Barry Schwabsky

Review by of The Year of the Olive Oil
(Poetry Project Newsletter135, Dec/Jan 1989-90

             On rare occasions you can tell a book by its cover.  A long time ago at the Gotham Book Mart a book with a fine landscape drawing on the cover (by Jane Freilicher) caught my eye.  I’d never heard of the poet, but somehow this promised something out of the ordinary.  It was Elizabethan & Nova Scotian Music, Charles North’s 1974 Adventures in Poetry mimeo.  I took the book home ($2.50 wasn’t much of a risk even then) and near the beginning (in a poem called “To the Book”) I read this:
                        Open poetry died with Whitman.
                        Closed poetry died with Yeats.
                        Natural poetry was born and died with Lorca
                        and Clare, also with France’s Jean de Meun.

            I was hooked.  I knew this guy knew something I didn’t—something none of the other poets I knew knew either.  I also saw that this was something he somehow kept to himself, even as he offered it with open hands.  So it was the true poetic mystery.  And then this poetry was very funny, but with a sombre undercurrent of the kind that runs through the gaiety of Mozart.  (Music, incidentally, provides nearly as important a source of reference for North as poetry; painting, his wife’s art, is more ornamentally present.)  It was very urbane, but only because it couldn’t help it; in other words, the point never seemed to be a determinate rhetorical effect on a determinate sort of reader, but rather an effort at thinking through, in a highly self-critical but unself-regarding sort of way, the considerable problem of what a poem might possibly be able to be or do or say or mean, given the poet’s extreme consciousness of everything that poems had already been or done or said or meant, a deep tenderness for all that and its beautiful availability, and a rather embarrassed sense of the consequent inauthenticity of almost anything one might come up with in the face of it.

            My motto for Charles North’s poetry might be: You can’t step into the same sentence twice.  Poetry is that elusive entity generated by the effort to stave off the departure of poetry, which has already taken place.  Somehow North manages to fix this necessarily transient quality without violating its mercurial nature, and he does so precisely by concentrating on the essential paradox of what he’s doing rather than by trying to evade it.  Am I making myself at all clear?  Possibly not, but the fact remains that a North poem is either an order that accrues confusions or a confusion that breeds order, or both.  He may be able to negotiate the attendant uncertainties with perfect aplomb, but the imperfect reader need suffer no guilt, I hope, about feeling edgily close to slipping off the track.  I’d love to know how North manages to keep such beautifully mobile balance as everything keeps turning into something else, as in the first poem in his new book, The Year of the Olive Oil, which I will quote here in its entirely because that’s where the surprise of it coolly lodges:

                                                Sunrise With Sea Monster

                        Well, we either do it or we don’t,  as the pigeon said to the loaf of bread
                        doubling as the sky, that is, unaffectedly rocky and clay gray, the color
                             of rocks

                        bordering but not reflecting oceans and in particular the one that finds its
                             way here
                        every so often, though not right now; a function of light and surface qualities
                        such as polish, facet, regularity of design,
                        implied or announced mineral content, the ability to stand still in a storm,
                        and those qualities that enter surface and suffuse it, or melt suddenly
                        into the next door apartment building, swept down into the back garden tow,
                        like transitions whether in writing or in music that aren’t really transitional
                        so that cadence is a matter, ordinarily, of being stunned rather than
                        but no diminishment, as in “fancy” and “open fifths” and “environmental

            --no period.  Do I really need to point out the many felicities of perception, phrasing, or self-reflexive structure here, or the perfect attention to each detail and the equally perfect indifference with which the poet is willing to bend or squeeze it into something else?  North writes poems the way George Ohr made pots.  Like many of North’s best poems, and not just as a nod to modernist convention but also for reasons I’ve tried to explain already, “Sunrise With Sea Monster” is by the way a sort of ars poetica.  “The ability to stand still in a storm” is of course the balance I was just talking about, and the poem shows us just what an active and open quality that stillness must be—nothing rigid about it; it’s more like my idea of some canny diplomat talking his way out of a war thanks to the immense amount of information, bluff, flexibility, and concentration at his disposal.  That’s what you might call the ethics of North’s poetry, which like any diplomat he doesn’t make too much of though it’s always there, so neither will I.  The technique lies in what the poem calls “transitions that aren’t really transitional,” which I take to be something like the constantly wandering tonalities of late Romantic music without the attendant melodrama.  What’s particularly important, I think, is how all that transition doesn’t have to lead to any kind of resolution, but rather to a suspension of odd particulars, of which the poem has so many up its sleeve that it can afford to just let a few dangle there like funny prizes at the bottom of a Crackerjacks box.  North show us how those surprising particulars get that way in “Lineups II,” which continues the series begun in Leap Year (1978), North’s only major collection between Elizabethan & Nova Scotian Music and now.  The idea is apparently simple: baseball lineups as a total system of categorization, capable of encoding any closed system of information.  For instance:

                        Pun  ss
                        Paradox  lf
                        Metaphor  cf
                        Simile  rf
                        Hyperbole 1b
                        Metonymy  3b
                        Irony  c
                        Understatement  2b
                        Zeugma  p

or, more subtly:

                        Williams ss
                        Hornsby  cf
                        DiMaggio  1b
                        Ruth  c
                        Mays  3b
                        Boggs  rf
                        Aaron  2b
                        Sisler  lf
                        Cobb  p

            What this implies is that any sort of information, any register of experience can be crossbred with any other in a way that is at once perfectly accurate and absolutely arbitrary (and that the effects of this are only magnified when one order of information is processed through itself, as in the second example).  Under this circumstance virtuosity may be the poet’s greatest responsibility, but its price is an awareness of the interchangeability of the highest flight of the imagination with the lowest wisecrack—but also vice-versa.  The “they” in the lines I am about to quote (from “Little Cape Cod Landscape”) are the Poets (in the sense of those illustrious ghosts one intends to join by writing poems) only at my arbitrary disposition but Charles North is certainly of their company:

                                    Their roses were all talk, but they man-
                        aged to accomplish their goal in spite of their questionable

            There is a lot more to be said about these poems, but they will be so much read and re-read and so much will, I feel certain, be said about them, that I feel slightly absolved.  I just wanted to start the ball rolling.