Green Hills Literary Lantern

Children of the Big Bang:

Or How Poetry Can Sometimes Trump Biology, Psychology, Physics, Even

Keys to the Jail by Keetje Kuipers     BookHoldStill    

Keetje Kuipers, The Keys to The Jail, BOA  Editions, Rochester, NY, 2014, 92 pages, ISBN: 978-1-938160-26-4

Terry Godbey, Hold Still, Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte, NC, 2014, 73 pages, ISBN: 978-1-59948-450-1

Lee Slonimsky, Wandering Electron, Spuyten Duyvil, New York City, 2014, 82 pages, ISBN: 978-1-941550-01-4

 

In Carlos Fuentes’s iconic novel of Mexican identity, La Muerte de Artemio Cruz, (The Death of Artemio Cruz) the author, about midway through the novel, does a five page riff, both comic and outrageous, on varieties of expressions utilizing  the verb chingar (a verb the English translation rightly identifies as to fuck) and its noun and adjectival variations. This riff  includes lots of expressions that make the sex act relatable to life situations where one feels violated, cheated or unfairly used: (“My boss really fucked me over” etc.) .   This same novel has as one of its epigraphs, “No vale nada la vida, la vida no vale nada,” a line from an equally iconic Mexican folk song, whose  title can be translated “Life is worthless,” and whose first line points out that we both enter and leave life crying.  A recurrent theme in The Death of Artemio Cruz is that we are all children of “la gran chingada,” which the English translation poeticizes into “the fucked mother,” but which more literally can be translated as the “big fuck,” meaning that what we share most genuinely as humans is the screwed-up world we are placed in without choice, all of us products of both the first cosmic screw and then our particular parents’ union.  Though Fuentes suggests this fatalism is particularly relevant to a Mexican novel, and Mexican history (at least from Cortez forward), several contemporary U.S. poets, all who have published more than once with GHLL, also explore the idea of the cosmic and perhaps inevitable nature of how we are all “fucked,” regardless of race, class or gender.  Lee Slonimsky finds fascination in the “Big Bang Theory” (the scientific concept, rather than the TV show, though that wildly popular show certainly applies the sexual pun at least as much as I will now attempt to do), that cosmic explosion and ongoing expansion that not only got our world started but which has set us on an inevitable course since.  Terry Godbey gets more personal by investigating the way an individual feels screwed over by bad luck in her poems about dealing with the world of the breast cancer patient.  And Keetje Kuipers gets more personal still, making the direct metaphoric link by using many poems about “being fucked in the dark” and the seemingly hopeless trajectory of any attempt at lasting intimacy, particularly for a woman in the contemporary world.  And yet, none of these three poets settles for the easy fatalism of the conclusion that “life is worthless.” Rather, each explores ways to see beyond the logic of that conclusion, via a persistent grasping towards what Kuipers describes as the “saddest secret of all,” hope. 

Lee Slonimsky directly or indirectly references the Big Bang Theory, and its leading to the inevitable nature of cycles and seasons and the atomic structures that define all life, in all but a few of his poems in Wandering Electron and even those poems not directly addressing one of those themes is informed by its place in a volume that does have those constant reference points.  And Slonimsky’s poems often remind us that we are the inevitable results of our DNA, and that it has its origins in our Universe’s origin, the Big Bang.  “Every atom inside your body was formed inside a star,” he quotes from a TV documentary at the start of his poem “Orbiting My Bones,” and even in the subtle humor of a poem about a lonely “Camel,” that non-human mammal is left to contemplate the limitations that have been “bequeathed to her by Big Bang (so we name/ our essence, reasoned back to ancient night.”)   Poem after poem reminds us of the “Imprint” Big Bang has made on all of us in a winter world where “January’s a stone.” While Lee Slonimsky’s poems often seem less a lament about the woe that Big Bang brings to our very existence than a poetic pointing to the science behind our human emotions and limitations, a discerning reader can certainly sometimes find some old-fashioned Naturalism; we may not be exactly controlled by the stars, as in Astrology, but are rather the stuff of stars, with realities as fixed as theirs must be (titles like “The Giddy Triumph of Dank,” or “Mocking Tree” do nothing to lessen that effect).  Most explicitly perhaps in “Eden” Slonimsky lays out a Godless world where somehow evolution carries us inevitably to killing. The poem begins:

                                                If evolution is our deity-

                                                despite its lack of mind, benevolence-

                                                religion’s shrine should be an ancient tree,

                                                for long ago plant DNA desired

                                                complexity for some-more  motion, thought and pride-

                                                so forked the long road toward intelligence,

                                                though somewhere “wit” took marriage vows with “kill”

                                                and made the trees more moral than us all.

 

Though love is mentioned in the latter half of the poem, it is certainly not posited as a “kelson of the creation” as in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  And love as a cure for all our set shortcomings is even more problematic in Keetje Kuiper’s work, which sometimes posits longing as an affliction which has no remedy, since  “your wants exceed your needs”  (“Just Outside”). Right from its opening epigraph from Emily Dickinson, “The Heart asks Pleasure-first-/ And then-excuse from pain- “ this collection suggests we can about as readily prevent a bad end to our relationships as we can avoid pain or mortality or the longing that makes both so much more poignant.

The just referenced “Just Outside” begins with a seemingly glib thesis: “Not loving is the new loving.”  Men’s desire is defined by its “brevity” but women will still insist on “lying with” them, “to comfort yourself with your/ skinny-breathed shivers/ and the cold/ place they come from.”  The following poem, “Brotherhood,” posits the love between men as “the only true form of love,” which, if true, means women are, by definition, left out: “Whatever/ that desire is that men only feel for each other,/ it’s more than you know how to love me now.”  In “Wolf Season” a man’s touch is compared to “the sound of a gun,” and in “Speaking as the Male Poet” a certain kind of man, at least, is characterized as a total egoist and liar (readers can catch Keetje Kuipers on YouTube reading this poem to much laughter and applause from a largely female audience.)  The personae in many of these poems are caught in the dilemma of needing physical union with someone, whether male or female, but discovering the very nature of relationship is doomed by the seeming impossibility of mutual respect and unwavering devotion, something the characters in The Keys to the Jail are often too defeated and disappointed ever to believe in.  As one speaker puts it in “What I Thought Then,”   “I have/the rest of my life to be fucked in the dark.”  And one entire section of Kuiper’s book “Five Women Ending in a Flower,” is devoted to “The Girl,” “The Older Woman,” “The Whore,” “The Femme,” and “The Wife,” none of whom are able to find anything close to happiness or consolation in their designated roles, whether with the same or opposite sex.  “The Wife” has the particularly grim wish to be abandoned in a field, so that she might possibly not “remember/where …children came from.”  We are all children of “la gran chingada,” and doomed to a life of meaningless sex sadly masquerading as love. 

It may be edifying or perhaps unfair to read Terry Godbey’s Hold Still in conjunction with the work of Kuipers. Life is predicated on and defined by conflict and loss, so a young woman writing carefully- and cleverly-wrought poems about the grimness of contemporary relationships is certainly something well worth the read.  Still, in the face of Godbey’s poems about a woman who has a more immediate  and more possibly fatal crisis- breast cancer- a woman who must face the only half-unintentional inhumanity of her caretakers and even her friends- Kuipers’ poems, which instead detail one breakup after another, can lose a bit of their edge.  This becomes truer still when one compares the seriousness with which Kuipers usually approaches her subject matter (and the insistence by more than one critic that her poems are “ferocious,” “unafraid” and “generous”) to the humor, both dark and not so dark, with which the speaker in Godbey’s book approaches her more imminent, literal peril.

There are three sections to Godbey’s Hold Still and the entire first section and a few poems from the remaining two, all detail different aspects of her struggle to survive breast cancer. Though the persona must also deal with being a single mother and with the sadly predictable array of dispassionate medical people, those looking for the lamentations of Job in this collections will be disappointed: the section of cancer related poems is entitled “Bald is the New Black” and the epigraph of the entire collection is not from the Old Testament but rather from Woody Allen: “I do not wish to achieve immortality through my works.  I wish to achieve immortality by not dying.”  Obviously part of the humor in Godbey’s choice of that epigraph is that she is unlikely to garner the measure of fame for her work that Allen has over his career, but she will share mortality with him, perhaps getting there even sooner than he does, in spite of being many years younger.  While there is some anger and depression in these poems, which, when measured by the cosmic inevitability that Slonimsky points to so adroitly, suggest the speaker has been particularly screwed over by the nature of her atomic structure, Godbey somehow cannot help but observe and even create  the humor rife for the noticing in this cosmic screw.

“Diagnosis” is one of the most darkly humorous poems I’ve ever read.  “You’ve got a little cancer going on, /the surgeon said” is its first line, which has to take a feature role in the “you can’t make this stuff up” trope, though the cliché of the unfeeling male MD is undone by this doctor being a woman, “I don’t like to use the word large, she said, leaving but/ to chill the room.”   Although the speaker is “dazed” and naturally frightened by the news she is receiving, she isn’t stunned enough not to end the poem with the same grippingly terse control of language and tone as she describes the surgeon coolly outlining things on a diagrammed pink piece of paper:  “She wrote around the breasts/ not on them/ but she was going to write on mine.”

That color pink comes into play soon after in a poem with a comic pun: “In the Pink.”   What becomes clear in this poem is that all the well-meaning and sometimes shallow attention people give to victims of breast cancer is maybe making the speakers feel better more than the actual cancer patients:

                                                                                My surgeon hands me

                                                                                a pink goody bag

                                                                                of wig and scarf catalogs

                                                                                like a party favor

                                                                                and I want to slap the smiles

                                                                                off the models’ faces.

 

This angry humor reasserts itself in the prose poem “Platitudes” in which the speaker responds  to all the usual clichés: “Everything is going to be fine,”  “Welcome to the sisterhood,” “You look great,” with caustically, darkly humorous returns, as for example: “Try not to think about it so much. I’ll try not to slap you for saying that.”  Godbey does not want to accept the fact that some people get to die too young from a horribly painful disease while others don’t, though she knows it is obviously true and might now be happening to her.   She isn’t looking to be philosophical or fatalistic, but rather is upset, like any normal person must be, by the bad luck of the draw.  She speaks then across class, gender or education level perhaps more effectively than most contemporary poets, as she delivers her feelings, with humor and grace and absolute accessibility in a way that anyone who has had cancer would probably applaud.

All three poets give fairly convincing support to the notion that we are all more or less screwed in life, from the social and psychological limitations that make women’s need un-addressable, the biological realities that insist some of us die much sooner than others, (and that we all die, to the atomic and ultimately cosmic realities that give us no recourse in how we are placed on earth and what came before to cause our placement.  For many contemporary readers of poetry these clever and often masterfully written variations on the “Life sucks, then you die” theme would be enough.  And certainly each of these books has already received recognition for its poetic accomplishment (for example, both Kuipers’ and Godbey’s books include praising blurbs from Pulitzer prize winners in poetry: Tracy K. Smith and Claudia Emerson, respectively.)  However, Slonimsky, Kuipers and Godbey all offer something more; all end up deciding that stoic resignation is not a way they are willing to go.

One of the earliest poems in Wandering Electron already hints at Lee Slonimsky’s acknowledgment that insight into atomic structure and Big Bang will not really preclude our ability to make some choices for ourselves.  The second poem in the book, “Love Poem In The Manner of Harvey Shapiro,” notes the irrepressible power of January’s cold, but still admits:”…this bitter air/ is not as cold as you,/ the glossy black of your heels/ as you stride away.”  About mid-way into the collection is a poem titled “Outwitting The Wind,” in which the poet claims he would like to write, “from the point of view of an electron,” but the train is too crowded with people for him to find a seat, so he settles, happily it seems, for imagining himself a flower, a daisy offering, “medicine for the wind, and salve for a troubled mind.”  He finally admits towards the end of the book in “Shaking My Speed At The Sun,” that, “The spin of atoms is a secret/ no human being should be exposed to/ except in diagrammed textbooks.”  I take this for an admission that we are better off imagining all our possibilities rather than being restricted by what knowledge of biological, even atomic limitations should make impossible for us.  Nothing in our spin of atoms seems able to stop some of us from imagining ourselves flowers or writing the kind of fully realized sonnets that Slonimsky often offers us.  And if the poet must speak of loss, he will best do it in human terms, as in “Yellow Leaf,” where Nature’s possible indifference does not belie our own part in how alone we are or are not, even if the wind through leaves fools you for a moment into thinking, “…your ex/ might have just whispered/ plaintively to you.” 

Even more explicitly indomitable is the speaker we meet throughout Kuiper’s The Keys to the Jail.   In spite of the many poems about the seeming inevitability of break-ups and of all of our being perhaps compromised by what older poets might have called original sin (“Is all flesh fashioned in the dark?” Kuiper asked rhetorically and metaphorically in “The Wife”) the persona in this volume has no lasting regrets and a strong sense of continuing desire, both carnal and otherwise.  In a poem where a medical examination recalls for the persona that the woman doctor “is not the first/ woman to do things to my/ body I can’t do myself,” the speaker concludes, “I have loved the world/ and have let it enter me,/always, again and again.”  Two poems later in “Ought” we have this conclusion: “I ought/ to be losing my mind with all this familiarity,/with loving every damn thing I’ve come to know.”  These lines together take me to two very different, famous books.  At the end of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield discovers that the act of story-telling can have a strange effect: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything.  If you do, you start missing everybody.”  That advice comes too late for Kuipers, and so all the loneliness, regret, even touches of self-destructiveness: (“Suppose you /recognize me. Suppose I have to go on living.”: “Please Check Under the Bed”) become just part of what she is unwilling to forsake. Kuipers’ “loving every damn thing I’ve come to know,” also reminds me of Walt Whitman who says , after a sexually charged contact with nature in Canto 5 of “Song of Myself” that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers.”   Her final poem, “Jonathan Plays in the Key of E,” brings an especially apt conclusion to The Keys to the Jail, when the poet cries from the beauty of music and how it seems to suggest she is the only being who cannot find a way of “making peace with itself.”  Yet the poet and the poem refuse to accept that conclusion, as the volume ends: “But there’s been a wedding.  And I’ve been/ swimming.  Anything could happen tomorrow.” 

The speaker in Godbey’s Hold Still is just happy to have the possibility of that tomorrow, and in a more literal way, since the threat to her life has been literal as well as metaphorical.  That gratitude, though, is placed in a larger context of choice, via the poems that are not cancer-related.  The entire second of the three sections of the book, entitled “The Mother Lode,” is devoted to mothers, with a wide and interesting array of approaches to that topic and those women.  There are poems about how the poet’s own mother sometimes failed her, (“Mister Mustard,” The One With Violets in Her Lap”), but also poems about the horrors of a Rwandan mother who has to see her daughters first starving and later slaughtered, and the juxtaposed, self-inflicted horror of Andrea Yates and her murder of her own children (“Descent”).  These poems are both shocking and depressing, but rather than present a picture of the inevitable failure built into the world via “the fucked mother,” Godbey recalls her own son, the joy of his entering the world through her, and the ongoing joy of their relationship.  In thinking of her own body she concludes in “Prize”: “I no longer pray/ for this body, I prize it, I praise it/for letting you live, son/ for letting you give me life.”  In spite of all the ways it can go wrong, one can choose to treat motherhood as a blessing, not a curse or sin.  At the end of her volume, then, Godbey can present a final poem with the simple title “Alive” and she lets us know, in a particularly poignant lyric that, what Kuipers had suggested, that our wants always exceed our needs, is no longer true for her because she has “rode into the hush,/ the stars sparking,/ and drank the dark.”  While Kuipers declares hope the “saddest secret of all” it is no longer a secret for Godbey, who is happy to see: “Everything alive/ even hope.”

In their own microcosmic ways, Slonimsky, Kuipers and Godbey all reaffirm the role of poetry and literature in the world.  Even if science, whether biological, physical, or social, argues for our limitations and, when applied too rigorously (or not rigorously enough?) our hopelessness, the creative, existential and even nurturing voice of our best writers will give us something better and more identifiably real.  If we are all victims of the same cosmic curse, our penchant for sympathy, built on that commonality, can take us to a better place. And whether approached with the cool dispassion of a Slonimsky sonnet, the sexually charged immediacy of a Kuipers lyric or the accessible humor of Godbey’s poetry, the message is all for ongoing, for seeing what might come to us tomorrow, where “Anything could happen.”

 

Joe Benevento has published fiction, poetry and essays in over three hundred places. Poetry editor of GHLL since 1995, with numerous collections of verse and several novels to his credit, he teaches literature and creative writing at Truman State University. His latest work is a mystery novel, The Monsignor’s Wife, reviewed in this issue. A sequel is in preparation.