LyricInvestigations

IN THE BUSHES by Mark Fiddes

The jungle bird does not do fireworks.

He sidles along the branch,

ordinary as a poet at a bus stop, overcoated,

cap rafishly angled, a scarf stolen from a rainbow.

He plays skiffle on the bark until he gets to mate

whereupon he sings about it ceaselessly

like it was the first time it ever happened up tree.

”Get a life,” say the sloths and bandicoots.

”We’ve all been there, or thereabouts.”

(from “Other Saints Are Available,” @livecanon, 2021)

Following a lyric can be like following Fred Astaire with a chair and a flight of stairs. The ordinary is transformed in the process of an unpredictable but not obscure and exquisitely disciplined routine.

The routine is the grammar of lyric, which has been explored by poets for millennia. Meter is a big part of this but it will have to wait. What happens depends ideally on what the poet wants the reader to experience in this case. I say ideally because the particularity of the reader has a say in it. The dance takes two willing partners even when one is invisible.

The central event of this poem involves the analogy of the jungle bird and the poet. Analogies are part of the poet’s tool kit. Analogies are lopsided comparisons. The lopsidedness stretches the image almost to the breaking point. The extreme music of lyric comes from this instability.

Fiddes uses lyric structure to produce transformation. Just as Astair makes us believe he’s dancing with a chair, Fiddes follows our familiarity with lyric moves like the image “stolen from a rainbow.” That reveals the intentional consciousness of the poet in the poem AND the poet of this poem. .

Having absorbed that image we are ready for the climax (pun intended). The asymmetry of the analogy between poet and bird tops out in the psychological realism of the argument. “Up tree” is a brilliantly concise final flourish of the development, gesturing with Alastair-like precision, to transcendence.

The poem brings us down to earth— this too being the way lyrics most often conclude— but not without a touch of the equivocity of the finite real. These creatures say what we’d say had we not learned how to enjoy the mind- bending and mind-opening craft of lyric as practiced by the word-choreography of Mark Fiddes.

TOM’S LYRIC RESERVES: Fiddes (2)

”The Great American Songbook” by Mark Fiddes (from OTHER SAINTS ARE AVAILABLE, Live Canon, 2021)

Just a few nights after the 9/11 attacks

they dropped Rule Britannia

from the Last Night of the Proms.

As we watched the screen in Hyde Park

your Star-Spangled Banner dripped

from our damp branches and we wept

stones to Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Slatkin’s hands no longer conducted

bars of music but the space between,

fathomless and mute

while violins lifted us above the rain

and the wreckage of sodden picnics,

all breath suspended on one final chord,

as if this too might be our last ,

floating between faraway tenements,

down freeways, under sulking flyovers

over plains of native spirits and mist

to silver birches and shining shores.

Here, we were both smaller and greater

than ever before

becoming all of the work songs,

the slavery and

the hobo and the crossroad songs,

the Motor City songs,

the protest and the Opry songs,

the love songs that made us possible.

Now gone.

Lost somewhere between Presidents,

as we wait once more

for Slatkin’s hands to raise us,

to conduct the fathomless and the mute.

A poem dense with the particularities of a public event, Mark Fidde’s poem about 9/11 has the lyric intensity of a song. Like a good song, it is organized around universal experiences that flow from section to section in deceptively simple ways.

The poem may be outlined using the format pointing to Iris Murdoch’s pithy saying from her book “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals”: “Experience is consciousness.” You might say the poem flows between experience in the public sense and consciousness in the individual sense, but the poem refuses to reduce its meaning to platitude.

The poem opens in the world of literal fact and threads its way through a sequence of experiences ranging from the production specifics of that last night of the Proms to the conductor’s gestures and their effect on the audience. The language is everywhere studded with irreducible perceptions of fact like “damp branches” and “the wreckage of sodden picnics.”

The language of the poem gradually picks up its own resonance. It toggles between metaphors like “Slatkin’s hands no longer conducted / bars of music but the space between” and the multidimensional aspect shifts that prepare us for deeper and more troubling moments. Slatkin is clearly the persona of the poet, who speaks as a witness in the full, now contested (thank you Geoffrey Hill!) sense.

I can’t go into this dimension of the poem but its sound is rich and one might say muscular, a blend of traditional metrics and expressive reconfigurations of time. The sound of this great lyric is its sense.

The tragic dimension of the event avoids the geopolitical for the profoundly personal. And yet it is not obscure. The sense of urgency developed a clarity as the violins “lifted us above the rain” about half way through the poem.

Staying true to its character as a song about song, the poem enters a sweeping flyover in which the homage to the victim, essential the the poem, takes in cinematic sweep. Phrases that conjure images of America boil down to definitive

, evaluative language: “Here, we were both smaller and greater / than ever before.” The plainness is that of a grear Romantic ode, on the one hand, and, on the other, the performative realization of our common humanity.

Finally: The catalogue of The Great American Song Book evokes a historical reality that is also a metaphysical insight. Song, however popular and generational, succumbs to the universal impermanence (the great Romantic ode again).

“Now gone.” The suspension of the music, of the consciousness, is literally breathtaking. The poem concludes with the now familiar image of the conductor’s hands poised in mid air. The concluding phrase repeats the great theme of the poem. We have interiorized the bare words, accepted our historical fate as part of the tragic event. We are the music that now fades into memory. We are that paradox of consciousness, “the fathomless and the mute.”

We depend on our conductor to regain our sense of self. Who? Readers will have different answers; many will be struck dumb by the image. It is however central to the poem. Civilizations fall, culture moves on.

Tom’s Lyric Reserves

A POEM ON THE CAPITOL STEPS

by Mark Fiddes

Amanda is joined by a weak sun

which recognizes yellow

as one of its lost colours.

Her words seed the new blue air

which recognizes hope

as one of its lost languages.

Her voice reawakens multitudes

who recognize a smile

as one of the lost graces.

We believe again as if primroses

were bursting from stone.

Amanda Gorman has become a pop star. Fiddes’s poem, from OTHER SAINTS ARE AVAILABLE (Live Canon), suggests several reasons. All point to a seeming public “fact.” Her yellow outfit confirmed the weakness of the sun. Her words satisfy the need of “the new blue air” to restore hope to its “lost languages.” Her voice meets the need of “multitudes” who have missed “a smile” among their “lost graces.” Given the public job of restoration — of color, hope, reassuring smiles— accomplished by her reading her poem “on the capitol steps, ” the poem is nothing less than a secular if Romantic epiphany: we believe we’ve witnessed an impossible event (primroses have burst from stone).

But of course these are all metaphorical expressions though capable of being swallowed whole.

Fiddes thus responds to a public outbreak of enthusiasm that attended Gorman’s public reading, and the enormity of the event as a public phenomenon seems proportionate to his configuration of the losses — of light, of hope, of human tenderness— it assumed. Fiddes is attending not to Gorman’s poem as a literary work but to the emotional, even spiritual, context. The context includes the emotional needs of a “people” not the structural and historical — political — facts of their daily lives. It’s not too much to suggest that by this reconfiguration of the occasion of the poem, so obvious on social media, in the ”news,” that the poem has a complexity beyond its occasion such that “metaphysical” suggests itself as one of its relevant qualities.

By its difference from the public response , the poem will have a complicated reception. I know people who love ‘it.’ But I’m aware we are not talking about the same poem. One of the obnoxious simplicities of our popular culture is that works of art are by definition open to radically opposing responses— by “open” I mean promiscuously accepting of. This poem seems to me “double” in irreducible ways, so that reading it in its own terms is an event of consciousness, involving the reader in a mindfulness that is perplexing rather than mollifying. That is, the poem draws on reserves that the reader may not be conscious of. The poem belongs to an order of objects that pop culture regularly dismisses for various reasons.

The key phrase “as if” — see the last lines—neatly avoids all this. The poem, solidly even stolidly constructed, views itself as part of a problem perhaps more pressing than the ones the poet Amanda Gorman addresses in her poem. They are indeed pressing issues. And to a suggestive degree the rhetorical build of Fiddes’s poem recognizes that of its verbal inspiration. The title alone evokes a range of perceptions and values that put the reader of Fiddes on her guard. The gap between the poems becomes at this point in need of a conversation that would swamp this fragile bark.

the metaphysics of the contemporary lyric: Clarkson’s “Love Cow”

Love Cow

by Geraldine Clarkson

Oh cow of love you have me pinned
to your evergreen felt

and are in at my ear with fermenting
oaths and actual importuning

and imprecations. I rebut you
with a tough raft of arguments, derived

from magazines under the sofa
at my Aunt Libbie’s house

I have a disease, your rump is small,
your rich cream disgusts me

and others which are more
sophisticated, from the Bible and books of

philosophy. You give me a soft brown
stare. How I wobble now before you, cow

of love, humongous, like a free-range
sack of boulders swaying

delightfully, your cordial spine
rippling, your celtic skeleton

offering promise. To eat you
would be divine, surely,

your emerald milk fast-forwarding
to your stomachs, pressed over and over

by clenching muscles. Why is it you cows get
such bad press? I wonder, half-beguiled.

Sometimes I see you, fenced,
defending young (‘let go of your dog

if cows surround you’, the notice
on the farm-gate says)    

or at the abattoir, steaming hot
and hung prosaically on hooks.                                           

Or on the plate with no relief
except for some mocking green

salad – staked out, defenceless.
They say your flesh can stay

unsullied in the gut
for six months or more –

bowels fill with longing
for sloping fields, a faraway sea.

This poem, first published by The Poetry Society before the publication of her now celebrated MONICA’S OVERCOAT OF FLESH, fulfills the promise of that volume. The oblivion to which metaphysics have fallen in modern times makes it ripe for my use. Her fans should be interested in why we should think of her art, so resolutely affirmative about the ways our bodies add dimensions to our sense of self. The Love Cow speaks intimately to the poet, who initially closes her ears with the arguments of others. The image —pinned to evergreen felt— might be cleared up by the poet, but the ambiguity “you have me pinned” creates an “other” structurally irreducible to reduction: so “meta”? And the dialogic form sustains that and reminds one of earlier metaphysicals like Donne and Herbert. The balance of the poem argues in several voices with the imposing immanence, indeed the fleshy quality underlies the metaphysical universality. (The double Immanence/Transcendence is fundamental to our metaphysical understanding of Romanticism, but as I hope to show, a good lyric handles it with finesse: here it’s part of Clarkson’s characteristic charitas.) As we will see in this column, Romantic Hegelian metaphysics has been transformed by more recent philosophers such as Bergson, Merleau-Ponty and William Desmond to open the meta to the centrality of the Flesh, to use a contemporary Upper Case. The confidence of the metaphysical presentation of the “Love Cow” should leave no doubt that in the hands of Clarkson the metaphysical mode is decidedly contemporary. It’s a glorious poem.

LYRIC FREEDOM Transtromer “Allegro” [text in daily revision]

I play Hayden after a black day/ and feel a simple warmth in my hands. //

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike./

The resonance green, lively, calm.//

The music says freedom exists/and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.//

The first three couplets establish the situation: they describe a believable situation. This realism is typical of lyric openings. But the realism goes beyond empiricism. The “simple warmth in his hands” could go without explanation. But the next couplet enters the world of the instrument. Then the world of the music. Call it “personification” and this imaginative world connects with the music being played. Haydn. Green. Lively. Calm. The next couplet, as if anticipating objection because things just don’t happen that way—personification is a ruse— goes further: “The music says …” This way of putting things is considered illiterate by common sense skepticism.

Why “freedom”? The ethos of lyric is freedom. And so the poem begins to replace the common ethos of self-expression with the reconfigured ethos of lyric. Freedom from limiting notions of “aesthetic” happening. (Aesthetics is undergoing transformation from Romantic subjectivism to ontological phenomenological centrality.) Personification. Attribution of verbal meaning to music. Both these freedoms release the poet from restrictions dependent on the modern idea of self. This lyric freedom confronts the (rational) self as the source of meaning. Lyric is polyvocal. But as we shall see the mind/voices of the poem, informed by the lyric ethos, has a dialectical turn, self-critical, opening beyond the imagined world of the poem.

TO BE CONTINUED/REVISED

LYRIC OPENINGS Geraldine Clarkson

I open Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press 2020) because I’m bored, and itching to write about how lyric affects the malaise of boredom. Clarkson’s poetry has an over plus of musical meaning and I like that.

Boredom afflicts people who read books in ways only books can help. We say take a walk, get some fresh air. Listen to the news. Call a friend. Go online. But nothing helps.

But when I read “ she’s started swearing, her mind like a sewer,” the last phrase of Clarkson’s “Inis Ni,” I connect to something outside myself but obviously part of myself now. Maybe my black mood needed this “objective correlative,” to borrow Eliot’s phrase. (And another phrase that has become a closed door.)

Such openings in the process of thinking through a poem involve us with the world of contingency, the world which may well not have happened. This is, in a sense, the human world; we like to say other worlds, like mathematics, are necessary. The sleep of finitude, boredom, is asleep in the necessary. Lyric openings wake us to the contingency and we feel suddenly alive and connected.

So anyway I reread the poem and I’m feeling better.


It’s something about the specific music of this poem, the melody of swearing and sewer, the dissonance of reference and sw-sew. Then I notice the double meaning of sewer. And another dimension opens up: I don’t sew but I love textiles as handiwork. I connect it with making poems, and swearing while doing so because it’s demanding work.

The poem is then an opening for me. I was closed now I’m open.

LYRIC ENDS and BEGINNINGS 12.12.20 (Penelope Shuttle)

I’ve taken a break to recharge and what hit me is the resilience of the concept of witness in the life of modern poetry. For example: Three of the authors that hold their own while reflecting the chaos of the modern — Denise Levertov, Milosz, and Geoffrey Hill — invite conversations about contemporary witnessing. Less well-known poets like Geraldine Clarkson and Penelope Shuttle bear witness too. Witness has little to do with Twitter likes, though it does seem to suggest something about the irreducibly human, the excess of what it is poets bear witness to.

This is from Shuttle’s Poetry Salzburg pamphlet FATHER LEAR (2020).

Beautifully done

said the dying Stanley Spencer to a nurse giving him an injection / in the small hours and I think the hours themselves / prefer the night when the dead clip us in passing with their stiff eyes // they are escaping this woe-filled earth without a second thought for any of us / not even the bee-in-their-bonnet florists who wove their wreaths / This is why I think less good of the dead than you might suppose // (except for Stanley)

The poem witnesses by fulfilling what we’ve come to expect of a lyric— a grounded opening, literal and competent, an exploration of the verbal equivocities of the occasion, a development of the conversation from multiple cultural points of view, then the confrontation of the poet and reader in the space carved out by the poem. It is a lively space despite the occasion. Stanley Spencer is very much a part of it.

As for ends and beginnings, the linear, temporal nature of lyric, often ignored by contemporary poets, yields to the paradox of form as something that survives the lyric’s performance in time. The surplus is there. “Survives” serves the relief of ending and the sur of both survive and surplus point to the wisdom of that parenthesis in closing.

PRACTICING LYRIC Geraldine Clarkson “She has the words—“

from MONICA’s OVERCOAT OF FLESH (Nine Arches Press 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE Music as form that is forming and formless, as intimate and yet as more than itself, as universal speaking to all, even those who resist. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (2016), 91.

Geraldine Clarkson’s first book, as opposed to chapbook, has a breadth and depth that challenge the reader. It is a challenge posed by the more challenging approaches to what has been routinely called spiritual or religious experience. (See now Marin Dubois, Gerard Manly Hopkins and the Poetry of Religious Experience (Cambridge, 2017.) Put it this way, nobody is quite sure what James meant by “experience.” Not to mention “religious.”

To what experience of words does Clarkson’s She had the words refer? The opening of the poem provides a rich sense of this. We get a snapshot of this sense of the word “words” in the title— like when you find your self saying “I have the words, I know what I mean, but …” THAT experience of words.

It’s an experience of words assumed by, say, The Four Quartets, so it’s not peculiar to Clarkson. That said, her way of imagining the subconscious life of words seems distinctly her own, which is important because readers of lyrics expect that. The narrative here has many “values” in the sense assumed by the wine taster’s palate. These words experience the seasons, shrink back from summer/fall’s liminal (that sill or threshold) abundance to winter’s groggy, skeletal shroud. They experience fits of resistance to oblivion, waving ambiguously but vigorously (take the word order, to what realm of experience does it belong?).

So from the acknowledgment of the tenuous claims on sense exerted by words to the rather brilliant image of their quite proper self-love in most keep their sugar/for themselves (not only to but for themselves), we face the abyss. It’s just possible for the poet to rest in the chaos of the words themselves. Some poets do. That is a way of defining the ultimately senseless poetic that seems to credential numberless poets today.

But Clarkson follows the lyric narrative by imagining a new life for words, that we call the metaxu. This space disavows the certainties of deterministic concepts and, on the other hand, the narcissistic life provided by the poet’s self-determined autonomy. The last five lines of the poem are predicated by “unless.” That is, on condition that someone / else may be counted on. Not the public, not the tradition, not the poet’s self….

Now the poem invokes the metaxu. The imaginative space of creation as invoked by the word order. If Clarkson were W. H. Auden we might know what she means by order, to wit, something out of the chummy catholic tradition. The metaxu has no index to such Meaning. Whatever order means in this poem’s between flows from the unconscious life, threatened by disasters underground that force them to the surface (her reframing of Plato’s cave?) to the promise of this singular word order. That is, to the metaxical openness to what is other to thought thinking itself. To the finite singular other as imagined by the poet in this poem as the voice of if not of the poet herself then of her poem. To this intimate universal referred to in the FIELD OF REFERENCE as “music.”

So in light of She has the words what she has is belief in the music of the words she has.

Rock on, Geraldine!

PRACTICING LYRIC Geraldine Clarkson “caress”

your touch/more darkly styled/than your kiss/twists/my insides/like table linen/in the red handed grip/of Irish washerwomen

from Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE Determinate beings have an overdeterminate singularity that speaks of the marvel of the “that it is at all” of their being. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL 165

This very small poem carries an electric shock far beyond its look on the page. How so?

Clarkson has crafted a flow of connections out of human consciousness: the flow looks and feels spontaneous. She wasn’t thinking of metaphysics when she wrote the poem. Still: The flow is from the determinate — “your kiss” — about which there is no doubt; to the indeterminate —“more darkly styled than”; through the self-determinate (“my insides”). It ends in the metaxu.

These categories belong to philosophy, namely that of William Desmond, a contemporary Irish philosopher (see FIELD OF REFERENCE). The agon between philosophy and poetry is as old as Plato and as new as post-modernism. It adds relish and a profound originality to one’s enjoyment of lyric.

The ending of caress enters a fourth dimension of being: the finite singular other. Here it is introduced as a simile— once again, the quick finesse of the poet assures the reader’s receiving the shock of immediacy. There is literally no way to anticipate the particulars of the simile. The visual and tactile impact is sudden and wrenching. Desmond has a word for this mode of being, the overdeterminate. He takes the prefix “over” from philosophical and mystical traditions. It refers to the incalculable, the giveness, the singularity of the finite other. One might almost say its infinity. The phrase “red handed grip” comes out of the blue (and red)but fulfills the job and then some: to express the “that it is at all.”

Such exegesis is the pastime of the lover of lyric. It eventually brings the lyric within one’s practice of living. (Close reading has roots in what Pierre Hadot presents in his life work as spiritual exercise.) Reading lyric mindfully restores one’s awareness of having a home for oneself in the metaxu, the between where one’s finite nature opens toward an awareness of thinking the other than thought. The last piece of a lyric is often an image of of the “that it is at all.”

The elaborated nature of the final image has a polyvocal spread. Consider, it seems to say in its lavish particularity, the behavior of linen in water. Absorbent. Resilient. As bodies wracked by Eros. As tablecloths in the red hands of washerwomen. The speaker glancingly reveals a bit about herself, perhaps. The simile fills the moment to overfilling. This is the sign of metaxu: the between space a space of passionate encounter as of the original lovers Lack and Plenty in Plato’s myth in the Symposium.

Because the lyric reconnects our minds to orders of being that get lost in chaotic times, the lyric is enjoying new popularity. Where there is smoke there’s fire. Great lyrics— from Sappho to Horace down to Baudelaire and Celan — are rare, but they are trustworthy. They repay ardent attention with an overwhelming gift of understanding oneself.

LYRIC REFLECTIONS Geraldine Clarkson “His Wife in the Corner”

from MONICA’S OVERCOAT OF FLESH (Nine Arches Press 2020)


Lyric deserves more critical attention. It is clearly the genre of the moment.

On reflection, a great lyric embodies the experience of threshold, or attention to transitions within an aesthetic (open) whole of poetry. Minor as it presents itself, His Wife in the Corner presents multiple thresholds that comprise the poem’s dynamic. Thresholds include aspects of the poem’s voice— present, past, self and other; temporal frame (then, now, and a narrative past —that vodka bottle); and attitudes or aspects, distinguishable here in terms of the points of view of the poet as prismatic for man, woman, and (inner?) child. Not to mention the fang-dang urgent message.

The concept of threshold helps us with the old idol unity. There’s a heterogeneity to lyric that defeats the expectation, nay hope, of perfectly expressive communication. But the plurivocity of lyric also defeats the cop-out of nihilism. The self or suchness of the poem, however complex, selves, to paraphrase Hopkins, and that movement, as articulated by the thresholds, is a matter not of determinate knowledge of, say, certain modes of self-consciousness, but of finesse, even of desire.

Some readers will detect in the complexity of His Wife in the Corner a blank from which to settle the scores between the parties. For example, confronting the most obvious option, in what sense is this a “feminist” poem? Indeed, ask that question of the whole book. Or try this: does this poem, this book, assume an authorial point of view inseparable from Christianity?

One final point: The concept of Threshold, indebted to the ultimate notion of plurivocal wholeness, seems to keep the given poem open to the reader’s own “selving.” However we frame it, Clarkson’s poem recapitulates the art of lyric as practicable in light of post-Romantic developments. I like to think of it this way: in light of contemporary debates, the lyric has a dog in the fight with nihilism, boredom, anti-intellectualism, and other popular diversions. For the critical reader, it’s an exciting thing to see. We seem to be in a revival of lyric. Lyric may be the genre par excellence of reflection on limits of our ability to express ourselves satisfactorily.