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This piece is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © John Hennessy and Jacket magazine 2008.
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Depending on how closely you read the masthead, you may not have noticed that Poetry magazine hired Don Share as Senior Editor a few months ago. Beginning with the October 2007 issue, his name appears just under Editor Christian Wiman’s. There certainly wasn’t much media coverage of Share’s hiring — no articles in The New York Times or other newspapers, blogs, and magazines, which Paul Muldoon’s appointment as the new poetry editor at The New Yorker warranted. In fact, the only mention of it I could find was in the online Boston Girl Guide, and the columnist seems more interested in the mystery of who will replace Share as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard than in his new role at Poetry.
In any case, readers of Poetry in particular and poetry in general should be interested; if the diversity of work Share published as an editor of the Partisan Review, Literary Imagination, and the Harvard Review is any indication, Share’s hiring is bound to enliven the journal and broaden the variety of poets published there. (In the last years of his tenure at Harvard Review alone, Share published poets as diverse in style as Meena Alexander, Seamus Heaney, Philip Nikolayev, Laurie Sheck, Chris Hosea, Marilyn Chin, Vivek Narayanan and Tomaz Salamun.) Perhaps as word gets out about Share’s new editing job, the information will bring more readers and critical attention to his own poetry.
Share’s work is distinctly American in its idiom, its vertiginously fluctuating diction, and its insistence on synthesizing a line between the personal and political, the domestic and the public. His first collection, Union, a finalist for the Boston Globe/PEN-New England Winship Award for outstanding book, was published in 2002 by the late Zoo Press. Salt Publishing, the UK-based press co-founded by John Kinsella, has recently brought out Share’s second poetry collection, Squandermania, a book that is every bit as lively and outrageous as its title would suggest.
Despite his long career as an editor, I became conscious of Don Share first as a poet, author of the poem “At Seventeen,” a moving but comic take on the struggle with his broad Memphis accent when he showed up in New York for college.
...Despite the Columbia curriculum
I turned book-smart, but stayed Manhattan dumb
Till I tore down, plank-by-plank, the lank and haul,
The trill that was not Trilling, the occasional y’all
Of a lazy-built, leaky drawl....
This was my first adult choice.
I unboarded the home that was in my voice...
Here was the emerging poet I was looking for: a technically adept manipulator of both formal and free verse, as funny as he was angry, a bit of an outsider with a leftist concern with class — while this brief catalogue may describe many Anglophone poets throughout the rest of the world, oddly, the only other young American poet I could compare Share to at the time was Major Jackson, who has recently replaced him as poetry editor at the Harvard Review. I found another poem of Share’s in The Paris Review, but I had to wait a few months for his first book. Happily, Union fulfills the promise of those poems I’d read in the journals.
Union, which ostensibly takes its name from the waterfront street in Memphis, the poet’s home town, is a cunningly-titled book; its poems are all about personal and political unions and dissolutions: the American South and the North, a first marriage and its troubled ending, the division of a life between childhood and adulthood, the unities and disunities of the self. The work is balanced, presenting an even mix of elegy and comedy — often (as evident in “At Seventeen”) within the same poem. In this collection we have two cities, Memphis and New York, which are both opposites and complements. Memphis works as a pivot between East and West as well as southern counterpoint to the cities in the north. Memphis is both a southern center and a border-town, at the end of the land before the great Mississippi, the edge of the congested East before the sprawling West. The speaker — and the reader — feels the city’s absence haunting the poems set in New York as much as one feels the past bearing on the present everywhere in Union.
In “Grit,” Share and a friend are waiting for the friend’s grandfather, “terrified that Mr. G. had been mugged, or had died.” The old man arrives, finally, “with a black eye like a bullseye./ A seatmate had tried to rob him — though all he did was try.” He announces, like Popeye,
I sure showed him what was what!
We drank iced coffee. There was Yiddish on the radio.
I was seventeen, third-rail thin; Mr. G., plump, dying, and eighty or so.
The mixed presence of the elegiac and the comic, which may well be Share’s trademark, is even more pronounced in his fine sophomore effort, Squandermania. The new book has three epigraphs by Isaac Singer, references to Samuel Beckett, and its eponymous poem is subtitled “Falling Asleep Over Delmore Schwartz”; as these allusions suggest, the mood here is equal parts terror and redemptive — or at least extenuating — comedy. “Meaning,” the second poem in the book, begins: “It don’t mean a thing/ if it don’t mean a thing” — and this tautology seems simultaneously a warning note to self, a comment on contemporary poetry, and a worldview with nods to Nietzsche, Kundera, and Eliot. The rest of the book zigzags through Share’s attempts to make meaning, or sense — and, alternately, to challenge meaning, threaten non-sense — of language, family life, and the politics of a dishonest government, an aggressive homeland perpetually bringing the world to war.
Share, or the “speaker,” or even the lyric hero, of these poems, has not followed Philip Larkin’s commandment in “This Be the Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and Dad”): he has become a father, and now he faces the consequences. The book progresses backward in time, with Share implicitly comparing his experience as a father and husband to the experience of his parents, the mode of family life in his childhood to his present family life. One of the book’s central questions is, can we escape the same routines and mistakes of our parents — and better, do we even want to? And, finally, the domestic dramas Share investigates and describes have larger implications. Family life in Squandermania functions as a microcosm for “a world at war not only with terror, but ultimately with itself.”
Odd, then — or perfect, maybe — that so political a collection (these are poems of “witness” of a sort) begins with an ironic apology: “I’m an unreliable witness/ I zone out.” This fact leaves his daughter “marooned/ in our marriage/...marooned in the island,/ alien, of our affections.” (“Marooned”) Share’s meditation on fatherhood continues in “Meaning”: in the birth of his daughter, he sees his own mortality. “The wedding/ was a weeding// of two minds,/ ...I look at my daughter// and the thing is,/ I’m a dead man.” This death-in-life, memento mori, the inconvenient ironic insight at a time that is usually a cause for celebration, manifests itself everywhere in Share’s portrait of small-town New England: “On Court St. I am innocent/ on Highland I take the high road/ on Ames I am aimless again” — all life and all landmarks here are “alike as eternity!” (“Landmarks”)
But even the darkest moments in Share’s poems are often thrown into relief by levity. “Donny Doodle Furens” is, as the nursery-rhyme echo of the title suggests, a dark comic riff on Seneca’s “Hercules Furens.” (Share has edited Seneca in English for Penguin.) In the Senecan version of the story, Hercules saves his wife and children from Lycus, the tyrant of Thebes, only to kill them himself when the jealous goddess Hera scourges him with temporary madness. Hercules accepts responsibility for his crimes and begins the tasks of his atonement, joining Theseus in his journey to Athens. The labors for the “everyman” of Share’s poem, on the other hand, are the trials of everyday family life in an age of technology and paranoia: “Our long journey from bliss// to bliss took us/ where passion drove us/ crazy, where the tongue// gong-like, fears and fails/ to go...” Here he finds “suspense not exactly// killing me, but data,/ which almost rhymes with paranoia,” may be.
Share is equally adept at the long free-verse poem, the jeremiad, the sonnet, mock-heroic couplets, puns, and epigrams. In fact, one epigram functions as a near-fractal representation of the book: “Sabbath is a river that flows/ every day but Sunday,/ yet there is no rest/ from war” (“Rest”). While the poems in the book’s first section (there are four all together) focus on the domestic, the poems in the second section meditate on the links between the domestic and the political. “‘This building is alarmed’ (anger language)” connects the war (or wars — Afghanistan, Iraq, and others) to family life explicitly. “The pyracantha thorns scrape the side of the our house/ saying, ‘War...war...war...// As we wind and unwind our devotion.” “The Counterfeiters” does the same, but with comic wordplay:
With what analogical objects can one tell
when a war begins? If forced, as a mother,
to choose between man and baby, well,
of course you choose the baby;
and so goes casualty and causality: and sin.
For this we do not blame or displace or dispel
mothers in our blood, or in its heart-rended terminus,
or even in this my ode on the counterfeiters. No,
September was a warming, so some took wedded...
I was going to say bliss...this will have to be
pastiche, or burlesque, at best; but you know,
we’d assumed that everything would be all right.
Then came collision, and the wary tides
The end result is that “the Eastern brother and the Western/ brother met as if they’d never known each other,” each wishing “the other dead.” “Fertility...went to bed,” but “who dreamed this first red apple of the fight?/ The dreaded blue screen of death?”
Share’s wit and wordplay keep his poems universal, the situations broad, help haul his work out of the “confessional” mode. His approach, again, tends toward redemptive or mitigating humor: “Your pregnancy, my nausea;/ Rain again, the moths/ of motherhood” (“Failure to Thrive”). In the book’s third section, Share makes repeated and self-conscious references to family life as “this our microcosm.” Just as the country is squandering its resources in a dirty war in Iraq, the family must be careful to avoid squandering its emotional resources. In “The Sandpaper Ministry,” Share meditates on both the strengths and dangers of the tense isosceles triangle formed by parents and child:
Labor is fickle commotion,
a wombling an unlost
labor of love
in which exhausted mama
In matrimonial ligations,
word is not quite
but birthing can by no man
be undone, never,
even if the father doesn’t bother.
So, dear daughter,
(whom we got and begot, besotted!)
we shall never forget or regret
your foray: into the world
and come, o ligatures and accents grave.
The birth of the child is more important than the language — of either church or state — which we have squandered; it is the child that makes the “marriage,” the family unit that is his focus, and at the poem’s end he directly addresses his daughter:
Shall we ask half mercy?
They do not grant halves in heaven.
Only on earth are we dividual:
only when we quarrel are we individual....
Maddy, I leave you,
you inherit me.
In his daughter, Share sees both his extinction and his survival. “It’s the dead/ who keep us going,/ because they couldn’t live without us.” But the questions fatherhood raises also connect him once again to the larger world. As the folks from Halliburton/Washington keep intensifying our color-coded terrorist-threat-levels, Share wonders, “What if I don’t live to see my daughter thrive,” and “larger questions:/ Who will be free? Who will die?” (“Maddy’s New Rhyme”) In the subsequent poems we see family rifts healed by compromise and palpable good will; the question remains, then, how do we heal the rifts our government and armed services are causing? Maybe, Share implies, through the kind of diplomacy that the family drama is healed by: “By art at infinite cost, and in rudiments” (“Sweet Water, Best Bread”).
The book’s fourth and final section moves back in time even further, to Share’s childhood family. He sees his role in a continuum, as both parent and child, and he notes that for his own Dad, “To father is a verb” and not a dedication. “Fatherhood is mixed/ With the Fall and all...// So the common Eve/ sews up the commonweal/ of mother wool// so wit wears down.” Just as the fathers here are deluded if they think they’re in any way in control of their families, the universe seems to have been set in motion and “controlled” by “the Grand Guignol.” We may be “living through revenge effects, e.g.,/ anti-depressants make certain people violently depressed;/ testing a safer system causes reactors to explode;/ more freeways create more traffic;/...antibiotics make stronger germs. Swell./ Everything seems to be in apple-pie order” (“Intelligent Design”).
Family life has prepared us to expect this kind of universal irony: now “everyone/ seems to know...(how) to live in controlled breakdown” (“Squandermania”). The family fictions are like the fictions that drive politics in the U.S. There’s an archetypal connection between the parent/politician/creator. Share’s own childhood was full of stories of “grisly history...World’s Great Classics...any story but the one about us.../the one about my Jewish bootlegger grandfather/ sent to Federal prison with bread and water,/ my infant, speechless dad visiting him by train, in the South,/ the bitterness in his mouth till his own death...” (“Squandermania”)
Share’s reckoning with the family he was born into and the one he has helped create leads him to a manifesto, of sorts, in the title poem:
“I espouse the probable, not the true, the verisimilar.
Let’s break the ice and lose these anticipations
and predilections: all art begins with the particular,
has lots of heart, and ends in sadness, fuckit —
if punctuation is biographical (God help our squandermania),
then I’m stuck like Delmore’s glass-eyed duck in the bucket.”
The fourth line quoted here is a reference to Miguel Hernandez, whom Share has translated, while “Delmore’s...duck” is a reference to Lowell’s poem from Life Studies, “To Delmore Schwartz.” (In an absurdist gesture, Lowell and Schwartz, epically drunk, once stuffed the foot of a taxidermized duck into a gin bottle.) But the method of Share’s arrival at his “manifesto” is also important: the comic rhyme is in tension with the edgier tone — and this highlights the willingness to compromise, even with the truth for the sake of art: this is what saves him from despair, and from “squandermania” — our tendency to make waste out of anything of value. Share chooses the word “Squandermania” as opposed to “dissipation,” which F. Scott Fitzgerald describes, in “Babylon Revisited,” as turning “something” into “nothing.” To further clarify the distinction, consider Eliot’s Waste Land vs. the land of waste in Nathanael West’s settings, both real — downtown LA and backlot Hollywood in the Thirties — and imaginary — Balso Snell’s trip inside the Trojan Horse.
The book ends with a jump even further back in time in “On Original Intent.” The poem offers images of America from the time of Share’s family’s arrival:
sudden greenhorns cantered
with tilting pushcarts, or balanced
bales of fresh matzoh on their heads,
as they trekked across the bold
cobbles of their world-
of-our-fathers Lower East Side.
Thoughts of his ancestors lead him to think of the pictures he’ll leave for his descendents, “our glib survivors, who’ll stare/ down and guzzle memory/ like oil” and “wonder/ what in hell we were/ doing here back in wartime...what is/ to be done in time/ of pandemic, any way:/ Laundry?” The poem — and the book — ends with a scene of working fathers visiting their children in pre-school. One talks “about seeing the Red Sox with grandpa,” another plays “‘Puff/ the Magic Dragon’ on his trusty Gibson,” and a third “fill(s) in his little-lamb son/ and daughter about the framers of that old/ chestnut, The Constitution of the United/ States of America.” Share’s tone is restored to one of doubt, suspicion, and controlled anger — and ironic musing.
While I admire much of what Christian Wiman has done to revitalize Poetry since he took over (enough to have renewed my subscription, which I had let lapse), especially the many new prose features and his addition of a letters section, if anything obvious has been missing from the magazine in recent years — and this is true of the magazine under former editor Joseph Parisi, too — it is a good sense of humor. For this reason alone hiring Don Share would be a brilliant stroke; the fact that Share also brings “lots of heart” and a talent of his own makes him an even better choice. His hiring can only help the people in Chicago — and, in turn, the people who read their journal. But hopefully the job will also raise a readership for Share’s own poems, some of the most exciting written lately in this country.