In: Book, For inspiration

Lisa Jarnot – Ring of Fire

Ye white antarctic birds of upper 57th street,
you gallery of white antarctic birds, you street
with white antarctic birds and cabs and white
antarctic birds you street, ye and you the
street and birds I walk upon the galleries of
streets and birds and longings, you the birds
antarctic of the conversations and the bank
machines, you the atm of longing, the longing
for the atm machines, you the lover of the
banks and me and birds and others too and
cabs, and you the cabs and you the subtle
longing birds and me, and you the
conversations yet antarctic, and soup and
teeming white antarctic birds and you the
books and phones and atms the bank
machines antarctic, and you the banks and
cabs, and him the one I love, and those who
love me not, and all antarctic longings, and all
the birds and cabs and also on the street
antarctic of this longing.

from Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001)

Another contemporary canon-ball. This poem, my first exposure to Lisa Jarnot, made a big impression on me when it appeared in Colorado Review about five years ago. In fact, it was one of the poems that inspired me to start writing again after a grad-school-length period of bad writer’s block. Or total atrophied creative wastage is more like it.

The delights are immediate and plentiful here: the oratorical Whitmanian syntax ("the / conversations yet antarctic") filtered wittily through Steinian repetition ("you street / with white antarctic birds and cabs and white / antarctic birds you street"); the ironic disjunctive arbitrariness ("and soup") co-existing with urgent Personistic urban joy ("you the lover of the / banks and me and birds and others too and / cabs"); the accretive, roughly chiseled consonantal bulk of the glacier-like whole nestled softly in the white cloud-pillows of its imagery.

At first, I doddered a little over the line-endings: were they strategically placed in any way whatosever (syllable-count, end-word repetition, etc.), or just a typographical transcription of where the original handwritten (perhaps) lines of a prose-like paragraph ended on a scrap of notebook paper? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t really matter: the real measure in the poem is found in its fractured rhetorical rhythms, the archaic kitsch-diction that buoys up all the important physical objects like birds and ATM machines and longings. [Uh, longings aren’t physical–oh wait, yes they are. Never mind.] All the lines ending with "the" and "of" and "and" and so on would be considered a failure of craft by certain standards for a certain kind of poem, but here they work almost more visually than sonically, making a blurry, frayed tear down the right margin, adding to the elegant cragginess of the lyric structure (this is another technique Jarnot gets from O’Hara).*

Another way of thinking about the line-endings is that they’re not at all concerned with such form-and-function paradigms of structure: that their role, rather, is as socially (as opposed to formally) motivated markers of stylistic affiliation with one tradition of lyric rather than another. But then, some might say that the same is true of conventional English metrical composition (for example), at differing levels of self-consciousness in its different historical phases as an emergent, dominant, and residual practice, or some combination thereof.

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