Saturday, March 8, 2014

Dear Self: Two Poets

Cloud Pharmacy by Susan Rich

Hourglass Museum by Kelli Russell Agodon

How do you read poetry? I admit that I don't ever pick up a book of poems and read it from cover to cover.  Nor do I sit with poems for a long time, reading one after another, thinking about each one, coaxing out its meaning, before moving to the next.  My preferred method is to carry a book of poems and a novel around with me at the same time and to read a poem or two at random before dipping back into whatever novel I'm reading.  Or I'll carry two or three volumes of poetry to a soccer game or a meeting and, when no one is looking, do a little reading so as to insure that my impossibly high daily requirement of ingested print is satisfied (in these cases I may seem rude to those around me, and I regret it, but I don't seem to be able to break the habit).  Given the irregularity of my poetry reading habits, my reactions to individual poems come at me surreptitiously, often as I am cooking dinner or thinking about something else--in other words, I'm a reader of poetry who doesn't pay enough attention to get what is going on right away; I go for the surface beauty of language first, and only later, after some incomprehensible cogitation has taken place, do I begin to understand what a poet was getting at.

For a couple of weeks now I've been carrying books by Susan Rich and Kelli Russell Agodon (above) with me everywhere.  We have some horrendous traffic jams here in Albuquerque, and I managed to read this little gem while stuck in one the other morning:

Perhaps the painter's angry
with her art--the ocean--the gallery--
a comprehension that arrives too easily;

or is this simply Irish weather; a stormscape
well-lived in unsettled blues, long
undercoat of grey? What could it mean

that I look and can't see? Perhaps
there is no such thing as clarity.
In the middle ground, for instance,

an oblong labyrinth of mustard seed
or hay rolled tight, promise of 
a light unfurling, a light you work to see.

This is "Abstract," by Susan Rich, and it is typical of her work in Cloud Pharmacy--condensed, incisive, meditative and quiet, but also provocative, as in "Perhaps/there is no such thing as clarity." There's a little of Elizabeth Bishop in this collection ("Geography IV") but not to the point of imitation or even clear influence--Rich has a voice that is her own, a formalism and measured cadence to her lines, but also a view of the world that is deeply felt and not adopted for the sake of versifying.  Here's what I mean--

"It is so hard to say what the dead really want.

In the lost fires of the notebook, words stumble

down the columns of green and white paper.

In the notebook of the unknown index, blank

description, we lose our blue hours. " [from, "Clouds, Begin Here"]

Or this playful poem:

Dear Self

The word I object to in the poem is blue
as in aquamarine, periwindkle, cornflower;

the shade of rain, of wind, of a girl's bicycle
stolen from the beach last July.  I object

to the semi-colon; the commonplace
comma, the dash--as in Blue Danube--

blue fool--the sheen of a junkyard cat.

I object to the monogamous couplet

the iambic flash,   the turn
in the line like a magician who displays his jackrabbit

sheer entertainment done strictly for cash.
I abhor the smooth paper, the vision fine pen, 

the hand missing the ink, yes, even the author
who praises acres of tulips, orgasms in France.

Hourglass Museum by Kelli Russell Agodon is a different sort of book.  While Rich's lines feel weighted and studied (in the best sense), Agodon's feel more casual, as if we were being allowed to read her journal or to have a direct look at her unmediated sensibility:  "I don't really blame the weather/for being beautiful/when I wanted rain,/but blame myself/for being distracted by the sky." (from, "Untitled, Composition in Blue").  Like Rich, Agodon's concerns are derived from introspective or thoughtful observation of what is at hand and with the evocations of feeling precipitated by the world around her--"I don't want to be absorbed/by the chaos/but things are beautiful/because of the chaos" (from "Sketchbook of Nudes").  There are "he's" and "she's" in these poems, but most often they seem placed there to reflect the poet's feelings, or evoke them, or parry them back into deeper thoughtfulness: "Listen, love--the cliffs are tired of restraining us, tired of the questions/we ask each other about time." (from "Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea").  Like Rich, Agodon's poems often refer to paintings or other works of art--to Joseph Cornell's whimsical boxes for example--and play on color and visual images; neither poet relies much on metaphor, each is direct with the reader, favoring simple diction and mostly open (though not unconsidered) poetic forms: 

Meaningless Consequence
     life on paper, unlimited edition

To suffer together is to suffer
with beauty, the white shirt
of glistening black ink, the fortune

of a wet print worn across a heart-
beating chest. This is what we have
--words letterpressed to our bodies.

To suffer beautifully is still to suffer 

on a bench, and unseen fog in the cracks
and wings of the owl flying to the end 
of the sea.  Sometimes we follow

the glint of rosebuds through the light
of wine, our glasses unsure of why
we have loss.  We drink what we have left.

Agodon's poetry is quietly skeptical of all piety, open to beauty, sensitive to the rapidity and indifference of the passage of time, melancholy but not sad, in tune with the objects of everyday life, and, especially, moved not only by the beauty of art, but by its reliability as a source of meaning.  Joseph Cornell, as one presiding genius within the Hourglass Museum, seems to me to be apt choice--a muse--a lonely, eccentric, visionary, committed to making sense of the cast-off products of a world for which he felt little sympathy and in which he had little trust. Agodon has done a lovely job of evoking this off-kilter but inviting vision of things.

Both Susan Rich's Cloud Pharmacy and Kelli Russell Agodon's Hourglass Museum are available
from White Pine Press, surely among the publishers of not only the best, but the most visually pleasing books of contemporary poetry.

By the way, this Cornell piece--officially "Untitled"--is known as "Paul and Virginia" and dates from 1946-8.   I strongly recommend Deborah Solomon's biography of Cornell, Utopia Parkway, for anyone interested in the life and work of this reclusive genius.

George Ovitt (3/7/14)

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