Field Notes, Week of 09-14-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of September 14, 2021

Frank Rubino brought us a re-write of a poem with no name now beginning “Cleaining our basement after the flood.”  It used to begin with “In the year I was a bright bottle-blonde” and one of the critiques of this version was “How can you improve on that first line?” The poem suggests that the ruin of the flooded basement with its “fat volume of Chinese poetry” put him in touch with the memory of a photo he’d never seen but had mythologized into “the best picture ever taken of [him]”  taken by a woman he loved after a chaste night naked together.” And the project of the poem may have been to reinvent or redeploy that mythology with a line from the fat volume of Chinese poetry as a sort of caption: “a senseless unending vigilance.”  Or it may have been, as Janet suggested to answer the question “Why am I thinking about that picture still?”  Tom thought that using the quote in the first part of the poem deprived it of its power at the end, and then there were questions about how to convey the strange sensation of holding onto that hollow place for so long.  In the current version Frank used the image of “gravel that lays/ on the hip of the mountain like a skirt” to do that work.  In the last version, there was a related but distinct image of a tree whose roots can split and loose a bolder on a mountain.  Let me tell you, that’s an ambitious program, and we may see it again.

Rob Golstein‘s poem “The Larch”  was one of the sort we talked about last week or two, Brendan McEntee’s poem about a couple vacationing on the coast of somewhere, the woman of the pair in deep distress when a local out walking his dog explains the derivation of the name of the place.  Rob’s poem has the speaker walking (vacationing?) by a lake somewhere, imagining a forest of larch trees which are, for him, metonymic of “The North” whose latitudes tug at him: “Half-dead things are favored far north,” he says, and “Like a consumptive, the larch/ spends half a lifetime dying.”  And Rob’s poem comes with a local who knows that larches are called tamaracks in these parts.  Rob’s poem has a similarity with Frank’s unnamed poem too, in that it features a “sort of mania” about the north that started with what appears to be an artifact of youth: “a crystal globe/ I found in Aunt Maude’s attich—/ with its shaken snowfall on tiny Nevsky Prosect.”  And that connection to Frank’s poem is even more engaging because in both poems the connection between the object (the north, a photo) and the thing that spurs the memory (snow globe, Chinese poetry) is less than obvious.  Fertile ground in both poems for more research.

Shane Wagner brought two poems about an elder in the speaker’s family, “Hedwig”  that he wrote during a 15 for 15 challenge, that is, writing 15 poems in 15 days.  One of the poems, “Hedwig” is just a rough sketch that reads like a Sgt. Friday police report: Hedwig was a flapper, then she became an insufferable Mormon.  Everyone from St. Augustine onward knows this story.  The other poem, Elegy, though, was a wonderful thing based on the same facts, with this fine beginning:  “And yet I loved Hedwig.” Which announced its stakes (improbable love) in a way that provided a gloss on whatever might follow, an invulnerability to cliché.  Frank thought the poems would make a nice diptych, praising the failure of the clichéd version for its potential to provide depth or perspective.

Tom Benediktsson (god, it’s good to have him back) brought a poem—like Susanna Lee’s from last week—that focused on a tree breaking into a house, but while Susanna’s used this trope to illuminate the metaphysics of “inside/outside,”  Tom was working on a recollection of super storm Sandy, which had cracked the bones of the house he was in, and threatened real harm, and put him in mind (Rob Goldstein’s?) “northern sea” and Viking ships and the Venerable Bede’s memorable metaphor that life was like a sparrow’s flight througha mead hall from darkness into light, and back into darkness.  So, he picked up the norse poetry style of compound nouns, presented a piano as a “hammer harp” and his poetry as a “word horde.”

Myself, I brought two experimental pieces that came out of my readings of the forerunners of the Modernist movement, “Fuse” which was a ‘translation’ of Charles Baudelaire’s “Fuse I” and “Instress” which was an investigation of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetic concept of the same name, which is sometimes described as ” the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness.”  In “Fuse” I tried to translate away from the religiosities that I couldn’t relate to while preserving what I perceived as Baudelaire’s declarative intensity and his primary focus on the distinction between originals and fakes; I surprised myself when this past week’s media hype/frenzy over the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 became a point of critical heat.  In “Instress” I tried the same theme, using a quiet ballad meter, with more of a positive emphasis on renewal; it may be the same old story, but Spring is a damn good story.

Jen Poteet‘s poem “Before GPS, EBAY and ETSY” was an homage to old fashioned yard sales and the times before the internet sucked all the romance out of life.  It was very well received, but Jen seemed alive to the possibility of digging a little deeper into the emotional ocassion of the poem, the thing, other than nostalgia for piling crap into a car, that made yesterday a wee sight more attractive than today.  So, maybe we’ll see that poem again soon.

Come back all of y’all.  We were a tiny bit skinny on the attendance, but never short on love for what we do.

—Arthur Russell