Jerry Harp was once a student of mine, but this has no effect on my interpretation of his work, only my reading of the poems themselves should be considered relevant. The fact that I know the poet doesn't mean that I am writing with any kind of special bias in his favor. I see the poems as I see them and I call them as I see them.
Needless to say, Creature is a splendid book of poems (I would say this about it no matter who its author was) and can be ordered from Amazon.com as well as from Barnes & Noble Online.
Visiting Jerry Harp's Book of Poems
Steven C. Scheer
Is the "truth . . . an imp held ransom" or a "creature whose name misses the mark"? Elusive questions, yet questions that resonate with memories locked away in forgotten chambers of the heart. I am in a strange place here, for I remember Jerry Harp as a student from the vantage point of more than 20 years. "Weird kid," they said. Indeed, I remember him giving away copies of Mr. Blue - that strange figure of delight and acceptance in a world gone mad, that unlikely (but likely) incarnation of faith, hope, and charity (though I prefer translations that use "love"). And I still see Jerry Harp as he was then. Young and tall, walking the corridors wrapped in the daydreams of broad daylight, like some somnambulist ghost.
But that was many years ago. He has since gone on to higher institutions in Missouri and Florida and Iowa, earning terminal degrees in creative writing as well as in literature. He is now a professor in his own right in Ohio, at Kenyon College. He has been at work on his poems for years, publishing some here and there, and writing many reviews of poetry, too. As if any of this mattered when it comes to reading, thinking, and writing about Creature, his first volume of poems. In the paragraphs that follow I shall attempt to give an extended impression of my encounter with the words of this work.
Toni Morrison, in one of her appearances on Oprah, likened the reading of a novel to visiting a new country (or did she say town?), by which she meant that a reader shouldn't be put off by the unfamiliar, but explore it - until it all began to fall into place and make sense. This same approach - that of the visitor or tourist - could just as easily apply to reading a book of poems. No, not individual poems read at random as we flip the pages back and forth looking for something to like and enjoy. I don't think most readers do what I have decided to do here in order to prepare myself for writing this review - that is, reading the book through from beginning to end as if it were a novel rather than a series of poems.
The poems - read this way - tell a story, but it is not a straightforward narrative, nor is it like a film. It is more like a sequence of fragments where autobiographical bits and pieces and odds and ends mingle with what for lack of better terms we might call stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue. These are now old-fashioned terms. As are surrealism and magic realism. But they all fit Jerry Harp's book. There is, of course, no point in trying to force any poem into some paraphrasable content. Yet Archibald MacLeish's classic dictum notwithstanding ("A poem should not mean / But be"), meaning (and significance) is what it's all about. Perhaps I am naïve in this, but when I read (whatever it is that I am reading), it is meaning (and significance) that I am after. And beauty, too, of course - especially when it comes to poetry, which I would simply define as beautiful and meaningful sounds that please the mind and the heart at once, in one fell swoop of rhythm and rhyme - not literal requirements - with sense and reason thrown into the bargain. Why would anyone want to read something that's devoid of meaning? I can fall back on another authority here, no less a person than Walt Whitman, who in his "Song of Myself" suggests that we should be "proud" when we "get at the meaning of poems."
So what kind of country is Jerry Harp's book of poems? It's hard to say. The first section of the book, "Their Solitary Way," echoes the end of Milton's Paradise Lost, but the title poem in this section is the speaker's reflection on a young couple walking hand in hand, a young couple that reminds him of his own parents when they might have been that same age. He watches them until they disappear, until "their movements [become] imaginary, / Then only imaginary points" on a lost horizon. The opening poem of this section, "The Millennium Turning," immediately plunges us into a surrealistic world, a world where electric sparks intermingle with card-playing angels who "have lost their places in the book of Psalms." At the end of the poem we are introduced to an elusive female character, a "pale Bianca," who will appear again, but who here merely "wanders in the shades, / listening to the broken fragments of a fugue."
Certain things recur in these poems. Certain animals - like cats and crows and wolves. Or music - like jazz or tunes played on a guitar. Or traffic and city lights. Or references to characters (like Genji) or poets (like Dante, for example, or someone as obscure as Kabir). Or saints and philosophers (like Augustine or Plato or Thomas Aquinas). Or churches and monasteries. Or bars and restaurants. Or malls or even jails. These are all parts of the speaker's mental landscape. They crop up here and there as they flit through his stream-of-consciousness. No explanations are given, nor would they be necessary. One notices them in passing as they occur in passing. No need to be puzzled, even if poems frequently strike us as puzzles or even (metaphorically speaking) as hieroglyphics, or mysteries to be solved.
What are we to make of "Evening Faces," for example (where the title is already a quote), a poem that conjures up The Tale of Genji, perhaps the first novel ever written in eleventh-century Japan by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, and mixes this with the speaker's boyhood memory of a librarian who advises him against reading Dracula. The poem ends with the intriguing line "Let time revise all we have set in our books." Does this mean that "time" will "revise" our reactions or impressions gleaned from what we have read? Will we change our minds? Yes, of course. That, too. The poem, "History," is intriguing for another reason, it foreshadows the third section of the book ("Creature"):
A creature like a shadow, without eyes,
In "Plato's House" I seem to detect an allusion to the Allegory of the Cave. Instead of staying down there watching the reflections of shadows on the wall, the philosopher is the man who ascends to the "real" world. As Jerry Harp's persona says in the poem
I could go outside any time to see
The final line abandons the Platonic scheme and reminds me, at least, of the origin in "Genesis" of the first man (Adam's name is etymologically something like "dirt"), so that the question ("What draws me to the dirt?") is really about the fascination with origins. In "What is Found" I seem to catch other echoes. When the speaker mentions a "woman" who shows him "the way through the woods," I cannot help but think of Dante who lost his way in the middle of a dark wood one day and whose eventual guide became the saintly Beatrice. In the final strophe I also find an echo of T.S. Eliot ("I sat under a tree in the cool of the day, / reading The Book of Psalms") as well as of Christ's question leveled at St. Paul ("Why do you assault me?").
Echoes continue to abound in the next section of the book, "A Man Who Was Afraid of Language." This reminds me of Wallace Stevens. In the first (and title poem) of the section the speaker speaks of himself in the third person, giving us an image of a recluse who stays in "his apartment," in part because "even printed words" go "on shifting / And crossing while stray phrases, echoes of phrases [take] up the burden." In "What Is Revealed," we don't know who the "you" is who speaks to the speaker, but his reaction to her words (I take it we are dealing with a "her" in this case) add to the "theme" of this section something intriguing:
My name sounded in your mouth
In "River Front Bar" I hear more echoes of Wallace Stevens. Not only is there a guitar player in the poem, but the two-line strophes are themselves echoes of the same in "The Man With the Blue Guitar." Yet the next poem, "At the Archabbey," takes us to a new place, one loaded in the end with a kind of paradoxical wisdom:
The iron gate creaks.
The empty existence, which seems like a put-down at first, turns into something entirely different by the end of the poem. The speaker's yearning for "such blessing" conjures up the Christian contemptus mundi as well as the Buddhist Nirvana - a place, if you will, "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife," so aptly phrased by Thomas Gray and so lovingly echoed by Thomas Hardy.
The third and final section, "Creature," is perhaps the most intriguing part of Jerry Harp's book of poems. This Creature (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) is, of course, a projection of the poet himself, a self of his that isn't always even human - it seems. This is the Creature who keeps haunting me with the possibility of a language in search of a self or perhaps a self in search of a language. The first poem in the sequence, "The Creature's Introduction," gives us a composite persona, contrived by TV ads - those interruptions that "define" contemporary life - yet also influenced by nature ("I improvise rhythms on trees. / A world unto myself"). When his "woman" leaves him for a "tattooed man" on a "motorcycle," he wonders "what language" he is, and then enters churches where he finds consolation in the "smoke of votive candles."
There is a running contrast in some of these poems between the sacred and the profane. In "Creature Downcast," for example, we are told that
. . . every angel is terrible,
Are angels terrible because we seem to encounter them only in places like churches cast into anthropomorphic forms that are nothing more than pieces of carved stones? Yet the stones in question seem to speak a "language" of their own, implicating something elusively "almost human but lost."
In many of these poems the Creature (or just creature) appears to be a projection of Jerry Harp himself, the prosaic person. We see him at the mall or at work in some warehouse or making deliveries or even pumping out a woman's flooded basement. But beyond these mundane tasks we also see the Creature as he exists in or reflects upon his mental landscape. In "The Creature Midway" he says that his "chanting moves like a mother tongue / That has abandoned her young." The autumn leaves in this poem come to configure a "scribal hand / That I haven't learned to read." In the end the "hard" and "dense" sense of the woods which is impossible to translate into human language becomes a "rude crow's caw and cah and kahr." I take note of the three onomatopoeic versions of the crow's inhuman cry as yet another manifestation of a language in search of a self - or vice versa.
In "Creature's First Memory" something like Freud's "primal scene" occurs, except that what the creature sees is his neighbors rather than his own parents making love - "doing each other's body / Under the weeping willow," as he puts it. In "Creature on the Town" a much older Creature flirts with a "teenage" girl "two tables away" in a restaurant. The girl's father frowns on this - due to the age difference - but nothing comes of the whole thing, as by the time he looks up from his steak "The lovely creature has gone, / Taking all her people with her."
"Creature on the Fourth of July" is a surprise, a traditional villanelle. It also touches on "activism" ("I lack the cruelty of my betters," says Creature sarcastically towards the end), like several other poems in the collection, most notably "Psalm in a Time of War," where a boy's "gangrenous finger" becomes a "spectacle of civilized suffering," and "Creature Meets the Executioner," which uses strophes reminiscent of the typical stanzas Emily Dickinson utilized. This poem must be read and never paraphrased (or it loses its splendid effectiveness), though I can't help describing it a bit here: Creature meets with a sinister salesman in a restaurant who is apparently selling an efficient machine for execution "That delivers death by poison, shock, / Or asphyxiation." This sinister salesman also carries a Bible, and when he snaps it shut, he goes on to say - echoing Yankee Doodle Dandy - "Isn't that a honey? / Sometimes I stick a feather in / And call it panettone." The change from "macaroni" (which meant something fashionable in the song) to panettone is telling, for the latter is a sweet cake, so it's consistent with honey, but a shocking contrast with the salesman's implying that it is sweet to execute criminals.
In the end I keep being haunted by the idea of a language in search of a self - or vice versa. In "The Creature's Summa," for example, he calls himself a "banter of dusty tongues" and an "involuted sentence." "I am the speaker," he says, "and the language that I speak." "I am a page whose faded print / Forms a tongue I cannot read." In the final poem of the sequence, "The Creature's Repose," he claims that he was "never real," just someone stuck and lost in "traffic," who - like a "cat" - could disappear "around a corner," and who - in the end - says:
But here I have my empty windowpanes,
So what kind of country is Jerry Harp's book of poems? A strange one, but one to which - like fiction in Melville's Confidence Man - we feel a tie. The inner landscape of the speaker's mind will keep haunting us with the possibilities of meaning that cannot be paraphrased without fatal loss to their suggestive beauties, the vagaries of what we used to call the "human condition." These poems remain "mired" (and rightly so) in a love of this world and its inscrutable specificities, together with an occasional but devastating critique of its "cruelties," with sporadic allusions added to something transcendent though ineffable. The concluding lines of "The Creature's Reverie" should perhaps be the last words of this review, for they echo both Whitman's ministry to the dying in the Civil War and any priest's administering of final rites (extreme unction, as it used to be called). In this case the Creature wants
To be of service to a dying man,
This appendix should throw light on several issues. For one thing, no review can be complete in its coverage. There are usually (or probably) more things excluded from any review than are included in it. I was cognizant of this at the time I finished this review and uploaded it to my Web site (or "published" it to the Internet). Since I know Jerry Harp personally (so my review of his work is - among other things - a labor of love), I decided to share with him by e-mail some of my sins of omission. Here is, in part, the e-mail I sent him:
"I'll mention them [the omissions] here. First, I noticed in "Why Not Be Totally Changed into Fire" (and the title itself sounds familiar, though I am not familiar with Verba Seniorum) - in any case, I noticed two echoes in this poem (though I can only trace one back to its precise source): the first is an echo of Christ saying somewhere that "if thy eye offend thee, pluck out thy eye." I am pretty sure about this, though I don't know which Gospel has it. The other is an echo of Emerson who speaks of becoming a "transparent eyeball," one big eye, as I recall, with which to observe the universe.
"The next few are as follows: in "Creature's Nightmare" there is an echo of "Kubla Kahn" ("her flaming hair, / Her flashing eyes"); in "Creature by the Window" there is an echo of Hamlet ("This time already out of joint"); in "Creature's Pronouncement" "cooking egg" is an echo of T.S. Eliot; in "Creature at the Piano" "Under erasure" is, of course, a deconstructive term - "sous rature" in Derrida's original French."
In his reply to this e-mail Jerry Harp acknowledged all of the above as something he was consciously incorporating into the poems in question. He also mentioned T.S. Eliot, who - as everyone knows - made a virtue of putting bits and pieces from other writers and poets into his own poetry, which is most prominently displayed in his famous "Waste Land." While this is true, incorporating words from other sources has a precedent even in Shakespeare, who in As You Like It quotes "Whoever loved that loved not at first sight" from Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander. Up until T.S. Eliot, though, this practice has not been widespread.
What I want to do here is add to this conversation the post-modern (or deconstructive) idea of "intertextuality." According to critics in certain circles all writing is intertextual - that is, all writing is or is about other writings. There is another interesting feature concerning this issue (which is not necessarily a matter of "intertextuality" per se), and that is that the same words in different contexts operate differently. Thus the meaning of a given word in never stable (which is the contention of the often misunderstood and maligned deconstructive "indeterminacy"), for any given word will have a slightly different function in each context in which it is used. Even calling a person, say, "a bastard" can be a compliment rather than an insult - an expression of admiration (God! You wrote a great essay, you bastard!).
What I want to do here now is analyze and explore one particular example of Jerry Harp's "use" of some words that echo parts of Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn." The following may be well known to many of my readers, but perhaps not all, so I'll preface my comparison with some introductory remarks. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a preface to this poem in which he explains why the poem remains a fragment (he also calls it, in the poem's subtitle, "A Vision in a Dream"). He tells us how under the influence of an "anodyne" (laudanum or opium, actually) he fell asleep while reading a sentence about Kubla Kahn in Purchas's Pilgrimage. In his sleep he then composed a long narrative poem and, upon awaking, he remembered the composition in its entirety and began to write it down in post haste. But after putting down a mere 25 lines, someone knocked on the door, a certain "person on business from Porlock." The poet then found himself unable to remember the rest of the poem composed in his dream, and appended the famous concluding strophe in which he talks about the fact that had he finished the poem, his readers would have taken him to be mad. As an added puzzle, in these concluding lines the poet also speaks of a young woman whose song would have been an inspiration for his own unfinished poem.
There are readers who take this account at face value. Many, though, question the idea and look upon the preface to the poem as part of an elaborate fiction (Vladimir Nabokov, for example. Also, Earl R. Wasserman who claimed that the poem wasn't a fragment at all, but a whole about a fragment). Regardless of all this, here are the famous concluding words of the poem (from which Jerry Harp "takes" a few words in "Creature's Nightmare"):
A damsel with a dulcimer
I am not going to do an elaborate interpretation of this final strophe here, though I'll echo Earl R. Wasserman's reading according to which Coleridge had a psychological hang-up about speaking in his own right. Because of a strong sense of his own sinfulness, he used surrogate speakers (like the Ancient Mariner). And what frightens him from completing "Kubla Kahn" is his own initial boldness in attempting the enterprise of re-creating - through the famed Kahn - a paradise on earth. (Earl R. Wasserman never published this reading. I am simply recalling it from memory. This was - essentially - the reading he gave us of "Kubla Kahn" when I took his graduate course in Romantic Poetry at the Johns Hopkins University in the 1968-69 school year.)
Now let's see how certain words from the famed final strophe function in Jerry Harp's "Creature's Nightmare." Here's the poem in question in its entirety:
"Turn off the lights, I am getting into bed."
What are we to make of this poem? Should we take the "nightmare" of the title literally and see it as a dream the Creature has? Or should we take the word as a metaphor for something going wrong in reality? What does the narrative suggest? It suggests a Creature who picks up a roadside prostitute, does it not? But something isn't right. When he offers her "bread" (could be slang for "money") she becomes wayward. She talks about her own life as if it were a "nightmare" as well (in the metaphoric sense), instead of attending to business (making love for money). Is the Creature's final statement (a repetition of the beginning of the poem) an indication that he wants to cut her "story" short and proceed to lovemaking in the dark? This narrative is the same whether we read the poem as a dream or as something that really takes place.
So what about the Coleridge "connection" then? Unlike in Coleridge's poem where the poet himself could become "mad" - in the sense of insane - here it's the woman the Creature picks up who appears unstable. Is she on drugs? Many prostitutes are said to be, so that's a possibility. However we read the poem, the woman's "flaming hair, / Her flashing eyes" add something over and beyond the literal meaning of those words, provided that we "catch" the reference to Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn" - that is, provided we make the intertextual connection. For one thing, drugs are involved in both poems. In Coleridge's case it's the poet himself who is under their influence, in Jerry Harp's poem it's the woman. In both cases "madness" is implicated, partly as a result of drug use.
"Creature's Nightmare," by bringing to our consciousness certain famous lines from Coleridge's poem, enlarges the whole picture the poem presents: the city at night, a man picking up a prostitute who seems drugged out of her mind. And what is the significance of crossing the river? Is this the River of Forgetfulness? I don't know, but the idea certainly crossed my mind while reading the poem. In any case, it seems to me that Jerry Harp's poem is a miniature of a certain aspect of the seamy side of contemporary life: nighttime in the red-light district. And drug use. A "nightmare" for modern society? Or something like it?
Please note that in the end I am not claiming absolute accuracy for any of my readings. I do think, though, that they are suggested by the texts of the poems themselves. In any case, I hope that by analyzing this one poem from the collection in some detail, I have whetted the appetite of my readers for more of Jerry Harp's Creature. As I said before, his poems grow on you. And they bear up under repeated re-readings.
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