PEG DUTHIE meditates on
80 Beetles by Mark Cunningham
(Otoliths, Australia, 2008)
Elegies for Michael Gizzi by William Corbett with Drawings by Natalia Afentoulidou
(Kat Ran Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012)
Controlled Hallucinations by John Sibley Williams
(FutureCycle Press, 2013)
In a November 22, 2013, edition of the New York Times, David Orr presented "Points of Entry," an essay in which he travels from unpacking the notion of "accessibility" . . .
The first thing to note about the wrangling over accessibility is that it encompasses an array of anxieties, some of them self-contradictory and most of them unimportant. Often it's just a proxy for a centuries-old squabble between people who like their poems plain-looking and people who like them a little more rococo. Because both styles can be immediately appealing to readers, it's not clear what access has to do with any of this.
. . . to declaring, in conclusion, that "when we talk about accessibility, we should remember that poetry, unlike churches and fortresses, has never loved a wall." This claim had me wondering how hard Orr might have been hitting the hard cider while drafting his closing paragraph. Before I looked up Orr's piece, I had been directed by friends on Twitter to Kasey Jueds's blog post "On Difficulty" (http://kaseyjueds.com/on-difficulty/) and to David Sedaris's conversation with Susan Wheeler and Curtis Fox on being agreeably flummoxed by Wheeler's writing (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audioitem/4550). In my experience, mileage among poetry readers does not merely vary: it is as likely to scramble up gatework and jab peepholes through grout as it is to sidle up to a bar with comfortable stools and closed-captioned TVs.
I did not read "Points of Entry" when it was first published; what brought it to my attention was Joshua Weiner's response to it in the December 15 New York Times Book Review. Weiner states that "accessibility is not the issue -- that's a false gambit in Orr's column. The issue is the quality of the sympathy a reader brings to the project of reading new poems and rereading the poems she likes."
I've been pondering expectations of both accessibility and sympathy as I assess the three collections I agreed to review for this issue of GR. Put baldly, I wasn't moved by any of them. The titles were intriguing, and I was eager to be enchanted, or at least to experience the kind of emotional zing I'd felt on reading, say, Denise Duhamel's "Expired" (in Enjoy Hot or Iced, which I reviewed for GR 18), or Rebecca Hazelton's work in the Poetry Foundation archives (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/rebecca-hazelton#about). But I just didn't get beyond nodding "that's nice" here and there.
It reminds me of relationships: sometimes there isn't any chemistry between a good poem and a reasonable reader, even when there are common points of interest. Which raises the question: who might the right readers for these three collections be?
In the case of 80 Beetles, the personal ad might read, "80 prose poems ISO surrealism-minded playmate." The poems are named after beetles, but I think it's anyone's guess how the sentences underneath each title relate to the title or even each other. They remind me of my Twitter timeline and how it mashes together mystery-infused micropoems and way-of-the-world declarations. You could make a game out of constructing how the author got from the title to the body (or vice versa) of each poem. Some specimens:
from "Grass-root Beetle I":
I was so tired that any position I laid in was uncomfortable. I just noticed how close "I laid" is to "Iliad."
from "Underwater Weevil":
I'm not sure if I'm playing catch-and-release with my ego or my ego is playing catch-and-release with me.
from "Snail-eating Ground Beetle":
I was opposed to her thumbs but not her toes. The outline of South Carolina is the same as that of the Exxon Tiger, minus its tail, since South Carolina is human.
from "Narrow-waisted Bark Beetle":
Ah, humanism: I knew I was a horse's ass because I was staring right at the ass of the guy who was the front of the horse.
Controlled Hallucinations comprises 63 untitled poems, labeled by roman numerals, as well as a 64th poem preceding the sequence as a sort of preface. It was interesting to compare Controlled Hallucinations to 80 Beetles -- it's trade-sized, as opposed to the pocket dimensions of Beetles, and it comes across as larger in scope as well as physical dimension. The tone and sensibility remind me of Jack Gilbert's work: the diction is plain and spare, the world messy and immense, the narrator a man intent on grappling with how "nothing quite fits" (I), and how he remains separate from the spaces presented to him -- "What if the seats are all empty / and still I cannot sit?" (XVIL) -- even while claiming to be "part of the rest of the world" (XVL) and how "with ease, I enter into all things / and dissolve" (XXVL).
The first numbered poem begins with a vision the narrator imagines slicing apart, element by element -- man, roof, tools, shingles, mountain, and "the hydrangeas / the shingles decapitate / on their way down" -- and the language of wounds and blades reappears through the collection:
"The paper cut on my palm / runs parallel to my love line" (X).
"I carve up my mother / with the delicate edges of leaves … I cut tomorrow into flavorless little chunks" (X).
"Hurry first incision, / dull blade, / and the sharper pain / of needle and thread" (XXXL).
"The knives I display in this poem / cannot even cut an overripe fruit" (XXXIX).
"[The artists have] carved a perfect / representation of / "Human Body: Alive" / on the stark ivory lid" (XLVII).
"Forks and knives dull, / teeth worn down, / I am left to eat / in broken English" (XLVIII).
"Each nameless roadside creek / is born of curious scissors" (LVIL).
The poems invoking white canes (as a symbol of blindness) didn't work for me, nor did declarations such as "I am naked / but for a T-shirt / and the choices I made" (XXIII) or "I concede that there is no true nudity left" (XLIX). On the other hand, I would have enjoyed seeing more of phrases such as "The piano in the corner bares its teeth" (XXXIII) and "Each morning the clock mislays one second / and another as I wind back its hand" (LVI). "I shall wear . . . the strange eroticism of Greek statues, / limbs cleaved and missing" (LX) strikes me as very Gilbertian, as does the poet's insistence within the same poem that "I will leave nothing to its own forgetting."
I did not know Michael Gizzi, and I wonder if William Corbett's tributes to him would resonate more with me if I had. The book is well designed -- good paper, crisp printing -- and Natalia Afentoulidou's illustrations are intriguingly bizarre: a blue tongue covered with white polka-dots sticks out of a quasi-pear-shaped organ with a dowel-like handle. Another image suggests the body of a mermaid, with a thick tentacle piercing her midsection and a gigantic bead-and-stem tandem emerging out of her headless torso.
It's assumed that if you are reading these, you are well acquainted with twentieth-century poetry-- Corbett invokes Frank O'Hara, John Wieners, Paul Violi, and others, and "Obit" is a surname-only recitation of death-spaces ("Roethke in a swimming pool / Schwartz outside his hotel room"). Of the sixteen poems in the book, I felt that "March Glare" was the most accessible:
Michael: I'll believe
You're dead when you
Don't show up for
Trevor's birthday dinner…
Inside the front cover (and repeated in "About Michael Gizzi," after the last poem), the author provides a non-bio of Gizzi by directing the reader to the Internet, adding that "you may guess that he was one of those generous souls who served poets and poetry." "Bad," Corbett's spin on Gottfried Benn's "What Is Bad" (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/238020), effectively complements this statement with its definition of "Very bad": "listening to various parties / Argue why you didn't have to die / And you can't send them to time out."
Corbett is of my parents' generation ("The computer I can't master" was a tell, as were cultural references such as "I'll be Alan Hale to your Errol Flynn"), and reading the collection felt like peeking into an uncle's yearbook, its portraits of a different time and a different community. Then again, certain characters are universal: "One of our tribe / Will read too long, / Check the time / And continue on" ("Memorial Reading for Michael Gizzi").
Peg Duthie is the author of Measured Extravagance (Upper Rubber Boot, 2012). Her poems can be found online at The Poetry Storehouse (http://poetrystorehouse.com/2013/10/18/peg-duthie-poems-2/), as well as in "The Critics Write Poems" section of GR 18 (http://galatearesurrection18.blogspot.com/).