Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds
Almost 150 years after the release of Paris Spleen, subtitled Petits po’mes en prose and agreed by most opinionators to be the early landmark of the form, Baudelaire still offers the best definitions of the prose poem going (excluding the endlessly applicable "I know it when I see it.") In the preface addressed to Ars’ne Houssaye, Baudelaire writes (per Louis Var’se’s translation for the 1947 New Directions edition):
My Dear Friend, I send you a little work of which no one can say, without doing it an injustice, that it has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally.
So much about the prose poem as we know and love it is encapsulated in this remark. A poem in prose is a paradox, "both head and tail," but it is the kind of paradox that typifies the universe. It’s particle and wave. Everywhere and nowhere. "On the contrary" and "both." The prose poem even has a sort of fractal quality, to switch metaphors, since "everything in it" seems to replicate the paradoxical qualities of the whole.
Not only that, but Baudelaire anticipates that the prose poem will endure as poetry’s most gassed-about form, with wags pitching mots juste at it with the wild determination and variable aim of lit-up bluebloods tossing horseshoes in the sere Kennebunkport dust. For all this, the definition of the prose poem, its rules, its properties, refuse to stabilize, and critics and anthologizers alike are driven back to the "Know it when I see it," myth of origins, or care-and-feeding approach.
To my mind, the prose poem continues to confound because we do not know it when we see it, not exactly. We see that block of prose hanging there on the page or screen and we don’t know what kind of prose it’s going to be until we’re at least halfway through it, if ever. As if that weren’t enough, the prose poem calls into question our ability to "know" other poetic forms "when we see them," to know a poem at all. Q: What is a poem? A: That which holds stiff on the left side and breaks on the right—unless it doesn’t.
Which is to say that, like that of Gertrude Stein and perhaps L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the poetry of Baudelaire might be much imitated, but it is not wholly digested. Describe it as we may, refer to it, opine in whatever shrill or resonant tones we must, we don’t know quite what it is yet, we haven’t made it into something else, and we certainly aren’t done with it. That’s why a book like Irregular Numbers of Beasts and Birds by doctor-poet Cecil Helman is so tonic, so gratefully received. Here is a book of petits po’mes en prose which, despite occasional feints into Edsonian orbits, is Baudelairean in its kernelized intensity, its pen-scratching pace, its ironies, even its rainy, urban images and personnel. These poems hardly seem written in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Witness
Take these flowers, my love. Think of me. Hold their petals up against the light, like you once held me. Feel the warm light flowing through them, onto your cheek. Through me, your stained-glass window, onto your cheek. Warm reds and oranges caressing your skin. Cerise, purple, dark greens, sometimes shades of blue. Feel the warmth. Feel the play of my light on your body. The intricate stories I tell, the images that glow in the dark. Take this bouquet, my love. It’s for you.
To be sure, this is less splenetic than melancholic, and perhaps Helman’s medical training prevents him from relishing excess of spleen. But the mode of address here is Spleen-ishly disturbing; the ultra-conventional opening address to the lover ("Take these flowers, my love.") establishes not a romantic intimacy but an uneasy proximity, like a stranger on a subway suddenly whispering past—or into– one’s ear. If the Baudelairean mode often leads Helman to queer arrondissements, it allows him to circumvent the small ess surreality of the Edson-imitators or the dutiful syntax-smashing of those boarding indefinitely at the School of Stein.
The unit of composition here does not seem to be the sentence so much as the poem, the gem-like whole. The first sentence of each of these poems is like the raised baton of a conductor: "Old man with a white beard, who are you?"; "Oh dear Mr. Palette, I am so particularly pleased to see you today."; "See that artist over there, with beret, brushes?" The rest of the short poem is the entire symphony elapsing in one dense, dynamic chord. The sentences do not seem to displace each other so make the same gesture again and again, to darken and enrich its hues. The punchline, even, as in this "Bouquet" poem, merely rewrites the first sentence, drives its trajectory out of the poem and into unmarked, uneasy space.
In distinction to Baudelaire’s poems, then, the best of Helman’s are not marked by a capricious twist, breakthrough or acte gratuit. They merely continue, with dogged oddness, doing what they do.
Three poets in an empty house. A poetry reading. There’ve been adverts in all the papers, announcements on the air. They’ve stuck up posters, handed out flyers. Everywhere in the city. Yet still they wait. Still the rows of empty chairs. Frantically they pace the bare floor-boards. High above their anxious heads, naked light bulbs dangle from the ceilings. Soon sonnets echo plaintively among the cavernous spaces. Bouncing off dusty window-panes, bare unpainted walls. Staggering through empty, echoing rooms, they mouth their verse. Beautiful, finely-crafted poems. All about Loneliness. And Alienation.
As with the poems in Spleen, the serious irony of this poem is a challenging flavor for the contemporary reader to negotiate. The poem stages the mundane occurrence, the unattended poetry reading (ahem), as an ultimate artistic triumph, a success-in-failure, in which the empty house serves as proscenium, stage and audience for the poems "about Loneliness. And Alienation." The last two phrases, which would be laugh-line in the hands of 99% of contemporary poets, seem utterly serious here because they are of a piece with what’s come earlier. With these final capitalized abstractions, its as if the poem finally hoists its two mauvish sails to coast permanently off into Oblivion.
Given the, well, sublimity of moments like these, the more Edson-lite