Poetry for Southern California
— Eric Morago
The Early Death of Men
Book by Clint Margrave
NYQ Books (www.nyqbooks.org)
Margrave is a poet who understands balance. While his narrative voice is
seemingly straightforward, the content of Margrave’s work rewards with a
rich complexity. In his book, The Early Death of Men, published by NYQ
Books, he applies this gift for balance to examining themes of mortality
and the frailty of both body and humanity. Margrave succeeds in creating
a dynamic collection of poems well worth reading again and again that is
smart without being heady, funny without being whimsical, and reflective
without being sentimental.
One of the things I appreciate most in his poetry is how Margrave can turn the most mundane of human activity into insightful meditation. In the poem, “Room,” the speaker relates how they appreciate when they order a coffee and the barista asks if they’d care for extra space for cream—how this simple question could be better applied to most things in life. The narrative carries the reader through at first personal examples of how this extra “space to feel and think” can be of benefit on the job or in a relationship, but then imagines it on a grander scale of world conflict:
Imagine a suicide bomber
ordering his last mortal cup of java,
at a Jerusalem café.
strapped to his chest,
only to be astonished
by the barista’s question
nobody in his terrorist training camp
ever bothered to ask.
It’s a basic amnesty
beyond a coffee cup.
What strengthens the content of this and many of Margrave’s poems is his concise, direct use of language and fluid line breaks—he tells a story with as few words as possible thus drawing attention to the heart of the matter, and the quiet questions the reader is asked to consider. Margrave tackles yet another humdrum endeavor in the short poem “What One Learns about Life from an ATM,” and manages only in a few lines to turn banking into a Zen-like philosophy on living. The final stanza tells us: “Try hard/not to/withdraw,” and this sage wisdom reminds us there is enlightenment to be found in the everyday task of living. Margrave knows how to write a poem to prove this to us.
As contemplative as The Early Death of Men is, there’s also a lot of subtle humor throughout its pages that is honest and never forced. Margrave is quite adept at allowing this humor to come about naturally through the situation he puts his characters through (and sometimes himself) in a poem. Those in which the speaker is in debate with a lover or wife are as funny as they are charming, and definitely worth a mention in any review, but they are not my favorite use of wit in this collection. I am quite taken by the poem, “A Poem is not a Teddy Bear.” This poem reads as an ars poetica, sharing with us arguably Margrave’s aesthetic of poetry. The poem starts off by telling us all the things a poem isn’t, getting to the principle idea of how it isn’t a cute, cuddly stuffed creature exactly at the midpoint of the narrative. From there Margrave expounds on how if it were said bear it would be:
abandoned, decapitated, dumped off,
or chewed up in games of tug of war.
The kind you keep banished to your closet
once you’ve grown,
cover up its foul old stench
with elegant perfumes and colognes.
The kind that in the minds of others does not exist,
that has been kept hidden so long
scares the shit out of you
when the light from outside shines in,
and you forget what it is.
What I love about this poem and the turn it takes is the imagination behind it—the fun Margrave seems to be having in creating this harsh image of a grotesque beast repressed to the dark corners of our lives. The language here is sharp and strong and creates a perfect metaphor for a poem—the idea behind it, clever.
Margrave does a lot with his poetry, but as the title of the book suggests, this is a collection that examines death and our relationship to it, namely when it takes those close to us. It is here where Margrave’s gift for balance thrives—he moves through difficult subject matter with a restrained precision, yet is still anchored by raw emotion. One of the most common and harrowing ordeals a person must go through when a loved one passes is cleaning out their home. In his poem “Perishable,” Margrave addresses this beautifully by relating an experience of emptying a deceased father’s fridge and what the speaker takes home with them:
But I also took a brand new jar of pickles
that remains untouched in my refrigerator,
a month and a half after his funeral.
Margrave never tells us how loss feels, but rather shows the reader the act of grieving—how something as harmless as a jar of pickles can trigger the unsettling reminder of our own mortality. This is evident when the speaker realizes by the poem’s end that “a man is more perishable than his food.” Another poem wrestling with death and ultimately the acceptance of it that works quite well for me is “Clenched Fists.” The poem starts:
I’m thinking of the way we’re born with our fists clenched
and how we die with them open.
So much in life depends on
these two simple gestures.
The poem continues to explore all the good and bad, creative and destructive things our fists can do before coming full circle back to life and death—how we “hold on tightly to things./The way we can let them go.” These final lines are graceful and incredibly tangible to the reader without being trite. Writing about death is tricky—it is easy to fall into the trap of sentimentality—but Margrave’s perfect balance of writing with restraint and heart makes it seem effortless.
The Early Death of Men is the best kind of poetry collection in my opinion—one that can be enjoyed by poetry enthusiasts, as well as the casual reader. It is accessible, yet challenging in how it allows one to infer one's own meaning from the meat of its poems, thus greatly rewarding multiple readings. And trust me when I say there are many meaty poems in this book—that Clint Margrave’s The Early Death of Men deserves to be sandwiched on your shelf between your other favorite authors.
— Eric Morago
Essay by G. Murray Thomas
I recently had an old friend, a former roommate from twenty-five years ago, try to convince me that 9/11 was an inside job. Not only that, but it was done by the same people who killed JFK. You know, the “shadow government.” He didn’t succeed (and if anyone else wants to try, I’ll tell you the same thing I told him, “Don’t waste your time.”). But it did get me thinking about conspiracy theories. And other things.
Americans do love their conspiracy theories, don’t they? And it’s not just Americans. It seems to be a human trait. There is a good reason for that, and it has nothing to do with their validity, or even their entertainment value. It’s actually biological. Perhaps surprisingly, it is also one of the reasons we appreciate poetry.
Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns. It is one of our most important survival mechanisms. We haven’t survived this long -- not only survived, but thrived and come to dominate the globe -- through brute strength. We have survived because we can recognize patterns. Not just basic patterns, but very complex ones. Let me give you two examples, one pretty basic, the other not so much.
Let’s go back to the dawn of humanity. Imagine our early human
notices two patterns: 1. The antelope are at the watering hole at dusk
and dawn. 2. The saber-tooth tiger is there at dusk. So early man hunts
the antelope at the watering hole at dawn. He gets his dinner, and
doesn’t turn into the tiger’s dinner.
Example number two: Mathematics. Need I say more?
Not only do we look for, and discover patterns constantly, we feel pleasure when we discover them. Our mind rewards our astuteness.
Conspiracy theories are this ability run wild. Having a high powered ability to detect patterns mean we also see them where they don’t exist. This is especially true when we are dealing with things we don’t understand. Something happens which shocks you, which you can’t quite get a grip on -- the JFK assassination, 9/11, Obama’s poll numbers --and you start looking for something that can explain it. You examine the evidence, find the connections, reach a conclusion. Sometimes you catch a killer, sometimes you create a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are based on supposed connections between events and objects which actually have no relation to each other.
So what does this have to do with poetry? Poetry is based on patterns. It works through connections. This is easiest to see in form poetry. Almost all form poetry follows some strict pattern (there are exceptions to this rule, but they are few). The very existence of those patterns makes it pleasing to the human ear. The listener or reader discovers the pattern, and the mind rewards him or her for doing so.
But what about non-form poetry? Especially today’s totally free verse, which often eschews structure entirely? First, a lot of it actually does have structure, it is just subtle, hidden. Which makes the mind’s reward for discovering it even greater.
But there is something even more important going on here. As I said, conspiracy theories come from find patterns where none actually exist. Something similar can happen with poetry. There may be no obvious pattern in the poem, but we find one anyway. We find connections between seemingly unrelated elements of the poem. We discover, or even create, meaning in the poem this way.
Now, the big difference between poetry and conspiracies is that, in the poem, the connections usually exist. The clever poet has put them there, but in such a way that we have to discover them. For the reader willing to do a little work, discovering them brings that mental reward.
One key factor with poetry, unlike conspiracy theories, and certainly unlike the tiger at the watering hole, is that we don’t necessarily have to be able to articulate the connections. Sometimes, just sensing that they are there can be enough to make us like a particular poem. (And compel us to read it again and again.)
First, let me demonstrate this through a poetic form -- the haiku. We’re all familiar with the Cliff’s Notes version of a haiku -- three lines, seventeen syllables, five-seven-five -- a pattern just waiting for our ear to hear it. Now, as many of you are probably aware, this is actually an English misrepresentation of a Japanese form. Japanese onji, or “sound symbol,” are not directly equivalent to English syllables. Still, if we accept that form, it does give English haiku a pattern to be discovered; or, more likely, intuitively sensed, as we usually don’t consciously count syllables as we listen to, or read, a poem.
But there is an aspect of the haiku form which is more important to our discussion -- the poetic leap. Often in haiku, the third line is thematically separate from the first two, connected only indirectly (sometimes this structure is reversed -- the first line stands separate). The poetry of a haiku lies in the gap between the lines. The mind finds, or creates, a connection between the two parts. Again, it is not necessary to be able to articulate that connection, just recognize, or at least sense, that it exists.
Here are a couple of classic Japanese haiku that illustrate this principle:
heat shimmer ...
lingering in the eye
a laughing face
leads into the mist --
low tide beach
Both of these are by the poet Kobayashi Issa. The translations are from William Higginson’s excellent Haiku Handbook. Higginson does provide explanations of what he sees as the connections between the lines, but I’m going to leave it to you to reach your own interpretations. The key is that these poems do feel whole; you intuit the connections even if you can’t explain them.
The same thing often happens, on a larger scale, in much of today’s poetry. A poet gives us a collection of images, and leaves it up to us to connect them. The pleasures of the poem (and, admittedly, sometimes the frustrations) lie in discovering these connections. (As a side note -- many a potentially great poem is reduced to being merely good because the poet explains the connections. And yes, I have been guilty of this myself. Plenty of times.)
So let’s take a poem, and see how this works. Here is the poem “Litany” by Brendan Constantine, from his book Calamity Joe (reprinted with permission from both the poet and from his publisher, Red Hen Press):
Why do we say Good Morning like a command
when we know it won’t sit still? Why Good Night
when it won’t be flattered?
Why do we whisper in the presence of trees or remove
our shoes to step on the skirt of the sea?
And why do we think of the lake as lonely
when the call of the duck does not echo?
Not even in the chambers of the heart.
Why do we treat infinity as old, as something
we may look into, when we know it is a teenaged boy
who looks no one in the eye?
See what fire does to the hands, water
to the brain, blood to the color of anything;
why do we pretend God isn’t an animal,
a big black beetle, antlered for the hoisting of stars?
Infinity keeps her in a box of sand, feeds her silence.
She in turn creates worlds that do not endure
so he’ll feel older, grown up.
While we’re at it, the sun and the moon have never
risen to greet anyone. The forest does not hear
gossip. The ocean prefers to dance alone.
And none are more abandoned than we who wait
in a wilderness for the children we have been
to lead us out.
On first reading, this poem probably confused you. What’s it about, anyway? But, hopefully, you found it interesting, enjoyable. If so, your mind is already making connections in the poem. Let’s see if we can locate some of those connections.
There are the lines in stanza seven which answer, more or less, the questions posed in the first two stanzas. Separated by most of the poem, reading these lines should be an immediately satisfying moment. Aha, your mind says, there is some unity here.
Then you start noticing other connections. References to age, to wilderness, to greetings. And then the idea of greetings may lead you to one of the main dichotomies of the poem -- conversation vs. silence. The greetings go unanswered, “the call of the duck does not echo,” the teenaged boy “looks no one in the eye,” infinity “feeds [God's] silence.” And then you realize how much of the poem is about loneliness, about being abandoned (by God?) in the wilderness.
Let me be clear. Poems, at least the best poems, are not conspiracy theories, where the observer creates patterns out of unrelated items. In a well done poem, the poet has put the patterns there for the reader to discover. Constantine was probably well aware of most, if not all, of the connections in this poem as he wrote it. But maybe not all of them. Even the best poets are often surprised by what they, or the reader, discovers in their poems after they are finished. And these connections are in the poem just as much as if they had been put there consciously.
Also, it is entirely possible for the reader to create their own patterns, which may be foreign to the poet. Say the reader had some experience with a teenaged boy by a lake in the woods. She may then find a connection between those lines which makes the poem resonate for her. Especially if, say, that boy was her teenaged crush, and his shyness prevented anything from happening between them. Constantine obviously would have known nothing about this, but that does not invalidate the meaning she finds. He left the poem open-ended; she found her own path through it. It is useless to say, “But that’s not what I meant.”
With that said, let me jump in here with my interpretation, the connections my mind made in this poem. The poem starts with a series of unanswerable questions. Constantine then slips infinity into one of these questions, and then God. Infinity and God, the two largest unanswerable questions we have. Our inability to answer these questions leaves us feeling abandoned, in a wilderness which is indifferent to us. But, if we could be young again, young and open minded (like infinity) maybe we could answer those questions. Maybe we could find our way out.
Earlier I said that a poem is not like a conspiracy theory, in that, usually, the poet did create the pattern for us to discover. But it is like a conspiracy theory in that you do get to determine the meaning of that pattern. If it is a well written poem, that meaning should at least resemble the meaning the poet had in mind when he or she wrote the poem. But it doesn’t have to. It is your meaning to discover, however the poem speaks to you. and therein lies one of the true joys of poetry—the ability to discover meaning where, at first, you thought there was only nonsense. The ability to make sense of a confusing and troubling world.
— G. Murray Thomas