by Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: Quite a number of poems in Wings Apart (Dos Madres P, 2019) are very short. Two are seven words long, two are nine words, three are ten words, and several more are easily under 20. Often, a title is crucial. The title “Threesome” helps us discern the speaker’s communication with child as primary addressee and mother as “eavesdropper”:
The day you
were born I
heard your cry. (2)
Of course, other readers are secondary eavesdroppers. Though I’ll bring up your syllabic methodology in my next question, I’ll just say now that the line-breaks force our attention on the power of the simple monosyllabic words with vowels close together, the rhyme in the second and third lines, and the quadruple appearance of the letter “y.” The compactness of “Day’s End, Summer” not only causes us to notice the unexpected position of the bee more acutely but also the reiterated “s” sounds, a kind of buzzing, and the impressive variety of vowel sounds:
the bee rests
upside down. (4)
What drove you to pen these ultra brief lyrics and plant them in this volume? How did the process of writing differ from or resemble that of your longer poems?
If you’re asking about the two long poems in this collection, Wings Apart, then my short answer is that they are, like all the poems in this book, syllabic. I’ve been working exclusively in syllabics for a long while now. In some longer poems, especially if there’s a persona’s voice, let’s say, which is in the foreground, or a story’s being told—that is to say if there’s a narrative, or both—then the attention of the reader is naturally drawn away from the poem’s purely formal attributes.
Because of the effect of text folding in on or, looking at, itself—while the reader is reading it from beyond that internal set of attentions, sort of outside the equation of the poem—I try, when I see the chance, to invite the reader’s awareness of the poem’s structure. In all poetry it’s worth noticing when a poem seems, in some way, to be in conversation with itself. Yet that may mean I have it so that the text refers to its own machinery or form.
It made perfect sense—and now I’m not sure which came first, the title or the lines of the poem, more likely simultaneously—to have the title “Threesome” be what begins the lines of the poem you quote. (I was lucky enough to be present at my daughter’s birth, so I had this perspective.) Sometimes the title isn’t needed, quite, in some of my short poems. And this poem works well enough without the title—but how could I deny myself that title; three syllable lines, three lines, three people (3 X 3 = 9 syllables), “threesome,” “some threes.”
Sometimes it’s really a necessity—as in this book’s title poem, “Sky”—to have a title; the title is integral, is actually a part of the poem (in this sense, the title is a cheat, inasmuch as it’s not part of the machinery of the verse, of the prosody). The visual field and dimensions of the moment of vision of the bird in “Sky” are not there in the poem without this title (“Wings apart / the bird floats / above trees”).
I can’t say as much for “Days End, Summer”—yet the poem has its own symmetry. I love how the middle line is the verbal action, framed by stills, percepts either side of it.
I do want my poems to exude clarity and an affect of clarity as well, and to haunt the reader’s inner experience. I guess the single-syllable vocabulary—that makes for a clarity. But what is involved in that clarity? It’s difficult to find an abstraction signified in a single syllable word. And then again, in English, the specter of the language prior to 1066, the Norman Invasion, and the transforming of the language in most ways by French inclusion, is never really far from us, albeit we don’t always pay attention to that. The English (German-speaking) peasants did not suffer the pressure from their masters to abandon their German, to use French. (The French aristocrats didn’t see the peasants, really, as human beings, so while they brutally imposed their new language upon everyone but the peasants, in an attempt to expunge a cultural memory, the peasants, illiterate, kept right on with their lives.) Many of our words for basic everyday things (including the word thing) is an inheritance of much earlier incursions into the British Isles by German tribes like the Angles and Saxons, having origins in German, not French, Latin or Greek. I always think of Oppen’s reference, in an interview, to the “little words that I like so much.” I want to reduce language to the poem’s essence, which, you might say, could nearly exist without words—but of course the beauty of poetry starts with the words.
Here’s Creeley’s poem “A Piece”:
These words are just stand-ins, though.
Fink: Let’s talk more about syllabic count. While “Summer Afternoon, Pontignano, Tuscany” (23) maintains an iambic dimeter norm for three of the four lines, with an initial trochaic substitution in the last (“spires of pine”), most of the poems distribute stressed and unstressed syllables quite variously. Also, differing placements of caesuras, enjambments, and varying line lengths (due to some syllables having more letters than others) make for considerable aesthetic pleasure. “Puget Sound Ferry to Victoria, June,” which has six syllables per line, is a good case in point:
We rock and sway in waves
a ship makes crossing our
bow — a stolid island
in the strait, its sand cliffs,
pine trees —some gulls flying
beside us, in a row. (8)
The split between “waves” and “a ship” emphasizes the phenomenological salience of both, and the enjambment of “our” and “bow” underscores the encounter of the “we” with forces of nature. Also, the lack of caesura in the first two lines gives way to two lines of dash-driven caesuras and two created by commas—the first after the first word, the second and fourth close to the middle, and the third a bit before the middle. The first line is iambic trimeter, but stressed accents are unpredictably placed afterward. Finally, the last line has shorter words, thus making it shorter than the prior five lines.
In writing this book, did you pre-establish the quantity of the syllabic constraint in each poem? If not, what influenced your choice? Can you think of cases where the constraint specifically influenced either the first draft or later ones? And is it easier to manage the syllabic meter if it’s six or fewer syllables than in the case of poems like “The Death of Jim Tolan,” ten, and especially “Film Noir,” thirteen (both of which we will discuss later in different contexts)?
Kimmelman: There have been instances when I started with a plan, let’s say based on a single line I thought worth using and/or developing as a percept or concept to build an entire poem. More often I hear a line or two in my inner ear, so to speak, or sometimes I see a situation that could be exploited to make a poem from, like maybe that upside down bee, or sometimes I’m so moved or disturbed by something (like seeing my cats playing with a bird they’ll later kill) that I’ll try to process it through writing about it, and I lapse into a music, such as in a phrase that leads me to try poetry instead of prose. The thing is, the syllable count can be subject to change—that’s the game, a very serious game, I play with myself; and I force myself to obey the rules of the game, rules I’ve set.
However, what I’m engaged in is not really what, say, Donne was engaged in when writing his Holy Sonnets. The sonnet is a set form. The poet must adhere to that form, thus must write lines that are, at least overall, iambic (there can be a foot that’s not an iamb, but at least three of the five feet in a sonnet’s line should be: iambic). What I’m doing is what has been talked about often in the last couple of decades; “procedural poetry”—at least that’s what I’ve understood proceduralism to be. (Think of Ron Silliman’s huge tome The Alphabet, ditto Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.)
Not unlike Sidney, Donne et al. would have been contending with in composing a sonnet, the rule forces me at times to dig deeper within myself in order to conform. I might add here that this process has been profitable for me—I’ve come up with language that is a total surprise to me for its richness of music or thought and, not infrequently, what I started out to write is not at all what I end up with. So my use of this proceduralism, which first and foremost requires me to obey my set rule as to how many syllables I can have in a line, has generated poems I could never have created otherwise, arguably—poems of, to speak immodestly, I’d say are of greater stature than they would have been. However, I don’t ever say to myself something like, “Okay, I’ve started out to write five syllable lines, so I must achieve that in the poem I’m trying to complete.” Rather, if it seems, even after I’ve dug down to meet the rule—or sometimes because I’ve dug down to meet the set rule—that the five syllable rule should be changed, because I see how seven-syllable lines are working nicely, for example, then I can simply change my own rule.
I also will try to double- or even triple-down. By “doubling-down” I mean, for instance, trying to end up with a five-line stanza of lines that are five syllables each. (Sometimes, if the doubling down doesn’t work, I just give up and take what I’ve gotten as the poem.) Tripling down might be creating five-syllable lines of sets of five, and five sets (or stanzas) all in all. I can have other rules too, depending on tendencies I see in my language, or in the concept of the poem, at the time. A poem can have all enjambed lines, or it can not have any enjambed lines; or each stanza of a poem must end by completing a sentence, or each stanza must not end in a complete sentence, but instead must carry over to the next stanza, and so forth. Symmetries.
The stanzas of “The Death of Jim Tolan” don’t end with a completed sentence. The stanzas of “Film Noir”—though each of the stanzas is only four lines while each line is thirteen syllables—do end in a completed sentence. And the poem contains thirteen stanzas. That poem took me a long time, and many, many drafts.
You ask if the longer, and/or longer-lined, poems are easier or more difficult. Yes and no. I think the most difficult thing to do, with any frequency, is the three-syllable line. I think a master of that form was Samuel Menashe (terribly under-appreciated by many, though not by the Library of America in his own lifetime). Here is one of his short poems, which I always return to, which inspires me:
By the sea
On the sands
You might say, “Well, yeah, but he uses four lines, not three.” True enough, but the third line, “On the sands,” which you might think could have been cut so you’d have a symmetrical three lines of three syllables each, is crucial. It establishes the archetype of the shipwreck (as the philosopher Hans Blumenberg would say), and the human condition of wreckage, of mortality—what the poem evokes. More than this, Menashe is playing with a reader’s expectation that he could have come away with the three-liner. He alludes to that, paradoxically, by making that third line essential. The fourth line, “So briefly,” might be viewed as mere exposition, thus could have been cut—and yet the briefness of our lives is the point of the poem, which is introduced with the emotional “So,” our most common intensifier, here creating a profundity.
Fink: Several poems in this volume employ the binary opposition of waking/sleep. Note the two quatrains of “Dawn”:
The night is when
our dreams mingle
thought and desire,
until dawn when
the light takes us
back from the earth
where we return
in our longing. (13)
Your third line tropes on Eliot’s “mixing memory and desire” in the first part of The Waste Land, and then the turn to dawn’s effect on the dreamers is figured as a return from rather than to “the earth,” so what do we make of this reversal of expectation? Yes, “we return” to dreaming” because of “our longing,” as Freud is often right that a dream is a wish fulfillment, but why is the earth a place of escape rather than one of actuality?
I would not deny the canonical authority of The Waste Land. Indeed, in itself it’s a poem that may have altered our orientation on the physical plane and, let’s say, the less solid, ethereal. It might be said that Eliot, a believer in hierarchy, as figured within the Christian religion to which he converted, was, more largely, evoking Western idealism, its intellectual architecture. I don’t wish to make a case for Freud, a Viennese Jew—who, certainly in contrast to Eliot, was not bound to the European-Christian world view, even as that view might have been implicit in the science of his time. I note in passing Freud’s frequent drawing upon the classics, that is to say upon a pagan dispensation. We acknowledge his phallocentrism, and his awareness of the irrationalism of sexuality (yet Catholicism had exiled sexuality from the everyday human life-world, and for the most part Eliot’s Anglicanism followed suit). Does Freud’s interpretation of dreaming, or of sexual drive, or of the human self-locus within the surround of earth and sky, comport with Eliot’s world view?
While traditional Christianity doesn’t wish to acknowledge the body except as a hindrance to salvation or otherwise ethereal, let’s say Heavenly, existence, Freud deals with human drives that have their physical aspects. Perhaps the great revelation of his theory of the psyche is that it existed apart from any moral construction, except insofar as the affliction of guilt, arising out of the sexual drive, which can be observed as rooted in the physical experience of living, can be framed or purely conceptualized through societal conventions the superego abided by and simultaneously maintained. Freud’s theory of the psyche embraces human sexuality and does so without passing moral judgement upon it, whereas human sexuality was banished by the religion Eliot embraced (not that I don’t adore Four Quartets).
While I didn’t mean to become theoretical in the poem of mine you’re now focusing on, and I would not want that either, I did end up “saying” something, insofar as I ended up asserting a belief or understanding of something, and, as if I were wanting to explain it, I did so. I was merely doing so in order to work out the poem, in my writing of it. In other words, the fact that the poem actually theorizes something is not what I would have wished for it. Not that I don’t think the poem can be of interest like that.
I think the poem presented me with my own sense of nature and my understanding of how nature comprehended human being. At the risk of sounding physical here, maybe the underlying theory or ideology in the poem has to do with recognizing that the forces which cause a plant to grow also cause a human to thrive; these forces underlie human thoughts and inclinations, drives and desires, dreams etc. Why shouldn’t we approach understanding of the human psyche—as I suppose many neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists do (or at least, in thinking that psychological pain or dilemma can be treated, to a degree, pharmacologically)—as a physio-biological matter? But of course there’s a romanticism in such thinking of the mind’s activities, in which I’d include dreaming, as rooted (I use this word advisedly) in, that’s to say as part of, the force of nature? And nature is grounded (pun intended in the earth.
Dreams can be dark, and they exist without the constraint of logic or moral code. What happens in the light? What happens, indeed, because of the light? I have long felt that our accounting for the human production of art (all the arts, including poetry), which posits the mortal condition as the motivation for, and perhaps the substrate of, the art work, of making art, misses the mark. Rather, art seeks to cope with how very unlike dreams are compared with waking life. In the dream there is freedom, terror, exquisite pleasure. And it seems that the psyche, in the dream, has not even dispelled moral judgment or dispensed with it; rather, the dream simply cannot, or let’s say would not, recognize such judgment, cannot accommodate logic or rationality, that which we usually feel ourselves conformed to in our waking lives.
As to your observation of an abundance of poems about sleep and about dreaming in Wings Apart—yes I noticed it, just recently when preparing to give a reading at a poetry festival, from my last two collections. The previous book, Abandoned Angel (2016), has a handful of poems about sleep, dreaming, mixed up in love, the implication of death, and so on, all tied in together. I do see them as a suite of poems, although I did not precisely arrange them in the book as such.
A last point I might make here is that I do think aging and sleep go together, and that one’s life in retrospect may be considered in repose, at a certain age. I love that film, Prospero’s Books, written and directed by Peter Greenaway, its dreamy sequences, and of course I do love Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and feel closer to both as I grow older.
Fink: “Autumn, Maplewood” presents a speaker who is a voyeur/auditor of another’s sleep:
How lonely the life
asleep, the breathing
quiet, even — an
open window — I
listen in the dark. (5)
The label “lonely” creates the text’s dramatic force, as loneliness implies a negative judgment that solitude or aloneness may not always do; people often think of sleep as comforting, but perhaps the speaker is displacing his waking anxiety (from insomnia?) onto the observed sleeper.
In several poems, juxtaposition of narratives that are unrelated on the surface engenders the need for establishing connection. “Caught Bird” tells one story for 14 lines and then another for two. We first learn that “one of our cats” has “in his mouth / a bird he sets // beneath a bush,” but then, when “our other cat / joins him to watch,” they see the bird struggle to extricate himself from “branches” and then succeed, at which point, “as one” (3), the cats turn violent. At which point the human observer, “the spent bird killed,” briefly narrates his own story: “I watch the leaves / flutter in sun.” Is the bird prey to the cats in the way that leaves are prey to the sun? But maybe the speaker chooses to concentrate disjunctively on the pleasant qualities of the leaves and breeze, in order to escape the stark emotional impact of his cats’ violent actions.
“The Death of Jim Tolan” devotes the first of four dizains to the subject matter noted in the title and the funeral, whereas the last three are concerned with “the night before” the funeral “in a Manhattan bar.” In these he praises the artful, daunting multi-tasking competence of “the bartender … keeping his pace, always / moving” (6). I understand that Jim Tolan was a poet and English professor, not a dancer, but you must be attributing the kind of aesthetic grace that he exhibited in his own way to the bartender’s kinetic legerdemain, with the pun of bar/barre prominent in the description of the latter:
He moved gracefully along the
bar — a dancer looking young. He could shake
a drink with his one hand while teasing the
customers, pouring with his other. He
filled beautifully stemmed glasses with brightness
to the brim, not a drop left over. (7)
We discussed your objectivist poetics in an interview in Jacket almost ten years ago: how does the kind of juxtaposition of narratives in “Caught Bird” and “The Death of Jim Tolan” dovetail with this poetics? And is there anything you’d like to tell us about the development of these poems?
Kimmelman: I’m very lucky to live in a place where, at night, there is something approaching stillness and silence. A cat-sitter from New Orleans, a close friend of a close friend, came to stay in our home while Diane (my wife, the writer Diane Simmons) and I were off in Rome, but the quiet was a bit too much for our guest. She phoned our mutual friend—who lives in Manhattan—to ask if she would come out to New Jersey to stay with her for a night.
In the winter I sometimes turn on music while I sleep—you might say this is to ameliorate a sense of loneliness, or simply to soothe me into sleep and perhaps keep me there—but in the warm weather, with the windows open, I adore to hear the night, its crickets, the sheer space itself lying outside my windows, a hint of vastness. (these days, I usually find myself awake in the middle of the night, after some sleep, awake in the stillness for an hour or two in a mid-night hiatus—so Diane sleeps in another room adjacent to mine.)
The first line of the poem came to me as I was lying in bed, the sound of Diane’s breathing along with the night coming in through the open windows. That line was, precisely, “How lonely the life / asleep” (now with the line break). I loved the lilt of the expression. I might have wanted, but rejected for a number of reasons including meter and syllable count, the word “solitary”—yet purely intellectually, in a very circumscribed way, that was what I meant precisely. But “lonely” in itself deepens the poem’s possibilities in ways I thought worth exploring—and, again, it worked musically.
Can’t “lonely” simply mean “alone” and can’t that be a good thing as well as, let’s say, a burden? Is not our existence, is not the world, accessed through an open window? Is the window—which means also shelter, a way to rest therefore—the emblem of our existential alienation? I felt happy at how, given my syllable count, I was in a sense forced to place “an / open window” between dashes. To me that is what allows this poem, which I’m fond of, to defy gravity, and to tell us about ourselves, indeed if you extrapolate a little about our mortality, the longer sleep we enter eventually. Yet we are awake.
The poem, in order really to work, relies on juxtaposition—those dashes (thank you, Emily Dickinson). And is not the great haiku one that magically shifts, yet does so from within the same purview, so that a second dimension is introduced? The wonderful writer and poet Barbara Henning, who most generously blurbed Wings Apart, called me “a true Zen haiku artist.” That’s quite the compliment! In one particular way, it’s germane here—which is that, possibly, a Western way of reading the poem doesn’t expect that second dimension, precisely because it occurs through mere juxtaposition.
On the other hand, most haikus aren’t that adventurous. Yet if you crave adventure, look to the haiku at times, when nowhere else, to find that surprise. (Just to say, for the record, my poem is not a haiku, being comprised of twenty-five syllables—five per line, five lines.) So, sure, even the great Matsuo Basho (in an English translation) will stay within the single percept or scenario, for example here:
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
Here’s a haiku by Masaoka Ishi, which discloses something in the third line beyond the immediate focus:
A mountain village
under the piled-up snow
the sound of water.
Now, to my mind, in a poem by Natsume Soseki, there’s a complete swerve away from the initial setting:
The crow has flown away:
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.
The translator has a colon at the end of the first line, but a comma there would have exploited the dual dimensionality more.
I say all this to return to what may be your central concern, which does involve juxtaposition. I do think—faced with how the trail goes cold, as it were, for example in the poem “Caught Bird”—to say that the fluttering leaves at the end of the poem are being preyed upon by being watched is a rather desperate attempt to continue on, hoping, I guess, to pick up the trail somewhere ahead. Henning could offer some Buddhist reading like all things live and perish, and the leaves in their fluttering are emblematic of our transitory existence (or you, a Buddhist, may have possibly refrained from offering a way forward that is simply, let’s say, stasis?). Just to be coy, I’ll say that I had to end the poem and there were only eight more syllables, four in each of two lines, to work with, if I wished to maintain the prosodic symmetry of the poem I had established (four syllables per line, four lines per stanza in a four-stanza poem), and those fluttering leaves, the play of light so non-judgmental, just presented itself and seemed the right thing for me to set down on the page.
Something similar can be said about “The Death of Jim Tolan,” but there was also the problem of writing a funereal poem that was not sentimental or dripping with praise or nostalgia; yet I wanted to eulogize Tolan, so I felt that going off on an oblique tangent was, paradoxically, the appropriate and tasteful thing to do. Furthermore, Tolan was a middle-aged handsome man who, physically, and in some of his poems too, resembled a dancer who had the uncanny ability to conjure the illusion of youth, while his younger years were behind him. Also, I told the factual truth in the poem: the night before the funeral I knew I’d be attending, I was in a bar as described, and presto! The bartender was absolutely amazing.
As for juxtaposition and Objectivist poetics, I guess the white space in some of Oppen’s poems says it all? But also, take a poem like Lorine Niedecker’s “There’s better shine” (the poem is untitled), in which she points out the juxtaposition that nags at the poem’s speaker:
There’s a better shine
on the pendulum
than is on my hair
and many times
. . . .
I’ve seen it there.
This poem is a masterpiece. The psychological state of the speaker is not mentioned. It’s there in the poem, however.
Fink: In “Film Noir,” a poem of 13 quatrains, you begin by having your speaker claim to “love old movies” (29). But as he spins an unfolding of negative acts and consequences, it becomes evident that he also resists what he “loves” and experiences a certain weariness:
Unplanned, even perfect, crimes always go wrong because
crimes always do, because people just don’t realize they’re
living in a wrong world, because they kid themselves, but
I know the facts — and I don’t want to see the ending.
Tired anyway, I turn off the movie — but let’s
face it, the world’s not simply black and white, and I don’t
mean to say the world isn’t gray, because I know it
is, though it’s also as red as blood, as green as her eyes. (30)
On the one hand, the speaker’s lassitude comes from the feeling that film noir is too formulaic; it lacks the ability to capture all the nuances in worldly experience. On the other hand, its accuracy in depicting “a wrong world” and discouraging people from kidding themselves can be dispiriting, and the speaker wonders: “Why can’t life be like Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’ … a poem about desire, / really, what we’re all born into, innocent at first” (31). What I don’t quite get about the poem is its last quatrain:
Homicide is simple, people simple — poetry
not so simple, as it bestows a story we need
in which no one’s in trouble — like in a movie when
the world’s good and it makes sense, but then it all goes wrong. (31)
“Homicide” and “people” may be “simple” in a movie, but are the motives for homicide in real, non-formulaic life always any simpler than poetry? I can agree that “poetry” does bestow “a story we need” and that “no one’s in trouble” in Keats’s Ode, but isn’t plenty of poetry about people “in trouble”? To take examples from Yeats, the poet mourns the tragic political trouble of Irish freedom fighters in “Easter 1916,” whereas the fall of entire civilizations in “The Gyres” and “Lapis Lazuli” is represented from such aestheticized distance (“tragic joy”) that the “story” minimizes tragedy and trouble in general. And finally, why is the lack of trouble allegedly in poetry’s story “not so simple” because isn’t the absence of difficulty conducive to simplicity?
In The Maltese Falcon (1941), two plainclothes cops try to face down a private eye, Sam Spade, in the doorway to his apartment. It’s the middle of the night. Lieutenant Dundy, a big guy anyway, is acting especially overbearing—because that’s who he is and because that’s how he gets his way—as the cops don’t have a warrant. They want to get inside, knowing perfectly well that what’s going on in there isn’t kosher. The scene is, actually, hilarious:
Spade (Humphrey Bogart): “You guys pick swell hours to do your visiting in. What now?”
Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane): “We want to talk to you.”
Spade: “Go ahead and talk.”
Sergeant Polhaus (Ward Bond): “Do we have to do it out in the hall?”
Spade: “You can’t come in.”
Polhaus: “Come off it now, Sam.”
Spade: “You aren’t tryin’ to strongarm me, are you?”
Polhaus: “Why don’t you be reasonable?”
Dundy: “It would pay you to play along with us. You got away with this and that, but you can’t keep it up forever.”
Spade: “Stop me when you can.”
Dundy: “That’s what I intend to do.”
Spade: “Haven’t you anything better to do than pop in here early every morning asking fool questions?”
Dundy: “And gettin’ a lot of lyin’ answers.”
Spade: “Take it easy.”
Dundy: “If you say there’s nothin’ between you and Archer’s wife, you’re a liar.” (Archer was Spade’s recently murdered partner.)
Spade: “Is that the hot tip that brought you up here at this ungodly hour?”
Dundy: “That’s one of ’em.”
A commotion ensues inside the apartment, a spat between Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). The cops rush in. More fruitless Q&A follows. Dundy grows increasingly impatient, finally is fed up. He decides to arrest them all:
Dundy: “Get your hats.”
Spade: “Well, boys and girls, we put it over nicely!”
Dundy: “Go on, get your hats!”
Spade: Don’t you know when you’re bein’ kidded?
Dundy: “No, but that can wait till we get to the Hall.”
Spade: “Wake up, Dundy, you’re being kidded! When I heard the buzzer, I said: There’s the police again. They’re getting to be a nuisance! When you hear them, scream. Then we’ll see how far we can string ’em till they tumble.”
Polhaus: “Stop it, Sam!”
But Spade won’t let go. Dundy’s now really worked up a head of steam; he socks Spade in the jaw. Spade’s smile totally vanishes; the look on his face says plenty, as he screws up his body to hit back.
Polhaus: “No, Sam! No!”
Spade (in a half growl, loudly): “Then get him out of here!”
Dundy: “Get their names and addresses.”
The timing of this scene is perfectly paced. It’s taut; the actors are nearly ahead of their lines. It’s wonderful. And in a way the scene is all about how everyone’s busy trying to put on everyone else.
So, I say to you, Tom: “Wake up . . . you’re being kidded!”
On a subliminal level, everyone in this film feels out of place, uncomfortable where they are. They’re living, as I say in my poem, in “a wrong world.” In such a world people don’t really make choices but are, essentially, responding to the wrongness that plays itself out in various ways.
But poetry—art—transcends this, or intrinsically, like defying gravity, will always be ignorant of it and somehow, because of this, will never be pulled into it. I guess you could say that what these people in The Maltese Falcon lack is the salvation of art, of poetry. “Ode to Autumn” is a poem of sublime beauty, and it’s a poem about sublime beauty. It’s, let’s say, a perfect poem.
The more important observation about this poem, though, is that it depicts a perfect world. Keats comes along and insists that such perfection is possible. The world of “Ode to Autumn” is a locus amoenus. The world that becomes the subject and substance of film noir, however, is the world of the fallen, of exiles from the Garden of Eden. And unlike, say, in Milton, there’s no felix culpa—a “fortunate fall” in which, only because of the suffering of sin, one comes to the salvation of Christ—the possibility of realizing salvation through Christ. The people of film noir are doomed forever. As such, they exist without the possibility of true repose. In Keats’s poem the harvest has been brought in; it’s a time of satisfaction, plenitude, beauty, rest. In the fallen world people are perennially restless.
The thing is, though, they may not be fully conscious of this. In a sense, when you’re in the world of film noir, you’re sleep-walking your way through life. That’s the existential situation, arguably, for us all—or rather, the promise of film noir is that it wants to tell us this. Yet there is something else about film noir, certainly as the genre emerged in America.
This cinema is aware of itself, too. The film, moreover—and this enhances the film’s frisson, making the film so very compelling in a campy way—subtly breaks the fourth wall. I don’t mean a character starts to talk to us, such as Woody Allen plays up, through the Jeff Daniels character in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), who first just starts talking to the Mia Farrow character in the audience; she’s watching the film in the darkness. She acknowledges him, and so he steps off the screen, and the two of them run off for a fantastical adventure.
Earlier in The Maltese Falcon, Spade, who has a perverse compulsion to needle Dundy, asks him the question: “Don’t you know when you’re bein’ kidded?” That’s the wink. That’s the film acknowledging our watching of it. That’s film noir. That’s the script writer, director, and actors subtly sharing their giddy fun with you.
Are we, the audience, being kidded? Yes, we’re watching the movie and we’re in the movie as well. And the darker the life in the movie—in which, when you get right down to it, that is to say when the hammer of criminal justice comes right down on its steel stamp to impose a permanent imprint, like at the end of the fifties police procedural Dragnet (a black-and-white, LA, half-hour of drollery)—the more of a romp noir film is.
In Dragnet, in the way the cop played by Jack Webb delivers his lines, virtually in monotone, just so in film noir homicide is simple. It’s too simple. It’s the same damn tawdry story each damn week. But what will this cop do when he retires? Go fishing? Gimme a break! People—fallible, imperfect people (always the plot’s attraction)—are simple in that they’re predictable, and they get into trouble.
German Expressionist films of the 1930s were sincere—the darkness was really dark. But, if anything is meant to be a romp, it’s American Film Noir. As Charles Borkhuis’s epigraph to my poem says, the “darkness is never dark enough.” Why is that? Well, in film noir there’s an inherent paradox. German Expressionism was eerie and tragic—it was real. Not so American film noir.
In France, after the Second World War, Jean-Pierre Melville’s films constitute an important chapter in “dark” cinema. His towering work, Army of Shadows (1969), his one film without gangsters, is neither a homage to noir nor does it follow the noir playbook—although it’s a very dark film, albeit it tells the story of heroic figures in the French underground (in real life Melville was one of them). His earlier noir films look ahead to Dassin, Truffaut, Chabrol and others. And yet a near-contemporary of Army of Shadows is meant to be, and for sure is, a classic noir masterpiece. Le Samourai (1967), which introduced Alain Delon, is completely indebted to American forties film noir (as were other films Melville made). Then again, the Delon protagonist elicits a bit too much sympathy and is purely sexy, thus without the flaws we see in someone like Bogart or Robert Mitchum, who are sexy after all, while an actor like Edward G. Robinson is not. Delon is pretty.
American film noir, to be sure, from within our unconscious, tells us to lighten up. The Woman in the Window (1944), the movie I mined for most of the plot in my poem, featuring a deadly back stabbing that was an accident (yeah, right!), is funny—like when the beautiful woman (Joan Bennett) is standing over her newly dead boyfriend and tells his killer (Robinson), the professor for whom the entire universe has suddenly been turned inside out, that the dead guy “was never much of a lover.” And she says it with a hint of weariness. Shit happens. You’ve asked about the persona’s sense of weariness. His expression of weariness—“tired anyway, I turn off the movie”—is meant to be darkly humorous. Yet it’s sympatico. The killer, too, will grow more weary in his flight from justice.
It’s out of ennui, the humdrum nature of his life, that he had stopped at a storefront on his way from dinner to his hotel, meaning consciously to head there yet unconsciously—what? To escape, he gazes through a plate glass window at the image of a woman in a framed painting (framed—get it?), and falls in love with the woman inside the frame. Only then does her voice emanate from the adjacent, shadowy alley. Later, in her apartment where the two had been having drinks, the dead man lying at her feet, she confides in his killer—in her delicious, subtly incongruous, and perfectly timed way. Her comment, within the plot, is now totally irrelevant.
So, why is poetry not so simple? Well, I based my poem on that 1944 film classic. But Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” is not part of the film’s plot. The poem contrasts to the film and to film noir as a genre. Destiny, for the people in the fallen world of film noir, is not necessarily pretty. What we should not forget, though, is that the plot and all else in film noir is tongue-in-cheek. In watching it, our subliminal awareness of it—for the most part not our consciousness of it—senses the fact that it’s film, a fiction.
Film noir is always funny—the most droll form of comedy but, yes, it’s comedy. Even The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)—how sinister can you get?—winks at its viewers. We’re in the audience, in the dark. If John Garfield and Lana Turner had really cut up, had really bloodied her husband Cecil Kellaway—the older actor playing the senex amans, that is to say the sap of a besotted husband—then the spell would have been broken. The 1981 remake of the film, with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson, missed the point. It mistakenly gravitated toward hot sex, which was now allowed by the censors, right after the murder. But we all know these lovers in the earlier film will get caught, and that’s not because we’ve accommodated ourselves to the Hollywood censorship of the earlier period.
Is it our selves who yearn to be bad, not without real consequences? Film noir is an exquisite confection that nevertheless resonates modern life. What’s obvious are the burdened lives of the characters in the film. What’s complicated is the way the plot twists and turns, twists and turns them, as we watch. Are we voyeurs, then? I don’t think so. Indeed we’re in sympathy with the film as a production—one in which people’s fallibility is on display—yet we ‘re really not in sympathy with such people. Rather, we’re enjoying the tale. It’s not schadenfreude. It’s something more like what I imagine the Elizabethan audience came to the Globe to see. The spectacle of tragedy is gorgeous in how inevitably the story leads to the fall, and ironically so. I am guessing sophisticated Londoners knew full well that, after the sword fight, the actors would get up to take their bows.
We want to be strung along, like Spade and O’Shaughnessy and the other crooks string along the detectives. And we want to be bad, but we don’t want to face the consequences of that.
At the end of The Maltese Falcon Sergeant Polhaus picks up the fake statue of the bird—it’s fake, and it’s been the cause of double dealing as well as some deaths. “It’s heavy,” he remarks, in his utter banality. “What is it?” Flatly, Spade says to him after a brief yet contemplative pause: “It’s the stuff dreams are made of.” Exeunt.
In the perfectly foggy, misty, San Francisco night, The Maltese Falcon constantly asks us to think and rethink about who the good guys are. The beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy is finally, unequivocally, revealed as the viper par excellence. She will take the fall for the rest of them but not willingly, the sacrificial lamb.
“I’ve no earthly reason to think I can trust you,” Spade tells her. “If I do this and get away with it, you’ll have something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I’ve got something on you I couldn’t be sure that you wouldn’t put a hole in me someday. . . . All we’ve got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.” This is a scene, a plot, I imagine, Melville adored.
“You know whether you love me or not,” O’Shaughnessy says. And Spade answers, “Maybe I do. I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over, but that’ll pass. If all I’ve said doesn’t mean anything to you then forget it and we’ll make it just this: I won’t, because all of me wants to regardless of consequences and because you’ve counted on it the same as you counted on it with all the others.” Maybe. Brigid O’Shaughnessy is the femme fatale in my poem—that is to say, in that 1944 Edward G. Robinson vehicle, The Woman in the Window. She’s Joan Bennett, the woman in the painting, who lures the professor to her apartment, the woman who just happens to have left her scissors lying beside her sewing box. Will she get away with it? Did she plan it? In The Maltese Falcon I don’t think she does, at least as far as I know.
Spade: “If you get a good break, you’ll be out of Tehachapi in twenty years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.
O’Shaughnessy: “You’re not….”
Spade: “Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. If you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
O’Shaughnessy: “Don’t, Sam! Don’t say that, even in fun!”
By the time Susan Hayward gives her bravura, haunting performance in I Want to Live (1958), which recounts the actual arrest of Barbara Graham and ultimately her execution in California’s gas chamber, film noir has essentially become passé. Subsequent noir movies will just be an invitation to indulge in nostalgia, maybe to think about how the earlier, truly noir, film noir was the real thing.
And yet it was never real! What is real is that I poured my own noir experience into my poem. The writing of it took me about two or more hours nightly, for almost three months, before I could get that poem right. Nearly all of the poem’s chronology is a lift from The Woman in the Window. I was coping with my own fatalism, however—while living in Prague for half a year, a city so beautiful and so very preoccupying. While Prague might first look and seem, certainly to the tourist passing through, like some first-world Western city, Diane and I came to realize we’d never before been to a place quite like this.
We didn’t at first see and feel how the legacy of Communist rule was ever-present—there to be seen, if you knew enough to look, how to look—of course this doesn’t begin to comprehend the unique history of Bohemia, whose people became subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the same year the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. At the end of World War I there was a twenty-year period, between the world wars, of the most open, vibrant democracy—until the Nazis marched in. I published a piece in the Prague journal B O D Y, “Prague and Memory,” which tells some of this (see: https://bodyliterature.com/2018/10/09/burt-kimmelman-prague-and-memory-2018-part-i/). The Bohemians are a very old people, and highly sophisticated. Prague Castle was begun to be built in the year 870.
I was up nights. Diane needed to get to bed so she could travel to the city of Pardubice, to the university there, where she was teaching first thing in the morning. I think Prague was, for both of us, simultaneously love and estrangement. I view my poem as a product of my emotional state. I wanted the poem to be frustrating in the end. In that I thought I was reproducing, in kind, that fleeting, sly wink at the audience, which a viewer might detect in America’s classic noir cinema.
Some of the reason why the poem took so much intense labor had to do with the poem’s lines, which are each thirteen syllables; hence there are thirteen stanzas. And each one comprises a single complete sentence. Each quatrain, in that sense, is a single unit and can stand alone. (I didn’t settle on “13” because it was an unlucky number. It was just that a line I began with, and as it happened turned out to be in terms of phrasing and musically right, contained thirteen syllables.)
You read “weariness” in my poem. I trust your reading, but I’d thought the only weariness really is that in the poem I’m weary of late-night movie-watching, and I’m getting sleepy too. Do I know what will happen in the movie’s plot? Well, yes, in a way I do. The restless world continues on.
Think of Oppen’s poem, “The Little Hole”:
The little hole in the eye
Williams called it, the little hole
Has exposed us naked
To the world
And will not close.
Blankly the world
And we compose
And the sense
And there are those
In it so violent
And so alone
They cannot rest.
Fink: Your work as a literary and cultural critic involves both the European Middle Ages and the U.S. twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Recently, how do your poetry and criticism feed each other and/or knock the food out of each other’s mouth?
Kimmelman: I have in my mind—when I try to comprehend your question—a picture of an accountant, someone who, however, dreams of becoming a poet one day. I guess I’m remembering that Monty Python skit where an accountant consults with a psychologist who specializes in determining what career is right for each person who seeks consultation. The accountant dreams of becoming a lion tamer—actually of becoming anything but what he is, an accountant. (The joke is that, after a battery of tests is performed in order to construct a psychological profile of this person, the consultant deems the client is best suited to be . . . an accountant.)
In my picture, the accountant is working through the lunch hour, wearing an eyeshade, re-punching numbers into the adding machine with one hand, ham sandwich half-eaten in the other, trying to reconcile some discrepancy. The boss saunters in, sees the accountant working away, who looks up to say “I’ve almost got it.” The boss, standing over the desk, whacks the accountant across the face and the food in his mouth splatters across the room. “Shmuck! You think there’s such a thing as the right number? Get a life!”
The accountant finds himself sitting up in bed, trying to relinquish his nightmare. It’s a new day, after another insane dream. But he knows better than to think about what it could mean: he’s late for work.
Another of Oppen’s poems, one relatively few people quote or cite, is possibly my favorite of his. Here’s the poem:
A friend saw the rooms
Of Keats and Shelley
At the lake, and saw “they were just
Boys’ rooms” and was moved
By that. And indeed a poet’s room
Is a boy’s room
And I suppose that women know it.
Perhaps the unbeautiful banker
Is exciting to a woman, a man
Not a boy gasping
For breath over a girl’s body.
That “unbeautiful” is not merely a coinage to fit his line.
I guess most readers are enamored with the philosophical Oppen. Anyway, I won’t say scholarship is like banking. When I think of Pound’s “dance of the intellect,” I think of the intellectual along with the artist. Williams once said, “‘Beauty’ is related not to ‘loveliness’ but to a state in which reality plays a part.”
I began writing poetry as a late adolescent, in college, and soon enough decided that poetry was to be my vocation. Many years later, after several detours, I began life as a doctoral student—not because I especially admired or even understood what scholarship was, but rather because, in my mind, a doctorate was a ticket to a job in a university, one that would not, as I saw it then, sneer at the vocation of poet, and one that would afford me some wherewithal to be a poet.
I didn’t know I’d fall in love with scholarship. Yet the part of me that writes poetry is not that part of me that writes scholarly works or critical works (although possessing the point of view of the poet has helped me more than once in developing a scholarly argument). Maybe being a poet and being a scholar are like two distant cousins who happen upon one another later in life and develop a real friendship.
One thing I feel very lucky about is that I do not teach creative writing. There are several reasons for this but the chief one is that the creative part of me, let’s say, would be expended; that creative energy would be used up in working with students who are seeking guidance for their creative endeavors. Not that this isn’t a noble calling, or anything like that. It’s just that I’d rather protect my daily allotment of creative surge for my own poetry writing.
Even so, my knowledge of, my understanding of, what a text is could never have come about without my training as a scholar. And I still love to write criticism, and when necessary to delve deeply in our cultural history and/or the underpinnings of our present cultural, artistic world, as well as our intellectual world. I arrived at a practice in my poetry making, as I said before, which I call procedural—that is to say, it is the work that should be done on the ground level, the text. What I love about poetry, in its potential, is that it will not say anything, while the text exists in the world, while the poet has brought that text into the world.
So is my attention to text the consequence of, at least in part, my having thought a lot about the nature of text, and how it has shaped humanity over time, an activity I might never have gotten involved in were it not that I undertook to learn about text as an intellectual—were it not that I grew into the intellectual I am? I have no way of knowing, since I cannot look outside myself, and since what my life has been has brought me to this moment. (I will add that the poet-friends I like most being around, whose poems most interest me, are intellectuals.)
For me the pleasure of creating a poem is unique; it’s sublime. And yet the person who is allowing, as it were, that poem to come into being is someone who has thought a lot about language and text both (not that they are not one, but still . . .).