Wings Without Birds
Sunday, September 19th, 2010
Readers familiar with Quarantine (Ahsahta Press, 2006) and Stripping Point (Counterpath, 2007)—Brian Henry’s most recent books until Wings Without Birds came out from Salt—will immediately see this book as a departure. First, Quarantine and Stripping Point both strongly hinge on inviting us to think of the speakers of the books as personae. Quarantine’s speaker is dying of the plague and he comes to us as though through 17th century London; the speaker of “More Dangerous Than Dying,” Stripping Point’s long first poem, speaks to us from a 20th century corporate paper mill. These speakers feel intentionally fictive and Henry builds his personae in a way that invites the questioning of such a device: Quarantine is punctuated with contemporary details and the paper mill of Stripping Point reads more as metaphysical setting than as actual setting. Both books engage taboo scenarios: the plague-stricken speaker of Quarantine is shockingly cold towards his wife and son’s deaths, slips down to the river to meet his male lover. The speaker in Stripping Point is having an affair.
In contrast, the speaker of Wings Without Birds does not feel fictive in the least and readers will likely think themselves ridiculously indoctrinated into New Critical workshop etiquette if they call the entity voicing the poems “the speaker” rather than “the poet himself” speaking as the poet himself. The book, dedicated to Henry’s family, moodily circles around domesticity and domicile, directly addressing family members as in: “Daughter who tells me the hills are a moon” (“In the Neighborhood of Horses”). In these poems Henry names, by proper name, his wife “Tara, sleep-nursing” (“Wings Without Birds”) and dispenses with pretense, bringing to the surface the fact that the writer of these poems is writing poems. Henry directly addresses the reader at times, and also directly addresses other poets such as Tomaž Šalamun, a poet who Henry, Šalamun’s translator, obviously knows. We may, of course, remember that all written I’s are precisely that, written, and therefore naturally papery-versions of ourselves with all the fictive qualities this entails. But this book overtly challenges the eye-diverting decorum we develop when we talk “speaker” instead of “poet,” inviting us to read this poetry as work that puts the stuff of nonfiction at stake. For example, the following passage comes in the middle of “Where We Stand Now,” the 16-page poem that centers the book:
The Royal smashed beyond fixing
during the move, I set to it
with a screwdriver to remove as much
of it from itself as I can. Arrive.
I arrange the screws to spell “pain”
and photograph the word with the type-
writer’s husk surrounded
by pieces of its former self then
throw it all into a box and drive
to the Clarke County landfill.
The car has new tires, new belt,
its floor covered with raisins
Cheerios barrettes pretzels
paper and if I were a crying man
I would cry I swear I would.
The second primary departure is one of form and structure. Both Quarantine and Stripping Point perform marvelous structural feats and cannot be properly read without taking into account the relationship between structure and content. Quarantine comes to us in two sections, “Quarantine” and “Contagion,” and “Contagion” literally rewrites “Quarantine” backwards, reversing the order of the poems and the order of their lines. Stripping Point, also a two-part book, deploys a similar tactic in its second section, “Stripping Point.” Here we begin with 13 6-line poems. As the section moves on lines are recombined and stripped away, moving us through 12 5-line poems, 11 4-line poems, 10 3-line poems, and 9 2-line poems. After the first set of poems are established new language is not added; rather, the poems advance by diminishing. In each of these projects Henry helps the reader move through these structural permutations by establishing and then maintaining a fairly simple form of line and stanza across each book. It is impossible to read either book without confronting its structure, thinking through the way in which form/structure and content manifest a whole and culminate in a complete poetic project.
Wings Without Birds, to the contrary, is light on structure and deploys a variety of free verse forms. Poems range from eight lines long—″Bad Gardener” reads in its entirety:
ravaged by inept hands
—inept hands with sheers—
even the bees
—to the 16-page long “Where We Stand Now” which has a narrative, peripatetic movement and works its way through a single, unbroken stanza. And, while the book has a pleasing symmetrical structure, it does not employ any rewriting or recombinatory techniques. This architecture is much simpler: the book both begins and ends with two-page fragmented lyrics. In between span three sections of nearly equal length: the first section is 16 pages long and is comprised of more-or-less stand alone poems, the second section is the continuous long poem “Where We Stand Now” and the third section again moves back to more-or-less stand alone poems and spans 17 pages. Not only does this simple structure create solid containers for the varying poetic forms, but it also argues for the primacy of the poem-moment, rather than the poem-project. For a book so seeped in the rhythms and details of the everyday, this organization gives the work a feeling of authenticity that would be undercut by a more intricate structure.
I frame this discussion of the book in terms of Quarantine and Stripping Point not because Wings Without Birds cannot stand on its own, but because the work that it does can be more clearly seen in contrast to the other projects. First, it still feels rare to find a poet who is comfortable with making such departures: if Quarantine and Stripping Point have set up a trajectory of project and personae, Henry is unafraid to waylay this movement with lyrics of the everyday, with himself as speaker. Second, despite my insistence on framing Wings Without Birds as a book that does not operate via persona and project, but focuses in on an authentic everyday, it is interesting to take the opposite point of view and look at this work as an extension of what Quarantine and Stripping Point do. For example, if we look at the packaging of Quarantine we will see that Henry was careful to remove as many references to himself as author as possible: we have no author photo, no blurbs, no bio. Wings Without Birds, in contrast, not only has such paratexts, but the author photo is by Tara herself. What if the book were to be read as a performance of authorial subjectivity? And, last, while the everyday subject matter and simple structure of Wings might at first seem unadventurous to fans of Quarantine and Stripping Point, I hope that the following thoughts on the poetry of everyday life show Henry’s approach to the quotidian, with all of his moody flourishes, to be, in fact, quite extraordinary in our particular moment.
Our culture’s continued and ever-entrenched fascination with everyday life hardly asks for remark, for status updates and tweets create an everyday that constantly comments upon itself. As such, writing has become integral to the digestive practice of everyday life. As pre-factory farming cows once stood in their fields grazing on grass to digest, re-digest, and digest yet again only to shit out fertilizer for more grazing, more digesting, many of us suffer the everyday kindly only insofar as it provides fodder for texting, tweeting, facebooking. Which in turn informs our cooking, eating, walking, talking, reading writing (etcetera) habits, fingers twitching for keyboard and keys. Given this obsession with articulating the everyday, it is no surprise that the best-selling genre is non-fiction, and documentary modes of entertainment have superseded the overtly fictional.
As such, it should not be a surprise that much of what is attended to in contemporary poetry responds to this interest in the everyday. The everyday and its attendant mixture of detritus and significance hovers behind the following much-remarked upon modes of contemporary poetry. First, we have the following project-oriented manifestations:
In addition, we find trends accentuating the everyday in a manner that corresponds more immediately to the lyric tradition such as:
In recent essays published in the Boston Review Stephen Burt promotes both of these last two trends, employing in “Smothered to Smithereens” the work of Rachel Zucker to exemplify the poetry of motherhood. In “The New Thing” Burt promotes the work of contemporary writers such as Rae Armantrout, Graham Foust, Devin Johnston, and Jon Woodward to exemplify a trend in contemporary poetry that pursues
compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism—fidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williams’s “demand,” as the critic Douglas Mao put it, “both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself.” They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing.
Such writing attends to the things of the everyday, accentuating fidelity to the texture of life as it is lived, as opposed to the imagined life. The supreme importance of fidelity to life “actually” lived, rather than imagined, is exemplified by Armantrout’s statement that she uses material from her dreams, but would not feel comfortable making up dreams. As such, poets of the New Thing zero in on the landscape of contemporary objects as they are experienced, as opposed to the interior landscape of the self.
While the intensity of our fascination with everyday life feels particular to this contemporary moment, discourse on “everyday life” is itself nothing new. Everyday life studies blossomed in France during the 60s and 70s, Henri Lefebvre’s Critique de la vie quotidienne dates from 1947, and anthologists track predecessors back to surrealists (see Michael Sheringham’s Everyday Life) and to Freud (see Ben Highmore’s The Everyday Life Reader). And, although such study has deep roots, theorists are far from over such concerns. As Sheringham notes, “the period between 1960 and 1980 is a phase of active, if often invisible, invention and the period from 1980 to 2000 (and beyond) a phase of practice, variation, and dissemination” (14). I bring this point up because I think it provides intellectual context for contemporary poetry’s fascination with the everyday and deepens the stakes of its pursuit. At their best, writers pursuing everyday life have the ability to challenge the status quo and effect change. As such, it deeply matters whether or not, as a contemporary poet, you are invited to participate in the poetics of the everyday.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the everyday vis-à-vis contemporary poetry is the tension it brings to the surface surrounding the concept of subjectivity. Notice that there has been the most hype around poetry of the everyday that eschews lyric subjectivity: Conceptual Poetry, Flarf, and Documentary Poetry are built on a rejection of such sensibility. Furthermore, on the lyric end of the spectrum not just any kind of speaker is invited to talk about his or her subjective experience (by which I mean emotionally, physically and intellectually embodied) of the everyday. Poets writing from a still-marginal position (such as that of motherhood) can pull off speakers who engage in the everyday as needing, wanting, proclaiming subjectivities. We even like it when they tell us their secrets and get pissed off.
Not so the speaker who comes from the position of power we associate with non-mothering, straight, white, middle class culture which of course includes men but also women when they aren’t mothering, or when they aren’t featuring their mothering roles. If you read Burt’s essay on the “New Thing” you will notice that he is careful to note that poets of the “New Thing,” most of whom write from this position, are interested in objects in the world—not in the subject that apprehends them. One of the traits of New Thing poets is that subjective emotion is so submerged that Burt notes that readers will likely have to re-read such poetry to pick up their affect. For example, “We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodward’s dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.” Indeed, the New Thing poets of the everyday are interested not in interiors but in what they can clearly see before them. Subjectivity, it seems, for these speakers, is off-limits. Where Rachel Zucker might write that she
can barely hear above the clicking of my why thinking why
am I so obsessed with paint color and the properties of seasons
material objects I’m crazy, so lazy and driven, relentless, no one could stand this
they call it cyclical negative thinking the constant self-checking am I okay now?
and we listen with interest because she is a mother, because she is ostensibly writing from a margin, would such articulations be considered boringly self-indulgent if they came out of the mouth of a different speaker? Can any reader here imagine praising a poet of motherhood, writing elegies for a lost son, for so submerging her grief that readers would need to read the poems twice in order to pick up on the emotion? I ask these questions not to challenge’s Burt’s notions—he is spot-on in his recognition of poetic trends. In fact, two comments on his “New Thing” article show that even the amount of subjectivity allotted to New Thing poets is too much for the contemporary reader. One comment complains, “how do these quoted poems differ from earlier conversations about subjectivity (ie imagism/Frost/Williams)—why are we still having this conversation?” Another quips: “Because we haven’t yet moved onto another.”
While thinking about these matters of taste, of who is and who isn’t invited to the party du jour, the party of “interesting poetry of the everyday,” of the fact that many Conceptual Writers are straight white males who couldn’t bring their subjectivities to the party even if they wanted to, which they obviously don’t, but what if they did, I began to read Brian Henry’s Wings Without Birds. The book first struck me because it was so different from his most recent two books, and then struck me again because the way in which it is different from those books is that it intentionally engages a poetry of the everyday—and a poetry of the everyday that in all of its ordinariness has come to inhabit the taboo. That is to say, not only does Henry write about the thinghoodedness of everyday life, and about actual encounters undergone (à la the New Thing poets), but he also writes about these elements without damping down any of the emotional, physical, and intellectual aspects of his relationship with his world. The poem “Family, Portrait” the third-to-last poem in the book, ends:
Our June song makes peace
with lack of sleep, enforces
idleness. Bites, burns, the film
of the outdoors that covers us,
family, as soon as we rise
unshowered and uninterested,
unready for everything around us.