Thursday, May 03, 2018

`Our Words, Perhaps, Will Stay'

Until recently Charles Gullans (1929-1993) amounted to little more than a rumor. I associated his name loosely with Yvor Winters and Stanford University. I knew he had written poems and bibliographies of Turner Cassidy and J.V. Cunningham. He co-translated Last Letters from Stalingrad (1962), which I’ve printed out from its original publication a year earlier in The Hudson Review. Gullans was a professor of English at UCLA, and seems to have been appealingly eclectic in his interests and abilities, yet I’ve never seen even one of his books. I’m correcting that with the help of interlibrary loan.

Last weekend, as we exchanged thoughts on Edgar Bowers, Boris Dralyuk sent me a link to “Anti-Faust,” a poem by Gullans published by the Los Angeles Times in 1990. On Wednesday, Boris sent a poem from Gullans’ “little-read second book, Letter from Los Angeles. (My copy is inscribed in ink on the flyleaf, under a penciled price: 50 cents. O tempora o mores…).” Here is “Measures”:

“A clock cannot say why.
Only the terse and dry
Renewal of its chime,
Beguiling as a rime
In tongues we do not speak,
Tells us the fact we seek.
The clock hangs on the wall
And knows nothing at all,
Nothing at all to say,
Except, `This hour, this day,
This minute that I chime —
There is no other time.’
But we know better, we,
In our extremity,
Know we outlive, outpace,
The single moment’s race
Toward its extinguishment.
We know our own intent
And with preemptive line,
With words that name, define,
And classify our fear,
We write what you will hear.
Our names are on the words
As flight is in a bird
And form blown into glass.
Our force, our breath, will pass
And fear will die away.
Our words, perhaps, will stay.”

Gullans writes in couplets of iambic trimeter (auto-correct changes it to trimester) while avoiding metronomic tedium. I thought immediately of the white-faced clocks that hung on the walls in grade school, implacably ticking off the seconds, announcing that other tedium. Clocks in their mechanical impassivity seem to taunt us. We are the ones cursed with foreknowledge of mortality. The poem suggests that writing is “preemptive”: “Our words, perhaps, will stay.”     

[Go here and here to read other poems by Gullans.]


Dana Gioia said...

Charles Gullans was not only an excellent poet. He also started an exemplary small press, Symposium Press. It printed poetry in fine press limited editions. He published books by Timothy Steele, Turner Cassity, Edgar Bowers, and himself. I reviewed the series back in 1982 for The Hudson Review. These beautiful editions are worth searching out.

Dana Gioia

Barry Cusack said...

Avoiding metronomic tedium, as you say; and also avoiding the (potential) prison cell of the rhyming couplet, with the frequent line run-ons.
And the couplet:
But we know better, we,
In our extremity,
could have come from one of the metaphysicals.
A delghtful gem.