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Poetry & Aggression

by Posted on March 16th, 2011 at 2:18 pm

on New York Quarterly 66

A couple months ago Nicole bought me two issues of the New York Quarterly, one from 1973 and the other from 1978. I had never read NYQ before, and found it sort of strangely likable. So when I say that I was surprised how much this issue resembled those older issues, I mean it as a compliment. This is most obviously true in relation to the structure of the magazine: a Craft Interview followed by many poems and a little prose. I’m not really one for the Craft Interview—either then or now—but I think that’s a matter of preference. I’ve always admired Bob Dylan’s approach—so many people want to know “what his lyrics mean,” and he never explains himself. Isn’t a large part of the enjoyment of a poem not knowing precisely how it operates or came to be? The focus on “craft” and the biography of writers makes sense in an environment in which nearly all readers want to be or already are writers, but it—and this is meant not as a critical judgment but as a personal revelation—hinders my enjoyment of the poetry those writers craftily produce.

But the poetry in NYQ 66 is delightful. There are 190 poems, so of course I didn’t like every single one, but the editors include a breadth of poetry that I hadn’t previously encountered in a single issue of a journal. One similarity between the 1970s issues and this one is the inclusion of poems that are whimsical without insisting on it. From the new issue (where all the excerpts will be taken from), here’s Tom Chandler’s “Oyster Envy” (link to republished PDF) as an example:

 

There’s something to be said for being

just stomach and anus with no mind,

 

locked away in a little sealed world

complete with a sky of its own design,

 

as if we too could trap sand on our tongues
and refuse to talk or eat for years,

 

close ourselves off between tight

hemispheres, dream vague scenes

 

of the bottom of the sea or of sliding down

somebody’s giant black throat

 

not caring if we’re asleep or awake,

ignoring the rich ache of sandgrit building

 

slowly into this perfect pearl, this beauty

that’s been welling up inside us all along.

The flipside of this sort of effective whimsy is NYQ’s weakness for the twee and meaningless. How much a person enjoys poems about poetry is a matter of taste, but there are too many poems about poetry here.

Quite on the opposite end of the spectrum from whimsy, NYQ is also not afraid of “serious poetry.” I could try to define what I mean by that, but an example will be better. Like “Oyster Envy,” Amaranth Pavis’s “American History Lesson II” affects—in this case, terrifies—rather than instructs:

 

“…and He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came…”

—Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address

 

The man insisted he would open my eyes—

the Civil War was not about freeing the slaves,

it was about money—simply the act of Northern

Capital to gut the power of the South.

The man is a history professor, a progressive,

one of our old neighbors, a father-friend,

and the father of my best friend.

 

I’d told him—even if all he said were true,

he blotted out one truth with another

and I talked about the abolitionists, the Underground Railroad,

John Brown’s body,

but I thought he cared. He does not care.

 

He corners me in the ocean and grabs my ass

I am fourteen (and menstruating, of all the bad luck).

I have a big bright ocean at my back and he is guarding

the shore line—up to his chin—so I can’t pass.

 

He wants a version where morals mean nothing,

the mindless man in the sea, hands like ugly anemones,

bald crown, pot-bellied, white feet in the sand.

And where is the father?

He doesn’t know anything

and all his sins will be passed on

like white lumpy dough, the pig.

 

 

I swim to the right and back—over left and back.

I am a good swimmer. He will get tired.

 

In the essay “Negative Capability,” Tony Hoagland writes, “When a poem becomes aggressive, it rouses an excitement in us, in part because we see that someone has broken their social shackles.” (Michael Cirelli quotes Hoagland in his essay “State of Contemporary American Poetry: Hip-Hop,” which concludes the NYQ issue.) I agree with Hoagland; for instance, the third section of James Wright’s generally aggressive “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”:

 

Idiot, he demanded love from girls,

And murdered one. Also, he was a thief.

He left two women, and a ghost with child.

The hair, foul as a dog’s upon his head,

Made such revolting Ohio animals

Fitter for vomit than a kind man’s grief.

I waste no pity on the dead that stink,

And no love’s lost between me and the crying

Drunks of Belaire, Ohio, where police

Kick at their kidneys till they die of drink.

Christ may restore them whole, for all of me.

Alive and dead, those giggling muckers who

Saddled my nightmares thirty years ago

Can do without my widely printed sighing

Over their pains with paid sincerity.

I do not pity the dead, I pity the dying.

 

Pavis is similarly aggressive in the fourth stanza, and particularly in the first line of that stanza: “He wants a version where the morals mean nothing.” That is exactly what he wants.

And unlike Wright’s poem, which benefits from the anarchic nature of the free-floating aggression, Pavis’ poem benefits from a sudden turn to deep agitation. But as always, there is a downside to “American History Lesson II”: in the same way that “Oyster Envy,” through no fault of it own, begets too many poems about poetry, this sort of serious begets far too many poems about cancer.

NYQ 66 is proof that the beauty of variety is not in the aggregate, but the specific; there are some great poems in this issue, including but not limited to the ones mentioned in this review. I’ll sign off with my favorite poem from the issue, which combines, to great effect—something like the opposite of shadenfreude— the whimsy and seriousness which I’ve previously identified as different threads. Here’s Mark Begley’s “Bike”:

 

When I was a child one

of the big jokes was

to ask a boy what color

his bike was. Supposedly the word

“bike” meant “penis”

in some foreign tongue.

We’d all get a chuckle when

we’d ask someone, “What color’s

your bike?” And they’d say,

“Blue.” Most kids caught on,

but you could always catch

a few who hadn’t heard it

before. One day I asked one of the

more unpopular kids in school

what color his bike was. He immediately

became excited, probably by the

simple fact that someone was talking

to him, but also because he had a

bike that he was very proud of.

He exclaimed, “Oh, I have a red bike,

with a long banana seat, streamers,

reflectors, a basket in front,

a rack in back, gorilla handlebars,

two extra rods in case I want to

hike someone, cards in the spokes so

it sounds like a motorcycle, stickers

all over the body, two rear-view mirrors

and a horn. It cost $200.” We all

listened in amazement. The boys

walked away jealous

and the girls went away in

shock.