blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


PIVOT POINTS  |  J. Randy Marshall

Talking with Both Hands

The group of poets represented here exhibit a number of readily describable, if superficial, similarities. In terms of their reverence for the image, in terms of their preference for the more extensive and open possibilities of the meditative/narrative form, and in terms of their common tone of genuine wonder modulated, to a greater or lesser extent, by a note of understated grief, these poets have a great deal to say to one another. Are such affinities due to the various interconnections that obtain between them as students and teachers and friends? Or are these common traits more a function of the fact that they share the same culture and, generally speaking, write out of the same historical moment? In the final analysis, every poet/teacher accomplishes a great deal simply by demonstration. The content he chooses to develop, the experiences he brings to his craft, the details he chooses to include or to discard, and the forms and techniques he finds helpful or needful are all exemplary but not prescriptive elements of a process. The end results, his own poems, serve merely as heuristics. If they're good . . .


Laura-Gray Street with students at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in 2003.

Sometimes poets are obsessed by the same subject matter, by the same compelling topic. This seems to be the case with Larry Levis and Joshua Poteat. By his own admission, Joshua tries "to rip Larry off as much as possible" in his own poems. But his is a kinder, gentler form of larceny than most people are capable of. What he seems to lift most clearly from Levis is an intense preoccupation with archetypal scenes of human conflict, scenes of almost ornamental violence, which both poets explore with what Levis has aptly characterized as "pity mingling with disgust." Both poets frequently rely upon the vaguely surrealistic technique of collage to juxtapose elements of fact, sensuous experience, and intellectual consideration. These elements in Levis tend to feel more concrete and specific. The historical and autobiographical facts that Caravaggio and Zamora represent for Levis are more directly referential in context than are Juan and Professor Garcia, the assassin and the beekeeper's daughter. That the latter characters are not named but merely evoked by their relationships or occupations within the lyrically charged space of Poteat's narration gives them a dream-like fluidity. Where Levis's texts record the collision of his distinctly personal vision with the lives and stories of others inside "the wide swirl and vortex of history," Poteat conjures a merely possible biography for an "I" not yet shaped definitively by such forces.

History. War. Art. Culture. These are forces that eventually shape student and teacher alike. The processes set in motion as student poets and their mentors connect and learn/teach their craft from/to one another are often just as complex. Both Greg Donovan and Dave Smith take a fairly explicit approach to exploring the dynamics of these processes by composing poems in which an iconic figure from each of their individual poetic mythologies is revealed, considered, reflected upon. In Donovan's meditation the "cool" that John Coltrane breathes in is as much a spiritual essence as an atmospheric condition of the "red morning" the poet imagines Coltrane standing in, prepared for some transmutation, some lifting up of the soul, through music, into art. Here, the double meaning of cool is signal. Just as the pile-up of double entendres in Smith's "Warren's Flowers" is far from accidental. The "leaves" that Smith and Warren move in and the white blossoms "budding the understory" of Warren's writing room are themselves figures for the very poems and pages that writers work long and hard to produce. These leaves and buds, like their counterparts in nature, are not just for show. These poets firmly believe in what Tony Hoagland has described as the "notion of commonality, of the poet as tribal sense-maker." If Donovan and Smith would argue that Coltrane's music and the "pale, unfinished flowers" of Robert Penn Warren's poems hold some universal importance or existential relevance, they also recognize that these qualities arise from some fundamental insight that the poems and the music provide (for the poets themselves, for humanity) at the more local level of individual memory and daily life.

In this respect Greg Donovan and Dave Smith have much in common with Elizabeth Morgan, whose poems put down deep roots in the literal and emotional landscapes the poet inhabits. Morgan, like the others, urges us to look at the world more carefully, to listen more closely for that personally significant message, that epiphany, which awaits us around the next corner, over the neighbor's fence, or right in our own front yard. If the world that Elizabeth Morgan's poetry describes seems filled to overflowing with signs, maybe it is because the sounds and textures of words themselves are such a vital component in Morgan's compositions. (And what are words if not a set of signs we use to point toward something that the sum of our senses somehow fails to encompass?) Morgan weaves repetitive strands of vowels and consonants into the sturdy fabric of each line, creating patterns of sound that seem at once lovely and urgent. This subtle music is audible, albeit in a different key, in the poems of Laura-Gray Street, a long time friend and protégée of Morgan's. The formal affinities that exist between the texts that these poets selected for inclusion here are quite striking. Both women make masterful use of the couplet, a verse form which allows each poet to precisely calibrate the rhythm and intensity of her poems until silence itself takes on heightened meaning as the stanza breaks which separate their finely wrought verses literally give us pause: to breathe, to gaze ahead, to look back.

A tacit equation of innocence with inexperience in all of these poets would seem to link them in some way to the troubled, visionary figure of William Blake. As would their shared realization that the celebration of experience is always incomplete, that it must be returned to again and again. Not to bring back innocence. Such a project would be too naïve. Like Caravaggio's confessional gesture in his David and Goliath, these poems enact a certain beautiful futility. They cannot unmake the poets' (or the painter's) mistakes, nor undo their misdeeds. But the gestures (or is it our recognition of them?) save us somehow. They remind us, though we live in a world where murder happens every day, sometimes it's OK to take the shirt right off of someone's back.  

J. Randy Marshall is a poet who lives and works in Richmond, Virginia. He received his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studied with Larry Levis, Gregory Donovan, & Joshua Poteat.

  The Painters:
   Discerning Voices    The Poets:
   Talking with
 Both Hands
 Richard Roth    Steven L. Jones    Mary Flinn    J. Randy Marshall

   Notes and Acknowledgements
   Levis Reading Loop