Saturday, March 28, 2009

Steve Tills's "Rugh Stuff"

This is not so much a review as a response, since I am not a golf player and do not understand the sport argot that constitutes the material, metaphor and metaphysics of this ambitious book of poems. Reading this stream of mostly short, untitled poems, I am the small animal that leaps from floating log to floating log, finding a slippery hold on some comprehensible utterance before the water's momentum carries me forward again. The run is not only desperate, it is also thrilling. For despite the poem's obscurities to this reader the complex orchestration of voices, syntax, and lineation is extremely compelling, and I read the book from beginning to end with a rush of excitement.

The book wants us to believe that golf is the Game of Life. The sport is a world of male camaraderie and competition, not only between men of similar ages but also men of different generations. The author, in his bio, explains helpfully that he plays frequently "with his father, his brother, his nephew, his brother-in-law, and others he's known since he first swung a club . . . when he was eleven, forty years ago." The green is thus the one place where the men can get together to Do Their Thing. The maleness of this world is further accentuated by the pervasive sexual double entendre: shots, holes, balls, traps. The poems do not depend for their effect on cheap puns, but the puns are part of their swing. The golf course is referred to as "she," in much the same way as sailors refer to their ship, or patriots refer to their country: it is adventure and dedication, sacrifice and love. And on that putting green, the poems enact male excitement, accomplishments, rivalry, condescension, anxieties, and consolations.

If these poems adhere to William Carlos Williams' preference for an American idiom, they also draw strength from e. e. cumming's playfulness with typography, radical linebreaks, punctuation, and the use of one part of speech for another. I hear in the repeated appearances of a character called "Stetson" an allusion to T. S. Eliot. Seen from this angle, the Waste Land is transformed into a golf course, a bathetic change, perhaps, but one determined to show that the same angst exists in the relatively rarefied air of the golf club. Instead of seeking an ascetic discipline, as in the end of "The Waste Land," Steve Tills tries for the perfection of a swing, while knowing that perfection is not possible, not even desirable, perhaps. This poetic statement appears in my favorite poem of the collection, a poem I hope it's okay for me to quote in full, in order to persuade people to buy the book and read it for themselves.


Golf is several games of some

Fools for illusion and a selection
of stix laid out, end
over end by, bye, (in the grip of)
these pools of perfection, the knot
in everything until nothing's
the score that adds up

over 'nd over, odd collection of clumps
in the mixed baggage, the fixed
delusions of manure, the fat split-second
chants for par done, cries from the prefect's lie,
the perfect knife, the bleeding
and dirigeable walk in the park,

four hours sot for high
flawless pause
XXXXXXXXXXXat the flop
of a once grounded life.

For hours short of a perfect
sky, for years unescorted
by a well-rounded wife,

fort built by boy
cloistered in stances,

a foot in the cave
back turned to glances, a hack
of the true san-s-lots
future romances,
"If everything's perfect, then nothing's
the impact when shadows try
dances."

3 comments:

Eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eshuneutics said...

I see that Steve Till believes you "get it" whatever "it" is, but well done on getting "it".

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for alerting me to it.