Friday, February 10, 2006

A Certain Kind of New Yorker Poem


I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can't get along.

I lived between my left arm, which is swift
and sinister, and my right, which is righteous.

I lived between a laugh and a scowl,
and voted against myself, a two party system.

My left leg dawdled or danced along,
my right cleaved to the straight and narrow.

My left shoulder was like a stripper on vacation,
my right stood upright as a Roman soldier.

Let's just say that my left side was the organ
donor and leave my private parts alone,

but as for my eyes, which are two shades
of brown, well, Dionysus meet Apollo.

Look at Eve raising her left eyebrow
while Adam puts his right foot down.

No one expected it to survive,
but divorce seemed out of the question.

I suppose my left hand and my right hand
will be clasped over my chest in the coffin

and I'll be reconciled at last,
I'll be whole again.

-- Edward Hirsch
New Yorker Magazine

A friend of mine who gets regular hold of the the New Yorker transcribed and emailed this poem to me the other day. I enjoyed it. It made me think -- why didn't I think of that? It's one of those poems I would have liked to have written. And yet... and yet.

On one level the poem is so apt, and yet the rhetoric of contraries so conventional, and so complacent in its conventionality, that the whole thing becomes an exercise in figures and the reality of having a right arm and left arm, or even of being a bundle of contradictions, is somehow nearly lost, eclipsed in the play of illusion.

By the time we get to

My left shoulder was like a stripper on vacation,
my right stood upright as a Roman soldier.


Let's just say that my left side was the organ
donor and leave my private parts alone,

the whole picture becomes so grotesquely ridiculous I start to feel like putting the poem down. But then poem splendidly resolves itself into this grave, almost midaeval image of the body lying in state, hands crossed, made "whole again". Somehow I even imagine the man with a crown or mitre on his head, or cross or sword over his body, and that the coffin is very narrow -- even though that's not there in the poem. The whole feeling though is so powerfully midaeval perhaps because of the ancient dualities that run through the body of the poem, leavened of course by jocular modernity.

Ingenious! Brilliant! one could say.

And yet... in its ingenuity, the whole exercise is deeply disingenuous, wouldn't you say? All very tongue in cheek. Worldly. Ironic. Not unlike The New Yorker itself. Self "portrait", indeed!

Like many a Billy Collins poem (and this is a Billy Collins-type poem), this is a one-shot deal. Read it a second or third time, and the balloon collapses, the wit goes stale. One sees the poem for the series of cheap tricks that it is. And yet, it wins me over enough to say ... yes, I would have liked to have written that. It's fun. Gravely, even profoundly fun. Delightful at points. In my playfulness, I've written things in a similar vein...and what's wrong with play, after all? And yet...

As a rather serious friend once put it, charm does not feed a hungry soul. Somehow, with this poem, we're all left hungry for more. For the uncharming, real food. (Such as will practically never appear in the New Yorker, by the way.)


Pris said...

Hi Brian
I had a similar feeling. Clever, yes, but it didn't draw me in or leave me wanting to read it before bedtime this night. Glad you posted it. It fascinates me what makes it to the big magazines.

Brian Campbell said...

It's not exactly a random process here. Edward Hirsch is a "big name" who has published several volumes with Albert Knopf, had essays printed in the New Yorker before, and written a surprise best-seller about the appreciation of poetry. I just learned all about him through an extensive entry in Wikipedia.

Pris said...

I wasn't familiar with him but assumed he had the credentials,ie that those were a big part of the selection process. If it had been my name on the poem, or yours, would it have received a second glance??

Brian Campbell said...

The Campbells are not exactly coming ... soon to the New Yorker. Maybe I should sign my poems Ed Hirsch. After all, what's a little byline? It's the POEM that's the thing...