What It Is Like: New and Selected Poems
Impatience can be a virtue. It has a quickening, comic effect in the poems of Charles North:
Your recent letter is so stupid so utterly moronic its thanks for your letter of January 5th
a little difficult to believe it was
written by a human being let alone someone
who made it past second grade you
miserable bastard do you eat
from a plate
I enjoyed getting it
(“The Postcard Element in Winter”)
North, a philosophy-trained clarinetist, suffers from being labeled a New York School poet, third generation. His poems have the consistency of well-steeped tea, Barry’s or Lyons’; they are as energizing as coffee, but they stimulate rather than suppress appetite. Reading them, you become hyperaware of what’s going on around and inside you, the weather, unspoken feelings, difficulty, and sudden ease:
The dream: to have
And suppose you could have all the time?
Someone walks up and deposits
in your outstretched hand,
not time exactly; but
of all that is circumambient,
all that pure aura, the infinite possibility
that although no one thing is lost
nothing is exceptional.
Leaves pry out the distance
between new construction and the old
bright lights, massed for waterfront
and mixed use alike. The painter
pulls back, shades his eyes.
The New York tag is fair, true, even—those painterly leaves marking and blurring a boundary between a construction site and what I take to be streetlights by a river, may be somewhere on Cape Cod, may be by the West Side Highway, or maybe they’re in a painting by Rackstraw Downes. In any case, I suspect it sounds like plain English for the leaves to be prying anything let alone distance only in the context of poems written by someone who has spent a long time reading the work of James Schuyler, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. Another example: “mixed use” is a deliciously prosaic phrase snuck into this elevated lyric the way a suitcase of anvils is snuck into the opening scene of The Music Man. Even if immortality were a good idea, there would still be all this variegated experience demanding a response, and only sometimes getting one. Just as only so much of each harvest ends up in jars on grey metal shelves in the basement, painters can only preserve the aesthetic astonishment of so many inexplicably heartbreaking views. But after all each of us has only one heart.
This new New and Selected, North’s second, is sturdier and wearier than the previous version. While it has the benefit of twelve years’ more work, What It Is Like tells basically the same narrative: a hotshot kid, sublime technician of simile, ages beautifully into the role of maker of qualified remarks. But what similes they were, and what remarks now. Here are the opening lines of the book, from 1974’s Elizabethan and Nova Scotian Music:
Now that I am seeing myself as a totally different person
whose interests are like a street covered with slush
and whose every word rings like the ear of a spaniel
The soft, floppy shine of a dog’s ear only seems to ring to me when I read this poem, or remember it, and yet I do remember it, that spaniel ear, have for 25 years now. In their work, North’s close colleagues Tony Towle and the late Paul Violi share this talent for and interest in piling disorienting phrases—it’s a New York thing—but unlike most of their predecessors they care whether the reader can keep up. They get testy when the reader cannot:
brilliant apartment buildings facing west
all the purposes and prospects
none of which are mine, how can
I be so frantic as I sometimes
seem, or do I want to be
thought so, and by whom.
And by whom not, talking
not to talk, to distract
the orders who have our mouths and lingual structure
—or yours, you critical schmuck.
(from “A Note on Labor Day”)
But just as each of us is everyone in our dreams, the subject here is not, truly, some oaf who withholds approval and success from any of us, such oafs though there be. The subject in North’s poetry, which if it has a Bloomian precursor I guess we’ll call it Schuyler’s struggle, is between supreme self-confidence and the agony that comes with watching people who cannot write their way out of a grocery sack, well, write a lot of checks for groceries off work that has no grounding in anything like beauty, originality, or just basic accuracy of detail. I believe this accounts for North’s taste for statements that feel like inside jokes, their pleasant perversity always threatening to turn into chest-tightening anxiety, withholding satisfaction then releasing the reader, sometimes with a zinger, but more usually with a beautiful Hemingwayesque line or two about a natural scene.
Reading North, one wants to reassure him—it’s all there, what you put in the poem comes through. This is something that can be said of most poetry, of course, but in North’s case and the case of any poet worth reading, what he puts in is rather more than a few gross words and a single primary color feeling. I want to say it to North even when he’s quoting other poets, which he does better than practically anybody:
It sort of made me think a bit, that story that you told
All glamour, grace and witchery, all passion verve and glow,
The all-but-fluid silence,—yet the longing grows and grows.
Now wouldn’t you expect to find a man an awful crank!
For the debit side’s increasing in a most alarming way
From the vastitudes where the world protrudes through clouds like seas up-shoaled.
(from “Words from Robert W. Service”)
It wasn’t Wallace Stevens who said, “They have cut off my head, and picked out all the letters of the alphabet—all the vowels and consonants—and brought them out through my ears; and then they want me to write poetry! I can’t do it!” It was John Clare. Wallace Stevens said—something like—the best poems are the ones you meant to write. That has a nice sound but it’s hard to see how he or anyone would know that.
(from “The Philosophy of New Jersey”)
A sense that pleasure is often
pleasure of recognition which doesn’t depend
on prior experience–though one has had that too.
“Oh Winter, ruler of th’inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d,
Thy breath congeal’d upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fring’d with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age, thy forehead wrapt in clouds,
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slipp’ry way,
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dread as thou art!”
(from “For a Cowper Paperweight”)
The consolations of the poetry of the past are not really consolations—they’re harrowing reminders of the fragility of all things, Ozymandian rebukes of our own folly as much as that of idiot monument-makers. And yet, North’s readings lead me to forget the fruitless hours I’ve spent with the works of Service and Cowper and consider trying them again. If impatience is North’s default comic mode, his lyricism depends on a patience the vastness of which I can only guess at, the patience of a painter.
The newest poems here are at the level of his best work. “That the months line up before / they turn back into WW II fighters / and simply take off, / reluctantly but purposefully” is from a brief gorgeous meditation on insomnia. “The horizon / looks slept in” is about as nonchalant an observation as it’s possible to make. The poems I’ve seen here and there since the publication of this collection have this relaxed, intermittently happy and mournful quality about them in quantities.
Any discussion of North’s work must of necessity mention his lineups, which have been collected in Complete Lineups, a separate slim volume by Hanging Loose. It is the only book of contemporary poetry not written by a baseball player I recall seeing mentioned on mlb.com. The point, as North reiterates in the hilarious and poignant “Baseball As a Fact of Life” collected in What It Is Like, is not to identify the nine best examples of any given field, but rather to take a characteristic sample of the field, a few stars, some barely over the Mendoza line, and manage them—who goes in the heart of the order, who pitches:
I can see Milton as a power-hitting first baseman, though I admit I have a little trouble imagining Yeats catching anyone stealing. In “Baseball As a Fact of Life,” North recounts a (fictional) fight with a foreign film critic about a lineup of movies:
I am about to say, to my later and infinite humiliation, that I am willing to edit, at least the movie lineup, when I am stopped in my mental tracks. He is now in profile, hunched over as I first witnessed him, his entire being involved in whatever has produced its current mental and physical state, which has begun to produce in me a tinge of sympathy along with antipathy one naturally feels toward sheer evil or self-promotion (“Good news! I’ve just come out with the definitive book in your field!”), with the same thin strip of curling tape proceeding mysteriously from his hat, underneath his nose, and toward the bottom of his facial structure.
The impatience in this passage, in my lineup of qualities of North’s work, bats and plays third. (The similes lead off and play shortstop; the inside jokes bat and play second.) Closer to an actual ars poetica, a summary and take-it-or-leave-it articulation of his themes and modes, is “Note on Fog,” from 2001’s The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight:
I like Augustine’s calling lust a “fog.” Of course he didn’t say it in English and didn’t call it embarrassing. I also like the image of the critic who wouldn’t know a poem if it came up and bit him. I picture him, or her, not necessarily an evil person, having finished some minor chore like taking out the garbage, when this thing strikes. The fog of surprise and not, at least relatively speaking, the blood or teeth marks. The utter disorientation, seeing things and not seeing anything.
The book’s title poem responds to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat,” considering not bat-consciousness but two chained monkeys: “We know what it is like for them to have given up hope and to look only inward, while appearing to stare at the ring imprisoning them and the space just below the window in front, between it and us.” Empathy throughout North’s work has tended to be reserved for the disappointed, and it persists even now that the Red Sox have won multiple World Series, and North has had his work reprinted twice. But there are moments of uncomplicated delight and beauty here too, “a gold swath, or path,” and they play centerfield and bat cleanup.