Wednesday, September 24, 2008

John Pass' Stumbling In The Bloom

I was interested in reading John Pass' 2005 collection of poetry Stumbling In The Bloom for several reasons, interested by accumulating effect: he lives in the same vicinity as my newly transplanted environs, he won the GG award for this volume, and I'd never read anything by him before.

I'm always intrigued by the first poem in any book of poetry. Some authors pooh-pooh sequences, but I'm not convinced by their supposed insouciance and honesty. I believe most poets want to start out with a bang for a good reason. It sets the tone for what follows, and more importantly and practically, it hooks (or bores) a reader immediately. A casual reader flipping through a book (especially by an unfamiliar author) will often turn to the first page, and then make a snap decision after that first effort whether or not to keep reading and (perhaps) eventually purchase the thing.

Here are the beginning lines from the opener, "Raspberries, Roses":

"Come into the huge and intractable beauty
of what I thought I knew, dumbfounded

at the lucent breath
of uninhabited context, immense locality

where self's wisp (just reminded) whispers, oh
the terrible artifice of human thought."

How many readers snap(ped) the book shut after that start up, and continued to scan the 1, 001 other titles competing for their attention? And is it pedantic to list the specific bruises on the eyes this strange crafting admits?

The preciousness of the opening "Come into the huge and intractable beauty"; the reverse humility inherent in "what I thought I knew"; the grasping ineffability of "dumbfounded"; the abstract synesthetic link of "lucent breath"; the mind-killing "uninhabited context"; the overwritten "immense locality" (sometimes the most "poetic" phrase is the simplest, in this case, e.g., "large area"); the groaningly mean-nothing buzzword "self"; the parenthetical deadness of "(just reminded)"; the added preciousness of "wisp ... whispers"; and the telegraphed and laughingly self-important italicized "terrible artifice of human thought".

If this was a hockey game, the score would be 6-0 for the Actual Poetry team after the first twenty seconds.

The book's second poem -- "nowrite.doc" -- fared a little better. A long poem-sequence, it insinuates itself on the reader (this one, at least) by way of autobiographical ruefulness in the face of contrasting natural beauty. I know: sadness with euphony was patented by Wordsworth and a few million others, but it's still affecting if done with a specific twist of meaning or form. And I enjoyed the closely observed emotional synthesis of "then a single raven making its klook klook call like water, lonely". But this poem begins what will become an unfortunate staple of Pass' procedure: looseness. "nowrite.doc", despite its warmth and interesting introspection, is fatally marred by rambling in the way a solitary hiker negotiates a piney escarpment only to come, breathlessly and startled, back to the same starting point. There's no progession, no direction, no necessitous mark here. And the interminable long lines would only be justified if one were declaiming in excitement, and as I've said, the tone is antagonistic to that form. There's a very good reason that quiet lyrics tend to be of short-to-medium length. The air capacity (when spoken) and the contemplation (when read silently) encourage a slow and careful pace, frequently pausing (when enjambed) for necessary reflection. The opposite happens here, and it ruins what could have been a promising sequence. Actually, that's being a bit too generous. There are other problems here, as well. The autobiographical voice is not always acting as personal counterpoint to natural description. In fact it often overwhelms the images, even obliterates them, with weirdly insistent digressions into post-modern arguments on poetics, into throwaway diaristic doodles, into irritating and slight self-definition.

Pass' strong points are his careful attention to the progressions of nature, his love of same creating frequently arresting images. But even here, the images don't seem to serve any greater focus. I enjoy the evocations of "and mind's all scud and spindrift at cliff/and corners on the downcoast drive" from "Hallowell", along with its delightful rhythmic surge, but we're back again at that lower-level escarpment by poem's end, with its aimless long-legged awkward perambulations or entropic formulations.

I understand Ken Babstock's Airstream Land Yacht was also short-listed, an also-ran this same year that Stumbling In The Bloom took home the GG.

Good gawd.

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