Thursday, December 18, 2008


THE QUICKENING is the title of a small book of poems (what people generally call "chapbooks" but I find that term limiting and a little dismissive) by Theresa Burns.

I received it in the mail a while ago and just finished reading it. And as I've written on this blog many times, it's these unexpected grace notes of creative-imagination-fulfilled, that lighten my days and always have.

It was an unexpected gift and one I'm grateful for. I especially loved the title poem:


It has to be quiet before I feel it,
not just the radio and TV off,
but the hum of the truck filling the oil burner

next door gone, the sitter out with the baby.
I pick up the trail of raisins
they've left on the floor,

and when I sit down I feel it:
not a kick, but a finger curling,
or a yawn, the first toothless negotiation.

I'm concentrating, unable to answer,
holding my breath
to decipher its message,

the way my aunt held still at her son's wake,
her face tilted, intent,
as if she didn't recognize his bald-headed,

gray-suited, thirty-year-old body,
but could feel its music
moving through her, where it once began.

And if she were quiet enough
she might catch, three days after his death,
the last notes of him escaping,

a quickening in reverse, the engine
ticking out its heat,
the cells shutting down.

These days there are those in the poetry world who would label this kind of poem part of what Ron Silliman calls "The School of Quietude"—a category that he feels dominates the publishing and academic and awards world, which is probably true.

Ron and many others prefer poetry that presents more of a challenge in its use of language, that doesn't tell a narrative straight forwardly, no matter how elevated or original the imagery, but instead, challenges the reader and the words themselves to create complex structures that often defy meaning and even any implication of intent, but rather force the reader to react to the word combinations in original and often equally creative ways (though in many cases the reader in my experience often finds the challenge boring, even if at first they found it challenging).

There are many poets who write what is called "language poetry" that seemingly makes no sense though often evokes meanings and contexts beyond the poem itself, (see Ron's own lifetime masterpiece ALPHABETS [actually THE ALPHABET], available in Barnes & Nobles, I notice), much of which I dig and champion.

But my perspective for many years now has been, the more the merrier, including more readers and audiences reached with the power of words no matter how they're used as long as it works in one way or more. Limiting poetry to only one approach, or one end of the spectrum of approaches is as limiting as any diet, but in terms of art works, pointless.

If a poem enriches my day, my week, my years, I am grateful for it. And in no way do I mean this postscript to the poem above to be a justification for my digging it or even an apology for its style. It is a terrific poem, quiet or not, familiar in style or not. How can you not dig a phrase like "the first toothless negotiation" or the aunt's "face tilted" trying to "catch, three days after his death,/the last notes of him escaping"?

Nor do I mean in any way to dismiss "language poetry" since I have written and published many works that were once considered in that category and many poets who are considered "language poets" are among my favorite writers and friends, including Ron [and in retrospect it feels like I'm kind of setting him up in this post as a bit of a straw man, my apologies Ron if you read this and it comes across that way as I try to make the larger point that follows]. I just mean to make the point that eclecticism isn't so bad, and having a broad enough taste to include all kinds of perspectives and creative approaches to any art work makes my life richer and more satisfying, as well as bearable when things aren't going my way.

When I was young I only listened to jazz, and only "progressive" post-Parker jazz. All other music I deemed too simplistic, formulaic, un-original. At the time I dismissed the Village folkies, who were in my mind imitating old forms trying to be something they weren't or just way out of touch with the future where the kind of jazz I dug and played would reigjn supreme. Even some kid pretending to be something he wasn't, which I and a lot of others on the street saw right away, naming himself after the Welsh poet so popular at the time, Dylan Thomas.

Now Dylan Thomas is considered passe, too traditionally "poetic" for many in the avant-garde wing of the poetry world. And the kind of jazz I championed then is a required taste for the discriminating few, and we know what happened to the folkie Dylan. And these days I dig all kinds of music, as well as all kinds of art forms, including poetry, and am happy to welcome the poems of Theresa Burns onto my bookshelves among the most avant-garde (e.g. Ron Silliman) and the most traditional (e.g. Dylan Thomas). Hope she enjoys the company.


Jamie Rose said...

Gorgeous poem by Burns. Thanks for posting.

AlamedaTom said...

Killer poem. I think it's all deep but not so deep that I can't see the bottom. I especially like the image of: her aunt feeling the music of her dead son's body moving through her, where it once began. The "where it once began" is genius.

Thanks for pulling my coat.

~ Willy

Curtis Faville said...

I think Ron's harangue about the "Quietists" isn't really a matter of excluding different kinds of poetry; it's more a matter of taking an official stance towards what is an "official verse culture" position. It's specifically reactionary, in that it wouldn't exist except in terms of "for every action there's an equal opposite reaction" (from physics). If the right weren't so reliably contemptuous of experiment and difference, then it wouldn't command the bitter response so evident in Ron's invective(s).

Ron might be described as being too too politically correct from a liberal perspective. He may recognize how powerful Lowell is, but he can't acknowledge how much better Lowell is than--say--Jackson Mac Low--because that's just not allowed. It's impermissible, given the cultural divide. Does engaging in the debate in this partisan way actually perpetuate false dichotomies? Probably. I've taken him to task on just that issue many times.