Friday, April 24, 2009

On Paul Monette's Eighteen Elegies For Rog, Kindness to the Dead, and Time (Or, a Continuation of Wednesday's Post)

I’ve always possessed a deep ambivalence toward Paul Monette’s “Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies For Rog.” My critical inquiry evolves from the way in which Monette deliberately uses form to realize Time. On one hand, I feel that his elegies’ manic pace allows for less precious syntax. Something that I always felt marred his historically important yet overdetermined memoirs. Like “Becoming a Man.” Which already seems oddly dated.

Monette deliberately ditches his fussy style for an ostensibly more “raw” stream-of-consciousness, choosing run-on sentences, absent of punctuation. Which attempts formally to reflect the unorganized psyche of the bereft. In many cases, Time does not allow you to organize a direct address to the dead. Psychic pain causes Time to slow down, captured by grief; at the same time, you try to rush forward, hoping Time takes away the despair as quickly as possibly.

However, an ethical question surfaces. Are Monette’s elegies meant to honor his dead lover? Or does Monette’s illustration of his own grief eclipse any memorialization of his lover? Doesn’t one write an elegy to prolong the Time the living can justify reflecting about the dead?

I also hope that any sort of elegy tries to stop Time to contact and talk to the dead. Why else write one?

In the poem “No Goodbyes,” we have to ask if the poem even should be labeled as an elegy. The poem’s title launches directly, incautiously, into the first line. Which one could argue is as calculated as his prose. Here’s the opening:

for hours at end I kissed your temple stroked

your hair and sniffed it it smelled so clean we'd

washed it Saturday night when the fever broke

as if there was always the perfect thing to do

I am unsure why Monette offers information Rog and he always know. What’s the use of revealing these familiar facts to Rog? The poem’s start doesn’t establish an occasion for this monologue other than the fact Monette is grieving. Does he truly have anything to say to the spirit of Rog? Or is the addressee (“the you”, Rog) of the poem incorrectly named—is he really interested only in the reader, asking for our sympathies?

I would like to add here that I can imagine that some people no doubt will be offended by a critique that asks probing questions about an autobiographical love poem dealing with AIDS. To consider some subjects off-limits is dangerous, I think. As a Jewish man, I feel that refusing to openly question texts about the Holocaust can be damaging. Some texts are useful, some not. Some have greater control of craft than others. Some more deft in concealing their own (sometimes ugly) limitations, some not.

I can honestly say I have no desire to hurt anyone, most particularly the dead. But I want to engage in important political and aesthetic issues that may justifiably result in polemic.

To skate over the problems out of the obligation to obey middle-class politeness, I would argue ultimately hurts gay poets. In at least one of the Norton anthologies, poems from Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats” appear. No other writing dealing with AIDS by or for openly queer males. When there’s so much at stake, I believe we must argue, sometimes contentiously, about what may amount to an overly secure canonization (synonymous for me with memorialization) of certain dead writers who may have not been as successful as others.

Currently there are a number of queer writers who focus on AIDS, the most important D.A. Powell as far as I’m concerned. Even if I wholly disagree with critiques offered about his work (such as the recent one in Poetry), I hope we debate the merits. Unfavorable reviews provoke discussion. Discussion yields more nuanced analysis. Our different ways of thinking helps each other out in how we read. What more can ask?

I am not claiming to be an “arbiter” of good taste, but another person adding to the critical voices of AIDS literature. Whether or not we, as a collective of gay men, choose to do it, that work will continue.

I believe that the endings to Paul Monette’s elegies, as in “No Goodbyes” ‘s forces another central question. For a poem that claims to refuse send-offs, why does his poem end with the most defiant of closures, a lyric moment? Are there no goodbyes as long as Monette gets the last word? Here’s the end:

it's only Tuesday there's chicken in the fridge
from Sunday night he ate he slept oh why
don't all these kisses rouse you I won't won't
say it all I will say is goodnight patting
a few last strands in place you're covered now
my darling one last graze in the meadow
of you and please let your final dream be
a man not quite your size losing the whole
world but still here combing combing
singing your secret names till the night's gone

While Monette offers no period for definitive closure, he may not need to do so. He provides a final end to the poem. I am not criticizing the sentimentality in and of itself.--such rhetoric can be necessary and useful to creating a poem, especially in elegy. Saying the obvious can be necessary, if not critical.

Here’s the crux of the argument: Does the poem poem satisfy its own promise? Can there be a more ostentatious goodbye than for Monette than returning to his feeling of losing “lot the whole world,” buoyed only by the memory of sharing pet names with his dead lover. The poem seems suspiciously satisfied with its lyric finality. As a poet, he seems desirous of aggressively stopping Time, in order for us to admire his artistic flourishes.

Think about how Alice Notley, one of our best living poets, uses identical formal strategies as Monette’s: the single run-on sentence, an avoiding of punctuation except for the ampersand (in Notley's case), lack of capitalization, a disinterest in the line break. Their content is similarly the same: what should be a banal report of grief after their lover/husband dies. Here’s the wonderful Notley poem in its entirety. It’s called “Poem”:

Why do I want to tell it
It was the afternoon of November
15th last fall and I was waiting
for it whatever it would be like

it was afternoon & raining but it
was late afternoon so dark outside my
apartment and I was special in that
I saw everything through a heightened

tear, things seemed dewy, shiny
and so I knew there was a cave
it was more or less nearby as in my
apartment it was blue inside it

dark blue like an azure twilight and the
gods lived in the cave they who
care for you take care of at death and
they had cared for Ted and were there for me
too and in life even now

Notley immediately announce the artifice of her own writing with the title “Poem”; Monette seems to want us to see him artfully emerged in the raw current of grief. Because of Notley’s immediate admission though, she confessed to her own unchecked sentimentality: “I saw everything through a heightened tear things seemed dewy shiny”. What a genuinely transcendent move! What could be more aggressively banal than a tear, but through her “heightened” self-awareness she succeeds in creating a more authentic elegy than Monette could even dream. Her closure similarly says the obvious, stripped of poetic mannerisms. She says the obvious. Which more poets need to do. Ironic statements don’t do much in our world. A world on the edge of extinction. Is there a statement more important than gods taking care of her husband as he died and Alice herself.? As they still look after her? Her flatly stated declarative is more open than Monette’s affected elegy. This final boast is admirably unapologetic.

This is not to say that Monette’s poem fails contain nice moments. I love the exclamatory yelp that occurs mid-way throughout the poem: loping off whatever you could
still dream to the sound of me at 3 P.M.
you were stable still our favorite word
at 4 you took the turn WAIT WAIT I AM
THE SENTRY HERE nothing passes as long as
I'm where I am..

To capitalize that imperative is grossly emphatic. But it works. Time possesses him in its grasp; he can’t say anything as quickly as he wants. So he’s forced to rely on an obnoxious capitalization. Time limits him, and he’s trying to beat it through sloppy capitalization. One cannot help but feel that if the poem was written in sentences you’d see a couple exclamation marks, the most underused punctuation mark and the most difficult to get away with. More exclamation marks, I say!

My analysis here is not to say that Monette is a bad poet, or even a mediocre one. I am simply concerned that critics have not recognized the inherently benign hypocrisy of his elegies. And isn’t the best way to engage in a conversation with the ghosts of our beloved is to recognize that their death has given you permission to see their work in a new divine light?


  1. Do you think a difference between Notley and Monette's approaches could be described as Monette writing "from inside the grief" and Notely writing "from outside" of it? I notice Notley has more structure, most formal consideration in her piece--which to me seems like an example of outward forces affecting the poem rather than Monette's more raw, unstructured approach...

    I hope you saw my blog post as collegial--I was not disagreeing with you, but just putting out some of my own thoughts on the topic. I do think critical writing is essential (by a community, for a community)...

    word verification: anspermi

  2. Hi,

    First and foremost, I love your comment about writing inside grief as opposed to the outside. That's something I'll be thinking about when I come back to this post in all seriousness, and I love that you attach form with content there.

    I'll be honest: because I respect you and have read your blog regularly (you can tell by your sitemeter I'm sure, or maybe you can't--I can only imagine the number of hits you get) I did think of it as congenial: you never named me as being mean.

    Partly because of my religious beliefs, I really try not to be mean. Not that I don't have blind spots.

    I write to figure out what I think. A lot like a poem. I write about something that troubles me (not in an unequivocally bad way). And putting it on a post forces me to refine it. And then when I get feedback as smart as yours, it causes me to think of other questions that need to be answered. Or at least attempted to be answered.

  3. Oh my, I have to check the Alice Notley out.

  4. Steve,

    As far as your labeling (which I mean in a neutral sense, not pejorative) of Notley - I've been discussing this with a friend of mine who is trying to decide whether or not to identify herself as a queer writer. I suggested to her the term queering, which is somewhat more in flux and therefore reflective of a malleable identity. It is about what we do rather than what we are. It's also a label that gender-straight poets like me who are nonetheless questioning of our own "norms" can adopt. I suppose that there's an implicit problem, perhaps, in a straight writer not wanting to identify as queer, but I'd like to think that it can be a desire for proper identification rather than a subsumed homophobia.

  5. I blog for the same reasons, I think. But people mostly only respond to pictures of my dog. I don't know what that means.

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  7. “It may take courage to embrace the possibilities of your own potential, but once you've flown past the summit of your fears, nothing will seem impossible. ”

    Remember to always..."DREAM BIG!!!"

  8. Jeff,

    I agree with your critique. I changed my post accordingly. I elasticized the term too much. It probably came from the fact that I only wanted to refer to gay poets on this blog, and needed to justify (to myself) why I brought Notley into the conversation. The more I think about it since Notley's and Monette's form and content are virtually the same (and I can't find any other poems by queer writers) I'm going to self-justify this even though it's against some of my personal rules for this blog.

  9. Steve,

    Hope I didn't come across as harshly critical. Just trying out a term here. I'm no Abramson or Silliman with the taxonomies, but I'm really looking for a useful term for myself and some of my friends.

    Incidentally, I suspect that I goofed when asking if you'd take a listen to "There will be no reinvention of the wheel." As a straight author, even a queering one (still figuring out if I can use that for myself, actually), I think I'm outside your blog's lines. Which is fine - I'll definitely keep reading no matter what.

  10. Hi,

    I like the critical, even when it's harsh. That's why I began this blog. Why I put my words in the public realm.

    No one's outside my blog lines.

    Unless you put yourself there.

  11. Not putting myself outside the lines in this case :-)