Laws of My Nature
Monday, July 4th, 2005
If you enjoy revealing connections among phenomena not previously linked, you may want to consider a career in the sciences, detection, or making verses. If your m.o. when reading verse is to seek out a bombardment of shocks of insight, you want to know about Laws of My Nature by Margot Schilpp. With her second book, Schilpp demonstrates a command of poetry’s darker arts not generally given to writers who seek to master the rhetoric of clarity.
At this point, I might say
anything: that love may need oxygen,
but I’m not breathing. That certain passages
in Marx remind me of figs, seeds like that,
thickly taking over. This wouldn’t be a lie:
I am on to how everything connects
to all other things, in some way, at some time,
and how smoke and mirrors possess power.
Trust, but verify.
The power in question is the poet’s ability to create a desired effect, even at the apparent expense of the truth. Schilpp is perfectly comfortable skipping among the unlike to revel in the sounds of words, while retaining a parallel structure that, without actually making a brain-scrambling inversion of the usual connections, enjambs and breaks stanzas to make the terms of the analogy hang fire: "Nothing’s by logic / here. Intuition rules, not / a butterfly, not a zombie // or a house without doors," she writes in "Ouija," a continuous parade of poetic and random phrases that will either appeal to or alienate readers of all the various sleepaway camps of American poetry.
A concern with the art itself, not at all removed from Marianne Moore’s "imaginary toads in real gardens," governs many of the poems in this book, and for some readers, that will be a conceptual strike against her. Too bad for those readers.
Take "Apples and Oranges," a worthy lyric essay on the subject of comparing and contrasting. Opening with the feint that the title comparison "was a failure," Schilpp navigates between blind unpoetic obedience to "the component / of each that defines what and how" on the one hand, and "surreal distinctions // between cups of fur and the buttons of air," on the other. (Not very Moore-like to diss Meret Oppenheim, but the sexual subtext of these poems favors excess over gentleness; more in a few grafs.)
The academic framework of the poem keeps the internal English teacher distracted, but what’s exciting about this poem is the nervy celebration of sensuousness that bristles amidst all the terminology.
when you think of fruit, know
the proper names for parts,
the structures that separate and sweeten
until the drop from the tree.
If it isn’t fruit, it’s another similarity—
differences disturb you. Unlikeness
speaks to you in tongues. I want to point
out how everything’s eaten, everything eats…
Motivating that physical tingling is a basic shocking insight: difference is disturbing. This is Schilpp’s refrain, and if you enjoy a grandiose statement to persuade you that the experience you’re having is worth having (why not), then consider that anxiety at difference is the pressure point used by divide-and-conquerors everywhere. Schilpp is going straight for that root cause of dischord like a world-historical ninja therapist, unacknowledged legislator, whatever.
Even purists who won’t cop to rescue fantasies likely want poets to tell their stories so beguilingly they and everyone else stop to integrate the insights at hand. Schilpp is very close to becoming that powerful poet in My Nature, although even a standout poem such as "Apples and Oranges" gets red marks from the internal English teacher for going prosaic once when she closes her opening feint with the drab "we all know / that," and once when she talks down to oranges as they grow (!) by declaring that what they do "isn’t rocket science." Never patronize citrus.
Other critique: she hasn’t completely given up the jarring habit of treating transitive verbs as if they were intransitive ("I weather. I steep"), and she could stand to change up her rhetoric: Nearly half the poems in the book are interrupted in the first sentence by a colon or em-dash (e.g. "It’s a night to recall storms:/ the way the gullies are rocked…").
Which brings us back to desire, or rather, sex. If the poetics of the unrelated preoccupy the book, the craving for physical contact keeps the tempo quick. In "Taking Leave of My Senses," a series of sublimated desire objects (a model, a deer in the woods, a fancy car) scatter as soon as the speaker locks on to a walk-man’d jogger she covets:
You’re listening to Bach, or some torchy song
that brought a generation of women
to their silk-stockinged knees. You can’t
always get what you want, even if
it would bring a few hours of rapture.
I can’t see the harm in imagining
tracing my tongue slowly up
the side of your neck or
for one small moment introducing
my hands to every inch of your back.
I can’t see the danger in merely thinking
myself spread open and meeting you
on the downswings.
The debatably erotic move of switching out here to the story of Noah’s Ark allows the speaker to identify with a doe "thinking of the ten-pointer / she’d passed in the woods"; allowing Schilpp to deduct that deer from the first stanza, and letting her close the poem affirming the body’s "autonomic reaction against what I’ve agreed / to, for ever and always" as the mothers of America scold, "You can look, just don’t touch anything." Of course she can see the danger, and she knows what’s hot about saying danger. This isn’t to put down the partisans of discontinuous sexiness (blindfolds, etc) — party on — but by demonstrating how to pull together similar feelings from all over her experience, Schilpp is the center of something that looks and feels a lot like fun.