Office Hours Are Not Cancelled
Cheerful or melancholy. Like the mosquito
laughing in your ear, we’re all one minuscule
from being On the Other Side. Discipline
is important, but not that important, not as
important as chance, as proximity. The
in the advising office don’t fool me for
a second. She tells me a story about Harry
(garbled last name), fired for emailing his
appointments, believing in…believing in
nothing. He wanted what he wanted. She
laughs, says Too bad, too bad. Poor guy, sips
Well, back to work, thanks for stopping by . . .
As is my life these days billowing out behind me
a drop off in clear water or like the spherical birds
my children coasting in some far-fetched beyond of
outlasting me outlasting the memory of taking the
SATs five years after that speeding past like a car
through the desert I called her milady once and she
laughed what an asshole when we made love she was
adorned in beads it was exhilarating to be approximate
to her like a free-floating astronaut to the draping I
hovered over intermingling with her atmosphere while
she dictated to a hypothetical typist named Curtis . . .
It was all flames in the tops of the trees my kids turning
thirty I wanted to start over at fifty all ocean no land
the evolution of wings on a dolphin birds on an island
of live births but then no no no no the dream turned
into the boredom of the empyrean dull except for
the smoothness of angels like dyed skin smelling of
hair product patent pending printed on the groin
the hinge at the waist no good for gestation how far
removed were we then from some order of delivery
it was pure recreation? gymnastics and the beauty of
the body acceptance of our imperfections Oh Lover I
said after a late dinner the fragments of tweezing
being ineluctably sanctioned as she leaned forward
and opened up a pocket watch there were fish swimming
outside the house I could tell by the way her eyes on
either side of her long black bill followed the falling
stars all night birds all day over the grass over the water
slowly rising up through tree branches including past
the cold glass pane of our bedroom window a fish
stopping to fin there sometimes maybe a little moonlight
pooling in one eyeball gills working mouth opening
& closing watching us while we talked made love ate
ice cream watched TV argued read books got up early
for breakfast one morning together for the very last time
(Mary Eleanor Lee, died 12-8-2013)
Long I’ve gazed out this window, road
like a peninsula. What else did I have
to worry about that August? The boats
were piled under Gunterman’s Bridge,
and as the sheriff approached a bag of
cocaine plopped onto the water. I have
many such secrets, though my youthful
appetite has subsided. I found a black
high heel in a suitcase in the middle of
Ironwood Road. That was the only thing
inside it. A man wearing prison stripes
gave me the finger and floored it. Earlier
another man looked over his glasses at
me. “How do you feel about your mother
this morning?” he asked. Certain nightjars
drift through the sky like my unintended
consequences. They elaborate & elaborate,
wings spread, falling in so many directions.
(January 19, 2014)
The poems appearing in this issue of Parhelion are written in a variety of styles. But all are in service to getting at particulars buried deep inside the mind (including the subconscious), with an emphasis on sound over sense. Still, there are lyric poems here as well as narrative poems, stream-of-consciousness, and a good dose of metaphor. In fact, the five poems here are quite typical of the work I’ve been doing for at least the last fifteen years, and as such exist along a continuum in which accessibility (for accessibility, think order) is quite variable. It’s true each poem references specifics drawn from life, incidents connected to the autobiographical. It’s also true that I’ve been known to toss whole sections of poems because they feel too locked into the representation of the factual (who needs to be reminded of what already IS in a lyric?). In such cases I’m likely to employ some sort of methodology that introduces the accidental into the writing process (such as erasure, or some sort of appropriation, or the introduction of ekphrasis) in order to interfere with my mind’s propensity for organizing language into stanzas stuffed with the logic of cause and effect or the chronological. I mean, why impede the imagination? (I’ve written two volumes of Ashbery erasure poems in order to dwell exclusively in this land in which chance predominates.)
The poems of mine that seem to lose their magic most over time all make perfect sense, while many of my more resonant poems (those that I hope and most believe might stand up to being reread through the years) fly in the face of reason, and disregard chronology. It’s true that “Perfect” draws on experience, as everything here does, but all my writing begins as an attempt to crystalize what’s essentially linear—the temporal—into a mathematics of consolidation, a present in which all living and all being is held in a sort of equilibrium inside a short lyric poem. I live this over and over as a writer. The poet perches on the edge of reason, deems the morality tale that results a failure (haven’t I come across this idea about ten thousand times already in other poems and essays?), then makes an effort to mitigate what seems true enough but in the end is really quite conventional, by introducing disruption. The disruption opens things up, allows the poem to proceed unimpeded by the facts, the limitations of “what happened?”
That’s the bigger picture stuff. A lyric poem is half sound, half invention. I guess another way to look at this (turning to metaphor) is to say I think of individual lyrics as electrical charges, some instantaneous and dense, save for the ejection of a few super-charged rocket or meteorite trails that glow against the night sky and then begin to fade, but linger (“Recessive”), while others ignite and then burn a linear path through the darkness, like a fuse throwing sparks across a lawn (“Lowlands”). To stick with metaphors, a book full of such poems might resemble a rhizome (a nod to Cole Swensen for planting the seeds of this idea), a root system, eternally seeking expansion, navigating its way past impediments, primarily concerned with the going (and going), multiplying, seeking sea level again and again, before bursting into the light once again . . . In any case, the poems, individually or collected (as in a book), are not looking for answers, exactly; they’re looking to exhaust themselves, and to burn brightly while doing so.
To point to each poem here and explain each particular instance of “going” feels a little fraudulent or disingenuous, insofar as the fuel for each began at some point on foreign soil, so to speak, I no longer necessarily have access to. These are certainly poems “about” human relationships and memory, perception and nature, mortality and vanity, etc. At least in part. I do envy birds. I was waved to by a man in a car who was wearing prison stripes. I do have complicated feelings about my mother, which made her passing complicated as well. But the poems are about (and simply ARE) more than their putative subjects.
Poems are fictions, then. I mean, of course they are—constructions that are more or less composed of neurons firing—the imagination—aided occasionally by actual experience, and aided as well by invention (no one I’ve worked with was ever fired for emailing his dominatrix).
Poetry, for me, is an ongoing act of creation, something that exists light years beyond fact. But it’s also certainly “about” more than mind alone. I do believe in, as Olson has defined it, a poetry that is breathed into existence, a pattern of being that demands the disorder of the open field. Poetry is physical. It’s of the world, material hammered into something resembling abstract expressionist sculpture, composed of industrial materials and tree branches, whatever is at hand; the day’s news or the rhythms of a Swans song or a Kelly Reichardt movie, some trigger from the past, distorted though it may be through the lens of the daily; the fortunate intrusion of the accidental; a voice that moves and moves along through the dark fields. Etcetera.
Despite the above disclaimers, a few notes on the poems:
“Postmortem” approaches my mother’s death sideways by acknowledging I was the black sheep of the family. But this penchant for being willful and difficult did not belong to me alone. My mother was similarly so inclined. Still, age has allowed me to accept what is—and what was—with a modicum of equanimity. Animals are important to my psychic life, and here it was the nighthawks (nighthawks are nightjars—who’s not going to go with nightjars when given the chance?) that were present in my world when no one else was.
“Lowlands” is about aging and relationships, about moving away from youth and the middle years, years in which procreating and focusing on practical concerns can dominate (though this was not necessarily true for me—or maybe less true is a more accurate way to put it). Relationships come and go. It can be difficult, losing someone. Once again, the presence of nature here is important, though in complicated ways, and in this instance I’d rather allow the poem to have the last word on that. I will add that flying fish appear somewhat regularly in my poems. When I was five I sometimes witnessed fish flying around the house at night. I sometimes had visions. Doctors were sometimes summoned. (For more on these visions, see the poem “North Carolina” in my first book, Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues, 1997)).
“Perfect” needs the least explaining of the poems here. It tells a story, and is also a kind of monologue. What I will say is that it was written with great speed (as was “Lowlands”) and that I wanted to create an unpunctuated line that enacted time’s rapidity. I wanted everything to blur together. Birds are included here again. I live on the water, beside a wetland. This morning I wrote while a belted kingfisher perched on a nearby flagpole (without a flag). I am grateful for their presence morning, noon, and night.
“Office Hours are Not Cancelled” is based on a story I heard, something somewhat local, but the facts are altered to protect the innocent. My relationships with institutions and capitalism verge on dysfunctional. You can hear that in this poem, I think. I get by. But I also get my digs in when I can. That said, my colleagues are a jovial (and forgiving) bunch.
“Recessive” is about all the different versions of the self that exist simultaneously. I say that, not absolutely sure it is correct. The form is what I think of as my contemporary sonnet form, something I invented for my book Animalities, which was published by Four Way Books in 2014. The poem is about my issues with authority, I think, whether it be by virtue of persons, text (dogma), or institutions. Things get pretty intense in the fifth stanza, as if the speaker is so charged up he’s ready to threaten somebody (everybody) with self-harm. It’s all a feint. Then, in the last stanza, another bird!! I’m saved! And a human (who bleeds)!
David Dodd Lee is the author of nine full-length books of poems & a chapbook, including Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues Press, 1997), Arrow Pointing North (Four Way Books, 2002), Abrupt Rural (New Issues Press, 2004), The Nervous Filaments (Four Way Books, 2010) Orphan, Indiana (University of Akron Press, 2010), Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, the Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlaxeVox, 2010), Animalities (Four Way Books, 2014), & And Other’s, Vaguer Presences, a second book of Ashbery erasure poems. He has published fiction in many literary magazines (including Green Mountains Review, Willow Springs, & New World Writing) & is currently making final edits to Flood, a novel. He is also a painter, collage artist, & a photographer. Since 2014 he has been featured in three one person exhibitions, mixing collage & poetry texts into single improvisational art works. Recent artwork has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Permafrost, The Hunger, Pinball, Retirement Plan & Twyckenham Notes. His artwork can be found on Instagram. In 2016 he began making sculpture, most of which he installs on various public lands, surreptitiously. Unlucky Animals, a book of collages, original poems, erasures, & dictionary sonnets will appear in April, 2020. The poems published in this issue of Parhelion are part of a manuscript entitled Unpaved, which is looking for a home.