Jan 28, 2014

Mary Ruefle, "Why I Am Not a Good Kisser," a Comedy-Gravity Meatball


“Why I Am Not a Good Kisser”
is a Mary Ruefle romp in which we see her ample, quirky, speedy cerebellum and its thick book of information leavened by humor. Or is it two pages of humor—about our famous A.D.D., perhaps—deepened by scholarly details? In any case, it’s a pretty enjoyable example of trying not to take too seriously a really, really serious self.

If I started in on my favorite parts, gifts along the way, I might never stop. With a gun to my head, I’d probably opt for the little black dog and the rooster details.
Boat-Tailed Grackles
I do have two questions or reservations about the writing. Wouldn’t shorter lines increase the sense of romp and comedy? These often long lines, with no stanza breaks, create a sense of labor that might weigh down the frolicking, just a bit.

Secondly, we are taught—or we once were—that every word in a poem must be there, must be necessary and right, even if ambiguous. There’s no fat on poetry’s meat—or, once upon a time there wasn’t. With some of Ruefle’s details, I wonder how much they’d be missed if omitted (keep the rooster!). But there’s a mystery of rhythm and timing in poetry (and all writing) that might say success is success, don’t mess with it. And I’ll argue that “Why I Am Not a Good Kisser” is a successful feat indeed, less frivolous than most humor and less ponderous than most serious writing.       
The Anhinga Dries His Wings (and thinks deep thoughts)

By the way, I've now heard the poet introduced as Mary ROOF-ul, and like the ROOF-lee I offered last time, the introducer was well-qualified. What's in a name, anyway? Hey, somebody should write about that. 

Jan 22, 2014

Mary Ruefle, Kurt Vonnegut and the Problem of Anti-War Literature

Cat with No Tail

It’s supremely difficult to raise an anti-war poem above the level of shouted, trite protest. Vonnegut succeeded in Slaughterhouse-Five, largely because he was aware that “writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book.” He sees from the get-go that he must do something new, and he does.
Paper Mill

I’ve started exploring the poetry of Mary Ruefle (ROOF-lee), and the half-dozen or so poems I've read are brainy, but also emotional and witty. Her turns are often abrupt or extreme, but they're earned, legitimate, and purposeful, I think.  I'll have to reread to feel more confident about that, but I’m optimistic.
Lovers, Thinkers

Here’s Mary Ruefle’s poem, “The Letter,” which I particularly like. It’s a poem about the history of love, tragedy, and human transience as well as war, and that multidimensional feature is much of what I admire:   

Grackles, Florida
The generically evil, invading army in the first five lines felt a bit different, somehow more creative than most writing about evil, invading armies, but I wasn’t sure Ruefle would bring it off. Then Jocko’s frozen tear made me pretty sure the poem had me in its grip and would keep me there—once more, the power of a single detail.
Thinkers, Lovers

By the way, here’s a site that has many videos of poets reading, including Reufle. It’s a good place for an initial impression of any one of many poets.

Jan 12, 2014

Two Snow Scenes: Maureen Seaton and Naomi Shihab Nye

Here are two poems sharing the title “Snow,” the first by Maureen Seaton  (1991) Snow by Maureen Seaton : The Poetry Foundation   and the second by Naomi Shihab Nye (1998).  http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19970

They are an invitation for us to think about this season and all seasons (add in Wallace Stevens” “The Snow Man” last time). Do you have a preference?

What would you write about snow? What do you remember because of snow? Is it simple or complex and nuanced? What are some of the specific details?

Because Seaton’s poem is overtly political and Shihab Nye’s is domestic and personal, I might be asking for a comparison of fire hydrants and cauliflower. So let me say up front that what interests me is that Seaton’s gritty New York portrait of biracial lesbian lovers, from different socioeconomic strata, seems no more interesting or “deeper” than Shihab Nye’s recollection of a girl pulling her younger brother up a snowy hill on his sled.
Not a Winter Hill, Not a Sled

This pair of poems illustrates, for the ten-thousandth time, that the devil really is in the details. I learn more from and about Shihab Nye’s children than I do from Seaton’s adult characters, though I’d have thought them more significant, richer material, caught as they are in the midst of just about every major prejudice.

Here are three gems from Shihab Nye that might compel our deeper wondering about sister, brother, and family, both then and now:

    my brother whom I called by our secret name//
    as if we could be other people under the skin.

    People would dig their cars out like potatoes. 

    How are you doing back there? I shouted,
    and he said Fine, I’m doing fine, 
    in the sunniest voice he could muster 
    and I think I should love him more today
    for having used it. 

She should love him more? What is the gap that remains between them as adults? In the childhood home, there was an unexplained “raging blizzard of sobs,” and now we might wonder about secret names, or being “other people under the skin.” Shihab Nye might be teasing us with incomplete information, but at least she is imbuing her characters with ample human complexity.

In Seaton’s “Snow,” the information is also incomplete, but that’s less about mystery and complexity than turning humans into political types. I don’t know enough about the lovers to determine whether I want still more info. Are they statistics in a sociological pamphlet, or are they intriguing, multidimensional humans? Both? They are not individualized enough for me to feel I know them.
Dove and Dark-Eyed Junco

I’m inclined to like the two, but consider the second stanza where the speaker confesses her white guilt:

         [I]  strolled along the river, believing
         I belonged there, that my people
         inherited this wonderland
         unequivocally, as if they deserved it.

There’s a social consciousness there, and I’m glad the speaker sees her unfair advantages in finding fine housing. But if we’re the kind of people who read serious poetry, aren’t we just as likely to say, “What took you so long to notice and care about these inequalities?”

I’d be more moved by the situation if there were more thorough characterization, with or without a sociopolitical context, such as these interesting lines about the lover:

               My lover buys twinkies from the Arabs,
                bootleg tapes on ‘25th,
                and carries a blade in her back
                pocket although her hands
                are the gentlest I’ve known.
                She ignores the piss smells
            on the corner . . .  

In that brief passage, she comes alive,
so I’d like to know her and the speaker in more contexts like this. I wonder if the poem’s situation lends itself better to fiction or essay than poetry.

I’m not satisfied with either poem’s conclusion, and in both works, I want more information. But at least both poems interest me enough to wish for a more complete understanding of their characters.

Snow by Maureen Seaton : The Poetry Foundation



Jan 6, 2014

Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man" Again


It's hard not to talk about snow in our foot of the stuff and our single-digit temps. So, while I consider other poems on the subject, let's return to Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man," which is surely humanity's best poem on snow and one of our best poems, period. As I've said before here, the key to the poem is coming to terms with Stevens' "one must have a mind of winter." Is a mind of winter a good thing--for Stevens? For you?


Jan 4, 2014

An African Greeting and A Small Emily Dickinson Gem

Wood Storks, Northern Florida
Somewhere, years ago, I heard of a greeting that was common somewhere in Africa. Instead of settling for "Hello," the first human says, "I see you." And the other replies, "I am here."

"I see you."

"I am here."

I find something wonderful about that--what it says might be everything. But the exchange also calmly recognizes all that cannot be expressed.

Can anyone give me more information? Is it in fact an African greeting? Where in Africa? (I think I heard it was South African). Has there been a lot of commentary about it? It seems to me there might be, yet I haven't heard the words in more than a decade.

Southern Ontario

Loxahatchee NWR, Florida
Suburban Detroit park
Suburban Detroit park

And thanks once more to the Poetry Foundation, this time for its Dec. 31, 2013 daily poem, a brief Emily Dickinson gem. It's new to me and feels a bit like the tone and feeling in the African greeting. Doesn't it?  How would you explain the similarity? Or do you not agree there is one?

It's all I have to bring today-- 
This, and my heart beside-- 
This, and my heart, and all the fields-- 
And all the meadows wide-- 
Be sure you count--should I forget 
Some one the sum could tell-- 
This, and my heart, and all the Bees 
Which in the Clover dwell.

St. Augustine Beach, Florida

Happy New Year.

Lovers' Lane