August 11th, 2011 09:32 EST
Michael Perkins' Poems: A Climate That Doesn't Clamor for Attention
[Carpe Diem, New and Selected Poems, Michael Perkins, Bushwhack Books, 2011, 124 pp, $14.95]
A crapshoot society like ours ties its shoes together in the morning and fails to notice its manifest treasures even when it stumbles over them.
So obsessed are we by A-lists, best sellers, prizes and critical approbation that we fail to notice that not every achievement wears laurel and yet creativity abounds around every corner. The best-seller of today may be forgotten in 50 years, the poetry and painting we ignore or marginalize today may be celebrated 100 years from now. The devices by which we recognize and reward artistic endeavor are deeply flawed by commercialism.
For this reason I`m profoundly moved by artists who create simply because they must, because they would die if they didn`t, artists who decline to clamor and politick for a place in the artificial sun of a corporatized culture, artists like Michael Perkins, who writes poetry as straightforward as nails. Such artists reassure me that art is not about the favor of establishments, it`s about heightening our experience of life.
Perkins` poetics is as austere as Shaker furniture or the Hudson Valley Dutch Reformed Churches with which he`s so familiar. It is devoid of some of modernism`s most conspicuous aspects, such as down-casing and eschewing punctuation. And yet there is no question the poet is keenly aware of the modernists, mentioning Ahkmatova as he does, and dedicating poems to fond contemporaries.
Perkins is a hiker, a mountain climber, and his poetics, refraining from the iambic pentameter and closer to what Nicholson Baker has called the basic four-beat English line, have the vigor, muscularity and agility of a hiker:
Hiking straight up the quartz path,
Stiff winds bending the balsams,
Wet gray curtains close the view
And sudden sunlight parts them.
Carpe Diem is highly structured to give readers an overview of Perkins` oeuvre and evolution as a poet. It`s a remarkably coherent evolution. He doesn`t seem to have had any stylistic epiphanies or remorse. He seems, rather, to have developed as a poet in a rather straight and straightforward line. There is no pretension, no opera, no headline-grabbing. He didn`t write these poems to win prizes by snatching a piece of the zeitgeist, and yet he has indeed won prizes "most notably the 1957 Dunbar Poetry Prize and 2007 Obelisk Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is, moreover, well published, with poems and essays in Village Voice, The Nation, Mother Jones, Rain Taxi and other respected venues.
There are two face-to-face poems in I Could Walk All Day  " that bring tears to my eyes because they reveal a sensibility that celebrates in the manner of baroque chamber music what it has experienced and at the same time yearns for what it has only heard about in the manner of the immemorial lover. Read first thee experience in The Sweeper [Jardin, San Miguel de Allende] :
At five in the morning,
In the garden beneath
The blue jacaranda
Where the peacocks scream
And the fountain refreshes
The riotous flowers,
I sweep the blue shreds of dawn.
And then the yearning in I Have Not Heard, " the next poem:
I have not heard, as I`d hoped,
The magic Mayan Quetzal
Sing in Guatemala. Nor
Do I think now I will ever
Climb into the wet jungles
Listening for its elegant
I find much to admire in these verses, their light-rain cadence, the quietly refined speech, the caesuras and end stops [elegant/exuberant]. There are no stylish panic attacks, no linguistic acrobatics in Perkins` poetry. These two poems reminded me strongly of medieval Arab poetry from Al Andalus, and there is a very good reason for this. An Arab poet sings of the Guadalquiver as a white hand opening a green robe. Perkins writes, I sweep the blue shreds of dawn. This denotes his descent from the troubadours who in turn descended from the Andalusian Arabs.
I`ve met Perkins "in fact, at his invitation I`ve read at The Woodstock Library and will again December 3 "and I can testify that he`s a listener, as you would know from his poems. He wants to hear that Quetzal, he wants to hear you, and he doesn`t have much to say other than what he can say so restrainedly in his poised poetry. Listening poems inherently revere silence. Sometimes reading a Perkins poem is like sitting by a rushing brook; there is never any question about what is being said, any doubt about its authenticity.
Perkins lives in Woodstock, New York, a community that understands this idea. It has its famous artists and its obscure artists, but they enjoy a common awareness that fame is ephemeral and fickle, but art is simply the way artists live, their breath and their blood. He must be acutely aware of ephemerality and renown, working as he does in Woodstock`s extraordinary public library.
These artists who find the hurly-burly of seeking acclaim distasteful if not obscene are, to me, as necessary to the workings of the universe as the children who meticulously make stone circles in forests or the bees that pollinate flowers. The rest of us, whether we know it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, cannot make art without them. Not because they are ascetics or monks praying for us, but because their example is the mercury required to quicken lead: nothing is ennobled without them. When I write a poem I think less of the already acclaimed and more of the poets who write because they are helpless in its embrace.
It was my privilege to know another such nobleman in Dr. John L. Brown, who wrote splendid volumes of exquisite poetry, mostly dedicated to his beloved wife, Simonne, but never courted the literary establishment or its rewards. I asked John once about this and he said, Oh, it`s so much bother and in the end who cares, really? John had Michael Perkins`s commonsensical responses to the world`s hubbub and issues. I once asked him about a then current debate about Ezra Pound`s alleged anti-Semitism. He answered, Alleged? My God, have you read what he said? [I should add that John knew Pound well].
John`s example emboldened me to take up making poems again after a long hiatus, simply because it was a gift towards which I no longer wished to be surly. I believe the whole of human creativity would suffer irreparable damage without souls who choose not to seek the approbation of their fellows but choose to make art in faith that it will be found by just the right person at the right moment. You have to hustle to earn acclaim, you have to be savvy, do your homework, make friends, send the right messages, monitor the trends "and all that is time spent by poets like John Brown and Michael Perkins writing another poem, observing a pebble in a crystal stream or the way an old house hog-backs, observing the tilt and tally [to use a Hart Crane phrase] of the world.
I can`t say much more in praise of such devotion and accomplishment, except that I heard the magic Quetzal in his poems.
Djelloul Marbrook`s first book, Far from Algiers (Kent State University Press, 2008) won the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry. Artists` Hill, " an excerpt from his unpublished novel, Crowds of One, won the 2008 Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction. Artemisia`s Wolf, a novella, was published by Prakash Books of India early in 2011. Alice Miller`s Room, a novella, was published in 1999 by OnlineOriginals.com (UK) as an e-book, and Bliss Plot Press of Woodstock, NY, recently published his novella, Saraceno, as an e-book. Orbis (UK), Smashwords.com, Potomac Review (Maryland) and Prima Materia (New York). His second book of poems is Brushstrokes and Glances (Deerbrook Editions, 2010). Recent poems were published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Oberon, Meadowland Review, The Same, Reed, The Ledge, Poemeleon, Poets Against War, Fledgling Rag, Daylight Burglary, Le Zaporogue, Atticus, Long Island Quarterly, ReDactions, Istanbul Literary Review, Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review, Damazine, Perpetuum Mobile, Attic, and Chronogram. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in Germantown, NY, with his wife Marilyn, and has lifelong ties to Woodstock.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com