Tuesday, August 01, 2006

READING THE BREEZE

Breeze, by John Latta
Notre Dame, IN : University of Notre Dame Press, 2003
115 pp.

Mountains and mountains of words have been applied to the poetic productions which began to surface about 100 years ago and have come to be known by labels usually containing some variation on, or some extension of, the word "modern". Most of these many phenomena share one characteristic : they exhibit the self-conscious awareness, on the part of their makers, of their status as art works. In their unfolding they reflect on themselves. Wallace Stevens offers one of the clearest and most programmatic examples of this tendency. The record of a chaffing conversation with Robert Frost is apropos. Stevens is said to have remarked, "You write on subjects." (Frost countered, "And you write on bric-a-brac.") Poetry, for Stevens, is not "about" things : it is something in its own right. Poetry "celebrates itself".

Much poetry of the last century is a record of the problematic consequences of this "supreme" (Stevens' term) self-authorizing maneuver. The poet who obliges it is immediately confronted with at least two big problems : first, the danger of solipsism (what is self-reflecting may not reflect anything else); second, a confusion about where, exactly, are the boundaries between the artwork and everything that is not artwork. (Is the "poem itself" only the aesthetic object, in strict isolation? Is it the state of mind or knowledge or feeling suggested or evoked by the poem? Is it the poem as received by its reader, or does it exist prior to that? etc.)

These issues have been chopped to a fine gruel - and I have little to add, except to say that John Latta's book of short poems, Breeze, plays a definite (if latter-day) role in that history. The breeze figures out how to turn self-consciousness in a direction which affirms both poetry's independence and life's infinite correlations.

Latta's kinship with the Hartford insurance man is clear. A glance at the table of contents reminds one of Stevens’ first book : "Chants of a Myrmidon", "Blank, with Blandishments", "Dirty Weather", "Noting it is Nothing", etc. Yet the volume's title marks its distance from Harmonium (natural phenomenon vs. musical artifact). A breeze is neither organ-pipe nor aeolian harp nor spiritual "wind" - it is something more natural and ordinary. Situated between Stevens' sometimes baroque blank verse and Whitman's variable lines, Latta writes (most often) in a free verse corralled into modulating triplet stanzas :

"So we stop talking
Just as the rain,
In a lengthy diminuendo, thins itself to a temporary halt.

Though we hardly notice it:
Our feet, unbeknownst to our feet, move
Now in easy reiteration,

Now in cumbersome jest, speaking
The gone rain's story, happy
Geniuses of the story of the gone rain."

These stanzas were chosen at random, but they are typical. They exhibit a balance between syntax and line, between self-conscious diction and casual phrasing, between life’s contingency and a pattern of construction. Observe the three topoi from the first stanza of the opening poem : flowers, noise, and philosophy. As you read on, you discover that these are recurrent motifs - as though part of an old-fashioned "garland". This is a book shaped in deliberate response to Harmonium, one of the indubitably great moments in modern poetry.

Latta's strategy, in part, is to take a step back from Stevens' elaborate finish. He leans toward Whitman, by foregoing cryptic ellipsis for more prosaic effects - more inclusive, ragged, and plain. Take, for example, the opening of the second poem, "Noise" :

"Off in the distance, the sound of
A truck backing up to unload a cargo
of roofing material…"

In fact, Breeze is built upon a notion of "interference." The book's organization rests on this polarity - a pervasive stress-interference-symbiosis, operating simultaneously within the prose/poetry of writing and within the prose/poetry of experience. The first poem, "In the Margins of a Book by Heidegger", encapsulates the theme, beginning with:

"Daily chores impinge, poking
Little subsets of clarity into the unutterable
Stink of thinking just as a philodendron,
Flexing, furls its tame blue fingers around a newel post"

These lines compact both processes (interference and synthesis). Latta's yen to unite contraries is grounded in the understanding that they remain contrary. Chords are suspended : tensions unresolved : affirmations are hopeful, or rueful, rather than resounding. Furthermore, The affirmations are 'impure' : they do not conclude neatly in favor of either self-contained art or idealized nature. Still, paradoxically, the affirmations are there :

"And if I say unreasonable things to you now and again
And conjure up makeshift desires dedicated to you
Whom I have lost, it is because the world

Is no fragment, no soap chip,
And with these words I am sudsing up a speculation and a return,
We could clabber something together together -

For I am a fragment, too."

This is from "Hazy Days", one of the volume's best, and representative, poems. Latta shares with Stevens an affinity for things French, one aspect of which is a willingness to engage in quasi-philosophical speculation - but with aphoristic brevity. Neat quips are leveled with the American bent toward rambling, open-ended, prosaic extension. The fact that Latta can articulate such a polarity is part of what distinguishes his work from run-of-the-mill anecdotal verse. His poems are often both anecdotal and philosophically engaged :

"No contrail scratches remain.
And I means I only by dint of this perfect mock-
Up of myself I's got sitting here

Socializing with the twentieth century, its dirt
Outlining the nail of a finger
Wagging emphatic an accusation

And pointing to the likes of words like you,
Unlikely though it is in such surroundings
To be you." ("The Wag of the Inconsequent")

Thus, and in similar playful flourishes, Latta combines a judgement on the limits of artifice with the grace of a (convincing) impression of personal presence. He unites what Stevens called the "the imagination's latin" with the vulgate of ordinary experience - the "lingua franca et jocundissima". These compounds, moreover, do not avoid painful and discouraging realities. In both happy and gloomy moods, the poet turns toward the natural world:

"For one short period you lived up there
In a shack and burned firewood. The need
To say something - anything - caught

In the terrible middle of you.
In the uptake, in the winch, in the draft.
Something about two

Bluebirds nesting in a box out back.
Something about the box tilting crazy
Against the fence post."
("Explication de texte")

What saves Latta from ruminative garrulity (always frisking the edges of his spangled phrasing) - and from the dated quandaries of fin-de-siecle theory - is the acumen of the artist. A rueful modesty allows for fusions of the personal and the intelligible, the literary and the natural. Humility makes for directness, accessibility. Latta is never simply performing. Even his ostensibly more-frivolous poems have a substantial feeling, rooted in a tendency to try say something to us about the nature of things. The results of this ratio between conversationalist and literary show-off are consistently charming. The poems have no extra-literary axe to grind : they celebrate their own fragmentary and companionable selves, and the peripheral goodness of their happening, their making. In doing so, they discover wider spaces. Can you hear the affable shades of Stevens and Whitman in these lines? -

"Hurrah for us wiseacres, us
earthlings who pout in the glamorous soup
Of airs we never put on with any success, democratic

As trees though.
Thorough our thought is though
Not exactly filling, our maneuvres those of mules

Hugging the sure contours of the map's bumps
And bridges, anything that divides land
Up into the here and there." ("Wisdom Terrestrial and Nigh")

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