Friday, March 2, 2007

"…by an Earthquake"

Aha, another poem about law school! This one is about issue-spotting.

I kid, but I do think the fragmented and stirred-up plotpieces will ring a bell for anyone who has ever sat for a law school exam. I am enamored of John Ashbery and recently saw him read in Manhattan, where he was introduced as “the most important living poet in America”; I am inclined to agree. I pieced together the below to post here, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t like breaking up the integrity of a poem to exploit it in that way. I am sure some say the same of the anthology itself, decrying the removal of a single poem from its context because a single-author collection is a work of art arranged in a precisely deliberate way. Of course, any editor of an anthology also makes her own choices about order, font, supplemental materials, and all the other elements that the poet first made when he created the collection in which he first published the piece. I suppose that’s why a second layer of copyright protects the anthologist and the value of her compilation and presentation. It’s also why the first-order copyright requires the poet’s permission. He must consent (I assume) not merely to his poem’s reproduction and distribution, but to the anthology’s specific treatment of the poem: where it fits, how it looks, what criticism or artwork accompanies it. The same poet who grants permission to use his poem in a book called “Political Poems” would likely change his tune upon learning his poem begins the chapter on “Misogynistic and Homophobic Poems.”

I digress. An Ashbery teaser:

A, an intruder in a strange house, is discovered; he flees through the nearest door into a windowless closet and is trapped by a spring lock.

A, giving ten years of his life to a miserly uncle, U, in exchange for a college education, loses his ambition and enterprise.

A and A-2 meet with a tragic adventure, and A-2 is killed.
Elvira, seeking to unravel the mystery of a strange house in the hills, is caught in an electrical storm. During the storm the house vanishes and the site on which it stood becomes a lake.
Alphonse has a wound, a terrible psychic wound, an invisible psychic wound, which causes pain in flesh and tissue which, otherwise, are perfectly healthy and normal.
A has a dream which he conceives to be an actual experience.
Jenny, homeward bound, drives and drives, and is still driving, no nearer to her home than she was when she first started.
Petronius B. Furlong’s friend, Morgan Windhover, receives a wound from which he dies.
Thirteen guests, unknown to one another, gather in a spooky house to hear Toe reading Buster’s will.
Buster has left everything to Lydia, a beautiful Siamese girl poet of whom no one has heard.
Lassie and Rex tussle together politely; Lassie, wounded, is forced to limp home.

B, second wife of A, discovers that B-3, A’s first wife, was unfaithful.
B, wife of A, dons the mask and costume of B-3, A’s paramour, and meets A as B-3; his memory returns and he forgets B-3, and goes back to B.

Excerpted from “…by an Earthquake,” by John Ashbery, from Can You Hear, Bird (1995)
Read the poem in its entirety here


I knew this endeavor would soon lead me into the fuzzy territory of all those poems that are not explicitly “about” law on their faces, but may resonate with readers/lawyers as relevant to the project. When I described the idea—an anthology of poems about law—to Yale Professor Kenji Yoshino, he promptly retorted, “aren’t they all?”

To me, Larkin’s “Ignorance” is not just a law poem, but a law school poem. As in the Dugan poem I posted yesterday, the unmediated logic of “things” and the natural order seems strange and unattainable to the self, here a more fumbling and noncommittal self that the id-driven self of “Internal Migration.” While Dugan’s speaker is reigned in physically and emotionally by rules and the threat of discipline, Larkin’s speaker is estranged (“strange,” “strange,” “strange”) from an outside world that ticks on (“punctual”) organically, without fear or hesitation. Organs without language function, thrive, adapt, reproduce, and evolve, without the crippling self-doubt that plagues the thinking being.

The speaker sounds a lot like a law student or young lawyer to this law student. We come to the law and it appears to have an authority and a “shape,” one that “works” and “find[s] what it needs” while it nonetheless remains elastic, “willing[] to change.” There purports to be a “way things work” but we are ignorant to it as we are plunged into its unwelcoming depths. Like the speaker, we are fascinated, perhaps jealous, certainly estranged and “[un]sure/ of what is true or right or real”: the Socratic method at its best. I don’t know, but “someone must know”! We live inside the law and “wear” it, it becomes our “flesh,” but law students and young lawyers so often feel like frauds.

Advocacy says: argue that your client must win according to the law, regardless of “what is true or right or real.” Larkin’s speaker is twice ignorant: ignorant of the means by which “things work” and work together in the outside world, and ignorant too to the piece of the self that is the physical body. The poem’s closing two couplets align on the page the “decisions”/”imprecisions” that divide and distinguish flesh from intellect. I have heard many young lawyers speak of pretending to be lawyers, playing a role prescribed by title and trappings (suit, briefcase, shiny new vocabulary) and hoping to grow into it from the outside-in. What does that disconnect suggest about us and the profession—“That when we start to die/ Have no idea why”?

Philip Larkin

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.

Strange to be ignorant of the way things work:
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed,
And willingness to change;
Yes, it is strange,

read the rest of the poem

and find a whole slew of Larkin poems

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Internal Migration: On Being on Tour"

Internal Migration: On Being on Tour
by Alan Dugan

As an American traveler I have
to remember not to get actionably mad
about the way things are around here.
Tomorrow I’ll be a thousand miles away
from the way it is around here. I will
keep my temper, I will not kill the dog
next door, nor will I kill the next-door wife,
both of whom are crazy and aggressive
and think they live at the center of culture
like everyone else in this college town.
This is because I’m leaving, I’m taking off
by car, by light plane, by jet, by taxicab,
for some place else a thousand miles away,
so I caution myself: control your rage,
even if it causes a slight heart attack.
Stay out of jail tonight before you leave,
and don’t get obstreperous in transit tomorrow
so as to stay out of jail on arrival tomorrow night.
Think: the new handcuffs are sharp inside
and meant to cut the wrists. …

read the rest

i found this poem last night and i couldn’t resist dugan’s “actionably mad.” plenty of dictionaries assign “actionable” only a legal definition and no explicit secondary meaning; something actionable gives rise to a cause of legal action or provides grounds for a lawsuit (thomson gale). synonyms are litigable, prosecutable, triable (houghton mifflin). american heritage offers “relating to or being information that allows a decision to be made or action to be taken,” which amuses the lawyer in me and gives the poet more than a touch of vertigo. borrowing is what poetry’s all about, but the spurts of legalese (“actionably mad,” “obstreperous in transit”) sharply contrast with the far-from-formal language that flank them, making the words sound foreign and stilted.

that small point is just a microcosm for a bigger point, and the reason we’re here. What makes a poem a poem about law? it’s not just the semantic trappings of law and order here, the handcuffs and jails and rape and murder, but the layers of law the poem imposes upon the speaker and the speaker imposes upon himself. the internal/emotional order— “i caution myself: control your rage” mirrors the external/physical order— “the new handcuffs are sharp inside/and meant to cut the wrists.”

every time the speaker begins to speak freely of his impulses, he is rebuked: by himself, by verse, by law, by the policemen whose imagined justice is swift, and by the physical limitations of glasses, false teeth, a frail body, and a fragile heart. “as an american traveler i have” opens wide with a statement of possession and empowerment, promptly undermined when it becomes “have/to remember” to follow the rules. that first resolution of self-control echoes through the poem’s early lines: “I have to,” “I will,” “I will not,” until inner monologue becomes dialogue: “control your rage,” “stay out of jail,” “don’t get obstreperous,” “you must travel.” the caesurae of the colons that break lines 14 and 19 stand in for the threat of imprisonment, serving as stop-sign or jail-bars to the forward momentum of the speaker who wants to “tak[e] off/by car, by light plane, by jet, by taxicab.”

if the speaker’s internal and external orders mirror one another, what do we make of the titular “internal migration” and the poem’s nomadic closing lines? surely there is a pushing out of all other people, a total folding-inward reinforced by both sets of laws and lending irony to the speaker’s disdain for townies who “think they live at the center” (“of culture,” but substitute any number of nouns for “culture”). the idea that his migration or movement is purely internal not only places the speaker at the center of everything, but it relies on inner and outer law to perpetually push him inward. the emotional rules and societal rules all conspire to prevent not only violence but touch, contact, conversation, even empathy—even with the dog! of course, dugan’s most widely anthologized piece (in my experience; i have no data on that) is the unforgettable “love song: i and thou,” where the stubborn protagonist announces, “this is hell,/but i planned it, i sawed it,/i nailed it, and i/will live in it until it kills me.”

read the rest of "Love Song: I and Thou" in the valentine’s day pinsky piece at slate

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"the nail"

when we talk about the internet and the unmediated, sped-up access to information it enables, people mention the images from abu ghraib almost without fail. those pictures generated such a visceral response that when we remember them, we remember not just the images but the way we processed them simultaneously with our minds and guts. i think they come up too as emblematic of state secrets in an age where the state has a harder and harder time keeping secrets... but because they are gruesome and primal, they can never be "just" metaphor.

in "the nail," watch the deliberate pronoun drift (drift in a cultivated way and not a casual way). the first few lines seem to pointedly elide any "you" or "me" ("what [...] mind does after horror," "how [...] not be annihilated?" "feels it in the tendons of the hand"), and then a "you" sneaks in and becomes the active and emphatic "your." the speaker backs away again in the second stanza and then takes/assigns sweeping ownership with the "us," "us," "us," "us," "us," and then "we," "we," "we" that broadens out again to encompass the "brutal human world."

The Nail
by C. K. Williams

Some dictator or other had gone into exile, and now reports were coming about his regime,
the usual crimes, torture, false imprisonment, cruelty and corruption, but then a detail:
that the way his henchmen had disposed of enemies was by hammering nails into their skulls.
Horror, then, what mind does after horror, after that first feeling that you’ll never catch your breath,
mind imagines—how not be annihilated by it?—the preliminary tap, feels it in the tendons of the hand...

read the rest of the poem, excerpted from: C. K. Williams' “The Nail” in Repair. Copyright © 1999

"what happened this week"

here's a little denise duhamel i know i can reprint since she's fabulous enough to e-publish herself.

i read "smile!" for the first time in 2003 and this was one of the poems from the collection that stayed with me; it's got plenty to say about not only law enforcement and lawyers, but about race/class and access. i won't say more for now-- reading someone's commentary right before a piece always shapes my experience of it far too much.

What Happened This Week

(May 1, 1992)

David didn't come to school Tuesday,
the day his essay was due.
Instead the police showed up --
a Dragnet team -- asking if anyone
had seen him since Friday.
The class huddled at the implications
of the words: missing person.
David, eighteen, too old for milk cartons,
but just ripe for the morgue
and a numbered tag around his bare toe.
read the rest!

fumbling toward anthology

in the couple of hours since i set up this blog, i have been asking myself why i wanted it and what makes it anything but a waste of (cyber)space (even if the latter is, yes, nonrivalrous and thus unwastable). mostly, who cares? if it isn't a voyeuristic peek into my underwear drawer, and it isn't a direct link to the newest music/tech/gossip/etc., and it isn't a droll snarky hipster journal and it definitely isn't a profound theoretical exploration of anything hyperacademic, so what?

i think the answer lies in the aspiration of this project, collecting poems that cluster around ideas about what law is and what lawyers do. bookstores are full of anthologies, poems by african-american women or poems by san franciscans or poems about fathers or poems about dogs. the internet lends itself to all those thematic and textual connections, and amazon users post booklists and pandora users create songlists and blogs boast sometimes exhaustively specific blogrolls. poetry is harder to round up without either massive concordances or interactive indexing or until googleprint follows through with its fantastic/sinister plans (depending on whom you ask, and more on that later). unless i'm missing something rather basic, the ways to find all the poems about chocolate are basically to a)read all the poems you can get your hands on and/or b) ask all the readers and poets you know where the chocopoetry they know can be found. several years ago i tried to compile a chunk of poems about sleep and sleeplessness, of which there are plenty. too shy to survey the nation, i paged through a whole lot of collections and found a handful and drew a few (to me) intriguing lines connecting them, but i was acutely aware of just how many poems i was missing. i had barely barely barely scratched the surface of insomniac poems, and so i was disappointed.

lawyerverse is fumbling toward anthology, with apologies to sarah maclachlan. look at what you've got on your shelf and post what you find. the more pieces we track down, the sooner we can talk about what they're saying to one another and to law.

now there's just the pesky problem of copyright...

blogroll, please

i don't know what a blogroll is or where it goes, but here are

a few friends who care about poetry:

and a few who care about feminism:

and a few ruminating on intellectual property & media policy: