Sunday, October 09, 2011

"A Miracle of Meter"? Poetry Magazine? Way to go Josh!

All This Could Be Yours, by Joshua Trotter.
Biblioasis. $15.95.

Joshua Trotter’s All This Could Be Yours, a miracle of meter and meteorology, teems with rollicking weather reports. In “The Soloist,” a siren’s song brews storms as well as other kinds of trouble. The speaker, who evidently runs a kingdom by the sea, notes of his companions:

It’s not with sweat their clothes are wet, nor rain.
Her song slides down the sides of their bowed brains.
I listen to the drips, the drops and trickles. My kingdom drowns. 

Like a siren, this debut poet offers mesmerizing music that can set us at sea, inducing a pleasurable madness drawn largely from sound, not sense. Aswim in the drips and drops of assonance, alliteration, and other sonic effects, his poems at their most enchanting nearly register as songs without words.

In “Hearing,” as in “The Soloist,” words turn literally to water:

Mornings after we gave up words, we still loved
to lie and graze the day awake
watching our old chit-chat thatch the street like rain.

Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon
now the dead grow sound limbs to stand upon
nourished by discourse we once loved.

In their sodden crypts they sigh awake
solitary, listening to the rain
heartened by our lost and rousing homilies—the rain

engaging vacant brains it falls upon
until everyone we love or once loved
is dying tonight or lying still awake

listening, for our sake, as rain rains the dead awake.
There’s something diplomatic about rain
strewing phrase upon phrase upon...

But here I pray that none whom once I loved
hold words they love from rain. I’m held awake
by heavy sentences the rain might lay upon them.

Wooed by acoustics, we accept Trotter’s premise that conversation has condensed into precipitation—partly because the poem enacts that very effect. Like raindrops hitting a roof, words and sounds strike and resound: “lie,” “sigh,” “dying,” “lying,” “I.” Several terms refract into multiple meanings: “morning” hints at “mourning”; “watch” and “awake” suggest “wake”; “sound” and “here”—a homophone for “hear”—enforce the poem’s appreciation for verbal music.

“Hearing” echoes another poem, “Rain” by the WWI soldier Edward Thomas. For Thomas, rain signified not company but condemnation:

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die.

Trotter’s revision permits Thomas an exquisite consolation: If rain and words are the same, then Thomas, hearing rain, was really hearing poems—as he was, in a way, since the rain inspired him to write a poem—and thus the company of fellow poets eased his isolation. Similarly Trotter, hearing rain, detected Thomas’s poem, and let it leak into “Hearing.”

The poem’s pretty but perplexing coda might give us pause. Trotter has not hinted at the significance of keeping words from rain, nor has rain seemed punitive, so what are we to make of his prayer that “none whom once I loved/hold words they love from rain” and his fear of “heavy sentences the rain might lay upon them”?

Such mild confusions trickle through All This Could Be Yours, and they exert odd effects. On the one hand they break Trotter’s spells, indicting him of pursuing mood at the expense of meaning. Yet even as our frustration mounts, we notice the poem winking at us from its island perch. It hisses that meaning might not matter after all: if that line doesn’t make sense, neither do a lot of the great things in life, like string cheese, or love. Stop thinking and just listen! Let go! Fall in! (Whether you drop into the waves or cling to the mast depends on your attitude toward meaning, which I confess I’ve always liked.)

Like us, Trotter seems at once flummoxed and fascinated by the nonsensical. Recalling efforts by Keats, Hardy, and principally Frost, the fledgling poet continues poetry’s long (and, one fears, unreciprocated) love affair with birds, which produce an unparsable verse of their own:

Decode the cries of birds, is why I came
at dawn to press record on each machine.
Oscilloscopes and spectrographs and hoists
grew hot then moist then rust I stayed so long
unknown among my future-perfect hosts.
I stayed so long and never heard them sing
a theme I couldn’t transfer note for note
to satellites that thronged above unsung
repeating birdcall bleep for bleep—but not,
I told myself—restating what they sang.
I’d caught the pitch, the point remained unclear.
Dead air, I said, as I prepared to leave
for they, like me, had little to declare
so I declared and made myself believe.
           —“Turing World”

This poem dovetails with Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same,” which describes Eve’s voice weaving into birdsong, infusing “an oversound, / Her tone of meaning but without the words.” Trotter’s speaker is interested not in tone, but in meaning: like an augur, he believes the birds carry messages for him. Yet his many machines serve only to record and repeat the pitches they detect, transforming cheeps into bleeps. When he catches the pitch but not the point, he fails to understand that, in birdsong—as, perhaps, in Trotter poems—the pitch is the point.

In the end, he declares this medley “dead air,” an expression borrowed from that mechanical means of music production, the radio. But his phrase also suggests the birds are singing dead airs, useless songs—and that the poet, who similarly has “little to declare,” is doing the same. That suspicion could trouble us, too, for some of Trotter’s choices, here as in “Hearing,” prove difficult to “decode”: Why, for instance, does Trotter toss in a baseball metaphor (“caught the pitch”)? What’s the sense of the tense pun (“future-perfect”)? How heavily are we to weigh his words?

The poem’s conclusion might tip the scales in his favor. “So I declared and made myself believe” suggests, among other possibilities, that Trotter “declared” something—anything (note the lack of object)—and thereby created belief: even when words offer little content, they can produce emotion, just like Trotter’s poetry at its most elegant and indecipherable.

Yet in response to Trotter’s flirtations with sense, meaning mavens like myself can’t help but wish for something more, well, meaningful. His many strengths, however, keep us listening and wanting to understand. He makes us, if not birders, then worders, hoping his lovely and peculiar songs will eventually yield secrets worth knowing.

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