Blackbird, give me back my dream!
the moon you woke me to
From Death Calls (Anstruther Press, 2015) by Marc di Saverio
Deviations in language, though not rare in poetry, awaken mixed reactions. Ben Jonson, repelled by Spenser’s archaisms, said, “Spenser, in affecting the Ancients writ no language,” and yet a few lines later allowed for the attraction of unfamiliar words:
Words borrow’d of Antiquity, doe lend a kind of Majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes. For they have the Authority of yeares, and out of their intermission do win to themselves a kind of grace-like newnesse.Deformations and deviations, generations later, become less peculiar; nobody flinches now at Dickinson’s subjunctive grammar and metaphoric definitions (“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”); nobody finds Dylan Thomas’s “a grief ago” strange; and even the words of “Jabberwocky” have entered the common sphere. The constant refreshment of language (not necessarily by deviation—think of George Herbert) is the stressful obligation experienced by poets. In one of his Dream Songs (#67), John Berryman explains the oddity of his own linguistic performance: “I am obliged to perform in complete darkness/operations of great delicacy/on my self.” Brock-Broido’s “operations,” like Berryman’s, often emerge from a darkness (of bewilderment, of pain, of loss), and produce linguistic distortions peculiar to the necessities of each poem, spells for enchantment.
In the poem “On Silk By Hand” Dalton’s composition boasts that “Not even the pharaohs dug so far / to take you to the city of your ancestors— / I call this my work, these decades and stations.” And indeed it is; when it works, it works in a way that stokes the fires of wonderment and possibility of poetry as a pursuit in the first place.
The poet, like the journalist, is a conduit. And, like the journalist, the poet must stick to the truth. We are not, like fiction writers, necessarily making up plots. We are not, like essayists, necessarily arguing points or drawing conclu- sions. We are, like journalists, fact gatherers and posers of questions. We look, we ask, and we listen. We hunt down data of all kinds, from the intense emotional variety on down, or we simply await its approach: we take note, absorb, distill. We give it all back, rearranged in a way that, we hope, lets it speak clearly. We can mean different things when we speak of journalistic truth as opposed to poetic truth, but the basic realities upon which verse and metaphor are built are those that even poets, with their famously freewheeling ways, may not disregard. For a poet to exhort a reader to see, say, the unswept corner of a room in a new light, the poet cannot ignore the fundamental truths about such a place—indeed the poet must know these truths intimately, and the poet must understand, or at least sense, why he or she is compelled to call attention to them. When the poet directs our eye to the dust-ridden corner, and points behind that scene, or to an idea gathered within it, the poet is sharing important information with us, gleaned through rigorous research.Lahey also proposes a deeper reason for the comparison.
Amid global political and economic volatility, and in consequence of the vast breadth and reach of free digital media, the very fundamentals of the fourth estate, the tenets of free speech and the ideal of the journalist as society’s truth-teller are faltering. The work of actual journalists has somehow been left out of the budgetary models erecting around the new media. We are making do, more and more, with what I think of as sort-of journalism, almost journalism: sloppy and incomplete and inexperienced reporting, poor writing, rushed editing. At the same time, counter-intuitively, something exciting is going on. The popular satire of comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—even the homegrown satire in YouTube videos—provides many viewers with the double-whammy of current affairs embedded within their underlying absurdities and hypocrisies. Many people now chiefly get their news from such shows, or from strings of Twitter feeds, where events are filtered through tweeters’ reactions, which can be, often as not, linguistically creative and layered with meaning. This speaks to a growing sophistication in how a population living in a media-saturated culture learns to process information: lightning quick, able to synthesize, critique and reconstitute, all at once.
One, for all the handwringing over contemporary poetry’s supposed inaccessibility, readers are becoming ever more astute, and instinctively attuned to the types of tricks poets like to play: layering, juxtaposing, recasting, fragmenting. The corollary to this is that what poets do naturally should become more compelling and more relevant to potential readers, even nontraditional readers of poetry. Is this optimistic? Maybe. But the second thing the current climate means for poetry makes that optimism feel at least somewhat justified. As traditional journalism flails and its online incarnations scramble to find their way, the work of the poets becomes that much more important as a record and reconsideration of our times, past and present. There is and will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, an ever- increasing need for poets to be visible and to be heard in the general discourse. The more I see and feel this to be so, the more I find myself noticing, when I pick up a literary journal, that it’s in the lines and words and in-depth investigations of the poets where we can find, in large measure, the most urgent news of our day.
THE BOOK OF MATERIALS
Performs its trick: to get smaller as it fills.
More a recipe book than mere concordance. All’s logged
there in its padlocked proportions: weight, density,
ease of repair. It’s meant to tweak our deepest hunches
for superinsulating aerogels, concrete cloth,
cost balanced perfectly against production.
But it’s published in paperback and gifted to say
your troubles will not always be your troubles.
Some read it to their kids; some plumb
it in a welder’s helmet of caution.
We’re taken aback to know the housefly
has a protein in its wafery wing
that makes the lightest and most flexible brace.
And that no matter the crosscut we elect to take
we’ll walk on an unchartable sea of rare metal.
Whole millennia are ground down and engrained
in the pulp like plant stalks that can be
transmorphed to burnable fuel. But it’s tough not to meddle.
Tough not to annotate it with rebuttals
while someone we’ve talked all we can talk to
buoys up from a widening pool of morphine,
says read me something, anything...
and so your thumb lets flap each treated page
that makes a quiet breeze of our many days.