Friday, March 20, 2009

Things On Which I've Stumbled by Peter Cole; All-American Poems by Matthew Dickman

Peter Cole, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (New Directions, 2008) (Buy it)
Matthew Dickman, All-American Poem (The American Poetry Review, 2008) (Buy it)

(originally published in Poet Lore Magazine)

Peter Cole (who describes himself as “a modern poet of a medieval kind”) wonders whether meaning can be made – whether one language translates into another – whether sacred ancient mysteries can transcend their own time – in his title poem, “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled.” But in the very opening poem of the volume, “Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind,” a translation of and extension upon a verse by a 13th century kabbalist, Cole posits his own solution:

Only by sucking, not by knowing,
can the subtle essence by conveyed—
sap of the world and the word’s flowing

that raises the scent of the almond blossoming,
and yellows the bulbul in the olive’s jade.
Only by sucking, not by knowing.

Sucking, a quasi-devotional, not unerotic physical act, absolutely required of the human species, replaces knowledge as the way to take in the world. Cole also uses the villanelle’s call-and-response form to prop up his “winches of syntax and sense,” and to navigate Sappho-like fragments strung together with their more recent, but still ancient, commentary, and his own contemporary skepticism and imaginative improvisations. But he is always wary of translation’s claims on meaning: “Bad translation/is like drawing a bucket from a moonlit/well – and losing the silvery shine on its surface.”

The flow of the fragments, the ancient commentary, the messages scribbled around them, and Coles’ present-day musings, make his poems urgent communications from all time, and at the same, in his voiced poems, cries of anguish and despair over the difficulty of meaning, the ambiguous transport of language, the central unknowingness of god. I was reminded of Gary Snyder’s “Rivers and Mountains Without End,” his long poem about the ancient Japanese prints and scrolls that have comments scribbled on them across the centuries, commentary that becomes part of the text as the original context is forgotten. The poem is not set in stone. It is a time capsule, and a chalkboard – an opportunity for dialogue and commentary.

that beauty carried covers
more than just a flaw
or seam in being
that lets us see
what’s real,
but is itself a means
of conducting things concealed
that can’t, by nature, be revealed
(“Things on Which I’ve Stumbled”)

Besides the villanelle, Cole is confident in any number of stanza forms –
pantoums, ghazals, sestinas, as well as free verse. “Notes on Bewilderment” also concerns translation, and in fifty 5-line stanzas (abcda) it covers a dizzying array of subjects springing from translation, a full-scale inquiry on the range of human myth- and meaning-making: → love → God → politics (Palestinian) → art (Rothko) → philosophy → ethics → myth. Here he is on Love:


He wanted to know how love was rewarded:
true Love. That’s easy, the lover replied,
the prize for that great desire comprises
the absence of any distinction between
the pain and pleasure one is accorded.

and again on translation:


It isn’t done with tracing paper. Things
signaled by words charged in a row begin
to converge, just as hope a single one
or pair might be rendered fades. So we enter
the sacred order from which translation springs.

His “Palestine, A Sestina” uses its form to reinforce the politics of repetition and renaming and giving and taking and retaking of the same land, coexistence. And in a short, limerick-like lyric, “Israel is,” he makes a macabre sportive metonymy of the difference between the spiritual and the true flesh-and-blood Jew, the substitution of the part for the whole, the citizen who stands in for the nation:

Israel is he, or she, who wrestles
with God – call him what you will,

not some goon (with a rabbi and a gun)
in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill

In part IV of the volume, Cole springs some free verse where lyrics and paragraph prose poems are interwoven, as the poet again questions commentators and scripture as a translation of one mystical poem into another. In some cases, the prose poems seems to be rhyming, as if they had once been in lyric, stanza form but had been stripped of line-break and lined up inside the paragraph’s box, another form of translation , perhaps, to look at lyrics disconnected and stripped of form, to feel their strangeness that way. The lyrics are more stately, more of the same: broken lines, part ancient commentary, part speaker sussing out what was meant then and what is meant now, about biblical imperatives for Israel and a chosen people and, at the same time, scriptural reverence for the moral and ethical equality of all humans. The prose paragraphs can be downright bizarre, but no less sense-bearing:

Making the empty desert bloom. Virgin soil. Although we
need just a little more room. All that oil; all those countries.
A narrow waist was once its pride. Now it’s wide and the
world’s against it. Nothing upsets it. Not apartheid in its
midst, not its lies, not the fence. Cutting the land like a local
Christo. It takes a village. Along the ridge. From whence,
says Scripture, cometh my help. Slowly but surely…

Peter Cole interrogates Jewish history by rewriting its literary sources, insinuating himself into the ancient texts as yet another in a long line of arguments. His irreverent, playful verbal games seem a devotional strategy: he wants to believe, wants to worship, wants to count himself among the faithful, a fervent link in the long tradition, but his rationalism and modern psychological grounding compel him to widen already gaping holes in the tattered, incomplete skeins of ancient learning and scripture.

Matthew Dickson, on the other hand, is into current texts. Whatever smelting of contemporary culture and mores drifts across his brain-pan is ripe for frying, fair game in the game of chance that makes Dickman’s meanings.

From “The Mysterious Human Heart,” the opening salvo in Dickman’s volume All-American Poem, where he resembles (among others) Walt Whitman: equal parts delight and hearty appetite and a serious intention to get it all in and still be hungry for more experience afterwards, all in the first person singular unceasing:

The produce in New York is really just produce, oranges
And cabbage, celery and beets, pomegranates
With their hundred seeds, carrots and honey,
Walnut and thirteen varieties of apples.

Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, and pére Kenneth Koch also hover around the table. And of course Frank O’Hara, whose Lunchbox poems seem to serve as household ghosts for the volume, and one need look no farther than O’Hara’s poem “Today” for an echo:

Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they've always talked about

“Times Square looks like America throwing up on itself,” the speaker muses in the long title poem. Dickman is unafraid to sound positively like Alan Ginsburg Junior (who himself often sounded Whitman-esque):

Oh Mississippi, I worry about your boys.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, are you half empty?
Washington D.C., the sons of senators
are sleeping between flannel sheets.

It’s a tour of all fifty states, a jaunt through the history of the Civil War, an explanation of the American scene as set forth on Independence Day. Dickman lists and strolls and enumerates and builds rhythms the size of the wild wild west:

You can go from one civil war to another and still not be free

You can go from one state to another and pity will meet you at Grayhound Station.

You can go from one daughter to another
And eventually end up with your own.

As Dickman exclaims in the closing poem, “The Whole is Too Huge to Grasp,” “I like the world in all its incredible forms,” and what a list he compiles to prove it: his brother’s ashes, the sincerity of penguins, the mess we make of the roses,

And the psycho
Promise of there’s-always-tomorrow,
Of rent-to-own, the smell
Of carrots, the smell of gasoline, the mysteries
Of bread and wine, the sky
Of Montana with Laura beneath it…

Sometimes his comparisons are pure fun though– they don’t help a reader see or understand a thing, but one might just laugh out loud. Like this one:

your breasts were two drunken parents
coaching little league practice

There are some mis-shots sprinkled here and there, as one might expect in a poet who is so fond of metaphor and simile, often just the construction of metaphor or simile. Sometimes too many comparisons tend to distract from his meaning, which seems to be, “Isn’t metaphor liberating and fun?” He can work from the particular to the universal with dizzying speed and incessant good humor, stringing together metaphors and similes, but some are necessarily better than others, and he often builds his speaker’s case by quantity, if not always by the fineness and unity of sensation. A line like “the slow dance doesn’t care/It’s all kindness like children/Before they turn three” sounds better than it means, or in the poem “Love,” “I love you/The way my mouth loves teeth” also seems to be comparing for comparing’s sake.

Buried among the ecstatic reports of the quotidian (Dickman’s true singing, which fall from him in torrents) are confessional elements: the speaker’s brother darts in and out of many poems, as do lovers and friends. I was relieved when he turned more serious, and less ornate, as in the poem “Grief,” and delivers a quiet quick shudder of deliciously manipulated pain:

When grief come to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky…

tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,
tells me to write down
everyone I have ever known
and we separate them between the living and the dead
so she can pick each name at random.

She pulls another name, this time
from the dead
and turns to me in that way that parents do
so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.

Romantic? She says,
reading the name out loud, slowly
so I am aware of each syllable
wrapping around the bones like new muscle,
the sound of that person’s body
and how reckless it is,
how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.

“V,” where the speaker sees a young girl with a tee-shirt that says “talk Nerd to me” is another strong confessional poem. The speaker ponders the girl’s possibly non-ironical reasons for wearing the shirt, and ends up feeling a connection to her,

and maybe this is not a giant leap into the science of compassion

but he flashes her the Star Trek Vulcan V sign anyway as he passes her.

Not quite so delicious a confessional is “Trouble” which follows “Grief,” and enumerates the suicide of more than 20 famous personages such as Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway. Every third or fourth suicide is followed with a short, plain, odd descriptive sentence:

you can look at the clouds or the trees
and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground.

I sometimes wonder about the inner life of polar bears.

I like
geese sound above a river. I like
the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they’re beautiful.

If you
traveling, you should always bring a book to read, especially
on a train.

The last suicide is Larry Walters, who attached weather balloons to a lawn chair and flew three miles in the air, and twenty years later shot himself. After Walters’ suicide, the poem closes:

In the morning I get out of bed, I brush
my teeth, I was my face, I get dressed in the clothes I like best.
I want to be good to myself.

I don’t quite get the point here: suicide is to be survived? The ordinary will save us? Whatever the lesson is, Dickman’s affect comes off as underwhelming.

Still, all is forgiven Dickman in the end. His voice is fresh and funny and incessant: his poetic synapses fire like a string of caps, one after the other, and one gets the sense that those caps would still fire underwater if need be, his thinking is so explosive. Newest in the notable line of American surrealist poets, if he is no Bruce Smith or Dean Young, Dickman to his credit is much more accessible, an excellent example of delivering quality to the masses, less discontinuous, and often, as I’ve pointed out, laugh-out-loud funny. That’s a plus in the current doomy market.

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