A Close Reading By Way of Looking at the First Seven Lines of A Poem and Walt Whitman

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Rumpus Poetry Book Club advisory board member Gabrielle Calvocoressi delves into Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation, the club’s September selection, by writing the author a letter:

Dear Timothy,

Hello from Los Angeles.  I’ve been thinking a lot about you and your poem, “ Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris.” Mainly I’ve been thinking about repetition, both literal and figurative. I’ve also been thinking of Walt Whitman and wondering if his poem, “This Compost” is a secret of this book, which I feel has so many important and cagey ghosts moving behind it.

Do you know that poem? I didn’t for a really long time and now it may very well be my favorite of his because instead of the Whitman who comes forward, the Whitman who is waiting up ahead for us, we see Whitman receding. I never get over these first lines:

Something startles me where I thought I was safest;
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me.[1]

I’m sitting here shaking my head in wonder right now. Partially because it’s so amazing to see a poet push against what we might perceive as his original project (another thing you two have in common). Mainly because I imagine the things he saw in those medical wards during the Civil War and then his President being killed. How does one recover from things like that? And how does one make art that acknowledges that there are some kinds of horror that force one to literally go to the edge of their vision and turn from it, if only for a little while.  “Something startles me where I thought I was safest.” I don’t think he’s just talking about the natural world. I think he is making the brave and inevitable choice you have made in your new book to look into the place that seems past looking (Whitman speaks of the “foul meat”) in order to get to some other “beauty” that is capable of containing everything that has come before it. I sort of hate the word “real” but maybe that’s what I mean here.

Did you think of that poem? I read these first lines and I can’t help but think you did. Though I also love the notion that we somehow “know” things without knowing them. Like how I kind of hope Usher doesn’t know a ton of Bach because it makes the snippets you can hear in some of his songs even more surprising and joyful. Ghost lineage:

Small wonder I recoil
even from my own
worn image looking back

where I always find it
looking like it’s trying
to warn me something

unspeakable is coming:[2]

You are doing many things that are different from Whitman as well but there’s the incredible charge of starting a poem with the act of recession. It goes against what I think of as the received (and often less interesting) contract between the poet and reader. Namely, “Let me locate you before I dream of dislocating you.” My gosh, the speaker is dislocated from his physical form and, perhaps more importantly, his image is a kind of omen. It’s as if all we had to do was look in the mirror as we got up in the morning and put on our cheap suits and walked to the train to go the job we hated. I am so terrified of this poem and I love it because it makes me see how those awful days may have been in front of me all along. Whitman says, “Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient.” I think of the word “worn” in your poem and how much stasis you create with it. It makes me feel sick to my stomach and scared and like I’m going to start crying. Right here writing at my dining room table a few days away from nine years later.

Even the title, “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris.” I talk to my students about titles all the time. They are so friggin hard. I always feel like mine have to do so much work and that generally sends them straight to the dump. Or, more often, to the top of my poem and what a disappointment that is to everyone at the party.  This title, like Whitman’s, is plainspoken and not poetic in the ways we usually think of. And yet, it is a poem in itself because it contains contradiction, which makes us immediately have to start thinking and working and making connections where there seemingly are none.  A partial inventory of “scattered fragments, typically of something wrecked or destroyed.” That’s from my dictionary widget. The sample sentence it gives is: The bomb hits it, showering debris from all sides.

Of course, even as the poem recedes from us it brings us in. Tercets. Do you remember the first time you ever realized what a three-line stanza could do? I know people say things like, “A tercet is simply three lines. It’s just a unit. Stop adding your own psychology to lineation” They’re deranged.  You get so much speed from a tercet and there’s the way it manages to be both deeply unstable because of the odd number of lines and as highly stable as the three-legged milking stools the dairy farmer’s near my great-aunt’s house used to sit on. I think part of that duality has to do with the way the third line of the tercet reaches for the next stanza looking for its own pairing:

Small wonder I recoil
even from my own
worn image looking back

where I always find it

It’s like when you go out to dinner with a couple and all they can do is look at each other. All you want to do is find your own person to share linguine with.  Anyway, it was so smart of you to do that. It creates movement amidst all that stasis. Which adds a feeling of inevitability to the poem from the very beginning. Which means that the poem is formally enacting its own rhetorical position. It’s smart. And it’s not a trick.

There are other things I want to say but this is getting long and I’m roasting tomatoes for Rosh Hashana dinner. That first stanza alternates between five and six syllable lines. And I’m lousy at scanning but there are those three hard stresses per line in that stanza. Next week I’m going to talk about how you’re like Jay-Z and part of it is sampling and part of it is that you’re a pattern maker in a way that feels traditional and also new to me because form feels like a way of asking questions in this book. Questions about what we expect and what we’ll dance to and when we we’ll say, “No. Stop it.”

Yeah. I should go. You know, I didn’t read that Whitman poem until I’d moved away from Brooklyn and was teaching at Stanford. Rick Barot was teaching it to his class and showed it to me. I think it was in 2002. The first thing I thought about were those days right after, when the sky was full of smoke and how you could see the fires from the roof of my friend’s apartment on Flatbush. We sat up there and stared and wept. I remember you knew a fire truck was heading out of the station on Union Street because it would be quiet and then, in the distance, you would hear cheering and how the cheering got louder as the trucks passed because everyone would just stop whatever they were doing and come outside of the shops and yell, “Thank you” and “We love you.” People are remarkable.  And terrible.  It’s complicated isn’t it? All the things we want. And what we’ll do for them. Whitman comes back around to beauty. But it’s never the same. And that’s better in the end.

More soon,

Gaby

P.S. The conversation is going gangbusters in the subscribers’ online group. You’re going to love them. Also, I’ve sent the camera and can’t wait to see what you see.

____________________________________________________________

From, “This Compost” by Walt Whitman. First published in 1856 under title, “Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat.”

From, “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris.” Timothy Donnelly, The Cloud Corporation.


Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of "The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart" (Persea. 2005) and "Apocalyptic Swing" (Persea. 2009), which was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including a Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lectureship from Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Woman Writer's Award and a fellowship to Civitella di Ranieri in Umbria. Her poems have been featured in the Washington Post and on Garrison Keillor's Poet's Almanac and in numerous journals. She also writes the Sports Desk column for The Best American Poetry blog and is the Virtual Editor for Broadsided Press. She tweets @gabbat, @broadsidedpress and may be writing her third book @caracaraoriole. She is on the advisory board of The Rumpus' Poetry Book Club. She lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →