Tuesday, October 31, 2006


It's noon and I'm in a caffeinated tributary of the stupor that's colored most of my last four years, but I've been thinking about reality, and wanted you to know. Part of the awesomeness of this first semester in the Ph.D. program has been reading criticism that surrounds both the poetics from a large span of Western history and the theoretical underpinnings of the art that helps to undermine old notions of identity. I've been trying to combine both of them to figure out my approach to poetry (that is close to my view of being) as it stands, and to see if I want to tweak it in any of the infinity of directions offered by Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetics. I've already been working out of a framework constructed by both, in the last couple of years, but haven't really known what I was doing until now.

Backing up, though, I've had two opposing epiphanies about the criticism that I've been reading, especially the writing of Charles Altieri on the Modernist poets. He's talking about how they use fragmentation and other techniques to show that the work of art we're seeing is a simulation, and not a transparent representation of an empirical reality. This, he goes on to say, helps us to interact with the writing in revolutionary new ways that basically help train our minds to revolutionary ways of thinking. When Williams tells us that the sea twists on a long stem, like a flower, he doesn't want us to see a metaphor of an emotional state, or an image of the sea, but to reflect on our act of seeing. Ditto for Eliot saying that roses "have the look of flowers that are looked at." Ditto basically all of postmodern aesthetics. Liberation from all of the old ways of reading and envisioning will help us to move on to new, post-patriarchal value systems that don't thrive on oppression. They don't build on the idea that we need one system of representation to mediate our reality, the way Christ mediates between Christians and Yahweh. They point toward the naked here-and-now like Zen does.

I'm reducing a lot of different movements into one ramble, but it seems like a lot of them come back to the idea that we can use fragmentation of language, and old ideas of it, as a kind of shattered mask, through whose cracks we can see, if not objectively, at least with a greater consciousness of the artifices and stories that create our realities. It's one epiphany to realize, "Oh, yeah, that's what all of this obscure poetry is trying to do," and another to realize, "If that poetry isn't liberating me into a new perspective, maybe it isn't doing what the authors intended, innovative as they are."

The problem being that, when Williams shows us the red wheelbarrow, starting with "So much depends/upon," we, or I, see these gestures as dramatic versions of a basically conventional voice. That's how they work for me, emotionally. If I look at Stein's portrait of Picasso as a speaker so undone by the chaos in the world around her and the dawn of machinery that she can only see this artist in a stuttering, broken incantation of how he distantly appears to a distant public, then it becomes powerful. If I see it as an explosion of post-referential language whose contemplation will catapult me into new ways of thinking, then it doesn't quite fly.

Anyway, I was immersed in all of this, last night, in a coffee shop in Columbia, MO, and suddenly the conversation of everyone around me turned from background static to something with its own music, a dense texture of interlocking speeches that mixed the personalities of the tan housewives at one table, the 9/11 conspiracy theorists sitting next to me, the blond undergrad girls in front of me, the dishwasher who talks to them and all of the other girls who come in, who like him because he's friendly, and represents himself as the nice guy that he is. And that was my third epiphany.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Archaeology of Cold

Where I'm sitting, in the second floor of Mizzou's library, I can see the giant, vaulted ceiling of the study room that looks like a ballroom with carpeting (and tables, and people studying). Plaster roses curl in squares sunken into the ceiling, and the waves that surround them take the shapes of dolphin tails in illuminated manuscripts, and the slowly declining daylight outside is bringing the sky out there to match it a little bit more. Like the rest of this campus, it looks simultaneously ready to host a flock of monks and a . . . what kind of pack would jocks travel in? Not a fleet, not a herd . . . maybe a 12-pack. I could see the monks coming in to douse the lights with ancient slingshots so they could light torches that would gutter the color of ash up. But that could be because I've been reading "Four Quartets," which has this masterfully monastic restraint. T.S. Eliot's kind of cold draws me close, like the opposite of a fire, something I mosey up to to freeze my hands, but there's a deeper endearance to it, too, and a yearning for closeness that matches mine when I'm walking in a . . . smorgasboard of beautiful people here on campus, and feeling this distance that seems like an obligatory part of being in grad school, but is more just good, old-fashioned fear.

I've been reading Yeats, too, and getting completely blown away all over again. In the MFA, at SIU, the poets we read the most, talked about, and studied were contemporary, narrative poets, a whole, vibrant pantheon we could step into the tiers of at AWP, with Larry Levis as the grizzled messiah, old school by our terms. In undergrad, and, so far, in the Ph.D., I've been thinking about modernists the most--Eliot, with his masks (mostly in his poems, but he was known to wear a greenish face paint to parties), Pound with his clown hair and Roman ambition, and Stein with her extended jumbles of iterated sentences that seem like cave painting fed through a grammar book. But Yeats was the Modernist who never shied away from dripping honey, and his mask was "burning gold with emerald eyes," and that's the one I would most like to wear to a party.

Also, his amazing way of constructing lines that dazzle but seem as elemental as a pulse, "I went out to the hazel wood/Because a fire was in my head," conjures up the commonalities in all of the places I've most recently lived, and all of the people I've most recently been. Maybe most importantly, a postcard of him stared at me all year in Colorado, from my bedroom wall, his glasses casting half-translucent shadows over his eyes, the caves they made hinting at a glitter of sight the way a real cave implies a center of the earth, his hair raked back like a battered tom cat's, his mouth half-open like he's about to stumble on the most sublime syllable ever uttered, one that Cuchullain stole from the mouth of a god and gave to a bard, who passed it down the genetic line to W. B., whose immersion in the Celtic twilight finally dredged it up.

That was a syllable that followed me through the mountains, and emerges again here, in the shunted, jade husks of walnuts on the sidewalk by my apartment, the storefronts all masked with yellow pawprints for homecoming tomorrow, the student at a conference today picking up a wriggling inchworm to set him free outside, and the gradual softening of the lines in my face like an invisible mask there is being winched away. It's a holy kinda thang. But I'm rambling. That's what a day of conferences, coffee, and Reese's peanut butter cups will do to a blog entry.

Monday, October 09, 2006


Blogger wasn't set up for creative line breaks, which is understandable, so it sent all of the lines in Brian's poem over to the left margin. But imagine the second or third one in each stanza drifted toward the middle, so they approximate snow settling in strata, building up and holding the quiet in ornate shapes. That's what he beautifully captures. So, if some of Tupelo's goons show up here at Mizzou looking for me, I'll tell them that I tried, and they might only leave me with a broken poesis, which isn't as painful as it sounds.

Missouri is starting to feel more right to live in, as the trees around here turn into ornate prisms, with one or two colors frozen in each leaf, and their shading is so frigging sublime that the two or three colors running together make them glow, like they're lit from within, and along the interstate they stretch for miles, each a different explosion of color, holding its own magic.

If you're ever by Fulton, MO, especially in the fall, drive ten miles out of town to Dixie Lake, or maybe it's Lake Dixie, because the trees along the banks there make waves and billows like clouds full of the colors of sunset, and they scatter into splinters in the wake the anglers leave on the water, but reform again, in steady lines on the silver surface. Their line breaks show the depth of the lake, and deepen it by contrast, which ain't so different from poems, maybe.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Snow Over Shavers Fork

I've been reading many amazing poets since I got to Mizzou, and one of them is definitely Brian Barker, whose first book, "The Animal Gospels," came out from Tupelo not long ago. So, here be the poem from it that made my neurons burn wonderfully a few days ago, in the way Larry Levis's nature metaphors kindle them, too. It's got the same breathtakingly gentle, meditative pacing that Wayne Miller can really nail, where the speaker is this beacon of quiet and depth and the spoken-of receives an even-handed love.

Snow Over Shavers Fork

Rhododendrons droop
under the white weight of winter,
and the highway-blue suspension bridge, a lacquered mesh of ice,
turns to milk-glass
in the slow pan of a pick-up's single headlight.

Tonight, not even the river avoids indifference, as it churns
deep in its groove,
from here to there and back again,
flashing its eggshell palms in the icy wallow.

Duped again by silence,
by the undertow that drags the slate sky down
to the tips of the pines, by the mountain's chalk-blur shifts,
by the snow bogging down, speechless
syllables claiming a void---

I know this of the fleeting world: the falling down,
not the rising up,
the snow persisting in its silence,
and my hands too human to hold it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Rainbow Volcano

I've been trying to think of gorgeous things I've seen lately, that will help get my poetry mojo flowing more. Also, it's just nice to think of gorgeous things. I know that sounds crazy, but I've tried it, and really like it. You will, too, I think, if you give it a chance.

And there are many things that I've seen in the last year, dazzling vignettes involving nature or the way light lays across something or more how something lays underneath it, and many great friends and conversations that haven't wanted to come out of my pen, because they're still part of my slowly forming, recently overhauled ego, and more part of the superego, whirling around in its little snow-globular centrifuge, waiting to be absorbed. That might not be a really accurate Freudian representation. But when you have transformative experiences, sometimes they take a little while to kick in. So I'm trying to let the memories of living in southern Colorado shimmer into view, and meld with the heartland scenery and blend with the gorgeousness of being here, in Missouri, among wonderful people.

One of the beautiful things I saw out there, sprouting from the top of Mount Blanca, the giant, hunkering peak that always sits at the skyline and can almost always be seen from town, and follows you and presides over your dreams, was a rainbow. It jutted up from the very top, nipple-round peak that might have still held a colostral trace or two of snow, and showed all of its spectrum, taking the shape of a kite or a fat diamond, radiating neon lime on one side, shading over to the pink on the other side of a cheek in the Colorado cold.

So many of those colors are now exploding in the leaves here in Missoura, and it's like that gorgeous place has filtered in here, as tints and whispers and subtle reminders of never having left. But in a good way, not a creepy stalker way.

Monday, October 02, 2006

You're naked

I forgot the username and password for my other blog of the same name, so here be the new one. For some reason, this blog carries a stage fright that the laid-back, rupert-murdocked myspace blogspace doesn't, but said stage fright can be erased by me imagining you naked except for black socks. I know that's mostly recommended for public speaking, but even thinking about it is kind of working. Even though I don't know who you are, and have probably never seen you naked, it's working.

Now that my stage fright has gone away a little bit, here's the Dean Young couplet, from a poem I forget the title of from Elegy On Toy Piano, that has been zinging wonderfully in my neurons:

Handprint on the window,
handprint on the sky.