Pessoa (no one is safe)

No one is safe
—Johnny Depp

the man known as “Pessoa”—
has run out of rooms.
We must learn to speak of him
in the past tense.
Oh, but who is “we” here?
Random Google searchers
from alias to zenith,
inquiring minds of all kinds
who just want to know
how he liked his meat cooked
and how close he preferred to get
to his razor?
Do not look behind the curtain!
Oh, do not look
for the sake of every one
For we are all involved
even when we disengage,
hiding in plain sight
in our many

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If a Part of Me Moves

Although, or because, a part of me moves
a silent nod to a dormant book,
the same book moves to the same degree,
the same distance from my reaching hand:
I am here, now, with my pen, I am here
with the incoming tide and its right combination
or sheer number,
its single sound wherein all particular sounds
are lost
are washed . . .
if a part of me moves
still moves
in a silent nod
if a part of me moves

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A Woman in Front of a Pollock

after Williams’ “A Woman in Front of a Bank”

It’s not her fault my mind scoops
parabolas out of the curves of her waist
into arbitrary evocations—
snakes out of a can—racing to the edges
of boxes everywhere,
the field still a rectangle even if wildflowers
choke the scene of any semblance of order.
I can only squelch the urge to sneeze
to spew to surge to seed, gripping the line
like a lasso, but she doesn’t move,
and who knows what she sees,
in front of me.
Could be? Jackson’s tears
coursing like rain
down our screens
under the common umbrella,
an open and shut gallery.
And there you have it:
a woman in front of a Pollock.

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Twilight, a poem inspired by Witold Gombrowicz

after Witold Gombrowicz

Who said art is life?
It’s a set of eyeballs
rolled onto a pitching deck.

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Robert Vaughan’s Askew

ASKEW: not in a straight or level position: her hat was slightly askew | the door was hanging askew on one twisted hinge.

wrong; awry: the plan went sadly askew | the judging was a bit askew.

I probably know my partner of many years as good as anyone can know another person. Like when two people can finish each other’s sentences. Yet I found myself looking today at the water bottles she had bought and could not tell where the new stock was separated from the old. I don’t know her system. She is a lefty and I’m right-handed and sometimes she does things in a way that feels backward to me. Robert Vaughan’s poems in his new book Askew evoke the same kind of feeling. They are sketches of intimacy in which something is off-kilter. No matter how well one thinks one knows another person, mysteries, secrets, lacunae remain. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, these things are part of the glue or magnetism that keeps fascination alive. If you’re not so lucky, they lie buried only to emerge, perhaps years down the line, causing eruptions, ruptures, breaks and, to paraphrase one of Vaughan’s poems, the axis of one’s world becomes tilted. Askew deals with the unlucky. “No more I love you’s,” as he quotes Annie Lennox.

Luck is related to chance and whenever the vagaries of nature are evoked in these poems it’s not good: threatening clouds, floods, cyclones, just to name the weather. And then there are the human catastrophes: betrayal, war, death. Add to these words that evoke more intimate forms of inclemency, such as “frenzy” and “maelstrom.” We see, in “Divested,” a human wreck, with “Room in this avalanche/ to maneuver,/ just barely.” We see, “the madcap/ arena we once/ called home” in the poem “In Sandy Hook.” There are even a few poems in which inner and outer turmoil are so interfused that they evoke an overall feeling of disorientation, as in the poem “Circles” in which it is not certain how one is to be an agent of change in one’s own life. And the beat plays on.

I think of Robert Vaughan as a sketch artist. Some of his sketches are quickies and leave me wishing for a little more, but that is more a matter of my own taste than a criticism of what he does. In my favorite poems he uses color, evokes sound and is adept at selecting the right details. He is a writer who shows more than he tells. But if one were to look for a statement of the theme of the poems of Askew, I would suggest one start with “I Always Believed I Would See Her Again.” Divided into two stanzas of equal length, the poem describes two people living in the same house searching for clues to each other. “Full of longing,” they “ransack the house,” going in circles until “we divided ourselves,” which suggests to me that the dividing was not simply between two people (they were already divided) but was internal to each of them. And then, “we pushed,/ jettisoned/ away forever.” For a long time I have thought of people as worlds, entire worlds with their own orbits. Sometimes worlds come close, touch or almost touch, then bounce away into the cosmos. This poem encapsulates that for me. People are very complex. But at the same time frustratingly, beautifully, and sometimes tragically simple; Robert Vaughan never forgets that.

Many of the poems in Askew are about the uncertainty of the self in relation to others. “When you leave/ I scatter” he writes in “Ode to the Dead.” I take that to mean that when a connection to a loved one has been ruptured, the “I,” one’s inner core, one’s sense of identity becomes disoriented. In a broader sense, people create each other. We are even made, as one of his titles puts it, “of those who don’t know we are listening.” Perhaps these are truisms, but even if they are that doesn’t stop people from believing the ego (particularly their own) is the most stable structure on earth, nor does it stop Vaughan from bringing surprising new colors to the theme. He brings humor to it in “Out of the Fire and into the Lake,” a sex fantasy in which the object of lust slips out of control, causing the fantasizer to ask, “If my life isn’t mine,/ then whatever will I do?” While the poems “One Fine Sunday” and “They Play to Lose” pose the question in more serious forms: how is penetration and the sexual act of swallowing in particular connected to issues of self/other/identity? Vaughan expresses the theme the fullest and, for me, the best in the poem “The West was Once a Direction,” a remarkable accomplishment for the truths it packs into its small size, its fresh imagery and truly startling last line. He asks, “How does one remain oneself in the ongoing search for discovery?” and continues:

And neither my childhood nor my future grows any smaller. Look how I touch the world, not as myself, but as an echo of who I was. And as I delve further and further West, will I be lost in the story I tell my fractured self?

These are important questions that anyone wishing to be a mature human being must ask. Recently I wrote about my arduous experience rereading John Ashbery’s Three Poems. Vaughan’s style is not reminiscent of Ashbery (in fact I can’t think of who I might compare it to) and I don’t know if he’s even read Three Poems, but lovers of that book might be interested to know that Vaughan has condensed the whole issue of it into one tiny prose poem.

There are other truly stellar poems in Askew. I’d like to conclude by commenting on two more of them. The first is “Wax & Wane,” the beauty of which I missed in my first quick read. Going back and taking my time I consider it to be one of the strongest in the collection, and, not to knock the Cocteau Twins, but it’s much better than the song it takes its title from. We have the word “scatter” again, and the fear of disappearing with the other’s absence. In our culture a person is considered weak if they are too emotionally needy. But there is a beauty in vulnerability that tears away judgement in the line, “eyewitnessed I bear fruit.” One might inject here a note about Vaughan’s eye for arrangement. The poem that follows “Wax & Wane” is a kind of white contrast to its blackness.

Finally the poem “The Dollar Store” deserves comment because, to my eye, it brings together in excellent form a few of the key notes of Vaughan’s poetry: pop culture, childlike vision, vulnerability, and a quality of oddness. This last feature, described by my partner as “weirdness” when I’ve read the poems to her, is sometimes expressed in the language itself, other times in the imagery, or in the case of “The Dollar Store” it’s in the vision of our culture that the poet presents to us. We are living in strange and troubled times, and our poems should reflect that. “The Dollar Store” does that, but not without humor and charm. After listing a few of the things you can now get at The Dollar Store—“timed bombs and gas masks”—the speaker suddenly shifts to telling us about the “young maiden adrift on a lily pad” he is in love with. Whether this is a real person or pure fantasy we don’t know, but the tone comes from a person who wants to drift away to a better place—a much better place. The final note—the so-called real world—comes crashing in like an alarm with the final line that seems to come from a person with a mind still tethered to the child within, and it’s a beautiful vision.

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Reading Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility”

1862 was a prolific year for Emily Dickinson. She compiled 227 poems that year, more than in any other single year, with the exception of ’63 (295) and ’65 (229). One of the poems she saved that year was, “I dwell in possibility” (#466 in the Belknap Reading Edition). Surely one of her signature poems, no doubt it has been analyzed countless times already. I wish only to record a few notes regarding this poem, rather a sequence of poems that build up to it, beginning at #440.

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René Daumal and the Impossible

I am reading René Daumal again. I discovered him as a young man and he has stayed with me, a constant companion. Since most people, places, and things come and go, one should note when something has lasted. I have reached back into my journal and found the notes which follow, which I had compiled under the heading “Daumal”. I wrote them as a man in my twenties, when the existential (as, indeed, in existentialism) torments and despair hinted at were far more extreme than they are now. Now those torments are a distant memory, replaced by less philosophical ones. Short as his life was, I suspect Daumal experienced a similar trajectory.

At the end of the notes I ask, “who is this writing for?” I am still trying to answer that question. One day René Daumal, aged thirty-six, stopped writing Mount Analogue in mid-sentence to answer a knock at the door. Soon he would be dead and never finished that sentence. According to his notes for the novel, he had intended the last chapter to be entitled, “And you, what are you looking for?” Because of the way he lived and wrote and died, because, most of all, of that last unfinished sentence, René Daumal will always be speaking to me, always reaching out to me. 

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Is Beauty Divine or Human?

I want to write about a curious thing that happened to me recently, the latest in a series of curious things, and I wonder if these kinds of things happen to anyone else.

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The most interesting book I read this year

was published in 1979: The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter. I’ve been a fan of hers ever since I stumbled upon a copy of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman in a used bookstore many years ago. The Sadeian Woman sat on my wishlist for a long time until, earlier this year, for no special reason, I finally decided to purchase it.

Carter died far too young in 1992. And what a terrible loss that she is not around today to share her views on our cultural climate. Because the issues of gender and gender relations that she covers in The Sadeian Woman are among the most important issues of our time. Carter was British, and I can’t comment on conditions in the UK, but this book is as relevant as ever for Americans. From where I stand, many apparent changes toward egalitarianism do not penetrate deeply into the heart of social mores. In America we see many welcome small changes, but core views remain entrenched. A reading of The Sadeian Woman aids in understanding why this is so.

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Henry’s Fate

Today I’m going to read a few Dream Songs by John Berryman from among the forty-five included in the book Henry’s Fate. The poems of Henry’s Fate were selected by Berryman’s biographer, John Haffenden, and the book was published in 1977, five years after Berryman’s death. These are among a rather large collection of Dream Songs written after 1967, the year Berryman completed the entire work known as The Dream Songs. As Haffenden describes in the Introduction, Berryman had no interest in including any of the additional Dream Songs in that work. Perhaps Berryman felt they contributed nothing new, or that he lacked the strength (and time), hence the inclination, to think about how to incorporate them. According to this reader, it’s not because they lack the quality that would make them suitable for inclusion. Indeed, when I read them, one after another, I have more of a sense of why Berryman considered this work a single poem.

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