Last Monday Reading Series
April 25th 7pm
Influence Music Hall
135 SE 3rd Street Hillsboro, Oregon
Often poetry is like Russia. “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I believe poets do not do this on purpose. They don’t write poetry as if it is a page out of Where’s Waldo or the hidden pictures of Highlights Magazine. Poetry is a medium especially adept at distilling grand ideas into brief amounts of script. It provides a template for a dizzying array of connections. A way of linking disparate thoughts, experiences, images, emotions. It pushes and pulls the reader ultimately attempting to hold a mirror up to the reader to elicit a response. A response of “I like this” is always welcome but the Holy Grail is “I am like this.”
In pursuit of this penultimate connection the universal and personal need to be simultaneously addressed. The beatific and the scientific, the good and the bad, the whirling colors of experience all need to be put down in black and white. This flattening of reality opens up a world of amazement at work that is able to create complex evocative emotions in the mind of the reader; to elicit multi dimensional thoughts, wavering conclusions, and a choir of points of view. Poetry can be seen in the way that I often described teaching, as non-invasive brain surgery.
The brain filters at least 5 senses, bounces things back and forth between parietal lobes, feels with the amygdala, remembers with the hippocampus. How does one operate on such a moving target much less on the myriad of targets that your audience presents. How does one speak of the ineffable? With ambiguity. Ambiguity is where poetry comes into its own. Where, with all its foibles and shortcomings, it really shines, outshines its literary brethren, and even the visual arts. Readers expect to work out the meanings of poems in ways that fiction and non-fiction do not require. Ambiguity allows poetry to harness the power of language and all it idiosyncrasies, paradoxes, and complexity. Turning Tony Pfannenstiel’s line from God’s Logic “…while I melted down” from a nervous breakdown to a profoundly blasphemous nose thumbing when the next line adds “my gold jewelry to fire up another idol”.
Like an impossible object there are multiple ways of seeing these lines. One can pull the nose thumbing to the front or make it recede like a viewer does with a Necker’s cube. But unlike the visual illusion readers can hold both thoughts at the same time. Viewers of optical illusions switch their assumed viewpoint from above to below, below to above. Readers of poetry can ruminate on the connections between nervous breakdowns and idolatry, of freewill and divine apathy, of submission and defiance. Sliding the conclusions around on a continuum as tangled as a physician’s handwriting.
Just as with the Necker’s cube there is often a default view. With impossible objects it is the view from above. Perhaps linked to our upright viewing physiology. In poetry this default reading is the literal reading. A reading that is linked with the most common of definitions and contexts of words and phrases.
In my work homonyms play a huge role creating a variety of readings. Take the line from Edges “Before your groin became a grotto.” Groin’s default meaning is anatomical referring to one’s crotch. The default meaning for grotto is cave. There is a certain amount of ambiguity in the metaphor. The mind struggles with imagining how a crotch can become a cave. But the context of the earlier lines clearly puts the reader in the ocean so another meaning of groin comes to mind. Groins are structures built out from the coast to protect the shore from erosion. This layers the idea of a protective structure over the genitalia. The secondary meaning of grotto further complicates the image by noting that a grotto is a hollowed out space often used for worship. Reading this one line there is something that is both genitalia and sea bulwark becoming a cave, that is also a place of worship. Yes, it makes my brain hurt. Especially if you start firing the neurons that are close to groin and grotto the thoughts of sex organs, virginity, protection, worship, and drop them into the sea. A sea that later in the poem works both meanings (ocean and pontiff) when stating, “The sea’s words won’t heal you.”
Do I expect everyone to come to a full realization of each of these meanings. Quite deliberately no. I am however not being cryptic. If I could make all the meanings apparent with brevity and vivid imagery I would. Writing this explanation reinforces the conclusion that obviously I can not. I often decide it is better to sound cryptic than verbose and to attempt to create multidimensional lines in the flatland of writing.
In another poem Good for the Perfect I use ambiguity from the start. The title comes from the phrase trading the good for the perfect a twist on throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Clipping this down to good for the perfect it reads like snide sarcasm as when one says good for you. The poem continues to describe non-sexual infidelity using an asexual angelic interloper. To build the otherworldly, sinister feel I used phrases describing symptoms of Marfan’s syndrome like “legs long like contrails” “funnel of its chest” “hummingbird eyes”. The symptoms being tall lanky build, funnel shaped chest cavity, and dislocation of the lenses of the eyes.
This layer of Marfan’s syndrome coupled with a reference to a Confederate inserted a possible reading that included Abraham Lincoln. It was theorized that he suffered from Marfans. This was not my intention and the cohesiveness of a reading that includes Lincoln does not hang together. Yet, if a reader’s brain runs with it and creates a web of logic that holds together for them, I won’t argue. Sometimes the ambiguity is a result of a happy accident.
One such happy accident was the line “I felt embedded in its palm.” Taken out of context it reveals something more about the speaker’s feelings in relation to the interloper. Put back into context with the preceding line of “My finger touched the gravel” the speaker’s feelings take their rightful spot in the background. Using line breaks to separate phrases from their context is also useful in increasing ambiguity without losing clarity.
My primary intention is clarity but the complexity and interrelated subject matter of my poems necessitates a two, three or 16.5 prong attack. Ambiguity marshals the varied meanings and allows me to speak simultaneously. There are times I will steer away from using words or phrases because of the secondary or tertiary meanings, but in the end this is what interests me, what I enjoy. Churchill’s follow up to the earlier quote, “But perhaps there is a key … Russian national interest” works for poets also. Primarily poets want to speak to readers, to be understood. It is not in our interest to be misunderstood. This doesn’t stop it from happening but for the most part poets are thrilled to have readers know what they mean even when the poet doesn’t.