A short look at: Bruce Beasley’s Theophobia (2012), David Biespiel’s Wild Civility (2003), Laura Jensen’s Memory (1982) and Stuart Friebert’s Funeral Pie (1996).
One of the (oh so many) things that drives me nuts about statements like, “I don’t like poetry” or “I could just never get into poetry” is the underlying idea there that poetry is a single thing. It’s like saying, “I don’t like movies” or “I don’t like food.” Just because I can’t stand beets (I really can’t stand beets) doesn’t mean I’m going to write off all red foods, or all food. You could say a strawberry and a beet look sorta the same, couldn’t you? But the taste?
One of the things that struck me reading these four collections (all of which I like) is how vastly different their use of language is, what a nice spectrum of diction they represent. Friebert and Jensen all use very everyday vocabulary. In “Pocket Gopher,” Stuart Friebert writes,
When it stopped talking one May evening,
I decided to let it go, from which time on
my life stayed exactly the same, the way
the sand rat always leaves neat little
piles of earth that are exactly the same.
They may not look the same, but they are.
In “Tapwater” Laura Jensen says,
You live where the sounds of trucks
come through the open window,
packers bringing carcasses at night.
All this time on the side of the market
hang, like eclipses, six round lamps.
Evocative language, sure, but the words are simple and the grammar straighforward.
In contrast, a stanza from David Biespiel’s poem “Prayer” (the “Latitudinarian” section),
Why should I be convulsive, vocal, a canal of indirection? I didn’t deplume the others, mule-deep and en masse
In their race course of devotion to the one story. I’m OK with my hang-dogged body, febrific, hoof-bound.
Even my rapport with the godless is point blank. I’m good for drooling and plosives and foolishness. Got the Polaroid
As evidence. Times like these it’s best to dally and avoid the diner on a fasting day, to give up[..]
And from Bruce Beasley’s “Like unto a Merchant Man Seeking Goodly Pearls,”
Some mother-of-pearl icon of undesire:
lead Buddha jammed deep into an oyster’s
pried-open valves to make it secrete
spherical layers of overlapping nacre
in the shape of that bloated and placid intruder,
like a larval fluke of great price, jewel-interred.
All four poets attend closely to sound, but with what (awesomely) different dictions used, somewhat, to different ends. All poetry, but not at all all alike.
Wild Civility by David Biespiel is a collection of what he calls “American sonnets.” They’re free verse nine-liners with very long lines, mostly more-or-less twice as many feet as a traditional English sonnet (so only nine lines to an English sonnet’s fourteen, but forty or so syllables more). And they are delicious to read aloud. Try saying this line: “I’m getting to forty like a roughed-up toy stranded in a firing line of pastimes.” Or: “Those striations of song are spittles of an unskilled heart. What I’d give to undo that luck.”
What saves these poems from being merely fun to say aloud, from merely being wordplay and just wordplay is that:
a) they are grounded in emotion (there’s a gravitas under all the playful sounds, the tossing around of his ‘priceless vocabulary’ as Bishop said of Moore — I admit I had to look quite a few words up, but they’re all cool words (like loupe and pandurate and parabiosis and mithridate) that I’m glad to get to know).
b) the diction moves rhythmically from tight-packed alliteration and robust clauses to downbeats of straightforward lines (like “For another thing: All my joss sticks are dented” or “That’s all that matters on this day, as on other days.”)
and c) they’re all, for all their play, ultimately about the real world and humans in it, about the weather, and neighborhoods, and people, and church, and birds. They use wordplay, but are about more.
Favorite poems from Wild Civility: “Dear Justice,” “Faith: Demarcation,” “After the Wedding,” “Prayer,” “Parties,” “Spiritual Guy,” “Ars Poetica,” “Kazoo,” “Hermes.”
I admit up front that I have very little in the way of religious education, so even though Bruce Beasley’s new collection Theophobia has notes in the back (which are subtitled “As if the exegesis could ever cease”) explaining a lot of the Bible references and Latin, I know I’m missing a lot of what these poems do. However like all the best poems, you can get a lot from them even if you don’t entirely know everything they’re referring to and playing with. Beasley’s poems in this collection feel in some ways like the very best parts of postmodern collage used in conjunction with not only a love of words (and how etymology can lead so fascinatingly from one to the other) but with, or more like underpinned by, both his spirituality and his raging curiosity.
You will find in Theophobia‘s poems deep spiritual consideration, broad humor (“As a kid I always thought it went / Our Father which aren’t / in heaven, and sat / staring at His stained-glass throne, wondering / where instead He were”), references to and forms of ancient texts, religious and otherwise, a lot of extreme-nature-show nature (particularly weird and gross creatures like bone-eating snotflowers and tongue-bugs), braided with facts of modern life like TiVo Customer Service phone tree hell and Wikipedia. (“Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia” ranks up there with the best poem titles of all time. “I’ve been Googling You lately, for some slipped- / loose theoinwardness You’ve come / to mean, some comfort of Third Person // held as breath, but I can’t keep / straight sometimes which one of You / is You […].”)
I admit to, now and then, feeling that the wordlplay top layer can, only now and then, verge on much too much. But there’s also extraordinary beauty in this collection. From “Six Notes Towards the End,” for instance: “Half-side-lit, inarticulable, something has sidled / close to you, something having its own death // in mind. You let it nuzzle you in the dark, cut / off for once from all the indeterminate // continuance, here where the ends / must teem, here in the roll of six.”
Favorite poems from Theophobia: “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia,” “Year’s End Paradoxography,” “Theme and Invariants,” “Self-Portrait in Ink,” “Like Unto a Merchant Man Seeking Goodly Pearls.”
The title poem of Stuart Friebert’s Funeral Pie talks about eating a pie, “Usually raisin, with a latticed top” served at funerals, and eaten also at “the Dutch restaurant off the pike” on the way back home from them. “It’s always on the menu, and if you have / a second helping, it’s as though you can / suddenly speak a foreign language, say / things which can be made to go with food / after someone dies, someone not necessarily / your mother or father yet […].” What those things are, though, he doesn’t say. Instead the rest of the poem focuses on the mother (the poem switches into and out of third and first person) talking about what a parent fears most, what it’s like for a child to die. And then the poem ends on a lovely moment of characterization, “she’d swipe a piece / of my pie, after getting me to fall for some / bird out the window, which was never there.” It’s a great poem that says and doesn’t say what can and can’t be said about facing older parents and their mortality, in a very universally particular way.
“Funeral Pie” is pretty typical of these poems (which are almost all three-quarters to one-page long, a comforting stability that is not at all boring). Heather McHugh, who awarded this book co-winner of the Four Way Books Award in 1996, says, in her reliably clever style, “With Funeral Pie you expect dessert and get a duel, or vice versa — either way, you’ll probably want seconds.” Mortality, humor, nostalgia, domestic interactions with animals, aging parents and grandparents, all told in language that’s straightforward but also a touch wry, a touch sly.
Favorite poems from Funeral Pie: “Funeral Pie,” “Dickinson’s Mare,” “Pocket Gopher,” “Here Cossie, Cossie,” “The Requiem Shark,” “Good-Gods,” “Fence Mouse.”
The poems in Laura Jensen’s collection Memory are equally plain-American in their diction, but unlike Friebert’s, which stay within the bounds of a single main subject, Jensen’s move in unpredictable ways. David Young says in the Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry that her voice “keeps turning unexpected corners; readers face new and sudden prospects without knowing how they got there.” He also notes that “the poems have a lyrical lilt so that an interesting discrepancy sometimes arises between subject matter and tone.”
To use a movie analogy, these poems have the same sort of feel that a very stylized cinematography can evoke — a world that is our world but heightened in one way or another. In “I Am Your Stone” for instance, “The stones refuse to touch each other. / They wear hard suits with metal buttons. / They are dark as cake in the middle. / Devil’s food cake. // The devil farmer / grew them from seeds of stone into knives / and lightning, wheeled his whetstone / into the field.” The first four lines are wonderful description, but then once we hit “the devil farmer” and the seeds grow into knives and lightning, which is quite the metaphorical jump, we’re suddenly much, much deeper into descriptive territory that seemed at first to just be pretty but has become something else. The poem continues to move in and out of level description (“They are never in bloom, / or in season, or in style”) and advice (“Swallow a stone and the whole / day will go wrong for you; imaginary / aspirin, they will make you choke”) and suddenly changed metaphors (“What did you do with my kisses / of stone?”).
There are “you”s addresses in Memory that feel real but elusive, moons, beaches, weather, dreams and echoes, and bold similes and metaphors (“Flour is exhaustion,” “Rainbow arcs into the ear / like old dry beans”). It’s full of poems that transport you instantaneously into that heightened world, and every time you go back it’s the same, but different.
Favorite poems from Memory: “Starlings,” “January Visit,” “Poem,” “The Moon Rises,” “I Am Your Stone,” “Some Kind of Poem,” “Kitchen,” “Patchouli,” “Ladies and Cattle,” “The Woman,” “I Lie Down,” “Tenor,” The Similarity.”