on City Dog, essays by W. S. Di Piero (Northwestern University Press)
W. S. Di Piero has been writing essays on art and artists, poets and writers, and travel and culture for thirty-five years. City Dog, his fourth collection of essays, takes up these topics again, but it is shaped and arranged with heightened deliberation. Whether his subject is his childhood in South Philadelphia, the psyche of Van Gogh, or the effects of foreign places, Di Piero uses the occasion to speak about memory, location, language, form and poetry. With his selected poems, Chinese Apples (2007), ready at your side, you can make out the tremulous arc of his development as a poet.
"My purpose in writing prose has been to communicate what it feels like to have thoughts,” he says in the preface. What he thinks about is the discovery of forms to contain passion – or rather, the making of forms equivalent to passion. Has any other contemporary poet written with more penetration about how the familial uses of language affect one’s poetics? In “Gots Is What You Got” he writes, “To communicate grievance and ferocity they relied entirely on tone, gesture, and pitch. For most of the people I was raised among, it was ferocity, real or theatrical, that mattered; defiant energy was our way of meeting the world and pretending we weren’t subject to its harsh ministration and unfair judgments.” And in “Pocketbook and Sauerkraut”: “Contrariness may be the most enduring habit passed on by my working-class culture; its formal consequence is a barely sustained coherence of passion and idea.”
These influences and memories alternately grate on and massage the poet’s language. He says, “The great anxiety is to separate oneself from those origins, escaping their violent censures and intolerance for the life of the imagination.” Nervosity and the recognition of competing urges underlie the restive motion of Di Piero’s essays. In an earlier essay about George Oppen, he wrote, "Anything a poet writes measures some estrangement between the poet and the polis." (When he described Oppen's poetry as "nearly toneless, though one never feels it's aloof or noncommital," he could have been speaking of his own work.)
One might expect a poet emerging from this environment to privilege or rely on personality and self-disclosure in his poetry. Not so with Di Piero. In Memory and Enthusiasm he grumbled that poetry has become “more psychological, more obliged to an overly nuanced studiousness of personality and less concerned with relations. Cultural memory now functions often not as a quality out of which poetry issues, but rather as interesting subject matter.” Now in City Dog, he spells out his preferences for a poetry of “sensuous shapeliness of form governing and measuring ungovernable passion.”
When he complains, “I gag on the version strangers construct to explain my life,” he wants us to grasp a more revealing complexity. But I wonder about the vehemence of his grievance. In “Not Exactly a Self-Interview,” he claims “self-exposure makes me queasy.” In that case, perhaps he wrote these essays on Dramamine. They’re mainly about him. And happily so, because his wayward assertiveness, contradictions, and acute observations express a uniquely turbulent intelligence. He knows that his essay on “how in my youth music became inseparable from physical pain [is] … pure self-portraiture.” His sternly harnessed inwarding of thought is utterly devoted to his idiosyncrasies. His prose flings out as if the cast, the hypothesis of a catch, reveals more than the reeling in. Yet there is nothing profuse or gratuitous in the writing. He names Edward Dahlberg and Albert Camus among the prose stylists who influenced him in his twenties.
“When I began to find my way as a poet,” he writes, “I wanted to make poetry seem an awareness of the world lived along the nerves, but ministered to the difficult clarities of reason and judgment.” Later, he says, “In time, the poetry I wanted to write would be one without middle zones, without a sustained discursive range or plain presentational balance.” Self-explication wouldn’t do. He once described Pavese’s poetry as “never coy or precious, never cramped by the shadow play of Self-versus-World.” In his diary, Pavese said great writers never “give vent to their own super-abundance.” But Pavese also suffered through the limitations of his approach: “I cannot rise above my lazy habit of reducing everything to an image-story.” While sharing his taste for image-stories, Di Piero doesn’t offer such qualifications. His poetry talk is all vindication among the clashing forces – but as with Pavese, his renunciations are meant to purge the work of indulgences.
Discussing Bonnard in “Ripe Fruit,” he admires how the painter “can be chillingly melancholic about sensuous experience.” Bonnard wasn’t driven to emphasize evolution in his style. “Unlike painters in whose company he belongs – Picasso, Braque, Matisse – Bonnard’s mood and manner are steady. He didn’t put himself through the aggressive self-remodeling and idiom changes that those others did.” But while examining Max Beckmann’s painting in “Unlovely Unlovable,” he says, “He’s following the rules good artists live by: surprise art by surprising yourself; push back at what you know how to do; keep changing.” Di Piero’s contradictions aren’t about irresolution, but rather indicate a mind as highly principled as it is anxious.
Physical pain and anguish are never far from Di Piero’s main focus on art and poetry. As a young adult he was seriously afflicted with joint and ligament inflammation that was only recently diagnosed. He quotes Nietzsche in The Gay Science: “I have given a name to my pain and call it ‘dog.’” For Di Piero, “physical pain was fraught with the spiritual dread that unknowingness creates.” So one comes to see pain as a separate entity and resists the urge to place one’s anguish in the center of the world. The essay “Force” begins with a consideration of depression, but then leaps into poetry: “All the more reason, when writing, to deploy all that instigating disorder into certain forms.” But one must avoid the extravagant remark or decide in advance where the mystery lies. “A line of verse,” he says, “no more has to make an important statement than a picture has to depict a shared recognizable object … it’s not so crucial to have a signature manner as it is to have a signature form feeling.”
Taking aim at the selections in The Best American Essays 2007, Cristina Nehring accuses American essayists of having “lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way.” She describes the essays as complacent in tone, shallow in intent, nostalgic, too relaxed, and disinterested in providing “generalizable insight into the human condition.” She goes on: “The work of the greatest essayists, past and present, is replete not with anecdotes, not with narratives, so much as with hypotheses.” I would direct her to City Dog. There is nothing ingratiating, modest, easeful, or sweet here. I think of Di Piero in Stevens’ lines from “Esthetique du Mal”: “How cold the vacancy / When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist / First sees reality.”
TO MY OLD CITY
You’re still there in the spectral impress,
the plied grid of trucks and buses,
diesel fume and bloodspoor streaked
on wet streets, cars biting evening papers
from the black newsstand. The trestle’s gravel bed
hums above, expectantly, or with relief,
and broken needles of snow, at rest
on silver rails, flash in the coming dark,
while everywhere your hungry light still tries
to reconstruct itself, charm the space
in and around the loose-knit ironworks,
winter’s checkered yellowings glaring past
the dark. From here, two years later, I see
in your middle distance a trestle stretched
between two courtyard brownstones, the scene
droning deep: the train tears through the gap,
ratcheting the space with green aquatic squares
that flick past like old sluggish film,
each frame a piece of failing, played-back fact,
and the flustered wheels click, mumble, click
in flukes of young snow flailing up around
those strange riders abiding in the glass.
[Published March 19, 2009. 195 pages, $17.95 paperback.]
Also by W. S. Di Piero:
Chinese Apples: New and Selected Poems (2007)
Skirts and Slacks (poetry, 2001)
Shooting the Works: On Poetry and Pictures (essays, 1996)
Euripedes' Ion (translation, 1996)
Shadows Burning (poetry, 1995)
The Restorers (poetry, 1992)
Out of Eden: Essays on Modern Art (1991)
The Dog Star (poetry, 1990).
Memory and Enthusiasm: Essays, 1975-1985 (1989)
The Ellipse: Selected Poems of Leonardo Sinisgalli (translation, 1983)
This Strange Joy: Selected Poems of Sandro Penna (translation, 1982)
Giacomo Leopardi's Pensieri (translation, 1981)