Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Roberta Beary & Eileen Myles

My two William Carlos Williams Award finalists – the term that the Poetry Society of America prefers for those books that also deserve some special attention – could not be more unlike one another.

In addition to being a finance attorney in Washington, D.C., Roberta Beary is a haiku poet. As in publishing almost exclusively in journals and anthologies (and calendars!) devoted to the form from publishers like the Haiku Society of America and Red Moon Press. As in having 21 poems in her collection, The Unworn Necklace, that received some kind of honor in various haiku competitions. “thunder,” just to pick one, received the Grand Prize of the Kusamakura International Haiku Competition in 2005 and that same year was a runner-up in the Haiku Calendar Competition:

the roses shift
into shadow

If slam poets & visual poets go around thinking that nobody takes their genres seriously as literature, haiku poetry has been off the map altogether – a genuinely popular literary art form that receives no attention whatsoever from what Charles Bernstein would call Official Verse Culture unless it is for a new translation of one of the classics, or work by a poet, such as Anselm Hollo, already widely known and respected for writing in other forms. The whole idea of all these contests – not unlike slam competitions – is to create its own alternative institutional universe.

A poem like “thunder” might tell you a lot about a poet like Beary, but almost nothing about this extraordinary book. For one thing, she’s not a fundamentalist on haiku form – this piece has only ten syllables, seven shy the standard 17. Further, with the reiteration of an opening sh right after the caesura of the second line & the start of the poem’s last word, she’s a writer who likes subtle formalities. Finally, and this is sort of traditionally the point of haiku, she likes specificity of detail. As far as this little poem goes, it does very well.

By itself, tho, it’s hardly distinct from any of the hundreds of well-written works in these books, not just my final 19 volumes or even the broader group of books I liked. The reality, tho, is that it’s atypical of The Unworn Necklace, which is really a 70-poem not-quite-narrative cycle that has the weight and emotional force of a novel. A sprawling & powerful novel. A novel specifically about a woman’s midlife relationships as her marriage goes south, her father dies, her daughter takes flight, a new relationship is tested. A more typical poem here might be

his death notice . . .
the get-well card
still in my briefcase


mother’s day
a nurse unties
the restraints

These poems are compact, but remarkably well placed in the construction of a larger whole. I wonder if these 70 might not be extracted from a far greater number – there’s no way to know. But the aesthetic here of absolutely minimal strokes accumulating to create a far more powerful picture is really overwhelming. This is a book I never would have picked up – probably never would have seen, although it’s already gone into a second printing – that made me completely grateful to the Poetry Society of America and the Williams Carlos Williams Award for putting it into my hands. I think it was the only British book in the entire process – Snapshot Press is one of the standard-bearers for haiku and tanka, but has thus far a pretty rudimentary website.

In contrast, Eileen Myles is a poet who has been a presence on the scene for decades, particularly in New York where she has been a bridge between the post-punk world of CBGB’s & the third generation of the New York School. Unlike Saroyan & Beary, she & I have met a few times and talked, perhaps for a total of ten minutes over the past three decades. Still, I have some sense that I know her. She’s always walked what I think of as that fine line between New York School aesthetics and the more demotic & discursive poetry popularized by the Beats. I’ve read her work in magazines & anthologies for ever, it seems like, but when I first read through Sorry, Tree, from Wave Books, I looked to my bookcase to see what else of her work I own and was surprised to see that the answer is nothing. Now I realize just how much catching up I have to do.

Sorry, Tree is flat out a terrific book, joining what seem to be the simplest personal poems with a poetic craft that dazzles. It’s an aesthetic that sounds like what some part of the School of Quietude would be up to, but Myles takes a tradition that includes everything from Ginsberg to Berrigan to Bukowski to Patti Smith & Lee Ann Brown, and definitely Anne Waldman, Barbara Barg & Elaine Equi, and even Ed Sanders & Paul Blackburn, to forge a writing that comes across simultaneously as effortless & utterly gorgeous. I read “No Rewriting,” the second poem in this book, and just burst into tears with amazement:

nobody’s going to come in
and take my cup of money

sometimes the only no I have
is to reverse things

I agree. It’s a good place to shit.

This morning it was summer
while I stayed in
I watched spring fade
I went out in chill fall
and walked my dog,
in winters     rectangles of trash
striking our face
the wind turning flags and banners
into danger
man the wind was big
in this fragmented

I want to be a part of something bigger than myself
not the university of california but it’s a start
my dad was a gorilla

who did you think I would be

how do you spell university
it always looks cilly

I will think
I will read

I will wake up loving you and when I come home
I will love you.
Look I bought tickets for the movies for tomorrow night
I will buy you a hot dog then you know what

They didn’t know I was so great
it was humbling
now it is fine

I sent her this email about the big awards
the paranoia I feel about all the award
now I’m like king of the losers again
I said king king king

it’s like genitals
I want to show you all these tiny parts

but I’m public public public

I went to the University of Massachusetts
and for all these years the city of New
York has given me a rent stabilization

and now California golden state opens her
arms to us

come to mama

I wrote this poem twenty-four years ago
but nobody saw it yet
so I’m safe

she said you are such a good boy

and onward for another five-plus pages. To be able to write with such gentleness & force all at the same time is such a gift, and Myles is completely generous in how she uses this.

Absent Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems, I knew I would have given the WCW Award to one of these two books. That is really all that distinguishes them from the 16 other great books I was still enthralled with as I finished my work for the Poetry Society of America. The only thing these books share in common is their power, and it’s interesting to imagine what kind of statement either would have made had it been the volume selected. This is what I just hate about contests. Each of these volumes is a total winner.