Tuesday, January 13, 2009

STL #80:"I Find My Surface" (Robin Blaser)

I know enough of Robin Blaser to associate him with Jack Spicer, but that's it. In his 5 NAP poems, all dated 1956, I find a poet sensitive to the natural world and his mortal body's relationship to it. He speaks in a tone of disclosure--a 'listen, I've got something to tell you' frankness that avoids overtly 'poetic' effect. For example, "Now let me give you this experience./We change. No lies."

Of the 5 poems, all invoke some animal. He chooses less anthropomorphic animals like fish, snakes, and birds. 3 of the 5 mention (human) skin and 2 mention breath. Skin and breath are both interfaces between himself and the natural world, between the surface where his internal depths meet the external world. Skin meets the air where human warmth butts against the chill of the where; breath takes in that cold air, warms it, and turns it back. Blaser shows us that skin in like breath in "Poem by the Charles River." On observing the dead fish floating on the surface, he writes "I see them stretch the water to their need/as I domesticate the separate air to be my/breath." In the tradition of the Romantic Sublime, the outer world inspires introspection. In observing that "These fish die easily" he implies the question, 'do I?' He implies that question, but stop shorts of asking it, instead focusing on the act of interpretation: "I find my surface in the way they feed."

He shows that breath is like speech (another surface, or interface, or limen) in "Herons." I don't think I can excerpt the poem effectively to show him make the equation, so here it is complete:

I saw cold thunder in the grass,
the wet black trees of my humanity, my skin.

How much love lost hanging there
out of honesty.
I catch at those men who chose
to hang in the wind
out of honesty.
It is the body lies with its skin--

Robed in my words I say that the snake
changes its skin out of honesty.

And they
hanged there with some symmetry
died young
like herons proud in their landscape.

Now it is age crept in, nobody younger knows
the quick-darting breath is
our portion of honesty.

I don't totally know what to do with the poem, which has some echoes of Shakespeare (sonnet 74) and Pound ("In a Station of the Metro" and "Mauberly") but following through my equation (skin=breath=language or surface=interpretation) helps. At the beginning, there's something to observe, which is both nature but some how the self (so maybe the self situated in nature). Whatever it is, is "my skin." The object of perception then shifts from something of the natural world to something that seems political, men hanging from trees killed because of their honesty. Since the historical context might suggest lynching, skin takes on a different sense. In the center of the poem, skin and speech are equated: "Robed in my words I say that the snake/changes its skin out of honesty." Skin is linked with honesty, a function of speech, and in the end honesty is explicitly linked with breath. (This reminds me of Pound/Olson/"Objectivist" axis linking the poetic line with the breath and with the measure of sincerity.) The interesting thing that I'm grasping onto as I work through this idea of surface or interface being the equivalent of expression. Poetry, as honest language, happens on the skin.