Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review of Suzanne Buffam's The Irrationalist

Suzanne Buffam's second collection of poetry, The Irrationalist, achieves an unusually elegant balance between the quotidian and the ineffable antinomies of human existence. This is not accomplished by carefully placing precisely measured material on either side of a stable fulcrum, but rather it is the result of moving the reader to an improbable position where the familiar predictable world appears precariously unstable, and structures caught in the act of toppling somehow become capstones for a new architecture.

But what Buffam builds is neither a city of God, nor a new Babel; it is a world that somehow embodies both the history of rational human thought AND “the dreaming sea”—a world that looks a lot like the old one, until one walks its streets and sees how (like Buffam’s work), what makes it epic is its ordinariness, because it is viewed, like some out of phase parallel universe, from a slightly (but truly) different vantage point—a vantage point totally engaged in a present that contains all of the past and future as ore, waiting to be mined for its art, an art that creates beauty from materials that might be rejected by lesser artists.

Like the Genesis account, Buffam's opening poem, "Ruined Interior," brings her world immediately to us with no ontological discussion of what preceded it:

In the beginning was the world.
Then the new world.
Then the new world order

Which resembles the old one,
Doesn't it? Its crumbling
Aqueducts. Its trinkets and shingles.

Its pathways lacquered in fog.

Then the poet invites her readers to examine evidence that the unfolding vision is no sleight-of-hand, but truly magical:

If all we've done is blink a bit
And touch things,

Notice how dust describes
A tin can by not falling
Where it sits, or how a red sleeve

Glimpsed through curtains
Mimics the tip of a flickering

In the face of such beauty, she asks:

...was the whole day a waste
Or can worth be conferred
On a less than epic urge...

The answer is that it is the fresh examination of the ordinary that ushers in the epic:

...Bow Wow
says the doggie on page two.

Ahoy says the sailor.
Arise says the tired queen
And face the highway,

The donut shops, and the boardwalk.
It rained today. You can see
Perfect inversions of streetlights

Suspended in drops on the window.
You can see the skyline
Trying to hold up the sky.

Don't tell me there's another,
Better place. Don't tell me
There's a sea

Above our dreaming sea
And through the windows of heaven
The rains come down.

The elegant simplicity and exactitude of this poem reminds me of "If There Is Another World," by Malena Morling, which speaks to the nearness of the imaginary to the objective world in its opening line "If there is another world I think you can take a cab there." But in Buffam's world, one doesn't even have to hail a cab, all other worlds are in this one, all other streets on this street, all other images reflected from this drop of water. To discover them simply requires diligence and as much love for the beauty of the not yet, as for the beauty of the already.

Buffam is on record for saying that “It’s not art unless it breaks your heart.” But it is her mind strumming at the strings of existence that brings forth the music to which the heart responds. The result is the largely unspoken theme of The Irrationalist: beauty. It is borne from the marriage of the intellect and dream, as evidenced in one of her “little commentaries” which inhabit section II:

On The Enlightenment

Take the thing you love most and cut it up.
Arrange the parts carefully
According to the picture in your head.
Now shine your mind at them.
If their laws come striding boldly forth at you
You will soon become a great man of your time.
If instead they lie there on the table bleeding beauty
You are probably a poet or a child.

Buffam is not a Romantic in the classical sense, even though she makes liberal use of its devices, including Keats’ negative capability, even celebrating it in a six-line poem on the page following “On The Enlightenment.” But even her eavesdropping on the silence/not silence of “On Negative Capability” simultaneously subverts our expectations and satisfies our longings in a unique way that afterwards could not have been any different:

A man and a woman
Side by side

Not speaking
Not not speaking

Cross a moonlit plaza
Without plans.

The seventy-four modern-day proverbs that comprise the middle section inform, and are informed by, the imagistic, somewhat philosophical poems that precede them, and the more conversational, sometimes confessional poems that follow them. If I were to list my favorites, I would simply be copying the table of contents, but read aloud these titles to get a flavor of their musical and ideational arc.

“On Possibility”
“On Necessity”
“On Shortcuts”
“On Attachment”
“On The Fire Sermon”
“On Valleys”
“On Clouds”
“On The Enlightenment”
“On Moonlight”
“On Ghosts V. Zombies”
“On Abstract Expressionism”
“On Negative Capability”

Then the final thirteen…

“On Beauty”
“On The Seine”
“On Suicide”
“On The Logic Of Dreams”
“On Church Bells”
“On Hummingbirds”
“On White Flowers”
“On Clear Nights”
“On Antigone”
“On Where You Live”
“On Irrational Numbers”
“On Paradise”
“On Everyone”

All of history and literature, philosophy and physics is important to Buffam’s vision, and everything on the page is significant. Thus, her titles, as well as her epigraphs and her blank spaces, are as well-thought out and as integral to her work as her diction, imagery, and ideas. They all lend their weight and/or buoyancy to her vessel as it makes its journey.

The final section of the book begins with a rumination of wisdom, a natural outgrowth of the proverb-like epithets of section two, in a prose poem entitled “The Wise Man.” The opening sentence “I am not a wise man,” is wise and humorous on many levels. The poet is a woman who has just demonstrated more wisdom than ten award-winning poets of our time (probably all men). The self-effacement of this poem, along with the next one, “The True Believer,” which pits faith against doubt, beautifully sets up both the long collage-prose-poem, “Trying,” which narrates the anxiety-filled process of attempting to become impregnated, as well as the entire third section’s more personal, autobiographical pieces.

These poems personify both the ontological and axiological investigations of sections one and two much as the writers of the New Testament attempt to unite the Pentateuch and the Proverbs into a new revelation. While the latter fed a new religious movement, without totally reaching its goal of providing the comfort of assurance through belief, The Irrationalist is able to offer grace to those who do not believe, but who want to—more accurately those who “keep flipping back and forth between trying and wanting to try” (p. 66, section 3, line 3-4). Two poems that fuel this discussion are “Ideal Tree” and “A Perfect Emergency.”

In the former “God is in the forest counting trees./You are in the city writing poems.” The “you” of the poem writes a poem with a tree in it—“a tree without roots or branches/Or squirrels or sap/Without even a shadow/In its crown, for it grows/Without even a crown.” “You” call the poem “The Tree of Everlasting Love,” and leave it on the page of an unwritten book. It is finally published as part of a book of poems, but no one notices it, “No one sees it burning coldly/Through all the foggy mornings/Of your misinterpretable world.”

In “A Perfect Emergency” the poet spots a blaze in a parking lot, where kids are standing around throwing sticks at it, and kicking at it. When the poet approaches, “it shook out its golden locks and sang in a language [she] could not see”:

I am the Unburnt Bush! it cried. I am Burning but Flourishing!
I am swallowed but I am not Consumed!

The poem continues…

In my head was a page from a musty old book with its useless
list of Latin verbs. Before me I could see all the lives I
might have lived, lined up and leaping through the same
burning gate.

The final stanza of the poem is interpretative commentary—a telling, rather than a showing that Buffam seldom does—but it is an earned gorgeous description of the dross of salvation we we are left with in the 21st century:

It was a perfect emergency. The only thing worth saving was the blaze.

The ease/difficulty in reviewing a book as significant and as well-orchestrated as Buffam’s is that one can easily glean dominant themes from many single poems and each section, but one cannot accurately portray its depth and beauty without examining every poem—completely beyond the purview of this review. I will therefore leave my readers with a poem that at this moment best summarizes for me this happy dilemma. Tomorrow, if I pick up my already worn-out, heavily notated copy, I will, no doubt, find a different poem that I feel is emblematic of this terrific collection. But for now, as in the 1960’s lyrics of The Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” drinking this poem to the last drop leaves “my empty cup [tasting] as sweet as the punch.”

If You See It What Is It You See

I didn’t look at the fire.
I looked into it.

I saw a wall of books
Crash down and bury me

Centuries deep in red leather.
I saw a statue in a park

Shake dust from its fist
And a ship called Everything

Sink down on rusted wings.
Ten thousand triangles collapsed
Into a point
And the point was this.

I cannot tell you what I saw.
My catastrophe was sweet

And nothing like yours
Although we may sip

From the same
Broken cup all afternoon.