The more I buy, the more I’m bought, and the more I’m bought, the less I cost. – Joe Pug
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. if the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for.” – Franz Kafka
The first stanza of this poem, composed of a single sentence that is eight lines long, literally steals your breath. It is as if you’re the one slowly dying from exposure to toxic mushroom spores. The terse imperatives (“forage”, “chew”, etc.) in the second line of the second stanza create a nice contrast to the poem’s grueling first sentence. By the concluding stanza I was as engrossed in the poem as the speaker was in the children’s science magazine that led to the genesis of the poem itself. Lastly, I love how the solemnity found throughout most of the poem–exoskeletons breached, sinister spores, and unfinished life pursuits–contrasts with that surprising jolt back into reality in the final lines.
Nothing is more important to the ant
whose exoskeleton has been breached
by mushroom spores that are now
controlling his nervous system
and compelling him to climb to a high leaf
only to die and release the spores
over the whole forest
than this poem about his sad plight.
Otherwise his life is meaningless.
Forage. Chew. Recognize by scent.
Abdication of the will. A huge wind
that comes and sweeps his fellows
off the grass. When he dies up there
in the treetops the mushroom grows
right out of his head and breaks open
lightly dusting the afternoon.
Everything he thought he was here
on Earth to do has been left undone.
Through the trees
the spores move on their sinister ways.
I put down the science magazine written
for elementary school kids
in which I have briefly disappeared.
– From Surrounded by Friends by Matthew Rohrer published by Wave Books, 2015.
“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new at all.” -Abraham Lincoln, Peterson House at Ford’s Theatre
David Shumate’s Mannequins reminds me of the notion that the only “normal” people are those you don’t know very well. We all have our little quirks, don’t we? It’s just that most of us keep our idiosyncrasies behind sealed doors.
Consider the speaker’s self-righteous neighbors thinking he’s a pervert while undoubtedly hiding their own depravity that they, like all good hypocritical neighbors, find less appalling. Even the speaker’s own mother endorses psychiatric evaluation she typically dismisses because her son orchestrates the banalities of life using mannequins. Yet let’s not forget the famous stanza by the poet Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”
Many might assume our speaker is demented and lonely, but by poem’s end it turns out he’s merely an unabashed eccentric in a relationship with a lover who shares his kinks. If he has nothing else, he at least has this to share and that is nothing we should diminish in a world of increasing alienation.
At auction I buy two dozen mannequins and set them around the
house. I give each a name and dress them in tuxedos. Gowns.
Work clothes. Pajamas. I set a few in front of the television. Two
at the kitchen table. A man on the toilet. A woman in the shower.
Four on the lawn with croquet mallets. At night vandals arrange
them in obscene positions. But I don’t mind. I’m glad they’re
interested. Two mannequins lie naked in the spare bedroom
staring up at the ceiling. One dangles by his neck from a rope in
the workshop. Pull him once—the garage door opens. Pull him
again—it closes. The rest are stacked in the purgatory of my
closet. My neighbors think I’m a pervert. My mother doesn’t
believe in psychiatrists but makes an exception in this case. Last
week the police searched the place and left laughing. When my
lover arrives she calls them by their proper names. She brings a
new hat for one. A paisley scarf for another. Then she turns the
lights out and stands quite still among them. I know which one
she is. But I play along with her little game.
– from The Floating Bridge by David Shumate, published by University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.
The absurdly imaginative and surrealist poet James Tate finished living yesterday at the age of 71. Tate, one of my favorite poets, stocked his poems with fantastic concrete imagery and amusing phrasing. He built strange worlds in his poems, but the genesis of his strangeness was generally rooted in everyday reality, except for instance, when characters like aliens ambled delightfully into his work (see his poem “The Cowboy“).
Tate’s poems are tiny stories, full of characters, conflict, and heavy doses of dialogue that draw you in so quickly you forget you’re reading a poem. His poems often end abruptly, leaving the dust of a whirlwind in your head and a strangeness settling all about you. Reading his poems is like feeling uncomfortable and unnerved in your own home. You want to simultaneously escape and remain. This is the sort of opposition that has and will continue to distinguish Tate’s work–humor and tragedy, light and darkness, imagination and reality–all blended together in what one publisher called “surprising pleasures”.
While it’s difficult to select only one Tate poem, I enjoy “The Memories of Fish” because it demonstrates a wonderful blend of tragedy and comedy so often evident in his poems. I also enjoy the poem’s enjambment and hidden technical aspects, such as its use of sonic elements (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, etc.). They’re subtle; they don’t jolt you out of the poem, yet they’re still doing a great deal of work to pace the poem and its reader.
The Memories of Fish
Stanley took a day off from the office
and spent the whole day talking to fish in
his aquarium. To the little catfish scuttling
along the bottom he said, “Vacuum that scum,
boy. Suck it up. That’s your job.” The skinny
pencil fish swam by and he said, “Scribble,
scribble, scribble. Write me a novel, needle-
nose.” The angel executed a particularly
masterful left turn and Stanley said, “You’re
no angel, but you sure can drive.” Then he broke
for lunch and made himself a tuna fish sandwich,
the irony of which did not escape him. Oh no,
he wallowed in it, savoring every bite. Then
he returned to his chair in front of the aquarium.
A swarm of tiny neons amused him. “What do you
think this is, Times Square!” he shouted. And
so it went long into the night. The next morning
Stanley was horribly embarrassed by his behavior
and he apologized to the fish several times,
but they never really forgave him. He had mocked
their very fishiness, and for this there can be
– from Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate, published by Ecco Press, 2005.
There I was, a capricious sixteen year old boy, holed away at my desk, reading line after line of Anne Sexton’s poetry. Strange as it sounds, the autobiographical work of this depression-laden adult female writer spoke to me. Shouldn’t I have been reading Dylan Thomas or Ernest Hemingway instead? I was, but I was also reading Sexton, mesmerized by the window into her mind that her poetry afforded.
Even now as I return to her work as an adult, I’m startled and enchanted by how openly she probed her own tempestuous interior life. Critics often cornered Anne Sexton’s poetry as merely confessional, but others later defended the artistry with which she expressed her autobiographical turmoil. At the very least we can say that her work contained more honesty than artifice, which is not to say she lacked technical skills of an accomplished poet. Both the number of awards she garnered and the popularity of her work attest to her abilities.
“The Big Heart” captures both sides of this critical discussion. From the start we see an incredibly transparent persona offering us a litany of those she is thankful for, actual names of actual people she esteemed for their willingness to give whatever it is she needed. But we also see wonderful imagery (the sea’s fingers on the shore), several similes (doubt as hollow as the Grand Canyon), and biblical allusions (the metaphorical staff, the slain ram). These allusions and the references to God should not surprise us–the poem was written not long before her suicide, and many of the poems she wrote during this time demonstrate a violence (death), but also a spiritual seeking (the afterlife). Notice in the final lines that love arrives, but it does so with fury in a monstrous heart.
The Big Heart
Too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold. – from an essay by William Butler Yeats
wide as a watermelon,
but wise as birth,
there is so much abundance
in the people I have:
Max, Lois, Joe, Louise,
Joan, Marie, Dawn,
Arlene, Father Dunne,
and all in their short lives
give to me repeatedly,
in the way the sea
places its many fingers on the shore,
again and again
and they know me,
they help me unravel,
they listen with ears made of conch shells,
they speak back with the wine of the best region.
They are my staff.
They comfort me.
They hear how
the artery of my soul has been severed
and soul is spurting out upon them,
bleeding on them,
messing up their clothes, dirtying their shoes.
And God is filling me,
though there are times of doubt
as hollow as the Grand Canyon,
still God is filling me.
He is giving me the thoughts of dogs,
the spider in its intricate web,
in all its amazement,
and a slain ram
that is the glory,
the mystery of great cost,
and my heart,
which is very big,
I promise it is very large,
a monster of sorts,
takes it all in–
all in comes the fury of love.
– from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton, published by Mariner Books, 1999.