Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

Tasting the Dark: New and Selected Poems

George Amabile
The Muses Company/J. Gordon Shillingford (2001) 160 pages
ISBN 1-896239-66-8

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

During the 20th century, poets often found their general direction by following the visual arts. Ezra Pound—among the first to do so—somewhat disingenuously claimed a role in Vorticism. Wallace Stevens’s "Blue Guitar" is an attempt to do something in the way of literary Cubism. Apollinaire’s poetry was imbued by his relationship with the cubists. His poem "Zone" is virtually a distillation of the work that his close friend, Robert Delauney, had been doing in such paintings as the "Eiffel Tower" and the "City of Paris." It can hardly be a coincidence that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry came into being when commercial art—advertising—with its key-words emblazoned everywhere on city skylines—made for an ironic and strangely coherent collective text.

Participating in a movement is filled with excitement, and poetry rarely coalesces into a movement per se. Left to its own devices, it remains a private experience—for the poet more than anyone. The visual artist may begin in isolation, but the final product is meant to be the centerpiece of a social event. Even this has been coöpted, in a general way, by the modern poetry-reading.

Another movement in the visual arts has left a considerable mark on poetry. Photography came into its own during the Great Depression. It did so by no longer trying to be an "art form." Pressed into service by the WPA to record the lives of the destitute farmers, many of the finest photographers of the time found themselves just trying to portray the unvarnished facts. The subject matter was simple, homely. While posing was necessary, every attempt was made to avoid the least artistic touch.

The effects, in the work of Walker Evans in particular, were striking. Even the pathos of such classic photographs as Dorothea Lange’s "Migrant Mother" was fundamentally a flaw. It was not sustainable without heightening the facts of the experience. Evans sought to be entirely without ulterior motif, without "style." The point was to get the truest possible picture.

It was from these photographs that the art of artlessness was born. As much as it is generally believed to have begun with William Carlos Williams, a few quiet hours reading his poetry makes clear how much he was after something else, at least until the first book of the poem Patterson (1946).

Williams was a feisty member of the University of Pennsylvania/Bryn Mawr set that constituted America’s core group in the poetry movements of the early century. He, like they, began as a neo-Classicist. He, like Marianne Moore, had stayed behind in the U.S.. She was considered impenetrable and he something of a bumpkin. When the model for the group shifted to ancient Chinese poetry (the most pervasive result being the creation of Imagism), his did also—still not particularly well.

But, even as Imagism was becoming all the rage, Williams had begun to diverge. He had always had a strong streak of American Realism in him, and it began to take the fore. More particularly, he was smitten by the Ready Mades, begun in 1912, by the artist Marcel Duchamp and the Imagistic poetry of Alfred Kreymborg. Kreymborg was a composer and poet. His Imagism was a curious mix of French Symbolist tone and realistic American settings. For many years he would remain well ahead of Williams, who refused to abandon a vain effort to match the sophisticated patois and range of his old schoolmate Ezra Pound in something distinctly American. Ready Mades were objects that Duchamp discovered already perfect in the world around him: bottle racks, bicycle tires, stools, etc. (more often than not, they were perfect to serve as components of sculpture rather than sculptures complete in themselves). It is this decidedly esthetic background that, ironically, made Williams the right person to review the exhibition catalogue for Walker Evans’s famous 1938 M.O.M.A. show. It is representative of all that underpinned Williams’s poetry until the writing of that first book of Patterson.

After the end of World War II, few were interested in the kind of realism that had been born with the WPA photographers and the Depression. America was vibrant and powerful again. Photographs were more and more in color. They were glitzy, air-brushed and bold.

The continent has grown glitzier and bolder almost by the day. It has become faster, vastly more materialistic, more complex, and, in many ways, more dehumanized. By the decade of the 70’s, a powerful sense of alienation had become part of the collective American experience. Suddenly, urgently, the American people began searching for ways out of that alienation.

Primarily, they chose to participate in a service economy that immediately sprang up to meet their needs. But not everybody could buy their way out of a malaise which was the result of believing that everything was a product. Another, much less lucrative and therefore more promising alternative was to turn to the arts and crafts. To learn self-expression one must have a self. The investment of time and money involved was determined by the individual’s needs but was generally quite small.

George Amabile’s first volume of poetry, Blood Ties, was published in 1972. While his was resoundingly a confessional poetry (the point was to find one’s self, after all), it appears to have been more aware than most that writing about oneself is, regardless of claims to the contrary, incredibly difficult. He needed to capture the facts of the experience. He had "gotten it": poetry was about the art of artlessness. The poetry resided in the thing itself.

One measure of Amabile’s success is the appearance, some 30 years later, of his eighth volume of poetry: Tasting the Dark: New and Selected Poems. The volume is a record that begins with perhaps the poet’s signature piece, "Accidental Death." He and his little brother had been bicycling when his brother was hit and killed by a dump truck. The words are artless, except for the brief moment when a mother learns of her child’s death:

My mother’s face in a gray
doorway, pretty and kind
until it caved in like a wet
hillside of flowers.

In four simple lines there is a terrible pathos.

While there is a question as to whether they are artless lines, they too are precursors of the poetry of George Amabile. It will be a poetry of carefully subdued tones occasionally illuminated with an image of sex or violence. It is not difficult to understand this as properly describing the "facts" of life. At the same time, once art has its foot in the door, the temptation is always present. Tasting the Dark is the record of long struggle, resistance, acceptance.

It could be argued that lines such as "Even the dust sang a small song," from the poem "She Drives Back in a Bad Mood, after a Party" are the better lines. More to the point, it may be argued that the best lines in the volumes are lines that are not "quotable" in the common sense of the term, that Blood Ties was as imperfect as most first books: by its own gauge, too quotable.

The reader has to get to Ideas of Shelter (1981), perhaps, to find the first lines that might both be to the point and quotable:

I pared my lifestlye down to the bone:
two rooms, one typewriter, one guitar
a good view of the north star
pragmatic arguments ad infinitum
and work shirts of blue denim
worn beyond distinctions of class
that say: "This is what I want to be:
human, durable, self-supporting and free.
I’ll pay my dues if you’ll get off my ass."

There is no attempt at poetry in the language. It is, in fact, prose. It is plain even for prose, and it is what the poet of artlessness strives for.

But this is a search. As with most seeking, it is not clear whether this is bedrock or pose. It is an attractive idea of what bedrock might be. Later in the same poem —"Blue Denim"—these lines:

I know that, in this country, freedom
is legal (sometimes). But I know too
that the tyranny of the herd, invisible
pressures, agendas, hypocrisy, gossip
can kill more joy than the secret police.

Alarm bells should go off with a reader when a poet sets out to learn what he is and ends up decrying what the world is not. For although there is a "tyranny of the herd," the poet will predictably return to the herd for his sense of belonging, nonetheless. The word "hypocrisy" should have been banned from poetry beginning in the late 50s—"agenda," during the 70s. The words "freedom" and "joy" should always mean something substantial or be foregone. It is incumbent upon the poet to avoid tirades and catalogues of vague accusation.

In Ideas of Shelter, Amabile alludes to Yeats. The old Irish senator will be an occasional touchstone throughout the rest of his work. In the next book—The Presence of Fire (1982)—he will quote Hopkins. More importantly, there will begin to be passages such as this, from "Slash":

And a man will sit on a log with his chin
in his fist. He will go on staring, stubborn,
blunted by hammers and paychecks and whiskey,
until it comes to him:...

It is not quite prose, and it probably took a long time to get into final form, but it is an example of what Yeats was referring to when he said that a poem should seem to have come to the poet without any particular effort. It may even be a fine example of artlessness.

From Rumors of Paradise/Rumors of War (1995)—the final volume before Tasting the Dark—onward, George Amabile has found his stride. He allows himself to refer occasionally to the likes of Yeats, Stevens, Hopkins. He allows himself sparingly to sprinkle finely turned passages throughout the work—some just for the pleasure of the image. On one occasion he even tries his hand at a metaphysical conceit with notable success.

It is not that Amabile has given off the art of artlessness. It is there in many recognizable forms, including direct statement in the poem "Ars Poetica" with its references to:

technique (which is best understood
by its absence).

and to a famous comment by Robert Frost:

Robert Frost,
I tell you it’s harder to play
tennis with the net
down. You have to
use your whole
mind, you have to love
the soul of the game
more than personal glory.

It says a lot for the author of Tasting the Dark that he has earned the right to say these things.

But the work clearly uses a wider range of tools, some of which can only be called "technique." Two poems are written in forms. Wonderful images like the opening quatrain of "Wire Sculpture" are permitted now. Poems of less obvious artfulness, like "Blame" and "Staten Island Ferry"—among the best in the book—gain considerably from a new sense of personal ease.

The new freedom the poet has achieved is not without its own problems. The poems relating to sexual encounters sometimes engage in the kind of showmanship that suggests insecurity. The poem "Pas de Deux" goes to considerable lengths in this regard. Art now having got its foot in the door, the predictable has happened: the sonnet "Heartland" leaves the reader with a Currier and Ives moment that is difficult to describe as anything but a decidedly artistic indulgence.

That new ease, however, comes from just the right place in life as well as word:

Life has these necessary
flaws that say don’t
gloat, each triumph
is shadowed by invisible failures
all of them real, though disguised
by ritual observance.

These are lines of genuine, and hard won, wisdom. They are not the only such lines. The makeshift joy of these poems is real and arrayed in plain cloth. The losses are spoken of with quiet resignation.

The poetry portrayed in Tasting the Dark: New and Selected Poems has come full circle. George Amabile has ended up back at the occasionally heightened poetry he seems to have sought to "go beyond" after his first collection. Happily, he comes back to it with more experience in writing and life. As a result, the poems are better written, more mature. He manages to avoid mistakes in the more recent poems that he might earlier have made. From out of his struggle to be artless, he has come to write solider poems than most, sprinkled with strong images and legitimate wisdom—life-sized poems of quiet but definite impact.


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