Saturday, October 29, 2005

Lee & Mayer

I've been reading two new books of poems, Pyx by Corinne Lee and Scarlet Tanager by Bernadette Mayer. I was very curious to see Pyx, as the Poets & Writers "18 Debut Poets" feature mentions that Lee wrote the book in three weeks(!), submitted it to four competitions, and was a finalist at Tupelo, before being chosen for the National Poetry Series. The language in Pyx is marvelous and musical, and the vocabulary is rich and varied. The poems start out fresh and fun to read, but in the end I find them fairly incomprehensible. I just don't understand them, or have to work very hard at understanding them just a little bit. Here's a typical poem:

Lysistrata Motley

Even the quitch loves, sashaying
belly-blade to blade-belly

when wind is low. Most days,
we fail to notice
that elusive, Rastafarian

canoodle. The poems
therefore darting away, sunken,
through the halls.

Our words becoming escapes,
not spoor. Why can't
our selves intersect
with the exterior?

Because something is sclerotic,
strung high
in the Burundi
Salvador trees. Where dewdrops

are slaver. Listen up:
The Egyptians jettisoned

a mummy's cerebrum, knowing
the heart should do
all thinking.

I get the last four lines. They make the poem work for me. But everything before it? Can somebody explain it to me?


Bernadette Mayer's Scarlet Tanager, published by New Directions, is a little more straightforward. With blurbs from Jackson Mac Low (who must have channeled it) and Michael Palmer, and a cover of image of a red bird atop a CT scan of Mayer's head, you know going in to expect "experimental poetry." She does translations of her own poems into French, and then transliterates (or mis-translates) them back into English, with comic effect. She does a form of N + 7 with the instructions for how to use a condom (very funny), she has a list poem of all the "appellations" for penis, and a scrabble poem made from all the words used in one game. There are collaborations with artists and political rants against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. There is even a paradelle (didn't she get the memo that this form was a hoax? ~grin~). True, none of this is particularly edgy or "new" in the least. But I like the voice in these poems. And I think I understand them, for the most part. Here's an example:

After Sextet

Pull out slowly right after youth
come, while pen name is still hard
Hold conductor in placket on pen name
to avoid spilling semi-final
Turn and move completely away
before you let go of conductor
Dispose of used conductor
properly, not in the token
And no more sextet without a new conductor
If conductor breaks and semi-final spills or leaks don't panic
But quickly wash semi-final away with sobriety and water-color

(with Philip Good)


Anonymous said...

Simplest explanation, the Lysistrata is incomprehensible... bit too in love with the sounds of words, and proof this is possible.


Justin Evans said...


I am with you. What the heck does this mean?

Most days,
we fail to notice
that elusive, Rastafarian



Yes, a fine closing, but if that is all there is to it, shouldn't it be an opening? The possibilities seem better with that end as a beginning.


Peter said...

I am wondering now if the key is in the last stanza: let go of your cerebrum and needing to "know," and just enjoy the poem for it's music. Think with your heart. Hmmm.

Pamela said...

Title: There's a scene in Lysistrata where Cinesias is trying to seduce Myrrhine (and she's holding out by leaving the room, bringing things in and out). He tells her, in an attempt at seduction, "I'd just as soon lie on the grass." That to me might be the source of the Lysistrata Motley.

All of the images up and including to the Rastafarian canoodle have to do with the grass and also with Lysistrata (quitch, grass bending, poems scurrying). Anyway, that's how I read it.

The images about the sclerotic words and the Burundi Salvador trees suggest for me something hardened, dysfunctional, landlocked, maybe even unrest--problematic--where even dewdrops are "slaver" as in drivel, as in ingratiating drool. Also, these are war-torn countries, and in Lysistrata one of the major points is peace?

The image at the end is pretty clear: Heart saved, head discarded. (Grass wins, war loses).

Anyway, that's just an off-the-top read for this poem. I don't know if it's valid, just a way of looking at the Rastafarian (grass blade) canoodling.

Thanks for posting this.

early hours of sky said...

It just proves we are all sound whores.

Now I am going to go get the book;)

jenni said...

I'm sorry, but 3 weeks? I think i'd keep that tid-bit to myself, and if i were the judge I'd be embarassed.

The Sublibrarian said...

I'm really surprised by all of this and folks' willingnes to write the whole thing off as soundscape. The poem does repay attention, it is meaningful. It just requires a little more attention than usual. Or so it seems to me. I've discussed my reading of it over at my blog. See Lysistra Motley at Library of Babel for a bit of old-fashioned explication de texte.

Peter said...

Thank you for your reading, Ron!
I read the poem over and over for several days, and didn't get much more out of it than you did. And I still believe this poem (and this style of writing) commits a grievous error: the language is far more complicated (*extremely* more complicated) than than very simple idea(s) it is trying to express.

The Sublibrarian said...

Peter, I guess we disagee. I didn't/don't think the language is that complex and I certainly don't feel that there's an imbalance between the poem and its purpose. There are gaps, but a little attention and they're filled in.

I did the explication not because I thought the text needed it but because it seemed sufficiently straightforward that I was baffled by folks missing it. The explication is pretty much my second reading of the poem.

Given that this was selected by Pattiann Rogers I was pleasantly surprised that it took any effort to get from one end of it to another. [this sounds snottier than I meant—I just don't expect to have to stop and fill things in in a Rogers poem]

I haven't yet read anything else from the book, so we'll see how this all wears and whether or not Lee can keep it up.

[cross-posting to pair up w/ Peter's cross-posting]

Peter said...

Oh Sublibrarian, I think you are such a pompous ass.