AFTER THE FALL: POEMS OLD AND NEW
By Edward Field
University of Pittsburgh Press, Eureka Building, Fifth Floor
3400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, 2007, 205 pp., $14, paper.
Reading Edward Fields new career survey forced me to question and ultimately enlarge my own definition of poetry.
What makes a poem in the absence of formal rules of rhyme and meter? Ive never been fond of rules; to me the heart of poetry was always metaphorverbal alchemy, a transformative imagination remaking the world. For me true poetry was something more than grammatically correct sentences broken off and flung down the page like a jagged ladder, lacking verbal music. Poetry was memorable speech, made so by an organic unforced rhythm or melody, and sprinklings of such lyrical grace notes as assonance and alliteration.
Field, particularly in his newest and most direct poems, dispenses almost entirely with these traditional poets tools. But from the first poem Credo he owns the job of poet and makes clear that the stakes couldnt be higher:
That I believed in poetry,
even when I betrayed it,
that I came back to its central meaning
to save the world
this and only this
has been my own salvation.
In the same poem he asks:
What good is poetry
if it doesnt rescue us
from the liars that mislead us?…
but harmless wordplay to titillate and distract
It seems clear that Field too has wrestled with the nature of poetry, but has found his magnetic north in purpose over form.
In What Poetry Is For he recounts a seventies New York reading by Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan poet and Catholic priest of liberation theology. It was also beautiful/that he told us, flat out, in the simple language of truth,/what we were doing to his country. Faced with these ugly political realities “most of the audience of poetry lovers walked out. The poems last line responds to the call of its title: The stark reality. The warning. What a poets for.
Formally this poem is more essay than lyric, even quoting another poet to bolster its case. Because for Edward Field, form follows function: poetrys function is salvationof the world and the poet. Its form is the simple language of truth.
The truths thus told may be ugly, but their telling makes beauty. This, Ive come to see, is the transformative poetic imagination living large, compared to which the simple, small metaphor that Ive always loved is only a kernel of imagination.
As early as his first collection in 1963, Stand Up, Friend, With Me, Field is concerned with the potential distortions of pretty language. In Ode to Fidel Castro he makes a highly unusual appeal to the Muse: Guard me from Poets Head that dread disease/where the words ring like gongs and meaning goes out the window.
Over the course of his career he seems to have gained the confidence and mastery to move away from ringing gongs toward his own plain but potent language of truth. After the Fall begins with three sections of new poetry, then cycles back to selections from his previous books in chronological order, showing us first where hes ended up and then how he got there. In 1963 he hewed closer to traditional poetics, beginning each line with a capital letter, keeping to regular stanza lengths and deploying more metaphors and flourishes.
By the 21st century hes dug deeper into the poets tool chest, hefted some weightier tools and honed them to his use: the prophetic voice, crying out in the wilderness against the corruptions of government; the observers close and clear eye for detail; and his powerful but humane moral imagination. Turned outward its empathy; and turned inward its an unsentimental conscience. He holds power to account for its sins. With individual humans, including himself, hes unsparing but gentle.
Its easy to believe that the tale he tells in World War II, from his 1967 collection Variety Photoplays, profoundly informs this outlook. On a bombing run over Berlin Fields plane is shot up and forced to turn back. It crash-lands in the sea. Who would ever think water could be so hard? The plane carries two life rafts. One only half-inflates. The pilot takes to the limp raft, the rest of the crew to the full one. Field and another man last out of the plane must swim for it. Later they said the cords holding rafts to plane/broke by themselves, but I wouldnt have blamed them/for cutting them loose. The other man is swept away by a current.
Field is told theres no room in the inflated raft so he clings to its side. His training tells him he cant live more than twenty-five minutes in the midwinter ocean. When the time has passed he says he cant hold on anymore, and a boy in the raft takes his place in the water. Unlike Field the boy never asks anyone to spell him. Instead he swims over to the half-inflated raft swamped with icy water, where he joins the pilot and both die of exposure before rescue.
It was him or me, and I made up my mind to live
I chose to live rather than be a hero, as I still do today,
although at that time I believed in being heroic, in saving the world,
even if, when opportunity knocked,
I instinctively chose survival.
In the poem In Memory of My Foreskin Field tells us, the task of life/is to deal with What Is/not with What Should Have Been.
In Mrs. Wallace Stevens he empathizes with his own lifes companion Neil having to deal with my self-important poetry scene,” while also ribbing Wallace Stevens making his high and mighty pronouncements,/the poems playful and charming and musical, yes, but/as if his socks didnt smell and no skid marks on his underwear. Field depicts Mrs. Stevens drawing a line down the middle of the house to separate her orderly world from his, formalizing the great poets split/between his dirty underwear and his mind, the line/that goes right through his poetry as well. Field makes sure to get his dirty socks and underwear, his unheroic survival, his failing prostate, the burdens and joys of aging and caring for Neil, and all the other messy, prosaic details of daily living into his poetry.
Its hard to do justice to Fields range over almost a half-centurys body of work. A group of early poems take their subjects from Hollywood movies and stars. Some of these are by turns comical or touching, but slight. “The Life of Joan Crawford” is long, to me aimless and even tedious. Some of Fields humor is clunky and obvious. But when it flows out of his humane observations it grounds and rounds out his character studies. In one of my favorites, When it Struck Him, a man in a Paris café cries out in despair, Je suis vieux, je suis vieux! (I am old, I am old!). A waiter gives him a free brandy and ushers him out. Field can still wax metaphorical when it comes to love and sex, as most poets do. From In Praise of My Prostateyou still expand, your amazing flowers/bursting forth throughout my body/pistils and stamens dancing.
All of Fields strengths and everything hes learned in his whole career come together in the books title poem, which concludes the section of new poetry and is a meditation on 9/11, from the viewpoint of a Greenwich Village bohemian close to ground zero. His restraint shows in the title. Of the towers he says, I too disliked them/Merely an irritation before,/now after their fall/theyve grown monstrous.” He dares to imagine a diabolical thought about the plan,/its total success/once they thought of it, it was so beautiful/they had to do it/Suddenly I have tears in my eyes. He understands the power of the aesthetic imagination, wedded to hatred, rage, the need for vengeance. Fields empathy stretches out to envelop those who flew the planes into the towers, the passengers on the planes and those in the towers who leaped to their deaths, but comes to no neat summations. Perhaps it makes neat summations impossible.
As the poem concludes he makes of his title a quiet metaphor, comparing the fall of the towers to the fall of the Colossus of Rhodes in the ancient world, after which the gods/were dead.
and mankind had to live with it,
with the fragments that were left,
with the heaps of rubble
we pray over.
Without gods there are no easy answers, only prayers over heaps of rubble. Those who offer such hopeless prayers are just like us: sad and flawed but human and beautiful.
Field gives us all this and more in plain but potent language, its metaphors organic but downplayed. For awhile there I thought I had a working definition of poetry. Thanks to Edward Field Ive had to scrap it. I couldnt be happier.
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