Friday, October 26, 2007

An Inflorescence (A flowering of poetry every Friday - Dan Chiasson - lyrical odes for our day

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

I feel a little unprepared for the inflorescence as this week has been all about my physiology midterm and the GRE I have to take today. Ugh. But I did fall over a fun volume of fairly recent poems by Dan Chiasson called The Afterlife of Objects, so I think I'll give you some of those. He is a New Englander and teaches at Wellsley College. Here's a terrific interview with him from Guernica. He seems at times almost apologetic about writing poetry:

Every poet wants to have that great, transcendent renunciatory power of Whitman, the access to other sites and other persons, that amplitude, that confidence and authority as a voice. Even the most narrowly private or confessional poets want that. 99% of them didn’t get it, and that’s roughly the percentage of poets in any given mode that don’t succeed, so I don’t think confessionalism offers any worse odds than any other mode
In his poem Your Stone the narrator prays to be made inanimate - is that confessional? When asked for what advice he would give a young poet:

Develop an effective camouflage. I think camouflage is important in establishing a talent and a sensibility that will be individual and different from the group. I’ve always avoided the tribal markers of being a poet.

The risk with camouflage is that when you’re not writing, the camouflage becomes the real thing, and then you think I’m just a phony, I’m just this person who gets to be a little sullen at Thanksgiving dinner or opt out of taking my kids to the playground. That’s what being a poet amounts to: being perceived as a poet, when in fact you are just this suburban voluptuary. This mere “guy.”

How to describe these poems... their tone is often dark, haunted, their subject matter is familiar and mundane - a salt dish, an aging relative, a peach tree, the objects in a storage locker - he mixes up-to-the-minute concerns with classical ones. Their rhythms are formal I can really feel them, but the life of the objects or ideas as imagined by Chiasson are freed up in a dream-like fashion - things don't have to behave the way they're supposed to but as I read them, I accept that they are that way.

I really admire Ward, - the feeling of isolation is redolent through the poems lean composition - the way it lies on the page - a narrow column - classical rhythms - in an iron hive/no drop/of water fell/more quietly than I/fell through/the elevator shaft -but the ways the lines are broken make me extra-conscious of them. Like the feeling of being made to listen to my own footsteps as I walk down the corridor of that hospital. The elevator shaft - like having been dropped into another world, Alice down the rabbit hole. And the disgust is palpable - people whose humanity has been replaced by something else. There is so much happening in this poem: utter reality and fantasy, present and past, memory and death and it reaches me with directness and simplicity. Sometimes he references other writers, Self Storage is slyly quoting Emma Lazarus, I think - "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses." With lady liberty as a widow now. Sometimes he imagines America as the storage bin, sometimes himself. What we inherit, what we keep. Are we richer for keeping these "treasures" or poorer?

Your Stone

Here's your stone he said what for I said for your girl he said
and left me alone in the bedroom strewn with punctured cans.

They bring the fire so close to their face I thought every time
the living room flashed and wild cries climbed to ecstatic silence.

Ecstatic silence: just yesterday alone in my study I heard
the neighbor's child practicing scales on a rented clarinet

just last night when you crying ended and you fell asleep
I prayed to be made inanimate, a hand-me-down mattress.

But tonight the little crystal called forgetfulness, the postures
of delight and appetite, and the beautiful girl said what's your name?


I came quietly where
my grandmother
was an insect

in an iron hive.
No drop
of water fell

more quietly than I
fell through
the elevator shaft.

Then, on the ward,
I walked along
a hallway of formaldehyde

and glass.
A woman bent
herself in half

to scratch her coal-
black swollen foot.
Christ, one man's

forehead shone
white and dewy, like
a dolphin's belly.

Maiden never was who heard
the cribs fall
silent where he daughters were,

whose husband, frozen
still, berated her
one long year from

a piss-soaked chair.
What is awareness
here, so late, so close to night?


Bring me your amateurish try
at taxidermy, fleur-de-lys

upholstered chair, flea-bitten oven mitt, replica Mars lander, old suit bad

choice, wrong turn.
Bring me your freak, your odd, your ugly

rug, dull knife, dull life. Threatening noise heard
over and over in your skull, a bell

how many thousand decibels
loud, how much distraction, sadness, everything

is safe with me and out of sight


America the widow
sorting through his drawer

of fisted socks. The ice shedding
itself inside the water glass.

The diagnosis. The dozen
childlike men begging for medication.

The monkey screaming behind
iron bars. Tender objects:

the dried corsage. America
a certain model

motorcycle, rare Beatles
butchered baby cover

safe, all safe,
all out of sight.


Are you the phone call
or the military

base, North Carolina
or Vermont, the rapist or my
aunt sent

far away for basic training,
or sergeant, mother's tears

or father's stern
order to shut up? The den

or the phone, the voice
or the street noise, or television's

usual banal exuberance? America
they wanted

her to marry him.


Of all things seen
beside the highway I

am most like you. The stories
of lunatics and pack rats

storing old newspapers
broken bottles

scribbles animal remains
are true. Also

the corpses. Also
the stolen stereo.

A priest stores
jeweled chalices in me, no questions asked.


O pension everyone
agreed upon.

O slave, sieve, place
to put the precious useless things.


Unknown said...

I love Dan Chiasson. I've had the poem "Little Boy" on my freezer for a year or two, and about six months ago I bought "Natural History". Since then its become one of my favorite books and the one I keep in the bathroom.

Little Boy
For a quarter you get a mess, for a half you get to make a mess.
For three quarters you get someone else's idea of God.
For one and a half anyone in the bar will marry you, marry you.
The daughter of the ruling class will piss upon your palm.
Her horse is America and you have your certain, broken destiny.

For a quarter somebody shows up with a briefcase, baggy baggy.
Everybody salivates and rifles through his wallet.
Then the bowed heads are like cattle through a wire fence feeding.
Then, heads thrown back, we feel love for our mothers.
Then the hands of our fathers are washed clean of dirt.

There is a cloud, there is, I could take you there now, I could.
Do you want to see this really amazing place with me?
There the honeybee is free of the robber.
Here the robber roams, hungry, in the dawn;
there, after a little catnap, we snip old magazine ads.


The Pigeon

Once startled, you shall feel hours of weird sadness
afterwards. this is known as the rule of the pigeon.

This is the rule of the Herbert scholar: your head
shall come to rest in a Ziploc terrarium, not a park.

You shall be feted in the pages of New York magazine,
and at department meetings, over eggnog, mourned

this is the rule of the girl you loved: you shall heave
and heave all night, alone, and not from love, not

from anything like love. Peel that mattress off your back,
but peel you never will the remorse-stain, and

this is the rule of the Who, you shall be Muzak,
you shall be orchestral, electronic, and franchised.

You shall be blood, this is the rule of the sleepless night,
and you shall be drained of blood, is the rule of dawn

The scholar and the pigeon shall inhabit the same street,
your street, but you shall remember the pigeon longer.

Ted said...

Alice - It's nice to know someone is trolling around in my old Inflorescence clips as I'd hoped. I didn't know either of those poems. I particularly like the voice in Little Boy - what a terrific poem. Thanks!