Friday, December 22, 2006

Greg Williamson, "Binocular Diplopia"

I've tried, Lord knows,
To keep from seeing double....

-James Merrill

Life was a blur. Or so he thought. The thing
Was, he'd been diagnosed with a small-time
Astigmatism. Why think otherwise?
But when the doctor told him, "Read the chart,"
And he replied, "Which one?" even the smart
Young nurse said, "Uh oh." As for him, his eyes
Were opened and he saw, for the first time,
That he was seeing two of everything.

This would explain a lot. In stereoscopic
Hindsight he reviewed old patterns of
Mistakes: missed shots, a lifetime of misreading,
Mixed signals (this as the nurse was double-knitting
Her cute brows), false moves, smashed thumbs from hitting
The wrong nail on the head, all finally leading
To how the woman he first fell in love
With turned to myth. But that's another topic.

Meanwhile, the long walk home. Or rather two.
A second one appeared to levitate,
Illusive, epiphanic, and oblique—
Like dual reflections in a double pane
Of glass, or some self-referential strain
Of allegory. Which one, so to speak,
Was true? If seeing's believing, not the great
Sam Johnson could refute it: Both were true.

Twinned like a postcard's double-stamped cachet,
The phone lines added up to musical staves,
With a score of birds; Shell's logo seemed to shine
Like a big con; and everywhere he turned,
His second nature brazenly returned
Equivocations in the plainest sign,
From the pecuniary, JESUS SAVES
To the unwittingly blunt SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY,

As if the world were, after all, a text,
"A book in folio," a hieroglyph.
Here was the uncorrected proof. The elder's
Two thick volumes of belated leaves
And, spiraling in double helices,
Its legendary keys all seemed to tell,
Beside themselves, another tale, as if
These traces were the cryptic analects

Of some long-lost original. (Or flim-
flam! Now get real. this is pure grandstanding.
Look in thy heart, etc.) Double trouble.
Even close introspection was abased.
With two left feet, twin-featured and two-faced,
He saw, head down, foreshortened in a puddle,
Under a critical sign that said, NO STANDING,
Me. (When was it I turned into him?)

So that was that. And he (we'll say) set out
Again, flung open the double doors to find
Her smiling faces, whom he'd fancied for
So long as muse, and girl back home, and quest,
And so much more. Closing his eyes to rest
He saw her image turn from metaphor
To perfect vision, singular, clear, defined,
The one thing he had always dreamt about.


From Errors in the Script (2001)

And here we find a final quasi-riddle poem to end our round=up week. In one sense, the title begins as a riddle (unless you look it up or happen to be an opthamologist), which is then revealed to be the answer to the riddle of the poem. But Williamson [b. 1964] continues to cast his lines further out in multiple directions, exploring other metaphorical resonances for double vision - which might be taken as revision, hindsight, or the way of looking anew I discussed in the first weeks - often with humorous results. As throughout his work, Williamson here is a clever and witty poet, but I believe one whose poetic manner has substance to it, as expressing a cheerful, engaging vision of life's failures and felicities, our shortcomings and the new possibilities and viewpoints which can grow out of them.

(More on Greg Williamson:

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dan Chiasson, "Which Species On Earth Is Saddest?"

When we wake up in our bodies, first we weep.
We weep because the air is thick as honey.

Even the air is a body. Ours is the bottommost
and newest body, nested inside other, older ones

(though the mother’s body is repairing itself now;
there’s no trace of us anywhere on her;

why are we part of every body but our mother’s?)
Die as soon as possible, the Scriptures say.

And many do — or soon enough, as in the tales of
a swollen boy, now years ago, in farthest Africa,

who filled a grove of cherry trees with tears, then
vanished into the grove. He hides behind trees.

That’s death for you. Grief is a cherry grove.
Don’t be born at all. My friend is on fast-forward now

to reach the scene where they erase her childlessness.
She knows she hid that kid somewhere inside of her,

but where? We know nothing else except by learning:
not walking, not eating. Only to cry comes naturally.


From Natural History (2005)

Another variation on the title/riddle poem - here the title poses a question, for which the final lines provide an oblique answer. I think the opening and closing of this poem are wonderfully pitched, with a slow pacing reflecting the layers of honey, the sense of inevitability of the tragic blanket of accruing experience. I'm currently suffering from the slow, honey-like congestion (nasal and mental) of a cold, and need to be getting under covers myself - so I'll have to leave it at that.

(More on Dan Chiasson:

Monday, December 18, 2006

James Merrill, "b o d y"

Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off—so soon—
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d

—as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,
phase out. Ask, now that body shines
no longer, by what light you learn these lines
and what the b and d stood for.


From A Scattering of Salts (1995)

Today's poem is a sort of double-layered riddle poem. On one level it is a dramatization of the positioning and shape of the letters in its title, "b o d y". On another, it is a meditation on human life - the span from b birth to d death - and the body's decay during that time. Merrill (1926-1995) was very much occupied with this subject at the time of writing this, his final collection, as he was ailing due to the AIDS virus. The meanings of "o" and "y" remain enigmatic - in parallel with birth and death, they might suggest old age and youth, but that does not seem to fit the use in the poem. "Y", at least, seems to be in part a suggestion of the question "why?" - "unanswered", which lies beyond d/death. If anyone else has ideas of what these might signify, please share.

(More on Merrill here:

Sunday, December 17, 2006

John Ashbery, "Paradoxes and Oxymorons"

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What's a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.


From Shadow Train (1981)

This poem was considered for both the ars poetica and title weeks, but it didn't quite fit for either. If (and, most likely, when) I do a "meta" or postmodern week (though a lot of the poetry I've been picking already has been about poetry to one degree or anotherm due to this being, you know, a blog about poetry) it would be in there. But it's here now, so, um rejoice! I don't know Ashbery's work that well, but he is renowned as kind of the father of contemporary poetry in the meta/pomo vein (such that quite a bit of contemporary stuff is derided as being inferior imitations of Ashbery [b. 1927]). But leaving contemporary poetic politics aside, his work is quite interesting for its play with lyric conventions. Here, he toys with the common address of a 'you' assumed to be a real person existing external from the poem (especially a person in some romantic relation to the speaker). The poem also questions whether the 'plain level' of such conventional, 'transparent' language. Instead, Ashbery is in favor of 'play', which is not to be taken as something trivial, but as a serious interrogation of our naive assumptions about the world, and so is "A deeper outside thing". The poem returns in the end to a conventional lyric movement, but where the content of its gestures continues to evade our expectations of poetic meaning. The combination of familiarity and strangeness makes the poem both appealing and challenging, helping and pushing the reader to venture beyond his former patterns of thought.

(Read more on John Ashbery:

Conor O'Callaghan, from "'Hello'"

1 Antediluvian

Those where the days
when Gladstone and Disraeli
were locked on the hustings,
and the Pianola
was all the rage,
and Wild Bill Hickock
was outdrawing the gallows,
and impressions of Mr Longfellow's
The Song of Hiawatha
were selling like hot cakes,
and a fellow's cell number
was a different affair.

Up until that point
our shipshape antecedents
graded the mornings,
the evenings, the afternoons,
'good' heedless of the day
in question, the season,
and were kind enough
to say so, hail or snow,
if only in herringbone tweeds,
in furs, as a matter
of courtesy or course,
if only in passing.

2 It's for You

Blame the blower,
since some kind of formula
for an opening exchange
had to be agreed upon
to get the ball rolling.
And not only for the ears
of polite society,
its upper echelons,
but to trip as readily
from the lips of gigolos
and babes and heathens
and saints and regular Joes.
So, think of the host
of suggested possibilities
grown yellow around the gills
that were dusted down
and duly given the elbow,
that might just as well
have been Hebrew
to the likes of you and me.
Then, think of the 'hillo'
Hamlet shares
with Horatio,
and you're in the general area.
Think of the huntsmaster,
think of the hounds
and a hare's breath,
and you're there or thereabouts.
Think of the troubadour 'hola',
the Huguenot 'salut',
and you're in the same ballpark.
Think of yola as if barked
by the hoodlums of Hanley,
the zealots of Sacramento,
and you're on the right track.
And think also
of Tristram Shandy's "Hollo! Ho!—
the whole world's asleep!—
bring out the horses—',
and you're getting warmer.

4 And the Winner Is...

The finale
failed to draw
enough hoopla
or more-than-usual hullabaloo
to overshadow,
say, the annual grudge match
of Eton and Harrow.
What would follow
the trawl high and low
as good as amounted
to a classless straw poll
whereby it feel to,
laughably, the hillfolk,
the phoneless hoi polloi,
to swallow a winner.
And the word? Oh, you know...
A brace of syllables,
phatic and simple,
like the mating call
of your average hoopoe,
although originally
aspirated as if with an ah
that wasn't just plummy
but ever so.
Imagine inasmuch
as imagination will allow
something as holy
and wholly empty
as any halo,
a halfway house between
a hiccup and a holler,
an alloy
of the heavy-hearted
'halloo, halloo'
Poor Tom howls at the Fool
and an old-fashioned
Honolulu aloha,
a domesticated version
of the hallowed Hallelujah,
only secular and ringing hollow.


From Fiction (2005)

This week's theme: Leftovers Round-up, or, Titles the Second. I'm traveling a bit, and won't have access to even the decimated current version of my library, so rather than pick a theme that would require such resources, I thought I'd start a precedent of ending this month at TPQ with a hodge-podge week of poems considered for previous weeks but which, for whatever reason, didn't make the cut. This time, they mostly come from last week's title theme - for the other weeks I had alternative poems by the same poets which I had considered using, but I've decided that I won't repeat a poet within four weeks, so that excluded those.
A couple months ago I went to a reading at NYU by Conor O'Callaghan and his wife Vona Groarke, and it was today's poem that won me over. I love the acrobatic rhyming circling around the titular 'hello' - O'Callaghan said that the H section of his dictionary was well-thumbed by the end of working on it. It could also fit in the first week's category, being a study on one of our most daily words, re-enchanting it through imaginative attention to its anthropological backstory, and by being clever good fun. If you have access to a library or bookstore that would stock such things (unlikely, unfortunately) I highly recommend checking out the rest of the eight sections.

(More on Conor O'Callaghan:§ion=1
three poems: