Candle to the Sun
David Lehman produces disposable illuminations
By Toh Hsien Min
The Evening Sun
Round about the time when QLRS was taking shape, part of my daily routine was to put aside one hour or so every day, typically between 12:30 and 1:30 in the morning, to spend some time writing. It was quite a weighty commitment however, and required the framework of filling in squares in a calendar and promising myself a reward to keep me going. When the year ended I gave myself a month’s break, but January became February and February became March and March became June.
So when I chanced upon David Lehman’s latest book, The Evening Sun, in City Lights in San Francisco, I could not help but pick it up. You see, Lehman had set himself the task of writing a poem every day for two years, and had compiled the best of these into what he called a journal in poetry, organised around a calendar year. Moreover, as the title suggests, there is also the element of the journalistic. Even the introduction sounds like an editorial: “To write a journal in verse,” he begins, and goes on to speak of the “idea of journalism in this double sense”. On top of it all, the calendrical structure seemed to me to offer such possibilities for poetry. I can remember, for example, being enchanted by The Shepheardes Calendar even as I detested The Faerie Queene, and I looked forward to discovering how Lehman could exploit this framework.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t. Lehman occasionally has a fine hand structuring individual poems, or sections of individual poems, as when he writes, “she’s a wrong number I shall long cherish / I assure her wondering which David Lehman / was or is her husband”, or “The longer I stare the lovelier / you look in my eyes.” In ‘March 22’ he makes a truly fine point with the form:
but one gets the sense that overall structure of his book is less familiar, or less important, territory for him. No central theme, narrative or meta-narrative lifts the book. Although the seasons change, one mostly sees the emotional landscapes and moral calculus of one person, and not even with any sense of development or progression therein. Lehman’s obsessions include the 1930s and 1940s (or any time but the present), cigarettes, music (in particular jazz), baseball, movies, love and New York, but these are not only not obsessions that most readers can be counted on to share with him; they recur without contributing to an overall shape or form, so that The Evening Sun becomes rather like the latest New York house CD, constituted for the reader more in track numbers than in titles or individual poems.
If I were a betting man I would bet that this suits Lehman down to a tee. The structuring on the microscopic level often includes a sort of one-sentence or no-punctuation effect (though one notes that Lehman sometimes uses a subtle punctuation comprised of capital letters instead of periods). His lines run on, “spreading the world / the bread the brain the panic the pain / the Indians were right to refuse...”, and celebrating the flow: “a kiss and the sun does it always flow / this easy you say no I answer / but my smile gives me away”. The effect is similar to white-water rafting on a Class 5 river – being carried on much faster than you would like. The recursiveness of ‘January 15’ fits with the torrent of ‘January 20’ to evoke the suspicion that Lehman is running on little more than momentum and a hint of profundity – something about life structured as statement. That kind of speed creates its own rules after a while. “The reason time goes faster as you grow older is that each day / is a tinier proportion of the totality of days in your life”, Lehman observes, sharply, but the same statement applies to the poems, because each succeeding poem using this torrential method is less impactful.
It’s a problem because that hint of profundity never develops into anything more. Even Lehman himself realises this. ‘March 21’ uses train stations to show how we assign our own meanings, but he hits the mark more with ‘Same Difference’, where the Irishism (meaning ‘no difference’) foregrounds lack of distinction, or perhaps, through the interpretation of “thank you” as “fuck you”, perverse misinterpretation at work. In either case, similar deficiencies emerge in his poems. In something incongruously titled ‘Happy Anniversary’, his kayak tumbles on: “You’ve been together / thirty-nine months / do I think that’s / significant I do why”. Where does Lehman find thirty-nine months in a year? He goes on to invent reasons for why it’s “significant”, but it only mirrors the ‘significance’ of his poetry. As in ‘September 18’, Lehman’s ideal world is where “Everything means something”, even “you make a left at Dunkin’ Donuts on 147th Street / then a right on 35th Avenue and you’re there”, and even put together with “everything / nothing it means the / same thing”. ‘Bar Association’ tries a trick with the pantoum form, repeating the second and fourth lines of each stanza in the first and third of the next, but what it really shows is how interchangeable Lehman's lines are in all his poems. Take the following poem for example.
What does it mean?
What it means is that the lines are disposable and don’t really mean anything, because the preceding poem is a bricolage made out of Lehman’s lines from various poems, quoted whole. That put together, these lines sound exactly like Lehman, is more an indictment of his poetry than a celebration of his style. There is in any case little about his style to celebrate. If Lehman’s poetry were wine, it would be frequently made in the Parkerised style: too much jammy fruit, over-ripe, over-extracted and over-the-top. The blatancy of ‘May 13’, in which he says “I watch TV for the plots / for example a corporate nun / accused of lesbianism is / convicted of killing the priest / who dumped her for a choir boy / while the CEO...”, may be referring to TV, and in fact the double meaning of ‘plots’ is a nice touch, but one has already got the sense that it’s not out of kilter with Lehman’s own inclinations. Lots of namedropping is going on – “you can go / to Carol Muske’s party” – and everyone and anything with any kind of emotional value for a general American public may be trotted out: Henry Kissinger, Michael Douglas, Andy Warhol, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’, Ray Charles (twice), Jimmy Cagney (twice), Microsoft, Thelonious Monk (twice), Soviet Russia, Bobby Kennedy, The Blair Witch Project. All these things fit into that style of poetry that insists on the specific, that imagines filling a poem with details and names make it somehow more poetic, that occasionally wins competitions but gets forgotten very soon after. Even some of his potentially better moments are ruined by a lack of restraint. “I’m here I’m hearing / everything twice everything twice” in the first poem is excellent aural trickery until the repetition of “everything twice”. In ‘January 8’, small comments such as “language makes it possible” and “in both senses” are over-explanatory.
The surfeit of reference is also notably nostalgic. Surprisingly for a book that places so much emphasis on when its poems were written, there is not very much current reference in them. ‘October 4’ is one of few concessions to current events, “the debate / between Bore and Gush” being followed by a reference to the election a few pages on. Perhaps this becomes less surprising when one considers how circumstances have conspired against him. In ‘October 5’, he writes: “Capitalism rules / you can own 100 shares / of MCI-Worldcom & happily / make money though you’d never / let MCI handle your phone”. Whatever happened to the Peter Lynch philosophy of equity investment? I’m not sure I hope he sold his WCOM shares before June. On the other hand, “capitalism is / the mother who forgives all her sons”, in which we see how Lehman has a vested interest, not only in monetary terms. In ‘December 7’ he writes, “almost any minute I expect / the brokers to fall from the sky”, and while at the point of writing it could be considered prescient, at the point of publishing it has to be considered in bad taste. So one better call that Lehman may have made is to decide that it’s mostly too risky to use current reference.
There are good things in Lehman’s poetry as well – at his best, Lehman has some of the verve of the New York School, which he admires – even if these good things occur with less frequency than one might hope for. The silver lining is just that when they occur they occur with brightness and clarity, although this could be simply because of contrast with the surrounding dross. Some lines stand out for playful ingenuity (“hours go by before the remorse code / is deciphered, revealed”) or for revisioning originality in the phrasing (“the branches of exotic trees have / intercourse in the open”). Lehman stretches these touches out into a successful poem, literally playing with fire, in ‘April 15’:
Moreover, one can yet hope that he might learn from the success of ‘Portrait D’une Femme’, where the rich detail builds up so sparingly it becomes plangently convincing, or the qualified success of the poem in which his crowdpleasing tendencies sits hand in hand with quiet simplicity, which, despite what some may feel to be clever-dickery, is worth quoting here in full:
Perhaps Irony, the addressee of ‘February 29’ is the trouble. It’s one thing to be apperceptive (“he didn't say I’m hungry / he said I feel the hungriness”, as Lehman writes in his opening poem), it’s another to be conscious that perhaps what you do isn’t what you feel is worth doing. Occasionally this peeks out. When Lehman lets slip that “this is rapidly / turning into my poem for the day”, it’s a very jobbish attitude that’s exposed. Yet, going back to where we started, this is a matter of choice. Lehman could be himself “the universally / despised victim in / the chamber locked / from within”. And that could be why ‘A Quick One Before I Go’ may be the most honest:
and a large number of other things besides. It’s the cry of someone, perhaps someone quintessentially modern, realising the emptiness of his vocation – his life – and reacting therefore by filling it with all manner of things. So for this manner of algebraic courage, one could be tempted to turn to Lehman and say, thank you.