Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Goldman Suchs

Kudos to Greg Smith, who resigned from Wall Street giant and Great Recession architects Goldman Sachs today and left with a parting cannon shot in the form of a New York Times Op-Ed piece.  You can read Smith's rare, bold take-down here.

I would say this is unrelated to poetry, except that it touches on a conversation Baron Wormser and I had a few nights ago after his reading at VSC. We were discussing social responsibility in poetry and its difficulty, given American poetry's long-time obsession with the self and what a fine, mature, responsible poet we did have in William Matthews. At one point, Baron suggested we need more naming of names, especially when they are our own, an outing of the forces of evil (or at least life-crushing interests) in our poetry. Look at the Polish and Russian poets who took on the regimes of the 20th century head-on. Where does such poetry exist in the United States? Could it?

So kudos again to Mr. Smith, who is stepping down as executive director of Godman Sachs and laying that company's wastrel and corrupt culture at the feet of that smirking schmuck Lloyd Blankfein and his crony, Gary Cohn.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reckoner (take three)

Since we uploaded into the cloud
the earth misses us the ground
It hasn’t rained for months

The sleek new skins of our hand-
held devices flash menacingly calm
like the pearl blank face of the water

We go down to the lake
and bathe in its shades: gin clear
fluorescent grey

All our campfire girls
All our drowned fuselages and kelped wrecks
All our pine pollen soft parades

Our mouthfuls and gulped breaths
How many gigabytes is that?


Sometimes we float, bumping along
shoulder to shoulder in the screensaver
blue in a simulacrum of friendship
If we’re not in the lake
where are we?

Seen and unseen

like a Ghost Man on second
like a child worker in China


Sometimes we float in it almost
bodiless lost in the flickering
voices that will not save us

Even with value added

The pony-tailed technician
who assembled and wiped
to a loving sheen
our delicately cheap touchscreens

her little hands are ruined
by the solvents
by the robotic maneuvers

so we can share
with smudgeless clarity

She doesn’t even know
how to swim


Teenaged girls drop from factory eaves
like spiraled cones raining 
from pine boughs

in a sudden gust

Circles touching circles
across faces

We take and we take and
we tag


On the lakeshore a mother mallard
nestles into needles to make her
home above rocks

where a boy with a stick
is sure to find her
Where is your warm hand
for my hand?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Still Life

I haven't yet written about what might be the best new poem I've read in a long time--"Still Life with a Grain of Rice" from Alexander Long's dazzling collection Still Life (winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize 16). Here is an imagination set to turning objects and thoughts until they slowly transform and reveal themselves anew. Poems that take a good hard look at the world and their speaker. They remind me of some of Levis' finer work and Keats' odes, casting a mesmerizing focus through a"widening spell," particularly this poem which brings Chopin's "No. 3 in b major," the 16th-century painting The Fall of Icarus, Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" about that painting, the horrors of 9/11, and the mundane normality of eating leftovers while watching TV all together in a swirl and vortex that is mesmerizing.


I used to like the way things went together:

Chopin and Auden; apocalypse and abyss;
Given and give in; disgust

And discussed. Chopin's

"No. 3 in B major," at the end,
For instance, how he reaches 

As far as he can across the piano
With both arms--as if hearing himself

For the first time--

Like Icarus, maybe.

I used to think I'd love
To plunge like that

And be done with it.

There must be something
In me that refuses

To die, I pray.

But, Auden's Icarus stares down
At the indifferent ploughman and all

His shares he needs to live on,
Which make his lord richer


If I were there, in that Brueghel,
I'd turn away too, from something

Amazing--a boy falling
Out of the sky--because I did,

In fact, do it.

Early September in a new millennium,
And I had nowhere to get to.

I wasn't in New York yet.

A gorgeous day:
The sun shone

On the television,
Through the high windows

Of my bedroom where
I confessed an important failure

To no one:

Don't look, don't care.

I was eating a bowl of rice
With teriyaki steak

For breakfast.

I licked the white fork clean
And wanted more

While someone fell out of the sky 
For real.

And then another.

I turned up Chopin and licked
A grain of rice I'll never

Write a poem on


All I've wanted since is to sail
Calmly on.

And I do,

Letting the dead down.
The Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel (1558), oil, Museum of Fine Arts, Brussells
In "Still Life With a Grain of Rice" we see an image system at work. People falling from the burning World Trade Center (on the mediated layer of the television screen and onto the actual pavement below), Icarus plunged three-quarters into the sea, Chopin spreading wings and soaring deeply into the tunnel of piano, the speaker's former imagined plungings, not to mention the unmentioned grains of rice surely falling from his plastic fork as he witnesses one of the crueler spectacles of this young century (then decides to turn up the Chopin, look away, eat more).

Long's poems turn and turn with attention around their subjects, an attention that is at once inclusive and irresistible and self-indicting. They take nimble turns (with some incredible line breaks here) and are unflinching in their gaze. It's also the only poem I've ever encountered that addresses 9/11 in a way that feels honest and real. One man's coming to terms with his "important failure"--of being the insular and insulated modern self? Of being, on the individual level, the self-interested consuming force that the nation as a whole is, which in part brought about the tragedy? Of his own (in)ability to make that leap? I don't know what I think of that yet, but Long brings it into question, echoing Auden's language of "important failure." In any case, we are given a speaker who looks away from the terrifying to focus on the comforts of appetite: "I licked the white fork clean/And wanted more // While someone fell out of the sky/For real."

Images of the WTC "jumpers" still give me shivers, as they should.

I love the Brueghel painting and what Long (and Auden before him) sees in it. The ploughman keeps his head down. The shepherd gazes upward into his own daydreams, not the boy-refusing sky. The ship sails calmly on. Not out of apathy, as some might say in interpreting Auden's poem. But because there is work to do. And how many of us can be said to work for ourselves? Poor ploughman with "His shares he needs to live on,/ Which make his lord richer / Forever." Perhaps the larger point here is one of balancing the insane with sanity, how we must (of course, always) ignore a great deal of the horrors of reality in order to function. As I mentioned in my last post, sometimes we need to see the vivid brutality we participate in daily (see FoxConn factories in China and mineral mines in Congo that feed our mobile device habit). But maybe sometimes we need to look away, too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lowerings, Blood, Sharks & Whales

Yes, I am still slowly reading Moby-Dick and waiting for winter to salvage its lackluster performance.

In recent chapters, I was clearly in territory that Cormac McCarthy finds entertaining. Anyone who's read Blood Meridian will recognize a kinship with the gorey imagery from Chapter 61 "Stubb Kills a Whale":
     The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men. And all the while, jet after jet of white smoke was agonizingly shot from the spiracle of the whale, and vehement puff after puff from the mouth of the excited headsman [Stubb]....
     And now it is struck; for, starting from his trance into that unspeakable thing called his 'flurry,' the monster horribly wallowed in his blood, over-wrapped himself in impenetrable, mad, boiling spray, so that the imperiled craft, instantly dropping astern, had much ado blindly to struggle out from that phrensied twilight into the clear air of the day.
     And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!
     'He's dead, Mr. Stubb,' said Tashtego.
     'Yes; both pipes smoked out!' and withdrawing his own from his mouth, Stubb scattered the dead ashes over the water; and, for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made."
This brings to mind the heinous scenes of Apaches murdering and raping the cavalry and the very subtitle of Blood Meridian: The Evening Redness of the West. It's really one of Cormac's more infamous passages. Watch out here it comes:
"A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braid spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one who horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone landing of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Oh my god, said the sergeant."
That central phrase, "death hilarious," owes to my mind a debt of inspiration to Melville, who some pages later when, with the dead sperm whale secured to the Pequod, writes, "...sharks do most socially congregate, and most hilariously feast; yet is there no conceivable time or occasion when you will find them in such countless numbers, and in gayer or more jovial spirits, than around a dead sperm whale, moored by night to a whale-ship at sea."

Wherefore all this bloodshed and the celebratory, even orgiastic language to detail it? Is it simply some gratuitous male defect? Some savagery or primitive shadow on the soul? No. I suspect both a stark reminder of the more sinister forces at work in the world and an unbridled love of language, run amok. The illusion of order that we live upon rests on a foundation of others' blood and misery.

The first slaughtered whale (the corpse made by Stubb) hangs alongside the Pequod, meat-hooked in economical pieces for some 20 chapters before its spermacetti oil is collected and the unusable parts are dropped to the briny dark. The second sperm whale they kill appears in Ch. 81 when all three mates give chase to an old and maimed bull:
As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
Just as the whales of Melville's era had to die to provide the goods he outlines (both literally and sarcastically), our hands are no cleaner in attaining the easy life of first world comforts most of us enjoy. Of course we know that. But learning about where the metals needed to make the chips in our cell phones and smart devices originate or the stories of the slave children assembling our MacBooks overseas deserve more than the occasional buried news item or wringing of hands by a guilt-stricken First Worlder. They need to be stated loudly, perhaps even in exaggerated tones, set to music, given a close-up. Specificity and witness....

...I feel like I've lost my thread. Well, while I am not necessarily laughing along to Death Hilarious in Cormac and Melville, I am entertained by the fireworks of the language. I find it rare and powerful and even beautiful. And it's a convincing argument--at least while caught in the boiling waters of the sentences themselves--against Romanticism. I wonder who will write as forcefully about the horrors we continue to render on ourselves and on the rest of the world today.