After reading recent books of poetry by Patricia Smith, Robert Wrigley, David Kirby, and Cathy Park Hong, one might be surprised to know that even the best of contemporary critics tend to devalue narrative poetry in favor of the lyric. After all, not only are these four books very good—they all employ narrative.
The bias against narrative verse, usually founded on flawed assumptions, did not exist in ancient times. For a variety of reasons, in our era lyric poetry is perceived as more intense and, indeed, more serious than narrative poetry. Perhaps this difference may be traced to musicality. From the time of the Greeks until more recent eras, lyric poetry was commonly compressed and musical. Narrative poetry was longer and more reportorial. Lyric poetry took us inside the speaker; narrative poetry chronicled how the speaker interacted with the outer world. Because lyric poems were shorter, they were also easier to memorize. Narrative poetry was once either “epic” or “dramatic”; thus, the whole was not easy to memorize. Both kinds, however, have always been about conflict inside the individual, and both are subject to plotting.
In fact, virtually all lyric poems are enveloped by some degree of plot. Think of E. M. Forster’s chestnut describing “plot”: “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” In a lyric poem, the queen might reveal her sadnesses, her memories, and her struggles before crossing over. On the other hand, narrative poems do double duty, virtually always rendering the interior life as well as the central story. We may hear how the king died in addition to what took place in the queen’s life before and after he died.
Where the contemporary lyric is usually more compressed and often alleged to be more “musical,” today’s narrative often employs equally musical expression while dedicating a greater proportion of lines to external action. Consider two poems by Charles Wright. Here is “Spider Crystal Ascension” in its entirety:
The spider, juiced crystal and Milky Way, drifts on his web through the night sky
And looks down, waiting for us to ascend . . .
At dawn he is still there, invisible, short of breath, mending his net.
All morning we look for the white face to rise from the lake like a tiny star.
And when it does, we lie back in our watery hair and rock.
This often-anthologized poem is a beautiful lyric, yet the lyric elements are positioned within a series of events the poem chronicles. It’s true that the poem is about how humans project their metaphysical desires upon the world, but there remain surface events chronicled in time. Finally, the poem renders the mysterious closure in which the imagined spider/star rises and the collective consciousness (the “we”) enacts a metaphoric event in which it seems to achieve a primal life-in-death vision. Despite this poem’s remarkable brevity, it is a lyric employing aspects of narrativity from beginning to end.
Now here’s a section from Wright’s “Italian Days,” in which he looks back on his time in the army while stationed in Italy:
The weekend before I’ d been to Merano and back,
Almost became a squib
in the Stars & Stripes
When the helicopter’s engines stopped
Thousands of feet above the Brenner highway,
And we began to slide sideways down the air
As quietly as a snowflake,
the huge rotary blades above us
Circling like paddle churns in the wind
the stillness abrupt, the plane
In a long slip like a scimitar curve toward the ground
Rising to meet us, its trees
Focusing automatically larger with each look
As though raised through a microscope,
The engine catching at last on its last turn,
fine branches less than fifty feet below us,
the blade-slide bottoming out
As we started to rise and swing north
Up the Val d’Adige and into the emerald sundown
Outside Merano . . .
Back up out of darkness an hour later,
The houses beginning to flash on like matches below,
Left over Trento and left over Schio
and down, everyone out to supper,
the waitress admonishing Manzolin, “Non si taglia la pasta.”
These lines tell the vivid story of a helicopter nearly falling out of the sky, but the language and form Wright employs also tell us much about the speaker’s inner life. The smooth rhythms, the elongated sentences, the careful, precise metaphors, the discrete repetitions of sound—all melded with the evocatively placed drop lines—suggest that this is a speaker obsessed not merely with mortality but with the beauty of existence. Still, the passage is a chronicle of an event. Time passes as the event unfolds.
Later, in the second section of the poem, the speaker and his army friends visit the Italian artist Roberto Scuderi, who “died the next winter, / the heater electrocuting him in the bathtub.” Elegantly blending narrative and lyric elements, the section ends on a radiant descriptive:
Scuderi calls out my name
as I climb the six flights to his room
And stand in the doorway again,
Electric and redivivus in the world of light . . .
Here the narrative sets up a single moment in which the character imagines being released from time: “Electric and redivivus in the world of light . . .” If there had been no narrative structure, such a line would have had very little power. Narrative poetry is, thus, the art of context—and context includes the accrual of moments. Just as lyric poems depend on a narrative outline no matter how slight, narrative poems require lyric interludes no matter how brief. Despite critics who might feel otherwise, narrative and lyric are not oppositional. They share components. Each is distinguished from the other by degree.
What then is a narrative poem? At the risk of being reductive, let’s assert that it devotes a significant proportion of its length to chronicling an event or a series of events, although some passages will feature language that’s more reportorial than introspective. By definition, the poem tells a story (or stories), thereby accounting for the passage of time—and thus intimating at least a passing concern with mortality. A helicopter falls from the sky, or a man visits an artist only months before the artist dies. External happenings function to establish dramatic potential, and readers respond with myriad reactions ranging, say, from anxiety to melancholy, or from dread to exhilaration.
Although we could say fiction does much the same, the narrative poem differs from fiction in an obvious way: it is imbued with a more condensed, often more sonically diverse language. In most good narrative poems, the poet doesn’t simply report one happening after another; rather, in building tension, he or she employs any number of devices to surprise and please the reader. Such devices include the usual suspects—alliteration, rhyme, cadence, variations in rhetoric, et cetera—but may also include interwoven subplots as well as brief lyric interludes. Of course, as Denis Donoghue points out in his book On Eloquence, often “the sprezatura of sequence, one set of images leading to another” is what commands our attention, not any special language. A good story well told does not demand rhetorical fireworks.
Narrative poets realize that pure lyricism is virtually impossible, that a chronicling of external events is usually what primes the reader for the transition to reflection—creates, that is, the lyric moment. Those who undervalue narrative poetry may prefer the brevity and tonality of the lyric, which is in effect a quickening. The lyric aspires to an immediacy of the whole; the narrative poem boosts its expressive energy by recording external actions, simultaneously raising tension and, typically, deferring the most urgently introspective utterances for the end. Readers can’t be blamed for disliking plodding narrative poems that proceed in an and-then and-then and-then manner. But devotees of the lyric usually don’t want simply to shorten the chase—they want to eliminate it. Those who value narrative poetry enjoy both the temporal setup and the concluding payoff.
Happily, the essayists gathered in The Contemporary Narrative Poem: Critical Crosscurrents recognize the timeless importance of narrative poetry. This book is the first substantive one in nearly two decades dedicated to the genre; variously valuable in and of itself, the volume provides a number of elucidating comments that we may apply to the quartet of poetry volumes later under discussion.
Editor Steven P. Schneider divides the book’s ten essays into three sections: “Formal Strategies in Contemporary Narrative Poems,” “The Contemporary Narrative Poem and History,” and the less successful “The Experimental Contemporary Narrative Poem.” Several of the essays are particularly cogent. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan’s “Narrative Strata in the Sonnet Sequence: Sandra M. Gilbert’s ‘Belongings’ ” not only identifies this well-known feminist’s sonnet corona as a major work, but explains how Gilbert “at least partially inverts . . . the function of narrative and lyric expectations.” Equally helpful is Robert B. Shaw’s “Contrived Corridors: History and Postmodern Poetry,” in which he discusses the ways narrative poetry can simultaneously render historical movement and personal experience. Intrigued that narrative poems can regain events lost in time, Shaw is especially effective in monitoring the relation between chronicle and contemplation. In “Imagining Geography,” Robert Miltner explores the relation between chronicle and self-concept, especially in the travel poems of Campbell McGrath, which “show that what can be gained through the thrilling alienation of travel is a greater sense of self and cultural identity.” Daniel Tobin’s deeply insightful, wide-ranging “One Arc Synoptic: Plot, Poetry and the Span of Consciousness” examines the relation between narrative poetry, human awareness, and differing measurements of time.
In “Eloquent Silences: Lyric Solutions to the Problem of the Biographical Narrative,” April Lindner resists the primacy of the lyric. In acknowledging the seductiveness of the autobiographical lyric, she notes that the presence of plot critically enhances the reading experience, “whereas a narrative poem may achieve its most rewarding moments in resting spots of lyricism, those moments feel earned by plot and character development.” In a thematically related essay, “Historical Narrative in the Lyric Sequence,” Christine Casson points out that “it is from the unfolding of time underlying all human experience that moments of emotional and psychological intensity arise and meaning accrues”; in other words, the still moment needs narrative to set it up, needs a prefatory passing of time. The process of chronicling interests readers because they place themselves in a character’s circumstance—in someone else’s experience of time. All of us are trapped in time, and narrative is a record of our human imprisonment.
Each of the aforementioned essays affirms the aesthetic legitimacy of the narrative poem, yet in some ways the collection feels more like a miscellany than an organic whole. For one thing, the essays don’t speak to one another, so the book owns a subject area but no theme. Schneider never provides a definition of narrative poetry, preferring instead to suspend characterization in favor of a seemingly infinite and therefore unhelpfully elastic notion of what the term might mean. Despite his attempt at breadth, the collection is simultaneously too broad and too narrow in scope. On one hand, the term narrative is expanded so much that it no longer has sensible applications: it’s one thing to include essays on the poetic sequence, a different but related subgenre, but it’s another to include Stephen Paul Miller’s essay on the enigmatic lyrics of John Ashbery or Elizabeth A. Frost’s examination of materialist, Language-oriented verse by Rachel Blau Du Plessis, Leslie Scalapino, and Kathleen Fraser. Just as there are narrative components in Wright’s “Spider Crystal Ascension,” there are threads of narrative present in the work of these four poets. But those threads do not qualify these works as narrative poems. On the other hand, the collection applies far too great a focus on book-length narratives and not enough on comparatively short narrative poems. It’s true that the verse novel is in ascendance and surely deserves attention, but, as Schneider’s title suggests, the book aspires to focus on contemporary narrative poetry—not contemporary long-form narrative poetry.
In a related deficiency, not one of the essayists takes up the highly innovative work by two of the three narrative poets who are arguably the best of our time, Norman Dubie and Linda Bierds—both of whom write poems that range from short to long, though rarely novel-length. (The third, Rita Dove, is discussed, but no one takes up her most inventive work, Sonata Mulattica.) Masters of sound and structure, both Dubie and Bierds repeatedly create new strategies in plotting that make possible stunning epiphanic moments, and they deserved consideration somewhere in this book’s overarching discussion.
Despite my cavils, proponents of narrative verse are in debt to Schneider and these ten critics for re-affirming its legitimacy. Their articulation of key conceptions of story, plot, structure, and, most significantly, time, will help us to better read Patricia Smith, Robert Wrigley, David Kirby, and Cathy Park Hong, all of whom dramatize their verse with dynamic narrative elements.
In her fifth volume of poems, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Patricia Smith recounts the emotionally enlivening and harrowing experience of growing up black and female in the 1950s and ’60s. She textures her poetry with diverse stories and cultural particulars, including passages about the diaspora of black Americans migrating north. Most of her poems are hosts of rich sound that simultaneously evokes the glittering intoxications of urban American life and the omnipresent Anglo bias diminishing all things African American. In her title poem, Smith portrays parents who, influenced by white conceptions of sophistication, try to mitigate their southern, country background as they arrive in the Midwest center of postwar American commerce. Caught between local patriarchy and pervasive national advertising, black girls were especially susceptible to the message that, by virtue of their physiognomy, they were unattractive, even repulsive. Whiteness was the absolute.
Perhaps no poem in the book better demonstrates the way Smith coalesces narrative, sound, and culture than “Tavern. Tavern. Church. Shuttered Tavern.” Amped up by the present tense, arranged in long tercets, and narrated by a “we,” it offers the kaleidoscopic perspective of young girls on a bus trip through Chicago’s neighborhoods of the Sixties. Beginning with the three taverns and the church of the title, the poem depicts the girls careening past Goldblatt’s (a department store also long since shuttered), with its “pinafore” and “serge” in the window, “each unattainable / thread cooing the delayed lusciousness of layaway.” Soon the girls are “right up against a shoe store” that specializes in “unyielding leather, All-Stars and glittered stacked heels designed / for the Christian woman daring the jukebox . . .” Then they pass the “what-not joint” filled with “swollen sour pickles buoyant in a splintered barrel, / school supplies, Pixie sticks, licorice whips, and vaguely warped 45s . . .” Consonants and vowels echo off each other excitedly, depicting the thrill teenage girls might find when out on the town.
But the poem doesn’t take a breath, and the narrative continues to map the streets, where the girls see all kinds of folks, including elders who hide their own frustrations:
. . . July moans around a perfect perfumed tangle of eight
Baptist gals on the corner of Kedzie and Warren, fanning themselves
with their own impending funerals, fluid-filled ankles like tree trunks
sprouting from narrow sling back, choking in Sear’s best cinnamon-
tinged hose, their legs so unlike their arms and faces, on the other side
of the street is everything they are trying to be beyond, everything
they are trying to ignore . . .
This passage hints at the living-room scene in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” where parents try for as long as possible to keep their children from the realities of racism, from the frustration and the numbing adulthood that lie in wait. The poem is a rising narration of speedy, distracting enthusiasms, closing with a powerful implication of one more distraction—a prematurely sexualized future: “The Madison Street bus revs its tired / engine, backs up a little for traction and drives smoothly into the sweaty / space between their legs, the only route out of the day we’re riding through.” The girls may be thrilled by the exotica of the city, but just as the older women wish to get beyond the city’s cultural confines and can’t, the girls’ thrills narrow to sexual experiences that may confine them to a future with fewer options than their white counterparts possess.
The recent history of urban African American women is only beginning to be told, and Patricia Smith is a major contributor. History consists of time, is measured by time, and one of the functions of story is to reenact history. In Christine Casson’s earlier-mentioned essay on historical narrative, the critic is particularly interested in how narrative poetry can serve as a witness to racism in the United States. Noting that narrative poems bring the past into the present, she quotes French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur’s celebrated Time and Narrative: “To make up plot is already to make the intelligible spring from the accidental, the universal from the singular, the necessary or the probable from the episodic.” In “Tavern. Tavern. Church. Shuttered Tavern” and other poems, Smith makes up plot based on her own past, sometimes making her history universal by chronicling events in the first-person plural. As April Lindner says, “the lyric moment isn’t necessarily obscured by the narrative that surrounds it. It can both transcend context and benefit from it.” In fact, Smith’s narration blends seamlessly with personal observations, each recorded detail revealing the girls’ casts of mind.
Captivating, complex poems such as “Tavern” render the heady but socially circumscribed lives many African American women have led. White standards continue to pervade and dominate—and narrative poetry serves as a documenting genre. One of the most shocking poems in Smith’s new book is “Next. Next,” in which black teenage girls line up to inspect an object of nearly magical powers—the penis of a white boy who charges them money to see and touch “its whispered little rhumba, its soft / arrogance.” Later, in three consecutive poems, each standing on its own, Smith tells the story of being young and in love with another white boy whose parents threaten to disown him if he continues to go out with her. In both cases the first person “I” dramatizes a personal past symbolic of a crosscut history. And in “Motown Crown,” Smith offers up a startlingly accomplished sonnet corona that captures the way teenage girls of her generation experienced the rhythm and blues that inspired and molded them. Some of her poems, such as “An All-Purpose Product,” are structured a bit too rigidly, marked by overly didactic passages—but these are few. Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah is one of the most rewarding poetry books of the last few years.
Musical in a much different manner than Patricia Smith, Robert Wrigley recognizes the limitations of human beings and of nature. Like Frost, he understands that human beings unwittingly sabotage themselves and that the natural world is unforgiving. On the other hand, much like Wallace Stevens, Wrigley values both the human mind and natural beauty. That said, he doesn’t write like either Frost or Stevens. Principally a practitioner of free verse who interrupts his sharp yarns with plenty of asides, he’s more a poet of the fireside. Though his poems own an enlivening complexity, he is one of our most reader-friendly poets. He occasionally writes a purely lyric work, but most of his verse is in fact crucially narrative.
In his excellent new Anatomy of Melancholy, its title borrowed from Robert Burton’s 1621 classic, Wrigley demonstrates his accessibility again and again. The immediate subject of each poem is never buried, though many complex implications radiate beneath the surface. Surely among the most memorable of the volume’s poems is “Goldfinches,” which narrates the story of a man mugged at gunpoint. The opening of this 59-line poem demonstrates how Wrigley consistently balances exterior and interior action:
He could not, he insisted, take his eyes
from the pistol’s muzzle, calculating
as he watched it, from the way it quivered—
and cocked, as it was, a single action
it seemed—how easily that quivering
could cause it, without the man’s intending,
to discharge, as we say, and thinking too,
given its angle, what part of him would,
in that event, be thus sundered and torn.
Many narrative poets chronicle external events to set up introspective moments, but Wrigley blends the two. A master of the comma, he slows the pace by introducing one interrupting phrase or clause after another. We learn early that the incidents in the poem have not just taken place, that rather we’re in the midst of a man’s repeated, obsessive recollecting. The protagonist doesn’t only chronicle the events of the mugging—he tells the story of his own thoughts, including his fearful projections of how the gun could go off and how he wondered what part of his body would be shot. While these thoughts race through the victim’s mind, the poet’s genius is to slow them down, to produce what Frost famously called a “momentary stay against confusion.” Looking back, the victim reconstructs with unsettling clarity many of his thoughts as events transpired.
In “Goldfinches” we are arrested in time as we identify with the victim. The poem’s psychological implications radiate well beyond one man, becoming applicable to a society increasingly fearful of guns. Daniel Tobin suggests (in “One Arc Synoptic”) that narrative helps us to “find the significance of our place in time by seeing our lives somehow in concert with the kairoi, those events that stand out as emblematic of an encompassing story that lifts us above the passing flow, that configures the plots of our lives within the purview of some larger and deeper emplotment.” The victim is “emblematic” of us as we confront our own mortality.
The poem succeeds because Wrigley tells so many aspects of the story in so many different ways that we find ourselves both watching it all and taking part in it. We quickly discover that the protagonist survives, that he tells the police about a tattoo on the “other’s left forearm,” consisting of “three colorful birds / and the leafy gray branch they perched upon,” i.e., goldfinches. The victim reports to the police all kinds of details—how lifelike the tattoo was, how the birds sing, how they gather in flocks, how the flock careens with sudden motions, etc.—while noticing that the cop writes down very few of these specifics. (Eventually, we discover that the tattoo led to the culprit’s capture.) The poem filters everything through the consciousness of the victim, who, after his confrontation with death, returns at the end to the image of the birds:
Still, thereafter, he, the victim, always
described the goldfinches in great detail,
feeling, as he’ d come to, that it was they
who might well have saved him, remembering
how slowly he’ d moved, so as not to startle
the birds outside his window, and not
to have to keep seeing, neither in memory
nor dream, the dark blue mouth of the pistol.
Wrigley avoids a what-happens-next style of reporting by applying all of those interrupters (sometimes four commas in a line), shifting back and forth in time, and shifting between external and internal action. The ultimate effect of the poem’s “emblematic . . . emplotment” is to carry us as readers into a slow confrontation not only with our own ends but also with a consideration of our own coping mechanisms. The victim is suspended forever in attempted deferral, always trying to put off the thought of the gun.
Few of today’s poets can effectively manipulate sound in as many ways as Wrigley. In “Goldfinches” he deliberately scales back on his signature melodies—usually enhanced by alliteration and internal rhyme—in favor of a staggered speech that mimics a mind at once hesitant and compulsive. In several poems, most notably the three-page “Socialists”—about a contractor’s beautiful daughter who was murdered and with whom the speaker as a young man once worked and flirted—Wrigley finds ways to be colloquially funny (“ ‘You keep that pipe of yours away from my daughter / or I’ll torque the thing clean off with this wrench . . .’ ”), colloquially desiring (“All I wanted was to eat his sweet dumplin’ up”), and direct and somber (“I do not see or hear the water issue forth or vanish / without some thought of you and your father. / He would not recognize the nation of your birth”). In the love poem “Delicious” he blends reportorial speech (“This is how it must be: her front sufficiently warm . . .”) with restrained melodious expression (“on the round of the river’s cold lip”). Of course he can be unrestrained in his musicality as well. Here’s the opening of “Triage,” the book’s first poem: “Scarred by a long-gone buck’s rubbing, / shoved westward by his develveting grind, / the aspen had always leaned . . .”
Robert Wrigley is a master poet because he’s a master of the mortality chronicle. He employs sound as a way to propel or undercut narrative velocity to speed up or slow down our sense of time passing. When he’s at his best—and that’s often—we are, as Daniel Tobin would say, within the purview of something larger and deeper.
The speaker in a David Kirby poem typically pretends he’s not talking about anything large or deep. He’s the guy at the dinner party who doesn’t raise his voice while nonetheless commanding everyone’s attention. A gifted, comical storyteller, he weaves his observations into stories about himself and other people—so much so that the individual stories often become subordinate to his own musings. Because his inflections and pacing are matched by intriguing asides and self-referencing, we enter the moment readily and the temporal burden of the world fades away. We appreciate the teller and the ever-wandering tale, and the creation of this doubling effect is David Kirby’s major contribution to narrative poetry.
Despite an air of informality, self-deprecation, and humor, Kirby’s engrossing new book The Biscuit Joint takes up weighty topics. And, even more than Wrigley, Kirby employs a variety of tropes to militate against simple linear reporting. Unlike earlier books in which his poems usually kept to a central story, the narrative thread here is often quite thin, occasionally transmogrified into an altogether new thread before the poem ends. (Most of his poems are at least sixty lines long, thus giving ample length for his rapid leaping from one topic to another and demonstrating his antic habits of mind.) Others have called Kirby’s kind of poetry “ultra-talk,” a form of free-flowing Americanese in which the language seems to sprawl quickly in the manner of spoken speech, not in the manner of traditional poetry.
Kirby’s best poems own such a crisp you-gotta-hear-this-one attitude that we’re instantly swept up in the ride and all its doubling implications. One such is “Almost Happy,” which is set in what might be termed terraced or scalloped stanzas and begins on the occasion of his father’s death:
My father is the first of our parents to die, and when
he does, Barbara says, “We only have to do this three
more times, right?” So many ways to do it. My dad
just told my mom they ought to hit the road, then put
his head on her shoulder and went to sleep. But if you
want, you can take your own life, and that of your
pretty wife, too—when Othello kills himself he uses
sleight of hand to distract Lodovico, Montano, Cassio,
and Gratiano as he readies the sword with which he will
stab himself to death and tells the story of an epic
battle with a “malignant and turban’ d Turk,” ending
the military recap and his own life at the same moment . . .
“So many ways to do it.” This sentence fragment is an example of the poet’s signature pivot: an announcement that can send the poem in any number of new directions. Here, it could mean “so many ways to die” as much as it could mean “so many ways to bear the deaths of parents.” First Kirby applies “it” to the former, but in due time will also take up the issue of how adult children approach their parents’ passing.
Yet that’s not all. Just as he describes the way Othello provides the “military recap” of “an epic battle,” Kirby uses the story of Othello to provide a literary recap of the epic Shakespearean death. Before achieving their ends, both Othello and Kirby use “sleight of hand to distract” witnesses or readers from those ends. Kirby eventually pivots to yet another story, that of St. Julian the Poor, before returning to confront a fact few care to engage:
When I recount
some mistake or other I’ve made to Barbara and say,
“At least I never killed my mom and dad,” she says,
“Well, you’re okay there, Dave.” But looking back,
I realize that, at the end of his life, I wanted my father
to die, to put down the burden that had become
himself and not drag it into his eighty-ninth year.
And I hope my own sons will feel that way
about me, that they’ll see the humor in it.
Death: either you get it or you don’t.
Kirby’s sense of humor isn’t simply an entertaining trope; it’s an existential coping mechanism. Ultimately the poem is confessional, the poet’s owning up to his fundamental need to see his own place in the world as humorous—i.e. , absurd.
Robert Miltner’s “Imagining Geography,” in the Schneider compilation, cites Tess Gallagher’s suggestion that James Wright’s works could be identified as “lyric-narrative poems.” In a characterization that could apply as well to the work of David Kirby, Miltner further summarizes Gallagher’s observations about Wright: “What emerges is the lyrical ‘intimacy of voice’ of the speaker which is ‘ dependent upon narrative, anecdotal strategies,’ and what engages readers is that ‘the poet’s voice . . . is in the same relation to the reader as it is to itself—that is, confessionally open.’ ” In the last two stanzas of “Almost Happy,” Kirby pivots to the musical conductor Lorin Maazel, who said, “The idea of dying / is like a joke or a literary device. It’s not all that bad. / So you fall into eternal sleep. So what?” Kirby is clearly drawn to Maazel because Maazel sounds like Kirby. Both men speak with an “intimacy of voice.” In this poem and many others, Kirby employs a confessionally open style of comedy. In fact, “Almost Happy” ends with a turn to Henry James, who heretofore had not appeared:
Maybe that’s what Henry James meant when he wrote that,
in the hours following their mother’s last moments,
he and his brothers and sisters were “almost happy.”
In a brilliant confessional appositive, Kirby suggests that this is how he felt when his long-suffering father finally died.
In The Biscuit Joint (the title of which derives from a carpentry method of connecting two pieces of wood), we see Kirby’s transition from a one-story narrative poet of his earlier books to a poet who further exploits—in Miltner’s terms—“narrative, anecdotal strategies.” He’s always been personal and introspective, but in this book he turns more often to other artists and thinkers whose fascinating panoply of ideas bear upon his musings. Where “Almost Happy” features references to eight other people, the 112-line “What’s the Plan, Artists?” offers up references to nineteen other people. Many other poems in the book delight in their myriad referencing as well, which always yields ideas that bear on Kirby’s situation. He tells us what others have said so we can know what he’s thinking at any given moment, no matter how embarrassing. As he expands his repertoire, Kirby’s comedy hints at elegy while the poems gain an increasingly confessional verve.
Just as David Kirby writes in a unique form with its own label, Cathy Park Hong is one of the few poets creating “speculative literature,” a subgenre that includes fantasy and science fiction as well as dystopian and utopian writing. Her remarkable book Engine Empire spans and manipulates time in key ways. Consisting of a trilogy of sequences, the book begins with the past (The Ballad of Our Jim, a brutal tale of the nineteenth-century American West), moves to the present (Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!, a disturbing account of today’s fast-developing China), and finishes with the future (The World Cloud, a story of a woman’s attempt at personal freedom in an era of omniscient personal monitoring). Told in first person by different characters, all three are distinctly narrative, rendering a series of events to which people react.
Hong’s sequences differ in form, if not in their psychology, from high modernist predecessors such as Mauberly or The Waste Land. As M. L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall state in their landmark book The Modern Poetic Sequence, Pound, Eliot, and other high modernists eschewed tradition in favor of “radiant centers, progressively liberated from a narrative.” In their groundbreaking poems, chronology plays little or no role; time doesn’t span events so much as it is suspended in the musings of emotionally conflicted speakers. But in the decades since, poets such as Hong have recognized the inherent power of chronology. As Robert B. Shaw says, “[c]ollage compromised with chronology; story lines once more sidled cautiously into view.” Narrative opportunities are simply too rich to forswear.
Each sequence in Engine Empire features a dystopic environment in which individuals cope with an inner chaos brought on by ongoing outer circumstances utterly beyond their control. Hong offers no untitled fragments; rather, her trilogy is composed of poems that in most cases can stand on their own. All three sections are startling in their evocations, but The World Cloud is perhaps the most interesting because it’s set in an indeterminate American future where a female speaker struggles futilely to avoid the omnipresent monitors that appear in the form of snow. Here’s the opening stanza of “Come Together,” the first poem in the sequence:
Snow like pale cephalopods drifts down
as it melts into our lapels we are all connected
into a shared dream where we
don’t need our heirloom
Needless to say the title ironically plays on the Beatles tune of the same name: Where the Beatles urge listeners to get along, Hong’s opening demonstrates how the future she imagines offers an omniscient power maneuvering our very thoughts into a collective monitoring (“we are all connected / into a shared dream”). The poem recalls the brilliantly conceived Borg civilization in the Star Trek series, in which the mind of each individual is connected to a pod of others. Identity is numeric—one woman is famously named “Seven of Nine”—so where does the individual end and where does the collective begin? Instead of hearing voices of the many, people in The World Cloud visualize the intrusive snow, which seems to be not real snow but a permanent optical representation—and police-like reminder—of the authority’s continuous spying.
Hong keeps many details hidden, as authors often do in dystopian works. Is it a traditional government that exercises such abuse of power? Is it big business? In the third stanza we’re told in alliterative terms that “industry / is now invisible behind a wall / of woven passwords.” Soon enough the speaker tries “so hard to prove” herself, as if the last possibilities of identity require continual assertions of willpower, despite the fact that such assertions are fruitless. Perhaps twenty years ago such supposition would have seemed wrongheaded, but not now. Isn’t a similar paranoia emerging in our present moment, now that the National Security Administration has begun monitoring the calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens? With proactive monitoring bugs such as the Stuxnet cyber virus, employed against Iran and likely still filtering global data to a spy center, how soon might the leap to nanotechnology make possible the kinds of intimately intrusive actions Hong posits? It’s as if she’s surveyed the post-9/11 America and asks us to ask ourselves a central question: how long before the cost of personal security is the termination of the personal?
In The Ballad of Our Jim, Hong uses the present tense much as Patricia Smith does: to re-create history. However, in the eleven sections of The World Cloud Hong employs the present tense not to resurrect history but rather to compel the future back into the present moment. We’re reminded of Faulkner’s famous maxim: “The past isn’t ended. It isn’t even the past.” Here, the present isn’t even the present; it’s the future. The sequence induces a terrifying and terroristic fascination, and, as we quickly become familiar with the speaker’s habits of thought, we become more intimately immersed in our own anxieties, as if the future is upon us. This woman keeps trying to understand what’s happening around her and inside her head.
In the sixth poem of the final section, “Ready-Made,” Hong dramatizes the woman’s loss of control by using sentences simultaneously cropped and run-on to re-create her ongoing analysis of her complex, multifold environment:
. . . teamwork
the booming trade of information
exists without our paid labor
what to do with all this leisure
I blink at my orange trees
spangled with captions,
with golden apps and speculation
nudging hope like the sham
time machinist who returns from
the future, convincing
everyone with his doctored
snapshots of restored
prosperity and a sea full
of whales huge as ocean liners
singing the call note of our
Despite the serrated quatrains and carefully broken grammar, Hong’s poem is less a call note and more an alarm that recalls Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” We’re warned that the price we pay for “all this leisure” is not the devil but a totalitarian consciousness emanating from what may be an insidious power.
The opening stanzas of “Get Away from It All,” the last poem of the sequence, suggest the degree of control that’s been established by the authorities:
Go, go, I breathe the air
flossed with silence
moving me to melt
into any form what
choice when they
finish your thought
Free will is fatally compromised, because even though the individual owns a spark of self that can generate reporting, analysis, and questioning, the over-controllers record and adapt to those thoughts. And in “Fable of the Last Untouched Town,” a four-part poem that serves as a codicil to The World Cloud in particular and the book as a whole, human beings grow more brutal and uncivilized. In a town made demented by intimidation and by raw, cold temperatures—one might recall here David Kirby’s “Almost Happy”—the people kill their own parents by leaving them helpless in the hills when they become too old to serve the needs of the “king,” their “leader”: “I dread that we will see other kin abandoned there . . .” The title suggests this town has escaped the grasp of the faceless controlling authorities of The World Cloud. Is either the post-collective threat or the damaged environment so violent that survival of the outsiders is in question? If the techno-collective has failed to secure all geographic zones, can the survivors and outcasts endure without becoming inhuman? The questions themselves form Hong’s warning.
Alluding to poet Alan Shapiro, who says that narrative is a “going forward,” Daniel Tobin claims that narrative poetry can serve as a bridge between “time as it is humanly experienced and time as it exists physically on the scale of universal motion,” that is, between time as we feel it and time as a clock records it. In The World Cloud Hong renders time as it will be “humanly experienced,” not as it is experienced quite yet. Hers is a breakthrough imagination; reading her speculative poetry is a new future shock.
It’s true that we come to like some forms of art better than others, but that’s merely a matter of personal bias. We can’t allow preference to dress up as an aesthetic. It’s probably best to remember that good art succeeds not on the basis of its genus but on the basis of its execution, and nothing generates excitement like the effective introduction of surprise. That is, art succeeds when its unpredictable gestures result in delightful realizations and sensations for readers, viewers, or listeners. In retrospect, such gestures usually seem inevitable.
All four poets I’ve considered here find surprising ways to manipulate time in the service of narrative. Patricia Smith mixes multiple dictions with highly alliterative, fast-paced expression to deliver the urban African American female experience of the last century. Robert Wrigley blends detailed description, mellifluous sound, and melancholic tone to reveal the way time can appear to stand still while we contemplate new truths, especially those we may have been reluctant to face. David Kirby combines self-deprecating comedy, elaborately shaped free-verse stanzas, and myriad references to artists and thinkers to create labyrinthine stories that sometimes discover new narrative threads while forsaking those with which he started. And Cathy Park Hong merges clipped free verse and run-on sentences with detailed evocations of historic and future worlds to demonstrate human endeavoring in the face of human self-destruction. All four generate pleasure by producing what are unforeseen directions in their writing. When Frost said of good poetry “the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew,” he was surely getting at this aspect of the art. Whether the poem is primarily narrative or lyric, what matters is that it evokes delight.
*An essay-review of
The Contemporary Narrative Poem: Critical Crosscurrents. Edited by Steven P. Schneider. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2012. $42.50, paper.
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. By Patricia Smith. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2012. $16.00, paper.
Anatomy of Melancholy. By Robert Wrigley. New York: Penguin, 2013. $20.00, paper.
The Biscuit Joint. By David Kirby. LSU Press, 2013. $16.95, paper.
Engine Empire. By Cathy Park Hong. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. $15.95, paper.