May 28, 2013: THE ONION, MEMORY (Craig Raine)

Dear readers,

given the national holiday, I consider this installment to be very punctual. Early, almost.

But what if David Yezzi were right? Let’s assume for argument’s sake that contemporary poetry is dominated by the themes and treatment he describes. Yezzi argues that this poetry is bad because it’s dishonest, and it’s dishonest because A) nobody could actually feel that way, and B) the poems describe a world that does not exist.

So, A), who says nobody feels that way? I bet some people do. I bet some people reading these horrible, horrible poems feel just that way. I am getting older; sometimes I feel that way. I have no better rebuttal to argument 2.A than, no, I think Yezzi is wrong, and I submit–using the same evidence he does, which is to say: none–that many people regard the world within much the same frame that he deplores.

And B), I was not aware that literature had to describe worlds that actually exist. In fact, I’m pretty sure that there are entire genres that do nothing but describe worlds that do not exist. Anyway, must a poem–a poem, for gosh sakes–describe a “world?” Mightn’t expressing a point of view suffice for a mode that, after all, sometimes lasts for only a few lines? Not everything has to be the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And point of view really gets to the heart of matter, for here is where the poet can bring his/her tools to bear, even if the world described is a boring or “nonexistent” one. I don’t see why the poet can’t take as a topic the same situation that a Lifetime movie does. But whereas the Lifetime movie must make a broad appeal, and thus employ the blandest, most repetitive point of view available, the poem really lives on its own terms and probably appeals to a narrower audience, so the poet can be risky with his/her choices. For some reason, ruminating on this possibility brought me to Craig Raine (anagram: I are racing), initiator of the so-called “Martian” school of poetry. Now this was not really a school of poetry, but what Raine did was write a book of poems with the title A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), which made a big splash. In the title poem, and others, Raine attempted to take a point of view that was distanced from the human point of view, while living in an obviously human world. He chose as “speaker” a martian who was describing the actions of humans to the martians back home, the same way we would write a postcard saying “It’s beautiful here but the Burmese don’t form an orderly queue at the bus station!” I love this concept for our purposes today because, first, it takes as its subject a world that does not exist–martians don’t live among and observe humans! Second, it takes as its subject the most humdrum of worlds–humans interacting with each other in their normal routine. Here’s a poem by him from 1978–prior to the whole martian thing–which really exemplifies the approach. The subject here is a speaker preparing dinner with his partner (I’m assuming a man’s speaking voice, but it needn’t be), and thinking about having been together for a while now. There’s nothing more middle-aged, blinkered, suburban, and genial than that. But the approach takes us far out of that, uses scientific and metaphorical words for everyday things, gives a tactile history to the places and things, makes a pop culture allusion or two, unpeels a sexual innuendo, and somehow brings an emotional punch to its totally predictable conclusion. We call this writing poetry.

Some of the poems Yezzi is thinking of may truly be terrible. But they’re not terrible for the reasons he thinks they are. Next week: the third leg of the stool. -ed.

The Onion, Memory

Divorced, but friends again at last,
we walk old ground together
in bright blue uncomplicated weather.
We laugh and pause
to hack to bits these tiny dinosaurs,
prehistoric, crenelated, cast
between the tractor ruts in mud.

On the green, a junior Douglas Fairbanks,
swinging on the chestnut’s unlit chandelier,
defies the corporation spears–
a single rank around the bole,
rusty with blood.
Green, tacky phalluses curve up, romance
A gust–the old flag blazes on its pole.

In the village bakery
the pastry babies pass
from milky slump to crusty cadaver,
from crib to coffin–without palaver.
All’s over in a flash,
too silently…

Tonight the arum lilies fold
back napkins monogrammed in gold,
crisp and laundered fresh.
Those crustaceous gladioli, on the sly,
reveal the crimson flower-flesh
inside their emerald armor plate.
The uncooked herrings blink a tearful eye.
The candles palpitate.
The Oistrakhs bow and scrape
in evening dress, on Emi-tape.

Outside the trees are bending over backwards
to please the wind : the shining sword
grass flattens on its belly.
The white-thorn’s frillies offer no resistance.
In the fridge, a heart-shaped jelly
strives to keep a sense of balance.

I slice up the onions. You sew up a dress.
This is the quiet echo–flesh–
white muscle on white muscle,
intimately folded skin,
finished with a satin rustle.
One button only to undo, sewn up with shabby thread.
It is the onion, memory,
that makes me cry.

Because there’s everything and nothing to be said,
the clock with hands held up before its face,
stammers softly on, trying to complete a phrase–
while we, together and apart,
repeat unfinished gestures got by heart.

And afterwards, I blunder with the washing on the line–
headless torsos, faceless lovers, friends of mine.


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