Contributor’s Marginalia: Paul Dickey on “The Belt” by Noah Kucij
As an instructor in Critical Reasoning and Philosophy (not English Comp or Literature), I may be the odd, ugly duck in this lake of 32. I teach my students that there are two ways that one fails to be clear. We are often vague and we are often ambiguous. Both are problematic in making one understood in a philosophical or logical argument, or even in day-to-day communication. They might worry whether their instructor is bald because just how bald does he have to be to be such, how much more hair would he need to have not to be so? Baldness seems vague. Although we seem to have some clue what it means, it does not clearly say what it means. But if I say that the blonde in the first row is hot, am I making an inappropriate sexual remark or am I concerned for my student’s comfort in the classroom? We know at least two things I might be meaning. Thus, it is ambiguous, and my keeping my job hinges on that the Dean understands which one I am saying.
I tell students to avoid both vagueness and ambiguity. Of course, I am speaking to my class in the context of prose not verse. As a poet, I myself go home from class and bend and stretch every ambiguity I can find to the breaking point. In the case of poetry, of course, we just as seriously strive to be clear, but the fine points of doing so may be different. We think at times even vagueness in verse might be good, even suggestive (well, perhaps, but be careful). And of course metaphor is ambiguous. After all, isn’t that the point of it?
So what counts as clarity in poetry? Ms. Marianne Moore suggested “imaginary gardens with real toads.” Mr. Noah Kucij’s “The Belt” in the latest 32 Poems points out to us the Walmart belt inching forward with “what we love.” Of course, Mr Kucij avoids vagueness by identifying quite accessibly what is on the belt: Depends, Ensure, Lysol. But even more to the point here, the ambiguity itself is clarity. It is an ambiguity where two sides of the equation must exist at the same time, not be resolved into the one. Mr. Kucij’s ambiguity is one where both meanings are fully relevant, necessary, engaged, enriching. We cannot speak only of one meaning without minimizing the meaning, not as in my earlier example of the “hot blonde,” where dismissing one meaning clarifies the meaning.
Of course, Mr. Kucij’s poem (and yes, my own in this issue) is not clear or understandable in terms of what I demand of my student’s logical arguments. Though not vague, “The Belt” is quite ambiguous. Here, words do and should mean more than one thing, although they mean exactly what they mean (not vague):
in Walmart, celestial fixtures
never blink. At home, the dog
down with care. We merge into
a single lane, we slap our stories
on the belt,
or finally, even
putting bread on credit, double-
bagging bleach and ketchup, trying
to keep what we love alive.
Mr. Kucij achieves clarity through ambiguity by providing us a necessity (a deductive logic of sorts) of two different worlds we know well, and they are colliding in a way we always “knew” they would but at the same time also never suspected. A paradox, but what makes Mr. Kucij’s poem clear is that in it we lose the distracting, confusing sense that we could do without either: 1) the belt moving forward, not stopping, even as we burden it with new items, or 2) our love. No denying it. We live in this dualistic world. Nothing can be clearer, as it were.
So, as you might also guess, I am partial to poetry that is not (to use one very frequently unclear word) “subjective.” I consider poetry subjective (sadly, my own quite often), if image, craft, etc, are there because the poet for his or her reasons chose to put them there and then must work for the poem to justify them, to see them. This is not always bad poetry of course, but subjectivity, besides its other risks, often becomes unclear.
In “The Belt” the images are there because (sorry, there seems no other way to say it) they are there, they somehow have to be there. As such, these images/this language may even have to risk banality in places (which for the most part, I would argue Mr. Kucij avoids). That is, I like poetry that proves itself (which of course is an oxymoron). But, yes, I’ll say it again, this poem proves itself. It is an oxymoron which, I believe, can enlighten us on much verse today, and in particular, enlightens Mr. Kucij’s poem.
The poem, of course, is no syllogism recognizable by Aristotle:
Premise One: The celestial fixtures never blink.
Premise Two: We slap our stories onto the belt.
Conclusion: I want to kiss the haggard cashier older than my mother.
But if this is not a valid poetic argument, I don’t know what is. In Mr. Kucij’s poem, from premises, his conclusion inevitably follows. It is true, that is, in all of Leibniz’s possible worlds.
Paul Dickey’s first full-length book of poetry, They Say This is How Death Came Into the World, was published by Mayapple Press in January, 2011. A new book, Wires Over the Homeplace, will be published by Pinyon Publishing this fall. Besides 32 Poems, his poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in The Bellevue Literary Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Memoir (and), and many other journals. Over the past five years, Dickey has been a frequent contributor to the acclaimed journal on prose poetry Sentence and appears in their textbook anthology, An Introduction to the Prose Poem from Firewheel Editions. In addition to his literary work, Dickey also writes plays and teaches philosophy at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska.