Wednesday, May 28, 2008

VANCOUVER: A POEM by George Stanley


I took George Stanley’s new collection to New York in early May and read it on the subway, and propped up in bed. I spoke of it to my friends. I asked one to bring me a copy of Williams’ Paterson as Stanley pays homage to that major candidate for the last century’s long poem prize at the beginning of this first great urban poem of the 21st century.

In the end my friend forgot Paterson but no matter. We will read Paterson again, as we should Baudelaire’s poems about Paris, to appreciate fully aspects of Stanley’s master work.

I write of mastery because this poet beguiles us with puppetry whose strings we cannot see no matter how hard we try. We are enthralled by the light touch, the inviting language, the confidence. He starts the poem “there is more here than memory.” That line tricks with its apparent simplicity. What more is there? Ideas? Action plans? He then tells us: “I am not a man & this is not my city.”

If not a man, then what, whom? If not his city, then whose?

In this first entry about Stanley’s poem— I do not intend to distil all of my thinking in one blog post—I reproduce an amazing passage to give you an idea of Stanley’s approach and preoccupations. I am also re-reading the poem and find that almost every word and pause has become vital for me, something that happens very rarely in reading a book of poems.

I cite the passage from Section 10, page 72.

“Safe in the city. Safe because of being in the city, place, & knowing all these things to relate to other things, that don’t change, but of course they change & then in between what they were & what they will be there’s a vacant lot, but it’s not a vacant lot like in childhood, you could play in, & make part of the place you were, it’s behind a fence, & now you’re old, & you look through the fence that some younger people have put up, to make it safe for you, & you hope (& it’s an angry hope, & it’s a desperate hope), you hope that really will be (you, that pronoun you hope you are, hope that really will be, & you will be (& then you look sort of shyly away, up the Drive---& all the other old people are there too (where the bank, or the coffee shop, or the bookstore, or the social service agency used to be), next to the fence, standing in ones, look past them & the city goes on & on, outside time, up & down & over small hills, until it gets to the natural line, the water. “

There are a thousand ways to skin a blackbird. The most direct requires seizing a knife, tearing a hole in the skin and starting to peel. That knife appears in the phrase “a vacant lot.” Its tactile, desolate image follows dubitative this and that about place and change. Yet great poetry is made from yoking together the contrast between the music of thinking (this and that) and the graphic image (vacant lot). Stanley knows how to mix the ingredients.

Shall I put my lands in order, I am tempted to ask. There is a lot of Tom Eliot informing this passage. “Between what they were and what they will be” evokes Time Past, Time Present, Time Future from the Four Quartets….and from the Preludes we see old women gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Stanley would agree that Eliot lived still at a time when the poem had some weight, could tweak history. He also wants us to recall il miglio fabbro, the deluded old Lear, Ezra Pound, imprisoned, facing charges of treason, who wrote in 1948 in Canto LXXXI: " Pull down thy vanity/Thou art a beaten dog/beneath the hail/A swollen magpie in a fitful sun/Half black, half white/Nor knowst’ou wing from tail/Pull down thy vanity.”

For Stanley that plaintive cry becomes “& it’s an angry hope, & it’s a desperate hope.” An old man , he sits, in a dry month, among other old men, beside a fence, alone, The various buildings that once occupied the site have gone--the bank, coffee shop, bookstore, social service agency—leaving a vacant lot beside the old men and beyond the small hills, the natural line, the water.
Remember Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Who are today’s chickens? In what space do they cluck? How shall we disappear? By leaning against a fence encircling a vacant lot?
c) 2008 Indran Amirthanayagam Lines cited from Vancouver; A Poem, New Star Books, c) 2008 George Stanley.


Raah-Dikha said...

INdran, this is a really thought provoking poem and blog. i think what i liked best about the vacant lot is that its vacancy invites all readers-quite unlike a drawing room where things are already a certain way. btw, you really should read Italo Calvino's Invisible cities-it was a text for me in urban planning and also, I think, the greatest paean to cities ever written.

Indran Amirthanayagam said...

Yes, Invisible Cities is a fine meditation on cities. I have read most of it. Must look for my copy and read it again. Yes, Vancouver: A Poem is a master work. Where are you in the world? cheers Indran

Anonymous said...

You've got Tagged Indran!

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