Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Gardens of Verse: Poems about Unspeakable Subjects

            I had a professor, and a very good one, who once spoke about "the poetry of the ineffable."
            That's a word for what's all around us but cannot be easily named or defined, if at all. 
             Common as the air we breathe, but just as hard to see. The feeling of being home again after a period away. Recognizing a voice on the telephone before a single word is understood. The last dribbly bits of consciousness before we sleep. The little twitch of nerves that tells you it's time to get up. Life, love, the universe. 
              The ineffable, by its standard definition, means "incapable of being expressed or described in words."
And yet here they are, poets -- going at it in the August edition of Verse-Virtual.  (
You can say it's part of the job. 

 Tom Montag's poem "Speak, Tree" brings me right up against the moment when I stare at a tree, or a line of them, against a blue sky, something I do a lot, particularly in summer. Is there a term for this activity? I don't think so. The poem begins:

Speak, tree, of all
you've seen, your whole
life holding sky.

 I've never thought of that relationship ("holding sky") between trees and sky, in quite that way. And when we contemplate trees against sky are we doing what this poem suggests: asking the tree to share its wisdom with us? There's no common word or expression for that relationship, either. But now we have a poem for it. 
             Tom's poem "In the Margin" also approaches experience for which we do not commonly have words: The gap, or distance, or connection, between "here" and "there," and between "new, now" and "old." How do we get from one to the other? His poem offers us a way to think about the problem (or is the solution?) in its wonderfully concluding phrase: "this leap between.

            Penny Harter's poem "Deja Vu" seems to me about an equally unknowable quality, the what-ness of existence, to which the poem keeps throwing lifelines of meaning. In a stanza about "the future," already compared to the "neighboring field" or something waiting "around the next bend," she writes :

What has already happened there wraps itself firmly
around our flesh like a rope hauling a climber up
the slippery scrabble of a nameless mountainside.

             The present isn't any easier than the future to grasp in our minds. In what appears to be a related poem about time -- "Just Now," one of those good old ineffables -- the poet depicts some of the sensations of an instant of time as

washing through the wall into a ghostly form
whose half-life I cannot catch in my net.

I don't know how many removes this array of imagery takes us from the 'thing in itself,' but the poem's imagery -- the half-life of a ghostly form washing through a wall -- gives us a good idea of what we're up against when we try to catch hold of the present.

           "The Swimmer" by Donna Hilbert is a vividly poetic reminiscence that mingles some enduring mental snapshots of what sounds to me like early adolescence just the way her characters, after swimming in the rich kids' pools, mix experimental sauces for magical ends:

we dipped crackers
in mustard, Worcestershire,
any liquid found in their kitchen
went into our sauce,
an extra-strength potion.
We dipped, ate, were transformed
into amazing girls...

We have no words, certainly no completely rational explanation, for how we change from what we were to what we have become. Perhaps some little bit of what we were survives the transformation. 

The problematic idea of time runs through David Graham's poem "Most of the Time We Live Through The Night" -- an intriguing title borrowed from Robert Bly.

Most of the time Sunday has
little to tell Saturday night, and almost nothing
Monday morning needs to hear
A second poem, titled "No Recent Activity," suggests that while 'most of the time' we make it through our nights, we won't make it through all of them. This poem addresses another of these hard to put into words subjects, in large measure because we choose not to talk about i... as Keats did in a poem titled "When I have fears that I may cease to be." 
And this poem does to:

It's all air eventually, That's exactly 
what we hate and deny every breathing day.
You don't need to stroll the cemetery
to feel earth's friction rub against you.

Great image. Ah, there's the rub.

The submerged subjects in Robert Wexelblatt's "The Entanglers" appear to me to be love, desire and inspiration. The poem's speakers are the mythical Sirens, who at one point complain about the kind of guy too wrapped up his self-involvement to be allured.             Some guys you just can’t reach; duty hardens
            their souls or music is just a cage to
            them or they can’t get into voices that
            are nude, cool, humid, smooth, round, inveigling
            with words beneath words, sound under sound,
            who never go beyond sandy shallows
            to the bottom of green forgetfulness.
Possibly, their complaining about a bad lyricist. If these guys can't get into voices that are "
nude, cool, humid, smooth, round, inveigling
            with words beneath words," 
I probably wouldn't like their songs either. 
If "Euterpe" (the title of Wex's second poem) is, as I understand, the muse described as "the giver of delight," I definitely want her around. But, once again, where did the time go? The flow and tacking of the poem's final phrases 

...or guess with what
sore regret you would yearn ever after
to behold once more her illegible smile. 
is a fine cruise brought gracefully to shore.