By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Poetry gives us the rages, transformations and rapes of Ovid and the scornful, engaging melancholies of Baudelaire. It is an art made not with special materials or tools, but with something people use all day: language. Because it is free to use our strangest dreams as well as our most humdrum doings, our noblest yearnings as well our meanest fantasies, poetry is also free to combine them. It shows us how the weird and the ordinary are often not distinct but inseparably braided together. It also reminds us that our imagination is working all the time -- often unacknowledged or unnoticed, tucked away by shame or an earnest, falsifying surface.
One kind of poetry lives in that borderland between the ordinary and the dreamy, the banal and the mysterious, the grandiose and the squalid. That is the territory Stephen Dobyns has mastered. Here is "Alligator Dark" from his recent book Mystery, So Long .
Stiff as a fireman's spray, his urine smacks
into the toilet bowl to spatter against
the two-inch remnant of a cigarette, either
a Camel or Lucky Strike both of which
his parents smoke. Perhaps he is eight.
A chaste delight in this pre-filter era
before Freudian notions could for him
ruin the simplest of pleasures. The butt's
lipstick-reddened tip bleeds into the murk --
Take that, Mom! -- till the paper splits apart
and tobacco bits skitter off like peewee
lifeboats. The boy zips his pants as his mother
shouts, What's taking you so long? Just
washing up, he calls back, before flushing
the tiny survivors of the stricken liner down,
down to the alligator dark beneath the streets.
The myth or urban legend of alligators living in the sewers is like the boy's idle, momentary but beautifully elaborate and realized myth of the cigarette butt as a stricken ocean liner.
And is there aggression in the child's fantasy? Of course. And is such aggression part of love? Absolutely, as centuries of poetry affirm. Art's reassurance is not in being nice, but in accepting what is not so nice in us. Here is another poem involving myth, fantasy and aggression (and a crocodile rather than an alligator), a love-sonnet by Shakespeare's contemporary Michael Drayton:
Three sorts of serpents do resemble thee:
That dangerous eye-killing cockatrice,
The enchanting siren, which doth so entice,
The weeping crocodile -- these vile pernicious three.
The basilisk his nature takes from thee,
Who for my life in secret wait dost lie,
And to my heart sendst poison from thine eye:
Thus do I feel the pain, the cause, yet cannot see.
Fair-maid no more, but Mer-maid be thy name,
Who with thy sweet alluring harmony
Hast played the thief, and stolen my heart from me,
And like a tyrant makst my grief thy game:
Thou crocodile, who when thou hast me slain,
Lamentst my death, with tears of thy disdain.
The slaying and death of Drayton's couplet, like the alligators in Dobyns's poem, are pure fantasy -- they mean that he is in love, and that it hurts because all is not going perfectly. That is the sharp, fantastical, comical action of the imagination, straddling the gulf between perfection and reality.
(Stephen Dobyns's poem "Alligator Dark" is from his book "Mystery, So Long." Penguin. Copyright © 2005 by Stephen Dobyns. Michael Drayton's poem "Three sorts of serpents do resemble thee" can be found in the anthology "English Renaissance Poetry," edited by John Williams. Univ. of Arkansas. Copyright © 1963 by John Williams.)