May 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Lyric Strategies I

Plutarch, in his playful and profoundly hip registration of ancient religious traditions, once observed the following: “For it is by use that the things which are sensible and ready to hand present many unfoldings and views of themselves as they change now one way now another….”

This observance of everyday things as somehow linking modalities of imagination has always interested me. Much of the poetry I admire uses the materiality of language to unfold “views,” revealing the flux around us. William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow and Wallace Stevens’s blackbird, for instance, take on new substance as words only tangentially related to actual objects buried deep in the abyss of an author’s memory. Plutarch’s words also bring to mind Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, in which, he argues, attention given to one’s haunts and habits reveals a world that has remained previously undisclosed. To disclose experience is to act on it, shaping the general force of life through our perceptive modalities.

Poets as diverse as Williams and Stevens turn to things -- the phenomenal objects that compose an experience of life. And yet, they respond to these elements in different ways. Williams’s “no ideas but in things” runs counter to Stevens, who replaces the doctor’s creed with: no things but in ideas of our relation to them. The physical object, as portal to imagination, enacts the compositional process of Williams’s art, though for Stevens, the phenomena of the daily emerge through the orders of thought his imagination could bear into being.

Two recent books -- Jenny Browne’s The Second Reason and Elizabeth Robinson’s Inaudible Trumpeters -- approach poetry through opposing perspectives, and yet central to their poetics is the world and its material presentation through language. Reading these books I notice how one’s affinity for words and the intimate nature of experience inform the perspective of the poet. In Browne we read of a writer’s witness to her own orders of experience, grounded rhetorically in the claims of a first person -- the lyric organization of the “I” as a universal voice through which a world can be discovered. Robinson’s work, by contrast, is motivated by a conceptual poetics that resists this lyric order of experience to reassemble dramatic enactments of the spirit. Her urgent perceptions of experience are re-articulated in conceptual movements while Browne follows more closely the immediate intersection of lyric autobiography with poetic know-how. This month I will look at how Browne approaches the lyric poem while July’s column will focus on Robinson’s newest publication.

In The Second Reason Browne follows memory and experience closely, and the poems read with an intimate sense of self as a figure in the dramatic order of the poem. In “Galveston Bay,” Browne observes “shrimp boats” that “wobble / like rice farmers balancing slow / swells of hunger.” Here Browne guides the simile to initiate perspectives that are at first incongruent. Her judgment of perception in the poem is argued through certain word choices, and through the metaphoric relations that comment on what she sees. “Below us,” she writes,

a perfect hole has been drilled through
the skull of each

bony shell as through the possibility of any
other thought than this circle
of gone. All

the dodging and burning of the world still
constant on the stinking road
as surfers peel

wet Neoprene down to their gritty flanks,
chests warming up like the hydraulic
hot rods at the stoplight

humping asphalt behind their back legs.

The sexual urgency of “hydraulic / hot rods” comments on the latent energies that inform this vision of beach life. The commentary is precise, if intrusive. A hole can be “perfect,” while “[a]ll / / the dodging and burning of the world” remains “constant.” Here the lyric persona refuses to let perception alone, commenting instead on the nature of it. An evaluation of the perceptive moment is filtered through other orders of personal experience, bringing the beach scene above into an adherence with the author’s pre-formed perspective. An audience must accept this adherence between poet and place, trusting a language that provides so much rich imagery and sonic delight. Facts, indeed, are replaced by this necessity of adherence. The “truth” of the world recedes behind the adhering force of the poet’s vital arguments for the relational value of her experience.

One of the best examples of Browne’s lyric skill can be found in the fourteen-part poem, “There’s a Slow Green River I’ve Been Living By.” Notational and dramatic, the poem observes phenomena that take on new significance as the persona accepts the bodily transformation of pregnancy and childbirth. Browne’s attention to sound, rhythm, and the plain speech of the American vernacular upload this into what Kenneth Koch (via Paul Valéry) referred to as a “Language within a Language” -- that poetic idiom of heightened perception and verbal energy. As an example, Browne writes:

And then.

I have always slept better next to rivers

and loved the low grind of coal barges, slow floating
            mountain ranges
that make the turn wide then wider.

And I have watched the spaces between
the scales of a garden snake expand

as animal moves through animal.

I have squinted at the sky
and seen the sun move through a pinhole

and birth is still not like
anything.

The open testament of the lyric persona to have slept, watched, and squinted in these various contexts helps to extend the force of the actual. Particularly vivid is the “garden snake” that “expand[s] / as animal moves through animal.” Such orders of poetic perception upload the psychic trauma of impending childbirth through perceptions of the natural world. The image of the snake sloughing its skin -- an obvious metaphor of birth -- appeals less than the actual order of the words and the underscored knowledge of animal moving through animal. This vividness in an attempt to make birth perceptive to poetic language, of course, fails. “[B]irth is still not like / anything.” And yet, a reader does discover an adherence in language too. It may not be “like anything,” but the words activate the potential in a reader for receiving what the Greeks would have known as a mystery in the cult of feminine knowledge. The distance between the negated simile and the actuality of experience is where Browne’s poetry thrives best.

In another section of the poem, she follows seasonal drift through the menstrual cycle of a dog:

Spring and our new dog leans into the screen door. Her vulva swollen and dripping leaf shaped rusty smears on the porch steps. Soon we will fix this but today we cannot contain her season. We cannot change that blood is the sister of green or that despite the word season, meaning certain conditions into which a year is traditionally divided, everything still seems to happen at once. Pass the frenzied barking on both sides of the street.

The incongruence of blood and green -- spring nodes and mammalian discharge -- relates the overwhelming sense of life retained by the pregnant body. Meaning powerfully merges into the autobios of the author as inside and outside lose their distinctions, both in the body and creative mind. The dog’s swollen “vulva” brings attention to a feminine presence, and yet there is a tacit understanding of passage too; the dog’s cycle relates to the larger seasonal ones. In the liminal state of pregnancy and birth, “everything still seems to happen at once.” The images almost assault the lyric participant as she works to retain order in a cosmos of compiling details, every one seemingly significant and instructive.

Browne’s lyric strategies make instinctive assumptions about the relationship of self to words in a poem. The simile gives her a way to comment on the value of experience, thus shaping the poem for a reader. I’ve hardly mentioned her great ear for words and attention to other prosodic elements of the poem because I find this relation to metaphor essential in understanding her difference from a poet like Robinson, who I’ll turn to next month. Both rely on metaphor, but in different ways, and their approach to it largely determines the kinds of poetry they write. While it is tempting to say that one is more concrete, the other more conceptual, what we see in these approaches to lyric are highly conceptual modes of relation in language that make arguments about the self in the world. But more of this in July…