Newsletter #144 August 2023

Newsletter #144 August 2023
November 6, 2023 Christina Mullin

Charles Henry Alston, Barn and Tree

August, 2023

Welcome to Plume #144!

August, and as you no doubt do not recall, last month’s introduction was  prompted by my encounter with a vaguely familiar portrait by Modigliani that turned out to be none other than that of Blaise Cendrars, a poet central to my youthful reading.  And so a trip down Memory Lane commenced. Along the way, I grew curious as to what others had read, early on, that left its mark. A quick post to FB, and the answers rolled in. I can report first that anything/everything by Laura Jensen, but especially Bad Boats, topped the list for Gerry LaFemina, Jennifer Martelli, and Deb Bogan, to name a few; while John Skoyles recalled that Guillevic rang a bell — his teacher, Donald Justice, loved, and translated, him.  Plume staffer Nancy Mitchell gave a shout out to Linda Gregg’s Too Bright to See; Michael T. Young voted for Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen. Then there was Steven Cramer, who noted Jon Anderson’s “In Sepia” and Strand’s translations of Rafael Alberti, “The Owl’s Insomnia”.  For David Blair, among others, it was 19 American Poets of the Golden Gate. (“Why can’t they do anthologies like that anymore”?) To my delight, Patricia Spears Jones offered a mini-cornucopia:  Chances are Few by Lorenzo Thomas. The No Travels Journal by Maureen Owen. Killing Floor by Ai. Cables of Rage by Audre Lorde. I Remember by Joe Brainerd, All the Renegade Ghosts Rise by Thulani Davis, Solo in the Boxcar Third Floor E by Angela Jackson and The Dead Lecturer by Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka. Patricia Clark remembered vividly (I imagine, as do I) Stanley Plumly’s Out of the Body Travel and Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, and Roethke’s The Far Field; taking pride of place in Gillian Conoly’s incorporeal pantheon was Merwin’s The Lice. I could go on, and on. Perhaps this will jog some memories of your own. In any case, thanks to all, and apologies to those I couldn’t squeeze in here.

All right, then.

Let’s turn to Brian Culhane’s thoughts on Henri Cole’s bracing contrarianism in the matter of pain and its attendant consequences, as located in his jaw-dropping “Shrike”.

Poetry is often the province of remembrance, and the lyric impulse especially responds to the death of loved ones, who yet remain part of our lives, if only in our memories of them. That’s one reason why we respond, as readers, to poems that evoke such loss, provided the poet has successfully navigated the fine line separating sentiment from sentimentality, the fatal flaw of poems of mourning being a cloying or hackneyed version of the grief stirred by the deepest personal pain. True, according to Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Yet too many writerly tears and the reader finds bathos, not pathos.

I’m especially intrigued by poems of loss that veer in the opposite direction, risking not sentimentality but hard-heartedness, dealing not so much with the pain of loss but rather with aftereffects of the loss inflicted by pain. The poet Henri Cole has long delved deeply into this fraught terrain. Here’s a poem from his 2011 collection, Touch:


How brightly you whistle, pushing the long, soft
feathers on your rump down across the branch,
like the apron of a butcher, as you impale a cricket
on a meat hook deep inside my rhododendron.
Poor cricket can hardly stand the whistling,
not to speak of the brownish-red pecking
(couldn’t you go a little easy?), but holds up
pretty good in a state of oneiric pain.
Once, long ago, when they were quarrelling about money,
Father put Mother’s head in the oven.
“Who are you?” it pleaded from the hell mouth.
Upstairs in the bathroom, I drank water right out of the tap,
my lips on the faucet. Everything was shaking and bumping.
Earth was drawing me into existence.

As many writers today who take up the sonnet form, Cole eschews certain traditional formal elements while retaining others. So we find fourteen-lines breaking in the Petrarchan manner of two opening quatrains, with these, also typically, followed by a change in the poem’s concluding sestet, signaled by a transition, “Once, long ago….” Instead of a traditional rhyme scheme (there aren’t rhymes to follow), Cole’s sonnet breaks into narrative units: the first four lines describing the shrike impaling the cricket (butchering it while brightly whistling), the second four the speaker’s “attribution of human emotion and conduct to things found in nature that are not human,” as Wikipedia inelegantly summarizes what Ruskin in the 19th century termed the pathetic fallacy. For Ruskin, the fallacy occurs when poets (he’s thinking of the Romantics) ascribe human feelings to, say, a cricket, for then they engage in a form of sentimentalizing nature, resulting in an emotional falseness, bathos not pathos.

Cole doesn’t much care about the pathetic fallacy, and in fact he invites us to survey the horror of this little scene of torture and death with a certain emotional restraint, maybe even a hard-heartedness. The terror (emphasized by words like “butcher,” “meat hook” and “impale”) is set against a certain loveliness (“how brightly you whistle” and “deep inside my rhododendron”). While the observer’s tone is sympathetic, it’s also quite wry  (“couldn’t you go a little easy?”), which effectively shields the poem from any false sympathy. The conjunction of a stabbing death amid flowering beauty is mirrored by the way the syntax juxtaposes low and high diction (“Poor cricket…holds up / pretty good” rubs against “a state of oneiric pain’). Cole is cheerfully playing here with Ruskin’s critique. But that word “pain” also does something other than end this octave: it marks the tonal and narrative shift from observation to remembrance, invoking a memory oneiric only insofar as it is nightmarish; one that cannot be wryly recalled, even as it begins prosaically, even banally, with a quarrel over money.

I know of no sonnet, modern of otherwise, that moves so swiftly, so ruthlessly into a scene of such domestic turmoil, though that noun hardly captures the sheer horror of the moment dramatized in the concluding sestet. The shrike that impales the cricket has nothing on the father who puts his wife’s head in the oven. Note the distance we’ve come from that brightly whistling bird: what we now hear is the voice of the “it,” which issues “from the hell mouth,” pleading “Who are you?” Far from ascribing human emotion to a thing found in nature, Cole inverts the natural order, turning his mother’s head into a thing. The shrike has become, under the pressure of this involuntary memory, a shriek.

In the next lines, we focus on the child’s reaction, as he stays apart, drinking tap water, “lips on the faucet.” What’s changing for the child? Nothing much perhaps—presumably the strife downstairs is all too familiar—and yet perhaps everything. Indeed, “Everything was shaking and bumping.” Notice how those gerunds connect to those earlier, (the whistling, pecking, quarreling), making clear the thematic connection between the poem’s two main sections. It is the nature of childhood that we see and hear things which shock us into a greater, more complete (and into a lesser, more marred) vision of the world outside ourselves. To the child alienated from and buffeted by the domestic usurpations he witnesses, to that boy, whose early years are largely peopled by those two giants—parents—the culmination of such shocks is also a way toward a life separate from childhood. This is so, even as the poem suggests that there’s no escaping memories of loss or of lost innocence; they remain, under the surface, waiting to be jarred into consciousness.

The poem ends, after all that abject human drama, with breathtaking simplicity, as the natural observer returns to examine this moment in his childhood: “Earth was drawing me into existence.” It is an existence in which direct observation and raw memory uneasily co-exist and contain between them whistling shrike, stabbed cricket and shaking child, as well as branch, rhododendron, oven and faucet. Earth, in drawing all life into it, could go a little easy on the boy, and by extension on us, but doesn’t. Neither, ultimately, does Cole, but I for one wouldn’t wish him to. “Shrike” stands as a perfect instance of what the sonnet is still capable of in the hands of a contemporary master of the form.

“The shrike has become, under the pressure of this involuntary memory, a shriek”. Lovely, no? Thank you, Brian.

What else?

Ah – many thanks to Frank Heath, whose text in last month’s issue, for the short film he made, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, that uses Cory Smythe’s “Combustion 2” from his album also titled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (whew!) — was terrific.  More, perhaps, before too long.

Also of note: we continue our new column, Station to Station. After June’s debut with Robert Pinsky and Heather Greene, and July’s with Christopher Buckley pairing with Catherine Abbey Hodges, this month’s iteration features Willian Logan and Brianna Steidle.

And how could I overlook…Plume on the moon! Well, Plume poets, among many others,  by way of the splendid Lunar Codex project. Take a look here.

Our cover art this month is Charles Henry Alston’s Barn and Tree. For more on the artist, a good start might be made here and here.

Finally, as usual, a few recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors:

Jim Daniels             The Luck of the Fall
Robert Pinsky         Proverbs of Limbo ((Circumstantial Productions, late summer)
Lawrence Raab       April at the Ruins.
Kazim Ali                 Sukun: New and Selected Poems

That’s it for now — I hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume