The Neglected Art and the Young American PoetsJohn Cotter
A Gringo Like Me by Jennifer L. Knox Soft Skull Press, 2005, 95p, $13.95
Lamp of the Body by Maggie Smith Red Hen Press, 2005, 69p, $12.95
Some Mountains Removed by Daniel Bouchard Subpress, 2005, 92p, $10
If you’re looking for poetry that doesn’t talk down to you yet doesn’t require a PhD in Poetics to appreciate, there are plenty of young American poets with smart, absorbing work just waiting to be opened and read.
Jennifer L. Knox, Daniel Bouchard, and Maggie Smith come from the West Coast, the East Cost, and the Midwest. All three have as much coiled talent and formal dedication as any recently-hailed young novelist or essayist, though they still lack the odd half-hour interview with Terry Gross, or the thumbnail review in The New Yorker. When you come to love their work, you find yourself giving away their books to friends, reading them on the subway, proselytizing. It is never condescending, routinely moving, and a few words about background can remove all trace of confusion from their method.
Their work is largely the product of two interrelated movements at the start of the last century: Hilda Doolittle’s imagism and Ezra Pound's wild collage. While Doolittle invested short English poems with the visual power of Haiku, Pound combined bits of history and philosophy to make his Cantos simultaneously the stuff of real life and re-examined history—fragments and sketches shuffled with snatches of song. This style of montage has turned many readers from poetry, but it need not. At its best, it makes language more intense, alive, and more able to represent the world we live in, as opposed to the one we think we see. Anthony Burgess summed up the method beautifully when he wrote “you make an image stand for an emotion and a cluster of images for a complex psychological state.”
Because she makes it look so easy, it's also easy for the casual reader to ignore the strength and grace in the lines of Jennifer L. Knox’s A Gringo Like Me, as she carries us from one fresh image to the next. By the second read, it grows clear that a deep understanding of form and prosody underlies what are crafted to resemble poems of loose spontaneity. “Love Blooms at Chimsbury After the War,” is a modern sonnet, “Mekong,” here, is a traditional Haiku:
They killed all the trees
to see inside the forest
Then the fog rolled in
Many of the characters in her persona pieces see the world out of tiny windows, like the birdcage bars of the doctor’s office in “Of The Flock,” or the stoner’s TV in “The Laws of Probability in Levittown.” They try to puzzle the world together, but they have always lived in neglected places, and find themselves imagining the world eccentrically. They are capable of falling backward into emotion because of tiny trivia, but remain unfazed by catastrophes.
I moved back in with my parents,
And I’m getting really good at watching TV.
Soon as I saw the housewife last night on Inevitable Justice,
I knew her husband was the killer and I told her so and I was right.
There are two short plays in Knox’s book. One, a dialogue between scholarly dogs sniffing one another’s books, is pure fun. The other, “A Gringo Like Me,” is a fantasia on the myth of the West that would be tricky to stage. One of the directions reads:
(Chase Boys, Girls, Whores away/lie down in their place and form Aztec calendar/rotate through seasons/invent the game of basket-ball with severed heads/play keep-away.)
Some of Knox’s absurdist poems, such as “Instinct in the Age of Astrology” and “Saga of the Hippie Sci-Fi Homosexual,” play the brilliant trick of making a half-graspable collage of popular culture into a narrative that can be read as comfortably as a childhood story. Early in the century, European and South American surrealists riffed in the same way, for example, Rafael Alberti, in his poem “Buster Keaton Looks in the woods for His Love Who Is a Real Cow.” Knox’s poems can be just as absurdist (there are times she is just having fun) but they can also be painfully satirical and pointed:
Which one would you rather hear in the news:
The dead stretched from North Dakota to Nebraska.
Or The dead stretched from Disneyland to Disneyworld.
Maggie Smith’s first collection, Lamp of the Body, is informed by a lush and quiet style of imagism. Her eclectic source material is biblical, fantastic, and cinematic. The proper names of her internal mythology (Job, Dorothy, Desperation) visit the darkest places of the mind. They come from “that lonely country / where there are not fields of flowers / no one dusting them with snow.” They live under an open sky, but even the bluest day can be claustrophobic, and “The sky hears what you pretend / not to ask.” These are painterly poems, formally concerned with color and tone:
Your mother’s blue robe
Recedes into rooms lit by
Televisions, rooms wavering
Blue as aquariums minus
The poems here don’t relate narrative so much as enable us to infer a story from a series of images and sensations. Handkerchiefs wave and bones glow. Breasts are so pale “they appeared to be lit from within,” or soft “as fresh figs.” Lamp of the Body follows a growing trend for poetry collections, that of arranging disparate poems to form an arc, or a journey. The poems here begin in childhood, move through loss and pain, end with a sense of renewal, a new life.
disguised in sweetness
and with such ease, it astonished.
We knew, eventually, we would want
different things. Then
We started wanting them.
Poems on biblical themes appear at intervals, one of which features Job consoling himself that “Worse happens to better than I,” while Lot’s wife watches her city disappear: “The familiar burned bald.” Literally metaphysical, some of these pieces follow the tradition of apostrophes, or poems addressing absent or abstract qualities. Previous poets have invoked the “Muse,” where Smith addresses herself “To Doubt,” or “To Memory.” The best of these poems provide a guided tour of everyday pictures and sets. In “See No Evil,” three young women in a photograph are respectively covering their eyes, ears, and mouth. It’s a joke snapshot like the kind we all have lying around, only this one belongs to the narrator, taken “years ago.” Because the world of the poem exists only in the photograph, the girls aren’t given proper names--only “Hear No Evil,” and “Speak No Evil.” We’re told that “Speak No Evil” is no longer alive. The narrator’s black dog is also long gone. We are observing an idyll that didn’t last. Somehow evil slipped in. The narrator takes her hands from her eyes.
The language in Daniel Bouchard’s collection, Some Mountains Removed, is crafted to resemble jagged, unfinished thoughts, like furniture in the mind. Take “The Ruins of Springfield Walmart”:
Shepards in tattered Nike gear wait
and warm to fire on the filthy sales floor.
wisps and firs past an absent ceiling.
These poems are nakedly political and historical in the tradition of Robert Lowell’s “To the Union Dead.” The landscape and history of New England, or “The Northeast Kingdom,” is constantly present: Wellfleet, cannons, Canada geese. The New England of MIT was a whaling capital, and before that wilderness.
Where Maggie Smith takes us inside frozen time, Bouchard’s poems keep moving to remind us that the mind keeps moving, keeps making connections. In the first poem “Leaves,” he spends a late afternoon with his parents and a baby named Jaime, who’s growing up quickly. He remembers climbing trees as a boy himself, “suddenly it’s cocktail time.” Jaime takes his first step at 5:36 pm. As Bouchard’s father cuts squash for dinner, the poet’s mind stops home to Boston:
I imagine it’s warm in the city.
I imagine the single thin
Black road runs quickly
To a roiling black sea
From these fiery woods and farms
In “White Death This Exit”, he drives along a city road at Christmastime. The country is at war. Bouchard hates the war, but reminds us that without imperial wars, the impending snow above the highway wouldn’t fall on cars, but wild grass. “Endicott in Connecticut / waged a brilliant terror campaign / destroying crops of Pequots.” He remembers “flintlock by firelight,” as vividly as “votives and voices, dashboard speakers.”
Bouchard jumps from one pane of thought to another, allowing his sentences to refer to separate times and places. This is what can seem so frustratingly difficult about new poetry, but Bouchard knows what he is doing. If we can understand the associative process of instinct, we can slip into his.
American poetry has rarely been stronger or stranger. Theorists and their movements abound. Post Avant, Deep Image, Black Mountain: they sound like paint samples. Most readers don’t follow the art because they haven’t found the right poem at the right time, like being luckless in love. This is a pity, since the energy inside these books can shock. Snap a rubber band around these three, tuck them into your bag, and you’ll have the full weight of a novel or biography with three times the variety, two hundred times the opening lines, and infinitely more variation. Books talk to one another, and the deeper you find yourself inside the conversation, the more undertones will rise, the more rooms will open onto rooms, churchyards, open fields.
John Cotter’s fiction and poetry have appeared in dozens of national publications including 3rd Bed, Hanging Loose, & Good Foot. He lives in Chicago.