America’s leading review of the arts and intellectual life
On Flies by Michael Dickman; Touch by Henri Cole; Radial Symmetry by Katherine Larson; Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins; A Hundred Doors by Michael Longley & Clavics by Geoffrey Hill.
was right!Support The
Michael Dickman’s scrawny, twitchy new poems look undernourished, but they have mean little ambitions.1 Cast in short, clipped lines (with the occasional long line thrown in as ballast), his second collection, Flies, is full of fever dreams of childhood, the haunting presence of his dead older brother, and flies, flies, flies. There are other animals as well:
My feet did not touch the floor
It’s hard to write from a child’s point of view without fatally compromising the illusion or seeming cheerfully stupid. Elizabeth Bishop, in “Manners” and “Sestina,” managed it brilliantly by simplifying the perceptions but not the intelligence. Dickman’s child, or man-child, is full of sentimental clichés and false notes (surely “breaths” would have made more sense)—at times the poems read more like cartoon strips. The passage above, where the boy awaits the dead brother’s appearance as a superhero, could have been written in thought balloons.
Dickman represents the third, possibly the fourth, generation of American Surrealism, a style (or perhaps a sect) that has always seemed rather mushheaded in a hardboiled, go-ahead country addicted to facts, facts, facts. With its whiff of anti-religious sentiment, Surrealism may look revolutionary in France or eastern Europe—what better threat to Christians than visions that aren’t Christian? In America, it’s more like middle-class self-indulgence.
Dickman has little to add to the droopy watches of Surrealists gone before, but, now that the movement has grown ever more attenuated, he sees its possibility as a manner without a lick of necessity. If he says, “I was just whispering// into my glass// pillow” or “I’ve been standing in front of a mirror for a hundred years// My glass clothes tossed across the bed,” you don’t think, “Oh, the young Apollinaire!” You think, “Cinderella!”
With his rabbity enjambment and insistent double-spacing, the poet tries a little too hard to be outrageous. It’s almost sweet when he writes, “There’s nothing better/ than shaving your father’s face/ except maybe/ shaving// your mother’s legs” (I could have done without the rimshot spacing), but I suspect the world has not been holding its breath for his speculations on the private life of Emily Dickinson:
Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she took a shit every morning
or ever fucked anybody
This seems a touch more impolite than Swift’s Strephon, emerging from a lady’s dressing room (“Disgusted Strephon stole away/ Repeating in his amorous Fits,/ Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”). Swift took romantic longing down a peg. Dickman is just some guy with creepy fantasies.
The poet is best, perhaps, in his take on the Old Testament. He recognizes the absurdity (even the majesty) of religious practice borrowed from desert tribes three millennia back and still used as a PowerPoint guide to faith: “We invented a chimney let’s feed it lambs// Feed it hooves// Holly// Choke it down// Leave piles of ash wherever we walk.” His obsession with flies, however, is all too reminiscent of the most famous novel of arrested development after The Catcher in the Rye—who knew that keeping William Golding on the eighth-grade reading list would lead to “The flies need to be killed as soon as we’re done eating this delicious meal they made// They serve us anything we want/ in toxic tuxedos/ and// shitwings”?
I confess I cannot see the “incipient violence” or “manic overflow of powerful feeling” (how far Wordsworth has fallen) previous readers have noticed in such poems. What has been called a calculated clumsiness seems just, well, clumsy. Dickman’s childishness provides, not access to the world of innocence by a man of experience, just a reason to prolong post-adolescence a few more years. When he stops acting like a gent with floppy shoes and a red rubber nose, when he ignores the yen for a gee-whiz flourish (“At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness”—but a light-year measures distance, not time), he lets in the bleakness from which these poems might have been composed.
The morbid pacing of these poems (they’re jazzy line by line but dull in the stretch) and their difficulty accommodating both giddy Surrealism and tract-house blues keep them from pursuing their version of pity and terror with more than a gauzy affectlessness. Dickman’s like one of those damaged boys off in the corner drawing burning houses and pulling the wings off insects. You worry about him, this demon kid whose poems are scrawled in fingerpaints or fiddled on an Etch-A-Sketch.
Henri Cole’s wounded new book, Touch, lives in a world where every glance, every embrace, every kiss is a transaction worthy of Ricardo or Keynes.2 The poems have been written under the sign of the mother, a mother who though dead remains one of the few living presences in the poet’s world. The rare traces of his military father suggest that Mom was an exemplary monster (“‘Remember you got a father,’ he used to say./ ‘You weren’t born by yourself’”).
The emotional genealogy of Cole’s recent books seems airless at times—most of the poems are unrhymed, unmetered “sonnets” more and more constricted by the form (Lao-
How brightly you whistle, pushing the long, soft
The image of the apron seems merely decorative, until you realize it’s there to introduce the butchery. (Cole is another fan of double-spacing, but where does the escalation stop? One line to a page?)
The mother’s death lies at the center of this savage, ravishing book, like the Minotaur in the middle of the maze. There’s nothing so intimate the poet won’t expose it, whether death itself (“All of life was there—love, death, memory—// as the eyes rolled back into the wrinkled sleeve// of the head”) or the body on the mortuary slab:
its mouth sewn shut, with posed lips,
Death, like life, is a series of beautiful humiliations—the “posed lips” are a particularly convincing and dispiriting touch. Cole often sees his mother as Rembrandt saw his sitters—gluey with age, mottled by half-
Cole is one of the great contemporary poets of shame (linking him to a very different poet, C. K. Williams). He revisits the mortifications of childhood, condemned always to live in the stranglehold of family history. Loneliness permeates these poems, the terror of longing exceeded only by the horror of togetherness. Something of the speaker’s isolation is suggested by a drug-addled lover hilariously addicted to texting: “‘Loser old man u r a cheap cunt,’// he wrote, ‘I need coke. Unless ur buying,// answer is no.’” Recording it is one way the speaker, so debased by his needs, can betray the lover in turn. The poems witness a degrading world where manners and the grace of language have been eroded by technology.
For a book so intimate with the failings of the body, almost pornographic in its rendition of pain, it’s curious that the grim mechanics of sex lie always in shadow. Cole becomes a stronger poet with his pain at a remove, instead of broadcast with a megaphone. It can be difficult for a poet so scathingly honest to accept that not all honesties are equal—the sharpest moments appear when he’s the least personal:
Each night they come back, chasing one another
“I can hardly stand it and put my face in my hands,” the poem ends, “as they dive to-and-fro through all their happiness.” The bats, of course, are social beasts.
In The Visible Man (1998) and Middle Earth (2003), Cole wrote two of the most devastating books of the last two decades. I was not so much a fan of the talking animals in Blackbird and Wolf (2007)—half the time the poet seemed to be channeling a milk-and-water version of Ted Hughes. Touch finds in the bestial world an adequate mirror to human affairs, while keeping Dr. Dolittle at bay.
The poet’s control is not always so sure. There are lines embarrassingly over the top (when the mother gives birth, “Tears ran out of her eyes like animals.// Fragrant convolutions from her insides/ filled the room with the strife of love”) and too many poems that end on a little pneumatic—or perhaps Plathetic—urgency (“I feel happiness. I feel I am not alone,” “Earth was drawing me into existence,” “the body whose tissue// once dissolved to create breast milk for me”). Such moments subtract only a little from these mortal poems both reverential and ashamed.
Katherine Larson is a field ecologist whose relation to nature lies somewhere between the scientist’s and the poet’s—in Radial Symmetry, she’s drawn to the mystery of things, and also to the ways mystery can be mastered.3 Like a lot of scientists (Loren Eiseley comes to mind), she goes all mushy when she tries to render the world outside the lab:
The late cranes throwing
There are many poets writing now in what might be called the New Breathlessness. Perhaps Merwin and O’Hara are distant precursors of the style, though these students of students don’t have the former’s phrasing or the latter’s wit. Reading such poems, you think that this is what would happen if the Dutch boy pulled his finger from the dike—or read too much Jorie Graham.
Larson is capable of images of disturbing beauty, half familiar, half strange (a “Seri woman in sepia,/ bare-breasted in a skirt of sewn-together pelican wings”), but her poems are loosely organized, unfocused, and frequently bloated with a grandiose phrase or two:
I know I’m still alive because I love
That sounds like the voiceover to a bad documentary—you can almost hear the strings swell as the credits start to roll.
If Larson were willing to settle for striking images, willing to let them do their work without lardy generalizations like the “sea always asks for more” or “how certain small truths disappear against/ a larger truth,” she could make better use of that acute, Marianne Moore-ish eye. Moore knew how to tease the moral out of the mussels, as it were; but Larson is tempted to slap headlines on things, whether it’s the “rotting sea lion carcass with the plastic Coke bottle/ lodged inside its throat” or simply an outing to the beach:
The day you sawed off the head of the dead dolphin
Freud may have to be rewritten.
As for the science, Larson doesn’t quite know what to do with it. When she writes, “The tide seeps in with its pewter description,/ simple and flat under halophytic grasses,” the first image is so riveting I’m sorry she had to drag in the five-dollar word (it means the grasses flourish in salty soil). The science isn’t quite poetry and the poetry is a light-year or two from science.
Too often Larson brings her dreamlike style up short with some galumphing observation (“Green grubs dropping from palm fronds to the porch, the sour-sweet/ of cheap lemonade.// And always the dialectic of inside/outside”)—or, worse, pitches headlong into the style of romance novels:
All the stars are cowards:
If that were an allusion to Göring’s alleged remark, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my Browning,” it would be funny. Perhaps the days are long gone when a poet like Donne could use science as if it were second nature, when metaphysics translated easily into art.
“Billy Collins is widely acknowledged as a prominent player at the table of modern American poetry,” according to the flap copy of Horoscopes for the Dead.4 I hadn’t gotten the memo! American poetry is now apparently just like the World Series of Poker, with a ten grand buy-in and the prospect of Internet fame forever. Actually, that sounds like a Billy Collins poem, but it’s the kind Collins rarely writes any more. He still has clever ideas, but he no longer knows what to do with them. There’s a poem called “Hell,” for instance:
I have a feeling that it is much worse
The nattering salesman won’t shut up and let you remember the lines from the Inferno you’re trying to think of; you try this mattress, then that one, then that other one—you try them, well, forever. That’s the way the ending might have gone, but telling you at the start that Hell is much worse doesn’t do much for the mild traumas that follow. Instead of leaving his couple testing mattresses for eternity (my idea of perdition, right after trying on new pants until Hell’s an ice-skating rink), the poem has them
lying down side by side,
This is a very gentle version of damnation; and it doesn’t help by reminding the reader of Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb,” a poem far more terrifying and far more loving.
The trouble with Collins’s recent work is that even when the premise is as droll as ever (there’s a man visiting his parents’ grave who asks if they like his new glasses, and a squirrel that breaks into an aria; there are meditations on the chairs no one sits in, and on the secret life of mirrors)—even when the idea screams out for the Billy Collins treatment— all he can manage are a few smirks. No one ever went to Collins for good poems. You went for the whimsical premise, the pang of ubi sunt regret, the genteel absent-mindedness. Now you get a poem that looks like a bird house slapped together in the back of someone’s garage. When there’s sorrow, it’s buffered sorrow; when there’s happiness, it’s discount happiness. You’re grateful for the whiff of despair, the faint breath of joy, but you miss all the highs and lows.
Like a stand-up comic, Collins has routines rather than arguments; but he used to riff with a kind of breakneck delight. Someone at dinner asks if Zeno’s paradox could be employed in the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Soon the imaginary arrows are flying over the menu of Cornish game hen and trout amandine—always getting closer to the poor saint-to-be, but never quite finishing the job. (The poet suggests that Sebastian would have been dead of a heart attack long before the arrows struck home.) The poem doesn’t come to much—it’s as if Collins no longer cares. He doesn’t even bother to recall that St. Sebastian didn’t die from arrows. He survived, a little worse for wear (no thanks to Zeno), and was unromantically clubbed to death.
Collins takes nothing too seriously, but he lacks the genius of the great comedians—whether Swift or Chaplin, Auden or Keaton—who could suggest the vast abysses comedy keeps out of sight. When he tries to be sober-minded, he’s not like the boy who cried, “Wolf!” He’s like the boy who cried, “Pie fight! Pie fight! Pie fight!” and now wants to tell you the Mongol hordes are here. The new poems all too often end with a little quiet sobbing and the wringing of handkerchiefs. But what high hopes they have at the start!
I would have to say that the crown
What would life have been like with three gorgeous wives who each evening greeted the poet, home from his labors at the rock face of poetry—three hot women swaying in their red sequined dresses as they whipped up his evening meal, all the while singing in harmony! I feel another Billy Collins poem coming on. It’s a shame he didn’t write it.
Michael Longley has lived in the shadow of Seamus Heaney, who for the last half-century has cast an Everest-sized darkness over the poets of Ireland. You can’t blame Longley’s generation for making fun of Famous Seamus—it’s not that a prophet is without honor in own country, it’s that his country doesn’t want him to forget where he came from. Decades ago, Longley turned to poems in miniature, like a diamond cutter with a loupe and the determination to pursue elegance on a smaller scale.
Longley has a devotion to Irish landscape reminiscent of a slightly deranged plant hunter. Many of the poems in A Hundred Doors are a nose-down crawl through meadows “covered in lady’s smock and ragged/ Robin.”5 There’s the twayblade,
or the shepherd’s purse, with its “seed pods—little hearts—/ Spoon-shaped petals on spikes.” At times he seems to have reinvented himself as one of those nineteenth-century parsons Darwin dreamed of becoming—the sort with a secret life as an amateur naturalist (Clark Kent on Sunday, bird-twitcher the rest of the week).
Too much of Longley’s new work suffers from a tweedy innocence—there are thumbed-over memories, elegies for the recent dead, and a sentimental poem for each of his grandchildren (you’re glad he has only half-a-dozen). I wish the poet were more reckless in old age; he settles too easily for a string of observations, as showily rendered as a painting in a book of hours, but ending in some softhearted remark, stuck in the mawkish like a wasp in amber. These fragments of rural life are like outtakes from Frost, but without the Yankee cunning that made American pastoral so unpredictable.
Longley’s father won the Military Cross in World War I (a medal equivalent to the Silver Star). The immediacy and aggression of the poems about the war are like a jolt of electricity:
Squatting—a sniper’s target—
The grass would have been something else to wipe with. The sacrifice of those intimate words, the soldier’s utilitarian calculation of comfort, the details as pungent as “skidmarks”—there have been few poems about the Great War as steel-eyed and unforgiving, yet recognizing that even the call of nature is a part of war, too.
There are no atheists in foxholes—so the religious would like to believe. Longley sees something in the trenches more rueful:
Christ is washing the feet of his Company.
Such a poem lives in the balance between savage irony and honest regard—the Christ who was a servant to servants is not part of the church militant; but dutiful soldiers get promoted, too, and even loved.
It has been hard for Irish poets to place themselves in relation to Heaney, just as it was once hard for them to live anywhere near the vast estates of Yeats—a poet can take up too much room (for many poets, Yeats and Eliot used up all the air in the parlor). It’s no surprise that the boldest Irish poet after Heaney, Paul Muldoon, had to purge his style (unhappily, in my view) of almost all traces of the older poet. I wish Heaney’s peers wouldn’t cede quite so much ground or prove so content with lesser ambitions. Longley writes of a passage in the Metamorphoses where Achilles faces one of the Trojans:
He pummels chin and temples—knock-out punches—and
“Thrapple” is the good old dialect word for strangle. You want to tell Longley, however noble the discipline of observation, to get his face out of the flowers and grab a bloody spear.
Geoffrey Hill’s jarring, discordant new sequence is an elegy for the composer William Lawes. A musician in ordinary to the court of Charles I, during the Civil War Lawes was posted to the King’s Life Guards. Supposedly, it was a safe troop, but he was killed at Rowton Heath during the siege of Chester. Clavics takes its title from the “science or alchemy of keys,” so the poet says, but here the keys are musical (“clavichord” derives from the Latin for key).6 You will hunt in vain for the word—Hill’s droll citation is to the “OED, 2012.”
The thirty-two poems have been cast in peculiar form: a twenty-line stanza, varying from dimeter to pentameter, followed by one half as long and shaped like the winglike stanza of Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” The rhyme scheme is like a briar patch (with so many short lines, the rhymes give these poems the jim-jams, and the rough meter fails to make them the least musical). The formal discipline Hill has set himself—call it willed masochism—makes it harder for his talent to thrive. There are the usual whispers and grunts, the hints and glimmers of meaning, but also stretches no more enlivening than the answers to a Finnish crossword.
It takes some adjustment to read these crabbed hyperborean lyrics. Seventeenth-century lyrics could be no less crabbed, but the difficulties entertained, the shackles made to measure, are the grateful if ungraceful homage of one artist to another, dead before his time:
So he survives
“Lawes,” Hill writes, “makes his way in grinding the textures/ Of harmony.” The musician died at forty-three, not young but youngish—an artist killed in war, followed down the centuries by a long list: Byron, Gaudier-Brzeska, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Alain-Fournier.
No elegy is a simple matter—it becomes a negotiation between the living and the dead, a relation made no easier when three and a half centuries have passed. Hill writes of the musician’s death, “punched semibreve/ Like fatal bullet through the fine slashed coat”—the coat might have been slashed by sword, if slashes were not part of Caroline and Jacobean fashion. The semibreve (a whole note) serves as a bullet hole, as if there were musics to death—the puns are obituaries of an abbreviated life. Hill’s insistent, layered wordplay has long been an acquired taste, a taste even familiar readers have had to reacquire as his books have grown more peculiar and arcane. His more prickly devices (reader-unfriendly, if you like)—bullying stress marks; intrusive, hectoring voices—are not employed here, or, in the case of the voices, much toned down.
The poet that Hill has come most to resemble is, a little bizarrely, Walt Whitman. English poetry has rarely had a poet who makes no distinction between the elevated diction of a don whose hobby is reading seventeenth-century theology and the slang of a chav happy with tea and chips—Whitman’s “blab of the pave” finds a late convert in a poet who would seem hostile to such a democrat. Hill’s juxtaposed registers produce such oddities as “Are you conning me simple rhyme? I am,/ Bro. Ease this screw of paper from my fist.” Now “sovran maims,” “Mathematicall Roses,” “Judith of Bethulia”; now “Supremo,” “unburned CDs,” “bling,” and “taking the piss.” He contains multitudes, and they don’t get along.
Hill wants the reader never to forget that, though the past lives into the present, the present must shoulder its way into the past. The rhymes force the poet to manic play that makes the syntax skitter four ways at once, without any consequent gain in depth. The tangled music is often difficult to bear—in the smoke and mirrors of syntax, Hill’s late mysticism seems to battle its way into form. And what of the angel wings? In the lower stanza, the typographer has sometimes stretched the letter spacing to keep the wings suitably angelic or airworthy. The visual effect is unconvincing. (Hill makes jokes about them—“upright an hour-glass/ Better if egg-timer.”)
The poetic language in Clavics is uneven, but perhaps evenness is not required—his valedictory works, elastic in length and sometimes repetitive in form, ending not in resolution but exhaustion, have been a series of self-provocations. The elegy’s opening sections seem to prick the poet to speech—the reader might think composing yet another pun that slashes two ways in the music of these figures (“I shall be lucky to twitch/ Creative fire,” “Confess/ Melancholy/ A touch too much my thing”). There are lines of breathtaking elegance—
Making of mere brightness the air to tremble
and lines that seem sheer gobbledegook:
Clavics is the second of five Daybooks to be published in advance of Hill’s Collected Poems, 1952–2012, where the others will be gathered. These are poems easy to dismiss—and yet, and yet. However much Hill has lately been writing against his gifts, the gifts are there, smoldering like an underground coal fire, impossible to put out.
1 Flies, by Michael Dickman; Copper Canyon Press, 6 pages, $16.
2 Touch, by Henri Cole; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 67 pages, $23.
3 Radial Symmetry, by Katherine Larson; Yale University Press, 64 pages, $29.95, $18 (paper).
4 Horoscopes for the Dead, by Billy Collins; Random House, 111 pages, $24.
5 A Hundred Doors, by Michael Longley; Wake Forest University Press, 75 pages, $12.95.
6 Clavics, by Geoffrey Hill; Enitharmon, 47 pages, £12.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 December 2011, on page 70
Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Civil-wars-7238
E-mail to friend
Donald Justice interprets Henry James's time on the West Coast.
On Antigonick (Sophokles), by Anne Carson, Nice Weather, by Frederick Seidel, PLACE, by Jorie Graham, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, by D. A. Powell, Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey, and Song & Error, by Averill Curdy.
On Almost Invisible by Mark Strand, Odi Barbare by Geoffrey Hill, Selected Poems by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Thomas Karshan, and The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove.
On I Love a Broad Margin to My Life by Maxine Hong Kingston; Walking Papers: Poems 1999-2009, by Thomas Lynch; The Sun-Fish, by Eliéan Ní Chuilleanáin; Toxic Flora by Kimiko Hahn; Maggot by Paul Muldoon; and Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Shcnackenberg.
On Wait by C. K. Williams, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland, Simplify Me When I'm Dead by Keith Douglas, Rain by Don Paterson, White Egrets by Derek Walcott & Nox by Anne Carson
Poet George Green reads from his award-winning Lord Byron's Foot
Celebration of the Life of Robert H. Bork, 1927–2012
James Panero on price gouging at the Met, with Fred Dicker