How Long by Ron Padgett
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2011)
A Padgett book is always a delight. The humor and wry wisdom that shows up in Ron Padgett poems is forever quirky, often also full of feeling, and nearly always clearly to the point. What the point is is sometimes part of the humor and sometimes the “heart” of the matter; these days it is frequently in one way or another about the inexorable process of aging. From the title on through to poems here like the no-joke of “The Joke” and the sentiment of “The Best Thing I Did”, this focus is obvious. We see it in the elegiac uses of Joe Brainard’s own approaches to writing employed here to memorialize Brainard and Dante’s approaches used to remember another painter and poet, George Schneeman who loved his Italy. This book is written in the “how long” space of those years when wonders how long one will get to live on among others here and feels how long it is between the losses of others and one’s own passing.
Ron Padgett the poet has gone through the whacky fun and the great grief (“that other people die”) shared with his friend Ted Berrigan, and through the art of turning this thing right here whatever it is into its artfulness that he long shared with Joe Brainard, but here in this book there’s a fresh serious quality to each of the moves he practices; it comes from that coming cliff-edge moment. Death and love, all we’ve got according to one of those old-time guys, are here skipping hand in hand forward as if they’d just met in Miss Frechette’s class and are bouncing the cartoon bubble of imagination in the air between them with the light-hearted gravity of childhood affection.
Makey-up has always been one of Padgett’s best approaches, whether in long poems, collaborations, or a short lyric like “Flame Name” here where we are made to see an image shaped by the first few lines. It is Ron’s name surrounded by fake autumn leaves; the poems wording leads us to see it on a piece of paper with its edges burnt for effect, a very Fifties art class effect I seem to recall having seen with names on some push-pin board beside the blackboard in preparation for PTA night or something. We get sucked in to this image and then, this:
The effect was lovely.
It was not, by the way,
a dream. It was also not
something that really happened.
I made it up, so I could
set my name on fire
for a moment.
The really lovely effect, simply achieved, is the focus upon our own act of imagination spurred by the poem. Ron may have gotten to see his own name on fire, but so did we and that’s what matters.
The slip and slide of metaphor into metaphor in “The Coat Hanger” takes through a short history of key moments in American poetry and on into some fairly philosophical reflections all starting from the poet’s having noticed how bent he has become in his aged posture. It comes to a close with some imagery that begins by referring back to a railway station mentioned previously and insisting upon its metaphorical character:
Me I am at an angle,
but when I stand up straight as the lines in that station,
I see, before the fog rolls in, the tracks that
take us all across ourselves,
metaphorical fog thicker than real fog,
just barking is thicker than a dog,
though the dog is clearing up too, like a sky
whose translucence is arriving as the metaphors depart
and I start the day as a man for the first time again.
Talk about showing the f-ing real where real is at! And that “coat hanger”; there’s no hanger in the poem, nor coat neither. I suspect it’s the kind you bend out of shape until you can slip it in and catch the latch and unlock the door. Maybe it’s like the “sardines” in O’Hara’s poem for Mike Goldberg, something that was there in the process along the way, but I like to see it as the process itself.
There are also poems here that take the brilliance of the literal into their process and make us feel how much a person’s life hangs with them in the oddest literal ways. Sometime it hurts in the kind of way where hurt is maybe a relief too. “Snowman” is clearly an elegy of sorts for George Schneeman, but it is also a presentation of this literal presence of memory in things. How voices and words in that memory too, are a presence of the dead and a place still to love them. The series “From Dante” presents three poems based on the Italian’s lyrics creatively mistranslated. Somehow, retaining their originals’ elegance even as they fall into Padgett’s idiom, they come out as elegies for Schneeman, their dedicatee, too. Their similes and mistakes lean in the imaginative direction but use literalness for their ground. The first goofs off into an image of digging a ditch “just by singing” at its beginning but then brings that ditch back at the end thus:
For I have a reason to love you always,
Each one in his ditch contented,
As I think we all soon will be.
“Thinking about a Cloud” creates a moving cartoon that mixes an extended metaphor with the kind of literality that makes some jokes insightful. This is another forte of Padgett’s. It conjures up a cloud that chides the poet toward being more “grown-up” until he asks at the end:
“Are their grown-up clouds too? You sound like one.”
“I sound like one because I am almost gone.
And when I am gone, you will hear
only the sound of your own personality
as it rises in you and pushes me away.
Don’t you hear it now?”
This elegy for the image and imagination also has a “how long” in it. It is the strangely childish mature wisdom of Ron Padgett that you get there and in “Spots.” That poem imaginatively plays into a meditation verging on myth that begins with a morning on which the speaker notices new old-age spots, and it ends with this stanza:
But I remembered it was my birthday
and my mother is large with me
and her mind is full of ironing
like music you can’t stop hearing it in your head,
the music of ironing, and so
me, first a spot, then a boy
with a dog named Spot,
and now a man on whom more spots
are arriving in the night,
when Mother Nature makes her rounds
and Father Time keeps the watch.
The only poem that seems to have nothing to do with death is “Death,” the first line of which is “Let’s change the subject” (12). It goes on to tell an amusing imaginary shaggy bear story, so it probably is about death too in some way. There are other poems in the book that are less than fully successful to my mind, but heck dang it, what do I know? I know that Ron Padgett writing is all I have tried to show it to be and, as Robert Hass’s cover blurb says, “funnier, more graceful, light as air and as wiry and hard as, well, wire.” What that wire springs on us is our own from the start, kind of like the Wizard’s gifts. There is a poem in this book that starts with the observation that
It’s funny when the mind thinks about the psyche,
as if a grasshopper could ponder a helicopter.
And it ends with this set of lines that I want to set here like an arrow in neon, blinking and pointing at the poet of these poems:
He is a brave little grasshopper
and he never sleeps
for the poem he writes is the act
of always being awake, better than anything
you could ever write or do.
Then he springs away.
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.