There are certain poems, narrative poems in the main, that contain so much of life in them you wonder whether they might not have a secret compartment somewhere hidden about them, where the poet has snuck in a whole lot of meaning.  Poems like expandable travel bags. Or pocket universes.

This week we read two such poems and it was like five-star dining.

Christopher Buckley’s A Little About Not Knowing Very Much is a super-refined piece of writing, whittled and honed to a state of near perfection. It segues back and forth between confessional verse, where we learn about the poet’s life –  childhood fears,  grown-up disillusions – and cosmic speculation: ‘What are the odds there is someone behind the cosmic curtain, who can read our thoughts…?’

At five, Buckley was afraid of taking a nap, fearing there was ‘nothing on the other side of sleep.’ He was born with this primal fear, he says, and he pictures his boyhood self, vulnerable, doubting, hanging upside down from the avocado trees in his Californian backyard, watching coastal clouds ‘strung out like a Sumerian alphabet’, and a darting crow, ‘a riddle of pitch and feathers against the blue’ squawking into the breeze.

For the next 20 years he was a ‘polished page of longing,’ keeping the faith with resolution and reward. But he kept drawing blanks. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. But then, nothing out of the ordinary ever happens: we just keep circling back on ourselves with improved tools, thinking we are going somewhere, trying to read the runes – ‘the fine print about flesh and bones’ – in the stars above.  What perspective is there, asks Buckley, beyond the vanishing point of the earth.

Buckley is a thoroughly modern poet, imagining TV and radio waves carrying Howdy Doody and Flash Gordon out over the cosmic waves, announcing our presence to the universe, while we hold our breath here on earth as SETI checks 100 million channels for signs of life elsewhere. With a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, he says it hardly matters that the NBC News takes 60 years to get to Alpha Centauri, when you consider our stealth bombers are little different from those in the ‘40s, and the boys on all sides are still being blown to bits.

No wonder Diogenes made his home among the homeless in the streets of Athens, holding all human achievement in contempt and making a cult of poverty.

‘What’s coming next is anyone’s guess’, says Buckley, outside of what we know about the reliable collapse of our cells. Yet there’s comfort in knowing that you don’t know — a comfort that allows you to gaze at the stars with a glass of pinot in your hand, offering a salute to the atoms, ‘whirling with their undisclosed purpose towards the dark’.

The reading group was divided about this poem. Some people found it bleak (even the cats and birds understand more than we seem to about the way things are), others hopeful (we know what we know, even if it amounts to very little). I fell to neither side, content to enjoy a cynical poem by an uncynical soul.

The second narrative poem we devoured was The Worm by the Chilean poet, revolutionary, and sometime vagabond, Roberto Bolaño – an altogether darker affair; insistent, repetitive, unforgiving, like a fairytale from hell.

‘I saw him with my own eyes’, goes one of the poem’s refrains; a gun-toting man in a straw hat, gesturing into the sunset. He smokes unfiltered Delicados, has a Bali between his lips, and he travels with vendors and drunks through the border towns of north Mexico, ‘dragging his desperation.’ Sometimes he shouts promises through streets lined with low-slung adobes. Sometimes he mumbles to himself about an old village, up near the border with the United states:

‘a place that still existed,
only forty houses,
two cantinas,
and a grocery store,
a town of vigilantes and assassins
like him himself,
adobe houses and cement patios,
where one’s eyes were forever hitched
to the horizon
(that flesh-colored horizon
like a dying man’s back).

 

Mostly, he wanders lost, ‘evicted from the mind’ a stranger to himself and beneath the notice of others. This is true hopelessness, I think.

It’s no accident that Bolaño set his bitter portrait of this petty criminal dressed in rags, this worm, in the shapeless border towns between one place and another. The borderlands are neither here nor there, neither this nor that. They are a no-man’s-land, patrolled by vigilantes and assassins, where the soil is ‘watered with blood and the mendacious words of the frontier’ and the horizon offers only wind and dust, ‘a minimal dream’.

The borderlands are where man is naked, his flaws all on show. And he is ugly.

For Bolaño, as for his near-contemporary Charles Bukowski, poet of the down and outs, lyricist to the hobos, it is poetry that promises salvation. In fighting spirit, the poem’s narrator tells the worm :

‘get out of my tracks, you prick,
poetry is braver than anyone,
the soils watered with blood can suck my dick,
The evicted Mind hardly rattles my senses.

 

Poetry, Bolaño  suggests, is the better part of humanity. The thing that keeps us sane when we search the borderlands of our shady identities.

Again the group was divided. The Worm, we agreed, was a scary poem. You need to be brave to take its darkness in. And yet, it is just a poem. It is just Roberto Bolaño messing with our heads, conjuring a fearful tale out of the blood and dust of the Mexican experience.

It is a world apart from Christopher Buckley with his glass of pinot, content to know what he doesn’t know.

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