Myth, Erasure & Consequence
At the same time as I was choosing poems for Reconfigurations, I read about Green Dam in The New York Times—new computer software that China is requiring which can block content or allow the government to monitor Internet use and collect personal information: “[it] may simply be a Trojan horse…like downloading spyware onto your computer, but the government is the spy.” The danger (a mortal one in China) and the outrage to this new devil (the linking of localized story with ancient myth) was exactly what I found compelling about the nine poems that follow, each crafted by a different poet camped-out in places as idiosyncratic as Birmingham, Alabama and Brooklyn, New York.
The Brothers Grimm would recognize the dark psychic forestry of these poems, such as the “The Rocking Horse” by Regan Goode, but here the wickedness lies not with the women but with a man—called simply “He”: “He rocks and He rocks and you take what He gives you. / Black Horse rocking with stars in Its eyes, / casting cold from Its runners.” The hypnotic music of parable drives you through fragmented narrative that seems to be both suspicious of traditional storytelling and desirous of it. In the end, you are left at the mercy of erasure: “the Black Horse rocks backwards and forwards churning the empire onwards / as the blond boy rides on with no face and no name.”
In “Gretel,” by Mary Kaiser, she speaks of a “kind of history flat as table-land, but ours / dived deep the night.” There is an excavation of older ways of storytelling, and the implication that to ignore it is at our peril. History is alive underneath—consequences not just shadows on the cave wall. “Where are the sisters, the fond ones?” her narrator asks. “He backed against the fireplace. The green men / flanked him, crinkling their eyes and nodding. / Something white, a petticoat ribbon or stray curl paper, / fluttered on the grate.” It’s difficult not to think of Neda, the young Iranian woman shot in the heart by militia this summer, whose name is the Persian word for “voice” or “calling” or “divine message.”
“Walking dead-eyed/in the asphalt afternoon, / haunted by objects: / a child floating / in a plastic bag / A hummingbird appearing” is the Marc Chagall-like imagery that Robert Guard summons in “Giving Up Lent,” as if to say that letting go of belief is in itself both commemoration and prayer, filled with exuberance and sadness. And humor: “Some called it / a supernatural intervention” Robert writes. “Your brain a raisin / or your scrotum— / either way your are / A new wrinkle / in this dying world: one / that continues / to offer itself— / without wafer or wine.” One would imagine that Chagall—who in “I and the Village” embedded a woman milking a cow inside an abstraction of a calf (he was inspired by Belarusian folk-life)—might not have approved, but would have agreed that it all came down to looking at what was right in front of you.
Matt Miller has been living in Scotland recently, and whether he wrote “Thrift” there or in central Ohio, where farms are being replaced by strip malls and subdivisions, I don’t know. Either way, his poem has the rustic setting and elegiac nature of the pastoral, but with perilous consequences. There is no idyll here: no one has a name, dialogue is banished, nymphs are catching the blood of a hung pig instead of flirting with shepherds, a young man slips on a chicken-shit streaked coop roof falling to his death. Like so many other poems, here, “Thrift” speaks to dire consequences. Ironic now that thrift is emerging as a new value for our nation, and for the global community: “Watch out what you wish for” may be part of Matt’s message.
Writing in a series of 14 haiku, Jennifer Luebbers uses the economical power of an ancient Japanese form to bear on a 19th-century tale of conquest and betrayal: “Lakota Sioux, Northern Great Plains, 1860s after the Lakota’s ‘The Rash Breaks out on Babies Winter’ (1844), and the death of the Cheyenne (1849).” She retains the tradition of dividing her poem into two imagistic parts that offer juxtaposition: contrasting death and life while revealing their interdependence in a number of ways, one of which was that to be buried alive was the only way thought to survive the measles: “The whole country reeked / of rotting flesh. I buried / my children alive / in the ground, poked holes / so they still had air to breathe.” The rhythm and cadence of American Indian fables flows through her language: “a woman in white / appeared in the sky and told / us You are daughters / of the mother earth. / The work of your hands is great / as that of the hands / of warriors. Your hands / will keep your people alive.”
Victoria Chang’s “Man 4,” a series of prose poems, seems decidedly modern—inspired, it feels, by computer games and music videos: in this world, “The homes here almost touch.” People “can love anyone but won’t.” Nobody cares to feel emotion; everything is revisional, nothing has perceived integrity except momentary desire: “When I am bored with the dream, I can end the dream. When I am bored with the man, I can end the man.” A surrealist intensity of color and sense of discombobulation underpins the writing, with echoes of fabulist fiction, and folk lore. “The water pulls me down. The water weighs down the crows. They start dropping from the sky like lungs. One hits me on my chest and becomes my heart. A black oily dirty thing.” This feels like incantation, reverie, trance: take your pick. It’s like inhaling the sweet-smelling vapors at Delphi, which turn out to be ethylene, an anesthetic, and which gave the Oracle her powers.
“Syrinx” speaks to a Greek classical myth in which a nymph is transformed into a hollow reed to escape Pan’s advances; he then cuts “her” to create the first pan pipe. M. Jan Bender eviscerates the sentiment and pares the story down to the bone, creating an ars poetica in which her desire for foramen—for words sounding / the culm, the body—become “knotted bonding trills that ring / inside flight calls. In “Requiescat,” Shin Yu Pai reflects on the empowerment and danger, too, of speaking out loud, particularly in Red Square, “where In Soo Chun doused / himself in gasoline & / set himself on fire / a memory like a burning body / can’t be put out.” This is a world in which death rituals give a life of record even to a spectator who only then becomes a “person of interest,” which in itself might be a death sentence. In “Willem de Kooning, No Title, 1988,” Carol Peters suggests it is listening that is important, and that creating art is the way to transform what you hear into “threads of volume / nursed from the jigsaw knob / of the world tuning.” The white ground of the empty page “reminds us of not hearing.”
After the 20th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square, these poems are sharp, bitter pills—a reminder of what happens if “you take what He gives you” (to return to Regan’s “The Rocking Horse”) and get blinded by “The shine from Its saddle [which] is the dark of Its mind.”
Page Hill Starzinger’s poetry has been published in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, TriQuarterly, Volt, Fence and Reconfigurations. Mary Jo Bang selected her manuscript, Unshelter, for the 2008 Noemi Press chapbook prize.
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence