Prose Feature: Magnetic Moments: A Review of W.S. Di Piero’s Tombo (McSweeney’s, 2014) by Erik Noonan

November 28, 2014

Earlier this year, for the first time, a group of scientists separated the properties of a subatomic particle from the particle itself, sending a neutron and its spin—also called its “magnetic moment”—briefly along different paths and then reuniting them. It’s believed that eventually the scientists’ results are going to expand our understanding of quantum mechanics by making it possible to collect data more precisely from systems that are too easily disrupted to be measured with currently available instruments. If contemporary poetry is comparable to experimental science, then we ought to take note when the poet W.S. Di Piero reports similar findings in his own field, observing that although there’s an indissoluble link between a person’s body and the unique way he or she moves, a poet has to write as if there weren’t: “To make poetry is to transform passion into a symbol world,” he claims, “bringing over the quick of the senses into annals of lore and image-hoarding.” This elegant formula (from “Pocketbook and Sauerkraut,” in the 1996 essay collection Shooting the Works: On Poetry and Pictures) accurately characterizes Di Piero’s new collection Tombo, whose poems abstract the flow of magnetic moments from the physicality of everyday lives that all too often prove very mechanical indeed.

In case this strikes anybody as unsympathetic (which may not be the point anyway), we might consider a street scene in one of the poems, “Hayes Street Evening Fugue.” Imagine a cozy urban affair, prosperous but not too upscale, precarious in other words, lined with boutiques, cafes and restaurants, and everywhere the bland complacent daze that such places foment as a mask with which to evade panic. It isn’t easy for a poet to write about this street. He turns his mind’s eye to the second story:

Upstairs: inept blues amped, a silhouette at a drawing board,
a blacked-out window, jeans and socks on a line.
What happens in those rooms? Everybody’s a secret
with a secret. The light locks them up. A photo hound
deploys draperies and shades. Looming lingerie
fills with flesh. A woman in pajamas, maybe in love,
sways to sounds only she can hear.
Next door, a baby girl’s face, slicked with mucus,
pastes itself to a window while Buxtehude
(who offers Bach his post if he weds his daughter:
Bach says no, oh no) exalts through these rooms,
those organ pipes sounding heaven on earth,
and behind the child’s face the mother weaves:
it’s Aphrodite, apparitional in the weave,
caretaking those who love and live one story up.

Amid the humdrum string of journalistic notations tinged with low-key eroticism, a fragment of Baroque organ melody slips into poet’s consciousness in the fictive space of the poem and signals the presence of another time, at which point the mind climbs from sensuality up through history and into myth, where the archetype of desire herself appears, in a recognizable disguise. It’s a figure that comes across as utterly earned, and as such it indicates its author’s humility.

That same quality also marks the 1996 essay mentioned above, which unlike a scientific paper makes room for the writer to complicate things by presenting private reservations or qualms: “[S]omewhere along the way,” he writes, “I . . . became persuaded, I don’t know how, that the objects of the world cannot be owned by figures of consciousness.” He continues:

That is probably my deepest political conviction. I believe that there is in the things of the world an essential stilled singularity that cannot be expropriated even by the mastering forms of the imagination. The enchantments of representation are not true magic. Poetry does not transform the world; it embodies the particular acts and feelings of being in the world.

In that sense “Injun Joe as an Avatar” is a key piece in Tombo. The poem courageously portrays the complexity of Di Piero’s ongoing relationship with a self he left on the shelf long ago and now outsources to others: an obscure and embittered writer-divorcé. The poet no doubt recognizes this persona as a common type, but he undercuts our righteous judgments by framing his own altered consciousness as a question—about a question—about yet another question:

The poetry’s arrested in Joe’s scene,
which can’t be trusted, because I saw it
through painkillers that softened my head
after I’d asked him what Keats really meant:
“Was it a vision, or a waking dream?”
—You think that really mattered much to him? 

Since this is the only poem in Tombo that deals with the poetry of the past explicitly, we may be forgiven for taking it as a pretty clear indication that the book—and maybe also its author’s project as a whole—ought to be read as the happy outcome of a High Romantic predicament, if you’ll forgive the pun. And, as so often in Di Piero’s work, the unanswered questions in “Injun Joe” get restated in “The Birds of the Air” with an admirable realness and maturity, even though everybody knows that the problem never goes away, or not for long:

    we agreed we could not be as we were
and wind rushed through our ears our voices
as it’s rushing now as if our voices still say
no this can’t be what we meant or wanted.
How many times we said that. It must have been
what we wanted talking so much helplessly
about what’s not here anymore is its own kind
of plenitude, isn’t it? How lucky are we.

There’s another Romantic connection. In the Shakespearean logic of Milton’s Satan, also beloved by Keats, place becomes a metaphor for poetry (“The mind is its own place, and of itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”), and the Northern California of Tombo shows Di Piero’s to be of their company, in “Starting Over,” with its lovely opening lines

I can’t not keep coming back
to this place that’s not a place,
its pepper trees, olive trees, lilac,
narcissus, jasmine, here with me
and mock orange and eucalyptus
and cypress flat-topped by sea wind.

And again, in Di Piero’s hands, the poem as a place offers no sublimity but instead engulfs its purest creatures in dangers that are lethal precisely because they’re aesthetic ones:

the tide calmed, and the farther you swam
the more you were sub-cuts on the sea
and I panicked to lose sight of you,
less than a dashed shadow disintegrating
into opaque radiance where sea and sky
shrink to a seam of life continuous
with our own.

(from “The Horizon Line”)

We the readers trust these lines whose energy matches their eloquence.

Leaving behind the post-symbolist imagery and the plain style of his beginnings as an artist, Di Piero has long since departed on a trip out along the edge of a civilization he doesn’t care to be alienated from. The “sunken cheeks” and the “[o]ne big bone, the father’s head” of “The Smell of Spearmint” return in “So It Goes” as the “sunken head bones” of a hawk to whom the poet and his companion(s) offer thanks:

Owlish northern harrier,
who listens with your face
and shows not love but want,
speed, life in flight
toward, only toward,
pausing at every chance
to use what ocean-born
bayside air sustains
by resisting. We thank
your sunken head bones
and wild close-to-water seeking
that somehow speaks to us,
delivers us
to another amazed
agonized place.

In a collection that doesn’t always avoid anthropomorphic attitudes, the terms and scale of Di Piero’s prayer in “So It Goes” are particularly significant because they introduce into our contemporary culture a new and very old concept that the word nature doesn’t really encompass, with its overtones of apocalyptic thrill and administered recreation.

Tombo gets down to essentials in a Proustian manner. In “Building by Chance,” a catalogue essay for a 1998 exhibition of watercolors by Fluvio Testa, Di Piero writes:

Any image recalled in memory is an image remade and pressured by this moment’s consciousness. Remembering is always an act of imagination. When consciousness processes what we remember, it pulls its images through different states of consistencies, runny or viscous, highkeyed or muted in color. As soon as memory comes into a rigorous structure or pattern, it begins to revise and unstructure itself.

As Di Piero proposes it, this likeness between involuntary recollection and painstaking artistry bears directly upon the poet’s practice throughout his career, and in several pieces in Tombo particularly. Consider these concluding lines from “Bologna 1974”:

Nobody seemed a stranger to anyone else,
the air was gay and fancy free and I
was five years far from home and walked
for hours past the flowers and their hosts
who hurried and laughed in the chill, stony air,
            before spring would deliver us
                        to ourselves and from memory, again.
                                    That’s how it felt at the time.

It seems clear that the onrush of the syntax across the line ends in this poem doesn’t testify to an emotion recollected in tranquility, but rather indicates the pulling of an image through states of consistency by a conscious shaping faculty, just as it’s set forth in the prose statement above. The presence of an authoritative self in this book should therefore be understood as a creation, not an avatar of the poet’s identical worldly person, but instead a fiction that’s subject to the speculative and categorical guidance of philosophical constructs and the formal rigor of artistic processes, as is the case with the narrator in À la recherche du temps perdu.

Over a long career Di Piero has thinned out his verse as if with a coarse file, removing the bulk that used to lend it a brooding lassitude and bringing out a hard swiftness while leaving its original rough texture intact. This is a refinement that’s at pains not to appear so. After all, the verse might easily have turned slick and mannered by now if the poet hadn’t been on his guard against that since day one. And such vigilance emerges in his subject matter too: “[P]ractice lines mark where I’ve been and failed / to give a right voice to scenes,” he admits, “trying to complete the world, / as if it needs me to complete it, or give it voice,” which is nothing personal, it’s just what happens, and that’s a rule of the genre worth noting. The writer who loves that sort of beauty is unlikely to be left alone, however—and he says so with a lovely light ambiguity in lines about “mayflies and spiders inquiring at the screen.”

One imagines that those “inquiring” pests are showing up these days because something we haven’t seen in quite a while has reappeared in this collection as well, the wary glamour of the touring poet: “The years go. / More stage-lit cities. / Tungsten, travertine, brass.” In the background of this marvelous tweet-like dispatch from the road or the hotel we also find an uneasy acceptance of the realities of a professional writing and teaching life—again from that 1996 essay (it’s called “Pocketbook and Sauerkraut”)—in a couple of sentences that don’t praise or criticize but just tell it like it is, from the viewpoint of someone who lives it: “There will probably always be a sentimental market for blue-collar verities, alley cat wisdom, and tenement transcendentalism. Just as there are markets for exotic otherness, ethnic enchantments, and ‘subculture’ opportunisms.” It has to be confessed that this is to use the word “market” in a special sense, a market of attention perhaps, since in economic terms poetry books are what’s called a niche, at best—and in that way, luckily, there’s also a market for lines like these:

Let me be fool enough
to read meaning into
the twiggy lightning that cracks
the darkening distance,
such meaning as animals
like me need to see.

(from “Que Tal”)

Whether or not what W.S. Di Piero wants is folly—and that’s an open question—we’d better count ourselves fortunate that he’s so careful what he wishes for. In a clear gaze that sweeps high over the gestures of circumstance, Tombo realigns readers with and against their world.

—Erik Noonan

Erik Noonan, photo by Mireille Schwartz Noonan

Erik Noonan is from Sherman Oaks, California. He is the author of Stances (Bird & Beckett, 2012) and Haiku d’Etat (Omerta, 2013). He lives in San Francisco with his family.

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