One is prone to read Poetry expecting not only to find good poems, but also that something will be said about poetry. In this issue, the about reverberates most abundantly in Michael Robbins’s insightful review on three volumes, Clavics by Geoffrey Hills, Moving Day by Ish Klein, and Come and See by Fanny Howe. As Robbins suggests, poetry can be one thing—or that thing’s very contradiction: “where Flarf’s virtue is in its failure to hang together, Klein’s poems exude counterintuitive coherence.” This broad definition seems useful in dealing with a collection of poetry so diverse as in this issue of the journal.
Each of its thirty-nine poems oscillates somewhere between a distinctive idea that holds a poem together and intentional “incoherence.” A good example of the former is Dean Young’s poignant poem “Handy Guide” that depicts man’s relationship with the universe. While describing man’s world as incoherent, the poem revolves around this distinctive idea: because of their incongruent desires and the hierarchies they have created (“adjectives of scale”), people have isolated themselves from nature/universe:
Don’t even think you’ve seen a meadow, ever.
The minor adjustments in our equations
still indicate the universe is insane,
when it laughs a silk dress comes out its mouth
but we never put on. Put it on.
Sometimes the “incoherence” pertains to imagery, whereas the poem itself constitutes a seemingly coherent narrative, as in Marcus Wicker’s “Animal Farm.” The poem depicts a social structure reverberant of racial, class, and colonial divisions; its “incongruent element”—and its focal point—are the black squirrels:
History tells us black squirrels
can’t afford robust landscaping
but will pay their mortgage—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They avoid overexposure, make tanning
trend. Black squirrels
they fit in, get along. Know no one.
Given the black squirrels’ unsettling presence, the last line sounds ironic; the fact that the squirrels have been previously “relegated to lots with a view / of the highway” intensifies the irony.
An example of intentional structural “incoherence” is Robert Vandermolen’s “Wild Turkeys.” As if to reflect the casual, multidirectional activity of the mind, the poem resembles a record of disjointed impressions:
The room was frowsty. Ten men
Were discussing the legacy of Wendell Willkie
Those little cupids of nostalgia
Fading into doubt…
All that fussing
Followed by a creamy silence—
Oh mother, my daughter said, you’re so ‘80s
A poem’s level of “coherence” may indicate to what extent language itself is its author’s focus. In his “Ode,” Ray Amorosi employs the significance of the tongue as both a “strange muscle in my mouth” and as a speech-medium: “What’s forgotten is on the tip. / Sides slip out the truth.” While the image of the tongue holds the poem strongly together, the depictions of the tongue’s various positions as well as the employment of idioms (tongue in cheek, forked tongue, etc.) evoke, a bit in a manner of the Baroque conceit, the ambiguity of language and its games.
Coherent or (intentionally) incoherent, poems are meaningful as long as they reveal—to borrow Michael Robbins’s phrase again—“tense, strange, convoluted set of human interactions”—and that’s what the poems in the November 2011 issue of Poetry do. If one conspicuous aspect of this very diverse collection were to be found, that would probably be the appearance of “we/us” as an entity remaining in a more or less disjointed relationship with the world. Besides Young’s poem already quoted, such “we” appears in John Hodgen’s “Capital One”: “I hate everyone, all of us who have sent him into flames”; in J. Allyn Rosser’s “(This Line Intentionally Left Blank)”: “believe me we wouldn’t / have resisted anything / but the truth”; and others.
Powerful images recur in the volume, as for example that of aged parents who are “more full of a certainty that could not be glimpsed / or dismayed” in A.F. Moritz’s “Bedivere/Horatio”; Marianne Boruch’s King Tut “looking straight ahead into the future / where we live”; John Rybicki’s confession in “If”: “If I could lift and rock each coffin in my arms / I would start with hers”; and others.
The issue contains also fifteen collages by David Shapiro. Designed, as Shapiro declares, in the tradition of postcards of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, these collages employ various materials, including photographs, works of art, everyday items, as well as recurring floral and faunal motifs. In the ensuing “Improvisations,” Shapiro evokes the remarks by many poets and artists regarding art—his own and art at large. We also find an oxymoronic remark on poetry: “I could see no greater role for poetry . . . than its utter Kantian uselessness.”
Finally, though placed under the common vignette “Poems,” John Koethe’s “Like Gods” is in fact a tiny philosophical treatise dealing with the issue of man’s cognitive solipsism or “entanglement of self with self.” This piece, too, contains a remark on poetry: “I and here and now are ever present, yet they vanish in the act of apprehension, as a poem turns into language as you write it down.” This suggestion of a gap between a poem and its articulation seems particularly meaningful in the context of the entire volume.