George Amabile's recent collection begins with the epigraph: "Talk is cheap." In a way, this is a fitting start. There is a lot of talk in this book. Sections are titled in terms of talk: "Small Talk", "Table Talk", "Shop Talk", and so on. But I suspect that the quote is used with considerable tongue-in-cheek; it is probably an attempt to somehow deal with the present-day misconception that art and life are separate; an attempt to stretch out a friendly hand and invite informal discussion between the audience and the work.
For better or worse, a poet's first publication often maps out the territory he or she will continue to explore. Such is the case for Amabile. Fortunately for the reader, the territory is vast. In Blood Ties (Sono Nis, 1972), Amabile's poems address everything from personal relations (family, love, sex, death) to the condition of the world (war, environment, science, media), to the state of art and its interaction with human beings and the world at large. In order to encompass this range of ideas, he uses a combination of varying voices, moving from the highly lyrical to the plainly vernacular. In one poem, "Virginal willows let their yellowgreen rain fall into still reflection," while in another we read, "Only a witch could drive these hills this late/ Your pissed-off stare is blue."
Not only does Amabile repeat these numerous themes, he also recycles earlier poems as it suits his purpose. In Ideas of Shelter (Turnstone Press, 1981), about a dozen poems are culled from Blood Ties, Open Country, and Flower and Song. A few remain as originally written, others undergo slight changes, and still others are reworked completely. The Presence of Fire (McClelland & Stewart, 1982) is basically a collection of new and selected works. Interestingly, the selected ones are taken again from the first three books and none are repeated from Ideas of Shelter. Again, the poems undergo transformations that range from slight to startling. The original rendition of "Cemetery" (Blood Ties) reads:
at least the roundshouldered stones
have the same sized orderly
like seats in a closed theatre of war
In The Presence of Fire, an existential shift occurs: appearance becomes reality; order is redundant in death. The stanza tightens to read:
at least the round-shouldered stones
are all the same
like seats in a closed theatre of war
"Water Wind & Stone" (Blood Ties) becomes "Hadrian's Villa" (The Presence of Fire). The Wallace Stevens epigraph remains, the thematic remains, but the two poems are written quite differently.
The poem "Deep Language" (The Presence of Fire) is an entirely new animal from the poem of the same name in Open Country. On the other hand, the original version has now been altered and retitled as "Wire Sculpture" (Open Country). The same poem reappears in Rumours, rewritten, naturally, in order to further explore an idea. This is the only poem I found that appears in three separate books and I regard it as a crucial addition to the new collection. In it, Amabile combines the disciplines of music, dance, sculpture, drawing, and literature. The reader witnesses the process of creation, and, in the end, we are left with a product: the wire sculpture, the poem. In a very real sense, something was born, then lived and died, The question raised is, Is it possible to reanimate a work once the process is over? The poem offers:
Cooled on a walnut pedestal,
it looks as though the body's music,
the dancer and the dance,
have been stilled forever
in a complex cage of air,
but that fugue of intimate tensions
will revive and go on
through beautiful changes
if we should happen to walk around it
or turn it with our fingers in the sun.
At some point the creation is out of the hands of the maker and it is then up to the audience to bring their own time, effort, and experience to the work and to make of it what they will: either regard it as a cold, lifeless object or else inject it with blood and guts, and place it within the context of the world as a necessary and living force.
The notion of a work of art existing as a force able to provide change, or at least the possibility of change, seems to be implicit in Amabile's poetry. Simply because a poem exists in one way at a specific time and place doesn't mean that it can't exist in the same or altered way later, depending on shifts in context or circumstance. Amabile's work is not so much concerned with who-and-what-we-are but with who-and-what-we-are-becoming, and with how? While his earlier poetry touched on grand issues, the present volume is much more investigative in its concern for the human condition and spirit, especially in its relationship with thought and art. Many of the poems question whether art and poetry have the power to provide any change whatsoever. The poem "Ars Poetica" asks, "Is a better poem the same as a better weapon?" Which is like asking if the pen-really-is mightier than the sword. And is it? Should the two even be compared? In another poem, the narrator states: "I write to keep our minds away from the latest weapons." A naive thought, perhaps, or a thought arising from a feeling of powerlessness. Even worse, relief is recognized as temporary: "But when the record/ stops there is no comfort."
This is not to imply Rumours is a pessimistic book. While taking a long, hard look at what is dark in the world, Amabile also shows much light, much beauty, and much to be celebrated. While mourning the loss of intelligent thought and action in the world, we also hear, "Our destiny/ has always been to test/ the threshold of pure intelligence." While displaying disdain for the preferred status quo, we find the hope that "I want to believe that something will happen to change me."
Amabile's poetry is one of ideas and images. At times, I feel that the images tend to overrun the thoughts and I might wish for fewer adjectives and much less dependence on the simile as a device. On the whole, though, Rumours is a well-crafted collection that provides much food for thought. For all the intellectual display (to which I admit a fondness), there is a warmth in the work that invites participation. Amabile cordially invites the reader to come in, sit down, relax, have a few drinks, and just talk. As he writes in "Advisory", ".what's it all for anyway since only a few friends and competitors will bother to read what you labour over and they will be critical pretending to help pretending to want you to do your very best which this latest isn't quite.." What more is there to ask? Talk may be cheap, but maybe it's the best we've got. If something changes, great. If nothing changes, we should at least feel better for the experience.
Stan Rogal's first collection of short stories has recently been published by Insomniac Press.