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The "I" and the Beholder:
Negotiating the Shoals of Personal Narrative

by Bill Christophersen


American Sonnets, by Gerald Stern.
The Fall, by D. Nurkse.
Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest,
   by B. H. Fairchild.
Still Life with Waterfall, by Eamon Grennan.
Selected Poems, by Mona Van Duyn
Stars at Noon: Poems From the Life of Jacqueline Cochran, by Enid Shomer.
Practical Gods, by Carl Dennis.


William Wordsworth in The Prelude took as a theme the growth of his own mind. He recounted, among other things, how as a boy he surreptitiously borrowed a rowboat one night and went rowing, only to be overwhelmed by fear and guilt. Who gives a hoot? most of his eighteenth-century predecessors would have said. What do such a self-centered theme and sentimental narrative have to do with poetry? Generations of poets have followed his lead, elaborating and validating a poetry that filters personal experience rather than formalizes commonly held assumptions. But the strategy still invites legitimate questions. At what point does a self-referential approach become solipsistic? self-indulgent? trite? Every writer who puts pen to paper with the familiar injunction "Write from your own experience" ringing in his or her ear needs to think about how much of that experience the reader can be expected to care about — and how to leverage the reader's sympathies for the rest.

How, in other words, does one induce the reader to care about one's kindergarten crush, yeast infection, or divorce? Or, leaving aside confessional modes: how many half-century-old slides of oneself playing Mr. Potato Head in the dear old nursery is too many for even the gracious reader to attend to? What might make the slide show more palatable? For one of the poets with new collections listed above, these questions don't obtain. Enid Shomer's subject in Stars at Noon is not herself but a historical figure, whom she rescues from oblivion in a selfless sequence of dramatic poems. For Carl Dennis, they are almost as irrelevant: although the tone of Practical Gods is intimate, its subject matter is not. But for Eamon Grennan and Mona Van Duyn, the questions are pertinent. The more so for Gerald Stern, D. Nurkse, and B. H. Fairchild, whose poetry is made up largely of personal narrative. Their collections show that there are a number of ways to row one's boat through its dicey waters.

Gerald Stern's American Sonnets is a misnomer. Its poems are sonnets only in the loosest sense; they run from sixteen to twenty-three lines and disregard the conventions of the form. Nor is the collection especially American. No overarching political or cultural theme informs these personal lyrics. But an academic scrupulousness isn't what won Stern the National Book Award. The looseness of the title's fit is in keeping with his unfussy approach: the poems in his thirteenth collection are impromptu mood pieces, sixty-second videos of experience recollected in wistfulness, bitterness, giddiness — anything but tranquility. They rhapsodize, rant, or ramble like a man on a coffee jag, their breathless parataxes and slapdash constructions suggesting diary extracts or dreams narrated by someone still in their grip. Self-referential? Stern proceeds as if there is no other way to write.

A previous collection, Bread Without Sugar, was more deliberate. These poems, by contrast, feel as if they were spoken on the fly into a tape recorder and transcribed raw. They call to mind James Schuyler's improvisational early verses and Frank O'Hara's shoot-from-the-hip journal poems, though Stern's quirky, funny turns — "even when I was angry / I paid my debts for I have listened to / and lived with grasshoppers and they bore me" ("Mimi") — finally defy comparison. Like these poets, Stern relishes throwaway starting points. His secret is understanding that the most banal item or recollection (the sink in an old apartment, a box of stale cigars) is a wound thread of associations waiting to unspool.

Playing out such threads, though, can be tedious. In "Places You Wouldn't Believe," Stern describes his favorite hotel:

I liked the fact that there was a national newspaper
every morning at my door and the rugs were
hideous, and that was that, and they were
poorly laid to boot, I even tripped
and spilled my coffee following the wrong
red arrow once. . . .
How many sonneteers would use up six lines this way? Yet the poem ends on an almost mystical note, invoking the memory of an orange-crate writing desk "lit up by a brazen dancer with the torches / growing from her belly, my first mercy." Stern's prosaic subjects and expositions often do that — natter their way to startling ("Apocalypse"), poignant ("September, 1999"), even epiphanic ("First Light") conclusions. A desultory narrative about the speaker's pickle-and-cole-slaw-eating uncles ("Sam and Morris") works itself into a curse flung in the teeth of Ezra Pound. The lyric that begins "One good sneeze deserves another" shambles along to become "Tenderness." American Sonnets is both cranky and magical — a crusty uncle of a book that gazes, oblivious, at its own navel, then at unpredictable moments levitates.

D. Nurkse's The Fall features three highly personal sequences of poems concerning death, love, and illness. Their drama and the universality of their themes draw us in — as does a broader theme connecting them, into which Nurkse's private narratives are subsumed. That theme, although signaled by the book's title, doesn't rush to the fore. The collection opens with "The Threshold," whose speaker awaits, in an almost childlike state of denial, the results of a battery of medical tests. It's an impressive poem — terse and true to the way the mind works. But why, one wonders, does it begin the collection rather than introduce the final sequence, whose subject is a bout of illness? The opening sequence, by contrast, concerns the speaker's childhood and particularly the loss of his father; the second traces the arc of a marriage, from engagement to ecstasy to portentous union — "We had become the same person / but with a mind of her own" ("Honeymoon in Varia") — to dissolution. The opening poem, thus, is well-chosen; its mood of anxious uncertainty strikes the book's keynote. In fact Nurkse's great achievement here, the grace and mystery of his poems aside, is the unity he imparts to disparate subjects.

Their common denominator is a fall into traumatic experience. The loss of the father — "How to row toward a voice / once it has fallen silent?" ("Northbound") — is the chief instance. Processing that death amounts to weathering an illness — as does processing the breakup of a marriage. (The second sequence ends with the speaker, again in a state of denial, returning to the cemetery where his father is buried.) The final sequence resonates, in turn, with associations from the preceding ones. "Prayer for Patience in Sickness," for instance, portrays a child in bed waiting for his father to visit. Nurkse achieves this unity by sticking to one style throughout — a compressed free verse that relies on a short line and uncomplicated syntaxes — and by employing a tarot deck of images, mostly secular but including some (the fall, darkness, paradise) with biblical overtones, which repeat within and across the sequences.

The poems about childhood evoke its mystery, excitement, loneliness, and cruelties without condescension or cuteness. Those about love do the same without becoming melodramatic. The final sequence raises spiritual themes, but without becoming turgid. The book's highlights, though, are the poems — "Treasures of the Cove," "Northbound," "The Fall," "A Prayer for Patience in Sickness," "Cat's-Eye" — that treat the speaker's father's approaching death and its aftermath. In "Cat's Eye," the speaker recalls his final interaction with his father — the father waving good-bye; him clutching a new marble, afraid to wave back lest he drop it. Describing the marble, he says:

At the core a spiral
glinted and coiled
like a small windy flame
turning in on itself
At such moments Nurkse, like Greg Orr, Charles Simic, and R. T. Smith, invests the image with an almost religious intensity. The Fall — mystical, mesmerizing, elegant — is a cat's-eye of a collection.

With Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, B. H. Fairchild continues to mine the experience of growing up in various hardscrabble towns in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas during the Fifties and Sixties. Many of these poems, like their predecessors in The Arrival if the Future (1985) and The Art of the Lathe (1998), are free-verse narratives distinguished by their blue-collar settings and crisp detail. "Cattle stare at flat-bed haulers gunning clumps / of black smoke and lugging damaged drill pipe / up the gullied, mud-hollowed road," Fairchild writes in the title poem. The passage typifies his verse, which revels in snapshots of oil rigs and roughnecks, machine shops and laborers whose eyes are bloodshot from working double shifts. It occurs, though, in the context of a night trip the speaker recalls making as a boy with his father, called out to repair a stalled oil rig. This too is typical — the (Wordsworthian) fascination with memory, the familial subject matter. The result is a bracing mix of tough and tender.

Bracing for the most part. Sometimes the tough becomes a stalking horse for the tender, and the tender becomes unbridled nostalgia. In "The Memory Palace," the long concluding prose poem whose premise is the theory that memories are preserved when they are associated in the mind with a particular place, the speaker recalls the minutiae of his childhood, superimposing them on the grid of his father's machine shop. "Over here," says the narrator, "in the lap of the big drill press, where the drill froze and you panicked, place all things sudden: Uncle Harry breaking into a Fred Astaire soft-shoe; waking in Kansas to snowfall — the hush, the heart's cathedral, the last echoes of the choir floating down, your breath fogging the window, bleaching the trees." Machine shop? It sounds like the attic of sentimentalism.

But Fairchild doesn't confine himself to parochial scenes and familial recollections. The wide-angle lens he shoots with in "A Starlit Night," "Motion Sickness," and "At Omaha Beach" offers a broader perspective. And the autobiographical impulse is muted in "The Blue Buick: A Narrative," a long elegy for a machinist prone to seizures and mysticism, whose reading and searching have catalyzed the speaker's development. Coleridge introduced Wordsworth to the conversation poem, a technique for keeping verse anchored in the social realm even as it plumbs a private realm of memory and emotion. "The Blue Buick" — the vivid, visceral centerpiece of Fairchild's collection — is a conversation poem, and the strategy works for him as it did for Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey," enriching and grounding his reminiscences. The rhymed quatrains of "On the Passing of Jesus Freaks from the College Classroom" and "Weather Report" add formal nuance and, in the case of "Weather Report," a wry humor ("God shakes His fists eternally to say, / we're having more of yesterday today"). Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, in short, moves beyond the strip-mining of a signature tract of material to demonstrate new interests, skills, and intelligence.

Personal narrative makes up perhaps a third of Still Life with Waterfall, Eamon Grennan's sixth collection of poems, often taking the form of the thirteen-line sonnets he favors. Sometimes these narratives are merely accounts of the speaker making his bed, walking down the road, or piddling around the house, his senses attuned to the sight of dead bugs on a window sill or the absence of wind on a beach. Sometimes they include unabashed reflections on intimacy. In neither case, though, do they seem self-immersed. That's owing in large part to the balance the book strikes between narrative and lyrical elements.

The lyric is Grennan's forte. A refined, alliterative music that suggests his Irish literary heritage more than it does contemporary American verse, his lyricism could turn industrial catalogue copy into song:

                                                      Where do birds go
nights, or buff-colored heifers up to their bellies in
   buttercups
as they haul as if nothing the great weight of themselves
to lake edge and back, sinking beyond their bony hocks
in the boggy grass, the brushed green rushes making
a sound like raincoats?
                                      (“Agnostic Smoke”)
His verse appeals to the eye as well as the ear. The spirit of the postimpressionist Pierre Bonnard hovers over the book, from the painterly cover to the sensuous imagery to the poems ("Bonnard's Reflection," "Bonnard's Mirror," "Why," "Painter's Diary") that invoke him. Nature, not art, provides most of the lyrical occasions, but Grennan is interested in the place where the two meet. The concluding poem describes a robin pursuing a finch until intercepted by a hawk; Grennan turns the episode into a parable of how poetry happens: "you have your eye on a small / elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth / strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off" ("Detail").

Grennan's lyrics set off his narrative poems, and vice versa. "Encounter" narrates nothing consequential — the speaker's chance meeting with a hunter, during which they share a smoke and some conversation. It's a disarming prelude to the incantatory "Landscape with Teeth" ("Cattle dusk-sculpted on a plinth of skyline. / Breast of chaffinch a watered strawberry. / Inishturk a whale-shape on the glazed sea"). "Killing the Bees," on the other hand, is no set-up pitch but a highly charged narrative that demonstrates in miniature the way narrative and lyric cooperate in the book. At its center is an image of swarming bees, "masses of bodies / blackening the light-bulb, a live stalactite of honey / spiralling gold to the floor...." That lyrical passage is set in a pewter frame of narrative — how the speaker went about the business of fumigating and exterminating. It shines brighter for the lusterless setting.

In some of the most distinctive poems in Still Life with Waterfall, personal narrative and lyrical occasion are one. Such poems as "To Grasp the Nettle," "Signs," "Pulse," and "White Water" transform erotic experience into song. Here registers of language elsewhere adopted to describe a plunging hawk and the aftermath of a storm are brought to bear on intimate subjects, the speaker's voice neither cracking nor bellowing in the process. Grennan is contemporary poetry's equivalent of a fine Irish tenor, and this collection showcases his range and musicality.

Mona Van Duyn's Selected Poems draws upon eight collections of poetry published over forty-three years (most of which were brought together in If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959-1982). To read it is to retrace a path familiar from the work of Robert Lowell and other mid-century American poets who, having earned their stripes writing formally sophisticated but impersonal verse, turned to more personal subjects. Often that change was accompanied by a turning toward free verse — the urgency of the confessional impulse brooking no fences. Van Duyn, however, held on to the reins of form, by and large, and that almost quaint reflex amounted, I would suggest, to a refusal to let personal impulses carry her away.

The book begins with selections from her work of the Fifties and Sixties (Valentines to the Wide World, A Time of Bees), poems that feature the ironic detachment, cool wit, literary allusiveness, and rhymed urbanities that the formalist esthetic prized. These qualities, toned down a bit, persist in her work. With the poems from To See, To Take (1970), however, the formalism abates and the frankness increases. The shift is most noticeable in "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons," in which the speaker depicts her harrowing upbringing by a neurotic, abusive mother. This venturesome frankness, elsewhere on display in "Leda Reconsidered," a meditation on sexuality, goes to sleep in the poems from Bedtime Stories, a trite sequence featuring the dialect-inflected reminiscences of the speaker's grandmother ("Ja, we had it hard. / ...Ja, they don't do that way no more"). But it revives in the selections from New Poems from Merciful Disguises (1973). "The Cities of the Plain," for instance, is a dramatic poem in which Lot's wife lambastes her injudicious husband, disparages Jehovah's edict ("that punishment / was blasphemous"), and renounces the future: "As for me, I lost / all sense of human possibility / when the cloud rose up like a blossom over all that / death." At this point Van Duyn is writing from a feminist perspective, treating such themes as gender and marriage with increasing candor tempered by a glaze of coyness ("Midas and Wife," "A View"). Her mature style, here on display, blends formal control and natural cadence, personal narrative and unvarnished reflection.

The section from Letters From a Father, and Other Poems (1982) includes three long poems about the speaker's parents — the title poem plus "Photographs" and "The Stream" — that are among her most moving. In the final two sections, drawn from Near Changes (1990) and Firefall (1993), Van Duyn continues to make classical music out of the white noise of daily life in such poems as "Late Loving" and "In Bed with a Book," while ruminating more persistently on art ("Gardens," "Memoir") and mortality ("Endings," "Closures"). Here too are her "minimalist sonnets," their vacuum-packed lines compressed to a few syllables. "The Beginning" uses fewer than thirty words to meditate the change relationships often undergo after romance implodes. It's a diamond.

Mona Van Duyn has won almost every award a poet aspires to — Pulitzer, Bollingen, Lilly, National Book Award. No wonder. She writes crafted, thoughtful poems in which familial themes exfoliate and familiar emotional landscapes quicken. There are moments, mostly in the earlier work, when she is cloyingly suave. There are times, too, when she seems preoccupied, if not absorbed, by her life's dramas. But one comes away from Selected Poems with the sense of having been in the presence of a balanced, empathetic intelligence that is neither taken in by the world nor tuckered out by the human predicament.

Enid Shomer's Stars at Noon is the book to give to the next person you encounter who complains that contemporary American verse is self-obsessed. The collection, Shomer's fourth, is made up of six sequences of dramatic poems that resurrect Jacqueline Cochran, America's second lady of the air — second only to her friend, Amelia Earhart. The first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound, Cochran served in World War II, organizing and training women pilots, then went on to set flight records for speed, distance, and altitude. Her résumé included founding and operating a cosmetics business, serving as a roving journalist after the war, and running for U.S. Congress. Mindful of her unlikely beginnings (a foundling, she received only three years of schooling), Cochran described her life as a journey "from sawdust to stardust." Shomer traces that trajectory keenly and engagingly, writing in a variety of voices that summon up an era as well as a life.

Working from her subject's archived papers, Shomer narrates Cochran's childhood indirectly, using the device of letters (one from the mother who abandoned her, three from teachers). By age seventeen, the girl has become a mechanic and a hairdresser who envisions going into business under the trademark "Jacqueline Cochran, Cosmetiste / Engine Valves Ground and Pincurls Set / with the Same Twist of the Wrist" ("The Death of Bessie Mae Pittman"). Her character unfolds in poems about love and flight, then deepens in those in which she speaks of the war, Earhart's disappearance, another colleague's death, and her own miscarriages. Some of the most sardonic and entertaining poems treat her foray into postwar politics. An exchange of poison-pen letters in the form of rhymed sonnets between Cochran and the opponent she defeated in the Republican Congressional primary in 1956 captures Cochran's scrappiness — and affords an acrid whiff of lingering McCarthy-era politics, with Cochran emerging as right-wing troglodyte:

I doubt you are even a real Republican!
That skeleton in your closet, the UWF,
rattled louder each time you scoffed
at doubts of your loyalty. Damn your one-world, one-man
support! Oiled wings flap at your tent while you search
for the reasons you lost, shoulders hunched to a perch.
(“To Fred Eldridge, after Defeating Him in the Primary”)
Not every reader will be drawn to so calculatedly feminist a subject — a woman who beat men at their own macho games — or to the relish with which Shomer highlights issues of gender ("Here we are together in man-tailored clothes" is the opening refrain of the villanelle "Photograph with Amelia"). But the book isn't shallow or sensational. Cochran's life merits attention, and Shomer summons up that life adroitly, throwing her voice with a ventriloquist's savoir faire and picking her moments with a playwright's sense of drama. Her wit and skill as a versifier buoy these monologues and dialogues: "Navigating the Airwaves," for instance, presents a media interview of Cochran the congressional candidate in which the questions and answers are rendered as haiku (talk about soundbites). From conception to execution, Stars at Noon is a smart, versatile collection with narrative arc — and supplementary photos.

Carl Dennis's poetry incorporates life experiences but looks past them to religious and philosophical concerns. Practical Gods, his eighth collection, is more a public than a personal discourse; the "I" defers time and again to the pronouns "we" and "you." The resulting verse probes and ponders but does so in the relaxed style of a good after-dinner conversationalist. Dennis's focus is whether religion can help human beings navigate the newly booted-up millennium. He calls on classical as well as Christian spirits, saints as well as sinners, for input and treats such themes as the efficacy of prayer, the psychodynamics of religious affiliation, and the soul's too-quiet voice with the bemused yet searching air of a dad whose teenage daughter has died her hair purple but still smiles sweetly.

Dennis, whose free-verse poems toy with the seatbelt of meter without quite buckling up, writes in fluid, conversational rhythms that don't get in the way as he ruminates. That's what he does best, whether his subject is a painting that conjures up the New Jerusalem ("View of Delft"), history's penchant for siding with survivors ("History"), or the meaning of the Fall. In "The Serpent to Adam," the serpent is a Prometheus ("So for your welfare I named the forbidden tree / The tree of knowledge") in search of enlightened conversation, who is blindsided by Adam's resentment ("your real crime") and pained by his "thousand sighs for an Eden that didn't suit you / And none for the Eden we might have made." This isn't the only poem in the book that recalls Paradise Lost — perhaps because Dennis shares similar intellectual concerns. Even the poem "Progress," pegged though it is to a secular topic, revolves that topic in Miltonic fashion, pondering whether the modern deity of the title is one whose ways can be justified to man:

This is the shadowy god who advises patience,
Who asks you to be content, for the moment,
With a ramshackle motel in the boondocks,
To believe it's one of the way stations on the road
To a land your successors will consider promised.
Notice the skeptical tone, though. The speaker of Practical Gods gives lots of deities their due, but never unconditional obeisance.

Practical Gods shows little of the self-proclaiming impulse that Wordsworth and his heirs have indulged. Here you won't find the spontaneous combustion peculiar to Stern's verse, the mystery that flickers in Nurkse's, or the lyricism that flares in Grennan's. But you'll find a humorously unsettling dramatic poem entitled "Progressive Health," a rueful meditation on covetousness entitled "Department Store," two pitch-perfect elegies ("Numbers," "The Fallen"), and a Tanglewood of elegant verse-music. It's a dazzling book.


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