What are you thinking about? O, a tree....
Friday, July 16, 2010
On The Collective Narcissism that is Lyric Poetry
In the tropics, I am told, evening twilight is brief and shadowless, bathing forms in a divine golden light that leaves as suddenly as it came. I think Apollo. Not so in the Northwest summer, where daylight lingers until the last possible moment. We are different, he and I.
But it was in the Northwest that, on the Ides of July, the nice man and I made our way across town and bridge to hear Oregon's poet laureate read in the artsy area of St. Johns, near the University of Portland. The occasion was the release of the fifth edition of The Grove, the most pleasant surprise of a literary journal.
Perhaps it is the magic of our twilight, or the culture of the Northwest, but it is possible to arrive late her and still be early. We were greeted and welcomed and welcomed again, offered wine and vegan petits fours, invited to look through the newest edition -- people-watching and lit fashion won out. Lit fashion is timeless, and full of ghosts. The nice man murmured something about "the collective narcissism that is lyric poetry", a line he used in one of his reviews, but grown beyond itself into another context.
One auburn-haired wraith floated in and out of conversations in a pale Louise Brooks | Carol Tinker dress. A few minutes later, I would know her name: Hannah Louise Poston, who would read first. She was introduced by Matt Barry, The Grove's publisher, a large man with an even larger personal space, who repeated himself and others and knew it. Yet one didn't mind this tropical sunset of a man, newly five years in Portland, bathing us in golden light. I almost felt comfortable in my own skin.
I like Ms. Poston, who shared that she had been accused of being "elusive" for not answering her phone and had then gone on to create a character, and poem for the character. I liked that, and her poem inspired by the ghost ship, Mary Celeste, very much.
A bit of what she chose to read was tinged with young woman wailing wall, a poetic sub-genre I myself indulged well past youth. As intense and full of imagery as any of the best wailing wall poetry, it is not, I think, her best voice. This is:
It may yet frost. I tell the apple trees,
which bloom too readily,
wait for the ground to thaw,
the loam to loose; wait
to begin building fruit—
they are as heedless
as Lincoln was of Booth.
She is interested in forms and devices and uses them freely, often well and sometimes not. In listening to her read, I realized how many of the subtle internal rhymes and enjambment in my own poetry would seem harsh and immature if read in another context than waltzing through the house. I like Hannah as a person, just from her reading. She, along with Primus St. John, discoveries of a decade and and I look forward to reading more of her work.
Mary Gloss, a fourth generation Portland native, read a short story, with many Portland details. I am not familiar with most of the landmarks that are so familiar to her, but still felt the richness. Although her story invoked my inner editor, always alert to the preposition circus, and hunting adjectival phrases, I had only to plaster two minutes of polite attentiveness at the beginning of her reading before I was enthralled by the inner dialog of her character.
I wanted to see what makes a poet laureate a poet laureate. I was not disappointed. As expected, Oregon's poet laureate, Paulann Petersen, is the incarnation of down home natural religion; Blake, be damned. She read three poems, all of which I had read on the net and while one had inspired me to a morning of repeating the word "duff" in a Zen-like chant, but not enough to make a special trek to Powell's to buy her books.
But oh how she read those poems. Paced exactly right, each word given its full due -- you could taste the vowels. It was the sound, the wave that carried you from beginning to end, that makes you want to read it yourself quietly, then again louder, read it to someone else in a soft shower of kisses, then even slower letting each word blossom in your mouth -- "the spinning of language on and into itself", as it were. Guilty as charged.
I put my hand on my seat next to the nice man, half-wishing he would take it, knowing that he wouldn't, wishing we could bridge the emotional and spiritual wasteland between us. Because this is poetry, that thing I love, bigger than I but at the core of me, the path and the destination, an end-in-itself rather than a mere means. But maybe I was just caught up in the spirit of the evening, the stuff of day dreams across an ocean.
We rose to leave. I wanted my book signed by the priestess and he said he would meet me at the door. I would ask Paulann to sign my chocolate smeared issue of The Grove, telling her that I liked her reading in a somewhat more reserved way than I did here. She says poetry is meant to be read aloud and performed -- I think In Memoriam and D.A. Powell but she is sparkling in the summer sky and this is not the place. Rexroth and Sam Hamill would have said as much, but I am not so sure.
And we were off, I and the nice man. The resting moon tinged with yellow. Venus moved off.
Art: William De Morgan: Peacock Tile