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‘Putting faith in the ground, — ‘
says Jay Hopler in Green Squall, winner of the 2006 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition:
‘Is that what I’m doing?’
Until now, Hopler, whose collection is narrated by the haunting, near-somnolescent voice of a poet-gardener may have thought his internal dialogue of his lifework to be a solo — but with the 2007 publication of The Fat Sheep Everybody Wants by Japan-based poet Bern Mulvey, Hopler’s ‘poetics of being’ (a rare, if not unheard of poetic since Stevens, comments Louise Glück in Green Squall’s introduction) became, overnight, a duet, or, perhaps more accurately, a canticle, between Hopler, Mulvey and Stevens:
Hopler, from The Frustrated Angel:
‘Being born is a shame.’
Mulvey, from Butsuma:
‘Why am I here? My mother-in-law-to-be narrates
causes of death.’
Cause for despair? Not according to Stevens, the ‘great physician’ of 20th century metaphysical verse (as well as one of the few modernists other than Eliot and Cummings who intuited that the next stage of poetry was not the further dissolution of language but its reconstitution in the East).
For close readers of Stevens — the true ‘event’ of life is likely to be missed by just about everyone infected by the West’s iron doctrines of scientific rationalism and causality — with, perhaps, the exceptions of Hopler, Mulvey, and a handful of yet-to-be-identified aliens from Mars, for the mere reason that the ‘event of life,’ according to Stevens, is not a ‘happening’ but a feat: to ‘survive being born’ (from A Discovery of Thought).
Whence the shame? Perhaps we have intuited that to survive being born out of the dream (or nightmare, depending upon your view of modern history) of illusion is not in fact an entitlement, but an act of witness and an honor, initiated by Stevens’ mythic figure of an
‘antipodal, far-fetched creature
worthy of birth.’
A poetics about how to become worthy of being born might seem to be the furthest encampment from Western thought, but one need only recall to mind the fact that in many Eastern cultures, one’s ‘birth’ is in fact a time for mourning, for the soul has incarnated into the wheel of life, and death the occasion that is cause for celebration, for only then can the soul be reconstituted in its eternal form.
A lengthy preface to a debut collection of poems, but I am confident that Mulvey —
Dean of Faculty at Miyazaki International college in Japan, where he has lived for over a decade — if no one else, would understand the need to ‘ground’ a collection of poems that picks up the scattered thread of the last century of poetic and scholarly dialoging between the East and West, as initiated by the great and far-seeing minds of psychologist Carl Jung, theological writer Thomas Merton, and American poets Charles Wright and Michael Palmer, among others, including Stevens.
The form of death undergone by ‘metaphysical poetry’ should not surprise: the categories have shifted, and a poetic whose intention is not the narration of experience, or the experience of the ‘self’ in the world (with all due respect to Whitman) but rather a sensuous and philosophical apprenticeship to what it actually means, not just to be in the world, but to ‘be,’ period. Where has the lost lamb of metaphysical poetry gone?
Incredulously, it’s been lumped with Hallmark, i.e. ‘religious’ verse, as if a poetic that explores the ontological terrain necessarily involved the incantation of a Judeo-Christian God (on the contrary, much authentic ‘metaphysical poetry’ is in fact deeply skeptical: Hopkins and Donne spent most of their time either railing against ‘the divine’ for injustices suffered).
‘Metaphysicians’ of the soul are traditionally meditative figures (Hopler gardening, Hopkins at his priestly duties, and Wright sitting in his lawn chair in the backyard of his home in the Shenandoah Valley come most readily to mind), but also poets whose work is fueled not by dogma but the most scathing of journeys — the journey into, to again reference Stevens, the ‘high interiors of the sea’ (has a better description of the inner life been coined since?)
All metaphysical poetry that deserves the name is in fact written as an outcry against the temptation offered by Job’s wife: ‘curse God and die,’ which certainly offers itself as the easier solution, and, frequently, the more sensible one, in the so-called ‘light’ of reason.
But poets like Donne, Hopkins, Stevens, Hopler and Mulvey are not quite convinced, and their poetry is thus written on the knife-edge of belief, while the evidence for life’s ultimate meaninglessness assaults them — as it does each one of us — from every side
One need only recall Stevens’ Snowman in Winter, Donne’s masochist plea to be ‘battered’ by his Three-Personed God, or Hopkins’ flights of lyrical illogic (‘Wert thou my enemy
o Thou my friend’) to be assured that metaphysical poetry, far from being a parade of self-satisfaction, has engaged the most subtle and deeply informed poets of history, whose works stand as a testament to the fact that the true heroes of our modern age are not those with the most diversified portfolios, but those who persist in believing that maybe, just maybe, the Universe didn’t arise from and is headed toward a pit of inscrutable nothingness.
Enter Mulvey, whose collection most emphatically could not have taken place anywhere else than Japan: the specific setting of this collection is integral to its making (another rarity in contemporary poetics).
How do ethical concerns shift when one lives in a culture where the dead are given a place at the table on special occasions, right alongside the place settings of the living?
And what does it really mean to be a stranger in any country, today, when one can easily — and in the speaker of Jean’s case, is — the recipient of off-hand remarks such as ‘My mother is dying,’ from small children while waiting in line to fence at Cho’s Karate Invitational? These are the questions that roil within the ‘red-welted larynx’ of Mulvey’s first collection, which makes in its entirety the repeated claim of this really happened, and not just anywhere, but here.
Many poets writing today shy away from poems that make explicit the act of leading the reader, for fear of appearing didactic, but Mulvey’s poem How to Make Cranes (written in honor of Sadoko Sasaki, a young girl who died from A-bomb-induced leukemia after completing her 1000th paper crane) resists such concealments of purpose, and instead take on the voice of a teacher, albeit one who is describing an allegory for harm:
‘Pull the bottom corner (top layer only) up above the top corner. Fold among the creases you made in step two until the cones touch,’ the speaker intones.
Then, in the same stanza, the response by Sho-an, the son of Rikyu:
‘Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and trees are well sprinkled
The moss and lichens are shining’
Rikyu, raising the ‘flame of discipline above his son’s head’ (to quote a painfully beautiful line from Li Young Li’s poem The Gift), responds:
‘Young fool, that is not the
way a garden path should be swept. Saying this, he stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the path gold and crimson
leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn’
To be chided, and in the least flattering way possible: the bitterest pill, to the American ego, accustomed to not only proceeding without resistance in its march toward imperialist ends, but also to do so buoyed up by praise.
The trope of parenting — though a kind of parenting so tender and full of genuine ‘fear and trembling’ — along with an inquiry into the nature of death, forms the thematic structure of A Fat Sheep (and the fact that Mulvey’s understanding of fatherhood is born of suffering may, seen through Stevens’ verse, be evidence that Mulvey is working to becoming worthy not only of being born, but of carrying forth other lives as well).
In Trouble in Birdland as Two Lost Parakeets Move in with the Asuwayama Crows the emergent parakeet,
‘talon[s] tense in assassin’s gloves,’ ‘whistles like a mad flute,
the only language such birds understand
the parent’s prayer,
which is no’
The moments of greatest tenderness are often found in intimate poems such as Face where the speaker is represented, for a moment, as only a father (and not also a foreigner, teacher, or émigré):
‘When I lift the pink cloth
I see a vent, pale eye of bone . . . my daughter exceeds me/, doesn’t cry . . .”
Mulvey’s response to the prayer of his daughter (‘I’ll be good’), issued moments before she is delivered into the hands of Western medicine, reads as a beautifully condensed lyrical expression of the ultimate feud between Western and Eastern thought: dualistic thinking, as cemented in our discourse by Hegel after a flash of historical hope.
‘As if bad is why we’re here, searching
for the true vein. Hold me, she says,
my torn, tiny bird. And I do’
Tonally, the collection is masterful, wheeling from theatrical and brutally funny (from Brown Recluse: ‘For one long week
I teased him, batted eye dyads, a flash
of cephalathorax . . . I was to die for’) and yes, at times as openly vulnerable as the children — his own and those of others — who filer in and out of his poems:
‘ ‘I’m a plane,
be kind to me,’ I tell my wife to be. ‘We’ll see,’ she says. ‘We’ll see.’ ‘
Mulvey refuses the forces of totalization at every turn, which, in Snapshot, takes the symbol of a camera (the ultimate exploitative device):
“A photo can’t capture this: I had not met
your mother, you still thought me
Byronic, I thought you could hold a job.
We don’t keep in touch.”
There are no tightly buttoned jackets in these poems, no corsets, no bound feet. There is witnessing, and waiting. How do we wait? According to Mulvey, a good teacher is one who learned the art of patience:
“You listen for a sign,
eyes on the one god,
your oracle, a red light flashing” (from The Window Tribe).
So what are we waiting for? Nothing serious. Simply, as in Kotodama, “The word as event.”
Mulvey doesn’t offer up a definite word or words that could take the serve to reduplicate the ‘event’ of life, focusing rather on reminding us that just as his is not an isolated voice, this is not an isolated line of inquiry, but a terribly vital one, and one, moreover, that is taking place not ‘there’ but here, from within the ultimate ‘other’ of the 20th century — the Orient.
Mulvey does his work to establish our footing on this territory with several epigraphs and prefatory remarks, such as,
‘In rural Japan, it’s still the custom for the terminally ill not be told about their illness,’ or: ‘On August 26, 2000, a caravan of ultra-right wing extremists made an unscheduled stop in Fukui.’
The Window Tribe is the collection’s most clearly elegiac poem, though many others are written into or against this mode, not for its evocation of death, but of the ‘complications of life:
‘There’s a cry . . . someone’s a father, and so the numbers dwindle
down until only you are left, the word
complications echoing like death
in that empty corridor.’
How to argue, then, that this collection — one of few extant contemporary collections of poetry that have truly ‘earned’ the title of metaphysical — is about beauty, when even the most beautiful moments are ravaged by the ghosts of loss, or haunted by the omnipresent dead? In Lost Dog, the sough-for aim — clarity, a way out of a snowstorm, is not found, and the speaker tucks his son into bed, ‘cry[ing] for what is lost.’
While the mannered, quietly transgressive Mulvey may be offended at such a reading of Lost Dog, I believe this poem, in A Fat Sheep’s last section, defines the only ‘event’ left to a speaker sensitive to the paralyses of modernity: absorbing incalculable losses by a (I would argue valiant) effort to ‘clean, clean, clean.’
Lastly, not to be missed in A Fat Sheep is Mulvey’s response to his own earlier question as to ‘why [we are] here,’ which he answers with uncharacteristic directness in Hundred-Day Visit by inscribing a non-place, the proverbial ‘edge’ between worlds:
‘This is the border,
this my daughter
waiting to be blessed.’
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.