Cadenza by Charles North
Hanging Loose Press, $15.00
Review by Martin Stannard
What do poems mean?
One of the more disturbing ideas, at least in my view,
is that all thinking entails something like
“triage” among competing ideas,
such that the contents of mind
at any given moment aren’t,
and can’t be, an accurate representation
of the mental process involved – and moreover,
that they mask equally significant mental activity
which hasn’t (for reasons
that are plainly unavailable)
been selected, but which could equally have been so,
given even miniscule variation in our complex mental life.
If this extract from the title poem of Charles North’s “Cadenza” suggests to you that it’s a philosophical poem, you may be right. You may be wrong. No-one may care either way. It’s a poem that thinks, and makes you (the reader) think too. I’m not sure one can ask for more. Actually, one can ask for much more. You can ask not just for a thinking poem but a poem which also is at the same time a delight and a pleasure to read, a poem that makes you feel you are doing something decent and intelligent with your brain and your time. And that the something you are doing is happening because you are a person who actually enjoys doing something decent and intelligent with their brain for no reason other than the doing's sake. Perhaps poetry makes nothing happen except to make the world a richer place and the people who are touched by it a little richer also. If you ask any or all of that of a poem, you need look no further than “Cadenza” or any other of North’s poems.
as former Red Sox slugger Ted Williams
once began a response to a TV interviewer ……
Footballically speaking, I have to admire poems that make me feel smart when I'm not. Poets from the same neck of the poetry woods as North, whose poetic lineage and milieu is pure first-hand New York School (they knew those guys), wear their erudition lightly, sometimes almost humourously, which is liberatingly democratic. Even when I have no idea what North is talking about I’m enjoying myself, and I think that's ok.
And cricketically speaking I have to admire poems that remind me how to enjoy life. Lead by example. And you enjoy life by taking risks, not by staying within the confines of your basket. (Okay, I know this is open to debate, but just at the moment debate is not an option. Life, full and rewarding life, entails risk.) And poems, real poems, entail risk – which suggests that poems are like life, but that’s a whole other argument, and one that one of us would lose.
North’s poems often remind me of balancing acts:
It can’t be the imbalances
Yet if it has to be – I’m not saying it has to but if
in that there is a constant balancing going on between, for example, colloquialism
-- Do bowling alleys sell beer? [laughs]
and artifice that reminds you of Language Poetry stuff:
Slipping its height as per the aspirin of
your fullest sleep, the perennial spine.
O the angels of arrant tempo fold graves
for the brandishing, under the gravity
misnaming looks – as well as avid and filled
to print away honey on what abandoned.
And it's not a tension; far from it.Then there is lyric grace:
There would be wasps and roses all over.
Late afternoon bells. Grapes transparent as stones
Asleep in sun and warm shadow.
(from “Clip From Francis Jammes”)
and recognisable so-called New York School tones:
The tone poem left the door open.
Well, close it.
as well as equally recognisable New York School strategies: part 5 of the prose “Vetoed” is a page-long list of imagined proposed buildings
and (oh, I already said this) prose:
Mozart is easinesses found, Brahms difficulties overcome. In the clarinet sonatas (if not in the viola versions) the performer personifies struggle. The craftiness of Odysseus, beleaguered and homesick, aiming at whatever is in the way of beauty shining forth. As against single-minded Achilles, too spear-like to be true, underpinned (and –mined) by darkness and the chalumeau.
(from “Five Notes)
which all goes some small way towards indicating North’s range but goes absolutely nowhere near describing what this book is really like. The reviewer is beginning to think about going to do something else but there isn’t anything else to do here at the moment so I’ll carry on. So how to describe what this book is like? – not in looks (it has pages and words), or form of poems (I’ve half-covered that one), or type of poem (“type of poem”? what on earth am I talking about?) but as an experience, a standing (or sitting or sprawling or whatever) with a piece of art and being altered by it (as you can be altered by, say, meeting a beautiful girl or not quite being run over by a bus.)
Here is a small section of “Summer Of Living Dangerously”:
The pair of cardinals that zip around like flying drops of blood … let’s make that like ice-dancers, especially when compared to the deliberate hawks. The latter have a continuous relationship but a continually shifting one, so that a straight line connecting them at any given moment is one of an infinite number of variables. Neither is what we mean by chaos, but each has a somewhat unsettling if partly pleasing randomness. A blood bank of cardinals. A plane geometry of hawks.
Wary as I am of plucking a phrase from a book and finding in it some way of saying something smart about what the poems mean (ok -- shoot me now) here goes: North’s poems are full of things that are connected because the poet connects them but they may at first appear to you and me as unconnected but they are connected and the more you read the poems the more connections you see, and you begin to see (perhaps) the potentially “infinite number of variables”, and you take pleasure (oh my god!) in the “somewhat unsettling if partly pleasing randomness” of it all. Except I think the randomness (if that’s what it is) becomes more than partly pleasing; it becomes a delight. (Ok, that’s the end of that paragraph. Did I pass the exam? Oh…)
To take this whatever it is I’m trying to say one step further, I’m tempted, but I won’t give in to the temptation, to tell you about rigid designators:
…… The following are rigid designators: Johnny Van der Meer, Johnny Friendly, Peter Unger, Marjorie Perloff, The Man Who Loved Hadleyburg, the Widow Wadman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julie Schwarz, Ken Schwarz, the Sears Tower. The mano who wrote Sven Types of Ambiguity isn’t a rigid designator, as there is nothing necessary about his having written that book…
(from “Summer Of Living Dangerously”)
I didn’t know anything about rigid designators until I read this book, but now I’ve got it all figured out. I looked it up on the internet here. Come to think of it, I might just be someone who thinks he has it figured out. I am certainly someone who is not sure if he has it figured out or not. But I think I’m right in saying that the chap who wrote this review is not a rigid designator but Martin Stannard is. This is both somewhat unsettling and more than partly pleasing.
But there’s one other thing I want to say, and it only just occurred to me to say it. I think there is a smile in all of these poems, or at the back of these poems. Perhaps “smile” is not the right word, but I think the poet takes pleasure in the poems, and smiles, and I love that. There is a set of “translations” here, which are new versions of some poems that appeared in North’s earlier books. (The earlier versions – the originals, as it were - are also included here, at the back of the book.) They are a form of re-write but they are not what we would normally regard as re-writes. A re-write suggests that the poet is unhappy with the earlier form or some of the words of the original poem and has tinkered with it; with North’s “translations” we have a different situation. For example, the first stanza of the original “Song” (a poem that appeared in his 1999 “New & Selected”) is
I am pressed up against you
Like air pressed up against the sky
The carpenter ants are at work on the bearing beams
O bearing beams
The “translation” renders this stanza as follows:
I feel you very close to me
In the same way that the sky and air seem not two things but one
Those termite-like pests are attacking the two-by-fours
In some respects what North does with these translations is examine the language; he is looking for another way of saying. “Which has nothing on confusion itself” becomes “Though that doesn’t hold a candle to out-and-out mental disarray”. But consider those “termite-like pests” – they are carpenter ants, and that is what they are. I even think “carpenter ant” may be some kind of rigid designator but I’m not sure. BY calling them "termite-like pests" the voice of the poem belongs, if you will, to someone not quite as smart as that other guy. In something like the same way, in another translation, what was a simple “building” becomes a “windowed construction”… ok, let’s say North is having serious fun here at the expense of translations in general and the naming of things. But he’s also once again dealing in possibilities, and poetry, whatever it means and is about, is surely about possibilities.
Since I first encountered North’s poetry back in the early 1980s I’ve been entranced and amazed by it. In those early days I admit to being worried about how I didn’t understand most of it, and I busied myself also trying to figure out how come I was enjoying something I didn’t understand. Boy, those were the days!
So anyway, what do poems mean?