Saturday, January 26, 2008

Stop Making Sense (100x6)

If the hour is not at hand, be always low
in the saddle, expect a second or third small test,
a few words here, a few words over the stable
where you stood for all those hours with the brsh
in your hand, waiting for your mother to show up
and push that mare out of the way, grab you
by the hand and deliver you, one last sad time,
from the vise of youthful fear and sheer animal malice,
this before the tables turned and her long downward arc
left her in that darkened room behind the next door.

Process Reflection: The initial structural concept was straightforward enough: one sentence, ten lines, ten words per line. I also had it in mind to try something in the manner of John Ashbery, who has made a career out of writing allusive, elusive, poems which are verbally and syntactically rich but which resist paraphrase or literal interpretation. Here’s a representative passage, in this case from a poem called “Mottled Tuesday”:

Hey, you’re doing it, like I didn’t tell you
to, my sinking laundry boat, point of departure,
my white pomegranate, my swizzle stick.
We’re leaving again of our own volition
for bogus patterned plains streaked by canals,
maybe. Amorous ghosts will pursue us
for a time, but sometimes they get, you know, confused and
forget to stop when we do, as they continue to populate this
fertile land with their own bizarre self-imaginings.
Here’s hoping the referral goes tidily, O brother.

I’ve always been intrigued by Ashbery; his poems insist that you re-invent yourself as a reader, starting by putting aside your most central readerly assumption, that a piece of writing ought to have a paraphrasable content.

There’s an assignment I sometimes give my students which, for lack of a better title, I call “Stop Making Sense.” The assignment is to attempt to fill a page, or a certain number of lines, with nonsense. It sounds easy, and someone like Ashbery can make it perhaps look easy, but easy it isn’t. Our brains aren’t wired that way. What happens is most often what happened to me in this exercise: while your left brain plays its little structural game, the right brain tosses up whatever it is that it feels you have not been paying attention to. Something wants to surface, something comes to call.

In this case, the person coming to call is my mom. The scene which emerges from and ultimately triumphs over the non-scene, the non-sense, actually happened to me when I was about twelve years old. It’s a scene I had not consciously thought about in close to fifty years. We had bought a horse whom I had, in gesture whose irony I did not appreciate until some years later, Joy. (I’ve told that story before.) It was my job each morning and evening to feed and attend to Joy, but she was fractious and inventively mean-spirited beast and on the occasion in question, when I entered her stall one evening around dinnertime to bring her a bucket of bran mash, she let me in; but then, when I went to leave the stall, she kept pushing her enormous body against the wall of the stall in such a way as to pen me in. I spent a good half hour trapped in the stall, wondering how I would ever get out, when suddenly my mother, who stood all of 5’1” on a good day, appeared in the barn demanding to know what was going on. When I told her Joy wouldn’t let me out, she walked over, smacked her on the rump, pushed her aside (and she moved!), grabbed my hand, and led me out of the barn and into the house for my own dinner. I don’t who was more surprised by her temerity, me or Joy.

I would not claim much for the poem that has resulted from the exercise. It is in essence just a draft, a seed, a beginning of something. It's something that might become a poem, or a part of another, more ambitioius narrative, long overdue, about my mother. But it does now exist, and it exists only because of my own willingness to subject myself to the discipline of the exercise. Which is one of the many interrelated messages I am trying to send to my students. If you don’t know where to begin, that’s okay. Write something that doesn’t make sense. And good luck with that.

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