By L. S. Bassen
A quotation attributed to William Butler Yeats can be found in cyberspace, “What can be explained is not poetry.” At least 63 people have ‘liked’ this quotation, but not me. I appreciate explanation. Susan’s Scarlata’s new collection is bookended by both an introductory “Proem” and end “Notes”. The “Proem” explains that her 64 poems are: “A recoup of the Sapphic Stanza form … They are strung… linked without attempt to present any sum total.” The first poem, “What Is Your Business Here?” begins, “I dreamed I carried a snake/ to a burnt cracked tree/…Our needs and wants…” include “a plectrum” and we are advised to “throw these bits/ in two directions at once.”
Those “two directions” introduce twosomes appearing early that become landmarks. The phrase that reappears most, echoing Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” is “the red behind my ribs.” “Phantasmagoria” takes us further to when “it was all/Arcadia that whole day long,” and where “satyrs…/ …are…dancing” the “Hoof crunk.”
In the familiar modern quest to polarize the definitions of artifice/art, rejecting civilization in order to rediscover a more authentic reality in the archaic past, Susan Scarlata is studiously un-lyrical and rejects at the same time she invokes earlier forms of lyric, narrative, and epic poetry. It Might Turn Out We Are Real is a marvel of expression of modernist tension between Classical/ Romantic inspiration and Ironic self-consciousness.
Midway in the collection, there is delight at “What Part Reached?”:
Listen, words were once carved on wax tablets
then placed in jars for safekeeping.
And what’s strange about
the hippocampus is how it’s both
a sea creature of whimsy, part fish and part horse;
and the ridged part of our brains where our
shortest of memories spend time.
“And what’s strange about” is an echo of William Carlos Williams’s So much depends upon… By “Of Pelts And Cuff-Links,” you can feel yourself hoof-crunking along. In “To What Do I Most Compare You?” (post-modern echo of not “to a summer’s day”), the poet juggles rapture & reason: “… the knife was blunt/ the ram caught in thicket, or a deep appears…/ that will suffice. Synecdochic day. Part for the whole, and ‘civilized’ starts.”
Synecdochic Day ought to be an international holiday.
This collection also works as a precis course in the history of poetry & post-modern criticism. The syllabi for three recent classes are at http://www.susanscarlata.com/teachings/. One of the most influential texts listed is The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths by Rosalind Krauss, with its emphasis on the visual arts.
Anyone creative in the post-modern period – certainly in the Academy – has been ironically constrained by a century of critical rules of rebellion and rejection of past formalities. The hostile antithesis of art and artifice has not yet found synthesis. With Ferlinghetti, we await a rebirth of wonder. The shortest lyrics in It Might Turn Out We Are Real are the least affecting and convincing. (“Vanishing Point”: “When I need/things in motion. /Wing light/ it is.”) But like Shakespeare/Shylock, real poets can’t stop themselves from letting Humanity/Beauty/Truth through. That’s what happens in some lovely moments in It Might Turn Out We Are Real, the title a Romantic wish expressed in Ironic terms. In “A Living,” the poet writes, “The honey the bees made from almond flowers was/too bitter to eat.” Now there’s a perfect metaphor for the modern poet’s predicament. Not so much: “Country, City” – “Pigeon chest/ I never had/ pigeon slump.” Poems like that ring bells that toll for me/thee.
Published in Cider Press Review, 2012.