A Friend’s Reception
Dale Smith reviews
Our consideration of the world often forms through eyes of friends. These relations, carefully formed or abandoned with hazard, determine in us an awkward framework where emotion and intellect engage in fretful tug-of-war. That carefully exacted presence of self we bear to each other in friendship firms up or folds under the alien confrontation our relationships sustain. To form a deeper understanding of our nature we must enter with awkward certainty a recurring conflict of self-composition and presentation. Who we are and what we present ourselves to be are extended, challenged and confronted in the process of strengthening or abandoning friendships. Even those relations released of their animosity or enthusiasm provide a mundane meditation for our weaknesses and our strengths. We seek hints of ourselves in another’s confirmation, or denial. We embrace with love the sudden release of fire from the unknown that surprises us in another. A delicate mission, perhaps, to kindle friendship or extend love, but such is the structure of a psychology burdened by confrontation of animal hunger.
O there was a great vanity
His economy of emotional depth and mental rigor is pressed with an artist’s care for cadence, surprise and the sonority of the spoken word. His poetics is founded on these correlations of formal, verbal and thematic elements, and derives most prominently from concerns evident in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry. From this he creates an active stanza, where verbs energize nouns into fields that compress his narrative with lyric accuracy. Further on, in an alchemical comparison, he writes of a
...spidery morphology of plants
That fire, ‘sufficient unto these fastnesses,’ mediates the energy of plants and men and women, burning out in vernacular shouts of a football game. The preponderance of fs in the first stanza (‘forms finespun / from fire’, ‘flowers’) softens in the second as the image shifts to the vernacular pleasure of the football game. The close eye and care for people, for their relations even to themselves and their environments, guide Thayler in his sympathy for them. He witnesses them elementally, as they are in environmental conditions ruled by the heart.
They’d never more than nuzzle,
Thayler doesn’t name the 1957 set of Peyton Place where he would attend the actress through the stress of filming. (A little-known aside — he was a Hollywood actor for several years, working most prominently with director Nicholas Ray). He only notes ‘her role which everyone agreed / would be worth an Oscar.’ What comfort he gave aided her in the making of this film, but could not sustain a Hollywood career, which she abandoned for other itinerant means. But the poem adheres to sharp details particular to his memory of her.
The director who’d cast her
‘Poem 27’ visits another occasion, one complicated by duties of a job as caretaker in a state asylum and by sympathy for its demented inmates, all affectionately and humorously named. ‘In the Dogboy’s eyes light grows / exactly at the rate of his beard.... His friend’s toe entire / in his mouth — faintest breathing.’ The grotesque escalates with swift and frank compression of speech.
The digger’s slipped his cuffs,
The poet attends these patients but keeps an eye open to the complex and contradictory nature of his situation. In the unruly ward of state maintenance, self-humor sustains faith in minimum wage employment only so long before the consequences of aggressive behavior invite a punishment the state would withhold.
Yesterday a kid called the Thorn
As a test of one’s willingness to indulge the weakest of human situations, the failures of individual idealism resonate with firm rejection for doing others good. That sense of melioration, strong in many Americans, that things can be accomplished for the good of others, is ultimately repulsive to Thayler’s distinct moral sensibility. It’s far better by his thinking to engage experience according to its demands, rather than projecting on it a socially imposed ethics accountable to state administration.
Ezra Pound projects a vision of the mythical African city of Wagadu. It’s a place of friendship, an ideal city of the imagination. The German scholar Leo Frobenius retrieved the myths of Wagadu for European consumption, translating in African Genesis: it ‘is the strength which lives in the hearts of men and is sometimes visible because eyes see her and ears hear the clash of swords and ring of shields’. This African extension via Pound gives a hope for the perfection of friendship. Wagadu receives those people closest to the heart. It is the imagined homeland, the recovered internal pulse of relation in us. For Thayler, others also inhabit this heart’s space. Gene Rhodes, for instance, is there, as he lives on in memory, a hero of Western observation.
... The hand holds best to those edges
Photo of Carl Thayler by Wendy Nelson
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