What the Raven Said by Robert Alexander
(White Pine Press, Buffalo, 2006)
In only a few examples of the genre have I ever understood the practice of prose poetry. In the poems of Whitman and Baudelaire, or the essays of Emerson (which in some ways are more poetic than his own poetry), or in Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm (my favorite example, though I’m not sure Dillard would qualify it as ‘poetry’), I know prose poetry by its poetic effect, not by the rather loose definitions of the genre. That is, I know it is poetry before I think of it as prose.
Sadly, my experience of reading Robert Alexander’s What the Raven Said is the reverse of this: I am aware of it as narrative prose, and have to look back over it carefully to discover whether I can fathom the poetry. Those elements -- compactness, rhythmic and figural repetition, sustained intensity, the transcendence of mere lexis and syntax, for example -- seem for the most part missing. If indeed poetry is (in Emerson’s words) a “meter-making argument,” I am at a loss to find the argument (or the meter).
Consider this passage, from “The Naming of Muskrat Point”:
"From twenty-two miles above, a NASA photograph of Madison shows Lake Mendota, Picnic point and Second Point clear as thumb and forefinger of a giant’s hand -- and what’s even clear on a close look is that Second Point isn’t one, but two small promontories separated by a stretch of curving shoreline.”
This is wordy, even for prose. The image in the first half of this example is clear (and the linking of a “God’s POV” image, courtesy of NASA, with a “giant’s hand” establishes some sense of conflict between quantification and qualification), the “is” verbs in the second half, the relative noun clause and the prepositional phrases (a characteristic of the book in general) obscures rather than sharpens the imagery.
Or, consider this passage, from “Duck Saga”:
“For the next few weeks this duck is there each morning as I paddle past. (One time only she’s gone, perhaps feeding herself or getting a drink of water, and I see she’s built a low nest of duck down on the ledge - - which I hope slants inward so that the eggs won’t, by accident, roll into the water.) Each morning she watches me as I pass by, and sometimes I see a drake nearby.”
I don’t question the detailed eye, nor do I question the sympathy expressed by the speaker’s concern for the duck’s eggs. I question the parentheses (which appear frequently in the book); that is, I'm not sure what to make of the idea of parenthetical information in poetry. Stanley Cavell, writing about film, has said that “good directors know how to mean everything they do.” I believe the same applies to poets (especially poets). That which is parenthetical is left over, sidelined, extraneous; the work of poetry is urgent, the world in need of vital (and in vital need of) expression.
This is not to say that there are not some fine moments or interesting ideas. Alexander has the keen observing eye of a naturalist or a hunter; one gets the impression of a fine eye noting details in a calming, ever-present backdrop against the anxiety (separation, loss) constitutive of human life, sometimes in the voice of a named speaker (the voice is sometimes in the third person, sometimes mixed). In that sense, the Emersonian “I/Eye” conflation is most evident. This conflation serves to invest the “I,” the self of the poet, with the experience of his perception; the world and the poet’s experience of the world are inseparable. For Emerson, this quality is precisely that which transcends the “necrotic associations” of everyday language; the poet delivers a new thing in creation.
But I am at a loss to find in Alexander’s book what theologians refer to as an “operational theology.” A catalog of fine pictures without a thesis is still only a catalog. Alexander opens his book with an epigram (a dangerous practice) from Whitman; the poetry in the text suffers the sad fate of the inevitable comparison. The comparison is inevitable in the sense that Alexander invites it; after reading the epigram everything that follows comes through the filter, and the modality, of that epigram. Whitman’s “catalogs” are focused through the lens of democratic idealism and the liberating power of poetry; Dillard’s, through her ongoing search for the sacramental, the divine, in the midst of tragedy. Alexander may have an organizing methodology at work here, but if it is present, it is subtle indeed.
Robert Alexander is a poet of high credentials, and I am willing (and would be happy) to admit the failure of the book to be mine, not his. It might be that Alexander intends this misdirection of “prose / poetry;” in that case the book is rather like Magritte’s pipe; perhaps what we are dealing with here is a “treachery of genre.” I don’t question Alexander’s eye. I am strained to understand his form. But his book forces me outside the content of the writing and has me asking questions about genre, definition, and poetic expression.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). His book Conversing in Figures: Emerson, Poetry, Cinema is forthcoming in 2012. Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.