Sunday, April 7, 2013
HARRY E. NORTHUP'S WHERE BODIES AGAIN RECLINE
So April is national poetry month. The idea of a month being about some subject matter or art form, or anything, seems pretty silly, but it did remind me that I haven't kept up on posts I've been meaning to write about books of poems I'm reading, mostly by good friends.
I have three stacks of books on my end table. One for fiction, one for poetry and one for nonfiction. The nonfiction is the highest stack, but the poetry one has the most books (the nonfiction books are usually twice or sometimes even four times or more as thick as the poetry books).
So in honor of the month's dedication, silly or not, I'm going to fire off a series of posts on some of these poetry books over the next few days, starting with Harry E. Northup's WHERE BODIES AGAIN RECLINE (Cahuenga Press), the book that was sent to me first out of the ones I intend to write about. It's by a poet who wrote one of my favorite books of poems in the past.
Northup lives in L.A. and works as an actor you have seen in movies, because he has been in a lot of classic contemporary films since one of his first appearances in MEAN STREETS. He is the definition of "character actor"—always playing a unique character, no matter how small or large the role. You can look up his acting resume for yourself, and there are some excellent interviews with him about his acting career online that I have linked to before on this blog.
But it is as a poet that I know him best and consider him a true original. He has experimented with different approaches to the poem, but in recent years two strategies have determined the way his poems work. One is a diaristic, narrative, usually-not-much-more-than-page-length poem that feels lyrical in its rhythms and imagery and yet is as precise and concrete as a good newspaper story.
Though similar in some ways to Frank O'Hara's "I do this I do that" poems about daily life, because of Harry's distinct voice and the circumstances it rises out of, there is really no one comparable. One of my all time favorite books of poetry is his REUNIONS, which collects a series of these kinds of mini-narratives scene setters. I recommend this book to those wanting an introduction to Harry's work, or to poetry in general. Highly readable, and despite his unique life, easy to identify with, I believe, for anyone.
His latest collection of poems, WHERE BODIES AGAIN RECLINE contains only a couple of these narrative, easily accessible snapshots of his life and times, but is dominated more by the other way he structures his poems, which is out of juxtaposed images that evoke personal meaning but sometimes indecipherably.
These poems are almost like litanies of imagery with obvious significance to the poet, an invitation to watch a short film of the imagery in his mind at the moment of writing, as it were, as opposed to the actual circumstances of his life at that moment. A lot of the language is repetitive along with the images, making it seem like the poems may even be, at least in some instances, cut-ups of previous or later poems, recycling specific words and images in a serial loop.
Many of the poems in WHERE BODIES AGAIN RECLINE seem to follow specific patterns, though every time I felt I determined what those patterns were, another poem would contradict that uniformity of structure. The perspective is almost of someone describing with no embellishment a series of symbols in a painting or collage. Some of the imagery described is abstract or generalized (lots of geometric shapes) and some is more specific (lots of arrows). When it works, the poetry attains a kind of sui generis quality. I'll leave you with an example:
night before birth
a man makes a fist & puts it down
on a pile of gold coins — an eye
turns sideways — those men
hungry for money turn away
a gold path moves through dark-
ness & curves down — curves &
curves under & holds his hand
white-winged plane above large
blue hand — while men frame
their thoughts with white wings,
wars, hunger, hurricane, loss
never falter — our hands cease
listening — form an apex to
protect a pan catching falling
coins — grasses, fires, buffalo,
golden edges of darkness remain
calm, are encased in breakage
son denies father, unleashes
water, white roses, constant
arrows, burning light all too
many to stop burning frames of
houses — sunflowers & lilacs foam
over waterfalls — pipes, cigarettes
iris, sky, center, far blue, near
death — flames rush around the eye
feathers lift webbed petals, brother
dwells on his own capturings; what
vast pyramid behind the iris
the sun, the holi burning — turn the
light on to kill — one feminine eye
above spreading the blue fan
a hand rotates the royal blue iris
a hypodermic needle fronts the closed
eye — propeller upward, like an
upsidedown table, spins, flames sweep
man walks on burnt-out transient
heart, sparks of light emerge, shine
death, like golden leaves, spring out
death flies, scatters light, lines attach-
ed to sunlight, our sorrow dead, green
rows of arrows, curve, spring, red night
[PS: I hope I transcribed this exactly like it's in the book, the "holi" may be a typo but it is there, and I like it.]