The less I think I know about a poet, the better the chance I’ll take to the book, as long as I can work out what I’m looking at and sail between oh that and I don’t get it.
(Sometimes I like the comforts of recognition, and sometimes I enjoy getting a little disoriented, sure. Odysseus versus Goldilocks.)
This may be why many longtime readers of poetry perk up at the possibility of something new or different. It’s like meeting someone, without the burden of actually having to know them.
(As opposed to why new readers are likelier to like the new—they don’t know yet how much better they’re going to like what was already there.)
Meet Annette Basalyga.
Somebody’s done a bad job cutting my throat.
Under my jaw a sling of fire wants action at half-past three.
In hours when murder, love, and childbirth send up their balloons,
I cringe to entertain my talent for the miniature.
I need cotton. I need aspirin.
I need to get to the hospital ten miles away.
(from “Earache in Cape Cod”)
This is a little like the sign at the farmer’s market advertising the new crop of apples as “hard as cement, tastes like grass.” Unpromising. A poem about an unpleasant experience, rendered in plain end-stopped lines, the physical sensations clear enough for a moderately empathic reader to start feeling claustrophobic from the pain.
It isn’t pretty but it’s real, which would be the end of the story if poetry were identical with rhetoric, which it isn’t.
This is the opposite of confessional poetry, the retailing of glamorous past awkwardnesses as proof one’s made it through the chrysalis stage. An earache is pure non-symbolic emergency that confers no status other than the ones they give out in triage. No claim is made for the speaker, and no claim is made on the reader other than: identify. Empathize. Let’s get through this.
Critics don’t talk about prosody much these days—it tends to break up the rhythm of the review. That’s ok. Music critics don’t talk much about how particular beats or chord changes work either. They write little poems about what the music is like.
(My guesses why critics avoid discussing prosody: a) the incomprehensible impertinent quality of all previous discussions of prosody, b) the tyrannical prescriptive quality of all previous discussions of prosody, c) a combination of the two leading to the diffuse superstition that describing the rhythm of a poem is a step away from decreeing that all poems will henceforth be written in the rhythm just described.)
I’ve been rereading this poem this whole book not out of morbid curiosity but for the pleasure of the prose rhythm; the lengthening declaratives culminating in a string of polysyllables that remind me of Marianne Moore (“to entertain my talent for the miniature”), two short sentences that interrupt the gathering rhythm, then another longer one, which the rhythm makes sound all the more sensible, if tantalizing. Ten miles hasn’t sounded that far to me since I tried to run it.
Basalyga does brisk business in homebound physical extremity. On the facing page from “Earache” is “Going Blind,” a little graphic novel of ostranenie:
Each day he wakes to catch a different scene.
The patterns are landscapes, unpeopled and remote,
places he has never seen. These are the hills of Samarkand,
he thinks, the Costa Brava, Patagonia.
There is so much to see.
He can easily ignore three whiskers, thick as broomsticks,
and his own life-sized reflection in the closing,
green ellipse pleading, Feed me. Feed me.
This isn’t quite Bishop’s deny deny deny, but I get some of the same charge from the rhythmic change that last repeated phrase brings. And it’s nowhere near Schuyler’s compression or impossible urbanity (he’d use a gazetteer or more likely memory to come up with place names less infradig than ones in circulation as clothing brands), but it’s in the same region, if not the same zip code. The failures of the senses in Basalyga’s work lead to tensions of recognition, feeling, and basic need, the inverse of falling in love, say. The magnified portrait of the cat’s face at the end of the poem is a brittle, brutal reminder—when you get lost in your perceptions (in art or otherwise) there is someplace you are lost from.
Basalyga’s best qualities can be mistaken for merely pithy, sensible or contrarian; I read her as memorable, level and contrary:
On Saturday, all afternoon
a gardener kills by appointment
a tree I’ve known since childhood.
Its roots endanger water lines.
The allegory’s there, but I’m more interested
in how the work is done
and if I’ll like the view.
She builds her poems around opportunities for sentimentality, which are after all occasions for feeling. (If you want to drive a poet crazy, and isn’t that the goal of our whole culture, ask about feeling in his or her work. It’s even better than asking “So, what’s your work about?”) She doesn’t always sidestep false moves. Even in a poem about the childhood psychology of poverty as reflected in the requirement to wear slippers around the house, though, the affect and the embodied sense data (“sliding over the yellow linoleum, over the rag rugs”) combine and come through to the reader. There’s a person here, not a hash of ideas.
At her most intense she’s as good as the movies:
1955. Over Oregon, an accident.
What he was doing, when the door opened,
wasn’t reported. Whatever happened,
when the copilot was sucked from the plane
he caught the stair cables and held on. Never mind
the winds at two hundred and ninety mph
changing his face into a star, his eyes singing
and another sound in his head like hammered light,
he held on.
(from “How Love Lasts”)
Frank O’Hara reserved the status of “better than the movies” for just three American poets: Whitman, Crane and Williams, and as punishment has been added posthumously to his own list. Movies were different then, I think; now it’s mainly an art of instilling pain, awe, and dazed identification, and anyway I’m only saying Basalyga has kept up: she knows how to maximize the tension and release in every death-defying (and -seeking) scene. And like a time traveler from poetryland circa the early seventies, she feels no inhibition about turning it to an epiphanic ta da:
When the ground crew got to him,
they cut away the icy rags that were his clothes,
they cut the cables from his hands that wouldn’t open.
He was alive.
I’m the copilot, the pilot, and Portland.
I doubt such a nervy rhetorical gesture would have made much of an impact forty years ago, but coming into print as it does now in a time of intentionally colorless lyric, the charm of it stands a chance. Lifer’s blurb from Marvin Bell indicates that Basalyga may have narrowly missed a first crack at destiny as a household name: Basalyga “probably never knew that her classmates in the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop of the sixties thought her the most graceful writer in the room.”
The title strikes me as a weary, cheerful ironic nod to her tortoise-of-the-fable quality. The only explicit acknowledgement in the text that she’s playing a long game is unobjectionable enough: “Give up the small notebook you carry; / get a large folder or a bushel basket. These histories / arrive in their own time” (from “Comfort”). Good advice, if what you want from poetryland is poems, and not a career. Basalyga clearly wants poems. It’s a practical choice, not a moral high ground, and she cheerfully caricatures the grimness of it:
Head for a house inland, a clearing in the woods, not gingerbread
but Unabomber mode, a cabin, curtainless and filthy, windows
plastered with the classifieds, and inside, a table
with an odd triangular stain, bare mattress, stone for a pillow,
a clutch of poultry waiting to be eaten, needing care.
(from “In Seclusion”)
The mixed consequences, in this case, of a life with the poems mainly to the exclusion of peers, are that the poems are splendidly rereadable testaments to isolation and relationships ranging from fraught to winsome. Well, Alfred Kazin said something to the effect of loneliness being the American theme, so there’s that.
Dozens of these poems have stayed in my mind since I first picked up the book in March or April. That doesn’t happen to me very often. A few poems are on the inconsequential side, a few I think I’ve seen done elsewhere. Mostly, though, she’s a weird original, even as she makes a sonnet from an offhand remark taken increasingly seriously:
NOW YOU SEE IT
Any kind of animal might come out of these woods.
From as far back as you can see
or remember, out from the openings
between the trees,
winking and lolling, upright
or on all fours,
it comes to share a honeycomb or bone.
It has been growing all the while,
battening on the damp, green years.
Now it makes for the clearing where you are.
Its perfectly round eyes glow.
Its mouth appraises what you have become.
It has come to claim you.
It is saying the word master.
A terrific debut, and one that like every other book ever printed suggests more poets might do well to delay publication until they have 77 pages or so every one of which they can live with. The poems may end up looking old-fashioned, but poems always do. What is rarer, they may end up worth looking at.