The BOOKPRESS March 2000

Beauty and the Beholder


Robert Sward

The Art of the Lathe

by B.H. Fairchild.

Introduction by Anthony Hecht.

Alice James Books, 1998.

80 pages, $11.95 paperback.

Repair

by C.K. Williams.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

128 pages, $21.

In The Pines: Lost Poems, 1972-1997

by David St. John.

White Pine Press, 1999.

224 pages, $16 paperback.

Wakefulness

by John Ashbery.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

96 pages, $20 ($13 paperback).

Girls on the Run

by John Ashbery.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

96 pages, $20 ($13 paperback).
 
 
 

B.H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe is a collection of verses set largely in small-town America with its "little white frame houses" and the "oven-warm winter/kitchens of Baptist households," a world of hard work and thwarted desire, populated by machinists, welders and farmers. Each poem flows from the one before, but the book opens in medias res with the speaker in Italy homesick for "the treeless horizons/of slate skies and the muted passions of roughnecks."

We are at the Bargello in Florence, and she says, what are you thinking? and I say, beauty, thinking of how very far we are now from the machine shop and the dry fields of Kansas...

"Beauty." How can one read the word and not think of Frost’s boast that in all his years of writing he used the term only once?

But here the poet is standing before Donatello’s "David," with his wife touching his sleeve, asking "what are you thinking?" And he’s actually thinking of beauty, of a discussion between Robert Penn Warren and Paul Weiss at Yale College, a 1963 radio broadcast audible in Kansas only because of "some weirdness of the air waves."

Here were two grown men discussing "beauty" seriously and with dignity as if they and the topic were as normal as normal topics of discussion between men such as soybean prices or why the commodities market was a sucker’s game or Oklahoma football or Gimpy Neiderland almost dying from his hemorrhoid operation.

"Beauty" is a seemingly discursive, but in fact ingeniously constructed, long-lined, eight-page poem in four sections which touches on a variety of topics, including baseball, hard physical labor, popular music, and the difficulty many men have, poets among them, in saying the word, a word which doesn’t seem quite natural or right to say aloud:

...she touching his chest, his hand brushing her breasts, and he does not say the word "beautiful" because he cannot and never has, and she does not say it because it would embarrass him or any other man she has ever known...

The Art of the Lathe is a book infused with the beauty of "silver Kansas light laving the [dinner] table," "light filtering down from the green plastic slats in the roof of the machine shop," high school athletes eager to gallop terribly against each other’s bodies, light and "the uprisings of light," and the poem "Beauty" ending as it does with "the metal roof of the machine shop" breaking into flame "late on an autumn day, with such beauty."

Reading these lines one thinks of James Wright and poems like "Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio." Indeed, Fairchild acknowledges Wright in the two epigraphs that precede "Beauty."

Then there is Fairchild’s justly popular "Keats":

I knew him. He ran the lathe next to mine. Perfectionist, a madman, even on overtime Saturday night. Hum of the crowd floating from the ball park, shouts, slamming doors...

This is Keats out of Kansas, a scrappy guy, short, but fearless. Keats, a skilled mechanic who took no lip from anyone, Keats who once beat up a mechanic "big as a Buick," who would lean into his lathe "and make a little song/with the honing cloth, rubbing the edges,/smiling like a man asleep, dreaming."

Reading the title poem and others like "Old Men Playing Basketball," "Work," and "The Welder, Visited by the Angel of Mercy," one sees the influence of Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell. These are naturalistic poems, objective in their representation of human beings. Dana Gioia and others have justly noted Fairchild’s ability to plunder "the territories of prose to expand the possibilities of contemporary verse."

* * * *

"Beauty." It’s a risky word, a tricky word, one to be used with caution—particularly by poets. But now Fairchild has got me thinking and I approach C.K. Williams’ Repair only after consulting a dictionary. "Beauty," I read, "craftsmanship, truthfulness, originality." Is there beauty in the poetry of C. K. Williams and, if so, where?

Williams is a delver, a diviner, a discoverer of marvels. He is incisive and forthright, a risk-taker, an unflinching teller of things-as-they-are, yet even his images of injury and destruction, of violence and of loss are infused with merciful light, grief and compassion. In his most brutal poem "The Nail," for example, he tells of a dictator who disposed of enemies "by hammering nails into their skulls." The poem, graphic and horrific as it is, modulates in the final stanza:

No, no more: this should be happening in myth, in stone, or

paint, not in reality, not here;

it should be an emblem of itself, not itself, something would

mean, not really have to happen,

something to go out, expand in implication from that unmoved

mass of matter in the breast...

The poem concludes:

...it’s we who do such things, we who set the slant, embed the tip,

lift the sledge and drive the nail,

drive the nail which is the axis upon which turns the brutal

human world upon the world.

Each day of our lives images of this kind assault us. The images themselves are like nails driven into our skulls. So one is drawn to a book bearing the title Repair, a collection of poems that, in addition to everything else it has to offer, explores the nature and limits of healing and repair.

In "The Blow," an approaching beggar startles a man who blindly turns on him and punches him in the chest. Knowing he has made a mistake, harangued by the beggar, walking away as fast as he can, the man suddenly sees "himself/and the beggar as atoms,/nullities, passing beside/one another, or through."

Musing on the fear of "our own existence," chastened, he recalls reading of a youth in a madhouse, "entirely idiotic, sitting/on a shelf in the wall." "That shape am I," the man understands and, "beholding his own mind," the man sees it "flickering desperately over/the great gush of the real,/to no end, to no avail."

In "The House," the poet speaks of that place in ourselves where consciousness—or something—cries "Make me new," but pleads "pitiably" at the same time, "Cherish me as I was." Williams draws on the language of a construction crew bent on demolition, "Down to the swipe of the sledge, the ravaging bite of the pick," as he leads into the inner core, that "rubble, wreckage, vanity: the abyss" we all share.

This is a book about repair, but as the poet makes clear, there can be no repair, no healing, without forgiveness—forgiveness of others and ourselves.

The book ends tenderly, movingly with "Invisible Mending," where "Three women old as angels,/bent as ancient apple trees,/who, in a storefront window" work with needles, scissors and shears to repair the "Abrasions, rents and frays,/slits and chars and acid/splashes, filaments" of our outer garments.

Only sometimes would they

lift their eyes to yours to show

how much lovelier than these twists

of silk and serge the garments

of the mind are...

* * * *

David St. John’s In The Pines: Lost Poems 1972-1997 is a seven-part collection of poems, many of which appeared over the past twenty-five years in limited edition chapbooks. White Pine Press is to be congratulated for bringing out this 176-page volume of the poet’s "lost" or otherwise unavailable work, though the forbidding dark funereal green, black, and muddy yellow cover is quite at odds with the wonderful wit, humor, lyricism, and brightness of the poems themselves. Many of these sixty or so poems, whatever their length, tell fully realized stories—with the poet drawing on a variety of personas and writing in the first person. Consider the five-page title poem with its Rilkean account of an ailing man who, enchanted by an angel’s singing, enters into a fantastical relationship with her ("blond wings the breadth/of a man’s body"). The affair culminates in an erotic encounter, "the long feathers/Cutting my neck like fine razors/As I unbuckle my pants & pull myself/into her," and the androgynous angel "body/Of a condor: just as powerful, graceful, sleek" flies off with the male narrator, raising him above the pines, toward:

...the empty heavens,

& I know my lungs in this clarity of air

Will last no longer than Her song.

Though I hardly care, though

I foresaw it all, still,

I know as well as she knows—in stories

Of this kind—when what comes

Has come finally to its end, which of us

Must fall.

Decadent and urbane, utterly different from the Rilkean title poem is the lushly erotic, eighteen-line "Don’t Talk to Me; Touch Me," a half-page tour de force which offers more character, more atmosphere, more "story" than many full-length prose fiction narratives. Casually, almost offhandedly, the poet evokes a complete scene. In this case the main character is a gigolo ("he’d carefully choose the one/Who’d certainly have money or jewelry back at her room—/A small price to pay for a man with a waist/Like a cat.") preparing himself for an evening’s adventure:

Outside, his motorcycle glistened like a black mantis

As he began slowly pulling on the shiny

Flowered shirt and striped pants that women loved

To touch underneath the arc-rainbow...

These are poems which give "intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind." Exhibiting harmony of form, excellence of craftsmanship and originality, In the Pines is in every way a beautiful body of work.

* * * *

Ashbery’s Girls on the Run is a fifty-page poem "inspired by the work of ‘outsider’ artist Henry Darger (1892-1972), a Chicago-based recluse with a history of mental illness, noted for his obsession with little girls." So says the publisher’s promo material. The cover, Henry Darger’s "Storm Brewing," suggests Girls is going to be a children’s story.

I open Girls on the Run to section three, and read (in their entirety) the opening lines of the first stanza:

Out in Michigan, or was it Minnesota, though, time had stopped

to see what it could see, which wasn’t much. A recent hooligan scare had

blighted the landscape,

lowering the temperature by several degrees. "Having

to pee ruins my crinoline relentlessly,

because it comes only ecstatically."

But the wounded cow knew otherwise.

I blink.

Harold Bloom likes it. According to Bloom, Girls on the Run "will make readers happier and wiser." He calls John Ashbery "our universal poet, as Walt Whitman was before him." Funny, isn’t it? Here’s Harold Bloom, the critic most given to making lofty pronouncements, approving of Ashbery, the American poet most given to fence-sitting. The poems in Girls on the Run and Wakefulness are perpetually poised on the edge of meaning. Both books offer many delights, one tantalizing glimmer of sense after another, but hold back, line by line, teasing the reader, fence-sitting, never quite managing to communicate what the poet is thinking about anything. What do you make of someone for whom foreplay is the whole game? There are all these superlative lines, each one of which can be read as a prelude to a poem that never quite happens. Ultimately, this is poetry as a form of coitus interruptus. It’s deconstruction, it’s Roland Barthes in "The Death of the Author" writing, "Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt." I think that’s a fair description of John Ashbery’s work.

For all its agility and sharpness ("Our stalwart little band of angels got on it, and were taken for a ride/into the next chapter,") the whole of Girls on the Run is less than the sum of its luminous parts. How can one sustain a book-length poem on preciosity, on atmospherics alone? I’d be hard put to describe the drama or story line in Girls, and the participants in this "surrealist adventure," Jenny Wren and Tidbit, Dimples and Mr. McPlaster, et al., are scarcely able to hold one’s attention for more than a page or two. And what is one to make of a narrative so arbitrary in its construction, so lacking in some underlying human feeling, that one line, image or character could be substituted for another?

Then there are the Ashbery-ian echoes of Gertrude Stein: "Now she was the daughter or granddaughter of somebody famous,/ folks for miles around knew that. But no one could say what she was up to, she was far too clever for that." Elsewhere Ashbery writes: "A horse wanders away/and is abruptly inducted into the carousel,/eyes flying, mane askew. There is no end to the dance."

Indeed, that’s the problem with both Girls on the Run and Wakefulness: an overabundance of ironic, masturbatory, carousel giddiness; too much forced cheeriness and, sadly, no end to the dance. Today, re-reading Wakefulness, I recalled Frost’s words. Poetry, he said, is "a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget." For all that there is to admire in Ashbery, what if a reader asks: What in Girls on the Run and Wakefulness would it impoverish us to forget? Listen to these opening lines to "Moderately," a poem that appears early on in Wakefulness:

The fox brooding and the old people smelling

and the tiebreaker—why did I not think of that?

Why have doubts upon me come? Why

this worldliness? And I remember no longer at the age of sixteen,

and at the age of seventeen great rollers

eating into night, I uncared for...

There is much that is gorgeous in Wakefulness, but how are we to keep up our spirits in the face of all this self-imitation, the Ashbery-ian stylistic tic: the brilliant-but-brittle, momentarily engaging, fragmentary phrase; the arbitrarily unfinished line; the refusal to communicate feeling or emotion; the verbal collage; the allusions to Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound; the entertaining "high-end" gibberish delivered with a wink; the persnickety squirreliness masquerading as ingenuity?
 
 

Guggenheim recipient Robert Sward teaches at University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of 16 books.

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