Once the Birds Have Taken Flight

September 21, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Dan Pinkerton on “The Stone is Worldless” by Gina Franco

I was never a dedicated reader of Shakespeare and haven’t so much as glanced at one of his plays since college, some twenty years ago. My memory is so porous I remember only bits and pieces: Lady MacBeth trying to scrub the imagined bloodstains from her hands, the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull aloft, moments absorbed into the collective consciousness. I read the tragedies with pleasure–as much as can be had from betrayal, madness, and death–yet it seemed easiest to enjoy a play like Romeo and Juliet from a distance. The characters’ star-crossed love seemed plausible only in the context of ancient rivalries among Italian political factions, and Hamlet’s existential struggles seemed a bit too cerebral for me to grasp as a high school junior. At that time I was more taken with Hemingway’s Santiago, a character whose battle with the marlin left his hands bloodied, literally raw, not that delusional stuff Lady MacBeth tried to rinse away. Back then I would’ve defined Hamlet as a milquetoast along the order of Eliot’s Prufrock, an aspect of his character I found distasteful. One of Shakespeare’s preoccupations was the internal, the human psyche, but I apparently needed something far more literal, such as a giant marlin, to point me toward a story’s strengths.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I stumbled across Othello, which appealed to me viscerally and remains my favorite of the Shakespearean tragedies. I appreciated the depths of Iago’s character, the way his motivations were revealed, how Iago used Othello’s insecurities against him, weaponizing Othello’s jealousy. Jealousy was an emotion I could relate to, like anyone who’s been through high school and has felt the quick finger of rage in his chest, the bile rising in his throat when he encounters that classmate who’s faster, stronger, smarter, more talented, better-looking.

Writers, particularly young ones, can fall prey to jealousy. A friend wins a prestigious fellowship or gains entry into an elite MFA program. A colleague’s collection wins a contest; his poems or stories start appearing in top-shelf magazines. Jealousy of this sort becomes corrosive, like rust on a fender, eating from the inside out. We try to eradicate it as though it were something invasive, kudzu or Asian carp. But if we can somehow manage it, then jealousy can make for fruitful art, as Shakespeare knew so well, and can be used as an evaluative tool.

Whenever I read, I do so as a writer, a practitioner, taking the gadget apart to see how it works. My first step is to lump what I read into a few rough categories. There’s of course the bad and the merely competent, which doesn’t merit much scrutiny. Then there’s the work I can appreciate for its structure or technical aspects even though it fails to elicit an emotional response. Finally there are the stories and poems I slaver over, the jealousy-making stuff. I pick up these books and grit my teeth at the impossible perfection of the words. Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Mark Strand, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Denis Johnson, Frederick Seidel: these are some of my jealousy-inducing writers, but we each have our own.

Currently I’m making my way through Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman. Percy is another of those writers who fill me with envy, his sentences drawing from the long Southern tradition, each line delivered eloquently, but Percy wasn’t just a stylist. He was attempting to unmask truths about the human psyche—akin to Shakespeare in that way—balancing his spirituality with his training as a doctor. To him, science and religion were not incongruous but merely different means of discovering what it meant to be human. Percy’s scientific bent in The Last Gentleman emerges in the form of details, an intense need to identify and label, to describe people, places, and behaviors with precision. One sees the same instincts in the work of Nabokov, who was of course a respected lepidopterist, and in Chris Adrian, a contemporary writer who shares Percy’s interests (Adrian attended both medical and divinity school). One can surmise from these writers that science, spirituality, and creativity are all links in a chain, different ways of asking the same fundamental questions about humanity.

Will Barret, the protagonist of Percy’s The Last Gentleman, struggles with a personal life that is unfocused, dislocated. Interestingly, he uses his final savings to buy a high-end telescope, and as Will gazes through it the objects he observes, such as bricks on a building, seem more clearly defined from a distance than they do up close. Percy appears to be offering the reader a paradox, that objects can be observed most closely from a distance. Close inspection and clinical detachment are the unique provinces of the scientist and the writer.

Thus, my long-winded way of introducing Gina Franco’s fine poem “The Stone Is Worldless,” from the most recent 32 Poems. It is for me a jealousy-making poem. I loved “The Stone…” while knowing I could never make a poem like it. What was it about the work that made it so alluring yet inimitable for me? I had to start by looking at my own poems and their limitations. First: the structure. Structure is a way for me of seeing a poem through to its conclusion. Only when I’ve framed my poems in set stanzas can I consider them finished. As a writer of both stories and poems, I’ve tried writing dozens of prose poems, but they seem somehow amorphous on the page, unshapely, so I usually end up breaking them into stanzas, counting syllables, creating lines of equal lengths. It’s not so much a practice I believe in but rather a compulsion. The form becomes its own problem, and I start reworking it independently of the content.

Franco’s poem is, in a very rough sense, about the natural world, and its form reflects that. The lines lengthen and shorten, almost like suspiration, in line with their content. The poem itself moves down the page unbroken, much like the stone mentioned in the title. Form and content work in perfect conjunction. There are rules to the natural world, but they aren’t always so readily apparent. I have trouble relinquishing my rules. I struggle in my own work to trust the reader, to trust myself. I shy away from risk, from fragmented sentences. Note the beginning of “The Stone…”:

Then dread seemed preferable to emptiness.
Like the feeling of watching the tree heave and wave
and fill with crows, their wings blackening the fog
in the branches, the tree teeming with hand-like shadows
grasping for air. Their sudden departure. In which the tree
shivers now less meaningfully…

I’d like to go on quoting the whole poem because I love typing the lines, so different from anything I could write. There’s real daring here. Franco begins her poem with “Then,” both a noun and an adverb, situating the poem in the past but also presupposing a world that came before. “Then,” such a simple word, does some heavy lifting, giving the poem a sense of prehistory, flux, like nature itself.

Franco links her lines with dependent clauses. “While the snow makes a burial ground of the circle / of field. While the field ends where it meets the stream. / While the stream runs into the distance…” Everything seems to be happening simultaneously, contingent on everything else. “Whether beneath it the tree / is throwing long bars of shadow across the churchyard / in the center, whether in the center the vaults loom up / and put themselves in order.” The poem struggles beautifully with the issue of inertia versus stillness, the poet delivering her thesis in the opening line. Even dread signals movement, emotion, a faint heartbeat. It is the alternative to stasis and emptiness. The tree is less meaningful once the birds have taken flight.

Throughout “The Stone…” Franco employs verbless sentence fragments to depict this frozen state of immobility: “Their sudden departure.” “The lost home.” “In the end.” These short lines are woven into the poem among longer ones, mimicking the variety of nature and the central tension of movement and stasis. The poet has drawn on all her tools—syntax, line length, sentence length and structure, form, metaphor—to express her theme, so perfectly contained within the poem.

Many so-called nature poems I place in my “competent” category. They describe some scene from the natural world, often artfully, maybe even employing a metaphor that allows the reader to view the object in a fresh light. But too often these poems seem to me the equivalent of a beginning painter’s landscapes, mere exercises in technique. To call “The Stone…” a nature poem would be to do it a disservice. Sure, it describes natural elements in stunning ways, but instead of using metaphor to describe nature, nature itself becomes the metaphor for an aspect of the human condition (like the storms in King Lear or The Tempest). If the poem is about any one thing, that thing might be depression. I felt a sadness on reading about the “emptiness,” the “static that is hard to shake,” the “lonesomeness of the worst sort.” When I read Franco’s line about the tree “throwing long bars of shadow across the churchyard,” I immediately thought of Walker Percy, of how close observation, when merged with contemplation, can enter into the realm of the spiritual. It came, then, as no surprise when I read in the contributor notes that Gina Franco, in addition to being an accomplished poet, is also an oblate with a monastic order.

The spiritual emphasis on the “other” may have contributed to the voice Franco uses in the poem. While there’s the intimation of a distinct speaker recalling an emotion and a scene from a temporal distance, first-person pronouns never appear in “The Stone…” The poem’s gaze is focused outward. This rhetorical strategy also left me envious. Too many of my poems turn inward; the “I” appears too many times. Franco’s poem demonstrates that the goal of poetry is to move past the singular toward the universal.

T.S. Eliot pointed out that good writers borrow while great writers steal. Outright theft seems harsh, but if we can see past our initial jealousy of such an accomplished poem as Gina Franco’s “The Stone Is Worldless” (Even the title, with its wordplay of worldless/wordless, is worth examining more closely!), there is certainly much we can take from it. Hopefully Franco won’t mind.

Dan Pinkerton lives in Urbandale, Iowa. Stories and poems of his have appeared in 32 Poems, Barrow Street, Pleiades, Boston Review, and Crazyhorse, as well as the 2008 Best New American Voices anthology and Old Flame: From the First 10 Years of 32 Poems.

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