Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Everything that can happen

I've written previously in this blog about poet Sheryl Noethe, here. As I noted in the previous blogpost, Sheryl and I were in a poetry writing class during our last year in high school, 1971-1972. She was the first poet I personally knew whose poems and whose ideas (about poetry, and about very much else) deeply shaped my own ideas about how I wanted to write, and my outlook on the world.

Last winter at the AWP conference in Chicago, at the bookfair I found a new book of hers, As Is (published 2009 by Lost Horse Press), apparently just out at the time and which I hadn't known had been published. I immersed myself in the book, carried it with me for a month while I read it. I'm always struck by the way Sheryl Noethe's poems create worlds, pieces of the large world we all live in. Noethe is fearless in opening and revealing the most startling and tender experience in her life and in the lives of people she's known.

From the poem "Mother" in As Is (from which all quoted passages here are taken):
When I was a child your body was a natural disaster.
Whole towns swept into the sea while your voice
sang from another room. When I was young
I was afraid you would die at work,
waiting tables, and your body would be lost.

You of the rubber girdle, punching hips in a mirror,
strawberry-blonde wigs, movie-star sunglasses;
I have your bones. I have the thumbs of the demon who begat you.
In my gestures I use your hands.

After the last baby your thoughts were broadcast
live over the P.A. system at the supermarket.
Some days you could not feel your arms. You could not go outside.
When my rabbit died you called to God to take you instead.
A woman's life, you told me, is a used car lot.
Her poems are absolutely unpredictable. I always have the feeling that Noethe is willing to say anything in a poem, anything at all, if it's part of the truth she perceives and needs to tell. I read one of her poems and it's both a revealing of immediate reality and an exploration of the nature of reality as a whole.
Worlds exist in the sleep of infinite repetition.
Endless hallways lined with countless doors,
more hallways, more doors, more rooms to enter.
Sometimes other people occupy them but don't
notice me at all. They don't feel it if I walk
right through them but sometimes I suspect
they might be in love.
It is important to be statistically rigorous and unwavering.

I dreamt you came to me and said a certain name and then a number.
I called you from the windswept mountain,
leaned into the phone booth and dialed. In a word, you knew me.
In the static you announced that same name, that number.
I got E's and seventeens from you, I got elevens,
broken English and numbers out of sequence.
Everything that can happen does.

Somewhere you put this poem down and somewhere you keep reading.
Somewhere I have never been I am.
Married to the addict rock musician.
When I wake I can smell him on my hands.
I know the names of our children.
Somewhere, each of us, beloved, renowned, beautiful.

(From the poem "Quanta.")

Many of Noethe's poems move through the shifting borderlands between alternate universes, perceptions, imaginations, between waking life and dreams. One of her earlier books of poems was titled The Ghost Openings. Poems of strange transformations, of riveting moments in conversation, of tramping the grit of life.

From the poem "They Will Say God" (written in response to a visit by a military recruiter at a school where Noethe was teaching):
Snake head, smug, self-satisfied, flicking his rippling tongue.
Smirking with good manners and snide smiles.
Carnival salesman, game fixer, everything a ruse:
lopsided baseball, crooked pellet gun, unbreakable plate.
Unavailable armor, friendly fire, incompetence and hate.
Come in, he grins, sit down, friend, let's chat. [...]

[...] So much worse than a whore or a pimp.
He sees you in the front lines as new meat,
a number, fodder, body bagged, a gimp.
Would you buy a used car looking only at the front?
Behind and beneath the chassis: rust,
a rebuild, bad brakes, broken tranny. The Ford Tyrant.
In the driver's seat, a burning teen age corpse.
My 4th grade student wanted to be a hero.
The recruiter promised he would.
A boy who wrote poetry about his kitten, dead at seventeen.
His dad signed for his enlistment. His mom signed divorce papers.

They will say anything. They will say God. They will say freedom.
Turn words to poison, depleted of meaning;
with all the intensity and patriotism of a child pornographer.
They will seek out your loved ones.
They will turn children to funeral meat.
They will eat. They will say God.
When I think about the reasons for writing poetry; when I think about the uses of poetry in the world, about the potential of imagination to move and shape the world in which we live; when I think about what it is that might be most important for us to say to each other as human beings, to create possibilities of another and better life, as individuals and acting together; Sheryl Noethe's poetry suggests some of the answers. I don't aspire to write the poetry she writes, for each one of us who writes does so in our own way; but I believe our reasons for writing come from a similar place. Every time I read Sheryl Noethe's poetry I'm again amazed.
When the surgeons cut into my body they left
four crooked black lines; crows flying with their cruel beaks.
I dreamed I fell onto a pile of lumber and was pierced by nails.
I asked a red-haired woman for help covering the punctures.
As she drew closer, I recognized who she was.

A woman kept seven large dogs with her at all times for protection.
She worked on a specific computer program for years.
She could almost see the ghostly presence at the edges
of her screen, then sliding across the walls and doorways.
Peripheral, and always in shadow. She became afraid of the work
and discarded it, but she asked me to care for the disc. [...]

[...] The devil prefers terror, liquid tides of blood. My blood.
Others has homes to go to. I parked cars outside
a fancy restaurant, owned by the famous actor, Satan.
Others walked upon the earth. I swam a river that
preceded me, always on the edge of drowning.
I was grief-infested, demon-laced. Still, I could not let him win.

This is the understanding my unconsciousness has of the operation:
I fell, pierced and immobile. People appeared to be what they were not.
I flew at night over cities between the wilderness.
Clusters of night, seen from above, the consciousness of pain.
Seen from below, the unthinking intelligence of stars.
(From the poem "The Elective.)

Terrific stuff, Lyle. I'll put her on my list to read in 2010. Happy New Year!
She is SO GOOD. The kind of poet that makes me want to shred my own writing:-)
Pris took the words right out of my mouth.
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