|Issue Three - Guest Editor Jordan Smith|
It Sounded Like Something of Yours
I probably wouldn’t have even started to watch Dreamer on pay-per-view if there weren’t people in the family who wanted to see the horses, and even so I was thinking about heading off to do something else, but there was Kris Kristofferson, looking just like you’d want him to, an older version of the guy who’d landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn just to point out how serious he was. I hadn’t thought about Kristofferson in a long time, but I spent a lot of the next day with “Sunday Morning Coming Down” rolling around in my head, and then I got on the internet to see what he’d been up to lately. There was a new set of songs, This Old Road, and the second one began:
The angels were playing a sad country song.
It sounded like something of yours…
I don’t know who he wrote that for, your guess is as good as mine, but I knew what he meant, because there are poets I feel that way about. I’ve known their work for a good while, and when I read them I recognize not only a sense of shared endeavor, but also the inflections, hesitations, insistences of their speech as mediated by their craft. It’s like spotting a friend in a crowd by the peculiarities of stance, partly intentional and partly given, shaped by the experiences and attitudes a body carries.
Here’s an example. John Spalding’s invitation to guest-edit this issue of Inertia arrived not long after I’d finished teaching Eleanor Lerman’s new book, Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. Even if I hadn’t liked her work for years, I’d have been tempted to use this book just because of the title, idiosyncratic in slant, collective in scope, wry and ironic in attitude. And the book was even better, as good as the one before it, the one I’d waited more than two decades for, since the day when a workshop teacher, by way of farewell, brought in to class a stack of books he liked and read from each. Lerman’s Armed Love was among them. I remembered the punch he gave to one of her last lines (“there are many things I need that no one gives me”}, and I haven’t stopped thinking since that this wasa poet I could listen to for a long time, one who’d talk with wit and determination about what the world is like.
Wit’s part of what I was after in looking for work for this issue, or at least the acknowledgment of a distance that wit is one way of implying. There should be a shimmer in a poem, an interference, a sort of moiré pattern created by the overlay of sensibility, experience, facility—hints, and revelations that are further hints. I’ve got my doubts about Whitman’s promise that candor makes all things forgivable, and it has been awhile since my choices in poetry had anything much to do with stylistic allegiance, with aesthetics in its polemical aspect, rather than as a symptom of some personal necessity. As different as, say, Terence Winch and Lynn Strongin and Ed Pavlic, Matthew Graham and John Drury seem, in tone, in choice of image, in the shape of the syntax, there is a shared sense of the importance of taking a hard look at things and a shared conviction, bordering on pleasure, of the capacity of language, however difficult its subject and ambiguous its loyalties, to represent, if not the world then at least (or at most, since what could be more to the point) the act, the moment of looking at it. Perhaps this is an argument for how fundamental a sense of the dramatic is to writers and readers of poetry, at least to poetry where the I and the eye work hand in hand. In reading Rector’s “Who’s In Charge of the Culture Now” as much as Baumel’s “Monumental Grief” or Peg Boyer’s “Lido” or Judith Hall’s “Lament” or David Rigsbee’s “Dissolve”—just to cite a range of poems whose sense of the subject’s subject differs—the reader must triangulate between what’s spoken, who speaks, how that speech strikes the ear. That sense of someone moving, with some difficulty and through a voice that can’t be simply attributed, toward a clarity that may be just a clarification of how difficult things are, is the essential context for the poetry I care about most. And not only poetry, of course. One of the special satisfactions of having edited this collection is the chance to introduce Harry Marten’s memoir of his mother’s struggle and decline, a contemporary story we’ve all heard, if not lived, made immediate here by a courteous, kind, and passionate witness, one whose sympathy elicits our own, which is what Whitman might have hoped we could do with what’s unspeakable as well as with what can be honestly said: make it into a song with a voice, an artifice so distinct a friend might hear it and say not just “it sounded like you,” but “it sounded like something of yours.”