Summer 2012

Table of Contents - Vol. VIII, No. 2


Poetry    Fiction    Translations    Reviews   

Barrett Warner


Ross Gay, Bringing the Shovel Down, ISBN 978-0822961352, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011, 80 pages, $14.95.

When the fish aren’t biting it pays to troll the vortex where the Allegheny’s steady waters join the rascal Monangahela to form the Ohio. On the southern shore readers will be pleased to reel in Ross Gay’s new book Bringing the Shovel Down. These waters are home to the University of Pittsburgh Press, long known for discovering poets whose paths to literature have different origins than most. The press didn’t have to go to the ends of the Earth to find this emerging poet. Gay was born sixty miles away in Youngstown, Ohio—where the Mahoning River goes from being natural to industrial—and grew up outside Philadelphia on the East Coast of the Keystone state.
Note to Fox News: Bringing the Shovel Down is not about fishing or farming. But there’s too much life in here to say this collection is all about poetry. Every poem poses a question which readers must answer: Is the poet fishing for the fight or fishing for the fry? Put another way, are these poems of the gut or curious cerebral emanations? Is it art, or traumedy? Gay’s poems are both. We feel as steadied as we feel rocked, so deftly does he blend a lullabye with the war cry.
There’s violence in this poetry: “the lion’s heavy/ ashen panting against the night.” There are coded Blues—“Love, I’m Done with You,” “Love, You Got Me Good” and “Today my heart is so goddamned fat with grief/ that I’ve begun hauling it in a wheelbarrow.” There are poems written as medical case histories and news reports which offer a speaker detached from his own words. And there is the poetry of the hidden but shared and sacred journey: “Somewhere there’s a road./ Some of us are going to find it./ You can come if you want.” The big arc of Gay’s poetry involves a trip beginning with violence, sadness overtaking the soul, alienation and finally coming together which is based on evolving, not resolution.
But it’s the smaller arcs in this book that fascinate me. “For Some Slight I Can’t Quite Recall” is a poem about awareness, in spite of its title. The speaker relates how he over-powered a weaker student on the school bus while on the way to Knowledge: “with brute tutelage/ of years fighting the neighbor kids/ and too the lightning of my father’s/ stiff palm I leaned the boy’s head/ full force into the ratty pane of glass.” We’d like to imagine this poem having political suggestions, and later there’s even a reference to the “screaming eagle of justice” which endorses the bully. But this is a very intimate poem because the real fight is within the speaker, the tough neighborhood kid of himself bullying the schoolboy of himself, shoving that other knowledge questing side of himself into the window “bleating with his glasses crooked.” The bully is trained by his peers and his father’s lightning. Is the father inside him—whose presence is lofted by biblical tropes, that thunder and lightning—battling the man that the speaker really hopes to be one day? The poem concludes:

pinned and beating his wings frantically
against his cage and me probably
almost smiling as is the way of the stupid
and cruel watching the weak and small
and innocent not getting away.

The contrast of this image with the “eagle of justice” gives it an eerie parallel with Maya Angelou’s 1969 classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which itself echoes James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Part of Gay’s fight, as the speaker in this poem, is a battle against his own archetypes. As if to confirm the strange doubling of his persona, the one bullying the other, Gay’s next poem “The Syndromes: Doubling” which he explains is the “layered and concurrent seeing of two discrete versions of a given object or person.” In the title poem which follows a group of “neighborhood kids who spin a yarn” about a harmless old dog “like I’m singing to you” to convince a boy the dog is sick and rabid and will come for the boy. While the voice in this poem is intimate—“Because I love you, and beneath the uncountable stars/ I have become the delicate piston threading itself through your chest”—it is also the voice of a prophet: “for a river burns inside my mouth.” It’s as if the prophet is preaching to himself the parable of being so afraid one kills the harmless devoted old creature, and when Gay rewrites the ending and offers the same poem at the conclusion of the book we grasp this collection is going to be about finding our own different endings, that we cannot change the way we live without changing the way we think.
The slave narrative tradition incorporates many animals, beasts of burden, horses, and hounds, among others, in images and metaphors which are in binary opposition to characters, and Gay keeps this conversation going, if you will, in “Bull Dragged from Arena” horses adorned with “ribbons and bells” are used to drag the bull “limp and drooling” as the toreador gilded his strut. In “Glass,”

The father slurped the stew
wide-eyed and wolf-mouthed
as was his way to do.

The father in this poem had earlier pried a steel bit from a dead horse’s mouth and put it in his wife’s mouth before beating her dead. “The Lion and the Gazelle” emphasizes the role that unexpected associations play in freeing Gay’s narrative line from the logistics of time and space without losing context: “Because the bullet was a dream before it was a bird./ Because the bullet was a dream before/ it alighted in the child’s body while he looked/ at a pigeon wobbling through the air.” In a collection which creates the possibility to change our minds it should come as no surprise that “skulls” and “hands” are the most frequently mentioned body parts, usually in a menaced description of spousal or parental abuse as retold through the verses of Isaac: “I have news for you. The fathers are lying. They can’t help themselves.”
Constructing an identity when tradition is essential and yet cannot be trusted, and when afflicted by “syndromes” of personality, memory, cartography, grave digging and burdens, among others—all illnesses of placing oneself in the world—doesn’t become any easier for Gay who also makes ready use of another theme from the slave narratives. The role of the trickster, the mockojumbie, the diversion, and disguise and concealment are interrelated manipulations of the self. In “Solidarity,” the speaker tricks the store managers into following him around the store while his “partner” shoplifts. “Hollywood” attacks the stereotype of the “mushmouthed Negro.” In “Within Two Weeks the African American Poet Ross Gay is Mistaken for Both the African American Poet Terrance Hayes and the African American Poet Kyle Dargan, Not One of Whom Looks Anything Like the Other” the speaker confides: “history is the blacksmith of our tongues” and:

...I do not
feel sorry for you. No, I think only that when a man
is a concept he will tell you about the smell
of smoke. He will tell you the distance
between heartbreak and rage.

There is a difference between autobiography and experience, confession and witness. Gay’s first-person speaker is a mask for all of us trying to learn that habit and tradition are two different things, that the way things always are is merely the way we always let them be. While his poetry narrative begins with bruises and torments, his illumination is that he must break the mold while being guided by archetypes and not to let ironic confusions beguile or tempt him. These good poems of life are really poems about evolving his mind, healing it and strengthening it without losing touch with the world, like a new music sampling the old.
“Say it” echoes the spiritual Praise the Bridge that Carries You Over: “praise the body its miraculous/ stutter and thrum. Praise its slosh and drag and drone/…the rampant heart its last kick and holler.” Another poem “Opera Singer” contrasts the speaker’s blues with a vision of transcendence—a “woman in slippers and a floral housedress/ blowing in the warm breeze who is maybe seventy painting the doorway/ and friends, it is not too much to say/ it was heaven sailing from her mouth and all the fish in the sea/ and giraffe saunter and sugar in my tea and the forgotten angles/ of love/…glancing at me/ before turning back to her earnest work of brushstroke and lullaby/ and because we all know the tongue’s clumsy thudding/ makes of miracles anecdotes let me stop here/ and tell you I said thank you.”
Thank you, Mr. Gay.


Galway Kinnell, Strong is Your Hold, ISBN-10: 0547053665, Mariner Books, 2008, 80 pages, $16.95.

Right Down the Middle

The Pulitzer crowd had it about right in 1983 when they conferred the poetry prize to Galway Kinnell. The year before it had gone to the desolate confessional poet Sylvia Plath who’d been dead some twenty years. The prize went to a nature sonneteer the year after Kinnell’s success. Mary Oliver had turned up the cute after her earlier masterpiece American Primitive with such volumes as Owls and Other Fantasies and The Truro Bear and Other Adventures.
Galway Kinnell nestles between these two poets in many other ways. Pulitzer judges seem to prefer zip codes that begin with a zero and all three writers were at various times based in upper New England. Kinnell’s own reputation had been launched with his 1970 release The Book of Nightmares which along with his When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone twenty years later could make anyone’s list of the top 100 books to kindle one’s funeral pyre or to be buried with, whichever one’s preferred method of oblivion.
Kinnell’s best work incorporates his binary themes of lonesome wildlife represented by solitary, bachelor animals such as bear or turtle (as opposed to herd animals), and a kind of personal desolation which conveys the poet’s uneasiness with the larger social and political world. To these Kinnell added some meditation late in life. His most recent collection Strong Is Your Hold published in 2006 rewards the reader with a narrator whose scarred and thick muscling doesn’t diminish the great and tender affection he has for the world outside of his own needs, its people, its flora, and its fauna.
The book is comprised of three sections. The first gives us poems of compassion, familial and romantic love. The third moves to sex, predation, and violence which so often underlie modern Romanticism. Kinnell however is clearly most at home working in the middle ground between the two. Here, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Kinnell tries to solve the riddle of “cursed” essential solitude and the big hurt of its unintended loneliness. Nevermind that he never shares the answer, only gets near enough that we can imagine it with him.
“Burning the Brush Pile” from Section II was first published in The New Yorker. The poem reveals Kinnell’s fetish for minor logistical problems and explanations. The predicament is not life itself but the living of it, not death but the dying. Kinnell’s poems are like a man constantly retracing his steps to rediscover how something may have happened and to find a way out. “Burning the Brush Pile” consists of seven stanzas. The first three are full of action: “I shoved,” “Bracing my knees...I poured,” “Stepping back, I touched a match.” The last four are about the dying out of the embers where he subsequently finds a charred snake still very much alive. What happens between action and the contemplative fade to black? The whole world happens.

I shoved into the bottom of the brush
pile two large grocery bags holding
chainsaw chaff well soaked
in old gasoline gone sticky—a kind
of homemade napalm, except, of course,
without victims, other than boughs,
stumps, broken boards, vines, crambles.

Kinnell climbs an “apple-picker stepladder” to pour diesel “all gurgling/ and hiccupping into the center of the pile,/ then climbed down and sloshed/ the perimeter with kerosene and sludge.” Napalm, old gasoline gone sticky, diesel, kerosene, sludge, all feeding the inferno of the Garden of Eden destroyed by chainsaw technology. The snake at the end of the poem isn’t a surprise. Where there’s a reference to apples we sort of expect it, but Kinnell’s snake is a manifestation of himself:

I was raking black clarts out of the smoking dirt
and felt a tine of my rake snag on a large lump.
I jerked, shook, beat it apart, and out fell
a small blackened snake, the rear half
burnt away, the forepart alive. When
I took up this poor Isaac, it flashed its tongue,
Then struck my hand a few times; I let it.

Already its tail was sealing itself off,
fusing shut the way we cauterize unraveling
nylon line by using its own hot oozings
as glue, I lowered it into the cool grass,
where it waggled but didn’t get very far.
Gone the swift lateral undulation, the whip-tail,
the grip that snakes bring into the world.

It stopped where the grass grew thick
and flashed its tongue again, as if trying
to spit or spirit away its pain,
as we do, with our growled profanities,
or as if uttering a curse, or—wild fantasy—
a benediction. Most likely it was trying to find
its whereabouts, and perhaps get one last take
on this unknown being also reeking of fire.
Then the snake zipped away into the secrecy of the grass.

Kinnell is “this poor Isaac” and he “flashes his tongue” through poetry. “The grip that snakes bring into the world” nicely returns us to the book’s title, strong is your hold. We know he’s the wounded snake in the way both creatures reek of fire. Like the snake Kinnell is desperate to know his whereabouts. Although he’s a man who’s fastidious enough to sweep chainsaw chaff, sawdust, into bags to light the fire to burn the sawn branches, he still doesn’t know how or where he fits.
How people fit into their world is also taken up in Kinnell’s poem “Pulling a Nail,” one of several poems which ran in American Poetry Review. The narrator’s father has driven a spike into hemlock and oak the year of the narrator’s birth “to stake his only hope/ of leaving something/ lasting behind.” It takes Kinnell eight pages of logistics but he finnally pulls that spike long after his father’s death. He pulls it with the help of tools, tricks, and brawn, key ingredients in Kinnell’s starchy universe and because this world is so masucline and physical we accept the points in Kinnell’s poetry where it becomes metaphysical:

A hammer still floats in the space
he [the father] had been standing in.
I pluck it out of the air
and use it to hammer the nail
up and down its length, rotate it
to keep the bend on top,
hammer it, rotate it,
hammer it, well into the night.
The cellar windows become light.
It is late. I don’t think
I will ever straighten it out.

One of the secrets in propelling an eight page metaphor without losing the narrative line or vice versa is to follow Kinnell’s tracks, “doing as our fathers did” so to speak. Kinnell makes very little use of action or plot points to drive to narrative alongside an extended metaphor. There’s merely some action to convey the initial setting. The beautiful riffs that occur reflect the hundreds of little steps that ricochet between the causes and effects of that action. By the end of one of his poems it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the extended metaphor and the narrative because they are fastened so.


© Barrett Warner



Poetry    Fiction    Translations    Reviews   

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