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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.
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Since The Prelude, the poem-memoir has been surprisingly rare, especially in a day when lives are scarcely lived before they’re committed to Facebook or laid open like fresh corpses in blogs. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, Maxine Hong Kingston’s breezy and peculiar new memoir, is cast in verse, which to a prose writer must seem a wonderful idea. Writing verse is so easy, after all—why, it just spills down the page like Jackson Pollock’s dribbles. You break the lines wherever you like—never too long, never too short—and soon a humble-jumble work briefer than The Great Gatsby is splashed across two hundred pages or more.
I am turning 65 years of age.
This may not be distinguished poetry; but it’s thoughtful, tender, sensitive to those deadlines in life that become the deadlines of art—we’re all going to die, usually sooner than we wish. Kingston has long been drawn to her heritage yet slightly suspicious of it; the difference between the China she longs for and the China that exists is already the shadow of loss.
A memoir that stayed close to the contrary whims of nurture might have proved capable of analyzing the insistent will of nature. Unfortunately, after a few pages Kingston gives up any sustained self-portrait, treating the reader instead to trivial anecdotes, breastbeating over the Iraq War, slapdash notes from a trip to China, and some freeform spirituality that would embarrass Gary Snyder:
I believe that brooding has been much underrated.
Kingston is a softboiled soul, faintly embarrassed at being well off, full of liberal guilt and unconscious smugness, and without the least idea how to make the world better, except by giving a little money here, protesting a little there (she’s arrested outside the White House), and spreading a lot of New Age guff wherever she can: “I have been a man in China, and a woman/ in China, and a woman in the Wild West./ (My college roommate called; she’d met/ Earll and me in Atlantis, but I don’t/ remember that.)” When Kingston indulges in such loopy nonsense, you’re tempted to laugh at the whole state of California, or at least the pocket duchy of Berkeley. I wish she’d given more space to her practical, grouchy husband Earll, who says things like “The Church is a gyp.”
Kingston has resurrected the insufferable male hero of her novel Tripmaster Monkey, who serves as her alter ego on the journey through China, but she is not a writer coarse or funny enough to thrive in picaresque—she has little of the charm of Thoreau (the memoir’s title comes from Walden), who made minutiae burn with the heat of existence. Instead, her tale batters along, knocking about the page like a drunk man’s walk through memory.
Kingston is alert to people caught between two worlds—the scenes in China are far the most vivid, especially a visit to her mother’s home village (her early memoir, The Woman Warrior , though full of naïve sentiment, has held up better than anything she has written since). She and her imaginary counterpart tour a monastery and other villages, one apparently composed entirely of artists, but she behaves like a city rube, jaw agape at all she sees, reminiscing in a childlike stream of consciousness. She’s allowed to plant a rice field:
Oooh, the mud, the pleasurefull [sic]
I’m surprised her hosts didn’t drown her. Kingston possesses only rudimentary Chinese, and the villagers are all the more eager to take her money—her whirlwind progress seems a grotesque form of colonial tourism. Poetry has done her no favors, allowing an imagination already disorganized to practice its defects in rambling and self-dramatizing anecdotes. Free verse looks easy to the outsider, as if it just fell off the lap of prose—if you’re going to write a long poem, however, perhaps you ought to possess some ear for the poetic line. Kingston is a prose writer who lives with ghosts (as well as a mob of banalities), writing in a form she doesn’t understand. Poetry is also her China.
Thomas Lynch is better known as a mortician than as a poet. His essays on the business end of life are sardonic, anecdotal, full of the rituals of American death. For almost forty years, Lynch has run the family funeral home in a small Michigan town not far from Detroit. Now in his sixties, he’s a dry and slightly morbid observer of the life of death; and he brings to Walking Papers the qualities useful to his day job: solemnness (even glumness), formal bearing, and a sharp eye for the bottom line.
There are many occupations guaranteed to bring a chill to conversation—after serial killer, mortician is probably the most effective. (When asked his vocation, Auden used to reply, “Medieval historian,” after which he was left alone.) Lynch’s early poems were a little less burdened by his dark trade. Now he’s too eager for the graveyard pun or, if he’s trying too hard, the Billy Collins premise that sucks all the air out of a poem. When a poem begins, “What sort of morning was Euclid having/ when he first considered parallel lines?,” it almost writes itself, down to the dollop of gooey feeling at the end. The only problem is that all the pleasure is front-loaded; working out the poem is about as interesting as solving a quadratic equation.
Lynch’s new poems are dogged, slightly ponderous, not ruinously bad, but not ruinously good, either. Corpses, however, make him positively cheerful; after the “charred corpse of the deacon’s boy,” the “white maple coffin/ covered in sunflowers,” and the remark that “corpses do not fret their coffin boards” (mortuary humor, at Wordsworth’s expense), you realize that he takes a secret delight in death, and in the reaction to death:
Upright over corpses it occurred to him—
Perhaps there ought to be a verb in that last line (Lynch’s punctuation and syntax are surprisingly wayward for a poet so meticulous), but the sharpness of observation finds a slow revelation here—those who deal with death are sin-eaters, allowing the living to keep living.
Given to bouts of midwest Babbitry, Lynch will say that the public library provides “sweet fodder for our hungry minds,” which sounds like a slogan for cornflakes. Or he’ll claim that a silence is “dumb welcome to my own mum thankfulness,” a line unsayable unless you already have a broken jaw. There are fossilized versions (I almost wrote “embalmed”) of what Merwin was writing forty years ago:
There was this hollow after your going
There are poems so preachy, you wonder if Lynch has been ghostwriting for Adrienne Rich. The public reaction to the Iraq war is reduced to “joking, dancing,/ carrying on/ as if nothing/ mattered. As if/ nothing was wrong./ Neither the dead/ nor the damaged,/ the litany/ of woe and toll:/ to currency,/ economy,/ the poor planet,/ the armed forces,/ the price of oil.” The litany of woe and toll! When you’ve waded through the desultory sonnets and a plodding sequence to members of the late Republican administration (“The Names of Donkeys” eventually gets round to George W. Bush and Guantánamo), you feel as if you’d gone ten rounds with a lead pipe. If a poet has no particular verbal gifts, he’s dependent on an odd point of view, or a warming tone, or—always the refuge of a scoundrel—something to say.
Lynch now lives part of the year in Ireland, and the Irish poems are lushly detailed and animated, broader in sympathy, less miserable; perhaps a man who works so much around death is different at a distance from his labor. There’s death in Ireland, too, of course—this poet can hardly get away from it—but the black humor is more generous and humane:
After half a morning’s massive labors
Perhaps the only thing worse than not taking death seriously enough is taking it too seriously. That last line is as sharp as anything by Seamus Heaney.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s new book, The Sun-Fish, is set in some misty vale inhabited by Yeats’ Cuchulain, some fairies and elves, and a whole lot of peat. The poems live in this century, mostly; but they carry the freight of another day:
her grandmother remembered in old age
Ní Chuilleanáin loves this stillness, the timelessness of an Ireland both passing and passed—stately, measured, the poems unfold in their own time, making very little concession to the reader. They’re full of material things, things with density but no specificity, as if she dealt only in the Platonic cat, the Platonic milk, and the Platonic grandmother. Sometimes her miniature worlds are pregnant with mystery; yet, even when they’re a puzzle box no one could open, they don’t wheedle or ply, never bristling with the privacy or privation of Geoffrey Hill’s poems. Ní Chuilleanáin can write about the extinction of a species in a melancholy, private way, where other poets would be mounting the soap box. Her poems invite being read, while seeming not to care what the reader makes of them.
Though little-known in this country, Ní Chuilleanáin has long had a major reputation at home. Fast nearing seventy, she was for many years overshadowed by Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon. Her poems are so strange, written with such cool detachment, shrinking at times as if they wanted to disappear, it took longer for their quiet virtues to be appreciated. Ní Chuilleanáin is a watcher, not an actor—fewer than half her poems are in the first person, and you feel that given half a chance she’d vanish from the others in a blink:
Shaped like a barrel with asthma, her black skirt
The old woman is making a religious pilgrimage, but the poem manages to make that almost irrelevant. The grown daughters fret, the saint is never named (it must be St. Fionán)—the little drama of personality and landscape is barely a drama at all. The detached tone can be surprisingly hard to read—is the poet being grave, or puckish, or a little of both? However removed these figures from the world of cheap airfares and crashing banks, such a woman has survived into the days of the Celtic Tiger, as if all Ireland might still be soiled with the superstitions of a lost age.
Too often a note of preciousness steals in, as if the things of the world were valued too highly (not every cashmere sleeve or bone-handled knife deserves a special glow): “Who can explain/ Why the wasps are asleep in the dark in their numbered holes/ And the lights shine all night in the hospital corridors?” Or: “When the cat wakes up he will speak in Irish and Russian/ And every night he will tell you a different tale/ About the firebird that stole the golden apples.” These lines have the winsome, faux-naïf tone that made Randall Jarrell’s poems so hard to bear. The voice hardly varies, and you could fall asleep in the middle of one poem and without knowing it wake in the middle of another.
Having been put together in unexpected ways, as if the parts had been shuffled or slightly mismatched, the poems are so quiet and subtle, you have to read them twice before they come into focus, if they’re to come into focus at all. Indeed, her poems love being inconclusive—conclusion would violate the anxieties never laid to rest:
She used to love the darkness, how it brought
Ní Chuilleanáin’s studied view and her nods toward Irish folklore sometimes suggest a poet who is haunting, but also trying too hard to haunt. Yet how rare it is when a poet immersed in other voices—there are whispers of Yeats, of Heaney, even of Hardy—speaks with a voice resolutely her own.
The shelves devoted to the poetry of science are almost as bare as those devoted to the science of poetry. The most famous example after Lucretius’s The Nature of Things, one of the most tiresome books in classical literature, must be Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants, a bit of Augustan daffiness in which the plants prove more sexually voracious than any nymph of the Earl of Rochester’s. Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora (a pleasantly anti-Romantic title) attempts to use the black arts more deeply and deliberately, relying for inspiration on the science columns of The New York Times.
Many poets love science in an amateurish way. The problem with writing a poem on the cabbage looper moth or the loggerhead shrike or the exoplanet Gliese 436b is that poetry labors to convey dry-as-dust information—the science is therefore usually limited to allegory or symbol. (Too often when poetry takes up science, the science sounds like theology.) Hahn’s method amounts to sketching some scientific quarrel or discovery, then nattering on about it until she swerves for a few lines into her private life. The results can be slightly disturbing. She compares a snail-eating caterpillar on Maui to a “mother who rips open another mother// for her unborn child,” but this doesn’t quite prepare the reader for the ending a few lines later: “My mother is from Maui.” Rather than a stunning and clinching revelation, the line seems both too much and not enough.
Hahn’s secrets and resentments are so deeply buried, the scientific anecdotes rarely winkle them out, more often providing some farfetched analogy the poet pounces on like a Pomeranian. I like the idea that lovers are just as mysterious as fossil harvestmen and families as poisonous as the Heliconius butterfly, but I begin to wonder if the mild traumas of the poet’s life really need science to explain them. The ligature is usually so fanciful, the logic so cryptic, the reader is left to puzzle over the strained connections. Planets are formed of disks of dust and debris, she writes,
giving rise to zodiacal light
The connection isn’t the male gaze, but the creation of a world, a life, from the dust of old events. The incident is troubling, but that colon leaves far too much unsaid.
Marianne Moore was perhaps the last American poet to use the minutiae of science to dramatic effect, but her poems seem testament to an almost moral curiosity, as well as the application of a fine imaginative pressure to matters otherwise unpoetic. If a seventeenth-century theologian thought that the dusty rings of Saturn were Jesus’s foreskin, Hahn feels obliged to rant away like, well, another seventeenth-century theologian: “maybe the rings are the uterine linings from my dried up uterus,/ maybe the rings are saliva from apologies never uttered . . . ,// maybe the rings are baby teeth, wisdom teeth, vomit, and shit.”
The slightly slipshod nature of the enterprise is made clearer by the columns from which Hahn draws (poets feel naked without a “project” these days, even if it’s no more interesting than draft legislation on petroleum leases). In the helpful appendix listing the original articles, entries are missing or misdated, and the facts from the columns themselves have sometimes been sloppily transcribed—once she even lists the wrong article.Worse, much of Hahn’s poetry is only lightly rewritten from the Times prose, which explains the slightly denatured style—too many poems look like desperate notetaking in Bio 101. In “Brooding,” the Times reporter’s “Then a graduate student, he pulled up a trawl bucket from the dark midwaters of the Monterey Canyon . . . and found a mass of squid eggs” becomes Hahn’s
As when a student
In “The Blob,” the newspaper’s “Chunks of the monster were hacked off and shipped to the museum that later became the Smithsonian” turns into Hahn’s “Chunks were immediately shipped to the nascent Smithsonian.” The original article’s “a link between the vocalizations and the particular syrinxes behind them” appears in “Defining Syrinx” as “a link between such vocalization/ and the particular syrinx behind it.” In “Sustenance,” the report that a “species of moth in Madagascar . . . alights on the neck of a sleeping magpie . . . and sticks its long proboscis between the bird’s closed eyelids” is now:
The Madagascan moth alights on the sleeping Magpie
There is “found” poetry, to be sure, but elsewhere Hahn has italicized the passages she quotes, however inaccurately, implying that the rest has been transformed. Marianne Moore was far more austere in her borrowings and correct in her acknowledgments. None of Hahn’s light-fingered musings can be called plagiarism, not exactly, since the poet is more or less open about her sources (with the exception of “The Search for Names,” adapted from an unacknowledged Wikipedia entry).Still, such lazy use of the originals would earn her an F in any freshman comp course.
Paul Muldoon is a force of nature. Though he has lived in America for more than two decades, he’s still the most influential Irish poet after Seamus Heaney—a lot of young English and Irish poets come out of his vest pocket, though they’re not half so clever as the real thing. Muldoon turns sixty next year, but it would be too much to expect this perennially boyish writer to slow down. Maggot, his eleventh collection, is full of poems that have more bells and flashing lights than a pachinko machine, yet the arty wordplay of his late manner can be exhausting. Though he’s still capable of writing a poem that’s moving and serious at once, his heart’s not in it—he’d rather be lighting off firecrackers and tying tin cans to the tails of cats.
On a grassy knoll two Tritons dressed as tramps
At first this seems simple free association. Muldoon’s recent poems have been driven by such gusts of rhyme, lost in such whirlpools of puns, it’s easy to read them as high-octane nonsense.
The passage is in fact part of half-a-dozen sonnets working whimsical turns on François Boucher’s “Arion on the Dolphin,” taking in big hair, a doo-wop chorus, Teflon, a dog-paddling dog, Versailles, and the assassination of jfk. Even Thomas Pynchon would be jealous. (The rococo painting, already self-parody, was a failed commission for Louis XV.) The lyre-strumming Arion, “eye-linered and lip-glossed,” is compared to a “rock god”—rock music, that is. The sonnets are partly about power, partly about arrogance, and partly about boy-kings who die before their time. Hyperactive, hypnotic, his mind going four ways at once, Muldoon is forever stealing into the underworld of words, as if across languages and centuries all words were secretly related—he long ago sold his soul to the devil who wrote Finnegans Wake.
A phrase in Muldoon may scuttle in and out of a poem, meaning something different each time (the storm sewer above is later “where the third of the shooters/ waits in the wings for the motorcade”). If the reader is intolerant, the poems will have no subject but their own dervishlike whirls (there are more metamorphoses in Muldoon than in Ovid)—but these queer and infuriating arabesques are the medium for a poetic imagination far more complicated. You know you’re in Muldoonville when you meet a postmodern detective, or when Edison’s electrocution of an elephant is equated with torture by the KGB or when a series of short lyrics is not about love—it’s about auto accidents.
There’s not much feeling in Muldoon’s new poems, but for a few lines he can still fetch the past through the dammed-up resistance of memory.
A sky of china clay in which something very like a star
Alas, he can’t sustain it—too soon the Medicis come marching in, and a Sisyphean Santa Claus, and a puss that rhymes with a “little bloody pus.” The consequence of this wild, allusive, hypomanic style is a curiously flattening of tone: every line seems blared by a tin horn, every poem a dance of the seven veils done by West Point cadets.
Such poems make me laugh, and despair, often both at once. The poet invents a seven-line stanza in which lines two and seven reappear as lines one and six of the next, line three rhymes on the word “dark,” while line four always ends in the phrase “acid remarks.” And line five? Line five is by turns, and in strict order, “to all and sundry,” “at the Christmas party,” or “in the third-floor Ladies”! It’s a tour de force, but all his poems are tours de force, if not coups d’état. The poems owe so many debts to their forms that actually saying something seems accidental. Muldoon is brilliant at such things, but the results are often a disaster.
Patience is not a virtue with Muldoon’s work—it’s a necessity. An extended and somewhat clumsy villanelle that seems the most terrible nonsense may turn out, a day later, to be a portrait of the limitations of the Age of Discovery. You can labor over a Muldoon sequence, buy half-a-dozen decoder rings, yet after long study find that the poet is having a cyst removed from his testicles—all you have to show for such make-work are Muldoon’s balls. Indeed, the better you come to know a Muldoon poem, the less interesting it seems. Without the tricks, the substance is often trivial. The poems of this Artful Dodger have become little slot machines of half-baked half-rhymes, phrases shuttling and shuffling like a great Manchester loom—all for something that looks as if Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” had been run through a blender. The pity is that Muldoon (Pulitzer behind, Nobel perhaps dead ahead) has more mind than half-a-dozen poets put together. You could not hope for a richer use of language, or one at times more empty.
Gjertrud’s Schnackenberg’s husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, died of cancer almost nine years ago. Heavenly Questions is a book of grief and the ways of grief. The poems return again and again, in harrowing detail, to the scenes of his illness. Schnackenberg is a poet richly drenched, even drowned, in the classics; but, however much her mind strays to the myth of Theseus or the battles of the Mahabharata, the battleground here is the operating theater and the recovery ward. Lines and phrases are often repeated, as if every poem were the ghost of a pantoum, as if the poet found herself practicing a litany she is unable to abandon.
The best passages have the visual precision and leaps of perception that have long characterized her work:
A bleaching coral reef with pockmarked walls
Unfortunately, such lines are rare. Schnackenberg is attempting something very difficult, as she did in her last book, the Throne of Labdacus, in which her retelling of the myth of Oedipus was mesmerizing in its leaden progress.
The fierce privacy of grief after an inconsolable loss cannot easily be turned into poetry. Grief is far more difficult to render than love, which even schoolboys can do in touching fashion—grief is the emotion that reduces us to silence. Schnackenberg’s marriage was proudly intellectual (the couple’s bedside reading was apparently vetted by a Great Books committee), but, though the poet shapes her sorrow through science and philosophy, she is never wildly comfortable with abstractions:
The vein of graphite ore preoccupied
Self-geometrized! Even the numbing pentameter cannot help such a word (when Eliot used “Polyphiloprogenitive,” he was joking). Too many lines sound like attempts to versify a microbiology textbook: “A break-site underwent a subtle change,/ A hidden break-site in a chromosome;/ A break, without apparent consequence.” Her losses wither when cast into such desiccated language.
The most moving passages chronicle the dying husband’s last days and last hours, his illness filtered through a dream vision of the Hagia Sophia or a contemplation of chess in the Mahabharata. The numerous invocations of the ship of Theseus are composed partly of the famous paradox of identity (if each individual board has been replaced, is it still the same ship?), partly Ariadne’s curse (when Theseus forgot to raise a white sail, his father believed him dead and killed himself), and partly the scene in the Paradiso where Neptune watches in wonder as the keel of the Argo (the very first ship, but sailed by Jason, not Theseus) passes overhead. The mazes of these poems often have no thread to guide the reader out.
Unfortunately, Schnackenberg describes her husband in such gushing fancies of love (“My magic stag lay in a trance induced”), the real man vanishes:
How could I memorize his gentle ways.
This is no longer a dying philosopher but a paragon without portfolio. Schnackenberg can hardly write of this “wonder-wounded hearer,/ Facing extinction in a mental mirror” without making the reader wince. Worse, her language is overstuffed with generalities and immensities. You can’t turn a page without getting smacked in the face with the “nucleus/ In micro-desolate eternity,” “black heavens pouring out infinities,” “dissolving oceanic memories/ In other future ocean-vanishings,” a “sound trapped in the graphite magnitudes,” or “exploding outward into gaping stars.”
The poetry is often beautifully restrained, the fortitude with which she bears her husband’s multiple operations and his final release into death wholly admirable. Schnackenberg is unsparing about her loss, and the terrifying emptiness that follows. The poems are moody, dyed in grief, burdened with sorrow, and unutterably dull:
Once upon a time, war drums aroused
Such soulful, dreary writing, unmemorable as it falls through its verse paragraphs, is the merest echo of her early work. Schnackenberg’s poems have always had a slightly drowsy quality, but now they seem to fall asleep before they start. Heavenly Questions (the title comes from an ancient Chinese poem) is a serious work of grief. I would rather read mediocre poems by Schnackenberg than good poems by almost anyone else, but that does not make this heartbreaking book any better.
I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, by Maxine Hong Kingston; Knopf, 232 pages, $24.95.
Walking Papers: Poems 1999–2009, by Thomas Lynch; Norton, 88 pages, $24.95.
The Sun-Fish, by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin; Wake Forest University, 67 pages, $21.95; paper, $12.95.
Toxic Flora, by Kimiko Hahn; Norton, 125 pages, $24.95.
Maggot, by Paul Muldoon; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 135 pages, $24.
Heavenly Questions, by Gjertrud Schnackenberg; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 64 pages. $23.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 December 2010, on page 61
Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Weird-science-6510
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