Mathy Radioland

I was tickled that JoAnne Growney wanted to put “Concentric Grooves” from Radioland on her blog “Intersections–Poetry with Mathematics,” but her request also jogged a memory of an unpublished poem from the same era that was even MORE mathy. I finally found “Disaster Math,” a poem I sent out a couple of times then gave up on, never entirely confident I had it right. After a several-year gap, however, I saw a few tweaks that might help, so I brushed it up and include it below–another Radioland outtake.

It probably overlaps too much with the sonnet crown “Damages” to have worked in the book. I do that a lot, writing numerous poems about a single crisis, trying to understand it, so some versions get factored out. Mathematical language features in a lot of writing from this part of my life because my father was a civil engineer–I remember his slide rule being replaced, in the 70s, by an obsession with programmable calculators. Oddly, while more mathematical than “Damages,” “Disaster Math” is also more focused on stories. What I often felt, trying to process my parents’ break-up from a great distance, was that I was a creature made of stories, and the universe had suddenly insisted on radical revisions, unbalancing an equilibrium I’d lived with for decades. Thanks so much to JoAnne for featuring one poem and reminding me of the others!

Disaster Math

Before instruments detected
his infidelity, one man began deleting
his wife, three children, bridge partners.
85 leaves 71 for 45.
Everyone a node of intersecting stories.

One snap among the snagged lines
reengineers a whole system:
20,000 on the withdrawal slip, therefore
a wife opens drawers and solves for x.
Reports it to their daughter, 43,

who lives on a strike-slip fault
9000 miles away, just north of a 6.3
shock as Australian and Pacific plates grate.
Death toll 159, but it rises in the falling action.
How can these outcomes coincide?

the daughter wonders, vibrating
alongside the numbers, waiting
for their force to dissipate. Propose
it never does. Propose broken columns,
integer debris. She studies the latest stats:

central business district closed till Christmas at least;
some bodies may never be identified; the cost
may never be tallied. Tangles wires and roads
and words and digits and code:
dividends of underground geometry.

She tells it over and over. Buildings collapsed and I
was too far away to feel it. I am safe. He
is a fissure emitting no signal but people build bridges
all the time, they cross as I am crossing, fibers
of plot chafing my palms. Listening ahead, calling behind.

triangles
Triangles–my father’s ruler and a Mobius strip he carved

Radioland, an outtake

The world’s going to hell, but my writing is going well…Mostly revising and submitting, these days. I now have THREE projects under submission: 1. Taking Poetry Personally: Twenty-First Century Verse and the Multiverse; 2. a chapbook-length long poem, Propagation; 3. and a first novel, The Changeling Professor, although that one is just at the beginning-to-query-agents phase. Meanwhile I’m keeping poems under journal submission, and in the process I keep finding verses I drafted quickly and then forgot about. Whenever you put together a poetry book a LOT ends up on the cutting room floor.

I think the poem below was just too specific to my life at that moment–it didn’t seem inclusive enough of readers outside my bubble. I’d just attended a memorial service for Severn Parker Duvall III, the grand, legendary, reportedly cranky old poetry professor whom I’d replaced at W&L (I say “reportedly” because the man left behind some astonishing stories, all of which I believe, but he was always beautifully genteel to me). The immediate scene is the lawn in front of Lee Chapel on campus, where I was leading a workshop in a writing prompt (and doing some drafting myself, obviously). Like a lot of poems, though, this one has a heterotopia, an other-place: I’d been back from my Fulbright in New Zealand for less than a year and clearly missed it.

I’m looking forward to reading from Radioland at Washington College in MD next week. In the meantime, a poem for the road. Maybe it’s about running out of time and not entirely minding.

The Opposite of Elegy

The shadow of a chapel spire ticks over
my shoulder; the students write. Severn said,
“Do you mean of my departure?”

when his granddaughter asked, “Are you scared?”
Struck like a bell but finally amused
by the notion of fearing death.

Last night’s dead-hour dream fused
everything I’ve been thinking of: I
visited an old hotel, beachy views,

near Nelson, New Zealand. Bill Manhire
was running a poetry conference
that was really the afterlife.

When told I had to jump back over the fence,
return to the living for a while, I cried…
My students are still writing. Present tense

continuous, sprawling all over a spikily
germinating lawn. Younger and smarter
every year. Sere leaves brushed aside.

I guess that’s spring for you. Clock for a heart.

April 2, 2012

roseoneill

 

In favor of impurity, or, I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down

My daughter told me about the mass killing in Orlando in the car Sunday, as we drove up Route 81 on an errand. We bought summer shorts and solar lights for the back walkway, ate pho and spring rolls, stopped at a bookstore, drove home, and she kept updating me all evening. Mostly Latino and LGBT, she said. The orange guy says ban Muslim immigrants. Countries are issuing travel advisories against the U.S.: it’s not safe here.

Monday, I found myself flipping back and forth between online news and the strange old book I bought in Staunton, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, Collected Under the Auspices of the Virginia Folklore Society, edited by Arthur Kyle Davis and published in 1929. I’m no ballad-scholar but they tell sad stories in verse, usually beginning at the end. “There is never an authoritative text,” wrote Robert Graves about the folk ballad, continuing, “it is incomplete without music…it does not moralize or preach or express any partisan bias.” In my “Introduction to Poetry” course, we spend a day looking first at folk ballads and then at literary uses of the form–not-anonymous ballad-like poems circulated in print. We discuss Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” about a 1963 church bombing, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Emmett Till poems. Randall’s ballad, metered and rhymed, has that communal quality of a song one might pass down through generations. Brooks’ “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” instead, blasts that cultural inheritance apart, along with all the racist, gendered baggage it carries about lily-white maids and dark villains. Both poems draw force in different ways from the old tropes and channel that power against contemporary violence.

It’s hard to write a literary ballad. Strict quatrains can sound too predictable now, too light; veer from familiarity, though, and you’ve lost continuity with the old songs. The latter is sometimes better, yet form’s history can help you carry a hard burden. I’m trying to draft a ballad about the hate crime at the Pulse nightclub, but the results so far are somehow both raw and over-intellectual.

To do better, I keep going back to the smoother cadences preserved in this book. There was a vogue, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for collecting traces of a vanishing folk culture, and I’m glad, even if I personally, as a woman, wouldn’t have been safe tramping around the mountains and asking strangers what old airs they knew. But this particular collection was also an attempt by white people to conserve (create?) a particularly Scots-Irish heritage. These folklorists collected British, Scottish, and Irish songs only, further stipulating that they must be orally transmitted, unpolluted by print. Interesting, to discover what songs made that crossing and how they changed. Yet there’s no such thing as media purity, then or now–print and oral cultures intersect all the time. Nor are other kinds of inheritance pure. Listen as the editor, in his introduction, gives away his bias:

“The nearest approach to an American body of folk-lore is the folk-lore of European origin transplanted and adapted in America–unless, forsooth, we should prefer to regard as representatively American the tribal and ceremonial songs of the Red Indian, which are American in no sense except the geographical, or the folk-songs of the Negro, which, beautiful as they often are, are obviously the heritage of the ‘Homo Africanus’ transplanted in America, not the possession of our white majority.”

Forsooth! This book was being assembled as Virginia was implementing its eugenics laws, sterilizing citizens for being indigenous, black, or otherwise American in no sense except, gee, the geographical, legal, logical, and moral. Terms like “Red Indian” and “Homo Africanus” construct and exaggerate difference for rhetorical effect, as if the so-called races belong to different species.

Now flash forward to one 21st century version of the eugenics program: a current candidate’s proposed wall. Barrier contraception writ large. None of it works–no poem or country has ever been pure, and none ever will be, thank heaven–but people do harm striving for purity anyway.

I’ll keep working on my ballad, getting my own hands dirty, as I look for other ways to protest the fear and hatred ruining us. Last weekend’s horror is not particularly my story to tell, but that’s the point of ballads–they’re all our stories, the young man whose mind goes wrong, hopes ruined, lovers separated by violence, children forever lost to mothers wild with grief. To paraphrase Brooks, the Pulse tragedy has the beat inevitable; the old form is latent in the event, in its very needlessness. How many times do assault rifles have to fire in our public spaces before U.S. politicians repudiate the NRA? As in the ballad “Lord Randal”–sometimes converted by Virginians into “Johnnie Randolph”–I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down.

Two ballads for the road. First, as I said, contemporary literary ballads are hard to write, but I did just publish a poem influenced by the form. It’s in a Mezzo Cammin portfolio of poems responding to Edna St. Vincent Millay; the story it tells is Millay’s (successful) attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy by consuming abortive herbs in Dorset.

sir hughSecond, from my new-old book: it turns out that one of the few ballad variants sourced to Lexington is “Sir Hugh”, sometimes called “The Jew’s Daughter,” or, in a sanitized version, “The Fatal Flower Garden.” I can’t bring myself to type it out so I’ve linked to a similar version to the one contributed by “Mr. and Mrs. George McLaughlin” in 1916 (I live very near McLaughlin St.). It tells of a Christian boy whose ball goes over a wall into “the old Jew’s garden.” Tempted by his neighbor’s daughter, the boy ventures after it and is brutally murdered. “Sir Hugh” preserves and promotes the anti-Semitism of medieval Europe; its tale was used to justify pogroms. It’s also, in its toxic way, haunting. Ballads can poison as well as console us–promote violence as well as deplore it. Impure.