- "That One Was the Oddest One":Weirdness in Contemporary American Poetry
Four poems into Dorothea Lasky's 2010 collection Black Life, the reader is confronted with a couple of seemingly brazenly confessional companion pieces that serve as fair warning that this book is going to be a little different. The first, "Mike, I Had an Affair," begins, "Mike, I had an affair / With Jakob Tushinea, the poet"; the second, "Jakob," on the facing page, is a love poem addressed to that poet. The effect of the two poems next to each other is startling: the admission of the affair is arresting enough, especially as the speaker does not apologize or lament her transgression but instead describes her feelings about Jakob to poor Mike—and then comes the love poem to Jakob to pile on top of Mike while he is still (presumably) down.
Unless you are a shameless emotional voyeur, you cannot help but feel that you should not be privy to these poems. Maybe one, but not the two of them side by side! How weird it must be for Jakob and Mike to read these poems, you think, how weird that the poet is addressing these poems to them—even through the construct of a speaker, even if she happens to be making it all up. What adds to the conceptual weirdness of the poems is the weirdness of particular lines themselves, such as these from the close of "Mike, I Had an Affair":
I am a great woman, I have the wilesThat make the poetBut I am also gentleAnd when I kiss a man I really mean it [End Page 181] Have you felt this too, upon my kissesThat I gave to you in the nightskyAs your eyelashes hung over the moon?Or were you too young to see it too,My little feverish butterfly
"I am a great woman?" "I have the wiles that make the poet?" "My little feverish butterfly?" At this point in the collection you might be wondering about the poet: Who is this person?
This is a good moment to have when reading a poet. It means you are being wildly surprised, that the poet is violating accepted norms (of speech, behavior, thought) so dazzlingly that you begin to question where—as in, what planet—he or she comes from. Sadly, I do not have this moment often enough when reading contemporary poetry, though we supposedly live in a postmodern era in which anything goes. So much so-called experimental work strikes me as just as conventional as the most blandly "accessible" verse, relying on accepted norms of experimentation to mark its difference. What makes a poet truly different, I wish to argue, stems much more from the idiosyncratic ways in which his or her mind works—what occurs to that mind as poetry—than from how different the poet's work is formally from any established conventions. This is how early Wallace Stevens can sound so weird, even today, in a "conventional" blank-verse poem like "The Comedian as the Letter C":
An eye most apt in gelatins and jupes,Berries of villages, a barber's eye,An eye of land, of simple salad-beds,Of honest quilts, the eye of Crispin, hungOn porpoises, instead of apricots,And on silentious porpoises, whose snoutsDibbled in waves that were mustachios,Inscrutable hair in an inscrutable world.One eats one paté, even of salt, quotha.
This almost sounds like nonsense verse. Stevens is using the same form seemingly exhausted by poets such as Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Browning before him and Yeats and Frost in his own time, but he sounds utterly different from any of them because of the imagery and phrasing that occur to him to use. Where does he get that fantastic [End Page 182] "silentious porpoises, whose snouts / Dibbled in waves that were mustachios"? "Dibbled" and "mustachios" there are so...