Last April, I wrote a series of poetry reviews for KR’s blog. The first focused on Jena Osman’s Public Figures (Wesleyan, 2012), an exploration of citizenship, surveillance, and “public invisibility” in the age of drones. Osman’s book extends from a novel concept: she photographs the “points of view” of figurative statues around Philadelphia, linking each statue’s subject to what it would “see” in the contemporary city. Surveillance and security have been central to the news in the past year, and I’ve returned often to Osman’s book; its presentation of a “you” who is variously soldier, civilian, and ethereal witness suggests the intricate and at times ambiguous connections between civic experience and the mechanisms of war.
This week, I helped a group of students devise writing activities based on Public Figures. They employed its main elements—a performative or documentary method, observation of the city, research combined with lyricism—to investigate topics from the news. I haven’t yet seen the results, but I’m sure they’ll give our class new insight into Public Figures, while using its techniques in singular ways. From time to time, one might hear a poet (I heard it from Robert Duncan) define “responsibility” as “the ability to respond”; my Public Figures activity isn’t responsible to strict forms of literary analysis, but it should support students’ ability to practice meaningful artistic response.
People sometimes criticize poetic “projects” that foreground such topical or conceptual engagement rather than the pure expression of lyrical experience. A project-based approach can be easy to mock—“a poem for every freckle!”—and it can seem to evade evaluation, since a poetic project might successfully adhere to its methods, even if those methods don’t advance much. But the terms of this critique are often fuzzy (were Shakespeare’s sonnets a project? is an elegy?), and they sometimes heroicize naively emotive work that treats the self as the world. That kind of poetry can seem inconsequential next to C.D. Wright’s One with Others or Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary or Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville or other notable books that one might consider projects. “Be spontaneous, be quirky, be wild in agreeable ways,” say some anti-project poets; or you could aspire for more.
Such aspiration doesn’t require one to write books like Public Figures, or like Osman’s newer book, Corporate Relations, which contends with corporate personhood in light of the Citizens United ruling and other Supreme Court cases, addressing a topic that, like surveillance, is distinctly important to contemporary consciousness. One of my favorite recent books, Julie Carr’s Rag (Omnidawn, 2014), for example, is clearly about many things: gender (“Standing with women in line I used to believe myself an object // Now I have less to offer; I’m more a slogan, like Neptune, pretty far from the source”); motherhood (“You are a wonderful person, said my daughter to the back of my head”); violence and complicity and shame (“My country, said the boy to the girl, likes its children shot through”); the domestic (“chard and spinach behind the house”)…In short, its richness exceeds the kind of circumscribed projects that some critics rebuke, while providing the topical depth and significance of Osman’s work, of Wright’s, of Nowak’s, of Mattawa’s.
So, perhaps I’m just saying that the writing I like best nullifies this question of projection, since a good project ends up being about more than its topic and a good non-project does, too. If you have read Carr’s earlier collections, such as 100 Notes on Violence and Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines, you’ll have an idea of why I count her writing among that which I like best. Her sense of phrasing, for instance, is exquisite, both reflective and incisive, especially in notational sequences that shift abruptly in reference and tone yet only gain focus, resonance. That is, focus itself gains through the resonance. Here are some lines from early in the new collection, which is formatted as a book-length poem in shifting modes:
In crayon drawings
Some persons lie buried in fire and some have been suspended in a wave
Rain withdraws its praise
I’m unable to rest, her hunger crying through a vent
I wanted to unzip her coat, to slide a hand
Under the body of a car
Rag doesn’t flinch from the difficulty of sickness and death and insufficient “civic expenditures.” It both soothes and intensifies this difficulty with moments, in the midst, that are as intent and lovely as any I’ve recently read: “And he who grows basil each summer // Hangs his jeans out to dry // Love is no way to be removed // Static on the whip of day”; “Seeking paradise, invent glass.” In Andy Fitch’s essential recent collection of interviews with contemporary poets, Sixty Morning Talks, Carr mentions her interest in “a poetics that doesn’t give up on ornament, that doesn’t give up on pleasure, that doesn’t give up on pleasures of language itself”; Rag continually shows that, more than being decorative, such pleasures are vital architectures of experience.
My students’ responses to Public Figures will take them far from the book, and my posts during the next month will discuss poetry similarly: they won’t be about writing, exactly, but about some of the communities, institutions, and practices that are vital to my thinking about current literature, some of the structures and relationships that poetry creates and illuminates, much as jeans drying in Carr’s poem reveal the whip of day. This approach is inspired, in part, by my friend who suggested that book reviews should include what the reviewer sees upon looking up from the book—to embed reading in a landscape, in the experience of reading. And it reflects the extent to which I believe poetry can initiate and reveal further experience.
That is, I read Carr’s new book. The snow melted. On the bricks of the patio: white flour I brushed from my shirt months ago.
I’m glad to be blogging at KR again. It means it’s spring.