In the past year (at least) I've made several attempts to write a long piece about Charles North's excellent 2007 book Cadenza. Each time, I've faltered. I think my best course of action is to apply for a grant and, Gideons-like, use the money to place not just Cadenza but all his other books into hotel rooms across the country. The book would act both as reading material, the artwork that adorns the walls, and the rural radio station. I'd like to call his style something like "Transcendental Objectivist" but I don't want the responsibility.
The book's title poem is one of the great longer poems of the last decade. Akin to Ashbery's "The Skaters" in that it's a kind of entry into North's poetry. It's indeed a cadenza—"an elaborate flourish or showy solo passage, sometimes improvised, introduced near the end of an aria or a movement of a concerto." Except that it's the first poem in the book, so we already know we're in for something different. It's a discourse that opens up the fluid passage between the reader and the book, an argument for a certain approach to the creation and evaluation of art that still seems to be largely dismissed. Like Ashbery's poetry, it puts the classical and contemporary on the same plane. Medusa romps with Ted Williams, Athena and "How High the Moon" are not so dissimilar. I remember the exact passage where I began to feel the top of my head being taken off—and I mean this quite literally: I had a physical reaction to the revelation
Then I am at the bottom
of an extremely tall, vaguely cylindrical
(something about it reminds me of a free-form glass candy bowl)
swimming pool which has the water painted up the sides
and no clear point of exit or entry.
Far off, near what must be the top, is what looks like
a porthole where, if the pool were in fact filled,
a swimmer could theoretically exit—although
if this were as well the point at which
the water entered, exiting would be problematic to say the least.
The water is painted in a pleasing
—actually dry-looking—powder blue,
more the look and fell of sky than water,
neither realistic nor stylized (in the manner,
say, of a Hokusai) but somewhere between the two.
The English painter David Hockney, who has in fact
painted swimming pools, comes to mind.
I don't have enough space here to investigate all the nooks in "Cadenza" that I'd like to, but the ending must be mentioned, for it is also a key. The penultimate stanza takes the form of a memo/email to, we presume at first, one of North's graduating classes at Pace, then lists several lines of names. Whether these students are real real or invented, who knows, and that's North's point. Then, the last stanza goes
In a crowded off-Broadway theater,
a heckler refuses to sit down despite mounting threats
from the relatively large audience. Several of the costumed and in
some cases masked actors
(they are doing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in
though visibly distracted, climb down from the stage
and form a protective ring around him. Bottom
appears to be the ringleader.
North and like-minded readers are the hecklers, the agitator-artists, that art comes to defend when the public, who paid good money and just want to see a show, doesn't get it. Shakespeare was/is as "meta-" and "post-" as anything in the 20th or 21st centuries. Naturally, Nick Bottom would come to the rescue.
Some of my favorite poems in the book are "Romantic Note," "Boul' Mich," "Au Printemps," "Clip From Francis Jammes," "October," "Holy Sonnet," and "My Ship Has Sails." "Study" is another great example of how North manages to be a poet, painter, musician, architect all in eight lines
It must be daylight
Your painting of chicory dividing a dark green field
Fills on all sides with light.
It must be daylight.
Some of the portions which are out of sight
Become what the painting yields.
It must be daylight:
Your painting of chicory dividing a dark green field.
North also includes three translations of his own poems (all called "Translation") to illustrate just how much art can and should be like nature. Here, the first stanza of the first "Translation"
I feel you very close to me
In the same way that sky and air seem not two things but one
Those termite-like pests are attacking the two-by-fours
And the first stanza from the original poem, "Song":
I am pressed up against you
Like air pressed up against the sky
The carpenter ants are at work on the bearing beams
O bearing beams
Like Kenneth Koch's two poems, both called "The Circus," North asks us with these translations to investigate our stance on the chicken/egg argument, to ask ourselves if a piece of art is ever really finished or if, like nature, it can ever revise itself.
North is also the inventor of one the few truly original American forms of poetry: the lineup. Last year he released Complete Lineups, and while we can celebrate the fact that these excellent poems have been collected in one volume, the book's very title means that we are unlikely to see any more from their inventor. But rejoice! You're living in the Holy Roman Empire, Giacomo da Lentini just invented the sonnet, and you can buy his book.
Unlike other sports, the lineup is an integral part of the game of baseball. It's a tradition requiring managers to exchange lineups before the first batter steps to the plate, not simply sportscasters informing the listener/viewer who's playing where today. Its form resides in nature, or reality, is utilitarian, can't be unwoven from the actual game. In this sense it is very American because it's both philosophical and practical.
The lineup is also three-dimensional, for while the batting order is important, so are the field positions that each player is assigned. One of my favorites is a newer lineup, an epithalamium, that North wrote for his daughter Jill and her husband ("For Jill & Ted")
Elizabeth Bennett & Mr. Darcy 3b
Wallis Simpson & The Duke of Windsor lf
Romeo & Juliet ss
Jill North & Ted Sider cf
Space & Time rf
Hitler & Eva Braun 1b
Venice & The Sea 2b
My Big Fat Greek Wedding c
Cinderella & Prince Charming p
Socrates & Xanthippe dh
Jason & Medea
Oedipus & Jocasta
Lorena & John Wayne Bobbitt
Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn, Kathryn Howard, etc.
Is this exactly what North had in mind when he composed this lineup? That's not the point. These poems allow the reader to argue and debate with himself and others, just like fans in a fantasy league, why the goddamn manager made these decisions. There's a terrific piece on MLB.com about Complete Lineups (John Latta also wrote a great review) wherein North explains that it's synesthesia that leads him to his final order, though some, like "Pets" or "Spices" don't have a lot of wiggle room: "With the spices, vanilla batting eighth, with garlic a heavy hitter, and salt and pepper up there, those aren't my opinions. That's the way things are."