Friday, May 28, 2010

Anatomy Of A Poem

Mysterioso One

          with rusty brown spots as the oldest
                    IMMORTAL PRINCESS
          or the Bodhisattva Kwannon as a simpering
                    and infinitely generous
                             OLD WHORE

          How surprised we are at what passes
                    in past and future
              for the scent of apples.

          know more about the skin and muscles
       and the wall of stars two billion light-years long



       from Mysteriosos And Other Poems, by Michael McClure.

The above poem, which I have crudely reproduced here (the Google Blogger does not allow center justification and line indentations involve a complex, coded process), looks like a plant. It has a stem, or spine, from which the lines branch out, radiating toward the margins on either side, thwarting linearity and encouraging a view of the text as a form of three-dimensional sculpture. It appears to be holding its ideas and images and sounds in suspension. Its verticality exalts thought. The eyes travel up and down a verbal form inviting rumination in the embrace of a candelabrum. But something else is going on. There is a tension hidden among its lines. Its structure worries a vivid paradox. Words flare outward, like yardarms on a clipper, but are also drawn inward, like particles of iron magnetized into a needle. Two conflicting energies excite the height and punch of the poem.

This structure has been a hallmark of McClure’s for many years. It reminds me of Apollinaire’s Calligrams, or George Herbert’s “The Altar,” which were early examples of concrete poetry, though McClure does not create pictures so much as chisel his way into space, creating oak out of nothingness, plumping energy into palpable chunks. He is inviting us to read the text differently, as a Möbius loop of sound; as a gardenia.

The first two lines, “LOVELY. LOVELY AND ANCIENT AND FOXED/ with rusty brown spots as the oldest,” refer to a form of spotting, or browning, on old paper documents, postage stamps, birth certificates, death certificates, and legal transactions. Pages of an old book, especially. Here in Seattle, it’s impossible to escape the encroachment of humidity and damp. You have to be pretty vigilant, run a dehumidifier, keep the windows open on balmy days, in order to prevent “foxing,” as it is called, in your manuscripts and prize books. The image McClure is presenting us with is paper, old paper, but the next line, “IMMORTAL PRINCESS,” which switches paper to skin, the skin of an old woman, frail and parchment-like: one sees moles, warts, veins. Time written into the scripture of her wrinkly surface. I imagine a venerable old woman in a twinkling tiara, a mischievous sparkle still iridescing in her eyes, something fey and girlish about her despite her age and royalty. She is not a queen. Heavy responsibilities go with being a queen. This being is different. She is unmarried, still waiting for a final ascendancy to the throne of whatever realm she inhabits, a potential for consummation that has long passed by. McClure is presenting us with a strange combination of youth and age. Or, possibly, an old piece of paper with nothing yet written on it.

Or possibly an aged manuscript in the British Museum. A letter from Keats. The beginning to Tennyson’s “In Memorium A.H.H.” The frontispiece to a first edition Leaves of Grass.

Something that feels light and crinkly in the hands. Something complexioned and sensual and prickly with writing.

The next three lines change things radically: “or the Bodhisattva Kwannon as a simpering/ and infinitely generous/ OLD WHORE.”

Things are quick and alive as the alleys of Montmartre with these lines. The woman is seasoned and wise but also self-destructive, promiscuous and daring. She is a wily denizen of vile places. She has seen it all. Beatitude and sin. Everything repellent and stinking and rotten with depravity, but also robustness and Rabelaisian energy, singing that goes long into the night shaking the stars into delirium and Fauve painting, bedsprings squeaking among old wood-burning stoves and African masks.

Kwannon is the Japanese counterpart of the Chinese Kuan Yin, or Guanyin. She is also known as Gwan-eum in Korean and Quan Âm in Vietnamese. She is recognized as the bodhisattva of compassion. Bodhisattva translates roughly as “wisdom-being.” It comes from the Sanskrit: bodhi, meaning “perfect knowledge,” or enlightenment, and sattva, meaning a variety of things: goodness, essence, being, existence, spirit. All these things combined. It refers to someone who has chosen to attain enlightenment with a goal toward helping others. Its application to other suffixes varies its meaning accordingly: sattvadhika means spirited, courageous, or valiant.

According to the Buddhist legend from the Complete Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas, Guanyin vows never to rest until she frees all sentient beings from samsara, or reincarnation. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, her head split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha (principal Buddha of the Pure Land sect; Amitabha is translatable as “infinite light”), seeing her plight, gave her eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. When her arms shattered into pieces, Amitabha gave her a thousand arms with which to aid the many in suffering.

But why not an old whore? A venerable, and venerated, sex worker. An infinitely generous sex worker. I leave it to you to imagine how that generosity might manifest. Remember: a thousand arms, and eleven heads.

There is an abrupt shift of thought in the next line: “How surprised we are at what passes/ in past and future/ for the scent of apples.”

Two things come to mind: Frederick Schiller, and Monsanto.

Frederick Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to sniff while writing. The odor inspired him.

Genetically modified food - fruit, vegetables, wheat, etc. - poses both promise and threat. Selective breeding, or artificial selection, has been in practice for thousands of years. The poodle, the dachshund, and the Guernsey cow are products of selective breeding. Plant breeding is as old as human civilization. Rice, barley, wheat and oats are all products of plant breeding. Classical plant breeding crosses related individuals to produce varieties with desirable properties: increased quality and yield, increased tolerance to such factors as salinity and temperature, resistance to viruses, fungi, and bacteria, and increased tolerance to bugs and other pests. Classical plant breeding relies on homologous recombination between chromosomes to generate genetic diversity.

Genetic diversity is crucial. Diversity in all its guises is crucial. Sameness and standardization run contrary to life.

Modern plant breeding uses techniques of molecular biology to genetically modify desirable traits. The danger here is multiple: corporations that own a patent over a genome have commercial control over the product; the danger inherent in that is obvious. Extortion would not be strong a word.

Another problem with so-called Frankenfood is lack of nutrition: by favoring certain aspects of a plant’s development, other qualities may be compromised. Corn, soybeans, and cotton are, at this point, the crops most subject to genetic modification. It’s a highly debatable issue. Insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops. But is the disappearance of bees and colony collapse disorder related to this? As McClure notes, what will pass for the scent of apples in the future?

The next line, which runs vertically down the page, “I MUST,” serves as part of the stem of this poem. The word ‘must,’ as a noun rather than a verb, echoes the earlier line about the scent of apples. There is strength in the phrase “I must,” which the majuscules emphasize. Must is a strong verb. It pushes. It marshals. It declares itself to be an imperative.

Must what?

Must “know more about the skin and muscles/ and the wall of stars two billion light-years long.” It’s interesting how McClure conflates skin and muscle with the stars, with the cosmos, with the generative energies of the universe. This is a salient quality of McClure’s aesthetic; to conflate disparate qualities, disparate energies, disparate magnitudes. It is in high contrasts such as this that we discover power in hybridization, expansion in the poetry of differentials. A root may be exponentiated by water and dirt into a flourish of branches and leaves. A consonant may be hissed into cypress by a magician of vowels. Multiplicity stems from reaching.

“IT IS all QUICK!!!” completes the stem of the poem, roots it in exclamation points. How quick, as Johnny Carson would say, is it?

Pretty quick: 186,000 miles per second.

According to the theory of relativity, space and time are connected. They are one and the same, a single continuum. Space is three-dimensional, time is four-dimensional. By combining space and time into a single manifold, or mathematical space (a line and a circle are one-dimensional manifolds), physicists have consolidated a number of theories in a manner that allows a clearer description of the workings of the universe. In classical mechanics, time is treated as a constant. In relativistic contexts, time bends. Time depends on the motion of an observer.

A poem is quick not only because it blends space and time (time in the poem being a measure of cadence, and pause), but because it dyes the eyes with the fire of inspiration.

As writers, we are discouraged from using exclamation points. McClure has gone contrary to this edict, big time. Not one, but three exclamation points leap up at us at the end of the poem. The first effect of this is that it doesn’t feel like an end. It feels more like a beginning. Secondly, the verticality of the exclamation points mirror the verticality of the poem.

The exclamation point was introduced into English printing in the 15th century and was called the “sign of admiration or exclamation,” or the “note of admiration.” One theory of its origin is that it was originally the Latin word for joy, Io, written with the ‘I’ written above the ‘o.’

I see it as a seed, the little dot being the seed, and the vertical mark above it being the stem.

What steam does not stem from a stalk of talk?

The lips move and a grace of air and thunder is gurgled in the clouds.


Steven Fama said...

Hi Jhn,

This is a really good one. I like the discussion of the skin and muscles = wall of stars. In addition to what you write, I see it as an aspect of McClure's insatiably curious + optimistic intelligence: he wants to get it all, and he seems certain that he will.

As for "QUICK / !!!" yes I agree 186,000 per second, but also the blink of an eye, the beat (ceased) of your heart.

David Grove said...

Or the vertical mark may be a pool stick pocketing the dot. Or a fob attached to a pocket watch. What tick on a stick balks at picking a locket?

I appreciate your exegesis. It doesn't denude McClure's poem; rather, it clothes this Möbius stripper with meaning. I've been reading September Blackberries--dressing the poems with my eyes. Admiring the conflations of dichotomies: "THE PANDA IS A PEACOCK...PLATO EQUALS CHARLIE CHAPLIN...LIGHT AND DARKNESS ARE ARBITRARY DIVISIONS...CLEANLINESS IS UNDEFINABLE AND AS NATURAL AS FILTH." Makes me want to go back to The Proverbs of Hell.

peN said...


Thanks for this. You go so deeply into your subjects that each essay is a life-force, an energy source in itself.

McClure's recent reading at Moe's is available on-line here: In it, he reads the poem Mysteriosos 1 and he mentions the old whore reference as being inspired by a Zen painter, whose name I cannot begin to spell, but sounds like Pacoween.

Keep up the good work.