When I was invited to guest blog for Best American Poetry, I immediately thought of a marvelous post on Harriett by John Beer, in which he thoughtfully explores one poem by Carol Ciavonne (a fine poet and Posit contributor, who has recently become one of our associate editors). Beer’s reminder that reading is at the core of what we writers do and love, evokes “a sense of one reader’s process, not a method per se but a set of explorations,” and seems eminently worthy of emulation.
I’ll start by dipping into “breath to oblivion no ladder no chaser” from Finely Tuned Static by Charles Borkhuis, in collaboration with painter John McCluskey (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2017). The conversation in this lovely book between text and image is direct and intense, without seeming constricted or constrained. Although its visual and verbal components are fully capable of standing alone, together they make magic. Seasoned and grave, yet crackling with irony and pleasure, these poems are also erudite, salted with references to Duchamp (a “nude descending an escalator”); Orpheus (a narrator who “turned back to see you disappear”); and Turner (“the red buoy bobbing on the waves.”) Their engagement with the paintings yields a tapestry of responsive, but imaginative, tropes, such as the structure of matter, fragmentation, the entangled relationship between creation and destruction – and, of course, static. This book handily refutes the counsel (mentioned in “where was it I”) of those “frozen in place” to “stay inside the lines.”
Here’s John McCluskey’s Plate Five, and the poem (the first of a triptych addressing it):
breath to oblivion no ladder no chaser
sizzle-cage crossing the shatters
or a child’s braces tightening water on lightning
my new home on a boat of sticks
rowing through a haunted love tunnel
the long flow of ink spreads across uncertainty
the target pulls an arrow through a stranger’s shadow
pinholes of light deep in a deserted sky
no one here but animals of ice grazing on the sunset
light approaching from a dead star the body
displaced by negative space
a caesura shimmering between day and night
what is it like this striptease of body parts this
splintered angle of image crystals watered down
to an empty shoe darkness opens me like a tin can
my secret light my hand burned down to the wires
continues writing to you from another space curled up
inside this one don’t paint yourself too thin no going back now
red rider come in come in get ready for razor static
thundering hooves through the whites of your eyes
through the hole in the next word string a sound
up and over the yawning toothless abyss this this this
Take a look at the efficiency, wit, and depth packed into that incredible opening, which somehow manages to summarize our mortal existence: the passage from breath (life) to oblivion, with no help from any (literal or figurative) ladder, nor hope of a chaser (afterlife). It’s a characteristic Borkhuis line: snappy and funny; inflected by the imagery, lingo, and hard-boiled attitude of noir; brunt and exhilarating in its clarity and directness. This line also establishes the poem’s ekphrastic project: a duality echoed within the painting, with its parallel linear assemblages of black shards crossing a pale field sprinkled with brightly-colored scraps. The very duality of the poem’s project mirrors the image of a ladder even while its explicit language, as well as the painted image itself, dashes any hope of one: consider the absence of any marks resembling rungs connecting the parallel black lines. A rung-less ladder as the best tool available to help us muddle through our lives? It’s a metaphor worthy of Beckett.
There’s a bleak humor at work here, reinforced by the horizontality of those black lines, belying any hope of a progress narrative to redeem life’s so-called journey. In the world of this collaboration, there is no ascent; there is only pushing through, “crossing the shatters” in our “sizzle-cage.” In these images from the second line of the poem, Borkhuis draws on theology and physics for resonance and depth, characterizing the body, that earthly vessel, as a pain-filled trap (“sizzle-cage”) from which we can only hope to be liberated once it conveys us across “the shatters:” a resonant description of the painting’s shard-strewn ground, as well as the violently fragmented fabric of matter itself.
By the fourth line a first-person narrator is introduced, and with her, a change of scale, even while the imagery continues on its double mission. The narrator’s “new home” becomes a “boat of sticks” (another perilously incommodious vessel assembled from the shards suspended between the black swaths bisecting the painting) “rowing through” the sexually resonant “haunted love tunnel” with its menstrual-like “flow of ink” spreading “across uncertainty.” Here, the poet seems to evoke the puny cluelessness of human existence as revealed by the existential implications of particle physics. Am I the only reader also reminded of the philosophical angst of the protagonist sperm in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (but were afraid to ask)?”
I’d like to point out just a few more brilliant bits, like the “striptease of body parts” in the second stanza, which carries forward the first stanza’s sexual imagery, highlighting the resemblance of the painting’s strewn and scattered shards to the skimpy bits of clothing cast off in a striptease. Except that this is “striptease of body parts,” connecting the earlier references to death and destruction to those that follow, such as “darkness opens me like a tin can,” “my hand burned down to the wires,” and the “thundering hooves” of the “red rider” (a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse).
One source of this poem’s energy is its accelerating pace. The increasing omission of punctuation, and the eschewal of ‘natural’ or ‘intuitive’ line breaks (which otherwise tend to function as punctuational proxies), creates a headlong rush from image to image: “another space curled up / inside this one don’t paint yourself too thin no going back now.” The poem, considering its own project (“my hand . . . / writing to you,” “through the hole in the next word”), circles back to its opening vision of mortality, via a powerfully rushing, hissing, terminal rhyme: “the yawning toothless abyss this this this.” It’s a masterful ending, one that evokes the uncontrollable hemorrhage of breath that defines life on its journey towards death, even as it echoes the lusty vitality of Molly Bloom’s final words in Joyce’s Ulysses: “yes I will yes she said yes.”
–Originally published in The Best American Poetry blog, October 2017.
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Susan Lewis is the author of Zoom, winner of the 2017 Washington Prize (The Word Works, 2018), as well as nine other books and chapbooks, most recently Heisenberg’s Salon (BlazeVOX [books], 2017), This Visit (BlazeVOX [books], 2015), How to Be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), and State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014). Lewis received her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and her BA and JD from UC Berkeley. She taught creative writing at SUNY, Purchase and has served as an editor and guest editor on several publications.