Marie Howe ponders her fate against Jorie Graham in the Scarriet March Madness East Regional.
Marla Muse: Yes?
I just realized something.
Marla Muse: What?
The East Bracket this year is all white people. Yet this year Scarriet is using Dove’s Anthology as much as possible. How did that happen?
Marla Muse: Dove is from Ohio; the South and Midwest Brackets look very different from the East. Maybe it’s not a race thing, at all, but a regional issue. In poetry, the Northeast is no longer king. By focusing on race, Vendler didn’t get it. Poe’s dream is coming true. Poetry New England has finally been dethroned by other parts of the country.
Marla Muse: The Workshop phenomenon has really spread things around.
Mmm. You’re right. Still, it’s funny how New England and New York are still white. And least in this March Madness.
Marla Muse: I’m looking forward to the rumble between these two white gals, Jorie and Marie. There will be a lot of hair to pull.
Marla, how can you say that? You know March Madness is clean!
Marla Muse: Nothing is as clean as it looks.
Jorie Graham was quietly picked for just one of her early poems by Dove, a further signal that Graham’s reputation may have peaked about 5 years ago.
In this blue light
I can take you there,
snow having made me
a world of bone
seen through to. This
is my house,
my section of Etruscan
wall, my neighbor’s
lemontrees, and, just below
the lower church,
the airplane factory.
crows all day from mist
outside the walls.
There’s milk on the air,
ice on the oily
lemonskins. How clean
the mind is,
holy grave. It is this girl
della Francesca, unbuttoning
her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
to go into
labor. Come, we can go in.
It is before
the birth of god. No one
has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly
and wings–to the open air
market. This is
what the living do: go in.
It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening
to privacy, quickening.
Inside, at the heart,
is tragedy, the present moment
but going in, each breath
is a button
coming undone, something terribly
finding all of the stops.
What to say about this poem, which shows off the ‘high style’ of late 20th century Modernism? The short line breaks attempt to open up vistas—make the reader pause and see the “open air” of the “open air market,” for instance.
and wings—to the open air
market. This is
The syntax rushes on, pouring down the page, while the line-breaks slow things down. It’s schizophrenic, really. Two opposing modes at once. Bet you never noticed the “open air” of “open air market” before, did you? Oh, but let’s hurry on: “This is…”
Similarly, the line breaks imply simple, intimate speech, but the speech is not simple at all. No one talks like Jorie Graham’s poem. Again, the schizophrenia. The two warring impressions finally cancel each other out. The attempt to sound classically lofty and cold on one hand, and conversationally intimate on the other, results in a herky-jerky sublime; the trick finally doesn’t work. The justification for the line-breaking seems merely odd, like a once-interesting, but now outdated, fashion. Jorie Graham took William Carlos Williams as far as possible into the wild blue sublime, but that experiment has run its course. The line break is broken. It now seems artificial, no substitute for sturdy music, daring architecture, or an actual voice.
We’ll never know how much Graham’s poem depends on Early Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca for its majesty; the references are key to the otherworldly atmosphere; the poem’s mystery hearkens after the pagan and the Yeatsian in the midst of the half-rural, half-airplane factory, Tuscan landscape, with its rooster, the church and the lemontrees. The poem works, and it works because of its last line. “Stops” has multiple meanings, for not only do we think of buttons on a dress or holes in a flute, but the frequent “stops” of a poem with many line-breaks. The poem is commenting on itself, and Graham’s reputation, while it grew, was powerful enough to make this an implied reading.
Marie Howe has one poem in the Dove anthology, and it comes right after Graham’s in the book because they are the same age. Graham’s poem is a tangle of strange associations as the narrator leads the reader forward. Howe, too, has the reader follow her along, but in this case the reader is her deceased brother and she is showing him her life: what the living do.
WHAT THE LIVING DO
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
Howe’s life is mundane, and that’s the point. The “egotistical sublime” moment at the end, when she glimpses her reflection is strange and remarkable. Howe’s poem has more clarity and more emotional punch than Graham’s.
Howe defeats Graham, 63-60.