Friday, December 23, 2011

30: It's the Magic Number

On Sunday at the end of this week I turn 43 years old and I’ve been thinking not so much about turning 43 as about the difference between turning 40 and turning 30. Our culture makes a big deal about turning 40. And it is significant. At 40 one is typically half way through a life. Taking stock of how far one has come at such a point is not only natural it seems inevitable. Failure to reach some goals by this age may result in the proverbial mid-life crisis. Though, in ancient Rome, 40 was considered the prime of life, the time to enjoy the fruits of all you had accomplished, if, indeed, you had accomplished something. But, looking back, I realize that 30 is really the age of deepest significance. 30 is when you step into time, you feel it like a friction. If we fall into life, we fall into a vacuum, drifting without effort until we hit 30, when we hit the atmosphere and start feeling the burn of entry. Many famous literary figures are 30: Hamlet, K in Kafka’s The Trial, Hugh in Under the Volcano, Roquentin in Nausea, the main character in Fight Club.

30 is when you become more than simply aware of mortality, rather it infects your soul. You don’t only realize a clock is ticking, you can now hear it. Because of it, whether you believe in a life beyond this one or not, you sense now that there will be a reckoning of some sort. If anything produces the disillusionment that comes with shedding youth, it is this thing that seizes you. And that may be another way of understanding the difference. In one’s 20’s, there is the knowledge of mortality, but once 30 comes, somehow it knows you. Here is Hugh, the nephew of the main character in Under the Volcano, reflecting on his life in his 30th year.

Twenty-nine clouds. At twenty-nine a man was in his thirtieth year. And he was twenty-nine. And now at last, though the feeling had perhaps been growing on him all morning, he knew what it felt like, the intolerable impact of this knowledge that might have come at twenty-two, but had not, that ought at least to have come at twenty-five, but still somehow had not, this knowledge, hitherto associated only with people tottering on the brink of the grave and A.E. Houseman, that one could not be young forever—that indeed, in the twinkling of an eye, one was not young any longer. For in less than four years, passing so swiftly to-day’s cigarette seemed smoked yesterday, one would be thirty-three, in seven more, forty, in forty-seven, eighty. Sixty-seven years seemed a comfortingly long time but then he would be a hundred. I am not a prodigy any longer. I have no excuse any longer to behave in this irresponsible fashion. I am not such a dashing fellow after all. I am not young. On the other hand: I am a prodigy. I am young. I am a dashing fellow. Am I not? You are a liar, said the trees tossing in the garden. You are a traitor, rattled the plantain leaves. And a coward too, put in some fitful sounds of music that might have meant that in the zócalo the fair was beginning. And they are losing the Battle of the Ebro. Because of you, said the wind. A traitor even to your journalist friends you like to run down and who are really courageous men, admit it—Ahhh! Hugh, as if to rid himself of these thoughts, turned the radio dial back and forth, trying to get San Antonio (“I am none of these things really.” “I have done nothing to warrant all this guilt.” “I am no worse than anybody else. . .”); but it was no good. All his resolutions of this morning were to no avail. It seemed useless to struggle any further with these thoughts, better to let them have their way. . .
. . . No: I am much afraid there is little enough in your past, which will come to your aid against the future. Not even the seagull? Said Hugh. . .

Notice the guilt Hugh feels, his efforts at self-justification. Suddenly, in the wake of time’s presence, in the certain knowledge of mortality that grips him, there is a need to justify the past, the way he has been living, but nothing there will save him from the future and its inevitable conclusion. Up until now, there has been no such need, life was his own, there was no time, only his choices and actions. There was no concern for consequence. “I have done nothing to warrant all this guilt” he says. “I am no worse than anybody else.” It is so brilliant, that youthful, insouciant gesture that says, “I’d rather regret what I did than what I didn’t do.” Of course, however, though I too would maintain this same stance even today, the guilt is inescapable, because from my very best intentions have sprung some deplorable consequences and fight it how we may, they partly define us.

Hugh’s efforts at self-justification could have been lifted from Kafka’s The Trial. K, on his 30th birthday, wakes to find he has been arrested. He spends the entire year trying to prove his innocence to a court whose higher judges he never meets and he is finally executed. What did he do? What is he guilty of? One never knows. But it is the weight of actions taking place in time. He, like all of us, is inescapably guilty. With the freedom of youthful potential stolen, he is now someone who is known, fixed in the continuum of the clock. Near the end of the novel, at the core of it he is confronted by a priest in a deserted church:

“You are Joseph K.,” said the priest, lifting one hand from the balustrade in a vague gesture. “Yes,” said K, thinking how frankly he used to give his name and what a burden it had recently become to him; nowadays people he had never seen before seemed to know his name. How pleasant it was to have to introduce oneself before being recognized!

Who doesn’t know the desire to be somewhere you aren’t recognized, the pleasure of this chance to transform yourself into someone else entirely, to have the possibility again to get right the correspondence between who you are and who you appear to be? It’s the desire to be someplace where there are no expectations.

by Charles O. Hartman

I love the moment at the ticket window—he says—
when you are to say the name of your destination, and realize
that you could say anything, the man at the counter
will believe you, the woman at the counter
would never say No, that isn’t where you're going,
you could buy a ticket for one place and go to another,
less far along the same line. Suddenly you would find yourself
—he says—in a locality you’ve never seen before,
where no one has ever seen you and you could say your name
was anything you like, nobody would say No,
that isn’t you, this is who you are. It thrills me every time.

But you can’t escape your own expectations. So we are burdened by history, the weight of all the accumulated past in the moment of recognition. Before that moment, before that point in time, the future is infinitely open and there is the chance that one could become anything or anyone. But then the moment comes and doors start closing, the field of vision narrows until it’s just you, standing there inescapably carrying your history. Camus wrote too about this very dilemma in the Myth of Sisyphus:

Likewise and during every day of an unillustrious life, time carries us. But a moment always comes when we have to carry it. We live on the future: “tomorrow,” “later on,” “when you have made your way,” “you will understand when you are old enough.” Such irrelevancies are wonderful, for, after all, it’s a matter of dying. Yet a day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.

Once the bell tolls at the age of 30, there seems to be only 2 ways out: existential freedom, that is accepting that everything is already lost in your inevitable death and there is therefore no reason not to see all choices available to you, or the transcendent response found in everything from Christianity to Whitman’s Song of Myself where Whitman says of all the different events of life both good and bad:

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
(From Section 4)

Jesus began his ministry at 30 and indeed, by Biblical reckoning, a person is not an adult until they reach 30. It is the time at which, as Roquentin in Nausea says, “Nothing has changed, but everything is different.” If there is an iconic image that captures this moment it is Hamlet staring into the skull of Yorick. A short time after, Hamlet asserts his final philosophy regarding the imminence of death. Horatio warns Hamlet to call off the dual with Laertes if he suspects any foul play but Hamlet says,

Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.

“The readiness is all.” Here is one point that encompasses both religious and secular insight, namely, that one cannot make wise decisions without taking into account the fact of one’s approaching demise. David in the Psalms said,

LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee. (Psalms 39:4 – 7)

Here David dispenses with worldly accomplishment, recognizing it for the temporary show it is. What is the main issue? Something that transcends the time-bound: God. David comes to this realization that he must hope in God in light of knowing that he is mortal and going to die. Similarly, Pascal in his Pansées said of death “that the only possible way of acting with sense and judgment is to decide our course in the light of this point, which ought to be our ultimate objective.”

At 30, perhaps the choices or lack of choices from adolescence finally yield their return and in that reckoning, the arc of life through time is first known, we can measure its metaphysical weight in the consequences. Then the realization seizes us that our life is not just the result of our choices, but of consequences beyond our control, that consequence breeds consequence and does not end. Against those forces, those beyond control, all philosophies and theologies attempt to take arms. True identity comes into reality in this crucible, the definite shape of who we are is forged in this fire. Seize the day, amor fati, thy will be done – these are the bricks and mortar of our temple to salvation, the bulwark built to shore up our minds against the onslaught of time. At 30, whether secular or religious, we enter that temple and know ourselves as mortal.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Interview with Hilary Sideris

Discussing her new poetry collection, Gold & Other Fish.

Michael T. Young: You indicate that the book, 77 Great Fish of North America inspired some of the poems in Gold & Other Fish. Were there other sources of inspiration for the collection? What were they?

Hilary Sideris: I’d written a series of poems based on dictionary definitions of four-letter words, and I started thinking about the word “bass,” with its various meanings and connections to depth, and then, as I discovered, to the word “kiss.” That led me to pike, and I got very caught up in the tactile language around fish and fishing—I imagine the same thing happened to Hopkins when he described the landscape’s “pied beauty” and the tools of human industry—he must’ve fallen in love with the words: “fold, fallow, and plough;/And all trades, their gear, and tackle and trim.” It’s almost as if he’s praising the language itself.

Michael T. Young: I particularly like the poem “Monk.” It applies grace to a moment of a predator killing his prey. So it inverts what we expect when looking at such a moment. How do you define “grace” and how does it work in the context of the collection here?

Hilary Sideris: Monkfish are terrifically ugly animals. But the way they do their work is admirable—full of grace. They hold their caught prey with what looks to us like great patience, before they swallow it whole. I enjoy the contradiction in our love for its sweet flesh and our deep disgust with its appearance.

Michael T. Young: The collection as a whole made me think of our sanitized relationship to predation, how we try to pretend we are above it. Did you have this in mind while writing some of the poems and what are your thoughts on it?

Hilary Sideris: I grew up in a very conservative, evangelical Christian atmosphere, so I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of all the human and animal suffering I saw around me. I fought a lot—physically fought—with my siblings as a child and adolescent. I remember when I was about sixteen, going to school with two black eyes, which I tried to cover up with make-up. My youngest sister, Lisa, is an environmental ethicist. She’s written about what Christian theologians make of “nature red in tooth and claw.” I think we’re both driven to write about predation and violence because of what we experienced as kids in a very aggressive and religious household.

Michael T. Young: You allude to Shakespeare’s Tempest in the poem Cod. I wondered if anything from Hamlet may have been in the back of your mind as you wrote, specifically when he says, “A man may fish with the worm that has eaten a king, and eat the fish that has fed on that worm.”

Hilary Sideris: It was fun to use Shakespeare’s language, but I was more focused on the fish as a symbol of vulgar sexuality, and the implied revulsion in the use of the word “bacalao,” which is something I overheard (spoken in Spanish) in the classrooms of South Brooklyn as a young high school teacher. In Ariel’s song the body, through drowning, “suffer[s] a sea-change/into something rich and strange” but there’s also the sea-change of adolescence, when the female body becomes an object of lust, fear and derision.

Michael T. Young: Jung saw the sea as an image of the collective unconscious and as I read Gold & Other Fish, I imagined diving into the depths of the unconscious. Did you find that searching the traits of these different fish was like searching different aspects of the psyche? That some people are like a pike who “tastes his best/after a bitter fight”? or others are like a goldfish, “a muddy bed, and a bit of privacy/are all he wants.”

Hilary Sideris: Yes, but the nice thing is that these selves or aspects of the psyche tend to emerge when you don’t set out to find them. Writing is kind of like fishing. You use your tools—your language—to try to catch something. With this series, I found that by not trying to write personally or autobiographically, by borrowing the language of biology and fishing, I would often catch something very personal, very true to my own experience.

Michael T. Young: What led you to decide on four tercets as the form for these poems? Was it a conscious decision or something that came organically and then you decided to stick with it?

Hilary Sideris: It’s hard to know the difference between what happens organically and what’s volitional. I think the tercets happened organically, but maybe I willed them into being. I tend to write either in couplets or in tercets, but tercets seemed to work better because there was so much enjambment and slant rhyme going on.

Michael T. Young: Do you have a particular poem or several, in the collection that are especially meaningful to you? Which are they and why?

Hilary Sideris: I’m fond of “Sturgeon” and “Red Snapper”—“Sturgeon” because of its humility, and its ability to exist in several worlds, the salt and the fresh, the kosher and the traif. I also identify with the Sturgeon’s ancient immaturity. “Red Snapper” is a sadder story about being seen through human eyes, being labeled and managed—“under our auspices”, which is to say, doomed.

Michael T. Young: Your poems are highly compressed, like Kay Ryan, Charles Simic or Louise Bogan. Who do you consider your most significant influences?

Hilary Sideris: I’m a fan of Theodore Roethke and Philip Larkin. I like poets who write in the voices of people from particular places. I love Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, D. Nurkse’s Voices Over Water, and Maurice Manning’s A Companion for Owls.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet stylistically? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?

Hilary Sideris: I don’t know about influence, but I loved Lydia Davis’ books Break It Down and Almost No Memory. When I was young I was crazy about writers like Salinger and Vonnegut who wrote short, punchy sentences. Now I’m more drawn to the Elizabethan—David Milch’s Deadwood comes to mind.

Michael T. Young: What are you working on now? Do you have another overarching subject like fish set for your next collection?

Hilary Sideris: I wrote some poems about Renaissance artists, based on Vasari’s Lives, which was really fun. Then I started reading stories about saints. I’m working on a saint sequence right now, and trying hard to avoid being clever. I’m fascinated by how illogical and successful Christianity has been.


What did he love
in those days but

his theft? Not for
their shape & taste,

but for the act
of plucking them

did he devour
those stolen pears,

sweetened by sin.
Itching with passions

in his sixteenth year,
he would confess,

he was enamored
of error—error

itself, not what
he erred for.

“Augustine” appeared in Southern Poetry Review, issue 49.1, fall 2011

Gold & Other Fish, A Review

Gold & Other Fish. Hilary Sideris.
Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, Nov. 2011. 22 pages, ISBN: 1-59924-896-4 / ISBN 978-1-59924-896-7

(click the image to be taken to Finishing Line Press's website where you can order the book)

Gold & Other Fish is Hilary Sideris’s third poetry collection and her second collection with Finishing Line Press. The 20 poems in it are all named for fish and though each poem distills the essence of these fish with a beautifully compressed lyricism, they are not mere portraits. It is not just a collection of nature poems. Humans enter the picture from the beginning and return throughout as hunter, cook, eater and this leads us beyond mere observation into deeper questions.

The opening poem, Fluke, concludes, “To reel her in,/I’ll need a hunk of killifish/wriggling on my hook.” The third poem, Bass, closes by saying of the fish,

he blackens in my cast-

iron pan, lobster eater on
the rocky bottom, my large
mouth’s deep dish.

There is a pull in these poems between the marine world and the human. Our relationship to predation is put under a clarifying aquatic lens. We don’t like to think of how life feeds on life, and we shield ourselves from it by myths and platitudes that soften it for us. But this also means we project onto the natural world an inappropriate moral judgment. The poems in Gold & Other Fish question both of these points. Perhaps there is a beauty or even divinity to the way fish survive, a divinity in feeding on flesh. I might even say it documents a kind of communion. In Monk, Sideris asks,

can we know the grace

it takes to cradle prey
between clenched jaws
until it stops jerking,

who seek the denser
texture of a scavenger
whose spine ends in a lure?

Our moral judgments and our secret desires mix to blind us to the simple grace of what it means to be a predator, to the actual beauty of it. Our moral high ground is here inverted and we are the dupes of our own needs, lured to feed on a scavenging fish.

Within these poems that marine grace is not merely an argument but an aesthetic. Sideris has a beautiful ear. The sound textures of these poems are brilliant, delving into subtle phonetic expressions beyond just internal rhymes, assonance and consonance. Consider what happens in

with hide & seek, a brackish
world not hard to fathom
dark devoid of history

Here it is not simply the assonance of “hard” and “dark.” There is a phonetic connection running from “hide” through “history,” a beautiful transformation that arcs and joins it all together from “seek” and “brackish,” through “world” and “hard” to reach finally through “dark” and “devoid.” This kind of brilliant phrasing runs through the whole collection, mirroring the flash of a fish leaping from the water for a moment to plunge back into the depths.

The final poem, Tuna, leaves us with the real focus: what we, at a distance admire for its beauty, is at its core an act of survival.

. . . Not for pleasure
but to shake off parasites,

he arcs into our air,
admired from afar
if not for long.

It is sometimes difficult for scientists to determine the specific function of beauty, but whatever it might be, they know that beauty serves a purpose: it helps a species in some way to survive. Gold & Other Fish shows us that even our connection to predation is in some way connected to beauty and grace.

Most collections have some small flaw, some small deviation from the goal, but not this one. It’s the kind of collection that is a pleasure from first to last, delivering aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment. What Sideris says of the Sturgeon, these poems do, they forage “at the interface” and bring brilliant gems to the surface.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Linda Gregg's First Two Books

I came to Linda Gregg’s poetry after reading Jack Gilbert’s work and learning of their marriage. Then I read the superlative comments on her work by some of my favorite poets: Joseph Brodsky, W.S. Merwin, Czeslaw Milosz. I was almost tingling with excitement as I began to read her first two collections: Too Bright To See and Alma, which were printed in a single volume by Knopf in 2002. There were poems along the way, and a few of them, that I found quite interesting, even profound and moving. But there were others that stumbled, tripped on an imprecision here and there, seeming inconsistent with the praise and the deep, underlying insights, so that I wondered if I was being pedantic. But there was a vagueness even about some of those successful poems, as if her ability lie not in precision, but approximating a feeling. An example is something like “Summer in a Small Town.” It’s a small beauty that touches on an amazing subtlety of real love, a love that so completely answers the heart’s needs and desires, so outstrips articulation, it leaves the heart empty. The conclusion reinterprets the beginning where her lovers have left her and in that leaving, have renewed her, so she is “happy alone.”

But then I read a poem like “Not Singing.” The first real issue I had with it was the line “the more it rains the less flowers there are.” The “less” grated on my grammatical nerves. But I’m a poet and willing to forgive such things if the music and insights of a poem really take me in. Also, poets shouldn’t be slaves to grammar. If they need to break a rule, they should, especially when it serves a better end than following rules. There’s even a figure of speech for such things: synesis. That’s when you break a grammatical rule in order to make sense of a statement which correct grammar cannot carry. I looked and looked but found no justification for Gregg’s departure. So I moved on, trying to give her obvious intelligence the benefit of the doubt. Then only two lines later she writes, “Like the branches thrown down before the little donkey feet/of Christ on the way to glory.” Suddenly I had the image of Christ as a satyr with little donkey feet. Again I stopped to consider if she really wanted this image in my head. Nothing in the rest of the poem or other poems indicated she would want to create such an image. Then why the truncated phrasing that led to it? I could only conclude that it was sloppiness, an imprecision that might be more subtly entrenched in the other poems. And to adopt Dickinson’s definition of poetry (my favorite definition), I realized that none of the other poems made me feel as if the top of my head were taken off.

From then on I found myself less tolerant of other imprecisions: line breaks that forced me to reread a sentence to make sense of it, or splitting up a phrasal verb as in “turn on one foot around with my arms lifted,” rather than simply saying “turn around.” In this second example, the phrasal split doesn’t add anything to the poem and, in fact, makes the line feel chopped up, like bits of thought that have been cut up and put in the wrong order. She also uses periods excessively, resulting in sentence fragments. In the same poem with the split phrasal verb, she has the sentence “Between tobacco fields empty in February/except for the wooden stakes and the wires.” This sentence – actually a fragment – modifies the sentence that precedes it but is punctuated to make two separate sentences. She does this often, and it is a common technique among modern poets. In deft hands it works, sounds right, it's a way of controling rhythm. But Gregg’s use of it constantly makes me feel interrupted. I searched for the reason behind such a tactic, but neither her subject matter nor her rhythms necessitate it. She may be trying to convey a sense of hesitancy and doubt in the psyche of someone wounded by divorce, since much of her poetry is about that. But so many of the poems embrace the fragmentation and, in fact, assert the fragmentation as life itself, that the strategy is belied by the themes.

I had every intention of rereading these two collections for the poems I did like, “Goethe’s Death Mask,” “With a Blessing Rather than Love Said Nietzsche,” “Lovers,” “Alma in the Woods,” and “Different Not Less,” but feel in the end glad to put the book down and be done with it. I feel the whole is diminished by the flawed details. There is an imprecision in the poems that leaves me lukewarm, even when they are obviously deeply felt.