Memory Cards and Adoption Papers
When I worked at the art gallery ten years ago, Ted Greenwald told me a few times to hurry up and get my first book out of the way so I could get down to business. But what about Wallace Stevens? I said. What about him, Ted said.
Some second books are such about-faces from their author’s debuts, mark such a radical shift in perspective on the problems addressed the first time round, you have to speculate what provoked the difference, e.g. Philosophical Investigations, or The New Testament. In the somewhat more parochial world of American poetry, The Tennis Court Oath comes to mind. So does Memory Cards and Adoption Papers. Susan M. Schultz, a professor at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa, is the editor of The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Her first collection, Aleatory Allegories, derives much of its vocabulary of evasion and abstraction from Ashbery’s middle period, from the cascading narratives of impersonal forces that stud Three Poems through the limpid and remorseful sarcasm of April Galleons. There’s even the hallmark of an Ashbery book: the frequently-pretty, very-long poem of indiscernible subject, in this case a blizzard of serial and subsidiary clauses titled “Holding Patterns”:
So good merely to think through
early morning, birds and helicopters
the music of this hour, a rustling above
me, as hope catches like a gear that isn’t yet stripped, nor bitterness
invoked by slights conceived not as
goads but as wounds to the body politic,
democratic institutions above all prone
to gridlock (not hemlock) like the pages
of a French notebook that organizes
letters as numbers, graphemes lost as
found in this farcical outpost
of the perfect tongue armed against
invasion and experiment. (AA, 72)
This isn’t strict quotation from the Book of John, though. With Chris Stroffolino, Schultz shares an ambition to improve on Ashbery’s resigned goofiness by reaching for Shakespearian effects and scope (in the passage above, by punning glumly, and using comparisons to subjects outside aesthetics, such as civics). The lead-off anthology piece “Mothers and Dinosaurs, Inc.,” insists that “puns do tell / us something” even as it circles its baseball-as-life bases; in these lines:
ifs are history’s best stories,
which even those in pin-stripes
knew as they logged in runs and
Schultz leans so hard on the secondary meanings (Yanks, Dodgers) I almost don’t see the evasive, jogging businessmen intended. Although she uses magisterial connectors, such as “so,” “such,” and “as if,” in most poems in Aleatory Allegories, Schultz does so in a conflict between claiming to understand life i.e. control it, and taking life seriously enough to admit she doesn’t know in advance how it will turn out.
Schultz’s style changes abruptly in Memory Cards and Adoption Papers. For starters, the verse sentences that ran for six or seven roughly octosyllabic lines are now prose phrases. The connectors are gone, changing the tone from skittish irony to something more heat-worn and patient:
My mother lived in North Africa during the War. Loved sunsets. Her amoebic dysentery, suffered for the better (worse) part of a year, paradoxically cured by mineral oil. Recalls a dead body stuffed in the garbage in Algiers. Watches war documentaries to see where she was when. (MCAP, 6)
Gone the asserted connections between abstractions; dizziness is fun for a while, but (pace Emerson) it’s more relaxing for everyone involved if the reader isn’t constantly being told how to understand. Out with over-determined (and avoided) subjects; in with specific characters in uncontrollable situations. Seeya, puns; hello, koans. “A young woman asks: ‘What do you do if there is a tiger outside your cave?’ Lama laughs. Old defenses are like remembered hostels. You must change yourself. Not Rilke, more reasonable.” (MCAP, 19) Eliot said that wit consists of being reasonable in the face of the lyric; this book’s wit tranquilly moves towards its subjects instead of running away from them. The resulting prose poems, with their domestic upheavals and random events, have the emotionally plugged-in, improvisatory feeling of a Mike Leigh movie.
And then the neighbor fell through our ceiling. It went like this. At 10 p.m. on Valentine’s Day we heard a man talking loudly, urgently, as if in the room with us. His wife had left him; he’d gone to a psychiatrist, “done the right thing” but it hadn’t worked; he’d lived on the street; he wasn’t using; he needed to clean out the termites, patch the walls; she’d left him nothing; he couldn’t stand the woman across the parking lot who beat up her child in front of him. Turns out he was by himself in the attic. His voice quieted and we went to sleep. At 1 a.m. the attic stairs screeched. This time there were other people with him: a former boss, a woman who couldn’t speak English, a black man who was chasing him. He stumbled and fell, his foot crashing through the ceiling of my study. “Is everyone all right?” he asked his colleagues. We called the police. The policewoman yelled for him to come down through his own unit. Now there was a SWAT team in the attic with him. We crossed to the other side of the parking lot, still heard him. She yelled again. A crash, shadow in the window. He stumbled out of our front door. Clutched a soft military cap, a toothbrush and a wrapped gift for his wife, who would, he insisted, be coming up the street in her white van at any moment. Taken away for 48-hour evaluation. Came back. Arrested for peeping at a woman breast-feeding her child while he, in women’s clothes, jerked off. His townhouse full of stolen panties. A pizza ad hangs on his doorknob.
Not to give the impression that Schultz is a hard-boiled realist — this is more focused and energetic a narrative than most in Memory Cards. But this poem records a breakthrough for Schultz. The constellating effect that up to this point yields enigmatic bright points suddenly snaps into a previously unknown but recognizable image. That this image elicits empathy, laughter, and anxiety all at once testifies to Schultz’s brilliance. Other writers (Ron Silliman or Barrett Watten, for example) have compiled gritty data into rectangle shapes, but they tend to release the tension in any given moment or case as they aim for a completeness that would indict the darkness. [Or, they’re brilliant too, but the political frame through which they evaluate themselves requires them to stick to the general, to stay on message, when they could be reclaiming the salient anecdote from the forces of Reagan.]
I’ve withheld until now one point. This clear-eyed book, which, like its predecessor, enjoys distorting syntax up to but not passing the point of imparsability, but otherwise differs so sharply, all but explains how the change came about. It has to do with its subject of motherhood: being a daughter, letting go of one’s own mother, being pregnant, miscarrying, aborting, and adopting. “It’s just a picture, Bryant says, not a baby. But it is the form of our baby, his precise measurement on photographic paper, his after-birth mark. I keep my eyes on the web.” (67) The batter’s mantra that Schultz modifies here catches exactly what I value so much in this book. Its motto is “to observe without judgment”; what it implies is that there is something worth attending to.