Caveat Lector

After a swift turnaround time (less than one week—fair reading?) and yet another form rejection announcing, unequivocally, that my work doesn’t fit—always suspect when a reading period has just recently opened—I return to Salamander’s website to see what, presumably, these “esteemed umpires” endorse as fine writing. They do not disappoint.

A poem from Andrea Cohen:

          On Blueberry Picking

          Mostly it consists of pretending

          not to pick them, since the wild bush—

          more a tree really, thrives in plain

          view among scrub pines, along the road

          that leads to the Truro sea. So when cars

          near, we turn from the bush, busying

          our hands in air, as if plucking a thread

          of conversation started ages back—

          which, between my mother and me,

          must be the case. When a car gets far

          enough away, we resume our harvest:

          hands and lips stained with what

          the season tenders: the fat or compact

          berries that will never be sweeter than

          this moment. I say this in the present

          tense, as if the harvesting goes on.

          I recall my mother doubled over

          in laughter, midsummer, by that bush,

          and a man in a blue truck stopping.

          I’m a doctor, he said. Are you ill?

          Physicians are trained to see what’s

          amiss, what they might fix. Bliss,

          from a distance, can look like pain.

          But it was bliss, I’m thinking now, speeding

          past our ghosts, past all that flowering.

This mild endeavor quickly sucks all the oxygen out of the room. Risk-free, cozy, flaccid, typical, irrelevant. Unrewarding. Forced to read it more than once (an unfortunate prerequisite of proper evaluation), I do so mostly out of sheer astonishment at the lack of anything substantial (and that goes for all aspects: form, content, craft, syntax, hard-hitting rhetorical devices, etc.) and the persistently nagging question of why, given hundreds and thousands of submissions, such tame writing takes the prize—writing ultimately unworthy of mimicry or glance.

The opening hook, which has potential, immediately dulls as we find ourselves trapped in yet another child/parent recollection/reflection poem. In an attempt to intensify—or at least spice up—the uneventful outing, the poet initiated a number of odd line breaks. But why exactly split up “plain / view”? And “cars / near”? And “what’s / amiss”? The best thing about the line breaks…how consistently ineffective, upon scrutiny—frequently, surprisingly amateurish.

What a tease. The poet dangles a provocative idea in the first two lines and then promptly yanks it away. Why the need to pretend not to be picking blueberries? Were mother and daughter trespassing? Was blueberry picking illegal, forbidden? Were they embarrassed? But that’s not what happened that afternoon. A reader need not accommodate many generous, open-ended possibilities simply because the writer has refused to grant clear passage. It doesn’t work that way.

I’m not sure what kind of inflated, egocentric doctor Cohen has decided to feature. Maybe a deaf one. Incapacitating laughter (the full-bodied guffaw) normally steers clear of bliss, which tends toward spiritual satisfaction. Not with this poem.

I doubt the poet had any trouble at all in the making. Word choice—obviously not a pressing issue. Rest assured: Cohen knows the voice well, knows the mother just as well, and our ensuing irritation oscillates between who to blame—the poet residing in ease, or the magazine and small press banking on predictable, insignificant poetry.

But let’s go back to the doctor and the poet’s priorities. He has limited use. The impending epiphany hinges on that solicitous figure. Improbable dialogue. But those were his exact words. The doctor proclaiming his profession, directly quoted (even if only imagined), and that’s almost all we get—bears little relation to the poem overall. His bald assertion, I’d venture, instead more closely parallels (however unintentionally) the tireless self-promotion that nowadays prominently marks the literary scene. Were we to meet Cohen on the street, one of the first things we’d be bound to learn is her choice occupation: I’m a poet. Many people casually put a claim on that “high and ancient art.” Poetry, though, has nothing to do with them.

We favor contrast, or at least find some bearing in comparison, so I’ll point out two poems that do bother with one thing required of serious writers (serious—since Cohen’s on the verge of releasing a fourth book of poetry): attempt something difficult, something perhaps uncomfortable and uncomforting. Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying” and Irving Layton’s “Berry Picking” quickly stand out. Despite minor flaws or inconsistencies in either poem, they, unlike “On Blueberry Picking,” insist on tackling. Their imagery: sharp, striking, disruptive.

This, from “Blackberrying”:

                                                                        Blackberries

            Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes

            Ebon in the hedges, fat

            With blue-red juices.

And a bit from “Berry Picking”:

            So I envy the berries she puts in her mouth,

            The red and succulent juice that stains her lips;

            I shall never taste that good to her, nor will they

            Displease her with a thousand barbarous jests.

Our days are darkening. We don’t need new building permits, more of the same. We need bite and sting.

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