Here we have Zach Savich thinking through Greg Lawless’s new chapbook from Back Pages Books.
Frost, snide in 1935:
“Science put it into our heads that there must be new ways to be new. Those tried were largely by subtraction—elimination. Poetry, for example, was tried without punctuation. It was tried without capital letters. It was tried without metric frame on which to measure the rhythm. It was tried without any images but those to the eye; and a loud general intoning had to be kept up to cover the total loss of specific images to the ear, those dramatic tones of voice which had hitherto constituted the better half of poetry.”
One may think, OK, but so what, I’d like to see the results of those elminations.
Or: perhaps, but what matters most is what motivates those trials—not the techniques themselves, but the sensibilities behind, what made the hitherto insufficient.
Or: but doesn’t subtraction, adhered to adamantly enough, produce largeness, as in the case of toning down ambient light for stargazing or seasoning only with salt or killing with your hands? And what of the dramatic tones he couldn’t hear.
But a reader today might also think:
Is there something to this? E.g., do we even know what he means anymore by “specific images to the ear”? (I suspect Gregory Lawless’s line “I toss this swatch of birds with a whistle” would count, and not just because of the whistle.) Or have we given up too much, seeking distinction primarily through reduction. This poet eschews metaphor, this one strips syntax, another uses only phrases the broadest public will get, or writes only about shoes. What’s left of prosody—and the world—is only voice. Technical features bolster its transmission: “I don’t write in form, I write in the voice of a contemporary formalist,” “I don’t write in damp pollen, I write in the voice of continental drift.” Content is also only voice, personality. Connect this to social media. “Your novel is indistinguishable from the thousand status updates I just read about it.” The teacher asks our opinion about Egypt but we just keep saying “here,” like all’s only attendance…
Though it makes sense to exercise one muscle at a time, before you really dance. And if we see the dance as a communal act, maybe it’s enough if I’ve developed my quads grotesquely, you can do the jousting…
And isn’t Frost just celebrating another set of constraints rather than…
I hate prose, I don’t mean any of this, ideas can only apply to poets who are boring, all the poets whose work I love are rich beyond constraint, beyond prose, they reduce the sauce, braise with it, eat it up. My point: Gregory Lawless’s poems don’t eschew. They build voice through image, nuanced rhythm, narrative, fragments that hover despite their lithe density (“sleet pelts the cucumber patch,” he writes, and I hear the sleet loudly, but, somehow, I also see it suspended, slashing over the garden). Here’s my blurb line: By not foregrounding superficial subtractions, the poems in Lawless’s latest collection, the chapbook Foreclosure, inhabit deeper loss.
As the book’s title suggests, that loss concerns houses, housing, towns. In response to our recent topical collapse? But the poems are less ripped from the headlines than insulated with old newspapers; the weather report you find on the front page applies oddly to this afternoon, so do the obituaries. In one of the poems that shares the book’s title, Lawless depicts a home that you might call abandoned (thinking of Frost’s “Directive?”), but is it? No, at the least, someone is in there, seeing it closely, and others could be coming back; the feeling is of greater abandonment, alien terrain, the separation (which includes ecstasy) of one who knows the names of things, and names them, so the world, part by part, might continue, a kind of foreclosure that a bank’s verdict can only confirm. These poems know that foundational crises of the real estate crisis started long ago. Lawless writes:
“Jar full of screws and washers. Moisture clouding the glass with remembered breath. Rusted-swing-set color of sunset. The swing set is blue. Hammers, nails, tires. Country car in the crabgrass by the shed. Crows in the tulip trees.”
A poem is a list one hears himself making, so the barest catalogue comes to be a vision of the mind, not just of a decorated world. This is what poets who avoid description, or those who describe only for frosting and conceit, miss: the lingual eye, thinking its way further in, showing through seeing. The sunset shares a color with a rusted swing set. That rusted color must also be blue. Who knew? I do, now, thanks to the poem. The car is a “country” car. Tulips are a tree.
The poem’s second section begins with an observation that may seem dream-like, but is really like describing something you haven’t sensed precisely until now:
“You call me back to the car. The way a man loses his hands between ladder rungs.”
Nothing so well described is abandoned or a dream.
“Griefs are a form of a patience,” Frost says later in the essay quoted from above. He’s distinguishing between grievances and grief. Youngsters too often write only grievances, he says, which are more politically useful, but he’d rather “grievances [be] restricted to prose if prose will accept the imposition…leaving poetry to go its way in tears.”
I’ve often done the writing assignment with teens where you say OK write a grievance, then ten minutes later you say now write about the same topic in a way that moves us to grief, and the difference is clear. Another version of Yeats says a quarrel with a self is a poem quarreling with other selves was prose.
Grievances, then, are impatient, but they can be satisfied, or think they can. We agree to not not build this dam.
Lawless’s poems are patient. Can you satisfy them? Well, you can watch them thinking, which might be better. Here’s a whistling swatch from the book’s first poem, “Factoryville Eclogue”:
The color of stories. Maybe not. Everyone has a neighbor
who shoots them. Not everyone has a neighbor,
thank God. Thank God for what? For winter, the sound
of ravens sorting ferns in the snow. My wife thinks
I look too much. At what? You look too much,
that’s all. It’s fall. A truck from Dalton Lumber’s
tipped over in the field. Everyone is alive.”
By sustained patience, simply looking (“that’s all”), Lawless’s poem grieves as it preserves, and continues. “Everyone is alive.” How different this line is from Berryman’s “Nobody is ever missing.” The poem ends, gorgeous:
“The field-kill dressed in ice, a lumber
spill, generations of ravens in the fir. No snow
yet. Is that a blessing? I don’t know. Who’s in charge
of these blessings?”
His watching often involves something like a prayer, not for intervention, but for endurance, which becomes a way to spare us:
“Far-feeling, like watching a penny fall from a building
And the wind / keep it / from killing”
Did I live with Lawless in a farmhouse in 2004? I did. But he’s done a lot of things. “I used to paint vulture eggs in Petaluma,” he says in “Factoryville Anabasis.”
He’s also the author of the full-length collection I Thought I Was New Here (BlazeVOX, 2009). I often thought Lawless’s poems spoke with a voice older than I had known him to be; in the first collection, that voice sometimes divides into two modes. There’s the hard-bitten, plaintive descriptive one—“A half-mile back from the last split-level shack / on Shadrach Street,” begins “Night Poachers,” in his first collection—and a lusher, dreamier one, that can veer toward the comedic—“The night fails its Breathalyzer. / Stars wobble out of the clouds / to doze on the frozen lake,” begins the poem on the facing page. I like Greg and I like his first book. You should buy it. Reading Foreclosure, though, I’m as astonished as if I’d never lived anywhere: Lawless stunningly combines empirical and visionary modes; the result is chilling and honed. “Loon howl, some filings of moon still,” begins “Knife, Fire, Map.” Can you tell me which part of that phrase is description and which is visionary gleam?
I’d call it a “mature style,” but it also seems like a beginning. I look forward to reading more.
Kevin Goodan, Andrew Grace. Poets to put in an anthology with Lawless, which would probably start with something by Frost, James Wright’s “On the Skeleton of a Hound,” some petals nesting in a car part each of these poets would know the precise name of but name inexactly.
Enflamed and yet keeping their distance. Comes from a knowledge of the heat of the flame.
“Riprap,” the third poem in Foreclosure, is a tremendous poem. To description, to vision that catapults dream into daylight, it adds history, reading, politics, family, our time, with a tone that can veer from dry sneer (“Poor loud-mouthed / spook, selling fake explosives in some shattered / souk,” Lawless writes, describing a friend’s father who works in Istanbul) to careful rumination (“I was thinking of Tolstoy’s / princes, and how the most beautiful passages / are less about peace than dailyness: / a wolf hunt, say, or waiting for horses / in some forgotten inn”—how fitting to hear Creeley in a poem that, at first, doesn’t seem like him at all: “I thought the instant of the one humanness / in Virgil’s plan of it,” writes Creeley in “Heroes”). Tempting to quote the poem in full. It is full of cancellations, remainders, substitutions, but no subtractions. But better for you to order the book from its publisher, Back Pages Books.