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Song & dance
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.
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Anne Carson’s new translation of Antigone is a real mess.1 She has taken one of the most moving plays of the classical world—still charged with pathos despite its remoteness in custom and dramaturgy—and updated it like a new Honda. The Greek tragedies present a problem for modern readers; and translations often don’t help, either mummifying the original, as if the ancients were best viewed in glass vitrines, or throwing the berobed actors into mufti and pretending that all the bloodletting occurred during the Jazz Age.
Carson wants to drag the drama into the page, an idea lovely in theory but loopy in practice. She has hand-lettered the translation herself, with a pen nib apparently used to pry open beer bottles. The result possesses a neurotic energy, as if the very letters, all caps, squirmed with feeling. The stuttering punctuation is an afterthought, if it’s a thought at all. Overlaying most of the text pages are translucent, slightly childish drawings by the illustrator Bianca Stone. The effect is like a graphic novel on crack.
Still, the interplay between drawing and veiled text is more striking than I would have imagined—if Blake had no eye for art or ear for verse, he might have produced something like this. The play rises up through the sketches like the ghost of history, a palimpsest only teasingly visible. Sometimes the drawings take their prompts from the dialogue—mostly they’re irrelevant. (Members of the chorus, one wearing a Star Trek uniform, have cement blocks for heads.) Setting the text at such a physical remove—like the material remains of the past—seems too clever by half, as well as dryly condescending.
Like many Greek tragedies, Antigone is as static as an insect trapped in amber. (The plays are full of family values, if your family is full of monsters, needing only a whisper of action for the pity and terror.) Two brothers have died in a struggle for the throne of Thebes. The new ruler arbitrarily decides to entomb one with the proper rites and leave the other to the vultures. Antigone buries the young man in secret. There’s a lot of talk, then three suicides—the ending is half Romeo and Juliet, half Lear.
The main problem is Carson’s translation. I’m all for refurnishing the classics (the king owns a powerboat), but modernist fracture must reveal something otherwise concealed or add more pleasure than it subtracts. Ezra Pound and Christopher Logue were masters of such radical corruption. Carson styles her verse like artificial jazz, chilly and soulless as a synthesizer—yet she can be mortally funny:
ANTIGONE: WE BEGIN IN THE DARK AND BIRTH IS THE DEATH OF US ISMENE: WHO SAID THAT ANTIGONE: HEGEL ISMENE: SOUNDS MORE LIKE BECKETT ANTIGONE: HE WAS PARAPHRASING HEGEL
It’s hilarious that Hegel, so ripe with the classics, has been shanghaied by Sophocles—hilarious, at least, until in a later passage it becomes tiresome and preachy. There are moments when Carson’s sharp tongue matches Antigone’s, but the dialogue often has the frowzy odor of translations by Jurassic Period classics dons: “O ONE AND ONLY HEAD OF MY SISTER WHOSE BLOOD INTERSECTS WITH MY OWN IN TOO MANY WAYS,” “AN UNBEARABLE FATE HAS LOADED ITSELF ONTO MY HEAD,” “YOU GOAT’S ANUS, TELL ME WHO BURIED THAT BODY.” The dead language has died a second time.
Carson has made a career of thinking obliquely about the classics. She’s an all-or-nothing poet. Nox (2010), her family snapshot-album cum translation of Catullus, is one of the most original works in recent poetry, while Autobiography of Red (1998), her verse novel based on the myth of Geryon, is a self-indulgent disaster with a few splendid touches. Sometimes the classics are more effective played straight, if the reader is allowed to overcome his estrangement with raw imagination, and if the translation can make the original fluent without trying to sound hip. (“WHAT ’S UP,” Kreon is unhappily allowed to say.)
The translation is titled Antigonick because Carson has invented a mute character named Nick, who is permanently onstage and who, she says, “measures things.” (Why Nick? Nick of time, ho ho!) You’re glad this insignificant noddy, this overdetermined dramatic idea—the male equivalent of Lachesis, the second of the three Fates—is never allowed to speak.
There are three or four roguishly droll moments. In her sole monologue, Eurydice compares herself to Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, whose death was stuck between a pair of brackets. Then there’s the much-put-upon guard:
GUARD: YOU LIKE NOUNS HERE’S SOME
Mostly, however, you get Hegelian blather, Carsonian blather, a dash of Sophocles as if rendered by Gilbert Murray, and some cartoons. Antigone’s dilemma, to honor her brother and embrace death, grimly echoes the underlying theme of Nox—but a play that can still move an audience to tears, while dramatizing some fairly sophisticated ideas about kingship, won’t work if the characters sound slightly stupid.
Frederick Seidel started as an acolyte of Lowell, back when Life Studies was young. His first book, Final Solutions (1963), shows the manner of the master, every shred of cut and drape slavishly copied but with very little beneath, a kind of soulless knockoff of Dior for the racks at Macy’s. Yet what a title! The title of Life Studies made modest reference to the apprenticeship of artists; the tastelessness of Final Solutions is like an incendiary bomb with Betty Grable painted on the casing. That shameless need to provoke created a brief, now forgotten, cause célèbre when the manuscript was chosen for a first book prize (Lowell was a judge), only for the poems to be called libelous and anti-Semitic. The prize was withdrawn and publication canceled.
Seidel carefully developed the persona of a rich dilettante, a Harvard grad with a Ducati motorcycle, someone at the edge of the jet set who knew heads of state and a comtesse or two, but who was literary. His willingness to say that the rich aren’t necessarily moral idiots, that even among the titled one finds philosophy entangled with tragedies of fate, tests a lot of the presumptions of late Romantic poetry (in some ways it’s a reversion to the world of Richard III). Still, the shock tactics haven’t gone away—Seidel wants to rub the reader’s nose in class, in the trappings of wealth (that ever-present Ducati!), in his friendships with people in some galaxy of privilege out of reach of the gossip sheets. He’s an equal-opportunity sadist.
You have to examine your prejudices on almost every page of Nice Weather—Lowell’s brush with money seems by comparison almost accidental (his was a down-at-heels branch of the Lowells, though he was born on Beacon Hill and had a modest trust fund).2 Seidel has sought out glamour with a vengeance. He loves to be obnoxious, an illiberal liberal who claims to like dictators. (The obsessions in his new book are Central Park, radical Islam, Harvard, and Obama. And sex and death.) The poems of Seidel’s maturity were often irritating but serious—the music-hall, Archie Rice–version of Anthony Hecht. Then something happened. Seidel started to rhyme like a maniac.
Patent leather makes my shoes
His favorite philosopher must be the Duchess of Windsor. Or Isaac Asimov:
I ride the Cosmos on my poetry Ducati, Big Bang engine, einsteinium forks.
Extraterrestrial Beijings! (Get it?) It’s hard not to cringe when a poet lets slip his inner Ogden Nash (just as it’s worrying when a poet thinks that light years measure time, not distance). Rhyme with variable meter requires a subtle ear few poets possess—the radical use of tradition is a high-wire act that comes with every opportunity for disaster. You want to throw Nice Weather against the wall when you read, “It was good to be an ace in World War II,/ And rather better than being a Jew,” or “I see the psalm and it’s a woman’s labia,/ My pornographically all-mine Arabia.” I like the buried allusion to Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” but Seidel’s a clod who has taken a correspondence course on writing Cole Porter lyrics.
Once in a while, you find a vulnerability, a desperation to be liked, that allows you to forget, or half forgive, all the posing and wheedling of this narcissist who hates narcissists. Still, you’d like to crown him when he says things like “Hauteur is the new hot” or, of McGeorge Bundy, “His penis was a frosted cocktail shaker pouring out a cocktail,// But out came jellied napalm.” The best poems here don’t make every line a tribute to nerve or a test of the limits of bad taste. A sequence about Harvard in the Fifties is Lowell territory—there’s some celebrity spotting (Pound, MacLeish, Updike as a big-nosed geek), but also a tender openness to a world of privilege now vanished, one that looks almost benign compared to our new world of privilege. Alas, Seidel has become a poet who will labor over a master drawing and then scrawl graffiti on it, just to show he can.
There’s still a poet here who admits all sorts of unlovely things about himself—his casual racism, his delirious obsession with sex—a poet who doesn’t want to court your dislike, who doesn’t always wear the “Seidel sackcloth,” who doesn’t have to brag about having a girlfriend as young as his daughter, if he had a daughter: “The mother of the woman I currently/ Like to spank, I’m not kidding,/ Was my girlfriend at Harvard.” It’s hard to think of another American poet who could write that. Or who would.
Jorie Graham’s new book, PLACE, is a delicious example of the arrogance of style.3 Some poets patiently develop style, while others leap about, kangaroo-like, before alighting on one. There comes a moment, however, when the poet believes that his style has been perfected and that everything after is just the pure expression of imagination. This fossilization usually occurs toward the middle of a poet’s career, but it’s all too common among poets who have scarcely begun. An Eliot or a Lowell, who reinvents himself brilliantly every book or two, is the rarest phenomenon in art, rarer even than genius.
Graham’s poetry long ago became an obsessive-compulsive record of each breath, a moment-by-moment crawl along the stream of consciousness that composes her mental life—you can imagine how disturbing that would be if she were Coleridge, whose notebooks and marginalia form the most exacting idea of what genius, moment to moment, is. If you’re not Coleridge, however, you write like this:
it’s stronger, the yes is taking over, your yes and my yes and our
That’s the poet playing with her baby daughter. There’s little room in Jorie Graham poems now for anything but The History of Seven Minutes of My Life in Twenty-Four Volumes. Everything else has been crowded out, including most of the commas.
Graham can do a hundred lines on capillary action without breaking a sweat, but at the end you don’t know much more than you did after the final in ninth-grade biology—all she gives you is run-on thinking and clumsy stop-motion photography, a technique better suited to Ray Harryhausen movies and Gumby cartoons:
The vase of cut flowers with which the real is (before us on this page) permeated— is it a page—look hard—(I try)—this bouquet in its
Graham has become fixated on appearance, on the difficulty of conveying the breach between the real and the written; but this shows how badly poetry illuminates notions of ontology and epistemology. If you can’t think as slant as Stevens, you’re likely to produce something a lot closer to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard.” There’s more poetry simply in the name “tiger dahlias.”
In Graham’s new poems, every minute thing becomes a baggy monster, and every baggy monster has a lot of baggy fleas. However heartfelt her digressions on torture (“someone breaking someone’s/ fingers—just now—hear their laughter”), too many poems come down to a state of dotty exultation: “say yes/ out loud—say am I a/ personal/ wholeness? a congerie of chemical elements?” A congerie of chemical elements! (That should be “congeries,” but no matter—she also believes that hawks hunt by night.) Graham patiently explains that the “wars, massacre, persecution, famine” that have killed some two hundred million in the past century were “all policy-induced.” This is breathtakingly inadequate. You long for the days when disasters were caused by greed or hubris, the Oedipal Complex or the death instinct, religious orthodoxy or the will to power. Or just bad weather.
Graham used to think in her poems, not pretend to think—she had an intoxicating way with metaphor, original if not always successful. Now a bird lands on the fire escape of her apartment, and it’s like the day men landed on the moon. I’m not sure poetry needs a slow motion account of a dog getting hit by a car or of a fast-forward sci-fi apocalypse (“swirling floods tectonic plates like wide/ bones shifting round me—elephants flow through, all gone, volcanoes emerging and/ disappearing just like that, didn’t even really get to see them”)—and both in the same poem. Graham doesn’t lack a sense of the tragic; but the tragic is treated the same as the injured dog (she has a moral imagination both icy and sentimental.) Graham grabs at any contemporary issue—underwater mortgages, IEDs, unemployment—and makes mush of it. When she’s not making mush, she writes portentous lines like “We must write the history of time.” The actual title of the new book is P L A C E. (Get it? “Place” has little places inside!)
In her desire to break down the fourth wall of the poem, in her fussy attempts to explore the mind’s labyrinth (or make herself the point of Zeno’s arrow), in her airless sanctimoniousness, a talent that for too long has fed on itself has begun to starve to death. The book ends with an alarming one-page manifesto—or perhaps minifesto. It reads like a press release from a particularly hip publicity-department. This isn’t publicity, however—it’s the poet’s declaration of intent cast as a diploma of accomplishment and pitched in a slightly creepy third person.
In P L A C E, Graham explores the ways in which our imagination, intuition, and experience—increasingly devalued by a culture that regards them as “mere” subjectivity—aid us in navigating a world moving blindly toward its own annihilation and a political reality where the human person and its dignity are increasingly disposable.
The human person! On and on it goes, long paragraphs of self-serving guff. I know what she’s getting at, but it’s hard to see through the murk of lit-crit buzzwords, the cant of English departments these days: subjectivity, resistance, presence, unstable, margins, accompanied by the inevitable scare quotes (“the day before the ‘historical’ events of June 6”). You wonder why someone hasn’t invented Theory Bingo.
D. A. Powell has a quirky, perverse style and a mind to match. He’s a poet of untrustworthy romantic gestures and ironic deflation, with a taste for brute puns and plenty of foreplay. The poems in Useless Landscape find a surprising number of uses for romantic sublimity—he’s not afraid to tease the reader with phrases like “pale plenitude,” which sounds like hand-me-down Shelley.4
When the previously withheld faces grew tough as flax
It’s tough to say exactly where this lapses into gruesome artiness—probably about the time consummate hits the page. When we get to the Victorian inversion and the stars become “nether eyes,” the poet is joking or has just lapsed into sentimental dementia.
The partial autobiography offered in this book reveals a poet long at war with himself, and a style at war with almost everything else. Powell is drawn to the beauty of things, and wary of what he’s drawn to. There’s hardly a gesture done well in one place that isn’t done badly in others (it’s not the mark of a visionary so much as of a champ of hits and misses). The preciousness of so many of these poems—their taste for words like versicolor and pelotage, like planarity and asperous and mammillate and coombes—is partly an Audenesque joy in the ruptures of language and partly a defense against the humdrum, an encoding of rage. You half expect things to start deliquescing.
Powell is a dandy who likes to slum in the demotic, and some of his best effects come when the disguise slips a bit:
There’s almost nothing to go back to.
There’s a lot to dislike in this squalid scene, but a lot to admire, too—the “wide flat palm” already vaguely threatening; the wry joke of Bent Prop Liquors (referring to airplanes and, well, you know), the rough-handed enjambment of “kid you/ not” and the echo in “I wasn’t the first/ kid.” The little surprises are melodramatic, but they’re also dramatic. Even the self-conscious “poops” seems like a disgust to foreshadow disgust.
Powell’s hyperbaric aestheticism is best in small doses. Where he lays it on with a trowel, pretense often gets the better of him: “I am a soulless man. When I take you/ into my mouth, it is not my mouth,” says the speaker in “The Fluffer Talks of Eternity,” and you’re sorry he does. (That’s one of the poet’s many wry, cheerful titles—if you don’t know what a fluffer is, look it up.) Powell, who loves to be risqué, can be surprisingly awkward about sex:
Or to slip naked into the slough
This isn’t a great distance from softcore porn, and the delightfully pitched delinquent (so unexpected and, well, delinquent) doesn’t make things much better. Powell has learned a thing or two from Thom Gunn (“I long to know his vulgar tongue. To feel the cool verdigris/ of his shanks”); and his AIDS poems have been scoured of self-righteousness. He’s a sucker for the droll one-liner: the darting phrase (“their suck-me-off jeans”), the sexual brag (“I’d blow the devil if he offered. Apparently he did”), the shock turn (“Well suddenly the present arrives, and it’s a[n] autopsy”). He’s also fond of lectures, including a potted California history, superficial when not simply mistaken—the Chinese did not “replace” the native Indians. To say that these immigrants were “used to build railroads” is true enough, but they had flocked in during the Gold Rush, years before. Mining and panning under grim conditions, the “Celestials” or “Mongolians” were hardworking, thrifty, thoroughly despised, and mistreated—many took on menial labors, like laundering, spurned by their betters.
If the poet’s idiosyncrasies are sometimes far too mannered, if there are too many smirks per line, if the poems (as men are said to say in Texas) are often all hat and no pants, the gay life has rarely seemed so wicked or insouciant. Powell makes his Beau Brummell manner its own form of bravery.
Natasha Trethewey’s bland, passionless verse comes hemmed in by expectation. Her mother was black, her father white, and she grew up in the penumbra of race, that shadow of larger arguments. However much we might wish to live in a post-racial world, the post-racial is often just racial by another name. Thrall looks warily at her father, their relation tainted by old guilt and labored suspicion, and at the long history of trying to capture in art the confusions of race.5
Ekphrastic poetry has become a slightly addled and hidebound genre. There are few poems about paintings, for example, that don’t make you wish you were standing in front of the painting, and fewer that, once you’ve seen the painting, make you want to go back to the poem. The new poet laureate makes the poet’s task harder by choosing works that provide what might be called freeze-dried symbols: illustrations for the medieval tale of grafting a black’s man’s leg onto a white man; portraits displaying the bewildering variety of mixed-race children (mulattos, mestizos, castizos—you can find sixteen different taxonomic labels in Richard Twiss’s Travels Through Portugal and Spain, in 1772 and 1773); and, beyond art, a lurid account of the dissection of a “white Negro.”
The poems do what little they can, but the images are already like encyclopedias. Tretheway, who has a gift for elaborating the perfectly obvious (once you know the subject, you know almost exactly what she’ll say), litters her poems with stale adjectives and battery-depleted language: “lovely dark hand,” “flickering// lamplight,” “the elegant sweep of her hair,/ the graceful tilt of her head.” She’s fascinated by portrayals of two races merged into one, but the language is as dull as a dirty mirror. Give her a clumsy genre painting of a mulatto girl holding a piece of fruit, and the poem is just choreography. The white father caresses his child’s cheek:
Then, the dominion
This is a rather hamhanded way of describing things understood in a flash when seen—Trethewey spends so much effort on minutiae you lose sight of the visual architecture, and what she adds is merely Ph.D. demonizing (“the dominion// of his touch,” “his gesture . . ./ possessing both”). She treats the reader like a brainless lout.
When she confronts a painting like Velázquez’s Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, she browbeats the poor reader (“Bent over, she is the mortar/ and the pestle. . . ./ She’s the stain on the wall”) while missing the point—the artist has so transfigured this household domestic, has with such extraordinary skill rendered her quiet nobility amid the pots and plates, that Christ and his disciples shrink forgotten into the background. Trethewey can barely see beyond race and subjugation—she ignores the transcendence that would spoil her slightly privileged sense of injustice. The workmanlike prose of the poems too often succumbs to artsy poeticizing—“immanence,/ the soul’s bright anchor,” “the heft/ of lack,” “the dark amendment of flesh” (if she can’t think of a better adjective, she chooses “dark”). They’re at once overexcited and dull, like caffeinated porridge.
You get most of the way through the book before you come to the inevitable poem (called, all too eagerly, “Enlightenment”) about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Such poems offer little sense of the complications of race (children of marriages between white and American Indian were said to be uncommonly beautiful), and almost none of Trethewey’s own history. She mentions that strangers often mistook her mother for her maid, but goes no further. The most extraordinary poem in Thrall comes at the start, an elegy for a father not yet dead (a slightly frightening idea); it recalls a day on a lake, a day ordinary in its ordinariness. Then:
I can tell you now
It’s a stunning moment, and one never repeated. The grudges here are long festering but secret. We never learn the father’s sins, except that once he made a remark, apparently in jest, about his “crossbreed child.” The daughter seems so oversensitive, so quick to view the world through the narrow lens of race, that soon she loses the reader’s sympathy. The slights she experienced may have been awful, but Trethewey has to work harder to make her father a fiend. Thrall is that most dispiriting thing, a book on a compelling subject, about which the author has nothing to say.
I haven’t read a first book as fresh and lively as Song & Error in a long time.6 Averill Curdy has come to poetry late in maturity—I gather she’s fifty or so—but the poems fizz with phrases, full of slant notes and weird angles that knock the reader off balance. She’ll take on any subject, from Ovid in America to what might be called the negative capability of the sparrow:
Never the gods’ favored glamour, never
The style takes some getting used to—Curdy’s sentences tend to be industrial-sized bulldozers, pushing aside everything in their path. Her efflorescent language refuses to acknowledge the contemporary fashion of dumbed-down subjects and dumbed-down sentences. You hear in her some of the balance and weight of Dickinson (Curdy’s is a world where nature always contracts with morality), as well as the devil-may-care imagination, encyclopedic reference, and ramshackle lines of Amy Clampitt—indeed, the sparrow poem that opens the book is one long sentence in the patented Clampitt manner.
Curdy doesn’t yet possess Clampitt’s depth, the hard-won organization beneath the helter-skelter ideas (unpacking a Clampitt poem can be like picking a nine-tumbler lock with a hairpin). The younger poet, however, has a fearlessness rarely seen in new poets—her poems are breathless with their own discoveries.
Standing on this deck I have watched
That stanza break has the quiet drama Keats gave to stout Cortez, silent before the majesty of the Pacific.
Curdy’s weaker poems tend to be whimsical, or to straggle down the page like the plod of a weary traveler—and travelers there are, in an overlong poem on Ruskin, in a nearly endless sequence on the conquistador Álvar de Vaca (mistakenly called “da Vaca”). The long poems are earnest, full of good will toward their subjects, but tedious—Curdy is better in cramped corners, where you’re not sure what she’ll do, and not sure she’s sure, either. Sometimes you can get so entranced by the local beauties, you can’t remember at the end what the poem was about.
When the poems don’t work, the poet has usually been carried away on a little cloud of excess, as if she had a secret addiction to Hèrmes scarves or Jimmy Choos:
potatoes the antique, mortal colors
This is gorgeous but hollow—yet I love the dry wit of “orthodox minareted,” the finicky eye of “chiton-pleated,” and the visual thought and sassy music of “rind raked with yellow and tasseled.” There’s nothing to fault in such phrases but a beauty that does nothing and is nothing, even if they’re meant to suggest how haunting a memory can be.
A preciousness hovers at the edge of these poems, or sometimes descends with the brute force of Athena—you hear it in lines like “the Kool-Aid–colored butterfly flaring/ Across the tender, veined delta of your hand” or in the contrived wordplay of “neither miniature nor minaudière.” When Curdy makes a joke like “another day, another dolor,” you might laugh aloud if you hadn’t already heard the same joke from William Gass, John Updike, Henry Roth, and Ogden Nash, each no doubt sure he’d invented it.
Yet if Curdy tends to pile up her phrases willy-nilly, if she gets lost in thickets of metaphor and loves too well an oddball X of Y phrasing (the “publicity of morning,” the “secret ministry of satellites”), if occasionally she writes a line that even the elocution of angels couldn’t save (“see its ire of surfaces sore with chairs”), these are faults she sometimes turns into virtues (unlike her need to thank thirty-nine people individually in her acknowledgments, as well as four arts foundations). There are a few poems I admire here that I can’t make head or tail of; but Curdy does not shy from language dense with meaning, and her routines are not the routines of other poets. Any reader who loves poetry would be a fool not to read this book.
1 Antigonick (Sophokles), by Anne Carson; New Directions, unpaginated, $24.95.
2 Nice Weather, by Frederick Seidel; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 102 pages, $24.
3 PLACE, by Jorie Graham; Ecco, 81 pages, $15.99.
4 Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, by D. A. Powell; Graywolf, 109 pages, $22.
5 Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 84 pages, $23.
6 Song & Error, by Averill Curdy; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 77 pages, $23.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 December 2012, on page 69
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