As Humphrey Bogart didn’t say in Casablanca, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful Do-Over.” As Kathleen Ossip did say, in her newly released third collection of poems, “I am/ Still studying, aren’t you?” Yes, as a matter of fact, I am! Thank you for asking.
One of my recent pleasures of study has been this very book and the extraordinary permissions it offers to readers and writers alike—indeed to anyone who is “still studying”—to make process a part of their project, to tear down fourth walls all over the place, to renovate unremittingly across the page, and to entertain re-vision (as Rich wrote of it, with that essential hyphen) as the subject itself rather than that which is ultimately scrapped on the cutting room floor.
I bring up movies because Ossip’s collection is remarkably cinematic. I find myself watching these poems more than reading them, and sometimes the speaker herself comments on what she has shown me. This doesn’t happen in a voiceover kind of way, remote and all-knowing, but as if a woman “wimpled by unknowing” had sat down beside me in the theater, offered some popcorn, and whispered in my ear: “Accordion music is the saddest music on earth: agree or disagree?” Beneath my own wimple of unknowing, I mull on the question, listen to the soundtrack of the poem.
What we mis-hear is often as important as what we hear, I’m learning. Perhaps by analogy, what we don’t know is just as important as what we do. This message certainly comes through in The Do-Over. Recall how in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman actually says, “Play it once, Sam,” and later, “Play it, Sam.” She never says, “Play it again.” Yet from a single misquoted phrase, look at the artistic innovations that arose: Woody Allen’s 1969 Broadway play, Play It Again, Sam, followed by the film of the same name adapted for the screen in 1972. Then, the Manchester Orchestra wrote a song called “Play it again, Sam,” for their album, You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, but Brilliance Needs a Good Editor (which, incidentally, could be the title of a Kathleen Ossip poem—I urge her to write it!). Then, Milton Babbitt wrote a solo for viola called “Play it again, Sam” in 1989. For what it’s worth, I think viola music is the saddest music on earth: agree or disagree? See how Ossip, too, invites these kinds of riffs, these shape-shifting variations on a theme.
Her poem, “Tool Moan,” is premised entirely upon a mishearing. The speaker sets the scene: “I sat at a table outside an Irish pub, with a child I adored and a man I didn’t, in/ a resort town in summer.// Another man sat on a folding chair attempting to entertain the diners with/ accordion music […] I heard the waitresses call him Tool Moan.” This is what she heard, and so this is what we, the audience of the poem, heard, too. We follow her through the poem, the evening’s unfolding: “The man paid the bill. The child ran ahead. Delicate equals subject to damage/ (and almost equals celtic). ‘You have some competition tonight,’ I said to Tool/ Moan as we left.”
You see it, too, don’t you? You’re watching with the same curious interest that I am. “‘I know,’ he said. Later, back in the hotel room, I realized I’d misheard. His name was Tout le Monde (equals everybody in French)…”, or more precisely, all the world. Ossip doesn’t abandon the poem with this realization. Instead, she allows the realization to develop in real time. Now everything we thought we heard, thought we knew, must be recontextualized, reconsidered. In this way, the poem resembles real life, looking backward to move forward. In this way, the poem is also a form of cinéma vérité.
As Haley Joel Osment didn’t say in The Sixth Sense, “I see Do-Overs.” But Ossip’s speaker tells us, “I’m afraid of death.” She’s candid like that. And later: “Birth, I believed,// was the brilliant upheaval. Now I see Death is another.” Perhaps upheavals are the reason we need do-overs in the first place. After all, “We walk every day through a haunted house.” Ghosts follow us around. This book is full of them, actually: popular ghosts like Amy Winehouse and pioneering ghosts like Steve Jobs. There are painting ghosts like Lucian Freud and singing ghosts like Donna Summer, and the ghost of our collective unconscionable, Troy Davis. You will find them all here, vividly embodied. They are so real that you, too, will “want to believe in reincarnation an eternity of do-overs.” There’s even a “Ghost Moon,” like a spotlight in the balcony, commenting on the ghosts ahead and behind, the ghosts above and below: “This is the light of the culture: gold and misleading./ The moon of the culture is full; its light is thick.” It’s a meta-moon, the kind that shares its popcorn and whispers in our ears: “I’m vast, you’re vast, we’ve been done.”
Now maybe you’re thinking, as Clark Gable wasn’t in Gone with the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a Do-Over.” But you will. Here’s why: “Perseverance is beautiful.” In other words, we’re defined more by the do-over than the first attempt, more by the next than the last. “Success consists in ignoring/ what you don’t like, as a bunny//leaps past tinfoil/ in his search for greens.” And this is nothing if not a searching book, a green book—not in the sense of novice, but in the sense of new, fresh, poetry like you haven’t seen it before. This is a poet who isn’t afraid to tell us: “We don’t have the tools, yet, to prove//much of anything.” Or this: “To create an image of what I mean///only makes it worse.” Or this: “What does infinity look like? It hurts.” Her reiterations aren’t redundant; they’re cumulative. This is a poetics of extreme long shots and extreme close ups, alternating in tandem, a speaker who wanders into prose and wanders back again. She is the Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Wall, that Wants It Down.
Often, as you read her incisive description of an experience, you have the uncanny sensation that she is describing your own experience reading about hers. Is there a name for this? Meta-transference? Meta-transitivity? Meta-vicariousness? Like here, in Ossip’s wide-angled prose panorama: “people are like stories, was my experience. Once you’ve read them, you can’t unread them. They’re part of your nervous system.” Or here, in this tightly enjambed still: “A piece of you flew into me one day, a/ Niggling hooked little finger of spirit.” This book stays with you, alters something in your poetic constitution. You’re still digesting, long after the collection is done.
As Jennifer Gray didn’t say in Dirty Dancing, but as I’m sure she’d agree: “Nobody puts Ossip in a corner.” For inasmuch as this book is about death and dying, it’s also about figuring out how to live and plumbing the many possibilities inherent in any life. Our speaker in these poems, who is also our doer, and our do-over-er, is a true agnostic. (Recall that wimpled unknowing, which I love so much and trust so deeply.) She tells us again and again, shifting her Libra scales: “This I don’t believe or disbelieve.” And this: “The love grows elastic, something very different to the observer,//the extreme/ natural of it, the extreme unnatural.” And this: “A song of love and death makes its own/ bitter symmetry, that’s the myth of achievement.” Then, best and most human of all: “I do but I don’t.” Who doesn’t recognize this sentiment deep in her nervous system? The yes and the no, both at once. The essential ambiguity of maybe, perhaps. Do we—and don’t we—all?
The myth of achievement is the false account that everything culminates in a single, definitive moment or action. For instance, a thesis is proved. Or a climax occurs. Or an epiphany materializes. But not here, not in this relentlessly rhizomatic collection. As Jeff Bridges never said in The Big Lebowski, “The Do-Over abides.” Here is a speaker poised on a Möbius strip. As she travels the length of it, she returns to her starting point having covered a great distance but never having crossed an edge. (No corners indeed!) At the end, which is also the beginning, she looks straight into the lens and says: “There’s nothing good about ill-timed death. Nor about the death of love. That/ poetry glamorizes them disturbs me.” So, she made a poetry that doesn’t. It’s as simple as that, and as complicated.
Then, she turns the lens on us: “In the important world (my imagination), I am watching you, simply, without hope or dream.” She’s practicing abiding, having told us just a page before that “Expectation lingers/ just like a memory.” It’s hard to let go, so we do, and we don’t. We turn back to the beginning again; we loop around: “Whether we accept/ these processes or are repulsed by them, we are still studying.”
I don’t know about you, but Kathleen Ossip had me at The Do-Over.