(Ed note: This is the second part of a two-part essay by Laurence Goldstein. Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and Editor Emeritus of Michigan Quarterly Review (1977-2009). His most recent book is a volume of poems, A Room in California (Northwestern University Press, 2005). A book of literary criticism, Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the City’s Essential Poems, is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press. Find the first part of this essay here. )
In yesterday's post I speculated on ways that certain rules or conventions inhere in the genre of the encounter poem. My starting point was my own memory poem “Meeting B. F. Skinner, 1963” and I proceeded to comment on poems of major importance by William Wordsworth, Robert Hayden, and Robert Frost. I deliberately confined my examples to male poets because I wanted to complicate the genre definition in a follow-up column on poems by women. This is that column.
I argued in my first mini-essay that encounter poems originate in the emotion of awe and strangeness that overtakes the speaker—almost always a recognizable portrait of the author—upon coming into contact with a figure who shocks him or her into a new state of being or mind. In this sense the encounter poem may be said to enact the rhetorical function of all lyric poetry. As I indicated previously, the stranger must be of higher or lower social status in order for the poet to make the mental adjustments that constitute the exchange of insight between poem and reader. Occasionally the mysterious figure encountered in a strange place turns out to be a double of the speaker, arguably an exact equivalent, and his or her recognition of that fact engenders the surprise, even the shock, of the poem. Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is the purest example I know of that dramatic situation. In the subterranean graveyards of battle, differences of social status, national citizenship, and ethnic definition are revealed as fundamental illusions.
History has placed women in the same privileged positions as men for smelling out the false consciousness that follows upon deference to undeserving authority. I would endorse claims that women have always responded as sensitively as men both to fraudulent oppressors and authentic figures of redemption, whether of high or low position on the social register. And not just social station. Those who occupy existential situations as seemingly forlorn as the Leech Gatherer or “Aunt Jemima,” carry what Wordsworth calls “a more than human weight,” as if they had traveled across the furthest border of mortal possibility to confront the merely social station of the speaker. In Hayden’s poem, I argued, the mysterious stranger usurps the customary male role by speaking almost the entirety of the poem, pronouncing the moral in the final lines, a privilege almost always reserved for the poet or his surrogate.
I think of “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves” as a poem that hands off the baton of male authority to a rising generation of women who assert their rights by means of the poetics of correction: “Don’t you take no wooden nickels, hear?” By contrast, no stranger is going to correct the speaker of “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” He holds his axe aloft and the needy wood-choppers recede back into the “mud” whence they came.
So let’s test my rules and regulations on an encounter poem that never fails to stir my students to profitable contention: Ana Castillo’s “Seduced by Nastassia Kinski,” from her volume of 2001, I Ask the Impossible. Encounter poems often share conventions with other genres, and this one belongs equally to the genre of the “movie star homage poem,” about which I have written in my book The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History. This genre is like and unlike the genre in which poets encounter other poets. That is, they are fan’s notes, often laced with envy and resentment but are almost always fantasies of encounter, not real meetings. Robert Frost made himself available to poets like Robert Lowell and Donald Hall, and would not have been surprised to hear that they included his conversation in poems; but we know at once that Ana Castillo is not reporting a gaudy night with the famous star that actually happened. The poem, with its title like a tabloid headline and its lurid narrative of coercion derived from the template of Alec D’Urberville and Tess in Kinski’s most famous role, is all dreamwork in keeping with the agreed-upon conventions of star-fucking poems.
Castillo presents the nubile Kinski as the embodiment of sexual desire:
dance, I avoid her gaze.
I am trying every possible way to escape eyes,
mouth, smile, determination, scarf pulling me
closer, cheap wine, strobe light, dinner invitation.
“Come home with me. It’s all for fun,” she says.
The speaker offers some futile resistance before succumbing:
. . . she
finds me at a table in the dark.
“What do you want, my money?” I ask. She reminds, cockily,
that she has more money than I do. I am a poet, everybody
does. And when we dance, I am a strawberry, ripened and
bursting, devoured, and she has won.
They retire to Kinski’s place and consummate their lust; we understand the sex as a one-night-stand, not as the inception of a continuing relationship. That is the convention of the male encounter poem. But we would be wrong to do so. The next day, a Sunday, the couple goes out for dinner and over champagne “Nastassia wants me forever.” The star-power overwhelms the dazzled speaker, who whispers, “te llevaré conmigo” [I’ll take you with me.]. “As if I ever had a choice,” the speaker laments in the rosy aftermath of their impulsive coupling. What choice or chance does any fan have when encountering the sex object of his or her dreams? Glamour of this wattage is irresistible.
The same-sex character of this seduction, and its ethnic component, provide my students with more grounds for discussion of taboo violations. Hook-ups between strangers may or may not unsettle the Millennial Generation. They know, or learn in survey courses, that the erotic “gaze” and ensuing sexual consummation between women has a literary genealogy at least as far back as Coleridge’s “Christabel,” not to mention Sappho. The formerly masculine-only prerogative of selecting and persuading a bed partner of the opposite sex, and sometimes of differing ethnic identity, was always a cultural myth inviting the potent counter-myth of the openly aggressive female, white or non-white. This charismatic stranger reveals to the speaker new depths to her personality, not without some regret. And, as always, readers learn from texts of transgression something new about the allure of the formerly off-limits Other.
The beginning of a feminist sensibility, we were told decades ago, is marked by an increased fascination with the female body, one’s own and the other’s. The mutual adoration of speaker and stranger, and their erotic union, is a fulfillment that breaks one form of chains derived from the male tradition. It is no backhanded compliment to say that Castillo’s poem still shakes us with the strength of an edgy movie, in which forbidden things challenge and change us.
If I choose to stay on the topic of encounters with movie stars a few paragraphs longer it’s because the ubiquity of references to film actors in contemporary poetry is one of the most noteworthy ekphrastic modes of our time. Yes, the overwhelming and inescapable impact of visual media in our culture is the chief cause of this new feature in our poetics. But I hazard the thought that the voluminous surge of significant writings by women poets beginning in the 1960s has something to do with it as well. One impulse of this new writing was to explore the possibilities largely left open by male poets who seemed not to realize precisely how women understood themselves and the universe around them. Female poets found it useful to shake up the forms, including the encounter poem, by which male poets coded and dramatized information about human relationships. From grammar school to graduate school, from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to M. Esther Harding’s Woman’s Mysteries, Ancient and Modern, I was astonished by the legends women claimed as their inheritance, legends they felt free to subvert or recreate in contemporary idioms with modern, or postmodern, figures of magic and transformation.
Movie stars make themselves available for such appropriation; indeed, that’s their function in our lives. Male poets paid homage from a distance, acting as high priests of the new religion of cinema. Vachel Lindsay wrote a hymn to Mae Marsh, Delmore Schwartz to Marilyn Monroe, Frank O’Hara to James Dean. But how different their forms of praise are from Anne Carson’s extensive use of stars like Catherine Deneuve and Monica Vitti to help her articulate lyric desire, lyric shame, lyric rapture, lyric degradation. (See the extended prose poem “Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve” in Men in the Off Hours and the sequence of poems on Vitti in Decreation.) Carson does not construct a traditional meeting with these stars; she absorbs them into her identity, her imagination of feminine nature and female destiny that bonds her with the European performers. Dialogue tends to disappear in these poems—certainly dialogue between figures as discrete as her actual self and the Romantic other.
In Decreation the encounters are placed in cinematic or theatrical formats. “Lots of Guns” is my favorite adaptation of movie conventions. The opening scene of what she calls an “oratorio” is a parody of some strange meeting somewhere between two people unlikely to meet again:
Why are you here?
To take your life and stuff it in a box.
You have no right.
My gun gives me the right.
I veto your gun.
Your veto is unreasonable.
Your reason is a mystery.
Your mystery is a way of lying.
This concept is no longer in use.
You mean lying?
The concept of lying, yes, is no longer in use.
What do you do when you want to avoid telling the truth?
I use a microwave oven.
How does that work?
Has 600 watts and 5 power levels.
Isn’t it hard on your gun?
I never put my gun in the microwave—there is no need. Guns do not lie.
The Marx Brothers come to mind as a seminal influence here rather than Greek tragedy or Greek comedy. I read the exchange as between male and female, though I’d be cautious about identifying which voice is which. As with poems about Nastassia Kinski and Catherine Deneuve, the discourse is hard-edge and resists recognizable gender roles. The “poem” makes sense whether the one who wields the gun is a femme fatale or the gunsel of noir romance, acting tough but easily brutalized by his/her opposite number.
As long as I am extending the conventions of the encounter poem I’ll make reference to another intriguing experiment with dramatic structure by a contemporary. Denise Duhamel’s “How It Will End” appeared in Best American Poetry 2009 and according to the author’s note it derives, like “Resolution and Independence” and “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” from the serendipity of an actual walk in a picturesque location and the resultant encounter with figures worth writing about. The innovation in this text is that the speaker and her husband do not pass words with the distant objects of their attention, a lifeguard and his girlfriend who are quarreling and generally making a spectacle of themselves. The two would-be eavesdroppers cannot hear the dialogue being exchanged but they do become involved in what they imagine to be the source of contention. “It is as good as a movie,” she says, a silent movie, and then she and her husband proceed to undergo a surrogate encounter as they disappear into the roles of “lifeguard” and “waitress” they endow upon the actors they watch from a bench on the boardwalk.
Duhamel now must complicate the cliché of life as a movie in which we are all bit players and/or eager voyeurs. There is plenty of exposition in the long line free verse, in which most of the syntactical units are fitted to the full line so that the story element is not unduly interrupted by line breaks calling attention to the poem’s status as artifact. Gradually the observing couple begin to bicker among themselves as each takes the part of the corresponding gender figure down by the lifeguard station:
even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,
so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?”
and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh really?
Maybe he should start recording her tirades,” and I say
“Maybe he should help out more,” and he says
“Maybe she should be more supportive,” and I say
“Do you mean supportive or do you mean support him?”
The misunderstanding between these two is so profound, and so banal, that we sense that they are encountering each other for the first time, struggling to articulate the nature of their own relationship in the guise of perplexed viewers making sense of a movie.
In the more familiar kind of encounter poem the boardwalk couple would continue their walk and speak with the beach couple, or, more daring, the beach couple would spot the spectators and walk up to confront them. But the poem ends like the romantic idyll it is. [Spoiler alert] Suddenly the beach couple is making up:
She has her
arms around his neck and is crying into his shoulder.
He whisks her up into his hut. We look around, but no one is watching us.
Well, not quite. The reader is watching them, and listening to them, and finally that is the encounter that matters. The poem acts on us like cinema, first involving us in a lovers quarrel and then releasing us with a happy ending. Or is it happy? “No one is watching us.” The boardwalk couple is left with hurt feelings of which the poem is the guilty witness. One rises from reading the poem needing an embrace and looks around for one’s beloved.
Is “How It Will End” a gendered or genderless poem? Alicia Ostriker argued in her groundbreaking study of feminist poetics, Stealing the Language, that all poetry is gendered, and especially those poems that chronicle “expressions of rage at entrapment in gender-polarized relationships” by offering “retaliatory poems which dismantle the myth of the male as lover, hero, father, and God.” The speaker’s immediate suspicion of the lifeguard, whose profession is the very embodiment of the heroic, and her first statement in the poem, “He deserves whatever’s coming to him,” are clear expressions of sexual politics. The encounter on the beach is the occasion for an upsurge of discovery, and self-discovery. Though “How It Will End” is in certain ways a “woman’s poem” it adds to all poets’ repertory of strange meetings another timely model worthy of close study.