So what is the poetry of the new century going to look like? Here, for the new year, is the work of two young poets. Get ready for a ride. They aim to be alive in their language, but they do not aim to be clear in the way that many of the poets of the '60s and '70s, in revolt against what seemed like the academic appropriation of high modernism, of the difficulties of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, aimed to be clear. This new work comes from several different directions -- surrealism, semiotics, the jump-cut rhythms of video and film, an impulse to make language rather than story or personal history do the work of poetry. One critic has called this vein "the new difficulty," and it has sometimes looked to models like the Jewish poet Paul Celan, who fractured the language to find a way to use it after the Shoah, or the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, who, in one of his books (Trilce -- partly written when he was jailed in Lima for his political activities in the late 1920s), wrote poems in a riddling and fractured Spanish, or the American poet John Ashbery experimenting with language the way the abstract expressionist painters had experimented with paint.
The first is Tessa Rumsey, whose first book, Assembling the Shepherd, has just appeared from the University of Georgia Press. Surrealism doesn't quite describe her method. But she's inventing language; she's a poet capable of writing, "Fish be ruby-weeping" or "no one knows who wind pitches for." This poem assembles its own half-mythological world. It seems to be trying to trace the shape of some ancient and buried grief:
Poem for the Old Year
January. The archer aims at himself.
His target is the eye of a fish. River
is frozen. Field rises in mist of lost
desire and steams the sealed sky open.
Fish be ruby-weeping. Fish be nailed
through scale onto door of silver birch.
Over the mountain beaten boy searches
for his teeth inside a clump of brambles.
The sound of thorns through his skin
is mercy. The sound of a beautiful fish
being nailed to a door is mercy, mercy.
Nobody knows the origin of music,
or who wind pitches for between rock
and rock like a bronco heart kicking
in its cage. Breeze seduces bow. Bow
abandons arrow. Boy finds shelter
in thicket and hears music of his breath
through ugly, twisted thistles. Come
home. It's time to begin again. A boy
is nailed to the door and a fish is aimed
at an archer, mountain is weeping rubies
onto frozen river while wind grinds
two new teeth. Who are you
inside the music of another's suffering?
When I was a nail I loved only
the hammer. When I was a breeze I died
on a door. When I was a fish
I swam without knowing not yet, or last
breath, or shore.
The second comes from Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge, published by Singing Horse Press in Philadelphia in 1995. It's written in quatrains, four-line poems or stanzas, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not. What they do is invent, play with language, play with ideas, make all the sounds the poet can discover. It's an exuberant performance. Here's the end of it:
blessed are stunned cattle
spavined horses bent under their saddles
blessed is the goat as its throat is cut
and the trout when it's gutted
Jesus is my airplane
I shall feel no turbulence
though I fly in a squall
through the spleen of Satan
in a dream a book beckoned
opened for me to the page
where I read the words
that were to me a sign
houses of Heidelberg
outhouse cracked house
destroyed funhouse lost
and found house of dead dolls
of second-sighted vision
through the veil
she heard her call
they say she alone smeared herself
wrote obscenities on her breast
snatched nappy patches from her scalp
threw her own self in a heap of refuse
knowing all I have dearly bought
I'll take what I can get
pick from the ashes
brave the alarms
another video looping
the orange juice execution
her brains spilled milk
on the killing floor
"Poem for the Old Year" by Tessa Rumsey from "Assembling the Shepherd. Copyright 1999 by Tessa Rumsey.
Used with permission of the University of Georgia Press." Muse & Drudge" by Harryette Mullen, available for $12.50 postpaid from Singing Horse Press, P.O. Box 40034, Philadelphia, PA 19106.#