Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Question and its Question - Reading Frank Gaspar

Am I stalling? Yes. I'm trying to polish a reading commentary on one of my favorite poems in Frank Gaspar's collection, Night of a Thousand Blossoms. What I want to write about is not what is contained here, and what is contained here is not polished. So, if you don't care about poetry and you don't want to read crappy prose, I'd suggest reading Garfield or something. ( Click on archive. Yes, I like reading Garfield.) But I digress.

The Question and its Question.

While reading this book I inexplicably came across two opposing points of view: 1. I was reading the same poem over and over. 2. Every poem had its own sense of wonder, space, place. Richard Hugo says a poet must take ownership of a few words he or she loves to use, and not be afraid to use them. Gaspar takes ownership of scenes. We find his narrator--who I interpreted to be the poet himself--wakeful when the house, even the city itself seems to be sleeping, with a cup or wine glass at hand and some text which has sparked his longing and imaginings. Nearly every poem ends with that longing, and it is realized throughout the poem, but the poems themselves come so close to revelation that, as I was reading them aloud, I felt the answer to his question was in my mouth, I felt like I could have blurted it out if there had only been a few more words on the page to take me a little bit closer. Such is the mystique of the poem, I suppose, but I almost felt cheated with so many poems ending by asking the same questions about emptiness and purpose.

The narrator poet's search for something is obvious throughout, and accompanied by both searching and holy texts and ideas--the Bible, the words given to Mohammed, the Dharma, Paradise Lost, Dante's inferno--none of these give him any answers. The poem I felt was closest to asking the question most eloquently was 'One Thousand Blossoms', where we are given a fullness and emptiness from the meeting of nature, the fog from the Pacific, and the city itself.

Then it is jasmine in the night, night of a thousand blossoms,
and my wife in one room breathing and my son in one room
breathing, and me in one room breathing. It's how loving this
place comes, slowly, then suddenly with great surprise, and then
vanishing again into mystery...  (5)

We are bound to this world and our lives, and separated from that which would help us make sense of it all. We are rich and poor, vital and immaterial in the grandest view of the world. So what, then, are we left with?

We are left with 'The Persimmon Bough', a beautiful rumination on perception, where Gaspar's narrator poet says "I admit it--I love / my earth in this fashion. Everything I need is at hand" (48). Everything: the garden, a dog howling, the moon, the light, the darkness, all contained and released again by "the little black-bound notebook, eating its words". They become poems, and from poems to a book, like all the books he's been struggling through for enlightenment. This poem joins and separates the city and the natural, the natural and the poet, just as 'One Thousand Blossoms' does, but here, at last, the poet can feel it and hold it. He can join everything together in his black notebook and determine how it fits and how it is askew. "The persimmon tree, for instance. It was never weeping.  It was just leaning its lovely limb over the cinder block wall, it was / just letting its fruit down low. If God was saying something, we all / missed it".

I don't believe him. I believe he knows God was saying something and has been all along. It's those words in my mouth that vanish just before the long, pondering sentences and breathless rhythms can tear it out of me. It's the answer to each poem's question that hangs there in the white space. Those persimmons on the neighbor's side of the fence, the green fruit tumbling across the lawn in 'I Invite the Angel Gabriel, but Only the Wind Comes'. It is the mystery in this life that every one of us comes back to. That breathlessness that comes from being on the verge of something we cannot grasp, like Dean and Sal in On The Road who, listening to jazz, suddenly exclaim "That's it!" and then 'it' is gone. I could say it's something Gaspar's mind isn't asking the right questions to, but there are at least forty different questions he has asked. I think the actual question is whether it is something we can even understand.

There is one more poem in which he does not ask, and manages for a few moments to find that nearly unachievable 'it'. In 'Green', toward the end of the poem, when he gives up almost everything--breath, the upper world, a human focus, a city focus, a focus on the unachievable, and allows himself to be suspended in a foreign world with foreign creatures (sea turtles), which may be unsafe. "Maybe / they were amused. Maybe they wanted to kill me" (62). It invokes the angel he, like Rilke, wants and does not want to appear. These creatures which cannot be understood and are not limited by our world, what we are second to when we are in their element, that we must sacrifice to be beside, they make us understand. And forget. "when you / understand that you are in your home and need never leave, / you'd better look up. Then you see how far that old world is / and how much work you have to do". This is the other moment. When he moves so close to what he is pursuing that he forgets how far away he must go in order to pursue it. Like meditation, like prayer, pilgrimage, or retreat. The question is, can you go back, and can you carry all of that knowledge with you?

Gaspar, Frank. Night of a Thousand Blossoms. Farmington: Alice James Books, 2004. Print.

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