The gift of speech
Sentiment is the key. If the reader can be thrown strongly enough in a certain direction, or into a certain mood, then that feeling can create a connective web or atmosphere that holds the whole poem together: the web transformed into a nexus of human-centered meanings.
As with Wordsworth or Coleridge’s conversation poems, the reader is hip-checked by direct statements of strong feeling in the direction of the mood in which the poem will actually function as a poem and not merely a collection of statements. It is a wrestler’s work and no mistake. It is not the aesthetician’s golden ladder of words, nor imagination’s grand view, nor the jeweler’s precise chiseling of a potential diamond. It is a gross and direct appeal to the self-pitying piggy heart of common humanity that gives such poetry the emotive energy to soar. It’s the last weeks of an intense political campaign where rhetoric and competition have roiled winner and loser in a single vat. It is five seconds to go on the fifty yard line. Desperation, excitement, and commitment are all called up from the slop bucket of survivor’s guilt of evolution which has hazarded us this far.
But how to achieve this peanut-cracking rhetorical gore and gong-show ga-ga excitement in the current age, when rhetoric, speechifying, and fine sentiments have been frowned from the field of human communication? Only in television ads, charity appeals, and the Sunday sub-culture of evangelical shtick are such techniques still commonly employed.
Unless I was going to print my poetry on the side of a collection tin underneath the photo of an abused puppy, I was S.O.L. I thought to myself, How would Gomer Pyle propose to his lady-love and manage to be heard as more chivalrous than cartoonish? A proposal of marriage is a domestic moment of high drama in our reproductive lives, with a long shadow of consequences that hang from the act, casting back from the future a certain darkness or atmosphere upon the proposal’s moment. So, in imagination, I put myself into Gomer’s size twelve army boots and bent down on one knee. And shazzam! I saw Polly Pureheart a-blinkin’ down at me–so unbearably lovely in the moonlight near the babbling cr’k. And as much as I wanted to marry that Pureheart, and cherish and care for her, and hold her in my clumsy arms under the sighing weeping willow tree . . . . I, I, well, I just couldn’t say anything at all. I had been struck dumb by the immensity of the moment, and the intensity of my own feelings. The fear of rejection and the vulnerability of showing my truest soul were there as well, like a lump of flour in my throat. Yet, for all that, my intentions were clear to her, and Polly in her pity looked down with love in her eyes, and a simple, life-altering “Yes” on her lips. I was blessed.
What I took from this hillbilly vision was that clear intention–or direct statement of strong feeling– followed by silence, or a break from the intensity of that intention or feeling, can moisten the wry eye of the reticent reader, and cattle-prod a passive Polly into action. I wondered, with my personal penchant for potent possibilities and alternative scenarios, if a rhetorical question, sincere in the motivating gears of its feelings, could work as well as a bald blurt of hurt or happiness to create this space of silence in a poem– and which would then invite the reader to lean in and leer– not as a vampire umpire calling strikes– but as one of the dusty boys in pin-stripes ready to get dirty and knock some mud off of his cleats. I’ve tried this approach in the following poems too. (How’d I do?)
A question, such as
How can we talk about love when everything's wrong?
creates a silence of need and self-doubt projecting from the speaker. If the reader has ever felt a similar doubt or moment of confused longing, then, I figured, a space of receptive silence and co-creation will occur. The poem just may succeed its way into meaning.
A direct statement of strong feeling, like
It's going to take a very great person To just stand there and love me.
creates a similar silent space. The adjoining observations about a menacing sky, an aggressive squirrel, and some quietly patient horses all give that sentiment its fertile dung in which to blossom. Exacerbating or contradicting–both–can call that statement into greater relief. The squirrel and horses have nothing directly to do with the feeling the speaker is bludgeoned by– and yet, in the explosive silence of embarrassed eavesdropping the criminal reader has been plunged into– these props take onto themselves all the concomitant feelings that the words of the poem refuse to provide. They are the willow tree and moonlight to Gomer’s gulping proposal, his brown eyes swimming with unsayable sentiments that must still–somehow–be understood if he, and, downstream, the species is to survive.
Will you take my hand?
GREGG GLORY Feb. 14th, 2009
This poem has no details If you won't carry water 100 miles in your hands. Break through the skim of ice In December, right behind that silent glass factory All one tall shadow on the Raritan. Watch your hands shiver. Feel your wet cuffs the first 20 miles Until the sky is a shard in your palms, And you fret about cutting your wrists Accidentally.
Kneel down in darkness Beside my dark. Flow your free hand Into the rolling stack. Each breath anticipates the next. Excited, we lean Nearer than the night. Nearer than the spur Of sparks about to start. Hold my hand. Hold this match with me.
I don't belong here, in this creation. The clear air flies around me, One frenzied blue wing escaping. The path up is all grey wrecked stones Made naked where the runoff comes bursting in Spring. They hint at the uppermost, topless spot All bald flat bold long rocks Veined with autumn-leaved vines and dry ivies. Now I can see what I have been pushing for until My head and shoulders are slick with afterbirth. Over the cliff, the landscape patches itself together. A bare, thin Cigarette smoke of veiled haze Puts a varnish finish to the valley. The Delaware lays like a wet, crooked stick Abandoned in a ditch. From up here, At the brownish prow of lookout rock, I can almost see my whole stupid life. Clouds assemble, whispering frigid things against me. I have no idea why nobody's here with me, Why I have no lovers at my age, Or why I'm tearing my loafers out on a mountainside, Scoring water off of strangers And trying to forget my face With my back Against this cliff.
Deliberately I drove until The only thing I was Was lost. Scrub pines hunched Like dwarf men under the lowering roof Of eggshell heaven, each man bent into his own Posture of Dantescan agony. I kicked uncomfortably Against the sterile pinecones large as a fist Or dud handgrenade until they rolled into the shadows Full of needles, with a sound like crumpled paper. The patient preoccupation that had bade me lose my way Loosened like pneumonia phlegm with every cracking kick. Now, at last, quite lost, I laughed! Not even my own troubles could find me here, Shadow-mottled as a forgotten fawn. Under a wing of vines, beside some swirl of wet, I sat contemplative in my self-forget. The vine-leaves' yellow eyes, all rimmed with red, Offered inedible tears of berries cheerily, Which, if I ate as offered, would let the sick inside Slide up slick as a roar. I smiled aside My wry temptation to see Just what it was was in me, And pulled my fingers from the vines like a half-plucked harp. I put away my need to know Just what had gotten lost when I had gotten so, To see it sized and sorted on some obscene plate Curiously served up For I and eyes to eat. Low above, on a white dry pine bough overhead, The sinuous weight of a great black snake Waits in its hisses.
Better off dead, I keep poking my pillow with my elbow, Looking for sleep-- The cold pleasure of unconsciousness,-- An apricot kept at the back of the fridge Sweating quietly in a lightless box Until the sudden click of dawn Bares its teeth.
There's something crappy in the sand along Belmar's shore. The grains are too big, or there's too much weird junk To run it Smoothly between your palms. Tar from the pier pilings sticks In your dungarees. And the Shark River inlet, no longer busy With chaotic traffic or crab traps Keeps spitting at you. Even the dying flounder From some old drunkard's afternoon haul Stares up at you to go. But you stay, Stuck on your perch and your thoughts-- A little helplessly. And when the oil rig lights twinkle on like an evening dress All along the bottom of the sky's deepening scythe of green, It's hard to know what to call it. If anything.
I feel trapped in my old life Like a hermit crab that won't abandon its shell It is so intensely curled Into its stiffened whorl of habits. The seashore wails and wails Its single, filial demand-- Repetitious as a herd of commodities brokers Shouting in their calico patchwork of blazers Until the final bell. How can I change if the sea won't? My yearning stands straight out like a flag, same as ever. Seaweed everywhere, Beaten brown and soft as a drenched felt hat, Fits itself alluringly To the suavities of the rocks, Adapting crash by crash by crash.
Nervous and warm as mice The skinny cot at Camp O Squeals with our comingling. Wet nose to nose, past midnight We whisper the dawn awake. How can we talk about love when everything's wrong? We touch through frayed fingerless gloves It is so cold. It is so cold, Our breath wets the cinderblocks And almost freezes. Our shoulders get sore, Facing each other in the dark. Light comes into the room Like a page turning out of its shadow. Before I could see your eyes, --Before I met you even,-- I would cry remembering them.