Monday, January 21, 2013

The Shape of the Ineffable: Michael Waters

I embrace all modes of poetry, but I am predisposed toward a poetry with the purpose of forwarding language itself. Whether intentional or emerging, closed or open, traditional or nonce, end-rhymed/metered or free-verse--none of those categories are primary--what is important to me is that there is some kind of structure that provides parameters, within which I can trust the poem enough to be liberated inside myself to experience, if only partly--and it's all partly--the ineffable. If that doesn't happen somewhere in the poem, then the writer should have chosen another linguistic medium--fiction or drama. But to try to achieve a transcendental experience by attempting to remove structure from language (even if that were possible), just leaves me cold.

Therefore, it is not surprising that I have some of my most emotional moments reading Michael Waters. His four poems in the the September/October (2012) issue of American Poetry Review are spot-on in creating a liturgy that both celebrates and mourns the arc from childhood to fatherhood, from wild youth to accomplished maturity, from what is codified in history's personal memory, marching through storms of entropy toward a horizon, albeit shrinking with each tic of the second hand, that always lies beyond.

In three of the four poems in this quartet, Waters uses his typical syllabic prosody (pentameter) to tic off units of collapsing time in the life of a father ("Dominoes"), a son ("Tic Tac Toe"), and a child of the sixties reflecting upon love's rejections and self-acceptance ("Sixties Sonnet"). The third in the series, "Old School," perfectly matches adolescent angst and unpredictability with lines that consistently perform "rolling stops" through their ten syllable stop signs like the driver in the poem "wrestl[ing] the Camaro with one fist & popp[ing] / Handfuls of pills . . ."

In "Dominoes," Waters writes in staggered lines that enact the swerve and sway of falling dominoes: "We set them up to flip them down, made them / Fall with a flapping sound--whirr of an ace / Slapped by circling spokes as the boy biked by, / Or the wound-up skirr of the hummingird / Jazzing like fire above honeysuckle." Waters's metaphorical sense is virtuosic, both in these opening lines, as well as with its final "I knelt with my father to watch death flow."

In "Tic Tac Tow"--my personal favorite (as well as Waters's, according to a recent email from the author)--the son of "Dominoes" is now watching his own death play out in a game with his own four-year-old son in the lines "I let him win once more, my wobbly O's / Each a contracting galaxy, ready // To be rid of me. Futureless father . . . / While a fathergone future gyres his way." And then come the final two lines that touch the horrific "otherness" of our old friend, Death, in the midst of its familiarity: first a line of symbols (two of which I do not even have on my keyboard)--3 swastikas that the son's X's have resembled, and 3 crosses, followed by "XXX O."--ten in all, of course. Then the killer ultimate line: "No symbol he pencils can make me stay." Total number of lines? Thirteen.

"Sixties Sonnet" is a perfect blend of familiar form (fourteen lines of end-rhymed--or end-near-rhymed--pentameter), with Waters's signature, witty dialogue and muscular diction, as in the following lines:

"You're cute," smiled Denise, breaking up with me,
"But cute is all you'll ever be."

Denise who was so wrongwrongwrong, I miss
Our Woodstock nights, half-a-million thumb-flicked

Bics coaxed to climax by God's thwapping bass,
Hissing soppy Oms against the cloudmass.

The tweak that Waters makes on this sonnet may seem at first sight something of a gimmick--a single first line repeated as the last, "I have become handsome in my old age." Much is being communicated, however, with this gesture--not only the obvious cyclical nature of these poems, and the characters who inhabit them, but a subtle romantic note sounded at the end of both the poem and the short collection, rife with inevitable death, without hope for a life beyond. Waters is a master of craft, and he would not allow chance to dictate the placement of this line, standing alone after six couplets, the final two of which are

I forgive Sly and the Family Stone.
I slept through Santana, Dreaming future

Exes who might love me despite my rage.
I have grown lonesome in my afflictions.

In fact, speaking of final lines, the final lines of each poem taken together form an arc that does exactly what I aspire to in my writing and in my life--they provide a framework in which the ineffable can be experienced:

"I knelt with my father to watch death flow."

"No symbol he pencils can make me stay."

"Pierced, & fucked up, [he] bowed his shaven skull & wept."

"I have become handsome in my old age."

Michael, not only is your writing handsome, it's suppleness and increasing vitality within an aging frame guarantees that neither it, nor you, will ever grow old.

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

Like, Dude! You're like so-o-o right about these freakin' kick-ass poets you keep writing about! Michael Waters is the shizzle!

While it has taken me multiple parsings and reparsings to figure out just what you are saying in the opening paragraph of this blogpost, I think I have it. But I'm not sure. One of the stumbling blocks is the verb "forward" which I must take to be - google notwithstanding - a term of existential and possibly aesthetic meaning. (An artifact of an MFA perhaps?) Something akin to the verbs "ground" and/or "foreground". Thus, I imagine that you are embracing a poetry that is grounded in language that points beyond itself (language qua language?) rather than calls attention to itself. (language qua object?) Which seems to be the opposite of poetry whose "avowed purpose is to forward language itself." And so, I conclude, using context clues from the present post and its predecessors, you prefer poetry that points beyond itself to the ineffable (i.e. that which language cannot eff with) rather than point to itself. Did I mention multiple parsings and not being sure?

Teacher, did I get it right?