Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Knotting for Suggestive Unity in The Net by Daniel Tobin by Michael Todd Steffen

Knotting for Suggestive Unity in The Net by Daniel Tobin

by Michael Todd Steffen

In one of several echoes of the beacon image of his new book, The Net, Daniel Tobin gives us a laden six-line poem, here quoted in full:

            WRIT IN WATER

            Language is a net
            In which the world is caught
            Skittery in its scales.

            In the Book of Nought
            All lines are marked stet.
            Is prevails.

The simplicity of the lyric makes it verbally palpable, even as the second tercet falters in word difficulty, abstraction and truncated meter. Because of the necessary stumbles of the second tercet, it falls short of, yet gestures at, forging a word-thing for memory, like The Lord is my shepherd…, To be or not to be…, Jack be nimble Jack be quick, My country ’tis of thee…, or We all live in a yellow submarine… Because in our time memorable lyricism in written poetry is looked away from, for singsonginess, oversimplicity, Tobin crumples that second tercet with its intellectual challenges of the Book of Nought and the editorial Latinate trade term stet (also okaying “Nought”), its meter scuffing.

     The thing about construing a really good lyric for readers of poetry, which Seamus Heaney understood so well, is to beset the surface simplicity of the language with riddlesome meaning or suggestions. Why in the world would Jack jump over a candlestick? (We seldom ask, because the rhymes convince us of this improbable performance…) Buried in our psyches, Freudians might argue, a candlestick is anatomically deep-seeded, archetypal: every kid already possesses it in their consciousness of joy and trauma. All it as an a priori phenomenon needs are the words of the nursery rhyme to light it up in our minds. It signifies not just any concentration point, but an isolated, passionate, possibly dangerous one, holding fire, being consumed—yet giving off light, illuminating the darkness.

     Tobin’s net is also archetypal: in this poem nothing less than the world is caught in it. Yet to temper the compass of that statement, the poet succeeds it with an amusing description, Skittery in its scales, reminiscent perhaps of Dr. Seuss, Roethke’s The Lost Son or one of Wilbur’s children’s verses. The word “scales” ties in with the idea of an ordinary net for fish. Yet with the word’s association in “the scales of justice,” that language is the net here begins to make its sense. Jesus, one associated with ultimate judgment or justice, we remember, told his seafaring apostles that he would teach them to be fishers of men. There is, further, in the Book of Revelations reference to a Book of Life, in which the names of the blessed are enrolled, and this book may lead us in Tobin’s poem to think about what this Book of Nought might mean. Yet in this book conjured by the poet, all lines have been edited to be deleted, so they have to be reconsidered again to be marked not to be deleted: stet. Tobin’s Book of Nought makes

sense as, not the biblical Book of Life, but as the observed Book of Actuality, of everything that is, whether it’s been affirmed by writing or not. No such book exists, of course. Though we have heard of such books before. I wonder wonder who, who who who who, Who wrote the book of love? The Monotones sang the question. Loftily Henry David Thoreau, condensing the figure of book to poem, reflects:

            The true poem is not that which the public read. There is always a poem
            not printed on paper, coincident with the production of this, stereotyped
            in the poet’s life…

then the saint of Walden offers a summary couplet:

            My life has been the poem I would have writ,
            But I could not both live and utter it.
(Walden and Other Writings, Henry David Thoreau, The Modern Library, New York, 2000,
p. 440)

It is the poem, or back to Tobin, it is the book not of ideals or shoulds, not of considerations of morality or taste or of trends, but of one sole editorial reflection—stet, let it stand—the real thing, wonderful beyond, more terrible than, inconceivably just as things are, where (whatever) Is prevails.

     What kind of “book” could this be? A set of encyclopedias? But no bound compendium keeps up with time where Is prevails. Only the human mind keeps up, haltingly and protestingly albeit, with day by day, minute by minute reality. No single human mind does this, though collectively we sort of do by talking with one another, reading news articles, listening to the radio, observing birds, watching television. Still, to keep coincident with the production of things, we would need to communicate almost everywhere simultaneously. The only possible correlative for Tobin’s Book of Nought, though evocative of something profound, eternal, perhaps ancient, has actually only been available to us for the last three decades or so, and it is inscribed in Daniel Tobin’s book title: the (Inter)net.

James Merrill in his epic The Changing Light of Sandover liked to exchange terms in a catchy phrase to describe his undertaking: the poem of the world and the world of the poem. The inverted phrases in this sequence have the effect of building tension (how read, write or even conceive of the poem of the world ?) and relieving that stress: the world of the poem, okay. There is a sifting, back-and-forth interaction between them, maybe at the origin of a lot of poems. You read and read a poem that captures you, you absorb its world and language. You look around yourself at the present ongoing world, with the poem’s world in your mind, and the two worlds begin to strike a deal. If you’re lucky, you write an original poem, maybe slightly echoing the poem you’ve been reading, a new poem between a poetic tradition and the individual talent and that talent’s time.

Seamus Heaney saw that riddles were a traditional way poets drew interest in their works. With his characteristic turn of mind, Heaney applied the notion of a riddle (enigma) to a sort of tool or utensil also called a riddle, a large sieve used to separate soil or compost particles, or to separate soil from vegetables. But depending on whether you’re using the riddle to purify soil or to separate dirt from radishes, what you’re using the riddle for poses the riddle itself:

            You never saw it used but still can hear
            The sift and fall of stuff hopped on the mesh,

            Clods and buds in a little dust-up,
            The dribbled pile accruing under it.

            Which would be better, what sticks or what falls through?
            Or does the choice itself create the value? (The Haw Lantern, page 51)

A net like a riddle separates. It takes fish (and other strange things) from the water. Empty nets to fishermen are omens, when nothing’s being separated from the water. And a little ominous is Tobin’s first personal reference to a (fishing) net, in the opening poem of the collection “The Jetty,” a wonderfully patient meditation between ebb tide when this basin wall “reaches, a stone sentence, across the bay” and some lost time later

                        while the tide sounds
            the length of this transit, susurrant

            fountain, a summoning from under,
            and all of it gone by evening.

In a sense, crossing the jetty, “a stone sentence,” is a metaphor for writing poetry, with its required sense of displacement, venture and curiosity,

            its jigsaw syntax entered like hopscotch
            from Lands End,

                                          entered the way wrens
            step, step on sidewalks, crushed shells    
looking for seed,
                                       as if unsure of earth—
            until it feels natural to be outside
            the known scope,
                                        and you follow
            the jumbled puzzle out farther

            than you first expected, toehold
            by toehold…

In an interview about the new book with Doug Holder earlier this year, Tobin comments on his approach to poetry, of being thus wooed by the poem, with its other mind:

            I allow my form to lead me to a broader perspective. I let the poem lead.
            I follow clues it gives to me. I see the poem as a path beyond the self. The poem
            wants something from you. (The Somerville Times, July 9, 2014, p. 23)

But allowing oneself to be led out and out, as on a jetty susceptible to the tide, can bring you woefully to that fine, fine line between curiosity or faith and one’s gullibility. If the tide starts covering the jetty before we make it back to the shore, and this is a kid’s meditation on a kid’s adventure, the situation could get dire. And it is this sense of quiet despair and endangerment that is conveyed by the speaker of the poem when, among

            shallows of moon snails, welks, skate eggs,
            these currents like sandcoils redoubling
            in pools where shucked pilings, scarified
                         brace to colonies of rockweed
            that flail in sediment’s plangent ooze…

Tobin spots the book’s title image and leitmotiv in a state of abandonment, an image of the poet’s identity:

            you are an earthstar tumbling in spores
            into the living waste,
                                                the risen pleroma,

            your name a net caught in the hollow
            between stones…

Language is a net In which the world is caught, the short lyric has told us. Our names, also language, are nets. To see one’s name “caught in the hollow between stones,” though the stones are not personal enough to name, say, Chelsea and Charlie, magnifies the poet’s identification with an imperiled object and the feeling of ungovernable helplessness at not being able to disentangle this “net” for its ordinary beauty and use again. It is a moment of doom perceived.\

     The true longing of such a moment is for the moment to pass, for the grace of time, a longing that inspires the prayer that forms the title poem, “The Net,” found about midway in the book.

            God of the first waters, Ea, listen,
                 You who parsed chaos with a net from the day:
                      Unfasten your knots, let the swells replenish
            From subtlest channels, from the seams of flesh.

Here again the individual body, “the seams of flesh,” is extended through metaphor to the “subtlest channels” of the earth’s waterways parsed with chaos in a creation myth, we are told by the poet, Translated loosely from a lost Akkadian tablet, no longer even belonging to history, since the tablet is lost, but to human consciousness of eternity, ongoing time with its arrivals and departures.

More often than not, books of poetry are organized with a lot of grace for topical coherence. With exceptions, we read poetry for its unrestrained delivery of concentrated expression, for its surprises and odd persuasions, its advocacy for the easily forgotten or condemned. Maybe for something like 95% of collections, coherence is an afterthought. It gets invited to the Prince’s ball in the eleventh hour and, without a tailored gown or suit, throws itself together with intuition and serendipity from odds and ends. Readers don’t necessarily expect more. Some books of poetry for their thematic rigor fall too easily into predictability. Sequence and feel, rather than topical or argumentative order, are key in building resonance within a collection, so that beyond individual pieces, poem to poem, the book as a whole bears further amplified meanings that make it unique in its binding to have and to preserve, as a separate thing, not just a content nested in fragile software to light up on an anonymous screen.

     This new collection by Daniel Tobin achieves a generous balance between suggestive unity and thematic laissez-faire. He uses the “net” in a very wide cast or broad sense indeed, almost like glossers of Dante, at the four levels. The net as the thing itself, literally a fisher’s net. In its contemporary historical sense as the Internet. In its metaphorical sense as language, the elusive knotted mesh of our convictions, and of our delusions like Othello’s entanglement in Iago’s net of lies. And anagogically, cosmically—intimately?—we are bound in the net of our being, by every limit we knock against and at which we are refused or constricted, in Ea the god of the first water’s net.

     I set out in this article with so much to say about other poems in the book. I wanted to mention the progress of our romance with technological media to habit-forming, sleepy ritual traced in “Ovid in the Age of Tin.” I wanted to say something about Tobin’s vatic warnings for our society’s presumed vast stranglehold on events in “A Starry Messenger” and in “And Now Nothing Will Be Restrained from Them.” I loved being weirded out by “Parasitical” with its Kafka-esque epigraph, and the comparison of the German pronunciation of “Rilke” with the guttering kickstart of a motorbike. Along with the haunted music of “The Turnpike” and the combining of intelligence and feeling cultivated from the 16th- century metaphysical poet John Donne, a good variety of formal poems and observer poems, the amplitude of pertinent and poignant thought delivered by Tobin’s language make The Net one of those rare books of poems that easily endures re-reading after re-reading, plays its own protean slip on our want to grapple it into this or that. It both invites and frustrates that effort. The book attests to Tobin’s patience, to so much volleying with the stubborn, intimate yet blind and unpredictable raiders of our psychological territory, which poetry vigorously defends against settlement or ownership.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:41 PM

    What a joyfully literate review. The Thoreau quote, "I could not both live and utter it," recalls Yeats' assertion that one must choose between "perfection of the work or of the life."