I never leaf through a copy of The New Yorker hoping to find a great poem. The poetry therein often reads like a series of chapters from an outdated manual that profiles the lives of ordinary garden rocks. The poem, “Essay On Wood”, from the June 9 & 16 double issue, troubled me enough to formulate a critical response. I once met the poet, James Richardson, many years ago, when he served as one of the judges at the first annual Ruth Lilly Collegiate Poetry Fellowship—a lucrative competition I had improbably qualified for, as a finalist. While I don’t remember him very well, he seemed like an all right guy. According to Wikipedia, Richardson teaches at Princeton, but let’s not hold that against him. Wikipedia credits him with several book publications and several prestigious awards; I’m hardly seeking to impeach the man or his accomplishments in this post, but rather investigate the poem’s language.
“Essay On Wood” appears on page 52.
Richardson has structured the 18-line poem in
three, six-line, free-verse stanzas. The first stanza reads as follows:
At dawn when rowboats drum on the dock
and every door in the breathing house bumps softly
as if someone were leaving quietly, I wonder
if something in us is made of wood,
maybe not quite the heart, knocking softly,
or maybe not made of it, but made for its call.
Okay? Here goes, first stanza, line-by-line.
Line 1. How many poems, by now, still begin with words like dusk or “dawn”? As if the poem can’t ‘actualize’ until the first little bits of color inhabit this privileged setting. I say ‘privileged’ because I don’t vacation on idyllic shores with many rowboats at my disposal. For the boats to ‘drum’ against the dock, I suppose there might be 15 of them. If they’re the speaker’s watercraft, then how many boats does one person require? Perhaps this is one of the Romney docks. But of course, boats can’t really ‘drum’ against a dock. Do they beat a rhythm? Are they M’boom loud? Max Roach loud? Are there but two rowboats, to effect drumsticks? If so, perhaps the poet could write “two rowboats.” True, these skiffs aren’t yachts, and they might be tied to a warped communal dock upon which many poor bastards trudge—but the poem doesn’t nearly confirm this theory.
Line 2. I like the phrase “breathing house” because it suggests open-window spring or summer imagery. But I do question just how many doors can simultaneously [bump] softly. To “bump” is to nudge softly, so I doubt that Richardson really needs the word “softly” anyhow; he can just chip that one away. Here, we have, what, about 15 doors bumping softly at once in a house that’s inhaling like a set of lungs? To say “every door” suggests many doors, and again, I conjure a large plot of land with a dock, many dugouts, and a domicile with more rooms than you can shake a skeleton key at.
Line 3. This narrator reminds me of a modern-day CPA with flexible accounting standards … when he’s in the city. He appears to count things—the number of boats, the number of doors—without precision. Nobody’s leaving in any event, since the narrator only establishes that quantity as part of an unlikely comparison. This poem sure ain’t Creeley in the 60s. In Creeley’s poem, “Goodbye”, one person pleads with another anguished person to turn from a painful situation, the rationale being that “the pain is / not unpainful.” But here, among docks and boats and summer houses, we have the vagueness of “someone” who never exits (or enters) the poem and a milquetoast narrator in whom we can’t invest much emotional or philosophical currency. If someone were leaving “quietly”, by the way, then would she or he make any sound at all?
Line 4. The “wonder” is so significant that it’s planted out there on the right margin as we slug into the next line—but what a whopper! Our narrator fancies that “something in us is made of wood.” (Does he mean something in a guy, that’s made of wood, every morning?) No, but—really? If you believe in Mono Deity, then you probably believe that “something in us” is made of 5 Hour Energy, seeing as Mono Deity sprinkled the earth with people and critters rather hastily. If you believe in science, then you probably believe that there’s something in us made of earth and Africa. And you know what else? So is wood. Wood is made of earth and Africa. The poem, in this line, repeats a dead sound from the line before: “someone” in line 3 and “something” in this one. These “some” words avoid a tangible count and default to typical abstractions that further dull the possibility for investment by the reader.
Line 5. Ah, the “heart”, that over-spent word that keeps appearing, like a Canadian quarter, at the coin return of the Grape Nehi vending machine. The heart doesn’t drum like rowboats, according to Richardson’s narrator. The heart doesn’t bump like every door. No, the heart “[knocks] softly”, but why does it knock? Does it want in from the cold? Does it bear a message for a slumbering person? In Philip Levine’s poem, “You Can Have It”, two brothers “are only one man / sharing a heart that always labors” at the ice plant, where the narrator’s brother “had fed / the chute its silvery blocks” and the narrator “stacked cases of orange soda for the children / of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time.” They shared a “laboring heart” in that they tangibly shared strenuous manual labor in the postwar boom city of Detroit, but in Richardson’s poem, I am led to “the heart”, as if one heart represents all our billions of hearts. The repetition of “softly” but three lines apart seems a bit careless. Also, I question whether a heart can actually “[knock] softly.” Knocking reminds me of a loud, thirsty engine that must be slaked with motor oil.
Line 6. “Someone” isn’t really leaving in this poem, and what may be wooden in us isn’t quite the heart, and furthermore, something in us might not be made of wood after all—but instead, “made for its call.” I had to keep reading through the difficult convolutions of this stanza to ensure I properly situated the pronoun reference, among other entities. In the end, the narrator “wonders / if something in us is made … / … for [wood’s] call.” Is wood on the telephone? Or is it like the call of the wild? That is, wood howls out there in the gorge, and I, reminded of my feral impulses, gallop toward wood’s call. I suppose the wooden boats call, and the wooden dock calls, and the wooden doors call, okay, okay, Big Concept, I get it, I get it, okay.
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
The narrator of Richardson’s poem drifts onward in a similar fashion, opining, if you will, on wood. The narrator in Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Song”, on the other hand, establishes loneliness as a “rowboat ice-fast on the shore / in the last red light of the year / that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither / ice nor mud nor winter light / but wood, with a gift for burning.” See? Rowboat and wood, but better. The humble and heroic father in Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” rekindles the heating element, the stove, in the family’s ramshackle house, presumably by adding coal or wood to the “banked fires.” The strength of the father’s devotion to his son causes the cold to splinter and break—the sounds, perhaps, of wood popping and sizzling. Many years later, after the father has died, the narrator expresses his own regretful isolation in a famous repetition, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Where are lines like those, in The New Yorker? I ask you.
Too serious? Perhaps you ought to read a Summer Fish Story.