||Pleasure And Difficulty
by Margaret Sweatman
WAYNE OAKLEY`s Piano Keys and White Paper (Quarry, 72 pages, $12.95 paper) is a collection of compressed,tight poems, each word a breath. Here is the first of "Emily in Nine Poems":
is notan apron can hide those hips come open your purple and emily danced in shortturns to catch her self off balance the front door`s not closed she blushed
Others are too skinny, seem more likenotes toward a poem, their place in this collection perhaps premature. But whenOakley sketches the lines of a thought or the refracted medium of "you andme," and when the poems are not underfed or too discreet, they are elegantand enigmatic. This is a poem called "you and me replaced":
i wentto the corner and did not turn missed you in the traffic noise was red andheavy i went to the corner and lost my twin you went to bangkok and became themoon sun neatly placed behind hills dark blue and far away you went to bangkokand lived in shadows
Bake My Brain (Mosaic, 85 pages, $12.95paper) by Hume Cronyn -- the young poet, not the veteran actor --is one of the best books I`ve read in a long time, an undogmatic manifestothat`s anarchistic, funny, and mad. It`s so good I`m grateful to it, didn`twant it to end. Everything about this book its energy, fierce comic wisdom, itsstuffed and muscled lines -- fills me with wonder. Here is apassage from "I Want to Bake My Brain in a Birthday Cake":
I wantto burn my soggy flesh, Tear out my mushy bones, Find one inch of steel.
I wantall cars to break out in sores, gas tanks to spill over with sperm, tires toturn into rivers of licorice, and all cars to float off and hurtle over the nearest cliff.And all those people who wish toshare the destiny of their cars, to do so.
The rush of expression exceeds the form.The poems are wilfully raw and honest, compelled by defiance, joy, anger, and awild, white-light hope. Neither rhythm nor semantics dominates. LikeWhitman, Cronyn writes with long lines, chantlike anaphora, and the dispersalof what might he his favourite expression, "I want...." This, from"The Day Has Dirty Hair":
Liketapeworms we travel up intestines of chrome That starve us with shocks of lightAnd advertisements of vodka and stockings. Sleep is still in our mouths, Theday locked in briefcases. I want man to reform the day, Bring the circus totown.
Bringon the clown, The day bright as his nose.
And so on. I can only ask You toread these impulsive, brilliant parables. I have never read a book that tookWhitman further and took me, exhilarated, out of myself into that traffic jam,the mess of humanity. John B. Lee`s The Art of Walking Backwards (Black Moss,87 pages, $10.95 paper) is a collection of tender poems, written in the vernacular,with a stubborn love of the enhanced quotidian. Rather often, at least in thisparticular collection of Lees work (and he is prolific), the poets love oflife`s ordinary miracles comes with a husbands benign affection for woman-work,mothers and aunts cooking Chrismas dinner, or her "wonderfulplication" of laundry. I Wouldn`t want to begrudge the poet a wife who hasa genius for Such fecund tasks. Lucky man, essentialist poet. The writingindulges the car with phonetic spills and heartfelt rhythms, and at first I waspleased with the figurative language, a consonance of heart and sound and eye.But Lee litters his work with so many similes that after several poems all Icould hear was "like," a verbal tic so loud it drowned out the subsequentimage. A metaphor may provide a rhythmic as well as cognitive surprise, but"like" is pinned relentlessly to syntax. Barbara Carey`s newcollection The Ground of Events (Mercury, 79 pages, $9.95 paper) shines,graceful and intelligent. She has such a feel for the poetic line, a meditativepulse, a musical measure. The poems aren`t so much phonetic as articulate,generous. The following passage, from "Signs," illustrates her talentwith the phrase and the density of her lines, which act as fragments of agreater difficulty, as a measure of clarity that doesn`t deny access to thelarger complex:
suddenlythe tree that`s being stapled to death by coming attractions announces the newseason generational toughness, this revival, recorded in thin growth rings&fewer leaves, their brightness turned down
The meditative quality of Carey`s work isenhanced by modesty, a fallible or tentative voice for the lyric. The poems`discursive, ontological matter (one of the poems and a section of the book arecalled "being of this world") leads her into nouns, noun-making,and my sole complaint: the words such as "headedness,""hugeness," "rootedness," in poems so elegant I wish theyhad been lightened, at times, of the noun. The Imaginary Museum (ECW, 76 pages,$12 paper), by Stan Rogal, spells out the exhaustion of the literaryimagination all too well, with such smoked-out art-weariness that Iam forced to consider action against it, reject the rather pompous fatigue, thehigh allusions, the poet waving his handkerchief at us (Or, pissing down) fromhis fogbound tower of Art. Many poems have a subordinate title/allusion toKlee, Duchamp, Nietzsche, W. C. Williams (I think he cheats Williams), andBeckett, among others.
Nothingnew in this, except, blah blah consolation / no one invented the atom. Feelingfreakish among overcomes doing almost anything good for starey-o-eyedwalkmen sinking static & hiss in the verdant sog animal wind flushing carprotting the nostriled doorstep one thing food for another But, Raleigh sd:"No use going to the country it will bring us no peace."
While I admire Rogal`s craft and enjoyhis stylish and courageous language, I lose empathy with the aesthetic postureof this book. I wish he would just go ahead and eat the peach. Density anddifficulty can be among the pleasures of poetry. And so it is with Judith Fitzgerald`s Habit of Blues (Mercury, 120 pages, $11.95 paper). This isn`t thespace for a reading of this book, except to say that I feel I`d have to livewith it a while to know it. I was at first chilled by the intellect, whichplaces the poet`s pain and her expressiveness in a vertical slide, aprepositional framing that denies quick access and easy affect. The mostimmediate poem is "Arillion," a chronicle of sexual violation. Onfirst encounter, the series of poems that form an apostrophe to the novelistJuan Butler (whose work I don`t know) were maddening, their passion so immersedin intellect and -- I still think this -- so flawed bytypographical wordplay that the affect is diminished and the focus narrowed tothe poet herself ("My Lord, why hast Thou mistaken me?" "0,rose, thou art dust," "through sill and sash / (ill and ash)")There is a strange mixture of the vernacular, a cowboy song, cliche, andLatinate diction. The compression of passion into high discourse denies rhythmand swing -- though, of course, this needn`t be the poet`sintention. On the first few readings of this book, I was left with the maze ofher intellect, without a poem of my own; the unsolved problem of solipsism. Butthis is a book to keep and read and get to know better over the years. Thisleads to the counter-argument posed by Howard White in his introductionto Ghost in the Gears (Harbour, 112 pages, $9.95 paper). On the subject of"what makes poetry poetry," he writes: I`m struck with theinappropriateness of placing many of these pieces in anything so static andexclusive as this pricey little book -- for most of them I wouldhave preferred a spot on the local breakfast broadcast or editorial page wherethey might have provided a chuckle or a moment of reflection and been disposedof. In our world, those are the spaces most in need of what poetry has tooffer, the frontier where the battle for cultural survival must be renewed, andmy best hope for this motley collection is that it contains a few steps towardthe kind of poem that could do that work.
White`s folksy manifesto moved me andalarmed me at the same time. His poems are admirable, ethical, warm, humane,self-deprecating, accessible. I`m glad he is speaking, and I`m pleased toread his book. And intrigued by his place in this inadequate survey of recentcollections of poetry. The work of writers such as Judith Fitzgerald and StanRogal may not be easily apprehended by the reader, but it is of great value in"the battle for cultural survival" referred to by White. Thisparticular reader was often baffled; but as often as I was irritated, I wasdelighted to be baffled. Difficulty has its own pleasures. Do I not belong,then, in the cafeteria of "common taste"?