|Excerpts > Fall 2004|
Joe Osterhaus, Radiance, Zoo Press
This would probably be a good time to question the truth of Ezra Pound’s statement that “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music,” since American poetry has moved away from music, though in many different directions at once. But poetic atrophy, whatever that actually looks and sounds like, may have very little to do with the kind of poetic music that evokes the longing for what music itself represents: change and renewal, fulfillment and transcendence. If they are not dismissed outright as conceptual nonentities, these ideas, particularly that of transcendence, have long since become anathema to certain ways of thinking about literature. Although it’s true that any form of writing or art, as a new thing in the world, cannot transcend the culture, history, and language in which it is made, this recognition should not be confused with what writers and artists are actually telling us in their works about their ideas and experiences and states of being. Two new books published by Zoo Press, an exciting new literary press based in Nebraska, provide divergent ways of exploring what might constitute a state of transcendence in America. The books, Joe Osterhaus’s Radiance and Don Share’s Union, also indicate Zoo Press’s commitment to publishing younger writers who are searching their way through difficult and original subjects, particularly related to American culture and history, without recourse to modish styles and postures.
The opening poem of Joe Osterhaus’s book, “The Tree Rings in the Surface of the Butcher’s Block,” establishes the poignant, if sometimes oblique, lyricism of his writing. The poem’s feverish sense of desire and promise, in which the distortions of perception both excite and confound the poet’s longings, is intensified by the controlled language: “The white sketch of the moon these hot June nights / tends inward like a virus . . . A virus riveting the skin and mind.” The butcher shop of the poem _ a place of hunger, commerce, violence, and beauty _ is an evocative introduction to the book’s themes; and the poet’s warnings that “our viruses slip past our medicines” and not to “base your trust upon a singing nerve” (advice that applies as much to the poet’s work as to the butcher’s) resonate throughout the book, most strongly in the long, climactic poem “The Villa Basque,” set in a California restaurant among other, more destructive, forms of hunger, violence, and beauty. Yet, for all of the poem’s evocations of obscurity (“where smoke / gusts from a copper barbecue to cloak / the couples strolling in an acrid wind”), frustration (“and flatten our pleasure’s cruelly inverted curve”), and decay (“a thought / of blood thinned like a church façade by rot”), it closes with an experience of “radiance,” which “send[s] you strolling, light headed as a ghost; // confused, but, as before, an eager host.” This may or may not be a desirable state to be in, but it still describes a kind of reinvigoration, a new spirit of possibility, that, in the course of the book, leads Osterhaus not only to recognize the ways in which the self subverts its own desires and ambitions, but also to connect longing itself with transcendence.
Perhaps Osterhaus recognizes the limitations of this lyric style, its strangely depersonalized inwardness and its dependence on a descriptive language that can be vague and evasive, since the book quickly grounds itself in stories of post war America, both from his own life and from the larger culture. In “The Soul Stirrer,” the story of Sam Cooke’s death reveals the harrowing “dissonance” both of American life and of our most profound yearnings. All of Cooke’s ambition and fame, his talent and brilliance, are “drowned . . . in waste” in a Los Angeles motel, where his death conjures the violence, corruption, and injustice that so obscure the passion evoked by “the high skirling hoop of his voice.” As a counterpoint to the idea of radiance, Osterhaus describes “the scutched neon” and “the spark of the neon” in which Cooke’s murder occurs, the kind of light that is itself only a form of distortion within the darkness. Two of the poem’s most striking images also negate any sense of radiance by making the light of traffic signals and camera flashes, the light of the twentieth century, complicit with the violence: “she heard the gun go off / (the traffic lights turned crimson for a beat)” and “the bullets traced / the coming pops of flashbulbs.” Fame, “ruthlessly narcotic,” is here the illusion of transcendence.
”The Vanishing,” on the death of Frank O’Hara, captures from a different angle the same theme of wasted talent and of “America’s timed vanishing.” Along with “The Soul Stirrer,” “The Vanishing” shows Osterhaus’s profound instinct for appropriating the mood of a poem’s subject for the poem’s style. About O’Hara, Osterhaus writes, “Just as he frightened the dolorous tradition /and scatted new echoes from the mossy wells, / we still fall short of his ideal republic / where we won’t have to buy appliances.” The descriptions of O’Hara’s apartment after he died, of the poet going to the movies, and of the funeral where “his family / stood in . . . opposition / to the shocked, yet dry eyed poets in the pews” are both moving and ironic evocations of the way a life vanishes from the world. “Dayr Amis,” about the poet’s grandfather _ his immigration from Lebanon, the shop he owned where his grandchildren were “pressed . . . into work,” and the empty city lot he bought in his old age and “tended . . . in his spare time” _ is another of the book’s strongest poems. As a child, the poet would go with his grandfather to work the lot, and the memories of that time indicate a profound shift in his consciousness. The final passage of the poem perhaps comes closest to capturing Osterhaus’s vision of transcendence: a perceptual state fed by memory, experience, and imagination, reaching back into the foreignness of our origins, the places that represent a kind of original loss, through which we long to determine our identity and our fate:
If memory could occupy that height,
until the empty downtown blazed with lights_
that haunted me as I walked back with him,
The two most ambitious poems in the book, “The Depth of Things” and “The Villa Basque,” though less formally inventive than the more compressed lyrics, contain some of Osterhaus’s most compelling writing. “The Depth of Things,” a sequence of sonnets about the assassination of JFK, works by crosscutting scenes of Kennedy’s death and life with the poet’s meditations on the faded time and with images of vanishing and absence, of the mysteries of the past, and of the search for certainty amid breakdown and crisis. This last theme is expressed most strikingly in the fifth poem of the sequence, as Jackie Kennedy’s aides search through the stacks at the Library of Congress with flashlights, looking for information about Lincoln’s funeral:
Dividing up, with flashlights, a few scanned
“The Villa Basque,” a long narrative poem about a restaurant in Northern California where the poet worked when he was young, provides the most detailed expression of the book’s themes, bringing together its images and language with a formal authority that is sometimes unconvincing in the other poems. John, the Eastern European immigrant who owns the restaurant, whose acts of greed and violence destroy his life, finds another kind of transcendence in the fullness of his longing and desperation, transitory, even illusory, yet completely expressive of who he is and how he’s lived. A former Luftwaffe pilot, he flies alone to Las Vegas in a rented Piper Beechcraft:
Those nights John banked his Piper through the clouds_
There are also some disappointing poems in Radiance. The same interest in the history and culture of twentieth century America that makes poems like “The Soul Stirrer” and the sequence “The Depth of Things” so illuminating leads Osterhaus, in “1998” and “To a Young Poet,” to come across like an editorialist smugly pronouning on the state of society, or, in “Tilt” and “New York Minute,” to depend too heavily on the emotions and images already associated with the scenes he describes. It is of great significance to have a poet like Osterhaus writing about public life and public events, and this may only be the problem of writing about events and images that are overly familiar from television, but there must be other ways to decribe Waco than as the “thick wall of marksmen, terror struck parents, / fanatical blunts, and the primed fire’s course.” Radiance is Osterhaus’s second book, and these missteps are more the signs of a developing talent than anything else. It will be fascinating to watch the further thematic and stylistic growth of such an ambitious poet in the future.
Don Share’s Union is a book of loss, breakdown, division, and ruin. If transcendence for Osterhaus is a fleeting experience of perception and desire, for Share it is a moral and psychological state of wholeness, of “union,” that exists only in the past. Share’s lyric style is more conversational, starker and more immediate than Osterhaus’s, less attached to the formal density and ironic compression of Radiance. Yet, Share’s capacity for self exposure, for laying himself bare in ways that Osterhaus’s blend of lyric entanglement and intellectual distance often prohibits, leads in many cases to poems that are darker and more unsparing.
Many of the poems in the book are taken up with one of two parallel themes: the breaking apart of a marriage, and the breaking apart of America through the Civil War, two forms of divided union. The poems on marriage and the end of love are particularly interesting as a larger group. “For Laura,” “Spiced,” “Leaf,” “Ending is a True Marriage,” and “Divorced” are each more haunting for the ways that loss, absence, and isolation recur through the poems with a deepening familiarity and inevitability. Share’s poems are most effective when he doesn’t call excessive attention to his insights, which are often subtle and incisive. The descriptive nuance of “Spiced” yields these arresting images:
That day I held my head in my hands,
In “Leaf,” Share again uses his garden to represent different aspects of his marriage and its aftermath. A sense of the alienation that follows the breakup of the marriage, which he first identifies in “Wine” and “Faithful”, returns in “Leaf” as the garden becomes both the stage on which the couple’s psychic drama plays out and the metaphor for their multiple forms of estrangement:
Remember our difference
“Ending is a True Marriage” also contains some of his most moving and perceptive writing:
I let mosquitos
Solitude is a bargain;
Yet in poems like “Refrains,” “Rivers,” and “The Story,” his emotional rawness, so resonant in other poems, seems as obvious and cloying, particularly suffering in “Refrains” from the attempts at a sort of self conscious, low grade wordplay. In “Spiritual,” the otherwise sympathetic character of the poet’s father in law, a figure of desolation caught in the hardships of the South, is not well served by the kind of sentimental straight talk that closes the poem: “Say whatever you want, / the man always shook you by the hand, / and gave you every drop of wisdom he ever had.” On the other hand, the self conscious rhyming of “Grit” and “At Seventeen” _ both about the poet’s first experiences in New York, having come from Memphis to go to school at Columbia _ underscores the speaker’s experience. “At Seventeen” is especially poignant as the teenager in the poem chooses to strip away his Southern accent, tearing down the past to remake himself. If transcendence is fleeting, and perhaps unknowable, its opposite is clear: the loss of identity, its disconnection, its severing, from its own history.
As good as many of the earlier poems are, the book really comes alive in the longer poems in the final section, set in Memphis, and taken up with the legacy of the Civil War, the fate of the South and of Southern identity, and the lasting divisions of America. The groundwork for these poems, “Dispatches from the McDonald’s on Union Avenue,” “Pax Americana,” “At Forrest Park,” and “Union,” is set early in the book by “Dilemma,” in which Share evokes the places where the past persists, “where the past still hurts,” where it runs through the land in the creeks and rivers. In Memphis, in Shiloh, the past is inescapable, the source of “the original catastrophe of our history,” which opened fissures in the American consciousness and continues to cut through the foundations of our identity.
At the center of this final group of poems is General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose statue stands in the park named for him on Union Avenue in Memphis. One of the great Confederate generals of the war, a cavalry commander in Tennessee and Mississippi, he won important victories for the Confederacy and led the attack on Fort Pillow, on the Mississippi north of Memphis, in which many black soldiers were killed in one of the war’s worst atrocities. He was also one of the early leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, but later resigned from his position as Grand Wizard and tried to bring the organization to an end. The complexity of Forrest’s presence in these poems only deepens Share’s vision of his native city and the American past. Echoing Robert Lowell, he writes in “Dispatches from the McDonald’s on Union Avenue”:
From war, Sir, there is yet no rest.
The War? It’s over.
In “Pax Americana,” Share is haunted by the violence and tragedy of his own past as well, and as his life is overlaid with the life of the country, all forms of transcendence seem to vanish in time: “The good old days are over, / and peace is history; / and that’s why I left home // and that’s why I have no home.”
American peace was never easy to come by, and the disquiet of Share’s poems, like Osterhaus’s, lets us know that it keeps getting harder to find.