Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One More Poem for the Anthology

What follows is the last of the poems I chose for the Personal Poetry Anthology project. If I think of it, I'll post the introduction to the anthology itself in a day or two.

Introduction to "Brian, Age Seven"

The poem, for me, comes alive in the second stanza as the “impossible legs” descend from the “ball of his torso.” It’s a picture that we all recognize, I think: a child’s drawn conception of the human figure, of what we look like. Elongated legs, blocky or spherical bodies, wide heads, eyes way up at the top, ears wherever they fall, and somewhere above, perhaps fit neatly into the triangle of a corner, a yellow sun, rays extending in perfect straight lines. “He breathes here,” Doty writes. At the same time, the poem catches fire with a simultaneous reflection of the world (what I recognize already as truth) and reconfiguration of the world (what I learn to see as the truth).

If art is, in some way, a reflection of who we are inside, or even of who we want to be as we reshape the world and ourselves and present them to the world anew, then consider what Brian holds inside: a giant smile, happiness almost uncontained by the borders of his face, and the sheer pleasure that the world might offer if we dare to catch hold of it – the sheer pleasure, for example, of a “towering ice cream” half as tall as Brian himself. “So much delight,” the poem insists. A gift from a soda fountain, but imaged here as “the flag of his own country held high,” as if this should be the visual representation of what we believe in, or who we belong to, of what we’ll fight for, or of what we should pledge allegiance to.

I pledge allegiance to sheer delight.

And I feel okay about that. But, then, the last three lines pull me back, stop me, or stop me and then pull me back. I start to feel like I’m running ahead of the poem. What am I to make of, “He shows us pleasure / And what pleasure resists”? What does pleasure resist? I get the penultimate line – a statement of fact – but what to do with the conclusion? I understand that the towering ice cream, the giant flag, might dwarf, in some ways, the boy himself, but why show us the boy as “frail”? Why “frail beside his relentless standard”? Has the drawing gone too far? Has Brian, in imagining such pleasure, in imagining such an impossibility turned it into something negative? Has the illusion, the human creation (rather than the world’s reality) become too much?

Mark Doty: "Brian, Age Seven"

Grateful for their tour
of the pharmacy,
the first-grade class
has drawn these pictures,
each self-portrait taped
to the window-glass,
faces wide to the street,
round and available,
with parallel lines for hair.

I like this one best: Brian,
whose attenuated name
fills a quarter of the frame,
stretched beside impossible
legs descending from the ball
of his torso, two long arms
springing from that same
central sphere. He breathes here,

on his page. It isn’t craft
that makes this figure come alive;
Brian draws just balls and lines,
in wobbly crayon strokes.
Why do some marks
seem to thrill with life,
possess a portion
of the nervous energy
in their maker’s hand?

That big curve of a smile
reaches nearly to the rim
of his face; he holds
a towering ice cream,
brown spheres teetering
on their cone,
a soda fountain gift
half the length of him
—as if it were the flag

of his own country held high
by the unadorned black line
of his arm. Such naked support
for so much delight! Artless boy,
he’s found a system of beauty:
he shows us pleasure
and what pleasure resists.
The ice cream is delicious.
He’s frail beside his relentless standard.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Introduction to "No, Superman Was Not the Only One"

It’s a sonnet. And there’s a wonderful dissonance between the tradition of the sonnet, the formality of the sonnet, the aura that surrounds the sonnet, and what we keep running into in the text of this poem – Superman, Lois Lane, Clark Kent. There’s a wonderful friction between what we assume a sonnet should be and all of the associations we have with comic books, with superheroes, with those over-familiar tropes: the superpowered man, the damsel forever in distress, the secret identity, the bizarre triangle between the fronted identity, the superhero, and the female. In turning over our expectations of what a sonnet should be about, Machan also turns over our expectations of what Lois Lane was, of what she could have been. See, it turns out, we never truly understood her; our knowledge of her, our understanding of her, is just as limited as the average Metropolis policeman’s knowledge of Clark Kent. Simple Clark Kent. Mild-mannered Clark Kent.

See, Lois Lane, too, was just a front, just another public identity. She, too, had a secret. She, too, could tap into powers that the rest of us might be too timid to do more than dream about. She, too, could seem “almost to fly.” She, too, could become “a bird, a plane, super in midnight sky.”

As could, I think the poem insists, all of us, were we not so intent on keeping those truly powerful parts of ourselves hidden, on keeping those things that we love, that we care about, hidden even from those we share so much of the rest of our lives with.

We all have secret identities. We all keep our selves hidden. We might not hide them in such obvious ways as, say, Superman or Batman, but we hide them nonetheless. We hide them by pretending not to care about the things we love. We hide them by prefacing otherwise passionate claims with clauses like, “Well, I’m not sure, and I probably haven’t thought enough about this, but” and “I don’t know but” and “I know it sounds silly but.” We make reference to “guilty pleasures.” We distance ourselves with irony. We reach tentatively toward caring from a stance of light mockery and sometimes never extend ourselves beyond that.

Katharyn Howd Machan: "No, Superman Was Not the Only One"

In secret, Lois Lane wore coins and jewels
draped perfectly against the naked skin
she perfumed with wild jasmine, taunting fools
who’d denigrate her dance as snaky sin.
She called for drumbeat, shook the stage apart
with shift and shimmy, crescent arms upraised
to show the world the power of her art
and how on Earth the Goddess should be praised.
In silvered silk, her pinned-up hair set free,
she swayed and turned and seemed almost to fly
above the smoky air, almost to be
a bird, a plane, super in midnight sky.
No newspaper reported what she did;
even from Clark she kept her cymbals hid.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Introduction to "Louie Louie"

The proto-rock ‘n’ roll shout. The pure chunk of three-chord adolescent nonsense. The primevalest of the primeval garage rock riffs. The teenage attempt at grunting and singing what can’t be said (and, judging from this song, can’t really be sung, either). Pinsky takes his title from the Kingsmen’s two minutes of supposed obscenity, two minutes onto which you can project whatever lyrics, whatever interpretation, whatever meaning you want.

Listening to the song becomes a sort of act of willful fantasy: I declare that he’s saying these lines, these lines and no others. What I hear is the reality of what he sings. What I want to hear is the reality of what he sings.

And, in the same way, I think the poem is a fantasy. A fantasy of a different world, a world that you get to create. A fantasy of ignorance, an impossible ignorance in which you can never have heard of Buck Rogers or Will Rogers. A fantasy of a world in which you were never forced to know, to hear of, Pearl Buck. An impossible world in which an individual can manage to never hear of George W. Bush, which can only mean that he never became noteworthy, that he – in this world – never became President, never became anything more than another failed businessman with a lot of family money keeping him safe.

But, as read it again, I’m not so sure. On a sixth, or seventh, or seventeenth reading, other aspects of it start to stand out, making me question that reading. In the end, while it makes sense that the speaker (of a poem) would have heard of “I Hear America Singing,” why can he not fully remember? If this is fantasy, why not know Whitman better than that? Why erase Whitman along with someone like Bush? Why put Whitman in terms of a book read sometime in high school – or a book simply possessed, simply “had in high school”?

For that matter, I assume that he’s being critical of Pearl Buck, lumping her in the “never heard of” category with the Beastie Boys and Bush, but that assumption, I’ll admit, may be based more in my unpleasant high school memories of The Good Earth than in the text of the poem itself.

Maybe anytime we start to substitute an imagined reality, an illusion, for the world itself, we risk that same tension, that same pulling apart that’s rooted in to being able to have truth cut two ways. That friction, that rubbing where the illusion joins the reality, will wear and wear, erode and flake, while we keep covering it over with temporary patches and band-aids, unwilling to look too closely at the fracture that’s truly there.

Robert Pinsky: "Louie Louie"

I have heard of Black Irish but I never
Heard of White Catholic or White Jew.
I have heard of “Is Poetry Popular?” but I
Never heard of Lawrence Welk Drove
Sid Caesar Off Television.

I have heard of Kwanzaa but I have
Never heard of Bert Williams.
I have never heard of Will
Rogers or Roger Williams
Or Buck Rogers or Pearl Buck
Or Frank Buck or Frank
Merriwell At Yale.

I have heard of Yale but I never
Heard of George W. Bush.
I have heard of Harvard but I
Never heard of Numerus Clausus
Which sounds to me like
Some kind of Pig Latin.

I have heard of the Pig Boy.

I have never heard of the Beastie
Boys or the Scottsboro Boys but I
Have heard singing Boys, what
They were called I forget.

I have never heard America
Singing but I have heard of I
Hear America Singing, I think
It must have been a book
We had in school, I forget.