Tuesday, May 15, 2012



What It Is Like: New and Selected Poems by Charles North
(Turtle Point & Hanging Loose, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2011)

Mind and Body


I like to think of still-lifes as “absent mind”
but of course every curling lemon peel is “a thought in readiness”
and the theory that this is not only the world but its best face,
the aspect that joins us most closely to what we feel,
falls headfirst into an empty white ceramic vase,
shoelaces flopping over the rim.
That sentence-long section from one of Charles North’s new poems holds for me the keys to the best aspects of newness in the old poems too. He is a writerly writer but not in a way that keeps anybody at arm’s length. His mind is armed with sentences, phrases, words, often images but always thoughts, things that have occurred to him or at least to his writing. These include such non-thingly things as the reflections here on art and worldly philosophy, but also the very thingly images we can see in our mind’s eye. Often in North’s works, these lead us into humorous or startling image conjunctions, cartoon like, but also into realizations. Section 7 is one of the nine sections in the poem “Mind and Body” (259-261). Only a couple are made with one elegant sentence, but the form of each is a set of linked thoughts. That is the form North works best. He seems to delight in taking us with him into a perception and then giving it a twist, as with a knife or something. He makes thinking new by naturalizing it in what could be called still lifes of thought clusters sometimes; other times, his constructions are more on the scale of landscapes or even Asian landscape scrolls in their scope. Their focus, though, is the mind-and-body work we can get hold of in words. In his poems “what we feel” is the vertiginous physicality of getting a thought.

Those poems of longer scope include some wildly turning ones, but I found myself reading another kind with great interest this time through his works. “Aug-Dec for Jimmy Schuyler” from a 1999 New and Selected Poems was one of two diaristic looking long pieces in this New and Selected. It proceeds rather simply with entries that show passing thoughts on the weather, the landscape, some relations to painting, animals, buildings, all very much what Schuyler made his poems present. The slight advance here is what gets me nodding in that poetry reading “yes” kind of way. North makes leaps and stabs that Schuyler hardly allowed himself. In “Summer of Living Dangerously” (240-253), the Aug 5 entry reads: “Ceci n’est pas un diary.” In that sentence, North has made pretty much all the moves he made in the long sentence of “Mind and Body 7.” Mind awareness, philosophical attitude, art reference, object image, and pointed humor, all are present. I can’t help but see Magritte’s pipe not a pipe, and reflect that this diary is not a diary but an artful composition. And yet it opened very diaristically: “June 16. Sun then no sun then sun then no sun for the foreseeable future.” And on “June 25. Rainy and esoteric.” It is, of course, the last bits of those weather notes that go beyond the language of weather reportage and into that with which we think and feel about other things more within the human range of life. And there are wilder bits quite human like the following:

July 6. Dark again, wet, a little screwy in the topgallants, meaning … not very.

This is how the schedule is shaping up:
            Writing off
            Gladly Yearning (& gladly leaching)
Breast period
Higher  myth

It isn’t written in stone.

We get the joke about schooling. We may get clouds as sails. But in the long run of the poem and the longer run of the work too, we get some abiding concerns.

One of them is “Pseudopoetics” and its relation to “Hegemony.” This 13-page poem ends with “a stammered reference, the non-referential aspect becoming clearer as well as increasingly poignant as time passes.” This seems to mock the imposition of referentialities in our arts by a world of “realistic” values. There are bits like that throughout the book. There is something somewhere about being reborn a bad poet or a bad painter. There is a passage about babooneries and the image of imposter painters doing a kind of hokey pokey dance of spatter painting. In an early poem, “Villa Capra’s Sestina” from Elizabethan & Nova Scotian Music (1974), there is an extended meditation on how the “fact that an artist has created the illusion of depth” pushes “food, hunger and sex” and “the distribution of wealth” out of the picture for us. Through the repetitious form and its recirculation, attention is drawn both to the achievements of still life painting and how what “seems to originate in a real / Interest in describing what is immediately before us” becomes a “polished vagueness” (23).  If there is a politics here, it is a self-examination of art by poetry. This may seem just the work of an aesthete, bound within the considerations of an artist for his artfulness, but the inter-questioning of those stances shakes something else loose in this book. Its very attention to aesthetics gives it its distance from the merely aesthetic.

When North asks “isn’t there a rhetorical term for loosening a word from its proper object and letting it drift to something that’s merely in the vicinity?”, his example is how Ginsberg “does it in Howl” with “looking for an angry fix” (250). That “drift” is one move North uses in both little and bigger ways. To emphasize his concern with the tone of wording, he actually takes some of his own works and “translates” them into other words in our same language. A fine set of poems from that 1999 New and Selected is called “Building Sixteens.” It consists of sixteen poems of sixteen lines each, each with buildings in them and all interlinked by grammatically continuing the one before. The first of the bunch is re-presented in 2007’s Cadenza under the title “Translation” with lines like “The windowed construction is the rusted color of a cruller” (235) in place of “The building is donut-colored light” (143). No big deal. Just a laugh, a lark, a goof, we might say. Well, yes and no, and the goofiness is exactly part of the point. What you see is not all that you get. The idea of this translation exercise is to make the rhetoric what we see, not just imagery.

In that long diaristic piece for Jimmy Schuyler, there is this: “If you’re a lousy poet you’ll be a lousy poet if you write in forms and a lousy poet if you write without forms. If you’re an interesting poet you’ll be an interesting poet whether you use forms or don’t use them!” (136) There is a form all through this book that seems to have been invented by Charles North, the sixteen-liner used in that series on buildings. He uses it often over the years and often with content focused on his art and craft and its relation to the world:

What Is Said to the Poet

concerning the impieties of obscurity
and the dark flurry
to the left of the water tower
providing the state with a pre-emptive sea
            cantilevered over what you
            can see. I would like to be
            the grain elevator of all I see
            but the last slice of sea
            outlining the observatory
            has cleared up the cooperative
            conversion process, windows
            fighting a rear-guard
action to sort out clarity
from its numerous self-styled conservators.
And architects hoist space underneath
timber roofs, producing the clerestory.

Obscurity impiously opposed to the clarities imposed by their “self-styled conservators” could be out to give us the clear storey above.

“Lousy” versus “interesting” is an old story. This is not just about goodness or badness but about interest in art and where the state and its conservators are at. The forms and concepts used in What It Is Like have a quality of critical goodness of their own, with a subtle social edge, and seem to have come from a mind that is good enough to think of them. That’s the same place where those shoelaces came from; remember them flopping over the white ceramic vase’s rim and presenting a shoe we don’t even see but we do? Thanks to Charles North’s writing.


T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.

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