The blog, so often, is about now. But I am here, as Terrance Hayes writes, “because I never could get the hang of time.”
I wanted to begin my stay as guest blogger by pulling off the shelf Best American Poetry 1990, the first of the Best American Poetry volumes I bought.
I don’t remember where I bought it, but in the summer 1991 the most likely source was the Bookland franchise in the Gadsden Mall in Gadsden, Alabama—the only bookstore in town. I had begun college the year before, with the idea of becoming an architect, but by that summer, I had changed course, having realized that one could study writing. At home, between terms, there weren’t many ways to find poems—my parents had a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends. There weren’t many more at Bookland, which had a single shelf of poetry books, among them that summer Best American Poetry 1990, which I chose in part because of the title “the best” and in part because almost all of the contributors’ names were new to me.
The poem that caught me the quickest was Mark Strand’s “Orpheus Alone,” a poem I’ve read so often this is where the spine is starting to come apart. My high-school education, which had taught me that poems were encrypted messages, had given me the background, through its emphasis on a classical tradition, to decode the title. But, what I appreciated in Strand’s poem was its directness, its matter-of-factness: “As everyone knows, this was the first great poem.” Its colloquial tone, its ease. Though still invested in some ideal, something “great,” its language was contemporary:
As everyone knows, this was the first great poem,
Which was followed by days of sitting around
In the houses of friends, with his head back, his eyes
Closed, trying to will her return, but finding
Only himself, again and again…
A hangover—which tethered college life to the mythical, which suggested that there was something more to all this, but also that one could access that more without having to forsake one’s time. It was the first time, I think, I understood the value of a contemporary poetry.
Strand’s poem was an early teacher. Within a year I’d have read every one of Strand’s books held by the Auburn University library. But looking back through the table of contents of BAP 1990, I see the names of other poets I’d soon be reading. Charles Wright was soon a favorite, and his Country Music and The World of The Ten Thousand Things were the second and third books I had signed by the author. I read all of Philip Levine’s books for a paper for my Twentieth Century American Poetry course. And a few years later, I’d move to Cornell to study with A. R. Ammons. I don’t remember reading their contributions to BAP 1990 with as much clarity as I remember Strand’s poem, but it’s interesting to think how that anthology was my first encounter with them, given how important their work became for me.
Two names stand out most starkly because I know I didn’t know what to make of them, of their poems, though they’re now among the poets I most admire: Killarney Clary and Nathaniel Mackey.
Mackey I found again shortly before I graduated from Auburn, discovering Eroding Witness in the library. As poetry, it was strange. I loved its rhythm. Its sense kept slipping from me. Mackey’s language was for me like Faulkner’s, a language that recorded an oral formulation, a moment of memory, with its mistakes and recursions, as it comes into the present and has to adjust itself, has to clear its throat, has to make sure it’s saying what it means to say.
As if by late light shaped of its
arrival, echoed announcement
come from afar, loosed
allure, the as-if of it its
least appeasable part.
Eristical, reticent, cryptic, any moment hesitant to become the recurrence it’s about to become, the spool that opens as it falls.
And Clary, a complement—images, scenes rendered crisply, yet strange, yet magical.
Boys on street corners in Santa Anna are selling flowers, a suggestion, different for each car. You are on your way, take something. And it is on into the night light this that people go. They call from phone booths in gas stations. They hear their shoes in the cold.
That showed what a paragraph could do, one sentence preparing the way for another, surprise in succession. That showed what paragraphs could do. That showed me another way to think about the prose poem.
“I am here,” I cribbed, “because I never could get the hang of time.” Part of me thinking how I might have been a better writer sooner if I’d gotten the hang of these poets sooner, part of me knowing even now I’m still there, on the back porch of my parents’ house in the cycle of crickets and cicadas, reading those poems and bringing them with me, however secretly. At both moments, at every moment, as Charles Wright wrote in “Saturday Morning Journal,” the last selection in BAP 1990,
The world has been translated into a new language
Overnight, a constellation of signs and plain sense
I understand nothing of,
local objects and false weather
Out of the inborn,
As though I had asked for them, as though I had been there.