Monday, February 15, 2010

More Pepper Than Salt: a response to Joy Katz's "A Desk."

Peter Ramos’ poems appear in Indiana Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Verse, The Chattahoochee Review, and Poet Lore. He is the author of one book of poetry, Please Do Not Feed the Ghost (BlazeVox Books, 2008), and two chapbooks: Watching Late-Night Hitchcock & Other Poems (handwritten press 2004), and Short Waves (White Eagle Coffee Store Press 2003).

Peter Ramos' essay, as noted in the title, responds to Joy Katz's poem "A Desk." quoted in its entirety below.

A Desk.

Solicitous of its own business. Not chewable, and never mordant.
How to say a desk as I would say a hand? I look out
from the brows: wooden, unaltering.
Perhaps a desk is more important.
Perhaps I cannot have a sentence without a desk,
more pepper than salt, more violĂ . Perhaps in life
one does not discover a desk enough—its cruelty and trousers—
simple as a line of dancers, full of bone.

Is a desk modestly a field?
No: a turnstile, an airplane wing.

You can count on railroad bridges, on cut celery.
You can count on the flatness of bateau,
on all that is not the flesh, such as a deck of cards.

The boxes fit one inside the next, the cutlery is put away,
sturdy to push on as bike pedals. All this belongs to the desk,
and a berm awash with tide—all things at rest,
not panicked or insane.
As if the heavy telephones were back.

--Joy Katz, from
The Garden Room

Peter's essay is the first in a series of "Expositions," in which poets present brief essays on either a single poem or a small group of poems...


It’s almost not a poem. At least it doesn’t fit the model I usually hold up: most poems begin with a scene that is then destabilized and then, finally, resolved—in some fashion, either by the passage of time or the arrival of some epiphany—as in, say, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in which the sun sets by the poem’s end, and the speaker has gone from addressing the historical moment in which he is situated to confronting those readers of future generations taking in the poem long after the speaker has passed away; or in Dickinson’s “465” (“I Heard a Fly Buzz when I died”), in which the speaker’s death-bed expectations for the coming of Christ—or wisdom or final illumination—are horribly undercut by her/his ultimate and final sensation: the carnal, decadent, insistent, small and defiantly non-transcendental noise of a fly.

Katz’s poem, by contrast, doesn’t really begin in one place and end up somewhere else. Nor does the poem seem to resolve anything like a conflict or tension. In this, and other ways, it resembles Gertrude Stein’s most compelling work (for me, anyway), the shorter prose poems of Tender Buttons. In fact, Katz’s use of the period in the title/phrase makes the allusion seem intentional. And, like Stein, Katz takes up the otherwise drab, commonplace items usually associated with the domestic sphere—food, linen closets, coffee, desks—and transforms them, makes them appear strange, magical, out of context. It’s tempting to read this as a critique of the domestic sphere—of the place socially constructed and designated to accommodate a patriarchy. But that’s too simple a reading. This poem is about establishing a ground, a solid surface on which a self or subject can establish itself as a self, from which that self can then greet and make the world. Yet the poem contains both aspects: a launching pad and flight, the latter inconceivable without the former. But flight can only be imagined or anticipated here—what the “turnstile” or “airplane wing” will precipitate. The ground must be receptive and innocuous—neither imposing nor critical—and also trustworthy—“sturdy” and “full of bone.” That something so simple—a wooden desk—can be so valuable, so essential also reminds us of the times in which we live: where a place for silence and meditation is threatened by the speed and distractions of living in this era—with our apparent dependence on email and cell phones, on various pressing and immediate obligations. The desk is “not panicked or insane./ As if the heavy telephones were back.”

In terms of meter, the poem maintains a wonderful conversational quality that keeps the bouncy anapests and dactyls almost hidden: “MORE PEPPer than SALT...Is a DESK MODestly.” The rhymes, too, move just beneath the surface, internal and aslant, innocuous, insistent, and essential as the desk itself: “solicitous/ business”; “brows/ trousers/dancers”; “flatness/ bateau/ back”; “desk/rest.” It’s as if, somehow, especially in this age of spectral distractions, there is still a need for something simple, solid, and dependable, on which and from which to cast the nets of our imagination.