SAID NOT SAID is my fifth book of poetry. Every collection I have put together has had its tacit ambition, what it hopes to accomplish in both form and content. In some way each has been for me a parting of the veil, an effort to embody and enact a sense of discovery of more of what constitutes the real. What I am claiming here reminds me a bit of Thoreau’s remark in Walden that we must “work and wedge our feet downwards through the mud and slush of opinion and tradition, pride and prejudice, appearance and delusion. till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and we can say; This is, and no mistake.”
Often the “This is” in my work are experiences that in one way or another present themselves as beyond words, and yet at the same time seem to compel a response. Take, for instance, the whole first section of SAID NOT SAID. It is a suite of poems that tells the story of my older sister’s schizophrenia and life-long hospitalization. It also tells the story of my relatively helpless position as a witness to her life.
What to make of wholly undeserved existential suffering? How to begin to speak of it with any authentic feeling? Words seem to fail at such moments, and language itself seems “up for grabs” so to speak. The poems in this opening section place poetry itself on the witness stand and asks what it can offer, if anything, in the way of help. The poems themselves are formally restless, unsatisfied, experimenting, as if searching everywhere for a clue, not necessary an answer or a meaning, but a glimpse of what exists beyond the horizon of language. The book begins in a bind. The “said” poetry is haunted and yet informed and even inflamed by what is “not said.”
As I write this I realize that the “horizon of language” in these poems comes in many forms. “Wod-or” and its
eruptive and associative etymologies related to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster tries to probe certain words for the secret energies held within them. It was such a surprise to me to find my block-like stanzas had by the end taken me to the “drill” not only of oil wells, but marching military units. The probing of these words associated with an oil spill showed me yet again the connections between the war on nature and the wars among human beings.
If “Wod-or” leads back to the drill-field, it’s of course no accident either. As one might know from my earlier work, the wars of our time have haunted my poems. So too In SAID NOT SAID. For example, one finds here, for example, an elegy arising out of a visit to Quang Tri Province in Vietnam, a tour of the cemeteries and ex-firebases of what during the American war was called the DMZ. That elegy is very much in the present tense, and thus relates to several other poems in the book. Poems such as “Marwan” and “Checkpoint” hope to dramatize the dilemmas of those living under military occupation.
Many of may poems turn over and over the questions of violence and how to respond to it. One meets this in “Olive Harvest,” a poem that comes toward the end of the book. This poem emerged out of my participation in a delegation visit to Israel and Palestine sponsored by a group called Interfaith Peace Builders. The purpose was to better understand that regional conflict, and to meet citizens from both sides who were committed to non-violent responses to the Occupation. The poem presents the iconic olive tree as so deeply rooted in the soil that it can endure all sorts of human hard-heartedness and still return to offer itself. I did not want the poem to be homiletic, but I did want to dramatize the reassurance of the tree’s enduring presence, offering what it can “as if to say here here here.”
In terms of my “purpose” or “goal” in SAID NOT SAID, I think the best thing I can do is speak about the book’s title poem. “Said Not Said” is a suite of four lyric poems, without an explicit through-line among them, but with what I hope is an emotional, even a spiritual cohesion. The first poem in the sequence re-tells the gospel story of the “woman taken in adultery” and does so partly from the point of view a young illiterate boy who had no idea of what actually was happening.
He especially does not understand what Christ is doing while he waits for someone to cast the first stone. The evangelist tells us Jesus was writing in the sand,but he does not tell us what was written, even as the accusers walk away, and the adulteress is freed and told to go and sin now more.This opening poem in the sequence led me to a moment when I was first learning my letters, and that led me to think of chalk as stone transformed into something better, more useful. The poem led me to a third one in which I recount a memorial service, that swirl of people and feelings at a funeral, and the desire to be a stone, to be steady in the stream. All these poems helped me generate the catalogue of stones I had met and held and pondered.
In its collage-like structure, “Said Not Said” also foreshadows the last poem of the book, “The Day Later.” Instead of a series of stelae-like lyrics, “The Day Later” weaves together multiple voices, that of Czeslaw Milosz in “The Separate Notebooks” along with my mentor and friend the late Edwin Honig. A poet and translator, Honig suffered late in life from Alzheimer’s and yet even as his memory no longer existed as memory, the wellspring of his language did still exist. In the documentary film made about is life, the most poignant moment comes when he offers the advice that we should all “remember how to forget, no more.” The ambiguity and paradox in the remark struck me as Edwin’s final poem. It was an injunction that was said with joy and sadness mingled, and pointed beyond the horizon of what he could say to what he in his bones knew as clearly as he had ever known anything.
If I had to summarize I would say that SAID NOT SAID is in its own angular way a defense of poetry as its own way of knowing, feeling, and being. That is what I hope these poems embody, enact, and achieve. More than ars poetica, more than a set of poems “about poetry,” this book I hope models the capacity of poetry to sometimes bear witness to the unacceptable, and at the same time every poem is informed by the realistic sense that no artistic witness is every fully adequate to the task. SAID NOT SAID ranges across a spectrum of contemporary experience, and at each stop, tries find the images and rhythms that might at least help us engage those dilemmas and predicaments.
Poetry does not redeem the unacceptable, but perhaps the labor of imagination helps us to know better more of the actual conditions of our existence. As Beckett says in the epigraph for this collection, this is the world we live in, there’s no cure for that. What we have is what we make in response to it. What we have is a sense that at the horizon of language and imagination there is a wavering spirit just out of reach, just over the border, but summoning us to perhaps to sing.
December 1. 2016