This Can't Be Life
It’s a shame that poetry book reviews have to be about books. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with treating the book as the basic unit of account, especially if the volume in question behaves as a modular long poem or integrated series. But reading poetry reviews—upper limit insight, lower limit advertising—I often wish the form entailed less time for judging books as wholes and more time for describing the effects of poems as wholes. Many poets’ most powerful or baleful effects cannot be well accounted for by cherry-picking a few putatively representative lines here and there; the poet’s art or lack of it lies in how those parts relate to each other and their antecedents in the archive. When I see a critic quoting whole poems or large blocks of text, I am filled with trust—that something more than advertising is about to happen.
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The poem that’s obsessed me most lately is the title track of Dana Ward’s first book, This Can’t Be Life (2012). My preoccupation has something to do with how the poem speaks back to two other poems I love: “This Can’t Be Life”feels like a too-late-capitalist cousin of John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”(1966), itself a post-modern take on the descriptive mode of James Thomson’s The Seasons (1728). Each of those poems is a catalogue of “things,” or names for things, and in Thomson we are sometimes given the fiction that those things are all present in a single scene. Here’s a flower catalogue from Thomson’s poem “Spring”:
But why so far excursive? when at hand,
Along these blushing borders, bright with dew
And in yon mingled wilderness of flowers,
Fair-handed Spring unbosoms every grace;
Throws out the snow-drop, and the crocus first;
The daisy, primrose, violet darkly blue,
And polyanthus of unnumber’d dyes;
The yellow wall-flower, stain’d with iron brown;
And lavish stock that scents the garden round:
From the soft wing of vernal breezes shed,
Anemonies; auriculas, enrich’d
With shining meal o’er all their velvet leaves;
And full ranunculas, of glowing red.
Then comes the tulip-race, where Beauty plays
Her idle freaks; from family diffus’d
To family, as flies the father-dust.
The varied colours run; and while they break
On the charm’d eye, th’exulting florist marks,
With secret pride, the wonders of his hand.
No gradual bloom is wanting; from the bud,
First-born of Springy to Summer’s musky tribes:
Nor hyacinths, of purest virgin white,
Low-bent, and blushing inward; nor jonquils,
Of potent fragrance; nor Narcissus fair.
As o’er the fabled fountain hanging still;
Nor broad carnations, nor gay-spotted pinks;
Nor, shower’d from every bush, the damask-rose.
Infinite numbers, delicacies, smells,
With hues on hues expression cannot paint,
The breath of Nature, and her endless bloom.
Can this be life? It’s trying hard to be. For instance, notice how Thomson insists on throwing into motion what might otherwise be a still-life—how he makes life look alive by infusing it with verbs indicative of movement. Spring “throws out” the snow-drop; the colours “run,” the hyacinths are “blushing inward,” the damask-rose is “shower’d,” the flowers “break / On the charmed eye.” Nature’s “endless bloom” is endless not only because it is everywhere in spring, but because it is perennially (or annually) active, perpetually in process.
Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air” is a river catalogue. Its play involves the comic struggle to find different ways to describe the single action all rivers perform:
Far from the Rappahannock, the silent
Danube moves along toward the sea.
The brown and green Nile rolls slowly
Like the Niagra’s welling descent.
Tractors stood on the green banks of the Loire
Near where it joined the Cher.
The St. Lawrence prods among black stones
And mud. But the Arno is all stones.
Wind ruffles the Hudson’s
Surface. The Irawaddy is overflowing.
But the yellowish, gray Tiber
Is contained within steep banks. The Isar
Flows too fast to swim in, the Jordan’s water
Courses over the flat land.
The Shannon flows
Swiftly between its banks. The Mississippi
Is one of the world’s longest rivers, like the Amazon.
It has the Missouri for a tributary.
The Harlem flows amid factories
And buildings. The Nelson is in Canada,
Check out those verbs for what the river does: “moves,” “rolls,” “prods,” “overflowing,” “is contained,” “flows,” “courses,” “flows,” “flows,” “flowing.” I find the last verb above particularly delicious: the line-break before the present participle “Flowing” feels like a cliffhanger, leading me to expect some new information about the Nelson is going to come, but when it does it’s humorously underwhelming because we’ve seen that verb so many times before. The verb machine breaks down into what Ward calls “auto-respond.” Unlike Thomson’s poem, which sustains the fiction that we’re seeing all those flowers aggregated into a single garden scene, Ashbery’s poem relates objects that could not possibly, except on a map, be pictured together. The scale soars from ground-floor (“flows among factories / And buildings”) to high-flying aerial view (“in Canada, / Flowing”). It’s funny that the activity on each scale can be the same. Of course, when I say it’s funny, I mean it’s funny because it’s surprisingly boring: the repetition-with-little-difference disrupts any assumption that poems should not be boring, should try as hard as they can to look alive. Unlike The Seasons, which varies its rhythm of naming as if in imitation of Nature’s irregular abundance, Ashbery’s poem maintains a rule of precisely one river-name per line over the course of its 151 lines (with two Where’s-Waldo exceptions as rewards for the patient observer), emphasizing the mechanical or procedural element of catalogue that Thomson avoids or conceals.
The dominant mode of Dana Ward’s “This Can’t Be Life” feels like a deadpan ekphrasis on a fashion magazine tableau spread, numbingly sexy and sexily boring, in which Thomson’s flowers reappear as printing on a dress and Ashbery’s rivers turn into the rich:
Lapo Elkman [sic] gazes out from the frame with a
come-hither look. His wrists have soft bracelets
around them & his shirt, black, is open.
Looped on his neck pale strands of beads hang
which causes a ribbon of shadow at his nipple.
His facial hair, bleached by the sun, is brown-white.
Tatiana Santa Domingo wears a floral printed dress.
It is summer where she’s photographed or
warm enough for clothes that light. Earrings
perhaps of three golden hoops or two
hang obscured in the shade of her hair.
Her right cheek is touching the locks of
Bianca Brandolini d’Adda whose own dress
is dim purple satin. It has a
black strap of lace an inch thick
which, at her waist, intersects with another
lace band even thicker & full of arabesques
& Fleur De Lis. This lace
is just above her belly which is pressed
to the belly of Margherita Maccapani Missoni.
White, with faint, almost invisible as
flowers (maybe dots?) her sundress,
exposes her shoulder.
The poem goes on more or less like this for over four pages. You don’t have to google the names above to smell the money on them—but if you do, you’ll quickly find Vanity Fair’s “Fortune’s Children,” a series of 32 photographs of saddeningly gorgeous heirs and heiresses. “What’s it like being young and beautiful, with a 24-karat pedigree and inherited wealth, in populist, economically perilous 2009?” (I hear Keston Sutherland reply: “Coke into my ass through a funnel.”) Ward uses these images as source material, making plain from the mention of a “frame” in the first line that his description is of photographs rather than “life” itself.
Between portfolio and poem, there are several telling discrepancies. For instance, where most of the subjects in the portfolio occupy a photograph by themselves, Ward gives no indication that these images are drawn from different photographs, allowing us to imagine a single Thomsonian scene of abundance with Biana Brandolini d’Adda’s belly “pressed / to the belly of Margherita Maccapani Missoni,” just as one piece of her lace intersects with another. This pressing is anatomically unlikely, although the first time I read the poem I brushed over that unlikeliness without feeling it. Of course, the adjacency is much more likely if the people are made of paper, “pressed” and sold together in a magazine.
Another discrepancy: Bianca Brandolini D’Adda (the “d” capitalized this time—does that mean she’s a different person?) shows up again halfway through the poem,
floating on a sting-ray
shaped raft on her belly hands under her chin
three bracelets no bathing suit she’s swimming
in her dress which is soaked & her legs are
raised, ankles crossed this makes a diamond-
shape between with liquid topaz. He has
the cork in his teeth. In his left hand a half-
glass of red.
Three things are “wrong” with this description. First, we’ve already seen Bianca before, and until this point in the poem (the 75th line) no name is mentioned again at any distance from its initial mention; the repetition of Bianca comes as a pattern violation, as if the poet had forgotten the rule of nonce naming. Second, we’ve already seen what Bianca’s belly is doing, and what she’s wearing, so it seems the poet has forgotten that too. The last thing is: who is “he”? The poem until now has been careful to make sure every pronoun hooks up properly with a proper name of appropriate gender, but here it jump-cuts to a “he” without warning.
Here’s the thing: when I first read this poem, I was so numbed by the repetitiveness of its description—all those expensive names and clothes and variations on the verb “to have”—that I didn’t notice any of these wrongnesses. I forgot that Bianca had appeared before, couldn’t tell that her belly was up to something else, and didn’t register the sudden change in gender. This sort of pronoun substitution is part of the happy fungiblity we find in Ashbery’s poetry, where we learn not to sweat the sudden inexplicable pronoun shifts because their fluidity is a means of accounting for transitive experience—what the poet elsewhere calls “the private experience of everyone.” In Ward’s poem, the fungibility is sad: here’s the thing, which can’t be life because we hardly notice when it’s been exchanged for something else.
Speaking of exchange: I count twenty-four heir-and-heiress names in Ward’s poem, which means he left out fourteen from the photo shoot. Then again, the missing persons may have been traded for an entourage of other capitalized terms: Ray-Bans, Docs, Madonna, JFK, Corona, Disney. The poem trains you to expect any word capitalized mid-sentence as a person with a lot of capital, so when you come across commodities you might mistake them for people, and vice versa. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong:
It’s a beach-house kitchen. Arnie [sic] Hammer’s
by the sink.
has a gray cardigan under which she wears a Disney
dress. Hayley Bloomingdale is blond […]
This mutual substitutability of person for thing (is that baking soda or its heir?) makes me think of these unforgettable sentences from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1980), in which McCarthy describes the American prairie landscape with terms I read as a crypto-portrait of a hyper-mediatized post-war America and a gloss on Ward’s meticulously flat descriptiveness:
In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.
That phrase “optical democracy” pressures us to regard one of the holiest terms in liberal discourse as participating in a mode of seeing that turns all life to things. This form of democracy prevents us from valuing one above another, effacing the possibility of humanism, communism, or any religion or poetics that holds human life as inherently more valuable than rocks and stones and trees. “This Can’t Be Life” is a satire of this view. Its description keeps to glossy surfaces (“Her hair is blonde, / mostly covered by a hat her dress is lycra black this is / Madonna as eternal return”), with the production history of all those surfaces, people included, left uncommented on. I think Ward means for this omission to feel louder than what’s there.
Ward’s other poems in This Can’t Be Life don’t feel like satires on this way of seeing so much as alternatives. At least, I feel that way about them because of how they constantly attend to the particular people in the poet’s actual life, as if the poems themselves existed chiefly as a means to be with and of and for his friends—named Tisa, Michael, Geoff, David Larsen, etc—whether in the dive bar or the archive. Oren Izenberg’s chapter on Frank O’Hara in his recent critical monograph Being Numerous is a good place to start looking for the history of this attitude in post-1945 American poetry. “This Can’t Be Life” is stylistically unlike the rest of the poems in Ward’s book, but seems an exception that proves the rule: it speaks with what Izenberg might call “maximal names”—as opposed to “minimal” ones like Tisa, Michael and co.—highlighting how plastic they are, how far they and the descriptiveness embossing them in verse can make us feel from what is truly living, even as we cathect them as the faces of the only good life left to us by Condé Naste.
I haven’t said anything yet about the most important modification in Ward’s poem: the penultimate moment where suddenly the poet’s “I” shows up, examining his non-idealized body in a bathroom mirror and scanning the mucus in his spittle for blood. For now, I’ll hang back on reading this moment so you can go feel it for yourself, and close with a few lines from the Jay-Z track that Ward takes as epigraph for his book and source for its title:
this can’t be life
this can’t be love
this can’t be right
there’s gotta be more
this can’t be us
Jay-Z’s lines yearn for an outside to the damaged life of the black American ghetto, where poverty and systemic racism beget violence and incarceration. The Ward poem I’ve looked at here examines the opposite end of this damaged life, inhabited by those with a maximum of racial and economic privilege as pictured in the glossy magazines. For Ward, “this” can’t be life because it is at once inaccessible to those without extreme privilege and undesirable to those who resist the methods of that privilege. That “this” points also towards what deadening can happen to real life reproduced in magazines, whether as airbrushed image or the blackened air a poem is. Ward’s poems fight this deadening with everything they are.