Monday, March 15, 2010

A Great Poem: Norman Dubie’s “Ibis”

Zach Savich's first book, Full Catastrophe Living, won the 2008 Iowa Poetry Prize and received a New American Poet honor from the Poetry Society of America. His poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Kenyon Review, A Public Space, Denver Quarterly, and Pleiades. A recipient of a BA from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Savich has lived and taught in Italy, France, New Zealand, and around the US. He currently teaches and studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he helps organize the jubilat/Jones Reading Series.

Zach's piece is the second of ITIWNH's new series of writings called "Expositions," which are, in essence, short essays about "great" contemporary and/or non-canonical poems. The idea behind this series is to allow for critical interaction with either individual poems or small clusters of poems, since such writing is hard to come by in mainstream publications. My guidelines, as such, are both nominal and (therefore) flexible, so authors are free to investigate poems they find fascinating in whatever way they see fit. Even after just two installments of "Expositions," the nature of the project surprises me--and, to a degree, escapes me. Peter Ramos's inaugural essay on Joy Katz's "A Desk." is rigorously focused on exploring the poem at hand; Zach's work, by contrast, tapers toward its observations about Norman Dubie's "Ibis" only after considering some of the constituent elements of poetic "greatness": great lines, great poems, great books. It spirals, beautifully, toward insight. Perhaps Peter's work will establish the precedent for future Expositors; perhaps Zach's will. I don't know. But I do enjoy the fact that I don't know what to expect. It's all so wonderfully out of my hands.


Is “Meditation at Lagunitas” greater than Robert Hass? Is any Robert Duncan poem greater than his use of “ensouling?” Is his “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” great or does it just have great first and last lines? What about Alice Notley’s “The Prophet”—I’ve often quoted lines from it (“The purpose of awakening is black coffee”; “You are not great you are life”) but have never been moved to memorize or copy-out the whole piece. This is typical of my favorite poems: with effort, you can memorize any poem, but the best lines seem to stick with me whether I want them to or not; I often forgive dull books that have three great lines. And often, I mentally anthologize poets not by poem but by line—Ezra Pound, for example, wrote more beautiful lines than anyone since Chaucer, one might claim in an undergraduate paper, but may have never written a great poem. And then, of course, there are the poets I love who do not write poems but books of poetry, sometimes in contrast not just to the idea of great poems but to the idea of great lines. There are passages by Rosmarie Waldrop that have composed my days (“Much work still to be done. And the smell of ripe peaches. And Long-Jin tea. And lungs full of words. And being an opaque body that intercepts the rays of the sun.”), but I would tell students to read an entire book by her, not any anthology’s selection.

Of course, this may be a problem not only of contemporary poetics—that today’s best poets often work more by sequence and line than by lit mag page units—but of contemporary perspective, as Keats’ contemporaries neglected his odes and Auden’s best early verses (including the hits we all know) first appeared untitled. One day, we will come to see the singular in what now seems continuous, and the major anthologies will no longer get limp after O’Hara. Perhaps, we will come to see that a truly great poem is one that has no great lines—those painted scarecrows—but exists as a unit, each piece equally required. Carl Phillips’ “Custom” is one of my favorite great poems that may have no great lines (except for, perhaps, the displaced augur’s thesis of “I look for omens everywhere, because they are everywhere / to be found” and the line linking that sensibility to poetic effort, claiming that “art can become, eventually, all we have / of what was true”—but I see these lines as structurally integrated into the poem, necessary machinery, not vivacious fauna flashing in the rough). It is a poem I never tire of reading or sharing with others. Like other poems I have memorized and recited to myself and motley assemblies over the years (Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse,” in particular, comes to mind) it deepens with each saying, like things should in the old idea of greatness. On the same hand: what about a poem like Dean Young’s “Sunflower,” with its “ketchupy light” and “crowness?” Some memorable phrases, riveting turns, general plunging descent and the invention of running by moving your legs very fast—but I remember most the rush and the voice of it, its vibrational contagions infecting my oatmeal when its way of seeing comes to mind, not a particular bon mot that’s reducible from it.

Other concerns: recent poets who do not focus on producing polished poems at all, but on recording their producing of poems, a process set down; or those whose process is not product but project, apart from the projection of greatness; or those who intentionally uglify a poem’s proceedings so its experience is more empirical than transcendentally great, based in a friction that can be created only through the exchange within its particular presentation. (An upcoming smart, sharp, and somewhat sociological review of American Hybrid by Michael Theune and Jay Thompson in Pleiades gets into thoughts about how anthologies variously represent poets, poems, and ideas of poetics.)

And I think of the conventional “beauty is truth” great line ending of a great poem, in which the line is great at all because of the particular path of greatness that has preceded it, long ice luge that makes the cheap vodka worth getting on your tie…And how that gets changed in a book like, e.g., Joshua Harmon’s Scape, where I often feel the BMX boost ramp of Keats’ ending in grounding, voice-rooted phrases that frame and stitch more burbling and diverse lyricism mid-poem…

All that said, this weekend I have been reading Norman Dubie’s The Mercy Seat (Copper Canyon), which compiles poems from 1967 and 2001, most of which appeared in earlier volumes, and such thinky thoughts have been far from my mind: I’ve been thrilling at the poems, jealous of what Dubie can do, pleased that his work exists. I first read his poems in 2002 at the suggestion of my teacher at the University of Washington, Linda Bierds, whose own careful and passionate work shows the influence of Dubie’s historical dramaturgy and personae. At the time, I got that, but missed the strange depths and hard-bright rhetoric that drive the speeches and scenes of Dubie’s poems. His poems may resemble work you, reader of adventurous poetry, distrust—imported scenes and personages; tremors of Zen; naturalistic landscapes depicted as though language can, by naming, portray and give voice—but they are more startling and solid than the often-made, dull performances of those traits. The sense of the actual in them recalls Yeats’ materially constructed images (“a tattered coat upon a stick”); the presentation of consciousness is as expressive as Faulkner’s or shifty-stanced Keats’. The mix of reserve and rollick, characterization and its dissolution, detail and the minds that frame them—

There’s a poem called “Ibis,” first published in 1975, that I particularly recommend. It begins:

There is the long dream in the afternoon

That turns a large, white page

Like, once, the slow movement

Of slaves at daybreak

Through the clouds of a stone laundry.

The blossoms

On a black vegetable and

The olive wood burning in the plate

Are the simple events

That I’ll wake to this evening.

At dark, we’ll walk out along

The shore having finished

Another day of exile in a wet place.

As a boy I burned

Leaves in the many gardens

Of a cemetery in Rome.

I wrote in my diary:

A blue vessel

Is filling out in the rain. All day,

Here, the water falls and is not broken,

But it punishes me like the girls

With their clubs and bowl

Flattening the new maize,

Millet, and the narrow tubers

Of yam

That are white like hill snow.

You do not yet realize that the speaker of poem is Ovid, in exile, attended by a servant he envies, admires, and hates, who, a page and a half later, is told he must “fuel the terra-cotta lamp / And gather the cress and hidden eggs / Of the Ibis” when Ovid is dead, but of course the poem isn’t really about Ovid: it’s about a situation, a dailyness that surpasses the weary dailyness of most dailyness-based poems. Are these lines great? Well, the sense of line is great. The sense of real things somehow more real than the things around me, given with range that is held so it is tight but still vibrating, a heavy kite by which you deduce these must be very heavy winds, and somehow my thin wrists are up to it—it makes my poems feel smaller than they should, as though I do not take on the real good variety of utterance and world. I would like to. To see poem and line, book and poem, intelligence and artfulness as more wildly aligned. As they are in the great poems of Norman Dubie.