Ambushed by Profundity

Review of Scratching the Ghost by Dexter Booth, Graywolf Press 88pp

Colloquy by Christopher Brunt and Ed Tato

From: Christopher Brunt
To: Ed Tato
Date: Oct 3, 2013 at 7:13 PM
Subject: Scratching the Ghost

Ed,

First, a little background: this is Dexter Booth’s first book of poems and it was selected by Major Jackson for the 2012 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Booth is a young poet from Virginia and a graduate of the Arizona State University MFA program.

Stylistically, it’s an adventurous collection, ranging from short lyric to longer free verse meditations and elegies to bulky prose poems that tend toward narrative. Booth’s poems roam through childhood and adolescence, repeating characters and subjects from family life and the speakers’ hometowns. The general concern here is loss. The titles are interesting. There’s an epigraph from “East Coker.” Ok, go.

From: Ed Tato
To: Christopher Brunt
Date: Oct 5, 2013 at 9:09 AM
Subject: Scratching the Ghost

Christopher,

My first thoughts on the book. I don’t think Major Jackson does Dexter Booth a service by dropping a Malcolm X reference in his introduction. Poetry is thought. Civil Rights is action. Poetry can help the individual see differently. Activism can change the course of the state. Poets get tenure. Malcolm X and MLK got shot. You know I love my poetry, but let’s keep some perspective.

My first thoughts on the poems. Through the first two sections, I like his ear and his images. He’s ending lines well. (I’m using Longenbach’s term, “end,” instead of “break,” because I like his idea that, “Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines.”) Take this example from, “Under the Weather:”

My heart is swollen as a calf
bitten by a spider, the body
dragging itself in delirium, going everywhere
but home.

In the first line, I’d say that calf is the hardest, noisiest sound in the line, and therefore a very good choice to use as the vehicle of a metaphor and the word that ends the line. We are naturally disposed to pause and consider the metaphor here. The images and plosives in the next line break us out of that reverie, even as they visually and conceptually amplify the metaphor. “[T]he body,” pushes us into the next line to find out whose body this is: speaker, calf, spider, combination or all. “[G]oing everywhere,” seems to offer a positive resolution to all that precedes it, implying that the swelling and delirium may offer some kind of freedom. That optimism is fleeting, quickly demolished by the last line, which indicates that the body/self seems free to go anywhere but where it wants, where it might find rest. That moment of optimism, however transitory, is no less real for its abridgment, and it creates a tension among each idea as to which is “true” and how “true” it might be.

Most of these lines are close to iambic rhythm, but only the last gets there completely, a development, combined with “home” as the final word (and final word of the poem), which should present some ease or consummation. “[B]ut home,” provides just the opposite. First, it is the absence of home the poet is conjuring. Second, the home/delirium rhyme suggests that home, even if it could be reached, is not necessarily a place of ease. Good rhymes present conceptual as well as sonic relations, and I think that delirium, home, and the absence of home give us an ending with a solid chunk of juxtaposition to chew on.

— Ed

From: Christopher Brunt
To: Ed Tato
Date: Oct 8, 2013 at 11:46 PM
Subject: Scratching the Ghost

Ed,

My first idea for this response was to start a fight with you on whether it’s fair to bring Malcolm up right off the bat on the sole basis of that phrase in Major Jackson’s introduction. (It’s not clear Jackson intends the Civil Rights comparison to the content of Booth’s poems; he makes no other reference to that effect.) But after reading the book a few times, I find myself most engaged with the poems that deal with blackness in a direct way—that take up blackness as their subject. While I don’t read them as overtly political poems, “Queen Elizabeth,” “Only Skin,” and the second section of “Under the Weather” each feature moments of externalized conflict which quickly routes back to the speaker and shakes his entire understanding of himself. These are poems about urban poverty, a Wal-Mart in Ohio, and a graduate poetry reading, yet each of them speaks to, from, and beyond the speaker’s experience as a black man in America in ways I find compelling and honest. They are the moments where Booth has something urgent and serious to say and does not let anything get in the way of his saying it.

Though this book is filled with poems so broken and fragmented there is an entire section subtitled Abstracts, in “Under the Weather” he reverts to prose to communicate a blistering, deeply personal truth. Note, for later, that I use the word “personal” here, rather than “private.” This little section of “Under the Weather,” with the unforgettable image of a man being picked up and compacted by a dumpster truck, is unlike anything else in the collection. Without line breaks, no one would ever mistake it for poetry. What it is is good, frank, troublesome prose. It is a moment where, “the decision to give words to suffering,” as Booth writes earlier in that poem, is made with a full and fearless heart. By any means necessary.

To make a successful poem out of linguistic surface is more difficult than actually meaning something and leaving it there for the reader to judge.

The most successful poems in Scratching the Ghost are those which do not play hide-and-seek with their dramatic problem. Poems like “Queen Elizabeth” and “Only Skin” put themselves in the hazard of their own terms. Each one poses an unanswerable question, and either leaves it there for the reader to take up or roots around in its complexities for a while before resolving itself in warranted uncertainty. In the less successful poems, the dramatic problem disappears or never materializes from behind the poem’s opaque surface. The result can be underwhelming.

I think American poets right now are teaching each other to construct surfaces which dazzle the reader while intentionally obstructing our view of the poem’s subject. This makes for some occasionally interesting surfaces and a whole lot of bafflement. What a reader can’t do is judge the poem’s ideas to be shallow (if there aren’t any) or its argument insufficient (if there isn’t one.) Instead, we get rhetoric in service of wordplay, verbal texture decorating an empty thing. American poets are cowboys riding broomstick horses.

What we don’t seem to realize, or don’t say enough, is that writing these kind of poems is harder than putting the subject up front and center and dealing with it, with all the depth, honesty, irony, wit, cunning, and beauty one can marshal. To make a successful poem out of linguistic surface is more difficult than actually meaning something and leaving it there for the reader to judge. Less scary, more difficult. (I’m disregarding the theoretic claim that every poem is only and always linguistic surface and that depth of any kind—of narrative, character, emotion, or idea—is an illusion of liberal humanists, perpetuated by reactionary critics in league with capitalist imperialist Harold Bloomists. I’m just disregarding that, for right now. Which I can do, because I have it on good authority that no doctrinaire post-structuralist critics read Ovenbird. Yet.)

Anyway, Booth. Take, as a case in point, his poem “In Favor of Company.” It’s short so I’ll quote the whole thing:

I barely knew her then. We sat on a bench sharing a Parliament
and an awful postcard view of rocks polka dotted with pigeon shit,
old train tracks like a monolithic machine left
to watch over the edge of the earth, water so dark beneath
its shadow that it hurt to look into. It was hot that day
and the ground was bare with the stubble of grass
hanging over the pathway like frat boys on balconies
puking out their guts before dawn.

This poem conjures up a vivid scene and then, as if leery of its own potential, aborts its mission and hits eject. It performs much the way one of its frat boys no doubt performed the night before after crashing into bed with a Tri Delt. The embarrassing failure to climax is defended, transparently so, by ordinary rudeness.

Whereas in the very next poem, “Only Skin,” Booth finds higher ground by deftly, vividly identifying a speaker with a problem, and then developing that problem: “She took my silence / to mean something.” The poem delivers a coherent yet complex argument: the speaker and his companion poised on the edge of urban doom, too afraid of the “tragic news” they know is bound for them to even find solace in communication, in mutual myth-making. Even the little girls jumping Double-Dutch are haunting guarantors of death. Booth’s language here has risen to the occasion of a real and powerful subject—I love the “broken-throated hymn of rope on pavement.” The end of the poem turns the argument over about three times, swiftly and with grace. There is risk in this one.

“She told me that death is not the end of the story, / and I believed her because she was dying, and died alone.”

In these last lines Booth isn’t reaching for profundity, he’s ambushed by it, surprised as we are to find it in this honest and lovely poem.

— Christopher

From: Ed Tato
To: Christopher Brunt
Date: Oct 12, 2013 at 8:02 AM
Subject: Scratching the Ghost

Christopher,

In her essay “Make it New,” Dana Levin states, “[T]he earmarks of today’s “experimental” styles—fragmented narrative, random jumps in space/time, multiple voices and points of view, disrupted syntax and abrupt shifts in diction, to name a few—are century-old gifts.” I think Levin is on to something here, and while I cringe to think these devices are “experimental,” they do dominate contemporary poetics.

My complaint, however, is not with the devices. They afford a chance to complicate ideas, to add perspectives, to capitalize on the ambiguities and absences Jackson writes about in his intro. But in the end, they are only devices, like meter and rhyme. Their current preponderance, which we too often assume to be fundamental to all poetics, is the remnant of a modernist design for getting readers to participate in the construction of narrative. Originally they took us from the Victorian realm of linear, clear moralistic narratives with easily identifiable meanings to a position that emphasized the contingent nature of being, where reading and understanding became a more difficult, less certain exercise. The best modernists valued this contingency because it questioned values and morals (both as ethics and as “the point” of the story.) Very few, I think, believed “the experimental” to have any intrinsic value.

Aside from Levin’s point that this understanding of the experimental freezes the term into a meaning wholly counter to its definition, the endurance of these devices as “earmarks of” contemporary poetry strikes me as a misapplication of modernist aesthetics. It suggests that poetry is primarily about the validation of craft devices and not the ends for which they employed. The idea of the modernist poem as deliberate, considered, argued critique has been replaced by that of the poem as a non-specified meme awaiting reader response.

And now that we’re here, riding our broomstick horses, we seem to like it. Pick up just about any journal, you see the same things we’re talking about. Over, and over, and over, and over again. Name almost any “school”, and you’ll find these devices, set to a vague or incoherent purpose that resembles language poetry, surrealism, narrative, confessionalism, lyric – much the same way chicken mcnuggets resemble the food we know as chicken.

It’s no wonder we’re baffled, having confused contingency with incoherence. Our way out, of course, is to translate the poems, often extra-poetically–in a review, or introduction, or in the explanation of the poem we give just before or after we read it publicly. We, or someone speaking for us, tells the reader what the poem is meant to do, how it’s supposed to do it, and why we’re supposed to like it. As readers, we’ve become conditioned to hear that story and to react to that more than the poem itself, which brings me back to Major Jackson. His introduction is the statement of intent, one invested with the authority of the  established, older, urban, academic poet. Jackson gets the first and thus most important word for how to read and understand Booth’s poems. If I disregard Jackson and let the poems speak for themselves, the book does not fully hold up.

But Scratching the Ghost has fine moments–when the best of Booth’s ear and eye anticipate a writer who, if he turns toward the substantial and risky, can write a book full of poetry instead of surface dazzlement–something I want to read, and something not found nearly enough these days.

— Ed

From: Christopher Brunt
To: Ed Tato
Date: Oct 16, 2013 at 2:22 AM
Subject: Scratching the Ghost

Ed,

I’ll more or less agree with you on the state of American poetry and with Major Jackson on his basic statement concerning this particular American poet: I think Dexter Booth’s debut is the work of a promising writer with the energy and technique to write lots of good poetry. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Next for us, if Ovenbird will have us back, we’ll be discussing Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, the fifth collection from Jeffrey McDaniel. This comes to us from U-Pittsburgh Press and I am happy to tell you that there is a triumphant blurb from a certain poet on the back whose initials are MJ.

A Man Who Stands for Nothing Will Fall for Anything,
Christopher

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One comment on “Ambushed by Profundity

  1. Your style is so unique compared to other people I’ve read stuff from.
    Many thanks for posting when you have the
    opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this site.

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