Beauty Will Save the World: A Review

photo by daveynin (Creative Commons)

When you go for a drive around town, how often are you struck by the beauty of the architecture of strip malls, fast-food joints, and freeway exits? Does the brown cloud camping over your metropolis plant awe in your heart?

We are growing ugly. Logically, we’re growing ugly because we are losing beauty–it isn’t important to us in our architecture, in our studying, in our politics, in our entertainment, in our daily interactions with each other.  In Beauty Will Save the World, Zahnd asserts that our world is ugly because the axis on which the world revolves is one of power and violence. According to Zahnd, we (globally) spend over 3 billion dollars a day on defending ourselves. The United States accounts for 56% of that number. As we spend exorbitant amounts of money on political campaigns, weapons, and walls, there are places where people can’t even get a drink of fresh water, or enjoy a full meal for that matter. (Side note: check out globalrichlist.org. If you make $25,000 a year, that places you in the richest 10% in the world! Obama considers this income below poverty. Really? Really? I’m not sure if any of our politicians really understand the true depth of poverty. Do you? Do I?)

Zahnd’s main premise is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, tilted the earth’s axis to one of love. His argument, while inefficiently written, is powerful and fascinating. Zahnd takes us to the beginning of history, when Cain killed Abel. God cursed him, and Cain went and founded a city. Zahnd asserts that this city was essentially founded on murder and violence, the consequence of his murderous actions, thus setting into motion a pattern of building power through violence. Zahnd does an amazing job of calling out the American church in its support for our imperialism. Zahnd writes,

“[T]here is always a particular temptations faced by the church when it is hosted by a superpower. The temptation is to accommodate itself to its host and to adopt (or even christen) the cultural assumptions of the super power. . .[T]he problem that is distorting American evangelicalism is that it has become far too accommodating to Americanism and the culture of superpower. . .The dominant American script is that which idolizes success, achievement, acquisition, technology, and militarism. It is the script of a superpower. But this dominant script does not fit neatly with the alternative script we find in the  gospel of Jesus Christ. So here is our challenge: when those who confess Christ find themselves living in the midst of an economic and military superpower, the are faced with the choice to either be an accommodating chaplain or a prophetic challenge. . . We need to bear the form and beauty of the Jesus way and not merely provide a Christianized version of our cultural assumptions.”

This is a kick to the stomach of any church who preaches both the gospel of grace and salvation and justifies any act of violence against another human being (bombing, slaving, trafficking, etc.). Jesus himself undermined the Roman axis of power in his day by claiming to be the king of heaven (and eventually all of Earth). Zahnd explains that through grace and forgiveness, Jesus undermined and invalidated Caesar’s power. Additionally, Zahnd points out that Jesus was able to take one of the most offensive, painful, frightening, and ugly symbols of death in Western history and turned it into a beautiful symbol of faith and life.

“It is the beauty of Christ’s love and forgiveness as most clearly seen in the cruciform that is able to save us from our vicious pride avaricious greed . . . [which] are often pawned off as virtues in the culture of a superpower.”

Zahnd  believes that it is the role of the Christian then to not “protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ . . . because God is more like a musician than a manager, more like a composer of symphonies than a clerk of keeping ledgers.”

And this is why art is important. Zahnd asserts that art is not as valuable in a pragmatic culture like a 21st-century United States. Whether it’s politics, economics, education, technology, business, or career, practicality reigns over aesthetics. Art is not practical, but it sure is beautiful. Zahnd uses the cathedrals found in Europe as an example of architecture exhibiting beauty and awe.  Art most likely will never provide a consistent paycheck for most of us. It just isn’t practical. And neither is Jesus dying on the cross or resurrecting from the dead. But both are awe-inspiring, mysterious, life-changing, beautiful.

Would the gospel of Jesus Christ be beautiful to those who don’t believe it if it weren’t based on pragmatism, logic, and usefulness? Would the beauty of the gospel be seen if Christian art sought to reflect originality and uniqueness in an axis of love?

photo by Eric Lars Bakke

I will leave you with this thought. I think the Tim Tebow phenomenon is an accurate microcosm of how evangelical Christians treat people outside of their (our) circle of belief. And I’m not talking about Tebow himself. I’m talking about his fans. Those who disassociate themselves with any who say something critical of their idol. It’s an us vs. them mentality, which often resorts to name calling, verbal abuse, and all around ugliness. If that’s how the followers of Jesus act to those who have a different world view, how will the gospel of Jesus’ grace and salvation ever be beautiful?

The Red Wheel Barrow, Imagination, and the Christian Poet

It has been too long since I last posted, as bronchitis and sinusitis descended into my system and knocked me out for awhile. Unfortunately, my blog and writing had to take a back seat until I had the energy and ability to write without abandoning my family and my job. Hopefully, this blog finds you in good (or returning to good!) health. I’m pleased to announce that my review of William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All has been published by the Englewood Review of Books. An excerpt:

Originally published in 1923, Spring and All, Williams’s manifesto of imagination and poetry, became one of, if not the most, influential works for mid to late twentieth-century poets. Produced on the heels of the Great War, Williams calls for new forms, new images, new beings, and new cultures because all previous forms and ideas had led us into destruction and death. Today, we again find our American selves faced with war and economic and food crises. In a country where politicians are calling for thousands of math and science teachers, where standardized tests and business skills trump imagination and art, Williams’s monumental work yet again stands at the threshold of form and tradition, begging for a savior.

Read the entire review here. Don’t forget to share your thoughts–is it too much to associate imagination and creativity with Jesus?

God’s Silence by Franz Wright

I picked up God’s Silence from a big-box brick and mortar store last fall. God is an interesting subject in the literary world. Additionally, the cover of the book says “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize”. Wow,  prize-winning book about God. What is it Wright says about God? Is God God or is the book some sort of metaphor? Is it a piece of atheistic work? (I read a quote somewhere that said an atheist at the window is closer to God than a superficial, legalistic church-goer.) I have to check this out. Come to find out, Wright won the Pulitzer for his work Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (tricky cover designers). My interest was piqued even more when I read that Image had awarded him for his work in regards to faith. That takes care of the atheism question. I finally got a chance to read Wright’s work once summer break got under way. And now it’s at or near the top of the best poetry collections I’ve read.

The collection begins with a feeling of loneliness, solitude, darkness, and winter. It is pretty obvious very early that Wright is contemplating salvation, eternity, and the juxtaposition of a loving and wrathful God. There is a motif of God, salvation, and light throughout. In the acknowledgment section of the book Wright thanks somebody for introducing him to the writing of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thich Nhat Hanh. I wasn’t familiar with either of these names but it turns out that they are a Jewish scholar/poet and a Buddhist exile respectively. In the poem “D., 1959-2004″, Wright describes the deceased as “resting/on Christ’s breast . . . [and] comfortably seated/at the Buddha’s feet”. Obviously, Wright is allowing his faith to be informed (not defined) by the thoughts of other spiritual beliefs. It seems to me that Wright takes the Buddhist idea of light and uses that tangible something to help him understand heaven, hell and the afterlife. I’m saddened that some “Christian” readers may be offended and accuse Wright of universalism (all paths lead to God, salvation, and or eternal life). I’m not sure Wright is necessarily a universalist because (in this collection) because he wrestles time and again with the idea that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. What I like about Wright’s stance in these poems is he reveals he doesn’t understand why it seems like God chooses some and not others, that he may very well spend eternity separated from people he loves here on earth. He isn’t condemning anyone, isn’t pretending or claiming to have all the answers–instead, Wright seems to be exploring how to come to grips with his faith, his salvation, and his God.

Wright doesn’t only explore his faith, though–he also writes some pretty fantastic poetry. Stylistically, he excels at the imaginal and synthesizing antithesis. I’ve written frequently on the imaginal, and will write more in the near future as I will blog about Williams’ Spring and All. In a nut shell, the imaginal establishes the imagination as a necessary component of art, humanity, and reality. Dream poems are great examples of the imaginal because dreams often bring to the surface something going on in our subconscious.  Many of these poems are dream poems that seem to force Wright to further face his faith. “The Two” is one such example:

The Two by Franz Wright

They were standing there
above me when I woke
Franz I heard them say
in unison though neither’s lips moved

and there was no sound
no interruption
of the silence I heard
the word in my mind

as if I had imagined it
or spoken aloud
myself
but the voice was not mine

the voices I should say
then like sunlight
when a cloud obscures the sun suddenly
they were gone.

This poem provides the uncertainty of the details and truths of the dream. The dream itself seems not to matter as much as the potency of the dream demanding the writer’s attention. Other dream poems are flat-out weird (like being wrapped in plastic wrap, condemned to mop floors for eternity). It seems as thought Wright has come face to face with the divine in his dreams (if they are dreams…they could be strictly imagination which makes them that much more extraordinary) as he tries to come to some sort of understanding.

Finally, Wright does a superb job presenting opposites through images and line endings. One great example is “The Knowers”:

The Knowers by Franz Wright

Little bird bones come back
as a bird, as a bird
loudly singing
again
in the dead leaves
come back as green
leaves: only
we
don’t return.

In this poem, life and death coexist, similarities show between birds and trees, both in opposition to the journey of the human after death. Is there joy or disappointment in being separated from the circle of life as we know it?

Wright concludes the entire collection with the line “Proved faithless, still I wait.” The irony of this lines sums up the entire collective work. If not having all the answers or not being able to make complete sense of everything means that he is faithless, then sure, he is faithless. But the journey of the collection proves otherwise, as Wright seems to be rejecting the self and pride instead of the character of God, which (I think) shows a deep, passionate faith.

God’s Silence is a fantastic collection of poems because the poet confronts his own heart and writes poems that are powerful as individual poems and as contributors to a larger work.

On ‘The Moon in Your Hands’

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a close reading of a poem, and with the majority of my traffic aimed at my blogs on teaching poetry, I figure I’m long overdue to discuss a poem. So with ambiguity fresh on my mind, I came across this poem by H.D.:

The Moon in Your Hands

If you take the moon in your hands
and turn it around
(heavy, slightly tarnished platter)
your’re there;

if you pull dry sea-weed from the sand
and turn it round
and wonder at the underside’s bright amber,
your eyes

look out as they did here,
(you don’t remember)
when my soul turned round,

perceiving the other-side of everything,
mullein-leaf, dogwood-leaf, moth-wing
and dandelion-seed under the ground.

The poem begins with the impossible. Mankind views simply traveling to the moon as an epic achievement, much less grasping and manipulating the moon. So when we get to the end of the first stanza, we are forced to ask what or where ‘there’ is. At this point in the poem, we don’t know, but we know the ‘you’ (is it me the reader or a specific person in the mind of the poet? Ah…our first ambiguity) is capable of much more, is bigger than life, is in a condition that can be supernatural, unknown, spiritual, imaginal, enlightened, etc.

The second stanza is much more down to earth (ha!). We get the same image of turning around, of manipulating, of turning over, but in a way that is possible and applicable to humans. Added to the ability to turn is the ability to wonder. And not just to wonder, but to wonder about something so simply complex. Dry sea-weed is most likely dead, and yet there is a brightness found when digging beneath the surface. The form of the first two stanzas also unites ‘there’ with ‘eyes’ suggesting not just a place, but a condition where wonder and the cosmos go hand in hand.

The third stanza provides us with a shift in form and image. Stanzas 1 and 2 are very concrete, and then we get this abstract connection between the speaker, the ‘you’ and the actual turn in the existence of the speaker. And at this moment we have a moment of memory, of salvation, of understanding more important to the speaker than anybody else. We remember those moments in our lives when we perceive something beyond the physical and emotional, when the microscopic magnifies for just a minute and we see with our innermost being.

The fourth stanza then is an expansion on the soul’s turn-around, a magnification of the small impossible things (in opposition to the cosmic impossible at the beginning of the poem). But we’ve moved beyond just looking at the underside of leaves and are moved to include the underside of moth wings–something so minute and intricate and fragile that to observe them would be to kill. The final image of “dandelion-seed under the ground” adds more ambiguity for the reader. “Under the ground” suggests burial and death alongside a dandelion seed, which only comes when the dandelion dies (I know this. Just ask my yard). Yet a seed buried in the ground suggests germination, growth, rebirth.

We’re forced then to face the “there” presented in the first stanza. Maybe it’s death–not the ultimate final kind but of the ego, of pride, of self. But there is too much life in the poem for it to represent the end of everything. But it seems, in my life anyways, that any time I experience a soul turn of sorts, that something is laid to rest in my own personal rebirth. Is it as simple as the tragic Greek journey moving from hubris to catharsis? Is it as simple as a moment when we realize some truth? Is it a complete life change? Ah, the joys of ambiguity.

Inside Out by L.L. Barkat

I first came across Barkat’s poetry while perusing the issue of Catapult Magazine that published my first poem. Barkat’s poem, “Stayed”, was reprinted from her latest book, Inside Out. Here’s the poem:

Stayed by L.L. Barkat

Why do we not
leave home.
Is it really for fear
of what lies
beyond, or rather
for fear that the
roof will abscond
with the doors
and the shutters
we’ve always known.
And who would they
blame if it happened
just so, if the whole
curtained place simply
picked up its stakes,
disappeared on the wind
in our absence. What
are we really afraid
of, why do we not
leave home.

Two things struck me about Barkat’s writing style: her use of punctuation and her short-lined style. I added Inside Out to my wish list and then didn’t think much more about it. Then, last summer, I read and blogged about Refractions by Makoto Fujimura. I liked Refractions so much that I did a little reasearch on Fujimura, and came across his organization, International Arts Movement, whose sole purpose is to unite artists of all types across the globe. I came across Barkat’s work again, stumbled upon her blog, seedlingsinstone.blogspot.com, and discovered that Inside Out was published by IAM. (Barkat’s blog is great by the way, with a great mixture of poems, prompts, reviews, and photos. To say the blog is active is the understatement of this young 2011.) Anyways, I can’t help but to find connections between books, thoughts, people, websites, ideas, etc. I also keep a watchful eye on Christian artists and their art. I’ve blogged quite a bit in the past about “church cheese” and the Christian artist’s failure to write/draw/compose about anything but the cross of Jesus in a mode copied from pop culture. (For new readers, I value the cross, and the sacrifice, and the resurrection, and the gift of grace, but that’s the beginning of the journey, not the end.) Barkat is not a church cheese poet, though her faith is evident in her work. I really appreciate how her poems are accessible and meaningful. I’m jealous of Barkat’s ability to pack a crystal clear punch in such short, concise language.

In the book’s introduction, Barkat explains how she came to be a poet, after so many years of leaving the writing of poetry to others,

“which is the tale of poetry-writing for many people. Unable to copy the clipped meter of Dickinson or the narrative voice of Frost, they give up and leave the effort to others. If the writing of poetry were not such a satisfying and healing endeavor, this would be a fine conclusion. It is not, however, a conclusion I encourage.

Few of us who play with words will become the next poet laureate, but why should that stop us? If we can read poetry well, or speak poetry in normal conversation, . . . then it might not hurt to try writing poetry too. At some point I must have decided this for myself.”

Barkat goes on to explain that she challenged herself to go outside every day and pay attention to her surroundings. Many of the poems in the book come from this challenge. This book has a unique sense to it, not just as a collection of poems, but some time-outs from life as well, some stops amidst the craze, some moments that would never demand to be written down because they would have never been noticed if it weren’t for a challenge. So there are many poems that have a haiku/senryu/tanka feel to them, amidst some longer poems. It’s a nice touch, I think. Here are a few examples of the shorter poems:

Fall’s dry fingers open
winter’s white duvet,
shake and ready it.

Geese call overhead,
fading sound of
goodbye summer.

Snow empties the sky
to a bare whiteness, but
it fills me, fills me.

How desperately
the dog next door
tells the world
that I am
here.

I said earlier that I was drawn by Barkat’s short-lined style. One poet who uses short lines a majority of the time is Kay Ryan, former US Poet Laureate. Honestly, I don’t think Ryan is very good at the short line business. The line endings seem haphazard and unintentional, leaving her poems, well, flat. This is the thought I had as I worked my way through Inside Out. Now, not all of Barkat’s poems in this collection are short-lined, but many of them are. Here are three that stuck with me (and they appear in this order in the book, too.):

You

move me
with
your sorrow, I
open my mouth
and it is like
the promise of apples,
honey fragrant
on air,
a barely there
wish, I swallow
emptiness.

Barkat doesn’t sacrifice the independence of each line to force the poem into a short-lined rectangle like Ryan. This poem must have short lines because the obvious tension, but the rhythm and enjambment lead perfectly into the last line, the final emphasis of expectation versus reality. Because of this emphasis, I can’t help but think the “move” in the first line has a negative connotation. After my first several reads, I inferred the move to be inspirational. But when one expects sweet, juicy apples and gets nothing, there is bitter disappointment. What a great image by the way.

Nostalgia

I miss
the place
that cradled stars
in blackness,
even while
my heart
searched for
the elusive
lullaby.

Opening a poem with this title with “I miss” doesn’t surprise the reader, but we keep reading because we want to know what the exact place is that is being missed. Thus, “place / that cradled stars / in blackness” forces the reader to think about what place Barkat is referring to. I’m not necessarily nostalgic for darkness, or dark places, as those places (literal or figuratively) are usually not worth remembering. So we have short, tense lines that directly oppose nice, baby words like cradled and lullaby. The word “even” draws a comparative feel between the two halves of the poem. The place can be literal (the uterus, a nursery, a mother’s arms, a favorite, childhood camping spot) or figurative (heaven, childhood innocence). The lullaby in the last line can be an actual lullaby, a search for peace or comfort, music, etc. I also find it interesting that the first verb, miss, is present tense, while the verb in the last half is in past tense. So the speaker seems to have failed in the search for that lullaby, but there is still nostalgia regardless. “Nostalgia” is a great example of an open poem, where the poet doesn’t force the experience or the epiphany on the reader.

Hibernate

It is not
a killing word,
a crisis

word
a trauma word.
It is

a tender deep
warm primal
lay me

down to sleep
word, a nestle
into rest

word that
touches darkness
unafraid.

I’m drawn to the darkness in this poem, most likely because I’ve been writing poems about light for almost two years now. The enjambment and short lines are again important in this poem. “Word” appears five times, which is tricky in a poem this short. But “word” is placed differently throughout the poem as to avoid becoming its own cliche. At the beginning of the poem, “word” is emphasized by being placed at the end of lines or on its own line. In the last two stanzas, “word” appears at the beginning of the line, shifting attention away from “word” and onto the idea. Hibernation suggests rest over time. But rest is a bad word in America these days. You can’t make it if you aren’t going 24/7. Smart phones and Internet have made it possible to work all the time. Tell a professional athlete or coach to take a rest, and they will say that they will lose. Tell a business man to rest and he will lost money. Tell writers to rest and they’ll claim a deadline. And yet, what happens if we face that darkness of hibernation, of elongated rest, of restoration? We can only dream.

I look forward to buying more of Barkat’s work, as her concise, thought-provoking, open poems are simple, sensitive and contemplative. I’m faced with the challenge that I may not be paying close enough attention to the speed-of-light life I’m rocketing through.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I read The Road (2007 Pulitzer Prize winner) over the holidays as it came to me highly recommended. It was fitting to read because of the recent movie release, and many of my peers (co-teachers and friends) had read it with varying responses and reactions. I was a bit worried due to McCarthy’s token violence and gruesomeness. Granted, the cannibalism is terrifying and sickening, but if you get hung up on that then you are missing out on the rest that this novel has to offer.

One of my students told me that The Road is the first novel that he’s read that seems to be more of a prose poem than a novel. This came during a conversation about some contemporary views that the novel is nothing more than an evolved epic (you know, the type that was sung by the ancient bards. Hello Helen…). I’m not sure I agree, but it’s fun to think about. There’s something just different about prose and poetry. In fact, Joseph Hutchison wrote this in a recent blog post:

. . .[W]hat is the difference between prose and poetry? I would say that it all comes down to this: poetry cares more than prose does about the imaginal dimensions of words. Poetry essentially exists in order to plunge the reader into the wild imaginality of language, while prose exists to let the reader experience the imaginal at a distance. This is why good poetry is more imaginal than good prose, why we call prose “poetic” only when it becomes imaginally heightened, and why we have a “form” called the prose poem.

I’ve been meaning to blog about this novel for a month, but was waiting for some sort of springboard. Is The Road a novel, a prose poem, or both? The context of Hutchison’s quote is one of the meaning of language, so nitpicking about whether poetry is just a wild imaginality of language is splitting hairs (in this instance!). But why even consider The Road a piece of prose poetry in the first place? For starters, the form.

This novel reads like none other that I’ve experienced. It’s not stream of consciousness like Joyce, but the only punctuation used are periods and possessive apostrophes. There are no chapters, only paragraph to page-long episodes that move along chronologically.  Are poets the only ones that can mess with form? No, but hang in there. The form actually relates to the setting of the novel. The apocalypse has come and gone. The sun doesn’t shine, everything is burned or is burning, it rains and snows ash, and there is no warmth or hope. Those people that were left behind have resorted to cannibalism as all other animals and fruits/vegetables/grains/foods have rotted or been consumed. I guess punctuation rules were also raptured (haha). In all seriousness, life in the novel no longer has meaning (except for the main character and his son, who both spend the entirety of the novel looking for the good guys, “carrying the fire.”) and the lack of punctuation, formal chapter breaks, and sentence structure reflects this. I don’t think that this in itself is reason to call the novel a prose poem. But many of the snippets/episodes feel “poetical.”

As crazy and terrifying as the story is, I was engrossed in a novel–not a prose poem. And then I reached the end. Once the story concludes, when we know what happened to the father and the son, McCarthy provides a paragraph about mountains and a fish in a pond. Of the fish he writes:

On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

The end. What the–? Nothing else in the novel reads like this last paragraph. I’d say this is an ambivalent image that rips open the entire novel for interpretation. This forces me back into the novel, forces me to look at what is going on beneath the surface. I suppose that prose is just as capable of doing this as poetry, but it seems to me that McCarthy forces the read to look at the imaginal up close, though it seems kind of distant during the reading experience. Without the ending, this is just a novel. However, that last image thrusts the book into consideration for being prose poetry.

(I mentioned imaginal, and this may beg for an explanation. I first learned that term in a poetry class at University College under the tutelage of Joseph Hutchison (yup, the same Hutchison quoted above), who was also my thesis adviser. We’ve had many conversations about it, and I spent a good part of my thesis work defining “imaginal” from a Christ-centered point of view. Hutchison recently wrote some great, thought-provoking  insights into the imaginal. I have come to a little bit different conclusion/definition of the imaginal, and I will post a blog in detail in the near future. However, the basis of the imaginal is clear and indisputable: there are things in our lives that we perceive outside of our five senses. We experience the unseen, feel the unfelt, sense the untouchable. For now, that’s the imaginal. Come back next week to read more specifically about my take on it as  Christian artist)

But form doesn’t ensure poetry, so we have to look at imaginality. What’s so imaginal about The Road? At first glance, nothing. As crazy as it sounds, the apparent absence of imaginality establishes…yup….imaginality. As I read the novel, I shouldn’t care about the characters because everyone is as good as dead anyways. But I do care–deeply. What is it that causes that care? It’s not in the prose. The boy needs his father’s encouragement, but he also challenges his father to help everyone that isn’t going to try and eat them–even if that person is two steps from death. As I followed these two characters down their road, I was filled with absolute dread and fear that something horrible was going to happen. I have no textual evidence to explain why. By the end of the novel, I was filled was uncanny hope…with no textual evidence why. I experienced something that wasn’t written. But was this experience a pie-in-the-face or a distant observation? I don’t know.

So is The Road a prose poem? I want to say yes–the epic poetry of old is resurrected for the post-apocalyptic bard to sing on top of rotten strumming from a burned guitar. In a world (presented in the novel) where everything is dead–language, vegetation, humaneness, mercy, etc.–there is a mystery that my five senses cannot explain. Many may argue that this is prose and not poetry, which is fine. Either way, it’s a direct path to the imaginal.

Versed

A few years ago, John Ashbery was all the rage. It seemed as if he couldn’t get enough press. Now it seems that Rae Armantrout is next. Her poetry seems to be quite the opposite of Ashbery’ in style and poem-length, yet it demands a conscious, attentive reader. I like to think of myself as this type of reader, but Armantrout’s latest collection, Versed, eludes me.

In a poetry class at University College last summer, we studied “Dusk”:

spider on the cold expanse
of glass, three stories high
rests intently
and so purely alone.

I’m not like that!

I like the simplicity and efficiency of language. I like how the poem deals with shadows and sunset without any mention beyond the title, Dusk. I like the turn and the realization. So I explored some more of Armantrout’s poetry on poets.org and came across this poem:

Unbidden by Rae Armantrout

The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something
undone.

Did the palo verde
blush yellow
all at once?

Today’s edges
are so sharp

they might cut
anything that moved.

The way a lost
word

will come back
unbidden.

You’re not interested
in it now,

only
in knowing
where it’s been.

This poem struck me in a variety of ways, but what I enjoyed most was three dissociated images–a ghost, a tree, and a word–that are all united through mystery. (Side note: I didn’t know what a palo verde was…click on the link above for a picture.) All three of these instances demand understanding, but it isn’t there in the moment, and when that understanding comes, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I’m not sure I’d like to make that idea my life philosophy, but I’m intrigued by how the poem creates this idea. On the poets.org page, the publishing note mentioned that “Unbidden” appears in Armantrout’s latest book, Versed. Wow!, thinks me. A whole book of this type of thing. That would be fun! So I bought it, and read half of it. Yup, still waiting for the inspiration I was hoping to get from it.

As I said before, I like the idea of using objects that seemingly have no connections and finding a way to connect them. Yes, it can be called metaphor or conceit, but the poems never actually say they are connected. I’m forcing that on them (which may actually cause Armantrout or any other language poet to gag) because if there is no connection within these poems, then there are no poems. Go ahead and crucify me for this, but I’m not even peeking through the portcullis into the camp that strives for meaninglessness. There are 121 pages in this book, and I’m on page 103 or so. There are only two poems that I have been able to do anything with: “Address” and “Heaven”.

Address

The way my interest
in their imaginary
kiss

is secretly addressed
to you.

*

Without intention

prongs of ivy
mount the posts
supporting the freeway.

It would be possible to say
each leaf

circumscribes hope

or that each leaf,
fastidiously coming
to one point,

suggests a fear
of the unknown.

*

These glossy,
laced-up, high-heel boots

(each leaf)

addressed to you

This poem actually leaves (no pun intended) enough breadcrumbs to draw some connections for understanding. Because the first section is a sentence fragment, we don’t know if it’s completing an unknown preceding thought or acting as a poetic precursor for the rest of the poem. Either way, the poet says (without saying) that there is a connection to be drawn. Can it be done? There are four people presented in the first section: me, you, and their (I’m going to assume that there are two kissers). The you can either be a spouse/current lover or somebody outside the speakers current circle of intimacy. The speaker declares the kiss as imaginary–does that mean it’s a movie kiss? Are two people wanting to kiss but don’t have the opportunity? Is the speaker thinking about herself and someone else in a third-person sort of way?

We move to the second section with a disconnected image: ivy growing up a post. I think the three most important words/phrases in this section are “without intention,” “circumscribes hope,” and “a fear / of the unknown.” These words set the tone, build the walls around the mysterious foundation established in the first section. These ideas say, “It wasn’t on purpose, this growing of weeds. They kill hope, or at least cause fear.” So the ivy isn’t supposed to be there–this coming after an interest in a kiss–but is growing in ambiguity. And this whole time there is there growing upward, coming to a point.

The third and final section forces me to think that the ivy is lust, or an affair, or something along those lines. What other purpose than sex appeal do “glossy, laced-up, high-heel boots” serve? The speaker connects these boots to the leaves of ivy for the sake of getting the attention of “you.” Because of the secrecy presented in the first section, I can’t help but wonder if this address of infidelity. Why would boots kill hope? Is it hope of saving a marriage that’s too difficult , thus justifying the fear of this unknown rendezvous? Or could be over thinking things, and the poem could just be about trying to get someone’s attention, trying to delve into a relationship that doesn’t guarantee anything but wounds so you may as well be as sexy as possible. Either of these are potent issues in our American pop culture–whether it’s politicians, pastors, or athletes–as we see time and time again the dissolving of honest, loyal relationships.

The other poem that grabbed my attention is “Heaven”:

Heaven

1

It’s a book
full of ghost children,

safely dead,

where dead means
hidden,

or wanting
or not wanting

to be known.

2

Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.

It’s beautiful
when one thing changes

while another thing
remains the same.

3

Fading redundancies.

Feathery runs.

Alternate wisps.

Imaginary

sprung striations.

“Imaginary” meaning
“seen by humans.”

Again, we have three independent sections under the umbrella of heaven. The first section establishes the speaker’s idea that heaven is a book–something tangible you can access at will, put away when you don’t need it; something that gathers dust and eventually ends up on the 25 cent table at a garage sale. But that’s not all. According to the speaker, heaven is a place where people are dead (or not) and hiding (or not). I wonder if she sees heaven as non-existent, contradictory, or man-made. This interpretation may hold weight in light of the second and third sections. I get the impression of a person explaining, “Oh, this is heavenly” in reaction to some positive change. This could be something as simple as the introduction of chocolate to the system, or something more complex like a great vacation, beautiful view, etc. It seems to me that the speaker suggests that the quality of heaven depends on the experience of an individual. The third section sums this all up with “redundancies,” “wisps” and “imaginary.” The use of the word “striations” suggests that heaven is simply in the imagination, or man-made. Is this Armantrout’s view of eternity or is it a critique of said view?

After reading other reviews of Armantrout’s poetry (this is a good close read), I am beginning to wonder if this collection is just an exploration of a humanistic, capitalistic, advertisement-driven American culture. Many of these poems make very clear pop-culture references, but beyond that, seem rather lost. Could it be that this book is just a few good poems surrounded with a hundred of advertising and distraction? Is this nothing more than watching television, surfing the web, downloading music, and watching Youtube? If so, the p-a crowd may be coming full circle as they try so hard to be new and relevant, but ending up in the same place as everybody else.

I think Armantrout’s poetry is successful as standalone, but it breaks down in larger collections. It’s like I bought a couple of poems for a great deal of $1.99, but I had to pay only $13.62+ for shipping and handling.

Addressing 30: A Timeline

I am thrilled to see Rachel Barbe’s “Addressing 30: A Timeline” (ISBN: 978-1-61623-745-5) win the 2009 Karen Fredericks and Frances Willitts Chapbook Prize. A fellow teacher and DU grad, Barbe has created an open, vulnerable collection that escapes the confessionalistic cliche of me me me, while making her own life a prism for the reader to break down and evaluate his/her own. Barbe accomplishes this through recurring themes of nakedness, family relationships, and sex.

The opening poem, “Photograph,” (which for some reason is incomplete on the link above) sets the stage for the entire chapbook:

Photograph

“Their eyes were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they made coverings for themselves.” -Genesis 3:7

I was two or three in the picture,
facing the camera nearly naked,
my shoulders drawn together,
head bowed.

My mother hands me
this photograph
after I asked her to find it
in the brown fabric covered album.
She says she and Dad have discussed it,
and want to apologize
if they have done anything
to traumatize me,
she says it certainly wasn’t traumatizing
at the time. It was a good day.
Sometimes when we see tings as adults
we see them with different eyes; she says
they seem much worse than they actually were.
She says I don’t want you to think
I was a bad mom.

I hug her and promise that
I’m not traumatized.
I say this as if I didn’t need her
to tell me that she’s sorry.

Maybe I was a happy kid.
Maybe I didn’t go looking for shame.
And maybe it didn’t find me in that
blank two-car driveway, on a hot July afternoon.

Perhaps the green garden hose did not
coat me with it as I stood
panty-clad in toddler innocence
beside the red pickup truck
glazed with hard water.

Barbe establishes the theme of nakedness–as both beauty and doubt, sensual and shameful, as identity–and the potential wounds that relationships (especially family) guarantee. The (not so?) subtle reference to Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” suggests that so much depends on this photograph, this moment. What personal impact does it have on us when we realize our nakedness, our vulnerability as children, the advantage others take of us when we are simply playing in the sprinklers?

Following this childhood memory, Barbe launches into a time line of her life, covering such topics as moving, chores, piano lessons, camping, funerals, and new schools. Throughout, she reveals strong family ties that are far from perfect, but obviously valued. However, the theme of naked vulnerability never goes away. Consider “Losing”:

Losing

I can’t stop looking in the mirror.
I am transfixed by my own
wide blue eyes and milky skin.
In the car, I gaze into the passenger side mirror
at the curl of my hair falling
between a curve of shoulder
and one small, exquisite ear.
Walking down a long hall toward a mirror
I critique my stride, my clothing,
turn slightly to the side and note
that I am neither who I was nor
who I want to be–nakedly in between.

I have forgotten my name.

Did I wash it off in the shower?
In a dream just before waking,
did it slip away?
Did the wind rip it from my throat
in a vehement scream?
I am awkwardly awake in my only skin.

Barbe’s questioning of her identity grabs my attention because I often struggle with my own. I place my value as a poet on my publishing record (what a stack of rejection letters!) and as a teacher on what others say. While in my head I know where my identity should rest (hello, God), I still find myself awkwardly awake in my own skin, certain of so many things, yet totally uncertain about so many other things.

I don’t really have a ranking system for poetry books, especially since I can find some sort of value or experience in anything I read. However, you need to read this short collection from a poet new to the scene.

God, Negative Capability, and the Too-Safe Christian

About a month ago, I finished reading The Pastor as Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but haven’t been sure what exactly I should write about.

The main premise of the book is that pastors should approach people the same way that poets approach poetry. Barnes relies heavily on the writings of Eliot and Pound as he draws connections between poetry, the Christian faith (including the character of God and the hear of poets found in the Bible), and relationships. A large chunk of this book is directed towards pastors as they prepare their sermons, and while interesting, doesn’t necessarily relate to my life. However, Barnes keys on two ideas that can be thought provoking for everyone, regardless of their faith.

Barnes presents Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Simply put, Negative Capability refers to the inherent mystery surround poetry–the idea that one doesn’t have to have all of the answers to a poem in order to enjoy it. In defining his own poetics, Joseph Hutchison writes,

Puzzlement is a puzzling quality. . . I especially enjoy being puzzled by my own work, but I detest the impulse I sometimes feel to “hide the treasure” somehow, as some kind of test for the reader. Mystery is the essence of life on our planet. . . The works of Emily Dickinson and Rae Armantrout seem to me full of mystery. . . .

Poets seem to have this knack for finding joy in the mysterious (or should anyways).  Barnes takes this idea of Negative Capability and it’s resulting joy and suggests that humans, in our post-Enlightenment/Age of Reason nature, can’t deal with not having the answers. My students get really frustrated when they can’t solve a poem–regardless of the musicality or images. American citizens get all hot-to-trot when we don’t know what our President is thinking/doing/deciding. We want and demand answers. Barnes believes that this demand for answers and clarity pervades the church as well. People seem discontent with the mystery of God–and many have decided God doesn’t even exist because of so many questions/mysteries/unknowns (What kind of God chooses some people and not others? What kind of God justifies eliminating an entire race/civilization? What kind of God would send somebody to hell for eternal damnation/suffering?).

I’ve realized over the past couple of years that I do not really truly understand the character of God. He is a mystery to me. How much of that mystery am I okay with? How much mystery do I despise, resulting in demands to have the answers? How much does my view/opinion/understanding of God depend on the relationships/influences of the people around me and my past?

This leads to the second point Barnes makes in his book. He thinks that relationships between people should be nurtured the same way a poet and a poem relate. As I have conversations with those around me, I hear time and again stories about people (pastors, Christian friends, Christian family) that have completely alienated those around them. Adam Fieled  posted a blog last spring with the following quote:

My two basic problems with Christianity: 1) that I have never seen or heard Jesus 2) that I have seen and heard a lot of Christians. They are, I think, mostly a lousy advertisement.

And again, more recently:

If anyone wants a good scare (quite as good as Carrie), go to Netflix and watch Jesus Camp. I had no idea that out of 320 million Americans, 80 million are Evangelical Christians. One in four. I’d say that there are probably 1 million Americans seriously involved in art. So there are 80 times more Evangelicals in America than there are artists. The center of much of the film’s action is Rev. Ted Haggard, who appears an hour into it. Haggard was later charged with picking up and having anal sex with a male prostitute. Now that’s leadership.

I don’t think the only way to experience God is through other people, but it seems that people are a major prism through which others will determine their point of view. Is it any wonder why people don’t see mystery in the character of God when those that follow Him don’t seem to live anything but hypocritical lives?

The poetry that seems most criticized in the poetry world is that which is too easy, too obvious, too old-school (some would say too quiet, but I won’t go there). But what if Christians got over their safe, homeschooling counter-culture and took the risk of accepting the mystery of people, and saw others as objects of love instead of something that needed to be fixed–actually being a part of the world instead of hiding from and criticizing it?

4 Modes of Poetry (Part 5)

Modern Life by Matthea Harvey (Cover Image)

Modern Life by Matthea Harvey (Cover Image)

This is my last entry in the 4 Modes of Poetry series. I have discussed mainstream, the beats, and langpo, along with Tony Hoagland, Kevin Prufer, and Harryette Mullen. I’m left with elliptical/hybrid poetry and I’ll take a look at Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life.  Many moons ago, (okay, 11 years), Stephen Burt applied the label elliptical to Susan Wheeler’s collection, titled Smokes. He writes:

But most of its virtues and faults are those of a school: let’s call it Ellipticism. Elliptical poets try to manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-”postmodern”: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the “language writers,” and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively “poetic”) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning “I am an X, I am a Y.” Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.

(Side note: Burt recently published another essay, moving past Ellipticism and onto The New Thing. His style is the same: define a term and then never really deal with the new term in the scope of the essay. It irritates. But maybe I’ll try it and see how it all works out.)

The last few sentences best describe this type of poetry: almost-stories, almost-obscure, sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, and desperate. This doesn’t really encompass Harvey’s entire collection, so it’s important to also understand the idea of hybrid poetry. Don Share wrote about it on the Harriet Blog last October. The gist of the hybrid movement is perfect for the greater modern culture: take what you want from the various schools of thought and mix ‘em up, then discard the rest. I’m going to discuss Modern Life with these two “theories” in mind.

My initial reaction to Harvey’s collection was to associate with Prufer’s National Anthem (discussed in Part 3 of this series). Prufer’s may be a bit more apocolyptic, but the tone and imagery seemed strikingly similar to me. The two section of “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” poems are most like Prufer, with such images as “The regime’s shaved heads felt like sateen / and their salutes shot through us like rum” (Terror of the Future / 2) and “You had to win the sweepstakes / to get a survival kit…All we ever did / together was play “Simon Says” and try to outrun / our shadows. It was a rotten routine and I’m not / going to romanticize it” (Terror of the Future / 4) and”We got most of our gear from / an abandoned general store” (The Future of Terror / 4). These portions of the book could be labeled as elliptical–they are almost stories, but not quite. They are cinematic (again, like Prufer) while not providing any answers, and there seems to be desperation without any clear direction. It turns out these poems are abecedarian (she explains in this essay (pdf)–read it by the way, not only for her humor but for a great explanation of abecedarian) in form, even if modified just a bit (hello, Hybrid). Exploring these poems with the form in mind makes the experience quite fascinating. These poems are the best in the book.

One interesting aspect of this collection is the integration of prose poems. I’m still stuck struggling with this idea of how prose poems are poems. In the case of Modern Life, I don’t see why they aren’t simply short fictions. I intentionally didn’t use the word narrative, as they aren’t complete narratives (even though the reader gets the story of each little section). Am I disappointed in the prose poems? Not necessarily, but why couldn’t she use lines? The language is beautiful, descriptions concrete, commentary cutting. I’m almost convinced the first poem in the collection, “Implications for Modern Life”, connects humans to pigs. The prose is obviously the influence of langpo, but I don’t see what it does for the poem. Does it emphasize the language itself? Not really. Does it strictly adhere to langpo rules? Not really (we’re talking hybrid and elliptics after all).

Either way you cut it, Harvey is a marvelous writer–I think she and Prufer paint the most cinematic pictures of any poet I’ve read. While meaning may be hidden, confused, or altogether missing, the path is at least paved with unforgettable scenery. Not intending to pun, but the previous sentence ties in perfectly with the last poem in the book, “Setting the Table”:

To cut through night you’ll need your sharpest scissors. Cut around the birch, the bump of the bird nest on its lowest limb. Then with your nail scissors, trim around the baby beaks waiting for worms to fall from the sky. Snip around the lip of the mailbox, and the pervert’s shoe peeking out from behind the Chevy. Before dawn, rip the silhouette from the sky and drag it inside. Frame the long black stripe and hang it in the dining room. Sleep. WHen you wake, redo the scene as day in doily. Now you have a lacy fence, a huge cherry blossom of a holly bush, a birch sugared with snow. Frame the white version and hang it opposite the black. Get your dinner and eat it between the two scenes. Your food will taste just right.

This poem seems to not only summarize hybrid poetry, but it may also lean towards Burt’s New Thing. The poem instructs cutting out and taking what’s beautiful, then find a comfortable place amongst the cutouts to live peacefully. Is this possible, in our modern lives? Is this possible in the current state of poetry? Harvey seems to think so–on the poetry side of things anyways.  I wonder what the night stands for in this poem–confusion, questioning, uncertainty, misconception, meaning, or…?

I don’t know if it relates, but a quote from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town comes to mind. The dead young woman has just returned from reliving her birthday, and is crushed by how humans don’t slow down and see things for what they are–they don’t look at people, they don’t enjoy the moment, they’re missing out (I should be saying we instead of they). She asks the stage manager if anyone can see life for what it is, and the manager replies, “Saints and poets maybe.”

But does too much theorizing affect our ability to see? To mean?