Something Memorable in the Way of Verse

The Poets

There he sat among them
(his old friends) a walking ash
that knows how to smile.
And he still dreamed of a style
so clear it could wash a face
or make a dry mouth sing.
But they laughed, having found
themselves more astonishing.

They would drive their minds
prismatic, strange, each wrapped
in his own ecstatic wires,
over a cliff for language,
while he remained to raise
a few birds from a blank page.

Poem by Bert Meyers in Poetry, January 2023.

Bert Meyers is singled out for celebration in this issue of the magazine. The poem appears, ironically, in a journal that seems to be dominated by writers wrapped in their own ecstatic wires, to borrow Meyers’s phrase. As poems go, there’s relatively little to translate. “A walking ash”? The essay about him mentions that Meyers was a heavy smoker — indeed the habit is implicated in his relatively early death. “Drive their minds over a cliff for language” is so apt it explains itself — the perfect metaphor! — portraying a mode of recondite, self-referential versifying that the speaker dismisses in favor of unassuming eloquence. With its unemphatic rhyming and lucid phrasing the poem is graspable, coherent and concise, all of which makes it linger in the mind, and even on the tongue. I hear a flutter of wings!

(c) 2023 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Joe Brainard: The Glory of Cheapo Things

“Untitled (Toothbrushes),” 1973-74, the showstopper in the exhibition “Joe Brainard: A Box of Hearts and Other Works,” at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Credit… Artworks, the Estate of Joe Brainard, via Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York; Photographs by Alan Wiener.

The creamy sensuality of the toothbrush rack melts your heart. Talk about ennobling humble objects with tender attention. It’s an act of painterly love lavished on a trivial appurtenance. Both lyrical and somehow sad.

“There is something I lack as a painter that de Kooning and Alex Katz have,” he jotted in his diary in 1967. “I wish I had that. I’d tell you what it was except that I don’t know.”

(Joe Brainard)
Alex Katz’s 1966 portrait of Joe Brainard… Credit…Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA at Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

… A reticent Oklahoman who died of AIDS in 1994, at the age of 52…, [Brainard] arrived in Manhattan in 1960, and fell in with what was probably the last group of artists and writers to flourish in the city without any money… [He] sought to take up as little space as possible… specialized in small-scale works… understood how cheapo things (comic books, cigarette packaging, gift tags, restaurant receipts, etc.) can be an expression of authentic emotion… The poet Ron Padgett… recalls a period of artistic crisis in which “he took an increasingly dim view of his work.” Overly conscious of his deficiencies, he signed up for classes at the New York Academy of Art. His remaining years were given over to reading novels.

(Deborah Solomon, “No Ordinary Joe,” New York Times, 11-16-22)

(c) 2023 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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The Reader Makes the Poem

A turn of phrase can unsettle when the poet goads words beyond their commonly agreed boundaries. When the impertinence works, the reader experiences a shocked flash of assent. Ah yes! I see why you write that she “whirls” her hoe. The poet has created a context which can make the act of whirling be right for a hoe. Perhaps it connotes a manic wielding of the tool whose blur is shared with whirling. Perhaps the context is that of a person in possible breakdown who flails irrationally at grievous loss.

When it doesn’t work, the reader fails to assent. He’s stuck haggling with “whirl,” unable to divorce the word’s weight in his mind from a sense of twirling something in a circle, unable to match the association with any conceivable handling of a hoe.

There’s no “right” response. The writer’s design is to stir the reader with words. The verse is the fact; the writer’s work is done. With the making of it his limits have been tested, his choices made. The rest belongs to the reader. When the reader is stirred, it’s poetry.

Off Interstate 20 / she whirls her hoe / the acreage now / a bedroom wall / a six foot / stand of weeds… / the house lost to / a lightening fire in / ‘68 and she / whirls her hoe / It lifts and / disappears / lifts / disappears / in the sun / in the moon / The relatives pass / at 70 yelling / GIVE IT UP BEATRICE / The weeds keep working / at that one / charred wall… [My bolding.]
(Charles Behlen, “Widow Zebach,” Dreaming at the Wheel, Corona Publishing Co., 1988, p. 31)

(c) 2023 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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A Good Clinician Knows Communication Fosters Wellness

Constantly moving targets.

My pendant whatnots had a fiery itch. I bashfully exposed them to the Dermatologist. “It’s excruciating,” I said. She cast her glance and looked up brightly. “Ah yes, I see what you mean,” she said.

I pressed for amplification. “It’s neuro-dermal,” she said. “I’m going to prescribe something to calm those nerves.”

She and I have a clinical past. She knows my sun-wrecked carapace, my sordid history of sleeveless, shorts-clad tennis played in ultraviolent radiation. Now she knows my whatnots. She has also twigged, over time, to my verbal pathology.

“Is it in the nature of a psycho-dermal epithelial conflagration, then?” I said. She nodded solemnly.

“And you’re going to prescribe a palliative tubal emollient with which to put down the revolution?”

Brisk nod again. She recited a regimen of application for the tube of goo, smiled expertly, and exited the examining room. Walking gingerly out of the clinic I felt better down there already. It helps to talk things out.

(c) 2023 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Who’s Getting Laid in This Picture?*

“The 1927 Odalisque with Grey Trousers, though beautiful, showed how the painter had become creatively paralysed” (Credit: Musée de l’Orangerie / H Matisse / ARS).

Organised chronologically, Matisse in the 1930s begins with a look at the Nice period, exemplified by his voluptuous Odalisque with Grey Trousers (1927). A seductive model in harem pants lays on a green bedroll, surrounded by brilliant red and yellow wall patterns.
(Diane Bernard, “Matisse’s The Dance: The masterpiece that changed history,”, 1-18-23)

The mugwump who rails about “grammar errors” invariably goes down as a pitiable loser in greater society’s estimation, and not undeservedly.

Never mind that. I don’t give a damn what people say and write in ordinary discourse, but it sticks in my craw when a professional, native-English-speaking journalist in the hire of a reputable organ such as the BBC, writing a published article that presumptively has undergone editorial vetting, commits the hideously common fuck-up (pardon my language) exemplified in the above quotation.

For my sins, I’m condemned to be foolishly bothered by this particular fuck-up (pardon my language) and to cease being interested, invariably if unjustly, in whatever else the journalist may have to say. If you live by the expository published word, you’re perceived according to the level of your mastery of it. It’s a hotly denied truth.

(*This potty-mouthed post is emitted in the heat of petulance, to be repented at leisure. Whenever I spew invective I know I’ve slipped the bonds that tether me to good taste.)

(c) 2023 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Knaughty Knots

A start. Acrylic on cardboard.

If you’ve worked with lumber you know knots are harder than other parts of the wood. Their toughness can stymie a handsaw and defeat a nail. There was once a vogue in home-building circles for “knotty pine.” Prized for its marbling of streaks and whorls, knotty pine paneled the dens of many a ranch-style home. The knots served decorative ends.

Metaphors are the knots of poems. It will start an argument to call them decorative. They aren’t… always, but metaphors can grind your teeth. If a metaphor doesn’t land with a certain immediacy, it’s a bomb that doesn’t detonate. The tricky thing for a versifier is that emotive force doesn’t necessarily travel on perfervid vocables. Compare these two texts:

“Sobs typhooned the wheelhouse of his heart, / as the Pink Johnson of his passion’s pilgrimage, / bottled caravel wrought for a jeroboam of exile, / lay shattered now on the ruptured crown — O ye gods! — / of his lifeless Nefertiti, / the ermine chariot of his muse’s Icarus, / his Eloise of chalcedonic eyes.”

Earth, receive an honored guest: / William Yeats is laid to rest. / Let the Irish vessel lie / Emptied of its poetry.
(W. H. Auden)

The first text spoofs the ginning up of ersatz pathos by shaking fizzy words and spraying them at the reader.

The second text starts the ending of an elegy. It pivots from the expansive, conversing mode that has preceded to a strict, rhymed cadence betokening the ineluctable. In spirit, lump in throat, the reader falls in with fellow celebrants to walk behind a writer’s coffin. As moving speech, it explodes.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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The Innovation Corrective

Sam Altman, left, one of the founders of OpenAI, and Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, agreed to a $1 billion investment by Microsoft in 2019. Credit… Ian C. Bates for The New York Times.

Generative artificial intelligence is a colossal genie blasting out of its bottle as we speak. A key player in the crowded field is named Altman. Get it? Altman —> Alt + Man —> Alternative Man. I made the name up to make a point. Or did I?

A.I. has made it where we can’t know now, and in future even less, whether an utterance or an image comes from a human or from a machine. What could go wrong with such technology? Bad actors, of course. They will make sure it’s misused — there’s no new evil under the sun, nothing human is alien to me, etc. — all the platitudes are germane.

But the scourge of malign A.I. poses opportunities for humans who are still trying to have their own thoughts and speak their own words. They lie in fostering creativity that’s distinctly human. For example, cure cancer and fix famine. Solve war. Clean the oceans. Fall in love and make stupid mistakes. Write flawed poems. Learn something “useless” like algebra or Latin that will comfort you a lifetime later. In other words, have a life.

(Cade Metz and Karen Weise, “Microsoft Bets Big on the Creator of ChatGPT in Race to Dominate A.I.,” New York Times, 1-12-23)

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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What Are We Wading For?

Pencil on paper.

A poem by Richard Reeve introduced me to the accipiter. I Googled it to find it’s a cadillac of a hawk built for fast flight in woodlands. Love the word. I listened to the online pronunciator for good measure. The recording said “accipider.” It reminded me of something I notice all the time: We Americans voice our intervocalic apico-alveolar stops! We say “wading” instead of “waiting.” We can’t tell the latter from the ladder or the bitter from the bidder or the writer from the rider. It’s all the more noticeable to me since I listen to British talk radio and often converse with an English republican. How language evolves isn’t at all in the direction of clarity. It’s rather in a direction which tends to mutty the wadder in support of our penchant for talking past one another.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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A Paean to Noma

Desserts have been made with unorthodox ingredients, like plankton. Credit… Ditte Isager for The New York Times.

All these words are Pete Wells’s words. I’ve merely culled them selectively from his essay on Noma into a poem-like structure. I’m darned if there’s not a Whitmanesque vibe to it.

It was here in the reindeer lichen and puffed fish skin
Here in the signal-orange berries of wild sea buckthorn
In the sour, heart-shaped leaves of wood sorrel
Picked, snipped and dug up

It was here in the burning hay that perfumed
It was here in the keening acidity of pickled and fermented ingredients
In the gentle sweetness of parsnips and other vegetables
That took the place of fruit in desserts

It was here in the slates, rocks, seashells, logs and rustic pieces of hand-thrown pottery
For transporting food from the kitchen to the table
It was here in the bony, opaque, angular, off-center, unpredictable, odd-smelling wines
made in the Jura and the Loire by natural and biodynamic methods

It was graceful, it was coherent
I wasn’t prepared for the shimmering beauty
Like the iridescent silhouette of a starfish brushed on a plate with edible paint
And covered with the sparkling roe of wild Danish trout

Unprepossessing liquid that looked as if it had simply seeped out of a clam
Would turn out to be a sauce full of pleasure and complexity
The next course would do it again
But in a different key at another volume

The fermentation suite was full of jars of grains and yeasts and fruits
Whose molecules were breaking down and rearranging
The research and development laboratory was ready for new discoveries
The greenhouse was under construction.

“We’re in here for life. But we’re not in here for one thing. It can change.”
I can’t quite say I’ll be sorry when it’s gone. In many ways
Its excellence had become inseparable from the culture of overkill
That now defines the windswept high peaks of fine dining

Once he gets rid of those pesky diners
Maybe he could ask a small team of scientists
To look into ways to shrink great dining experiences
Down to a size that is both more human and more humane

(Pete Wells, “Noma Spawned a World of Imitators, But the Restaurant Remains an Original,” New York Times, 1-9-23)

(c) 2023 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Way Too Much Confession

Acrylic on cardboard.

I’m aware that I read poetry in too forensic a way, particularly poetry of the moment. Is it because I identify as a translator? I broach a new poem in English with a cocked snoot, I’m afraid. It’s recognizable as a defensive stance. I don’t want to be made fool of by a style of poetryship that escapes me.

A friend with a distinguished career of teaching and publishing in a university’s non-fiction program shuns poetry. It smacks to her of too many gatherings in which literary colleagues rhapsodize over poems which only they, and not she, seem to understand. (She said.)

I warm to abstraction and surrealism in painting, but bridle at speech I find unconstruable. Bizarre word reference is predictable. Robert Lowell described a bad morning once by saying, “I woke up in a police whistle.” It’s dotty, but it scans conventionally — subject, predicate, etc. There are days I wake up on Alpha Centauri.

Unlike word reference, what strands me in petulant pedantry is the flouting of syntactic relationships, a je m’en foutiste disregard for the architecture of sentences. Dealing with it is like exchanging pleasantries with the taciturn Gallego encountered in a Spanish stairwell: you’ll not find out whether he’s going up or going down.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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