Civil Wars
David Slavitt
(Louisiana State University Press)
This Slavitt is a poetical misfit, if not a genius. He'll write about turtles, civil wars, combs, spies, harmonicas, baseball, dancing bears, insomnia, revolving doors.

But he's no Poet MacPoet. He'll take on more classical themes: Il Trovatore, The Furies, Astronomy (Copernicus vs. Ptolemy), Osip Mandelstam (and Boris Pasternak), Spinoza, Petrarch, the Sirens of Ulysses, the Old English "Battle of Maldon" --- and our favorite chorus from the Messiah, slightly realigned: "All We Like Sheep." When we were kids, we used to sing along, "For we like sheep" --- and we did.

There are too, in Slavitt's poems, the joys, the mishaps and the plagues of what some of us still call Modern Life: tinnitus, "ice-cream parlors in Cochabamba," the radical musician Larry Adler, the New York Yankees, Coca-Cola, Hitler, and the sinking of the Normandie in 1942. I remember this last (my mother and father traveled to Europe on it --- third class --- in 1938; they said the food was still great).

The poet has it exact: it wasn't that WWII cliché "Loose Lips Sink Ships" that doomed it. It was a luxury liner being retrofitted as a troop carrier (troops didn't need first class accommodations) and a welder's torch set a pile of old rags aflame; overeager fire-fighters poured too much water on it; and the tall, graceful liner fell plop on its side. It "lay there, a huge black ruin --- / more than a thousand feet long."

§   §   §

With poets, we always have to ask if they are prosaic poetasters or artists of poetic prosody. My first reading of Slavitt left me undecided. One of the most charming poems, having to do with a "Dancing Bear," could, possibly, be read like this (I eliminated all the end-stops):

    Barefoot on the hot beach sand, you try not to step too heavily in pain you hop, shifting your weight. An innocent eye might suppose you were dancing to some strain that only you could hear. And this is the way the Russians teach bears to dance, heating the floor...

But Slavitt chose to cut the lines differently, or, better, poetically:

    the animals are forced to hop so they
    can minimize the pain. Pity the poor

    cubs of course, but also their trainer who
    is playing the concertina near the bears.
    Pavlov's trick with his dogs was related to
    this practice: the concertina scares

    the animals always into a gait that can pass
    for dancing and even joy. And crowds approve.
    The trainer probably loves his bears but he has
    a hot floor under him too that makes him move

    in the ways he does. He cannot disobey

I say it's a toss-up, whether it's prose or poetry, and maybe even academic (isn't this the stuff English teachers delight in showing off to their classes and peers at the Modern Language Association?)

Me? I like his stories, for like all good writers, he has to tell us a story, and in this case, the story has to be succinct, to-the-point, catch us throughout its run.

For instance, the story of Osip Mandelstam is sad; no, dismal. He was brave, a little foolish; perhaps overweening, so his story is ultimately tragic. Slavitt melts it down to a mere twenty lines, telling of Osip's poem about Stalin: said the comrade was "a mustached cockroach." Pasternak advised him "It's not literature, it is not poetry. It is suicide." (Our poet intervenes: "For this, he needed advice?")

It ends with Pasternak's words,

    Be careful what you write, but that's a given;
    be very careful about who reads what you've written;
    and learn not to trust too much in friends like me.

The poem says it all, is complete to itself. Slavitt manages to reach the many of us who grew up with him, who thought endlessly about Russia and Stalin and poetry and totalitarianism and Spinoza and the elders who "worried / that reason would run amok. Ethics without / God? And destruction not only of what they believed / but belief itself."

It is in these epistemological pickles (I can't believe that I just wrote that) that the author of Civil Wars shines: Mandelstam and Stalin; Spinoza and the rabbis; Ptolemy, the epicycle, and astronomy ... which contains a rib-tickling bit of solipsistic sophistry (I can't believe I wrote that one either) being the fragility of the belief-system that we think keep us going,

    That you can get up in the morning, get to work,
    get back ... These are all amazing achievements
    given that your basic assumptions are all
    arbitrary, conventional, probably wrong.

For, "you're dancing, walking on eggshells, walking on air."

§   §   §

This guy is an elegant neo-philosophical kind of poetical lapdog, but he can bring home the damndest bones.

Like my old friend tinnitus that began, alas, after I spent a noisy evening with Devo (of all the bands from thirty-five years ago). Tinnitus is, indeed, "there all the time,"

    It may be, but when I'm asleep, I can't hear it. So it is only there if I am conscious.

    A high hiss, the kind of noise a stream radiator used to make. It is the sound my brain perceives, and the brains believes in itself --- as how can it not? It is then the sound of my brain.

    A steam-operated brain? Why not? But it could as easily be a sound that the body makes --- of blood passing though the tiny vessels. It is not unlike the sound of water running constantly in the next room...

Now you should get what I was talking about at the beginning. Is this poetry or prose? Or who cares? John Cage knew the answer, which he stuck in his first book, Silence. He was in one of those infinitely quiet rooms that the tech people came up with, at AT&T or IBM. Cage noticed that in that complete silence there was still noise in this ears (or his brain). An engineer explained that the low-pitched noise was his blood-pressure; the high one, his nervous system.

§   §   §

Civil Wars is good stuff, can even be captious. This on treating tinnitus,

    There are cures but they are experimental and involve, some of them, shock therapy. Life is shock therapy enough. Better than such drastic measures, I could simply persuade myself that this is a good thing. After awhile, the tinnitus can seem to be the noise that time makes. There is no time except the interval between events, which requires consciousness to notice.

The intervals. Buddhists tell us that enlightenment doesn't come thorough observing the thoughts paddling about in our minds, but rather, by observing, and observing carefully, the space between thoughts.

And, yes, the poet advises us that "Life is shock therapy enough."

Slavitt is an artist, equally comfortable in telling of ancient wars, translating ancient poets, giving us his take on Tisiphone (one of the furies; he may be smitten with her, as we all may be, because of the lovely sound of her lovely name, ti-SIH-fo-knee). Slavitt can also be a bit of a punster. For instance, with the poem titled "Salida de Emergencia" which, for the Spanish-language impaired, might be read as "Emergency Salad." (It really means "Emergency Exit.")

He can even go on, merrily, about his deadbeat cousin, always wanting money for his inventions, ones which would make us all rich, going on trying to hustle up money, and no one believed him anymore, thinking him just another leech, until "having at last thought up / something that really could work?"

    The revolving door / is, when it's open, closed, and closed when it's open.
--- Lolita Lark
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