So Much to Say: On Mark Strand, Dorsey Levens, and ‘Brain Fever’

By Rob Casper

This weekend was difficult. I knew the Packers were playing the Seahawks, for the first time since last year’s disastrous NFC championship.

Aside no. 1: To my mind, the only thing worse than being a Packer fan after last year’s NFC championship is being a Seahawks fan after the Super Bowl that followed.

Aside no. 2: During last year’s NFC championship I was at a memorial reading for the late Mark Strand. I remember turning on my phone afterwards to see what happened with the game — and feeling a flash of disappointment mixed with relief. And then a feeling of not caring at all, a feeling of being emptied out. It was a beautiful event, the memorial — with Mark’s family and many poets I know. Here is a lovely piece on Mark, and poem of his that I love:

“The Idea”

For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley’s lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures;
And never once did we feel we were close
Until the night wind said, “Why do this,
Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;”
And there appeared, with its windows glowing, small,
In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;
And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,
And would have gone forward and opened the door,
And stepped into the glow and warmed ourselves there,
But that it was ours by not being ours,
And should remain empty. That was the idea.

As I said, this weekend was difficult. I found myself checking to see what the score was a number of times, and afterwards I could not help but read about it in the NYT. Because it was a big game, with two possible Super Bowl contenders — except for the fact that, in football, there are always injuries to damn a season. Speaking of which, when I read about the Packer’s mounting injuries I was tempted to find out who and what. I thought of the team, and its chances of winning — not of the individual players and how their lives will be affected.

Which reminds me of Dorsey Levens, a former running back for the Green Bay Packers. He played a big role in the NFC championship game against the Carolina Panthers way back in 1997. A few years ago, he joined players suing the NFL, and he is now working on a documentary on concussions. Here is a long piece on him in the Bleacher Report, and his reaction to the settlement. What is more important: his play on the field that January in 1997, which helped the Packers win their first Super Bowl since the Lombardi era? Or the work he now does, on behalf of players who are going out of their minds.

covercoverKimiko Hahn is a dear friend. What a funny thing to follow canonical Winesburg, Ohio with Kimiko’s latest, Brain Fever — a collection that includes a poem dedicated to my wife and me. Which I forgot when choosing the book for FBC. Though the book’s title, and the reason for FBC, was not lost on me.

My aim in choosing Brain Fever was (1) to read the book and really think about it, and (2) to give my fellow fiction/nonfiction-oriented FBCers something fun. Here is a poem of Kimiko’s from the book, as an example of what she does:

“Porch Light”

Barley. Poppy. Then pomegranate.
Now front porch light.

There’s no longer sensation without the one

once cradled in tissue, swaddled in blood—
feeling her hiccup inside the inside.

Turn the pages of a calendar
to retrieve one’s daughter

from his underground vow.

I must unlock the door, leave it ajar,
since by degrees

the son-in-law rations my weather.

What a different kind of poem from “The Idea” — a poem that begins with what Kimiko calls a “triggering quote” from a NYT Science Times article: “Theologians have likened this state of pre-awakening to sleep, to darkness, to life underground.” The lightning-quick juxtaposition — through rhythm and rhyme, between classical allusion and domestic anxiety — is a kind of play that only poetry can employ. It makes sense of the scientific article, but in a slant way: through association, in both senses of the word, and a kind of compressed (syntactic) play (logic). The place of “The Idea” is the mystery itself — a sublime “desire” the poem exquisitely explains through metaphor. It creates its own myth, a power that poetry has taken on throughout its history and across cultures. By contrast, in “Porch Light” where we are and what we face is multiple, across time and space and with different referents, and so is unstable.

This is one way to speak of a book. But Brain Fever does a lot of formal experimenting — a lot of playing around, with how to enact the above multiplicity. There are a lot of quotes from articles. It reminded me of Marianne Moore — here’s what Moore said when Donald Hall asked her about her use of quotations:

I was just trying to be honorable and not to steal things. I’ve always felt that if a thing had been said in the best way, how can you say it better? If I wanted to say something and somebody had said it ideally, then I’d take it but give the person credit for it. That’s all there is to it. If you are charmed by an author, I think it’s a very strange and invalid imagination that doesn’t long to share it. Somebody else should read it, don’t you think?

coverI have to say, though, other than to write about “Porch Light” above I did not go back to the articles Kimiko references in her poems. And that seems to me okay (albeit a bit lazy on my part!). A poem can be a thing itself, as can a poetry collection — it always exists in a context, whether explicit or not. I had a strong sense, in reading Kimiko’s latest, of it existing on its own, operating according to its own logic — despite the way it pulls in the world, and the way it continues various themes and practices from her previous books (especially Toxic Flora). It is just one of the many artifices in the art, but one that I find seductive.

There’s so much to say, and not enough time to say it. So I want to end by asking my fellow FBCers: think of the blacked-out, the left-out, and the before-and-after — i.e., the white space. This collection tries various tricks, simultaneously, to speak into and spotlight what seems beyond us. That too, is what poetry can offer. For instance, there’s a poem called “The Idea”…

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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