Monday, September 9, 2013

Grace Schulman On Striving for the Ordinary

Grace Schulman, Without a Claim: Poems

I recall reading that most poets’ best work is complete before they turn thirty. Since I write poetry past that age, I don’t want to believe it, William Wordsworth notwithstanding. But Grace Schulman’s latest collection doesn’t still my fears. Pushing eighty, following a storied sixty-year career, Schulman shows great comfort and familiarity with poetic convention. But it resembles the work of somebody eager to be known as a poet.

Don’t mistake me; I can’t call this collection “bad.” It has many redeeming moments. Were this a semester portfolio in an MFA program, I’d give it a B. But in today’s media-saturated culture, we cannot afford time for B-level material. Her thematic focus starts strong, but gets diffuse as the collection progresses, while her language, sometimes confident, often drifts into the sort of comfy finger exercises beloved by students.

Take, for instance, the poems which start this collection. They address Schulman’s Long Island residence, and what it means to “own” (put that in air quotes) land that many peoples have warred over for generations. But while she addresses many important themes, I wait in vain for her to bear down on one. She primarily acknowledges a checklist of sub-themes, as in this from “The Sound”:
Accabonac, Shinnecock, Peconic, Napeague,
the creek, the bay, the stream, the Sound, the sounds

of consonants, hard c’s and k’s. Atlantic,
the ocean’s surge, the click of waves

collapsed on rocks in corrugated waters,
the crowd circling a stranded whale

sent by the god Moshup to beach at Paumanok.
The Montauks left us names. [...]
Indeed, the Montauks left us names, and Schulman seems determined to include them all. While this is perhaps an extreme example, it resembles the sort of listing I remember circling in red pencil in too many workshops. She seems to think naming concepts equals explicating them. And that’s saying nothing about the limp metaphor of “corrugated waters.”

After the first dozen pages, Schulman broadens her theme from “place” to “identity,” which is amorphous but does maintain continuity with her introductory poems. A selection of poems about poets, artists, and artisans gives Schulman the opportunity to stand analytically outside herself. She makes decent use of the opportunity, as in this analysis of a painting, “Woman on the Ceiling”:
Her face shines from the ceiling, ample hair
unbound, the color of wheat in wind,
leaves caught in its stray wisps, her skin paler

than the dark hands of congregants below
reaching to touch the Law on silver scrolls
shouldered and hoisted high from a plaster niche. [...]

You were there all the time, sister of saints
and goddesses, hauled up with shards of a jar,
lost coins, the puzzle of a child’s shoe...
This relatively long poem’s graceful arc spotlights Schulman at her poetic best, starting with “mere” ekphrasis, moving into more active inquiry of what it means to be Jewish in a religiously plural society. Moreover, she does so while remaining mercifully free of sentiment or bombast, those flaccid tools of hip contemporary poets. If only Schulman’s whole collection achieved this high standard.

Alas, as the collection progresses, Schulman spreads herself painfully thin: too much toast, not enough jam. By the end, I can’t find a theme at all, while her verse gets cluttered with talky narration, unfocused imagery, and bleakly impenetrable passages in strictly noun-verb syntax. Individual poems, like “Fool’s Gold” or “The Unbuilder,” stand out from the background. But selections like “Cool Jazz” feel more typical:
Late afternoon, under a salmon sky,
a night heron stalking with charcoal plumage
leaned sideways like a bowling pin off balance

on an island risen for the day
only to sink later with the tide.
I saw Miles Davis lean aslant, a night heron

on Broadway, shoulders hunched, horn pointed down,
until he hoisted brass and played away
sadness of Spain, his sadness, with a tight mute...
This unfortunately resembles this collections entire latter half: a panoply of ordinary images, end-stopped lines, and doctrinaire reliance on a stanza form that doesn’t advance the poem. Does Schulman suddenly fear her story isn’t important enough, that she must tell someone else’s? Why does this collection, which started out so intimate, finish up so entirely external?

Again, don’t think this means I consider Schulman a poor poet. Like Wordsworth’s later work, she shows flashes of distinct genius. But this collection feels hasty, like Schulman fears she’ll never get another bite of the apple. If that’s so, surely she doesn’t want this sprawling, diffuse collection to define her final legacy.

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