Put the Phone Down: On Lists and the Insolence of Loss

Posted on June 14, 2012


The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack

Antony & Cleopatra (V.i. 14-15)

[Many of the premises you find here will comprise the heart and soul of my Mentoring services. They will also be further developed in The Perfect Ten Seminar this coming October (26-29) in Truchas, New Mexico, where a small, select group will explore the pivot points of the creative process, revising toward ten perfect poems. There's still time to enroll, and still a few spots left.]

As my father lay dying in hospice now 20 months past (as he lay dying) I was startled not to hear the sad bugles at heaven’s gate fill that very still final morning with wails. As nothing equals the space of loss, so the message must arrive unexpectedly, unwatched, on condition that the receiver be receptive, pron-to, as they say in Portuguese, as in the place capable of receiving, not by virtue of any voluntary act, but by looking and not knowing what one is looking for–Woodsmoke? Sandalwood? Lemongrass? By dint of stamping on the ground, of getting edgy, of trampling, of knocking against things in a sort of anguished openness, because only without forecast, without prediction, does the message arrive, as with the little demon who does not know that death waits impatiently for her, twiddling his bony thumbs.

In my father’s case, the little demon waited until October 3rd, two months and a week before his 88th birthday. “October throws herself before my feet.” (Guggenheim Grotto).

So, for example, in the Nile Valley, green coffee grows riper by the minute, or in the silent Ice-Age caves at Lascaux and Altamira, with their swimming deer, floating horses, reindeer and ibex, the smell of stone and rust, manganese oxide and copper, loss–even at a distance–occupies the same space, the same woodsmoke, which is to say, all. And none.

Caves want to be the Bhutanese temples of earth, that soft spot on the skull that crumbles when touched, just as they are the repositories of spirits, the well of prophecy.

I don’t know what that place inside the body is called (they came later that morning, carried my father away–I didn’t watch) that place where voices touch, doors open, voices enter (and they marched, they advanced, they touched). The dying have incredibly soft skin, and hands that quiver softly at contact with the soul (he says “soul” without irony) where, while touching, there is a simultaneous creating of the body of which the body is made.

Here, for balance, is Kathe Kollwitz, Call of Death:

Kathe Kollwitz, Call of Death

What I know: the absence of exterior. Even the gods know that much. But our guides through this life don’t know where they’re going. Not them, either. We love them anyway because of the certainty with which they guide us. “Elsewhere” is place enough. It seems a matter of museums, of cafes, of constructions out of the little wooden building blocks Herr Freud left on his desk, of willfully losing the compass. Deconstructions, too. Hospices, too. In the end, it’s only a matter of preparation for—let’s call it—dying. Quick! The present has begun again.

There’s my young father driving the family station wagon, camping gear for eight–mom, the five kids, the dog–lashed into the enormous car-top carrier he’s fashioned out of misfitting lumber, a rattling cacophony that reaches the interior of the Mercury Woodie like a misshapen symphony of the metal pots, pans, tent stakes, ridge poles, canned beans, hammers, hatchets, fishing poles, and a million other whatnots that it, in fact, is, and he turns to us, the five kids in the back of the wagon and cries, “What’s that sound? Make it stop or we’re turning around.” Well, exactly. Who wouldn’t want to turn around when the rattling starts.

For her part, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra sees death not like Hamlet, as a sinking into silence (“and the rest . . . “) , or like Macbeth, the end of a meaningless tale (“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”), but as the ultimate consummation of her relationship with Antony–a liebestod. “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, / Which hurts, and is desir’d” (V.ii.295-296).

As poets, loss in its multitude of forms is our occupation and our preoccupation.  Have I argued already that every poem of loss is a list? Or more grandiosely put, every poem is a list? Probably so, but if not, I meant to, and I mean to now.

I see many poems by many poets whose intentions are so rooted in story–in narrative–that they worry themselves away from the necessary conventions (such as they are) of the lyric, and I see many poems by those whose intentions are so rooted in the lyric that the planks and staircases of narrative have vacated the premises, and neither danger nor dramatic tension nor gloom of night curl their dark fingers into the tiny space between the windowsill and the just barely lifted sash.

Whether working through three or four dozen drafts en route to bringing a single poem to that place where it begins to breathe on its own, or whether merely dipping into the current, there is a certain order that nevertheless emerges, willed by the absence of will, but ordered by the writer’s divining rod (which is to say, by a whole lot of trial and error, c.f., luck) that informs every Grecian Urn, every idea of order, even in a place so orderly orderless as Key West (have you been?) From any angle, it is necessary in the process making art to be wholly unmindful of being in the process of making art. (Painting by Suzanne DeCuir)

Our senses, all five and maybe the sixth as well, are triggered by words. Several years ago (in other words, a heartbeat), I found myself in the Indianapolis International Airport on Col. H. Weir Cook Memorial Drive (“Just 15 minutes from downtown Indy!”), waiting for a  delinquent airplane when a recent emigree from New York City, then in the late stages of bagel withdrawal, began to describe for me what gets eaten in Indianapolis. You’re in luck; I wrote it all down:

Chicken burgers
Chicken & noodle tacos
Shredded corned beef & pork in barbecue sauce
Vegetable casserole with corn flakes (see picture!)
Hot dog roasts
Bratwurst roasts
Cheese dog roasts
Chicken & noodles in cornstarch
Chicken & noodles (is there a theme emerging?) boiled in water
Other meats boiled in water, especially—
Chuck roast boiled in water
Spices . . . none
Herbs . . . none
Noodle burgers

That inventory may well be the recipe for a nice found poem, but how the poet combines and cooks down those ingredients into art, is the art. We might pretend to teach the “creative process,” that is, to dice into little bits what we know intuitively to constitute that process: the transistors, diodes, tubes, dials, wires, sparks, and dust of creativity, and we might encourage one another to practice those parts, then to practice putting the parts together. But who would we then be? What would we have? Not artists, certainly. And not poems.

So what is it, exactly, that metamorphoses a list into a poem, and every poem into a list? Let’s look at a poem that takes as its strategy something quite contemporary: a Lyric Narrative: a poem which contains elements of both story and emotional sense data. To be more precise, let’s call this poem, “What For?” by Yannis Ritsos, a Fragmented Discourse.

We begin with a lyric and end with a narrative. Each part relies for its very life upon the creation of a list–two very different sorts of lists:

What For?

Things age, wear out, become useless—
illegal tobacco, shut rooms,
flags, the dead, leaflets, statues,
the white curtain turned yellow,
the mirror and the face in it are scratched,
a moth has made its nest
in the beautiful dress you wore that night,
the coffee house on the street corner has closed down,
the balcony collapsed among the nettles,
the statue in the garden has lost its penis—
so, what is the good of sorrow, of hatred,
of freedom, of the lack of freedom,
the silver spoon, savings,
the gold false teeth of the dead woman, the sun,
the two candle holders on the table, aspirins,
love, poetry? 

It was sunny—July—
they were wrapping the bread in a tea towel,
the little boat was taking off,
they were burning newspapers in a straw hat
in the middle of the water.

Curious, isn’t it, how less is more. It’s as if we’re saturated with sounds to a degree that we need lighter sounds, saturated with narrative to a degree that we need a lighter narrative, and we prefer the sketch to the completed drawing. It seems to be the way sensibility’s working now. The lyric narrative (the lyric with traces of narrative–traces of story–the sketch) gives us a rendering of experience in the particular way the elements (think list-making) are chosen (think list-making) and ordered (think list-making).

Let’s catalog the catalog:

We begin with a lyric—essentially sixteen lines of lists—that transforms into descriptions of actions, each having narrative implications. The first ten lines of the first stanza catalogue loss (the dead, yellowed curtains, scratched mirrors), and then the final six lines of the first stanza catalogue (in rather moving fashion) certain iconic things and concepts, which the poem argues have no value given the premise that “Things age, wear out, become useless . . .“ –therefore, what good are the “silver spoons,” the “gold false teeth of the dead woman,” the “sun,” “aspirins / love, poetry.” Things quotidian and things priceless have the same innate value, it seems. (I note parenthetically [bracketed-ly?] that if Ritsos had an urge better left unsatisfied, it was his apparent need to let the Cheshire cat of ars poetica wriggle out into the open places in his work.  His work would have been [even] stronger, in my opinion, had he left off talking about writing.)

Obviously, the entire first stanza is composed of a series of images—fragmented, each from the other—but many such are presented not as bare ruined choir, but rather as a series of condensed vignettes, each vignette suggesting an implied narrative that we might like to know more about, each image designed to bring us to an emotional place (bring our interior world to the place) where the last stanza gathers sufficient weight.

In fact, let’s pause a moment to work out a more precise vocabulary of discourse so that we’re all talking about the same things. In dividing up narrative discourse one might say there’s talking to the reader, there’s describing to the reader, and there’s telling a story to the reader. Only the last would be narrative, but all contain narrative elements. Let’s look at why fragmented discourse works.

Essentially what I’m implying is that by giving a description, a static description rather than a narrative, of three people sitting, talking to each other, for example, that narrative (story) is implicit–as said before, the human mind is so interested in narrative (story) that it will try to structure one from very slight materials. For example, “It was sunny, July . . . .

Any reader getting these elements (these small fragments of story that Ritsos lays out for us) would try to construct a scene. All of the stuff described by Ritsos’ fragments are somehow happening at the same moment, suggesting movement, i.e., description with narrative implication. Here, again, more precisely, are the elements we’re talking about and that now go into our tool belts:

Narrative fragment: if there was a story that had several incidents and then stopped, that would be a narrative fragment.

Description with narrative implications: A poem (or part of a poem) in which things (details) point to narrative without actually giving the narration.

Fascinating to look at how the selection and order of those details work in the poem to suggest a narrative. This is what we’re interested in here, we and our Ritsos. We could say: “Notice how Ritsos surprises us here with his use of description to reach us emotionally,” or, to put it even more exactly, we might say, “Notice how Ritsos surprises us with his use of a dramatic scene to reach us emotionally.” Now we’re saying what we mean.

Here are a couple of practice etudes:

1.) Take the first stanza of the Ritsos and try re-ordering the descriptive details. What effect do alternate orders have on the poem? Do the same details, differently ordered, also lead ineluctably to the narrative material in the second stanza? How so? Why not? In what direction do differently-ordered descriptive details want to lead you? Why do the particular descriptive details invoked by Ritsos work so well? (Or do they?)

2.) Take Ritsos’ poem and, for every descriptive element in his list, invent something else, something new. Substitute. Improvise. The poem will doubtless point in a new direction, but that’s the idea, to see how lists work. Work diligently, sticking religiously to the need to be particularly observant about how the details you select function in the “story” and reinforce the structure of the poem. Plot out the emotional implications of decay and stasis, of loss, and of some notion of how we humans keep going anyway, despite knowing what we know.

Notice in the Ritsos how most of the description (list-making) is static, is setting, except for the action in the final stanza that shifts the focus of the poem. That final stanza looks like this: setting, action, action, action, setting. An action hero sandwich. There’s an expectation concerning that change that’s worked out in the ordering of the details (the list) and the way in which the details entwine with the setting, but the emotional (sensory) data of the longer first stanza “teaches” us how to read (read, experience) the second stanza.

Think heartbeat. The list is given its life both imagistically (lub) and rhetorically (dub). This is not, by the way, to be taken in any way as an annotation of Ritsos’ poem, nor even as a gloss, but rather it is merely a (user-friendly) look at how list-making might be made to work, and how it might be thought to function, in poems that hover on the magic carpet between the lyric world and the narrative world, those parallel universes, meditating out loud with a private, introspective intensity bordering on self-hypnosis. The hard, feckless, irritatingly insulting consequence of mortality; the costs of compassion, the ironies of nostalgia for the easy dismissals of youth, the shared tunnel-vision of love and need, innocence shattered with shock, innocence done in with slow betrayal and fast betrayal, innocence fighting back.

To plumb the unconscious to find those places that volition alone does not produce. If cliché (the expected) anchors one end of this spectrum, then surprise, delight, new, is what soars above it, like a kite, at the other end. The way in which we never thought before, the transfiguring phrase that never before illuminated the page.

Here’s some more Guggenheim Grotto, “Wisdom”:

Trick yourself into an unintentional state in which nevertheless the work is still of a piece with one’s aesthetic sensibilities. After all, Gertrude Stein didn’t fail to sign her work, “by Gertrude Stein,” even though, in a sense, the idea of surreality was to make the work, almost by definition, by nobody.

Surprise? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking poets to be absurd (necessarily) or jarring (necessarily) or willfully disruptive, but rather, to locate that strata of subtlety that has to do with the willingness to step outside of the purposeful mechanics of writing. What happens when we step outside of the habitual–in that sense mindfully not going for the first or second or third phrase that percolates up into our consciousness–mindfully pushing beyond what the early instincts tell us makes the most sense.

Meanwhile, outside this more prosaic window, no Holy City no pina colada no dory-bobby bay nor the youth once danced with them. But today no marsh bed sucks at a slacktide disunion by the side of the hospice bed. The sun sheaths its rapier, all its cutting done for now. Spotted dogs pace across the gloaming lawn, nipping at the shadows, stenciled edges of oak leaf, ragged hem of bark. Last rays tip and simmer into Great Peconic Bay. Put down the phone and listen. Mom’s in the back room, talking the sun down, tucked into still glowing sheets, while my sunburnt scars array their icy points in the freshened breeze to the bebop wah-wahs of the slide trombone, the low brass of child-purr somewhere off in the twilight.

Posted in: Poetry