Dislodge the house

I like a home with lots of windows.  I like to look outside.  I like outside, but I like to look outside even more.  I am a potted plant.

Lowell’s narrator in “Eye and Tooth” is, too.  He never goes outside, though he refers to things just outside, things that come inside his house and his body.

Nothing can dislodge
the house . . .

Of course, the house, we go on to learn, or the doorknob in the house, is where he lost his eye and his tooth, the former first figuratively and later literally, and the latter literally.

“Eye and Tooth” scales from body and its components (eye and tooth) to house and its components (doorknob and bathroom) to outside and its components (rain, roof, and hedge) so that the narrator never escapes.  Watch stanzas three through five in this nine-stanza poem:

Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

My eyes throb.
Nothing can dislodge
the house with my first tooth
noosed to a knot in the doorknob.

Nothing can dislodge
the triangular blotch
of rot on the red roof,
a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

The only thing dislodged, after all, is the tooth.   Because the tooth is dislodged (executed, as it were, for the sin of the eye we learn about later), the house can’t be dislodged.  The moral impossibility is reinforced by the logical and ironic impossibility of dislodging a house, itself a lodging.

The house scales down to a blotch, suggesting sin and close in sound and sense to the earlier and later “rot” as well as the first stanza’s “unwashed goldfish globe.”  Wonderful assonance and consonance.  “Blotch” also re-shushes the “sh” and “dge” sounds in its stanza’s “dislodge,” “hedge,” and “shade.”

This blotch, this sin, is the poem’s nub.  Nothing dislodges the narrator’s guilt.

But the poet’s prerogative to scale up and down so is only acknowledged in that softening, dreamy transition, the final line in that fifth stanza:

a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

The “or” is the poem’s first direct acknowledgement of the poetic imagination and suggests the imagination’s complicity in the poem’s retribution.  But this softening, this movement from a hedge (itself only suggested by the cedar roof’s blotch) to only the hedge’s shade, also amounts to a three-way scale, and in that soft rush we move fully into the poetic imagination.  One senses night (outside), or a nap (inside), in which the objects inside and out may assert themselves more strongly.

And we’re not disappointed.  The imperial, ascetic hawk makes his appearance to quote, raven-like, the harrowing “eye for an eye” scripture.  But he’s not outside rapping on the narrator’s chamber door.  He’s only in the “birdbook there.”  (The birdbook is the Bible at some level.)  The hawk, which is the climax of the poem’s imagery and figurative language, presages the narrative climax, which is the boy’s illicit use of the house’s doorknob in the eighth stanza to spy on the ladies’ bodies.

This first “or” anticipates the only other “or,” which in the poem’s final stanza anchors a three-word summary of the earlier imagery: “waters or flames.”  The implacable “waters or flames” well summarizes, for instance, the poem’s third stanza:

Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

But “waters or flames” compresses imagery into judgment, though the “or,” as opposed to an “and,” keeps the poem’s light touch and acknowledges, by echoing the first “or,” the role of poetic imagination in the narrator’s guilt and loss.

Because poetic imagination, and by extension the poem itself, is as complicit in the narrator’s moral and physical loss as the house and the world beyond it.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

My Gorgeous Somewhere

I imagined the poems pouring out of Dickman, all in order, all at once, probably on a hot day or during a hot week. I imagined them being written on a typewriter, an old one, in my living room — yes, my living room — at my dining room table. And then in my imagining Dickman was me, sort of, and I was writing these poems, and it was my hot day, my hot week.

From My Gorgeous Somewhere.


But the very thing that used to steer me away from it, steers me towards it now. It’s precisely these palimpsest places, countries that have been half-overwritten by successive colonial powers, that seem to me, now, to be best-placed to understand what the world is becoming.

From mole.


On How to Mark a Book: “I’m not suggesting that you mark every book you own, any more than I would suggest that my dog mark every tree he sniffs. But you should be free to mark up most books in the most worthwhile core of your collection. My dog has his favorites, and so should you.”

A friend this week pointed me to an interview of George Steiner, the literary critic, on YouTube.  In the middle of it, Steiner explicates a Chardin painting, “Le Philosophe Lisant.”  He draws some significance from its reader’s pen:

He has his pen next to his reading.  Serious reading means you read with a pen.  What do you do with a pen?  You underline, you take notes on the page, you write around the margin.  What are you really doing?  You are in dialog with the book, you are answering it, you are speaking to it, and if you are very arrogant and very ambitious, you are saying secretly, you can write a better one.  And that is the beginning of a certain relationship of passionate joy and love with the text.

When I was in my twenties, an itinerant preacher visited our little church.  Mid-message, he asked,  “Who has a Bible that he can’t write in?”

I raised my hand.

“Well, would you get one that you can write in?” he thundered.  A canned rejoinder.

“Oh, I have one of those, too!”

Both our faces went red.

I never saw him again, but I still love him, despite the conventions that we labored under.

The Book of Ystwyth

The Book of Ystwyth

The Book of Ystwyth: Six Poets on the Art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins (Carolina Wren Press 2011)

The poetry is in the paint.  These poets say just what they see.  The Book of Ystwyth is a blaze and tumble of illuminated script.  Stained and broken glass caged and turned against a Welsh moon.

Or scripted illumination, since the illumination inspires the script.

The paintings? Imagine El Greco freed from narrative. The poetry? A kaleidoscope of frequentatives.  Imagine six docents narrating those El Greco paintings.

A vicar would share the gospel with stained glass.  Rembrandt, too: the husks and meanwhiles of his prodigal still float like embers within a yellow night.  Braque composed Q, the missing gospel, his Le Jour still unread beside the assignation of the fruit and silent knife. These are the dark arts we lost for universal literacy.

The Book of Ystwyth is a beautiful sign of restoration.

The book: 35 gorgeous details of Hicks-Jenkins’ work and 27 poems inspired by them, including eight by Via Negativa’s Dave Bonta.


On East Coker on the rebind.

Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk — so little to the stock?

Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?

Are we for ever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same track — for ever at the same pace?

Sheall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy-days, as well as working-days, to be shewing the relicks of learning, as monks do the relicks of their saints — without working one — one single miracle with them?

— Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, and adapted, according to Sterne’s editor James A. Work, from Burton.  (I’m sure Work gives Burton’s first name in an earlier footnote, but as a two-minute Google search proved inconclusive about Burton’s first name, and as Work goes on to say that Burton himself adapted his own version from some unnamed source, and really, in the spirit of the passage, I’ll leave it at that.)

Via Negativa

. . . when you get to know flowers really well, they do become a lot more like persons, fellow residents rather than mere objects to study or admire. Aesthetic appreciation doesn’t diminish, but becomes augmented by a more complete knowledge of habits and habitation.

From Via Negativa.

Velveteen Rabbi

When it comes to mitzvot, we’re meant to open ourselves to them and to do them: not according to our own understanding or our own plans but according to God’s. Pour the water — do the mitzvot — and then God will “prepare the pot,” e.g. give us the spiritual benefit of having done the action. If we take the leap of doing the mitzvot, then God will make us ready to do them. It’s an inversion of how we usually think about things.

From Velveteen Rabbi.


One good poem throws a hood over my head, shoves me into a jeep, and carries me away to an unfamiliar place for days. People talk with funny accents and none of the street signs make sense.

From mole.

Landscape design

It storms and storms. Big, boiling clouds rise like heavy saucepans, bigger than saucepans should look, bigger than clouds should look. Rain comes in shocks. We’re in our second week of it.

Storms come at 7 A.M. soon as 7 P.M. They come at 65 degrees soon as 85. And there’s no reading the sky beyond three minutes. A storm clatters the sky’s pots soon as you turn your back. It could be all blue where you’re looking.

You cut grass when you can, and more than once a week.

Tornadoes tore down a beautiful line of trees that had graced my uncle’s place along the river downstate. Now it’s the river and the bare house.

Each week this month I’ve heard tales of tornado sightings in my county.

Warren sends the gods a sign: we are protected by the Fantastic Four.