Friday, April 27, 2012

Poems by Olds, Chiasson

In the April 26 session, we continued our look at poems of family relationships, Sharon Olds' "My Son, the Man" and "Man and Derailment" by Dan Chiasson.

There was emotional power (but no "raw language") in Olds' poem, an examination of a mother's feelings as a son approaches manhood. Images of the escape artist Harry Houdini are used to convey a young person's breaking out: "Now, he looks at me/the way Houdini studied a box/to learn the way out, then smiled and let himself be manacled."

In Dan Chiasson, we knew to look for an "analytical, nervous and often literary sensibility" as he "juxtaposes childhood memories of his own father with a decidedly adult consciousness." Several of us recalled having been placed in a situation similar to that of the narrator of "Man and Derailment."

Elmer Billman's "My Cardinal" (another 'never-ending bird') showed again how a nature poem contains important personal truths, and Martha Golensky reminded us in "Ten and Counting" that the poet can present as a persuasive first-person narrative the voice of another person.

Next week we will look at three poems by W.S. Merwin, whose Pulitzer Prize citation spoke of "luminous, often tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory."

Friday, April 20, 2012

2012 Spring Term Begins with Baker, Mazzocco

The spring term began April 19 for the Shepherd's Center Poetry Group, with 15 present to consider poems by David Baker and Robert Mazzocco.

In Baker's "Never-Ending Birds," we seemed to leaf through a photo album of loss and regret, as a father reflects wistfully on a family life now in the past (probably divorce--"I have another house; now you have two"--but possibly death), illustrating nicely one critic's observation: (Baker's poetry) "is steeped in story--divorce, loss, raising a child, uncovering old worlds and new loves, poems gracefully lived in, lived through, with mystery and beauty."

Robert Mazzocco's "Dead of Night," published in 1976, is more complex and admits of more possibilities. We note in the haunting couplets repetition and variation of physical details (The oaks glisten and then are bare.) You perhaps noticed (and I neglected to point out) that there is no punctuation in this poem, a technique we will examine further when we read W.S. Merwin.

The first part of "Dead of Night" seems clear enough: the narrator, who refers to himself as "you," appears to be recounting the birth of his son's son. But "then the weather changes," and we see another delivery with blood and screaming.

What are we to make of this second delivery? Our interpretations depend in part on the identity of the people indicated by pronouns deliberately left ambiguous. If "you" is the father and "he" his son, then perhaps the narrator is reflecting on his own birth, in which his mother may have died. Or, if we relax our requirement about the pronouns, then the second birth might be that of the new father, not the grandfather. Both of these readings allow us to see a sad foreshadowing in the lines "On another June/You will be gone."

These readings, though, may not take full advantage of the powerful lines:

And you must not tell him
What you both know

That you are the son
Who has just been born

So we are left with the possibility of two births or three, or even one: we can also ask if the entire poem represents two ways of looking at the same birth: all deliveries are difficult, that being born is difficult and temporary.

But this last reading does not take into account the couplet about the narrator being gone, and the concluding lines about being close.

Fortunately Robert Mazzocco does not require of us a conclusion or consensus--a beauty of good poems is that they say different things to different people.

Next week we will continue our study of families, with two poems about parents and sons, Sharon Olds' "My Son, the Man" and Don Chiasson's "Man and Derailment."