I'm going to start trying to do the companion piece to Grendel's fiction review. Hopefully I can manage to be as consistent. Anyone know what the rules are on offering the text of the poems here? I'm not going to jail for poetry. Though I suppose I had to get a job because of it. I don't think they are available online.
The narrative poem by Donald Hall describes the speaker's walk through a graveyard on a nice day. His dog notices a couple doing it and then dog and master walk back to the car. The poem is called “Tennis Ball” because the dog has a tennis ball in his mouth.
I've heard the word “accessible” used in reference to poems like this. It is that. It is very clear, not to say lucid, and after reading it one's feels as if one has read a poem. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing here outside of subject matter (death, sex, flowers, trees, and leaves) that makes it poetry.
After several reads I begin to assume that the speaker is visiting the grave of his wife. Very little emotion of any kind is betrayed throughout the poem, so I begin to also assume that part of the point is that death/loss becomes quotidian. A stretch. There are plastic chickens on one of the graves. This gives us the good line in the poem and it sole source of real music, “(Somebody loved somebody who loved chickens.).” This is an interesting bit of psychology and is part of the reason why the dog is along at all; perhaps the dead person loved the dog too. It's hard to tell. The speaker is so removed from the scene that nothing is felt. This is further demonstrated by the flatness of the language. I'm okay with plain language and normal syntax (I'm thinking of Stafford and Justice) but I don't really ever feel the intelligence attaching to the language in such a way as to render emotion. Everything here is passivity. I think I would have liked to have felt acceptance, which requires engagement.
Or surprise. Then the dog notices “a woman's long bare legs” and “a man's body / heaving between them.” “Heaving between them” is not bad on second thought. What is bad though is that there is no surprise or affection or even a realization that they are people. They remain body parts “a man's body” instead of “a man.” Wouldn't it be great to see some people boning in the graveyard? “Boning in the graveyard” would be a pretty good name for your garage band. But the speaker simply, “became the source of coitus interruptus.” Anyway the contrast is pretty obvious. Living and the Dead. They seem to be already dead though, so many arms and legs and later “her / head riding up and down” after the speaker peeks at them from a distance—the only way you'd know he cared at all.
Then I get a little angry at the return to the world of poetry (to be read with an English accent), “It was a fine day, leaves red.” The inversion there lets you know that we're ramping up. Finally, Gus the dog refuses to give up his tennis ball. Like much of the rest of the poem, it is an imaginable observation.
So back to accessibility. If it is, what are we accessing? There is no life on this planet. No one feels anything for anything. I respectfully suggest golf courses after dark over graveyards during the day for amorous trysts.
The Olds poem is a conversation between a daughter and her aging mother who is “near the start / of the end of her life.” They are discussing cloning (the mother thinking it's a bunch of gobbledygook and tomfoolery), the miracle of birth, and the afterlife. It is a playful conversation with the speaker in quotes and the mother in italics.
There are some nice renderings of the mother, “a delight that lies near / the center of her nature” and “going gaga so slowly / she makes it look like a natural return / to a state of grace.” And that last one is a nice bit of music with “gaga” glancing off “grace.” I also like the idea of the irrational worry about current events that the elderly sometimes have—especially about things that have almost nothing to do with them. They've lived in the world so long it is more theirs even as they lose, perhaps because they lose, the ability to affect it. My own grandmother is getting more and more confused as the months go by, but has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the Michael Jackson case. Such is life.
I feel though that the italic wisdom is pretty cliched. “Not real flesh, she assures me—the men cannot make happen / what happened in her body.” And later, “Not a living / cell with a soul.” Besides that, it's just the chronicle of a conversation. They decide, if they can, that they'll meet on the mother's birthday in the year 3000 (in the year 3000!) to visit the earth.
This might be a good time to talk about Politics and Poetry. There's no indication that they're South Korean, but who knows. The problem is that the poem simply brings up the issue. Cloning. There's a religious angle; it's called “Her Creed.” The word “flesh” is all over the place. And it starts with “I believe” as opposed to “We believe” which is the beginning of the Apostles' Creed? I could be wrong. Anyway they say it at church. But she just thinks cloning won't work, when, to all appearances, it certainly will. Also, there isn't any overt religious argument. So is a poem political if it doesn't take a side? Asking that question felt very Sex and the City. If so, what is this poem saying? “Old people don't like cloning because they are more likely to be religious?” “God doesn't like cloning?” The speaker, our traditional guide through the poem, has no opinion on the matter. Instead there is a rambling conversation where the speaker posits playful impossibilities. On the one hand it brings up a Big Subject and on the other it backs away from it. No Big Shadow.
There are some nice moments in the poem, but it doesn't add up to a lot. I feel like the poem could have been about anything and the relationship between the speaker and the mother would have been the same. I think it's a poem about the mother's decline and the cloning stuff is just running interference.