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A Friend’s Reception

Dale Smith reviews
Shake Hands, by Carl Thayler

Pavement Saw Press, 2001. 62 pp. USD$10
This piece is 1,600 pages or about five printed pages long.

Photo of Carl Thayler by Wendy Nelson 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.

Madison, Wisconsin, poet Carl Thayler offers his own careful considerations of friendship in Shake Hands. In the book’s foreword, he says, ‘The severity placed upon him [the writer] is that he adheres, be it an inconvenience or not, to the individualizing exchanges between him and the world, or various worlds in the persons of friends. In short, he’s required to recognize the esoteric occurrences of a world provoked by those, at times, shadowy figures he has drawn, honored, and occasionally denied as friends’. These poems dwell in a conflict of personal measure. They explore with discrimination values gathered through the persistent presence of friends. Some are dead, others lost to the vagaries of time and distance. Lovers depart, leaving only their traces, the faintest memories of bodies in their actuality, and the impressions they made. There are friends too who inhabit an imagined ground defined as one’s own. Part of a mythos of self knowledge, the imagination extends the acts and consequences of others to ourselves, determining in advance a sense of self that hopefully we are capable of living. These purposes are expressed to deepen the content of our personal lives with, as Thayler writes, ‘a severity behind the investigation that avoids the wallow of self-advertisement’.

Shake Hands presents narrative poems of lyric intensity. Self-inquiry and evaluation validate with sympathy and judgment the revenants of the poet’s imagination. Meditation on the past and its relations to the shifting, mercurial heart intensifies with the sonic depth of verse here. There’s frank resolve, a clear calculation and vision of those images that remain a part of a personal historiography.

O there was a great vanity
in the pleasures we found occasioned

by the perfunctory damp winds that precede
the shallow sky, that impartiality

far flung as buffalo grass and sunflower
we mistook as prescribed by irrigation

& our prayers offered as the radiator
of the truck hissed

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
at whose glandular centers radiate
clustered forms finespun
from fire, presaging
flowers brimming with obdurate
leaves and petals of
a serviceable industrial green.

Surely, as relics
of fire we are sufficient
unto these fastnesses.
Small wonder during the week
     the women get perms
              before going to South Bend
                         to watch the football game
                              & shout like crazy.

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.

A poem about his friendship with Diane Varsi, academy award nominated actress, is haunted by a consideration of loss, the words placed to enact the heart’s accord of a given time.

They’d never more than nuzzle,
even so, it didn’t seem
incidental. They were in accord,
something like the appointments
of love, only better. Such fine

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
had complimented her
that morning on her carriage,
spine almost isolate
as falling water,
for which, when she was a child, the nuns
had been hopeful on her behalf
in spite of rifts. It was her only
exchange, that luxuriance, with
the camera and
the vanishing point
of the lens.

‘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,
a jack-of-all-constraints and
impromptu anal hijinkser,
his butt pulled apart,
a glacier of
blood & shit
brought to light.

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
broke an aide’s neck
catching her blindside
in the doorway. This morning,
an aide, a Quaker
Vietnam war objector,
settled with him, pounded his hand
against tiles until
the molding gave in the shower stall.

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.

A poem written to the poet Paul Blackburn moves closer to the interior regions of the heart, showing a kind of conversation. ‘The opposition’s respectful this / morning because it’s / you Paul’. Thayler speaks to his dead friend from the vantage of his being in time still, burdened with accumulations of cultural and personal consequences. He writes:

             altho I

don’t share
your dismay
out here’s
hopeless love
& we keep it
on the tape deck...

green’s upgraded as
in Wagadu
              ‘the six powers of light.’

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.

It’s fitting that Thayler ends Shake Hands with a poem about the novelist Rhodes and his involvement in the Lincoln County war of New Mexico, an event central to the poet’s concerns for the West. Rhodes’ work in New Mexico as a cowboy would inform the stories and novels he later wrote, among them, West Is West, Stepsons of Light and the short story ‘Paso Por Aqui’. Because of his great skill as a writer — skill built on content located in personal experience — Rhodes is a hero for Thayler. They share an enthusiastic appreciation for and grasp of the complex and contradictory human nature that transformed the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. ‘The Tularosa’, Thayler writes, ‘was the edge of a Republic / whose plants proposed the cults / to whom, on swallowing with tequila, / God spoke in wild enthusiasm, / His Word as close as frost’. In this setting Thayler finds Rhodes to be ‘a workingman’ who ‘knew / the first cracks in the mind / often began at the fingertips, / at the earth’s edges, and that all grievances / were not mythically disguised. / The Fall was not a myth, / but a first principle of misdirection’.

The West is Thayler’s Wagadu, where all acts hold consequences, and their debate is only a return of another significant, possibly even greater, act. This turning of one’s affections to the valid issue of one’s word determines the final virtue of these relations. It’s a simple, surface gesture that counts.

... The hand holds best to those edges
when it is extended straight out

in friendship.

Photo of Carl Thayler by Wendy Nelson

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