Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Tony Trigilio

I met Tony in Chicago in 2004. He emerged from his office as the director of the undergraduate poetry department at Columbia College Chicago, smiling and listening to us graduate students gathered in the hallway, intent on the movement of our mouths, a little shy, seeming like he might duck back in at any moment to scribble some notes about what he'd heard--he was that intent on each one of us, absorbing what we said into his tongue, his pen. Of course when you read the poetry in his first book, The Lama's English Lessons, you realize he practices this kind of deep listening on everything and everyone, making discoveries that seem so obvious, that no one else ever has: how Jack Lord ("The Longest Continuing Running Policeman"), is related to a mystical experience in the Hawaii Holiday Inn in March of '77, how a table-dancer from New Orleans stacks clothes in a laundromat "like an office worker fastening a chain of paper clips together on the last day of her job," how war can make "the things you're warned against the ones you're best suited to accomplish."

The characters in Trigilio's poems range from the unknown--the homeless man who "touched himself today//a musician studying for/your last dollar bill" and the "old men shirtless/[who] rearrange flowerpots/on windowsills," the WWII soldier knotting his tie for the first time, to the infamous: Jim and Tammy Bakker, Lee Harvey Oswald, Kenneth Starr. The connection between them all is the lens of this poet, the observer who changes the experiment by observing it, the artist who creates by turning his instrument in the direction of what is "there." But the observer is anything but objective, it is exactly his subjectivity that makes it possible for us to relate so well to Trigilio's world. The following section of the prose poem "Special Prosecutor" could be talking about the poet's capacious work, as well as the farm of friends so big for them they had to keep boarders.

from "Special Prosecutor"

I can still remember Diane and Dave's place after all these years.
An elegant sprawling gabled farmhouse. It anchors an acre of south-
ern Ohio corn. It was too big for them so they kept boarders. We
thought about starting a commune. They took good care of the place
but couldn't keep the money straight from the boarders. They came
to me with their problems and I listened. That's what people do, it's
what you're supposed to do. Don't turn away your friends. If you
can't be honest with them, then who are you trying to fool? Diane
and Dave keep their arms around me as we walk through their
empty living room. They want to stay close to me, and for some
reason I speak in low tones fearing eavesdroppers. In that hush I tell
them Ken Starr is staying at their boarding house and I need to go
away. They say nothing, their silence a mystery I'm content to leave
unsolved. Their arms around me, they escort me into the kitchen,
a huge converted gymnasium with rows of picnic tables. Migrant
laborers, mostly men but a few women, squished at every table eating
eggs and toast heaped on every plate. It's clear to me that Diane
and Dave's house serves as a way station, an underground railroad
of sorts. A cell in a network of fake identities, citizenship papers,
resettlement. I look down at the floor as we speak. If someone
sees this, maybe my gaze, downward and focused, can make the con-
versation look casual. It's the secret force of well-being, it glides
past obstacles in dreams and only perches, an unmoved sentry, when
we're awake. "Everyone must see punishment not only as natural, but in
his own interest; everyone myst be able to read in it his own advantage."
The floor is tiled as if someone half-gutted and nearly rehabbed a
turn-of-the-century tenement. I imagine whole families living in
rooms with no privacy but for blankets draped in thresholds where
doors should be. Diane and Dave keep their heads down, too, with
faked ease, vigilance concealed, with business as usual. We'll watch
his movements in the boarding house, we'll watch so he doesn't snuff
out this settlement.

And it's clear to me that Tony Trigilio's poetry serves as a way station, an underground railroad of sorts, where the poet watches the movements of his characters, recording their secret conversations, video-taping their natural actions that seem so unnatural, their aberrations that seem so normal--"whole families living in rooms with no privacy but for blankets draped in thresholds where doors should be."

Replacing doors with blankets draped in thresholds--that's what Trigilio does. Would that we all could do it so well.

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