Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Pissed Off by a Poem

Spittoono Lily

Copenhagen, Kodiak, Grizzly, Skoal—
Lily dipped them all, loved the brown shreds of leaf
as they swashed against her tongue, escapees
from the den of lip & gum,

and it was nearly as meaningful
when she was young, stealing pinches in the corner,
training the gut to handle reflux & burn
so she could get away

with it in Algebra One, where Mrs. Rowland
never taught nicotine or the brain's strange charity,
how multiplied they equal calm, focus,
and ill, being a rebel

at that straightjacket of a school. Later,
so she could find the freshest tin, Lily moved
to Nashville where the finest, Copenhagen,
is made. That moist softness

between index and thumb, feeling her face
purse like old fruit in hot sun, nearly rivals sex, Lily said
on our last date, and, anyway, she clipped, since
everyone knows life's

hazardous to health, isn't addiction
synonymous with love. Lily's drained gallons
of saliva since that contest in Clemson—
Spittoono, they called it

(she won)—but if she gets to its cousin
in Charleston, I hope she doesn't spit any more
gently or discreetly, but enjoys the motions
of dancers as that other dance

tunes the dark orchestras of her blood.

I love chewing snoose. If the Deke didn't object and if chewing snoose were not offensive to so many others, I would chew it every day. This poem works best when it deals with the pleasure of chewing tobacco. I love the opening: the brand names, the love for all-comers Lily has for chewing tobacco. I love the portrayal of Lily stealing snoose chews in Algebra, the way Moeckel has Lily move to Nashville where the snooze is freshest; I love how, for Lily, snoose rivals sex. All of this rings true and is unadorned. The truth of the beauty and pleasure of chewing snoose is alive in this poem.

I love that the poem has Lily chew competitively and that the contests are in places whose names are rife with South Carolina history: Clemson and Charleston. These elements of the poem work perfectly. Had he only left it at that.

But, no. Chewing tobacco isn't quite enough. The tobacco leafs have to be "escapees" (thud) and when she chews in Algebra class, Moeckel has to torture this image and impose meaning on the math teacher and the class. Couldn't we have done without: "Mrs. Rowland/never taught nicotine or the brain's strange charity"? I'm trying to think what algebra teacher would teach nicotine. What does that mean? And where did "brain's strange charity" come from?It's almost like this phrase was planted in the poem to give Intro. to Poetry students something to puzzle over along with "multiplied they equal calm, focus,/and ill ... " We know the school is a straightjacket. Otherwise Lily wouldn't have to sneak her chew. And why this high sounding, but vapid "brain's strange charity" stuff? It's the kind of phrase that sounds like it belongs in a poem, which is exactly why it should not be in a poem. It's self-concious. It's treating the poem as a vessel for meaning rather than letting the poem make its impact without the poet cramming phrases in it that sound like they mean something but don't.

I love that Lily goes to spitting contests. I love that she dated the speaker of the poem. But I can see why she broke up with the speaker. He won't let Lily be Lily. Lily's spitting has to have some kind of fake freight. It has to be likened to dancing. Her blood has to have a dark orchestra. I'd have dumped this guy in a second. I mean, if this poem had ended with the words, "Leaf compost up the ukulele compact door knob" it would have made as much sense as the phony sound of "as that other dance/tunes the dark orchestra of her blood."

GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!! Why lay this precious sounding conclusion to this poem? Why sum it up with some half-assed tenth-rate flight into obscurity? Why end the poem with a wish at all? Let Lily chew. Let her spit. Let her compete. Let the chewing, the spitting, and the competing generate its own power. It's great subject matter. But it doesn't need "escapees" or "dark orchestras" or "the brain's strange charity". Let Lily's actions and habits sing for themselves.

It's the very obscuring of an image's and a narrative's impact by precious phrase making that keeps poetry unread by most. This kind of poem perpetuates the idea that a person needs a Masters degree to read a poem or needs some kind of decoder ring ordered from the back of a box of New England Review corn flakes in order to break the poem's code.

Thorpe Moeckel, if you read this, I hope it pisses you off that I ripped your poem. It will be turn around fair play for the way your poem and other prettified poems like it piss me off and strengthen my resolve that poetry is best when the poet forgets he's writing a poem and lets images and stories make their impact without self-conscious interference.


Anonymous said...

Right On!! I mean WOOT!!!

Anonymous said...

one more thing......about the utopia....

Are you allowed to breathe? All the fun has been taken out of your life.....I say forget drinking give me coffee, diet pepsi, and should chew, sometimes, just think that warm dip in your lip. I tried chewing once or ten times, it was fun, up on the tractors cutting wheat spittin chaw in a folgers can or makeshift spitoon. It isn't so bad.

Dubya said...

Well, if that don't be chaw. That was an enlightenifyin' entry. I jus' realized I must writes poetry all the time, 'cause I always forgets what I'm writin'. And peoples tell me I'm 'bout as far from bein' self-conscious as a horse from a hog.