Wednesday, November 05, 2014

`Much More of a Regular Guy'

As stories grow less story-like and fiction writers lose their narrative will, I’ve been on the lookout for poems that tell stories (that is, possess characters and plot). Nothing new about this -- think of Homer. When my middle son, now fourteen, first read the Odyssey several years ago (in the Fitzgerald translation), he read it as an adventure story, not a dusty monument in the canon. Story-poems remain rare but seem to be written with growing frequency. Think of recent work by David Yezzi and Joshua Mehigan.  My guess is that narrative poetry was eclipsed by the omnipotent “I.” When the first-person lyric became synonymous with poetry, and personal epiphany displaced the doings of others, story withered. 

An American publisher, George Braziller Inc., last year launched the Braziller Series of Australian Poetry, including Hook and Eye: A Selection of Poems by Judith Beveridge (born in 1956). The editor, Paul Kane, notes that Beveridge’s repudiation of self-as-subject “opens up the world of the poet rather than the poet herself, offering the reader a breath-taking capaciousness instead of the breathless claustrophobia of an irritable reaching after fact and reason. Beveridge, in other words, invents where other vent.” “Delancey” is a fair example. The “I” is not arbitrarily absent from Beveridge’s poem. Rather, it’s a conduit for the character (in both senses) of Delancey: 

“I liked his manner,
the way his expression would inexplicably
change, the way he’d turn his head this
way and that as though before he spoke
he was trying each thought like a key.” 

A mini-glossary to aid in reading: flacker -- “to flap, flutter, throb; esp. of birds, to flap the wings, to fly flutteringly”; dugong – “a large aquatic herbivorous mammal… inhabiting the Indian seas”; yabbies – “small, edible freshwater crayfish found in the eastern part of Australia.” At the end of the poem, when Beveridge returns to Delancey’s characteristic gesture, the point is not to romanticize his eccentricity or congratulate herself on her wisdom and open-mindedness: 

“Sometimes I catch myself shaking
my head the way he did — just working
it slowly — like a sieve at the water’s edge.” 

I first read “Pacific” when Bill Coyle published The God of This World to His Prophet: Poems (Ivan R. Dee) in 2006. Only slowly did I realize that it had taken its place in the mental folder “World War II,” sub-folder “American Vets Remember.” "Pacific” is a masterful dramatic monologue in blank verse told by a Navy vet, a thoughtful, humorous, morally aware old man. It reminds me of the stories I heard growing up, in which private histories and World History collide: 

“The happiest day of my entire life,
Happier, even, than my wedding day,
happier than the days our kids were born,
The happiest day of my entire life
Was when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
I get these looks of shock from the young people
when I say things like that, but they don’t know.” 

One feels nothing but compassion and gratitude for the speaker, an average American called upon to do something impossible and help save the world. Scroll down below the poem and read Coyle’s answers to questions about "Pacific": 

“Most of my other dramatic monologues have had fairly eccentric speakers: the head of a suicide cult, a medieval alchemist living in contemporary New England, Satan. The speaker here is much more of a regular guy, even if his personal experiences are, for Americans of my immediate generation, anyway, extraordinary.” 

Good story-poems affirm the importance of others (a fact already well-known to the better fictions writers) and encourage a marvelous narrative humility.

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