Three Shots at the Impossible: Landrum, Lehr and O’Shaughnessy

by Sarah Busse

When I open David Wayne Landrum’s book, The Impossibility of Epithalamia, at the start I see a poem we published in Verse Wisconsin, “Revenant,” and remember immediately what I like about Landrum’s work in re-reading the first four lines:

I understand now. Years went by and you
carved spaces out—you carved them without me.
You homesteaded—defined a plot of new
sweet grass in a wind-swept meadow by the sea.

It’s difficult to talk about the sort of simple mastery conveyed in the rhythms of those first two lines—somehow the repetition, complete with that telling pause, catches immediately a mood of regret that “your” life has gone on, of clarity, and even perhaps a little tinge of astonishment, that it should be so. It is not easy to catch complex emotional layers in two plain-spoken lines, friends. Nor is it easy to unpack them. Less difficult to point to the alliteration and assonance—look at that sibilant last line and tell me you can’t hear the soft rush of water, and wind through sea grass. Easier to talk about that loaded word, “plot” and its double meanings, its perfect placement at the start of poem and book, together. 

“Revenant” is a good choice to open this book not just because it’s a strong poem, but it also sets up Landrum’s primary preoccupation in this book: human relationships, particularly (see the title) romantic entanglements, love and lust, both long-term and new, whether marital or not. He writes poems both lyric and narrative, and a few choice translations, all of which give him a variety of lenses through which to view his chosen subject.

Some of the lenses work better than others. I admit, there are a few poems where Landrum falters. Interestingly, these are poems more purely drawn out of imagined realms. “The Crooked Man” gives voice to the crooked man of the nursery rhyme, who had a crooked cat and crooked house… the poem is flawlessly carried out in terms of form and theme, but the crooked man fails to come to life. There is nothing to surprise us in this depiction. Likewise, in “Advice to a Son,” the poet tells his son “If you would marry, marry a dryad—/ one with dark green skin and nappy hair.” Again, there’s nothing technically wrong with the poem, except the dryad as he pictures her seems a little flat. Her skills are what we’d expect—she can weave blankets, she can find food in the forest, she can vine-lasso the son’s “enemies” (which surprising word causes me to wonder what century, what world we’re supposed to be in here—could she help with credit card theft? A mugging? What about the onset of high blood pressure or Alzheimers?) …again, I feel a lack of surprise and dimension.

Landrum regains his footing when he draws on what feels like more “real world” experience. And oh how glad I am to report this is the voice of a man who has had experiences. In “Wabi Sabi,” in “Crazy Quilt,” and in the memorable “Whitefish Point” we hear the voice of a man who has learned—and appreciates—the lessons years bestow:

Whitefish Point

Whitefish Point, Michigan, June 2003

In the grey and wet, in fog thick like the sea
you walk a beach of bread-loaf stones, not made
for bare feet, bruising tender filigree
of fine nerve networks as your soles explode
with pain and gouges. On this foggy rim
by Lake Superior the gull’s cry cuts
the air, the breakers labor, fog-horns hymn—
clammy concerto singing of what abuts
the bottom of the lake: the shipwreck hulks,
ruined rusted frames where sturgeon probe and gawk.
This is the place where nature broods and sulks,
fish stink, sunlight hides out, and lake-fowl squawk.
This is the place we came, this is denial,
this is land’s end, hard rock. This is your style.

This poem illustrates the risks Landrum takes—note the almost-too-heightened scale of these lines: “bruising tender filigree / of fine nerve networks as your soles explode / with pain and gouges.” One pauses a moment, thinks, really? But then, one is restored in her reader’s faith as “the gull’s cry cuts / the air, the breakers labor, fog-horns hymn…” And as for the end, well, that’s a payoff poets dream of writing.

This poem also shows up one of the strengths of a tightly thematic collection such as this. As one reads, the theme steals upon one so that the poems gain complexity in the reading. This poem surely could be read as merely about one outing in 2003, as it claims to be, about one particular person. But don’t we also come to see that it adds its own proof to the “impossibility” of epithalamia? In the title poem, Landrum claims that writing in praise of marriage is impossible because marriage is too complex, and too mysterious, a subject. Taken together, these poems suggest another interpretation of the title: that it may be impossible to simply praise marriage, because, well, not every day or aspect is praise-worthy. The truth of the institution is more complicated, and more ambiguous, maybe even more ambivalent, than a praise song can suggest. At some point, nearly every relationship visits this beach in Michigan once or twice, and people struggle to figure out how, or whether, to come back from the shore’s edge.

Another poem which perhaps makes my point about theme even more clearly is “Moth.” A poem “about” simply that, and yet in its context in this book, it becomes an extended metaphor, beautifully realized:


The first mistake was yours.
You flew toward what you thought was light,
circling, bumping walls,
thumping out the window then back in.

I touched you, unaware your wings were wet.
You had only just emerged,
beautifully scarred, from a twenty-year cocoon.

My fingertips (I thought them gentle)
leeched your moist life
into their parchment,

hindered your unfolding flight.
I kept you safe from spider webs
set treacherously in spaces
where the moon is dim;
gave you sanctuary from lepidopterists
who would have impaled and encased
your curious beauty.

But the scars I made on you will never heal.
Your wings bear alien patterns.
My fingerprints are molded to your flight.

Quincy Lehr hits some of the same chords as Landrum does in passages such as this one, taken from the final section of his longer poem, “The Year Zero”:

But everything we take as read is new
for someone else still unendowed with loss,
the pessimism of the longer view,
the nature of the lines they have to cross.
Some day, they switch to khakis, though chagrined,
perhaps turned rueful at their indiscretions…

There’s a similarity here in subject, perhaps, but the timbre of Lehr’s work overall is much more urban, and likes to be more hip. His diction has bite to it, and his poems balance between ennui and sardonic wit. Here’s the first poem of his book, in its entirety:

Fragment from an American Folk Song, Circa. 2003

You’re drunk and you’re bored and you’re slouching beneath
an unwatched TV while that twat Toby Keith
sings on the jukebox. It beggars belief,
but Saddam’s “at the top of his list.”
It goes on like this until late in the night.
You can say what you think, but it might mean a fight,
so you fondle your beer with your mouth closed up tight,
but your free hand closed up in a fist.

This poem is slightly unusual in the book given its brevity. Lehr prefers to work (or at least, he’s quite comfortable working) with longer forms, and this book includes a good handful of quite lengthy poems—unusual in today’s poetry scene. Lehr pulls it off. His longer poems keep up their intensities and do not repeat themselves. I find less compelling the poems where he tries to retell and put in modern context an ancient story (the rape of Proserpina/Persephone in “A Change of Season,” David and Bathsheba in “Triptych”). Here, his scenes seem less fresh, and less interesting. But I can’t tell if that is partly just my personal taste: I’ve read an awful lot of Persephone poems. Likewise Biblical midrash. It’s certainly not Lehr’s fault I’m an old religion major… but a poet would have to do something remarkably fresh with the material to intrigue me at all, by this point. So perhaps I’m not the best judge as to this aspect of Lehr’s work.

Long or short, set in New York or Ireland, this is a book of poems that is firmly placed within the world of art and aesthetics. As the title of the book suggests, Lehr references music repeatedly. Just as often, if not more, however, he references film and theater with poems such as “Art House Cinema,” “Sceneshifts,” and “Minor Character,” one of my favorites:

The bit-part actor takes a hurried drag,
stubs the cigarette with a velvet shoe,
and makes his entrance from stage left to say,
“Clubs, bills, and partisans! strike! beat them down!
Down with the Capulets! down with the Montagues!”
First Citizen’s speech is over. Exeunt.
The scene’s been set. The actor heads backstage
then has a whiskey in the bar next door.

Four acts to go on stage. We know the plot,
the balcony, the swooning, the belated
realization the Citizen was right—
although he’s gone and long since out of costume,
faded into anonymity,
the greater, uncommemorated suffering.

Lehr’s poetry is visual, he sets up scenes and lets them play out for us, or doesn’t. Often, his poems display a fascination with qualities and nuances of light. A sampling:

Blending into a glow as they recede,
the stars dissolve to streetlights, headlights, night-lights…

from “The Only Thing That Changes is the Light”

City of absences! I tried to hold
the memory like fading rays of sun
that glisten in puddles, shifting to reflections
of headlight as the sun sets…

from “Sceneshifts”

Outside the window, different shades of light
imply the movements of other lives…

from “Out of Shot”

So stark, the sky above the railroad track!
It washes out all color, blends to gray
the vacant, gazing faces and the black
of newsprint filled with murders blocks away…

from “Masks”

…and far too many trains
with suicide lighting flickering on faces
until we look like corpses in the gloom,
pallid, with a laminate of sweat
glistening as we slump against the seats…

from “Suicide Town”

I could go on, but you get the idea. What is the accumulated impression, giving all these carefully crafted lighting effects? Why, that we are in a movie theater, or a theater of some sort, watching scenes unfold with the poet/speaker. While the speaker may be something of a character within those scenes, at least occasionally, this poetry is far from confessional. (I think Lehr would laugh like mad to even read that term in a review of his poems.) Lehr doesn’t let his guard down, nor let the reader in very often. He’s the wry commentator, the jaded voice-over, as I hope is clear in the poems I’ve quoted. At times funny, at times biting, always witty. Yet it could be I treasure his sharp and defensive wit precisely because he occasionally lets his guard down, at least a little… and we’re allowed a glimpse of some moment more vulnerable. We don’t know that this is a personal poem, of course. But it’s clear that a poet who could write it must have felt something similar, at some point, to catch it so well.

Ice Storm

Isn’t it beautiful, the way the ice
holds the streets in stasis, but with glints
that flash their warnings as cautious tires roll
between the patches? You and I both wince,
consider going out, but then think twice.
Cars skid; arms break. The season takes its toll.

We’re looking out from in, or there from here,
a slight or great removal from the source
of each reflected image of the chill.
I’m over here; you’re over there, of course,
and if the air is frigid, it is clear
as night goes on, glittering and still.

Like Quincy Lehr, Keith O’Shaughnessy has a pictorial, even a movie director’s visual imagination. But whereas Lehr presents us with vivid, but ultimately fragmented scenes, impossible to connect into any larger narrative, O’Shaughnessy gives us an extended meditation and invites us with each page to come in a little closer, a little deeper. Incommunicado is not a book of lyric poems. I think we need to create a new genre to define it: this is a lyric novella, perhaps.

The setting for the book is the sun drenched Spain of bullfights, tequila, flamenco and carnaval. Perhaps nodding to his title, O’Shaughnessy sprinkles Spanish words liberally throughout these pages, so that unless one is familiar with two languages, one can’t help feeling slightly foreign to the poems. (He generously provides translations for every term in the back of the book.) Our foreignness is important. The poems are all interrelated, intricately so. They revolve around one particular night, one particular set of characters: a bullfighter, a singer, a waitress, a flamenco dancer, an American tourist, a flower girl, and an old street singer, by my count. How these characters intersect, how they briefly interact and even blur into each other, is the story of the book. Because there is a story here. I’m not going to ruin it for you by giving away “what happened.” And honestly, O’Shaughnessy isn’t concerned with plot at all. Rather, with a lyric imagination, he grabs onto two moments—one in the past eternally present, the other in the present which is all too fleetingly past. How these two moments interweave, unfold, and, yes, how they dance with each other is the work of this book.

I’m tempted to say this is one book of poetry you should read straight through from cover to cover. The poems exist in strict relation to one another. This is the most intricately planned and precisely executed book of poems I think I have ever read. A brief image that takes two lines on one page, two pages later will be unfolded and expanded upon in its own poem. A single image—torn and wilted flower petals, say, trampled on the ground, later becomes something else entirely, adding a deeper resonance to that first image. This book is soaked in metaphors which repeat, themes and variations throughout, but in each case which side is the tenor, which the vehicle is a riddle which teases us throughout the book.

Tolstoy said (and Socrates hinted before him) “We know that we know nothing.” O’Shaughnessy would agree, I think, and would add, “We can only say that we can say nothing.” This book is obsessed with saying, telling, and knowing, but again and again we crash up against the essential inability to say, tell, or know anything. The book, at heart, has us incommunicado indeed.

If this sounds like an awful lot of philosophy in a poetry book, well, it is. Yet O’Shaughnessy also clearly loves language. There are some delightfully chewy passages, such as this one:

Through the punch-soaked marketplace, where dumbstruck cymbals
ring in jingling ears, and squeeze-twisted orange peels
float in drain-puddle glorioles, the old street vendor’s chimes
echo matins to city doves, pecking almond-sweet scraps
of exploded confetti tulle, while the crushed rose petals
that a loose-haired flower girl gathers in an alms-basket
for the scent of expression, bleed fevers on the dust.

From “After the Parade”

I am in love with “squeeze-twisted orange peels,” which gives my mouth the equivalent of an abdominal workout every time I say it. There is so much here that is sheer fun to say, to play with. In a sense this passage reminds me, a little, of the Stevens of Harmonium, fascinated with sensual detail and foreign settings. I could wish for more passages such as this one. However, O’Shaughnessy prefers later Stevens, it would seem, giving us many more passages like this:

Who’s to say what it is
to be a thing that senses
the insignificance of its meaning.

Who can tell how it feels,
whatever he has or doesn’t have
on his mind, off the top

of his head, like the itch on the tip
of his tongue for the scratch
in the back of his throat…

There’s fun with language here, fun with idiom, but the drive is philosophical and I quickly find myself getting a little dizzy and (it must be admitted) a little sleepy. Perhaps that flower girl was selling poppies.

However, in other places, the pay off for this taut, inquisitive tone is large indeed:

It is impossible to say
which is the deader art,
love or the lovesong.

There is no way to tell
which was the harder crossing,
the border or the line.

Isn’t that fine! But the wonder of this book, the sheer dazzle of its project, is the note I want to end on. The way that the author takes a moment and allows it to unfold, rose-like in its complexities and layers, through all 83 pages, then allows it to unravel completely, the petals falling down into the dust of the public square, leaving us with memory, a trace of smoke or scent of a flower, the echo of a song in our ears:

The Fountain

The song that the old street singer sings sounds
like a song that has never been sung before,
or will be sung again, and yet has always
been playing, even before there were singers
or street songs, only the breeze. The waitress in the café,
overlooking the square, by the fountain,

has served whiskey all night, for so many nights,
it seems, and though she has never had one herself,
she pours a shot from the remains of the bottle
and sits down at a table as the boys put up the chairs
and sweep up the shells mixed in with the dust
at her feet. As the lamplight fades, she listens

to the song that the singer has been singing,
that she herself has been singing, without knowing
or hearing, but knows now, while the face of the Moon
lies on the surface of the water of the fountain
she will walk to later, when the café has closed,
when it murmurs like a song that has always been playing.

Sarah Busse is a co-editor of the 2013 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press, and she and Wendy Vardaman are currently serving as the Poets Laureate of Madison as well. Once in a while, she still has time to write a poem. Her first full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, is due out from Mayapple Press in October 2012.