January 2010

Courtney Queeney

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Gather Ye Rosebuds, Etc: Things Which Have Already Been Said Many Times and the Pickup Artist Poem

I had a professor who once warned me, People will love that you are a writer, but no one will really understand how many actual hours you need to write. Because I was young, dumb, and enrolled in a graduate program which actually paid me to read and write -- a three-year stretch of time when I trudged around snowy Syracuse feeling like I’d won the lottery -- I didn’t believe her. In general, civilians are interested enough in the fact that I spend so many hours trying to scribble poems; when making small-talk with strangers, I often feel like a trick pony; sort of interesting, but also a bit freakish, and fairly irrelevant to the real world. But any initial relationships sparked from such encounters tends to wane when I decline movies or opt out of tapas or become visibly stressed out at the thought of spending entire weekend afternoons perambulating aimlessly around and stopping for lattes. Picasso said, “It is your work in life which is the ultimate seduction,” something the men in my life haven’t much liked to hear.

The sexiest poem I read in high school (besides The Song of Solomon, which, by virtue of its association with the Bible -- and, via the transitive property I was learning in math, also with the heavy-on-the-guilt brand of Catholicism I was steeped in at family reunions -- was tainted therefore by shame) was Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” a work whose speaker is intent on seduction. Re-reading this poem as someone who now struggles, daily, to find to find a not-unhealthy combination of job/work/life/sleep balance, I’m mostly struck by how crafting this poem must have ironically cost its author hours, hours he could have spent practicing the steps to an intricate minuet, attending to his toilet, engaging in drawing-room banter. [i] The poem’s first stanza opens with its famous If…then construction, “Had we but world enough, and time / This coyness, Lady, were no crime.” If only we had forever, he slyly claims, I would clearly spend it lavishing attention on you -- which assertion he substantiates by promising increasingly longer, hypothetical eras dedicated to worship. He would love her “ten years before the floor,” spend “an hundred years” in the praise of her eyes alone, “two hundred to adore each breast” and “thirty thousand to the rest.” Although I would have wandered off early in that first fanciful decade to locate someone more type-A, Marvell’s speaker wants to spend “An age at least to every part” with the last age being dedicated to his lady love’s heart -- attention he offers, one assumes, in order to access her unmentionables.

But of course this world has only been invented and articulated at such length to get her into the sack before decay sets in, as the second section ominously, famously begins: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” Whereas the speaker’s pledged attention is quantitative, the actual future he invokes here is a spatial wasteland, comprised of “Deserts of vast eternity” which dwindle to a “marble vault.” The woman’s body further diminishes into a grave, “That long preserved virginity” where her “quaint honor turns to dust” -- and, at this point, her romantic options have shrunk, grotesquely, to worms. As the last couplet concludes, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” The poem’s repeated conditionals and suggestions -- I would worship, you, I would!; “Let us roll our strength” -- have been replaced by the more aggressive “will,” which my Webster’s defines succinctly as indicating “simple futurity.”  Next to the blunt, drunk logic of high school boys (Do you want to go upstairs? was standard seduction at house parties, while Do you want to watch a movie in the basement? was code when parents were home: both translated roughly to Will you please please please make out with me?) Marvell’s acrobatic wit and rhetoric were attractive, to say the least.

Of course, Marvell did not invent the carpe diem genre; he was simply my introduction to a rhetorical approach that predates him and has continued on after Time’s wingèd chariot trampled the man. Recently, a friend asked me for advice on how to get a guy she liked to talk to her. I did not recommend that she recite poetry outside his apartment door, but it got me thinking about the relationship between seductive poetry and actual seduction. Eros shakes my mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees, just as it did Sappho’s -- but somehow this type of statement tends to confuse (or frighten) possible paramours. So Tell him he’s cute, was my genius response. (This is actually a pretty effective technique, in my experience.) Marvell’s poem may have prompted any number of coy mistresses to unlace their corsets, but it’s hard to imagine his language and logic having a high return rate at Friday night happy hour or a speed-dating event.

Yet allusions to the carpe diem genre continue to crop up in contemporary poetry, as in Dean Young’s “Sunflower” whose opening lines pay open homage:

When Dean Young vacuums he hears
not just time’s whatchamacallit
hurrying near but some sort of music….

Young writes himself into the poem in the third person, jokey, absurd, as if starring in a cartoon strip of his own creation -- although his dubious superpowers are vacuuming, and failing to conjure the phrase to conjure the phrase “wingèd chariot.” This first sentence spools over a frantic eighteen lines, a hysteria propelled by death which is alluded to, then swerved from. The “some sort of music” Young hears is not

what’s inside him breaking
because the only thing conclusive
all those tests showed is inside him
is a crow so unsure of its crowness
it thinks it’s a stone
just as the stone thinks it’s
a dark joke in the withered field….

The tests don’t reveal a growth conveniently compared to some sort of citrus for easier patient visualization, but a list of ironic non-revelations which mask real anxieties, because “When Dean Young/has his thunder, nothing moves.” He’s powerless, a puny human:

                                          It drives him
              crazy how little effect he has. He thinks
              of his friends at ballparks and feels
              miserable. He thinks of women’s behinds
              and feels radiant. He’s afraid how he invented
              running by moving his legs very fast
              will be forgotten, attributed elsewhere.
              He can’t resign himself to losing the patent
              on masturbation.

This is a far cry from Petrarch, who never let his mind wander, at least in print, towards Laura’s behind, as distracted as he was by her oft-mentioned “lovely face” and her “sweet and soothing smile.” If Petrarch is that nerdy boy in junior high too shy to pass his crush a note, Dean Young is a goofy anti-hero along the lines of Al Bundy -- and, as in Married with Children, sex is not the goal here. It’s not (just) mortality that grates, but the astounding lack of accolades during his time on earth. After a dubious claim to the patent on masturbation, he later confesses, “He dreads his wife/because he loves her,” and the poem concludes with a castrated sentence:

                            His strong opinions
              re: capital punishment, arts education,
              the numen dissolves in water,
              the universal solvent that falls from clouds,
              clouds that were HIS idea.

What do his strong opinions accomplish? Nothing, here, at least linguistically; Young does not entertain the same rhetorical bravado as Marvell. After a long, frenzied poem -- this is a man who invented running! -- this last sentence doesn’t even allow Young, its subject, a verb. He has run out of places to run, so to speak.

“All the Immortals Ever Think About is Sex” by Brooks Haxton nods back to Catullus 5, a great-granddaddy of the Let’s Both Get Laid Before It’s Too Late poem. Haxton’s poem also begins with an imagining, addressed to a beloved:

I’m picturing a whitewashed house, the bedroom
overlooking an olive grove by the sea.
There’s wine; there’s poetry; there’s you, me, eros:
so: what if all this were to end at midnight?

It’s a Cinderella question, but few adults act as if their lives will actually unspool like the arc of a Disney plotline. (I just sat through an HR orientation on benefits, and neither "Knight in Shining Armor" nor "Spin Flax Into Gold" were retirement plan options.) Haxton translates the poem’s Latin epigraph: “Night, Catullus said, is sleep perpetual,” then comments on it with a cold, hilarious detachment -- “His fear of death, he thought, would put his mistress/in the mood. But soon she left him, and he died.” Invoking death to entice someone to bed has a built-in potential to be more risky than risqué; apart from, perhaps, fetishists, most people don’t seem to find death that sexy. The poem concludes with a scene that invokes and inverts Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts:

you and I need not be sunk in isolate
stupefaction, but may touch, while in the bay
a little square sail stiffens, and we watch, oars,
though massive in the arms of oarsmen, tiny
from our bed. And look! The tiny man on deck,
who paces and shouts orders to the crew, from here
cannot be heard under the soft crush of waves
borne up invisible between the sash and the sill.

Like Maxwell, Haxton invokes the possibility of lolling around in bed -- the lovers “need not” be alone in their amazement, and they “may” touch -- words that imply these are still only options. But then the verbs veer from the suggestive, as the sail -- present tense -- stiffens, and the lovers shrink the oars from massive to tiny by virtue of their height. The exclamation, “And look!” is a command; the scene has been so persuasively imagined that the speaker hopes to point the beloved toward the ship, so she may witness it as well. Though he “paces and shouts” on deck, from their vantage point, the tiny, striding man cannot be heard. The lovers are briefly powerful, autonomous, Icarus; perhaps even the reader is momentarily seduced into forgetting that none of the above has actually happened.

The first time I heard the Marvellian line of logic in real life was (appropriately) from a law student. I was staring at the ripe old age of thirty, and the whole "life is short and then you die" approach was more jarring than if he’d broken it out when we’d met in high school. Our conversations drove me back to a section from Wallace Stevens’s Esthétique du Mal I’ve always found haunting:

The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps,
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel.

Maybe what we feel sucks on any given day; but we’re still blessed with feeling, and Stevens’s non-physicals aren’t. And it is a blessing -- even when we bitch, or hurt, or yearn. The idea that angels might envy our quotidian existence, or find the boring Midwestern corn beautiful, has never ceased to put my scant suffering in perspective, at least for a moment.

The architecture and argument of the carpe diem poem seem to have less relevance in a world where rosebuds are not gathered but rather handed out as tokens of approval in reality TV shows where the season finale “prize” is a partner, young women auction off their virginities over the internet, and having a sex tape leak strategically out can garner almost anyone the coveted fifteen minutes.[ii] The most effective poetic offspring of the genre, for me, gain much of their power and impact by never letting the precariousness of life wander too far from the libido. Reginald Shepherd’s poem “Also Love You” begins as if the speaker were already dead, addressing his left-behind lover from the grave:

              I think of you when I am dead, the way rocks
              think of earthworms and oak roots, tendrils
              that break them down to loam and nutrients,
              something growing out of every
              disappearance.

The voice is authoritative, sure:

                                          I will be
the lichen bubbling from a crack in the
Belmont Rocks, where you don’t go,
between the brilliant men loitering
in their temporary beauty. You will. I will
you every artificial slab that makes a beach
if you think hard enough….

You will continue to be brilliant; I will -- the line break only lets this fiction hang intact for a second, until the eye skips to the next line, and we remember that this is the speaker’s last testament. Elsewhere in the poem, Shepherd writes, “Things which have already been said many times” -- yet despite this acknowledgment that the feelings he is trying to articulate are not specific to him or this poem, and the difficulty of creation, he kept saying -- up until his too-recent death.

“Clothes” by Wislawa Szymborksa is another such poem, as it invokes the carpe diem obliquely, opening with a glut of stripping, as if building toward some kind of sartorially varied orgy:

You take off, we take off, they take off
coats, jackets, blouses, double-breasted suits,
made of wool, cotton, cotton-polyester,
skirts, shirts, underwear, slacks, slips, socks,
putting, hanging, tossing them across
the backs of chairs, the wings of metal screens;

The ostensibly-casual strewing about of clothes in the first six lines is overshadowed with gravitas by the introduction of the doctor in the next. “For now” he says, “it’s not too bad,” and those two words introduce an expiration date, a future when it will be too bad -- and then simply not be. Time becomes unfixed; “take one in case, at bedtime, after lunch/ show up in a couple of months, next spring, next year” are hardly dosage instructions specific enough to be printed on a vial of pills. If the doctor is this vague, how can the patients project even a temporary, illusory order on his, her, their, our world? The poem grows increasingly abstract and the phrases feel unfinished, in the third, further pared down section:

you see, and you thought, and we were afraid that,
and he imagined, and you all believed;

The persons expand toward the inclusive, culminating in “you all.” We don’t know what to see, think, be afraid of, imagine, believe; except that everyone mentioned (including us readers, finally) are going to die. After the first verb, the rest are resigned to the past, as whatever hope he imagined or cure you thought might exist has been undercut by the doctor’s “for now.” The final section burgeons back up to six lines, mirroring the poem’s opening:

it’s time to tie, to fasten with shaking hands
shoelaces, buckles, velcro, zippers, snaps,
belts, buttons, cuff links, collars, neckties, clasps
and to pull out of handbags, pockets, sleeves
a crumpled, dotted, flowered, checkered scarf
whose usefulness has suddenly been prolonged.

It’s an overwhelmingly disembodied poem; the shaking hands enter toward the end to remind that all the buckles and zippers in the world will fail to hold a body whole, and that the reader is, his or herself, holding this poem in hands which will one day shake. And then stop.

The same professor who tried, gently, to prepare me for how difficult it would be to sustain a social life, secure enough of a pittance by working one of those things called jobs, and still locate the time, space, and energy to write, also advised, If you can be happy doing anything else in your life -- do that other thing instead. But I’ve always felt like writing chose me, a seizing not unlike the first line of Plath’s “Hanging Man”: “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.” And because I am without a trust fund or a rich patron, I have a civilian job located in a hospital. While I’m sadly no longer paid to read Stevens, printouts of some of his poems hang on my file cabinet, close enough to provide some sanity in those moments when working for a corporation seems temporarily unbearable. A hospital is, as one might expect, rife with situations that spark introspection and lend perspective. Those days when I have to endure a staff meeting on how to keep the office fridge clean -- an hour I will never, ever get back -- when I struggle against the urge to jab a pen into my own eyes, I go and sit in the hospital cafeteria. People there are tethered to oxygen tanks, listing on canes, camped out in wheelchairs. Many of the healthy humans are fueling up between sessions spent attending to the suffering of someone they care about. And because I currently have functioning lungs and legs, I can walk away from that tableau of pain and back to my desk, where, suddenly, having to mutter some sort of non-subversive response to the thousandth time my boss has asked, Are we having fun yet? doesn’t seem so awful.

Perhaps it’s passé to believe that any poem could reach up from the page, like Keats’s hand, and touch anyone on the face. But I keep reading Keats, and this will be my second spring teaching poetry to second year medical students as part of a bioethics and medical humanities seminar series. The series was conceived as part of a growing national trend of offering classes on art and literature to medical students, with the goal of graduating more compassionate, empathetic caregivers. Poets have always wrestled with the huge themes -- life, love, death -- and communicating the abstract and invisible will be part of any clinician’s job, since so much of what happens to our body is hidden beneath the skin, occurring at a microscopic level, dug deep in the gray of our brains. 

For awhile, I kept a count of social engagements I turned down in order to finish this essay. Because I write at sloth speed, it’s been months, and so the final tally would have suggested a wild social life largely at odds with my aspiration to have a cave escape from society, like Timon of Athens. The irony of spending hours so many hours with only my cat for company, writing about poems which remind me of my own mortality and the statute of limitations on my own rosebud-gathering hours, is not lost on me, especially when I receive text messages asking from the current Nice Young Man asking, considerately, “Writing done?” and my only honest response is, “Not until I’m dead.”

It is late (well, very early) in another isolated stretch of hours as I try to wrap this up. I do not have a science background, but I’ve come across a great many weird, interesting facts as part of my job. Every human spends a half hour as a single cell. My body gives off enough heat in thirty minutes to bring a half gallon of water to boil (a rather Petrarchan piece of information). Thirty million of my body’s cells die every minute. By the time I am twice my current age, I will have lost half of my taste buds. Occasionally this trivia accumulates into a sort of critical mass, and reminding me that there is more to my short stint here than doing homework.  Occasionally -- even when I haven’t met my page count or my allotted hours -- I close my book or hit save and shut the computer down in order to inhabit the great wealth of the physical world, which is always, fantastically, waiting for me, even when I have been blind to it for days or weeks. And underneath the car alarms and garbage trucks of my dirty urban neighborhood, I can, in the quieter darks, hear the sound of wind sweeping off Lake Michigan before dawn, the even iambs of my temporary heart.


[i]  How sad that a contemporary courtship equivalent might be VH1’s The Pickup Artist -- which, for those who don’t know, is a sort of boot camp for guys who haven’t developed any game on their own but think that the ideal medium for cultivating charisma is on TV. The show is hosted by a personality named Mystery whose website is rife with pictures of him kissing women who seem to put their forty hours in at tanning salons and getting flush-drunk in bars; sometimes Mystery wears, oh so mysteriously, goggles on top of his head.

[ii] Not everyone agrees; when I Googled “seduction poems”  www.fastseduction.com, popped up. Its home page begins, “Poems will sweep women off their feet….You can also memorise them if you really want to impress her but even the real poets almost never recite their own poems by heart.”After the question of the messy ethics of presenting another’s poem as your own is dispatched with, there are some suggested readings, including one piece called “Fascination” of which I’ll just pass on the first three lines: “Have you ever been fascinated / by someone whose words just seemed to / PENETRATE you?”