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Talisman House, 2008; Jersey City, NJ. 178 pages.
Talisman House has published what can only be considered an essential collection of Simon Pettet’s poems, in fact, a collected. Pettet has long been one of the core practitioners of the lyric poem. The lyric has been with us since the days when poems were carved into rocks and scratched onto leaves and bark. As poetic fashions come and go, the lyric continues to tease and please both mind and heart. In Pettet’s poems, we see the post-modern moves often associated with the New York school; the immediacy of the quick take, the plain speech and wit which is what makes a first impression of accessibility. But beneath the surface lie double meanings, tricky turns and cross-examinations of the mind. When Simon gives public readings, he often repeats the poems, and it is in those repetitions that the listeners detect those turns we might have missed the first time around, since most of the poems are short in length and go by quickly. Similarly, when reading Pettet’s poems on the page, a second or third take is helpful. It is as if the first pass renders the ink markings on the page, the surface of signals, and the second pass embosses those glyphs deep into the page, as a letter press both marks and physically alters the plane of perception, allowing us to touch the risen letters in back of the page with our fingers. Meanings linger in these poems filled with the music of the words and the images they project in our imaginations. Dimension.
It is precisely Pettet’s ability to turn the idea or image around in his mind’s eye to reveal its various facets that gives such power to his work. The music of the line partakes both of the American street and his native British speech. Like a cross between Blake and Blackburn, the sense of song is compelling in these works, a sense of melody drives the vowels between the consonants from the first line to the last, an intimate music that remains in the mind like a catchy Cole Porter tune.
Although it is by no means the only subject of his work, Simon is a master of the love poem. So many of his love poems illuminate a devotion not unlike the great Sufi poets like Hafiz, but with sharper edges. Sometimes a direct shot to the heart is startling, for example, he says in one poem, “I don’t think, I kiss.” Though of course much thinking goes on in these works, and vision itself becomes erotic, whether the observation is taking place in a doctor’s office, or a woman is carrying her baby in a backpack while riding a bicycle, or simply a walk through the city streets at night. All of these occasions serve to clarify the relation of mind and eye, word and referent, and in a very powerful way, Pettet cuts to the soul of experience. He affords peeks at the eternal.
What matter is
What this scarred flesh
What this body
Here the raw illuminates the cosmic, and often the reverse is true in the work. Love, street signs, the daily grind are all grist for the mill, and a generous helping of a sense of mortality renders something more than what is expected, something else.
The mathematics of birdsong
has eluded me until the present
Laconic cable messages
Speeding over the wires.
There is an occult tendency in some of these poems. Simon references the gods with the casual expertise I remember from Gregory Corso’s works, and the Muse is ever present in these poems, hovering near or being called to the text from afar. Never afraid to evoke archetypes, Pettet references several tarot cards in this book as well.
I’ve followed Pettet’s work for 30 years, and have always marveled at his precision, his emotional clarity and at his command of prosody. The first of his poems that I remember hearing was this one;
What can’t keep
and that’s the end of it.
giving it to the birds
but I don’t have
The symmetry and aural balance of this poem struck me then, and still the mystery of its referent quickens my attention and draws me in. I am as baffled and delighted now as I was when I first encountered the poem. Another early poem that has rattled around in my head over the years is this one;
When you permit me to see
With lucidity my anger
Know that it shines straight
Into your dark forest
Cutting through the inadequacies
With which we clothe ourselves
Like brambles So illuminating
That private place like some good soldier
That we call our heart.
In this poem, Pettet swings the blade of his anger at such an angle that it even cuts through the anger itself to expose the pain and genuine affection behind it. The poem operates like a revelation, with a flash of rage that is focused and precise at the beginning, and finishes off with a gentle and compassionate gesture.
Another favorite of mine is this one;
I accrue hordes
It is a thankless task,
tho’ not without
It is a believable description of Pettet’s process, and like many other poems in the book, it accrues more meanings the more you read it. Hordes of meaning.
What a pleasure it is to read these poems in an attractive edition. Here the reader can move among Bruce Lee, Pliny, Duns Scotius, Li Po, and Lorenzo da Ponte in the Lower East Side, and then glide into the heart of a lover, a blazing microcosm of the real.
AFTER THE PERSIAN
Your sweetness and generosity
Both capture and astonish me
I am too drunk now
ever to let go.