This review is 1,200 words
or about 3 printed pages long
In her recent and essential book, Coming After, Alice Notley attempts to rescue the loose constellation of poets informally dubbed ‘Second Generation New York School’ from the relative marginalization they have faced since that (belabored) wave of politicization overtook poetry in the late 70s and early 80s. One might include Reed Bye in this group, whose poetry certainly fits Notley’s hallmarks of the New York School: ‘extraordinary in both its charm and what you might call moral force.’
Like the poets Notley discusses — Padgett, Myles, Berrigan, et al — Bye’s poems are ripe for reclamation. And to that end, United Artists has released Join the Planets, a generous selection of old and new work that is, in its way, a retrospective of almost 30 years worth of work, ‘embracing all times and weathers’:
It’s heard them all, seen them all
received them all, the spit the rage and song
of a million shipless sailors
til morning careens in a white machine
and scrubs it down for the day.
By turns inventive, big-hearted, musical and surreal, Bye’s poems range from meditations on Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion (‘In awe/ the love/ I lust for/ dies’) to 1981’s Border Theme, a longish poem reminiscent of Dorn’s Gunslinger both in its toying with a ‘western’ vernacular and its almost kitschy narrative, albeit minus the cocaine:
Have you ever
made love to a man? Caesar asked,
hanging a shirt in the closet. Dolan sat on his bed
pulling off a boot and felt a queasiness
drape over him. I tried it once; it didn’t work out.
No problem, said Caesar. Is wild country, no?
Yeah, sticky too, answered Dan, wiping his forehead
with the sheet.
Bye’s poems are frequently witty, but the play has as its source a probing mind, deeply engaged with the complexities/ironies of our ‘gun-barrel world old/ not young,’ in which our actresses look ‘like perhaps/ Billy Budd’s reincarnation’ and Odysseus drives a Buick Riviera. Often, the deft turns and about-faces of dreams constitute the operative, if reluctant, logic of the poems: ‘That night Olson was in my dream and in the morning I hastily noted a bit of it down. Days later, a word I can’t make out looks most like ‘fealty.’’ And while the poems may owe debts, ironic or not, to their predecessors, they are never vassals to the tradition out of which they arise, but are wholly a reflection of Bye’s unique desire ‘to want to join the planets/ because of the rounder motion.’
Still, Bye’s work is conversant with and loyal to that tradition. He has, for instance, heeded Creeley’s ‘Warning,’ that ‘Love is dead in us/ if we forget/ the virtues of an amulet/ and quick surprise.’ One thing may quickly transmute into another in Bye’s poems, since, to begin with, it’s ‘curious to think of anything/ as a thing.’ In other words, there’s room for our signs to be more signal as they cease to be fixed signals; indeed, it’s the frolicking in language that frequently provides the poems, like Bye’s familiar foothills, the basins into which they may drain.
This ready alternation between heavy and light, or one could say the presence of Keats’ ‘being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,’ is present in Bye’s early poems, like ‘Renascimento,’ from Erstwhile Charms:
At least it’s spring and the weather’s been great
If we don’t get run down by a car
We can cross Via Victor Emmanuelle
And watch them pull eels out of the Tiber
These four lines alternate between a sort of glee and horror: you can go to Rome and look at the Tiber, the weather’s nice this time of year, but you’re only going to see eels there, and on the way you might get hit by a car. This contrapuntal quality runs throughout Bye’s work and is implicit in the music as well as the mind of the poems. As in a somewhat more recent poem, ‘Trembling Firmament,’ Bye can begin with a joke —
ask the lake
ask the star
sweet light for a tail
That will be a slender ladder
— and end with a bittersweet colophon to the fallout of ‘insure-us,’ of ‘need-houses,’ of ‘shriven reservoir/ shut down,’ in which the ‘right people die rich/ the right people are born/ hungry and screaming’ and we must practically rob the world for some worth, warmth:
We’ll die in bright
in common grass fields
and go on a ball-day to find you
looking through stuff of old trees
for the take: a cool billion
Here are Notley’s charm and moral force, leavened with a greater curiosity (‘We then agreed on two kinds of curiosity, a greater and a lesser, and on the greatness of the greater’) about the workings to which Bye is witness: words, sons, spouses, dreams.
Bye has notably followed, consciously or no, Douglas Oliver’s injunction that poets be vulnerable in their poems. And while there is certainly evidence for this in the early poems, it is in Bye’s more recent and more meditative work that this quality reaches its peak. There’s something here that, through its insistent probing on the qualities and relations of self and other, strikes disarmingly close to the bone:
The you-noise that you make
and the I-noise that others make
abandoning the bio-noise
that rules and resounds in the background
might be something to work a self out of
through marriage routines and also through the
see-through newspaper the person
seated next to you keeps brushing on your arm
Again, there is this shifting back and forth in the poems — here facilitated by strings of prepositions and subordinate clauses — but to what end? Bye’s not interested here, as he was to some degree in, say, ‘Trembling Firmament,’ in the joke of the geopolitical; rather, the focus has turned personal, or interpersonal. The exploration still proceeds through language, ‘These lives of worlds we read of,’ in as much at is represents the movements of our ‘embryo memory imagination,’ but the destination is equally Indiana, ‘truth/ and confiscation/ by the many lies before us’ — which, Bye reminds us, are our own lies after all.
The inward, complex turns of these later poems make them a wonder to wander about in. In the book’s penultimate poem, ‘Winnowing Fan,’ we return to Odysseus, whose physical perambulations suggest, as they did for Joyce, a peripatetic mind:
Up and down
you travel, think of this and that and rise
three times and don’t forget
to put the trash below the curb.
You might be feeling sentimental about those politicizations of yore. You may argue feeling’s place in poems was necessarily diminished thereby. You may even agree with Bye when he says ‘I am the dilettante,/ clearly singing/ in backwater channels.’ Don’t. There’s radiance here — each of these poems has a space in which ‘A single mote of dust/ catches the light.’