Sunday, October 26, 2014

Untidy and Poems

Volumes Collected and Unread

Risk by Tim Skeen and a Poem by Charles Baxter

Not this bad, but bad. I've been buying books for my retirement--infinitely distant--and now that I'm entirely off Amazon and using Half-Price Books, I'm finding great deals for pennies, and things are getting worse. Recently, for example, I've picked up half-a-dozen books by Terry Eagleton--hardbacks, unopened--for under two bucks a pop, and a small treasure-trove of books about Dante, books by Thomas Bernhard (the few I didn't already own, like Frost), Kate Brown's A Biography of No Place (about the Polish borderlands--kresy), the newish biography of Joyce by Jordan Bowker, and, what's holding my other reading up right now, Alan Ryan's On Politics.

I did manage to finish the new book of poems by Tim Skeen, Risk, the winner of White Pine's 19th book prize. Skeen is what I think of as a vernacular poet, meaning that he keeps his language simple, his images earthy, and his subject matter close to other words a poet more akin to Jane Kenyon or Stanley Kunitz than to Richard Wilbur or Louise Gluck (all of whom I have been reading these last few months). Skeen is the sort of poet who must walk around muttering to himself--thinking in lines, or plotting them, or revising--working out the way that life and writing seem to overlap so that it's easy to lose oneself in one or the other:

To Failure

You and I are like a marriage of convenience
between two down-on-their-luck families,
the Eastmans and the Roebucks, or the Nixons
and the Goldwaters. We don't care for each other 
but I have a bottle of wine and you have a corkscrew.
I have a pack of cigarettes and you have a lighter.
We agree to sheathe our teeth, drink the wine,
smoke, kiss. A day becomes a night, one night
becomes two nights. I get out of bed, put on my boxers,
shorts, and a white T-shirt silk-screened with a photo
of construction workers eating lunch atop a skyscraper
in 1932. The sun is hot when I walk around the corner
to withdraw twenty dollars from a bank machine.
The dots of gum on the cement sidewalk look like
an exercise in a child's book. Connecting the dots
to see where they lead seems luckier than going back.

It's tempting to do unthinkable (though not unspeakable) things just to see how they'll turn out in a poem. I remember the first time--also the last--that I saw a cow slaughtered...

It'll Make You Strong

The cow's driven between metal chutes
through a garage door where Eugene,
my father's friend, stuns the animal
with a sledgehammer, trusses the hind legs
with a chain, raises it to the rafters, and it seems
at the same moment, slashes its neck with two strokes.
Eugene loads our truck with wholesale cuts:
chuck, rump, flank, round, shank, loin, plate, rib.
Each morning the image of that poor animal comes
to me in the powdered gelatin I stir into my cup
of grape juice. I flinch and pause at the smell
of hydrolyzed collagen, its hide and hair and hoof.
When my daughter asks, What does it taste like Dada?
what else can I say but what my father told me? 

Like Skeen, I remember how the butcher named the bloody muscle as he sheared it, effortlessly, from the bone and sinew; how the tangle of guts dropped onto the grated floor, the reek of dried blood, the billion flies. But it's the sort of thing you want to see once so you can write about it and tidy it up in the comfort of language. That seems to me to be Skeen's style, maybe the way of all poets who mine their lives for their material--what's the point of metaphor when one has the richness of living to draw on?  Skeen has had more than the life of an English prof (he now teaches at Fresno State). He's kicked around in the way Phil Levine and other blue collar poets have; brought up in the Midwest, a stint in the Army, the sorts of jobs that prepare one for the craft of poetry.  Skeen has the sort of commerce with high culture that leads one back to one's roots rather than away from them--what I mean is, he can bring in a literary or artistic reference where needed, but he subordinates his book learning to other, more worldly concerns ("Nativity Scene," "Cartier Bresson's Photo of Matisse"). This is something I admire in other poets as well--Albert Goldbarth comes to mind at once, though his rococo style is aeons away from Skeen's simplicity.

Speaking of poets: I hadn't realized until recently that my favorite short-story writer, Charles Baxter, published a book of poems back in 1989. I have a copy here, a nice Paris Review Edition--remember them?--and this mid-Western vernacular poem:

The One Who Didn't Drown

In the late summer sand by the dock
the grownups lean back
to let the mood of evening articulate
itself without anyone offering a comment.
while they watch the children splash and dive
and hold their shivering arms to their chests
as their skin prickles with cold water.

The amber sky dims, and moves back,
and someone has mentioned it,
but the grownups have passed on to talk
gently about a neighbor who was once alive
here in Minnesota, and the evening
almost floats like a bobber, held between
part of the day and the first few minutes of dark.

The parents laugh as if they were once
children and recognize every trick
the children try. A child notices a child is gone,
dives for him, pulls him up to the deck
where they all press their hands to his heart
and he opens his eyes and coughs, twice. 

Once in a while someone or other will ask me why I'm reading poems--waiting for my car a few weeks ago at Jiffy Lube was the most recent time--not in a rude way, more like, "So, you're reading a book of poems?" And it's half a question and half puzzlement, as in why aren't you easing your index finger down the screen of a handheld device? I just shrug, acknowledging that I'm hopeless--I don't mention, not wanting to seem insane, that I'm deviceless.  I might print up a bunch of Skeen and Baxter, simple verses from the land of no palm trees, and pass them out, without explanation, handbills that open one's eyes: "where they all press their hands to his heart/and he opens his eyes and coughs, twice."

Tim Skeen's Risk is available at White Pine Press; their web address is to the right.

George Ovitt (10/26/14)

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