Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Gundy’
Full disclosure: I’m not a great fan of poetry. There are those poems, often read long ago, that have embedded themselves in my mind, whose rhythms come to me at the oddest times. They’re a motley lot. Some of them, like Chesterton’s “Lepanto” or Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” I know I oughtn’t to like. But I do.
Or one of my favorites:
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table …
Should I be so fond of T.S. Eliot? I know he wouldn’t have liked me. (His anti-Semitism is notorious.) Yet at times, before the Internet made nearly everything you wanted to read instantly available, I’ve longed to reread and taste once more the wry, astringent lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
I’ve even enjoyed “The Waste Land,” once I quit trying to figure it out and just let its flow of language and images wash over me.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
But contemporary poetry, by present-day writers? I don’t catch much of it. But at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop two weeks ago, when I shared a podium with poet Jeff Gundy, I began to have the feeling that maybe I’m missing out on something.
Jeff’s poetry really grabs me.
Maybe it’s because it’s suffused with religious concern. (Not quite a la T.S. Eliot, though–Jeff comes out of the Mennonite tradition.) Maybe it’s that I just like his style: quiet, powerful, resonant, the mysteries in the depth of his poems evoked through deceptively simple, clear language. Or–this just might have something to do with it–that the first of the poems he read at our shared reading on the night of Tuesday, July 10, was about UFOs.
It’s called “Scenario.” It appeared in Jeff’s collection Deerflies (2004).
The aliens arrive, saucers white and gleaming like sails.
Their instruments are excellent, and they all speak several
Of our tongues. Still, they confess to struggles with translation.
They bring peace, but not the peace we have imagined.
They have a story we must learn, a story that drives them
Through the galaxy. There was a child, a king, prophets,
plagues, a horrifying death, and a word more precious than
the world. They do not tell this story start to end, the word
resists all of our tongues. Red wolf racing in the dim forest?
someone asks. A vole in the meadow grass, meeting his beloved?
No. They beg for patience. They are sure we can learn,
we can know as they know. In the meantime, they bring
other gifts. Centuries pass. They talk, and we listen, when
we can. Millions die in plagues they insist were accidental
and tragic. The gleaming towers they build for us stand empty,
the wide spirals they insist must crown each tower screw themselves
enigmatically into the sky. They cannot go back, their ships
burnt dead by the deeps. More were to follow but none arrive.
They grow melancholic, distracted. They live for centuries
but do not breed – something in the sun, they believe.
We have the word, they die insisting, the only word,
the child told us there was no other word. They speak
the word, dying, reluctant, desperate. We listen. Nothing
changes. We bury them according to their ways, face up,
lightly covered, not too deep. When the child returns
in glory she will save us, they told us many times,
if we are covered lightly and not buried too deep.
Hmmm. What are we to make of this?
A parable of the European colonization of the New World? (“Millions die in plagues they insist were accidental and tragic.”) But then why are the extraterrestrial Columbuses abandoned castaways, unsupported by their fellows, blocked from returning home? Are their “gleaming towers” intended to suggest Babel, which also screwed itself “enigmatically into the sky”? “Red wolf”? “A vole … meeting his beloved”? What’s that all about?
And what of the fertility-killing sun? Shades of the UFO-linked “Shaver mystery” of the 1940s, in whose fertile mythology the “Elder Gods” abandoned our planet to escape the toxic rays of a dying sun? Those who remained, the “dero” (short for “abandondero”?) turned into monsters.
And how about “Scenario’s” final stanza? (This question is addressed to those who’ve read Journal of a UFO Investigator. For those who haven’t, I won’t say more lest this be a spoiler.) Jeff hadn’t read my novel when he wrote “Scenario”; I didn’t know his poem until two weeks ago. Was he reading my mind? Was I reading his?
Or were we both quarrying the same spot in our shared human unconscious, from which all the true poetry comes?
I’m back from the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Last Wednesday I had the honor to deliver their annual “First Book Talk” on Journal of a UFO Investigator. I now have a few new books, a lot of new friends.
One of these friends is the remarkable poet Jeff Gundy, a professor of English at Bluffton University in Ohio. He’s the author of five poetry collections, most recently Deerflies and Spoken Among the Trees. I’ll have more to say about Jeff’s poetry in a later post. Right now I’ll talk about a lecture of his that I sat in on, a session of his morning poetry class.
Jeff’s topic: poetic responses to the natural world. Among the pieces we read together was the “What is the grass?” segment of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Also “What Is the Grass?” by contemporary poet Mark Doty. A rejoinder to Whitman? Not exactly. Better call it a commentary, or perhaps a mirroring.
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?…. I do not know what it is any more than he.
That’s how Whitman starts. He goes on to offer what he calls a series of “guesses.” Grass is “the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” Or it’s “the handkerchief of the Lord”; or “a child, the produced babe of the vegetation”; or “a uniform hieroglyphic … Growing among black folks as among white.” But gradually the poet grows more confident. “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Notice the language—no longer “I guess,” but “it seems to me.” And there follows a meditation on death, and on the immortality inherent in the natural cycle.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.
Thus far Whitman. Now Doty:
On the margin
in the used text
I’ve purchased without opening
—pale green dutiful vessel—
some unconvinced student has written,
in a clear, looping hand,
Isn’t it grass?
How could I answer the child?
I do not exaggerate,
I think of her question for years.
And while first I imagine her the very type
of the incurious, revealing the difference
between a mind at rest and one that cannot,
later I come to imagine that she
had faith in language,
that was the difference: she believed
that the word settled things,
the matter need not be looked into again.
And he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it,
so enchanted was he by what had first compelled him
—for him the word settled nothing at all.
Well. Call me philistine—my sympathies are mostly with that nameless student, whom Doty assumes (on the basis of the handwriting?) to be a woman. Whom he patronizingly calls, repeating Whitman’s phrase, “the child.”
Grass is—grass. I suspect Whitman could have answered the little boy perfectly well by explaining grass functionally. It’s green; and it grows in a lot of places, as long as there’s enough water; and it’s fun to play and roll around on but you’d better not do it in your Sunday suit or Mama will have conniptions … And so forth. The boy would have gone away satisfied, and we’d have one less poetic meditation on life and death.
What’s the real difference between Whitman and that student, who teaches us (as my students taught me during my 25 years as a university professor) that very often the obvious answer is the right answer? I think Doty’s missed the point. It’s not that she (?) had faith in language and Whitman didn’t. It’s that she hasn’t (yet?) acquired the poet’s thirst, the human thirst, to see materiality as meaningful.
Look at the words Whitman uses. “Flag.” “Hieroglyphic.” These are symbols, vehicles of meaning. His instinct is to see the essence of grass in what it testifies to a metaphysical reality beyond itself. A reality, moreover, that doesn’t exist for itself but in relation to us humans. The grass mirrors us: “flag of my disposition.” It teaches a moral lesson: we are all equal, black and white, rich and poor. It reveals to us the mystery of our deaths, and comforts us against the bitterness of death’s inevitability.
Who’s right? I vote for the student. Who’s enriched us more with his (or her?) words? Beyond question: the poet.