ROBERT PINSKY AND STEPHEN DUNN IN BAP EAST BRACKET SEMI-FINAL CLASH

 

Robert Pinsky’s “Pleasure Bay” (Hall, 89) clawed its way to a last-second victory over Louise Gluck’s “Time” (Hass 01) in the highly competitive East bracket. 

Stephen Dunn, meanwhile, upended T. Allan Broughton’s haunting “The Ballad of the Comely Woman” (Creeley 02). 

Pinsky’s masterful “Pleasure Bay” now faces Dunn’s intriguing “Where He Found Himself” (McHugh 07). 

Pleasure Bay

In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.
Here under the pines a little off the road
In 1927 the Chief of Police
And Mrs. W. killed themselves together,
Sitting in a roadster. Ancient unshaken pilings
And underwater chunks of still-mortared brick
In shapes like bits of puzzle strew the bottom
Where the landing was for Price’s Hotel and Theater.
And here’s where boats blew two blasts for the keeper
To shunt the iron swing-bridge. He leaned on the gears
Like a skipper in the hut that housed the works
And the bridge moaned and turned on its middle pier
To let them through. In the middle of the summer
Two or three cars might wait for the iron trusswork
Winching aside, with maybe a child to notice
A name on the stern in black-and-gold on white,
Sandpiper, Patsy Ann, Do Not Disturb,
The Idler. If a boat was running whiskey,
The bridge clanged shut behind it as it passed
And opened up again for the Coast Guard cutter
Slowly as a sundial, and always jammed halfway.
The roadbed whole, but opened like a switch,
The river pulling and coursing between the piers.
Never the same phrase twice, the catbird filling
The humid August evening near the inlet
With borrowed music that he melds and changes.
Dragonflies and sandflies, frogs in the rushes, two bodies
Not moving in the open car among the pines,
A sliver of story. The tenor at Price’s Hotel,
In clown costume, unfurls the sorrow gathered
In ruffles at his throat and cuffs, high quavers
That hold like splashes of light on the dark water,
The aria’s closing phrases, changed and fading.
And after a gap of quiet, cheers and applause
Audible in the houses across the river,
Some in the audience weeping as if they had melted
Inside the music. Never the same. In Berlin
The daughter of an English lord, in love
With Adolf Hitler, whom she has met. She is taking
Possession of the apartment of a couple,
Elderly well-off Jews. They survive the war
To settle here in the Bay, the old lady
Teaches piano, but the whole world swivels
And gapes at their feet as the girl and a high-up Nazi
Examine the furniture, the glass, the pictures,
The elegant story that was theirs and now
Is part of hers. A few months later the English
Enter the war and she shoots herself in a park,
An addled, upper-class girl, her life that passes
Into the lives of others or into a place.
The taking of lives–the Chief and Mrs. W.
Took theirs to stay together, as local ghosts.
Last flurries of kisses, the revolver’s barrel,
Shivers of a story that a child might hear
And half remember, voices in the rushes,
A singing in the willows. From across the river,
Faint quavers of music, the same phrase twice and again,
Ranging and building. Over the high new bridge
The flashing of traffic homeward from the racetrack,
With one boat chugging under the arches, outward
Unnoticed through Pleasure Bay to the open sea.
Here’s where the people stood to watch the theater
Burn on the water. All that night the fireboats
Kept playing their spouts of water into the blaze.
In the morning, smoking pilasters and beams.
Black smell of char for weeks, the ruin already
Soaking back into the river. After you die
You hover near the ceiling above your body
And watch the mourners awhile. A few days more
You float above the heads of the ones you knew
And watch them through a twilight. As it grows darker
You wander off and find your way to the river
And wade across. On the other side, night air,
Willows, the smell of the river, and a mass
Of sleeping bodies all along the bank,
A kind of singing from among the rushes
Calling you further forward in the dark.
You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs
Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you
And you make love until your soul brims up
And burns free out of you and shifts and spills
Down over into that other body, and you
Forget the life you had and begin again
On the same crossing–maybe as a child who passes
Through the same place. But never the same way twice.
Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows,
The new café, with a terrace and a landing,
Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was–
Here’s where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.

Pinsky’s poem is consistently brooding and melancholy, a landscape tone-poem, with teasing hints of history, a richly suggestive panorama which transforms the reader in the end to a ghost, that the ghostly secrets might be unfolded, the secrets of Pleasure Bay.  Pleasure Bay is vividly drawn as an actual place—with its flora, its entertainments, its tragic history—as well as a dreamscape, a place touching eternity, where the oft-repeated Pleasure Bay (once in the title, three times in the poem) could mean pleasure, stay!

Does Stephen Dunn have a chance against this poem?  Let’s read his poem and find out.

Where He Found Himself

The new man unfolded a map and pointed
to a dark spot on it. “See, that’s how
far away I feel all the time, right here,
among all of you,” he said.
.         .”Yes,” John the gentle mule replied,
“alienation is clearly your happiness.”
But the group leader interrupted,
“Now, now, let’s hear him out,
let’s try to be fair.”  The new man felt
the familiar comfort of everyone against him.
.                                   .He went on about the stupidities
of love, life itself as one long foreclosure,
until another man said, “I was a hog,
a terrible hog, and now I’m a llama.”
To which another added, “And me, I was a wolf.
Now children walk up to me, unafraid.”
.             .The group leader asked the new man,
“What kind of animal have you been?”
“A rat that wants to remain a rat,” he said,
and the group began to soften
as they remembered their own early days,
the pain before the transformation.

An uncanny poem of uncanny power, eliciting with a few deft brush strokes both the oppression of socializing group-think and the rebel who is self-oppressive.  One wants to brood upon this poem forever.

We’re moments away from tip-off, and I’m here with Marla Muse.  Any last thoughts, Marla?

Two great poems, Tom.  Can’t wait for the head-to-head.

Pinsky’s team has ‘Pleasure Bay’ emblazoned on their shirts in deep blue lettering.  The starting five: Unity Mitford at center, the Police Chief and Adolf Hitler at the forward position, the Poet and the Catbird at guard.

Dunn’s team has the Llama and Mule at forward, Wolf and Rat at guards, and the poet, Dunn, plays center.

There’s the tip…Dunn controls, a pass ahead to a cutting Rat.  Rat comes out to the corner, Rat is triple-teamed, Pleasure Bay jerseys all ove Rat.  Oh, and there’s a jump ball as Rat is tied up!  Possession arrow to Pinsky.  Pleasure Bay brings it up now…Pinsky all the way to the foul circle, looks around, he passes…oh intercepted by Rat…three on one break for Dunn! Rat keeps it…misses…no foul! Rebound taken off the glass by Unity Mitford…quickly to Hitler, who bombs from outside…oh, no good…out of bounds, back to Dunn…Llama dribbles up center court…in the corner to Mule…shoots…blocked by the Police Chief! A scramble for it on the floor…Mule gets it back…pass inside to Dunn…who scores!

Catbird brings it up for Pinsky, singing away, guarded by Wolf…over to the Police Chief, back to Catbird who takes it himself on a drive…good!  And he’s fouled by Wolf, chance for a 3 point play!  Catbird sinks the free shot, and it’s 3-2, Pleasure Bay.

Time out called by Dunn…the team is examining a dark spot as they write out a play…

Who’s the true group leader overe there, for Dunn, Marla?

I don’t know…some kind of animal…

If I might intrude here: this raises the issue of pure v. impure poetry.  What is a pure poem?  Can a pure poem have an idea?  In a reverse of the old formula, can an idea, or moral, be the sugar-coating, while the poetry, the pure poetry, is the medicine?  Both the Dunn and the Pinsky are highly suggestive, but the Pinsky poem would seem to be a textbook case of the New Critical teachings of Yvor Winters, Crowe Ransom, and Robert  Penn Warren by way of T.S. Eliot’s and Wallace Stevens’ professor at Harvard, George Santayana.  Here is Robert Penn Warren from his essay “Pure and Impure Poetry:”

“even in the strictest imagist poetry idea creeps in—when the image leaves its natural habitat and enters a poem it begins to “mean” something. The attempt to read ideas out of the poetic party violates the unity of our being and the unity of our experience. ‘For this reason,’ as Santayana put it, ‘philosophy, when a poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it has entered into his life; or, rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all.  Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude experience; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length.'”

Nice way to “intrude…” we’ve missed most of the game! 

Catbird scores again!  And he never scores quite the same way twice…

But Rat scores…as Dunn gnaws into Pinsky’s lead…

What is the Pinsky poem finally saying?  It would seem all the elements are there in order to figure out what it is saying, as the Pinsky poem is slightly more literal in its intent; despite its rich suggestiveness, the Dunn is even more suggestive, Dunn’s design on the reader is even more hidden…thus the poem is more pure

A steal by Rat!…three on two break…Llama… to Mule… to Dunn who lays it up…good!   Dunn leads for the first time in this contest with just seconds left…!

The attempt to read ideas out of the poetic party violates the unity of our being and the unity of our experience.  —Robert Penn Warren

Why does this phrase of Warren’s keep haunting me?

Focus on the game, Tom!  The game!

Yes, Marla…of course…

Has Unity Mitford violated the unity of our experience?

The ghost of Mrs. W. off the bench has been scoring well for Pinsky in the second half.   She takes a shot here…goooood!!

Three seconds to go…

Stephen Dunn across the mid-court line…he has to hurry…

Stephen Dunn shoots from way outside…

GOOOOOOOD!!!!

Stephen Dunn has just knocked off one of the best poems of the late 20th century, “Pleasure Bay!”  

I don’t believe it!!

Dunn being mobbed by Rat, Mule and Llama at mid-court…holy cow!!

1 Comment

  1. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 28, 2010 at 9:44 am

    What They Wanted

    Stephen Dunn

    They wanted me to tell the truth,
    so I said I’d lived among them,
    for years, a spy,
    but all that I wanted was love.
    They said they couldn’t love a spy.
    Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
    I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
    would turn any of them in for a kiss.
    I told them how a kiss feels
    when it’s especially undeserved;
    I thought they’d understand.
    They wanted me to say I was sorry,
    so I told them I was sorry.
    They didn’t like it that I laughed.
    They asked what I’d seen them do,
    and what I do with what I know.
    I told them: find out who you are
    before you die.
    Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
    I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
    I said life is one long leavetaking.
    They wanted me to speak
    like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
    I told them I could depict the end
    of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
    I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
    They wanted to help me then.
    They wanted me to share with them,
    that was the word they used, share.
    I said it’s bad taste
    to want to agree with many people.
    I told them I’ve tried to give
    as often as I’ve betrayed.
    They wanted to know my superiors,
    to whom did I report?
    I told them I accounted to no one,
    that each of us is his own punishment.
    If I love you, one of them cried out,
    what would you give up?
    There were others before you,
    I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
    before someone else. Everything, I said.


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