The Smaller Half
Sunday, May 30th, 2010
When I used to read submissions for the Denver Quarterly, sometimes more than a hundred in one week, I would often notice recurring aesthetic patterns or gestures, executed with more or less sophistication, in poets of seemingly different substantive interests. Were they just reading the same poets? Surely this was the case for some. But cover letters revealed another common thread, and over time, I came to associate these identifiable aesthetics with particular graduate programs.
If, for example, I was reading a poem with an air of classical control, and gentility of expression, I might attribute it to the University of Virginia. If formally ambitious and influenced by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, I might think Brown University or Buffalo; if the poem was slightly narrative, with the occasionally surreal image twisting our sense of time and place; if it employed explosive, Donne-like openings followed by short, well-crafted lines, and an ending that lifts off the page as the poem gently but firmly settles into heavy silence, I might suspect the poet as a graduate of the Iowa Workshop.
As a recent Brown MFA graduate who had subsequently immersed herself in Denver University’s PhD program, perhaps this attention to program aesthetics arose in part from my anxiety about being too much a product of my own academic environments. I was unnerved by the possibility that my work was being shaped in ways that I, and perhaps others, were not consciously aware of. As I began to predict the “program” from the submission (and I was wrong at least as often as I was right), I wondered if it was the teacher’s influence I was seeing (the mentor/mentee relationship having surely been endemic to artistic endeavor since cave drawings), or a more nebulous gestalt that exists in a department, that withstands shifts in faculty: a strange amalgam of former faculty, current faculty, former graduates, current students, and simply whatever idea of the program dominates in one’s imagination, if indeed there is such an idea.
It has been years since I read for the Quarterly, and years since I thought much about writing programs and their aesthetics (living somewhat at a remove from such programs or even many other poets), until I picked up The Smaller Half, a very good first book by poet and Iowa graduate Marc Rahe, and the first book issued by Rescue+Press.
In The Smaller Half, I indeed found some of the stylistic hallmarks I had come to associate with the Iowa Workshop: almost cinematically observed moments that cut in and out of perspective, bold first lines (“All the people are naked;” “Coincidence is a spring of romance;” “I’ve signed the petition against me”), and those last lines that very much feel like last lines:
And the passing motorists will have
the gift—left along the shoulder—
of so many snow angels.
Inside the car I couldn’t hear
The gutter water running to drain.
Though, to be honest, I rather like a line that convinces you to stop breathing as the poem stops breathing; it’s not the only way to end a poem, but it can make for a satisfying reading experience. So does it matter that these endings remind me a bit of Levine (who often writes quite beautiful, quiet endings to his poems)? Is it foolish to expect us not to absorb something from our teachers, or our teachers’ teachers? To offer a somewhat grandiose example, do we balk to see traces of da Vinci’s style in Raphael’s frescos? On the other hand, is something lost when we can anticipate the “move” a writer is about to make?
These poems also possess a wry, almost disaffected humor that punches up their genuinely compelling pathos, a pathos that often finds its roots in the psychological relationship between the speakers of these poems and their bodies (or the bodies of others). The book’s first poem, for example, finds the speaker waiting in a hot car, while someone runs an errand for him/her:
I shift my feet from pain to pain.
I think how she will return again
and bring cigarettes and gin.
This is a kindness I’m waiting for,
this errand I’d rather run
myself and see no kindness in it.
—″Quality of Life”
What strikes me here is the astute psychological observation that when one is forced into a position to have to accept kindnesses, it can be difficult to embrace them without a bitterness infusing the sweet, as they remind us of our inability to function as we might prefer. On a technical note, it is worth noting the slanted rhyme of the first three lines: pain/again/gin, three words that dryly suggest their narrative relationship to each other.
Rahe’s technical and thought-provoking execution in this poem goes a long way in limiting how much one cares about this or that stylistic gesture; it seems important to engage these poems on their own terms as well, because there is honestly quite a lot in these poems worth chewing on. For example, in a neatly compact poem called “Summer,” Rahe’s speaker observes:
Always I notice the entrances to homes
where a wheelchair couldn’t go.
They are the shoulders of these houses
raised in apology.
As if they couldn’t help
but to offend. As if to say:
it is how we were made.
There are at least two bodies in this poem: the body in the wheelchair, which is denied access to the body of the house (“the shoulders of these houses/raised in apology”). The house, now personified, suggests the indifference of the people who might build such a house, what one suspects is a broad and persistent failure to consider how our spaces might invite or prohibit invitation to others (I feel as though there might be an analogy that extends past the body here: that is, the ways in which we construct our spaces—our lives—that might prohibit relationship).
And yet the house itself is somehow fixed in its state. The ironic tone of the last line reverses itself as we realize that the house cannot change its condition, though it speaks to the offense of the people who have created an architectural work of separation (for what could symbolize separation more acutely than a home that does not invite someone in).
Relationships, in these poems, are often marked by an apprehension of separation (the language of “strangers” recurs in a number of different poems), an apprehension that often begins and ends in recognition of the body:
…Surely her knee is not cold.
The knee straightens and bends.
Its kneecap slides in light
reflected there. The knee right there.
Each instant contains possibilities, each
its own future universe, each
real as the last. Could be, and really
is, any stranger. Could be
or the girl herself. Strangers,
so real they are imaginary
people, figments, ghosts, light tricks.
What fascinates me about these lines is the way movement is rendered as flexible in its possibility. A dancer-friend of mine once described bending the knee as following “the trace of movement,” suggesting that the movement has begun in advance of our bodies following it. Here, the potentiality of movement gives the knee many paths to follow, and compels one to wonder what index of thought inspires one choice over another. It also highlights, in the context of surrounding poems, that some lack this choice, in ways. The body might limit the potential of the mind—though perhaps this is the nature of the material in general, and some feel it more acutely than others.
In these poems, the bodies of others (often female, and in “Infinity’s Grains,” the knees of a woman) take on an erotic quality—sometimes simply by virtue of the quality of attention given to them. The image of knees crops up in a few different poems, perhaps importantly, as they are the hinges that allow movement of the legs. As in other poems, a focus on mobility and immobility motivates these poems, and often seem to create the conditions for desire in our speakers.
When the body is eroticized (see poem entitled, “Nice Ass”), it might be tempting to read the speaker’s gaze as objectifying; but the context that the surrounding poems afford these erotic moments suggests something deeper in the emotional relationship of one body to another body. There is longing, to be with, to be as, to dissolve separation:
a V of cloth
where fingers could enter;
And, from later in the poem:
a V narrowing
to an almost V-like shape
suggestive of one open
hand approaching another.
As I hope these readings suggest, Rahe’s poems are doing unique and interesting work. While one might detect the influence of Mark Levine, James Galvin, James Tate and a few poets of the New York School, the poems of The Smaller Half, while perhaps influenced, do not parrot. They are not like the man in “Life Without Boxes” who “manipulates his body/ until his difference goes away.” On the contrary: these poems engineer their bodies to render something surprisingly singular in sensibility, a unique combination of archness and wonder, guardedness and receptivity, nonchalance and surprise, and it may be evidence of the potentiality of movement in a poem that we never know which register the line will hit, until we find ourselves a little stunned in its wake.