Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Anachronistic Pasture

I have set myself up to be a critic of the Necropastoral, a movement more in love with the living dead-ness and "uncanny" offspring of cyberspace, rather than the pasture of the traditional lyricism which approaches the physical sublime a poet may seek out, by way of exploring, or sauntering. For the poem, the movement out into the pasture, as a place for the poem, is for Joyelle McSweeney, a move toward anachronism.

It isn't hard to see how right McSweeney is, even if I wish she was wrong. An example is a recent eChapbook published by Blue Hour Press, No Silence in the Field, by Rachel Mennies, a lovely book of poems capturing various voices in the rural farmland of New England. The setting alone puts itself in danger of anachronism (where is Robert Frost these days?) so there's a sense that, even if we are temporally in the present, the present is ambiguous, where even appliances such as "the Kitchenaid whirs by the old feed storage" (13) is suspect. I feel this is deliberate on Mennies' part. "Rural" is a space pregnant with possibilities that soon miscarry; not a bad analogy, since miscarriage is a central tension in Mennies' book, climaxing in a beautifully heart-breaking poem "What Killed All the Bees" (24). 

It is the chapbook's final poem, "Morning, The Diggers Break New Ground" that the miscarriage of the New England farm is seen in full, the planks of the barn being taken down for new houses. "Time for the miracle of multiplying / strip the barn walls and make ten houses / where one once thrived" (30). The death of the barn bears an uncanny progeny. This is the living present, where what characters we knew are now discovered by means of their antique possessions, already beginning to rot. The conclusion is a dismantling of a landscape, perhaps the natural end to any rural image, but its a cynicism I'm not yet willing to share. 

This post mostly wished to present Mennies' book, which is lovely, so go read it. I remark only on our present dilemma of being unable to write the rural/agrarian into any contemporary present. Later posts will look at poems that are attempting this, and how they succeed or fail.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Poet's Journey

Among his many epithets, including hodio, patron of travelers, the Greek god Hermes is also oneiropompous, conductor of dreams, and psychopompos, conveyer of souls. Hermes is guide physical and spiritual, the god of the Poet, guiding the poet through the "membrane" of the uncanny before Apollo descends with the lyre Hermes made for him. Hermes directs the poet to the steps of the Delphic Oracle, to an audience with the underworld Queen. Hermes arrives in daylight undisguised and impregnates first.

In 1929, a young man went to a crossroads in Mississippi and at midnight the devil taught the young man to play the blues. Robert Johnson had to travel to lose his soul for the sake of the blues.

The poet must explore, and be guided, in order to achieve blessing. This is Thoreau's saunter -- or sans terre, to be without land, or to be a pilgrim, a holy-lander, a Sainte Terrer. This exploration is either physical, psychological, or both. As often is the case in American poetics, Dickinson and Whitman mark the dividing line: when Dickinson starts early and takes her dog, the mental/spiritual/psychological processes of the world soon overpower her. It is the walk that begins it; for Whitman, it is not psychology but the physical environment that leads to the expression of deep sublimity. Whitman is not prone to keeping it inside, rather "sounds his barbaric yawp" upon the multitudes and democratic masses of his landscape. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is my favorite example of such a physical exploration. 

In the 21st century there seems to be two sites of exploration. The first is cybernetic, attached to the open window of the browser, the endless page on page that I believe is Joyelle McSweeney's real "necropastoral." It is the living dead-ness of cyberspace many of us sit down to day after day, aware a living world beyond our screen; but "disconnecting" is now a very strangely disconnecting experience. This cybernetic ground is a psychological space, and poetry invested in this space is more psychologically uncanny than other spaces, linking it to the darker realms of the Romantic and lyrical poetics, such as Coleridge or Prospero. In further posts I will explore examples of those poems.

Joshua Carey in a post from last year, questions the poetry that leans toward the uncanny, a poetics he sees as passing through Olsen's lineage and is (I would say) given more clout as the landscape of poetry moves from the book to cyberspace. Here things are even weirder. But Carey calls for moderation: "There has to be a role for the rational, even a humbled and supplemented rationality, in a poetics that is nonetheless not instrumental but re-open the foreclosed world."

To me, this is remembering what lives beyond the window of the screen, what is the world "out there." That is physical exploration, with its reaches into the uncanny and the real. But I must move even farther from what is popular today, and that is to say that even the urban landscape is a place deadened by the psychology of being urban. It dangerously treads through malaise, the morose and the cynical so its uncanniness is even more putrid and dangerous. It has no renewal, no love. It seeks out the pastoral to moderate its discomfort. Rather than allow the rural and pastoral to do so, I propose we begin to explore once more that state of being, more naturally the space of Whitman and Dickinson and Thoreau. This is western poetry, the poetry of landscapes where human beings play little part. I propose we bring the poetics of the pasture back into the American landscape. Robert Johnson had to go to the crossroads to sell his soul and learn his instrument. We too must take that journey.