend on the presumption that violence is so commonplace in the news and popular culture that we need to come on it out of context--in literary history, for instance--to feel how odd, and how nauseatingly real, it is.)

The murder makes the man even more mysterious, for he seems to have committed it in a kind of trance, and gets off with "A temporary insanity plea, which I admit/ Seems accurate." In confronting this, the poem returns to the mythic; and, I would add, to the essayist's freedom not only of subject matter but of tone, since "poetic temperaments" are not expected to be so impressive and so skeptical in the same breath:

I see him like that, straight-backed in his chair,

Stone-faced as Ephesian Diana, her throat encircled

By a neeklace of bull's testicles, what poetic temperaments

Mistake for breasts!

The stakes are high here, for all the cynicism. Is the divine grand and nourishing (the man's "hand ... seemed gentle and faithful that Sunday"); or is it a rigid atavistic stupidity? From this image the poem cuts directly to its second coup de theatre:

--I think of him at their wedding

Staring straight into Kay's eyes and her saying, I do,

The flashbulbs gasping in the startled air

And the air holding still as they drag out the kiss,

And then his hand clasped over hers on the cake knife.

Like Shapiro's last line, this one makes us wince, taking us straight back to the unspeakable crime. Yet the tenderness in it all but overrides that, leaving us, again, with questions. Are human beings dupes--rabbits mesmerized by the snake--or do they discover unbelievably trustworthy powers in themselves, when they fall in love with the ambiguous gods? The slightly heightened tone of the writing--permitted, one feels, by "Ephesian Diana," for all the undercutting--reinforces this double-edged sense of awe, leaving us a little "startled," like the "air." (Not less so, perhaps, because that phrase echoes a classical scene in Rilke's First Elegy.)

Reading this poem leaves me feeling heartened, not only about Sleigh's own development (it seems to me the best single poem in Waking, though others have even more overpowering subjects), but about the possibilities in contemporary writing it typifies. There's so much more amplitude, of experience and tone, than in the Deep Image style of twenty years ago, the New Critical style of forty. Pace Shapiro, it even seems closer to the excitement of Modernism, though the means are utterly different. Certainly many unfortunate prejudices have had to be overcome to get to it: that intellect and learned reference are incompatible with emotion; that a speech-based style cannot go with the numinous, or either with any vestige of the formal line. (Sleigh's poem has a much more relaxed metric than Shapiro's, but consider "The flashbulbs gasping in the startled air.") It suggests that we live at a flexible, omnivorous moment in the history of American poetry; and however much discouragingly unambitious work is also out there, that is something to be grateful for.
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Author:Williamson, Alan
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Covenant.
Next Article:Twenty-four logics in memory of Lee Hickman.

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