Thursday, July 27, 2006

11. Tom Lowenstein

The eleventh in this series.

I’m going to try to keep these a little shorter than they have been, although this one will still be longer than an average blog entry.

Tom Lowenstein is an ethnographer as well as a poet, and specialises in the Inuit of Alaska. His contribution to the anthology is a single poem over 10 pages, La Tempestà’s X-Ray. The title refers to a painting by Giorgione from about 1505, in which a lightning bolt is just visible above the city in the background. In 1939, an X-Ray revealed that beneath a second nude woman, poised to bathe in the river in the picture, there was a soldier, and that there was a background of rectilinear forms, suggestive to Lowenstein of a twentieth century city landscape.

So behind the pastoral, the city waits to come into being, behind the woman is a soldier also waiting for discovery. This leads Lowenstein to explore his ideas of time endlessly repeating – the past coming both after and within the present, and the present containing both the past and the future. Lowenstein switches effortlessly between meditating on the picture’s surface to its hidden X-ray mysteries, via Magdalenian cave drawings, ancient Egyptian columns that allow life to continue as long as they are kept vertical, the Eskimo villages of the Tikigaq, and an exploration of our human bodies and souls.

This isn’t poetry that values the chatty vernacular. The lines stretch across the page, often split into two or three sections. It’s complicated to do on a blog, so I‘ll just have to use “sausage quotes” to illustrate. The picture is described first as:

Like the crushed particles of some used match-heads/ rubbed on/ cartridge paper – out in broad charcoally flanks/ a ragged/ honeycomb of fretwork, light-charred,/ flawed with excrements/ of lunar interstices/ (crumbled nightwhale jointed into vertebrae/ of chiaroscuro…)

Lowenstein casts a rueful eye over the environmental disasters that make up the modern city and sees it as a repeat of past violence:

…those spectres
that are to have arisen in the furore of the future
pluperfect, inherent as they must be in the burning molecules
of its foetus.


Life is suffering, an endless repeating loop. Humans desire to be free and to break out from the prisons they create for themselves, but they seldom manage it:

The eternal dagger of unsatisfied illumination,
which, held crippled in the closely burgeoned
flatulence of minerals and gases,
like a zigzag of agate in some gloomy matrix,
breaks never in the after-thought
or after-revelation of a thunder,
although we may wait epochs for it in asphyxiation.

So it’s not exactly optimistic, although there’s nothing to say poetry has to be.

In this poem, Tom Lowenstein doesn’t like the plain phrase and would rather spend ten lines piling grandiloquent image onto image then say something simply in a few words. Sometimes it works and he succeeded in astonishing me with the sheer power of his writing. At other times, it all went too far. Here’s a description of the city emerging through the pastoral painting:

Raising its vast sunless concrete ectoplasm in the brown-out,
the cold prefabricated stanchions of the future
rearing their anticipated, sheetlike femurs,
flesh stripped in the ice masque -

Tom Lowenstein is a poet of intelligence, who isn’t afraid to take on big ideas and to write in a grand style quite out of keeping with today’s fashionable short-lined, conversational epiphanies (although I have read one or two other poems, which employ less elevated diction). I couldn’t quite warm to this poem, but I wouldn’t mind reading more. The few poems I’ve seen by him have been very different from one another and I find that intriguing.

2 comments:

C. E. Chaffin said...

Based on your small sample, I'd put him in the Elliptical School with Jorie Graham et al.

These are the poets who try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Robertson Davies loved the "plain style," as did Steinbeck and Frost. I like my poetry straight up, not turned into some exotic drink in which I can't taste the alcohol.

You are a good critic because you are kind and try to enjoy what you can. No agenda, unlike Harold Bloom! (Our great boorish Judeocentric American bloviator.)

Rob Mackenzie said...

I like your exotic drink analogy!

I'm not always kind, but I do try to appeciate a set on poems on their own terms rather than by what I would like them to be. If they succeed in what they attempt to do, I tend to feel that's enough. But if they don't manage that, I can be quite cutting, depending on how far they fall short.