J. D. McClatchy
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Intro

This dialogue took place in 2004 and the Critical, which follows, shortly thereafter.  I was intending to place my interview/essays in scholarly journals, but these analyses are so detailed and lengthy, I thought them better placed on-line.  My intent is to foster better understanding of contemporary poets and reach more of the interested, not to stuff my scarecrow curriculum vitae with more publications.

Dialogue

SP:       Once, in an interview, Alfred Hitchcock was asked why there were so many scenes of stairways in his movies, and he replied, because “Staircases are very photogenic.”  Do you mind discussing the symbolism of stairs in your own work, particularly in The Rest of the Way

JDM:   I can't see that staircases are any more important to me—or revealing of me—than they would be in any other writer's work.  It may be more likely that ascending and descending, or being above things and looking down—these may be central motions in my imagination.  The last poem in Scenes from Another Life ended with “stumbling up a flight of stars.  Stars Principal picks up that thread, and itself ends with a constellation.  I suppose The Rest of the Way is meant to join this complex of images.  I'd had the title for the book (one, by the way, I was never happy with, and remain unsatisfied with), and found the Emerson quote that seems to set it up; for it, in turn, I wanted stairs on the cover—as I had wanted stars on the cover of my second book.  Covers and epigraphs, after all, are like titles: a preliminary “interpretation” of what follows; or a way to control or direct a reader's attention.  A bannister?!

SP:       When I ran a computer program on word frequency in your work, I noticed that “up” predominates with 132 instances and “down” is downed with 76.  This surprised me because you balance (at least subconsciously) otherwise.  Of words which appear over 40 times, you balance day (41) with night (44), and first (48) with last (55).  But this up business . . .  Love also triumphs over hate at the rate of 45 to 4. 

I'm struggling toward several questions here:  How do you view ascending and descending?  Is this part of the issue of aesthetic distance?  A route to understanding?  Do you view your books as a series of journeys, some with an up mood, some with a down?  Is the ascending and descending a larger process of psychological adjustment?  The Rest of the Way, for me, is a very dark book, though in the poem “An Essay on Friendship” down seems to give way to up in a return to a major key, although this could be ironic:  “So the stars up there will know . . . ” “The sort of steam that vanishes now above one / last cup of tea . . .”  That last surprise “last cup of tea” emphasized by the line break seems both pathos and bathos, reminiscent of Eliot.  Is there the idea of death and dissolution in ascent, a kind of mock apotheosis?  You've commented on the larger implications of “disease” before.  Is The Rest of the Way, in the end, a kind of book of the dead?  AIDS seems a dark undercurrent.  What occasioned the writing of the book?  As I said in an earlier letter, “No, no, no.  The photo by Josef Sudek [on the cover] works beautifully . . .” although you were worried if it “worked.”  The title, too, seems appropriate to me, with the stasis and quiet of “rest” and movement and struggling vitality of “way,” with all of its overtones.   How do you hear it? 

JDM:    You let go a barrage of questions.  I'll give you a couple of “answers” here and let you decide which questions they respond to.

            1)         Your up-and-down computer count doesn't surprise me.  As often as not, the motions I described as “ascending” and “descending” have to do with being swept up and let down.  That could trace the course of a love affair, which itself is part passion and part idea.  I suppose that for me dejection is itself a sort of high, an up—which may explain the apparent imbalance.  But then those same terms also describe the whole business of poetry itself, the task of Orpheus: leading the lost beloved Experience up toward the light of Language.

            2)         A good deal of The Rest of the Way was written during the end of a long-standing relationship.  I didn't know it was the end, of course.  I didn't even know how unhappy I was.  But in retrospect, I can see the symptoms: the grievances, the projection, the longing.  If one poem in the book strikes a particularly false note, it's “Weeds.”   I remember writing it just as The Love of My Life was leaving, perversely determined to write “happily” on a tearstained page.  By the time “An Essay on Friendship” was written I'd recovered enough equilibrium to describe my situation more objectively, and to pay tribute to the friends who had helped me through a painful time.  Other friends—too many of them—had died all during this time, and you are right to suspect that AIDS is a dark undercurrent, pulling the book back toward a more general sense of useless, aching loss.

            3)         Yes, I meant the title to be read both ways: the sense of a remainder, something left over after loss, and some notion of acceptance, the peace of momentum.

SP:       Sometimes, I think you agreed to our correspondence out of odd synchronicity.  In your “Letters From a Lonely Poet,” a review of the collected letters of Elizabeth Bishop, you wrote:

It seems to me, though, that writers sometimes send their most interesting letters to strangers.  The intrepid tyro, the timid fan, the inquiring critic—their unexpected, “obvious” questions often elicit more pointed and revealing answers than the familiar correspondent can.

             This article appeared at about the same time I proposed our conversation.  However briared and convoluted my own questions are (my brain, too, I'm afraid), you always respond with elegance and beauty. 

            You can be very direct, as in “First Steps” or “The Rented House” (one of my favorite poems—ever).  Do you diverge from Bishop, of whom you say, “One winces to read Bishop's desolated letters to Baumann during this period—letters all the more painful to read because we realize how unused she was to writing so nakedly of her emotions . . .”?   

            My question is simple this time.  Do you sometimes hide behind your intelligence? 

JDM:   Of course I do!  Isn't that what it's for?  It's why I took to teaching, and perhaps even to writing.  Disguise—not hiding things but making them difficult to see—is the whole point of art.  Any adolescent has a lot to hide, and a gay teenager more than most.  What first attracted me to certain writers—Oscar Wilde, say—was the need to slip behind what was being said in order to understand what was meant.

            As a child, I never read poetry, and disdained fiction.  My favorite reading was, oh, The Lives of the Saints or The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters or Clarence Darrow's autobiography.  The elegant arrangement of facts, in other words, seemed to me from the start more exciting than the easy self-indulgence of fantasy.  By the time I started to write, as they say, “seriously,” I was in my twenties; I knew a lot about everything but myself.  So I wrote about poetry's most obvious subject: language.  Looking back now, of course, I'm embarrassed by the deliberate obscurity and mannered emptiness of most of those poems.  They seem now to have all been written by someone with long fingernails and a raised eyebrow.

            Over the years I've tried to learn more and loosen up.  Intelligence, I hope, is now used more as an instrument of analysis than as a screen of allusions.  As you suggest, I've tried to write more openly of my life, but I have felt free to lie in order to make the facts into a truth.  I suppose that, in the end, any artist makes his own history into a myth.  Part of mine concerns the trials of intelligence: how it helps make and unmake experience, its war with instinct, its dry-eyed consolations.  But for the most part it's a matter of tone.  Rather than the glamorously anonymous voice of the Lyric Ego, I will often try now for the gripped and groping voice of the muddled feelings; an individual—me (or rather, “me”)—and his discontents.  It takes a good deal of intelligence, I've found, not to sound merely smart.

SP:       I've just been reading about the neurophysiology of smiling in Antonio R. Damasio's Descartes' Error:  Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.  It seems that there is a “genuine” smile verses a “make-believe” smile.  Involuntary contractions in the orbicularis oculi help produce the “real” smile.  I was wondering if there wasn't a similar process going on in the creation of “real” poetry. 

            1)         How much conscious control do you exert during the creation of a poem?  Do you have tricks or habits that help you get into a different state of mind? 

            2)         How do you maintain the feeling and authenticity of those primary, visceral responses during the creation of a poem in a formal pattern? 

            3)         I suppose the creation of a book is a leading of multiple Eurydices into the light.  I've found that a poem is a wonderful psychopomp.  How much planning goes into a book?  The Rest of the Way seems wonderfully integrated.  Almost a complex, multi-voiced fugue.  “Night Piece” breaks into the divided artists, followed by “The Spanish Hour” of musical adultery which ends with a pun:  “when a jewel-driven bull / nodded off during a pass,” which blends into the two lovers in bed “who hadn't touched, or barely spoken, for days” to “An Old Song Ended” to the one-word titles of “Weeds” and “Cysts” and “Heads” which move from death, the old myth of the torn and resurrected, to disease, repeating the same ambivalent images:  “One I know has put down roots / As far as a corpse is buried, its storage stem / As big as my leg.  That one's called / Man-under-ground.” and “Is there a single buried root, / some malevolent ur-cell . . .?” and “The story is told in Venice / of a beautiful stranger / who neither spoke nor understood . . .” to the final silent Orpheus of the goat heads, not the singing god, but “The tongue / Lolling up, as if with something more to say.”  These effects are exquisite.  Not much has been written about how a poet puts a book together.  Were you aware of these integrated voices when you were composing the individual poems?   Do you ever rewrite to help one poem modulate into another when you finally arrange them?  How do you do it?

JDM:   I'll now confess that your questions sometimes seem monumental.  Not knowing how to answer, I suppose I resort to a koan or fortune-cookie brevity that leaves no room for qualification, hesitation, ignorance, or second thoughts.  But so be it.  Here are “answers” to your three questions:

1)         I'd say the process, in my case, is about 75% conscious—if by that term you mean the deliberate working out of schemes and ideas and images.  I almost never start a poem with a subject in mind—and usually a title and some sort of verse scheme.  So a lot of my “conscious” effort precedes the actual writing.  While I'm at work on a poem, I hope for accidents along the way.  Any writer knows, I think, the sensation of what laymen call “inspiration.” My sense of that experience is this: when hard at work on a poem, help comes from everywhere—things you read or overhear, the subway, the newspaper, the bedside book, the radio rock song, the odd memory . . . everything suddenly feeds into what you have cooking.

2)         Feeling and authenticity are precisely the parts of the poem I'm most “conscious” of—that is to say, I most try to manipulate.  The actor learns how to hesitate or stutter or fall silent at just the moment when that gesture will clinch what he's saying.  So too, I try to watch how and where I place, say, a slang word, or an intimate, shocking detail, or a sweeping moral.

3)         One rarely tries to write a “book” of poems.  Or I don't.  It's one at a time.  But of course individual poems are in some sense unified by a single personality, a set of obsessions, a voice with a certain register.  I never write one poem with another (of my own) in mind, and when I come to arrange poems into a book I'm usually distressed to find too many similarities among them.  My distress reminds me of the narrow channel in which any one imagination runs; how, while writing, we pounce excitedly on a new word or fresh, startling image, only to recall later that we'd used it a dozen times before.  While in the final stages of putting a book together, I will make changes in poems to try to eliminate too many such overlappings.  Beyond that, though, one wants a sort of symphonic arrangement to a book: both a contrast and progression of moods and themes.  I'm not only gratified by the connections you note, I'm surprised—I'd not been aware of them myself.

            Having said all that, let me take it back in a way.  I'm now at work on a book of poems that is a deliberate sequence.  There will be about forty poems devoted to, and divided among, aspects of the Ten Commandments.  There have been smaller sequences in earlier books: “Kilim,” for instance, or “An Essay on Friendship.” It tends to be an idea that makes a sequence; it's a mood that links individual poems.

SP:       You've been incredibly generous with acknowledging help from other poet friends.  I've noticed that many of the writers I most admire are the most humble and seeking of feedback on their work.    In the 1920's, apparently, many writers assisted their friends (I'm thinking of the influence that Edmund Wilson had on F. Scott Fitzgerald during the writing of The Great Gatsby and the shop talk in cafés in Paris in 1925 between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Pound's critique of The Waste Land, etc. ).  Do you exchange poems with friends? 

JDM:   Of course I send drafts of poems to a few readers.  James Merrill, Stephen Yenser, and Daniel Hall see just about everything, and there is nothing I have written that hasn't in ways great or small been improved by their help.  I don't send preliminary drafts for fear of taxing their patience; it would be like telling someone your dream every morning—we have to pay professionals for that!  Besides, at that point in the process I can see pretty clearly myself.  It's only later, near the end, when I've grown half-blind and self-satisfied, that I need a cold eye cast on things.  It's then I can't see the lapses and contradictions, the smudged phrases, botched rhythms, weak rhymes, distracting images.  The best criticism is the sort that tells you what you already know but had been reluctant to accuse yourself of.

            I think my case is fairly typical.  In fact, I don't know of a poet who doesn't send his work around a circle of close readers, less eager for praise than for practical help.

SP:       When I first proposed this article/conversation, you suggested that I concentrate on “An Essay on Friendship” as my branching off place.  You wrote, “Of the published-in-a-book poems, I suppose I like 'Essay on Friendship' best . . . ”  Sorry to be mean so late in the interview, but could I have you say a few unadulteratedly positive things about the poem?  What makes this poem better?  Why is it so important to you?

JDM:   I suggested the poem because it was the last one added to The Rest of the Way, and probably thereby closer to work I am doing now than anything else in that book.  Myself, I have barely any memory, and absolutely no interest, in older work.  The problems and discoveries I happen to be in the midst of—these get my attention.  Insofar as an earlier poem anticipates those concerns, I can bear to re-read it.  “An Essay on Friendship” seems to mark a turn in my work toward a tone that is less elevated and more capacious.  The discursive note is one that intrigues me now.  The artist Saul Steinberg once said that drawing was a way of thinking on paper.  That's what I want my poems to do:  work their way by reflection, digression, guess, and surprise through a heady thematic set of givens toward an elusive emotional point, and in a voice that has its own personality—rueful, dubious, aware, vulnerable, whatever.

SP:       Fellini said much the same thing:  “As a rule I don't like seeing films I have made.  When I do, I feel indifferent.  I am faced with something dead, which has lost all interest for me.”  He conceived of art as a kind of living.  Another thing he said made me think of you:  “I love houses in process of being built, districts being demolished, people who turn up late for appointments.  My favourite condition is a temporary one.  I love the feeling of peering in on my own life.”  Still, you seem more circumscript than Federico, who disliked logical plans:

I must be ignorant of what I shall be doing and I can find the resources I need only when I am plunged into obscurity and ignorance.  The child is in darkness at the moment he is formed in his mother's womb.

            In your new series, do you have a sense of the spinal cord of mood shaping it?  After the dark comet of The Rest of the Way, is it a more fiery tale?  Or does dark pursue the dark?   What made you choose the Ten Commandments as a figured base?

JDM:   I remember, some years ago, fondling Fellini's Oscar, in the basement of the Indiana library where it's now—incongruously—stored.  He was an artist whose exquisite grotesquerie and outsize emotions I've always found ravishing.  And I agree entirely with that first notion of his you cite.  I have only a distracted antiquarian's interest in my past work.  But as for the rest of what he says—I'm horrified!  Whatever it has to do with—whether my zodiacal sign or overzealous toilet training—I am forever straightening piles of paper, filling fountain pens, arranging files.  It's the same temperament that from the start has preferred formal strategies for poems.  Of course one counts on accidents . . . plans for them, you might say.  Accidental, fortuitous discoveries are the whole basis for metaphor, and metaphor is the basis for poetry itself.  Pope once told friends that he had half-completed a play called Brutus; there were, in fact, only a few pages to show, and he explained that he had planned out the whole play in his mind—and that was half the work.  Without some sort of plan, a poem can lose sight of itself, run out of steam or into whimsy.

            I chose the Ten Commandments because I wanted to write a series of poems that took up moral matters.  I wanted—as unseen but powerful dramatic forces working behind the scenes—a sense of the forbidden, the conflict between desire and necessity, the logistics of compromise.  I want a reader to have with him already some residual memory of first learning right from wrong, some primal feelings about innocence and violation.  I didn't want to have to pump all that gas myself.  We'll have to see how it all works, but I like this looser scaffolding: the look of structure, but open. 

 

Critical

Bridges Thrown Out Toward an Unseen Shore:

The Poetry of J. D. McClatchy

In analyzing J. D. McClatchy’s work, I feel a great pressure and responsibility.  In White Paper:  On Contemporary American Poetry, he complained in exasperation that “the apprentice poet knows less about verse than the young painter knows about drawing, or the young composer about harmony.”  I agree with McClatchy's concern that reading and writing have often become a thin mirror for the primping and preening self.  Yet, there are still serious practitioners of the art today.   Some of these I plan to include in a series of articles following the social science model of double-loop feedback, where mutual learning takes place, in which I introduce an author, then engage in a dialogue, as I will do here. 

McClatchy is delightfully modest and self-effacing—he wouldn’t include himself in his Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, I’ve seen him wave applause aside after his readings of his own poetry, and he admitted to finding difficult lines in Ben Belitt's “Battle-Piece” (Salmagundi, No. 87, Summer 1990):  “They are not easy for the reader—or this reader, at any rate—to follow.”  I remember when McClatchy was to read here in Los Angeles at the Château Marmont.  Imagining a poolside setting, he joked, “Poolside?  Poolside?  What are they intending to do, set up a poet-dunking chair?  'Dunk the poet for a dollar.'“  

Still, the poet shyly, slyly gives hints at something more—McClatchy writes in White Paper “the canny reader may wonder if there isn't a hidden program whereby I seek precedents for my own practice as a poet.”   Then he offers precepts he follows himself:

 

At certain times, from our certain angle, twentieth-century poetry in English seems to have been—and we can very nearly talk about it in the past tense now, as a history of modernism, that late efflorescence of romanticism—a series of convulsive leaps ahead.  The insights of psychology, physics, philosophy, linguistics, structuralism and radicalism seem to have all been anticipated or absorbed by our poets.  Every subject, every method has been tried—the absence of both, as well.  Cinematic montage and cubist collage and action painting, aleatory music and blues and mantras; brutalism’s severed limbs, irony’s least finesse, the dream’s furthest lair—all are in place.  Along with every arrangement and derangement of line, rhythm, metric, texture, tone, voice, narrative, and lyric address.  With an archaeological curiosity, each past-mastered style has been retrieved, imitated, ruffled, or parodied.

What is remarkable for me is that McClatchy has been able to accomplish all of the above.  A few for instance’s:  the primative invocation of “Fetish,” the first poem in his first book, Scenes from Another Life, which “takes as its apparent subject a Zuni fetish—necklace made of a small bone, an eagle feather, a bell, etc.”; the Dream Song and psychology of the surreal “Blue Horses,” derived from a painting by Franz Marc with the same title; or the aubade, “Aubade”; the riddle poem, “Riddle” (or hermpoem, I suspect, although McClatchy pointed out that “Riddle” is simply “an acrostic the first letters of whose lines yield its subject:  caduceus, Mercury and medicine's symbol; I had Milton in my mind's ear while writing the poem too”); the pasquinade “After Nerval,” after Gerard de Nerval, the pen name of the French Romantic poet, novelist, playwright, and eclectic religious syncretist, Gerard Labrunie;  a little elegy, “Little Elegy”; the doppelgänger poem “First Steps” (also a “confessional” narrative) where the self is split from the self, much after the fashion of Twain by Twain in Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain; the sestina section “The Cup”; or the in memoriam stanza of “The Forest Fire,” in “Change of Scene,” the chaos out of the void which begins the world and book, Stars Principal; the villanelle “After a Visit”; the palindrome “On a Blade of Grass”; the parody “Swift”; the shape poem of the jumpy “Grasshopper”; the anagram rhymes of “The Landing,” which begins his third book, The Rest of the Way; the lapses into haiku in “Night Piece”; the extended conceits of “Fog Tropes”; the abcedarius of “An Alphabet of Anger”; the prose poem “The Window”; the crown of sonnets “Kilim”; and many, many more. 

The restless author also borrows forms from other disciplines:  music “Noble and Sentimental Waltzes,” “Serenade,” “Variations on a Line,” “Montale:  Motets,” “An Old Song Ended,” “Night Piece,” “The Spanish Hour” (L’Heure Espagnole is a one-act opera by Ravel—about an adultery in a clockmaker’s house); drama “Scenes from Another Life,” “Medea in Tokyo”;  architecture / sculpture “A Capriccio of Roman Ruins and Sculpture with Figures,” “The Palace Dwarf,” “Mineralogy Object”; art  “Blue Horses,” “A Capriccio of Roman Ruins and Sculpture with Figures” (after the picture by Giovanni Paolo Pannini), “After Yeizan,” “After de Kooning,” “The Shield of Herakles”;  photography, the evocative stark photo on the cover of The Rest of the Way which suggests the interior omphalos of  Spenser’s Tower in “Irish Prospects” and pre-memorializes the book; and even essay form, “An Essay on Friendship,” which will be a primary focus in the first and concluding parts of this essay of mine.

McClatchy’s poetry is a poetry of inclusion.  The main themes he sounds are part of the mystic tradition in literature.  McClatchy has more than one father and mother and traces his family tree for us himself (so much for the anxiety of influence) back to Granddaddy Emerson, for instance, and through him to others, beginning with Scenes from  Another Life (“A Winter without Snow”):

For Emerson, a century ago and farther north,

Where the country has an ode’s jagged edges,

It was “frolic architecture.”  Frozen blue-

 

Print of extravagance, shapes of a shared life

Left knee-deep in transcendental drifts:

The isolate forms of snow are its hardest fact.

In Stars Principal, the epigraph is from Emerson, from “Nature,”

But if a man would be alone,

let him look at the stars.  The

rays that come from those heavenly

worlds will separate between

him and what he touches.

as well as in The Rest of the Way (from “Experience”),

We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us,

which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many

a one, which go upwards and out of sight. 

Note the correspondences.  In the first reference, Emerson is enclosed, appropriately, in a poem about Godfather Stevens (second of a duet which starts with “A Poem is a Café,” title taken from Adagia).  Although McClatchy is talking to these philosopher poets through time, communing, identifying, he asserts loneliness, separation.  These confluences of opposites, loneliness and love, are the twin strands of DNA which combine throughout McClatchy’s poetry.  For the philosophically inclined, this is the old problem-paradox of the One and the Many, which was also Wallace Stevens’ theme, though an attendant aspect of the relationship between Reality and the Imagination has been focused on by most critics.  It was also a concern of the Metaphysical poets, as well as their successors, the Romantics, who saw a mythic conjunction of the stairway strands.  How is the single poet related to the past, to his predecessors?  What is the relationship of the poet to nature, the inscape to the landscape?  How can we transcend the barriers between lover and beloved, one country and another? 


            I must have dreamt you'd come back, and sat down

Beside my pillow.  (I could also see myself

Asleep but in a different room by now—

 

A motel room to judge by the landscape I'd become . . .

—J. D. McClatchy, “An Essay on Friendship,” Section VII.

                                                                          * * *

And so, commodius vicus, to “An Essay on Friendship.”  Sometimes, a poem is a kind of autobiography, a Rorschach of images the poet imposes, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, on a painting—or a musical piece—or a sculpture—or, in this case, a moving picture, Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game).

In his introduction to Poets on Painters, McClatchy focuses an arc-light, which again coincidentally projects (as Bergman’s in Persona) his own purposes:

Poems about paintings may be trying one of several tasks.  It is a way to copy and to learn.  The young Delacroix copied paintings by Poussin to learn the lessons of that master; in a similar manner, by “describing” a painting a poet may study figurative problems:  the composition of subject matter, color, and scale, or the relationship between chance occurrence and formal patterns.  Describing is also homage; to trace the beloved’s body is a traditional poetic feat, and a painting is as beguiling as any idealized lip or lash, any fetish.  By writing about a contemporary painting, a poet may cannily have found a useful way to let the poem talk about itself.  Often, writing about an old painting may prove to be the best way to write about the past, about something at once over with and ongoing, something framed, distanced, even miniaturized. 

This last statement recalls to mind McClatchy’s answer to my question “Does JM of 'Mineralogy Object' abbreviate James Merrill?”  He answered:  “Yes.  That particular Cornell box was once owned by Merrill—though he’s long since sold it (and I only saw it in a MOMA retrospective of JC’s work some years ago).  I’d wanted to write a poem to or about—those two gestures are probably the same—for him, and in the end (the emotional point of view being so difficult) decided to write about something he owned as if it would tell me what I wanted to say, its objectives enable my subjectivity.  Of course, too, I’d always adored Cornell’s shadow boxes, those little dream boats adrift on the tides of 19th-century Romanticism.”

“Remember how it always begins?  The film, / That is.  The Rules of the Game, Renoir’s tragi- / Comedy of manners . . .” the poet entolls.  Thus, the poet extends a hand to the reader directly, intimately.

Here is how McClatchy begins:

AN ESSAY ON FRIENDSHIP

Friendship is love without wings.

—French proverb

I.
 

Cloud swells.  Ocean chop.  Exhaustion's

Black-and-white.  The drone at last picked up

By floodlights a mile above Le Bourget.

 

Bravado touches down.  And surging past

Police toward their hero's spitfire engine,

His cockpit now become the moment's mirror,

 

The crowd from inside dissolves to flashbulbs.

Goggles, then gloves, impatiently pulled off,

He climbs down out of his boy's-own myth.

 

His sudden shyness protests the planes deserves

The credit.  But his eyes are searching for a reason.

Then, to anyone who'd listen:  “She's not here?

 

But . . . but I flew the Atlantic because of her.”

At which broadcast remark, she walks across

Her dressing room to turn the radio off.

 

Remember how it always begins?  The film,

That is.  The Rules of the Game, Renoir's tragi-

Comedy of manners even then

 

Outdated, one suspects, that night before

The world woke up at war and all-for-love

Heroes posed a sudden risk, no longer

 

A curiosity like the silly marquis's

Mechanical toys, time's fools, his stuffed

Warbler or the wind-up blackamoor.

 

Besides, she prefers Octave who shared those years

From twelve until last week, before and after

The men who let her make the mistakes she would

 

The morning after endlessly analyze—

This puzzle of a heart in flight from limits—

With her pudgy, devoted, witty, earthbound friend.

Here is how the film really begins.  (I’ll be going into some detail.  Sections I, II, and VIII of this long, ambitious poem directly collaborate and oppose and subsume elements of the film.)  André Jurieux is about to land, after an historic flight across the Atlantic in 23 hours, a day which “will go down in history along with Lindberg’s flight of 12 years ago,” a female reporter from Radio Paris announces as a long cable on her old-fashioned microphone is snaked across the field. 

The reporter fights her way through the howling crowd on the airstrip.  The camera keeps her in tight close-up.  As Renoir said in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, “People underestimate the importance of close-ups in film.  It brings the actor closer to the audience, and it makes each spectator feel that the performance is directed at him alone.”  Here the device supplements the feeling of the reporter addressing the world theatre at large.  McClatchy uses apostrophe to a similar end, though his address could be both to the audience and a character within the poem, as in the concluding stanza:  “—though I could sit here forever / Passing the life and times back and forth / Across the table with you, my ideal friend.” 

Cut to André’s plane, which we see simultaneously as we hear its drone.  Cut back to reporter:  “The crowd is breaking through the police lines to meet him!  So am I . . .”  All this mild impoliteness and lawlessness breaks away to André seated in the cockpit of his plane.  He calmly removes his goggles, then his furry gloves.  A staccato of flashbulbs greets him.   A representative of the French minister welcomes the aviator, who modestly protests, “The plane deserves the credit.”  He spots his good friend Octave and returns to vivacious life.  They hug.  Octave is concerned with the private André, not the crowd’s hero— the person, not the myth:  “The hell with the flight!  I’m glad to see you!  It is you, isn’t it?” 

Renoir slyly juxtaposes images with dialogue.  André asks next, in a panic:  “Is she here?”  By which he means, “Christine,” his inamorata.  At exactly that point, the female reporter interposes herself between André and Octave in the background, announcing to the invisible audience (both within the film and out), “We will now ask André Jurieux to say a few words . . .”  But André is in his private angst:  “You know I flew the Atlantic because of her!”  The reporter pushes through and turns her back to the camera:  “Look, you’ve flown an ocean all alone.  You must have something to say!  Are you happy?”  André pouts:  “I’m miserable.  I've never been so disappointed in my life.  I made this flight because of a woman.  She's not even here.  She didn’t bother to come.”  Octave from outside the parameter of the camera lays a comforting, albeit from our point-of-view severed, hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “I’ll say this:  she has let me down!”  Sudden cut.  We see the bare tubes and techno-innards of a personal radio, an image-echo of the film’s beginning fade-in to a Radio Paris technician in headphones, which the poet himself pictures later in his own essay-poem with his own symbol of disrupted communication, with overtones of war imagery:  “One peevish delegate is sitting there / Tapping his earphones because he’s picking up / Static that sounds almost like trembling crystal.” 

The camera pans up to reveal an elegantly palatial room.  (“How they resemble those shrouded chandeliers / Still hanging, embarrassed, noble, in the old palace / Now a state-run district conference center.”—McClatchy)  Lisette, Christine’s servant, is kneeling before her mistress, fiddling with the hem of her dress.  Christine walks toward the camera and her radio, to turn it off.  Cut back to the airfield, where the reporter is interviewing an engineer, who identifies the plane as a standard Caudron with a 200-horsepower Renault engine. 

In a very significant cut, the scene returns to an empty room.  Christina can be seen in and walking towards an elegant triptych vanity mirror (a glass with a center and two wings).  She sits.  Lisette is captured in black servant’s dress in a subordinate mirror, while Christina is seated in a light gown.  The image of Lisette is kept dual during the following conversation, where Christina ponders the nature of adultery and, eventually, friendship:

“How long have you been married, Lisette?

“Almost two years, Madam.”

“It’s true . . . time does fly . . .” (Note the theme of aging, and particularly the leit motif of flight.)

“Any sweethearts?”

“I wouldn't say that!”

“Oh, yes, you have!  Octave, for example.  Hand me my other lipstick!”  (I find this progression quite amusing:  lipstick as phallic symbol.)

Lisette is peeved and says, “I don’t know where it is!”  But she obviously does, because after a beat she goes to fetch it.  Continuing their discussion of men, Lisette says, “The more you give them, the more they want,” as she helps her mistress on with her white fur coat (this connotes the ghosts of hunted animals later).  “Give me that,” interjects Christina, referring to a scarf (another humorous verbal and visual montage).  Then another significant cut, to a sudden close-up of Christina, who asks in distress: 

“What about friendship?”

“Friendship with a man?”  Lisette is incredulous.  “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Most of the correspondences between Rules of the Game and “An Essay on Friendship” are obvious:  the close attention to detail, the duplication of dialogue.  Both works hang significant, ironic epigraphs as signboards:

Ceurs sensibles, ceurs fidèles 

Qui blámez l’amour léger

Cessez vos plaintes cruelles

Est-ce un crime de changer?

Si Tamour porte des ailes.

N’est-ce pas pour voltiger?

N’est-ce pas pour voltiger?

N’est-ce pas pour voltiger?

 

Beaumarchais

“Lé Mariage De Figaro”

(Acte IV, Scéne 10)


            Faithful hearts, sensitive hearts

Who shun fickle love when nigh,

Cease to play your cruel parts,

Change deserves no hue and cry.

If Cupid has been given wings,

Is it not to fly?

 

Is it not to fly?

Is it not to fly?

McClatchy’s epigraph echoes Renoir's:

Friendship is love without wings.

—French proverb

But what is not immediately obvious are the alterations, the filterings of the sensibility of the author.  McClatchy is auteur of his poem, as Renoir is auteur of his film.  Renoir has said,

All works of art bear the artist’s signature.  If there is no signature, there is no work of art.  And by 'art,’ I don’t mean only paintings, sculpture, films, plays; I mean anything in life that is done well and carefully.  In my opinion, our age commits its greatest crime when it kills the author or makes him disappear.  Before what we call progress, a man who made dishes was expressing his personality just as much as Picasso does in his paintings.  Today this is no longer true.

(Charles Thomas Samuels interview in Encountering Directors)

McClatchy has said (Salmagundi),

Belitt begins not by describing or defining, but by dramatizing.  In the phrase “After Ucello,” after means in the manner of.   He will not follow the painter, but outdo him . . ..  The poet himself, literally enraptured by the picture, is speaking—on his own, but as if a participant.

In the poem the point-of-view has elevated to the aviator, to the air:  “Cloud swells.  Ocean chop.  Exhaustion's / Black-and-white.  The drone at last picked up / By floodlights a mile above Le Bourget.”  The anxious spondee, cloud swells, followed by the choppy turbulence of the meter, accented by halting scesis onomatons (no verbs), all project the emotional descent of the pilot and the poet.  This is sympathetic possession, one soul to another.  The poet’s and the reader’s sensibilities appropriate, become one with the film’s stark black and white, just as the aviator has personified the plane in the place of the self:  “The plane deserves the credit.”  Note the linking pun on “exhaustion.”  This word, in the context of McClatchy’s book, has already expressed the weariness of one having survived the end of a love affair.  In “The Rented [pun on “divided”] House,” an earlier poem in The Rest of the Way, the narrator complains, “By morning we were all exhausted, trying to start / something or stop it, / giving in to another day, angry / but angry at what?”  Later in “An Essay on Friendship,” we find the poignant “Come dawn, exhausted by the quiet dark, / I longed for the paper boy's shuffle on the stair.”  Yet as the poet and the reader enter the world of the art, still, in the best post-modern tradition, we are kept separate:  “Black-and white” makes us realize that this is still a film, a poem (or “un texte déjà écrit, noir sur blanc” as Derrida would have it).  These are the charcoal shades, the Rouault-outlines so to speak, of modern man.  But also a very personal testament as well. 

McClatchy’s own articulate anxiety and nervousness and autobiography are present in the line, “Goggles, then gloves, impatiently pulled off, / He climbs down out of his boy’s-own myth.”  I would suspect that most viewers of the film would not see André’s action as impatient.  He seems quite leisured. 

One of the most interesting and piquant aspects of McClatchy’s work for me is his feeling of loss and isolation, while still fiercely searching for correspondence, for communication.  We need a slight detour and layover to explore this.  Even as far back as Scenes From Another Life, his first book, McClatchy composes variations on endless variations of lost love, imperfect relationships, and a homey, impossible desire for the ordinary rather than the incredible:

They’ve clinched a dawn whose shimmer kept her

Tin horn baying far back in the mind.

 

Let there be lights and a carafe of ordinaire

To tease us out of thoughts too dark, too dark.

There is poise in this regret so anxious in the glare


 

And lost as one leans forward to a casual remark.

 

—”A Poem is a Café”

In the above poem, McClatchy has imaginatively entered into Stevens’ life.  This fierce identification of self with other almost obviates the ostensible assertions of isolation.  The desire is always for communion in McClatchy’s work.  Of course, the motif of lack of concourse in the 20th century is legend, running from such diverse works as Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the philosophical autisms of Derrida, to the paucity of conjunctions in Hemingway.   But McClatchy has an inordinate number of sentences throughout his writing, both critical and poetic, which begin with “And.”  This is both isolation and connection.  Originally, I noticed this in McClatchy’s poem “At a Reading” which begins, or in a sense doesn’t begin, with:

And what if now I told you this, let's say,

By telephone.  Would you imagine me

Talking to myself in an empty room,

Watching myself in the window talking,

My lips moving silently, birdlike,

On the glass, or because superimposed

On it, among the branches of the tree

Inside my head? 

Already, with the deceptively casual “let’s say” the theme of communication (and transmutation of life into art, into language, with its possibilities and impossibilities) has begun.  Like the beginning “you” in Eliot’s “Prufrock,” McClatchy’s “you” sits isolated without a referent.  But this has the potential of merging:  one you into another into another.  I suspect that McClatchy is also speaking to the audience of readers, singular and plural, as does Renoir in his film.   

When Octave says in Rules of the Game, “The hell with the flight!  I’m glad to see you!  It is you, isn’t it?”,  this last tag introduces the interchangability / confusion-of-identity theme, the intense brotherhood-in-identity theme, the anthropomorphic mirror (cf. Faulkner’s confusion of pronouns in The Sound and the Fury, and his more negative linking of the incestuous desire of brother for sister in Quintin and Quintin, or Nabokov’s doppelgängering in The True Life of Sebastian Knight, with his twin “I’s,” the double assonance from “Life” to “Knight” in the title, a device similar to his linguistically metamorphizing himself in the anagram “Vivian Darkbloom,” i.e., “Vladimir Nabokov,” collaborator with Humbert Humbert in Lolita). 

In “An Essay on Friendship,” various devices hint at McClatchy's self-same ardor for unification.

The crowd from inside dissolves to flashbulbs.”  “From inside” means a psychological dissolving.  There is no physical “inside.”  The crowd is on the airfield from the beginning.  Psychological subsumes the outside.  McClatchy’s singular imagination contains the crowd, as does Renoir's within the film.

Then to anyone who’d listen:  “She’s not here?”  No.  Not just anyone.  In the film, André specifically greets Octave and says this to him specifically.  Plural and singular.  The anyone is Octave.  In the film, the unknowableness of the Other, even the Self, is indicated by Octave’s address:  “It is you, isn’t it?”   This theme is played again in Section IV of the poem, where McClatchy recalls “Natalie, doyenne of the daily calls, / Master-mistress of crisis and charm. / Contentedly we chew the cud of yesterday’s / Running feud with what part of the self / Had been mistaken—yes?—for someone else.”

“A problem the hero, the Jew, and the woman share / With the rest of us.”  (Section II, blending again.)  Additionally, the Shakespearian confusion of identity (I’m thinking particularly of the play within a play in Hamlet) is the context for this remark.  In the film, Octave is played by the director Jean Renoir.  In other words, director plays actor who is the director of a play within the film where he is an actor in a bear suit.  Reality fits in fiction fits in reality.  And there’s that heart-breaking scene where Octave, a failed musician, speaks to a blank audience in imagination to the empty night.  One can’t help but think of Renoir speaking through his character to his famous father, the Impressionist painter, Pierre Auguste Renoir, whom he felt he might never equal.

“His electric organ with its gaudy trim and come-on, / Stenciled nudes.  His wife, who’s had too much / To drink, stumbles into the château’s library / And searches for a lover on the shelf just out / Of reach, the one she learned by heart at school.”   Landscape and inscape have been joined with the pun on “organ,” etc.  Yet, again, McClatchy asserts his independence from Renoir.  First, a close-up of the organ shows only one nude woman.  This may be just the natural distortion process of the memory of the poem’s narrator, events modified in what Daniel C. Dennett called the “multiple drafts” model of consciousness.  I like to think, however, that this continues the theme of singular juxtaposed with plural, “stenciled nudes” again being one of McClatchy’s floating modifiers, in this case connected to “his wife.”  Renoir does something of the same thing in the reporter’s line “The crowd is breaking through the police lines to meet him!  So am I . . .”   

I suppose another psychological explanation for this might be the Romantic (or infantile) collapsing of the universe into the self.  In Piaget, the newborn baby can’t conceive of otherness—the milky way of the breast is just the infant himself.  There is no separateness.  Yet, in McClatchy’s poetry a healthier way of empathy and identification is at play.  (I would hope the baby here is Meister Eckhart.)

Second, the château in the film doesn’t have a library at all.  The room the heroine stumbles into is adorned with hunting paraphernalia, not books.  As a literary man, McClatchy has made the poem, and the lover, his.

A pun, too, is a kind of conjoining.  Or metaphor in one.  Or mystic system.  Note the sexual puns on “organ” and “come-on,” plus an oblique one, I feel, on coming “out”—this is reinforced by isolating the word at the end of the line.  McClatchy (like James Merrill) has a fondness for punning.  Cf.  Stars Principal where “out” is used a number of times in this context:  “The new stars are coming out.”  In “Fiddlehead,” a poem castigating religion’s repressions, particularly homophobia, we have:

Distractions

Beyond my moral, not Jack‑

In‑the‑pulpit, not the trilliums

 

Scarlet letter.  I’ve survived

Out here. 

In “First Steps,” we have it directly:

(A year later, coming out to a pre‑echo of we know,

I was told this doctor had telephoned, to cover

His fee, and told why.  That silent wave my father

Had carried himself through how long?  Dear man.)

And obliquely:

My draft on Lowell was done.  The bar as well

Had been raided.  Heart racing, I walked out

Of the office into a sudden heat.  The news

Was being delivered up and down the street.

And so on.

With McClatchy, love is connected to loss, with transience.  (I wondered if some of the gay world’s generally more volatile, explosive, temporary relationships are temperamentally unsuited to him.  McClatchy replied:  “If it matters, I'm quite a domestic type myself, and have only a few, long-term relationships in my love life.”)   And I certainly don’t mean to minimize the larger issues of a century at a loss, with divorce rates up, a prevalent sense of homelessness . . . I think of Nabokov, who, after his escape from the regime of Stalin, lived in hotel rooms the rest of his life.)

Throughout The Rules of the Game the love relationship is conceived as hunter and hunted, with the roles alternating.  A poacher, Marceau, is caught on the grounds of an estate by the gamekeeper Schumacher, and is made a servant in the house by the marquis, and immediately sets out to seduce, in comic foil Shakespearian fashion, Schumacher’s wife.  (Ironically, Marceau chaperons Schumacher when he shoots André at the greenhouse later, when the jealous Schumacher thinks that André has taken up with his wife, Lisette.)   Octave warns André, on the field where pheasants and rabbits are hunted by the party, to be careful, “They’ll mistake us for rabbits . . .”   André, who spurns Jackie, a minor character, says to her in one scene, “Aim at the rabbit, not me.”  Through a opera telescope, Christine accidentally spots her husband kissing his mistress, who wears a conspicuous black feather in her cap.

In the scene in the “library” referred to by McClatchy, images reinforce the “hunt.”  When Christine and André finally confess their love for each other, they embrace in front of a gun rack.  Christine is visually paired with a stuffed pheasant.  This same pheasant is found on the floor, shot, “A stray bullet caught one of your birds,” when Schumacher goes berserk and hunts his wife’s would-be lover about the château with a gun; he exclaims, “There, we know how to handle poachers like Marceau.”  (Previously, Marceau says, “He thinks I poached his wife.”)  A hunting horn is played in the hallway before the guests go to sleep.  Mozart may have used horn effects in The Marriage of Figaro to suggest the “horns” of a cuckold.  Renoir uses the same pun visually, when Geneviève, the marquis’ mistress, says, “If she loved you, she wouldn’t be with Saint-Aubin”—in front of a statue of a stag.  Remember, too, Octave is in a bear costume which he has trouble removing in the room where that white statue of a stag with horns haunts the background while La Chesnaye and his mistress talk.  Later, Renoir superimposes wall-mounted deer horns over a woman, a guest, with a distraught Jurieux paired with one horn and La Chesnaye the other.  In the end, when Schumacher kills André, Marceau says, comforting Octave, “I can swear to you, he didn’t feel it.  It caught him squarely and then . . . he rolled over like a rabbit.”  A similar image, with a twist, is used by McClatchy in “An Essay on Friendship”:                              

His head still in the clouds,

The aviator races to his death, shot down

Like a pheasant the beaters had scared up for the hunt.

 

The bird analogy is more appropriate to the context of flight and fall.  A pun on game immediately follows:

Christine, when she discovers the body, faints.

Her husband, the mooncalf cuckold, so that the game

Might continue, acts the gentleman and thereby

 

Turns out the truest friend.  He understands,

Is shaken but shrugs, and gracefully explains

“There’s been the most deplorable accident . . .”

Here’s how this ends in the movie:

“Schumacher thought he saw a poacher and he fired.  André Jurieux was a victim of fate.”

                                                                          * * *

From this point, I’ll move on to some more general considerations related to McClatchy’s total œuvre.

Contradictions / Conjunctions

McClatchy is often a poet of contradictions.  But those contradictions find unconscious connection.  The Word behind the word.  A very small for-instance.  Fire (or light) is often joined with water (or ice) throughout the book The Rest of the Way:  “Islands floating south / Ice islands  blue flames” and “Springlight” (“Night Piece”); “more like tires spinning on ice— / a sort of erotic simmer that would mount / to a wail in heat” (“The Rented House”); “A scalding brilliance poured over the cold” (“An Old Song Ended”); “Sudden sizzling lasers / spewed from the nozzle / of a puppet’s fire hose” (“Cysts”); “floodlights,” “spitfire” (water/fire probably part of the reason that the Caudron of the film is metamorphosed by the poet's mind into a “spitfire”), “dissolves to flashbulbs,” “Nerves already bobbing in the wake of that grand / Liner, the SS Domesticity, / With its ghost crew and endless fire drills,” “I picture a fire laid / And high-tech teapot under a gingham cozy,” “The braver remedy for sorrow is to stand up / Under fire, or lie low on a therapist's couch, / Whistling an old barcarole  into the dark [a barcarole is a song, or music in imitation of those sung by Venetian barcaruoli as they row their gondolas; Chopin composed one].”  (“An Essay on Friendship”); and “I could see little fires in the distance, and the moon laid like a compress on what beach the tide was giving up.” (“The Window”).  I suppose that heat and fire and desire predominate, however. 

Other pairings of opposites in McClatchy’s work include these from “An Essay on Friendship”:  up/down (this is incredibly consistent) For instance, “His head still in the clouds, / The aviator races to his death, shot down / Like a pheasant the beaters had scared up for the hunt.”  Interestingly, when not paired, images of falling predominate in the middle part of the poem—”The razor's edge of romance having fallen,” “lovers by falling for someone we cannot love,” give way to the final major key:  “And when at last the lights come up,” “Retreating up the empty aisle—” “So the stars up there will know . . . “ “The sort of steam that vanishes now above one / last cup of tea . . .”  serious/comic “Soulful auteur and comic relief in one” life/art “And searches for a lover on the shelf” “Dutifully submits to the enchantment of type” (note the pun on “type”)  “A friend who, after all, was her director” “The self a Scheherazade” (this also blends fantasy/fact as well as male/female) “A story himself, [another temporary appositive created by line isolation] he's heard it all before” “Late one night, alone in bed, the book [a line break making “book” the modified subject noun]” “I longed for the paper boy's shuffle on the stair” success/failure “For the admirable success or loveable failure”  intellect/emotion  “The husband wants the logic of the harem—” “learned by heart at school”  male/female “Natalie, doyenne of the daily calls, / Master-mistress of crisis and charm” (“Master-mistress,” a term used by Shakespeare in his sonnets, suggests McClatchy's fond relationship both to Natalie and husband John, who themselves are a close pair; McClatchy wrote to me, “Natalie Charkow is indeed the doyenne; and dedicatee of 'Three Conversations' in Stars.  She is a superb sculptor, and for about twenty years now has been one of my very closest friends.  She is married to John Hollander.”)  animate/inanimate “The drone at last picked up”  “Drone” puns on the male honey bee, whose sole purpose in life is to impregnate the queen (cf. André).  Thus begins the sexual imagery of the poem, just as the phallic bronco of the atomic missile ridden by Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove ends the movie rife with the shapes of circles and cigars.  (A “drone” is also a “pilotless aircraft or missile directed by remote control.”)  sacred/secular  “imaginary comrade or the Job's comforters / Of middle age.)  Office mates or children.”  “But those we eagerly / Pursue bedevil the clock's idle [note the pun and personification] hands / And years later, by then the best of friends, / You'll settle into a sort of comfy marriage . . .”  hostility/love  “Basta!  Love” landscape/inscape “I ran a willowy hand [I’m tempted to call this “inanification,” the opposite of personification] over the lake to calm / The moonlight—or your feelings” [here, McClatchy uses syllepsis to connect moonlight and feelings, a rhetorical device which works through conjunctions]  past/present (that most post-modern of themes) “Remember how it always begins?  The film, / That is.  The Rules of the Game, Renoir's tragi- / Comedy of manners even then / Outdated, that night before / The world woke up at war and all-for-love / Heroes posed a sudden risk . . .”    

Artist to Artist

Allusion unifies across space and time.  The same line in a different poem can be a shared section of a tesseract, a four-dimensional object.  Bits and pieces of the past, of past artists’ sensibilities, are the doorway, but to different homes.  McClatchy refers to many fellow artists directly.  Of Yeizan in “After Yeizan” McClatchy wrote to me:

Yeizan (it’s sometimes spelled differently, and there is another artist with a similar name) was a 19th-century Japanese artist.  I own one of his prints, and am told it pictures a fashion model.  In an upper corner of the portrait is a circle with a harbor scene in it, a woman is holding a long, thin pipe.  So the poem describes the picture, and imagines a “pipe dream.”  

The epigraph to Scenes from Another Life comes from the libretto for Cavalli’s opera La Calisto and has to do with Hercules.  The epigraph to Stars Principal comes from Baudelaire (“L’Invitation Au Voyage”) and reminds me that Richard Howard who translated Les Fleurs du Mal also wrote the introduction to McClatchy’s first book.  Baudelaire also sneaks into “The Immoralist in Cairo,” combining with the narrator:   “The odds are / Against his resisting the dead night-flowers,” which refers, among other things, I presume, to the “secret” of homosexuality which McClatchy was keeping in his earlier work.  The “marbly saucers shored against her ruin” from “A Poem is a Café” of course mirrors T. S. Eliot’s famous line in The Waste Land, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”   Note the change of gender of the pronouns from Eliot to McClatchy.  Likewise, in “A Winter Without Snow” “You remember how she disappeared in winter” leans toward W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:  “He disappeared in the dead of winter”) . . . with a sex change of pronouns. 

In “Noble and Sentimental Waltzes,” the spirit of Wilde is evoked:

Whoever said, “Confession behooves the soul,”

Should then have added, “The pocketbook too.”

Like Wilde, he had sense enough to sell

His lower depths and make a good thing

Of them.

Whoever said was Nathaniel Hawthorne in Chapter Three of The Scarlet Letter:

“Good Master Dimmesdale,” said he, “the responsibility of this woman's soul lies greatly with you. It behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance, and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof.”  [Here I suspect that J. D. is identifying with Hester P.]

As “the cloud-crossed house” in “Change of Scene” suggests Shakespeare, so does “time’s fools” in “An Essay on Friendship”:  “Love's not Time's fool” from the famous Sonnet 116, which in turn echoes Timon’s speech, “You fools of fortune, trencher friends, time's flies,” from Timon of Athens.  Similarly, “all-for-love / heroes” in the same stanza in “Essay” harks back to John Drydan’s play All for Love, or The World Well Lost (1678), a tragedy in blank verse about the last day of Antony and Cleopatra, which may have gotten its title from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona:

  PROTEUS. He after honour hunts, I after love;

    He leaves his friends to dignify them more:

    I leave myself, my friends, and all for love.

    Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphis'd me,

    Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,

    War with good counsel, set the world at nought;

    Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought.

The “river with its frisbees” playfully suggests the Thames of “Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights” . . . such as condoms.  “Swift” lampoons Hopkins, from whom McClatchy respectfully takes his title Stars Principal.  “We know whose invisible worm [Blake’s], fat and smiling / In the fiery mab’s unknowing embrace” appears in “Tree Frog in a Rose.”  Igor Stravinsky, who’s given an epigraph, sleeps (Platonically) with Maurice Ravel in the poem “Night Piece”—the two composers spending a night in one bed—a fantasy in two parts, undoubtedly.  Ravel had already had his say in “Noble and Sentimental Waltzes” through an epigraph taken from Henri de Regnier :   “. . . the delicious and abiding pleasure / Of a useless occupation,” itself taken by McClatchy from the piano score of Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. 

James Merrill has cameos throughout McClatchy’s opus, in “Mineralogy Object” JM’s (which in turn twins a construction by Joseph Cornell, 1939), as the dedicatee of The Rest of the Way (a favor recipicated by Merrill in A Different Person:  A Memoir), and getting a line in Section VII of “An Essay on Friendship,” “The lover's plaintive 'Can’t we just be friends?'“ (culled from Merrill’s poem “Farewell Performance,” published in The Inner Room).

An extended allusion in Section V deserves special attention.  This section preceeds the above allusion, but be forewarned.  I orginally assumed one artist to be another in my first draft and McClatchy corrected me:  “The 'Jimmy' in section V of the poem is the novelist James McCourt, and has nothing to do with James Merrill.” 

On your end of the line (I picture a fire laid

And high-tech teapot under a gingham cozy),

Patience humors my warmed-over grievance or gush.

 

Each adds the lover's past to his own, experience

Greedily annexed, heartland by buffer state,

While the friend lends his field glasses to survey

[a reference to Christine in the film who observes her husband and mistress through a spy glass]

 

The plundered gains and spot the weak defenses.

Though it believes all things, it's not love

That bears and hopes and endures, but the comrade-in-arms.

 

How often you've found me abandoned on your doormat,

Pleading to be taken in and plied

With seltzer and Chinese take-out, while you bandaged

 

My psyche's melodramatically slashed wrists

(In any case two superficial wounds),

The razor's edge of romance having fallen

 

Onto the bathroom tiles next to a lurid

Pool of self-regard. 

The Russian figure within carved wooden figure of this passage needs to be analyzed.  “Line” is a word much beloved by McClatchy and hypertexts into the rest of his work, often primarily meaning “line of a poem,” though other aspects of the pun are potential.  Recall how “At a Reading” begins.  This is negative applied over negative so both images are apparent.  “Each adds the lover’s past to his own, experience / Greedily annexed, heartland by buffer state” is the same attempt to abnegate boundaries, to transcend the difficulties of communication, which in a more primary metaphysical sense, separate us all.  The image of the telephone line is a complex one.  It allows for communication, but at a certain distancing, a truncating of the personal.  Yet, as with Brecht’s theory of the theater of alienation, the reduction of stimuli can massage the imagination:  “I picture a fire laid” [friendship aside, it would be interesting to explore the sexual pairing of imagery, “fire” and “laid,” but alas, we have little world enough and time here].  Friendship is explored as often a truncation of love in this work, “love without wings.”  But then that “without wings” positively connotes the more stable, earthbound reality of friendship, not the Romantic fluttering.  The world is not simple and the poet does not simplify.  By the by, “annexed” and “heartland” might remind the astute reader of other such microcosm/macrocosm analogies in McClatchy’s work.  For instance, “A motel room to judge by the landscape I'd become . . .”  In a way, I suppose this is a variation of the movement Stevens takes in “Domination of Dark,” migrating from the specific to the universal.  One also can't help but think of Donald Revel’s beautiful poem “The Night Orchard” from New Dark Ages.

Metrics, Music, and Mysticism

Perhaps, someday, a computer program will be written to graphically illustrate meter and assonance and consonance in poetry in the way Donald Byrd's SMUT music-printing system bar-graphed Frédéric Chopin's Etude Op. 10, No. 1, where as Douglas R. Hofstadter illustrates in his excellent article, “Pattern, Poetry, and Power in the Music of Frédéric Chopin,” the “auditory gestalt” is better revealed than in the sheet music, where instead of old friends, Hofstadter “had instead found their skeletons grinning at me.”  The musical patterns in J. D. McClatchy's work are richly complex, and I'll try to illustrate a few, though I fear, in my rendition, they’ll be more skeletal than sinew and soul.  Nonetheless, here is the second movement of “An Essay on Friendship”:

II.

 

—A friend who, after all, was her director,

Who'd written her lines and figured out the angles,

Soulful auteur and comic relief in one,

 

His roles confused as he stepped center-stage

(Albeit costumed as a performing bear)

From behind the cameraor rather, out

 

Of characterRenoir later told her

The question “how to belong, how to meet”

Was the film's only moral preoccupation,

 

A problem the hero, the Jew, and the woman share

With the rest of us whose impulsive sympathies

For the admirable success or loveable failure

 

Keep from realizing the one terrible thing

Is that everyone has his own good reasons.

The husband wants the logic of the harem

 

I.E., no one is thrown out, no one hurt—,

His electric organ with its gaudy trim and come-on,

Stenciled nudes.  His wife, who's had too much

 

To drink, stumbles into the chateâu's library

And searches for a lover on the shelf just out


 

Of reach, the one she learned by heart at school.

 

The lover, meanwhile (our aviator in tails)

Because love is the rule that breaks the rules,

Dutifully submits to the enchantment of type.

 

If each person has just one story to tell,

The self a Scheherazade postponing The End,

It's the friend alone who, night after night, listens,

 

His back to the camera, his expression now quizzical,

Now encouraging even though, because he has

A story himself, he's heard it all before.

I've chosen to represent merely a cartoon of the intricate multiple polyphony which appears not only in “Essay” but all of McClatchy's work.  Starting with “friend” and “written,” in larger type, follow the sequence of tightly integrated sound effects on “n” and its kissing cousin “m.” Then, on the right, follow down the roll of “r's,” often paired:  “her director,” “her . . . figured,” “performing bear,” etc.  This tendency to echo sound by position is rather consistent in McClatchy's opus, as in “Jew” and “whose” above, located on the third accent of sequential lines (the accent on “whose” is medial and not as strong). 

Once bolded and italicized, these fugal lines of rasping “r” sounds and mellifluous “n’s” are apparent.   Of course, many more subtle sound effects are at work too, and I'll take a minute to turn up the volume on just a sample.  For instance, in “A friend” and “Who'd written” “friend and “written” share both a short vowel, the “i” embraces the “i,” as well as the “r” and “n” in descending positions; in addition, the “d” in “friend” migrates  to the “Who'd,” creating a very nice  cavernous echo.  The dance of “center” to “performing” to “camera” reverses then reverses again the sequence of “n/m” to “r.”  “Told,” “belong” and “moral” share long “o” to short “o” to long “o” with an “l” lapping all three clean as a baby kitten.  Third syllable, third stanza “film” repeats the sonics of the third syllable fourth stanza with “lem,” “m” and “l” sounds reversed.  And so on, near infinitum. 

Now a cautious word to the reader, or to the astonished poet:  I don't believe that many poets create their sound effects consciously.  In fact, I'd suggest that such precise integration could only be the results of the patterning subconscious, the patterning right hemisphere.  If the juggler bothers to examine or think of the physics of his performance, all the balls drop to the floor.  Still, I was surprised when I visited Laugharne, and under glass at Dylan Thomas' boat house was a painstaking list of words related by sounds.  So go figure . . .

The meter of “An Essay on Friendship” is roughly the blank verse sequence of five accents per line, but this is like saying that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony consists of four notes.  Listen to the opening of Bach's Little Fugue in G minor sometime.  Music patterns by rhythmic and harmonic echoes.  So does the most complex modern poetry.  Let's look at one such pattern (Section II):

u      /    u   u       /

The lover, meanwhile . . .

u     u     /       u  u    /

Because love is the rule . . .

 

u     /      u  u       / 

The self a Scheherazade . . .

u    u      /         u u    /

It's the friend alone who . . .

 

u     /       u  u     /


 

His back to the camera . . .

/        u    /   u    u

Now encouraging . . .

u    /   u  u       /

A story himself . . .

 

The variation of internal iamb to anapest is quite as consistent.  Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis plays out in the final stanza, which is given a trochee then a dactyl, a mirror image of its surroundings.   A rather nice way to conclude Movement Two.

Meter also supplements meaning.  For instance, the sequence of anapests in

 

u   /       u     u   /    u   u    /       u    u     /     u    /

A problem the hero, the Jew, and the woman share

 

draw the three personages into a greater state of equivalency, which the accent on “share” further emphasizes.

The meter only becomes pedestrianly sing-song and regular when it marches to the tune of a hickory stick, the drills of school:

u    /          u    /     u    /            u   /        u  /

Of reach, the one she learned by heart at school

 

And the shortest line in this section ironically ends with an accented “much”:

 

/       u        /           u     /        u      /      u    /           (u)

Stenciled nudes.  His wife, who's had too much . . .

 

Also, this line is unique in its emphasis and exasperation, obviously, by the switch to trochaic pentameter.  This is a psychological turn.  Shakespeare applies the same device, but to metaphysical ends, in the witches' unnatural chanting:  “Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”  But I suppose there's a slight shudder in McClatchy's line also.

Grammatical Metaphysics

We’ve already mentioned the plurisignative “you” in “At a Reading.”  Here’s another pronoun in search of a referent from the same poem:

It was then I realized that she was deaf

And the bearded boy, a line behind you,

Translating the poem for her into silence,

Helping it out of its disguise of words . . .

What she [italics mine] next said,

The bald childless woman in your fable . . .

Notice how “she” both points backwards and forward, to the deaf woman and the woman in Anthony Hecht’s poem, “The Transparent Man,” which is being read aloud.  A complex ontological statement is being made here.  The relationship is beyond the old theme of brotherhood into identity:  self and other, fiction and reality, and, by extension and supplementation, the said and the unsaid.  I could as well quote Jung as Hauptman:  “Poetry evokes out of words the resonance of the primordial word.”

A temporary eddying appositive is created by a judicious line break later:

The girl had turned her back to you by then,

Her eyes intent on the thickness of particulars,

The wintery emphasis of that woman's dying,

Like facing a glass‑bright, amplified stage,

Too painful not to follow back to a source

In the self.  And like the girl, [feminine in masculine] I found myself

Looking at the boy, [italics mine] your voice suddenly

Thrown into him, as he echoed the woman's

Final rendering, a voice that drove upward

Onto the lampblack twigs just beyond her view

To look back on her body there, on its page

Of monologue.  The words, as they came

Came from you, from the woman, from the voice

In the trees were his then, the poem come

From someone elses lips, as it can.

I quote the whole stunning conclusion of the poem to illustrate how the rhetoric and grammar work contextually.  “Looking at the boy” briefly, strangely, modifies “voice.”  This is more than random synesthesia.  Language sees.  And so the deaf can hear.  

In McClatchy's work, Hope always crouches at the bottom of the jar, wings held tightly to herself, like a child's tattered blanket, or a lover's.  (“Friend” after all is archaic for a lover or paramour, of either sex, as in Shakespeare's line from Love's Labor's Lost V. ii. 402: 

O, never will I trust to speeches penn'd,

Nor to the motion of a schoolboy's tongue,

Nor never come in vizard to my friend,

Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper's song!)

But Berone doth protest too much because even as he protests rhyming, he rhymes:  rhyme with blind, penn'd with tongue with friend with song.   And so with J. D. McClatchy, of whom might be said “Yet modestly he does his work survey, / And calls his finish'd poem an essay.”  

Still, I think he'd do well to consider that to that ideal reader, that ideal friend at the end,  “Worse essays proved thee my best of love” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 110).