on Metropolitan Tang, poems by Linda Bamber (Black Sparrow/David R. Godine)
There are many attractive qualities in Linda Bamber’s first book of poems, Metropolitan Tang: conversational brio, a feel for the times, a willingness to follow her own misdirections, a raconteur’s inbred sense of timing. Like a person one meets at a party who thinks of herself as social, Bamber is generous with her superfluities; she assumes you’re as uncomfortable with both silence and polite small-talk as she is, so she motors on. On encountering the poem titled “Homage to Frank O’Hara,” and then hearing the speaker in “Conversations with the Sun” say she is “still thinking of Frank O’Hara,” we’re asked to connect the dots between Bamber’s liking for a jaunty leap and O’Hara’s exuberant inclusiveness. The similarities are obvious – tone, materials (social scenes, urban life), and the premium on spontaneity.
Dan Chiasson recently wrote in The New Yorker, “O’Hara was essentially a self-elegist: poem after poem explores that darker sense of his ‘own ceaseless going’ —his presence, a moment ago so real and vital, now going, now gone … Nobody today reads the lines ‘I suck off / every man in the Manhattan Storage & Warehouse Co’ and thinks only, What freedom—to be gay in New York in the fifties!” O’Hara may have been a sort of elegist, but not of himself – or perhaps the more we invest in his afterlife, the more complexity we attribute to his character. But O’Hara didn’t mourn for the passing of something in or about himself. Perhaps Chiasson agrees when he says, “O’Hara didn’t introspect or recollect much … His personality was always a brilliant contrivance, practically a work of art: improvised, self-revising, full of feints … Someone with O’Hara’s presence could afford to regard the writing of poetry as a secondary act, a transcript of personality.” In other words, his poetry reflected an admiration for its own surfaces since building them was an act of ebullient reclamation. But the poems don’t depend on a transit between opposing inner tensions or aspirations.
The sweep of Linda Bamber’s dynamic is both more complex and less broad than O’Hara’s: more various and complicated in its moods and impulses, less expansive in peripheral vision.
SUDDENLY THE CITY
I live in seems interesting
as if I were on vacation here
and feeling indulgent
towards the human race, its way of
living in cities and
tearing up roads so the traffic has to be
re-routed around a collapsing white mesh barrier
as in this intersection section.
The people of this city
walking back and forth on the sidewalks
each one having gotten up and dressed this morning
look like this, this
movie, almost,of people crossing the street.
is this scene in any way rewarding to look at?
e.g., architecturally, in terms of city spaces and human interest; and
are things diverse enough here? and
are these people, in general,
older or younger than I am? just now are
in abeyance. In their absence is this
pleasant sense that there are many cities in the world
and this is one of them.
It rained earlier. I think I’ll go see the monks
make a sand mandala on the Esplanade; and
who knows, later I might get a sandwich.
From O’Hara, she lifts the faux-childlike view of people (“each one having gotten up and dressed this morning”) and objects, such as the “white mesh barrier” (which in an O’Hara poem like “A Step Away from Them” becomes a silly note on workers’ hardhats – “They protect them from falling / bricks, I guess”). The toss-away ending is O’Hara’s mark, too – but here, it serves a different purpose. There’s a recurring gesture in Bamber’s poetry that captivates: Everything she gives you, she takes away. The pretense of “Suddenly the City” is that the speaker has put “the questions … in abeyance.” But by listing the questions, they become even more intrusive. So the poem delivers two time zones (ie., isn’t as interested as O’Hara in capturing a singular fleeting moment) to describe a fluctuating mental sway. First, there’s the moment recalled when all was peaceful and unanalyzed. And then, there’s the moment of recalling, admitting its interest in the ongoing shift between “feeling indulgent” and observing critically (in this case, with its required calculation of “diversity”).
Bamber's work zips between two poles. Think of the O’Hara-esque idealized: loving the action, privileging spontaneity, celebrating unfiltered response, sounding full of oneself. Then think of the monks on the Esplanade, and Thich Nhat Hanh who appears at the beginning of “Homage to Frank O’Hara”: “Thich Nhat Hanh says not to mind having one’s spiritual quest / interrupted by one’s life / but just to be mindful and / not get impatient if someone is talking to you.” She is attracted to the monk’s modest ways, “When I wake up I disapprove of myself / for knowing the intimate details of too many people’s lives.” This wouldn’t have been an issue for O’Hara, who shows up in the very next line: “O’Hara / had lots of friends / and was always reading something choice. / His bed floated on a sea of books / into which / he trailed his hand when he woke up // for something to stay conscious for.” In Bamber, there is giddiness and nothingness, and the fun is in watching (hearing) the volleys between. When the speaker is most interesting, she is stuck in the breach. The back-and-forth between nervosity and quietude, played on a darkening background, becomes the book’s most recognizable stroke.
In “Essay on Art,” she begins with “The way you can tense up around art sometimes / like self-consciousness in bed.” Art requires expression, expression entails noise and energy expended, and the roshi tells his disciples to keep a lid on all that. “We want our performers out on the edge / where only God can help them now,” and in appreciation, we make even more noise and spend more energy in applause. Here, the questions aren’t kept “in abeyance,” though she suggests that reining in gratuitous or affected reponse might be a good idea. There’s a didactic streak in Bamber, a kind of muted stamping of one’s feet, evident in the very first poem where the speaker disapproves of how two young parents are treating their child. Funny thing: She champions O’Hara’s open-hearted spontaneity as a nearly unattainable value, but her own idiosyncratic response to situations (conflicted, comical) may be even more interesting. In “Poem Ending at the Therapist’s,” Bamber makes a show of the prodigality of leaping imagination – drawing us into the narrative – only to undercut any revelatory claims the therapist may insist on. Where O’Hara locates many poems in social situations, Bamber makes those encounters her topic. Desire, human purpose and language are frequently at odds. Poems of travel (“Venice” “Ecological Tourism” “Dove Cottage”) are spoken by someone literally out of place: ill at ease, wanting to explain her presence, redeem herself.
Bamber’s “I did this, then I did that” poems entertain the way O’Hara’s do, but she makes more deliberate use of thematic imagery to underscore the speaker’s situation. “Hairdresser Near Harvard Square” begins: “My hair is turning gray, gray / and needs to be turned back black. / It’s a gray day, too; butt end of winter, / nothing but work.” She talks about Michael the hairdresser, and “the girls I’m sitting near compare / their answers on / the Ec exam.” The speaker lives in a gray zone. The poem ends, speaking of Michael:
His father died last month; plus his uncle
and an aunt; next week he’s
going under general for his knee.
“If I croak, I croak,” he cries,
sweeping an arm, so I laugh. But
I mean it,” he says in the mirror
where he and I, in a dead season,
meet. As I drive home
some lights come on.
At least I’ve done my hair.
At least the pavement’s bare
of ice; late March, the onion grass
will soon be up across the way.
It’s six o’clock and not yet dark.
Much recurs in Metropolitan Tang, but repetition isn’t always Bamber’s friend. The pattern of set-the-scene/deflate-the-significance begins to wear thin. She pulls it off in a poem like “Crabapple.” But there’s a 20-page soggy patch starting with “American Legions” (p. 61) – though things pick up again with “Sabbath,” “Custom Ring” and the multi-part “Passenger Pigeons” which ends the book. There are too many poems, and the book’s rhythms begin to feel less various and more predictable. Here and there Bamber’s flip gestures are simply confusing, a less thoughtful contrariness.
Bamber writes as if unconvinced that anything she has to say can rise above the standard culture around her. But this is a crafty feint. She’ll use trite expressions (“hasn’t laid a glove on him” or “broaching the topic”) and mention brand names (Starbucks, LL Bean, IPod, Best Buy) to emphasize her suburbanity and casual nature. Relieved of oppressive doubts and meaninglessness (“The other thing about O’/ Hara is / his life can seem as pointless / sometimes / as my own”), the ordinary city and its people may suffice. But there are two levels to the phrase “Metropolitan Tang.” Tang is sharp flavor, elan, sensual flair. The taste of the metropolis. Yet in the poem “Metropolitan Tang,” the phrase also takes root in “From Samarkand // musicians make their way to town / riding a Tang / dynasty camel.” Asia always means oriental peace-o’-mind in a Bamber poem, equanimity, as in “Chinese Poem” which ends “Relief! A breath, / a ray; o poem / with nothing to say.” With its bantering tone and slick phrasing, Metropolitan Tang prods the reader to fly through, even though “Thich Nhat Hanh says we should stay where we are / not be in such a hurry to get on with things.” But there’s a more ponderous, halting note in the mix as well, a skepticism of effort and one’s own motives. As the book progresses, the speedy and the static seem almost to coincide – and the attempted merging of eternal opposites provides glimpses of a third view.
There are at least two epiphanies issuing from Metropolitan Tang. One: We are easily and willingly implicated in the dynamics of this hurry/don’t-hurry world -- we’re at home here. The language, phrasing, and attitude of Linda Bamber sound familiar. Two: When a poet manages to infuse her work with the strange bursts and warpings of this life, and makes one feel the complexities of that strangeness without tempting a facile understanding, it’s a major achievement.
[Published April 28, 2008, 112 pages, $17.95 softcover]