Newsletter #107 July 2020

Newsletter #107 July 2020
August 2, 2020 Plume
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Drawing and Photograph, “The Gates”

July, 2020

Welcome to Plume Issue # 107 —

July: and my thoughts in these…difficult times, turn oddly enough to Christo and his co-creator, Jeanne-Claude, the former having died May 31st, too late to run these images in the June issue. You know “The Gates” well, I’m sure, perhaps even visited the site in Central Park. But aside from their beauty (we strode beneath and through them like angels), what strikes me, no less important, no less integral, is how that beauty came to be. How can one not admire the artists’ indefatigableness in the face of the seemingly innumerable obstacles the state in all its forms set before them: permits rejected, appealed, a thousand grey offices to visit with their thousand confident “impossible”s ? As poets, we know this inherently, of course – the unseen, largely unacknowledged hard work we do in order to produce what, if all goes miraculously right, appears effortless, inevitable even, on the page or in the ear. Yet writ large, isn’t this the true nature of all miracles, or what we take for such? Vision, yes (the idea, the principle).  But also faith, in ourselves first, and eventually in others who might apprehend and share that vision one day? And tenacity. And, above all hope — so precious and in such short supply just now.

But enough.

A pleasure (finally!) to cede the stage to Joseph Campana’s of-the-moment consideration of nostalgia and its pleasures – and discontents —   in Dorianne Laux’s “Fast Gas”, below.

Fast Gas
for Richard

Before the days of self service,
when you never had to pump your own gas,
I was the one who did it for you, the girl
who stepped out at the sound of a bell
with a blue rag in my hand, my hair pulled back
in a straight, unlovely ponytail.
This was before automatic shut-offs
and vapor seals, and once, while filling a tank,
I hit a bubble of trapped air and the gas
backed up, came arcing out of the hole
in a bright gold wave and soaked me — face, breasts,
belly and legs. And I had to hurry
back to the booth, the small employee bathroom
with the broken lock, to change my uniform,
peel the gas-soaked cloth from my skin
and wash myself in the sink.
Light-headed, scrubbed raw, I felt
pure and amazed — the way the amber gas
glazed my flesh, the searing,
subterranean pain of it, how my skin
shimmered and ached, glowed
like rainbowed oil on the pavement.
I was twenty. In a few weeks I would fall,
for the first time, in love, that man waiting
patiently in my future like a red leaf
on the sidewalk, the kind of beauty
that asks to be noticed. How was I to know
it would begin this way: every cell of my body
burning with a dangerous beauty, the air around me
a nimbus of light that would carry me
through the days, how when he found me,
weeks later, he would find me like that,
an ordinary woman who could rise
in flame, all he would have to do
is come close and touch me.

It’s incredibly quiet where I live. My neighborhood in Houston isn’t particularly raucous in ordinary times, but I live in a car city, a transit hub, a nexus of oil and gas where public transit has always taken a back seat to gas guzzlers for decades (despite some recent if perhaps-too-late efforts to the contrary). So it’s hard not to hear cars all the time even in the best times, in times when a distant hum of cars soothe. Now the streets empty in cities across the world. So many fewer cars are on the roads that insurance companies unlock their guarded vaults and unleash modest refunds to customers. A sign of the end times for sure. There’s been a lot of reporting—some questioned, some questionable—about the way the natural world might be spring back in absence of so much human traffic. Maybe so, although it’s now clear a few of those glowing initial reports about the return of nature amidst a global shutdown went too far. But the real problem is one of tone. Disasters, viral and otherwise, don’t have silver linings. They have consequences. Opportunities for encouraging change arise, when we’re lucky, but optimism, like nostalgia, can ring false amidst a pandemic.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with Dorianne Laux’s “Fast Gas.” I’m thinking about nostalgia, which can be so pleasurable even when, or especially when, it is for the world that never existed. It’s hard not to think now of things that will never be the same “after” this is all done even as the timeline for an “after” seems ever more elusive. Nostalgia, coming from nostos, Greek for home or homecoming, keeps us looking for a past to shelter in. Sometimes it’s a dangerous fantasy. Sometimes, it’s like a Disney movie where all the cartoons love us. It’s not always easy to say which is worse.

I heard Dorianne Laux read this poem in the late 1990s in Syracuse, NY. I suppose I have some nostalgia for that moment, now that it lies two decades behind me, but I’ve never wanted to anchor in the past in quite that way. I am, perhaps to my detriment, always looking too much to what’s next. It’s not hostility to recollection I experience—I spend most of my days teaching poems hundreds of years old.  Rather, it’s an allergy to the idea that the best times were behind us. I am grateful for that time. I was reading and writing intensely, and I had just placed one of my first poems, “First Job” also a recollection of a summer past, working at a filling station in a small town in the foothills of the Adirondacks.

So I understand the appeal of something that’s not nostalgia for a past and perfect time, but a longing for the spark of exhilaration. It’s easy to feel, at certain times in a life or certain times in the life of the world, that once we were more intensely ourselves. For those with the luxury of even a modicum of safety just now, it can feel like we’re not really experiencing anything even as we experience and witness some of the most momentous goings-on of the new millennium. It’s the feeling of being trapped in an isolating bubble, the air slowly leaking out.

There’s a “times may have been hard but I felt so alive” sensibility to “Fast Gas” that captivates. There’s an intimacy with something both toxic and intoxicating, gasoline, a petroleum product we just can’t seem to quit. That’s why the proximity between the speaker’s skin and the gasoline electrifies when accidentally “a bright gold wave and soaked me — face, breasts, / belly and legs.” The force of an unexpected “searing” leaves her in an almost religious state:

Light-headed, scrubbed raw, I felt
pure and amazed — the way the amber gas
glazed my flesh, the searing,
subterranean pain of it, how my skin
shimmered and ached, glowed
like rainbowed oil on the pavement.

The great romance of the automobile marked the last American century intensely. We live in that aftermath, even as certain forms of nostalgia—for drive-in movie theaters and for filling stations—seem to pass. Our attachments pass more slowly.

In this poem, work is service, work is necessity, and work is messy. I like to think it isn’t the work, or even the gasoline, that sparks the enlightenment of a poet falling in love. It’s a kind of attention to the world that allows her feel “every cell of my body / burning with a dangerous beauty” and to feel she might be “an ordinary women who could rise / in flame.” We can figure out how to do without the gasoline, at least eventually. But we can’t live without ignition.

For biographical material on Joseph Campana, A Plume Contributing Editor, see the staff page
For more on Doriane Laux, perhaps begin with this.

Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not?  — all of the Plume newsletters are  now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.

What else?

Our new staff member, Sally Bliumis-Dunn, will be reading on July 23rd as part of the series associated with Ecopoetics Anthology: POETICS FOR THE MORE-THAN-HUMAN WORLD: An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary, co-edited by Mary Newell, Sarah Nolan, and Bernard Quetchenbach. Most recently, her poems were published in  Ron Slate’s ON THE SEAWALL.  and Michael Broder’s What Rough Beast.

Virtual Plume readings are on the horizon – details next month.

And last, as usual, a few new/recently/forthcoming releases from Plume contributors:

Jorie Graham                   Runaway

Ted Kooser                      Red Stilts

Ira Sadoff                         Country Living

Shane McCrae                 Sometimes I Never Suffered: Poems

Jill Bialosky           Asylum: A personal, historical, natural inquiry in 103 lyric sections

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

Stay safe!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume