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Michael Leddy reviews

More Winnowed Fragments
by Simon Pettet

40pp. Talisman House. US$10.95. 1-58498-042-7 paper

This review is 900 words
or about 3 printed pages long

Mysterious connective tissue

Simon Pettet’s More Winnowed Fragments opens with a poem of profound modesty:

My Methodology

I accrue hordes

and then

winnow away,

It is a thankless task,

tho’ not without

occult comfort.

The tongue-in-cheek title suggests the jargon of an “artist’s statement” or thesis prospectus. But then comes the poem, and the title’s confident authority now stands in contrast to the patient Sisyphean labor of the poet — who not only makes a heap of all that he can find (to paraphrase David Jones paraphrasing Nennius) but undoes it in the search for what has been there, not yet recognized, all along. The work of winnowing away and condensing is indeed “a thankless task,” but it’s also a steady job (“No layoff / from this / condensery,” as Lorine Niedecker says in “Poet’s Work”). And the work may reward both poet and reader with “occult comfort” (not “cold comfort”), as in the sudden music of the poem’s final two lines, in which each word turns into its neighbors’ close relation.

More Winnowed Fragments shows in each of its 36 poems Simon Pettet’s careful, caring forms of attention — to words, to fellow human beings, to all particulars. “[I]t could be literally anything,” one poem says, “an old shoe, a piece of fabric / a woman’s face, a man’s face.” A first untitled poem (“There is a cruel, messianic, dim, tribal intransigence”) establishes the range of the poet’s attention, aware of global nightmare, war and “the darkening of the sky,” but devoted too to paying attention to one who is near: “I watch my love / It is always my love that I watch.”

Pettet’s care for words and others makes for gentle comedy in another untitled poem:

send the endorphins to the foot please
that’s where the pain is

negotiating, I stumbled
and fear I may have bruised something

tho’ what is the Latin name for
that mysterious connective tissue

bless you — that we all possess?

The poem begins with something of the feel of Ted Berrigan’s 500 American Postcards poems; the funny, surprising opening line seems to be borrowed from life. Pettet then turns away from pain to a question of language (reversing the movement of Ron Padgett’s “Who and Each,” which begins with a question of etymology and ends with thoughts of dying friends). Along the way, there’s time to notice and care for someone else: “bless you” may be read as reverent gratitude for the body’s tissue, but the words become more interesting when read as the poet’s pause to acknowledge someone else — perhaps someone helping him, or someone with a head cold. Pettet’s question ultimately concerns not terms from Latin but mysteries — the mystery of his own body’s systems, and the mystery of the “connective tissue” that unites all humankind.

The “mysterious connective tissue” that joins one life to another shapes a city scene in a third untitled poem:

Makes for courtesy on the bus
How does the rabbi save his broad brim hat
From the rain? — Plastic? — ok
I stand no longer secure
Was I ever?

I hear echoes of other New Yorkers here: lines 2-4 could form two lines of Edwin Denby’s bumpy pentameter, while Pettet’s respectful curiosity about strangers reminds me of Charles Reznikoff’s short poems of city life. The poem’s extreme condensation (reminiscent of Denby’s late sonnets) makes the persons in this scene ambiguous: someone has boarded a bus without paying the full fare (note the tactful word under-payment), and another passenger (or the driver) has helped out. But who’s who? Has the poet helped someone else? Or is it he who has underpaid? Has the rabbi helped him? Is the rabbi’s hat simply a detail that the poet wonders about as he observes the new arrivals on his bus? What’s most important is that the moment prompts to poet to reconsider his place in the scheme of things — standing, he is “no longer secure,” jostled about on a moving bus among his fellows. Perhaps he has given up his seat as a further (or reciprocal?) act of courtesy?

“Pastoral” shows the full scope of Pettet’s art in a poem that memorializes all the living and the dead:

It all passes
Ah, but the lasses
These bodies
Shall decompose

All’s grey
inside and outside
The bird in the bush is

the mad piper,

as are
The cows in the field.

Pettet reimagines the particulars of Keats’ urn in a Blakean song of experience, with a touch of “Anecdote of the Jar” (“grey,” “bird,” “bush”). There are purposeful musical touches — the slight surprise of “Ah, but” (not “all but”), the partial rhymes of “bodies” and “decompose,” “bush” and “hush,” and the pun of “bush is” (“bushes”). The elegiac quality is leavened finally by the presence of silent (dumb) beasts in the field — not the single, garlanded sacrificial victim of Keats’ ode, just some cows, distant relations of the indifferent dogs and horse of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Yet with all these past masters echoing in its lines, the poem remains a winnowed fragment — idiosyncratic in capitalization and punctuation, and declining to fill out a form, as the initial quatrain of two-stress lines yields to less regular stanzas. Simon Pettet’s winnowing fan leaves him and us with short poems that are all wheat, no chaff.

Michael Leddy, 2006

Michael Leddy, 2006

Michael Leddy has published widely as a poet and critic. His essay on John Ashbery and Henry Darger appeared in Jacket 17; his interview with classicist and translator Stanley Lombardo, in Jacket 21. He blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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