|Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews|
BkMk Press (2003) 104 pages
U.S. Navy submarines maintain what is called an "operating envelope." Being under the water for extended periods of time, trying not to be detected, the sub makes as few radio transmissions as possible. Still it is necessary for the submarine command headquarters to know where the sub is in order to know what assets it has in what area of the oceans. For these reasons, the sub leaves port with a series of daily orders already in hand. The orders provide a progressive set of longitude and latitude values that the boat is required to remain within. From these facts comes the phrase "operating within the envelope." It signifies a ship that is where it is expected to be.
The phrase has long since carried over into the common parlance surrounding those submarines. People are, as a consequence, referred to as "operating within the envelope" if they are behaving within some understood behavioral norm. They are "thinking within the envelope" if they are thinking within some allowable range. Recently, within the general population, this has been displaced by the phrase "thinking within the box". Thinking within the envelope can be considered positive or negative depending upon who is making the judgment and under what circumstances.
This ambivalence about thinking within the envelope is the ambivalence that readers are more than a little likely to take away from their reading of Terry Blackhawk's 2002 John Ciardi Prize winning volume Escape Artist. Ms. Blackhawk, nearly thirty years a teacher in the Detroit public school system, founded the InsideOut program which brings "professional writers" to the school district for residencies. She has received a National Endowment for the Humanities Teacher-Scholar Sabbatical Award to study Emily Dickinson. She sports the now standard two Pushcart Prize nominations. Somewhat more uniquely, she has appeared in People magazine. Molly Peacock, one of our better poets, is the judge who chose this volume for the Ciardi Prize. She has not praised the volume for its "in the envelope" quality. Were she informed that it had been described in such a fashion, she would almost certainly deny that any such quality inhered in it.
On the other side of the ledger there are the poets who will never be asked to judge the Ciardi Prize and will never win it. Among these we may include the late-Beats, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the neo-Imagists, etc. To them, Escape Artist is resoundingly within the envelope. They are, after all, outsiders, and, by the term "outsiders," we mean nothing so much as outside the envelope.
Among the reasons prize judges are unlikely to accept the designation "within the envelope" is the fact that the various groups of outsiders can be quite vocal--often crude--in attacking the envelope. Each such group, of course, inasmuch as it is identifiably a group, has its own envelope. But the sense of being on the outside--a sense not without validation--means that there is only one envelope properly deemed the envelope. Furthermore, the sense of being on the outside assures that the envelopes of these other groups will be regularly transgressed, either from a lack of discipline or from a sense of institutionalized rebelliousness--or, more likely, both.
With no particular regard for the lines of demarcation described above, creative thinking is what is described when using the phrase "thinking outside of the envelope" or "outside of the box." Submarine command headquarters created the envelope, in the first place, because creative thinking is the last thing it wants. It wants to feel confident that submarines are where they are supposed to be regardless of all other considerations. It wants a coherent, coordinated effort toward the accomplishment of a finite number of goals. All creativity must be of a more personal kind within the context of the mission.
Outsiders, it bears saying, must have an envelope as a prerequisite to realizing their own goals. Should they make the mistake of rejecting envelopes altogether they find themselves among a sea of difficulties. Communication becomes deeply problematical. Pure creativity is chaos. The envelope is a place carved out of chaos such that something can be accomplished. The only legitimate question is how to define the particular envelope.
So then, mainstream prize competitions take place within the envelope. Terry Blackhawk's Escape Artist falls within it. Without it she would be all at sea. Within it she is limited in certain ways. She is permitted an amount of personal creativity so long as the envelope is not threatened. Those outside of mainstream poetry necessarily have their own envelopes. Institutionalized rebellion is an oxymoron, and, if pursued, leads to insurmountable problems of communication.
The general attributes of contemporary mainstream poetry are no secret. The poems are reflective/discursive and confessional/anecdotal. No more than two poems per volume are longer than 32 lines. They are multi-cultural: positively approve of most Americanized social and ethnic groups with the possible exception of the traditional heterosexual, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male. The number of poems, in any single volume, which take place in a European locale are strictly limited. No more than a handful of historical references are allowed and they must be understood without notes. Regular references to flowers, gardening, cats, birds, cooking and cuisine are all greatly encouraged if not obligatory. Several poems per volume about artists and works of art also are all but obligatory. The works of art in question will not be representational unless they are by a member of an oppressed group. At most two poems may be in a form generally ornate and French. Otherwise, no traditional forms are permitted. Nor is direct social commentary.
Ms. Blackhawk's volume is exemplary. So much so, in fact, that it is well worth buying as a primer on how to write a volume of poetry likely to win a mainstream poetry prize. The fact will explain much in this book: why, for instance, the title encourages a species of commentary that she can only be deaf to. It will explain why there are truly remarkable touches in her volume, side by side with moments of unintended bathos, and why she is unable under certain circumstances to distinguish one from the other.
This is not to say that what is better in Escape Artist is explained by the envelope it occupies. Or that it entirely explains what is worse. The better work in the volume goes beyond our expectations, as in the final image of the poem "...the days when Birds come back...":
at the very end, the waiting
face composed itself into
its final mask in a manner
as punctual and surprising
as the departure and return
of the birds.
This quiet metaphor spans a distance of which few poets are capable. The only explanation can be that Terry Blackhawk is an exceptional poet at times; that together with the widely received opinion that Emily Dickinson was sufficiently oppressed that a poet is allowed to be influenced by her without transgressing the envelope.
Much to Blackhawk's credit, she strives for this kind of reach again and again throughout the volume. Rarely does she simply fail. Almost as rare is the degree of success found in the above passage. When the attempts fall between the two ends of the spectrum she is sufficiently deft that the result is a stream of consciousness effect that more or less pointedly interrogates the possibility of a metaphor.
It is hardly possible to believe that the same poet wrote passages such as this from the title-poem of the volume:
I'd say send those sad tales
through the maw of a ventriloquist's doll, a human
puppet she alone controls.
While the poem's dominant image of the poet-as-crow works well overall, this "ventriloquist's doll" is a contrivance of the worst sort. Furthermore, the final line of the poem (not quoted here) is extraneous, even positively damaging. It exists for no better reason than to fill out a full quatrain and to link the faux anti-poetic word "dummy" to the faux anti-poetic "ventriloquist's doll" image which has ruined the integrity of the piece.
The reader can hardly be blamed for asking: "Where did this dummy with a maw come from?" A thorough investigation into the etiology of this image makes the matter clear enough. To begin at the beginning, there is the question: What do these lines mean?
The lines preceding the above quote are attributed to a neighbor: "who'd have it / that the crow is negation made manifest--". This neighbor goes on to describe crows in still more negative terms. The opinions of the neighbor are the "sad tales". They are, of course, properly neither tales nor sad, but the label "sad tales" is judged to be recognizable enough that the reader will, with effort, get the point, and, effort being required, will perceive that this is poetry.
"From whence the doll?" it can only be asked, and the answer is that the poet feels pressured to adopt the neighbor's opinion of crows. She survives this specious attempt upon her integrity and replies that her mind will not be commandeered by any anti-crow neighbor. The fact that no ground work has been laid to convince the reader that the neighbor intended any such thing is nothing to the point. The whole exercise was undertaken, to begin with, for no other reason than to find a post-modern way to poeticize the declarative sentence: "My friend tried to convince me that crows were worthless and that upset me."
The doll--"doll" because "dummy" is pressed into service in the extraneous final line of the poem--by-the-bye, has a "maw" because it forms an internal rhyme with the "caw" of the crows. If the image as a whole weren't so unfortunate, the line break at "human" would be a nice, but small, effect.
But why has this poet--as capable as she is--done this to her poem? The answer is because the envelope requires her to be present in the vast majority of her poems. This poem desperately needed the poet to get out of it. Her neighbor/foil needed to get out of it, also. Or perhaps the poet could have remained in a few trace references that might have seemed intriguingly impressionistic. But even this is outside of the envelope. Volumes of poems that do too much outside of the envelope don't win awards.
Taken as example, these lines can be extrapolated to imply a number of missteps that are less glaring but as common. The poem "What I Did Not Invent", repeats its title-line as refrain for little other reason than to keep the anecdotal story of traveling through Italy with a young native lover reflective (vice narrative) and to give it some sort of vague structural coherence. In "And Now, This Small Poem" Blackhawk has no better sense than to try to describe an acid trip with the tools permitted within the envelope. These and other attempts at cultural credentialing are evident throughout Escape Artist: the poet has traveled to a kibbutz and met a holocaust survivor, has backpacked in Europe, had an Italian dissident lover, done LSD, handed out socialist literature, personally known a famous African-American, etc.
They can also extrapolate to poems, like "Against a Whiter Snow"--one of many poems in many prize volumes that begin persuasively to argue that there may be such a thing as a legitimate suburban poetry. In the poem a friend is chronically--apparently mortally--ill. Her house remains clean, nonetheless, and modestly appointed, in accordance with the upper-middle-class meanings of the terms. On a recent visit the two chatted over a lunch of "Korean soup and mushrooms." The poet--now at a distance--imagines her ill friend walking over "scrubbed wood floors," soaking in a hot tub, taking coffee on the sun deck, in lines also light and well-scrubbed.
What better means of resistance than this melange of mortgage,
Cat door, chimes for the new deck, stacks of logs for the stove...
It is an observation shocking in its matter-of-factness and its honesty. With the means to acquire decent painkillers, an acre-and-a-half, and accessories, dying no longer invokes the danse macabre. These lines ring true.
Still, the better poems in Escape Artist are more at the edges of the envelope--perhaps even a little beyond them. "Odysseus and His Men Pass the Sirens" refers to an historical poem that continues to have sufficient currency that notes are not required. The poet clearly enjoys an excuse to visit the old archetypal stories. "Daedalus Remembers" is nearly as good and its subject, Icarus, even more familiar. The title character of "St. Jerome in His Study" enjoys neither currency nor archetypal passion. Instead, he is allowed because the poem goes under the guise of an ekphrastic description of Van Eyck's famous painting of the saint (which may still hang in the Detroit Institute of the Arts). The poem, that is to say, represents one of the exceptions allowed the poet under the rules and Terry Blackhawk has put the waiver to excellent use.
After these poems--and "...the days when Birds come back..."--there is considerable drop off. "After Years of Ethnographic Research, Professor Jones Retires to the Tropics" is fun. "The Seal Wife" is an inventive sestina. "Against a Whiter Snow" may leave the reader ambivalent to fruitful ends however much that may not have been the intention. The Ekphrastic poems on works by Dale Chihuly, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Emily Carr are interesting.
In the poem "For Dudley Randall" there is another of the exceptional images sometimes met in Escape Artist. Randall was a well-regarded African-American poet and the founder of the Broadside Press. The Broadside, headquartered in Detroit, published the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde. "During the after-funeral luncheon" Blackhawk recalls an acupuncture treatment, received years before, during which her arm levitated with no conscious effort on her part. This is very nicely dovetailed into a moment in the funeral service itself. Again, it is the kind of image few poets can conceive, but several stanzas of interleaved cultural-credentialing sadly hobble the poem as a whole.
There are conventions in mainstream poetry and Terry Blackhawk knows the importance of staying within them. As a result, her volume Escape Artist sometimes manages to reach us in ways we appreciate, at other times seems contrived, even maladroit. That the conventions are, by-and-large, now 40+ years old would once have been considered the source of a dilemma. (To put the matter in its larger context, the conventions of Beat poetry are ten years older still and no more favorable to new poetry in that line.) But perhaps that is only an outdated western point of view: a bias.
The Chinese, for example, kept to conventions--to envelopes--that lasted for centuries. Each bird, plant, landscape feature and household item had its special savor--its symbolic value--when mentioned; not, perhaps, unlike Korean soup and mushrooms, acupuncture and LSD. The smallest deviation could have seismic implications. We have come to appreciate the subtleties involved. From this perspective Terry Blackhawk's struggle, in spite of her sometimes considerable achievements, reflects the fact that she represents the infancy of a single process that will outlive us all by many years. That being the case it should be said that this is a book that generally will satisfy the expectations of the audience for which it is written. Still, it is not clear that this is the course this poet understands herself to be following... or the Ciardi competition.