Harmonicas are forever.
Orange is the rhythm that the monster
There’s melody in narration,
but I’m sleight-of-hearing. This is a bad line.
From a good film.
The Flat Earth Society has a fear of sailing.
like hell. I’d crush her chest.
Let’s say it rains for twenty straight days.
remember me among the pockets of untranslatables?
Fire is multiple: the sea’s persistence.
And all together now: the earth swims on itself.
Before I met the monsters under my bed,
I’d never met a monster.
Bears have been known to pack their wounds
with leaves—I long for that kind of intimacy.
Catholic Parking Lot
I’ve never lived on the banks of a river,
but I know what it’s like to sink.
In the woods just south of here
a man carries a pigeon
in a burlap sack. Pigeons can’t tell
between night and a vision of night.
In the hull
of Transatlantic ships, the cows and pigs
go up in slings, their feet
off the ground to prevent their legs
from breaking in rough seas.
A mighty fine ship you got there. Mighty
Water ends in silence,
—A briefly considered
career in ballet.
Some Notes on “Downspout” and “Catholic Parking Lot”
Torrent: “a tumultuous outpouring: rush.” Last year, as I finished writing the domestically tinged, boy-howdy poems of my previous projects, I looked for a form, a voice, a cloak, a cloud of smoke, something, anything to open a new vein. I found: “torrent of abuse, 1784; of eloquence; of ivy, 1864; of lace, 1880; of lava, 1858; of notes, 1826; of oaths; of passions, 1647; of rain, 1806; of smoke, 1821; of vices; of wind, 1782; of words.” And so I started writing to that lineage, and I called the poems that resulted, “torrents.” “Downspout” and “Catholic Parking Lot” exemplify the active syntax, disjunction, juxtaposition, and exploratory properties common to the ‘torrent’ poems.
What Lynn Keller, in her Thinking Poetry: Readings in Contemporary Women’s Exploratory Poetics, calls “exploratory poems,” “do not aspire to be comfortable of comforting.” Keller then argues for Susan Howe’s assertion that “such poems ‘are the impossibility of plainness rendered in plainest form.’” The poems here certainly aren’t exploratory in the sense that they’re wrestling with the ramifications of feminist practice or Language writing’s ideologies, but they are, as Cole Swensen might say, “stretching the boundaries of the sayable.” And maybe even beyond the sayable, the seeable.
Language writing, yes. I found myself circling it, peering at it from afar, and then reading about it, wondering if I wasn’t a closeted practitioner. Language writing and its intellectual pursuits, while not completely uninteresting to me, are not of explicit concern in my poetics. I don’t see the disjunction and juxtaposition of imagery, scene, voice, and story as intellectual constructs in these ‘torrent’ poems; rather the poems’ intellect exists alongside, not as a result of. The Language poets often experimented, as Keller notes, in “carefully theorized ways that reflect[ed] particular understandings,” whereas my poems here are less concerned with theorizing any sort of poststructural marriage of ideology and language than they are of considering the effect of the sensory perceptions of a speaker struggling with the very idea of intellect.. To what weight do I give my thoughts? What do I weigh them against? I’d like to think the poems are smart, but their battle isn’t to assert themselves as such. Stevens told us that “Words are everything else in the world,” and these poems tend to argue that the other thing, after which words are everything, is our perception of that very world itself.
Though not a participant, or even a buyer-of-stock, in the Language school of writing, I do greatly admire Charles Bernstein’s discussion of syntax and the ‘life’ of the referent in poetry in his essay, “Semblance,” from Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984. He writes, “Not ‘death’ of the referent—rather a recharged use of the multivalent vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them.” Referent, from the latin for “carry.” I think of tennis. The vectors of the imagery—the movement from referent to antecedent, and back—(or how we carry one image into/onto the next) are sent over the net, angled differently each time they cross, and eventually, are sent into the net, where play then stops and is started again, the referent being changed but the antecedent staying the same.
What the ‘torrents’ are doing: “releasing the energy inherent in the referential dimension of language” and accepting “that these dimensions are the material of which the writing is made” (Bernstein). The sensory dimension, the way the juxtapositions intensify one another, creates gaps and stopgaps in the poem’s logic. After all, the ordering of the images in the torrents is not random, though it does appear that way. I think, again, of Bernstein: “The text operates at a level that not only provokes projections by each sentence but by the sequencing of the sentences suggests lines or paths for them to proceed along. At the same time, circumspection about the nature and meaning of the projections is called forth.” It’s not random only, in other words. A purposeful disjunction: “a perceptual vividness is intensified for each sentence since the abruptness of the cuts induces a greater desire to savor the tangibility of each sentence before it is lost to the next, determinately other, sentence” (Bernstein). The result of the disjunction, then, is an intensification of the conventions and world projected. I’m not juxtaposing language only but instead imagery too, therefore, the sensory world being provoked becomes the referent and antecedent simultaneously. The language and the world created from it.
Finally, Lynn Keller writes, “For many of today’s exploratory writers…poetry is valued as a process of discovery that has a distinctly intellectual cast.” My poems aren’t intellectually singular; they are bifurcated through experience and observation as much as they are by any intellectual concerns. They seek to understand the motivations behind exploratory poetics more than they mean to argue with them or dispute their validity; they juxtapose and disjunct not to manipulate the reader’s perception of the images as written but rather to underscore the connection, the discovery, the complexity of any intellectual/artistic undertaking. In other words, the poems are places of investigative thinking and sensory articulation all at once. The poems become, in Keller’s words, “the space of experience itself…rather than a record of experience.” Like painters who spend time “in” their paintings and not “on” them, the poems seek to acquire order through juxtaposition and disjunction with a mind toward culling a whole from the pieces. I’m reminded of Gertrude Stein, in her essay on Modern art, “Pictures”: “Everybody has to like something, some people like to eat some people like to drink, some people like to make money some people like to spend money…some people like to look at things, some people like to look at everything.” I like to look at things so the reader can look at everything.♦
Gary L. McDowell is the author of American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Orphic Prize, and co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in dozen of journals. He is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He can be found online at www.garylmcdowell.com.
Banner image via Flickr Creative Commons.