STEPHEN DOBYNS GETS IN THE FACE OF TESS GALLAGHER

Tess Gallagher with Raymond Carver:  Gallagher faces Dobyns in Round Three.

The road to the Final Four in this South Bracket battle, in Scarriet March Madness 2011, once again has a clash of two poems showing remarkable similarities to one another.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Both poems take place outdoors in a public space.

Both involve a sudden and surprising act of human intimacy.

From “Allegorical Matters” by Dobyns:

you are sitting on a park bench…A beautiful woman approaches…removes her halter top…she presses her breasts against your eyes…

From “The Hug” by Gallagher:

A woman is reading a poem on the street…Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m giving it to you…A man walks up to us…”Can I have one of those?”…I walk over to him and put my arms around him and try to hug him like I mean it.

Following the hug, Gallahger’s 46 line poem ends with a stanza that reflects on the experience:

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection,
the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
To go back to.

The Dobyns poem, which is 51 lines, also analyzes the experience, but in a lengthier and more self-conscious manner:

Here we pause and invite in a trio of experts…The author sits in front of the trio of experts…My idea he says, concerned the seductive nature of my country, how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies…He considers the the difficulties of communication and the ruthless necessities of art.

Gallagher takes us into “the hug,” and then informs us that afterwards she is lost, and doesn’t know how to live or what to do in the cold and fallen world that exists outside the connection of “the hug.”

Dobyns absorbs the reader in his fantasy of breasts-hugging-your-face.  Dobyns then tries to explain his fantasy to “cool stares” of “experts.”

Both Dobyns and Gallagher are examples for their time: both poems scream ‘we are living in the era of the self-conscious, guilt-ridden, anxious artist of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus!’ 

Both poems are Faustian bargains of self-conscious, psychological, artistic experiment: what will happen to me if I truly hug someone, or if I put my sexual fantasy on display in my art?

The difference is that Gallagher is asking the reader, ‘what will happen to me?’ while Dobyns seems to be asking ‘what will happen to my poem?’  

Thus, Dobyns is more post-modernist, simply because he is more conscious of his art.

Dobyns is less personal than Gallagher—who seems more stuck in the 1970s confessional school of poetry.

Dobyns also introduces that wonderful transgressing ant…

Allegorical Matters

Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let’s say you are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to acheive imaginative dominance
over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.
The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.
The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says,
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?
The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

The Hug

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen.
We stop too, with our arms around each other.
The poem is being read and listened to
out here in the open. Behind us
no one is entering or leaving the houses.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light off
to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep on holding you.
A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t come out of
nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how he needs.
“Can I have one of those?” he asks you, and I feel you
nod. I’m surprised, surprised you don’t tell him
how it is—that I’m yours, only
yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love—that’s what they call it, love
that nabs you with “for me
only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my arms
around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel him
past it. I’m starting the hug and thinking, “How big
a hug is this supposed to be? How long
shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle in.
I lean into him. I lean my blood
and my wishes into him. He stands for it. This
is his and he’s starting to give it back so well
I know he’s getting it. This hug. So truly,
so tenderly we stop having arms and I don’t know
if my lover has walked away or what, or
if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses—
what about them? the houses.

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection,
the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

Dobyns wins, 88-75.

Dobyns advances to the South Bracket Finals.

WILLIAM KULIK AND TESS GALLAGHER GRAPPLE FOR SWEET SIXTEEN

Poet Bill Kulik, who went to the Final Four in last year’s Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness Tourney, is the Rated R version of Billy Collins: more visceral, more garish, more Theatre Absurd, and he’s looking to roll to the Sweet Sixteen over Tess Gallagher, who stands in the way of Kulik’s “Fictions” with “The Hug.”

How similar these poems are!  Gallagher addresses a “you” in the scene of her poem, and Kulik, a “you” reading a novel “bought at the chain;” in Gallagher’s poem the “you” is a lover who fades into the background (almost the way “love” loses out to “hug”) as a stranger gets a deep, friendly hug. Kulik’s “you” (who is never quite identified—is it the narrator himself?) has a childhood flashback ushered in by a Killa Quadzilla v. Dr. Death Pro Wrestling grip of fury:

you and your brother huddled in a corner of the room crying Mommy daddy please stop we love you we’re sorry

Gallagher’s hug intimates a home lost forever:

when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection,
the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

This is how these two gripping poems end.  They both rough up your heart.

The prominent use of “you” in lyric poetry seems a modern thing.

Who first brought “you” into lyric poetry in that modern way?

It’s not the ‘dear reader’ you, but perhaps it was a twist on that idea?  Does it have something to do with modern alienation, the divided self?  Was “Prufrock’s” “Let us go then, you and I” one of the first?  As the century went on, lyric poets really started to cash in on second person.

MARLA MUSE: Scarriet should do a top 100 greatest ‘YOU’ poems. Oh, and another great ‘hug’ themed poem is Olds’ “The Clasp,” also published in the The Body Electric, America’s Best Poetry from The American Poetry Review.

Marla, remind me later of that Greatest “You” poem idea. Right now we’ve got a gripping close basketball game to watch. Look at them slamming each other under the boards.

MARLA MUSE: One of these days we need the publish a guide to watching poetry basketball for the lay person.

Strong rebounding: the poem keeps interest.

Good defense: the poem has a clear, focused theme.

Good passing: The poem has good structure, good flow, good rhythm; can indicate strong meter and rhyme elements.

Good shooting: the poem is more than just beautiful; it makes points.

The team who bombs from outside, and relies entirely on outside shooting, and has no muscle, is the didactic poem.

The clever ‘experimental’ poem is the team with the ‘ball hog’ who shoots every time they have the ball.

The pure poem passes and rebounds and defends in such a way that ‘shooting’ is almost not necessary; the perfection of form, large bodies crashing the boards, almost wills the ball into the basket through proximity alone.

The accessible poem will tend to be a shooting team; the arc of the outside shot dominates, but the accessible poem with beautiful form varies outside shots with quick passes underneath for scores.

The fashionable poem of obscurity is the whole team fouling out, plus weak free throw shooting.

A really bad poem is just someone playing H.O.R.S.E.

Can the teams run, or do they rely on a half-court game? That’s something else to consider.  Half-court teams are poems with lyric structure; running teams are your prose poems.

MARLA MUSE: Kulik and Gallagher both can rebound and shoot; there’s not a lot of defense, or passing, and both teams run.  High scoring contest, definitely.

In this contest, Kulik is shooting better, but Gallagher is hitting the boards better, getting chances at second shots.

Tess Gallagher is grabbing rebounds like a fiend!  We go into overtime… Gallagher wins on a tip-in, 92-90.

TESS GALLAGHER IS GOING TO SWEET SIXTEEN

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE FIRST ROUND MARCH MADNESS WINNERS!

winner

Let’s get this winners and losers business out of the way…

Here are the winners:

EAST BRACKET

LISA LEWIS (d. John Ashbery) Responsibility
WILLIAM MATTHEWS (d. James Wright) Good Company
GILLIAN CONOLEY (d. Robert Creeley) Beckon
CAROLYN CREEDON (d. James Tate)  litany
GREGORY CORSO (d. Stanley Kunitz)  30th Year Dream
DORIANNE LAUX (d. A.R. Ammons)  The Lovers
LESLIE SCALAPINO (d. Jack Spicer)  that they were at the beach
BARBARA GUEST (d. Larry Levis) Motion Pictures: 4

NORTH BRACKET

KAREN KIPP (d. Robert Lowell)  The Rat
JACK HIRSCHMANN (d. Robert Penn Warren*) The Painting
EILEEN MYLES (d. Frank O’Hara)  Eileen’s Vision
WILLIAM KULIK (d. Czeslaw Milosz)  Fictions
SHARON OLDS (d. Robin Becker)  The Request
TESS GALLAGHER (d. Richard Hugo)  The Hug
STEPHEN DOBYNS (d. Jim Harrison)  Allegorical Matters
AMY GERSTLER (d. Norman Dubie)  Sinking Feeling

NORTH BRACKET

JACK MYERS (d. Seamus Heaney)  The Experts
PHILIP LARKIN (d. Joseph Duemer)  Aubade
BILL KNOTT (d. Robert Bly)  Monodrome
EDWARD FIELD (d. Donald Justice)  Whatever Became of Freud
MAURA STANTON (d. Anne Carson)  The Veiled Lady
ALAN DUGAN (d. Hayden Carruth)  Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton
HOWARD NEMEROV (d. David Ignatow)  IFF
MICHAEL PALMER (d. Yusef Komunyakaa)  I Do Not

WEST BRACKET

ALLEN GINSBERG (d. Howard Moss) The Charnel Ground
DONALD HALL (d. Douglas Crase)  To A Waterfowl
RICHARD CECIL (d. Robert Hass)  Apology
JOY HARJO (d. Sylvia Plath)  A Post-Colonial Tale
JAMES SCHUYLER (d. Stephanie Brown)  Red Brick and Brown Stone
REED WHITTEMORE (d. Heather McHugh)  Smiling Through
STEPHEN DUNN (d. Sam Hamill)  What They Wanted
CAROL MUSKE (d. Charles Bukowski)  A Former Lover, A Lover of Form

* Robert Penn Warren resigned from the tourney

MARLA MUSE: Some of the losers I really don’t want to say goodbye to; the Milosz, the Justice, the Dubie, the McHugh…

The Bukowski…there’s something holy about his work, a wry honesty that few poets evince…I was thinking about the qualities that go into writing good poetry, both the New Critical qualities of the poem itself and those qualities the poet as a human being must have…

MARLA MUSE: The poet must say the right thing at the right time.

Or seem to.  Because in real situations in life, that’s a good quality to have: to be able to say the right thing at the right time, but for the poet, “time” can be years as they work on the poem, which distorts the meaning of that ability, the ability to say the right thing at the right time: if someone really has that ability in life, to really say the right thing at the right time, they wouldn’t need to fake it in a poem…

MARLA MUSE: Oh, you’re getting all Plato on me…life is real, poetry is fake

But isn’t it true, Marla, that ‘saying the right thing at the right time’ is not the same thing in life, as it is in poetry…poets can wait for the right time to pass, but in life, you can’t…the room is silent, and life calls for something to be said then, but to be a poet you can slink away and say something later…it doesn’t have to be at the right time

MARLA MUSE: The right time in the poem?

Yes, when you failed to say the right thing at the right time in life…

MARLA MUSE: But if we’re talking about qualities, the person who can say the right thing in a poem is probably the person who can say the right thing in life…

No, because if you can say the right thing at the right time in life, there’s no motivation to do so in a poem, for the poem is a shadow…life doesn’t let us wait years…

MARLA MUSE: But it does.  You are trying to connect life and poetry, you are trying to connect two things, and you can’t, and therefore you are saying nothing…

Am I?  So I shouldn’t have asked my original question: what qualities in life match those qualities in the poet…

MARLA MUSE: What about not fearing to go into an underground mine?  Does that help a poet?  To risk your life for somone else, does that have anything to do with being a poet?  I think we can only look at the poem.  I think the New Critics were right…

But Marla, you are beautiful!  How can you say something like that?

MARLA MUSE: Are we talking about poetry?

Thomas Brady is never talking about poetry, is he?

MARLA MUSE: Well, Tom, sometimes you do…

I’m thinking about that Bukowski poem, the car headlights, the remark by the mother, and the son’s joking, half-shameful, half-boastful response, and all the various parts in that Bukowski poem—isn’t the good poem when all those parts cohere?

MARLA MUSE: Bukowski lost! Why are you talking about him? Ah, you are recalling that debate you had…when you used the word “incoherent”…clever boy…you’re a New Critic, after all…

Yea, but the New Critics themselves were such narrow-minded, creepy—

MARLA MUSE: They hated the Romantics, that’s all, but that’s why you’re here, Tommy boy…

But right now this is not about me…congratulations, poets!

RICHARD HUGO V. TESS GALLAGHER

This is Dick. He writes poems.

Richard Hugo published letter poems in the 70s, which for the time seemed pretty clever, another victory in the war against formalism by workers who wanted to be free; the poem as a letter, just a regular letter, why not?

You can tell when a poet is writing a letter, can’t you?

Like most 20th century experiments, this paraded around arrogantly for a while, and, when no one paid any attention, sat down, red-faced, in disgrace, one more chapter in the great 20th century poetry collapse.

So here’s the APR anthologist Hugo poem:

Letter to Blessing From Missoula

Dear Dick: You know all that pissing and moaning around I’ve
been doing, feeling unloved, certain I was washed up with
romance for good. That has come to an orgiastic halt.
From nowhere came this great woman. I wasn’t looking
even when she was suddenly bang in my life. I mean
bang in all the best ways. Bang. Bang. Richard Blessing. And years
of loneliness faded into some silly past where I
stared moodily out my windows at the grammar school girls
passing each morning and fantasized being young again
but with circumstances better than the first time and with
an even newer than new morality current. To
say nothing of saying to myself over and over
“I am retired from romance. I am a failure at love.
Women don’t like me. Lecherous, treacherous, kindless klutz.
Oh, that this too too flabby flesh should grow solid. Do not
go gentle into that defeat. Let us go then, you and I
into the deserts of vast eternity.” As you can no doubt
see, things became warped, including my memory of how
certain lines go, and all for the wisest of causes:
self-pity. Do not depend on others for sympathy.
When you need sympathy, you’ll find it only in yourself.
Now, I need none but I still defend self-pity. I still
say, if this woman hurts me I’ll crawl back to my cave.
The snow doesn’t get me down. The solid gray overcast
doesn’t make me moody. I don’t get irritated by
cold clerks in the markets, or barbers who take too long
trimming my hair. This woman is statuesque and soft
and she loves me; meaning she is at my mercy. Have you
noticed when women love us how vulnerable they are?
How they almost challenge us to test them, to be bastards,
to see how much outrageous shit we can fling their way?
Maybe, that’s why we’ve been ripping them off for centuries,
I don’t blame them for bitching, turning to movements, fem lib
or whatever they call it. This time, I’m not saying prove it,
prove your love by not objecting as I steal your money,
set fire to your hair and break your toes with the boots
I took off a dead German soldier at Tobruk. I am
simply going to prove I’m worthy of her love and I feel
I am, which must mean I love her. Boy, am I becoming
tender, and am I ever certain she will not hurt me.
I’ll give her no cause. I accept maybe for the first time
love and I luxuriate in it, a glutton, a trout
who had a hard time finding the spawning ground, who swam time
after time the wrong river and turned back discouraged
to the sea, though at moments the sea was fun. Those sex crazed
sharks and those undulating anemones, can’t beat them
when you’ve had a few drinks though you wake up diseased and raw,
your gills aching and your fins stiff with remorse. That’s enough
metaphor. This morning I feel as masculine as you,
and I regard you as the C.C.Rider of poetry,
criticism and trout. This woman will curve from now on
lovely in poems and streams. Look for her in the quarterlies
and pools. I mean real pools, the ones you come to
with Lisa when you take her on picnics. And take Lisa
on picnics. Give her and her cooking my love. Your friend, Dick.

–Richard Hugo

Tess Gallagher’s poem, like Dick Hugo’s, is about affection, vulnerability, embarrassment, late 20th century luxuries in America when the greatest country on earth could afford to indulge in such luxuries, Aquarius dawning and all that—well, not living them, but self-consciously indulging in them from time to time.

These poems are period pieces and they are embarrassing, like some of the songs which became big hits in the 70s, such as “Muskrat Love.”  

Gallagher’s poem feels as if we took a Victorian platitude and fleshed it out to see what it would look like. The rigid Victorian-poet speech is gone, but something almost worse is in its place, the sentimental residing not in the speech but in the simple actions the plain speech depicts.

MARLA MUSE: The Hugo poem depicts nothing; we don’t see one detail of him or how he lives his life, we don’t see his “woman” at all; it’s just a mass of cliched phrases. It’s ghastly.

So you think Gallagher will beat him easily?

MARLA MUSE: Yes.

Let’s see:

The Hug

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen. We stop too,
with our arms around each other.
The poem is being read and listened to
out here in the open. Behind us
no one is entering or leaving houses.

Suddenly, a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light
off to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep holding
you. A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t
come out of nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how
he needs. “Can I have one of those?” he asks you,
and I feel you nod. I’m surprised,
surprised you don’t tell him how
it is — that I’m yours, only
yours, exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love — that’s what we’re talking about, love
that nabs you with “for me only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my
arms around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel
him past it. I’m starting the hug
and thinking, “How big a hug is this supposed to be?
How long shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle
in. I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes
into him. He stands for it. This is his
and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s
getting it. This hug. So truly, so tenderly
we stop having arms and I don’t know if
my lover has walked away or what, or
if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses—
what about them? the houses. 

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button
on his coat will leave the imprint of
a planet on my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

–Tess Gallagher

You’re right, Marla, Tess Gallagher does win, 88-69.

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