THE PASSION OF PHINEAS GAGE & Selected Poems, Jesse Glass
[C$18.95/US$16.50/£9.50, 173 pp, West House Books & abadada books)
Involuntary Lyrics, Aaron Shurin
[$14.95, 112 pp, Omnidawn Publishing]
The lynchpin of Jesse Glass' collection is the 40-page title poem The Passion of Phineas Gage. In a sense, all Jesse Glass' experimental work of the last thirty years has been a preparation for this.
The Passion of Phineas Gage makes us feel the vulnerability of being human, makes us aware that everything in our lives can change in a moment. Glass takes the true case of a railroad foreman, Phineas Gage, who in 1848 was the victim of a work accident, when an explosive device blew up in his face. Gage recovered and lived another twelve years, but the accident transformed his character. It seemed to have 'deprived him of all moral sense.' The poem retells the story using a mixture of texts (Malcolm Macmillan's 'An Odd Kind of Frame', Descartes' 'The Passions of the Soul', original letters and statements from doctors and others of the time) along with the narrative voices, which Glass creates himself, of characters, real and imagined, who were involved in Gage's life. With the selection of just a few texts, Glass is able to recreate the historical context and bring alive the scenes and the characters in our minds. We see the mixture of all-too-human responses: curiosity, compassion and revulsion. The main narrative voice , as one would expect, is the protagonist, Gage, who starts by telling us about the accident:
The, bolt, that, stove, my, left,
cheek, &, breached, the, top, of, my, skull,
was, a, Watcher's, tower, forged, of, Aaron's, iron.
Blank, angel, faces, skewed, my, muscled, history,'
The commas between each word are used throughout when Gage is talking, presumably to show the hesitant, stumbling mode of thought after the accident. I have to admit that as a reader this created a fundamental problem for me - namely that I never for one moment actually felt and believed that it was Gage talking. I think the issue is that the voice is too similar to Glass's own poetic voice - I had the impression the whole time that it was Glass talking, not Gage. Perhaps it would have worked better if the language had been less literary. The commas do slow down the speech, but after a while they become nothing more than an irritant. This is a pity because when Glass talks with the voices of the other characters, for example Gage's wife, he is more convincing:
The children were fearful. They tried not to stare overmuch at his shattered head;
the visible pulse of his brain.
The hateful rod that changed him would not come clean no matter how I scrubbed
it with brush and lye-salts.
Or Nimrod Gardner who is approached by Gage for work and lodging:
Was married he says. Where's she? Vermont.
& Kids. Had 'em. See the grin, back hand gobbing
at the nose. Been drinking hard? Not overmuch.
Where you work last? Farming help. Ever been in jail?
Nope. (But see the eyes!) I'll think about it, and he's
squinting up at the loft like he means to linger. Can't stay here, I say.
When hell freezes over.
I remember seeing Jesse Glass's work back in the seventies in magazines such as Dave Cunliffe's Global Tapestry Journal and Colin Webb's Sepia. His work was a distinctly experimental presence in those magazines. This collection gathers together much of Glass's work from that period the present. What I really like about the poems is their powerful imagery and their willingness to go deep beneath the surface. Glass is uncompromising in his approach and I think he is not happy unless he has disturbed the reader and himself in some way.
He is able to explore archetypal themes and make us relive them at a personal level. For example, in 'Lexical Obelisk', he looks at the father-child relationship, which is also the relationship between the 'useful' and the 'useless', the 'adult' world of being practical and the child's (artist's) world of creating the secret and imaginary. We feel the inevitability of the conflict and also the ensuing trauma, whose effects will be felt for a lifetime:
nothing. says the father. it's
important to lift and carry
whatever is before us. a sentence
or a keg of nails. without quailing.
without asking for a drink.
without naming or dividing or
hitch hiking or sitting down. in a
strange place never ask directions, but
know the number of perishable goods
nor waste time blubbering over a secret task.
ask the mirror and it will hand you
nails. ask a hammer and it will whisper
it's own steel logic. carry this thorn in
your ear and it will inspire you
to have children: a boy and a girl.
teach them to work eternally.
teach them to forget themselves
and become an object...
Sometimes Glass presents us with a vivid, haunting image, only to kill it with an unnecessary word or phrase. Take this from 'In the Cold':
I was thinking of the snow flakes
cut by the drop-hammers of the sky
& how the ice never melts
on the angels in the Polish cemetery
where the dead lie
rib to rib in the cold.
What spoils this as poetry for me are the last three words: 'in the cold'. We already know this is a place where 'the ice never melts' and the poem has the title 'In the Cold'. How much more effective this would have been if Glass had ended on 'rib to rib'! But perhaps you won't agree with me, and perhaps I'm sounding too much like a schoolmaster. The powerful, disturbing quality of the imagery remains.
Other poems in the collection are more playful and celebratory, without being superficial, for example, the delightful 'e song'. There are poems which explore the possibilities of language itself. 'In the Realm of the Mothers, A Celestina Played by Sugar Fingers', the poem manages to be both funny and to make us uncomfortable at the same time:
Green ladies What Do You Require?
(refusing to leave no matter
the ritual) heads tipped forward in sleep/ pierce
space w/ thin, pointed dreams [...]
snapping the death mask out & up
they continue to lick long hands in commentary
I could detect different influences in the book at different times, from Ezra Pound through to Gertrude Stein. But in the end Jesse Glass speaks to us with his own, distinctive voice. Here is a writer who takes risks and is unceasingly inventive. This book is a timely collection, a generous body of work in which, as Jerome Rothenberg says, 'we can read our own vulnerabilities as temporal & soft machines'.
'After fifteen years of prose poems I was wondering a way back to verse' (from 'A Footnote' at the end of Involuntary Lyrics). The use of the verb 'to wonder' here is typical of Aaron Shurin's playfulness and delight in the possibilities of language. 'Orders' were 'delivered.' Shurin went on to write a book in which each numbered poem ends its lines with the same words as a correspondingly numbered Shakespeare sonnet. The lines, however, vary in length and the rhyme words have been 'shuffled out of sequence'. I was immediately fascinated by this, especially as I'm trying myself at present to find a way back to line breaks after two years of writing prose poems.
Shurin uses form as a springboard to discover his subject rather than the other way around. In Shurin's case, form liberates, rather than restrains. But he is in no way inhibited from stretching the form to its limits, in order to, in Shurin's own words, 'unring the sonnet'.
Certain themes do of course emerge, just as they do in the sonnets of Shakespeare or in, say, the work of John Ashbery. Shurin explores, among other things, the time-honoured themes of poetry: loneliness, loss, the passing of time. He writes a lot about sex, cruising, casual encounters, but the poems are hardly ever erotic. Rather, sex is often linked with a sense of disconnection from the self and others, to a longing which will never be fulfilled. Shurin is playful even as his poems go deeper and disturb us:
...This is my delight:
to ride back and forth in the last subway car with my penis out alone
but tuned to the art
of relation. He made me swear
I wouldn't tell but the cruel
light steaming from your face
has broken all my rules. In the hand she drew a heart
the greater dignity of fire, a jewel
nailed to the forehead pulsing in place
of the heart in her hand. She shook my hand and squeezed tight.
Most of the poems have a dreamlike, fragmented quality in which the 'I' and other pronouns seem to have a fluid identify. Yet the poems also feel personal and autobiographical:
It's a country road forty years ago, a country store
where propped outside, banded tans and gold, are sugar cane several feet's delight
taller than especially me, despised
outsider New Yorker in temporary captive preadolescent Texas youth,
stymied circumspect narrowed to hold it in mouth, give
pleasure like dog with bone chewing and sucking to spite
poverty East Texas limitless, oh, nothing, stupid pleasure sufficed.
The delight in eye- and ear-catching turns of phrase reminded me perhaps of John Berryman's Dream Songs more than anything else. This delight, like Berryman's, is just as present when dealing with a tragic subject, rendering it all the more convincing:
as passions do or AIDS took 'em, the stars
those florid queens who might've danced tabletop at X-mas party lost fight
though we inhabit periphery, tamed if not undone, gaze empty dance floor, no boast.
but nobody won, bars
filled with younger-than-me's filled with visions not quite
possible, though most
released at least from toiled
through unloveliness unloved.
The playfulness doesn't always work. Sometimes it just irritates and descends into mere abstract whimsy, especially in the poems with shorter lines, which can read like fillers:
How weary as fluffy graces
drift intravenous pile rhyme
on downy head where sleeping lies'
Compare that with the sensuous concreteness and yearning of:
...Say it takes you aside
like a new
acquaintance sexy strange
across your naked chest its first sprouty rain, the same
caress to plump your tired eyes old
from summer sun and weed -
dry the same story of gluey love it told
you last year, liminal, wind proffering its barely-discernable name...
Some of the poems do not render much on first reading. But it is worth sticking with them, perhaps putting them aside for a few days. They may seem opaque, but they have a way of rendering more light when you return to them.
Involuntary Lyrics is a timely collection from a distinguished poet, well worth exploring.
© Ian Seed 2006