Nov 17, 2014
Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (Horse Less Press, 2014)
While reading Tim Earley's Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, one is struck by its fidelity to derangement. Narrative peaks through occasionally, but retreats just fast enough to live another day. The same can be said for independent clauses. And it's hard to ignore the Rimbaudian ecstasy coursing through Earley's syntax which provides an interesting dialogue with the book's title taken from another notoriously illuminated poet, John Clare.
Graham Robb, in his biography of Rimbaud, recounts that after the poet was shot by his lover (poet Paul Verlaine) we find that "the first biographical text devoted to Rimbaud...was written on that occasion by a police constable" who wrote, "[i]n morality and talent, this Raimbaud [sic], aged between 15 and 16, was and is a monster. He can construct poems like no one else, but his works are completely incomprehensible and repulsive." Apparently in Brussels (where the shooting took place) the police are also poetry critics, but that aside the speaker in Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery could be described similarly.
The word monster used in the passage above is particularly useful. As the word has been dragged from one century to the next, different associations have attached themselves to it. But despite those various iterations there's consensus that monster means something dreadful. When applied to Earley's poetry this label fits. I'm also inclined to apply monstrous to Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery because if we keep in mind the word's Latin root monstrum - meaning "divine omen, portent, sign" - this definition validates and connects us to the book's supernatural disposition. But more than a spectral jubilee, Earley's work is a grotesque jig, a glitch in the natural order of things. His poems also sound like the incantations of an ex-preacher suffering from (or made divine by) what one doctor called (describing Rimbaud) "toxic delirium". The first encounter the reader has with Earley goes like this:
I will kill you with the pivet from my cycling drum. I will kill you with the electric mouth of the sea. I will kill you with the plastic toxins, the dourcats, the European garrote, the divorce papers, the mustard-lidded wail of your eldest child. I will kill you with the amber wisps which am directly your life recollected. The air come down around you and communicate the spectral webbing one to the next and it don't make the sandwich any better, there are many names for the andromat of disengorged foolishness from which the skull's form drips into knowing and acts like the upright becoming human, the air come down around you as though you have manufactured a particular register of tastes. But not before you have been killed with the pivet from my cycling drum. Not before you have been killed with the electric mouth of the sea.
What's remarkable about this book is that the poet keeps this berserk pirouetting up for nearly 100 pages. Relentless, cruel, and foreboding - qualities for which I'm a sucker for - Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery is one of the most terrifying books I've read in a long time and it will take a patient reader to endure it because it's central message is this: you're not in control and you never have been.
In "The Dawning of Genius", the poet John Clare describes a man who does not possess the words to express his inner delight:
Ideas picture pleasing views to mind,
For which his language can no utterance find;
Increasing beauties, fresh’ning on his sight,
Unfold new charms, and witness more delight;
So while the present please, the past decay,
And in each other, losing, melt away.
Thus pausing wild on all he saunters by,
He feels enraptur’d though he knows not why;
And hums and mutters o’er his joys in vain,
And dwells on something which he can’t explain.
The bursts of thought with which his soul’s perplex’d...
At the center of this poem, and really all of John Clare's work, is a fear of forgetting. So moved by his interior reply to exterior experience, Clare panicked at the thought of not being able to capture what he saw and felt. In "Dawning of Genius", we see the poet's fears realized in a figure devoid of vocabulary, who "hums and mutters o'er his joys in vain,/And dwells on something which he can't explain."Apparently this anxiety haunted the poet his entire life. In fact, Clare spent his last twenty years in an asylum where (according to David Barber) the poet once complained, "Why, they have cut off my head and picked out all the letters in the alphabet...all the vowels and all the consonants and brought them out through my ears." And yet Clare's fear of forgetting extended beyond sensual immediacy: he was afraid of forgetting where he came from as a result of witnessing village life deformed by industrialization sweeping across Europe at the time.
The picture of Clare that survives today is mostly a romantic one. When you hear that his doctor diagnosed him unfit for society "after years addicted to Poetical prosings" it's hard not to fall for the poet of Northamptonshire. One of his most famous poems, written while institutionalized, was called "I Am!". Clare felt perpetually invisible and abandoned (some even credit the poem as the first example of confessional verse) and there's one line in particular I want to quote from "I Am!": "I long for scenes where man hath never trod."
The poetry of Tim Earley might be the realization of Clare's longing. Earley seems obsessed on going where no poet has gone before. And this begs the question: should one attempt to further explain his affinity to John Clare? Full of excessive velocity and eschatological mania, Earley's poems - untitled and written in fuck-you blocks of prose - might be an attempt to mimic Clare's disturbed psychological make-up, but I don't think that's at the heart of the connection between these two. Instead, Earley shares Clare's attitude towards grammar - that to conform to the king's tongue is to endorse the king's rule, which for both poets is not necessarily a king, but the law of corrosion, ratified in years, by history. In both Clare and Earley, there's a clear sense that to use a dialect more associated with town than country is tantamount to transcribing the words of a rival tradition that wishes to erase your own. Therefore, I see Earley's linguistic density and exotic semantics not as a reflection of an off-the-grid snobbery, but the behavior of a poet in rebellion against progress. Yet it doesn't seem that the speaker himself is so concerned with preserving himself, but rather the dying language he utters so fluently. In fact, this might explain the poet's style: he's making us hear what a language sounds like as it dies. And that's the premise for how to read Earley. If not, you might come to resent him and mistake urgent necessity for rustic elitism. The panic driving every sentence in Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery come from a speaker who feels they are running out of time - and in the spirit of Clare - terrified of forgetting. This is the root of Earley's melancholy: things vanish without our permission.
Earley's poetry is Appalachia 2.0, an ethos of phonetic inbreeding between already established words, placing the poet on the frontier where outlaw syllables roam freely. But the poems aren't anchored only in regionalism - the poems seem to drift between various rural locales (for example, parts of Kansas) - which is appropriate because the poet seems more inclined to conserve the concept of place rather than the concept of the South. Regardless, he employs the music and semantics associated with those parts: whether he's turning nouns into verbs or employing the incantatory power of the conjunction or dropping yonders or involved in clandestine word-making, the excessive originality of the poems, if one isn't on-guard, has the power to alienate, especially for the reader who forgets they're encountering a poet who has a job to do beyond making one feel comfortable:
I've got a home in glory land fence-looting and picket wings the jowls of my prettiest aunt all humped out beyond the blue, what I hear in your language is an insistence a paradraining sortie the pure similitude devoted first and now therefore devised to tout the chimes of labor in the muzzled oven, attend me, Uncle Lordy, the narrow-clovened roadway Satin made with his speckled eye and transforming face. he writ a song pitchfork blues, he writ a song the habitants between heaving and dearth is where the parable finds its ancient trim and grackle. these sane orange roads, prophecies, dense magi, a moment of victim, an urge and a pledge, the fair caryatid displayed on tenable allowance, the solar honk of the ill-forgotten.
In addition to the project of preservation, Earley's speaker is decidedly elegiac. Psychotically so. Death howls on every page and Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery shows us what language might sound like when it's maker is pushed face-to-face with silence. Also, aside from being death-freaked, the poet seems to not only have been born into the wrong world, but into the wrong body. I can't remember another poet more corporeal-obsessed: the body itself seems to exist only as a site of trauma inflicted by the poet's own intoxicated depictions. A generalized gore runs through this collection and in many ways Earley is our poet of American Viscera, linguistically and otherwise, and because he's so mesmerized by the fact of his own existence (and also by being wired as male) that one imagines him looking down at his body, then to the sky, and asking Really? Not so much gifted by nature, but cursed by it. And yet family and other human connections permeate this collection and I suppose within that fact there's hope for an authenticity beyond pain. The speaker relates to people, albeit critically and oddly, and as much effort he exerts to eschew his lyrical impulses, the desire to experience a love that transcends the program to mate haunts nearly every page:
my first lover was not oafish or dressed as hyena was not redolent of plums did not scotch an apple in her mouth there were no reams of grotesque children packed into her suitcase yet. she was a bureaucrat with an arrow through her thigh...she was my heart before my heart realized sex is a displacement an irritation of alternatives...
At the heart of this book - and there's many of them beating throughout - is ultimately a shocking tenderness. Only the wounded are capable of this kind of violence, this harsh cry for redemption:
I asperse salmon and semen together. dream the scarlet strip into existence. these invisible strings are our fabular us. our ground of concern the tree that we own and our yearning spores past spatial the stricken minister's art his redeemer yawls his paregoric-factions the uniform praise of dick-lipped porch aching into the ground of dogs of heaven bellow upon it their assholes lutes the dead electric harp of lowest bright order of chaos wryd of particular wild.
Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery is one of the most demanding books of poetry I've read in a while. And one of the most rewarding, but only when one's heart softens for the speaker. Otherwise, you'll just run for cover. It's the type of book that either crippled the soul that wrote it or it was written by a crippled soul, and like Rimbaud and Clare before him, written by someone willing to lose it all just to jot down some honest words.
Posted by John at 10:28 AM