The Prose Poem - Container for Atmosphere & Gesture
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA.,
Thursday May 12, 2005
A year ago when Esther Helfgott invited me to give a Craft Lecture I intuitively thought of saying something about the prose poem as a container for atmosphere. This came to mind as a result of what I'd been learning about the relationship between memory and atmosphere in regard to the thinking of Wilfred Bion, a British psychoanalyst. During the First World War he served in France as a tank commander and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Legion of Honour. After the war in his analytical training he worked with veterans suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder, then known as shell shock.
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.
This passage from East Coker, the second section of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets both contrasts and resonates with Proust's observation about what makes writing matter: This being the discovery of "what, though it ought to be more precious to us than anything in the world, yet remains ordinarily for ever unknown to us, the discovery of our true life, of reality as we have felt it to be."
I want to invite you to recall a remembered corner. See if you sense an atmosphere, a season or time of day? What about the light?
Are there associations -- dust motes of memory, frail threads of recollection.? Where do they lead, these emergent tendrils wanting to be known?
Can you discern a barely perceptible gesture, a wink of sorts whose entrance you are willing to permit? Perhaps it's the sound of a refrigerator momentarily dimming the lights as it regulates itself in the space of a remembered kitchen. . .or a broadcaster's voice narrating a film about the immune system in a movie you saw in grade school. . .whir of the projector in mid-afternoon. This delicate process is a raid. . .a raid on the inarticulate.
To contain this atmosphere apply a Carpenter's Square to the corner you have located, this ruler with an elbow can serve to establish the four-sided spatial construct necessary to contain the raid. The four-sided geometric form of the prose poem or vignette provides the container, the secure space wherein potential encounters within a given atmosphere circulate and evolve into an instance of utterance.
This process is murky, wayward, and independent. It requires a willingness to inhabit ambiguous territory. To stay put. Take off your coat and stay awhile.
In his chapter on Corners in The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes:
Every retreat on the part of the soul possesses figures of havens. That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined. . . . . We have to designate the space of our immobility by making it the space for our being.
The space of immobility is familiar to me, for stasis was the atmosphere of my childhood houses. Paralysis. A feeling of torpor and dis-ease. On the surface this feeling does not appear to be kin to poetic inspiration, yet Bachelard goes on to quote Lithuanian poet, O.V. de Milosz who writes, "Motionless, mute things never forget: melancholy and despised as they are, we confide in them that which is humblest and least suspected in the depths of ourselves."
Smoky clouds paralyze. Heads turn around and around
unable to fathom solutions. Fingers twirl into snarls and
converse with waves moving toward but never reaching
the shore. Curiosity sits suspended in a cage casting long
shadows over concrete on a world where all liquids are
lukewarm. Someone is teasing someone over, over, and
over again. Pulling their hair, tickling, insulting in a high
thin voice, "You'll never clear it away; the clutter will
win as sand runs through the hourglass." Here you are
tied, bound and gagged in a splintered chair. High
desert winds predicted for the foreseeable future, the one
you see in this self enclosed egg.
This is the "sordid haven" of an atmosphere where, growing up, much of my mind felt cornered. It is in Now the Day is Over, my book of memoir prose poems, written before I knew about Post-traumatic stress disorder or transgenerational stress. Because many of the poems in the book were directly or indirectly related to my father I included this quotation from a letter he wrote my sister and me about his combat experience in World War II:
"Emotions run deep and change with startling rapidity in war time. One cannot recall them in tranquility as Wordsworth did his daffodils the emotions are too kaleidoscopic in recall to allow for sustained meditation or philosophic evaluation. One vivid memory quickly dissolves into another resulting in an ever changing montage of feelings."
"Here you are tied, bound and gagged in a splintered chair."
The insular atmosphere of Fear can also be discerned in Eternity, another prose poem from Now the Day is Over about the way it felt to me to remember my father who died in 1983.
On the table of a distant room a fan revolves. My father
is tall; his army khakis well pressed. It is hot in this
summer afternoon 'muggy' he says, and 'stifling.'
Cigarette smoke wafts slowly out the open door.
Patterns of sunlight and shadow a shifting confluence,
for the wind has begun to pick up. This is the beginning
of eclipse. Light grows dim and then it will vanish;. His
mind turns back to lilacs. He continues to smoke as if the
sun had never disappeared. And yet it has, of this there
is no doubt. It is hot in this summer afternoon, muggy
he says, and stifling.
Bachelard describes the corner as "a sort of half-box, part walls, part door. It will serve as an illustration for the dialectics of inside and outside. . . . Consciousness of being at peace in one's corner produces a sense of immobility, and this, in turn, radiates immobility. . . .So we have to designate the space of our immobility by making it the space of our being."
For me to permit such a corner to become "the space of (my) being" constitutes surrendering to what I would otherwise actively deny, ignore, or attempt to dismiss.
Joy is the prose poem that comes after Fear. On rereading it I notice it possesses a four-cornered frame:
White clouds above, and outside the sun is as we
remember it in a painting with a blue frame. The air
sustains the moment as though a solitary whistle
returned from being lost to announce itself in silver
light where everyone returns into this second chance.
In the early 1980s Robert Hass was writing what appeared to be paragraphs of poetry. Ones with titles such as "Late Spring," "Museum," and "Tall Windows" appeared in Antaeus and in 1989 were published in his third volume of poetry, Human Wishes.
In his Poetry Workshop at Centrum in 1981 he described them as "these things I'm writing" and went on to say, "I write to discover what I'm feeling."
While he explained the origins of the prose poem, acknowledging its purported birth in 19th-century France, I found myself fixating on its visual and spatial aspects, its literal geometric shape and began to feel a deep running sense of relief . This intensified as Hass went on to say, "It can be a space to range around in. . .to let yourself go all over the place."
TALL WINDOWS by Robert Hass
All day you didn't cry or cry out and you felt like sleeping. The desire to
sleep was light bulbs dimming as a powerful appliance kicks on.; You
recognized that. As in school it was explained to you that pus was a
brave army of white corpuscles hurling themselves at the virulent invader and dying. Riding through the Netherlands on a train, you noticed that even the junk was neatly stacked in the junkyards. There were magpies in the c fields beside the watery canals, neat little houses, tall windows. In Leiden, on the street outside the university, the house where Descartes lived was mirrored in the canal. There was a pair of swans and a sense that, without haste or anxiety, all the people on the street were going to arrive at their appointments punctually. Swans and mirrors. And Descartes. It was easy to see how this European tranquility would produce a poet like Mallarme, a middle-class art like symbolism. And you did not despise the collective orderliness, the way the clerks in the stores were careful to put bills in the cash register with the Queen's face facing upward. In the house next to the house where Descartes lived, a Jewish professor died in 1937. His wife was a Dutch woman of strict Calvinist principles and she was left with two sons. When the Nazis came in 1940, She went to court and perjured herself by testifying that her children were conceived during an illicit affair with a Gentile, and when she developed tuberculosis in 1943, she traded passports with a Jewish friend, since she was going to die anyway, and took her place on the train to the camps. Her sons kissed her good-bye on the platform. Eyes open. What kept you awake was a feeling that everything in the would has its own size, that if you found its size among the swellings and diminishings it would be calm and shine.
In February 1903 in his first letter to Franz Kappas, Rilke made this suggestion to the young poet who had asked him to respond to his love poems: "Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past. . ."
The sensory life of "submerged sensations" equates to the stuff of the atmosphere a prose poem can make available, contain, and by containing transform.
Kafka begins this parable or prose poem by hearing the nocturnal music of seductive voices:
THE SIRENS by Franz Kafka
These are the seductive voices of the night; the Sirens, too, sang that way. I would be doing them an injustice to think that they wanted to seduce; they knew they had claws and sterile wombs, and they lamented this aloud. They could not help it if their laments sounded so beautiful.
Storm tossed by war and feeling displaced in a country other than her own, the fragrance of fresh fruit recalls Xuan Ngoc Nguyen's beloved grandmother
GRANDMOTHER by Xuan Ngoc Nguyen
I remember how she wake us up in the morning. I was a kid, three, four years old.
In Vietnam, banana, mango have distinct fragrance. Pineapple.
Grandmother will cut it. She will lie it by you, open your mosquito net to put it by your nose and smell the fragrant. I will open my eyes. I see piece of fruit.
Grandma put it there.
I miss that.
I cut up pear on a plate. I pick it up, just about to eat. All a sudden behind the bellybutton I got lonely for my grandmother.
In this prose poem by Vietnam veteran, Bruce Weigl, sensory memories intermingle with the life of atmosphere to give voice to the way it is for a man forever impacted by war.
APPARITION OF THE EXILE by Bruce Weigl
There was another life of cool summer mornings, the dogwood air and the slag stink so gray like our monsoon which we loved for the rain and cool wind until the rot came into us. And I remember the boys we were the evening of our departure, our mothers waving through the train's black pluming exhaust; they were not proud in their tears of our leaving, so don't tell me to shut up about the war or I might pull something from my head, from my head, from my head that you wouldn't want to see and whoever the people are might be offended.
From the green country you reconstruct in your brain, from the rubble and stink of your occupation, there is no moving out. A sweet boy who got drunk and brave on our long ride into the State draws a maze every day on white paper, precisely in his room of years as if you could walk into it. All day he draws and imagines his platoon will return from the burning river where he sent them sixteen years ago into fire. He can't stop seeing the line of trees explode in white phosphorous blossoms and the liftship sent for them spinning uncontrollably beyond hope into the Citadel wall. Only his mother comes these days, drying the fruit in her apron or singing the cup of hot tea into his fingers which, like barbed wire, web the air.
I've attempted to impart how the prose poem's four corners can join to form a space to hold lost shards and splinters of fragmented memory as well as submerged sensory clues. Bounded by geometry they sometimes return through a context of atmosphere to be refigured and reclaimed. This rescue in the form of a raid can realize a felt sense of what we have lived, a renewed truth about our relationship to reality we might otherwise never have known.
Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press 1964
Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets, Harcourt, Brace & Company 1943
Fiset, Joan, Now the Day is Over, Blue Begonia 1997
Fiset, Joan, Nguyen, Xuan Ngoc, "Washing Clothes In Moonlight," unpublished ms
Hass, Robert, Human Wishes, The Ecco Press 1989Rilke, Rainer Maria
Kafka, Franz, Kafka: The Complete Stories & Parables, Quality PB Book Club, 1971
Nussbaum, Martha C., Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions,
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Rilke, Rainier Maria, Letters to a Young Poet, Norton 1962
Weigl, Bruce. Song of Napalm, Grove/Atlantic 1988
Joan Fiset is a psychotherapist in private practice. As a PTSD Contractor with the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs she works with Vietnam veterans diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder. Her book of memoir prose poems, NOW THE DAY IS OVER, Blue Begonia 1997, won the King County Publication Award. Her poems and prose have appeared in UNDER THE SUN, RAVEN CHRONICLES, CRAB CREEK REVIEW and are forthcoming in CRANKY.