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Question: Do many fiction writers write poetry, and if so, is it narrative in style?
I exaggerate to make a point: while a fair number of fiction writers began their careers as poets, far fewer of them return for any sustained dedication to the craft, considering their study of poetry as a mere ‘apprenticeship’ (I’ve heard these exact words) to the ‘real work’ of fiction.
Whatever the point of entrance, the fact remains that most writers eventually choose a genre of concentration, undergo the necessary training, thereafter only moonlighting in the secondary genre. There is a reason why Stevens referred to writing as his “mistress”: his wife Elsie was demanding of his care and attention, so surplus time spent with his own work (after putting in 12 hour days as the VP of Hartford Insurance) naturally felt like a kind of betrayal.
Writers who continue to court the discarded secondary genre of their youth often feel a certain guilty pleasure at dividing their attentions, a feeling often intensified when peers in their primary genre accuse them of defection (in our age of increased specialization, experimentation within a genre is usually celebrated, but one will find no shortage of wing-clippers when attempting to actually take a leave of absence from the party).
This is a misfortune, especially when considering how many Renaissance artists, da Vinci in particular, made an art of hybridizing their artistic gift without sacrificing quality. Furthermore, neurobiological studies have recently verified that the ‘cross-referencing’ that spontaneously occurs when the brain engages with different forms of representation actually heightens one’s perceptual abilities in all endeavors.
Ray Carver’s opinion on the subject from an interview with the Paris Review reflects, I believe, the conclusion of many writers: poetry lures, delights and even satisfies, but is not ultimately ‘wife material’:
‘In magazines, I always turned to poems first before I read the stories. Finally, I had to make a choice, and I came down on the side of fiction. It was the right choice for me.’
Most rare of all these mutations, then, is a writer who not only arrives at the door of poetry through the corridor of fiction, but settles in to stay. Stuart Dybek is one of those poets, and his second poetry collection ‘Streets in Their Own Ink,’ published 26 years after his debut volume ‘Brass Knuckles’ is a testament to the extraordinary — and highly unique — form of poetry that can bloom from the bedrock of fiction.
“A woman walked across the room.” This is the plot summary of most contemporary fiction according to a well-known contemporary American poet (whose privacy I am obliged to protect). Obviously, what this demonstrates is that to the mind of a poet, the entire endeavor of realist fiction often results in nothing new being said, therefore amounting to a series of arbitrary connections between plot points in time — voodoo might be the best metaphor for what he was describing, or taxidermy. David Markson’s postmodern novel ‘This is Not a Novel’ (Counterpoint, 2001) was one of the most interesting contributions to the lagging discourse over “the state of the novel” since Barth officially called a corpse a corpse in ’67 with his breakaway essay ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’: Markson’s anti-narrative is basically a 208 page coroner’s report on the causes of death for hundreds of historical figures, broken up into three-line paragraphs. Escaping the slavering guard dogs of genre fiction by using a caveat for a title, Markson, toward the end of his ‘novel,’ asks his readers to imagine a novel without those pesky flies of plot, setting, dialogue — just characters and, of course, a theme (they’re dead).
This is all another way of saying that most traditional fiction is actually pulp fiction, another relevant if unnecessarily harsh argument I’ve heard in poetry circles, but poets, one must remember, are a tough crowd: what other form of writing demands that language be pasteurized, bottled in claustrophobic forms such as couplets and quatrains, and then given away for a pittance?
While I agree that there are better ways to spend one’s time than accompanying a long-winded narrator on suicide sprints from Point A to Point B, or, worse, journeying with her to Noah’s narrative arc (rising tension, climax and denouement, hand-holding optional), there is, point blank, no substitute for a good story or a good novel. (The wars over which novels are ‘good enough’ to be canonized and why are uglier than those of the Catholic’s church when it decides to undergo a decade of investigative analysis into allegedly holy persons, however, so I refuse to qualify the word ‘good,’ for now.)
Rare to the point of extinction, then, are poets such as Dybek capable of transposing the criteria for what makes a ‘good poem’ into a thoughtful, provocative story that accomplishes more than merely ‘letting down the hem’ on a prose poem. Rarer yet are fiction writers who possess an intuitive understanding of the lyric — pitch, for example, or how to break a line. These skills cannot be taught (you either hear the music or you don’t), though the enrollment of tens of thousands of 20-somethings in MFA programs across the country certainly makes for a compelling case otherwise. (This is owing to the American equation of modest means + industry = success, a far cry from the comparatively nondemocratic ‘school of talent’ in Europe: I recently asked a French writer how many MFA programs there were in France, and he howled with laughter for about five minutes, from which I gleaned his answer: none).
The sign posted on the border of the town (I envision it as a hamlet, population 11) where writers of both poetry and fiction dwell, then, should be ‘Adulterers Welcome’ and the poster in the hamlet hall, ‘How to Accomplish the Impossible in 60 Days or Less,’ for the genres of fiction and poetry require entirely different spans of concentration, mental faculties, and technical skills in order to be considered worthy of being called ‘art’ and not bastard offspring (however endearing) of one’s primary genre.
Those writers who can pull off formal mastery of both genres are fewer than the number of ways Barrett Browning loved Browning himself (nine): Hardy and Lawrence come to mind, as do, in our century, Kim Addonizio, Sherman Alexie, and, of course, Dybek.
Dybek is best known for his fiction — his collections of short fiction, particularly “I Sailed with Magellan” constitute some of the best prose written today — his cross to bear, then, is that his reputation for fiction has eclipsed his deserved praise for poetry.
‘These are not, perhaps, great poems, poems that will be remembered and anthologized for centuries, but they are very good poems, beautiful even, and I like them,’
was the astringent but salutary praise Sara Kate Heukerott gave “Streets of their Own Ink” in the Harvard Book Review shortly after its publication.
Obviously there is no curved grading scale for persons writing outside of their primary genre, nor should there be (even in America), but the study of collections of poetry by ‘fiction writers’ is that much more instructive if we remember that these writers are émigrés, speaking in what is not for them a mother tongue.
To forget this when picking up a poetry collection authored by a fiction writer gone AWOL, such as Dybek is, to my mind, on a par with failing to consider how many different ways a translated work can be rendered, let alone doing the work of comparing translations (case in point: Europeans argue lustily over their favorite translation of Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, whereas many American readers are surprised to learn that more than one translation of the text exists).
‘Streets in their Own Ink’ is the work of a master prose stylist. These are ‘narrative poems,’ but diverge in several important ways, and the ‘narrator’ tonally speaking, is dead-on. How does a fiction writer approach the white-hot center of debate in contemporary poetics, that of the use of the “I”? Is a fiction writer’s ‘I’ an uncomplicated version of him or herself, a persona wrapped in barbed wire, an armadillo, or a henchman for Anne Boleyn? (These are the four choices today, for those unfamiliar with the genre.)
Dybek is keenly aware of politics of the ‘I’: the second poem in ‘Streets’ is entitled ‘Autobiography,’ the last, ‘Anti-Memoir,’ but I think Dybek’s handling of persona is best understood by the hardened gems of wit and pathos themselves, which often take the form of mini-portraitures, such as the fiercely wrought ‘The Estrangement of Luis Leon.’
Bluntly put, Dybek’s poems are less interested in remaining open to multiple interpretations as they are to capturing — I might even say nailing — moments of spiritual evisceration. There are no paeans, odes, or elegies here: the avoidance of poetic “modes” is Dybek’s beautiful, hard-won, and easily overlooked art.
In depicting the Polish neighborhood where he lives and grew up, it is not surprising that many critics refer to Dybek as a ‘poet of the commonplace,’ linked to Neruda and Williams for choosing to traffic in the ordinary smut of the world.
Brace yourself: In “Streets,” we receive from Dybek’s hand gutted fish, ‘wino shoes’ and ‘steaming pats of manure’: reeking, often revolting objects set against the backdrop of Chicago’s grimy cityscape that rise up from within moldering basements, the sofas of hookers, and on the puke-splattered sidewalks outside of biker bars. Don’t leave: it gets better (another word I’m not disposed to qualify).
It was necessary, I think, to preface a discussion of ‘Streets in Their Own Ink’ by treating how the amicable divorce of fiction and poetry has affected each genre (deeply and irrevocably, if only because the kids won’t stop crying). I for one believe that in the rarest and most fortuitous of circumstances, a poet is born among us who is able, through their training, to breathe new life into the dead horse of fiction (did anyone survive Steinbeck’s Last Stand?), or a fiction writer who can moonlight as plastic surgeon on the ER floor of verse, after The Great American Poem (why hasn’t that phrase been coined?) was drawn and quartered for a full decade by language poets (though a few florists still carry sprigs of ‘love lies bleeding,’ if only for decoration: just ask around).
‘Streets in their Own’ brings the grittiest truths of modern realism (it too had good intentions) to bear on the remotest regions of the imagination or ‘fancy’ (Keat’s term), asking his reader to believe again in the impossible truths of our actual world.
Let’s face it: we all fled from real world after Stevens destroyed imagist poetry with the subtle weaponry of The Motive for Metaphor and Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction — poems that, while works of genius, not only take place in the mind, but in the mind of the future (the ultimate realist apostasy). A harder truth: deep within each of us lurks shadow of Travis Bickle (antihero of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, reincarnated after 24 years in the character of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho). The real world, if able to be seen clearly for what it is, forces everyone against a wall at some crucial existential moment, but as always, there are options other than becoming a serial killer, though they’re limited, necessarily so: substance abuse, workaholism, religion, and art.
Dybek calmly suggests in Maja that there truly exists a hooker with a heart of gold (subscript: she may be your neighbor.) Dybek renders the social rejects Jesus himself was said to favor (taxpayers excluded) gently yet with perfect precision, unlike the photographer for whom Maja models, because, in the sanctuary of a poem, she is not a ‘character’ or a ‘fiction’: she is emphatically, even monstrously, real:
Left breast swollen double
the size of its flabby twin, nipples —
tips of melted plastic — a scar
from what might have been a botched
Dybek cuts a little deeper:
‘She lights a smoke, exhales,
the shutter clicks, she smiles
as if to show she still has teeth,
licks her lips, adjusts her hair.
“ ‘Please,’ “ he says, “ ‘I want it natural.’ “
Painfully, the reader limps toward the end of the poem:
The last artist simply wanted
to beat her up, which explains
placating the lens as if it were
a muzzle. She knows the danger
isn’t that he’s aiming at her soul
but that, thanks to dumb luck — blind chance
posing as salvation — she’s survived beyond a point
when anyone in his right mind
would pay for her to simply fuck.
A careful reader will observe several phenomena occurring in this last stanza: Dybek introduces a Judeo-Christian concept to the poem, that of salvation, without the use of irony; he assigns an actual soul (however degraded) to the subject without the filter of metaphor; and the syntactical inversion of last line is his coup d’état: Dybek did not say ‘pay her for [a] fuck,’ or ‘pay for her to fuck him’ (both of which make better sense, logically): he said, ‘pay for her to simply fuck.’
By inserting the preposition ‘for’ between ‘pay’ and ‘her,’ the reader is being asked to consider that the Babylonian whore of 21st century Chicago has effectively nullified the modern currency of sexual exchange: the use of a body in exchange for money, status, or the security of being husbanded. The relentless exteriority of Maja, Western nude in extremis, mirrors perfectly the depravity of the relation and forces it upon the artist: in this hair-splitting moment, ‘blind chance posing as salvation,’ desire for sex founded along capitalistic prerogatives collapses.
Sadly, for Maja, the only things left for the artist to do in this incredibly rendered moment when the power balance shifts (the helplessness now experienced by the artist, and the power, by the subject) is to raise the stakes of the situation to one of physical violence.
This tipping point occurs within one stanza, and stanzas and poems such as these pervade ‘Streets in Their Own Ink.’ Read as a series of poems with ‘great imagery’ and ‘memorable lines’ (what passes for critical commentary in most MFA workshops) ‘Streets’ indeed reads as, in Heukerott’s words, a ‘very good’ collection of poems. Read as a poetry of — gasp — social witness, they do nothing but stun.
My point is merely to demonstrate that throughout Dybek’s second poetry collection, he brings to bear a poet’s sensitivity to the power of image, with the imaginative sympathies of a writer of fiction. The poems can be read, and in indeed offer themselves up to be read, as clean, spare dialogues with the ghosts of history and memory. What is less readily apparent is that Dybek, working from a larger temporal framework as a storyteller, also has one foot in the door of the future.
The result: a collection that claims the rights of the persona while simultaneously announcing said persona as a perceiving subject with no other agenda other than the clearest frame of witness:
I’ve left out nothing:
these images are what I learned.
It’s not that I didn’t listen,
but it wasn’t my language
in matters of sex or money.
What might have been told
was abandoned like excess baggage,
and the commonplace has assumed
the mysterious presence
of the lost.
Warning label: ‘Streets of their Own Ink’ is not suitable for readers desensitized by the verbal pyrotechnics of contemporary poetry — the wasteland, however exciting, between the signifier and the signified. Though I don’t know whom to attribute this bastion of American colloquialisms, in a nutshell, this shit [Dybek’s poetry] is real.
What’s most alarming is that the speaker in Dybek’s poems is not screaming to be heard; the voice is eminently calm. The figure of a ‘Black Maria’ or ‘Blue Madonna’ are regular outcrops, as are notes on procedure: the only way to slip into the past or future, he suggests, is steady, forward progression: ‘…one shoe must step/ before the other.’
Quiet, then, these small resurrections, except for brief intervals of incommunicable passion that, for Dybek, are intimately tied up with music: ‘ . . . a cry less to do with language/ than the vocalization of snow,/ its meaning a music hidden from words,/ a farewell, perhaps, but he’ll remember/ hearing . . . the first wild gasp of her name’ (from Christening).
Largely, however, the tone of the collection is that of restrained horror couched in everyday vernacular, through which the collection’s central question is posed: how to live in a world where not only God but the ghost of God — has vanished? First to go, Dybek states (his poems, though sorrowful, refuse the lament, which is not to say the occasional bitterness) was the voice of the beloved, ‘frost around a bullet hole.’ ‘What will go next?’ Dybek wonders in Kitty Corner. ‘What will become of [the newspaper kiosk’s] burning trash can and blind vendor?’
Look, Dybek is saying, dryly: the known world is disappearing. How many times do we need to hear this before it sinks in? Or perhaps the better question is, will we be forgiven for ignoring the street prophets of our time? Yet we are not entirely to blame: Dybek’s control — at moments slightly militaristic — over his art is such that that one may well mistake its largest act of witness: ‘the body’s gradual dematerialization’ as the ‘soul grow[s] increasingly corporeal.’ Nota bene: if that line could be liquidated into slang, it would become the byword of our generation (though maybe it’s for the best that it isn’t).
It’s large statement, though I do not say grand, for Dybek refuses theatrics: he is a Midwestern though not a regional poet, fighting with ink and paper — the artillery of the ‘soul’ — in the latest nuclear war between truth and its many pretty disguises.
If Maja can be read as an allegory for the relationship between the artist and his subject (dissolving in violence) ‘Streets in Their Own Ink’ offers the reader Journal as panacea:
‘The mortgage on his soul was down
to a dollar, but where to pay it off? His handprint still emblazoned
on her ass as she stepped into the shower’ (this is given as a complete sentence, without a verb).
Not surprisingly, Dybek manages, in the tightest of spaces, to achieve another act of imaginative — and, I would argue, sympathetic conception of ‘the impossible,’ portraying the agent of the poem as both a potentially murderous possessor, as well as victim of larger social forces and, at long last, a tender, knowing lover:
Prisoners of war, assigned a classroom
in which to await decapitation,
sat passively at fifth-grade desks
while he paced, wishing for a gun,
and when the executioners rushed in,
it was another night in which the choice was death or starting from the dream.
3 a.m. He lay listening to her breath,
wondering should he gently wake her
with his tongue, or let her sleep.
As if set to Rockwell’s American Gothic, Journal and many other poems in ‘Streets’ are poems of great political complexity written by someone who has spent the last several decades of his career at the altar of fiction, learning how to track characters to moments of revelation, and hacking paths through the wild landscapes of motivation and culpability. Dybek is not a fabulist, or a sophist. He is a poet: there is a difference.
Colette, who called her fiction ‘lyric journalism’ would may be one of many artists capable of seeing beneath the surface of these finely-chiseled and deceptively simple poems, but I cannot think of many readers, no matter what their aesthetic background, who would not find the poem Vespers to be one of morbid (because chilling) beauty:
In the glow of the sanctuary lamp
his wounds were varying reflections of red,
as if his bare, agonized body had been kissed
by different shades of lipstick.
Once, when I thought I was in love,
I was sure I recognized the imprint of her lips
on the wounds of his feet.
With a coolly handled line like ‘Once, when I thought I was in love,’ Dybek doesn’t just cut close to the bone, he cuts the bone itself. That we leave his work intact is either a function of his art’s subtlety, or our own limited capacity to read into its implications.
Granted, as both poetry and fiction bow to the (lesser?) god of form, the choice we are left with is whether to give this collection and others of social importance (whose secrets are not easily yielded) a cursory read, a serious and careful read, or no read at all. Either way, how we proceed at this moment in history from the black hole of postmodern art — art for art’s sake — comes down to personal preference (a lightly bandied consumer good that Dybek weighs down with granite, the material out of which his ‘Black Virgin,’ the collection’s hovering muse, is made).
Virginia Konchan’s poetry, essays and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Journal, Nthposition, the Mid-American Review, The Wallace Stevens Journal, Phoebe, Poetry Salzburg Review, Miranda Magazine and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, among others, and a recently penned essay, ‘The ‘Grotesque Joys’ of Post-Communist Czech Poetry’ was a runner-up for the Ludwig Vacuik award sponsored by Western Michigan University. An MFA student in fiction at Cleveland State University, she currently serves as the fiction editor of Whiskey Island Magazine and is the editor of “A Remembered State,” an anthology of poetry, prose and translations on the modern-day Czech Republic, forthcoming in the fall of 2008 from Provokator Press in Prague.