From Paul Farley's The Dark Film
The places and circumstances of certain poem readings have stayed with me through the years. The first time I encountered William Carlos Williams’ plums and icebox, I was sitting on the floor of the old (now replaced) Fayetteville High School hallway near my locker (pure fifteen year old angst!). I remember Dickinson’s “If you were coming in the fall/ I’d pass the summer by” in Miss Eddy’s tenth grade English class. I will always associate the New York School (O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Barbara Guest and James Schuyler) with the 1970s architecture of the University of Illinois-Chicago because that’s where I was introduced. On Martha’s Vineyard one January, in a borrowed trailer-turned-apartment of a photographer friend, the disembodied voice of the Canadian writer, Robert Kroetsch, is called up for me along with his Snowbird Poems. Another Canadian, rob mclennan, whose book, Paper Hotel, companioned me one summer when I bartended at the Hotel Vernon in Worcester, Massachusetts. From Providence to Chicago, I sat on a plane memorizing from Garcia Lorca’s Cante Jondo. I’m convinced that if you’re in this business of poems, the experience of firsts or those moments of deep reading stay with you like any other significant relationship. You remember where you met them and what they wore and the wood smoke in the air just off of Taylor Street that October.
This week I’ve mostly been writing and asking questions about the geographic nature of place and the names that evoke them. As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve been trying to connect or subsume my relationship with these geographies to poetry. My favorite poems call up places, but not necessarily geographic ones. I’ve been trying to figure out just what it is that feels like a poetic place to retreat or return, to indulge in, to argue and turn away from the tiresome self, to dance and sing and drink boxed wine, to meditate and live within what seems like the last privacy.
A few books that I go to as places familiar: Robert Kroetsch’s The Sad Phoenician with ditches of space between its poly-syndetons and lines of retractions, plays on cliché, threads of stories and the tortured humor of the writing self and of writing itself:
but I keep my trap shut, I was dealt a tough mitt
and any port in the storm they say: the dreamer, himself:
lurching, leaping, flying; o to be mere gerund; no past,
no future,: What do you do in life: I ing (15)
Or Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend that embraces the American landscape and history and rolls it back to us—from west to east—like a very smart, intricate rug that you can dance on:
I took them with me, though I went alone
Into the Christmas dark of the woods and down
The whistling slope of the coulee, past the Indian graves
Alive and flickering with the gopher light (5).
Or Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected Poems with its “Kitchenette Building” as a place to consider what is necessary to dream, what is essential to create art and the political reality of that creation:
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms (3)
Or Jennifer L. Knox’s poem “Crawling Out of the Mouth of More” in The Mystery of the Secret Driveway, where I go to laugh and laugh at our excess:
Have you ever seen that website with ER X-rays
of weird stuff people have unfortunately tried to
insert in their butts? Lightbulbs, pepper grinders,
Mrs. Butterworth’s bottles, hammers, high-heeled shoes,
Ken dolls, umbrellas, unexploded WWII artillery shells….
My favorite: the man who’d poured wet concrete
in his anus and waited for it to harden before his lover
drove him to the hospital. I took a sculpture class
in college: Concrete grows startlingly hot just before
it hardens, like a bad idea before your own strange
hand shoves you in it whirling blades (70).
Ann Killough’s book, Beloved Idea, is a book that I return to in order to consider metaphor as a way of thinking. The poems are politically charged and in a nuanced way, lament the nation’s imagination. They seem essential in this current political geography. They are also funny and beautifully reaching.
In the poem “[(The) Horsemen],” she uses allusions and the space of the page to move her central metaphor along, exploring the nation’s love of “the end metastasis of the imaginary of the / end” (25). The place of the poem allows for white space and feels like a room in which you would go to think:
they come galloping out of the Good Book like metaphors gone
the faces of the horses are immaterial, the motive of the riders is
what happens is the people’s desire for them (25)
It’s this space that Killough uses to turn the poem from one allusion to another that still allows our own thoughts even as she travels and seems to lightly trip from one allusion to the next: the four horsemen of the apocalypse to Faulkner’s Light in August, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather and finally, my beloved Everly Brothers:
through which from the study window he watches the so hidden
sign which he calls his operational destitution monument the nation rushes
toward the site where were last seen [(the) horsemen]
and falls into a deep sleep
there’s no place like home
in the formal and topological sense however she has hope
and thus like the godfather at the end of her poem beheads the horses
one by one and leaves them in the bed of her nation wake up screaming
my darlings wake up little Susie (26)
What I go to in this poem (again and again) is the tension between the space it provides to think and dream, to get angry and to reminisce, to study and to sing in contrast to its allusive travel. It’s a poem in which I get to stay at home among the ferns and comfortable sofa and get dressed up to go to town all at once.
It has been lovely being with you all this week. Thank you for reading!
Lea Graham, Poughkeepsie, NY