Friday, August 13, 2010

FLOOD SONG, by Sherwin Bitsui

At first these poems seem pretty accessible. They're mostly composed of standard subject verb object sentences, a familiar form, and often each line is a separate clause:

He wanted to hold back gas-soaked doves with a questioning glance;
he wanted the clock to tick downwind from this gavel and pew

(page 22)

I started reading and felt comfortable with the format. The rhythms were like rhythms from normal prose, only slightly exaggerated by the use of line breaks.

But as I continued reading, I realized something: I wasn't taking very much in. My eyes would flow over the words in each line, the lines on each page, and I'd finish one page and go on to another. Ten pages later I'd pause and realize I'd noticed hardly any of what I'd just read. A few disjointed images here and there, maybe the product of a dozen words. The rest completely failed to penetrate.

I started looking at the poems more closely. The superficially familiar structure lulled me, I decided. It made me read at a normal pace, but what I read wasn't familiar enough for my mind to absorb it at that rate. Despite my fluency in the form, the actual content is pretty foreign.

Part of this stems from, I think, a less linear, less event-oriented subject matter than what I am familiar with. FLOOD SONG isn't like, for example, Frost's "The Road Not Taken," in which we've got a definite subject (the narrator) in a definite place (a fork in a path) doing a definite action (considering which way to go). At first FLOOD SONG might seem that way, because so many of the lines have subjects performing actions. But Frost's poem keeps us grounded in one place, and we follow along as one thing is done. It's a reality-based sort of narrative. Bitsui, on the other hand, might give us someone doing something in one line, but the next line could be (and probably will be) someone else doing something else. And the things that are being done don't make logical sense.

Sometimes this becomes really complex:

In a cornfield at the bottom of a sandstone canyon,
wearing the gloves of this song tightly over closed ears;
the bursting sun presses licks of flame
into our throats swelling with ghost dogs
nibbling on hands that roped off our footprints
keeping what is outside ours tucked
beneath the warmth of their feet cooling to zero

(page 56)

What's happening here? First, in the first line, we're given a location: a cornfield at the bottom of a sandstone canyon. Then, in the next two lines, we're given a subject (the bursting sun, which is wearing 'the gloves of this song' over closed ears), and the subject is doing something (pressing licks of flame into our throats). But as soon as we're given that--a thing doing an action in a place--the next line further complicates the concept by having the thing that is being done to (our throats) also doing something (swelling with ghost dogs). And then the ghost dogs are doing something (nibbling on hands), and then the hands have done something (roped off our footprints), and then something else (I'm not sure what) is keeping what is outside ours (and what does 'ours' refer to?) tucked beneath the warmth of their feet (not the feet themselves, but the warmth of those feet) as they are cooling to zero.


Anyway, it's complicated. We've got concepts stacked inside of concepts stacked inside of other concepts, like the proverbial Russian nesting dolls, and if we just read over it at a regular pace we're not going to have a chance in hell of understanding, or even noticing, everything that's going on. Actually, even if we read slowly and deliberately, and break things down line by line, we still can't really come up with anything solid.

So reading for literary meaning doesn't really work with FLOOD SONG. What then are we supposed to harvest from this book? I didn't really find a lot of strong, descriptive language, so the poems didn't offer me vivid imagery. I might have noticed a mild tone of melancholy, but it didn't feel pronounced enough to really compel me to keep reading, so the poems don't communicate much emotion. Obviously, the poems yield a bit more if the reader puts work into the reading. But is what they yield worth the effort?

Not to me.

Maybe this reflects a shortcoming on my part, as a reader. Maybe I'm just not getting it, or maybe I'm too lazy. But in the end, no one is paying me to read poetry (or anything else, for that matter). I read for pleasure, I read to imbue my life with meaning. There are more books of poetry out there than I'd ever be able to read, so I might as well choose to read the books I find most rewarding. FLOOD SONG is not one of those books.

Makes me think of Bukowski's drunken speech at the start of POETRY IN MOTION. I'm often leery of Buk's macho posturing, and I'm not one to pronounce another's work as value-less. But from a personal perspective, I can relate to what he's saying.

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