August 29th, 2009 10:45 EST
Poets Are Our Shamans
The reason vampires are always in vogue is because we encounter them. All of us have left the company of certain people feeling we have just donated a bit too much blood in an uncertain cause. And we have all entertained that sense of the world being not quite what it insists it is.
Poets affirm this sense of otherness, this presence of otherlings among us, this multidimensionality that our antennae restlessly pick up. Theirs is always the alternate view, the other way, the road we dared not take, the love we dared not pursue, the decision we never made.
Poets are our shamans, but they are also eternal children, ourselves having grown up the way we might have grown up had we not been so interfered with, " as the British used to say of certain unfortunate children. Poets are our more innocent selves, and yet also the more knowing selves which we deigned not to be so as to make ourselves more convenient to our parents and others.
From the title of his book to its very last poem, Stuart Bartow imbues us with the presence of this might-have-been child, this lost child, this otherling. This is the strength and persistence of his poetry, that it so faithfully eschews the received idea, the convenient interpretation, the predictable muse. In a time when the very best publishers of poetry often opt for the predictable and reassuring, if not the outright sentimental, Bartow`s work insists again and again that things are not what they seem but rather as they often seem to children, madmen and eternal strangers.
This is not to say his work is the sort of outrÃ© work that clamors for attention. Bartow simply sees the ordinary things we all see as if he had woken up that particular morning, the morning he wrote that particular poem, and found himself a bit out of his head, not himself, so to speak. And this person who is not himself writes a poem that describes his condition, and the poem begins to make so much sense that nobody ever cares again just who the poet was the day before.
The first poem, Deneb, " speaks of dusty legions of moths banished by the first frost. This is insight more significant than the latest mindless bombing in Iraq, and anyone who has brushed with mysticism knows that a poet is a foreign correspondent from unimaginably more important capitals than Baghdad. Poetry`s ability to report back from realms far more distant and yet more relevant than those in the headlines makes poetry so resilient and such a powerful presence in our everyday lives, whether it is the poetry of the Bible, the Qu`ran, the Vedas, rap, rock, rai or country.
Bartow`s second poem, Reasons to Hate Birds, " is wry and heartbreaking. Robins make the poet homesick when he`s home. The poem recalls Eliot`s April is the cruelest month. The birds become a symbol of all that is witless and therefore menacing. One thinks also of Alfred Hitchcock`s The Birds. But the hater is also a lover, for the poem ends with him grieving for the fallen companion of a female cardinal, an apparition,/a blood stain/in the snowy branches.
A contrarian impulse like Bartow`s could be an irritant, but not in the employ of an elven artist intent on suggesting that the dimension in which we live is in fact interwoven with other dimensions whose inhabitants are as familiar with their world as we are with ours, perhaps more so. More tellingly, they may be more familiar with our world than we are. But there is a larger point in this contrarianism: poets are uninterested in the authorized, conventional view of anything. In that. they transcend fact, and it goes without saying that they are not as beholden to vested interests as most correspondents.
In the ordinary world when a doorknob comes off in your hand one morning it may bode ill for the day, but in the poet`s world the knob is supposed to come off and nothing is supposed to happen according to dogma. Even when we are shocked by this element in poetry, as we were when Arthur Rimbaud spoke to us, we nonetheless depend on it to save us from a world that would otherwise kill us with its prescriptions. The prescriptive world is the enemy of poetry.
In the next poem, Hummingbirds, " he calls them gravity`s gypsies. It is this sense of having long considered matters before speaking of them that makes Bartow`s poems reliable and rewarding. He seems less inspired to say something and more inclined to allow observations to grow up in him until they have nowhere to go except the page before him, giving the reader assurance of being in hands that do not seek to handle us.
I think Stuart Bartow must have considered Gerard Manley Hopkins well. Some of his lyrics, as in the poem Short-Eared Owls, " are haunted by Hopkins` syncopations, but they have blessedly foregone the dicey virtuosity of the master. A little of Hopkins goes a long way, and it`s easier to go the distance with Bartow.
Ethyl`s Crow, " which follows Short-Eared Owls, " begins:
The crow she healed
through the open window
and paced the sill
like a bantam Hamlet
between the summer`s curtains.
It would be difficult to say anything more perfectly. The poem is not only a story but a comment on Hamlet himself, on all Hamlets finding their sills, their curtains and their audiences. The crow pilfers Ethyl`s home creating an alchemy/of crow logic. As Hamlet pilfers our empathy and patience.
To Ghost a Human Shape " is subtitled To the sparrows who live in Home Depot and Lowe`s. " There is nothing we might carry out of those places more valuable than the insight of the poem`s opening stanza:
As though the sky were made by a mind to keep space out,
look up and there will be a superstructure of x`s,
an expanse of skeletons, trees abstracted, boughs
arranged in order to make these flying gypsies believe
Believe what? There is a suspense until the next stanza begins: in mathematical deities. My guess is that this also expresses a suspense in the poet`s thinking. And this is the aspect of Bartow`s poetry I most admire, this ability to take the reader on a short stroll through ordinary places as if the two of us, poet and listener, were silently chatting, reading each other`s minds.
Bartow refuses to hint that he knows more than he is saying. He takes his reader right to the end of his vision, to its outer pale. Beyond that, reader and poet are both on their own. I remember this quality in C.P. Cavafy, who published his own poems and simply shared them with friends and others whom he thought might enjoy them, without thought to their destiny as literature. Cavafy might have known he would be famous, but he was determined not to let the issue distract him from his vision. I feel this virtue in Stuart Bartow`s work. If you write for someone you need to impress you diminish your work.
For all his often conversational humor and rue, there is also a formal eeriness, a hauntedness in some of these poems. In Phantom Laboratory " on page 42 the poet speaks of a mill behind the town "it`s not beyond the town, but behind it "which, although no one is in it, we might not be able to dream if it should cease its work, becoming nothing/but machines of light. In other words, we don`t know the purpose of things as well as we think we know them. We don`t know anything as well as we think we do.
I can`t be sure, but I suspect that this eerie quality in Bartow`s work may derive from his contemplations of upstate New York`s many ruined places, curtains still blowing in abandoned windows, slumping buildings, hog-backed roofs, rotting doorways, a pervasive sense of abandonment and coming to ruin. The state has been through many economic and cultural cycles, and there are few towns or cities that do not convey a sense of foreclosure and the disappointments and sorrows of the long dead. Even where there are no buildings, one often senses the lives of the native inhabitants.Bartow teaches at Adirondack Community College. His other books are Whelk and the chapbooks White Ravens, The Perseids, The Stars Belong to No One, Sleeping Through Seasons and As Armless Messengers Wake.
Reasons to Hate The Sky is divided into two parts, Reasons to Hate Birds " and Celestial Mechanics. " Anyone who has lived in the Adirondacks or Catskills would have reason to consider the heavens, the meteor showers, the crackling electricity of the stars on cold, clear nights. His intimacy with galaxies informs Bartow`s work. Several times while reading and rereading this book I found myself thinking of the star beasts of Giordano Bruno, that famous heretic whom we now celebrate for his prescience. Bartow`s Phantom Laboratory " may well be operating at the behest of star beasts.
And, in a sense, I came finally to regard the book itself as a phantom laboratory responding to distant impulses, impulses Bartow picks up, adapts for our minds and ears, and transmits to us as a benign alien visitor might, musing as he does his work, inviting us to share and savor this or that, amiably making space for us as we walk the same path for a moment or two.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.