Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Resin: a little too sticky?

It's rare that I have a mixed opinion of a book, and it's even rarer that the mixed feelings have any power either way. But after reading the 2004 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets award winning book, Resin by Geri Doran, I am torn like a weathered cornfield. It is clear the Doran knows how to put together an image-- the book is ripe with beautiful, fierce moments of lucid sight filtered all too consciously by the lyric speaker, utterly aware and in control of the things around her. The opening image of the collection, in fact, speaks the exact inaccuracy which moves me between loving and hating this collection:

The sky fell open to the map of the constellations.
Earlier the snowmelt reconfigured the field.
I tried to describe it, but the field transformed
into the plains of the soul pressed flat.

Here we have an image, nicely constructed, though perhaps a bit cliché to open one's first collection of poem with, but nonetheless. Then a mirroring: the sky with the field, making the image of the sky a bit more interesting. Then the poets annoying intrusion, the speaker's statement of, "hey, here I am, trying to describe everything to you just as it is, but life is just too complicated to do it." If the speaker fails in the telling, that's fine. Represent it through contradicting images, competing sources of light, a sound of a machine from faraway entering the landscape. I don't want to hear how hard the poet is working to provide me with the art. Just give me the art, complicated or sincere.

Meanwhile, poems like "Self Portrait as Miranda" are complex in construction, vivid and unstable in a very tasty and scrumptious way. Opening up with a beautiful account of place, "My story begins at sea, in the bitter liquid./ If not, it would begin in Florida, along I-95". Here, Doran creates a beautiful parallel of landscapes, which she carries on throughout the poem quite amazingly, mirroring the dramatic stage of Shakespeare's Tempest with a "lime-green motel" in Florida (could there be a tackier image?) which seems to be relating a separate incident told by the speaker. Brilliant. But she intrudes again, if only for a moment. As if she can't trust the reader to gather the consequences of the images, Doran can't resist pushing the moment just a little too hard and telling the reader just how to interpret the images:

As the crew, in desperate but unspoken straits,
wishes belatedly for a drag on the anchor.
Frequently, we are thus carried along.
Frequently, de profundis, we struggle ashore

to find ourselves, if not stranded, then beached.
We are inclined to be grateful for land.

Are we? Really? She has pushed too hard, breaking the carnal rule in poetry of telling instead of showing. The "we" here is ambiguous, though not in a tantalizing way- in a way that removes the reader from the poem more than it locates him/her in the poem. Are "we" on the ship? In the lime-green motel? Swimming in a sea of profundity? It's hard to tell. And in the case of this poem, which comes so close to succeeding, it's tragic.

The poem of most interest to me is buried at the end of this relatively short, 51 page collection. "The Bitter Season" is written in four sections which are labeled as a sequence of letters, 1-4. Again, Doran places us in a landscape, sparse but populated with ghosts and faceless men and women who exist in isolation, in darkness. Letter III and IV are the most innovative and interesting of the poems in this collection, representing a disjointed and confused voice that seems to be constantly suppressed by some sense of order of "God" evoked throughout (which I just don't buy). In letter III, the images are allowed to explode without interruption, and we are left with a soggy pile of poem by the end, but this time in a good way-- in a way that poet intended, I would guess. The momentum moves into the next section, which is my favorite part of the collection. Letter IV is the closest Doran comes to music; the springs of this little pearl are tightened and it's ready to burst:

Our plumb line found vertical. Gravity's
fantasy. Now I live hardscrabble on this hill.
As if on the sheer, with pebbles rolling down.
Where it is level, I am offered large stones
that resemble sarcophagi. (. . .)

While we are again placed in a landscape, it is one of abstract and impossible location. Like the speaker, we are dislocated, but delighted by it. . .the pressure is released just slightly by the language. There is also tension, however, created by the inevitable hang of gravity.

It's hard to bite my tongue about the religious overtones of this book- they are insidious and overwhelming in a grotesque, George W. Bush rhetoric-of-Democracy kind of way that caused me to throw up in my mouth more than once when I read it. It is my zero-tolerance-for-god-poems-meter pushed way into the red. Thank godd there is some ambiguity to the speaker's relationship with GOD or this book would be completely ruined, run amuck in the cornfields and Florida heat of lime-green hotels.


Scott Glassman said...

From what you had to say, Doran's not exactly in my top 10 poetry titles of the year to read list. In the bits of the poems you selected, where is the passion and energy???? Doran seems way too "careful" and conscious that she's writing a poem. The "I" is lax, lazy . . . and the "we" is trying (very badly) to get us on her side.

Tony said...

I'm all for intruding.

I don't buy the "hide the artifice" argument.

But that's me.

poetzie said...

tony- I totally agree, as long as the intrusion is not telling me what to think about or how to interpret the poem, which is mostly what Doran does. Bernadette Mayer has some amazing, poetically conscious moments in Midwinter Day (I read it recently so it's on my mind) but the intrusion calls attention to the text/ artiface in a way that does not privelege the speaker, and like Scott says, isn't trying to "get us on her side". Doran's intrusions are like afterthoughts, insertions, wisdom statements that anyone who is a half-careful reader can gather without the intrusions, this is why they are so annoying.

BULLSEYE said...

Very interesting.

Paul Adrian M said...

You give this book too much credit. I'm astonished it won the award.

poetzie said...

I was mostly amazed to see how few of the poems in the collection had been published! Only like six or seven of them! Maybe she knows someone. . . and maybe she'll introduce me :)

C. Dale said...

Only six or seven? I think I alone published 6 or 7 of these poems. And I would do so again. And publishing in the The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, TriQuarterly, etc. certainly doesn't seem too shabby either.

Doran is hardly a telling poet. Her work is complex, but also delicate at times. And don't confuse persona with author. They aren't always the same. Doran's style is one of doubt mixed with incredible accuracy. She has been writing and publishing great poems for over a decade. She didn't just arrive on the scene.

Doran is a very quiet poet. She doesn't play the po-biz game. And still she has held a Stegner Fellowship, won the Whitman, and just won the Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarhsip and a Bread Loaf Fellowship. I think she is doing just fine. I personally think her book is very good.

poetzie said...

C. Dale-
Point taken. Obviously there are a lot of people who are partial to her work or she wouldn't have a book out (unlike me, of course, who is yet to have my book published. . .). Mostly what I'm expressing is a sense of frustration that the poems are so close to being truly amazing but the intrusions are just too heavy handed. The poems with the least intrusions are the most successful, like the ones I mentioned. And these poems, as I also mention, are truly graceful.
Thanks for your weigh-in. I hope people do read this book - for me it was a quick read and well worth the time, even if I left it frustrated:) Better than leaving it flat, no?

poetzie said...

Oh, and I misspoke. Sorry! Many of these poems are published, but only in six publications. She has as many as ten poems in one publication (New England Review). So albeit a good, solid publication, her work has not been "spread around" as much as I would have expected. I'm told that I need at least 10 different publications before screeners will even pass my manuscript on to the judges. . .