A Bleak Ecstasy
Transience and despair buttress collection of contemporary American poems
By Cyril Wong
If one looks to poetry for an antidote or counter-ballast to society, even as many would equally prefer for literature in general to function as a positive kind of revisionist reflection, one needs to look no further than contemporary American poetry. From Ginsberg to now Louise Glück and Mark Strand, we encounter the poet as pessimistic philosopher, using breathless but beautiful sentences to lament, bemoan or protest obliquely against oppressive meta-narratives of shameless optimism, energised no doubt by the society's particular brand of (Christian) religiosity and capitalist-democratic ideals; drawing from or disavowing personal stories altogether; and always projecting one's lyrical voice into the darkly sublime and other-worldly. Such voices are more popular than one might think, suggesting that the expression of discontent in American society has a relatively ready audience in the context of a poetry-reading public, which remains nonetheless small in any country when compared to readers of conventional prose. Regardless of the small or even dwindling number of readers for poetry, these American poets of the shadows and of ecstatic dissent manage to be heard, producing books that still travel widely, garnering prizes, and adding incrementally to the diversity and range of what is possible in poetry today.
If poets like Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe and Anne Carson push the possibilities of poetry beyond meaningful word-play and typographical experimentation to include a rethinking of how poetry can be physically presented, even packaged, somebody like Strand remains firmly within the conventions of language and syntactical pleasures, although his recent book of prose poems still manages to put into question the parameters of what makes a poem a poem. Almost Invisible is a collection of pieces that sit somewhere between modern-day parables, satirical fragments, seriously unfunny jokes, passing voyeuristic scenes, and more commonly conceived prose poems in which emotion and atmosphere are pinned down by whimsical to philosophical points of view.
In 'Harmony in the Boudoir', a man confesses to his wife that he is full of "unsaid words" that "contain his true self, which has been betrayed by the superficial self before her"; to which she replies that she is excited precisely by the fact that he barely exists, with "so many selves receding into nothingness". In initially capturing such domestic scenes, the ephemerality of identity and the delusions undergirding relationships which depend on the certainty of selfhood form the introduction to Strand's widening sphere of themes here. They radiate from the nonsensical notion that we can depend on thought or all that we have known to know what we are, to bigger and more all-encompassing themes about the meaninglessness of existence without recourse to certain truths that originate, first and foremost, from such self-deceptions. In the following poem, 'Clarities of the Nonexistent', the scene becomes abstract yet emotionally familiar, with "a figure leaning forward as if into the wind although there is no wind: to see the hats…discarded in moments of passion, scattered…over the same ground that one cannot see." The unseen is what haunts and taunts the viewer in the poem and the reader of the poem. Passion is the drug that makes us feel like we are alive, and such feelings are born of the past and of the familiar, which fulfil us temporarily while preventing us from see "the ground" of the unfamiliar, the freedom from all that is known, from the past which grinds us to the bone.
But this is not a poetry that yearns heroically for freedom; the poems lament but paradoxically long to learn how to love again the prison of existence. In 'Dream Testicles, Vanished Vagina'", a character is disgusted by an afterlife without desire, where vaginas are "shut down" and "all testicles…swing dreamily among the clouds like little chandeliers". The "now" is that which is familiar, and which characters in the poems wish to enter anew; nobody actually reaches for transcendence. What they want is to continue wanting what they have always wanted; and yet they also want more. It is a painful and paradoxical predicament, best summed up in another poem, 'The Enigma of the Infinitesimal', in which the poet writes sweepingly of "[l]overs of the in-between", "[p]oor souls…driven to experience the impossible…hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep…to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all." The souls are "poor" because they are unhinged by the desire for an impossible vision that would free them from what they secretly do not wish to leave; nobody is able to let go, for fear that letting go would mean that they would not be able to lead lives they have come to love. It would seem that only a "god" would be able to conceive of life anew through letting go.
Lives by their very nature are provisional and brief. In 'Provisional Eternity', another anonymous man tells a woman after a moment of love or passion that what he wants never to end is "this never wanting it to end". A poem like 'No Words Can Describe It' comes close to portraying a possible "moving-on" from one's crippling predicament, in which a waking mother opens her eyes and "wishes more than anything to be unwakened by what she cannot name", wanting only to live in the past or dream of the future, itself an extension of things past; yet she knows that "what she cannot name" is there; its presence in her life is contiguous, even as it is also tragically distant or made consciously far away. Another poem that approaches the "unknown" in this sense is 'Nocturne of the Poet Who Loved the Moon' in which the unknown speaker asks apostrophically for "plainness [to] enter the eyes, plainness like a table on which nothing is set, like a table that is not yet even a table." It is a rejuvenating shift of perspective that never comes, even as the shift is ever possible.
The poems go on like this, each time lamenting, protesting, making do with the familiar, even as the familiar generates dis-ease, despair, and self-destructive emotions; while sometimes positing something completely new which never fully arrives, such as in 'In the Grand Ballroom of the New Eternity' where "drunks in delirious exile from sense…[let] their former selves fade and be lost in the dusk of forgetfulness…so that…when the doctors come, it is too late". The surreal doctors sound like Nazi foot soldiers of the flesh and mind, symbols of forces of conditioning within society that would prefer for us to stay the same, so that society can continue to turn on its axis of "progress". But these "drunks" are also the ones who are deliriously free; not as deplorable as the ironised voice of the poem or society would have us see them.
Almost Invisible ends on a closing note of despair with 'When I Turned a Hundred' in which the speaker "came into possession of a new self", but for whom the first step to entering such a self becomes no longer available when a more familiar melancholy takes over, "[banishing] the senses to the chill of twilight". This speaker describes his final moment in the last line of the book like this: "I kept staring at the ceiling, then suddenly felt a blast of cold air, and I was gone." Too little and too late. The book has become an elegy to hopelessness, aesthetically and ecstatically rendered; an ecstasy wrought from darkness and existential abjection. As "America" bends over backwards to see the good in everything, Mark Strand sets fire to a small corner of its desperate and epic flag of optimism, and the resultant ashes form the poems in this book.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013