'Peering is kind of a rural thing, “just looking at stuff,” as my dad says, as he often fills his time. As I’ve discussed on here before, many of his hickish activities promote the importance of seeing (& thus, pondering)--fishing & hunting, porch-sitting, building, etc. My dad & his kin passed along to me the slow “just-looking-at-stuff” mindset; there’s family lore about how my uncle once ran his truck off the road because he’d been hypnotized by staring at a set of old wagon wheels stuck in the mud down the hill, imagining where he might plop them in his own yard. As a whippersnapper, I would ride atop a pillow in the passenger seat of my dad’s semi to see what we were passing, what we passed over. He taught me at an unusually young age the difference between the solid yellow lines & its dotted brethren in the center of the highway, a lesson, he jokes, that backfired, what with me calling out “don’t pass, don’t pass, don’t pass” into “okay, you can pass now” for hours on end.
I’ve always floated on a curiosity in how others see the world & how I might borrow their techniques & perspectives to get more goodness out of my own living. My dad sees the world through the movement around him--from the perch of his semi or his deer stand alike--but he compartmentalizes & retains it through humor & storytelling. My mother similarly passed along her ways of seeing, both literally & figuratively. My mother’s vision was always poor, “the worst non-legally blind person in town,” I (mis?)remember the local optometrist once declared; this condition eventually led to a double-corneal transplant. Though not nearly as bad, I couldn’t tell my own wife from Barry Manilow without my corrections, an advanced prescription that costs me an extra forty bucks on those cheap glasses sites.
Where her eyes lack, my mother’s soul extends very strongly, passionately, be it with love or frustration, protestation or faith. I am reminded of Donald Revell’s assertion that “[t]he poem’s trajectory is an eyebeam, not an outline,” in The Art of Attention (7). It is not necessarily what we see or the linear logic of that vision, but rather how our natural selves go forth & bring back what is found. Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know a good buddy, TA, who is blind, a friendship that has taught me much about inclusion & perspective, but also about seeing.
He utilizes sight words like “I saw this play” or “He looks really cute” with much flippancy. This usage jarred me at first, but what I’ve realized is the expanse of seeing that life renders us, regardless of our literal ability to see, through our other senses, through our emotions, & more importantly through our collecting mind. In my own life, I have been forced to see angles & visions, perspectives & delusions throughout my three decades that are otherwise foreign or seemingly irrational to others. What the subconscious throws. What the unconscious uncovers. What dreams deliver. What my spells dictate, what my delusions skew. Without meaning to, I think of Breton, rightfully: “This world is only very relatively in tune with thought...Existence is elsewhere” (Manifestoes of Surrealism 47).
After diagnosis, the past really opens up under a new lamp, the word dissociation written in mud on the clean white wall. In the introduction to his great book, The Wandering Mind, Dr. John A. Biever says that dissociation is “as mysterious and unsettling as it is commonplace,” ranging from daydreaming to disorder. I admit that such a large percentage of my life has been spent inside that spectrum, often only grounded when tied to another, more stable human. As child & teenager, once I lost the connection with the person, I lost the connection to the grounding activity. When I got grown enough to hunt in my own hunk of the woods or work on 4H projects independently without my dad, I could no longer stay entrenched in those activities. Same went with sports; as I cut ties with the teammates, I lost the signal for the game.
These days I stay tethered by the joy of doing--learning new skills, indulging in hobbies, completing projects--as a means to solidify something as an identity, as a mechanism for putting the wolves in a fence. But truly, for something close to a decade, say 12 to 20, I don’t think I did much of anything that grew my understanding of self, built any true connection with the parts of me, or stabilized my place in society. I admire my wife as the antithesis of my experience; her confidence, her skillset, & her social skills blossomed from an early age, despite familial hard times or other struggles, because of her commitment & self-actualization as a theater artist.
While many years passed before my diagnosis, my dissociative misdirections found some solid footing, an avenue for placing that fragmented framework, when I found poetry. I’ve laid it out elsewhere--stumbling into my university’s Writers Community organization, being tagged by a Dean Young poem, finding my first real cohort in the writers there--but that’s the what, & this essay is more concerned with the why. My friends & mentors there often threw out words like discursive, elliptical, polyvocal, & dissociative to describe the work I somehow found the most relatable, clarifying, & honest. In reading poetry, as Matthew Zapruder said in the introduction to Why Poetry, I felt, in a jiffy, kin to “its dream logic, its interest in the slipperiness and material qualities of language, its associative day-dreaming movement,” & as I’ve spent the last twelve years with my nose returning to books I just can’t get enough of, I see a pattern of these particularities surfacing in the ones I most enjoy to revisit, where those Zapruder-identified characteristics still feel surprising & disjunctive in a way that rhymes with distinct & natural.
I haven’t always “gotten” John Ashbery; take his long poem, “Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror” written after a Parmigianino painting, for instance. It is a poem I hated, then loved, then liked, then finally let myself fall even further into confusion, into something like admiration. Title on, there’s something there about looking, comparing, understanding the self in relation to others, even if that others is one of your many selves, or the extension one finds in others--selves, artwork, relations, a hodge-podge, etc.. My love of poetry the same, there are other things I could be doing instead of following the breadcrumbs. But I appreciate the echoes. It wasn’t till Dean Young, my second year of grad school, wrote this Ashbery quote in all-caps on the board--“Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.”-`that I finally got a sense of why I felt so engaged, enthralled, with this man & his poems.
Others might hold sharper critical interpretations of Ashbery’s work, but for me, I carry comfort & camaraderie in his endless spiraling through the self of / in many realities; I’m shit-housing it a bit, & perhaps it’s not even Ashbery, since the internet & this stack of books is failing me, but it’s something like, “All my poems are autobiographical; I just don’t know who they’re about.” Again & again, he reached for the voice, the frame, or the collective that hasn’t been conjured or combined, what can & can’t go in a poem exploded & explored.
That isn’t to say Ashbery doesn’t carry his core with him into those choices. As Ashbery biographer Karin Roffman said on The History of Literature podcast, the trauma of his brother dying & the reverberations of that was persistent in his work till his death. We see a childhood of interior life, his love of comics, & growing up on a farm in “Farm Implements & Rutabagas in a Landscape,” a poem that takes Pop-Eye & his cast of characters as ensemble, held together miraculously in sestina form. Through its repetition, the sestina was a form, both as reader & writer, that from early on felt both a harrowing constraint but also immensely freeing, unwieldy. I remember a sestina being the first poem I ever shared, text lingo like omg & brb as the end words, that folks in the BSU Writers Community responded positively to.
The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How pleasant
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach
And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
“M’love," he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.”
Like the sestina form, I know I love a poet by how often I return to their work, not because I know what I’ll find, but because I know I’ll find something as surprising, as imbalancing, as layered as much of my “reality” often feels. This is true of Lo Kwa Mei-en’s mind-boggling second collection, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, a book that takes as its focus aliens, immigrants, ancients, & sci-fi, & frames them within complex versions of forms & modes like the sonnet or the elegy. I’m reminded of a point in Lyn Hejinian’s Positions of the Sun that stuck to my skin, how form is an attempt to control the chaos of experience, of synthesizing through language.
My world, my world, its legendary grief, alive as a paper dragon
nesting or burning. I documented my life so am two worlds seam
-less and reeking of aping, of animal ashes, a No the state let go
off record. Fat reels of systemic fruit tumble in the feed to fill
kingdom and custom. My world full of agents, wired air. If I keep
passing to pass their test—planet without its star, an email stuck
In these poems though, that structure carries its own disjunction. I’m fascinated by Lo Kwa Mei-en’s use of what I call abecedarian fuckery, poems where the left side will start with a-through-z & the right side will end lines z-through-a, or other variations of that craftiness. Re-reading the poems this time around, her take on the sonnet crown, “The Alien Crown,” struck me as if for the first time. The poems feed into each other, as one’s ending line will come modified as the next sonnet’s first line, but the poems elevated use of abecedarian techniques, like one where the first line starts with a ‘m’ & ends with a ‘n’ with the next line starting ‘n’ & ending ‘n’ (see above), is also a way a poem feeds into itself, thus an entanglement. I call these poems humanizing -- the message they swerve for but also the rapidity they induce. I want to believe her hopeful as she proclaims “[W]e conquer the footwork of being.” The revolution of doing, writing, processing feels more apt presently --“Voltas fail, but here we are, unhurt nowhere, / editing violence until we dawn.”
& when I think of “doing,” I think immediately of C.D. Wright, a poet of project & of place, who has mesmerized me into a never-ending quest to read the entirety of her body of work, a journey I’ve taken only with a few poets of considerable volumes. In her work, various iterations of the project get sprung outta a moment, a relation, a thought, a situation--a question about language, the problems with the prison system, etc.--& this is Wright’s charm. The first book I ever read of hers, Deepstep Come Shining, its vices is its viscerality of experience, memories, & signs, as she says, “the aim...to feel wholeness itself,” that drives me deeper & again into her work. Whether as observer, experiencer, or medium, or possibly all three, the poems remind us, “I was there. I know.”
“Everything Good between Men and Women” appeared as C.D. Wright’s first stand alone poem that popped for this bungle-brained hick, capturing the complexity of the domestic, the ever-after, & the relationship I was just beginning to learn the long-lasting significance of--“Eyes / have we and we are forever prey / to each other’s teeth.” I felt the pressure of poetry, how it intertwined inevitably, both as reader & writer, a twisting that thumped the motor of many of Wright’s projects. My most significant Wright read, though, was just barely posthumous, me still freshly flagged with her death, when I read The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures…, described on the back cover as “[p]art study, part elliptical love song to poetics.” In short, joyful chunks, like the recurring “In A Word, A World,” I finally found someone who felt the pressure of language, down to its micro-levels like I did, who hangs on & needs its every syllable.
And I know fifteenth letter O is the best of all: O my black frying pan. O my flying arches. O my degenerating fibroids. O what’s the point. O little man at the foot of my bed, please don’t steal my pillow. (20)
& that, my friends, is why I can’t shake poetry, why I have adopted & adapted poetry as my main therapeutic mechanisms, my trusted lonesome-killer, my never-ending pang. Yes, it is the feeling of where’d that come from & where’s this gonna go, but also just as importantly where’s this been & where the heck am I now. Poetry, not because of its contrast, but because of its similarities, is a rare comfort in making non-sense of my dissociative, fragmented world, a container for the mess.
As I chase this “naked sound on the run” (Abraham Smith in Hick Poetics intro), I am lucky & million-chickens thankful to have found a form to take my focus, how some people sigh deep with needlepoint or others nod out with a needle. Once I had a spell, once I came to in the middle of a cornfield, once I was not diagnosed, once I was overwhelmed by anxiety & confusion & embarrassed, once I watched Abraham Smith reading HANK at the Racine library. The former bits an early indicator something was “off;” the latter clunks the first true signs that reading poetry could be grounding, could be a safe space to be a mess, could be my mechanism to meet others where their anxious vision meets the hateful world, the encroaching void.