Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nursery Rhymes

I was looking through an old book of nursery rhymes recently. I like nursery rhymes for two reasons. Firstly, they are usually the first exposure kids have to rhythm and rhyme, which although largely distained by the current poetry establishment, I feel are something integral to our enjoyment of language and even what makes us human. Secondly, they seem so ancient that it feels like tapping into some vast historical consciousness just to recite them. There’s something particularly interesting to me about folk culture that has survived this long. We can easily listen to music and poetry that is hundreds of years old (even thousands, for poetry), but that is usually in the form of J. S. Bach or John Milton—the old stuff that got popular and was kept in print or in repertory for centuries. For some reason I get more excited upon finding folk culture preserved, as if it is somehow older, even though it isn’t. I marvel more when a Victorian novel mentions a folk dance I know rather than a famous poet.

So, back to the book of nursery rhymes. Some I knew. Some I didn’t know I knew until I read them, and then the memory of them came rushing back to me from wherever it was buried:
A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
But now you come at noon.
Some I had never heard, but seemed to fit exactly with the intriguing nonsense that makes up Mother Goose:

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread and some gave them brown.
Some gave them plumb cake and drummed them out of town.
I find myself wondering if there is hidden historical significance buried in this poem, as there is reputed to be in “Froggy Went a-Courting”, for instance. The lion and the unicorn are both supporters of the British monarchy’s coat of arms… It sounds like there was some internal conflict… Do the baked goods have particular significances? There may be something there.

Some rhymes I had never heard before, and easily saw why:

See saw, Margery Daw
Sold her bed to lay in the straw.
Was she not a dirty slut
To sell her bed and lie in dirt!
Er… yeah. Like the version of Cinderella where the wicked step sisters cut off their toes, that one is better left out of library storytime.

The purpose of this post, though, was the discovery of further verses to “Little Bo-Peep”. I thought about Frank McCourt’s account in his memoir Teacher Man of discussing “Little Bo-Peep” with his class of high school students. His analysis of the poem was that even though Bo-Peep worried, everything turned out OK in the end:

Leave them alone and they’ll come home
Bringing their tails behind them
McCourt extended this into a metaphor about his own students, and his realization that as a teacher he didn’t need to fret about them. They would get there eventually. Some may be a little slow, some may go in the wrong direction at first, but leave them alone, and they’ll succeed in their own time. I liked the interpretation, and didn’t think more of it until I found the following verses:
Little Bo-Peep fell fast asleep
And dreamt she heard them bleating
But when she awoke she found it a joke
For they were still a-fleeting

Then she took up her little crook
Determined for to find them.
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they’d left their tails behind them.
Maybe it’s the English major in me, but this seems fraught with loss of innocence and coming of age. I almost could have believed that William Blake wrote it. Negligence leads to loss, and the recovery is incomplete. Innocence is not restored. But here’s the thing: the sheep were always going to lose their tails anyway. It was just a matter of time. It wasn’t Little Bo-Peep’s fault, though she saw it as her fault, and the poem even kind of implies that it is her fault, too. The lambs went through the bloody rite of passage, and Mary wasn’t there to protect them. But she couldn’t really have protected them anyway. There’s food for thought for high school teachers.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Hospital Odyssey – Gwyneth Lewis

Gwyneth Lewis has undertaken an epic task with her narrative poem, A Hospital Odyssey. Maris’s husband, Hardy, is diagnosed with cancer and taken to a hospital. Maris follows, intent to stay with him, but she can’t keep up, and is forced to wander the hospital, where she encounters surreal allegories. Each vignette explores some aspect of love, disease, and the health care system. The work is infused with the spirit of The Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman. Maris encounters a Knight Templar who is resigned to wait eternally in heavy armor, the only gesture of solidarity and love for a terminally ill partner he sees possible; a woodpecker of a nurse who flits about and pecks, but is more concerned with paperwork than caring; a trolley handing out sympathy illnesses. Lewis’s creativity is unbound in her use of surreal imagery.

When I first realized that I was holding a piece of narrative verse, I rejoiced. I haven’t read anything like this since Wendy Cope’s The River Girl. Poetry has been so divorced from narrative and verse in the past century that a book such as this is almost audacious. A Hospital Odyssey is written in five-line stanzas, which keep up an irregular rhyme. Here a druid talks to Maris:
“Let’s cut to the chase. What did he do wrong,

to get the cancer?” “I don’t understand…”
“He must have done something awful to bring
this illness on himself, must have sinned.
Was it resentment? Was it love unbound

by the usual limits? Or was it fear
of relationships? Rage at someone?
His mother? You need to help me here,
give me a clue – half the fun
is working out what a person’s done

to earn bad karma.”
Through eleven “books”, one hundred and thirty-six pages, Maris journeys, with occasional first-person asides from the narrator. The book is interesting, and creative, and I admire it immensely. As a result I felt truly guilty each time I noticed something difficult or jarring, because to have written something this Herculean in scope amongst the tepid sea of so much contemporary poetry is already a victory.  I wish to assert that before mentioning two things.

Firstly, I found I liked it better when I stopped treating it like verse. The rhymes are too irregular, or too oblique (“tired” and “stirred”, “consultant” and “confident”), and the meter is too loose for either to become an organizing principle. Most lines are enjambed; very few end on the natural end of a phrase. This isn’t The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, where the verse is so regular it almost becomes a chant. This allows Lewis a lot of leeway and flexibility, but the effect of the verse was lost. Instead, I thought of it as an epic poem in translation and felt right at home. The story is so soaked in the juice of epics that most of us read in translation anyway, that it feels appropriate.

Secondly, I found it difficult to get into the story because the plot was not so much a plot as a series of stops along a journey intended to illustrate a principle. I know that’s like accusing ice cream of not being chocolate cake: Lewis never intended to write a novel. Nevertheless, I found it hard to get excited about talking symbols and clever allegories in the same way I get excited about real people. Of course, I found that difficult reading Dante, too.

In the end, I recommend Gwyneth Lewis’s A Hospital Odyssey – may we be graced with more poets brave enough to appropriate and recreate literary tradition in this way.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

idEAL CiTiES – Erika Meitner

Although one of the things I love about poetry is the new depth that each successive reading of a poem brings, first impressions do count. Some poems need warm-up time, but most really good poems have some instant spark that ignites or hook that sinks in, even if you can’t put your finger on what it is. So it is with Erika Meitner.

Her new collection, idEAL CiTiES, is the first I’ve read anything of Meitner’s, but I’m glad I found her. Thought it’s not written in what I would call my preferred style, the details and the word were somehow instantly appealing. She spoke to me.

She writes unadorned yet insightful free-verse meditations; they are expressive and rich though not ornate and overwrought. What is special, though, is simply what and how she observes the world—what connections she makes, what images she juxtaposes.
In Dispraise of Heat

The baby has a 104 fever this morning.
I pump him full of Motrin.
Our neighbor Ruth insists on cold washcloths.

She tells me to put them in his armpits.


My friend from grade school died this week.
He had been missing for days before they found him in a subway.

His mother went to the Bronx one morning.
One morning like any other she went to identify his body.
I describe my son’s fever to strangers.

I say he is burning up.
A woman leaves and iron on a white shirt.
She is subject to domestic distractions.
This positioning of images of “everyday tragedy”, and the matter-of-fact tone, give a sense of helplessness, a new significance to everyday details, and an observation about fate and life, all at the same time. The details of lives of strangers, with a focus on tragedy and children, build on each other into something more powerful that can be said explicitly. The poem concludes:

In grade school my father put a chain-link fire ladder under my bed.
Just in case, he said, so I thought right away of leaving.

But we will implement measures.
We will place cool hands on the foreheads of burning sons.
We will return them gently to bed.

A woman warms herself by a woodstove.
Her skirt shifts in the heat and it is nearly always fatal.
You can hear it in the whistle of the kettle.
Much of what Meitner writes about involves motherhood, and her young son specifically. The poems, though, are collected threads of narrative and observation that weave in and out; the significance of the connection seems to be the point of the poem. “Careful”, for instance, moves from dropping a Pyrex dish, to the speaker’s son falling, to a memory of a broken glass, leading to memories of a road trip, connected to a more recent one for which the photographs were accidentally erased. From there to panning for gold, a neighbor’s careless mothering, and back to Pyrex dishes. Throughout, motifs such as dropping, gold, loss, and sons connect the disparate ideas. I am reminded by this of the singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson, very different in her prosody but similar in this regard. The connections found in the everyday, unembellished yet precise, are allowed to carry the whole weight of the emotion. The result is touching and real.