Alexander Long The Prose Poem Is a Form Received:
An Essay-Review of Christopher Buckley's Modern History: Prose Poems 1987-2007 and Mark Jarman's Epistles
Christopher Buckley, Modern History: Prose Poems 1987-2007 (Tupelo, 2008)
Mark Jarman, Epistles (Sarabande, 2007)
It seems that anyone who engages in the act of writing and/or discussing the prose poem becomes either a pioneer or a pariah.
Rigid classifications, after all, are not indexes of one's aesthetic. Rigid classifications are nothing more than manifestations of that toxic mix of fear and arrogance. Besides, the argument for any poem's worth and right to be in whatever form it makes itself exists most readily and powerfully not in its criticism or review or extrapolation or lecture or politicization or commodification.
Its worth and right to exist is right there, in the poem itself.
When I first started this essay, I wrote a letter to a friend who's been publishing books of poetry—one of them received the Pulitzer—for over forty years. He wrote me back, and admitted that he has some pieces that are poems that can pass for prose poems because "no one knows what prose poems are." I have talked with poets of my generation and the generation before ours, and many of their reactions have been similar, something like Oh, that. Yeah, well... I don't see the point. You either write poems or you write prose. Prose poems seem a cop out. I have talked with my students, too, about the prose poem; most of the time, their heads tilt to the left; their faces seem curious but unsure, sometimes even afraid.
I'm confused by the nearly univocal confusion.
The prose poem's intent and desire has always been to fuse and unite, not to fragment and divide. It is no more reactionary—if it's reacting against anything at all, for reaction presumes dissatisfaction, and the prose poem is self-sufficient—than, say, an Elizabethan sonnet building upon a Petrarchan. Or the sestina's migration from a performance piece to something read (perhaps very rarely aloud) in solitude. One doesn't need to read Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence (or Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species for that matter) to understand how and why forms develop, shift, migrate, and react.
Still, what has consistently brought writers together—via, alas, disagreement—is the question of the prose poem.
There is no question of the prose poem. The prose poem is a form received, and its reception has been going on for some time.
The prose poem didn't suddenly appear in America during the first Nixon Administration. Merwin, Bly, James Wright, Edson, Strand, et al were not creating a new form, nor were they experimenting toward that aim. They were riffing history and tradition. Before them, Borges and his 1960 book, El Hacedor, which contains a section of prose poems. Before him Baudelaire, who was riffing Bertrand, the alleged founder of the prose poem in France (therefore, the world). He may have found it, but he didn't invent it. In fact, as Morton Marcus points out in Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California (eds. Christopher Buckley and Gary Young, Greenhouse Review Press/Alcatraz Editions, 2008), the prose poem can be traced as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) in China. Marcus informs us that
[e]ssentially the fu was a court entertainment written for the emperor or for other nobles' amusement to accompany ceremonies, rituals and informal gatherings. Many times barbed with satiric political innuendoes, the fu usually consisted of a flamboyant and lengthy description of an object of natural phenomenon in rhymed verse that was introduced and sometimes interrupted by prose... . By the Sung (Song) Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the fu had developed into the form Western writers have come to recognize as the prose poem. (19-20)
Why then, in 1990, when Charles Simic was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his book of prose poems, The World Doesn't End, did it create a more-than-minor uproar in literary circles? Maybe because nearly twelve years earlier, Louis Simpson voted against Mark Strand receiving the Pulitzer for his book The Monument. Maybe because the prose poem is still misunderstood because it is so amorphous. Even David Lehman (who wrote his dissertation on prose poetry), in his comprehensive essay that documents certain periods of the prose poem's history, seems to still have some doubts, however muted, on the prose poem's viability as a form: "Seven of the poets who have served as guest editors of The Best American Poetry—Simic, Strand, Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Hass, John Hollander, and James Tate—have championed the prose poem or done some of their best work in that form (if it is a form) or genre (if that's what it is)" (American Poetry Review, March 1, 2003).
Why the parenthetical doubts? We don't question, for example, the sonnet's existence, whatever its incarnation: Petrarchan, Elizabethan, Spenserian, or any myriad subsequent, "experimental" hybrids (Lowell, Berryman, Stern, et al). We've read many things in iambic pentameter with fourteen lines and a certain rhyme scheme. And who among us has not walked away knowing they were not poems, but merely formulaic arrangements wrongly called "sonnets"? We've also read many things shoved into a paragraph (like stuffing a sweatshirt into a shoebox) hiding its inadequacies behind the misnomered catch-all "prose poem".
It's not so much obvious as it is responsible: just because certain chains of words are forced into a template does not make them a poem. The "bad" sonnet does not exist; it's just 14 lines in iambic pentameter with a flexible rhyme scheme. The "bad" prose poem does not exist; it's just a chunk of words unable to achieve rhythm, imagistic intensity, and voice. But the prose poem—by its very nature—is less immune to negative critiques because its form—that is, its shape on the page—is inherent to various states of mind and being.
Its amorphous shape may be why the prose poem has consistently puzzled many talented writers, knowledgeable critics, and earnest students. But why the prose poem has been a risk for reader and writer is mystifying. It may come from its paradoxical name. It may come from its essence of not being "this" but of being "that", or vice versa; of being neither prose nor poetry, thereby misconstrued as both. As a species, we like order, clear delineations, borders. Even most poets. The prose poem, at first glance, disrupts order and blurs borders. If not considered carefully, the prose poem shakes foundations. As a species, we don't like that. It's counter-productive to our survival.
But the prose poem is as essential to our survival as any other written form of expression. The prose poem is a state of mind, a condition of the spirit, no different from the states of mind contained within the respective essences of a sonnet, villanelle, sestina, etc. The prose poem can engage the lyrical, narrative, ruminative, obsessive, ekphrastic, paratactical, associative, rhythmic, and even syllabic (among others). Sometimes, the prose poem engages—and more importantly deftly handles—some of these simultaneously, which, for example, the villanelle—by its very nature—can't do, won't allow... unless one tests it, presses it, challenges it.
The most elemental difference between the prose poem and other traditionally received forms in English is the unit of measure. In traditionally-accepted received poetic forms in English, the primary unit of measure—at its most elemental—is the poetic foot. The primary unit of measure in the prose poem—at its most elemental—is the phrase, grammatically complete or not. If this sounds obvious, it is; it's also worth a closer look.
Consider Dickinson's famous line: "Because I could not stop for Death... ." When scanned, we find four perfectly iambic feet: "Because/ I could/ not stop/ for Death... ." Or consider a fragment I heard on the news the other day. The news anchor babbled on about another drug bust in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Mostly white noise, but then I heard him say "with methamphetamine." I found myself scanning those two words: "with meth/amphet/amine". Three perfectly iambic feet. The news anchor couldn't help but speak iambically; maybe he was working out a sonnet on air.
In the prose poem, we can perform similar scansion, but with little insight and reward (which I'll demonstrate in a little while). Or to put it another way, if we'd like to scan a prose poem, we might be better served to track the arrangement of thoughts and images within the sentences rather than count the feet. Here is the first paragraph of James Wright's "The Secret of Light":
I am sitting contented and alone in a little park near the Palazzo Scaligere in Verona, glimpsing the mists of early autumn as they shift and fade among the pines and city battlements on the hills above the river Adige.
The delineations between stressed and unstressed syllables we hear and feel more readily in traditionally received forms are shaded much more subtly in this prose poem. Wright's first paragraph—also a sentence—clearly demonstrates this. What surfaces in, for example, Dickinson is an obvious music. What surfaces in, for example, Wright is an obvious voice. Both Dickinson and Wright display control, but their forms of control are different. What controls Dickinson's line is meter and sound (or what I called earlier "music"). What controls Wright's line are observation and thought, and pushing the limits of the phrase. (Please note that Dickinson's line is immensely thoughtful and acutely observant.) Meter and music, observation and thought: these are all archetypal rhythms of the mind and body working in concert.
The prose poem's basic unit—a phrase—can comprise an entire poem. Like this one:
She is as in a field a silken tent at midday when the sunny summer breeze has dried the dew so that in guys it gently sways at ease, and its supporting central cedar pole, that is its pinnacle to heavenward and signifies the sureness of the soul, seems to owe naught to any single cord, but strictly held by none, is loosely bound by countless silken ties of love and thought to everything on earth the compass round, and only by one's going slightly taut in the capriciousness of summer air is of the slightest bondage made aware.
Blasphemous, of course. Mr. Frost, and his admirers (of which I'm one), should be annoyed. No doubt, he labored long and hard to create a "perfect" sonnet—which this poem is, his "Silken Tent"—comprising one sentence. To remove his carefully and brilliantly chosen line breaks—thereby nullifying his meter and rhyme, his form—is not only wrong; it is irresponsible.
Or another kind of blasphemy involves resetting a free verse poem into prose, which Helen Vendler recommends Philip Levine do for his poem "The Suit". Vendler, reviewing Levine's One for the Rose in New York Review of Books, writes:
Often Levine seems to me simply a memoir-writer in prose who chops up his reminiscent paragraphs into short lines. Here he is on the subject of his first suit, a brown double-breasted pin-stripe with wide lapels. Here is the excerpt as Levine wrote it:
... Three times I wore it
formally: first with red suspenders
to a high school dance where no one
danced except chaperones, in a style
that minimized the fear of gonorrhea.
It was so dark no one recognized me,
and I went home, head down. Then to a party
to which almost no one came and those
who did counted the minutes until
the birthday cake with its armored
frosting was cut and we could flee.
And finally to the draft board where
I stuffed it in a basket with my shoes,
shirt, socks, and underclothes and was
herded naked with the others past doctors
half asleep and determined to find
Vendler then carries out the irresponsible act of removing Levine's line breaks, collapsing sixteen lines that contain the heart of the poem into a chunk of prose:
... Three times I wore it formally: first with red suspenders to a high school dance where no one danced except chaperones, in a style that minimized the fear of gonorrhea. It was so dark no one recognized me, and I went home, head down. Then to a party to which almost no one came and those who did counted the minutes until the birthday cake with its armored frosting was cut and we could flee. And finally to the draft board where I stuffed it in a basket with my shoes, shirt, socks, and underclothes and was herded naked with the others past doctors half asleep and determined to find nothing... .
Vendler can't seem to feel her way to Levine's four. Levine has been working consistently in four- and five-beat lines for decades. Why, then, would such a smart and renowned critic such as Vendler embarrass herself like this?
Very simply: she wasn't listening to the poem. Or maybe she was pressed for a deadline. Or maybe she was listening only to what she wanted to hear before she came to the poem.
Who among us has not done something similar at a weak moment?
Readers of prose poems who find them insulting to inherited sensibilities, inattentive to versification, offensive to tradition, and just plain "sloppy" suffer from a self-inflicted deafness.
In other words, but within the same breath, it is equally irresponsible and wrong to suggest to a poet working within the prose poem form to "just break it into lines." Consider this excerpt from a poem called "Say or Sing":
You think you know but you don't, you try,
you use words, you actually speak,
you put your head in your right hand,
hand against cheek, you rub your gum,
pick your nose, smooth hair back,
anger seethes under something,
you, you, you, you,
you sit there alone, trying to figure
it out, your mind—unhelped by all
the beloved characters you've read about,...
Predominantly, this particular excerpt has four beats per line and all but two lines are endstopped (for better or for worse). How would this excerpt feel if it had five beats per line?
You think you know but you don't, you try, you use
words, you actually speak, you put your head
in your right hand, hand against cheek, you rub
your gum, pick your nose, smooth hair back,
anger seethes under something, you, you,
you, you, you sit there alone,
trying to figure it out, your mind—unhelped
by all the beloved characters you've read about,...
Not much difference, though the enjambed lines have doubled from two to four, thereby hastening the overall pace (despite the longer line) and adding a bit more urgency to the emotional center and voice.
How about three beats per line? Or two? Or six? Doesn't matter. Fact is, this excerpt is from a prose poem by Stephen Berg from his book Shaving. What I've excerpted spans seven prose lines (a line that is broken only by a book's height and width in inches), and the sentence doesn't end until it's roughly three-quarters down the page (roughly twenty-three prose lines long). Here is what the excerpt looks like, what it should look like, feel like:
You think you know but you don't, you try, you use words, you actually speak, you put your head in your right hand, hand against cheek, you rub your gum, pick your nose, smooth hair back, anger seethes under something, you, you, you, you, you sit there alone, trying to figure it out, your mind—unhelped by all the beloved characters you've read about,...
The sentence rushes along like this for another sixteen prose lines. It is more than a run-on sentence, somewhere between Joyce's "Molly's Monologue" and Frost's "Silken Tent."
I could violate poem after poem after poem, but my intention isn't so much to anger, or—worse—bore. I've committed these petty acts of blasphemy to illustrate why certain forms choose us. I've committed these necessary acts of blasphemy to ask a simple a question: why would any writer willfully limit him/herself? As we shift to a closer reading of two recent books of prose poems, we would be wise to remind ourselves of the reasons why certain forms of versification choose us.
Christopher Buckley and Mark Jarman are two poets who have been working steadily, but not exclusively, with the prose poem for more than thirty years. Buckley has published fourteen previous collections of poetry, not one of them exclusively prose poems until his most recent, the forthcoming Modern History (Tupelo Press, October 2008). Jarman has published seven previous collections of poetry, one a book of sonnets (Unholy Sonnets). His most recent is Epistles (Sarabande, 2007). Both Buckley's and Jarman's respective bodies of work exemplify range, persistently searching for what Wallace Stevens coined the celestial possible. Their work consistently illustrates how the celestial possible may make itself manifest: sometimes, via the sonnet; other times, via free verse; still other times, via the prose poem. Their most recent collections engage the prose poem because it is, for them, necessary.
* * *
Accumulated Prayers: Christopher Buckley's Modern History: Prose Poems 1987-2007
Modern History: Prose Poems 1987-2007 is Christopher Buckley's fifteenth book of poems, and provides an almost comprehensive cross-section of Buckley's publishing career, a kind of Selected if Buckley were strictly a prose poet. He's not, of course. He has published largely in vers libre, but has also published poems in received and nonce forms, creative non-fiction, literary criticism and reviews; and is an editor many times. The subjects and strategies, therefore, correspond to a poet's expanding awareness and vision over two decades. But Modern History is not a scattered, uneven book. Quite the opposite.
Philip Levine has written that Buckley has "the gifts—a fine gift for the music of language, a sharp eye for physical detail, a large and rich vocabulary, and a deep concern for the earth and all of us who inhabit it." In Modern History his gifts expand to include biting sarcasm, rantings on the inanities of certain politicians and their agendas, and light-hearted complaints about the squabbles that seem to exist solely within academia. The usual subjects in Buckley's oeuvre can found as well: the ekphrastic, the metaphysical, the lyrical, the philosophical, the ecologically-concerned, the nostalgic, and the elegiac.
On the prose poem continuum—if there is one—, Buckley's slide toward the narrative. His prose poems veer away from the absurdist/surrealist/parable/koan mode. On the surface of Modern History there are little-to-no traces of, say, Russell Edson and Charles Simic, to name only two of the more well-known prose poets working in absurdist and surrealist modes. There are, however, traces perhaps of the Chinese fu, but Buckley reserves these moments for some of his best turns in his better poems that show, question, and accept our lives via the narrative mode.
"Eternity" opens Modern History with the subtitle "being a condensed spiritual and aesthetic biography", which also points toward another of the possibilities the prose poem provides: compression. If Modern History is expansive, it is, ironically enough, because of Buckley's ability to compress and distill what he observes and imagines and experiences until he finds the right detail, turn of phrase, image, leap, adjective, M-dash, placement of ellipsis that will best serve the poem. On the surface, "Eternity" wants to be a narrative (e.g., a biography), but after a few sentences in, the poem can't seem to bear its intent:
No one says I look 55no one says I don't, except my new friend Virgil. He has two Catholic daughters and like me, hates to fly, but there's no other way to get home in time for the youngest's 1st communion. I almost remember mine... I've been scared ever sinceof Death, of course. You tell me why... . In 2nd grade, the nun lectured us about Eternity, which almost arrived later from Cuba in the early '60s, Cuba where my friend Virgil was born, which as at least one entrance to hell and exits in Spain and L. A. In the afterlife, I don't think anyone is rolling cigars while someone reads them Don Quixote in the original.
Attempting to weave the narrative threads into a cohesive whole, one ends up instead with strands of the past mixed with distance past and the distant future. What else can a biography be? Condensed as it may be, how can we ever get to know the entire story of anyone's life? Buckley knows this, desires it to be otherwise, and yet attempts it nevertheless.
If the subjects addressed in "Eternity" are serious, the voice doesn't take itself too seriously. Buckley's speaker has attitude: part hopeful, part despondent, part pissed off, part grateful, part tongue-in-cheeky, part prayer-like. Each of these pitches appear in the second stanza:
What if, on the practical side, the universe—and so time-space—does curve back on itself like a huge quesadilla? We're going nowhere. What, then, have we been suffering for all along? More specifically, what have I been doing with that image like a fish hook in my brain for 48 years? Nuns, with their psycho-spiritual hammer-locks, were terrorists, and they did not discriminate among ages or ethnic groups. Death, darkness, and sure damnation were there equally for us all if we didn't stop talking during mass and go out and finagle quarters from relatives and folks on our block for the pagan babies. Dear God.
The voice(s) and subjects mesh perfectly, both equally expansive, varied, and controlled. This stanza sounds to me a little like Whitman had he attended Catholic school. Up until the last sentence, it's a very good stanza. The last sentence, however, makes it a great stanza. Clearly, the "Dear God" functions on idiomatic and epistolary levels. More than that, Buckley's desperation, anger, humor, and hope all dovetail tonally. In no other form I can think of would such a move be possible with such an enormous payoff. Buckley confirms as much in his brief essay, "Influences," which appears in Bear Flag Republic:
An analogy from my years as a tennis pro seems appropriate in explaining how and why I choose one form over another. In a tournament, in the middle of a match, you had better not be worrying about mechanics—the proper way to position yourself for a backhand, a half-volley, an overhead. You had better be able by that point in time to rely on your muscle memory and the many years of practice so you can do the some dedicated thinking about the discrete strategy needed to defeat the opponent across the net. (62)
In the final stanza, Buckley brings back the "Dear God", this time addressing God without an exasperated colloquial exclamation. Rather, Buckley desires to speak with God directly.
Dear God. Thank you for the gift of the eccentric brain, this associative jelly. Thank you for this moonraking poem which keeps me alive in prayer, in doubt, and in hope. This poem which for once did not take 5 months and 50 drafts, though I would have waited patiently as always—like salt dissolving from the sea, like air gathering to be somewhere else, like the last flake of rust outside of time... .
For all his anger and despair—after all, his anger is directed toward the Church, not God—Buckley is finally grateful.
The majority of poems in Modern History are middle-to-long in length: two-and-a-half to three-and-half pages per poem is roughly the average. Buckley's poems require that kind of real estate, and given his subjects the poems come across as remarkably condensed. Some of the titles alone are at once audacious and sincere: "The Semiotics of Ham & Cheese," "The Associate Professor Crashes the Awards Program at the National Arts Club," "Conspiracy Theory: Low Carb Diet Conversion," "Oil, Nostalgia, Immigration Reform, & the Decline of the West," and (my personal favorite) "After a Reading, Charles Bukowski Returns & Gives Me the Lowdown on Fame, Mutability, The Afterlife, et al... ". But the poem "Monet Effect"—one of the shortest poems in the collection—is a mere four paragraphs. Its scope is a bit more modest but its lyrical intensity is no less diminished, as its final stanza demonstrates:
There is a small rowboat, a space to steady your arm against the blue knots of the sky, a place from which you can stack the blanched hay in mist a time or two, or follow the sift of river light, at length going blind, and untying all the lines.
Like what all ekphrastic poems should do, "Monet Effect" steps inside the painting and makes the viewer an active player within the scene. Not quite Keats' urn, but still a strong poem that provides necessary balance to a collection that is, more often than not, letting loose.
"Doing the Math" is once such poem that lets loose via the pun and turn of phrase. Like "Eternity," "Doing the Math" is a kind of autobiography, the speaker looking back at himself from teenage years through the present and beyond. Each stanza carries a minimum of two puns or turns of phrase on mathematical vocabulary and jargon. The final two stanzas so unashamedly employ the math-metaphor that one may wonder where Buckley is going with such a strategy. Here are the final two stanzas in their entirety:
Our unsanctified bodies, long past their sell-by dates, flaking away like chalk across the blackboard working through their numerators or denominators, accounts over-due?dry as the dozen magnolia leaves scuttling across the patio like crabs. I have five fountain pens; I bring them to the table with my glasses and yellow pads, my hope for clarity and a small extravagance, the intemperance of setting down the sum total of everything I would praise or curse and only fractionally understand.
After three years, our lilac, just across the fence from our neighbor's orange trees, has produced one blossom whose fragrance might have multiplied the scented air of Babylon. The accumulated prayers from then till now equal an unrealized quotient. You can solve for X. Nothing carried over. With the heart's disposable income, you can invest in the ranks of gods or angels. No compensation, no guarantees. I am waiting fro the cape honeysuckle and the honey-scented pittosporum to arrive on the evening air with the exponent of my soul, the nonlinear differential equation that is the result of the sky divided by the seamy soul as transparent as the air. No remainder.
The best jokes always hide a stinger of truth in them. Clearly, Buckley is doing much more than punning and letting loose with turns of phrase. He's doing much more than creating, then inhabiting, a semantic field inhabited by terminologies of math. In "Doing the Math," Buckley is carrying out to its fullest extent the capacities of metaphor: by exhausting the vehicles of math lingo Buckley arrives at a tenor that is metaphysical, if not spiritual.
"Buckley y yo" is a poem that combines, perhaps most seamlessly, Buckley's vocal and focal range. Riffing Borges' famous prose poem, "Borges y yo", Buckley's begins with a nod to Borges' first line, then finds its own way from there:
The other guy, the one working like a mule driver, he's the one picking up the crusts, saying he still knows someone in New York. I'm busy reading a little philosophy, dumbed-down books on astrophysics, though no one ever asks me what I know about gravity waves or the afterlife? Still, it's good, someone said, to be gainfully employed—no doubt one of those mule drivers... .
Whereas the humor in Borges' poem is more wistful, Buckley's is grittier. Both Borges and Buckley poke fun at themselves, but Buckley's self-mockery is angrier and less resigned than Borges'. What their poems share, however, is that confrontation with the self that often throws into question the very existence of the self. It could be, then, that Buckley admonishes himself(ves) to remind himself(ves) that he does in fact exist:
And that young man interviewing you for a magazine, with questions about your early work, the theory behind all you've lost—you're doing a lot of tap-dancing to get around being just another Pozzo sitting by the sea. Jesus, did you ever think you'd have "early work"? I've done my share of waiting. I no longer dance. It's one thing to point to an influence, it's another to give the money back.
The bite's as sharp as the bark, and vice versa. Perhaps most telling about that fact is that the speaker is dressing down himself. How else to end such a dialogue except with a question: "And if you're really so sure of yourself, why have you gone to so much trouble to write all this?" It's not so much a rhetorical question as it is one that begs another: what's the point in lying to yourself? As Gary Young points out, "I find it harder to lie in prose" (BFR 62). Who among us doesn't ask variations of such questions to ourselves silently at least once a day? If you don't, better to find yourself a mirror than an agent. Buckley's poem may serve as clear a mirror as one might find anywhere.
"After a Theme by Vallejo, After a Theme by Justice" is a poem that has moved on from a dialogue with the self to an observation of the self after death. As the title indicates, Buckley once again riffs his influences. Vallejo's poem is short, sixteen lines in all with roughly three beats per line depending on the translation. Justice's poem is more expansive, nearly doubling Vallejo's; thirty lines in all, the beats per line range from three to seven. But as in "Buckley y yo", in "After a Theme... " Buckley can sound only like Buckley, which is due in large part to the prose poem form guiding him. A two-page prose poem, "After a Theme... " begins more in the spirit of Vallejo and Justice, not in the manner:
It will come for me in Florence with the evening light, and on account of the light, in early autumn before the rainstorms have arrived—when the sfumato, that smoke of rose and saffron, has so overrun the air that my worn heart, poor moth, will want to take up after the profligate clouds, their violet sinking toward the west. It will find me, once more extending my stay for no reason beyond the light, known far too well by the vinaios, in the little places for soup—on a day when I am little more than another narrow shadow on the Borgo Santi Apostoli or Via delle Terme, my body dependent on a stick, but I will not be tired of this, for even though my shoulders press against the brick, and I have no clue, my eyes will be at attention, thinking that the road is still ahead.
Never mind that the paragraph above contains two sentences. Never mind that the "it" is never grammatically referenced. I'd rather focus our attention on how Buckley, once more, steps inside another's work (Monet, Borges, Vallejo, Justice, et al) and expands it, thereby making it his own. To write in the clipped lines and short stanzas as Vallejo did would be foolish. Perhaps more foolish would be to imitate Justice's free verse line. The prose poem form found Buckley, he followed it, and has since empowered him to compose sentences that intoxicate, nearly entrance, and almost run out of breath but can't help but keep going, to "think, unwittingly, that I've seen it all." And that there's more to be seen, as the poem's conclusion indicates:
I think I'll be able to picture it as he puts his feet up on his front porch, and though he's sworn it off, he'll pour himself a water glass of wine red as an autumn sun burning low through the sycamores, and for no reason better than the end of another day, he'll drink to a deep and cloudless sky.
As you have already noticed, I've spent little time discussing the prose poem form and have spent more time highlighting Buckley's strategies and subjects. Isn't that how it should be when poems are successful? Shouldn't form be invisible?
* * *
A Single Idea: Mark Jarman's Epistles
Jarman's Epistles resumes the inquiries and ostensible dialogues with God initiated in his Unholy Sonnets and Questions for Ecclesiastes. In Epistles, however, Jarman elects to exclusively employ the prose poem for reasons that reach beneath issues of prosody. To speak directly to God (the Christian one, anyway) these days, Jarman less than implicitly claims, one must shed all pretense of artifice. This is more than a tricky enterprise for any craftsman, even one as accomplished as Jarman. One way to appreciate Jarman's range—which is to say his ability to marry the soul of his poems with the body of his words—is to consider the prose poems of Epistles as what is overheard in some his Unholy Sonnets. Consider "Unholy Sonnet 14" from Questions for Ecclesiastes:
After the praying, after the hymn-singing,
After the sermon's trenchant commentary
On the world's ills, which make ours secondary,
After communion, after the hand-wringing,
And after peace descends upon us, bringing
Our eyes up to regard the sanctuary
And how the light swords through it, and how, scary
In their sheer numbers, motes of dust ride, clinging—
There is, as doctors say about some pain,
Discomfort knowing that despite your prayers,
Your listening and rejoicing, your small part
In this communal stab at coming clean,
There is one stubborn remnant of your cares
Intact. There is still murder in your heart.
The meter alone is fascinating. Every line in the octave ends with an unstressed beat, and every line contains eleven syllables. This is due to the predominantly trochaic meter propelled by the initial-stressed anaphora beginning with the consequential preposition "After". But once Jarman reaches the sestet, the meter stringently shifts to iambic. The turn in the poem's soul corresponds with the turn in the poem's body. The trochaic meter and unstressed endings in the octave work upon our subconscious; the softer line endings carry with them a certain calmness and relief. The provisional salvation the congregation experiences in these lines complements Jarman's choice of meter, and vice versa. When doubt (and ostensible terror) creep(s) back in, however, Jarman shifts back to a harder and sharper iambic.
Now consider the first and third stanzas in the eighth epistle, "Each of us at the community service center":
Each of us at the community service center is waiting to be released. One soul, one body, we are waiting to divide, to enter the glory of our separate selves. We will take off the uniform of light, with the stitchery that names us each with the same name, and put on darkness again, our own, bagged and stowed when we entered, so long ago.
In the community service center, razor wire, TV, the smoke of cigarettes joined in a single hovering body—these unite us. We have learned to love one another as ourselves. We have learned cookery, cosmetology, creative writing, and accounting.
A reasonable comparison can be made between "Unholy Sonnet 14" and "Epistle 8" in that both poems document a "communal stab at coming clean." There are obvious differences in each poem: the sonnet's congregation has met in a church and the epistle's congregation is meeting in a secular, less-religiously-denominational location. Moreover, in the sonnet the congregation has convened, in the epistle the congregation has just met. In other words, the sonnet documents the after; the epistle captures the during. The epistle form assists in recreating the illusion of immediacy. It also permits Jarman to expand the poem's scope to include the interrogative, which appears in the penultimate stanza:
Who can see with the eye that I see with? Who can hear with the ear I hear with? Who can taste with my tongue, bluntly numb along its right edge? Who can ignore my stench or fragrance as I can? Who can speak my name as I speak it?
"Unholy Sonnet 14," in contrast, is remarkably firm in its declarations, so much so that it borders on the imperative. That is part of that sonnet's power: there would be no sense of foreboding if Jarman included a moment of doubt. And more practically speaking, he would've run out of room. But within the epistle, Jarman takes advantage of the space afforded by that form.
As Jarman points out in Bear Flag Republic, much of Epistles owes itself to the epistles found in the New Testament. The stanza above has its genesis in one of St. Paul's first epistles to the Corinthians:
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not the body; is it, therefore, not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it, therefore, not of the body. If the whole body were any eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members, every one of them, in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. (qtd. in BFR 71)
It's not so much that Jarman's Epistles are received forms, for they are (The New Testament predates Petrarch by roughly a millennium). It's not so much what qualifies (such a cold verb) something as received. It's more about who is doing the receiving, what the message is, and who—or what—is sending it. Perhaps most importantly, and more generously, is to understand how Jarman's prose poems are given forms. Later in the piece quoted above from Bear Flag Republic, Jarman addresses his intentions in writing Epistles:
My aim was to write as if to a spiritual community, but not to one like St. Paul's. I wanted to write a looser, less orthodox group, one that might wish to consider metaphors for mortality and eternity, for hope and despair, for grievance and forgiveness, for love and sex, for all kinds of things which, I believe, bemuse and beguile us in our everyday lives and sometimes exalt us and sometimes nearly destroy us. As St. Paul created metaphors for the early Christian Church to understand its faith, I wanted to offer metaphors for faith—any faith—in daily life. And I found that writing these poems, these Epistles, in a prose with the rhythm of the Bible, but also the rhythms of other kinds of prose, from Emerson's essays to self-help books, was the way to go about it. (72)
If the form of each epistle is, to use Jarman's phrasing, looser and less orthodox; if the entire collection is not as metrically and sonically prescribed as a sonnet, we shouldn't mistake this for an abandonment of intent. Jarman has carefully ordered and arranged Epistles: six sections, five poems in each section, each section addressing separate but related issues of faith and doubt, life and death, body and soul, divinity and humanity. Separate, but related: three words that could very well describe the pneuma as well as the corpus of Jarman's 30 newest prose poems.
Take, for example, the anti-penultimate and penultimate stanzas in the second poem, "Listening to you":
Your body passes through matter, in a shape moving through time. Thus a wave begins in water, passes a life in air, breaks, and enters the earth, or enters fire, then earth. Always in motion, appearing to be one with its body, but always leaving it behind. What you call yourself, these hands, this torso and buttocks, folded legs and damp feet, is no more than the light that lets you see it.
Think of yourselves as planets, cities, forts, hives, ideal communities, rain forests, oases. But it will also work to be a kidney, a dumpster, a horst pat, cud, a colony of germs, a night school.
Jarman's prose poem form enables him to invent prescient, surprising, and inevitable litanies such as the one listed above in the second stanza without being encumbered by choices of lineation, meter, and rhyme. The train of thought in the first stanza above seems perfectly suited for an intensified writing that initially straddles then ultimately unites prose with poetry, and vice versa... just as a wave joins the earth, as it's borne by the earth, and vice versa, and so on. It's as much a paradox as it is a symbiosis. The prose poem is no exception. The prose poem, as Jarman writes them, may be another example that guides us toward accepting whatever may trouble, confuse, harm, and distance us.
The voice of Jarman's prose poems is one of his tools that assist us greatly in coming closer to such difficult acceptances. With each passing section in Epistles, the voice changes subtly, almost imperceptibly until we reach the final section and compare with the first. As Jason Gray points in a review of Epistles that appears in the spring 2008 issue of The Southern Review,
By the last of the phrase-titled poems, the speaker's voice has changed so that it seems to be God writing, at last... . Perhaps this enlarging of voice increases the speaker's affinity with Paul: telling us that he wants to tell us, that there is a message out there, that it's worth repeating until we hear it. (373)
Voice in any kind of poetry is carried most commonly by two simple techniques: repetition-and-variation and pulse-and-delay. "Epistle 4" employs both of these expertly. It opens with "We want the operation because we want the cure." Five stanzas later, Jarman concludes the sixth stanza with "We wanted the operation because we wanted the cure." The shift to the past tense resonates with disappointment because we learn in stanzas two through five that the operation is painful, invasive, and largely unsuccessful given the motive: a cure.
The penultimate stanza also employs repetition in the form of anaphora, a technique Jarman uses liberally throughout the collection. In this stanza, the anaphora complicates time:
First the morning that we woke with a new unease that did not fade by lunchtime. First the night we could not sleep, as sleep kept cracking underfoot. First the hand of a companion, asking, 'Are you all right?' First our own voice answering, saying, 'I don't know.' And the voice that stated frankly, 'No, you're not.'
These simultaneous beginnings dismantle time rather than stop it. Which raises the question: who is the speaker? An easy answer is all of us; the first-person-plural we clearly indicates as much. But there is no satisfactorily easy answer, even if grammar wants to tell us otherwise. Notice, too, how the anaphora forces this stanza along at a clipped, if not frenzied, pace. With each sentence, the stakes are raised, the condition worsens, until—like a door slamming shut—that frank voice (God's?) confirms the worst.
The last stanza ends on a didactic note, but the lesson is unclear, if not enigmatic: "Thus God performs his surgery, closing and opening simultaneously, always with new reasons to go in." The sentence opens with the promise of clarity, of making sense of all the suffering in the preceding stanzas, only to have that promise deflated by the prospect of God carrying out similar procedures in perpetuity.
Now consider the voice of "Epistle 30" ("Through the Waves"):
If I spoke to you through the waves, which one would catch your attention, the ripple that wet your knee or the beach-pounder shaking your bed? If I spoke to you through the waves, would you remember what I said as a series of glittering, nostalgic video images, far from the ocean, each as harmless as cotton floss?
The drawn out rhythms, buoyed by commas, mimic the motion of waves, the first lullaby. The voice then answers its own question:
Small, gray, glassy, like a pleasant hour reading, transparent to its heart of jellyfish and seaweed. Large, swift, green, opaque, grinning whitely, asking for a quick response. Unanswerable, coming down startled, all bulk and foam, which you must dive under. Each bearing a message. Lovely swelling blue, giving you time to move into position, just as it peaks and you feel its force behind you. Black, making her arms glisten as she swims at night, belly and face like candles of phosphorous. Colorless, dismal rippling, coming to shore over shingle, cold enough to turn fingernails purple. And the warm giant that beckons before it sweeps you under to toil among churning roots.
Fragment after fragment, lacking meter and rhyme, moving on its own internal logic that sweeps us in (particularly if read aloud), this passage is prose poetry at one its finest moments. Not only does it break the rules, it rewrites some, invents others. We may never know for certain, but it seems as if Jarman gave himself the project of not only to write in the voice of (a modernized) God, but also to refrain from using independent clauses. If that weren't challenging enough, he also seems to have set out to make his rhythms mimic the motions, sounds, and colors of as many kinds of waves as he can imagine. It's no secret that restrictions work paradoxically for the poet; the more restrictions, the greater the reward... if the poet is up to the task. Instead of restricting himself with rhyming iambic pentameter not exceeding 14 lines, Jarman has created his restrictions. Or perhaps more accurately, the physical and spiritual worlds have placed those restrictions on him so he might speak to us through those multi-layered waves.
Within three more stanzas, Jarman utilizes the repetition of the question "If I spoke to you through waves?" And his speaker responds to each question with prolonged, nearly Whitmanic lists. The purpose of each list is to culminate in "a single idea: the image of body and soul together as one."
The same should be said, one more time, of the unity between poetry and prose.