On A Personal Mythology. I woke up this morning and realized I hadn’t done Nic Sebastian’s excellent poems full justice in my post last night. I just reworked and expanded my review to demonstrate the ties I find between Forever Will End on Thursday, her new poetry collection, and Walter J. Ong’s theory of orality, which has largely driven my thinking about criticism and aesthetics over the past couple of years. The discovery excites me. I anticipate a long relationship between me and this excellent book of fresh, primal poetry.
Nothing’s as dull as another’s dream. All that disassociated description! Nic Sebastian’s poems in her debut poetry book Forever Will End on Thursday are dreams, I think, but dreams stripped down to personal myth. Sound and some subterranean words convey the ineluctable feeling that description carries for the dreamer alone.
These poems, then, are dreams without the tedium. This is primal poetry, a set of poems that bypass artifice and much of modern lyric poetry’s patronizing contract with the reader. This poetry is often stripped down to life force, and I stepped out of Sebastian’s book last night as one having enjoyed a night of living, vivid dreams.
Place is usually only hinted at in Sebastian’s poems, and then it resonates more than orients. The syntax is deceptively, deliciously undeveloped in favor of words on the one side and meaning on the other to support the immediate, primal effect. And words don’t build here; they point. They double up or break into phonemes or both. They don’t create meaning so much as they surrender to it (from “oboe”):
you are the beauty of bound
reed or better
numen’s breath passing
through reed into African
blackwood or better
shaman’s fingers on silver
keys you are
Sebastian’s poems move like dreams – dreams undigested and finally flying on their own terms. These poems carry the universal without the local, the world without the grain of sand. Settings come in evocative brushstrokes (“African / blackwood”) and not as necessary runways for the poems to take off from. Even the black paperback covers curl away from the book like a raven’s wings.
I love the challenge of these poems, their rawness and delight in language and emotion. Reading them, I find that I’ve longed for something like this in poetry. And watching myself enjoy them, I realize Sebastian has done something I’ve longed to do in some of my own writing: to use sound and a certain lifting of syntactical convention to bypass the mind’s crust and achieve a kind of emotion that a reader might feel in her unguarded moments. My own poetry has sometimes been needlessly opaque, too clever by far. Sebastian’s poems sometimes don’t make themselves immediately understood, either, but in these poems’ case there’s always a payoff.
In other words, I want to write like this. In my own way, yes, but like this.
Most lyric poems are to me a vivid daydream or a cheap vacation, and I’m a willing and frequent flyer. But Sebastian’s poems sometimes don’t meet me at the runway of setting. Instead, they’re in mid-flight when I turn a page to them. This never amounts to a problem, however. I repeat them aloud, usually either breathlessly (from “places of happiness”):
of your nerves listened
to the sun heat
your bones listened to it simmer
your blood which was
my blood heard your breath
heard you drop the book
or as if stunned or in a trance (from “shrapnel”):
she makes slow
on your burning boy’s
her fingertip and sings to you
throat through churning
knives in her chest she sings
and through this small but physical exertion enter the poem with my body more than by intellect. I discover myself on board having a wonderful flight.
So much of what tires me in some poetry stems from an artificial arrangement, a certain making nice-nice over the relationship among writer, reader, and text. None of that is here. I expect to be challenged, I long for poetry that will open itself slowly over several readings, I want a kind of brazen, well-burnished characterization in which the poet’s heart or mind isn’t painted on her urn but shines more and more over my brushes with it. I want a book, like Four Quartets, that I can worry and wear to pieces over many years. I strongly suspect that Forever Will End on Thursday will be such a book. I’m already looking forward to walking to my favorite bench with it this week and taking it to the beach with us this summer.
Walter Ong says that a poem isn’t an object so much as a cry — a primal, uneasy scream for recognition by the poet. This insight in Ong’s 1954 essay “The Jinee in the Well Wrought Urn” frequently reminds me of Silas Flannery, Calvino’s novelist in If on a winter’s night a traveller, who watches a woman with a pair of binoculars as she reads his novel on her patio, wishing to experience his novel again through her. There’s a longing to connect inherent in the act of creation, but it can’t come on the cheap. Poetry that fails to take risks or that papers over the inherently difficult relationship between author and reader is rarely worth reading. I don’t expect those issues to underlie a newspaper article, but I love it when I feel it in poetry. I want to feel in poetry a kind of existential tug, a sense that the writer is on her own, the poem is on its own, and I’m on my own, too. Only then can the three of us work to build real bridges.
Ong’s commitment to orality — the outgrowth of his understanding of poetry as a cry — is exactly what Sebastian demonstrates. Her work at Whale Sound and Voice Alpha to reinvigorate poetry’s oral tradition seems to me to be motivated at its essence by a similar primal urge to discover and demonstrate what it means to read and write, what it means to create and experience creation. I want poetry to raise these questions again. Sebastian’s poetry does. Powerfully.
I want to feel alone, to begin with. Sebastian’s poems are on their own, too, like your dreams, which long ago gave up convincing themselves that you’re real. But giving up the artifice of immediate recognition for something far more satisfying is part of the fun of this excellent book of poems.