Telling Jokes to Ward Against Death: David St. John and the Metaphysics of Possibility

June 15, 2012


We have a certain image of the way a poet lives his life. It probably involves drinking and tumultuous affairs, punctuated by long glances at… trees or something. This image is not necessarily untrue either. My first real company of poets—the 2005 Bucknell Younger Poets cohort—participated mightily in the drinking of wine and watching of trees and feeling solemn. But that’s not what I remember most about those three weeks in Lewisburg, PA.

I remember watching pre-YouTube funny videos. I remember that we stole balloons and decorations from the alumni weekend that was held the first week we were there. We also stole couches from the neighborhood, placing them in front of the dorm apartments we shared so that we could smoke and drink in comfort. The janitors kept removing our “eyesore” couches. We kept stealing more. There was, in fact, an excess of couches presumably left by graduating Bucknellians. I remember feeling as if I’d made a group of friends I could laugh with forever.

Over the next seven years, I steadily lost contact with my closest friends from Bucknell. I made new jokes with my new writer friends at Cornell’s MFA program. We had code words in workshop that would send us into fits. Seriously. We decided that the word poignant’s definition was now “trite” and didn’t tell the other half of workshop. It was like third grade.

Now I’m two years out of the program, and my coconspirators have moved away from Ithaca. I did too, except I still taught at Cornell until this May, commuting from New Jersey. Although I usually leave as soon as my students will let me on Thursday afternoons, on April 5, 2012, I decided to stay for the David St. John reading. I hadn’t seen DSJ since he taught a workshop at Bucknell. I had planned to keep in touch with him too. I didn’t, but I certainly didn’t forget him.

Every time I had the opportunity to teach poetry at Cornell, I taught David’s book, The Face: A Novella in Verse (Harper Collins, 2005). I distinctly remember the first time I encountered it: Sarah Smith, sitting in a window of the dorm, reading “XXXV” in her sassiest voice, the poem about “Motojava: Motorcycle Repair & Espresso Bar” where poet Frederick Siedel is being chauffeured by Sharon Stone who’s really Lynn Emanuel. It’s taking every ounce of strength I have to not just quote the entire poem. Emanuel tells him “when you step into the movie of your own / poems, anyone can enter.” Seidel says, “You two sentimental assholes,” then “You’d better learn to hate the company of poets,” and finally “All of the real ones… still ride alone.” For me, half drunk on PBR, surrounded by poets, it was a watershed moment where I realized a kind of possibility beyond just image and pretty language. And in that moment, I was also like “Fuck Siedel (of the poem), I’m staying in the company of writers.”

David St. John was everything I hoped he would be from that first experience of his poetry. He was trim in his all-black-in-summer outfit. He had little bitty glasses. He was cool. Because we couldn’t talk earnestly about poetry, the first thing we asked him was, “Do you want to watch Blue Velvet with us?” He said, “Let me go get my oxygen mask.” I don’t remember if he watched it with us in the classroom of Bucknell’s poetry center, but I think he did. I do remember that he made us bring in poems we admired alongside our workshop poems. I brought in “Todesfuge” by Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger. After butchering the German, I read my own poem. DSJ found a kind of music within my own work, and showed me how to suss it out in an almost blues-like progression. The One-Four-Five-One of tension building and release. He was gentle—a big relief after a week of Mary Ruefle dashing our hopes and egos during workshop—but there was a kind of technical mastery lurking behind the dry wit, behind the “made of sentences” poetry he’s famous for.*

*Robert Hass said this in his Los Angeles Times review of Study for the World’s Body.


You can see this mastery in his latest collection, The Auroras (Harper Collins, 2012), which he read from that Thursday afternoon in Ithaca, New York. Take “Reckless Wing,” for instance. It begins, though punctuation-less, plainspoken and comprehensible: “The window was open & a horse ran / Along the far edge of our field.” The lines are broken in places that would have a natural pause in a sentence. But later in the poem there are lines like “Formica clearing onto the floor” and “Of toast scarred by yolk newspapers.” The easiest reading of lines like these would be to break them into sentences using the preceding lines so that this section of the poem reads “[You] swept your arm across its yellow Formica, clearing onto the floor coffee cups, plates thatched with rinds of toast scarred by yolk, newspapers, notebooks, & all those distances…” This is, no doubt, how one would read the poem aloud, but looking beyond the syntactical construction is where more interesting meanings begin to emerge. The arm becomes the yellow Formica. The Formica bleeds into the floor. Newspapers are now yolky, nutritious, and on our toast. This absurdity scars the toast. It all becomes weird and muddled, where the body becomes the site of domestication, which is also bombarded with information and technology.

There is also a sense here, that this garbage heap of the domestic life has been there a while, at rest, weighing down the “expanse” between the narrator and the you. Because the poem is so insistently domestic (nothing more domestic than yolk, coffee, and Formica), we automatically assume that this poem is uttered between two partners who have settled in to a long, boring life together. They seem to have a farm (the horse running in the field). If we take the domestic reading (which I don’t necessarily), then the ending (“You raised your eyes to mine to make / Plain another new beginning”) has at least two possibilities. 1) The open wind and running horse, two images heavily coded towards freedom, or a “new beginning,” are made “plain,” quotidian, unexciting, by the context of the you’s outburst at the breakfast table. Odd, but not incomprehensible, because what’s more boring than the little fights we have with our partners at the breakfast table. Just another bit of domestic detritus that will weigh down a long-term commitment. 2) That the you creates a new beginning just by looking. This is accomplished by the line break in the second to last line, where “to make” is left intransitive, a split idiom, lingering on the edge of the action, emphasizing that it’s the verb and its object (“beginning”) that are important here, not necessarily the verbal idiom “make plain.” It could be the destruction of the domestic junk that then connects the characters of the poem to the running horse and open window at the beginning, which is “made plain,” or obvious, as symbols for freedom. And the I and you need only recognize that the symbols they need to start a new, better life are just a ways off, in their field.

The superimposition of the reader onto the you creates another layer of strangeness. We can’t fully escape from the domestic sphere, but at least here, we’ve put ourselves into the you slot, sitting at the table, sweeping our arm across the yellow Formica. But there’s a small grammatical problem with that reading: the antecedent of “its” is actually “arm” (“Swept your arm across its yellow”) which immediately destabilizes us, forcing us into a transforming embodiment of the image-set, a mutable body that turns into metaphor. We still get the transmogrifications of the detritus imagery—the coffee cups and plates become little huts, the toast a victim of media abuse, but we also get the distance (“Notebooks & all of those distances”) between the poet and the reader, and the collections of images that begin at the concrete of the reader’s reality and end in the imagination of the poet. This is the movement of the poem: the things melt into new things, and this garbled collection of hybrid images settles between the place where we imagine ourselves and the place where we imagine these poems taking place. In the penultimate line, however, we turn on the poet, who has thus far controlled the trajectory of the poem. We are the ones who look at the poet, through his poem, to make him. Maybe we’re the ones making obvious a new beginning, or as with the aural pun “plane,” contributing to the making. And plain can also have the meaning of the new beginning: clear, fresh, unmarred, uncreated. In either case, with DSJ, the reader becomes intimately involved in the poems as they are in their narration, but also in the possibility of their creation as we read them. In The Auroras, as always in the work of DSJ, anything can happen.


At the reading in Ithaca, David read some of his more bluesy work, such as “The Aurora of the New Mind,” where he confessed to delighting in the meanness of it. For instance, this poem contains the couplet refrain: “I had been so looking forward to your silence / & what a pity it never arrived.” It’s another poem which actively resists presenting the I and you simply as characters. Instead, the I/you dichotomy becomes a tension between narcissism and desire for others, a tension that is central to DSJ’s poetics. In The Face, a movie was being made about the narrator, artificializing him, making him newly inaccessible, nostalgic, and stuck in a bizarre cinematic sublime. Here in The Auroras, we have the same tensions, but now more resonant with the Romantic sublime, where the architectural beauty of the imagination (“Melodies melodies & the music of my own mind”) is tempered with terror and loss (“Now those alpha waves of desire light up the horizon / Just the way my thoughts all blew wild-empty as you stood / In the doorway to leave in the doorway to leave”). This poem, this book, is a work that both celebrates the realm of the imagination, but also doesn’t trust it in the same way Wallace Stevens does, which is to say fully.

What I mean is that when you get to the final and title section of the book, the one wherein the poet fills his poems with philosophy, the magnetism of mortality finally breaks in at full force. The poems try to resist death with the most startling and excellent images of the book (“[The letter] was ripe / as a planet.”; “When they / found him later, dead, they said how pagan he’d become in his nakedness, // in his glory.”; etc). The book, in fact, ends where all imagination gets sucked back into the flesh whence it came, a form “which is no memory, which is our dark, the form // of dark, & darkness in its final form.” Whoah! That is a hell of a bleak way to end a book. Especially coming from a poet who sat on our stolen couches and drank beer while telling jokes about living in California. But then again, he was dressed in all black.

I refuse to read lines like that as a moment of despair. I go back to the lines that end the incredible “Florentine Aurora”:

…This is my praise; this is my proclamation. This is the apple
I place on the white plate, before you. This is my metaphysics of possibility.
This is the fury of the present. This is the memory of the questions
I offer like pewter goblets. Let us share what remains, while it remains.

It’s all going to end in entropy and decay. We, as poets, get that. But what we should also remember is the “metaphysics of possibility.” That when we write a poem and someone reads it, we have the opportunity to be true magicians, creating something out of nothing. And if not, then we just as soon pass the pewter goblets and enjoy each other while we can.

At the end of the reading, I stood in line to talk to DSJ, hoping he still remembered me and not for anything that was stupid or embarrassing. While readers were getting him to sign their books, a dude walked up to me. For a second, my brain glitched. He said, “Hey Chris, do you remember me?” Before I could think back to how I remembered this person who was obviously not one of my students and wasn’t in my small MFA cohort (basically all the people I knew that could be at the reading), I said, “Evan.” It was Evan Beaty, a poet from San Antonio who shared an apartment with me at Bucknell, and was among the three or four people I felt I got close to during that summer and then subsequently never spoke to again. In about 35 seconds, we began curling over in laughter at seven-year-old jokes and new ones (especially ones made at our own “success” as poets). It was zany and exhilarating. And then we were talking to DSJ about how drunk I was at the final Bucknell party. It was awesome. We all promised to keep in touch. And though we probably won’t, at least not as well as we should, it’s still nice to have that possibility, to pass the goblet, to watch stupid videos, to make fun of ourselves and our maudlin attitudes, because that’s the only way to live, to create, to ward against chaos, to build something out of it.

Christopher Lirette


Christopher Lirette, from Chauvin, Louisiana, writes poems and essays about wrestlers, superheroes, and floods. You can find his writing through and follow him on twitter under CLImagiste, a nickname from Bucknell.

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