by Larry Laurence
Let's say you were a painter, an impressionist, and woke up one day to find Cubism invented, was in fact the leading edge, was where the juice was (apparently you slept through Fauvism). Yes, you'd been growing weary of Impressionism and had wondered privately how so many artists could see the world the same way. Had even for the last few years changed your palette and intensity of color. Chosen subjects others shied away from. You'd been painting twenty years, had never painted better, were even getting some small recognition. And you wake up to a changed world. And though you'd like to argue that the picture plane remains the picture plane and the vanishing point remains the vanishing point and always will, you have such a strong intuition that the change is not only inevitable but needed, you don't say anything. You are suddenly a beginner again. And despite the insecurity inherent in beginnings, you feel a great deal of energy. You pick up your brushes . . .
Although I'm poking fun at myself a bit, the above is not far from my situation. If I had been asked even twelve months ago to contribute to this column I'd have been more sure of myself--I knew what a poem was and how to write one. Now, I don't know. I grew up (poetically) in Fresno, California under the mentorship of Philip Levine and Peter Everwine. We wrote first person lyric/narratives, testimonials, stories in linear time (I'm thinking of two book titles--neither from Fresno poets--The Adventures Of The Letter i by Louis Simpson and Letters To An Imaginary Friend by Tom McGrath which might well describe our writing). There were excesses of course: the poet as hero, victim, doomed seer; bathos at turning thirty or being dumped. But there were successes as well. Many fine poems and many fine poets. The best work was accessible, passionately democratic, musical, energetic, and well constructed and well seen. "No ideas but in things"--we were far from academic. I don't believe any Fresno poet could be accused of being scholarly. I don't believe any of us would hole up a year in a university's special collections (even if such were available in Fresno) researching some iconic personage to eventually emerge with a book-length biography in verse. Clearly the most dazzling poet was Larry Levis. His last (sadly, posthumous) book, Elegies, has everything I ever wanted in poems. Perhaps the book is an elegy for the first person lyric/narrative. Or at least the way the form (mode is probably a better word as it has been used in many different streams of poetry) has been used for so many years in America.
Levine or Everwine (I don't remember) was fond of saying we, each of us, only write one poem throughout our life. It was said a bit facetiously of course. I think we may, if we're lucky, write two or three or even several poems in a lifetime. We may be able to write more than one way as well. So for now I'm junking the way I used to write. I'm reading widely (even an old enemy, John Ashbury) and looking at what others are doing. Ideas still come to me in first person, but I'm translating, in a way, these ideas into something else. It's too early for me to tell where I'll end up.
I thought, dear read-er, I'd test your patience and present two versions of an idea, a germ of a poem, to show you what I'm doing. I call them "Take One" and "Take Two." They both have working titles. They are drafts; "Take One" was done before I woke up to changes happening in poetry now. "Take Two" is an attempt to remove myself as a character in the poem. Neither I consider finished or satisfying to me yet. I don't consider "Take Two" in any way revolutionary, but it is different for me and, curiously, seemed to demand a different sort of music.
Take One (One Theory On What Happens After Death)
though the voice is my mother's, may she rest in peace,
no, the voice is my sister's. I'm on the gym's second floor
on my way up from the weight room to the aerobics room,
I'm standing at the window, my weight on my right foot,
my forehead against glass looking out at the canal--
How wonderful to live where canals are--
and my body loves me, so easily fooled: a few stretches,
a hamstring curl and then Yes! I knew it! I knew
you loved me. I knew last night didn't mean a thing.
The canal is deep green but there's yellow in it and black
where the poplars' shadows fall on its smooth surface,
poplars from the early 1900s when the canal
was dug by immigrants helped by mules
till a spur was finished at last to the rail yard,
saving the mules much grief -- Two laborers die
and poplars are set down into holes as a gesture
to a governor's wife. Records do not mention if she was pleased.
How could she not be -- They're nearly bare now
and it's nearly dusk. Cormorants are roosting in them
and more are coming, arriving at treetop, choosing
one tree (How do cormorants choose), dropping 20 or 30 feet
then climbing abruptly to a stall and, wings flapping
rapidly, settling on branches so slim a branch will bend
almost in two before springing up. If another bird's
too close, more wing-flapping, and the newcomer
rises, banks, and begins the approach
again. The other adjusts itself, the branch gradually stills.
The interaction is not friendly (Had the one been dreaming),
it is rough and ill-tempered and unfriendly
but it is not hostile. Please it is not hostile.
Take Two (I Am Afraid To Die And Will Miss My Life Terribly)
How wonderful to live where canals are
deep green though there's yellow in it & slate
black where the poplars' shadows fall on the smooth surfaces
production of immigrants helped by mules
until at last a spur to the rail yard saving the mules
much grief--two laborers die & poplars are set down
into holes as a gesture to a governor's wife
How wonderful to live where poplars are
nearly bare now & nearly dusk
roosts for cormorants with more coming
arriving at treetop to choose one tree (How do cormorants
choose) dropping then climbing abruptly to a stall
to land on branches so slim a branch will bend almost in two
before springing up
How wonderful to live where cormorants are
dead still at dusk Dead still unless another settles
too close then more wing-flapping & the newcomer
rises banks begins again the approach
unfriendly at the beginning of evening (Had the one
been dreaming) rough & ill-tempered & not friendly
but not hostile Please not hostile
How wonderful to live where canals are
Larry Laurence was born in Honolulu, Hawaii
in a Navy family and moved many times throughout his childhood. He began
writing in his twenties, earning an MA, English, studying poetry under
Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, and C.G. Hanzlicek. He worked twelve years as
a construction laborer and warehouse worker before earning a second MA, this
time in Rehabilitation Counseling. He worked with disabled adults in Seattle.
His poems were published in Southern Poetry Review, The Prose Poem: An
International Journal, and in the anthology How Much Earth: The Fresno
Poets (Roundhouse Press, 2000). His chapbook, Scenes Beginning With The
Footbridge At The Lake (Brooding Heron Press, Waldron Island,
WA), was published in 1992. His first full-length book, Life Of The Bones To Come
(Black Heron Press, Seattle, WA), was published in 1999.