The Pear as One Example

The Pear as One Example, by Eric Pankey
(Ausable Press, 2008)

Eric Pankey’s The Pear as One Example: New & Selected Poems 1984 – 2008 (Ausable  Press, 2008) draws upon all seven of the poet’s previous collections as well as providing a generous selection of new work.  The appearance of this volume makes possible investigation of significant elements in Pankey’s poetry; this short review will focus briefly on three that seem of particular importance: the physical world, human perception, and the question of faith.

For Pankey, the world is too immense and too complex ever to be experienced except in fragmentary form; in his poetry, this idea manifests itself in the form of works that are very much image-driven,  to the extent that poems will sometimes consist simply of lists of images drawn from both the natural world and the realm of human experience.  A poem such as “Splendid Things” (p. 222) serves to illustrate. The poem  begins:

The word for rain, the words for autumn skies,
Still legible on burnt paper.
Twice the owl’s one note.  The dead of winter.

Figments and fragments.  An arrow’s release.

Here we find the natural world (the owl, winter) juxtaposed against the human (words, arrows), and in a few instances the two are fused (“The word for rain”).  Only the title “Splendid Things” provides a clue to the purpose of this grouping; nothing within the poem itself ever reveals that.  What about these things is “splendid” is left entirely to the reader to discern;  the juxtapositions themselves are intended to imply something about what makes these catalogued items “splendid.”  Further, the phrase “[f]igments and fragments” itself is indicative of Pankey’s frequent method in a substantial portion of his work; the poems which employ this technique consist in  a very real sense of fragments. a grouping of concrete elements — almost always sensory in nature —  which don’t initially always seem connected, and which at times appear random.  What relationships there are often are suggested only through implication and at best appear tentative, suggestive rather than certain.  The tentativeness and uncertainty are fundamental elements of Pankey’s work.

The fragmentary nature of the world as experienced is reinforced for Pankey by the limitations of human perception.  For instance, as the title poem of the collection “The Pear as One Example” (pp. 77 – 78) shows, one’s knowledge of the world is limited to surface appearances by the senses and even those aren’t entirely reliable:

Light, the common denominator,
Does not conceive, but cloaks and covers . . . .

The pear curves the lines the blinds let through.

Even when one can identify an external object through distorted light, there are still other limitations; touch, for instance, releases

A hint of honey and magnolia,

Grape and almond.  None of it the pear
But the otherness of the pear.

If something as simple as a pear is not fully knowable, then what of more complex subjects, such as “Eros”?

Is it the unknown made intimate,

Or the known masked by light’s flimsy veil?

But although the senses are limited in terms of allowing accurate knowledge of the external world, at least even through their ambiguities they can at least affirm the existence of a world outside and independent of the speaker.  ”The Plum on the Sill” (p. 60) illustrates this idea.  Although to the imagination, the plum may appear to be a planet, a complete world in and of itself, it isn’t:

The cold at its poles and blush
Of blue at its equator
Do not equal a planet.

The plum remains exactly what it is, regardless of what it’s perceived to be.  Human imagination and perception may be limited, but at least there is some kind of objective reality.

The problems of a fragmentary world and limited, even inaccurate, perception come into sharper focus when addressing what is perhaps the most central concern of Pankey’s work, the question of religious faith.  In the prose poem “Comes a Time” (p. 130), for instance, he raises the question of whether there “comes a time” when one is no longer content with the physical world or even the self:

I — that charred wick, that ruined column that once held up the world . . . .  Did you believe you were ever poor,
hungry for more than the little that filled you day to day?

There is a point at which there is a need for some kind of belief in something beyond both the self and the world.  Finding that which deserves to be believed in, however, is at best difficult.  In “The Coordinates” (p. 160), he indicates that it’s difficult to find something to believe in within the world accessible to the senses:

When did the mere sublime fall out of favor?
When did the ineffable lose the sacred?

Unlike poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge who could perceive or at least imagine a divine presence in the physical world, he can have at best only an occasional and fragmentary glimpse (“ragtag notes”) of such a presence; unlike them, for whom the wind was often an image of divine presence, for him the wind’s revelations are at best contradictory and fragmentary:

. . . I wasn’t going to mention the wind,

That ghost-driven given,dry, pollen-thick,
Everywhere at once, then nowhere, where it lives.

Even if one turns to the realm of revealed truth, the Bible, for instance, there are still difficulties in possessing faith, not least because the perceptible world at times appears to contradict the truths of revealed religion.  For instance, in “To Christ Our Lord” (p. 89) Pankey’s speaker describes the destruction by fire of brambles, seeds, and rye, then states that “[o]nly you” (i. e., Christ) would find pleasure in the vines which succeed that which is destroyed and in the “bitter smell” of smoke.  Further, the coming of fall will kill even those things which succeed those destroyed by fire, and even the moon looks away from such destruction.  But Christ will not because

You love all things equally
And that is your flaw.  Tell me,
What is loved compared to shame?

Christ is culpable of the destruction of living things because he allows some to be destroyed to bring others into existence.  Is a divinity which allows this sort of thing, the suffering and even death of the innocent,  worthy as an object of belief?  What the physical world shows challenges the truth of what faith reveals.  Ultimately, of course, faith is something that has to be based on the choice to believe rather than any evidence of the physical world or the senses, and even that is difficult.  In “If You Can” (p. 42), Pankey’s speaker addresses his daughter Clare, telling her that there are times when she will “bruise your heel . . . on a sharp rock,” and that nothing he does can prevent its happening.  He goes on to tell her that he had

[o]nce . . . believed I was saved

. . . . But saved by whom or for what
I don’t know.  But somehow I was.
If you can, please, believe.

Faith won’t prevent her from being injured, but it will “cushion[ ] the hurt” if she can manage to believe, and that is perhaps the best that can be hoped for.

The central portion of Pankey’s work, then, deals with issues of epistemological and spiritual uncertainty, of the difficult of knowing and believing; in this regard, his work resembles that of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, not stylistically but in that all three at times confront the problems associated with the difficulty of having faith.  Of course, Pankey’s work is not limited to this subject; his work exhibits a considerable variety; there are narrative pieces, some of which are clearly autobiographical, dramatic monologues with fictional characters (including a sequence centering on Shakespeare’s Prospero), and a number of longer poems, as well.  But his meditative lyrics are perhaps the core of his work and likely his most important; in them, he joins that relatively small group of contemporary poets — Mark Jarman, Vassar Miller, Andrew Hudgins, and Margaret Gibson, for instance — who seriously confront questions of religious faith in their works.

–Howard Miller

Self-Portrait with Crayon

Self-Portrait with Crayon, by Allison Benis White
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009)

Allison Benis White’s new (and first) collection of poems draws extensively, on surface at least, from the works and life of French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas. There is nothing unusual about a poet finding inspiration in the works and lives of other artists. What is unusual, and risky, is to invest an entire collection (and the first one at that!) in such a scheme. The danger of the poet being overwhelmed by the subject is real; however, there is also a danger that, by the collection’s end, the reader may feel the whole effort has become a brittle and artificial poetry trick. White easily avoids these dangers by successfully synthesizing the works and life of the great artist into her poetry. However, to suggest Degas is secondary and the poet’s voice is primary would indicate clear lines are visible. That is not the case. The two are intertwined to such a remarkable degree that they often seem as one; the line by line shifts are organic, as natural as breathing – or remembering.

Why Degas? Critic Robert Hughes, in his book of essays on art criticism, Nothing if Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists, characterizes the work of Degas as “icy” but containing a “precise objectivity.” From the first poem in White’s collection, one senses these are poems of survival: attempts to understand traumatic events and familial relationships. It’s all about truth seeking and, with that in mind, Degas, with his cold but observant eye, might be the perfect guide for the voice in these poems. There’s nothing romantic or nostalgic about him, and that is a necessary requirement for the speaker.

The collection’s first poem ( “From Degas’ Sketchbook” ) opens with the seemingly common image of a child hiding in a closet. But this is no game. The closet is a metaphor for a life, or perhaps two lives; and the voice, child-like, is not a child’s:

The hidden are alone too. I crouched in the closet, between my
mother’s skirts and shoes, where the legs should be.

Simple as this seems, the words are understated, loaded; the images pregnant, signaling greater depths, a larger story. There are no spare words here. It’s a childhood scene with a seemingly childhood voice filled with loss:

…I would be found. It was an obvious place.
Her clothes and shoes. I only have to say it once. I don’t say
anything because the game requires silence. This is an external
narrative: when I was small.

The voice is looking back, reconstructing a history with what it knows now, with what it remembers:

. . . People lose their minds and leave in the
middle of cooking salmon. I will tell you something quietly: we
tried to send her a birthday card, but it was returned, wrong

What is occurring here I can only guess. Domestic strife, madness, the mental illness of a parent – the mother. The speaker never reveals too much, “sketching,” like the artist in the title, only the outline of an event, a person. To know more might mean to know too much, too soon:

Sometimes the face is so specific and
the body is just penciled in. It would be easier to finish
here before the tenderness of the figure is gone.

Such outlining seems tentative, necessary, a survival tactic for the voice to analyze and weigh what it knows about then and her, in order to understand its own self. But the voice is at a juncture now, one where it senses the need to move on. There is a haunting, Plathian image (“hook”) that closes the poem:

…People exist for as long as possible
until it is too difficult to matter. The shoulders are the span of
the hanger and the mind is the hook which suspends the entire dress.

What does all of this have to do with Degas? As far as I can tell, not much, and of all the poems in the collection, this one seems least associated with a specific work by Degas (though I can’t be certain, since White’s knowledge of Degas is so thorough). Whatever the case, I feel it’s the most important poem in the collection, since it establishes a very personal and confessional entry point for the “gallery” of emotions and memories to follow. The Master, Degas, with his works (including his various “phases”) and life, provides the voice with the necessary frames – a historic structure with its various tableaus of familiar settings; but the inner space in these paintings has been appropriated and is entirely the poet’s own.

The primary principals in these oblique poems, or internal conversations, are the mother and daughter. But the mother is an absence, the conversation or meditation is one-sided. White makes the mother more concrete in the collection’s second poem, “Waiting,” where two women are sitting on a bench. A quick look at the Degas painting shows both closeness and separateness, but the poet ratchets things up through her own memory. She does this first through the painting itself and the postures of the women (“Two separate / women on a bench – crossed at the wrists…”): a meditation that suggests the possibility of something that could be shared – pain, as a young ballerina clutches her own ankle. But the older woman seems indifferent, distant to what is happening right next to her, staring straight ahead, clutching an unopened umbrella.

White then leaps beyond the frame of the painting to a stanza about a child (the speaker), throwing a rock into the water and watching the circles, asking God a question. The next stanza appears to be the every day, a woman in a coffee shop, looking at the wet rings on the counter. However, the voice jumps again, leaping back into the frame of yet another painting, but with an elevating image that completes a circle while at the same time transcending it:

When I hear her set coffee back on the counter, I look at
my napkin to pretend I’m occupied with my love of circles.
This could be an aerial sketch of twirling ballerinas, I think –
each dancer ignoring the small white pain in her ankle.

The poem then closes with an image taken from the first painting, combining it with a mysterious, and italicized, address from “God”:

. . . . . .After many years, God said to the child, There are
hundreds of wet stones in your mouth – and inside stone, the
possibility of black unopened umbrellas.

I doubt I’ve scratched the surface of this poem (and the umbrella bit stumped me until I looked closely at the Degas painting), but it is a poem of pain, even crucifying pain (“crossed” “wrists”). As an example, “Waiting” is probably as good as any to illustrate what White is doing with the collection as a whole.

Following are more poems titled after specific works by Degas. Although it’s not necessary to see the actual paintings to enjoy the poems, I think to not look at them is to rob oneself of the layering White has incorporated into each of these poems. The postures of the individuals in the paintings and the various back stories (if available) to the composition of the paintings can all provide new levels of meaning within the poems.

Still, and I need to emphasize this, the poems here are not about art history and the specifics of Degas. Sometimes you have little to go on other than the existence of the painting itself. One of my favorite poems is the mysterious “Dancers with Green Skirts.” I found little on this painting except that Degas painted it at a time when he was starting to lose his eyesight. In White’s hands, the bright, autumnal colors of Degas becomes a flashing light for something terrible – an event that burns, and scars:

In order to make the scream disappear, she holds up one hand
to block the other dancer’s face, which means she cannot
yell fire with her hands on her hips (her elbows triangle like
wingbones), which means she has no face. A scream is either
doubled or disappears.

What follows is the startling use of fire imagery (there is no fire in the painting), with flames that “roll across cabinets like a miniature / ocean, a lullaby, a hiss inside a hush.” The word choice contains contrasting signals, with the use of “lullaby” and the hateful “hiss inside a hush.” Again, as in the collection’s first poem, there are hints of trauma and ongoing pain that seem nearly limitless at times. It is so much so in this poem, that White calls forth an image from 9/11:

When the world is finally over, a fireman will move through
it like a blind man touching his wife’s face at night, in order
to be certain. The slope of her nose under his thumbs and
cheekbones under his fingertips – his hands will cover her face
like a butterfly.

Unlike the face blocking (and identity obliterating) dancer in the first stanza, the fireman is a healing figure moving across a devastated interior landscape. The face covering is gentle, forgiving. The voice then inserts itself with a positive assertion, a recovery amidst the devastation. The face covering of a wife becomes the recovery of the memory of an absent mother:

I recognize is the reversal of I disappear. If I could only save one
thing, the fireman says as he walks, it would be my mother’s
wooden clock, with the blue bird inside.

The inability to connect with the actual person of the mother is interesting. What is recovered is a thing (a clock), which itself contains a bird. I hate saying the blue bird of happiness, but it’s hard to avoid given the sharp contrasts within the poem. If so, it’s an old cliche that is earned, given the hellish imagery that preceded it. The speaker doesn’t know the missing mother, but surely, at one time the mother was happy; there is always something positive to recover. But the speaker (the fireman) is wary as well. This image, precious as it seems, must always be balanced with that of the fire:

…Time was or time is
when it appears. Just as a house appears in his mind out of
nowhere, late at night, lit from the inside, trying to remember
itself, room by room as it burns.

The poems I’ve discussed are located early in White’s collection. My initial reading didn’t detect any real linear progression throughout the collection; in fact, late in the collection, in the poem “Ballet of Robert the Devil,” the circular aspect of these poems, and this collection, asserts itself clearly with the line “Hell means to begin again.” At this point, that impression had indeed established itself: these are often hellish poems, poems filled with intense pain. I was reminded several times of Plath’s Ariel. But, unlike Ariel, the “framing” White employs through the Degas paintings provides a protective method of control and containment. Potentially destructive memories are recovered, weighed, and incorporated into poetry by a voice that means to go on, never forgetting, but perhaps forgiving and even understanding, through the imagined but filtering eyes of another artist.

–Steve Harris