and ANGE MLINKO on Susan Stewart.
Satellite view of the Mississippi River shows riverbank land-use patterns.
Image courtesy of NASA
Image courtesy of NASA
Find Yourself A City To Live In
Penguin, May 2011. 96 pp.
You wake up in a new city, but you don’t know which one it is. Before the rational part of your mind kicks in, while the traffic blurs past, your memory shuffles for possible answers. New York? Your cousin’s house in Jackson, Mississippi? Los Angeles? Or right at home, wherever that may be? The disorientation can be unnerving, but strangely pleasurable too. Certainly, there’s a tinge of glamour: if you don’t know what city you’re in, you must really be a big shot. But that doesn’t completely explain the pleasure; there’s something deeper, something more immediately grafted to sensation. You feel that you’re waking into the unknown, the possible. Your consciousness and your surroundings have become mutually permeable. Or else, the opposite feels true: the link between consciousness and its surroundings has broken, and now you must struggle to readjust. Either way, in those moments, the relation of the self to the world feels somehow more active, more engaged.
What makes Carol Muske-Dukes’ new collection of poems, Twin Cities, so impressive is her passionate attentiveness to this very state. She has a unique ability to reflect and embody how our personal experiences and the actual spaces through which we travel fuse and fissure. Muske-Dukes has long been a superb poet of travel — not in the strictly touristic sense (though she has written some fine poems about tourism) but in the more basic, expansive sense of movement through space. I remember finding her 1997 collection An Octave Above Thunder: New and Selected Poems in a college bookstore and turning to the opening poem, “Like This.” Here are the first twelve lines:
Maybe it’s not the city you thoughtWhat struck me when I read these quatrains was their movement. The rhymes are managed with formal elegance. But there is not a touch of archaism or woodenness, because the syntax provides such vivacious speed. As they zoom across the line endings, these sentences convey that ultra-modern sensation of driving fast on a freeway. The exhilaration gives way to menace — the swastika graffiti, for instance — and then deepen into dread. Such darkness appears personal, emotional, but also social. Beneath the surface of the city lies its repressed history; in this case, the story of California farmers protesting the annexation of their water rights. Here was a poet who not only joined individual and political experience, but also saw the depth and dimension of each. What I admired was Muske-Dukes’ metaphorical sense. I mean her ability to move between the individual and the collective, the realistic and the metaphysical. This seemed evidence not only of artistic talent but also of a far-ranging vision.
it was. Maybe its flaws, like cracks
in freeway pylons, got bigger, caught
your eye, like swastikas on concrete stacks.
Maybe lately the dull astrologies of End,
Millennium-edge rant about world death
make sense. Look. Messages the dead send
take time to arrive. When the parched breath
of the Owens River Valley guttered out,
real voices bled through the black & white.
The newspaper ad cried, We who are about
to die salute you. Unarmed, uncontrite.
Twin Cities is Muske-Dukes’ fullest and most passionate rendering of that vision. Taken as a whole, the book becomes a panorama, and that panorama burgeons into a remarkable, extended metaphor. The connections and divisions of places become consubstantial as the poems unfold with the patterns and inconsistencies that make up any person’s life.
The book starts out from, and returns to, those twinned metropoles on the Mississippi River. Here, in the second of three poems that she titles “Twin Cities,” the poet elaborates on that central figure itself:
Two mirrored cities: their symmetry invented as my ownThese lines read as an emblem for the rest of the book. The speaker is not only divided between one place and another; the various times of her life stand as contiguous yet divisible regions. As with the California of “Like This,” the literal and figurative geography in this poem rests on top a long and vexed history. To acknowledge that history — a process the speaker sees as crucial to understanding personal and collective experience — means coming to terms with violence and exploitation. But without glossing over such brutality as economic oppression or the massacre of native populations, the speaker suggests that exploring such darkness allows us greater capacity with which to feel and respond. In place of the official type of understanding offered by the early American court — an institution not known for its generosity and fairness toward Native Americans — the speaker finds authority in the Ojibway’s idea of the “two-in-one.”
Present, twinned to a past to which it is now forever
Subordinate. Twinned to a future, stunned in its
White eclipse. So they killed the white foxes,
Brought their pelts to market in the one named
For the saint pierced by lightning. The richer
Sister prospered on threshed tons near the shared
Slaughterhouse. If the snow grew steeped in blood,
They raised a court. But the Ojibway said no-one
Out-thinks the two-in-one.
What is the “two-in-one?” I suspect one answer might be: metaphor. Compelling us to see the connections between otherwise disparate entities, metaphor asks us to bend and stretch our minds. Even something apparently wrong, immoral, or ambiguous may deserve to be included in such a consideration. This, after all, is what Keats meant by “negative capability,” which he famously described as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Imagine living your whole day in that same, disoriented but stimulated moment of waking in a new city, and you’ll have some idea of what negative capability really means. As conceived by a poet like Muske-Dukes, such “negative capability” never turns into a soft-minded excuse for giving up on discernment, for viewing and portraying life as some kind of holistic goulash. On the contrary, metaphor asks us both to connect and to distinguish between the very things it twines together, like that peculiar verb “to cleave,” which always means its opposite. At the end of “Twin Cities II,” the speaker describes her life, after setting out from the twin cities, like this:
And one irrefutable truth after another —Grounding austere abstraction in the sound of passionate personal testimony, these lines suggest that the expansive and enriching process of awakening to the metaphorical links of people and places also implies division, distance, and loss.
Obliterated by the irrefutable dual: City and City and
River and river of this, my Ever-Dividing Reflection.
In Twin Cities, the discovery of our connectedness means remaining open even to pain. At the heart of the book lies the poet’s loss of her husband, the actor David Dukes, whose death Muske-Dukes has already chronicled in her moving (and often hilarious) memoir, Married to the Icepick Killer: a Poet in Hollywood. In Twin Cities, the difficult endeavor of living with that loss informs the very structure of the work. The ultimate set of doubles, in this book of seemingly perpetual pairings, reveals itself in the links and the distances between the living and the dead. Take the second poem in the book, “Two Coasts.” Here’s how it opens:
I own them both.These two sentences describe that half-wearied, half-ecstatic feeling of travel. Set near the beginning of the book, they also introduce the nearly Whitmanian sweep — from sea to shining sea — that the entire collection will reach. But as the poem proceeds, the two coasts turn out to correlate with the doubleness of grief, the feeling of having one’s attentions, emotions, and loyalties divided between the living and the dead. Here’s the third quatrain:
Sometimes I wake up
In somebody’s else’s night,
Somebody else’s day.
I’ve been on the run sinceTravel might be a means of escape, an attempt to outrun grief, but this escape might also keep emotional bonds alive: waking up in “somebody else’s day” might mean to open one’s self to the life of another, whether living or dead.
He stopped drawing breath.
You want to be with me?
Boarding pass is my answer.
Twin Cities gathers much of its strength from the imaginative compassion with which the poet cleaves her story of loss to other stories. Many of the most powerful poems in the book deal with the eeriness of living in a nation waging wars halfway across the world. “Pierce County,” for example, portrays a mother and daughter whose father and husband has been killed overseas; the poem draws intentional parallels with, and then diverges from, narrative threads in other poems which a reader might take to be more explicitly autobiographical. Two of the most powerful lyrics in the collection, “To a Soldier” and “The Army You Have,” address a friend of the poet’s in the military, Lt. Col. Edward Ledford. The latter begins as a letter to Ledford, and then, in one of Muske-Dukes’ characteristic doubling maneuvers, mirrors the opening section with a poem that Ledford wrote (one in which he rearranged the dismayingly bumptious remarks of Donald Rumsfeld). “The Army You Have” ripples with righteous indignation, and yet it avoids the self-satisfaction of so many protest poems. In this poet’s estimation, living a conscientious life during wartime means remaining torn between the comfort of our lives at home and the crises that exist abroad and, in fact, in the homes of our friends and neighbors.
For all of the pain and loss in this book, Muske-Dukes continually nuances and brightens the tone with humor, and with praise. As the author of four novels and a memoir, she has a sharp eye for characters and their foibles. In fact, she can conjure up an amusing and detailed portrait with a few syllables, as when she describes a “cracked ex-shrink” or an “Auto-Patriot.” The attentiveness that produces such satirical caricature also tends toward affection. Take the short poem titled “New York,” a speedy chronicle of zipping around the city. Here are the final eight lines:
Starbucks — cab downtown, cab uptown —The clipped lists and the jump-cut sentence fragments at the beginning of this passage convey the colorful, rushing, constantly shifting surfaces of Manhattan traffic. Then, without losing that light touch, much less turning somber or didactic, the poem deepens. The image of the kiss may seem cheerful enough, but it turns out that so much depends, for the speaker and for all of us, upon that kiss: “one serious kiss is a city.” Our whole fabric of collective life, the poem implies, rests upon Eros, as personified by that kissing couple, and also upon the creative imagination, as embodied by Italo Calvino’s classic fable of the cities described by Marco Polo. While the speaker seems to remain joyful about the fleeting details she renders, that joy gains depth and vitality from being precarious, or even threatened: the details are “saving us.” In their unobtrusive way, Muske-Dukes’ city scenes imply their own imminent loss. They seem to implore us “to love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long.”
Fake sugar, sirens, drunk Library Lions, views
Of the river. Between two: a miracle.
One serious kiss is a city. One.
Chador-clad woman reading Calvino
On the A train. The One City, divisible.
I’ll stand by the kiss & Invisible Cities that
Woman is reading. Pal, they are saving us.
Many contemporary poets build their books around linked themes and motifs. But in Twin Cities the plotting and patterning do more than simply create a web of connections for a reader to follow: they portray and give shape to a vision, one in which people and places are perpetually connecting and dividing, as the real and the imagined, the familiar and the alien, the living and the dead, entwine and fray apart again. The repetitions of key words and themes never appears redundant or willful, because they derive not from a limited palette, but from a unified core of obsessions. That wholeness feels real because it remains unsettled, elusive. Like the fabric of any individual’s experience, or like the map of any city, the shape of this book shifts and recombines when seen from alternate perspectives. But at the same time, the poems stay firmly grounded in their emotional depths. And this is what makes Muske-Dukes such a vital poet. If her masterful work grows from and returns to that divided metropolis at the center of the country, so it finds its roots in our most central and enduring passions.
The Scholar’s Art
The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making
University of Chicago Press, December 2011. 283 pp.
Given the many uses and abuses of the word “freedom,” it stands to reason that our poetic history has produced a little epitome of its vexations. The concept of a “free” poetry is all but an oxymoron: Poetry is concerned, above all, with the question of its own accounting; in the eighteenth century it was even referred to as “numbers.” Yet what major language has been untouched by the revolution of “free verse”? Almost a hundred years after Ezra Pound trumpeted Imagism, venerable traditions have succumbed to the ametrical: Arabic, Russian, Hindi. But even Pound and Eliot didn’t believe vers could be truly libre, Frost ridiculed it, neoformalists rallied against it, and internet curmudgeons still wax irate on the subject.
No, there is something about poetry — about language use itself — that sits uneasily with “freedom.” Maybe it’s the terror of babble (the verbal mode of insanity, dementia, and catastrophe). Maybe it’s that for tens of centuries, scribes and grammarians have been mainstays against the cultural losses — and dysphasias — incurred by history: losses of manuscripts, of entire languages. They have also been the ones to sniff at an improperly used meter, a “shapeless” ode, or a qasida that seemed just “a string of pearls,” all rhyme and no reason. Grammar is hard to master. Meaning is easily lost. To mess with it, to mess with language, to play with it (much less play with it without a net) drives pious types bonkers. And on the other side are the ones who have played with language relentlessly, also for thousands of years, the rhymers, punners, riddlers, and innuendo-peddlers who have simultaneously performed the shamanistic duties of the bard: keeper of the culture’s stories, its knowledge, its word-hoard. Frivolous and serious, mischievous and magisterial, poets play both sides of the coin of freedom — heads they study (“the scholar’s art,” Wallace Stevens called poetry), tails they frisk. If freedom and poetry seem paradoxical, freedom and poets are all but identical.
Here is a telling story about freedom and poetry. In the early 1770s (the same time, not coincidentally, that revolutions were brewing in America and France), European poets conceived a passion for Pindar, the great choral poet of Greece’s golden age. Diderot’s encyclopedia referred to Pindar’s style as one of beau désordre; the German philosopher and poet Johann Herder called his meter gesetzlos, “lawless” (he said this approvingly). Herder’s friend Goethe, following Horace, praised Pindar as “borne on free rhythms” (“numerisque fertur/lege solutis”) like a mountain river, and adopted an idea of the rhythmic dithyramb for his own purposes. Thus was the romantic ode first born. It was only in 1811 that a new edition of Pindar, based on different lineation, revealed how unfree those “disordered” dithyrambs actually were. According to these classicists, Pindar had in fact cleaved to a rigid metrical scheme repeated in corresponding strophes.
The same mistake, in fact, had been made a century earlier in England. Abraham Cowley had been taken with a similar enthusiasm for Pindar and his liberties. He published some imitations in 1656 called Pindarique Odes, which created a fashion for nonce “pindarics” in English society. They were correspondingly unveiled as a kind of fraud in 1706, when the real secrets of Pindar’s metrics were revealed, and the form fell into disrepute. Cowley’s efforts were described by the playwright William Congreve as “a Bundle of rambling incoherent Thoughts, expressed in a like Parcel of irregular Stanzas, which also consist of another Complication of disproportioned, uncertain, and perplexed Verses and Rhymes.” The scorn persists in the entry for “pindaric” in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: “a blunder founded upon a misconception … [a] vicious tradition.” (You’d think that poets were poetry’s worst enemy.)
Thus did one notable poetic experiment in freedom — born in an era of revolutions — end in ignominy. Or did it? Pindar’s metrics were strict after all, but their strange elaborateness rebukes the conservative critic. Other stylistic features of Pindar’s also err on the side of excess and freedom: his neologisms, his sesquipedalian adjectives, his abrupt transitions, his overloading of narrative on narrative (the poet Korinna, whom he lost a contest to, told him “one sows with the hand, not the whole sack”). Had it not been for Pindarmania, we would have had a different Goethe, and thus a different German Romanticism; likewise, English Romanticism needed Cowley. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica sniffs, “even in the odes of Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge the broken versification of Cowley’s pindarics occasionally survives.” Would we have had a “Kubla Khan” without that erroneous Pindar? Can you imagine English poetry without “Kubla Khan”?
If Pindar isn’t much on our minds these days, it may be because our minds turn to poetry in troubled times (witness the popularity of Auden’s elegaic “September 1, 1939” after 9/11), while Pindar is a poet of triumph. But he does feature in Susan Stewart’s The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook of Making. In her chapter called “Praising,” she places him in the company of psalmists and hymnists and odists who made “joyful noises” in a divine economy of giving and receiving, thanking and thinking. (Both words, she reminds us, come from the same root.) “Scarcity is the counterpoint to praise’s bounty,” she observes. That Pindar is chiefly known for his victory odes, celebrating the winners of chariot races and other games, is bound up with his excessive style. Poets who address loss are elegists; loss creates scarcity, scarcity creates value, and elegy serves a purpose when it shores up value against loss. Praise poets are useless in the best sense, since they celebrate good fortune, which is redundant. This is poetry as an expense of spirit: wasteful, free, and of inestimable worth.
Susan Stewart may be our best contemporary thinker on poetry. Though not usually mentioned in the same breath as Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, or Marjorie Perloff, this former MacArthur fellow and current Princeton professor holds the distinction of being a prize-winning poet (the National Book Critics Circle Award, for Columbarium) as well as a celebrated scholar — Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002), her magnum opus, won two major awards for literary criticism. All of her writing is informed by her work in folklore and cultural criticism early in her career, and lately by aesthetics and visual culture. (Her last book, The Open Studio, was a collection of art essays.) She writes criticism with the grace of a poet, and poetry with a strong logos underlying its lyrical surface. Both are haunted by a feel for our unknowable, primordial being, and this is no doubt what gives her work its abyssal power.
The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making can be read as a companion volume to Stewart’s majestic Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. That it is a slimmer book, and one conceived as a “notebook,” may lull a reader into thinking that it is lighter, more assimilable; or that it elucidates the “practice” where Poetry and the Fate of the Senses elucidated the “theory.” Not quite. The Poet’s Freedom reads like the summation of a lifetime’s thinking about poetry, but in a more essayistic — freer — format. The endnotes attest to the breadth of Stewart’s erudition, yet the “entries” as she calls them (per the trope of the notebook) are errant; they perform the mind, making themselves vulnerable to the kind of happy “error” that results in a new thought. Like “Praising,” where Pindar appears, many entries are titled after ambiguous participles: “Beginning,” “Forming,” “Rhyming,” “Meeting.” These conflate expectations of the “how to” manual with ontological categories. Making a poem is fraught with choices as to how to begin; how to end; how to rhyme or not rhyme; but these aren’t merely questions of craft — they are nothing less than an engagement with the riddle of Creation.
But what does this have to do with freedom? The Poet’s Freedom relies, as the earlier book did, on a grounding in Kant’s Critique of Pure Judgement: For Kant, as for Stewart, poems (and works of art in general) cannot be made in good faith with a predetermined outcome. Like persons, they set their own agendas. Like persons, they must be singular. Like persons, they must resist the intentions and goals even of their own makers. At the core of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses was the belief that “the face-to-face encounter we have with an artwork is deeply embedded in the meanings and conventions we bring to face-to-face encounters with persons.” Poems are literally stand-ins for individuals in all their complexity, but complexity is only something that can be expressed in the exercise of freedom. This is what “useless” art is for.
Once upon a time this was interpreted as “art for art’s sake” (still wielded as a great insult by functional-minded Americans). But the most important objective of art’s paradoxical uselessness can’t be stated often enough: If we already know what we’re going to say before we say it, we will never achieve self-knowledge. Artworks show us who we are. By allowing poems to be created freely, to grant them autonomy through frolic and errancy, is precisely to open ourselves to new thoughts about ourselves we would not achieve otherwise. Stewart’s sublime entry on rhyming — that most arbitrary and pleasurable device — provides concrete examples; for instance, in John Skelton’s “The Garland of Laurel” whose praise of the women of the court is driven by rhyme (some of it as random as it is ambiguous) as if by a perpetual motion machine:
Merry Margaret,“Rhyme,” Stewart avers, “is in the end the main reason Skelton can make such bold observations about Margaret Hussey and other ladies-in-waiting.” Only in embracing new — and potentially strange — thoughts, expressed as if by accident through the expense of spirit, can we truly know who we are; and who we are is always changing.
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower
With solace and gladness,
Much mirth and no madness,
All good and no badness;
In every thing,
Far, far passing
That I can indite,
Or suffice to write
Of Merry Margaret
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower.
As patient and still
And as full of good will
As fair Isaphill,
Good Cassander …
There is a dark side to the freedom of making. Two entries in The Poet’s Freedom are concerned with freedom from the negative forms of mood and imagination, respectively. They serve as caveats to the Romantics among us — those who would pursue these states of mind to the point of alienation from body and environment. Stewart points to the contrast between Coleridge, whose fear of the void was expressed in his opium habit and his rejection of fancy, and Shelley, who learned to “fear himself and love others.” It is Shelley who realizes we are “thrown back on the task of forming our freedom,” and Coleridge who stands as a warning that “liberated from time and space, the imagination is nowhere.” Thinking needs its sibling, thanking.
Perhaps the darkest truth about the freedom of making is illustrated in a story that serves, in two different forms, as bookends to Stewart’s volume. It takes form, in the beginning, as prose. There she recounts the day she saw an 8- or 9-year-old boy on the beach destroy an elaborate sand castle she had watched him build all afternoon. While the sight of him lustily obliterating his own creation shook her momentarily, she could interpret it through an ancient lens: “Without the freedom of reversibility … we cannot give value to our making.” Further, if it is true that all art-making is practice, there is no ethical requirement that we keep what we make; indeed, “the boy seemed to be returning the power of the form back into himself, as if what he had been practicing all along was a mode of memorization, or, better, learning.” A rejection of mastery and artifact is crystallized here, in all its ambivalence, as we confront the ultimate choice: unmaking. Our nostalgia for the made thing — which can harden into antiquarianism — is difficult to eradicate, even for those of us dedicated to making as discovery. This anecdote is told again at the end of the book, in free verse, and the sequence is reversed. This is a kind of Pindaric counter-turn, and most importantly, the marker of a ring structure, the kind he used to write his odes. If Stewart must acknowledge the darker side of art-making and its freedoms, including the (ecologically sound) freedom to unmake what we do, she boldly couches it in implicit praise.
I, too, have another Pindar story to serve as bookend. Just as Stewart would lead us to expect, the widespread misreading of metrical Pindar was no error at all, or it was only the most fruitful kind of error: It led to new beginnings, new forms, new thoughts. (Poets are not poetry’s worst enemy!) Stewart notes that even Aristotle argued that the artist sometimes “errs voluntarily,” and this leads me to a second story about Pindar and modern poetry. In Goethe’s wake, Friedrich Hölderlin took up the banner of Pindar translation with idiosyncratic, word-for-word versions that aimed to translate German into Greek every bit as much as Greek into German. Hölderlin’s Pindar translations are considered a milestone of poetic modernism; his method influenced Pound’s method of translation. Hölderlin also eventually wrote two pendant poems that read brilliantly beside Stewart’s The Poet’s Freedom. One is titled “The Poet’s Courage” and the other “Timidness.” As Walter Benjamin wrote about these poems:
The highest sacrilege is understood as hubris, which, attainable only by a god, transforms him into a dead form. To give oneself form — that is the definition of ‘hubris.’ The god ceases to determine the cosmos of the poem, whose essence — with art — freely elects for itself that which is objective: it brings the god …For much of history, to conceive of ourselves as being our own makers — as gods ourselves — has been hubris, the greatest sin. That history is over, and we are nothing if not responsible for making ourselves and the future. To do so will require the poet’s courage, including the courage to say farewell to the past and its forms. That’s why the history of modern poetics, with its farcical battles over tradition and meter and rhyme and so on, serves as an instructive lens with which to view the emerging freedom of citizens. After the poet’s freedom, and the poet’s courage, we may arrive at the poet’s timidness:
Someone, some way, we too serve, are of use, are sent
When we come, with our art, and of the heavenly powers
Bring one with us. But fitting,
Skilful hands we ourselves provide.
Peter Campion is the author of two books of poems, Other People (2005) and The Lions (2009), both from the University of Chicago Press. He is a 2011-2012 Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.
Ange Mlinko’s most recent book of poetry is Shoulder Season (Coffee House, 2010). She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Houston.
Image: Satellite view of the Mississippi River shows riverbank land-use patterns. Image courtesy of NASA http://1.usa.gov/wJuLqO