December 21, 2021

"Riding Backwards to See What You Missed" essay by Douglas Messerli on Clarence Major's From Now On

Riding Backwards to See What You Missed

by Douglas Messerli

Clarence Major From Now On: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2015 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2015). 

In his introduction to Clarence Major’s new poetry collection From Now On, Yusef Komunyakaa hints, even if he does not directly state, that there is a kind of natural quietude about Major’s work: “His work achieves a middle register—not high or low—the same way some of our great jazz stylists search for the grace note, always dependable but edgy and democratic….” Elsewhere he describes Major’s work as being a poetry that “embodies echoes—language as feeling,” presumably in opposition to the language itself of the poem. And there is a certain truth to Komunyakaa’s characterization of the poet’s art. Violence is depicted somewhat quietly:


                        There was no warning.

                        Rising from his rest

                        the dog bit the man’s leg,

                        did it quietly,

                        then returned to his spot

                        on the front lawn to rest.


                                            (“East Lansing, Michigan”)


Even war is described as a matter-of-fact, silent affair:


   A coast of embedded spring.

   Today, in what is left of a barn, John tied a prisoner to a rack,

   lay the woman on a stock of hay, went out


   pulled the boat back into the water.


                                   (“Today’s War”)


     In poem after poem, it appears, Major’s characters—and his is a poetry of numerous beings—grow quiet, the visual suddenly overwhelming their spoken words. Since Major is also a substantial painter, perhaps this should not surprise us:


                        No sound, the whole thing.

                        Unknown folk.

                        People waving from a hillside

                        of rippling grass

                        to people below

                       in an ongoing meadow.


                 (“Photograph of a Gathering of People Waving”)


And even when not all is quiet, there is a sense of sleepiness, of peace, even emptiness in so many of Major’s poems, as figures sit in an empty room late at night, or bask on a sunny deck with coffee cup in hand, taking in the scenery (as in “Bernardston,” “Bricks and Sleep”). “September Mendocino” begins:


                       What do you hear up here?

                       Same Shasta air, same Nevada air,

                       same Sierra Nevada air, same rainsong air

                       that lured Walt Whitman when he heard it.


      Perhaps one senses quietude in the poet’s work because, as Komunyakaa observes, Major employs seemingly everyday language along with his ability to make “profundity seem accidental.” And so the poetry seems intent on the seduction of the reader as it “whispers to us.”

     Yet we also discover, more often, that the quietness, the narrative whisper that appears to take us into a homey kitchen for “ham and potatoes, pears and garlic and onions / in a cooking pot” is simply a ruse, a kind a game Major is playing with the reader before he suddenly pulls him through the trap door of reality; the next lines of that poem, “Waiting for the Storm,” say it all:

          ……  My wife leaning against the sideboard

          eating a piece of chocolate. Pretending to be calm.

          I’m pretending too.


      In fact, Major is anything but quiet if you listen carefully enough. His narratives are nearly always “false,” in the sense that David Antin’s “talks” are not really everyday casual conversations. What at first appears to be a postcard-perfect landscape nearly always shifts, pivots, and drops the reader quickly into a metaphysical hole where language gets reconstructed and demands a new understanding. His “Holiday at the Beach” might almost serve as a primer for Major’s methods:


    What could go wrong? This is a place of moral certitude.

    A pelican on a post. Gulls circling and searching the bay

    In the distance, drifting sailboats. Children flying kites

    all day across a perky sky.




     …………..........The mime hasn’t moved for two hours

    People sipping beer at the beach bar. Listening to the radio band.

    Squinting at the lone swimmer far out in the ocean

    doing backstrokes. He is moving so far out that even if he turns back


   he might not make it. A dressed-up couple appear

   on the boardwalk, apparently from afar.

   They seem to be waiting for a formal introduction.

   Yet, way, way out, in the misty and majestic distance,


   beyond the lone swimmer, the ocean is turning black and blacker

   against a blue-blue strip of sky. Sound of water like an earthquake.


     If we sense danger from the very first words of the poem, Major immediately calms us with a series of peaceful assertions, images of people “in green and pink swimsuits / on yellow sand.”

   Butterflies and children are part of the landscape. Yet distance, we perceive in hindsight, is a dangerous concept even in the third line. The use of the word “perky” to describe the sky hints that something is amiss; “still” or “serene” would have been the more standard adjectives.

Clarence Major

     By the time we move to the seemingly dead “mime” we are already entering hazardous territory, a world of inebriated drinkers. The “squinting” at the lone swimmer takes us again into that formidable distance, a place “too far” to turn back. And moving into that world “from afar” is the “dressed-up couple,” strangers inexplicably afraid of entering the scene. By the time the poem thunders, from a “majestic distance,” into its catastrophic grand storm or possibly even a tsunami, it is too late to escape. The narrative has been swallowed up by the thunderous language of the poem itself, and the reader with it.

   Using these tactics, particularly in the poems from 2000 forward, Major takes the reader from a known place, from the falsity we describe as everyday reality, into a landscape where meaning and our sense of certitude are shaken. The quiet clatters into a clamour.

    Fortunately, the author does not always pull out the rug so boisterously; more often, Major’s work is constructed on the ground of gentle self-parody and irony. Most of “Wild Music,” for example, is an almost comic sendup of all the nursery rhymes, fables, and children’s games that are, as he puts it, “animal centric.” The narrator of this poem will have nothing to do with “blackbirds baked in a pie,” cows jumping the moon, or riding a “cockhorse” to Banbury Cross.

     But the separation he feels from the animal world soon shifts into a separation within the animal world as he becomes aware of the difference in the sexes and the issue of sex itself. “I knew a girl who was a cricket,” he begins, describing the convincing sound she made in imitation of one. After a humorous aside about all the animals—in the form of microbes—that live in our bodies, the narrator quips “That spoils all the fun of being home alone” before he returns to not being home or alone, joined by the grown-up girl who might now be interested in subject the love:


    Seriously, the girl grew up! I grew up! Love became the thing.

    Virginia Woolf knew how women love.

    Her words had a certain ring. Her timing was never late.




    Could it be that all my life I’ve ignored the endless possibilities

    of the wild kingdom and its music?

    My first girlfriend in high school said

    music was with her wherever she went.


    Not because of the bells on her shoes.

    Music throbbed just under the surface of her skin.

    My word to her was I like music—let me in.

    A Spanish proverb says men are fire, women are firewood!


    The bell had rung just as my tongue sought her tongue.

    Instead, a serpent came out of her mouth.


      The poem suddenly swallows its own tale. His beloved music (not so very different, perhaps, from the music of nursery rhymes) becomes an ouroboros that presages his temptation and fall from grace, while reiterating the poet’s previous mention of the “avalanche” of impressions that Virginia Woolf described as erupting from the minds of women. More humorously—but not so very differently from the poem “Holiday on the Beach”—the orderly and predictable suddenly ring out with new potentialities of chaos.

    It is as if, in Major’s poems, the reader is being taught to think differently, as in “The Sometime Difficulty with Teaching.” Here the poet as teacher attempts to help his eager young students perceive something outside of their disdain for routine. In the process, Major does not so much privilege routine over variety; rather, he considers (through a kind of desideratum) those things we associate with each of those concepts. In the poem, the word “variety” becomes associated with youth, possibility, joy and pleasure, as well as chaos and danger. Routine is perceived, by the students at least, as related to age, boredom, dullness, and unbearable pattern, but teacher the proffers another possibility:


    ……………..They say, Without variety life is dull.

    But, I say, you can have variety within patterns.

    The opposite of routine is chaos. 

    They say, Then give me chaos!

    At six in the evening, from my kitchen window, I see a blackbird.


     He comes and lands on the same limb of the same tree in the yard.

     He sits there for about an hour.

     He looks south for a while.

     He turns and looks north for a while.

     There’s variety in his pattern.


     He never does the same thing exactly the same way twice,

     yet he is keeping a pattern.

     The class says, Birds are not people.


     Yet a few lines later, the teacher is described by “Ron,” presumably a colleague, as a kind of odd-bird: “You have unusual ideas; / that’s why you’ve never had a best seller.” By the logic of the poem one can only ask is the teacher, in having such unusual ideas, a figure of pattern or variety? Now the meaning of those very words shift; language itself changes meaning. By poem’s end, it appears, the teacher has learned a lesson from the very process of teaching, from exploring words by laying them out to consider their possible meanings.       

    That concept, indeed, seems to be central to much of Major’s poetry, and works against all the seemingly homey narrative strategies with which he often begins. His “own language,” in short wins out over “our language” or a presumed notion of language. As he notes in the poem “In My Own Language”:


                          I move things around to make rock and tree,

                          water and land, connect

                          in their own language, but

                          only as I learn to speak it.


     Finally, in works such as the long narrative, but nonetheless quite disjunctive, poem Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century—a book I have chosen not to discuss at length, since I first published it on my Sun & Moon Press—Major takes whole other languages, such as Zuni and Navajo, to tell the tale of a woman’s attempt to escape traditional, patriarchal values

     In the end, it is clear, Major is no modern-day Robert Frost, whispering homey wisdoms across a stone wall, but a highly-skilled experimentalist who reveals the dangers of the pretenses of poets like Frost, whose language gets caught up in nets of their own making.

Los Angeles, May 28, 2015

Reprinted from Hyperallegic Weekend (July 5, 2015).

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