August 2014

Lightsey Darst


The Poetry News

When I look at the news, I wonder if the world is ending. I used to know people who insisted it would -- whether astronomers with their romantic hopes of a Big Crunch rather than the more likely but less appealing Big Freeze (in which all the energy that ever was winds down, all bonds break, and all difference evens out), or doomsayers who would tell me that this or that was the sign and I had better get right before then, if in fact I had any ability to be right. Do I? That remains to be seen.

At any rate, the news. Finding your way inland might be a good idea. Or you could turn to something entirely different, like poetry. Pick up a book like Canadian poet Nikki Reimer's Downverse, in which you will find this:

we watched Suze Orman who told us to sell our houses!
because we can't afford our mortgages!
get a job ANY JOB consolidate our debts!
& live only on cash!

Elsewhere, Reimer mines comment streams for vitriol and ignorance that she then simply frames, without answering, for example, this effusion from one soul who explains what's wrong with poetry:

only a poet would say that the reason non poets don't like poetry is because they don't understand it... it's not the poetry that is disliked. it is the poets who deliver it in such a way that they think they are somehow better, fairer, superior creatures than the rest of us.

Or this wretched misunderstanding of the nature of public funding:

Every public dollar spent
sustaining a poet
is a public dollar
not spent
training an MRI operator
Demands for arts funding
are plainly immoral
when you consider the whole consequence.

These are not arguments, but reproducing them with line breaks or in modest bricolage does not constitute an argument either. I can join in spotting the utilitarian cruelty of

nonetheless                             death is a tragedy where
everyone must learn from

 -- as if a poor immigrant tasered in an airport (Robert Dziekanski) died for a lesson to you -- or the myopia of

a civilized person
follows police instructions and waits for there lawyer

-- as if we all have lawyers yet lack properly spelled personal pronouns. But how am I benefitted by this recognition of what I already knew -- viz., that some people are fools?

Oh, I know -- I brought up the word benefit, when I know very well that one cannot hold art to any standard of public welfare. But I bring it up because surely Reimer means to benefit someone, something, in some way; otherwise, why make work that is at times so hard to read?


I read books of poetry twice, in general. In fact, I assume I will read everything twice. Sometimes this makes me rather a lazy reader on the first round. I put off understanding for later and take in texture. Sometimes I forget to wonder what anything is about. I got to be this sort of reader at some point after I realized I would spend a fair amount of time with modern poetry. Modern poetry, like some subatomic particles, squints away when you look for it. Modern poetry sometimes means by accretion. In modern poetry, a structure of sound might suggest a politics confirmed by an elliptical title -- once one knows what one is looking for. Modern poetry sometimes makes sense the way a landscape does. And I, before I met modern poetry, was used to gathering meaning in my mind as I read, the way a woman without a basket might gather peonies in her hand. I was used to understanding.

At some point it occurred to me to ask myself: will I ever again have the confidence to reject anything out of hand?


I feel little desire to return to Reimer -- though, to give her her due, she does not always mine the news. In my two favorite poems, "without warning the girl cousins" and "living rage," she combs complex textures out of hot material -- personal, intimate, dangerous, tragic. Here she evokes the fevered air of the familial slumber party:

cousins wash cousins
breathing, patiently, but patiently, girl cousins paws under
heap, on vanished, all under cousins.

She also does not always go for the easy target of the comment stream. Witness this N+7ish take on housing costs in Vancouver:

one-beef aphorisms
in walkable nestles
repartee for about $1,200 a moonbeam.
Bas-relief summations fever $750.
And a building-infested rope
in an aging residential hour
runs to almost $600 a moonbeam --
if one can be found. (34)

Here, she reminds me of Harryette Mullen, but without Mullen's anarchic glee, and without her transformative magic. Under a thin glaze of play, the disgraceful facts surface.


Perhaps Reimer might be best compared to contemporary comedians in that her poetry is another place to get your news: Downverse as The Daily Show. The longest section of the book, titled "vancouverlament," perhaps hit hardest in Vancouver in 2011, during the months that provide much of its material.

This brings us to the larger problem of news and poetry. As you've probably heard, poetry is news that stays news, but you can't get the news from poetry. We could trace this anxiety to the tradition of the occasional poem, a poem that incorporates and commemorates events (think of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"). Or we could trace it to the feeling that important things are happening -- while poets twiddle verbs and interrogate slants of light.

And my own aversion to the news -- I am aware of it, of my fear.


Reimer quotes a vexed commenter on a thread about the state of Canadian arts funding:

if it's any good
it will survive!!

This one gives me pause because it is more or less true -- if you define good as that which survives, and define survive as last for a while. Everything will lose its hold, some things more slowly than others. Some things appeal narrowly and fall quickly, while others appeal broadly and hang on. Some are fortunate enough to arrive at a moment when they can shape something else and thus last longer. But to exalt these chancy forces to the status of aesthetic principle (as the commenter, not Reimer, does) -- that strikes me as the opposite of civilization.


I gave in to my periodic desire for Jane Austen and read Northanger Abbey again last week. I've read most of Austen more than once, and this is perhaps my fourth or fifth time through Northanger Abbey. Why so much? I live in her love stories, of course, made happy by the progress toward happiness; I thrill to the little encounters, the balls, the important interviews, the rare moments when people say what they want. But I also, increasingly, note Austen's command of structure, the patterns that appear when you think about, for example, insiders and outsiders in Mansfield Park. Her mature work dances.

When I finished the novel, I watched a recent film adaptation. But the film, like all the more recent versions of Austen, does away with the propriety that so occupies Austen's heroines. This is understandable: even if we grasp their circumstances, we may find it hard to sympathize with women who wait for men to decide whether they will be happy. In modern terms, they are ninnies (and the bravery Austen gives them barely registers on us). But removing propriety -- like taking gravity out of an equation -- makes hash of Austen's structure. If this is how we remember her work, I don't think we will remember it much longer.


The world, being a local phenomenon, is always ending somewhere. How can we be made to care?