Monday, September 27, 2010

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves – Gwendolyn Brooks

I know this is intended to be a review of upcoming or just-published poetry, and it will continue to be.  I have to take a slight diversion to address a poem of Gwendolyn Brooks' that I came across and couldn't leave alone, even though it's from 1974.

The poem is "The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves, or, What You Are You Are", and it begins,
There once was a tiger, terrible and tough
Who said, "I don't think tigers are stylish enough."
So he gets himself some white gloves, and every animal in the jungle laughs at him.  The poem ends,

     They shamed him and shamed him
     Till none could have blamed him
     When at last, with a sigh,
     And a saddened eye,
     And in spite of his love,
     He took off each glove,
     And agreed this was meant
     All to prevail:
     Each tiger content with his lashing tail
     And satisfied
     With his strong striped hide.
Brooks' moral is that you should be satisfied with who you are, but there's a big problem here: the tiger was  content with his gloves, and the jungle forced him to be something he wasn't.  He wasn't satisfied in the end, just humiliated into submission.  Since when should the jungle get to decide what it means to "be ourselves"?  I wrote a response in verse:
There once was a tiger, terrible and tough
But he got put back in his place, sure enough
Gwendolyn told
How the jungle should scold
Any tiger who wants to be dainty, not rough
What gall to think that a tiger might choose
What clothing to wear or what manners to use
You might call it... uppity.  Yes, that's the word
For a tiger who comtemplates something absurd
The jungle knows best, and will tell you, post haste
If some part of you is not quite to their taste
Hawks should be hawks and doves should be doves
Tigers wear stripes but never white gloves
White should act white and black should act black
And no one should grumble about something they lack
Is that what you're saying, Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks?
Despite our love, give in to the jungle's harsh looks?
Don't marry whom you please
Don't strike for fair wages
Don't rise from your knees
Get used to your cages
Don't love what you love

And don't wear white gloves
 Back to contemporary poetry soon.  Next up, Ideal Cities by Erika Meitner.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dirty Looks – Cheryl Follon

Cheryl Follon fills her new poetry collection, Dirty Looks, with anonymous monologues in a variety of voices. Many are inflected by a particular culture, many have to do with love and sex, none are moany, preachy, navel-gazing or hand-wringing (all things that will kill a poem). The ultimate result: pretty good.

Modest praise can sometimes be more damning than harsh criticism, and this isn’t meant to be. Damning, that is. It is, however, modest praise, akin to Ford Prefect’s edited characterization of the Earth as “mostly harmless”, or a fellow writing teacher’s review from a student: “slightly better than some other teachers.”

The poems that didn’t get off the ground simply lacked impact, something memorable or unique, some purpose, yet remained intellectually interesting. But instead of focusing on those, I’ll include two I quite liked.

Curse Poems


O silent queen of the long afternoon,
     the silver slice, the pretty cake,
          the tinkling china teacups
         Where’d you get those liver spots
     and those hairs above your lip?
Whoever thought you’d get so old so soon?

That’s not some jive record you’re hearing.
     They’re carving out your coffin
          from a load of dirty boards
         found on Pontchartrain’s shores.
    They’ve laid them on the lawn;
the nails are picked, the fast saw’s moving.
This is out of character for the collection because it’s not about love and/or sex, but the images really stick with me. I love the creepy feeling of other people building your coffin, and building it too quickly. The haunting sound of your own coffin being built by anonymous people you can’t stop is effective; I love the image, too, that the nails are already chosen, and merely have yet to be driven in.

Really Drunk in Matassa’a Bar

Sweetness, I’ll give you something to tell her –
And straight from the hip.
Tell her she’s a two-faced –

no, no – let’s have that rephrased –
a useless Quasimodo-like –
wait a minute the words are on my tongue.


Tell her I’ve had my hair all cut
and it suits my face.
It looks like the real thing.

Tell her I’ve got a new wardrobe
and no one’s surprised.
Tell her I’ve matched it all with pricy boots.

Tell her I’ve shed off those extra pounds;
or, in fact – no, no –
tell her I’ve put a whole load on.

Tell her I’m always dining out
and you’ve heard stories
I’m rolling in at dawn and I’m laughing.
This is more typical of the monologue poems that Follon likes, but it’s more casual in register than most. Perhaps that’s why so much character can come through. I can imagine this conversation perfectly. The phrasing sounds realistic but also poetic. Of course, the irony and the meaning beyond the text, are crucial to the poem, and my favorite thing about it.

Another I won’t retype here is “Cute Little Rooster”. The poem is intriguing: it is spoken to a rooster who is dressed up, paraded around, used for sex and then killed and eaten. It brings out wonderfully uncomfortable connotations of ancient ritual, Rabelaisian carnival and old folk song. The only problem is that like with so many poems, writing in free verse makes the language itself uninteresting. A+ for ideas and content; C+ for style.

Expect more reviews soon – I have just received more books in the mail.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Favorite Lines

I had mentioned in a previous post that one of the things I love about a poem is a line that sticks in my head. I thought I would mention some of my favorites.

Robert Bly does not write the kind of poetry that I typically enjoy, but one line of his struck me so much that when I heard it on the radio (Garrison Keilor’s A Prairie Home Companion) I wrote it down and have not been able to forget it since:

We are perishable, friends. We are salty, impermanent kingdoms.
Something about those words in conjunction says everything. We are salty. We are impermanent. We are kingdoms. “Kingdoms” speaks to our grandeur, even the lowliest of us—we each are a civilization unto ourselves. We are literally “salty”—our blood, our sweat—salt makes it possible for our nerves to conduct impulses. But this detail is so un… un-humanist (?) that it is almost comical, and we are reduced and humbled in the mundane literalness of the observation. And yet the observation of our impermanence being addressed to “friends” belies that lowliness with comforting inclusivity.

I know I have an amazing poem when it actually physically chokes me up. This stanza of Ben Johnson’s, writing on the death of his young son, often does that:

Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
The phrase “soft peace” touches me, and does the idea that someone might ask the son about himself, wherever he ends up. Touching, too, is the idea that his son is the best thing Johnson ever made.

The third I’ll include here is a classic line, but it has always stuck with me. I think T. S. Eliot’s strength lies not in his complete poems, but in single gems of observation within those poems:
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.
The line in question, that last one, would be banal by itself, but as the culmination of Eliot’s previous verse, that simple line of ten, flat, one-syllable words hits like a lead weight. It needs no big words—it feels so direct and confessional that I can hear the ache and the dread wrapped up in those words.

We need some comments on this blog. I invite readers, whomever and wherever you are, to share your favorite lines and verses.