21 May 2007

Is It the King? by Farid Matuk

Yesterday, I sat down and read Is It the King? after finishing up Conrad's Lord Jim.

A couple points about Matuk's collection of poems:


A quick assessment of the two in relation to each other points most obviously at each book's focus on identity. Marlowe is obsessed with Jim's "inner nature" even though the two stories that make up the majority of what we know about Jim seem to stand in such stark contrast with each other. Or perhaps it's more to the point that Marlowe is obsessed with the fallibility of the core set of characteristics that Jim represents: honor, honesty, altruism, responsibility -- characteristics that Marlowe seems to want to believe in but can't quite, the characteristics that were supposed to set the great white European colonists apart from the "savages" around them. Jim's faith in these characteristics, and the fidelity of his own representation of them, is shown first to dissolve into cowardice in the face of the prospect of death without an audience and shown second to be upheld in the most pointless of circumstances in front of a large audience. Lord Jim is much, much more than a simple treatise on how the colonists were willfully ignorant of the inhumanity they inflicted upon those they thought of as less than human. Lord Jim is an intense investigation into what is human, what are people? who are they? what guides them? and what do those actions and beliefs amount to?

Many of Matuk's poems are also obsessed with the same questions. Identities, for example, are adopted and discarded throughout the book; the poems "Talk 1" and "Talk 2" being the most obvious. They each begin respectively: "I am Moroccan today..." and "I am Sicilian today..." Matuk presents identity as a mutable, self-conscious performance. Conrad's focus is on the unchartable depths at the core of each person and the possibility that nothing is there.


"Of Mule and Deer"

Out of a tin-cold, murmuring black wood
Lightly you lope, pale deer, lifting
A story from pages of snow

Nothing turns in your eye they say

Toward the tin-cold and murmuring black wood
I bear a display case of blue light
Say it was the sky

Say all you want it was the sky

The first poem of Is it the King?. I always want to read poetry books as complete works rather than merely a collection of the "best" poems a writer had written over the course of some random period of time. So I always read the first poem expecting and hoping to find a map for the interior of the work, and "Of Mule and Deer" is such a map. Is this deer a muse? poetry? a sprite? I see it as a doe and not a buck, and pale? because it's covered with the snow from line three? And these colors: "black wood" (paper & ink?) and "pages of snow" (white.)

So something wild emerging from this natural landscape that is described in terms of written and verbal ("murmuring") communication, and it's an imposing scene: "tin-cold."

And then "Nothing turns in your eye they say" -- so many ways to read (and insert (eye/I) pronouns into that line. But before that, there is the idea of turning to think about, and that this deer has unswerving sight. "Nothing turns" could mean that nothing changes, an essential interior is observed, or that under gaze a thing can become fixed, something like the way a single quark can occupy an infinite range of space until it is observed.

And then into the woods -- at the same moment as the deer's emergence? later? earlier? What was "a wood" in the first stanza has now become "the woods." "Lifting" becomes "bear" (the mule now?) And the display case, a housing for something featured, a container. And display cases are usually rectangular, book-like, coffin-shaped, like trunks. And the words transform this thing into a piece of the wide uncontainable heavens. Or, rather, they suggest that we assume it could be the sky. But that request is quickly reversed as the last line asserts that words cannot change the essence of a thing, its reality.

Or does it? The tenses in the last few lines -- "say it was the sky" -- indicate that the thing in the case is no longer the sky. A sky in a box is not a sky.

And what will happen to the speaker and the case when they reach the woods? or meet the deer?

Many questions raised in this first piece -- representation, language's (the woods?) relationship to meaning (the deer?), incantation -- it's a tantalizing prelude for the rest of the book.


Few of the poems in the book adhere to standard punctuation usage though they do adhere to the conventions of capitalization for the most part. Not so uncommon of course, but are such choices merely signifiers of allegiance to a particular aesthetic or tradition? In some books and poems they may be, but Matuk demonstrates many times the great value that such choices can have.

from "Orange County Knows How to Party"

in Hector's SUV
are you
gay cuz
your truck's

There are two places where a question mark could be dropped within these lines, and both make for some funny lines. And again, Matuk points at the performative concept of identity and the prevalence of a faith in metonymy. And the line breaks here are nice: the heavy emphasis on "cuz" and the two syllable, two word pattern becoming "yellow" at the end.


For the most part, Matuk observes and records the world around him, juxtaposing image and narrative with social commentary such as "Now you scrape / the wood to expose it / to the air / the creek at our feet / at cross currents / with itself / makes plain / the different / winds / that come / you work / the cars torque / around the ring of hills / above I see the skin / around you eyes / crease into your cheeks // The world would show its face" ("Poem at Bee Creek") and "A smog of finches let go the telephone line" ("On Entering My Mother's Bed.") Such observations are punctuated with philosophical and aesthetic moments such as "All poems are about money / speak and incarnate themselves / in the plain language of money // and in reading poems I learn / I am buck stupid nothing / when I fall to the side of money // while in the main, money / was there / with its arms upturned" ("Do the Moth.")


"But Richard, Will You Show Me an Ethic of Freedom?" is worth the price of the book alone.


And it's good to see someone writing about racial/ethnic identity who is willing to do so by breaking social etiquette in a way that can be unsettling: "St. Boniface doors / tarred to keep the spic / Catholics in at least / today I am among my whites / whom I love very much" ("Long Before and Shortly After.") And in similar passages throughout the book, Matuk keeps pointing out our colored world and keeps pointing out that our prejudices are thinly veiled at best.


Lord Jim is a brilliant book -- an incredible portrayal of Marlowe's search for some understanding of the interior of any human, his search to know if such an interior even exists. Matuk seems to have decided that such an interior doesn't exist and goes on to explore the pleasure and anxiety that goes along with having a freedom -- of sorts -- from a predetermined "nature."


A poem or book that inspires within me a series of questions is a poem or book that I most likely enjoyed very much.


10 May 2007

"Ye White Antarctic Birds" by Lisa Jarnot

Ye white antarctic birds of upper 57th street,
you gallery of white antarctic birds, you street
with white antarctic birds and cabs and white
antarctic birds you street, ye and you the
street and birds I walk upon the galleries of
streets and birds and longings, you the birds
antarctic of the conversations and the bank
machines, you the atm of longing, the longing
for the atm machines, you the lover of the
banks and me and birds and others too and
cabs, and you the cabs and you the subtle
longing birds and me, and you the
conversations yet antarctic, and soup and
teeming white antarctic birds and you the
books and phones and atms the bank
machines antarctic, and you the banks and
cabs, and him the one I love, and those who
love me not, and all antarctic longings, and all
the birds and cabs and also on the street
antarctic of this longing.

God, I love this poem. It starts off with such a bang of an impossibility and hurtles after it with ecstatic determination. And so what are these birds and where is this place? The poem begs those questions but almost immediately renders such questions moot with its insistence and repetition of those antarctic birds. Whatever and wherever the birds are, the birds are.

But it's worth thinking about at least the where part briefly. I assume Jarnot is referring to 57th Street in New York, one of the main shopping drags just south of Central Park lined with shops like Tiffany's.

So given that, there are ways of thinking about the birds as symbols of something, but that is the less interesting exercise I think. What's more interesting to me is the way the way the "ye," "you," "I" and "him" shift positions and the way the birds become a stand-in for the inexplicable, a way of saying the unsayable.

"Ye" and "you" refer to two different things at the beginning: "ye" to the antarctic birds and "you" to the streets. As soon as the "I" appears, "longing" also appears and the longing is perhaps connected to being in a "gallery," where one can look but not touch perhaps? can desire but not have? And the longing continues; the references to money increase, and the birds and streets and banks and cabs and you increasingly conflate, and longing begins to pervade all these things, "the subtle [now] longing birds."

And though objects and people conflate in the poem, the only communication in the poem is referred to as simply "conversation;" no one says anything to anyone, listens to anyone, or touches anyone. And eventually the conversations become "conversations yet antarctic."

So how to read "antarctic?" Frigid, remote, unpopulated?

So there's this presentation of being adrift and ecstatic and longing in the midst of this frigid, incomprehensible consumer-land. And yet there's also love, love at-large and small: "him the one I love" and "the ones who love me not." And all those "longings" finally meet "antarctic," and the poem ends in this incredible synthesis of all the permutations that have accrued throughout the poem, so whatever divisions may have existed between birds, cabs, ye, you, I, him, streets, etc. are connected in antarctic longing.

So all this chaos comes together in the end but not to closure; the poem comes together and opens generously and optimistically outward in a gesture of encompassing and compelling compassion.

When I read this poem, I feel like I know exactly how the experience of this poem feels -- that combination of excitement, doubt, longing, fear, joy, desire, and pessimism that makes me feel like I'm running along the edge of the world.