CHARM AND TROUBLE: ON SIMON PETTET’S HEARTH
Arriving in New York City from England in the late nineteen seventies, Simon Pettet has been for many years now a leading figure in the city’s poetic world. He shares the quickness and wit we associate with the New York School poets, an association strengthened by his early collaborations with Rudy Burckhardt and by his edition of James Schuyler’s Art Writings, (Black Sparrow, 1999) and most recently a volume of uncollected poems, Other Flowers. Pettet’s own poems share with Schuyler an aesthetic of sensual immediacy, coupled with a commitment to the obdurate particularities that communicate a sensibility, one often most fully revealed, as if in a nod to O’Hara’s Personism, in outlandish or precarious situations:
I wear my best pressed suit I
sure look cute I
take a walk
more like a trot
to Central Park, talk
to junkies it gets dark, fair
distance back to 12th Street
but I make it!
In his famous manifesto, O’Hara heroically exerts himself to outrun muggers. By contrast in Pettet the threat is less overt, in the fair distance, not amid the junkies where one might expect it. In fact, the speaker seems almost privileged to move among them. The questions raised and avoided here -- why does he put on a suit, why does he trot, what is he talking to those junkies about, why is he scared of the dark? is there a bit of a boast in the last line? are we to read“make it” in the light of his looking cute? has all this been a kind of tempting of fate? -- work paradoxically toward creating an utterly believable speaker, about whom irresolvable doubts linger. Is the speaker oblivious or cunning? We should never allow the apparent naïveté ofa particular speaker in Hearth to mislead us.1 Pettet’s is a poetry of immense sophistication, extraordinary in its manipulations of tone, and dedicated, ultimately, to a kind of charm by which one can, almost witlessly, it might seem, avoid trouble. This speaker may in the end be expert in reading social codes, as if each line might represent an astute calculations that will assure his safe return from the park.
Pettet’s poetry has a wit and urbanity second to no contemporary. But what might seem like a personal, conversational charm never operates simply on its own, as it might in a New York School poet, whatever the generation. Pettet’s personal charm is deeply enmeshed in a second, even more pervasive sense of charm, one that is ancient and overtly magical. His lightness of touch, his tact, is always a part of an explicit magic, it even effects the form of the poems, which often have something of a spell about them, as if each syllable were an aura of force created by a gifted speaker, in which at times traumatic material can come to the fore. So too is his quickness. Pettet’s poetic “moves” are so fast they can be hard to see. The poet is, in fact, doubly mercurial: first, in the lightning quick way the thought and moods of his poems shift and roll and split; and, second, in the spirit of music, invention, and subtlety, where the mercury is also Hermes, a god no more visible to us than is Bruce Lee to a camera man:
Bruce Lee he run so quick
Camera too slow for him
He blur the dailies
They have to ask him “run slow please”
So the camera can catch him
Or be just like normal.
Just as it always was with you,
little lightning rod.
slow down, why don’t you? (p. 169)
Pettet relishes the ephemeral, the passing chance, the unanticipated encounter, because he finds in them, paradoxically enough, the deep patterns that shape our creaturely and cultural life, patterns so deeply woven into the grain of Pettet’s perception and expression, so flagrantly, in fact, that one might not notice them, distracted by the poet’s allusiveness and candor. Pettet has no interest in the hieratic apparatus of such a post modernists magi as Robert Duncan, but the immense achievement of his collected poems, Hearth cannot be fully discerned without a recognition that magical thought shapes the most apparently casual of his utterances. No syllable of this highly worked and beautifully contoured book does not stand in relation to invisible forces that guide, protect, and sustain us, that reach us like a stray song heard on the way to work, a song that enters and mingles with the consciousness of the speaker until it becomes a meditation on the transforming power of all song. Note, in the following, the explicit relation of poetry, charm and personal distress. The latter, while seldom ruling the tone or content of any particular poem, is always present. The poet here, covertly addressing Blake, prays that poetry will not desert him. Moreover, while it is typical of Pettet to deflect the readers attention from his larger claims -- in this instance playfully evoking a mystical conundrum -- he nonetheless teases us with possibility that Blakean song is a kind of knowledge, just as elsewhere, repeatedly throughout his work, he poses the question of poetry’s capacity to be the medium of gnosis:
One day at a time I am granted for gratis
A recital in sweet accapella by an Irish janitor
On Ninth Street Path Station
Falltime this morning
As I pack my Blake and make my way to work
Grant me such mastery of it the song sung and naturally
As he had it Ah Sunflower!
Grant me such expression that
I am so charming even when troubled
And -- Ah unknowing (or all knowing)! (p. 82)
Though a Romantic afterglow surrounds the title of this book – isn’t hearth, we try to recall, thinking now of Rilke, along with house, bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, one of the words we are sent here to say? Pettet might well dismiss this, might counter that, after all, in a New York apartment the hearth is likely to be bricked in and painted over. But the word hearth does contain, as Tom Raworth points out on the back cover, earth and heart. And, so alerted, we see for ourselves: art. And further, the conclusion might arise that for the poet home is a place where the natural, the psychological, and the formal converge, and then we see the gesture of droll didacticism placed on the title page, the most ancient of alchemical symbols, the oroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail. A hearth may be a rustic or urban communal flame signifying a well ordered domestic life, but for Pettet a hearth is also an alembic, a space of transformations, as portable as a book but requiring certain conditions, conditions such as the above lines dramatize, with their careful mingling of time frames, of intention and chance, of the two orders of song, Blake’s and the janitor’s. A hearth is a made and guarded place, related to the raw elements but separate from them. Cued to alchemical concerns one observes how often Pettet pursues a principal of balance, at work in both the world and in poetry. A snake sheds its skin, the new is born from the old, the eternal from the temporal. Pettet implies and enlivens such rebirth simply by concentrating on skin itself, that medium of sensation and boundary of inner and outer.
I had obeyed the sun
I would’ve been permitted to shed my skin
without such trials (no sweat!)
and to have naturally stayed smooth forever
Pettet’s metaphysically inflected I do this, I do that, suggests there is a universal law to be grasped, to be lived with, and that, when fully felt, will permit a delimited but real act of renewal. In this poem, and throughout his work, Pettet develops a vision of health than is both spiritual and physical, that requires an ability to render our condition with clarity, and to assert at various times both immateriality and immediate presence. Thus the “trouble”that, as we have seen, can be a number of things, the precariousness of social conditions – mingling with junkies – the alienated psyche in the modern workaday world – redeemed by a chance song -- touches the entire world of embodiment. Mental and physical afflictions are never far off. The poet as a matter of survival must be continually working his charm, turning distress into something other. In this instance the enumerations of remembered pleasures is weighted against the promise of renewal:
since I have supped on sugar and aniseed,
and licorice and sherbet,
I am forbidden to stand naked in consequence. (p. 132)
This commitment to winning balance in a precarious world, to the integrity body as the chief medium for the knowing of such balance, takes an ingenious turn in his collection More Winnowed Fragments,a book which by the characteristic perversity of Pettet’s logic calls attention to its larger ambitions by its apparent denigration of such ambitions. More Winnowed Fragments is a powerful, artfully executed, single poem on the theme of metempsychosis, of spirits passing into new bodies. In this work we see the deep development that has taken place in Pettet’s writing over thirty years, a development concealed by the high accomplishment of the early work, -- no apprentice poems here! -- and by the deep consistency of the poet’s idiom through all his volumes. What has evolved is not so much style as thematic complexity, the ever-intensifying nuance with which one ostensibly discrete poem is set beside another. Pettet is a master of poetic sequencing. To turn his pages is to see a mind turning over and around its object of thought. In More Winnowed Fragments, the poet gives us a myth of how the world now is, and how we are when we are in it:
Those angels which do not know their father
out of jealousy detain their mother in captivity
confused for centuries, she passes from one female body
into another female body into another female body (p. 119)
To presume that all renditions of gender in the suite are governed by this tale would be too crude, certainly for a Pettet poem, but these lines do clearly establish an authorizing myth for the matter of who men and women fundamentally are. Along with this gendering of the theme of metempsychosis, the poet provides a number of variations on the theme of embodiment, including two poems with two stanzas each, where the stanzas are identical, save for the pronoun. Does the myth apply to the situation the poem describes or not? To answer this question we are required to consider the feminine pronoun as a continually reincarnating figure, while the male figure is not, and ask ourselves just what the implications of such a belief would be in our perception of the social world. And so the fundamental question upon which logic and social justice and metaphor rest, the matter of equivalence, touches everything. Are the repeated stanzas really the same? Is the experience of reading the repeated stanza the same? Is the world described by the poem in which the he and the she occur in identical situations the same? The myth alerts us to the history of gender relations but refrains from providing its own history. The cosmos we are in is not identified. What angels have mothers? How is it that angels do not know their father? Are we in Blake, the Bible? The Talmud? The Koran? Kafka? A science fiction novel? What is the nature of this angelic jealousy? And what is the nature of this exile of, -- is it the bride of God in the world? These questions hover around each appearance of the feminine pronoun, and to the extent that the angels are male –but can we even presume this?—around the masculine pronoun as well. In an extraordinary bit of interactive poetics, hearing or reading two poems exactly the same save for the gender of the pronoun, we must ask ourselves what difference we experience, and what is the origin of that difference. Pettet is quite canny in choosing the predicament in which the he and she find themselves. In the following, the poet bequeaths his two characters an existential plight. One imagines the entire poem
as a brief Beckett play, the curtain raises and falls on a woman, and then on a man:
Firstly, she starts to mutter and twitch
Secondly, her hair falls out (widow’s peak,
bald patches). Third, her once pristine togs
become grimy (regrettably soiled), fourth
she“gives forth foul odours,”
Fifth, finally, in rueful old age, she realizes
she can never again capture what she once had
“With that reckless indifference to the world,”
she gives up. She curls up under the stars,
she imagines the vast terrible outside void
and her heart’s pit-a-pat.
Firstly, he starts to mutter and twitch
Secondly, his hair falls out (widow’s peak,
bald patches). Third, his once pristine togs
become grimy (regrettably soiled), fourth
he“gives forth foul odours,”
Fifth, finally, in rueful old age, he realizes
he can never again capture what he once had
“With that reckless indifference to the world,”
he gives up. He curls up under the stars,
he imagines the vast terrible outside void
and his heart’s pit-a-pat. (p.117)
The issues raised by the contrast of differently gendered bodies in the precisely same array is complicated by the poet’s emphasis on abjection (the second poem that follows this procedure places the central figure within a narrative of exaltation, a poet approached on the street by an admirer, and so equally on the threshold of another existence.) The two are powerfully alike in their diminished existence. Pettet loves the brink in all its manifold guises, as much for the perspective it provides as for the adrenaline it releases. Here the reader is challenged to assume an uncritical equivalence between the two figures: We all die, we’re all the same, a reader might conclude, and not be wrong. But still, one remains troubled by certain details: is baldness quite the same experience for women as for men? Are “foul ordours”’ read exactly the same way in regard to the derelict hygiene of each speaker? And more subtly, how do we read the quoted phrase, with all the aura of literary history and authority that such quotation and such a summary tone within the quotation, brings to bear on the abject male body, on the abject female body?
Each of the five volumes gathered in Hearth can be seen as a stage in the pursuit of an intense and ineradicable form of knowledge, of what our essential condition is, of what could be understood as gnosis. Like any proper work of modern exile the first book, Lyrical Poetry, asks what survives of an abandoned homeland, an England that is a precinct of pain perception and grace, where we see consciousness awakening to its conditions. The second book, the metaphysically charged 21 Love Poems, etch out in vivid flashes the quandaries of Eros. Here desire both deepens the bonds of the awakened sensibility to its environs, and as the principal divinity in Pettet’s cosmos, holds forth the promise of feeling at home in the flesh, but also of threatening to permit no home, no hearth. (The books last poem argues that protection from the elements, from the winds of the unmediated erotic drives, is part of the purpose of art.)The third book, Abundant Treasures grows explicit, or as explicit as so elusive a temperament can permit, in its allegiance to the theme of the quest and the inextricable bonds of poetic and magical practice.
Relying solely on divine providence
Is not an expensive dance
Since what’s expended
In the ancient law of drama
And ameliorates (as best it can)
Tries to help
Like Rabindranath Tagore
Like Shirley MacLaine
The lazy dog
jumps over the wire fence. (p. 98)
The most recent full collection, Feast or Famine (which expands upon a chapbook of the same title published by Longhouse in 2008) relentlessly pursues the elaboration of inner states of emptiness and fulfillment. These poems seem joyfully at ease in their command of thinking and feeling, their mingling of happenstance and logic. The ars poetica with which Feast or Famine opens would seem to dismiss out of hand the possibility that a poem might arrive in a burst of inspiration. It’s argument is in flagrant contrast, as readers of Pettet will recognize, to the story the other poems so often themselves relate of the near miraculous intrusions of imagination into daily life. But we should not be surprised if paradox is, for Pettet, the most potent form of magic. It creates a world of contrasting forces held in balance by the artfulness of utterance, forces which respond to the utterance, protecting and enlivening the speaker. Given Pettet’s formidable satiric gifts, one might be reluctant to approach a poem so boldly flagged for attention as “My Methodology. ” But neither can the competing suspicion, that the poem is disarmingly straightforward, be readily quelled, since the method the speaker describes is by no means at odds with what the volume seems to document as Pettet’s procedure. Poetry, in “My Methodology” is presented as the outcome not just of gathering and selecting, but of a process of purification, of the seeking out of essences in the flux of the world. Not spontaneity but deliberation is prized, however improvisational his speakers might in other places sound:
I accrue hordes
It is a thankless task
Though not without
Occult comfort (p. 105)
The speaker here seems to spring full-born from the contradiction of appetite and asceticism; what else should he do but accrue and winnow? He performs this task on behalf of others, (who should perhaps be a bit more grateful!) The fourth line borders on petulance or complaint, and in doing so adds just a touch of characterization, reminding us that Pettet’s speakers are never just a voice in someone’s head, they are always in the world. The imaginative integrity of the speaker established, the poet in the last two lines qualifies the task. He dandles the word “occult” before us. Almost insolent, he dares us to see in it anything less than it means. “My Methodology” presents the poetic act as a highly ritualized practice, one leading to hidden riches, perhaps even the gold of spiritual insight, however much the wryness of the phrase “occult comfort”might want to mislead us into ironic whimsy. But it is the run of sounds through the lines that ultimately point to how it is a poetics he is telling us about, the luxurious modulation of vowel sounds, the way the poem revels in the hard c of “accrue,” then keeps us away from the satisfaction of hearing that hard c again until the last line. I imagine a deeply dialectical process in Pettet’s winnowing. His poems seem always about to conjure up a second self, not so much a creature of belief, but a skeptic, a contesting self that would love to put scare quotes around every other phrase, a self who is the satirist of what the poet would like to believe, a kind of adversary who must be charmed or distracted, who in some sense assures the brevity of the poem, since the poet can only win in his struggle with this adversary by bringing the poem to a close before the poetic impulse can be subjected to scorn or rebuke or gentle chiding. An early poem illuminates the existential anxieties that underlie the magic, hints at the trouble that creates the charm.
MY FOURTH MOORISH DISASTER
Taken from Pliny. Pliny: Can I have my hat back?
Robert Senior: The younger or the elder? Pliny: No.
Robert Senior: Is that then there your last word, Pliny?
Pliny: Probably. Robert Senior: Well I suppose you think
That’s very funny. Pliny (to audience): As a matter of fact
I do. (p. 18)
This bit of exuberant stagecraft, a perfect Futurist farce, is a conjuring of some complexity. Let’s save for some later scholar the matter of what the first three Moorish disasters might have been, and simply note how the delight of the poem derives from its rapid shifts in tone, from the high precincts of classical erudition to vaudeville (“Can I have my hat back?”) and that is just the first line. But the ultimate effect of the poem is the result of a straightforward contest for authority. There is a dream logic at work, with an interrogation at the poem’s center, an anxiety around the “last word” and the marvelous recontextualizing of the conflict that comes when the speaker triumphs, charming his way out of trouble by turning directly to the audience. The evocation of stagecraft and theatrical arts calls to mind just how often we encounter characters of all sorts in Pettet’s poetry. They spring effortlessly from his deft lines; a few strokes of the pen and a conjuration occurs, though this poet would never be so tedious as to go on in some footnote about, say, the shamanic origins of ritual theater. Pettet’s career long investigation of magical thought has not turned him from the world, but has fostered in him a notable empathy. He has a gift for seeing others who are caught, far less gracefully than the poet, between despair and joy, luck and chance, lucidity and obliquity, mania and inspiration. Hearth exhibits, as one of its darker ironies, an acute sensitivity to the mental sufferings of others, to those without a hearth, those so profoundly not at home in the world. Pettet nods toward the ancient sense of madness as divine affliction, and toward the modern association of madness with the sources of creativity, but humanely and directly, he honors the presence of those who are themselves not all there. In such portraits as Many More and Auld Reeky, and in the other unnamed, unstable sufferers evoked in Hearth, we see an ethos of compassion at work in the poetics. Cameos of affliction depict what the spells of poetry must work against, or rather on whose behalf the spells of poetry must work. Madness is failed magic. Some of the most powerful poems in Hearth occur on the social and psychological edge. One truly visionary moment (certainly Blake was looking on!) comes from an encounter with a street person. Whenever I read this poem I imagine one of those many patients dumped on the street during the Giuliani administration. Like John Weiners and late Ginsberg, Pettet understands the lived conditions of tenderness. He has mastered the Blakean act of placing another before oneself, but added his own trist: dealing with that sublime other once he or she is there:
Both estrangement and empathy are at work
mad lady on the steps asks if my father’s on the street
I tell her No, he’s in the air.
She doesn’t understand and persists
casually pursing her lips.
The cruelty she manifests,
an absent-mindedness, has its origin
We walk away (from her)
beating of despairing wings (p. 51)
A remarkable psychological and social world is drawn here with swiftness, sureness and delicacy. The vertical and horizontal axes of steps and street are announced coincident with the perception of “trouble,” in this instance madness or psychiatric instability. An extraordinary unfolding of disparate realms of experience occurs in the opening dialogue. Does “on the street” mean in this instance homeless, and what does the mad lady see in the speaker that would lead her to such a surmise? And the speaker responds, shifting the terms of the exchange, saying that his father is, what, dead? Is a spirit? Were we closer to the prosodic and ideological world of the hymn the resonance of an old time Christian meaning might ring true: my father is God, who is the father of all, and he lives in heaven, which we will call for the purpose of convenience, the air. The poet has quickly divided the world into the seen and the unseen, the psychological and the spiritual. We feel compassion for the lady who after all performs the traditional function of an initiatic figure. She’s a bi-polar Beatrice, distanced from us by the diagnostic tone of the third stanza. (One does have to steer clear of crazy people. One of the first lessons one learns living in New York.) And yet just as the poem comes to rest, backing away from the instigating figure, a physically retreating from a crazy person and from the meanings her question opens up, just as she is in effect institutionalized by interpretation of her condition given in the third stanza, the perspective of the air asserts itself. Those wings. Of what are they despairing? Are they the wings of Baudelaire’s madness passing overhead? Is this the despair of angels, who see some further level of understanding denied by the speaker, and his companion, the antithesis of the madwoman on the street, urging, one can plausibly presume, retreat and avoidance. And there is that closing despair. Is it the despair of the father, exiled to the air, who longs for a communion with his son? Or are the speaker and his company themselves the angels, who have failed to bring revelation – (note the confidence of the speaker’s response to her question, and the curious observation that she does not understand.) Whose is the voice of true revelation in this exchange? Could it be the speaker’s? Does he possibly not understand, that his father is not in the air, that his father is, even if dead, on the street, on, that is, the plane of the human rather than the suprahuman? This is a poem impressive in its troubles, troubles that the quickest moves of the poet cannot evade. This poem admits the darker sense of charm, and shows the poet quite willing to work his poetic logic against the grain of much of his work. Though the lines do effortlessly and efficiently perform their ritual task, opening up a corner of the universe most often hidden, the charm does not protect us from trouble, but becomes an aspect of it, the summoning of “despairing wings.”
Once, Simon Pettet’s poetry might have passed for an evanescent art of impromptus and asides. But with Hearth, (a beautifully produced volume, it should be noted,) we can see the depth of thought that underlies the quickness and the wit, and the matchless craft that creates the aura of effortlessness. Hearthaffords us rich and moving passage through the seasons of life and of writing, each poem reexamining what poetry can and cannot do, each poem redefining, testing, chastening and amplifying its powers in pursuit of what can be known only through the medium of words. Each volume included in Hearth, each fully felt and musically supple suite, asks: what are the ultimate reaches of poetry’s charm, how, in a securely secular age, are we to understand the persistence and authority of magical thought, and what is the depth of human trouble that the spell of poetry can redress? As if in answer to such conundrums of modernity Pettet reinvigorates a range of ancient traditions. He evokes the highest ambitions of lyric utterance while seeming to be wary, even disdainful of them, because he simply cannot rest until he locates to his own satisfaction the exact point where art can become the truest means of participating in life. Hearth testifies to the transformative power of song, to the joyful perception of balance, and to the supreme delight of always setting things, at the last moment, just a bit askew.
1. Simon Pettet, Hearth (Greenfield, Ma: Talisman House, Publishers, 2008)