Poems by Sidney Burris. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2000.
What Is Fair. Poems by James Harmon Clinton. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997.
Blue Pajamas. Poems by Stephen Cushman. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1998.
LSU Press has never exactly been known for being on the cutting edge of poetry
publishing, but lately it has become the undisputed bastion of bourgeois bards
who, to borrow a line from their own Sidney Burris, deal in "The grandly banal."
Recently LSU Press has published several volumes of well-crafted but unsatisfying
verse that belong to the genre Robert Peters has called "the Fulbright poem"
for its display of erudition at the expense of having anything authentic to
say. This is not to say that these poets have no lived experience to write about,
they do have, but their authentic experience seems to be pretty much restricted
to the narrow feeding ground that runs between the library, their university
offices and their respectable "homes," with a little gardening or a walk in
the woods thrown in for good measure and some more or less ironically expressed
pastoral pleasures. Consequently, these respectable poems in LSU's admittedly
attractive editions leave much to be desired.
Each of the three poets here -- James Harmon Clinton,
Stephen Cushman and Sidney Burris -- in his own way, lays claim to the heritage
of "strong" poets by dropping the names of Great Name Poets (GNPs), even as
he tries to hedge his bets by playing it cool and laying claim to contemporaneity
as well by including a figure or two from popular culture. There is a condescending
arrogance to Baton Rouge poet James Harmon Clinton's allusions in What Is
Fair to John Deere, Oprah, Phil, Chuck Berry, Sinead O'Connor, Wal-Mart,
Alfred E. Newman and Roi-tan cigars, which come off as faux-naif and superior,
since he juxtaposes them (just to let us know that he knows what's what) with
Erasmus, Fielding, Rilke, Hardy, Joyce, Dali, Escher (who perhaps belongs in
the pop culture index), Stafford, Dickey and Strand. The final page of the volume
is a big THANK YOU with 48 names of friends, movies (by Fellini, Bergman and
Wenders), writers' colonies, poetry groups and one dead author with no means
to object to his inclusion, James Joyce.
Burris and Cushman, in contrast, tend to favor
a faux-modest invocation of the GNP, the mention of whom raises the poet in
his own estimation, and hopefully in ours, as in Burris's "Blues for Richard
Hooker" [that's Richard Hooker the minister (1554-1600), not blues legend John
Lee Hooker, in case the title threw you off]:
further, whenever we rise
we do on occassion,
is not a matter of excess: such is our substance,
then is our presence.
would be our fondest hope,
often it's true that all our love's in vain.
If this seems haughty,
it may well be.
The title of Burris's Doing Lucretius would
seem to promise something daring or even erotic, and in the hands of a fearless
and irreverent poet like Maggie Estep, it would have been.1 But even
prudish Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Lucretius," in which the author of De Rerum
Natura is poisoned with cantharides by his nymphomaniac wife to get him
to leave his books and "do" her, is a lot sexier than Burris's version, whose
idea of "doing" Lucretius is simply Latin homework.2 To be fair,
though, this poem contains a masterful little couplet about "the downward pull
of life, how it worked / against the buoyant lift of lyric." One can (and should)
argue with its sentiment but not its craft.
One in the series of Dave Smith's Southern Messenger
Poets ("Thanks," reads the dedication, " ... as ever, to Dave, always and all
ways" -- what is that about?), Doing Lucretius is so self-consciously
"literary" that when the poems are not commenting on Dante or Homer, they are
embarrassingly obvious in their lip-smacking kissing of the canon, with epigraphs
from and dedications to Herbert, Frost, Stevens, Murdoch, Weil, Nemerov and
Berryman, not to mention six epigraphs that preface the book from Psalms, the
Chester mystery plays, Shakespeare, Darwin, Whitman and (a single "hep" nod
to pop culture) the Cowboy Junkies. Sounds like an Oscar acceptance speech --
have I thanked everyone who has contributed to my success?
Stephen Cushman, a professor at the University
of Virginia, prefers his name-dropping to be unabashedly catholic, including
figures from history, the arts, science and pop culture. Punctuating his verses
are the names of photographers (Brady, Gibson, Gardner, O'Sullivan), Confederate
soldiers (Pickett, Stuart), musicians (Brahms, Francis Scott Key, Jimi Hendrix),
literary characters (Job, Ophelia, Rapunzel, Nausikaa, Noah, Brutus, Pegasus),
authors (Thoreau, Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marianne Moore, Durrell, Merton),
and a miscellany of other luminaries that include St. Thomas Aquinus, Popeye
and Olive Oyl, Adam and Eve, Einstein and Goltzius. Quite a crowd to fit into
one man's Blue Pajamas.
The rhetorical trope of name-dropping -- less
subtle than allusion, less demanding than apostrophe or dramatic monologue,
more narcissistic than Echo -- is an appeal to authority that has become the
preferred method of jockeying for position in the canon for those poets who
care about such things. Some readers are impressed. Dabney Stuart, for one,
is persuaded by how Burris "gradually widens his scope beyond the early childhood
and adolescent scenes to include writers, painters, thinkers, and musicians,
creating a large and stimulating community among which his voice takes a
worthy place" (my emphasis; from the book jacket). But then Stuart is, like
Dave Smith and Stephen Cushman, another Virginian, and, not incidentally, another
name-dropper and stallion of the LSU stable. Not that poets haven't always addressed
those who went before them, from Dante to Ginsberg and from Blake to Walcott,
but any poet who takes on the GNP should be ready to engage the work, thought
and vision of the Spirit he invokes (as Pound took on Whitman, Auden Yeats,
or Merrill Auden) and not simply to utter the names of the Lords in vain.
Director of the Fulbright College Honors Program
at the University of Arkansas, Burris seems bent on proving that he has earned
(and should keep) his position. In addition to the authors already mentioned,
Burris also manages to throw in Virgil (thrice), Dante, Abelard, Gibbon, Thoreau,
Dickinson and Capote -- and these are just the authors. The artists include
Vermeer, Breugel (twice), El Greco, Van Gogh and Edgar Degas, about whom Burris
has this epiphany:
The lateness, we
had seen it so many times before
And mistaken it
Or melancholy, and
all the time it was only lateness.
Nothing more, nothing
The grandly banal.
The grandly banal, indeed. One is struck not only by the dropping of names,
but by the A-list conservatism of the names selected for dropping. Well, if
a poet is bedevilled by his own belatedness, perhaps the best he can do is to
pay homage to the GNP.
For Clinton, the issue of the day is not so much
belatedness, but the scarcity of revelation. At an art gallery he seems frustrated:
"I can feel the canon of Western art crumble." But the trouble really starts
when he leaves suburbia and enters the dangerous streets of New Orleans: "You
need / a gun to feel safe on this night; Louisiana // is a state of siege."
In his white middle-of-the-road paranoia, he sees himself through black folk's
eyes: "that white man behind locked doors, jittery-eyed, / driving down this
street where he don't belong" -- and they're right. The boy obviously don't
know where to go in N'Awlins to have a good time!
"Marcel on Fire" finds Clinton's narrator in a
Garden District restaurant, celebrating a "political coup." While the woman
of the group passively gazes on "the live oak limbs through the garden window,"
the men order the wine, propose the toasts, and act like good old boy assholes.
Dick, appropriately named, assumes the "personality / of some dead black guitar
hero" and proposes that the waiter, whom he dubs "Marcel," "mount the table
and ignite himself for our pleasure." While the debt is not, for once, acknowledged,
this poem appears to owe much to James Merrill's masterful "Charles on Fire,"
a poem that manages however to combine satire and grace, unlike Clinton's "Marcel
on Fire" (in which one of the characters is named Charles), which achieves only
a certain ineluctable nastiness. Indeed, it is Merrill's kind of poetry, with
its easy mastery of poetic forms, aristocratic elegance, allusive texture, and
unpretentious investigations of contemporary banality that each of these poets
seems to be trying, like good bourgeois aspiring to one of the mysterious upper
classes, to emulate.
Another poem finds Clinton driving (his preferred
perspective, providing comfort and protection) in the French Quarter, where
he observes a man drawing graffiti on the walls, scrawls that he can't make
heads or tails of: "maybe it's nothing, maybe it's art." He gives up and gets
back on the highway, beating his "retreat" from nasty New Orleans back to the
familiarity of Baton Rouge, with "no epiphany, no relief." The reader may feel
the same way.
Between name-drops, Sidney Burris busily turns
his attention to bourgeois pastimes, like opening the mail (The New Yorker,
of course, and Lands' End catalogs), or good gardening ("Shower-logged sweet
gums douse the road red"; "a pushmower chirring across the yard"; "Yellow spring
erupts from forsythia"; "Flowers / in vases have been our buoy" -- oh boy!),
and bad sex ("the brief season lovers make and annihilate"; "Undercover, we
fumble, compensate" with thinly veiled and evidently uncircumcised phallic images
-- "The massive pride of desire ... / Shuck it" -- and the oddly onanistic image
that anticlimactically concludes the book, from a "Love Letter": "I'm home tomorrow,
// A dribble / Down the candle"). Sad as it is, that image is still happier,
though, than the predicament in "Abelard Complains": "I feast my eyes on her,
and begin to read." But what else is there for a poet, castrated or not, to
do, who like Lucretius has lost interest in love, but to substitute letters
for lovers? Tennyson at least gives us a glimpse of the
woman's view of such textual-for-sexual displacement;3 Burris never
And neither do Cushman or Clinton, all three poets
clinging to the suburban male perspective, except when Cushman, writing of Nausikaa,
suggests that this princess should be happy that she had to do the laundry the
day Odysseus washed up on the shore because "But for the laundry Nausikaa would
never / have found him naked [....] But for her soiled silks she'd never" have
led him back to the palace, and never would have got to hear his stories. Hanging
laundry, in fact, becomes in the book's title poem , "Blue Pajamas," the iconic
image of Cushman's poetics, the way "digging" is that of Seamus Heaney who clutched
his pen like a spade. Cushman says: "I put it all on the line / one piece at
a time. The sun not up, / wet laundry stings my hands, stiffening / the fingers
that squeeze open clothespins / as though I'd suffered a stroke." As the basis
for a poetics, the image is not only unheroic, it's pathetic, especially the
lame punning claim that he puts "it all on the line."
In his suburbanite rue, Cushman calls on Yeats
for solace. "On Castrating the Dog," for example, begins "His last afternoon
as himself...." -- an ironic echo of Auden's image of Yeats's death that goes
for humor at the expense of good taste. What exactly is the point here? A fear
of castration combined with an Oedipal desire to castrate the GNP (see Harold
Bloom) as Zeus castrated Chronos? In "The Kingdom of Things," Cushman imagines
himself in paradise, like Yeats in Byzantium, and sings of kitchen appliances
"about to break, breaking, or broken." "Where I'm going there's no warranty;
/ no estimates, parts, labor; no car / in the shop, stove on the fritz, fridge
/ on the blink; no days waiting for / angels to flap out and chant the good
news / I need a new furnace." As one might imagine, there is no yard work in
paradise either, and "houses stay painted." Household appliances have "passed
/ away into perfection, which means to wish / to do no maintenance is to wish
to pass away / from my dilapidated castle." So much for the joys of the 'burbs.
When Cushman remembers his younger days during a trip to Europe and how "I fatten,
carting extra pounds through customs / with nothing to declare," we almost
wish he would drop one more GNP, go out on a limb and quote Oscar Wilde by adding
"but my genius." Almost, because I'm quite sure that Cushman would like us to
make that judgment ourselves.
But to return to Burris's suburban joys, if correspondence,
horticulture or sexual dysfunction don't amuse, we can always watch the neighbors
("I lean from my window and survey / the inexplicable projects my neighbor /
takes up and abandons in his yard"), and pass judgment on them ("Rome gives
ample scope for moralizing / On the vicissitudes of fortune, said Gibbon. /
Said I: What place does not?").
These are sad poems, and not simply because of
their "lateness" (Clinton), or because of their easy jibes at the lesser verse
of greeting cards with their "saccharine pap and clever drivel" (Cushman) --
among the saddest poems I can imagine about "our mystical American days / even
when lived in a mundane manner" (Burris). Sad because Burris fails to notice
that "even" could be "especially." Thus a rueful resignation (the dominant tone
of the volume) could have been turned into a modest mysticism, like that of
the Chinese poets Po Chü-i or Su Tung-p'o. But such influences are beyond
the Eurocentric scope of Burris's -- or any of the LSU poets' -- realm of allusion.4
Burris does mention the "Kadampa masters of the past," but only to say
that they "had nothing to enjoy in their dry caves." Unlike them, Burris, in
the only light-hearted moment in the book, jumps for joy for sweater weather:
"It's crisp! It's brisk! It's weather for sweaters!" Sad.
Of the three poets, Cushman's network of reference
is, no doubt, more varied than either Clinton's (prole) or Burris's (petit bourgeois)
pantheon of reluctant saints, so perhaps it is right that only his volume includes
endnotes that inform us about the Civil War and geography. One footnote, for
example, informs us that Corfu is in Greece, recalling Merrill's callow youth
who tells us how they do it "in Paris, France." But with all these names to
keep track of (and such big names at that), LSU Press might well consider including
an index as standard equipment on all its forthcoming LSUVs, poetic vehicles
that target the market of soccer moms and dads who suffer from the bourgeois
nostalgia for the Bohemian destination once promised by poetry. Which is fine,
as long as they include this proviso -- you can't get there from here.
ME / and theorize about / sadomasochism's relationship / to classical philosophy
/ tell me how this stimulates / the fabric of most relationships / I love [this]
kind of pointless intellectualism / so do it again and / FUCK ME." In Thus
Spake the Corpse: An Exqusite Corpse Reader 1988-1998, vol. 1. Ed. by Andrei
Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1999), p. 231.
2. From Tennyson's "Lucretius" (1868): "The mountain quickens into Nymph
and Faun; / And here an Oread -- how the sun delights / To glance and shift
about her slippery sides, / And rosy knees and supple roundnesses, / And budded
bosom-peaks -- who this way runs / Before the rest -- A satyr, a satyr, see,
/ Follows; but him I proved impossible; / Twy-natured is no nature: yet he draws
/ Nearer and nearer, and I scan him now / Beastlier than any phantom of his
kind / That ever butted his rough brother-brute / For lust or lusty blood of
provender: / I hate, abhor, spit, sicken at him; and she / Loathes him as well."
Later, Tennyson frightens himself with his vision of Helen of Troy's flame-throwing
breasts: "Then, then, from utter gloom stood out the breasts, / The breasts
of Helen [....]; and as I stared, a fire, / The fire that left a roofless Ilion,
/ Shot out of them, and scorch'd me that I woke."
3. Tennyson's Lucilia, Lucretius's wife, "found her master cold; for when
the morning flush / Of passion and the first embrace had died / Between them,
tho' he lov'd her none the less, / Yet often when the woman heard his foot /
Return from pacings in the field, and ran / To greet him with a kiss, the master
took / Small notice, or austerely, for -- his mind / Half buried in some weightier
argument, / Or fancy-borne perhaps upon the rise / And long roll of the Hexameter
-- he past / to turn and ponder those three hundred scrolls / left by the Teacher,
whom he held divine. / She brook'd it not; but wrathful, petulant, / Dreaming
some rival, sought and found a witch / Who brew'd the philtre which had power,
they said, / To lead an errant passion home again. / And this, at times, she
mingled with his drink, / And thus destroy'd him."
former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, who adopted as one of his Vegas gambling
noms de jeu the moniker Wang Lee, has a broader realm of allusion. On
his recent conviction for racketeering, Edwards commented: "The Chinese have
a saying that if you stood on the bank of the river long enough you would see
the body of your enemy floating by. The prosecutors waited by the river and
now they have my body." The saying is actually Spanish, but never mind.