Calculating the Cacti: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 13, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I spent many hours this week in the desert, surrounded by saguaro cacti. These life forms group together to make living water conservation networks. It is humbling to endure the heat as a human (Me: “my arm is going to catch on fire”) and realize that none of these green spiny cacti have moved to seek shade for over 100 years. A single cactus can hold several tons of water in its body. It stands and preserves what comes to it.

I liked reading last week’s workshop poems, which I missed in person, in Arthur’s field notes; Brendan McEntee’s poem, “New Autopsy” in which the speaker encounters the occasional “strangers” amongst the Joshua Trees, hit me with its desert setting. The meaning of ‘stranger’ is so different in a desert, where another person is a rarity, as alien in form and function as a cactus.  

I’m working my way through George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/609280/a-swim-in-a-pond-in-the-rain-by-george-saunders/) in which Saunders adapts his master-class on 19th century Russian short stories to book form. Singers, from Ivan Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches is about a singing contest at a nowhere tavern. It has a lot to say about the strange, extra-human origins, social functions, and death of art (and it takes place on a brutally hot day), and it’s a really great story, but Saunders’s students complain that there’s too much description. Indeed there’s a long preamble to the central action of the singing contest which contains virtually nothing but descriptions of clothing, faces, architecture, etc. Finally, when the first guy opens his mouth in the tavern to start singing, Turgenev does one of those lovely Russian addresses directly to the reader, and says “but first, I think it would be best to describe each person in the story.” Saunders calls out this moment and offers a challenge: go back through the story and cross out everything that’s non-essential.  

This is a challenge to assess what work the description is actually doing. I remember learning how rapidly eyes scan back and forth across even a still image— how “seeing” is the eye making these movements and the brain assembling the discreet visual data points into a whole. Saunders points out that Turgenev’s descriptions of people don’t really add up to people but more like “Cubist paintings” He points out that modern descriptive writing is more terse, less focused on comprehensiveness (unless you are maybe Karl Ove Knausgaard? 🙂 And yet. You can’t get rid of any of it without it harming the effect of the story. 

It’s not that big of a leap from these “sight-like” descriptive fragments that “don’t add up” to a coherent image… to a poem whose word choices and stanza breaks disrupt syntax and sense.

Poetry schedules a sequence of events, like the choreography of an eye moving across a view.

Eyes-across-view is only one temporal scheme. There are also speech events and changes in register (which to my ear sound like new characters coming on)

The number of events and their relationships to each other make the wholeness of the poem.

There is no wholeness of the poem without every event.

There is no other/better wholeness of the poem.

Meaningless description is an event and is therefore not meaningless.

Am I proposing that there is no way to assess the relative appropriateness of a line or word, or stanza?

Can you actually edit a poem like we do in our workshop?

There are some pretty freaky arms on some cacti. Should we bend them or break them off?

Author: dzirilli

poet, cartoonist, editor of Now Culture