“A Day of Peace,” “Freud Before Bed,” and “Distortion Formulas,” by Kathleen Winter

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

These poems are from Winter’s new book, I Will Not Kick My Friends, winner of the 17th Annual Elixir Press Poetry Awards. In her introduction, judge Jane Satterfield describes the book as: “[s]parkling, satirical, and highly referential,” offering “deep rewards” in “refreshingly choral, intoxicating verse.” Bob Hicok calls Winter “unusually attuned to the intersection of the imagined and the common place,” someone who “weaves her loves—personal, artistic, intellectual—into her daily life, making this a book of passionate intimacies.” Reviewer Rebecca Patrascu borrows from Henry James to describe I will not kick my friends as “an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.” [Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing] Finally, Publisher’s Weekly praises Winter’s

wide-ranging, expansive inquiry into her aesthetic sensibility, poetic roots, and the inevitable contradictions that occur within an artistic genealogy . . . This “strange dream” of a collection functions as a book-length sequence of persona-driven lyrics, in voices that include Biblical Eve’s paradisiacal deliberations, Arthur Rimbaud’s wild flights of the imagination, and Sylvia Plath’s articulate and prescient feminism. The end result is an incisive commentary on poetry as a kind of mythology, the Western canon revealed as a problematic historical document that nonetheless assumes an otherworldly grandeur. [Publishers Weekly]

I will not kick my friends opens with a line by Darcie Dennigan: I still felt it, the substance of the soul, the libidinal terrible whatever. Like all good epigraphs, this one provides an aesthetic and psychological threshold, signaling that reading the poems is going to take some work. We have to unpack it a bit, recalling what “libidinal” means and giving some thought to that “terrible whatever.” Because of the inherent indefiniteness of “whatever,” we cannot know, and are intended not to be able to know, precisely what is meant. “Terrible” conjures its own host of allusions, some frightening but others invoking a more positive power and awe, an assurance that the effort will be worthwhile.

The book is divided (subtly, as there are no section numbers, section titles, or dividing pages) into three sections knitted by this author’s voice and style: allusive, intellectual, fragmented, and sometimes surreal. Patrascu identifies three elements that rescue the poems from sterility: Winter’s “concern for the human spirit,” her ability to engage the world of bodily sensation, and her reaching “for the ineffable with humility and courage.” [From Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing]

Let’s see how these ideas work themselves out in today’s poems. They are difficult, readers, but in a good sense. That is, they demand and will reward deeper engagement and thought. When reading such poetry, it can be useful to think about the kind of challenge posed. My go-to resource for this is Reginald Shepherd’s “On Difficulty and Poetry,” the source of the material quoted below [“On Difficulty and Poetry” by Reginald Shepherd, The Writer’s Chronicle, May/Summer 2008]. I want to start with Shepherd’s justification of difficulty in poetry:

In the perennially popular “death of poetry” discourse, there’s a consensus that people don’t read poetry because it’s too hard, too “elitist . . . I’ve always thought the opposite, that most poetry isn’t hard enough, in the sense that it’s not interesting or engaging enough. It doesn’t hold the attention—you read it once or twice and you’ve used it up. The engagement I look for and too often miss is a kind of pleasure, in the words, the rhythms, the palpable texture of the poem.

And this:

Just as mystery can be part of a person’s allure, so mystery in poetry can be a lure: Yeats calls this “the fascination of what’s difficult.” One wants to solve the mystery, or at least to better understand its source. Sometimes, one discovers that the mystery isn’t to be solved, but still that process of exploration has helped one to know the thing better, to experience it more fully.

Shepherd locates three primary sources of difficulty in poetry: lexical, syntactical, and semantic. Lexical happens at the level of the word, seen when a poet uses arcane diction, or neologisms, or otherwise uses words in ways unfamiliar to us. While today’s poems do wield some unusual diction (“cocoonery” and “widdershins” in the last, for example), it’s not the main source of their challenge; looking up the words we don’t know will not resolve our questions about the poems. Nor is the difficulty syntactical; for the most part the grammar and syntax are regular, with the poems composed of sentences or fragments that can be parsed, as this sampling of first lines shows:

A day of peace, the old man passing gifts to pigeons, to orioles
with the coo of a long-tailed gal.
(“A Day of Peace”)

That anyone, for being Jew, should have to flee.
(“Freud Before Bed”)

I hope everything goes pretty well, at least.
(“Distortion Formulas”)

The first two are sentence fragments, the third a complete sentence. We can locate the subjects (“the old man,” “anyone,” and “I”) and their verbs (“passing,” “flee,” and “goes”). The difficulty in these poems, as I hope these first lines make clear, lies in their meaning, the type of difficulty Shepherd calls “semantic.”

I’ve made the point before that a poem, in order to work, does not have to “mean” anything. “A poem should not mean, but be,” says Archibald MacLeish in “Ars Poetica,” and Billy Collins uses humor to make the same point in his “Introduction to Poetry”:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Finally, as Shepherd points out, “T.S. Eliot wrote that genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood” and that it is possible to enjoy a poem without understanding it; figuring out what a poem “means” is only one of its possible pleasures.

We live in a highly narrative world, however, our brains trained to organize, classify, and make rational sense of what we experience. The postmodern era tutored us in the acceptance of art for art’s sake, or for the sake of the feelings art evokes without the need for intellectually decoding it. Contemporary readers have gotten used to the semantic difficulty of lyrical poems that seek to re-create experience or a feeling that arises from experience. Poems like William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” or Pound’s “In the Metro” do not, strictly speaking, “mean” anything, nor do we expect them to. Their aim is simply to present a resonant image. When done well, such poems replicate experience in a way that feels authentic and can be quite moving. An analogy in the visual arts might be a painting by Jackson Pollock, work we can enjoy without “knowing” what it represents.

I find today’s poems marvelously lyrical and experiential—phrases like “sweet deviant chant,” “less the nuance,” and “suave hours” give sharp delight in their sound and sense. To me, though, Winter’s poems are also imbued with a sense of intellectual restlessness that demands more from the reader than simple enjoyment of their sense-invoking properties. Winter’s poems are not puzzles to be solved, but I do find myself trying to construct, not a coherent narrative, but some meaning or deeper-level resonance from them. And judging from the Poet’s Note, this kind of seeking seems in line with Winter’s intentions: “The challenge . . . was to try to make some sense evolve organically.”

“A Day of Peace” is a prose poem whose epigraph reminds me of the origin of prose poetry with French Surrealists, who shaped Jean Follain’s work. The following description of Follain’s style almost uncannily captures “A Day of Peace:”

densely worked prose pieces . . . less a vignette, or even a poem, than a self-contained world full of deft historic and emotional detail, odd encounters and concatenations, explosions of space and time.” [“Translating Jean Follain,” by Mary Feeney, from Waxwing literary journal]

The poem conjures a series of images to fill in the outline drawn by its title, some directly evocative of peace and others, signaled by the words “then again,” of its very opposite. We have the image of a man feeding pigeons juxtaposed against and dominated by those exciting “hennaed rivulets” and the luscious “juvenile voltage of night.” The juxtaposition highlights the tenuousness and fragility of any peace, creating an experience of the aching beauty of an unattainable ideal, precisely what I feel anytime I hear the word “peace.”

“Freud Before Bed” opens with an outraged exclamation, “[t]hat anyone, for being a Jew, should have to flee,” and then cuts to images of an airplane, auditory (“boom”) and visual (“plume”). Freud had to leave Vienna during the rise of the Third Reich, so maybe ideas of flight and exile trigger the shock and violence communicated by the airplane image, possibly also a reference to the technology that vaporized Jews in the Holocaust. In any event, we gather that the speaker was reading Freud before going to bed and that the poem was born of her resultant insomnia. “That scene of gone, piercing the hide— / fever in the jaws of animals” can be read as describing the Holocaust (“scene of gone’) and the brutal nationalistic passion that created it. The “man who thought so well” and had to “wait so long” seems to refer to the time it took for Freud’s ideas to garner broad acceptance. That’s another thing that bothers the speaker who, not herself an “old European,” is nevertheless attuned to (“I hear you”) and grateful for (“Thank you”) what Freud had to say.

I offer this interpretation not as the “right” one but as an example of how it is possible, using the materials present in the poem, to construct any interpretation at all. As if to resist this, though, the poem makes a very dramatic turn in its last stanza:

America, what are we doing here?
our nation is too loud
& proud—of its drained favors.

By now very invested in the poem, I work to figure out why these lines were included, and interpret them as one of those thoughts that bubble up during churning bouts of insomnia, what lies just beneath my own consciousnesses and many others in these troubled times: fear for our country and even fear of a holocaust happening again.

The poem most resistant to this kind of analysis is the last one, “Distortion Formulas.” We hear assonance, the internal rhyming of syllables in the title and in many lines. Musicality is a consequence, too, of the poem’s use of repetition of phrases. In fact, the entire poem consists of repeating and re-lineating its first eight lines, beginning with “I hope everything goes pretty well, at least” and ending with “Against the sun, or widdershins, Saint Auspice wove.” The lines are repeated nearly verbatim twice more, with changes in where they break and a few other variations. The variations disguise how much of the poem is, in fact, straight repetition, and they engender radical changes in meaning, one way this poem reminds me of Donald Justice’s poem, “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents,”  worth a look at the Poetry Foundation website.

When the original 8-line unit gets repeated the third time in “Distortion Formulas,” there are different line breaks and critical differences in punctuation. Lines that originally appear as

I hope everything goes pretty well, at least.
Migrations of the headlong sea by bird flight

modulate to

…………………………………….I hope everything goes
pretty well. At least migrations of the headlong
sea by bird flight.

Putting the period before, instead of after “at least” changes what those two words modify or qualify. In the first version, the speaker hopes things will go pretty well, at the very least, allowing for the possibility that they may yet go better than that. In the second (less optimistic) version, the speaker is resigned to things only going pretty well, and she consoles herself by remembering that, at least (in what may be an allusion to climate change), migrations are still happening. The changes in where lines break also proliferate meaning. In the example above, the second version introduces the idea of wishing for oblivion or obliteration (“I hope everything goes”) and migrations not just of birds but of a mysteriously abstract “headlong.”

I am sure the author had many things in mind for this poem’s title, but one thing it describes is the mode of the poem—the way it uses differences in diction, punctuation, and line breaks in a kind of nonce form (“formula”) to change, disrupt, and “distort” our initial, received meanings of the poem’s first eight lines. “Distortion Formulas” makes a turn in the closing couplet, introducing wholly new material. Readers, I cannot tell you what those lines “mean,” but I believe the poem as a whole demonstrates something central to L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E and other post-postmodern poetry: the idea of contextual and cultural relativity, how the way things are presented determines their meaning. Tonally, those last two lines evoke longing and loss, speaking to the ineffable sense (“neural shimmer”) of something ever just beyond our grasp.

All three poems invoke the idea of the ineffable, reminding me of Keats’ negative capability, a concept that for him and for many defines poetry’s highest aspirations:

I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason— [Wikipedia]

Reading “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is a great approach for today’s and other difficult poems. It is true that some poetry readers don’t want a strenuous workout, at least not all the time, and that’s okay. It occurs to me, though, that poems like these are ideal for today’s notoriously brief attention span that wants its art in brief, potent bursts.

I love the water and recently achieved a forty-year dream of making the mile-long swim beyond our sheltered cove to a tiny island in the middle of Lake Champlain. I’ve been thinking about reading different kinds of poetry in terms of my summer swimming. Just jumping in—the shock and pleasure of immersion—is one thing. Crossing the cove is another, requiring more commitment of time and effort. The swim out to Beercan Island was of a radically different order, demanding stamina (I practiced all year) and some amount of courage and willingness to just, well, succumb to the lake. That was arguably my most satisfying swim of the summer, but I am happy to have lots of ways to experience swimming—and poetry—in my life.

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