Top five poetry titles. Hell, I feel like David Letterman halved. And that’s not good. This is a tough one. If you ask me tomorrow, the answer will certainly be different. Hell, if you ask me at 3pm today, the answer will be different. I mean, I’ve already dealt out two “Hells” in six sentences. But I’ll go, as my former wrestling coach used to say, with my gut. The eggs in there are telling me things—eggs I bought this morning from a local Michigan farmer who’s famous for his lamb. But the eggs—their greatness—are his secret. The yolks are almost orange. He feeds the chickens carrots. The eggs are telling me not to skip Norman Dubie’s, THE MERCY SEAT.
So: THE MERCY SEAT. Because it’s big. Lots of Dubie’s books are in there. So I’m cheating here, in a “Collected and New Poems 1967-2001” sort of way. I love these poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, and their hilarity. I love watching the master of the dramatic monologue do his thing. I love how his poems combine the best of PBS’s Nova with the joy inherent in the telling of a fabulously bad joke. Norman once told me: “Dude, all my poems are jokes.” This has inspired much of my own work. Wrapping joke in verse is hard, but so much fun. I can sense Norman’s joy in writing these poems as I read them. And every so often, Norman drops the veil, and steps, larger-than-life, center-stage. I love these moments, when he breaks the fourth wall—it’s even more fun than when Woody Allen did it in his early films. His poem, “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont” is a great example of this. It ends:
In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,
And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf. What
I want to know of my government is
Doesn’t poverty just fucking break your heart?
Wow! Reading this for the first time, I felt like Ronnie Ballenger had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again, and Kelly Konopka laughed so hard milk came out her nose. I’m similarly disarmed an embarrassed, and delighted. As a poet, it seems Norman could not help himself here. There is a time for restraint in poetry, and a time when restraint should not be part of the poem’s language. Norman understands this. And the result is often exhilarating, guilty pleasure. The line break after the “What” is essential to this effect, this surprise. In my own work, as a challenge, any time I try to pull off the presence of a booger, or something like it, that’s Norman’s influence. Also: I choose this book because of Norman’s own generosity of spirit, crammed into a tiny apartment in Tempe, Arizona, Tibetan Buddhist artifacts super-glued to his walls and ceiling. And because his beautiful obese cat, Fast-Eddy-Smoky-Chokyi-Lodrö, who is wary of everybody, once let me pet him for a few seconds.
Of course, I’m avoiding some of the obvious classics like Williams’ PICTURES FROM BRUEGHEL and Stein’s TENDER BUTTONS, among many, many others.
Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s work always blows me away. Maybe there’s no other poet that makes me wish I could write poems like theirs. Beckian stirs in me fierce jealousy. I’m not ashamed of that. In fact, I’m thankful her poems make me feel this way. Pissed off that I can’t make them. It’s inspiring in an athletic sort of way—allows the same sort of energy that will keep you running until the top of the hill, even though your calves are killing you, and you’ll surely puke when you get there. Beckian’s are the kind of poems that make me willing to embrace a near-fatal dehydration in exchange for a few lines of glory. Right now, I think my favorite book of hers is IN THE BADLANDS OF DESIRE. Though they’re joyous throughout, few things close like a Goldberg poem. This has also impacted my work, and for a while, I gave everything to the poem’s end. Of course, this led one critic to call the conclusions of many of my poems, “orphic,” and he meant that as a bad thing. Beckian is instructive in that her poems are strong enough to support the awesome weight of their conclusions. An example that blows my doors off is the ending of her poem, “The Ecstasy”:
Yet as this was, after all, a church and we
were strangers, and this was Italy, bright summer,
I touched the girl, felt the quiver of her shoulder
and it almost took
like a laughter from the next world
or that sadness in sex
until she turned, one iris more astonished
than the other, as if the right eye were always
far away: An age, another country, and like
the blue that is a pomegranate in its dreams.
The color that dreams itself an opposite-colored fruit, as a way to capture some kind of youth-on-the-cusp excitement, shakes me to the point where I can only exhale whispered Ws and Os, watch today’s storm gather over Lake Michigan, and wonder what the worried boats that I can’t see are dreaming. Thank you, Beckian.
Each time one of my student’s complains that they don’t “get” a poem, or fall into the thin practice of meaning-hunting, I use Sarah Vap’s name as an incantation.
Student: I’m not exactly sure what this line means.
Me: Sarah Vap.
Sarah’s poetry, like Ashbery’s best, wraps meaning tightly in music and image in a way that allow me as a reader, like the best dreams whose specifics start to fade upon waking, feel like I’ve been somewhere, that I’ve walked some strange landscape peppered, every so often, with enough familiarity to gift me warmth. These are difficult poems, and among the most rewarding I’ve read. No one writes like Sarah Vap, and no one makes me feel they way her poems make me feel. Disoriented, dazed, breathless without knowing quite why. I’m not sure where I’ve been, but I’ve been somewhere, and I’ve returned a little different. Few poems can do this. All of Sarah’s do. So I tell my students: If you feel confused, that you’ve just inhabited some strange landscape that’s gotten its hooks into, that you can’t shake it—that’s what it means. And, she’s incredibly funny too. Her poem, “Eventide,” makes me feel like a little girl—my younger sister maybe—drawing with a stick in the dirt, unaware, or maybe hyperaware, that one day, I will have two daughters.
Unbearable dress—do you have a secret
memory of a cow
tormented by the gadfly? What the fuck is the gadfly?
Unaccountable—why there’s a planetarium in the Nebraska
cornfield. Io is the closest
of Jupiter’s moons. Galileo
found the cashcow first. Tart. Flippant. Cowgirl-magnificat
in the vulnerable dress.
I’m not exactly sure if the dress changes from unbearable to vulnerable, or if, in this world, unbearable and vulnerable are the same thing. But I’m so lucky to consider such things.
I’ll keep the last couple short. I’ve been really loving Marvin Bell lately. A couple of years ago, I was so taken with the unexpected humanity of THESE GREEN-GOING-TO-YELLOW that I spent a few months writing the “opposite” of all the poems in the book. It was a great exercise—this opposite poem exercise, and provided me the starts for a few poems that resulted. This humanity, this chest-inflating sort of feeling is present in my other favorite book of his too, STARS WHICH SEE, STARS WHICH DO NOT SEE. The last stanza of the poem, “Fresh News from the Past,” makes me want to cry out with familiarity, allow me to feel, via such specificity of detail, that I have lived this life. And also—and maybe I’m pigeon-holing myself as a sucker for poetic comedy—it’s funny in a way that gives me chills, like my late grandfather’s leopard-skin bathrobe that I inherited. That’s Marvin Bell to me: death and leopard-skin bathrobes.
Had we been to Paris? No,
but we had been to leg-of-lamb
and found it alive and moving.
Guns-and-butter had not yet become
rockets-and-pies. We were dumb
as ducks. We loved the word, “propellor.”
And OK, OK. Wislawa Szymborska’s VIEW WITH A GRAIN OF SAND. The book traces her poetry from 1957-1993. So there’s lots to love. So much is made of truth in poetry. How the best poems capture some kind of universal truth in a handful of lines, causing a reader to engage in the somewhat dissonant actions of placing one hand over his/her mouth, while pumping the other hand into the air, fist-form, and calling Yes! in recognition. Of course, this results in the reader spitting over his/her fingers, but no one ever said the truth was dry and without bacteria. I’m not sure anyone does this sort of thing better than Szymborska. Take the last few lines of “Psalm”:
And the voices coasting on obliging airwaves,
that conspiratorial squeaking, those indecipherable mutters!
Only what is human can truly be foreign.
The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.
Yes! Oh crap.