Friday 27 July 2012

I can't get over / how it all works together

From the occasional reviews files: James Schuyler's Selected Poems.


Did you know that James Schuyler went to Italy with Auden as his typist? No? Me neither. He was also 'curator of circulating exhibitions' at MOMA in the late 1950s, and the 1981 Pultizer Prize winner. He wrote Frank O'Hara's elegy, and he died of a stroke in 1991. These are all things I found out after reading this collection - I try not to learn anything about a poet when I am reading them.

Schuyler's poems traverse countryside and cityscape, illness and joy, gossip and intimacy. He spends most, if not all, of his time firmly in the real world - few flights of fancy, few big questions. The poems range from the fat and prosey (see 'Milk', below) to the slim and delineated - 'Salute'
Past is past, and if one
remembers what one meant
to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute
that various field.

While the tone and style is usually intimate and loose - the poems don't seem to have an arc, or a beginning and middle and end; instead they seem simply to start at some point and stop at another, wrapping up elements that could be switched about and rearranged - my favourite of Schuyler's poems so far is one of the most structured and formal (if also one of the most oblique):

I do not always understand what you say.
Once, when you said, across, you meant along.
What is, is by its nature, on display. 
Words' meanings count, aside from what they weigh:
poetry, like music, is not just song.
I do not always understand what you say. 
You would hate, when with me, to meet by day
What at night you met and did not think wrong.
What is, is by its nature, on display. 
I sense a heaviness in your light play,
a wish to stand out, admired, from the throng.
I do not always understand what you say. 
I am as shy as you. Try as we may,
only by practice will our talks prolong.
What is, is by its nature, on display. 
We talk together in a common way.
Art, like death, is brief: life and friendship long.
I do not always understand what you say.
What is, is by its nature, on display.
(A word-memory tingled in my head when I just now read that last line out loud to myself. It's iambic pentameter, I think (I'm a rank beginner - don't hold it against me if I get this all wrong) and therefore is going to sound like everything else, but the lines that rose up in my mind actually happen to be Auden's: 'O John I'm in heaven,' I whispered to say: / But he frowned like thunder and he went away.)

A friend told me recently that I have a 'certain type of poem' - he didn't extend upon the statement, but I'm pretty sure 'Letter Poem #3' is such a piece; lyrical, a little love-lorn, yet anchored to the real world.
The night is quiet
as a kettle drum
the bullfrog basses
tuning up. After
swimming, after sup-
per, a Tarzan movie,
dishes, a smoke. One
planet and I
wish. No need
of words. Just
you, or rather,
us. The stars tonight
in pale dark space
are clover flowers
in a lawn the expanding
universe in which
we love it is
our home. So many
galaxies and you my
bright particular,
my star, my sun, my
other self, my bet-
ter half, my one

My own writing has a weakness for the running and, and, and, so it's not surprising I fall for Schuyler's romantic list-makings.

I have developed a particular fondness for Schuyler's 'month' poems. They are chronicles of the unremarkable, and this in itself is unremarkable: I often feel that with every other piece of art I try to describe I'm looking for a new way to say that the artist has taken something from the everyday world and made it extra-ordinary. But then there are those who try to do this, and those who succeed, and Schuyler for me, in these poems, falls firmly into the second camp.

Books litter the bed,
leaves the lawn. It
lightly rains. Fall has
come: unpatterned, in
the shedding leaves.
The maples ripen. Apples
come home crisp in bags.
This pear tastes good.
It rains lightly on the
random leaf patterns.
The nimbus is spread
above our island. Rain
lightly patters on un-
shed leaves. The books
of fall litter the bed.

The giant Norway spruce from Podunk, its lower branches bound,
this morning was reared into place at Rockefeller Center.
I thought I saw a cold blue dusty light sough in its boughs
the way other years the wind thrashing at the giant ornaments
recalled other years and Christmas trees more homey.
Each December! I always think I hate “the over-commercialized event”
and then bells ring, or tiny light bulbs wink above the entrance
to Bonwit Teller or Katherine going on five wants to look at all
the empty sample gift-wrapped boxes up Fifth Avenue in swank shops
and how can I help falling in love? A calm secret exultation
of the spirit that tastes like Sealtest eggnog, made from milk solids,
Vanillin, artificial rum flavoring; a milky impulse to kiss and be friends
It’s like what George and I were talking about, the East West
Coast divide: Californians need to do a thing to enjoy it.
A smile in the street may be loads! you don’t have to undress everybody.
                                    “You didn’t visit the Alps?”
                                    “No, but I saw from the train they were black
                                    and streaked with snow.”
Having and giving but also catching glimpses
hints that are revelations: to have been so happy is a promise
and if it isn’t kept that doesn’t matter. It may snow
falling softly on lashes of eyes you love and a cold cheek
grow warm next to your own in hushed dark familial December. 

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can't see
making a bit of pink
I can't quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.
The green of the tulip stems and leaves
like something I can't remember,
finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we'd gone to see.
One green wave moved in the violet sea
like the UN Building on big evenings,
green and wet
while the sky turns violet.
A few almond trees
had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes
out of the blue looking pink in the light.
A gray hush
in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue
into the sky. They're just
going over the hill.
The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can't get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She's so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It's getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It's the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It's the shape of a tulip.
It's the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It's a day like any other.
Those last four lines. How can they not leave you undone? How can you not repeat them over and over to yourself (I get shades of the For want of a nail rhythm when I do this), as they gradually grow out from the pollen to the flower to the container to the whole of the world, which is going about its business as a flower sits on your desk, and somehow by looking at it and letting your mind float you connect with that world in a totally unexpected way. And then there's what Schuyler does with colour - he eschews analogy, uses small, plain nouns,  yet makes so much of them. I want to take 'February' and colour it in, in a way that wouldn't be cheesy and awful, but instead would draw out the way we are subtly shuttled between colour and colour and colour - pink to blue to pink, green, green / violet / green / violet, blue looking pink, a gray hush, green, pink, gray gold yellow: 'I can't get over / how it all works together' indeed.

I promised you fat and prosey at the beginning of this wander through my fancies. Here you go: 'Milk'
Milk used to come in tall glass, heavy and uncrystalline as frozen melted snow. It rose direct and thick as horse-chestnut tree trunks that do not spread out upon the ground even a little: a shaft of white drink narrowing at the cream and rounded off in a thick-lipped grin. Empty and unrinsed, a diluted milk ghost entrapped and dulled light and vision. 
Then things got a little worse: squared, high-shouldered and rounded off in the wrong places, a milk replica of a handmade Danish wooden milk bat. But that was only the beginning. Things got worse than that. 
Milk came in waxed paper that swelled and spilled and oozed flat pieces of milk. It had a little lid that didn’t close properly or resisted when pulled so that when it did give way milk jumped out. 
Things are getting better now. Milk is bigger—half-a-gallon, at least—in thin milky plastic with a handle, a jug founded on an oblong. Pick it up and the milk moves, rising enthusiastically in the neck as it shifts its center of weight. Heavy as a breast, but lighter, shaping itself without much changing shape: like bringing home the milk in a bandana, a neckerchief or a scarf, strong as canvas water wings whose strength was only felt dragged under water. 
On the highway this morning at the go-round, about where you leave New Hampshire, there had been an accident. Milk was sloshed on the gray-blue-black so much like a sheet of early winter ice you drove over it slowly, no matter what the temperature of the weather that eddied in through the shatterproof glass gills. There were milk-skins all around, the way dessert plates look after everyone has left the table in the Concord grape season. Only bigger, unpigmented though pretty opaque, not squashed but no less empty. 
Trembling, milk is coming into its own.
You're still here? Good. Because I've saved two of the best for last. 'The Bluet' has that Why does this poem start here? Because that's as good a place as any other quality I admire in Schuyler's work (it reminds me of Charles Simic, come to think of it, though Simic is more drop-you-into-it, whereas Schuyler feels sometimes like you've come within earshot halfway through a quiet recitation).
And is it stamina
that unseasonably freaks
forth a bluet, a
Quaker lady, by
the lake? So small,
a drop of sky that
splashed and held,
four-petaled, creamy
in its throat. The woods
around were brown,
the air crisp as a
Carr’s table water
biscuit and smelt of
cider. There were frost
apples on the trees in
the field below the house.
The pond was still, then
broke into a ripple.
The hills, the leaves that
have not yet fallen
are deep and oriental
rug colors. Brown leaves
in the woods set off
gray trunks of trees.
But that bluet was
the focus of it all: last
spring, next spring, what
does it matter? Unexpected
as a tear when someone
reads a poem you wrote
for him: “It’s this line
here.” That bluet breaks
me up, tiny spring flower
late, late in dour October.
It's a little soppy, I know, but still beautiful. And finally, 'Fauré Second Piano Quartet', which I just discovered today, and which has stolen away with my heart:
On a day like this the rain comes
down in fat and random drops among
the ailanthus leaves—”the tree
of Heaven”—the leaves that on moon-
lit nights shimmer black and blade-
shaped at this third-floor window.
And there are bunches of small green
Knobs, buds, crowded together. The
rapid music fills in the spaces of
the leaves. And the piano comes in,
like an extra heartbeat, dangerous
and lovely. Slower now, less like
the leaves, more like the rain which
almost isn’t rain, more like thawed-
out hail. All this beauty in the
mess of this small apartment on
West Twentieth in Chelsea, New York.
Slowly the notes pour out, slowly,
more slowly still, fat rain falls.

An honest final note. The looooooooooooooong poems defeated me. I flipped through these pages, reading fragments at random, and made my own little poems that way. I'm sure Mr Schuyler wouldn't have minded.

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