Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writer's Ambition: The roots of "sin" and "sanctity" are intertwined.

The Pushcart Prize. Even typing it now, I get goose pimples. The two dozen poems and forty to fifty-something combined stories and essays (technically creative non-fiction pieces) in the annual anthology are selected from over six thousand candidates, representing the best writing from each of more than one thousand small presses and journals each year in the opinions of their editors. Just being nominated is an honor worthy of inclusion on one's curriculum vitae. And no matter what one's aesthetic sensibilities, there is no doubt that the winners are among the most substantive literary works published during the previous year.

The issue of recognition of the work of art as separate from recognition of the artist is dealt with in two of the winning essays in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology: "How To Succeed In Po Biz" by Kim Addonizio, and "God's Truth Is Life" by Christian Wiman. Both should be required reading for anyone writing anything other than a shopping list or the occasional birthday message inside a blank card for Brownie points gained from your lover or your mother.

"I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself," writes Wiman, "but I'm not sure I believe in that anymore." "If a poet's ambition were truly for the work and nothing else," Wiman continues, "he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making, but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self..."

If casting doubt on the possibility of pure altruism were the only rubric of faith that Wiman could muster, he would come off as simplistic, and his piece as another whining essay from the sidelines of fine art. But through vignettes of his and other poets' experiences, intertwined with personal reflection about the relationship between art and life, Wiman succeeds in creating parables that elucidate our journey into our own practice of writing as a spiritual (not religious) path:

"Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one's being, one's material, and Being itself. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity. But it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names."

While Wiman is busy dissecting the pickled corpse of ambition in the laboratory, splitting hairs with a precision linguistic scalpel, slicing his way through the flesh to reveal its heart, Kim Addonizio, oiled down with satire, has been dirty dancing with the body poetic, seducing the serpent in the garden, wrestling with the angel in order to receive the blessing of the paid poetry reading she deserves that will launch her career. Now, wearing a sheer Machiavellian nightgown, she joins us for an interview, offering step-by-step advice, in the midst of her mounting insecurities:

"Once a bona fide, i.e., paying invitation has been extended, try to obtain as high a fee as possible. Tell yourself you are worth every penny, but secretly feel the way you did when you were on food stamps--other people need and deserve this more than you. Feel anxious about the upcoming trip because you hate to travel. Feel anxious because you are basically a private person and can't live up to the persona that is floating out there in the world acting tougher and braver than you. You are a writer, after all, and prefer to be alone in your own house with your cat. You don't really like your fellow humans, except for your lover, whose stories and mannerisms can be usefully stolen and put into your writing. When he traveled with a carnival as a young man, he learned to eat fire and to put a nail up his nose. Sensibly, he left the carnival to work in sales, while you suspect that you have become a sideshow act, a fake mermaid shriveling in her tank, uselessly flipper her plastic scales."

After stressing out over the highly implausible (yet actual) events of the presenters not having obtained any of her books for sale, missing her ride from the airport and ending up lost, trying to climb into the window of a private citizen's apartment she has mistaken for the university residence, being cursed at by the father of two teenage girls who come to the window to ask for cigarettes thinking she is a prostitute, and scores more of similar stories, Addonizio tells us:

"Go ahead and have a little more vodka with lemonade, and get slightly drunk by dusk. Try to write a few good lines and then give up in despair. Tell yourself you are foolish, feeling terrible when you have actually been asked to share your work with other people. It is the work that you love, and sometimes you even get paid for it. Tell yourself you are lucky, that people envy you. Tell yourself this is what you toiled and sweated your whole life to be able to do, and now you are doing it, and above all, don't be such a god-damned little baby."

The message is not that we are forced to chose between Christian Wiman and Kim Addonizio--though disparate in style, they are consonant in message. Wiman himself explains the difference in his concluding remark: "It is not that imperfections in the life somehow taint or invalidate perfections of the work. It is, rather, that these things--art and life, or thought and life--are utterly, fatally, and sometimes savingly entwined, and we can know no [person's] work until we know how, whom, and to what end he [or she] did or did not love."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Larry Levis: "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World"

According to Philip Levine, when he was given the task of editing the late Larry Levis' "all but completed manuscript" that became Elegy under Levine's guidance, he first thought that Levis was "cannibalizing certain passages from some poems in order to heighten and enlarge other more ambitious poems." But Peter Everwine, Levine's colleague at Fresno State, convinced him the Levis was using "motifs or riffs to unify the collection." It is my assertion that these connective themes and tropes also flow across the covers of previous collections, spilling forwards and backwards, informing and being informed by other poems from other works, much like separate poems that are variations on a theme. The strongest example of this process is found in the two poems, "To a Wren on Calvary" (from The Widening Spell of the Leaves) and "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" (from Elegy).

Due to its length, I will not reprint here "To a Wren on Calvary," but rather will direct the reader to the following link for reference:

What follows is a reprint of the shorter poem:

The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World

Once, there was a poem. No one read it & the poem
Grew wise. It grew wise & then it grew thin,
No one could see it perched on the woman's
Small shoulders as she went on working beside

The gray conveyor belt with the others.
No one saw the poem take the shape of a wren,
A wren you could look through like a window,
And see all the bitterness of the world

In the long line of shoulders & faces bending
Over the gleaming, machined parts that passed
Before them, the faces transformed by the grace
And ferocity of a wren, a wren you could look

Through, like a lens, to see them working there.
This is not about how she thew herself into the river,
For she didn't, nor is it about the way her breasts
Looked in the moonlight, nor about the moonlight at all.

This is about the surviving curve of the bridge
Where she listened to the river whispering to her,
When the wren flew off & left her there,
With the knowledge of it singing in her blood.

By which the wind avenges. By which the rain avenges.
By which even the limb of a dead tree leaning
Above the white, swirling mouth of an eddy
In the river that once ran beside the factory window

Where she once worked, shall be remembered
When the dead come back, & take their places
Beside her on the line, & the gray conveyor belt
Starts up with its raspy hum again. Like a heaven's.

How to get into these poems? There are so many entry points! Had "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" never been written, there still would be a plethora of worlds to explore within "To a Wren on Calvary." We could begin with the reversals, each of which seem to be a kind of ideational chiasmus: "the unremarkable," rather than the remarkable being that which lasts, the faces of the thieves being covered with wings and their bodies naked, "the quiet flowing into things," for example. Or we could contrast Levis' use of understatement alongside his pragmatographic descriptions, such as the "unremarkable wren" set against "small hawks (or are they other birds?)/...busily unraveling eyelashes & pupils.../I cannot tell whether their blood spurts, or just spills." Or, as in the virtuosic passage in lines 50 ff., which begins unassumingly with auditory meiosis, crescendos through ordinary description and, finally, ends in graphic sounds of violence:

Still . . . as they resumed their quarrel in the quiet air,
I could hear the species cheep in what they said . . .
Until their voices rose. Until the sound of a slap erased
A world, & the woman, in a music stripped of all prayer,

Began sobbing, & the man become bystander cried O Jesus.

A virtuosic effect is achieved, in part, because of the two worlds that Levis has created--the one on Calvary, and the one taking place on every hill in every city that is populated with people who are trying to love through their hate and hate through their love--and, in part, with the blurring of these two worlds by borrowing images from one and putting them into the other, fitting so perfectly, without explanation or the need to explain--the child camouflaged behind his toy left out on a lawn, while his parents tear at each other with claws and beaks sharper than those of any bird of prey, the boy who "saw at last the clean wings of indifferent/Hunger, & despair?," the father who cries out to Jesus when he sees what he has become as a bystander to (and thus a participant in) the violence around him.

Were this poem the last word from Levis about the world of the thieves dying on Calvary and the world of the neighbor couple and their boy being robbed of their lives "in the town/That once had seemed, like its supporting factories/That manufactured poems & weaponry, Like such a good idea," it might seem enough. But Levis will not let enough alone.

Somewhere between the time this poem was published in The Widening Spell of the Leaves in 1991 and a few weeks before his death in 1999, Larry Levis wrote "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World,"--both an answer to, and a continuation of, "To a Wren on Calvary."

What is immediately noticeable about this new poem, is that its jagged typographical edges have been smoothed down with time. Unlike its predecessor, the poem is written exclusively in quatrains, its lines flush against one another like feathers, without a single one out of place. This is an enactment of the more palpable presence of the wren, despite the indication in the title that it is invisible "to the world." But certainly it is quite visible to the world of the poem, being named no less than six times in twenty-eight lines, compared with only four times in sixty-seven lines previously. What world, then, is blind to "the poem take[n] the shape of a wren" that is "perched on the woman's/Small shoulders as she went on working beside/The gray conveyor belt with the others?"--the wren of ferocity and the wren you could look through (contrasted with the dead wren with its "oily feathers stretched, blent, & lacquered shut/Against the world . . . a world [the poet] couldn't touch" in "To a Wren on Calvary"), the wren that flew off and left the woman standing on the bridge, "With the knowledge of it singing in hr blood."

Is it the world that does not read the poem--meaning the world devoid of the poem, devoid of the "surviving curve of the bridge," the bridge that connects the extraordinary to the ordinary, the bridge that is the poem, that is our salvation as we take our places "beside her on the line, the gray conveyor belt/Start[ing] up with its raspy hum again?"

But the poem that returns is not simply a revised version of the original. It takes a closer look at the post-messianic world created in the first poem, the world as it exists for the woman in the second poem, not only after the deaths of the men on the crosses, but after the death of her marriage and (dare say I?) the death of the husband himself. And because the relationship of the second poem to the first is that of one facet, enlarged in the lens of the jeweler's loop, to the whole of the gemstone, the second cannot only be instructed from the first, but it can teach the first, re-examined in light of its uniquely focused and polished material.

Not only, for example, do we see in the "long line of shoulders & faces bending/Over the gleaming, machined parts" the small hawks plucking at the faces of the thieves on Calvary, but in the actions of the birds "unraveling eyelashes & pupils" the dehumanized indifference of factory workers brought on by the drudgery and meaninglessness of their work except to provide them with their next meal. Not only do we hear Calvary's death-whisper in the river that flows below the bridge where the woman stands, we can hear the river's flow and its connectedness to everything in Death's whisper. Not only does the cross of Calvary inform "the limb of a dead tree leaning" in "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World," the image of the dead tree points to a path away from the soteriological sufficiency of the cross.

These examples of dialogue between the two poems grow from Levis' nearly objective position, allowing for multiple voices within him to not only be heard, but to collaborate in the construction of a poem, or in this case, of a larger work that transcends the bounds of one volume of poems and breaks through into another.

"Poetry must be made by all, not by one," said Lautreamont. May we not only listen to all of its voices, but answer them as well as Larry Levis in his "Widening Spell."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Peter Campion: A Poet's Poet

Peter Campion's poetry is emblematic of the finest work being written today. His poetic sensibility is virtuosic because it is rooted in a prosody intimate with the literary canon, simultaneously blooming into the ethereal mystery that connects all art and life. He enacts in his work the high standard against which he measures others' work, as defined in his lucid recent essay in Poetry entitled "Strangers." In it he defines metaphorical sense as "a type of inventiveness that can appear even when metaphor seems absent. It's not merely a knack for crafting comparisons without 'like' or 'as,' but the ability to establish far-reaching connections, as well as disjunctions, in consciousness."

This metaphorical sense is never better demonstrated than in his new book, The Lions. Long before Campion's lions make their inevitable appearance in the lines of "Simile," an ars poetica fully one-third the way into the book, we have felt their proleptic presence in practically every poem. From "the blacktail deer [that] descend/Trembling. All systems on alert," in the opening "In Early March" to "all that force/falling through air" of "So Here Is How We Live Now," Campion's carefully chosen images effortlessly do their work of "implying the vision of a larger shape of being," to again quote Campion's essay.

Who are these ubiquitous beings that not only "shake out a clump of vertebra and sinews in their teeth to extract the sweetest meat," but also "rip reality from all the surfaces that flow around us."? This beautifully crafted and wonderfully inventive collection grapples convincingly with the question. Campion's capacious vision of the art of language emerges as one force amidst a dense landscape of life forms struggling for individual survival, all connected beneath the surface, including a lion in Botswana eating a kill, Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War), a man and woman having sex on a towel spread on a bathroom floor at a party ("a violence/only the kind they don't deny but relish) again, teeth clenched," "then this, then this, then this: life happening, each instant, rivers history" (from the title poem, "The Lions," part v.).

In this collection Campion puts flesh to the violence that resides bone-deep in existence with a pantheon of images in ways we knew and in ways we didn't know before--all lions releasing their "coiled lunge[s]," their "claws...regulators, rulers of the flow [of] reality lay[ing] hot beneath [them]." Again and again Campion portrays with quintessential craft and ideational nexus, a reality-seizing force that resides in all things, incapable of being titrated out, not making every conscious creature as bad as it can possibly be, but affecting each part of reality nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

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