Still thinking about the “Inhuman Mentors” idea, although it’s taken a recent turn.  Here’s what I’m thinking:

The world is a blank.  It doesn’t speak.  That means that Matthew Arnold, at times, and Swinburne were right in talking and thinking about Wordsworth’s poetry as this sort of great impossible quixotic fallacy-romp, in which Wordsworth not only invested nature with human qualities, but believed that nature contained these human qualities – as though Wordsworth believed, to put it another way, that truth resided in the world, and not in the ways we talk about the world.  Which is, I should add, plainly wrong (I believe), if at times wonderful and beautiful and satisfying.

Speed forward lots of years, and let’s think about the poetry of John Ashbery.  I think I can say that Ashbery’s poetry operates from a different principle than Wordsworth’s – namely, that nature is a blank, and forever unknowable, although this does not prevent us from dreaming it in certain moods, shapes, forms, etc. – or to put it another way, this does not prevent it from dreaming us into different moods, shapes, forms, etc.  But rather than talking about this too much, let’s look at a poem.  Since I’ve been reading “April Galleons” recently, here’s the second poem from that collection, called “Riddle Me” (and notice how the title gestures itself towards some fundamental conundrum that is also somehow deeply personal):

 

Rainy days are best,

There is some permanence in the angle

That things make with the ground;

In not taking off after apologies.

The speedometer’s at sundown.

 

Even as they spoke the sun was beginning to disappear behind a cloud.

All right so it’s better to have vague outlines

But wrapped, tightly, around one’s mood

Of something like vengeful joy.  And in the wood

It’s all the same too.

 

I think I liked you better when I seldom knew you.

But lovers are like hermits or cats: they

Don’t know when to come in, to stop

Breaking off twigs for dinner.

In the little station I waited for you

 

And shall, what with all the interest

I bear towards plans of yours and the future

Of stars it makes me thirsty

Just to go down on my knees looking

In the sawdust for joy.

 

June and the nippers will scarcely look our way.

And be bold then it’s then

This cloud imagines us and all that our story

Was ever going to be, and we catch up

To ourselves, but they are the selves of others.

 

And with it all the city starts to live

As a place where one can believe in moving

To a particular name and be there, and then

It’s more action falling back refreshed into death.

We can survive the storms, wearing us

 

Like rainbow hats, afraid to retrace steps

To the past that was only recently ours,

Afraid of finding a party there.

O in all your life were you ever teased

Like this, and it became your mind?

 

Where still some saunter on the bank in mixed

Plum shade and weary sun, resigned

To the installations on the opposite bank, we mix

Breathless greetings and tears and lately taste

The precious supplies.

 

The poem begins with a mood of appreciative restfulness.  We hear about a rainy day, how the rain itself and its hitting the ground suggests a kind of “permanence,”  The rain is inhuman – it does not take off after apologies, the way we humans do; and even the speedometer itself – a part of a cultural creation, an automobile – is “at sundown.”  The cultural world owes its existence to the natural world, and currently, in the movement of the poem, it’s as though the natural world has usurped the cultural – “The speedometer’s at sundown.”  One feels as if Ashbery, like anyone else, is somehow almost jealous of the natural world, jealous of its permanence, its endless fluctuations of change and “creativity.”  And one wonders if this is something that can be argued, something that possesses most poets – i.e. the impossible desire to somehow be the world, and not human.

Yet this mood of restfulness suddenly changes in the next stanza, for “Even as they spoke the sun was beginning to disappear behind a cloud.”  The movement of the sun seems to mildly trivialize what was being spoken about – the natural world again taking a precedence over the human, as if its very unknowability made it fundamentally prior to the human (this makes some sense).  And yet this very movement, of the sun disappearing behind a cloud, seems to influence the next line or the next thought, which reads, “All right so it’s better to have vague outlines” – as though contemplating the shape of the sun vanishing behind a cloud – in all its brightness and haze – begins to suggest a lesson in human terms, i.e. sometimes a certain indeterminateness can be beneficial, especially if it is “wrapped…around one’s mood”.  This all sounds somewhat hopelessly abstract – what I am saying is that here, Ashbery seems to draw a kind of lesson from the natural world, he seems to be using the natural world as an inhuman mentor, even while he is aware that the natural world does not conventionally speak.

Perhaps this is why the ambiguity of the final line of the second stanza is so utterly puzzling: “And in the wood / It’s all the same too.”  What does this sentence mean?  It’s as if, by calling attention to the sameness in the woods, Ashbery is calling attention to the sort of monotonous  unknowability of the world, the way it is perpetually and perenially and even boringly other to ourselves, and yet somehow, in a very strange way, instructive.  The sentence simultaneously gestures towards the way in which the world may mentor us – it is the same in the wood as it is with the sun and clouds instructing us strangely – and yet also gestures towards a kind of incredulity about the world ever teaching us anything we could somehow place in familiar language.

The third stanza reiterates this unknowability: the first line reads, “I think I liked you better when I seldom knew you.”  It’s as if Ashbery has once again drawn a kind of directly indirect “moral” from the world, and then applied this to a human relationship.  The world is unknowable, and it makes the poet realize that he liked a person better when the person was also less knowable.

Yet as we continue to read the poem, the world changes from being firstly unknowable to being firstly prior to us.  We first read of the poem’s persona “looking / In the sawdust for joy” – an improbable but understandable move, considering the earlier indications of the speaker of the poem somehow being mentored by the inhuman world.  What Ashbery is doing, really, is absolutely radically decentering us (this has been said a lot about his work), so that, in the fifth stanza, we come to realize that we are not only humbled by the fact that the world was there before us, and will be there after, but that our very selves  “are the selves of others.”  In a way, Ashbery seems to have transferred the unknowability of the world to or onto or into an idea of the human.  For, in that fifth stanza, it is the world – specifically, the clouds – that imagines us.  This is a wonderfully fascinating inversion of the Romantic idea that we imagine, and in imagining create the world.  Here, the world creates us.

And it is as if this very idea – that the world creates us, and not exactly the other way – that “the city starts to live / As a place where on can believe”.  As though this very notion allows the speaker to breathe more, to accept things, including the reality of death.  And yet all of it is so puzzling – like an enormous riddle.  Ashbery writes, “O in all your life were you ever teased / Like this, and it became your mind?”  We can read this psychologically – teasing as a form of mild bullying or joshing – but we can also read this as the tease being the world itself, the way it functions as a kind of oblique guidance system that never ever speaks.  And that this very guidance “became your mind.”  The radical otherness of ourselves.

The poem, understandably, therefore ends on a note of resignation – “Where still some…resigned / To the installations on the opposite bank”.  And yet – and this is a constant strength or even a kind of virtue of Ashbery – the awareness of death and the otherness of ourselves does not prevent him from invoking the fact that we still “taste / The precious supplies.”  There is of course a kind of irony that attends this taste, but in other way the taste seems, in the poem, to be still meaningful, still worth doing.  And so it seems the relationship between the inhuman and human, while in one way sobering our meanings, at the same time also allows for alternative meanings and even an awareness of “the precious supplies.”

I’ve been wondering about this question for a few weeks now.  It seems in keeping with this idea of “Inhuman Mentors,” i.e. the theory that the world outside us, whether it be the natural or cultural world – a river, the wind, a meadow, an advertisement, an alley, an elevator – guides us somehow, not explicitly – the world does not speak – but still somehow serves as a picture that we draw from, learn somehow from, take as an example.  Yet I’m not sure exactly how to talk about this, and am wary of attributing qualities to the world that I don’t believe it contains.  For example, Richard Rorty writes in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity that

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there.  To say that the world is out there, and it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states.  To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.”

I’ve never really doubted this passage, and I don’t doubt it now; and yet I wonder how to make sense of passages in poetry that involve intense moments of observation of the world – I’m thinking of Wordsworth, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Wallace Stevens – without reducing these observations to the pathetic fallacy, without simply saying, “You see this because you are human, and are investing what you are seeing with human qualities.”  In other words, anthropomorphism only goes to far; how does it make sense of the thing, the object, seen, witnessed, observed, taken into perspective?  I’m not interested in recreating the old materialist vs. idealist arguments, but I am interested in trying to puzzle out, through poetry, some questions and answers about the relationship between mentorship and the inhuman.  And yet I’m worried that, because of the terms I’m using (“mentorship,” “inhuman”), I’m just recreating the debate.

How is it possible to talk about significant moments in poetry that involve real or imagined observations, without falling into talk about idealism and materialism?  In other words, for the intense moment to happen in the poem, there is often a confluence between something that happens outside the poet and something that happens inside the poet.  A mountain is glimpsed, or illustrations in a book are imagined into words; pears or peaches are observed, or a particular bird is described.  In those moments, it seems stupid to say that what is experienced is all mind, just as it seems stupid to say that it is all world.  Of course it is a combination of these things….but how to get at the way in which the representation of the world carries significance, as if hoping against hope that the world itself would, too?  Is this basically a scenario of poets hoping for the impossible?

Let me give an example.  Here are the opening and closing stanzas from Wallace Stevens’ “Six Significant Landscapes.”  Stevens is notorious for his love for, even obsession with, the weather – another beguiling example of a poet who seems to have believed to a certain extent that one learns things, is guided by, psychagogically led by, the world, or a world.  Here are the stanzas:

I.

An old man sits

In the shadow of a pine tree

In China.

He sees larkspur,

Blue and white,

At the edge of the shadow,

Move in the wind.

His beard moves in the wind.

The pine tree moves in the wind.

Thus water flows

Over weeds.

VI.

Rationalists, wearing square hats,

Think, in square rooms,

Looking at the floor,

Looking at the ceiling.

They confine themselves

To right-angled triangles.

If they tried rhomboids,

Cones, waving lines, ellipses –

As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon –

Rationalists would wear sombreros.

The poem is called “Six Significant Landscapes,” although it is unclear if Stevens means the title ironically.  I tend to think that there is a subtle self-deprecating irony in the title, but for the most part read it as conveying an immensity of weight, even if that weight contains some cracks of irony within it.  At any rate, in the first stanza we are nearly accosted by the repetition of the image and phrase of things that “move in the wind.”  The larkspur moves in the wind, the old man’s beard moves in the wind, and the pine tree moves in the wind.  This much is clear.  What isn’t clear is why Stevens has decided to open “Six Significant Landscapes” with this image.  What are to take from the phrase and imagery?  What is connoted or evokes by various natural and human objects moving in the wind?

Is it fair to say that, in dwelling or brooding upon something that is moved, Stevens is attempting to articulate a kind of law of poetry, which is its attempt to move the reader?  Are we to take this first stanza as an ars poetica?  Or is this some sort of bare, sad commentary on the bare sadness of the world – a world that is endlessly and thoroughly empty, chaotic, and without purpose?  But aren’t these two readings basically incommensurable?  If we read the first stanza as articulating the way in which a reader is moved by poetry, we are taking up meaning, we are talking about signification, intentionality, subjectivity.  If we read the first stanza as articulating the (comic? tragic?) meaninglessness or nothingness at the heart of the world, then we are taking up something beyond signification, something without intentionality or subjectivity.

Whatever the case, though, it is clear that we are intended to be guided somehow, to learn something in a non-didactic way about this representation of the human and natural world.  But the frustrating and interesting thing about the passage is that it is never clear just what we are supposed to take from the representation.  Thus we are looking at a “Significant Landscape” whose significance is not apparent.  This is, to put it mildly, absolutely infuriating and (also) compelling.

Does the last stanza of the poem help us to come to any conclusion about whether or not the world itself teaches us anything?  In other words, does anything psychagogic happen outside intersubjectivity?  (A part of me feels this question is obvious – I mean, of course we can be moved by nature.  Not everything that is beautiful is confined to solidarity, to the human community.  But can we then say that nature mentors us?  Is there any sense in that formulation?)  The last stanza is, in some ways, an extension of the minute peeping hints of humor that color the first stanza.  Here we see a satire of the poor “Rationalist” who is only able to think rationally, and therefore cannot conceptualize anything beyond their rational scheme.  (Now I’m worred that I’m a Rationalist!)  But what is interesting to me is that the ultimate image, in the poem, for the thing that bewitches the rational intelligence of the Rationalist, is an image of the “half-moon” – an image of the natural world, as if Stevens were arguing that the perceived and observed natural world is a kind of inhuman mentor, that disrupts reason and gives us different ways of being, thinking, feeling, imagining, etc.  Of course, anyone who appreciates the natural world would not be surprised by this conclusion, but doesn’t it in some ways – I mean the idea that the natural world does guide us in some ways, does serves as a mentor – flatly contradict our Rorty quote above?

Perhaps we just need to drop out of the conversation the word “truth.”  Because Rorty (I think at least) is right – the world itself is not true.  Truth is a human creation.  But if we are to theorize about the world guiding us, doesn’t guidance itself involve truth?

Sheesh!  More on this later…..

I’ve been thinking more about what I might write about for my slowly approaching dissertation, and I confess I have fallen in love with a phrase, which I wonder might lead me to a larger project.  And the phrase, I should also say, developed weirdly enough out of a dream I had two nights ago.  (The phrase is “Inhuman Mentors.”)

In the dream, I was talking to a former teacher of mine, a mentor and writer, and at a certain point in that dream he pointed to a passage in a book, which kind of shone (the passage).  I felt like he was telling me to write about mentorship.  In the dream, when I realized this, the passage itself took on a kind of new physical contour, as if its shining suggested that mentorship, the theme and its implications, might help me reach some interesting interpretations of certain textual passages.  (I realize that I am oscillating between describing the dream itself and my later interpretation of it, but it is hard to sort of extricate the one from the other, especially since some time has passed since the dream itself.)

Anyways, after I woke up around 7am with the memory of the dream trailing a kind of comet tail in my mind, I started looking up articles and monographs having to do with mentorship.  And I also started thinking about mentorship in relationship to poetry.

At first, of course, I thought of Mentor himself, the character in the Odyssey who Athena transforms into, who guides Telemachus.  And that I think could be an interesting starting point for the dissertation.  What role does Mentor (and Athena) play in the transformation of Telemachus?  And how do we understand the role of this mentorship in the light of other scenes of instruction in poetry, (I started thinking), such as the instruction that the river Derwent affords for Wordsworth, or the weather itself affords for Wallace Stevens, or (I kept thinking) the painter Parmigianino for Ashbery?

And then I hit upon the phrase, “Inhuman Mentors.”  And I kind of fell in love with the idea.  Normally we think of mentorship as a very human thing, an intersubjective transaction; but what would it mean if we studied inhuman mentors, like the Derwent river or the wind for Wordsworth, or the weather for Stevens, or a dead painter for Ashbery?  (The last part, about Ashbery, needs work, because Parmagianino is still human, despite not being alive.)

So that’s where I am currently.  I think I want to study the role that inhuman factors play in the formation of the poet’s mind, or in the cultivation of ideas, thoughts, feelings which contribute to the work.  It seems like a broad and far-reaching topic, but also idiosyncratic enough to carry some weight.  We shall see!

 

Jay Wright is a master poet.  In this blog post I want to interrogate some reasons why I feel Wright is a master.  Most of my argument is going to pivot around notions of voice, cadence, rhythm, tonality, and mood, although in a later post (or maybe for my dissertation) I want to talk about Wright’s “development” or evolution, the way in which his poems unfold from each other in a kind of languorous steady haunting style, how much and how intensely they hold the reader in a kind of enormously caring and careful embrace, a very powerful progression.  For the purposes of this blog post, however, I want to look at Wright’s sequences of poems called “Sources,” which contains six sections.  I might not have time to delve into all of the sections here today, but perhaps in a later blog post I will.  The “Sources” poems, to my mind, are about a form of initiation, and the questions that attend this initiation.  As Wright’s vocation is as (among other things) a poet, I read this initiation as poetic in nature, a form of beginning where he is, of speaking, and of wondering about the meaning of beginning and speaking poetry.  “Sources (1)” reads,

And what if the god

should send me as a messenger

adorned with quetzal feathers?

In the light,

I have seen that pink and white

flower, at the top of the thorns,

float up, a feathered arrow,

or move, an embellished body,

to drink the rhythm of drums.

But this is the House of the Eagle,

the House of the Night of the Tigers.

This is the place where the spring

itself lies garlanded by kings.

When the rain falls,

when only these quetzal feathers

light the house,

I kneel in the only light it gives,

needing no light

to catch the dark, sweet smell

of this intoxicating god.

This poem seems to have four symphonic movements within it, beginning with a question, continuing with a vision, extending into a qualification and extension of the vision, and ending with a summary entailing an action that the vision brings to fruition.  The poem begins with a Rilkean question: “And what if the god / should send me as a messenger, / adorned with quetzal feathers?”  Quetzal feathers are resplendent colors, iridescent and varying from green-gold to blue-violet.  The sense is therefore that Wright is asking his audience, “And what if the god should choose me as his messenger, his gleaming glowing voice, his medium?”  The question seems to entail a certain sense of terror, along with a sense of the importance of the vocation and initiation.  

In the next movement, which begins, “In the light,” Wright describes in a wonderfully unhurried way (notice how much space “In the light” takes up in that line, how loudly it speaks, how solidly it stands) a vision of a flower seen from various metaphorical angles: floating vertically up, a “feathered arrow,” or moving perhaps more horizontally, “an embellished body.”  It is an organic vision that doubles as a metaphysical sort of miracle, a flower “at the top of the thorns” that rises up like an arrow, or moves like a body dancing.  One feels that Wright is here describing his own flourishing voice, floating up to the heavens like a flower, or moving abundantly to the rhythm of a dance.  What is the appropriate image, he seems to be asking; What is the appropriate metaphor to contain the image of the poet creating or finding his voice?  He finds then an image that draws from nature and culture, a flower that moves like “an embellished body.”  When Wright writes, “But this is the House of the Eagle, / the House of the Night of the Tigers,” the qualification seems to be in a form in and by which Wright doubts his choice of image, doubts where the image is appropriate for the place in which Wright speaks.  It is as though Wright wished to make his flower-image more snarling, more vicious, more aggressive?  But then he hits upon a different image, and writes, “This is the place where the spring / itself lies garlanded by kings.”  Whether we read “spring” as the season itself or a spring of water, what is clear is that something benevolent is happening, a kind of blessing that Wright as a poet is receiving, and the blessing is represented through the trope of the land and the bestowal of a gift.  The poem ends marvelously, with the lines,

When the rain falls,

when only these quetzal feathers

light the house,

I kneel in the only light it gives,

needing no light

to catch the dark, sweet smell

of this intoxicating god.

When light is snuffed out and rain falls, Wright as poet sees by the dusky murmuring light of the quetzal feathers’ iridescence.  This light is a metaphor for the poem itself, its language, which is also pared back to the minimum amount of words needed, just as the quetzal feathers give off the minimum amount of light needed.  Yet Wright doesn’t even need light in order “to catch the dark, sweet smell / of this intoxicating god.”  The poem ends with image of smell and taste, as though in the blindness and darkness lit only by the iridescence of feathers, Wright might find the words sufficient for the grueling but ennobling task of his vocation.           

Sometimes hope must wander backstage

to pine in an environment of darkness,

and cynical depression haunts the crevices of the heart

like daubed vasoline, like smudged ether. 

 

It’s a haunted world.  Black bodies lying in the street,

people walking by, eyes in their pockets, the cringe

and desperation of obliviousness tugs on the coattails

like some insidious call-out.  I don’t know

 

where I fit in, what kinds of

“strategies” or lack of strategy I need to invoke

to sever neutrality from all our longings, to slice

the flaccid “a” from “apolitical.” 

 

Greed is at the heart of so much of our conjectures,

it’s frightening and disgusting and all-too-familiar.

Meanwhile the coast batters the sand-wedge,

the sea rises up in all its veiled murmurings.

 

The heart cries out, ripped from the stuttering valves,

calling out for some reprieve, some healing confrontation,

knowing that underneath the melodrama lies

the real hurt, the melancholy and fatigue

 

that rushes through the body like a purple river

of pain, ghosts, history, and trauma.

That’s when the tears well up as a dancer

stands before the floodlights,

 

and in the glare of that dark brightness demands

from the sheer force of the body’s genius

some complicated survival of – not wonder,

but some form of anticipation

 

that we might bathe in once in awhile,

especially when any hope has been snuffed out

once again, and the country’s ghosts

have seized the neck and wrung out

 

some garbled message that makes no sense,

or makes so much sense that we become

overwhelmed by the pain and must then seek

the roots of some earlier expectation.

 

poet Jay Wright

How is it possible to be simultaneously singular and plural?  How does one, to paraphrase Judith Butler, maintain the integrity and complexity of one’s identity, without kowtowing to unhelpful classifications?  And how, as Gloria Anzaldua writes, does one learn how to “operate in a pluralistic mode”?  (n.p.)  These questions are vital, both in the world of, and the world outside, literature – and they are seen to be grappled with, with tremendous integrity and complexity, by Jay Wright.  In this essay, through the exegesis of Wright’s poem “The Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” I argue that Wright’s poetry constitutes the enactment of the “pluralistic mode” that Anzaldua speaks of; that he provides us with a template for how to think about and wrestle with identity, classification and tradition; and that Wright’s poetry, through its unfolding and interest in names, provides us with a deep understanding about the benefits and limits of naming and classification. 

One way to discuss the benefits and limits of naming and classification is to write a poem that gives us a familiar scene; but the scene, as it unfolds, becomes progressively more unfamiliar (though still somewhat familiar), so that we as readers begin to question, interrogate and scrutinize our early assumed understanding of what exactly is going on in the scene.  By questioning our initial assumptions, we get closer to a certain strangeness, an unfamiliar difference we had not counted on in our earlier attempts at classification.  And this strangeness, in problematizing our assumed familiarity, serves as a perplexing agent that paints for us a more complex and nuanced scene, a scene that is more pluralistic in its manifestation.  That is what happens in Wright’s poem, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” the first poem in his first book, The Homecoming Singer.  “Wednesday Night” starts like this:

            On Wednesday night,

            the church still opens at seven,

            and the boys and girls have to come in

            from their flirting games of tag,

            with the prayers they’ve memorized,

            the hymns they have to start.

            Some will even go down front,

            with funky bibles,

            to read verses from Luke,

            where Jesus triumphs, or Revelations,

            where we all come to no good end.

One can sense Wright smiling here – he is reciting the typical architecture of a prayer meeting in a tone halfway between a grin and a yawn.  There is a sly knowingness to the passage, for the “church still opens at seven,” the boys and girls come in with the “prayers they’ve memorized,” and they will read Revelations, “where we all come to no good end.”  That last line, in its diction and tonality, sums up this first section – religion here is tangled up with what we consider both boring and familiar – with the rote, the expected, the memorized, the unreflective.

This changes as we continue reading and the poem unfolds.  The poem deepens, as we are introduced to more characters, as well as a more nuanced complexion of the setting, scene and tone.  Indeed, after the first four lines of the excerpt below, there is a turn away from the gentle satire, into something different, more sentimental, meaningful, and pathos-filled.  Wright writes,

            Outside, the pagan kids

            scramble in the darkness,

            kissing each other with a sly humility,

            or urinating boldly against the trees.

            The older people linger

            in the freshly lit night,

            not in a hurry to enter,

            having been in the battle of voices

            far too long, knowing that the night

            will stretch and end only

            when some new voice rises

            in ecstasy, or deceit, only

            when some arrogant youth

            comes cringing down front,

            screaming about sin, begging

            the indifferent-faced women

            for a hand, for a touch,

            for a kiss, for help,

            for forgiveness, for being young

            and untouched by the grace

            of pain, innocent of the insoluble

            mysteries of being black

            and sinned against, black

            and sinning in the compliant cities. 

Wright’s tone of bemused recognition continues in those first four lines of the excerpt above, but then something happens: we are introduced to a new perspective, that of the “older people.”  What is happening?  Wright is empowering us to “recognize multiple experiences of black identity,” not only the relatively un-complex experiences of those church members – the boys and girls – who go to church for “the prayers they’ve memorized / the hymns they have to start,” but also the complex experiences of those church members who’ve had more time to think about the meaning of their religion and the rituals that go along with it.  These older people do not “have to come in,” compelled by their parents; therefore they linger in the “freshly lit night, / not in a hurry to enter, / having been in the battle of voices / far too long”.  As the perspective has shifted from the younger to the older people, Wright’s perspective on the people he is describing has also shifted, and the tone is no longer half-knowing, half-satirical, but more empathetic, compassionate, un-ironic.  These people have been “in the battle of voices / far too long.”  They have suffered enough not to need to rush into church, not to need to hurry; and they have seen the hysterics that sometimes go on in that church, enough to know that “some arrogant youth” will probably come “cringing down front, / screaming about sin, begging / the indifferent-faced women / for a hand, for a touch, / for a kiss, for help, / for forgiveness”.  Yet up until now, we do not know anything more about these people, until Wright writes, “for being young / and untouched by the grace / of pain, innocent of the insoluble / mysteries of being black / and sinned against, black / and sinning in the compliant cities.”  Then we learn that these boys, girls, and elderly men and women are most likely African-American, and so their pain and suffering takes on an historical and cultural importance that had not been gleaned before.  Here, Wright, like Morrison, has constructed his poem in such a way as to welcome any and everybody.  It is only once we have been welcomed into the poem that we learn about the culturally specific nature of the people – an interesting strategy that seems to helpfully universalize as oppose to pigeon-hole his people with classifications.

Wright stays with these elderly people.  In the questions that ensue, we begin to hear about these elderly Black folk’s indignation, melancholy and pain.  Through the setting of the church and the feelings of the elderly folk, Wright deepens our understanding of the subjectivity of these specific people, which is to say, he enacts through his poetry the pluralistic mode that Anzaldua speaks of.  In doing so, in making us aware of the suffering and pain of others, Wright gives us a more complex picture of these elderly African-Americans.  We are not given cliché’s about church, religion, or age:

            What do the young know

            about some corpulent theologian,

            sitting under his lamp,

            his clammy face wet,

            his stomach trying to give up

            the taste of a moderate wine,

            kissing God away with a labored

            toss of his pen?

            How would these small black singers

            know which Jesus is riding

            there over the pulpit,

            in the folds of the banner

            left over from Sunday,

            where the winners were the ones

            who came, who dropped their nickels

            into the felted platters with a flourish?

            And how can they be expected

            to remember the cadences

            that will come again,

            the same heart-rending release

            of the same pain, as the clock turns

            toward the certainty

            of melancholic afternoons,

            roast and leftover prayers,

            the dampened hours that last through the night? 

 It is a depressing picture of religion: the banner “left over from Sunday,” the “melancholic afternoons” of “roast and leftover prayers,” which might remind the reader of his or her own experiences with and in a stale religion.  But it is also an uncompromising and unflinching look at religion.  Rather than give us some exuberant chronicle of ecstatic religion, Wright humanizes the experience of these elderly folk, through the representation of their church, despite how depressing it looks and feels.  “This is another aspect of the Black and universal experience,” he seems to be saying, “so why not depict

As Wright humanizes the elderly folk, giving us a sympathetic and empathetic portrayal of them which enlists our own empathy and broadens or deepens our understanding of their subjectivity, so does Wright also humanize the figure of Jesus Christ.  But what does this accomplish?  How is this related to Anzaldua’s pluralistic mode, to tradition, naming and classification?  Let’s read the beginning of the passage:

            But Christ will come,

            feeling injured, having gone

            where beds were busy without him,

            having seen pimps cane their number-running boys,

            the televisions flicker over heaped up bodies,

            having heard some disheveled man

            shout down an empty street, where women

            slither in plastic boots, toward light,

            their eyes dilated and empty;

            will come like a tired workman

            and sit on a creaky bench,

            in hope, in fear, wanting to be pleased again,

            so anxious that his hands move,

            his head tilts for any lost accent. 

 This section – which is one long sentence – gives us a tragic vision of Christ, come unto the modern world to witness our daily “transgressions”; a Christ who feels “injured,” who sees pimps beating their boys, homeless men shouting down empty streets, prostitutes walking lonely down concrete strips.  What happens is, this Christ figure turns into one of us, “so anxious that his hands move, / his head tilts for any lost accent.”  Is Wright arguing that there is no place or need in the world now for religion?  Just the opposite?  Either way, what’s clear is that Wright is updating tradition, shaking it from its worn foundations in order to say, “this is what Christ would see if he came back – not redemptive glory, but the sad fate we live in, the pimps and prostitutes, the tired men and the fear.”  It is not an easy vision to swallow.  But even here, Wright is enacting Anzaldua’s pluralistic mode, by giving us an un-idealized picture of religion, one that makes our own take on religion more complex and ambiguous.        

Complexity and ambiguity cannot be served up without an honesty that acknowledges pain and challenges assumed universalities.  As bell hooks writes,

The critique of essentialism encouraged by postmodernist thought is useful for African-Americans concerned with reformulating outmoded notions of identity.  We have too long had imposed upon us from both the outside and inside a narrow, constricting notion of blackness.  Postmodern critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of self and the assertion of agency. (n.p.)

This “critique of essentialism which challenges notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness” is not exempt, Wright seems to be saying, from a critique of religion.  Thus we read of the Christ figure, as the poem unfolds,

            He seems to be home,

            where he’s always been.

            His intense smile is fixed

            to the rhythm of hands,

            to the unhurried intensity

            of this improvised singing.

            He seems not to know

            the danger of being here,

            among these lonely singers,

            in the middle of a war

            of spirits who will not wair for him,

            who cannot take his intense glare

            to heart anymore, who cannot justify

            the Wednesday night given up

            in these stuffy, titled rooms,

            while the work piles up for Thursday,

            and the dogs mope around empty garbage pails,

            and the swingers swing into the night

            with a different ecstasy.   

 Religion in this poem has lost its relevance.  It is like a dusty exhalation, some tired sigh.  But Wright does not seem to be bringing this up solely to gloat overzealously about religion’s demise or decline, but rather to open up new portals for performing our identities, by, as it were, sloughing off the dead skin of rituals that have themselves ossified over time.  It is a form of, as Butler writes, “affirmative resistance.” (n.p.)   

Perhaps this is why, as the poem nears its end, the Christ figure in the poem becomes analogous to the “arrogant youth” at the beginning of the poem, who “comes cringing down front, / screaming about sin, begging / the indifferent-faced women / for a hand, for a touch, / for a kiss, for help, / for forgiveness”.  It is a supremely ironic swerve on the part of Wright, for he is reversing the dichotomy, and it is Christ himself who “caught in this unlovely music, / [….] spills to the floor.”  As Wright writes,

            The sisters circle him,

            and their hands leap from bone to bone,

            as if their touch could change him,

            would make him see

            the crooked lights like stars.

            The bible-reading boy tags him with verses,

            and he writhes like a boy

            giving up stolen kisses,

            the free play of his hand on his own body,

            the unholy clarity of his worldly speech.

 

This is a recapitulation of earlier themes in the poem, but made more dramatic by their repetition.  Christ has turned into the earlier “arrogant youth.”  Rather than saving the people, the people are attempting to save him.  This dynamic continues until the poem ends, for we read,

            He writhes as if he would be black,

            on Wednesday, under the uncompromising

            need of old black men and women,

            who know that pain is what

            you carry in the mind,

            in the solemn memory of small triumphs,

            that you get, here,

            as the master of your pain.   

            He stands up to sing,

            but a young girl,

            getting up from the mourner’s bench,

            tosses her head in a wail.

            The women rise,

            the men collect the banners

            and the boys dorp their eyes,

            listening to the unearthly wind

            whisper to the peeping-tom trees.

            This is the end of the night,

            and he has not come there yet,

            has not made it into the stillness

            of himself, or the flagrant uncertainty

            of all these other singers.

            They have taken his strangeness,

            and given it back, the way a lover

            will return the rings and letters

            of a lover who hurts him.

            They have closed their night

            with what certainty they could,

            unwilling to exchange their freedom for a god. 

In this poem, strangely but understandably, the people turn out to be the heroes, and Christ turns out to be the dupe.  Christ attempts to sing, but a young girl beats him to it.  Then the older people pack up and leave, leaving Christ there to ask, basically, “What just happened?”  It is a poem that completely un-idealizes religion.  In so doing, it reverses the familiar dichotomy between redeemer and redeemed.  By upturning this naming and this classification, Wright begins the reinvention of himself that continues in his later poems, in which he seeks “to clear the encumbrances in the path of his journey to self-discovery.”  (Okpewho)          

 

 

Over the course of the last two weeks, I’ve been immersing myself in the work of Allen Grossman, who died about three weeks ago at the age of 82.  Grossman was known (dubiously, though perhaps understandably?) as a poet’s poet, and I think his work bears out this reputation to a certain extent, if only because it can be at times more gnomic, enigmatic, or obscure, with references at times to mythological personages that might hauntingly bewilder, and a strongly oracular and sometimes portentous voice that seems strange and at odds with our (for lack of a better word) postmodern jouissance, our hybrid predilections, even our distrust of voice because of its implications of a unitary, non-porous identity.  In the wonderful book The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers, Grossman talks with poet and critic Mark Halliday about this dynamic of his (Grossmans’s, though also Halliday’s) voice, although “talks with poet and critic Mark Halliday” seems somewhat a tepid and mild description for representing the muscular, dynamic, full-throttle elegance and sophistication and sustenance that this dialogue between these two men inspires and provides.  The Sighted Singer is a book that astonishes.  It incorporates two separate dialogues the poets had, one in winter, and one in summer, with ten years intervening between the talks.  One of the pleasures of such a format (the emphasis on the seasons, the awareness of time passing, then ten-year interval between the talks) is keeping abreast of the two poets’ philosophies of teaching, reading and writing, as they undergo changes within and without the dialogue.  The discussion isn’t always neat or tidy, and the poets importantly disagree about many things.  But the whole book has so far carried such a robust flavor, and its Socratic template is inspiring and thought-provoking and refreshingly different from most academic books on poetry.  

The last section, which I haven’t reached or read yet, is a treatise on poetry by Grossman, and I’m ridiculously excited to read it, for Grossman it seems to me is a master teacher, and perhaps a master poet as well.  Critics have grumbled about his nostalgia for High Modernism, his refusal to give up his own masters (Stevens, Yeats, Hart Crane), and generally his high style, which does at times seem like a throwback to a time-period that is no longer with us, except in glimmers and glimpses.  Jason Guriel, in the pages of Poetry magazine, even wrote about Grossman, “A poem, though, needs more of its maker than a big mouth.”  Yet I want to argue in this blog that Grossman is actually wonderfully contemporary, that his big mouth can be powerful and inspiring, and that we lose an important voice when we forget this poet’s contribution to the form.  To do this I want to look at a poem, “By the Pool,” from Grossman’s 1979 book The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River.  The poem reads,

Every dwelling is a desolate hill.

Every hill is a desolate dwelling.

 

The trees toss their branches in the dark air,

Each tree after its kind, and each kind after

Its own way.  The wind tosses the branches

Of the trees in the dark air.  The swimming

Pool is troubled by the wind, and the swimmers.

 

Even though this is not a tower, this is

Also a tower.

                      Even though you are not

A watchman, you are also a watchman.

 

Even though the night has not yet come,

The night has come.

 

I love the title of the poem, how humorously understated it is – “By the Pool” – as though nothing in the poem were large-mannered, as though Grossman were simply chronicling the banal details of some pastel retirement, say.  But “By the Pool” immediately takes on a grandeur when the poem begins with the statement, “Every dwelling is a desolate hill.”  The phrase rings and reverberates, wringing out of itself a bitter but important solitary truth – that aloneness is at the heart of who we are and what we do, that every dwelling, both inner and outer, carries at the center of its most secret heart a separateness, a desolation, an unendurable endurance, a sort of pungent suffering resilience.  And yet Grossman’s mind is large and perspective-taking, so that the next line, like a cubist painting, pivots around to a new perspective using similar materials: “Every hill is a desolate dwelling.”  And how different the twang of that line, though how similar, too!  “Every hill is a desolate dwelling” has a different connotative repertoire, a different way of signifying, and one senses the importance to Grossman of dialectic, the significance of perspective-taking and -making, and the resounding differences that accumulate and ensue when only a few words are changed in an already strongly reverberating sentence and line.

Then there is a subtle shift, and the second stanza tells us of the “trees [tossing] their branches in the dark air, / Each tree after its own kind, and each kind after / Its own way.”  It is as though Grossman were describing us, describing our responses, dark and instinctual, to the fact that every dwelling is a desolate hill.  We are like these trees, crying out, tossing our branches in the dark air, although we cry differently, and seek out of our desolation different reasons for living and moving.  Notice how beautifully and seemingly simple these lines are, though they are shadowed by something darker and more gnomic: “The wind tosses the branches / Of the trees in the dark air.  The swimming / Pool is troubled by the wind, and the swimmers.”  Perhaps this is a nod to Whitman’s bathers, perhaps not.  Either way, nothing is untouched by the wind, which winds and wings and pours and enters into the most secret crevices.  Even the swimming pool, that banally blue David Hockney image-trope, is nothing if not ruffled by this corner-less wind.  

The poem, as we continue reading, winds up being an ars poetica – “Even though this is not a tower, this is/ Also a tower.”  Probably an allusion to Hart Crane’s poem “The Broken Tower,” we can see the interesting way in which this image simultaneously takes on shape and dissolves in front of our eyes.  Like an Ashbery poem, we cannot exactly pin it down – it is concrete yet nebulous, both a tower and not a tower, and therefore Grossman is articulating the very essence (if there is such a thing as essence) of metaphor, its shape-shifting quality, its reclusiveness and elusiveness, its unwillingness to be categorized or categorizable.  We, too, like the tower, cannot be pinned down.  We are therefore living metaphors, vigilant sentries, who must be watchful as the poem is watchful.  Finally, in the last stanza, we hear and see the repetition of this formula, the “even though you are….you are not” in the lines, “Even though the night has not yet come, / The night has come.”  It is a powerful and even perhaps somewhat redemptive ending, unless we read the night as something not redemptive but desolate.  However we read it, the poem has used what appear like the simplest materials to convey an utterly powerful and sophisticated vision.  So I’d like to end with a short poem I wrote about and for Grossman, in thanks to this great poet:

Grossman, your hills are too alive

with quixotic vivified musings.  Hold my hand,

here, old dark master, your mind like

a wide cold rock, labyrinthine,

echoing its warm fields to the mind of memory.

Throw in your towel, or don’t – either way

in the schvitz of my mind

we lie together on the cold grey slab

naked,

and out backs are smacked red

by the palm trees of the place.  

Grossman, the world smells like an old bathroom.

Lend me your paw.  Together

we shall ascend the hill.