What is the reality of a green light, its distant, seductive glaze? What is the reality of Ponderosa Steak House dumpster resplendent in its place of privilege or the rain that spoils weekend outings? Strapped in archetypal, anthropologic safety seat; dad, mom and children drive down the bumpless road to nowhere. Rocks, concrete walls, steel girders are hard, but, from shadows on those walls, philosophers imagine indestructible material and shapes in unending, unseen realms. According to scientists, matter is borrowed by pure chance from emptiness. Pit Bulls bark at the moon. Men talk to insects that happily alight before them on autumn leaves.
The problem of reality, as everyone knows, is a problem not only of beheld but of beholder. At times it is a problem of distinguishing between the two. The perception of what is real becomes corrupted by deception. This might be unintentional, a bumbling. Reality becomes ‘unreal’. Life’s roadsigns take on double, triple, quadruple meanings. Certain things, awarded an unequivocal credibility by humanity as a group, such as wealth, speed, bullets, logic, business cards seem like the answer, but in the end these too are vanity. Doom reigns.
The introduction to Ethan Paquin’s recently published poetry collection, The Makeshift, states that the book ‘[has] few debts’ and ‘Paquin is clearly finding his own way’. In a sense this is not only true it is one of the operative ideas behind the book, which purifies its air by excluding shared or peer considerations. In a general sense, too, the book’s style is new. But, as a concerted and mapped-out scientific journey to the center of reality, it is in a group with a growing number of contemporary books of poetry, in connection to which I think it’s important to mention Robert Creeley. (Last October’s events in Washington D.C. demonstrate how much better it is when someone armed with a pen makes this journey rather than someone armed with a high-powered rifle. A slight book of poems might not seem like much, but a tiny half-step forward is greatly preferable to irrevocable, violent stumbles back.)
The title The Makeshift also is in the style of contemporary poetry book titles that emphasize the material sum of ethical translucence — C.K. Williams’ The Vigil, Merwin’s The Pupil and especially Philip Levine’s The Mercy. The Makeshift stops short of object-hood preferring to remain a texture of less popular drizzle. Rain rather than sunlight appears in many of these poems as they ‘find their own way’, not from obstinacy but from a disinterest in trying to contend. Paquin fills in his picture of permanence by untying from the dock of similarity and drifting with the currents of difference. No two people are alike. No two faces, bodies, childhoods, sets of interests.
It is worthwhile, not to mention artistically effective, to demonstrate this. Paquin’s particularity lies especially in his vocabulary, a kind of dialect, which is perhaps drawn from a medical knowledge of animals. His writing does not insist on ‘communicating’ or laying out a norm. It does not gloss over exception or hide strangeness. Though it uses the double spacing between lines that writers sometimes use to indicate an authority of the written word, the poetry in The Makeshift is not interested in its word being law. Paquin’s word has no law. Its beauty lies in its failure to communicate, in its implications.
This book might be titled The Poems of Frankenstein, as Paquin seems to suggest with his reference to the dwarf Toulouse Lautrec in ‘Laugher is X, Laughter is Y’. But the strangeness that comes through — of the writer, of a literary character, of a good person or of a bad person, of everyone — is not guilty of a specific criminal act. It is the strangeness and monstrousness of being outside, of being among others, of being alive.
Some of the collection’s titles are ‘Reverie’, ‘Bolus’, ‘Lingerings Near Southern April’, ‘A Vision, Winter’, ‘Textures of Domesticity’, ‘Entries Fitted For Freezing Rain’, ‘Sad’, ‘Melancholia’. Two poem titles refer to modern painters — Francis Bacon and the Abstract Expressionist, Ad Reinhardt. The poem ‘Apostasy’ begins
and lunch with X,
speaking over the crush of main street:
humming engines, humming strutters
skimming the brick
flashing tattoos, flagging cabs
Another humdrum canticle
The first poem, ‘Having Learned to Sing, I Find it Difficult’, contains the lines, ‘I’m a black cloud of notes — discordant symphony,/ breath of rain lingering/ which much like everything/ have no reason or rhyme’. The title poem ends with the lines
All told, it’s fissured and mantic, our season’s dyssemia.
Pray for pockets where aphids nest in sleep’s golden jaw,
plying daybreak for a nether’s hand of dust, warmth,
remittance of anything resembling nocturne or cloud,
skying the absence of accume where strati strike
as scowls, above and so far and hatingly above.
The languid free association of the musical notes makes a tender melody from dark obscurity. Perhaps it is appropriate to invoke Noam Chomsky: Given a biological origin of language, the less strain put into the words the more elementally human their meaning.
To prove that he is not being obstinate, the author gives his disembodied gray-day poetry a backdrop of white picket-fence perfection. Reference is made in a number of places to ‘my’ wife and son but in a way that, in my view, leaves it unclear whether Paquin is talking about actual family members or made-up, tribal projections of genetic rainbows. ‘Entries Fitted For Freezing Rain’ has three sections starting with ‘My wife told me...’, ‘My son told me...’ and ‘My object told me....’ In the prose poem, ‘Darkening Crystal, Thou Art My Soul’, set in the ‘Spanish lowlands’, are the lines,
My son ran home happily, bursting into the kitchen. He said he’d fallen in love with a girl. He told of how she stood in a crowd at a parade, how he noticed her cheering, and the glint of a yellow balloon tethered to her wrist.
This seems not what is, but what might be. Oddly the sense of what might be is increased later in the poem by the imaginary son’s imaginary death. (I suspect this is similar to the book of Isaiah in which the writer refers to his son with the name ‘Shear-Jashub’ which has the meaning of ‘a remnant will return’.) Paquin’s personae in these poems is outside but not anti-social. Varieties of the individual are infinite, but the world in which they are meant to live as one species is limited, in fact, quite simple.
Why are poets preoccupied with the anatomy of the moment? Why this morbid fascination with the sparseness of the day? To some degree the solipsistic probing of the senses is similar to Proust’s, whose famous moment, in which the taste of a dessert cake overcomes his fictional character with memories of childhood, might best be viewed as a Platonic glimpse not of the past but of the future. But even more. The bejeweled extravagance of a dying aristocracy along with the extreme decadence of the brothel in the heart of the ancient city offer an exoticism that is antidote to what was probably in Proust’s mind most abhorrent of all — middle class crassness. In times of widespread transformation sanctity becomes mired in a featureless continuum of disappointment. Nothing seems to remain of life’s mystery. This is a war that must be carefully recognized and won. The cleanness of ocean water, the breathability of the atmosphere’s air, the natural resources and beauty of the planet need to be preserved.
But to a degree the battle is psychological. It is a battle against ourselves. What devours nature is an impatience with things as they are, a misshapen vision. People paradoxically feel not only that they have nowhere left to go but that they are escaping from themselves and must start again. They feel a vague longing to be rescued. The strange footprints of created things might be a dubious, newsstand folk mysticism, but they suggest consequence beyond envious impulses — the fate of mankind that no one dares to optimistically mention. Finding new words reinvigorates skies that have begun to seem not remote enough. When every act requires a faith in the unseen, even dimestore novelty can keep alive the idealism and forbearance that are essential ingredients. Majesty of the past, the fantastic future aid in the struggle to keep going amidst the pressing problems of the ‘barbaric’ present.
What is more, the mystery of words in space and time is not contrived, any more than is the mystery of the stars. If ‘in the beginning was the Word’, then to analyze the elements of word use is to return to the beginning. Experimental poetry not only maintains belief in the importance of originality, it maintains contact with the origins of thought — so hope is informed, so we gain stronger interest in existence. Poetry such as is in The Makeshift reveals wild frontiers to daily life, and doing this prevents its destruction.
Author Paquin is well aware of all this. These themes are explicit in his poems, with such titles as ‘Box’, ‘Nothing That Is Complete Breathes’ and ‘Canned Cloudscape’. The final poem of the collection is called ‘Just Before Diversion’, the word ‘diversion’ substituting for the word ‘rain’. With its references to ‘little rainstorm’, ‘little field’, ‘little knoll’, the poem speaks of enlarged worlds to come. It speaks of a looseness free from oppression. It speaks of a success that has the richness of failure.
Look how the rain defines its own path,
not like the way it would be if it was in my palm —
a little rainstorm in my palm, cast off gently,
so the little field on my arm could revel in mist.
Across the tracks I’ve seen a luncheonette lady,
stealing but a click to look for the little rainstorm
she might conjure someday, over some little knoll
with a cellular tower, knowing that conjuring
a slight breeze, one neither hither or thither, resolved
to blow and only blow, is much like the way nothing much
has reason or rhyme — flutter of tickertape, tangled bristles
on a centipede’s spine, the name and lack of name
of hard weeds in a former garden.
Seeing clearly the beautiful landscape in mist... With its mistiness, Paquin’s poetry makes such weeds and the garden as such that much harder.