Monday, February 18, 2008

Gregory Woods's "Quidnunc"

At the end of the long narrative poem “Sir Osbert’s Complaint,” Osbert Sitwell hopes he would be admitted into heaven for being a “Sceptical believer with a decent turn of phrase.” That self-description is applicable to Gregory Woods in his book, Quidnunc. He believes in the world but is skeptical of its human sufficiency. He believes in the poetic tradition but is skeptical of its modern relevance. The rhetorical strategies he pursues—parody, satire, mimicry, gossip—follow from such believing skepticism, but, instead of tracing these larger devices, I want to look at Quidnunc at the level of the phrase, and its decent turn.

A good illustration of the book’s turning of the phrase, the opening poem “Civilization” begins:

We tilled a land ungenerous with its
resources, barely scratching at the surface

for its reluctant benison. Between
its gaunt, eroded outcrops we conserved

a topsoil dry and sparse but capable
of nurturing our basic needs . . .

What strikes me in these lines is the attention given to adjectives; the writing draws my attention to the modifiers. In line 1, “ungenerous” is highlighted through the inversion of the usual adjective-noun order, through the contrast between its many syllables and the other one-syllable words in that line, through the sonic sympathies between it and “resources,” and, most significantly, through the use of its unusual prefix “un-.” The adjective proffers the possibility of generosity, but decides that the opposite is truer. Its skepticism is bracing; it braces us to accept a modest—modified—faith in the world’s oxymoronic “reluctant benison.”

The oxymoronic use of an adjective appears over and over again in Woods’s adjective-noun pairs throughout the book: “rustic irony,” “suggestive silences,” “a land-bound piranha,” “this tentative display of fussy organization,” “a prosaic drama,” “an eager martyr,” “delicious guilt,” “the saturated breeze,” and, most movingly, in the conclusion of “A Triumph” when the Greek soldiers, suffering from exhaustion and loss, fell asleep along the shore, before the evening’s “bleak debauchery.” The oxymorons cover a wide range of tones, and subjects such as ideas, places, people, time, and experiences: they surprise, complicate, deflate, insinuate, joke.

Another use of the adjective in Woods seems apposite to the creation of an oxymoronic effect. The adjective also appears in the form of a cliché. In the hands of Woods, however, though the phrase sounds familiar, its meaning is refreshed by its poetic context. In “Civilization,” the topographical term “surface” in line 2 prepares us for other such references—between, outcrops, topsoil—so that by the time we reach “basic needs,” we read the cliché with new eyes. How appropriate the contrast between the bare topsoil and our basic needs. The contrast not only highlights the thinness of the world’s adequacy to our needs, it also emphasizes the depth, and perhaps the regenerative power, of our needs.

Sometimes the refreshing wit is contained within a line. In “Sir Osbert’s Complaint,” when Osbert fell indiscriminately in love with David Horner, he was “Too enchanted by a hairstyle to have time for splitting hairs.” Sometimes the wit is contained within the form, as in “Cablegram,” which begins:

Am bleeding. Send bandages
with all dispatch. Have been
reduced to bitter tears.

Sometimes the wit, like echolocation, is heard bouncing between poems within the book. The cliché “the common herd” is such a refrain. The herd in “Heart of Cold,” in which the speaker includes himself, salivates over a young man with “muscles, lightly haired/ And honey-tanned.” The phrase is heard again in Osbert Sitwell’s fascistic sentiment that “It would take a leopard shepherd to direct this herd of sheep.” And, marvelously, in “Quidnunc,” the upper class speaker in the first vignette wishes his present subordinates were as imaginative in flattering him as once “Maltravers Senior did,/ hot from the rugby pitch/ and desperate, transformed into a truffling pig.” The adjective-noun pair at the close compresses in itself the foregoing “tr,” “u,” “f,” “p,” “i,” and “g’ sounds.

The refurbishment of a cliché suits Woods’s skeptical beliefs. If a cliché captures a conventional sentiment, the twist given to it is like thumbing one’s nose at convention. If a cliché conveys a commonsensical notion, the play on it is poetry’s revenge on commonsense. But the skepticism is, ultimately, premised on some belief in convention and commonsense: it seeks to renew both, and not to demolish either.

A third use of adjectives in Woods is, for lack of a better word, structural. Looking again at “Civilization,” at lines 3-6:

its gaunt, eroded outcrops we conserved

a topsoil dry and sparse but capable
of nurturing our basic needs . . .

we see the outcrops “gaunt, eroded,” and the topsoil “dry and sparse but capable.” While the outcrops are described with two adjectives separated by a comma, the nurturing topsoil is described with three adjectives more leisurely separated by conjunctions. To be “dry” is to be totally without moisture, but to be “sparse” is not to be totally without soil. To be “sparse” is midway to a limited “capable.” These numerical, grammatical and semantic features of the deployment of the five adjectives prepare the reader to accept the poetic turn at the conjunction “but,” to accept the capability of the soil to nurture, though the turn appears abrupt at the level of surface meaning.

This use of the adjective to “structure” a poem is deployed to great comic effect in “The Newstead Fandango,” a 19-part narrative in the voice of Lord Byron, deflected through the Odyssey myth. In section 11 titled “Circe,” Byron compares the ease of winning a boy’s sexual favors to a woman’s:

The truth is simple. What you have to do to win a lady—
From flattering her Mummy in the manner of a toady
To making conversation with her dullard of a Daddy,

Who by a constant rule must be, at best, a fuddy-duddy—
Is apt to leave you unenthusiastic, dull and moody,
And when at last you reach the daughter she becomes a bloody

Beguine, her pious drone unchanging as a hurdy-gurdy:
Suburban, earnest, churchy, turgid, surly, worthy, wordy. . .
Whereas a boy arrives equipped with nothing but his body

Forever primed with neat testosterone, alert and rowdy,
His appetite unmitigated by a conscience, seedy
As pomegranate, the precise embodiment of bawdy

--His mind is like his body: dirty, flexible and hardy—
And leaves you, by the time you’ve finished, feeling spent and giddy.
Yet, when the hurly-burly’s done, he’s still erect and ready!
Among many other things, this section fires off the adjective pyrotechnics. The string of adjectives for the woman forms a mucky iambic heptameter line of its own, only to be undercut by the crisp line about the boy “with nothing but his body.” “Nothing” is not only a sexual pun, it is also a sly allusion to the absence of encumbering adjectives in that line.

All three uses of the adjective are present in the last poem of the collection, an elegy for Thom Gunn, “My Sprig of Lilac.” The speaker in the “happy doldrums’ of a morning sees his lilac tree on the turn, its “brief abundance” fading, its “modest pyrotechnics” sputtering out. He picks up his paper and reads Gunn’s obituary. He thinks that the morning’s problem would be to try to imagine a life without new poems from the master, but his mind turns instead to imagining Gunn’s new life, how

While we down here are moithering in pointless sadness,
He’s chatting up the Seraphim. It’s cool, it is, this deadness.

“Chatting up” is exactly right in its offhand casualness, setting up the final punning adjective of the collection—cool—which, in turn, is set off by the arrest of “dead” in a noun.


Eshuneutics said...

Hi, your specific reading of Woods is very interesting indeed. The way in which you have picked out his use of bitter-sweet language shows something general about him, there is a humane tendency and a mordant bias in his work, often coming together to avoid sentimentality. Great insight.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, eshuneutics, for putting me on Woods. Great find!