on Myself Painting, poems by Clarence Major (LSU Press), and Present Vanishing, poems by Dick Allen (Sarabande Books)

There’s something elusive about all great poems, but some are especially keen on making us sense the shadowy or darting presence of an experiencing mind that aspires to be regarded as capable of implying a sort of meaning. By “elusive” I don’t necessarily mean “obscure.”

Yet also, there’s something urgently present about all great poems, but some are especially intent on charming us into conviction, that is, into believing or knowing something. Yet even the poem trading in elusiveness can make us believe in the coy or ambiguous powers of language and offer “some reason for assent, some avowal of being” as Mark Strand has said.

Strand also suggested that a poem says “Be like me.” If I read one of his poems aloud, its voice may inhabit me – though I may not feel he is commanding “change your life” as Rilke had done. His poem is a recourse against a sense of something missing – by creating a strange voice coincident with the missing things themselves. This suggests that such poetry arises from a sense of deprivation.

But with other poets, the opposite takes precedence. For them, the poem is a recourse against the droning noise and silence of history, culture and even nature, but the poems arise from a sense of welling insight. This is why some poems, the ones nudging us toward conviction, say “Be like me” purposefully with an unabashed concern for our well-being. Rectification is on their minds. They arise not from a sense of deprivation but of provisional power -- and they want us to access it, too.

Clarence Major and Dick Allen have entered their 70s with new poems that teach appreciation and wakefulness. When a book is built on a singular agenda urging a particular kind of perception, how much repetition can we absorb before preachiness or sameness squelch the greater attractions of following a compelling lyric identity through a variety of situations and ideas? Tutelary spirits with well-grooved dispositions, Major and Allen face the challenge of retaining an elusive lyric identity that isn’t cooped up by its subjects and prescriptions, or relying solely on messages that spell out “avowal of being.”

major1.gifMajor, 72, is also a talented painter. In 1994 The African-American Review devoted an entire issue to him, including the article “The Double Vision of Clarence Major, Painter and Writer” (he has also written prose fiction and non-fiction). So with Myself Painting, his twelfth book of poems, he focuses on a long considered relationship between two arts. One could say generally of these poems that they behave like speeches to oneself (or perhaps to one’s model or studio assistant) while the paints are squeezed out and mixed. The world is imagined first, then struck upon the canvas.

TREES

Night or day,
the Sunday painters are all painting
the same motif: the stretch of leaf-clad trees
in sad rows,
tall breathing things panting
in the hot sunlight,
maple or oak, strong or half gone,
things with limbs but no knees or toes,
nevertheless (I see the trees from my moving car)
as alive as I am now
in the test of writing this
on paper not from trees but from garbage,
garbage from the high seas
and backyards of homes and bars.
I simply go where the life of this takes me,
and its motion thrives
as it reaches into the painting of trees
by genteel American women
in the alive countryside.

This poem is genteel as well, a modest approach toward its subject, the transactive space between trees “as alive as I am now” (were we assuming otherwise?) and the painters. The desire for an easy flow towards transcription, of capturing a moment’s light and flavor, is the core, serene emotion. But also, there’s the confidence that this desire will be fulfilled as, in fact, it most certainly is. This poem relates an experience – but with the line “I simply go where the life of this takes me,” it also claims status as a conveyor of meaning. Mild in tone, the claim in fact makes a harsh demand, asking us to reduce our experience to a pre-approved point of view. One feels coerced to concede the point. How do you argue with a nice person without feeling like a creep?

major2.jpgThe promotional copy from LSU Press says Myself Painting “seeks to re-create for readers the inexpressible feeling that comes from creating art, with poems that speak not of painting itself but of its underlying process.” But poems don’t “re-create” anything – they are always about themselves. And this is the problem I encounter in Myself Painting: Since I’m unlikely to warm to any poetry solely on the basis of the quality or elevation of its sentiments, what may I find here to preempt this disinclination?

In “Song of Chance,” Major again makes assertions about his artistic agenda, boldly stating, “This is what I stand for: / random chance.” He calls to his love as he would invoke his painterly muse: “And I am standing here now / longing for you, my lost love, / to take a chance on me.” His topic is the possibility of being favored by chance, the perennial hope of the artist. But in this poem, chance is a subject, not an apparent element at work on or in the poem. This distracting disparity erodes the stated intensity of desire.

My demurrals are based on my taste. But Auden cautions us to differentiate between taste and judgment, and I’m not about to say that Major’s poems are ill-made. Furthermore, many of these poems, such as “All Of Us,” are relieved of aesthetic dogma and claim-making. Here, Major simply depicts, and as the narrative gains force we are carried along by the strange and muted identity of the speaker. The element of chance is permitted free play – triggering not only the comically bizarre details of the scene but presenting them through a transparent yet engaging speaker, a mystery in charge of a mystery.

ALL OF US

The elevator was full of black women
in black dresses. A little old white woman
needed reassurance that it was all right
to go up with them. And the nurse’s aide
was singing opera in empty hospital rooms,
one after another. At my own pace,
I volunteered to push the trolley
up the track to the zoo.
All the white people were already inside,
and everybody else was in the waiting room.
Is that a woman or a man wearing dogface?
From here you can’t tell gender or race.
When I finished, I helped with the elevator.
Everybody needs to be lifted.
Finally, there was dancing in the streets
to angels icons, to gurus. And a naked man
danced with a bear as red and yellow
confetti floated dashingly overhead.
Most of us had a great time.
and even the white people
who forgot whiteness had a smashing time.
But the next morning
the streets had to be cleaned,
so they imported Russian peasants.
And it will take at least
a generation before they finish.

There are several poems in Myself Painting like “Table for Two” below in which a scene is broken down into its observed elements – as if sketched for further reference.

TABLE FOR TWO

Night, and we were the only two customers
in the restaurant. And you had to go
all the way through a dark room
to reach light. A customer and a test,
I gather. Sun-drenched,
We rested once there, you and I.
An empty bottle, I’d noticed
on the way in,
stood on the white surface
of a dining table in the dark
by an inner doorway.
Outside, through the big window we saw
what was left of a tested and wrecked ship
moored on the beach. And a nun
on a nearby bench counted rosaries
as children were digging in sand,
as though in search of something
that would surprise everybody.

When a poem’s keynote is sufficiency, it disregards the “search of something / that would surprise everybody.” A simple satisfaction with the perceived object runs through these poems. In “Gatherings” the speaker begins by looking at his own hands “gathered together / on the table,” and moves on to consider “Seven men gathered around / two men playing a game / on a board between them / balanced on their knees.” The artistic satisfaction is expressed in the clinching line: “Their tight gathering expresses only itself.” The painter loves the sufficing sight of them. “Keys” is a catalog of usage in which these objects “have become / extensions of my hands; / they are little silhouettes of possibility.” The poem ends:

Though small and hard,
they represent not only access
but arrival and accomplishment,
and sweet arrival
and modest accomplishment
stand always for love.

The sentiment is lovely. But it is also an act of persuasion, another signal that Major wants us to accept his mild, modest and relaxed verse as accomplished by virtue of these tender qualities. It’s a hard sell if your reader’s temperament doesn’t accept the absolute assertion that “modest accomplishment” always stands for love . The very next poem in the book, “In Line,” juxtaposes old women in line at the pharmacy complaining about inept service with the musing speaker who also waits for his prescription. Invoking Whitman he says:

and once I can sense
in a blade of grass
the old women complaining about the clerks
not finding their prescriptions
and sense the clerks in their frustration too,
then I will know
the meaning of something
important – never mind being able to explain it,
just sensing it will be enough
but I know I have to be patient – no pun intended.

“Just sensing it will be enough” is the note of sufficiency. In life, just sensing it is often enough of a nudge towards appreciation. In poetry, the speaker’s announcement that he is or is not sensing it is a dull “prescription” when the reader may have received more enjoyment and wonder from the illness. Major ends “Self Portrait” as follows: “I will not be Angry Eyes standing by my easel, / I will not be an old man in a dirty smock. // I will leave the canvas empty till I know / for sure. The empty canvas is about possibility.” If one reads the airiness of Major’s persona as an almost too persistent rejection of the actual “Angry Eyes” and “old man,” then the final adage about the empty canvas sounds like a desperate way out. Obviously, this isn’t Major’s intent. Myself Painting deals tenderly with the reader on a one-on-one basis, an homage to the one who looks. For Major the simple act of seeing is a resolving of tension – and a resolution to behave in an honorable, loving way. His poems are about what we love and what we could be, not what we are. But poems reach their potential through tension and strange fulfillments that compel our attention while discouraging us from understanding too well. Or as Mark Edmundson puts it, “One must affirm invention at the expense of argument.”

allen.jpgDick Allen begins Present Vanishing with “Goat,” a piece that illustrates the pithy Zen message of the book’s epigraph from Daniel Levin’s The Zen Book: “This is the Zen Mind: suddenly seeing something again for the first time.” The speaker recalls a story about a cosmic goat, and then his grandfather’s goat which “in all its stink and foolishness and hunger / would come to my grandfather’s hand, / here to be here, here to look no further.” But this isn’t a book of koans or apothegms dressed up as poems. Present Vanishing speaks through a rich lyric identity of a man whose present moment, Zen’s all and/or nothing, is spiced by memory and the varieties of experience.

Robert Pinsky said in an interview that “piety is not a satisfactory way to the sacred.” The pious would disagree. But in poetry, the unvoiced profane tends toward facile assertions and hopes or expectations of acquiescence. If the profane is the actual world, laced with oppositions, then Allen’s poetry doesn’t make its way to the sacred as much as tell of a world comprised of sacred oppositions.

“CHOOSE WHAT YOU PLEASE”

“Choose what you please,” the waiter offered,
in the ultra-costly, once-in-a-lifetime Boston restaurant,
as he wheeled his cart of pastries from the kitchen door:
cannoli, napoleons, bismarcks,
and some concoction so whipped cream and chocolate,
I swear it levitated from its silver platter.
“But only one,” said my mother,
who’d been so nervous through the meal she barely spoke,
the expense, the thought of the expense,
quite beyond her. But my father,
so proud of his book contract even his eyeballs glimmered
above the whitest tablecloth I’d ever laid my hands upon,
whispered, “I don’t know which likes me most,
unless it’s this beauty.” He pointed
and the biggest, most delicious-looking, most superior, most supreme,
pastry of pastries
got lifted onto his dessert plate. I blinked at the platter’s void,
as all the other pastries seemed to cringe
or turn into molasses. “Well, Doris? Well, Dickie?”
he asked. My mother, with a small shake of her head,
declined, and I trying to follow her lead, picked the only confection
remotely modest – something with berries, I think,
in a sweet cup of dough,
trying to please not only it, but her
who cared so much for appearances she seldom left our house
afraid they, meaning the world, meaning even the pigeons of the world,
would judge her to have failed
for having hoarded money only to have it flung away,
into this or that shame. Have I pleased the things I’ve chosen
enough to be worthy of them,
enough for them to fall apart the moment
my fork touches their crust,
enough to have them melt inside my mouth,
as my father said his pastry did …

as he paid the bill, leaving a huge fat tip conspicuously placed
upon his dessert plate, the dollars sticking to the crumbs.
Is my house pleased with me? My Japanese pen? My computer?
Every mood I drive myself into?
I was watching
My mother’s mouth downturn until she faked a smile
At the maitre d’, the coat check girl, the doorman
Who didn’t care if she pleased him, not at all,
Sad, sad woman, on that sad, sad day it was.

In Present Vanishing, memory both challenges and enriches the overarching desire for a more inclusive level of experience, an attainment of perceptual purity. The mother withholds herself from pleasure, the father indulges, the son is stuck in the middle. When a single mind can’t accommodate the oppositions, it is a “sad, sad day.” But Allen the artist knows how to restrain himself from saying so directly. He leaves us something important to do. As one goes further into Present Vanishing, the speaker gains density and slips away at the same time, becoming more human, accessible and attractive. Here is his version of a self-portrait, beginning the third section:

IN PROFILE

Think of me as always seen from the side,
never head on,
in profile, always having something else to hide,
or to abandon.

Think of me as always looking away,
only half here,
as the other side of the coin you could not see
or make appear.

Think of me as always facing left or right,
like a book page,
sometimes lingered on, more often flipped from sight,
leaving only this edge.

As Present Vanishing progresses, it becomes textured and darker, absorbed by the task of confronting conflict – even as its sensibility points toward the Zen-inflected alternative. Part of Allen’s ethos tells him to own loss, thus allowing him also to grasp the potential for its opposite. Doglia mi reca ne lo core ardire wrote Dante -- “grief brings boldness to my heart.” In “The Blind,” he recalls the building and use of a duck blind with other men. The poem ends:

There, we kept our silence, not looking at each other,
or if we did, seeing no more than our young man faces,
tired and grim, so filled with misunderstandings,
doubt and guilt, no one would have believed
we’d come here by choice, and would return
year after year as long as the wretched blind
prevailed and the guns fit into our shoulders.

allen1.jpgAllen has no impulse to mute his values: the blind is “wretched,” the men are flawed, the violence is inbred. But if “The Blind” is spoken from a position of higher awareness, Allen the artist still allows the guns to fit snugly, permanently in the living memory. His poetry is based on convictions that aren’t muted or disguised, but they don’t limit the reader’s experience to spare, righteous conclusions. The duck blind may still be standing, prevailing out of mysterious necessity. “A Curse” is a catalog of bad guys, banished into imaginary silence: “Mad or not, the serial axe-murderer, / The airplane hijacker, the suicide bomber, / Who cares what sad lost shapes their childhoods were? / We want to hear their names no more.” But of course, they don’t go away, they keep making trouble, and this could be the point of view of a talk-show caller. He follows this with “Washing Each Other’s Hands,” a mutual means of convincing each other we are innocent: “We have no sins, / rinsing, exclaiming, exulting, excluding / all other hands that want to come on board.”

These are poems about spiritual condition, undeterred by the unfashionability of moral assessment. But Allen uses tonal variety, sure-handed cadences carrying action and detail, topicality and anecdote, playfulness and irony, and a generous view of human waywardness to ensure the pleasures of imagining reality. The “present vanishing” is the current moment seen anew. This is a wish. The lyric identity behind Present Vanishing is interesting precisely because he, like the boy between the cream puff and the mother’s forced smile, can’t give up “that intangible / way of holdings things we’d just as soon let go.”

[Myself Painting: Published October 1, 2008, 104 pp., $50.00/$17.95]

[Present Vanishing: Published October 1, 2008, 82 pp., $14.95 paper]