Nov 30, 2012

Franz Wright, "Postcard 2": Son and Father

Last August 15 and 27 we discussed Franz Wright’s impressive poem, “To Myself.” Here’s “Postcard 2,” a darker work from FW, in Poetry (May 2012):

Upon reading “Postcard 2” I found myself wondering (again) how much public, confessional condemning of parents is worthwhile. Even if the accused is guilty, how dirty should the laundry be when you’re asking others to share, care about, find meaning in it? Then again, dirt sells. "Yay, dirt,” we seem to say quite often. Dirt is a disproportionately large part of what we want to know about each other, and here we have one Pulitzer Prize winning poet offering some dark topsoil about his Pulitzer Prize winning father, the major, major American poet, James Wright. Surely we’re delighted.

And surely you can hear my skepticism. But keep reading.

I also wonder about T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative”—does Franz Wright (hereafter, FW) give us enough simple, objective information (and action, observable behavior) to correlate to his emotions and cause us to share, or at least understand, his angst?
However, a few factors in the second half of the poem raise it above the mean, vengeful self-indulgence it seemed headed for, or some overwrought competition with Plath, Sexton, et al, over who had the worst parents ever, the worst life ever.

First, there are the touches of irony and humorous hyperbole in “Postcard 2” as FW raises the possibility that he was “to blame” for his father’s flight; he was the straw that broke the camel’s back after his father’s ill-fated marriage to that “raving bitch,” FW’s mother. I don’t think FW believes that, unless he means that his father indulged in the flight from paternal responsibility to which so many men succumb. When FW says, "I am the reason he left, actually. I am the one to blame. And yet he did his best; he did all that he was capable of doing," I hear a sarcastic speaker. He knows it was only as any child, not as Franz Wright, that he was such a nuisance his father took off (and became bipolar, depressed, alcoholic, the victim of multiple nervous breakdowns, and dead of cancer at 52). 

There’s also irony, or downright sarcasm, when FW claims his father "did his best." The same line on a postcard every year is no one's best, is not all any father can do, and FW knows that. 

But did you forgive him, FW?  If so, why are you sharing the ugly aspects of him with the world?

However, the italicized line from James Wright is indeed lyrical, subtle, profound, and it’s here that “Postcard 2” turns from puerile petulance (in which we all engage at times) to a grownup speaker’s earned sense of complication and grief. James Wright’s annual line to his son was:  The blizzard I visit your city disguised as will never be over and never arrive.” 

Imagine a father who’s able to say such things—such clever and maybe deep things, such body blows, the same stale, rehearsed, but eloquent punch every year, so that the son has to wonder how genuine it is. How self-pitying and manipulative is the father’s blow, masquerading as affection and regret—and coming as it does from a man who wears a robe of distance and eloquence? The father will not reveal himself, so how is the child supposed to respond?

Those complications also prepare us for the son’s final, powerful two sentences, in which he seems to understand the father’s psyche aching within himself:  “. . . at some point I’d begin to notice I was freezing, wasn’t dressed right, had nowhere to go, and was staggering into a blinding snow that no one else could see. I think he meant, the cold will make you what I am today.” In that final sentence, there's also something of the quizzical Eastern manner of his father's line about blizzards.

I find all of that painful and moving. While I don’t think the information on FW’s parents is enough to provide the emotional content of the poem, I do sense something earned and genuine in FW’s psychological portrait of the coldness, confusion and isolation swelling within him, inherited from a father who spoke from afar, from an intellectual height, in poetic riddles. That is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
And finally we realize that FW has connected to his father.  “I get it, Father. Now I understand the coldness, which was always coming and never arrived; I get the paradox of you. And your presumptuous prophecy was right—your coldness is what I am today. So in a way we are one; you inhabit me—a fact that does not warm me or clear my head, or welcome the past, or soften anything at all.”

That connection between the two poets, son and father, is hardly an ideal way for parents and adult children to bond, but it squelches my initial urge to criticize the son for exhibitionism and melodrama. In the end, I trust the honesty of FW’s inner cold and the coldness of what he knows of his father. 

Nov 23, 2012

Robert Hass, "Meditation at Lagunitas": Ways of Being and Saying

Meditation at Lagunitas by Robert Hass : The Poetry Foundation

There are two kinds of language, two kinds of experiencing, two ways of being in the world in Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.”  The first mode begins in the opening two lines; it’s all about the left brain and analysis, cognition, deduction, intellect, abstraction. The very subject is “thinking” in a meditation that’s the beginning of a comparison essay:

            All the new thinking is about loss.
            In this it resembles all the old thinking.

In this mode, some of Hass’s declarations are downright aphoristic when separated from the whole poem, and, to take a negative view of aphorisms, we might say they’re like fortune cookies or bumper stickers—apparent truths without benefit of discussion or examples and experience from the tangible, palpable world, or the world of intuition, ambiguity, mystery, magic, sensuous delight.

If there’s a positive view of aphorisms, it’s probably based on the way they pin down a piece of Truth in a precise, pithy, and seemingly valid way. Some synonyms or related terms might be epigram, axiom, platitude, maxim. Here are some fairly aphoristic lines from Hass that tend toward elegance, subtlety, complexity and loftiness more than most axioms do: 

            All the new thinking is about loss.
            In this it resembles all the old thinking.

                                                each particular erases
            the luminous clarity of a general idea.

            a word is elegy to what it signifies.

            talking this way, everything dissolvesjustice,
            pine, hair, woman, you and I.

                                                            desire is full
            of endless distances.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Faver-Dykes S.P.,FL

These lines are clearly going for big wisdom and philosophical insight, and they might be faulted for trying too hard. But Hass truly fleshes out the poem with vivid, often gorgeous images of the physical world.

                                                       the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch

            her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
            I felt a violent wonder at her presence
            like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
            with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
            muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver                                     fish
            called pumpkinseed.

                                    the way her hands dismantled bread,
            the thing her father said that hurt her,

In these quotations, I hope the differences between abstract, aphoristic expression and concrete imagery are clear as two different modes of being and awareness.

Moreover, at the center of the poem, Hass offers two lines that encapsulate the two kinds of mental operation.

     talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
     pine, hair, woman, you and I.   
Pike's Pond, Lenox, MA

The first line is general, summarizing, abstract declaration, ending in one of the greatest abstractions of all, “justice.” But immediately the following line plunges completely into the physical, concrete, immediate world, so that a dualism is clear. 

Of course, the most emphatic image of sensuousness, and the victor if there’s been a contest, is the single, italicized, repeated word and physical image, blackberry. Can the “good flesh” continue? 

Hass is too wise to choose between black hats and white hats, but he would like a world and a life in which “numinous” flesh could go on and on, physical and mortal on the one hand, spiritual, mental, and endless on the other. And he imagines a third “numinous” hand, which contains both ways of being—the temporal and the eternal—and thus requires no choice by the human. To try to articulate that world, all he can do, ironically, is repeat a single word, the odd, beautiful center of sensuality:  blackberry.

I don’t mean to force some happy (or haughty) ending about Thanksgiving when I say Hass might be giving us something good to be thankful about—something more elevated and meaningful than gorging on turkey or lining up at 1:00 a.m. to gather more stuff.

Meditation at Lagunitas by Robert Hass : The Poetry Foundation

Nov 10, 2012


Sandhill Crane: Waltzing, Drunk and Alone
There was some talk here last time about music and dancing. I’ve never trusted men who could dance. If I were about to hand over my fortune to a Wall Street type, I’d sooner trust men who succeed at the bar scene or church socials than men who are good dancers.

Back in the day I developed a restrained, classic, quasi-inert, sway-and-shuffle style of slow dancing, but that was go along to get along. Even then I found the whole activity absurd.

If dancing is foreplay for women—and several women have affirmed that it is . . . .  Actually they said, "What did you think it was, Dumb Ass?"  Interpretation: the male is required to forego his Randolph Scott dignity and fall into a foolish boogie-seizure while waiting for the female to get in touch with her animal self.
Downy Woodpecker: The Female Idly Snacks

Downy Woodpecker, Red-Head Male Fuels Himself

Am I the only one who’s stood in astonishment as women walk into a room with music and immediately start wiggling and wriggling, clapping hands and snapping fingers?  They lapse into exotic facial expressions, eyelids and brows squeezed into a pleasure-pain grimace, lips curled into an ecstatic-tragic oooohhhh. . . ?   I’d as soon learn French as indulge in such antics.

So. Dancing is foreplay for women—freeing up their bodies, feeling a rhythm, getting in a groove—while my limited, ever-ready gender is doing jumping jacks in a wheat field.

That’s all old news, of course, so we should not be, and maybe we no longer are, surprised that dating, courting, and mating make such a rough ride—rolling down Rt. 66 one minute—top down, wind blowing all friendly-like—and the next minute we’re flossing teeth or picking lint from lapels.

Munching, not breeding
How many hours do Mr. and Mrs. Sandhill Crane spend strolling and nibbling goodies in the grass, compared to the time they spend in outrageous lust? Sandhill Cranes look so lazy it’s a wonder they’re not extinct. I know, I know, their epic migration, oh, the heroic endurance, blah blah.  Some humans are dumb enough to run marathons, and most birds are dumb enough to chase a certain kind of bug for thousands of miles twice a year. Jesus, can't you just change your diet a little? Look at the sparrow. The sparrow will eat any damn thing.
Red-Tail  Chase

So Near, Yet So Far
One day last April Mr. Red-Tailed Hawk was howling for the Missus in a woods where I go to walk. I heard the high-pitched flute of Mister’s voice before I saw the two of them. Then I watched as he chased her for 20 minutes, waltzing on currents up there toward the sun, until, exhausted, they rested side by side on a high branch, transformed by fatigue to Platonism, to brother and sister. After a few minutes of catching their breath, they took off again, in another dance-chase across the sky, away and out of sight.  

That was a spectacular half-hour, but it left me once again wondering what animals are thinking and feeling. Most seem to be all about foreplay—eternal, spectacular rituals, displays and chases, fights with rivals—for a coupling that lasts about two seconds.

Love's Exhaustion
So. Are dancing and sex matters of the mind or the body? Is that one question or two? Or two thousand? Is it even a question? And in  
that transition from mind to body, where’s the tipping point? To understand, where should one begin?


Nov 4, 2012

Music: Bill's Seafood; Crooked Still, "Look On And Cry"

 Crooked Still - Look On And Cry - YouTube

I wish Aoife O'Donovan's voice (or just her microphone) were bigger, but I find the banjo and cello combo in the video completely new and amazing, even though I'm something of a stick-in-the-mud who, in his ignorance, is suspicious of any kind of fusion. Even the lightning banjo work of the beloved Steve Martin is too . . .  intellectual? . . .  for me.

The photos show a senior trio at Bill's Seafood in Westbrook, Connecticut a few weeks ago. You stumble into a place, hoping the food's edible and the service compassionate. On top of that you get first-rate live music to boot. For lunch!

Except for the servers, don't expect to find teenyboppers at Bill's . . . .

Lovers' Lane