Possible Crocodiles, by Barry Marks. Brick Road Poetry Press, 2010
The Coal Life, by Adam Vines. U of Arkansas Press, 2012.
One of the things missing from a lot of the current poetry I’ve read is a strong sense of personality, that the poem in question is not simply a slight variation of the last one and the next one, but emerges from a sensibility unafraid to take chances, look the fool, leap into a crevasse…. I guess people are thus everywhere, not just in poetry: people tend to establish their personhood within a fairly limited set of largely environmental parameters, and even the biologically determined characteristics tend to find expression through cultural norms. If you like the predictability of people, and I think many people do, then this is a fine state of affairs. If you are more neophilic, as I am, then you get bored quickly and turn small talk snarly and weird at any opportunity. I am willing to grant that we live, in the USA at least, in a very conservative, corporatist, conformist period of history, but I’m not sure that accounts for the relentless predictability of so much art, and so much poetry, produced in the last 30 years or so. Then again, it takes only a little dipping into the stacks, reading those poets from the 1930’s or 1960’s or 1880’s to see that ’twas always thus, that most poems are apparitions of faces in the crowd, fuzzy and indistinguishable from the others.
Which is not to say that establishing poetic personality is a goal poets have abandoned, only that the means to establish this personality are also sharply constrained, and that the folks with the greatest say in what counts, poetically, rely on these means to recognize value. Let me get to the examples under consideration here, and out of the abstract: Barry Marks and Adam Vines are both Southern Poets because that’s where they both appear to live, and because their imagery often drifts toward southern elements and themes. Within that broad framework, they are, stylistically, very different poets: Marks is outside the academic style, Vines decidedly within it. Or, we could say that Marks is within the experiential style, Vines outside it (“experiential” is the best antonym I could think of for “academic.” One thesaurus suggests “ignorant” is the antonym, which says a lot about who writes thesauri). So: the academic style, the means of establishing poetic personality that Vines has chosen, involves choosing words that feel both obscure and phonically rich; writing dramatic monologues from the point of view of historical or otherwise notable figures; and using stanzaic patterns that appear “worked,” that is, are somewhat regular, at least graphically, with the odd non-stanzaic piece thrown in for variation. Here’s an example, one in couplets titled “Gauguin’s Bed”:
Between the sky and us, there should be nothing
except the high, frail roof of pandanus leaves
where lizards build their nests. The slender legs
of the moon and bamboo before us disentangle,
then rise at equidistant intervals
beside my bed: reedpipe of the ancients, vivo,
unraveling the sounds of night. Silence!
I want the silence before the “signets of hell,”
the dark tattoos, were pricked into the cheeks of women
who now, ghastly in their decrepitude,
prepare the little pigs behind their huts.
I still smell flowered tiaras the women wore
in their pirogues, see their strong bare feet stirring
dust on the paths to their lovers’ huts. I craved
that silence in you too, Tahitian princess—absinthe
at your crude lips, your hair a wild myth—sitting
here on my bed, until you said, “La Fontaine,
his morals are ugly—the ants…ugh. But the crickets,
yes, yes, to sing, always to sing!”
The poem is built on juxtaposition and reversal as much as it is on couplets—I can’t figure out why it’s in couplets, actually, except to look neater on the page—and assumes a readership who knows both Gauguin and La Fontaine, or at least that has the wherewithal to look them up. As such, it is very much a typically academic poem, as are all the poems in Vines’ book. It’s hard to find much fault with any of them, because they are so closely worked, and it’s just as hard to remember any of them, for the same reason:they are poems that seem born less of a desire to inspire than of the need to avoid fault-finding, to dodge the kinds of critiques that emerge in academic writing workshops (there are, of course, experiential workshops too, as Marks’ poems make clear). The poetic personality that emerges here is almost medieval, a careful, quiet scholar, scratching away with other scholars in a scriptorium, decorating the fringes of their vellum copies with bits of gold leaf.
I picture the writer’s workshops Barry Marks attends happening in a public library or community center, with similarly-minded writers of a less academic bent, where he can feel free to be naughty. I do not mean this to sound condescending, but it is clearly his aim, in many of these poems, to titillate a certain sort of person of modest moral character with sexually inflected, or vaguely political, or mildly experimental, slackly conversational poems. The sort of person, in other words, for whom poetry itself is still somewhat naughty, and for whom naughtiness is a prime element of sensuality. And within that sharply constrained poetics, he often succeeds:
Susan (nor her real name),
Lucia (pronounced loo-SEE-ah) and I
caught the company car to Kennedy.
We made small talk (tiny, really)
as the Russian driver weaved through traffic.
We got to know each other. Susan
was sailing to the Seychelles to sell. Lucia
was leaving for London. Like me she
was going home.
But only Susan got there on time so Lucia
and I got a drink and settled in, hoping
that something would open up on a later flight.
And when we knew we were well and truly effed,
we got well and truly wasted and took our vouchers
to the Marriott, drank some more and spent the night
crawling all over each other.
And she had lovely eyes
and an unlovely English accent, and of course
none of this happened. She caught her plane
and went home, and I caught my plane and went home,
but her name was Lucia.
I could not possibly improve on that.
What Marks loves more than all the women he ogles in this book, and what Vines loves as well, is the sound of words, as any poet worth their salt should. Salt is not the a spice, however, it’s a mineral that enhances the flavor of other spices and of the food you are trying to gussy up, so revelling in the sound of words to such an obvious degree that both poets here do is the equivalent of over salting, obscuring the personality of the dish, and thus of the cook. In their defense, this is one of the most common ways poets are taught to be poets in both the academic and experiential realms, which has a lot to do with the state of our poetic diet, rich in salt, fat (imagery–”show don’t tell”), and sugar (know your trends–”read contemporary poetry”). I like a cheeseburger and fries as much as the next person, but raw celery, scallops with carrot-ginger caviar, and huitlacohe souffle are all dandy too—and there’s room in the kitchen for so much more. Then again, for every El Bulli, for every food truck that appears like an ambulance, for every bushmeat maestro making the fufu sing in Lagos, a thousand smaller personalities appear, ready to emulate them. And that’s not so bad, but it ain’t transcendent.
CDs I’ve listened to the last few weeks, as I try to listen to all the ones I own:
562) Cindy Lee Berryhill: Garage Orchestra; 563) Boppin’ the Blues: Rockabilly Classics; 564) Ronnie Dawson: rockin’ bones (hell yeah); 565) Johnny Otis: 1949-1950 (hell yeah x2); 566) Bad Livers: Horses in the Mines (yet another whoop…); 567) Johnny Vegas: Dog; 568) Angry Inch: …And You Keep Laughing Still (hi Sean!); 569) Squirrel Nut Zippers: The Inevitable; 570) R.E.M.: Murmur; 571) Alice Coltrane: Journey In Satchidananda; 572) Butthole Surfers: Independent Worm Saloon; 573) Ladies and Gentlemen of Song: The Platinum Collection.