Book Review

“And I a Dot”

In a rather shaggy poem at the end of his new book that he calls “Encore with Rectangle and Philosophy,” Ron Padgett suggests that the bird that flies by in one of Coleridge’s famous poems, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” represents “the first time that something happened / during the writing of a poem / and got included.”[1] If true, that is an extraordinary observation. It singles out Coleridge as the progenitor of a kind of poem that became commonplace in the modern and postmodern eras. In that unexpected rook “Beat[ing] its straight path along the dusky air / Homewards” lie the roots of much of the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara and of Padgett himself, a poet who specializes in writing directly about things that are right there in front of him or that surface in his mind at the moment of writing: observations, memories, fantasies, linguistic play, etc. The opening poem in Dot is in essence a simple greeting to his friends (“things / are all right with me”), although he throws in a bit about making tea for Albert Einstein and makes sure, quite naturally and not in an awkward way, to use the Einsteinian words “general” and “relatively,” not to mention “space.” Padgett’s poems embody a sort of WYSIWYG aesthetic, though they are almost never predictable and rarely arch.
Although he is not really a surrealist poet at heart, many odd conjunctions take place in Padgett’s poems, and he seems naturally able to collocate unlikely things or to follow a thought even when it leads to a weird place or unexpected revelation. Among many such occurrences in Dot, there is, for example, the moment when he calls out “I’ll get it!” as the phone rings in an empty house, saving (he says) his wife the trouble of answering it even though she is not there. (“That’s how much / I love her / or am a nut.”) Or there is the recognition, if that is the right word, that after putting cotton balls soaked in peppermint oil in a room to clear it of mice—this is, apparently, a thing one does—he finds himself sitting there “in a cube of air, / a big nonmouse.” Or the neat switch of tenor and vehicle he executes in a short poem about a bunch of asters in a vase that “just stand there / like startled exclamation points / whose heads are exploding, / as if they were flowers.” After reading War and Peace, all 1,136 pages of it, Padgett tells us that it contains just one short “comic passage” in which Tolstoy describes the Napoleonic War. He then quotes the passage, all five sentences and proves, if nothing else, that Tolstoy occasionally sounds like Ron Padgett. Who could have predicted such a thing?
Padgett has always had the capacity to be weird and wonderful, but now, at eighty years old, he can also be nostalgic for dead friends in a winsome or even heartfelt way. He writes a seriocomic sonnet about trying to ignore Kenneth Koch’s admonition that his poems “are becoming simpleminded.” He recalls Lee Crabtree’s suicide—Crabtree was the keyboard player in the Fugs—with a certain understandable befuddlement and tells a touching story about how Willem de Kooning visited Frank O’Hara on his deathbed in the hospital. He tries in his life, not altogether successfully, to face “The world without John Ashbery” and composes a brief but touching poem of remembrance for Bill Berkson:

Two weeks ago you and I
walked down First Avenue
a few blocks before good-bye,
and now I’m walking the same way
with the Times tucked under my arm
while you go on out into the whole world
like the perfect gentleman
you will always be,
true and loyal friend.
I’ll open the paper at home,
not till then.

(We are told that that copy of the newspaper contains Berkson’s obituary.) Padgett nicely captures here the sharp pain we feel when we have to go on doing something alone that we used to do in the company of a now dead friend. He is also cognizant of, though not always clear about the meaning of, a lifetime in poetry. He describes his head as “the one big puzzlement it’s been all my life” and records a funny moment when, after sixty-one years of writing poetry, he stops for an instant to slap at a mosquito buzzing in his ear—the muse as biting insect, a strange but not inapposite metaphor for the advent of poetry. The final poem in the book is entitled “Inside,” and it concludes with these compelling lines:

For me there is no rest,
just more words
somewhere else,
my portable prison,
my life sentence
without parole,
surrounded by puns.

Not a lime-tree bower as prison, then, but the self (“my portable prison”) living out a life sentence making chansons avec paroles.
The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who died in 2021, was a contemporary of Ron Padgett’s—he was born just three years earlier—and although one would not expect their poetry to share much aesthetically, Zagajewski’s new collection, True Life, bears some surprising similarities to Padgett’s poetry.[2] On the one hand, he exhibits the European poet’s typical educated sophistication, with many references to classical music and art museums and a broad knowledge of Western culture from Ovid to modern writers such as Jean Améry and André Frénaud, not to mention his Polish forebears and companions. Yet he also, like Padgett, will write simple poems that record simple experiences. In one, he gets asked from an adjoining room how to spell “boogie-woogie,” and although his instant response is to think about war and floods and fires—a leftover instinct from the trauma experienced by an Eastern European writer who grew up under the Soviet Union, I suppose—his answer is simply to say,

It’s only boogie-woogie
I sigh relieved
and say it’s spelled just like it sounds

Elsewhere, a poem about Miriam Chiaromonte, the widow of activist and writer Nicola Chiaromonte, sounds like pure Padgett—observational, wry, and slightly sad:

Miriam was like a small bird
who fears nothing.
Her memory was great
and she trained it systematically.
Each day she would learn a new poem,
for example, one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
She understood everything.
We thought she
might be immortal.
Alas we were wrong.

Not all of Zagajewski’s poetry is this straightforward. He is capable of some remarkable moments of poetic vision, such as seeing “Light drizzle as if the Atlantic / were examining its conscience,” or defining a stay in hospital as “compote, cardiology, and sleep,” or understanding that “Friendship is the prose of love.” The rising sun is “a pink scar / on the sky,” and when May arrives, “famous May,” he notes amusingly but astutely that May is “the month of promises / that nobody thinks to check later.” He draws a distinction between the old gods and divinity, writing in “A Provincial Roman Town”:

They had their gods, quarrelsome, preoccupied,
neglectful. But there was also divinity,
hidden everywhere, invisible.

Not every rhetorical figure hits its mark perhaps. When “blackberries in the woods” are compared to “the lips of screen sirens in silent films,” one feels that the poet has overreached. There are also times when Zagajewski gives “the poet” too much cultural capital. “Philosophers must choose their city, / only poets can live everywhere,” he says in one poem, which strikes one as a case of special pleading; and while the statement that “the poet suffers for millions” is given as a quotation from the work of Andrezj Bursa, Zagajewski goes on to say:

It’s still dark, at the bus stop
a few people huddle in the cold,
seeing them you think, lucky souls,
you only suffer for yourselves.

Call me insensitive, but if a poet friend tried that one on me, I’d give him a good swift kick in the pants after I demanded that he step down from his plinth. Off his plinth, Zagajewski suggests more reasonably that poetry gives him “a moment’s joy / and melancholy’s dark contentment.” That feels more like the truth.
Zagajewski took his title from a remark by the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas which he uses as an epigraph: “The true life is absent. But we are in the world.” How this statement is reified in the poetry is complex at times, given that “God is elsewhere” and “We know nothing,” statements that suggest a world without meaning or at least that meaning is inscrutable and paradoxical: “There is eternity / but it ends soon.” Objects and emotions seem essential and then disappear, like the bolt that the poet’s grandfather used when he taught at the university in Lvov to keep out tardy students, which Zagajewski reimagines as a “clasp from Herculaneum, a treasure,” and which now, as Lviv, has an even more powerful significance in the war news from Ukraine. Yet even in the face of death, some things do not disappear or are at least consoling. The poet sent a compilation CD to C. K. Williams as he lay dying in 2015, with pieces on it by Chopin (of course!), Beethoven, and Bach, and the music, as he writes, records “the happiness hidden / even in the saddest largo.” There are no largos in the works specified in the poem (“CD”), but the poet’s point is unarguable: everything disappears, but music, like poetry, brings us solace.
I am not qualified to comment on the accuracy of Clare Cavanagh’s translations, but as English poems they come across as uniformly convincing. One never feels as a reader in any sense at sea between the Polish and her English, petulant or questioning of the poetic rightness in her choice of words and lines. She uses the demotic poetic English that is prevalent these days in poetry, presumably in parallel with Zagajewski’s Polish. It sounds natural and appropriate for the poet’s usual subjects, everything from the small moments in a life that stand out for a variety of reasons, to a painting by Caravaggio in Rome that evokes not an ekphrastic meditation but a series of inane comments overheard and directly quoted by the poet as he stands amidst a group of onlookers (“Mom, my head aches,” “Have you got another euro or fifty cents?,” etc.) to a way station at, of all things, a beekeeping museum in central Serbia:

A beekeeping museum—what could be
more blameless?
There are no ministers
or rock stars here, in fact
even the bees have gone.

This honed, conversational tone is just personal and musical enough to work as good poetry and to ensure for Zagajewski the “many readers” whose perceived absence saddens him in “Errata from Many Years Past,” the final poem in True Life.
The first poem in Maureen N. McLane’s new collection is entitled “Now Is the Cool of the Day,” and it contains many contentions and images that will recur throughout her book.[3] For one thing, its elegiac quality is characteristic. Here she is writing in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She mentions three lighthouse lights that flash on and off, but also the “many beaches reefs and shoals / named for woes,” such as Norman’s Woe, which comes up in a later poem and was the site of Longfellow’s poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” Those woes, she continues, are effaced “like your footprint just now in wet sand.” The poem actually begins with the line “From here you used to see the sea,” and the ambiguity of the pronoun “you” is deliberate and itself becomes a theme in the poem. “The old ways / of being a person have their hold / on me,” she writes at the end of the second stanza, later terming that assumption of a traditional personality “this posthumous stance I adopt” and an “unwanted vestiture.” The elegiac quality continues in the next poem as well, which is an adaptation, broadly speaking, of Fragment 58 of Sappho which, by the visual look of the original, must have survived as a torn papyrus—an elegiac object in itself. “Get What You Want” is an ubi sunt for lost youth, with references to the Sibyl (who was given eternal life but neglected to ask also for eternal youth) and to the Rolling Stones (“who for so long defied what comes to all”). Its cadences, and indeed its opening words (“You who”) are very reminiscent of a poem called “Only the Red Fox, Only the Crow” by Charles Olson, that most famous of Gloucester poets. In Olson’s poem it is the dead who speak, much as Sappho does in McLane’s beautiful reworking of one of her surviving fragments. Other literary figures also populate McLane’s poems. She is a scholar who specializes in the Romantic period, so it is not surprising that the Wordsworths (both William and Dorothy), Coleridge, Byron, Hazlitt and others are mentioned; Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, and Ezra Pound also take a bow, Pound indirectly in his famous maxim “Dichten=Condensare”—to make poems is to condense language, a dictum reportedly noticed by Basil Bunting in a German-Italian dictionary and reported to Pound.
What You Want is suffused throughout with a riparian spirit: shore, sky, waterbirds, wind, waves, and the sea. That sea is an “unforgiving gray,” and while it has irrefutable symbolic qualities—how could it not?—McLane, borrowing from Wallace Stevens, makes sure to tell the reader that “no one’s singing // the genius of this sea,” which contains not allegorical white whales but live ones, lobsters in traps, and “the undiscovered extremophile.” The wind is pelagic, but also urban. In a poem dedicated to the English poet Tom Pickard, it blows through New York’s tunnels and is her “ears’ bane.” It brings geese from Canada, blows “up a schoolgirl’s skirt,” and finally metamorphoses into the “westron wind” of the sixteenth-century song, seemingly a good wind blowing across the ocean to her friend. The beach or shore is a liminal place full of the detritus of the sea, dying seaweed and “organic bobs that stank / of rot,” where in one poem, as though the shoreline were purgatory, the poet “await[s] salvation—I sit on a beach of soteriological sand. I think like everyone else.” The gulls by contrast are rather down to earth, “gulling” other birds into giving up a shrimp that was not theirs to begin with.
There are two longer poems in What You Want. The first is a homage to Coleridge entitled “Deflection: An Ode.” It too begins with disquieting weather in the West. Here the poet is in the mountains in winter, the wind low, “the ice-crystalling snow mounded and heaped / along roadsides.” McLane’s syntax occasionally verges on the style of the nineteenth century:

Alone alone all all
alone on a snowy mountain
a sudden thought of bobcats
and bears gave fright: a timely
utterance gave that thought
relief and a testing
of my emergency whistle
which better far
until calamity
were mute.

Her homage becomes an act of “imagining other / minds,” in this case the dedicatee (a female friend), while also embodying allusions to Wordsworth (“Two winters, with the length / of two long winters”) and an admission that the world—“the lakes / and tarns and slopes”—will perdure beyond anything poetry can aspire to. The second longer poem is called “Since You Asked / Shore Lines” and consists of twenty-three eight-line stanzas, modified triolets perhaps, a fixed form that she mentions in the piece (“I’d sworn off triolets / for good”). The flotsam and jetsam evidence on a shoreline comes and goes as the waves do their work, and McLane again sees a metaphor there for poetry, both in reading and writing: “the way the traces disappear” like the “twine and line and a bungee scrap,” human castoffs amid the noise of the cormorants and the groaners (whistling buoys). Two of the stanzas are devoted to the painter Fitz Henry Lane whom she refers to as “painting the shore from the sea.” The implication perhaps is that art does a more lasting job of making the evanescent unforgettable. Yet she is half-willing to accept that even a minor form of poetry like the triolet might work to “catch” someone elsewhere described as “erasable you.” The penultimate stanza says as much in its final line: “There. Good. Done.”

The relationship between works of poetry and works of science has never been especially strong, despite obvious exceptions such as Lucretius’ De rerum natura or Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden. In our time, the Canadian poet Christopher Dewdney has published poetry that addresses issues in geology, neuroscience, and other scientific subjects. Such creative ambidexterity remains rare, and what C. P. Snow famously called the two cultures over fifty years ago continues largely to be a characteristic of both human thought on the one hand and human imagination on the other. It seems likely that a poet asked to define the second law of thermodynamics would be just as flummoxed today as he was in 1959, when Snow proffered that example to demonstrate the gulf of ignorance that was the source of his concern.

The poet Pattiann Rogers comes from a scientific family, and her new collection is dedicated to the contention that poetry and science “do not compete; they connect.”[4] The book concludes with a brief note by her son, the director of an institute for bioelectronics at Northwestern University, that accompanies three images relating to the human brain and the importance of “flickering” to brain activity and brain health. The poems are not intended in any direct way to prove anything about the importance of flickering to human life. They are replete not with the minutiae of biology or any other modern life science, but rather with details from that older designation for studying ourselves and our environment, natural history. Many, many plants and animals make their way into Rogers’ poetry, and their specificity—“pokeweed, elder, crab apple, and plum,” for example, or “kingbirds, killdeer, / bobolinks, and jays”—gives her poems a grounded and evocative quality. As she says in one poem, “Joy has power in the body,” and it is clear that nature gives her a great deal of joy.

Many of the poems in Flickering get bogged down in the prose of instruction, and the poetry sometimes gets left behind. This is especially true in the first two sections of the book, in which lines like “I do think geese deserve compliments for this escape, / as it seems rather difficult for them to accomplish,” or “I can excuse this discourteous / bragging, considering the circumstances,” or “It’s a most exciting event whenever gazelles skedaddle,” all lines from a poem entitled “The Skedaddlers: An Overview,” do not rise above the level of prose. A poem about bones (“Omnipresent Stories”) ends with this sentence, spread out over three lines of poetry: “The story will be revealed piece by piece / as scientists carefully study the setting and the clues / and the details of the bones.” A poem later in the book about harps and bells begins flatly, “Bells come in a greater variety of sizes than harps do” and goes on to express a seeming desire to animate a harp:

I don’t know if harps are ever given names. If I owned
a small harp and if I could hold it on my lap, rest it
on my shoulder, caress its strings into gracious music,
I would surely give it a name, perhaps after a flower.

Rogers also has the disconcerting habit, intimated in the harp poem, of indulging in the pathetic fallacy, suggesting as she does at one point that rivers “believe” and that rivers and trees “seem equally self-confident.” Yet this is not to say that some passages and even whole poems in Flickering do not rise to a higher level. A poem called “The Extinct, Giant Creatures of North America” begins strongly and ends with these convincing lines:

Blood-fear, bolt, rut, birth and birth
and birth, came with the same urgency
to them, the same ferocity to live. Gone,
all of them stopped, skeletons in a city
museum, staring at me, as if I knew
anything about redemption.

Perhaps poetry is simply better at expressing doubt, uncertainty, and individual experience, such as sensing the breath of chickadees in a locust tree (“Assessing the Situation: Breath, Spirit, and Chickadees”), whereas science is most at home with what is universally true and tries to avoid figurative language. That they connect, as Rogers suggests, seems irrefutable, even if, according to her, an amber lily exists not as “the abstract notion of itself,” but as a single flower “embodied / in a particular direction of orange, / a specific star-structure of bloom.”
[1] DOT, by Ron Padgett. Coffee House Press. $16.95p.
[2] TRUE LIFE, by Adam Zagajewski, trans. by Clare Cavanagh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.00.
[3] WHAT YOU WANT, by Maureen N. McLane. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.00.
[4] FLICKERING, by Pattiann Rogers. Penguin Books. $20.00p. The words are quoted from an essay by John Timpane.