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Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

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Candle to the Sun
David Lehman produces disposable illuminations

By Toh Hsien Min

The Evening Sun
David Lehman
Scribner Poetry (2002) / 160 pages / US$16

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:

I read
“the greatest poetry
is not to live
in a physical world”
when what he wrote
was “the greatest
poverty is not
to live in a
physical world”

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.

There’s a darker shade of blue
like that of a season when
my Matisse and Picasso too
are also like baseball teams
but at a speed too slow for
George Steinbrenner
You can spend a day like today
with Tommy Dorsey’s girl
to see what life has
appreciated and analysed: not much
No better place to start the day
and if you don’t smoke you feel as if you do
I’m running on coffee beer a cigarette
with Nairobi native Abe who runs
the Bronx who said
thanks to Todd Pratt of the Mets
whose hand held a cigarette lighter
’scuse me while I disappear
little purple buds in May

What does it mean?

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002


About Toh Hsien Min
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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Maiden Voyage Flounders on Lack of Distinction
Leonard Ng reviews kensai's Maiden.

Overworked Symbols Conceal Gems
Afiza reviews The Merlion and the Hibiscus.

Tales of the City
Jeremy Samuel reviews Postmodern Singapore.

Marrying Death to Beauty
Cyril Wong reviews Linda Pastan's The Last Uncle.

Related Links

David Lehman biography
External link to Poets.org.

Interview with David Lehman
External link to The Cortland Review.

Other reviews of The Evening Sun
External link to Writers' Reps.

David Lehman on the New York School
External link to Jacket.


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