Three Poems

Poetry / Oliver de la Paz

:: Labyrinth 79 ::

The boy in the labyrinth imagines he is an orphan. He imagines the surface dwellers exist within a compass of their lives. In the world above, internal needles steer them towards a location which they perceive is a status of the mind. The mind, pliable. An idea splits from the center like veiny vectors on the underside of a leaf. The boy pretends to turn a leaf over. Dew drips into the creases of his hand. His loneliness is an incorrigible thing. Things seem more brutish and sheer. Above, the people walk out of doors. Their minds dwell within their own possibilities. The sunlight fills their irises leaving the boy lonelier still.

 

:: Labyrinth 82 ::

The boy in the labyrinth feels water run beneath him. He cannot speak of what he feels, only that the syntax of the water fills his elastic memory up to his eyes—events in relation to the failure of his voice, having wandered silently for so long. And in the chill, the dark thickens into the thickest velvet. The pitch of it, soft, and the light slosh of his feet in the water urges him forward. The dark is the texture of fur and the curtain slides back. He is in the theater of his skull. And in the theater of his skull, the half-bull snorts its sonata. Day after idiomatic day passes. The bull-man’s hum charges ahead of the wave inside the boy’s brain. Everything the boy feels is intolerable and persists.

 

:: Labyrinth 83 ::

The boy in the labyrinth understands the bull’s persistence. Talk to me, he thinks. He never hears an answer. Nothing fills the grammar he desires except the labyrinth’s elaborate hoaxes. A door opens into a wall. The wall conceals another wall. Beyond that, spent flowers in need of deadheading in some place above. A chasm. A river. A rudderless song about the afterlife. About time. To the boy, the surface world is so spent. He is tired of dreams and the red string’s dye sluiced through his hands. The stage of the boy’s mind is devised into lobes of meaning. None of which he can see. None of which the beast sees unless he were to eat the boy. An intolerable end, the boy thinks. One more silence. One more closed closet door.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I started writing these prose poems in 2012, shortly after my oldest child was diagnosed to be on the autistic spectrum. Much of the initial writings were my attempts at trying to understand his sensory processing issues—how many of his senses were extremely heightened. Somehow I thought of the Theseus/Minotaur myth. How the feeling of being lost in a vast maze must be similar to what my son must be feeling as he attempts to filter what’s happening in the world.

I’ve written about 100 of these little prose vignettes, so in a way, I’ve constructed my own labyrinth. In many ways this sequence has devoured me as the Minotaur had famously devoured so many young. I tend to work in long sequences, mostly because it’s far more difficult working from nothing than having materials at the ready.

For this sequence, I chose to have a refrain/form within the opening sentence of each piece. Generally (though there are exceptions) the first sentence of a piece is a direct response to the last line of the piece that preceded it. I wanted to create a big panorama. Rather than having the labyrinth wind around haphazardly, I imagined it coiling in concentric circles. At the center of all the circles is the Minotaur and the Minotaur’s nest.

I haven’t decided whether the boy is Theseus, an unnamed sacrifice, or someone who will find his own way. I suppose those decisions will come as I continue to write. I am pretty sure, however, that I’m not finished writing about the boy and the Minotaur.

 

Oliver de la Paz is the author of four books of poetry: Names Above Houses (Southern Illinois University Press, 2001), Furious Lullaby (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), Requiem for the Orchard (University of Akron Press, 2010), and Post Subject: A Fable (University of Akron Press, 2014). He co-edited A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems (University of Akron Press, 2012), and co-chairs Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

Three Poems

Poetry / Joseph Massey

:: Turned ::

                    A notch
                    at the top of the mountain—

                    the eye
                    without a thought

                    threads the sky through.

                    How hours take

                    the stain of hours
                    and hold beneath their glare

                    these things arranged
                    to resemble a season.

                    Summer’s hum and lag.

                    To walk into it—

                    breathe the frequencies
                    that knot the air, another

                    animal baffled
                    to be an animal.


:: Curtains ::

                    No silence
                    in the house.

                    No house
                    in silence.

                    Something’s
                    always

                    mumbling,
                    stridulating

                    into dust—
                    the drift

                    of it—
                    which is

                    not a
                    song.


:: On Migration ::

                    A split glyph
                    drags south
                    over a parking lot.

                    The suction
                    of dusk.
                    We watch it

                    wrest
                    margin
                    from margin.

                    Your face
                    in the half-light.

                    The aphasia
                    of the shape

                    of your face
                    in the half-light.

                    Autumn
                    embalms
                    the hour.


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Turned”

After twelve years of living in an almost always temperate and fog-thick micro-climate on the coast of Humboldt County, California, I returned to the East Coast. I’ve been startled by the seasonal shifts, something I forgot about after those years of living where there are only two long, slow pseudo-seasons: sun (with equal parts fog) and rain (with even more fog).

Summer on the East Coast in particular rattled my nervous system—somewhere between afflatus and dread—and this poem is a record of that response. The vibration of the sun, the heat, the raw stink of earth within it, rendered me partially thoughtless—just another animal.

“Curtains”

As Wallace Stevens put it, “Silence is a shape that has passed,” but it’s not an inhabitable shape—there’s no such thing, anyway, as silence (ask John Cage)—and yet the house, the room, any space at all, any utterance, any form, depends upon it. This poem was an attempt to locate silence and is activated, I hope, by its failure.

“On Migration”

“Death is not final. Only parking lots.” —Jack Spicer

 

Joseph Massey is the author of Areas of Fog (Shearsman Books, 2009), At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011), and To Keep Time (Omnidawn, forthcoming in 2014). His work has also appeared in various journals and magazines, and in the anthologies Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams (University of Iowa Press, 2011) and Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013). He lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.

Three Poems

Poetry / Elizabeth Arnold

:: Gone ::

          after Lorine Niedecker

Dig dig into black earth.

For the seed,
for stone. 

Something  

green. 
Alive, or only 

seeming to be living?

A greenish sprout maybe
looking weak,

the glow worm letting off its

thin green light,
or a stone light enters,

emerald or jade

—that’s thought to form 
only under a seabed needing 

pressure to emerge,

milky like the worm 
whose light comes 

from inside. 

                          My love was 
deep

—deep as what he seemed to be at night?

Seemed lives long. 
Night traveling 

at the speed of light. A was 

he is now
on the

Passing Years River.


:: Hope ::                           

                            And a 

door slammed
then cracked open,

still moving 

a little bit toward me
—not to let the chaos in 

but the 

air going 
so slowly 

from the wild sudden world of you, 

or the you I thought was—
everything of what slowed down

seemed to want to 

stay.
                            Just as 

the valve repaired will

with its closing 
more completely at every beat

make the blood flow 

calmly
out of the frantic heart

and then 

a hand squeezed, not gripped,
so there’s a-

nother it seems

opening, the petals 
freed of the mechanical 

(though floating) 

movement 
of a time-lapsed camera’s works

—nothing forced, 

never a jerked 
blooming’s 

dying on the stem.


:: Going ::

On the interstate north of Yulee  
late, the streetlights gone and my headlights reaching

only an inch or two at that point

before the flash of the warm-brown deer hides, 
a little group grazing 

so close to the highway’s edge 

my breath stopped, this breathing I do, 
where the road skirts Okefenokee swamp, the yards there 

of white sand kept raked to warn the rattlers off,

when out of nowhere came 
the blessèd tail-lights of a semi, the red dots growing 

as I close, don’t know 

I’m being ferried into the now now, going 
without fearing I can’t see. 


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I saw the deer in “Going” many years ago while driving down I-95. I always celebrate when I’m past Savannah, because that means I have only two hours to go until home—Jacksonville, Florida, where I grew up. I’m tired by that time though, having driven nine hours or longer. It’s almost as if the highway carries me, puts me in a meditative trance-like state.

Sentences have a similar effect as the highway on the mind, especially long complex ones. “Going” is all one sentence. It flows along until the little shock at the sudden appearance of the deer grazing too close to the road, which causes me to become aware not only of my own breathing, but also of how odd it is that anyone breathes, which in turn leads to a fuller awareness of what it is to be in time, which is to not know anything really, or at least this is my feeling—i.e., the state of being “ferried into the now now,” the largest discovery of the poem. Existing right in the present moment is the closest we ever get to knowledge. My fear of hitting those deer, combined with the dilation of mind from being on the road, led to knowledge.

The second two poems, “Gone” and “Hope,” both about a mostly unlucky love affair, also ride a complicated syntax down the page. But in these poems the movement is a little bit jerky, with phrases divided by periods instead of commas, for example. This happens, I think, because the experience I try to depict in these poems is new, and less benign than in the driving poem, causing great uncertainty, distrust of self—I was regularly lied to. But deeply in love. It was like being blind, and the other one watching, taking advantage.

I first saw glow worms in Virginia. They’re like fireflies but the “blink” is slower. The worms were in mud, treasure hidden by the earth. 

Just as the human heart is, along with all our other organs, hidden from us. And what the heart stands for. In either case, even when it’s failing it’s a marvel.

 

Winner of an Amy Lowell travel grant, a Whiting award, and a Bunting fellowship, Elizabeth Arnold has published three books of poetry, The Reef (University of Chicago Press,1999), Civilization (Flood Editions, 2006), and Effacement (Flood Editions, 2010). Her fourth book, Life, is due to appear from Flood Editions in June, 2014. She is on the MFA faculty of University of Maryland and lives outside Washington, D.C.

Yuri, in a Blue Dress

Fiction / Rebecca Adams Wright

:: Yuri, in a Blue Dress ::

04:03:24

Today is the day 100 cripples the alien overlords.

***

05:05:17

She descends the stairs inside the chrome sphere with the others, rank and file. She presents her palm to the palm-scanner and her eye to the iris-scanner and the cleft of her body to the labial-scanner. She walks nude through the sphere’s narrow internal corridors and a series of advanced digital imaging systems. She takes the brittle black pill an alien gives her and cracks it in her hand. The sound of ninety-nine other numbers cracking their pills at the same time is the sound of a steel ship rending. Nanobots swarm over her body. These bots keep her warm and allow her to breathe on the planet’s surface, but they also keep her tame. If she tries to rebel in any way, they will lock. She will be trapped inside their armor with herself.

***

06:16:45

One hundred human beings exit the sphere and array themselves before the great undulating swath of the alien army. They stand on ground so hot and scarred that without the nanobots it would melt the skin from their flesh and the flesh from their bones and their bones last of all. The sun rises over a denuded atmosphere and burns in blackness. Earth is dead and flaking. Earth is a Hiroshima shadow.

***

06:17:53

The alien commander, as it does every morning, delivers a kind of instructional talk to its subordinates. One of the numbers is always killed during this talk. As far as 100 knows, there may once have been a million numbers. Even a billion. It is possible that every person on Earth was spared the planetary ecological holocaust and imprisoned in the sphere like herself, just for the purpose of being stabbed or flensed or flechetted or liquidated during one of the commander’s talks.

If not for the killing, the instruction would be silent and dull. The aliens do not speak in a range that humans can hear; the commander’s voice registers to 100 only as a jumpy and uncomfortable feeling in her muscles.

***

07:39:08

The talk has ended with the cremation of 22. The aliens stir his ashes with a kind of glowing plastic stick. If anything is gleaned from this, 100 is not aware of the lesson. But she is still alive. The nanobots march her away from the vacuous yellow eye of the sun and back into the protection of the sphere.

***

07:50:36

100’s nanobots are scurrying off her limbs and into their sterilization receptacle. She passes back through the digital imagers and into the patrolled corridors. She is about to get her chance.

***

07:50:37

One of a hundred thousand alien subordinates stumbles on—does it matter? The aliens can travel faster than light. They have the technology to move through time. They pack unimaginable weaponry into a sphere for conquering worlds. They like to put big things in boxes. The subordinate drops a single palm-sized machine onto the ground and 100 instinctively picks it up

 

06:16:45 (-)

and 100 stands before the alien commander. 22 has not yet been liquified, but 100 has been gone a long time. The commander’s mouths move and she feels twitchy inside her muscles. The alien gestures to its expansive army in a way that even a human can comprehend.

“No,” 100 says, “there are not only one hundred of us against you,” and here come thundering the armies of 1876, 1918, 1580, 1066, 2078, 1209, and more—hordes of mounted Sioux and German fox-hole infantrymen and Spanish conquistadors and Norman invaders and American Lunar riflemen and fierce-faced Mongol cavalry with their hair floating in the near-vacuum of this ravaged Earth and their bodies protected by clones of the very last nanobot retreating from 100 in a nonexistent future. 100 attacks with the weight of human history

 

07:50:37

and a Greek phalanx and some Congolese freedom fighters with AK-47s are crushing the last platoon of alien soldiers at the exact moment when, of course, 100 is not around to catch the machine as the alien subordinate stumbles in a nonexistent present

 

07:50:38, also forever

and, because 100’s armies were plucked from crucial moments in a nonexistent past, this past was changed and a sequence of events occurred that led to her, Yuri, standing here right now in a blue dotted dress on a road above a swath of waving green rice. She smiles into the middle distance at a man named Kojiro who is picking his way through the crop to her side. She inhales the scent of growing things that flows down from the mountains on a late spring breeze because no aliens have ever arrived at all. There is no commander with unintelligible twin mouths. Or perhaps there is, but it has never plotted a course in its death-bearing sphere to this blue-skied, agrarian planet now called Aarde, which is wonderful

 

06:16:45 (-)

but 100 stands before the alien commander. The commander’s mouths move and she feels a restless twinge inside her muscles. The alien gestures to the mysterious palm-sized box in its hand, a gesture 100 does not comprehend.

“What are you saying?” she asks. Yesterday 22 was pressed to death between two glassy rocks—is she today’s 22? She sweats inside the nanobots that confine her. “Is that some sort of weapon?”

The alien’s mouths smile in a mockery of human condescension and the commander raises the box

 

04:03:24 (-)

and today is again, for the first time, the day 100 cripples the alien overlords.

***

05:05:17

She descends the stairs in the chrome sphere with the others, rank and file, a bee spiraling in circles inside an alien hive. She presents herself to the scanners.

***

06:16:45

One hundred human beings exit the sphere and array themselves before the great undulating swath of the alien army.

***

06:17:53

The humans stand frozen in their nanobots. The alien commander is engaged in a ruthless instructional exercise.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Yuri” was my response to a particularly disappointing SF/action film in which I watched a bunch of white, male characters shoot their way through an alien invasion in a variety of flat settings. The movie offered no characterization for the protagonists, no motivation for the invasion, and no attempt to comment on the violence portrayed. With “Yuri” I knew I wanted to try to find a way to tell a similarly apocalyptic invasion story that nonetheless addressed the complications of meeting brutality with brutality. (I didn’t think it would hurt to offer up a female perspective on such an experience, either). This story was also a structural experiment—I wanted to discover if it was possible for me to tell a character-centered narrative inside a series of short, sharp, non-chronological scenes.

Orwell’s 1984 was a strong unconscious influence on this work. The conclusion of “Yuri” is bleak, but I’m not at all sure that means Number 100 has failed to resist. Though her attempts to overwhelm the alien force with military might have certainly failed, the unlikely pockets of pacifism her actions have opened in Earth’s history allow her, like his “thoughtcrimes” have allowed Winston Smith, a transcendental and humanizing moment. In that one place out of time—or in the loop of time—Number 100 has a name and a home. She has love. She is a person. Human dignity in the face of helplessness and horror is a topic I return to often in my writing, and I hope “Yuri” successfully raises questions about the meaning of such dignity under the shadow of aggression or imperial force.

 

Rebecca Adams Wright is a 2011 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and a former Zell Writing Fellow. She has an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and has won the Leonard and Eileen Newman Writing Prize. Her stories have appeared in Amazon’s Day One and in Daily Science Fiction magazine, and her nonfiction has appeared in Children’s Literature in Education.

Two Poems

Poetry / Jennifer Perrine

:: Humility | Pride ::

In the dark before dawn, in the drawn-out
heart of August—month made to impress
my skin with its lack of restraint, no shame

in its salt-sweet sweat, its scrub of chiggers—
I lay in the cleared field, arms lifted, hands
pressed against the sky to catch the shower

of stars that were not stars, but lofty rocks
spun from space, incandescent with friction,
that swept me with streaks of light, glitter

strewn on my body’s parade, holiday
celebrating this first moment I knew
the worth of witness, the use of my shy,

watchful self, who loved being low, treasured
how I, too, was a small speck sent whirling
in surrender, a mote of brilliant dust.


:: Envy | Kindness ::

My hand pressed to her stretched skin,
her full belly turns a key

without a room, climbs ivy
through my empty insides, vines

that twine this trellis of need.
I lower my eyes, green seed

germinating in my veins,
blood pumping with little knives,

the thousand cuts of this Ides
made of each mother I’ve seen,

from paintings of gravid Eve
to my own mom, with seven

kids, to this dear friend who sends
me sonograms. I deny

to her the screech of this vise
winding tight at her joy, sink

my keen howls in an inky
deep. For her I unspool skeins,

knit blankets, stay by her side
at doctor’s visits, devise

a surprise shower. Still I
can’t stifle this yen. I kiss

it, cradle it, hush its din,
cries that echo in the den

where nothing grows, nothing dies.


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve always been perplexed by ways of naming our experiences through oppositional language. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of standardized tests that asked me to identify my race and demanded, in dire bold lettering, that I Choose Only One. If my parents claimed different racial identities, was I white or was I a person of color?

Later, I’d come to recognize the same limitations when asked to state my gender, my sexuality, my socioeconomic class. Where were the both/and options? The places of neither/nor? Where were the words that spoke to how I understood self and world—as fluid, dynamic spaces where sudden shifts might occur, where boundaries are at best murky, at worst outright lies?

***

For several years, I’ve been writing poems exploring concepts of sin and virtue—a little patience here, a little wrath there. Last summer, it occurred to me that, like so many other supposedly discrete categories, sin and virtue slip easily into one another. Any experience I can remember or imagine that might speak of sin can easily mutate into one that also embodies virtue, and vice versa.

Poetry—reading it, writing it—always brings me back to truths that, in the desire to be like or to be liked, are often easier to forget. Poetry reminds me to attend to the world, and when I do, I remember: Nothing stays in a stable state.

 

Jennifer Perrine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues, 2007), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry, and In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press, 2011), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. Perrine teaches in the English department and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. For more information, visit her online at www.jenniferperrine.org.

Two Poems

Poetry / Stephen S. Mills

:: A History of Marriage ::

I.

My parents married in October, 1973. 
Fall in Indiana. The smell of burning 
leaves. Browns. Oranges. Reds. 
The world shrinking down, preparing 
for winter—dying. 1973. The same year
Richard Nixon said, I’m not a crook
to a crowd in Orlando, Florida,
and the American Psychiatric 
Association removed homosexuality 
from its list of mental disorders. 
The same year of Roe vs. Wade 
and the opening of the World Trade
Center. A year of change. In October, 
my mother stood in a wedding dress 
white as Indiana winters. My father 
in a tuxedo beside her. Friends 
and family gathered. A minister 
presided. Vows were taken. It was 
a wedding that set into motion a life. 
A family. A bond of two bodies. 
One man. One woman. It was the same
year Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles sold 
for two million dollars, and a gas shortage 
closed stations on Sundays leaving 
everyone desperate for a full tank. 
It was October, 1973. Leaves
on the ground. Fall in Indiana. 

II.

There were days when we mimicked 
them. When you got down on one 
knee, a ring in hand. When yes I said 
yes I will Yes. When we bought 
wedding magazines, made guest lists,
thought of color combinations. 
There were days when our Midwest 
upbringing made a wedding, legally 
recognized or not, seem to matter most. 
There were days when you felt like 
a husband. Like my father. Like 
a shadow of a life I was meant to have.

III.

Brides magazine says June is the month 
to marry. Sunshine. Flowers in bloom. 
The world exploding with new life. 
A new start. My sister married in June, 
1997. I was 14. She was 19. A young 
bride like my mother. Again in Indiana. 
1997. The year Timothy McVeigh 
was convicted of murder in the Oklahoma 
City bombing and Princess Diana died 
in that car crash. Our faces gathered 
in TV light, crying for a woman we didn’t 
know. A princess that wasn’t ours to have. 
Sylvia Plath also married in June. 
June of 1956. She’d only known Ted 
Hughes a few short months. 
She was in awe of him, his poetry, 
his drive, but that didn’t end so well, 
did it? 1956. The same year Jackson 
Pollock drove drunk and crashed his car, 
killing him and his current fling—not 
his wife. My sister never read Plath
or Hughes. Never stood before a Pollock.  

IV.

There were days when we hated them.
When we despised the wedding 
invitations in the mailbox, the gift 
registries, the bachelorette parties 
at the gay club, the girls bouncing 
up and down with pink plastic penises 
on their heads, which made us wonder 
if they’d ever seen a real one. 
There were days when we felt evolved. 
Our couple-hood our own. 
No wedding required. No paperwork.
No public announcement. Then there 
was the day I slipped my ring off 
my left hand and onto my right. 
Our symbol. Our sign. Not theirs. 

V. 

Grace Kelly married the Prince 
of Monaco in 1956. She never acted 
again, but is best known for her roles 
in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder 
and Rear Window. She died in a car 
crash the same year I was born. 
1982. The year William Bonin 
was convicted of being a Freeway 
Killer. One of three. He admitted 
to killing and raping 21 young men 
and dumping them beside the California 
freeway. Sometimes with the help 
of his friend Vern. He became the first
person in California put to death
by lethal injection. People say January 
Jones who plays Betty Draper on Mad 
Men looks a lot like Grace Kelly. 
Beautiful. Blonde. Betty marries Don. 
A picture perfect couple. Spoiler Alert: 
it doesn’t last. Raymond Burr, 
another 1950’s actor, who played Perry 
Mason, had two fake marriages 
and then a real one, which he annulled 
a few months later. The time of year 
doesn’t seem to matter in that case. 
Summer? Fall? The dead of winter? 
Later he met a man. They grew orchids 
together. Fell in love. Grew old. 

VI.

There were days when we spoke 
of leaving. Of moving to Canada,
Spain, South Africa. The poster boys
of marriage equality. There were days 
we felt defeated by our own desires.
Our bodies moving in different 
directions. There were days we 
accepted the beauty of our love. 
Our choices. Our rules. There were
days spent with other men. Nights
in other bodies. Sometimes together.
Sometimes alone. There was the day
we separated love and sex and placed 
them in boxes beside the bed. No longer 
needing approval. There were fights
in the bright sunlight of our apartment
and in the shadows of night 
where fights are meant to thrive
and eventually die. Then there were days 
when we could only bear each other. 
My body on your body. The world 
outside desperate to define us. 


:: Slicing Limes for Dustin ::

          “and what does it mean
          if he tells his wife she’s unpleasant or dull
          and what
          does 
          it mean
          if his wife takes sleeping pills or walks
          in front of a car?”
                    —Diane Wakoski, “Slicing Oranges for Jeremiah”

And what does it mean to stand in a kitchen
slicing limes for cocktails?
Limes for Dustin?
For drinks we will consume
which will make us happy for a time
then horny
angry
sleepy
depressed
and maybe
if we are lucky 
fully alive for just a second?

And what does it mean 
that we can’t eat as many limes as we want?
That we can so easily get sick 
on the citrus?
Stomachs aching?
What does it mean to care 
for a sick person?
To wash his body?
Comb his hair?
And what does it mean 
for a body to show signs of stopping?
Or for a mind to get confused?
To regret an action?
To do the things it never thought possible?

What does it mean 
to stand here
taking care 
of you
taking care of me? 
To find comfort in this knife 
puncturing the bright green skin
of a lime?
Green balls of light.

And what does it mean to fall in love again
and again 
with limes in drinks
and the cutting board 
smeared with pulp?
Or to go out into the city 
and dance
with other bodies? 
To be on display?
To have more drinks with sliced limes?
Limes cut by other hands
by other men
in other places.

And what does it mean for an old queen to say 
we don’t live in the real New York?
That it’s gone?
Dead?
That somehow only one person’s experience 
is real?
And what does it mean 
to never want to be that old queen?
To never be that jaded?

And what does it mean 
that we stood outside
the Stonewall Inn and drank cocktails
with limes
on the day the Supreme Court 
struck down DOMA?
Was that not real?
And what does it mean to only look backward?
To always be longing for another decade?
Another time?

And what does it mean for two men
to be protected 
under the law?
To call each other husband?
And what does it mean to know 
that if we ever want to leave 
each other
it will have to be official? 
Paperwork goes both ways. 

And what does it mean to become 
a housewife voluntarily?
To slice limes for a husband?
Limes for Dustin?
And what does it mean to be married
yet remain queer?
Remain two men in love?
Bonded together?
What does it mean?


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I start at the beginning. The very beginning. Meaning most of my poems have a title before they have a body. Titles inspire me and drive my poems. Sometimes I’ll have a title for weeks or months before it becomes a poem. Eventually, if I’m lucky, the title leads to a body, and then through a long revision process, I have a poem worth sending out into the world.

Pop culture also fuels most of my work. I use pop culture like other poets use mythology or religion because it serves a similar purpose. It helps make sense of our lives. We connect to what we see in movies or on TV or what we hear on the radio. We see parallels in our own lives. My poems explore those connections as well as our connection to current or recent events. The news or media often factor into my work.

In “A History of Marriage,” I’m attempting to make sense of the idea of marriage through my experience as a gay man viewing my family’s marriage history as well as the marriages of literary figures, artists, and actors from the 1950s and 60s. I juxtapose the “happiness” of marriage with many terrible things that happened in each year. This poem is the opening to my new collection forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in September of 2014. It sets the stage for the book and all of these figures reappear in some way in the poems that follow.

Outside of pop culture and the media, I’m also pulled in by other poets and interested in how I fit into a broader literary landscape. This can be seen in my poem “Slicing Limes for Dustin,” which is indebted to a Diane Wakoski poem. This poem also explores marriage and what it means to be a gay married couple.

Both of these poems serve as good examples of what I believe poetry is capable of doing. I strive to make poems that use familiar things in unexpected and interesting ways. I also never want to bore my reader. Having a poem of mine called “boring” would probably be the greatest insult.

 

Stephen S. Mills holds a MFA from Florida State University. His work has appeared in The Antioch Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, PANK, The New York Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Knockout, Assaracus, The Rumpus, and others. He is also the winner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award. His first book, He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012), was a finalist for the Thom Gunn Poetry Award and won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. He lives in New York City. Website: http://www.stephensmills.com/.

What Specter Haunts the Sen­tence We’ve Cre­ated?

 

Nonfiction / Janice Lee

:: Narrative as Conceptual & Cognitive Process
or
What Specter Haunts the Sentence We’ve Created? [i] ::

In a dream I can see the horizon line behind the trees, orange-green in their autumn stupor, heart beating in the vaporized chill of the air, and an echo that says something along the lines of parting as narrative. This is all part of a larger struggle with the various definitions of narrative, its diverse connotations, and reactions in relation to my own perpetual and persistent writings. Here we struggle too with the recognition of the wall, the limitations of a project, the private conversations with ghosts, or even, the haunted versions of ourselves. Does one detect an almost adversarial stance against narrative, or at least, against particular definitions of narrative (because to this day, and for me at least, there doesn’t seem to be a definition we are completely satisfied with)? There are shifts, points of reference moving from philosophy and phenomenology to biology and neuroscience. And through these various lenses, we may or may not glimpse a more profound understanding.

What stands is that narrative, simultaneously a surmise full of longing and possibility and a condemned relic of intentionality, should be thought about from multiple perspectives, multiple minds, multiple suns with varying gravitational fields that coexist with at least the imagined transparency of ideas and gazes. We imagine the evanescent impressions of poetry comingling with the physiological blueprints of the brain’s inner workings.

Cognition does not “happen” or reside simply in the physical brain. Cognition is an ecology, and literature—including narrative—is only one of the environments that sustains this ecology. What of narrativization, and, as such, issues of translation and problems of time, both at the objective/scientific level and at the level of subjective human experience, individual as well as collective? However, let’s not prolong the crucifixion of the author, nor resurrect—yet again—the “reader.”

Derrida writes:

Who is it that is addressing you? Since it is not an author, a narrator, or a deus ex machina, it is an “I” that is both part of the spectacle and part of the audience. An “I” that, a bit like “you,” undergoes its own incessant violent re-inscription within the arithmetical machinery. An “I” that functioning as a pure passageway for operations of substitution is not some singular and irreplaceable existence, some subject or life. But only rather moves between life and death, between reality and fiction. An “I” that is a mere function or phantom. [ii]

Today, I’d like to place my faith in a third member of this trinity: the ephemeral, contingent and identity-less being that exists in the motion between the author’s hand(s) and the reader’s eye(s). A being, therefore, not purely psychological or immaterial; rather, a being fully possessed of a mappable physiology but graspable only with the communal intention and integration of many successions of ideas.

These are thoughts pieced together from a series of conversations with collaborators Joe Milazzo and Laura Vena, under the guise of Strophe. Perhaps just a sense of curiosity drove our efforts, or an attempt at shedding the skin of the previous century’s future. In a collaborative text, we wrote together:

Possible narratives are defined by an increased participation in the narrativization of a piece, as the innovative text will seek to atomize the subject, granting the reader some new notion of their own embedded subjectivity. [iii]

We distinguish here between narrative and narrativization. Narrative as organization, coherence; and narrativization as an inevitable cognitive consequence of textual interaction, or the cognitive process itself resulting in an interaction with/within narrative. (Our distinction too is inspired by David Antin’s definitions of narrative and story, especially in relation to the presence of “stakes” in narrative). [iv]

We further explain:

The atomization is for the purpose of refraction—like projecting a cone of light through a dense cloud of dust, only to learn how that light bounces around and reveals the dimensions of all the disparate bits of “nothing” that seem to make a whole; the reader has an increased awareness of the intentionality of the work, seeing narrative as possibility.

This is not such a radical reconceptualization of narrative, but a consideration of narrative and narrativization, like Badiou, in terms of epistemology rather than ontology, in terms of phenomenology rather than narratology. This reconsideration is also a reconsideration of narrative not solely as a literary concern, but as a phenomenological one, a neurological one, a cultural one, an evolutionary one, an emotional one, an empathetic one. I want to understand you. Let me understand.

Pierre-Jean Jouve:

Poetry, especially in its present endeavors, (can) only correspond to attentive thought that is enamored of something unknown, and essentially receptive to becoming. [v]

We create the way we live, and in a dream, someone tells me that parting is the way of narrative. Is narrative an exercise in freedom? In death? In empathy? What kind of a beginning does narrative offer, haunted by a ghost that cues the gestural fusion of idea with language, the ghost that speaks as a denotative and connotative apparition hiding in a text that is buried alive? [vi] What do our lives tell us about our dreams?

Narrativization has the potential of revealing the essential excess of human experience, this engagement possible as one’s own subjectivity navigates toward aporia: the impassable, untraversable, inarticulatable, indiscernible, contingent, and nontranscendent. The aporia is a philosophical puzzle or a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises, the state of being perplexed or at a loss.

But we need to want to go there, into that most difficult and rare radiation of simultaneous confusion, bewilderment, amazement, pain, suffering, life, death. I drive to the Salton Sea on a summer day, 115 degrees, the stench of putrefaction, too many dead fish floating at the surface, piled on the rocks, bones, abandonment, relief, sublimation, the burden of passion or a simple nuance of seeing. I feel alive through death.

The possibility of narrative is the potential to offer a literary enactment of the kind of consciousness that drives the dream of individual subjectivity. In other words, the reader must construct his or her own phenomenological self-model during the process of reading. It is indeed a question of phenomenology, of knowledge, of one’s place in the world, the creation of a narrative that does not ignore the inherent and necessary quality of narrativization for human understanding but rather pushes a narrative aesthetic that allows and inspires readers “to view their ideological embeddedness with fresh eyes.” In other words, the reader gains some notion about their position as a subject in the world, recognizing their own ideological embeddedness as narrative’s possibilities allow us to confront our own models of experience. It’s as if, in a narrative, one could actually gaze into the space between two mirrors and not have your own head block your view of infinity. Rilke echoes, “Suddenly one has the right eyes.” [vii]

Lately has been a period of measuring against loss: the loss of my mother, of time, of life. The way I interact with time and space and language—what experimental writing practice becomes, for me, is the manifestation of ghosts. I see ghosts everywhere, especially in the margins of altered texts. Ghosts scurry across the tracks of my mind, leaving footprints on the margins of well-traveled memories, but never creeping out into the open. What is regained through loss? What is lost through excess? How do we think in terms of language at all?

There is a neurological transcendence (as poet Will Alexander would say) at work when we interact with poetry—the ideas that voice themselves when the letters shed their physical traits. From a collaborative text with Will Alexander: 

Existence is only present between two divine markers, hands pounding out a shape from wet clay. We are born from nothing, die into nothing, or, this nothing that is undefinable, unarticulateable, these events that bookmark our physical existence and so in daily lives we humans find ourselves constantly reaching towards the divine, the other side, a different ground than that of the trampled pigs and rotting organs. Plant vibrations even attest to our sensitivity, to the constant rise and fall of tensions. Prayer is not a ritual or action but a hand reaching into the ether in an attempt to touch something. Someone is banging at the door and we don’t know to answer it. Someone is climbing in through the window and we don’t see it. In the distance, a bell starts to toll… [viii]

Narrative is reaching. Narrative is remembering, even through all the excess mud. Narrative is the attempt to move forward when there is no reason to go on.

Badiou speaks of the intervention which is the reader’s interaction with a text, the participation in a kind of “active reading” that opens up a phenomenological possibility, rather than closing in on a singular narrative. A story is most often a story about “something,” a something that rarely includes the plurality of subjectivity and consciousness themselves. Who was I before this text? Who am I today?

The “event” here refers to that which can not be discerned, the conceptual framework that exists outside of language, the point at which one’s mind is most open-minded, “a rupture in ontology, a being-in-itself—through which the subject finds her realization and reconciliation with ‘truth.’” [ix] Or, the shadow of narrative history, a textualized séance, and a “phantasmogenetic center”—that “point in space so modified by the presence of a spirit that it becomes perceptible to persons materially present near it.” The ghost lives in and is alive in writing, and the text is the site of its conjuration and activation. Who is haunting whom?

Perhaps this influence of the spirit of the text and the ghosts of the inexhaustible labyrinths of time even erases the “I” we hold on to so dearly. Could we go as far as Lichtenberg’s proposal that instead of “I think,” we should say “It thinks,” as we say “It thunders” or “There is lightning.” Or as Borges relates, “There is not, behind the face, a secret self governing our acts or receiving our impressions; we are only the series of those imaginary acts and those errant impressions.” [x] Perhaps this postulates a different sort of precision than the one we seem to be building. Too, though, as Schopenhauer declared, “The world is my representation,” and so I persist in the awful vastness of knowledge that is yet to be united.

We’re talking too of the “blind spots” in Derrida’s grammatology, those stress-points in the text where readers are forced to confront themselves and their relationship with the ideological project the text presents, those “blind spots” around which all else in the text revolves, the reader encountering a reinscribed truth through the narrative context of the text, a context that becomes part of the larger, stratified context of the “world” at large. Or also, as Paul de Man puts it: “[T]his is the point at which literariness, the use of language that foregrounds the rhetorical…intervenes as a decisive but unsettling element which, in a variety of modes and aspects, disrupts the inner balance of the model and consequently, its outward extension to the nonverbal world as well.” [xi]

I want to consider Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity—that there are moments in space and time where and when the physical world becomes a text to be read and interpreted, where and when the event is structured not by casual networks of matter but by symbolic references producing meaning. Jeffrey Kripal relates these processes of writing and reading to paranormal processes, coining the phrase “authors of the impossible.” [xii] And it is this reaching for impossibility that for me unites the “beyond” haunting metaphysics and a personal writing practice.

In a text, there is so much that is unspeakable, but also the words of so many voices echo in the “just beyond.” In the search for a concrete “I,” we slip, waver, stare at the moon, and make assumptions. A limited view locates ghosts in the past. But it is more precise to say that their roots lie in the future, in a reading not yet realized but being realized presently. This is the dream: that the gesture of tomorrow becomes animated by the intentions of now’s many, that the investigation of today’s world influences the words of an excessively omnipresent future. I articulate my love for you and with the words something becomes fixed, something is utterly lost, something is utterly regained. I both fear and work toward with all my being the ability to articulate, to express.

Narrative is the ghost speaking on the threshold of being. The materiality and literality of writing become the foundation for the revenants that haunt our texts. There are ghosts in writing everywhere, offering hope or glimpses of apocalyptic cognition. I will write something. One day I will die.

It is the cognitive estrangement that arises out of encounters with ghosts that brings about cognitive change, the paranormal as instigative, narrativization as understanding, understanding as the creation of meaning, the beginning of subjectivity.

          Friend, this is enough. Should you wish to read more,
          Go and yourself become the writing, yourself the essence.
                    —Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann VI, 263 (1675)
                              [Translation quoted in Borges: “A New Refutation of Time” [xiii]

 


References

[i] Title of post on HTMLGIANT by Christopher Higgs (Feb. 23, 2012): http://htmlgiant.com/random/what-specter-haunts-the-sentence-weve-created/.

[ii] Derrida, Jacques. Cited in Appelbaum, David. Jacques Derrida’s Ghost: A Conjuration. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009.

[iii] As yet unpublished collaborative text by Janice Lee, Joe Milazzo and Laura Vena titled “On Possible Narratives, Narrative Possibility, and the Possibilities for Narrative.”

[iv] Antin, David. “David Antin, On Narrative: The Beggar and the King.” Pacific Coast Philology 30.2 (1995): 143-154. Rpt. in Poems and Poetics. http://poemsandpoetics.blogspot.com/2010/06/david-antin-on-narrative-beggar-and.html.

[v] Pierre-Jean Jouve. “La poésie est rare.” Cited in Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

[vi] Lee, Janice. “The Ghosts of I’ll Drown My Book.” Dear Navigator (Spring, 2011): http://blogs.saic.edu/dearnavigator/spring2011/janice-lee-the-ghosts-of-ill-drown-my-book/.

[vii] Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letter to Clara Rilke. 10 October, 1907. “Introduction.” The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Trans. Burton Pike. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2008.

[viii] Alexander, Will and Janice Lee. The Transparent At Witness. Solar Luxuriance, 2013.

[ix] Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. New York: Continuum, 2006.

[x] Borges, Jorge Luis. “A New Refutation of Time.” Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Weinberger, et. al. New York: Penguin, 1999.

[xi] De Man, Paul. The Resistance to Theory. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 33. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

[xii] Kripal, Jeffrey. Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[xiii] Borges, Jorge Luis. “A New Refutation of Time.” Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Weinberger, et. al. New York: Penguin, 1999.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

One does not write for the pleasure of it. It is a miserable task, finding words to describe events, to express feelings. The brain and the heart have never been so incompatible. László Krasznahorkai writes about being “[c]ondemned to look, yet at the same time to be deprived of sight.”* This is the constant state of writing, the threshold between sanity and insanity, between knowing everything and knowing nothing, between absolute misery and hell and pure desire and love. Writing exists because language fails. Because language always fails, we write and we keep writing. My friend Joe Milazzo and I talk about failure in writing. The greatest works of literature are magnificent and brilliant failures. And those works considered “successful” today are dull, boring, agreeable. Joe tweets: “If it’s a success on its own terms, it’s a failure, albeit a magnificent one. If it’s a failure on its own terms, it’s a success, just not a very interesting one.”** Fine, I say. I accept the wager and fate of failure. My goal, then, will be to fail as absolutely and magnificently as I possibly can. This is the most I can hope for.

* Krasznahorkai, László. “About a Photographer.” Translated by George Szirtes. Music & Literature Issue 2. Spring 2013.

** Milazzo, Joe. @slowstudies.

 

Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), and Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), an obsessive response to the films of Béla Tarr. She currently lives in Los Angeles where she is Co-Editor of [out of nothing], Reviews Editor at HTMLGIANT, Editor of the new #RECURRENT Novel Series for Jaded Ibis Press, Co-Executive Editor at ENTROPY, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design. She currently teaches at CalArts and can be found online at http://janicel.com.

Instead

Poetry / Thomas March

:: Instead ::

There is no need to note
the pointlessness of things,
the grave utilities
of chemicals—the blood—
of all those things to come—
the wracking, wretched things—
the burning and the bile—

no—someone else will know
them all eventually
and better than you know—

no—testify instead
not of the life to come
but of bacon, the taste
of fried chicken. Speak of
chocolate—of all such things
so much farther away—
if you cannot 
		          say nothing.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem began in a master class with Marie Howe at Poets House in New York. We were asked to think about forms of expressing negation. These poems about what the dying require of the living were at the ready, as I had been struggling since March, when someone essential to me died of cancer, to find a way to express what I was learning about grief. I am still learning about grief. It unfolds. But I was ready, then, to consider what I had learned about how best to be useful and honest before death, by being present through the many stages of that illness.

When someone you love accepts the agonizing task of dying—by which I mean to say that they come both to face the inevitability of the death while also wrenching from each day its available hope—you realize soon enough that there is nothing more that you can do. There is an urge to be useful, to offer advice, to say the comforting thing. But there is no easy way to know what that thing is. Everyone involved is engaged in a process of release, release without relinquishing. The dying release the attachment to the physical, to the known. The living, if they can bear it, release the need to be wise, to be useful in ways that are no longer useful. And as we do these things, we struggle, too, not to relinquish the very connections that have brought us together in the first place—shared loves, shared visions, understandings.

Friendship—love—accustoms us to being of use in so many ways that are no longer helpful, from the trivial to the essential: giving advice, returning calls, validating, sharing outrage, exchanging gifts, picking up the check. There is no balancing of the ledger, once dying begins and there are no more dinners, no more birthdays, no more daily outrages, only the one. It is easy to forget that being present and attentive has been the essence of every thing we have actively done. And it is the one thing that, in the end, remains most useful.

Presence requires and bestows a grace of its own. To love is not to flinch, even and especially at the sight of horrors and heartbreaks previously unimaginable. The sooner we realize that we have no advice to offer for this thing we cannot possibly understand—that what is happening and what is to come are equally beyond our ken—the sooner we can be of use again, by acknowledging suffering, allowing questions to remain questions, bearing witness.

 

Originally from Springfield, Illinois, Thomas March is a poet, teacher, and critic who lives in New York City. He is a recent recipient of the Norma Millay Ellis Fellowship in Poetry, awarded by the Millay Colony for the Arts, and an Artist Grant from the Vermont Studio Center. Twice a finalist for the Southwest Review’s Morton Marr Poetry Prize, he is finishing his first collection of poetry, as well as a full-length play, Unbecoming. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Assaracus, Bellevue Literary Review, Chelsea Station, Confrontation, Kin, and RHINO. His criticism has appeared in American Book Review, The Believer, New Letters, and other journals.

Sonnet (8)

Poetry / Nikki Wallschlaeger

:: Sonnet (8) ::

                   

                    Do not feed the negativity machine
                    it gives us light, beautiful signs of blight
                    We should all be oyster joyous & keyless
                    When we have our geometries managed
                    And the intersections waiting on tables
                    showing us how to be better at patience
                    We can feel a little now when the mayors of
                    The dead have taken care of the layering
                    Before the next afterparty is born
                    That we are going to be abundantly
                    Pleasant & quiet on a payday afternoon.

                    
                    “We’re only human,” says guidance counselor.
                    “When you accept yourself, everyone wins.”

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Form is everywhere & it’s useless to deny it, so I like to play with the illusion of having control. This is from a series of sonnets that I’ve placed into small buildings, but since the bank owns the buildings that I move in, I am only paying mortgage. We have an understanding. The sonnet has agreed to the task of my subversions, that the security guard is on a permanent lunch break so we can get inside. A window that is open on the top floor? A claw in the painting? These are my micro-victories against hegemony.

 

Nikki Wallschlaegers work has been featured in DecomP, Esque, Word Riot,
Spork, Likewise Folio, Horse Less Review, Storyscape Journal, Coconut,
Bone Bouquet (forthcoming, in collaboration with Laura Goldstein), and others.
She is also the author of the chapbook THE FROGS AT NIGHT (Shirt Pocket
Press) and the chapbook, I WOULD BE THE HAPPIEST BIRD (Horseless Press), as well as Associate Poetry Editor at Coconut Poetry. She lives in Milwaukee,
WI, and you can reach her at www.nikkiwallschlaeger.com.

The Drummer

Fiction / Jamey Hatley

:: The Drummer ::

In all but the worst weather, the Deacons held court where Elder Road dead-ended into Horn Lake Road. By the time most of the neighbors in Walker Homes headed to work or school, this fluid assortment of old men and younger laze-abouts were already installed at their post in the shelter of a huge oak that is older than Walker Homes itself. While the rest of Walker Homes ate breakfast, the Deacons sipped from tall beers or pint bottles of bourbon concealed in brown paper sacks. As those who were work or school bound passed, the Deacons sipped and shouted cordial greetings. There were complaints about the Deacons drinking out on the street, their lack of ambition bringing down the neighborhood, but we came to depend on them for their regularity and gossip. This daily meeting, regular as taxes, we called the convocation. It was this regularity that left the Deacons the only witnesses to Cliffus Bobo’s last hour on earth.

It was so blue-black dark that morning that the stars burst through the canopy of the Deacons’ oak like dazzling unreachable fruit.  Cliffus Bobo, newly retired from the Memphis sanitation department, made his way toward them from the Gap, his white hair almost iridescent in the moonlight. The Deacons didn’t register this as strange. The space between 113 and 115 Elder Cove had always been a shortcut—first to the woods that still lay to the back of Walker Homes, and later to Turner King’s workshop. Since Turner King’s infant son died in 1968 (the same year that other King was killed in Memphis) he was a virtual insomniac. From late at night to early morning he could be found in his shed, woodworking or weeping to WDIA on the radio. The space right between night and morning was when the residents of Walker Homes stopped to ask for a few dollars until the next payday or to borrow a tool.

“Hey, Chief!” they called out to Cliffus Bobo, who was dressed in his uniform from the sanitation department. The Deacons had only shaken off sleep enough to tumble to their places under their oak, so none of them recalled that Bobo had finally retired just a few weeks before.

“Doctor! Doctor! Where your car? You headed to work?”

“You not broke down, are you?”

“Bobo! Wake up! Mane. You okay?”

Bobo steadily made his way toward them without ever showing any sign that he saw or heard them. When he reached where Elder Road dead-ended into Horn Lake, right in front of the Deacons’ oak, he stepped off the curb without so much as a glance in either direction. The Deacons thought for a moment that he was coming to join them, but instead he made a crisp turn to their right and continued on his way.

“The hell?”

“You think he sleep?”

“Walking?”

“People do all kind of shit in they sleep.”

“Maybe we ought to catch him.”

“Catch him. Catch him? Negro, you got a net?”

“Watch him, then.”

The Deacons followed a few paces behind him. Bobo kept a lively pace until he finally came to a stop at the corner of Mitchell and Third Street. At first they thought he was waiting to cross the street, but the light changed several times.

Still, Bobo waited.

The Deacons waited, too.

Cliffus Bobo kept looking straight ahead of him. The lonely whistle of a train sounded in the distance. Out from under the leafy canopy of their oak, the Deacons could fully appreciate the map of piercing lights above them and the moon heavy and full, watching, waiting with them. A breeze twirled itself around them, bringing the heavy scent of white flowers, jasmine or maybe gardenia. One of the Deacons closed his eyes and with a deep breath filled himself with the memory of a woman whose neck smelled exactly like this friendly breeze. For an hour or so, not a single car passed and it seemed to the Deacons that another car might never travel down Highway 61 again.

It was all very pleasant.

The Deacons broke out their bottles and passed them around. To shake off the melancholy of the smell of the woman’s neck (she was long-dead, anyhow), the Deacons got down to their usual business.

“Them locusts tearing up y’all’s yard?”

“Locusts? This ain’t Egypt.”

“Who says it ain’t? Memphis was in Egypt. The O-riginal.”

“That right?”

“Yes, it is right. In the B-I-B-L-E. Some of us can and do read, thank you very much.”

“Cicadas.”

“Whatever you call ‘em, them thangs crawling up from underground and climbing up the trees. That tree right by the Gap is full of them. And I tell you this, that little King girl was out there just staring at them.”     

“That little girl is a haint, I tell you. I know you ain’t supposed to say it, but she just give me a chill all the way down in my bones when I see her. Look. She always watching you out that window with them eyes. Ain’t natural.”

“Lots of folk stare. Staring is just looking. What’s wrong with looking?”

“You think just cause she a kid she innocent, that she free? I saw her yestiddy just staring in that tree. With a notebook. And she keep some kinda big book. Books too big for her. Something just ain’t right with that. Not right at all.”

“Well, she is a little spooky.”

“That ain’t her fault. She gets it honest. You can’t blame her for her people. You don’t get to choose your people.”

“I don’t blame her for her people. But that don’t mean that I don’t watch out. I’m not like Eve and just going to let a snake get me in my own garden if I can help it.”

Cliffus Bobo just peacefully waited. He smiled at the Deacons and they took this as a sign that he was coming around.

“Well look at that.”

“I’ll be damned.”

“Whoa, stop baby.”

 A thin wall of lazy fog closed across Third Street like a curtain. The Deacons split up to inspect the fog. It was only about the width of a cinderblock, but almost opaque. They laughed and stuck their hands through the fog, grabbing for each other and making rude hand gestures. One poked his head through to the other side like he was peeking in a window. Another danced across the street, letting the fog consume his center until he was just wiggling arms and legs on either side of the fog.

While the fog transformed the Deacons back into children, Cliffus Bobo took three elegant hops into the center of the southbound lane of Highway 61 and continued his waiting. The Deacons abandoned their individual posts for the side of the fog with Bobo. Once they were all assembled on his side of the fog, Bobo stretched his arms wide and folded himself into a deep bow. An exhausted soul singer’s third encore.

The noise was so great the Deacons expected something huge was coming—a train deposited in the middle of the road or the watching, waiting moon crashing down from the sky. The careening wail of brakes seemed to explode the fog, revealing a Chevy Bel Air station wagon. The plane hood ornament of the Bel Air was less than an arm’s length from Cliffus Bobo when the driver swerved into the opposite lane, overcorrected and finally crashed into a light pole.

Only after the car made impact down the road did Cliffus Bobo start to lift from his bow and fall—gently, ever so gently backward like a candidate for baptism, into the waiting arms of the Deacons.

“Lucky motherfucker!”

When the police arrive, the Deacons will leave out that they laughed. That they were dazzled by Bobo’s lithe grace and elegant strut. That they had been applauding when he took his bow. That when he lifted his arms in triumph they had laughed so hard they had to clutch their hearts. That until the stunned white man staggered over to them and shook his head no no no no, did they realize that something was wrong. This the Deacons will leave out when they try to explain it. 

The white man broke the brim of his fedora in his hands again and again. A lively trickle of blood traveled from a gash on his head down his face. He could not stop shaking. The Deacons assured him that his car didn’t hit Bobo, but even he did not seem to trust them.  He took them in with his icy eyes and stumbled across the street to the payphone. The Deacons started to hate him right at that moment because not a single one of them had thought to call the ambulance. Only then did one of them leave to go get Bobo’s wife. The Deacons formed a tight cluster and took turns holding Cliffus Bobo up. Across the street, the white man made telephone calls and paced.

The police couldn’t make much of the white man or the Deacons. There was no trace of any fog by the time they arrived. The old man’s body was covered with scars, but those were scabbed over, already ancient. The driver was a stranger, but white, and the police were familiar enough with the Deacons to know that they were almost always in some stage of intoxication. Each of them had been locked up for holding in the colored weekend jail on Horn Lake. As each one told the story the others added a flurry of head nodding and “yes, shole did”s. The Deacons were used to being mistrusted, so they often added so much to any tale that their lies and truths were indistinguishable. “What happened? What happened?” their neighbors asked. The Deacons were sick from their lack of answers.

The Deacons had discovered that the driver was employed as a drummer, one of those traveling salesmen who roamed from town to town. The Drummer specialized in ladies’ clothing and accessories and was headed to Mississippi. He had a rack full of the latest summer fashions hung on a rod across the backseat of the now ruined Bel Air. He was a tall, rangy white man with pomaded hair and such bumpy, terrible skin that the Deacons will later marvel that the man could even shave without slicing his face up. The Drummer suffered a busted tire, a bent rim, and nightmares for the rest of his life over a man who he hadn’t even hit, much less killed.

The Drummer walked back to his vehicle. The light pole was cracked and now leaned precariously over the Bel Air. After several tries, the Drummer wrenched the door open. It made a sound like a wounded animal. He disappeared into the car save his legs sticking out of the door. As the Deacons watched, they willed the pole to snap, to seal both the Drummer and their laughter inside of his car forever. He finally emerged with something that looked like black wings cloaked over his shoulders. The glass fixture from the light pole crashed to the ground and missed him by inches. Even the cops startled. One of the ambulance men stifled a curse, stamped out his cigarette in the street and lit another one. The Drummer didn’t even glance back.

The Drummer lumbered back up the street toward the growing crowd. He seemed to be favoring his left foot now, and the gash on his forehead was bleeding through the bandage. Still, the Drummer continued on. The neighbors gasped when they realized he was headed toward the new widow. Later, they will be thankful that Gladys Bobo will never know that she was standing in the same exact spot that her husband did before his final strut. The Deacons watched the Drummer shuffle up the street and were thankful that Turner King and Rabbit Grace were there with Mrs. Bobo. The Deacon who retrieved her will rest a tiny bit better than the others since he had the presence of mind to stop by Turner King’s house first (even if it was to postpone his own terror). Walker Homes kept their eyes fixed on The Drummer because you can never tell what a white man could do. When the Drummer turned to face Mrs. Bobo, they saw that his black wings were actually a canvas garment bag. The Drummer stumbled a bit and Rabbit held out his arm in warning. The Drummer leaned his ruined face toward Gladys Bobo’s ear. Even those closest couldn’t make out what he said. Gladys Bobo blinked but did not seem to answer. They both trembled.

The Deacons wanted to punish the Drummer for exerting so much effort to avoid hitting the man that was as good as their family. They wanted to punish the Drummer because he had proof of his efforts—a destroyed car and bandaged head. They wanted Gladys Bobo to slap the Drummer because they were so busy laughing at Bobo’s grand luck that they didn’t even know he was dead until the Drummer shook his head no, no, no.

The Deacons wanted the Drummer punished because even with his terrible skin he was free to drive all around the country with the rack of colorful dresses that allowed entry to all manner of women’s spaces. Because those women laughed in his presence and asked him advice about their underthings. Because those women held out their lovely wrists for him to spray with perfume. Because for the Drummer, the soft smell of white flowers on a graceful neck was not a just a dead memory, but his life. Because these women fussed over him and fed him and thought of him fondly.

Only fondly.

The Deacons felt the slap for the Drummer twitch in their own hands. Their own faces throbbed, waiting. The Drummer snatched his misshapen hat off his head and draped the bag across his arms like a bride he was about to carry across a threshold. The Deacons waited for Mrs. Bobo to throw the bag into the street or for Rabbit to punch the man in his teeth. Mrs. Bobo blinked past the Drummer into the intersection and slowly took in the shape draped in white on the stretcher. When she was done, with some effort it seemed, she settled her gaze on the Drummer. He lifted his iced green eyes from the ground to meet hers. With his face in full view now, the Deacons were shocked to see that the Drummer was waiting for the slap as well. The Deacons knew the Drummer’s face because it was also theirs, lurking in the mirrors they tried to avoid. 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Whenever my mother saw a car with a clothing rack full of product stretched across the backseat, she would say, “That person must be a drummer or something.” My parents are from Mississippi, so I just assumed it was some sort of country slang. Not until I was an adult reading William Faulkner did I see “drummer” in print, used just as my mother did, as an old-fashioned term for traveling salesman. As I wrote the scene of Cliffus Bobo’s accident, the car came to me through the fog and I saw it clearly. I had been holding on to that image for most of my life, and now my drummer had found his place into my work. The first draft of this scene came out in a single burst, which is very rare for me. It felt more like watching than writing. When I finished the scene, I looked out of the café window and saw a mini-van with a rack of clothes stretched across the backseat waiting for the light to change.

 

Jamey Hatley is a native of Memphis, TN. Her writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Torch, and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History. She believes in the healing power of stories and sweet tea.

Three Works

Art / Gail Buono

From the artist

:: Account ::

The three pieces of mine chosen for this issue represent an intriguing juxtaposition: each reveals a varying stage of development, so to speak, from ethereal (“Oracle I”) to dimensional (“The Oracle Observes”) to symbolic (“Portal to Steam Pool”). These works on paper are made by different processes, from monotype with collage element, to collage elements individually monoprinted and assembled, to a digital overlay of images.

I came upon the sphinx image during my wanderings on the grounds of Versailles. It was one of four sphinx sculptures (each with a unique face) adorning a portico, surrounding what I refer to as a “tryst” place (i.e. a hexagonal, one room, enclosed structure, entered through multiple French doors). I was immediately drawn to the sweetness of this sphinx’s face, and considered her to be a perfect representation for my contemplative Oracle. I’ve placed her inside this architectural structure, as I have imagined a shrine at Delphi would be.

In “Oracle I,” utilizing the monotype process, the element of chance and mystery play a large role in the outcome, as it does in the Sphinx’s nature and interaction. In “The Oracle Observes,” photographic and abstract elements encircle the Oracle in her decision-making process. Finally, in “Portal to Steam Pool,” the Oracle is represented by the 12-pointed star.

I have combined photography and abstraction in my printmaking and collage work for many years. More recently, the digital prints weave an abstract relationship between my landscape photographs and imagery from my paintings, depicting dual realities inhabiting the same space/time continuum. They create a sense of being portals that open to new metaphysical worlds.

 

Gail Buono received a BFA in Painting from The School of Visual Arts in New York City. She is the recipient of two painting fellowships from the NJ State Council on the Arts, as well as a “Distinguished Artist Award.” Her work has been exhibited/collected throughout the U.S. and in Europe. She has lived/worked in Santa Fe, NM since mid-2006. To see more of her work, please visit her website: www.gailbuono.com.

A. R. Ammons, Pragmatism, and “The Philosophy Poem”

Criticism / Andrew Epstein

:: “Uh, Philosophy”: A. R. Ammons, Pragmatism, and “The Philosophy Poem” ::

Over two thousand years ago, in The Republic, Plato famously referred to the “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” as part of his argument for banishing poets from his ideal society. If it was already “ancient” then, clearly the vibrant, sometimes heated dialogue between poetry and philosophy has a long history. Over the course of two millennia, this conversation has taken many forms. Philosophers, for example, have followed Plato’s lead and sought to distinguish their own mode of inquiry from poetry, or even to elevate it above poetry as a higher pursuit. They have also approached poetry philosophically, in terms of aesthetics, seeking to define and understand it as a distinctive genre and human activity. Or they have longed to emulate the freedom, creativity, and eloquence of poetry in their own field. For their part, poets have drawn contrasts between poetic expression and philosophical thought, often privileging poetry in the process. Or they have made claims for their own medium’s ability to be a potent vehicle for philosophical investigation, or have wished for poetry to share the rigor, precision, and gravitas of philosophy.

Obviously, this is a long and complicated story, and the list of poets who engage philosophical themes, or whose work can be discussed in terms of philosophy, is nearly endless. Few poems, however, address philosophy as explicitly and succinctly as “Uh, Philosophy,” a poem by A. R. Ammons, written in about 1959, and published in the collection Northfield Poems (1966). In fact, Ammons’s poem is a potent example of one of the most recent manifestations of this old debate: the emergence of what I refer to as “the philosophy poem.” This is a type of poem, written by a wide range of poets in the 20th and 21st centuries, that makes the conversation between poetry and philosophy explicit. A “philosophy poem” not only explores philosophical problems, but directly addresses philosophy as a field, depicts the act of reading philosophy, or takes pains to contrast poetry and philosophy. Such poems frequently mention particular philosophers by name, quote from philosophical texts, or address specific ideas and concepts from works of philosophy.

At the same time, such poems rarely seek to present a straightforward treatise on philosophical concepts. For example, Ammons’s poem is deliberately slippery and contradictory, winding its way through syntactically complex phrases, doubts, hesitations, self-corrections, and paradoxes. As such, it embodies an essential feature of the broader category of “the philosophy poem”: such works are not designed to function like an essay or scholarly argument, but rather to play out ideas in motion, to dramatize intellectual debates and problems, and to chart how a mind might grapple with such ideas and their effects upon our lives.

The philosophy poem moves to the fore in the modernist period: it can be seen in innumerable poems by Wallace Stevens, like “To an Old Philosopher in Rome” (about George Santayana) or “Description Without Place” (with its references to Nietzsche), in William Butler Yeats’ “Among School Children” (with its reflection on Plato and Aristotle), W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” or Delmore Schwartz’s poems “In the Naked Bed, In Plato’s Cave” and “The Ghosts of James and Peirce in Harvard Yard.”

In the period since World War II, “the philosophy poem” has flourished to such an extent that it seems to constitute a mini-genre all its own. Within this mode, poets appeal to philosophy directly in order to take stock of specific philosophical ideas—often new or fashionable ways of thinking—and to wrestle with the implications of those concepts. Robert Hass’s celebrated response to the advent of post-structuralism and deconstruction, “Meditation at Lagunitas” (1979), is exemplary:

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies. (4)

Alongside this well-known example, one could place a whole array of poems, like John Ashbery’s playful poem “My Philosophy of Life,” which begins:

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough 
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea – 
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly, 
it involved living the way philosophers live, 
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones? (73)

Ashbery’s rambling, half-serious investigation turns on the lines “then you remember something William James wrote in some book of his you never read,” ultimately becoming more of a tribute to “the gaps between ideas” than philosophy proper.

The philosophy poem varies widely in terms of form, subject matter, theme, and philosophies and philosophers addressed. The mini-genre ranges from Richard Wilbur’s “Epistemology” to Robert Creeley’s “Reading of Emmanuel Levinas,” from Ann Lauterbach’s “Platonic Subject” to David Shapiro’s “The Counter-Example” (which responds to Gottlob Frege), from Philip Whalen’s quotations from Heraclitus in “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” to David Lehman’s “Wittgenstein’s Ladder” or David Kirby’s meditation on deconstruction in “Dear Derrida.” It includes, as well, any number of book-length projects, like Rosmarie Waldrop’s encounter with Wittgenstein in The Reproduction of Profiles or Susan Howe’s with Charles Sanders Peirce in Pierce-Arrow. Over the past decade or two, such examples have seemed to multiply, including recent poems like Erin Belieu’s “The Body is a Big Sagacity” (which addresses and responds to Nietzsche), Ariana Reines’ riffing on Alain Badiou in “[Trying to see the proportional relation],” and Ana Božičević’s “About Nietzsche.”

Because Ammons’s poem “Uh, Philosophy” so pointedly and playfully reflects on the act of reading philosophy and shows a speaker thinking his way through the implications of certain philosophical ideas, it encapsulates many of the features of the philosophy poem and seems to anticipate its flowering over the ensuing decades. It is hardly surprising that Ammons, of all poets, would write such a poem, as he is generally considered one of the most overtly philosophical of contemporary poets. Much like Wallace Stevens, who devotes his entire body of poetry to ruminating on the relationship between imagination and reality, Ammons’s poetry endlessly weighs, tests, and ponders the dialectical tensions between a set of interconnected binaries. In Willard Spiegelman’s words, “Ammons tells us over and over that his main theme, perhaps his sole one, is the relationship between the one and the many, and this old pre-Socratic dichotomy, along with variants (inside versus outside, up versus down, center versus periphery, freedom-verging-on-entropy versus stability-turning-into-imprisonment), is his obsession” (112). In poems, interviews, and essays, Ammons announces that his poetry is one long meditation on the nagging philosophical problem of how to reconcile unity and diversity, the general and the particular, abstract ideas and concrete particulars.

However, in “Uh, Philosophy” Ammons addresses philosophy qua philosophy even more explicitly than in most of his work. Here is the poem in its entirety: 

I understand 
   reading the modern philosophers
that truth is so much a method
       it’s perfectly all
right for me to believe whatever
   I like or if I like,

nothing:
   I do not know that I care to be set that free
I am they say
       at liberty to be
provisional, to operate
expediently, do not have to commit myself

to impeturbables, outright 
   legislations, hardfast rules:
they say I can 
       prefer any truths 
whatever 
   suits my blood,

blends with my proclivities, my temperament:
   I suppose they mean I’ve had more experience than I can 
ever read about, taking in
       as I do 
possibly a hundred sensations per second, conscious
   and unconscious

and making a vegetal at least
   synthesis
from them all, so that
       philosophy is
a pry-pole, materialization,
   useful as a snowshovel when it snows:

something solid to knock people down with
   or back people up with:
I don’t know that I care to be backed up in just that way:
       the philosophy gives clubs to 
everyone, and I prefer disarmament:
   that is, I would rather relate

to the imperturbable objective
   than be the agent of 
“possibly unsatisfactory eventualities”:
       isn’t anything plain true:
if I had something
   to conform to (without responsibility)

I wouldn’t feel so hot and sticky:
   (but I must be moved by what I am moved by):
they do say, though, I must give some force to facts,
       must bend that way enough,
be in on the gist of “concrete observations,” 
   must be pliant to the drift (roll with the knocks):

they say, too, I must halter my fancy
   mare
with these blinding limitations: 
      I don’t know that I can go along with that either:
for though I’ve proved myself stupid by 33 years
   of getting nowhere

I must nevertheless be given credit for the sense wherewith
   I decided to never set out:
What are facts if I can’t line them up 
       anyway I please
and have the freedom
   I refused I think in the beginning?  (95-7)

By wrestling with the precepts and conclusions of “the modern philosophers,” Ammons speaks to issues that resonate throughout a broad range of twentieth- and twenty-first century poetry. For instance: do we have access to any objective reality? Does “truth” exist, or only partial and contingent truths? What are the consequences of embracing the anti-foundationalism and relativism that characterizes so much twentieth-century thought? What would it mean to accept some of the new, perhaps unsettling ideas drawn from recent philosophy and theory—to live with them, as both a writer and a person? Can one—especially if one is a poet or artist, or perhaps a philosopher—find a wholly materialist or empiricist philosophical conception of the universe satisfying? What is the relationship between philosophical inquiry and poetic expression anyway?

The poem suggests Ammons’s uneasy relationship with philosophy itself. Even the title “Uh, Philosophy,” with its slangy stuttering, seems designed both to evoke and then undermine the idea of “a philosophy” (as in “let me tell you about a philosophy I read about”). With that initial “uh,” Ammons seems to ironically undercut the validity, the efficacy, the grandeur of philosophy as a pursuit. In the end, the poem seems to pull away from philosophy itself in favor of a kind of negative capability—an acceptance of not-knowing, an embrace of the concrete sensuous world, that Ammons presumably associates with poetry (as opposed to “philosophy” proper). Ammons articulates a similar idea about the inutility of philosophical truths or absolutes in another well-known early poem, “Gravelly Run”: “no use to make any philosophies here: / I see no / god in the holly, hear no song from / the unbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter / yellow in the pines” (56).

However, as I will suggest, Ammons’s attitude in “Uh, Philosophy” may be more complicated than it appears at first. As Laurence Lieberman observes in one of the few discussions of this poem, Ammons is “an original philosopher in his poetry, though he often parades in the guise of poet-as-anti-philosopher” (315). “In ‘Uh, Philosophy,’” Lieberman notes, “he cuts deeper into the subject the more he pretends, with graceful offhandedness, to dismiss its importance.”

But by doing so, Ammons does not really wash his hands of philosophy entirely. Instead, he seems to throw his lot in with one particular branch of modern philosophy with great importance to poetry: American pragmatism. Indeed, I read Ammons as a poet deeply invested in the American pragmatist tradition—the lineage that stems from the more grounded and skeptical side of the many-faceted Emerson, moves through the thought of William James, Peirce, and John Dewey, to modernist poets like Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Marianne Moore, down to the “New American Poetry” of the 1950s and beyond. In recent years, many critics have examined the influence of pragmatism on modernist literature, and especially on American poetry. Following the lead of Richard Poirier, critics have argued for pragmatism’s importance to modernist figures like Henry James, Stevens, Frost, Moore, and Gertrude Stein, to the African-American tradition of W. E. B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Ralph Ellison, and Amiri Baraka, to the jazz and blues tradition, and to the postwar poetry of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, David Antin, Susan Howe, and others. [1] But Ammons has been absent from those discussions, and his abundant connections to pragmatist thinking and poetics have been overlooked by Ammons’s critics, who have more often viewed him as a nature poet, a latter-day Romantic and transcendentalist. This is a particularly strange omission given that Ammons’s obsessions, even his vocabulary, are often strikingly similar to those at the heart of the philosophy of William James and other pragmatists—the “one and the many,” monism versus pluralism, the nature of attention and perception, the importance of the local, small-scale, and marginal, and so on.

“Uh, Philosophy” is a fairly early Ammons poem, one that catches him at a transitional moment as he struggles to leave behind the mystical, visionary poems of his earliest work and moves toward the more pragmatist outlook he would soon adopt. As they turn away from the unity and finality of a monistic outlook and accept a universe of flux and diversity, Ammons’s poems register a deep ambivalence about both the gains and losses of such a view. For example, in the poem “Guide,” he acknowledges the dangers of any unifying or totalizing view of the world: “you cannot come to unity and remain material: / in that perception is no perceiver: / when you arrive / you have gone too far.” But he also notes that this recognition is “the sin you weep and praise”—it is an unsettling wisdom, one that makes the speaker simultaneously “glad and sad.”

Similarly, in “Uh, Philosophy” Ammons stages an internal debate about pragmatist philosophy and its consequences. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the anti-philosophical gestures one finds in “Uh, Philosophy”—its impatience with philosophy itself—are actually quite similar to characteristic moves of pragmatism, which has often been described as “anti-philosophical” because of its emphasis on avoiding the pitfalls of traditional philosophic inquiry. Thanks to what the neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty sees as its “postphilosophical” attitude about the field itself, pragmatism has often been seen as a way of doing philosophy without philosophy.

To return to the poem’s opening stanza, when Ammons refers to modern philosophy’s attitudes about “truth,” “method,” the will to “believe” in whatever one wishes, and relativism, he immediately gestures toward key words and concepts of modern philosophy, and especially to buzzwords from the pragmatist lexicon. It almost sounds as if he has just read and set aside James’s chapters on “What Pragmatism Means,” “The Will to Believe,” and “Pragmatism’s Conception of the Truth” (with its argument that pragmatism “is a method only” and “does not stand for any special results”), or perhaps a more recent text in dialogue with pragmatism, like Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method.

Ammons invokes the pragmatist preference for plural truths and its skepticism of monism and absolutes. At the same time, he also echoes the familiar (and much debated) negative characterization of pragmatism as envisioned by its detractors—that it is little more than a blithe endorsement of a profound relativism, a philosophy that holds one can believe whatever one wants or even nothing at all. The poem acknowledges that such a stance may be liberating, but also recoils from this perhaps troubling notion and its ramifications:

   I do not know that I care to be set that free
I am they say
	at liberty to be
provisional, to operate
expediently, do not have to commit myself

to impeturbables, outright 
   legislations, hardfast rules.

Ammons again echoes some of the terms used to define, and at times criticize, pragmatist philosophy as an outlook which calls for us to respond to the world provisionally, and to view “truths” as merely expedient (“what in short is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” James famously asks).

To explain further the idea that truths grow out of the flow of experience rather than existing eternally on some ideal plane of universal truth, Ammons seems to echo James’s famous description of experience as a “blooming, buzzing confusion” we must navigate moment by moment:

   I suppose they mean I’ve had more experience than I can 
ever read about, taking in
as I do 
possibly a hundred sensations per second, conscious
   and unconscious

and making a vegetal at least
   synthesis
from them all.

From these modern philosophers, Ammons says he has learned that “philosophy is / a pry-pole, materialization, / useful as a snowshovel when it snows.” Although Ammons presents this in a somewhat negatively charged manner, pragmatists have always argued that philosophy should be a useful tool, to be employed in our everyday lives, rather than considered a final answer that ends our quest for answers to irresolvable metaphysical questions.

Noting that philosophy can also be used to “knock people down with / or back people up with,” and that “the philosophy gives clubs to / everyone,” Ammons claims, “I prefer disarmament.” In this way, the poet pulls back from the fray, the free-for-all quarrels of philosophic debate in a post-“Truth” context. “Isn’t anything plain true” the poem wonders rather poignantly. Well, no, the pragmatist would answer, not if you think “true” means some lasting, permanent quality inherent in an idea or thing, rather than something that happens to an idea in the course of experience.

Ultimately, Ammons’s poem seems to reel with queasiness, the vertigo that comes from accepting the anti-foundationalism of modern philosophy:

if I had something
   to conform to (without responsibility)

I wouldn’t feel so hot and sticky.

The speaker is palpably, physically discomforted by the recognition that he has no purchase on plain truth, nothing to hold on to. All that modern philosophers (like James or Wittgenstein) can offer us, Ammons suggests, is empiricism and experience rather than eternal verities or governing abstractions. What such an anti-idealist outlook demands is an attentiveness to the ever-flowing, ever-changing nature of a world defined by flux and chaotic dynamism:

they do say, though, I must give some force to facts,
	must bend that way enough,
be in on the gist of “concrete observations,” 
   must be pliant to the drift (roll with the knocks).

Here, Ammons seems to echo James’s famous definition of the pragmatist:

He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth. 

This privileging of facts, the close observation of concrete detail, and attentiveness to the contingency and flux of experience become the hallmarks of Ammons’s poetry from this point forward—a stance crystallized most succinctly and memorably in Ammons’s most famous poem, “Corsons Inlet,” which he would write soon after “Uh, Philosophy”:

        I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory: 
	still around the looser, wider forces work:
        I will try
to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening 
scope, but enjoying the freedom that 
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
        that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk. (151)

Within the realm of “Uh, Philosophy,” however, Ammons is less comfortable with the notion that “there is no finality of vision.” He balks at the idea that experience and facts must be revered above all else; the strictures of such a worldview seem too severe, too constricting. These philosophers, he avers, insist that “I must halter my fancy / mare / with these blinding limitations: / I don’t know that I can go along with that either” (96).

However, the stance Ammons challenges has more in common with the caricature of pragmatist philosophy presented by its critics than with pragmatism itself. James distanced his own stance from the “bugaboo empiricism” pragmatism’s “traditional rationalist critics” charge it with being—an outlook that “is accused of chopping up experience into atomistic sensations, incapable of union with one another” (Menand 133). James’s preferred mode—which he called “radical empiricism” to distinguish it from the bugaboo version—was actually designed to avoid the dangers of an atomistic view of the world as a mere collection of disconnected facts. Radical empiricism, like Ammons’ later poetry, takes into account the conjunctions and relations between things, by honoring the continuity of experience as well as its disjunctiveness.

In “Uh, Philosophy,” Ammons, like James, seems to reject the idea of a philosophy overly reliant upon facts and concrete observation. Even more so, he celebrates his own reluctance to go into battle armed with the blunt “club” of philosophy in the first place:

for though I’ve proved myself stupid by 33 years
   of getting nowhere

I must nevertheless be given credit for the sense wherewith
   I decided to never set out.

The passage mixes self-deprecation with a touch of self-congratulation. While the speaker admits that he, in his stupidity, may not have gotten very far yet in answering the big questions of life, he has also had the good sense to not try—to resist the promises of instrumental reason and goal-directed philosophy, and to opt, instead, for being a poet: one who is, as Keats famously argued, “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

In the end, he seems to elevate the imaginative freedom and creativity of the poet over the intellectual combat of the philosopher:

What are facts if I can’t line them up 
        anyway I please
and have the freedom
  I refused I think in the beginning?

At first blush this sounds like a defense of poetic license and creativity and a final dismissal of philosophy. However, as Lieberman observes, Ammons ironically ends up pretty much where the poem began—upholding the “freedom” to believe what one wants to believe (to line up facts as one pleases). As the poem itself notes, this is the very stance that he initially attributed to modern philosophy and “refused” at the start of the poem (or at least that he thinks he rejected earlier). [2] By charting all the paradoxes and uncertainties of the speaker’s dialogue with himself, the poem depicts a troubled mind, one that is simultaneously suspicious of and attracted to the lessons of modern philosophy.

Although at this stage he remains guardedly wary of the consequences of pragmatism, Ammons will return again and again to its lessons, and become much less anxious about their ramifications. For example, in the long poem “Hibernaculum,” from the later 1960s, Ammons is decidedly more comfortable asserting “my philosophy” than in the earlier poem:

I hope my philosophy will turn
out all right and turn out to be a philosophy so as
to free people (any who are trapped, as I have been) 

from seeking any image in the absolute or seeking
any absolute whatsoever except nothingness:
nothingness far from being failure’s puzzlement,

is really the point of lovely liberation, when
gloriously every object in and on earth becomes just
itself, total and marvelous in its exact scope. (379)

This passage, like the hymn “Amazing Grace,” suggests the speaker once was blind but now can see: he used to be trapped in a fruitless search for the absolute, but now has found a philosophy that has released him from that quest. This philosophy has taught him, as he hopes to teach others, to find “lovely liberation” in a view of the “nothingness” that characterizes the world. As in many Stevens poems, like “Evening Without Angels,” “On the Road Home,” or “The Latest Freed Man,” where human beings see the universe de-divinized and are thereby freed to embrace its sensuous particularity, here Ammons suggests that once the quest for “Truth” is relinquished, the world becomes a glorious riot of particular details, each valuable in its own right. This philosophy, which sounds an awful lot like pragmatism, “allows freedom to fall / back from the thrust of the absolute into the world // so manifold with things and beings: the hollyhock, / what a marvel, complete in itself: the bee, / how particular, how nothingness lets him buzz // around…” (380).

Ammons’s direct contemplation of such philosophical themes paves the way for the wealth of more recent “philosophy poems” that I discussed at the outset, which would include Charles Wright’s “Reading Rorty and Paul Celan One Morning Early June” (1995). Wright, like Ammons, tries on a philosophical concept, again drawn from pragmatism (in this case from the neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty), and weighs its implications for how we view the universe around us:

If truth is made and not found,  
                                                                    what an amazing world 
We live in, more secret than ever,
And beautiful of access….

If sentences constitute
                                                      everything we believe,
Vocabularies retool
Our inability to measure and get it right,
And languages don’t exist.
That’s one theory.  Here’s another:
Something weighs on our shoulders
And settles itself like black light
                                                       invisibly in our hair … (10-11)

Both Ammons and Wright, like Stevens before them, respond to pragmatist ideas about truth, language, and perception, and examine how they might change our experience and understanding of the sensual, concrete world. If there is no such thing as transcendence, no single explanations, no complete perception or absolute truth, it is less cause for despair or nihilism than for elation. Poets fueled by the insights of pragmatism often resemble Stevens’s “Latest Freed Man”—“tired of old descriptions of the world,” he woke up one day and “escaped from the truth,” only to discover “everything being more real,” “everything bulging and blazing and big in itself” (187).

By dramatizing an experience of “reading the modern philosophers,” by charting his own turn toward a poetry of pluralism and radical empiricism, Ammons’s “Uh, Philosophy” is an important contribution to the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy—a conversation that has animated American poetry for decades and continues to trouble and energize the poems of our moment. Having absorbed the lessons of pragmatism and other modern, anti-foundationalist philosophies, Ammons begins to move beyond the old scheme in which it is philosophy’s job to strive for eternal truths, absolutes, and certainty, and poetry’s to produce nothing but imaginative creations—or what Plato disdained as fiction or lies. Once philosophy has relinquished the quest for certainty, and the two fields are no longer seen as diametrically opposed, poetry becomes an important vehicle for weighing philosophical ideas and testing their real-world effects. The contemporary “philosophy poem”—like pragmatism itself—is freed to explore new ways for us to come to terms with a world in which “truth is made and not found.” And what an “amazing,’” miraculous, abundant world it is, “more secret than ever, / And beautiful of access.”

 


[1] For example, see Richard Poirier’s The Renewal of Literature and Poetry and Pragmatism, Jonathan Levin, Ross Posnock, Timothy Parrish, Joan Richardson, Frank Lentricchia, Lisi Schoenbach, and Paul Grimstad. For recent studies that focus specifically on pragmatism and American poetry, see Andrew Epstein, Michael Magee, Ann Marie Mikkelsen, Raphael Allison, and Kacper Bartczak.

[2] Ammons’s language is strikingly similar to Marianne Moore’s in this poem (as are its oddly shaped stanzas)—more so than most other Ammons poems. Specifically, Ammons echoes the themes and language of “In the Days of Prismatic Color” (which similarly meditates upon “truth” and longs for “plain” verities: “complexity is not a crime, but carry / it to the point of murkiness / and nothing is plain”). Furthermore, the twisty, strange syntax and final rhetorical question sound a great deal like the ending of “Critics and Connoisseurs”: “What is / there in being able / to say that one has dominated the stream in an attitude of self-defense, / in proving that one has had the experience / of carrying a stick?”

 

Works Cited

Allison, Raphael. “David Antin’s Pragmatist Technophobia.” Journal of Modern Literature 28.4 (2005): 110-134.

Ammons, A.R. Collected Poems: 1951-1971. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.

Ashbery, John. Can You Hear, Bird. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1995.

Bartczak, Kacper. “Pragmatism and Poetry: The Neo-Pragmatist Difference in the Discussion of Contemporary American Poetry.” Pragmatism Today 2.2 (2011).

Epstein, Andrew. Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Grimstad, Paul.  Experience and Experimental Writing: Literary Pragmatism from Emerson to the Jameses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hass, Robert. Praise. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1979.

James, William. The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1977.

Lentricchia, Frank. Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988.

Levin, Jonathan. The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.

Lieberman, Laurence. “Of Mind and World: Northfield Poems by A. R. Ammons.” The Hudson Review 20.2 (1967): 315-321.

Magee, Michael.  Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2004.

Menand, Louis. Pragmatism: A Reader. New York: Vintage, 1997.

Mikkelsen, Ann Marie. Pastoral, Pragmatism, and Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Palgrave, 2011.

Poirier, Richard. Poetry and Pragmatism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

—. The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Posnock, Ross. Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.

Parrish, Timothy. Walking Blues: Making Americans from Emerson to Elvis.  Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 2001.

Richardson, Joan. A Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Schoenbach, Lisi. Pragmatic Modernism. New York: Oxford UP, 2011.

Spiegelman, Willard. The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1954.

Wright, Charles. Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, 2000.

 

Andrew Epstein is an Associate Professor of English at Florida State University. He is the author of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press) and Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (forthcoming from Oxford). His essays have recently appeared in Contemporary Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, Wallace Stevens Journal, and Jacket2, and he blogs about the New York School of poetry at Locus Solus.

 

Guest Criticism Editor Christopher Findeisen is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature at the University of Illinois Chicago. His dissertation examines how a particular genre of literary narrative—the academic novel—helped to restructure shifting ideological agreements about the meaning and social function of higher education across the 19th and 20th centuries. A selected chapter of this project—“Injuries of Class: Mass Education and the American Academic Novel”—is forthcoming from PMLA.