Is­abel Gal­ley­more

‘sawed rail­ings’: Po­etic and Cul­tural Iden­ti­ties

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Eighty-two son­nets, which com­prise Scaf­fold­ing, Eléna Rivera’s third col­lec­tion, are the re­sult of her project to write a son­net ev­ery day for a year. Each piece is ti­tled with the date it was com­posed (and, in some cases, the date it was re­vised) and chrono­log­i­cally or­dered, bring­ing to mind Adri­enne Rich’s prin­ci­ple that po­ems must in­clude their date of com­po­si­tion ‘to al­low the po­ems to speak for their mo­ment’. An in­sis­tence on di­a­logue un­der­pins the fab­ric of Rivera’s col­lec­tion: in many son­nets she re­counts an ex­change be­tween self and world. This world shifts be­tween phys­i­cal and per­sonal phe­nom­ena: while lit­eral ‘scaf­fold­ing con­fronts this home­town’ (‘July 14th from 80 La Salle’), ‘emo­tions make mu­se­ums of our thoughts’ in ‘Aug. 27th’. Be­yond their in­clu­sion of com­po­si­tion date, th­ese po­ems can be seen to ‘speak for their mo­ment’ in the way they speak with past canon­i­cal fig­ures in lit­er­a­ture – em­ploy­ing, chal­leng­ing and re-ap­pro­pri­at­ing texts of­ten through quo­ta­tion. In­deed, Rivera states that her po­ems “are ‘in con­ver­sa­tion,” di­rectly or in­di­rectly’ with thir­tysix po­ets rang­ing from Shake­speare to Gwen­dolyn Brooks and all named in her ac­knowl­edge­ments. Com­mit­ted to such lit­er­ary self-re­flex­iv­ity, Scaf­fold­ing be­comes an en­gag­ing di­a­logue with the son­net form it­self – at times Rivera is so self-con­sciously self-re­flex­ive that her po­ems sug­gest an ars po­et­ica, on other oc­ca­sions her at­ti­tude to the son­net is re­vealed through the dy­namic break­throughs she makes in the lit­er­ary form.

The first poem of the col­lec­tion, ‘July 14th from 80 La Salle’, lands the reader amid the ‘syn­co­pated noise’ of New York: Rivera’s cur­rent home:

Beep! Ve­hi­cle backs into street veers round the cor­ner – lis­ten, take note of this city wak­ing, sum­mer moist­ened with sirens, syn­co­pated noise –beats an­tic­i­pate stress as sky­scraper’s vi­brate – “All’s well,” you say, “All’s Here” – a car idles, shakes, feeds the ver­tigo – wa­ter the bal­cony’s gar­den, hear chil­dren, hear the blar­ing ra­dio coun­ter­point to the mod­est breeze this morn­ing – back in­side then, at the desk the sawed rail­ings of the poem

The jar­ring sen­su­ous­ness of the ur­ban scene, cou­pled with the poem’s bro­ken syn­tax and im­per­a­tive force, echoes the work of Mark Doty as well as Jorie Gra­ham’s com­mit­ment to ‘port’, rather than ‘re­port’, events. Sub­tly, Rivera’s re­flec­tion on po­etic com­po­si­tion emerges with the line ‘beats an­tic­i­pate stress’, which de­ploys lan­guage as­so­ci­ated with po­etic me­tre to mea­sure the ‘city wak­ing,/sum­mer moist­ened with sirens’. As it turns out, ‘beats’ are cen­tral to Rivera’s en­deav­our in Scaf­fold­ing: many of the po­ems ad­here to an eleven-syl­la­ble line. In an in­ter­view pub­lished on the Prince­ton Univer­sity Press blog, Rivera ex­plains that this choice, in­spired by Oulipo writ­ers, ‘veered away from the pen­tame­ter line we’re so used to hear­ing; it added un­ac­count­able rhythms be­low the sur­face of the lines’. While this is one tech­nique Rivera utilises to es­cape from the con­fines of tra­di­tional son­net forms, there are more am­bi­tious and im­me­di­ately no­tice­able ways in which ‘the sawed rail­ings of the poem’ are brought to the fore of her work. The son­nets writ­ten in Au­gust be­gin to demon­strate a curiosity in tak­ing out cer­tain words of a line, leav­ing an un­der­scored space and plac­ing the words at the out­er­most edge of the poem, as if margina­lia. The sec­ond stanza of ‘Aug. 15th for Wil­liam Shake­speare’ reads:

The self in this has no grace, ______ grat­i­tude, no thinks bore­dom the bar­rier when it’s ____ gold, pure en­er­gizes ______ jumps hoops just for grace mat­ter if sweet ______ our fel­low gar­de­nias and herbs gives

In this case, Rivera’s dis­placed words be­gin to form po­ems of their own. Un­der th­ese con­di­tions, the text pos­sesses an un­sta­ble iden­tity and a strange agency in its abil­ity to make new ver­sions of it­self. In ‘Aug. 31st’, the reader is prompted to par­tic­i­pate fur­ther:

What does it mean “the poem un­fa­mil­iar”? What about the new they ask what is the new Rim­baud frozen in the desert some ate him It’s a ping-pong game of fa­mil­iar pat­terns

We need in­ti­ma­tions of _____ (plug in the word) To take advantage of other routes to­day A birch tree in win­ter il­lu­mi­nated By sun­light I mean tak­ing advantage of

Such an or­der to ‘plug in the word’ (ital­ics added) and not ‘ a word’ sug­gests there is only one op­tion. Might this then de­pend upon de­fer­ring to Wordsworth and his ‘In­ti­ma­tions of Im­mor­tal­ity’? If so, the as­ser­tion in the first stanza comes to fruition. Af­ter the un­nerv­ingly un­fa­mil­iar line, ‘Rim­baud frozen in the desert some ate him’, ‘in­ti­ma­tions of _____’ seems all the more recog­nis­able. Rivera might show her­self as a self-re­flex­ive poet, but she also makes us self-re­flex­ive read­ers, aware of our pos­si­bly pas­sive ten­den­cies.

The scenes and sit­u­a­tions Rivera re­counts are fa­mil­iar – in one poem, the wind ruf­fles flow­ers, in an­other we ex­am­ine the ar­ti­fice of the­atre. A dis­en­chanted ex­pe­ri­ence of sex and child­hood mem­o­ries of par­ents’ ar­gu­ments sim­i­larly work them­selves into the po­ems. How­ever, in each case, Rivera’s style of re­count­ing th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences cre­ates an in­trigu­ing un­easi­ness that coun­ters recog­ni­tion:

The doc­tor told the woman not to worry No cause yet I couldn’t un­der­stand the rest San­dals and the move­ment of the feet in them The man on the high wire walked back and forth

Smiled when see­ing re­vealed the un­ex­pected Had re­quested a thing with­out nam­ing it The t’ai chi teacher spoke in Chi­nese and kicked She ex­pected some­thing more from her fa­ther (from ‘Aug. 29th’)

Rivera’s choice not to punc­tu­ate many of her po­ems (some pieces rely on cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion at the be­gin­ning of lines) cre­ates an ex­traor­di­nar­ily pro­duc­tive slip­page in the text that brings to life the ‘san­dals and the move­ment of feet in them’. Each line glimpses a nar­ra­tive, yet as the poem moves on it is im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the move­ment within the poem as lines jos­tle, in­form and elab­o­rate upon each other.

Given Scaf­fold­ing com­prises eighty-two son­nets, it would be mis­lead­ing to say that this choice to ex­clude punc­tu­a­tion is al­ways ef­fec­tive. On oc­ca­sion, this method gen­er­ates con­fu­sion on a scale that out­weighs ex­cite­ment. Like­wise, while the eleven-syl­la­ble line does in­tro­duce en­gag­ing rhythms, it also has the ten­dency to in­tro­duce con­tor­tions in syn­tax and odd­i­ties in vo­cab­u­lary. Al­though th­ese in­tro­duc­tions serve to dis­rupt and/or com­pli­cate the son­nets in a strik­ing man­ner, not all in­stances are suc­cess­ful and, over the course of the col­lec­tion, this can be try­ing. Al­though a shorter se­lec­tion of th­ese son­nets could make for a more con­sis­tent and there­fore per­haps more com­pelling col­lec­tion, Scaf­fold­ing demon­strates an im­pres­sive en­ergy at work. Rivera’s re­flec­tion on lit­er­ary forms and fore­bears drives her ex­per­i­ments, re­sult­ing in a con­fi­dent po­etic de­par­ture that thrills as it pro­vokes new thought on the struc­tures we en­counter in the writ­ten world, if not the world.

Mary O’ Mal­ley’s eighth col­lec­tion, Play­ing the Oc­to­pus, takes its ti­tle from her poem ‘Uil­leann’, which re­counts a witty anec­dote about a boy be­com­ing a mu­si­cian:

He avoids the pipes. He has his rea­sons. He has heard the story Of the oc­to­pus who was locked into a room

For a week to prac­tise. When they let him out the pipes had learned To play the oc­to­pus.

O’ Mal­ley gives us a story in­side a story: in the first half of the poem, the boy is a baby whose cries are wo­ven into a mu­si­cal piece by his fa­ther who ‘started play­ing him along with two fid­dles’. We are drawn into this Ir­ish mu­si­cal tra­di­tion with hu­mour and sen­si­tiv­ity: ‘Some­how in all those tunes/He learned to lis­ten for his own note’. This sus­tained nar­ra­tive makes the fi­nal lines of the poem all the more star­tling: ‘The thing about mu­si­cians is/They re­spond to glory’. The Uil­leann pipes are known for their dif­fi­culty and so per­haps of­fer lit­tle re­ward for those who try to play them, in which case O’ Mal­ley is pos­si­bly al­lud­ing to an­other rea­son why the boy might avoid the pipes. How­ever, the sweep­ing qual­ity of this com­ment on mu­si­cians sud­denly moves us out­side the nar­ra­tive world so care­fully crafted, end­ing the poem on a rather glib note.

Such a com­ment might be an at­tempt to avoid sen­ti­men­tal­ity with re­gard to Ir­ish cul­ture. Af­ter all, sen­ti­men­tal­ity is not to be found in Play­ing the Oc­to­pus. The tragic tale of Sweeney has a re­cur­ring pres­ence, most no­tably in the three-part se­quence named af­ter the mad Ir­ish King. Sweeney’s doomed demise in which he is ‘Cycling the air wildly to get ahead/On what preys on him’ is brought un­ex­pect­edly and ef­fec­tively into the present day: ‘Now his tribe are ev­ery­where/De­stroyed with nee­dles/The not-good-enough boys’. Also com­pelling in their po­lit­i­cal rhetoric are po­ems such as ‘What Ire­land needs’ and ‘Oc­cu­pa­tion’ – the lat­ter a short-lined son­net that ral­lies ‘we only need/to win once … with a song that blows the house down/or up, if that’s your tune’. Such pieces show O’Mal­ley to be a re­mark­ably straight-talk­ing poet con­cerned with iden­tity, cul­ture and the so­cial land­scape.

O’ Mal­ley’s agility in cre­at­ing mu­sic and metaphor are best demon­strated in her po­ems that fo­cus upon the phys­i­cal de­tails of the nat­u­ral land­scape. A se­quence of tree po­ems war­rants par­tic­u­lar praise. Strik­ingly al­lit­er­a­tive, in ‘Beeches’ we find the trees ‘lock light out’. Evok­ing the long-life of the

beech tree, her vowels and frica­tives heighten mean­ing as she de­scribes how ‘Time trudges through them’. Sim­i­larly mem­o­rable is the por­trayal of an old tree that ‘stood too long/Old and sick­en­ing, half alien/Half thun­der­cloud. Now it is down’ (‘The Tree’). Sci­ence fic­tion and gothic el­e­ments suc­cess­fully meet in this chimeri­cal im­age. Yet, given the fol­low­ing stanza be­gins with a ‘chain­saw-jug­gling ac­ro­bat’, a ques­tion re­mains as to why the poet in­cludes the short sen­tence ‘Now it is down’? Not even the slight rhyme would seem to sup­port such an aside. This re­curs in a num­ber of po­ems. De­pict­ing a daily rou­tine, O’ Mal­ley im­presses with the star­tling phrase ‘Words be­come au­di­ence’, only to fol­low with ‘They are in those ways odd’ (‘Break­ing into Si­lence’). Like­wise, too much ex­pli­ca­tion serves to blunt an oth­er­wise ex­cep­tional sim­ile in ‘Har­vest’: ‘Days taken in like a con­sump­tive’s skirts./I’m all for let­ting out, March/ The gear shift of the ver­nal equinox’. For­tu­nately, a novel ap­proach to metaphor con­tin­ues through­out the col­lec­tion. Re­turn­ing to ‘The Tree’, it is the poet who be­gins to as­sume the role of ac­ro­bat as she skil­fully re­verses the con­cep­tual do­mains of her ve­hi­cle and tenor so that the tree-cut­ter fells the tree ‘with the pre­ci­sion/Of a rocket launch.’ Ground and sky are also dex­trously turned up­side down when ‘That night stars sprang//Like daisies where the great beech/Had been’.

A sub­tle and sat­is­fy­ing moral is de­liv­ered in the con­clu­sion of ‘The Tree’ as ‘A bad dream dragged into day­light’ is ‘hewn into a ta­ble and chairs’. The trans­for­ma­tion of the wild into the prac­ti­cal quo­tid­ian is a tale that reap­pears in ‘Tree III’, which, with an ar­rest­ing first line, be­gins:

When I was small trees grew wild In salt­wa­ter. They came in on the tide For roof beams, a chair for a child.

Such a quasi-cre­ation myth takes a sin­is­ter turn in O’Mal­ley’s por­trayal of more malev­o­lent re­la­tion­ships with the en­vi­ron­ment. ‘Do­min­ion’ re­flects upon cur­rent re-wild­ing prac­tices that are meant to pre­serve ‘their tram­melled wilder­ness’. This oxy­moron, smack­ing of sar­casm, presages a more polem­i­cal stance: ‘Such pain as we pun­ish the an­i­mals/with our

no­tions. Some fools/are start­ing it all again like gods’. In­deed, re-wild­ing is un­der­stood as a re­turn to the prom­ises of Ge­n­e­sis, and the poem ends on a Blakean note: ‘The snake…Ig­no­rant of the first sep­a­ra­tion/Of light from dark, air from wa­ter/The comet from the eye of the tiger’. Know­ing how O’ Mal­ley suc­ceeds in pro­vid­ing in­ti­mate por­traits of trees and an­i­mals (a se­quence of poem ti­tles in­clude ‘The Hare’, ‘The Raven’, ‘The Rat’ – the lat­ter cu­ri­ously spo­ken from the rat’s per­spec­tive), why in this case are we con­fronted with such nar­ra­tive dis­tance? It seems to al­low a gen­eral over­view of eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal crises in ‘Scarce’, which ap­pears al­most as a part­ner poem to ‘Do­min­ion’:

The fu­ture is wa­ter – plas­tic famine drums, a dented ket­tle, A brushed steel tap Set in tomb­stone mar­ble In a slim kitchen. Wa­ter, cleaned, dirty, chlo­ri­nated, A dry river. Heat waves at the Arc­tic. Cut off means war. It is oil, it is di­a­monds. The poem and the soil de­mand it.

This un­com­fort­able in­te­gra­tion of el­e­ments – the ‘steel tap’ set against ‘a slim kitchen’ – makes for a force­ful piece, but other as­pects de­tract. The pun on ‘heat waves’, for ex­am­ple, cre­ates a sur­pris­ingly cheery per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of cli­mate change – un­less this is un­der­stood to be a nod to Ste­vie Smith’s ‘Not Wav­ing but Drown­ing’.

While ques­tions might arise con­cern­ing O’Mal­ley’s rhetor­i­cal stance and the level of hand-hold­ing she pro­vides for the reader, there is much to cel­e­brate in Play­ing the Oc­to­pus. In di­rect con­trast to Rivera’s ex­er­cise­based col­lec­tion, this com­pi­la­tion of po­ems demon­strates an ex­hil­a­rat­ing range of sub­ject mat­ter and po­etic form. Th­ese are po­ems that tus­sle prof­itably with land­scape, cul­ture and iden­tity, leav­ing the reader with a se­ries of en­dur­ing images.

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