It was a good week for poetry – reading it, that is: Geoffrey Hill, Thomas Traherne, a bit of Shakespeare and Blake, Karl Shapiro, Ron Slate. This is typical for me, following a train of unconscious associations, relying on serendipity, new poems and old favorites, wandering without itinerary, enjoying myself along the way. I read poetry above all for concision, precision and wit. On Saturday I finally found a copy of About the Size of It, the latest collection from Tom Disch, the publication of which I wrote about last month.
First, admire the cover: a collage-like, black-and-white reproduction of a photograph by André Kertész, “Empire State Building in a Puddle, September 17, 1967, New York.” The image is upside-down and initially disorienting, a novel perspective on a familiar sight, which amounts to a capsulization of Disch’s poetic method. The collection is generous – 80 new poems across 158 pages – and that also reflects one of of its themes: size, amplitude of flesh, physical bulk. This is from “The Vindication of Obesity”:
“Fat, though never beautiful, may yet be proud.
Gibbon, Aquinas, several famous comedians,
Even Lord Buddha – all were complacently obese.
They lived before the fatal Scarsdale diet,
When wisdom had immense vested interests
And dared to smile at the vernal excellings
Of the slim. What is it all for, that
Gauntness, those lissome arms, torsos rippled
Into breastplates – what but war?
Once, however, one’s declared
Hors de combat, there’s no need to clank about
In armor. Let Hotspur and Hal dispute
The relative allure of their tights and doublets;
We, Falstaff, will settle for a pint of ale
Snug in a dark booth at the back of the bar,
Dipping our hands into perpetually replenished
Bowls of peanuts, exchanging recipes.”
Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy, Zero Mostel, Jackie Gleason, John Belushi, Robbie Coltrane – large funny men we could trust. The sylph-like can never be trusted. We can never feel at ease in their company. What’s eating them? I remember a high school friend in A.P. English who documented at length that Hamlet was overweight (“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt”). This is from Disch’s “The Size of the World”:
“To say it is enormous, or to search the thesaurus
For synonyms to its immensity will not express
The size of it. It dwarfs all our opinions
And knowledge, and even when we try to expand
Our vocabulary to take in the latest large
Idea, such as superstrings or ecology
Or the transcending of this or that category,
We are only inventing new conventions.”
Disch, even when complaining, is one of nature’s celebrators. He celebrates the bounteousness of the world, the diversity and surprise of creation, including his medium, potery. Again, from “The Size of the World”:
“This is the realm poetry particularly
Inhabits, the teasing out of thought
Into pleasing shapes, coiffing the minds
Of a happy few to some provisory accommodation
To their ignorance -- without euphoria,
Without unfounded hope, and yet enchanted.”
Also, read “Quilt,” a poem useless to describe.