Richard Meier, Dara Wier, and Jon Woodward
guy at a gas station
walked up to the car
began cleaning the windshield saying
as he did so Sic
Transit Gloria Patrick goes Sic
Transit my Chowder Shitting Ass”
-Jon Woodward, from Rain
“[P]oetry has a morale problem... When poets come to pay as much attention to how they live as to what they write, that may mark one new beginning for poetry.”
-John Barr, from the September 2006 issue of Poetry
There has been a trend of late, particularly in the pages of old fogy-types like Poetry, to bemoan the current state of poetry. The claims, fair enough -- of course -- are lodged against the incestuous little circle of poetry writers and consumers, the apparent irrelevance of poetry in such an age as ours, the appalling lack of poetry reviews in newspapers, etc., etc. The above quote is from a piece that suggests, or rather demands that poetry “re-start” in order to breathe again in our culture. One of the “suggestions” is that poets pay more tender attention to the lives they lead. One of the implications is that interesting poetry emerges from artists who conceive of poetry as more than mere text. Another implication is that the author of said piece does not read interesting contemporary poetry, and so, feels, justly, ripped off by his cheap experience.
Many of my best little paperback poetry books are coming from one of two places: the first is Ahsahta (well-established, surprisingly elegant, and unconventional in its choices); the other is Wave Books (into which Verse Press -- a big “small press” name -- recently collapsed). The people at Wave Books are smart cookies. Their website is practical and sleek at once, offering a visitor various navigations. This is just an inventory from a quick look: information about new and upcoming titles for that aforementioned circle of incest, a schedule of the Poetry Bus Tour (visiting fifty cities, sponsored by Wave), a picture of and information about a visual poetry exhibit at a space in the press’ hometown of Seattle, an invitation to poets who want to work on a Wisconsin farm/orchard for room and board, and an on-line project called “Erasures,” in which users might “take any text and from it, create a poem. In this special section you can create erasures from source texts provided, save them to our archive, print them, or email them to friends. You can also learn about erasure books that are available and browse poems others have made.” And I even found my way to an interview with poet Dara Wier (reviewed in this piece). I recognize that there is an element of marketing at work, here. But it’s not like I’m being swindled into purchasing a liquid screen television with a matching cell phone. And, more importantly, the “product” being offered appears to be part of an actual movement -- well, if not a movement, then a notion -- in the world of poetry. Maybe John Barr (of the snobbery mentioned above) has not read any of their books. Or visited the website. But I think Wave is on to something.
The three books I am looking at here (Richard Meier’s Shelley Gave Jane a Guitar, Dara Wier’s Remnants of Hannah, and Jon Woodward’s Rain) don’t share a common aesthetic thread. They are distinct in tone, in persona, in the world each creates on the page. But there is a shared something, and I would argue that that is formed (in part) by Wave’s editors’ choices. Established as recently as 2005, this press, I believe, is attempting to create a community of readers and writers (yes, critics, there is no denying its incestuous nature) that commits itself to the pursuit of good poetry -- embracing failed or overly obscure projects as warmly as wonderfully weird and innovative ones. (I have been reading Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, and I think that book works in the way I imagine the press’ range of poets: the voices from all characters exist simultaneously, sometimes in the same moment in the parlor, sometimes out back... but they interrupt one another with oddly different trains and patterns of thought. Welty owes the trick to Joyce and Woolf. But you can see the analogy; the poets at Wave are chosen because they enter the room a certain way.)
Here’s what I hear when I read them: 1. These books have a Ginsberg-ish approach to the self -- a kind of satellite, gathering and re-gathering information, shooting it out, sending signals. 2. There appears to be a common poetics of experience -- that is: these writers are highly conscious of each moment in time, making a sort of “record” out of the moment of thought as it is forced into verse. 3. All share a language of juxtaposition, a seeming chaos from which a clarity might emerge.
Let’s start with the first one. Woodward does this trick in a very sly way. His poems are wildly open-ended in terms of syntax. There is a great freedom in moving from line to line -- one that he occasionally yanks away from the reader. Part of the effect is experiencing him experience the world. His own train of thought merges with his observations in such a way that it feels that to read a poem is to step with him into what is a primarily mundane existence -- marked by the things that all normal humans hope to attach a bit of drama to -- sadness, boredom, love, eating, etc. So: the self is on the page, making adventure of nothing.
I had feared it I
was sitting in one crack
in the sidewalk when I
heard him ask me a
question from the most adjacent
crack he asked how is
your chowder we were both
eating chowder I was finding
mine uncomfortable but had gotten
used to it and managed
to convey that somehow then
we stood and walked not
exactly toward the ocean but
I would say that that
was where we ended up.
Even where I have begun and ended, this quote is really slippery, as Woodward’s poems don’t have clear starts, stops, transitions. To excerpt it is quite dishonest, I have to admit.
Richard Meier, though, so much more lush and excessive in his line and his word count, is more easily quoted: “Wildflower honey, bouquet, fish water, melon/in the hoop house, seed and seedling doubt/teach, and three days puckerbrush/the minor plum into oblivion casts” and “it wasn’t a body of water between the trees’ front lawn/caught in a finger-hole, meant to animate the book.” His poetics, though dense and “difficult,” are responding (overtly, sometimes) to the Romantics -- who, most certainly, privileged the self. Meier hams it up with their tricks, creating a little megaphone with which to “re-send” signals gathered from round the world at large. The reader’s travels, in this case, are hazier... Meier has re-named the world in such a way as to make the self its only true inhabitant. The reader, then, has to embrace the whole place.
Wier is somewhere in between these two; she’s also a more established poet (having been on Verse’s roster, in fact). In the interview on the website, Wier chats up a bit of theory and process. In an interesting moment, her interviewer asks her about the title of this most recent collection. The interviewer, it seems, had been a student of Wier’s (I know, the incest) and Wier had offered this title as a possible thesis title. When asked about this (the student having had “guarded” the phrase for years), there is a wonderful sort of recognition of the fact of poets as mere arrangers of words (ideas, sure, are embedded in those arrangements, but ultimately -- poems are just funny formulas.) Here’s her response:
“I did give Remnants of Hannah to you once, and when you didn't use it, felt and hoped you'd not mind my taking it back. Let me tell you, when I gave it to you, I felt I was giving you something I really was very fond of. Who is Hannah? Well, at one time Hannah was a hurricane. Then Hannah became a name for remnants of all kinds... You're awfully kind to call it ‘guarding.’ Perhaps this is a new kind of thing we poets could be doing a little more of for one another. Let me know if you want me to guard anything for you for a while.”
I like this about Wier -- a generosity. She offers the same openness in her lines, which read, again, as the self catching and setting free signals of the world.
I remember the time you lent me your scarf
I remember the morning a ghost in a cocktail dress
Walked past us on a freezing strand of beach...
...You were the one with the knapsack and boat
The one with dirt on your shoes and dust on your
I was the one with the glass of cool water
In the next poem: “Inside my head is no candle, there’s a searchlight/ In there, alarming.” Wier is a real weirdo in her movements -- like watching a rogue duck at the park. It’s a lot of fun to page through this book -- and her use of the self -- like Woodward’s experience of the everyday and Meier’s trumping of beauty -- is simply a tool for word arrangement.
The second trend seems to me a common trend elsewhere, as well. Poets do seem to be interested in the “language” (not just in words, of course) of our moment. Many new poems exist in a context, laying bare the nauseating truth about time -- it is flimsy above all else. These three poets certainly play with this notion, Wier more than the others. Check out this little morsel: “One of our toys is on Mars tapping around/ Looking for something to eat/ I wouldn’t open that cabinet/ It would be around the third day now/ Maybe a dozen years have passed.” There is danger in this language, though... and occasionally these poets’ lines are so frenzied, so motion-hungry, that they leave behind weird mistakes -- as when Wier calls love “a weapon of mass destruction” or when Meier asks (with not nearly enough self-effacement, irony, or trickery for my taste): “How did I get so beautiful?” I am taking these things completely out of context, of course, but still.
The third trend I am “hearing” from the Wave-sters is the language of juxtaposition. Each poet creates a seeming chaos in her/his own arrangements. For Wier, it feels like a kind of sadness -- a jumpy mind carrying all its dark and light in the same bundle -- a rather lovely effect. For Woodman, that corruption of the line and the inevitable result (a breakdown of the page, of the poem) charges each reading experience with a freight-train jumble. To pass through the words is itself a kind of sense, the larger meaning created by steady rhythm. And for Meier, who sweetly adheres to the Romantic’s bloom and decay patterns, the crude arrangement of sound creates a density elegant for its sheer massiveness -- spare on syntax, heavy on possibility.
My unnatural categories for each of these books’ themes feel (like quoting Woodward) a bit dishonest. I have imposed here a pattern for imagining the “feel” of Wave’s players. But I think there is something quite malleable in what Wave is promoting -- and it is, I must say, aimed at a specific group of people with (probably) tiny disposable incomes. But if their marketing gimmicks can be seen as part of making poetry a little more “present” in the world, that seems inherently positive. “[I]t’s/ hard to imagine it all/going to shit the pinkflowering/dogwood for example is my/newest favorite tree the decay/of what world we’ve got’s/not exactly what I’m afraid of not now the woman/brings the cheeseburger I ordered...” (That one was plucked from Woodward.)
Shelley Gave Jane a Guitar by Richard Meier
Remnants of Hannah by Dara Wier
Rain by Jon Woodward