Ryan Eckes's American poetry
A review of Ryan Eckes's 'Old News'
In her essay “Against Transparency: From the Radiant Cluster to the Word as Such,” Marjorie Perloff argues that poetic imagery can’t avoid reproducing the “videation of our culture.” Noting Charles Bernstein’s concept of “‘imagabsorption’ — the ‘im-position of the image on the mind’ from without” (79). She attributes this condition to the conjoined histories of marketing, public relations, and propaganda in twentieth-century America. As wordy ads targeting a consumer in the decades of radio went the ways of a picturesque television, the message changed into a compact visual of simplifying elegance. In stores, catalogs, magazines, the news, a moment’s image proved infectious: “telenostalgia” (77). This shift in how many could experience the same totalizing picture in their head meant that, for some poets, by the conclusion of the ’80s:
Image as the dominant gives way to syntax: in Poundian terms, the turn is from phanopoeia to logopoiea. “Making strange” now occurs at the level of phrasal and sentence structure rather than at the level of the image cluster so that poetic language cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media. (78)
When mediating images appear, the tongue should be tied in the grammar of what marketplace lies about them. Today, post-paper, there is a return (popular among many) to an imaginary life of typed pictures, but they are far from the direct treatment, whose sincere associative is-ness bears a hint of the absurd.
The spirit of this trend (whose identification will have to stand without proof or names), though still suspicious regarding the value of a hot commodity, which is the profound lesson from the Marxist Language school to the MFA (and perhaps accounts for its avid interest in writings from lost cultures), dismisses the Language poet’s denial of the validity of feelings to understanding the experience of readers. This history aside (ignoring the conceptual, and perhaps thanks to the confessional), it is now serious business to speak of the “emotional center” of a poem’s work:
you need to learn to pump yourself up, she said. (Eckes, Old News, 13).
i wanted to say, i’ll pump you up …
but i could not pump myself up enough
to say that. funny how you can leave your
self so farx behind when you talk to some
one. and where is that self, just now? (7)
All of this is too much preamble to Ryan Eckes’s stunning book from 2011, Old News, which isn’t concerned with movements or schools and so is interesting when compared to them:
you look for work, the world’s largest living thing. its door weighs
4,000 years and grows one centimeter every decade. (16)
In the first place, joining the experiential to the weight of the visual reminds me that the actual subject matter that becomes poetry, or any writing, will remain the base condition of its audibly cognitive, oxygenated rendering. I am also reminded that poetry, like any writing, can construct minds, even mock or titillate them, even if the writer’s wonder and trouble is still attached to the things themselves, their conversing and what it means; poetry is often discovered like a fresh membrane to filter through what preexisted, probably survives, and maybe even ruins his or her contemporary translation. The addictive quality of such reception has always been that, sometimes, from an admittedly uncertain but nonetheless methodic, scientific point of view, a novel (semantic) pattern of organization (and crossing this threshold spontaneously, into its own organism) may appear, however much the fleeting, ineffectual permeation into us. “Work,” and even looking for it, as “the world’s largest living thing” — this is an ecopoetic point of view, romantic as hell, and it is not new.
Within its first few pages, Old News explains:
we tore up the rotten carpets and the mats underneath, which were
stapled to the old pine floor from the days before carpets, and found
newspapers from 1923 spread across the room. some Philadelphia
Inquirer, some Evening Bulletin. some 1923 in some 2007. (9)
Old News lineates the ordinary language of the picturesque stories of people and events from those found newspaper pages, producing enjambed verse. Also peppering it are partial facsimiles of “the American Geographical Society’s pamphlet series ‘Know Your America Program: Philadelphia’ printed in 1951” (2). On one of the book’s pages, a photograph of congested traffic going into and from the steel horizon of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, capturing the “rush hour progress” of the almost identical vehicles standing still and probably emitting today’s smog, is juxtaposed to a larger image:
Looking past Logan Circle, central feature of one of Penn’s original city square parks, along the beautiful spacious tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward the Museum of Art and Fairmount Park beyond. William Penn would have liked this part of Philadelphia, for it is indeed full of greenery. (17)
And the fragment of some reproduced tourist’s propaganda, à la Perloff, that Eckes places under these pictures and their captions speaks of a similar marriage of industry to someone else’s beauty and independence. The material gleaned from a pamphlet and some old news, found under (someone’s) old carpet, brief snapshots of what the reader is to call “Philadelphia” in 1951 and 1923, form the frames for reading the poet’s more immediately contemporary poems, whose earliest indicators say “mouse-infested apt, Feb 2003” (13):
DREDGING = JOBS
the walt whitman bridge is no cheaper
than the ben franklin
lay on the horn all you want
camden is poor (36)
Regardless of national origin, the Philadelphian is aware of a rich heritage. He is aware that his city fostered the birth of a nation and through the years established an extraordinary record for political, cultural, and scientific firsts, many of which had far-reaching effects on the country as a whole. He is proud of all this, and of those who maintain the city’s best traditions. He works hard — but not too hard — and in his leisure time he goes to a museum, a concert, an opera, or at the very least he tries to support such endeavors. As in the time of Franklin, a well-furnished mind is practically a requisite for membership in the elite, especially if your ancestors didn’t happen to be among the Signers. (41)
Inasmuch as the poems in Old News paint things like frailty, error, and resignation as operative, nostalgic, wordy events for their contemplative “I,” the speed at which its history finds form is impressive, as diachronic and synchronic links and patterns emerge from experienced and reported situations within the tight, expository, conversational verse; next to an obsessive enjambment, down the page, identifiable units, often about the size of a line, link individual poems to the next, making Old News into a reader’s trip through its map of the city. And with his depictions of Philadelphia’s people, of their mostly wide-eyed desires and foibles amidst all that comes and came with their news, Eckes shows the reader a city vibrating with confused, misunderstood, historically determined attitudes and segregations. I hesitate to quote directly from their mouths, in which neighborhoods and race play a part.
The poems in Old News do not shy away from writing (about) the tribe’s experiences, justified, in part, by an archival dumpster-diving methodology and quick wit whose attention to what’s what in his surroundings is razor sharp. The speaker articulating these poems in this city seems sensitive to the boundaries of the denizens filling it, to including its illustrious dead. And yet its frank curiosity and, at times, outrage indicates a gift (and willingness, it seems) for ignoring that. Living narrative is the dominant mode (enjambed), with some strict tercets and quatrains and almost some sonnets (with their crown-like quality, already described), with ample amounts of dialog and witnesses, but it is the strange secret of where they have come from that piques this renter’s interest:
people say but you own it
but i know that it owns me
which is fine, it’s much bigger
than i am and older and here
i am writing my checks now
to […] (12)
With peculiar bits of history included in it, Eckes has written a book that is remarkably successful in addressing the psychological underbelly and larger implications of a people’s actions — it discovers a hidden story, linking past with future, out there. And as the undead of strange history is found to be infecting the city in this book, they seem to this reader to have been mostly actual things. The power of the poetry in Old News, like the news it finds and found, lies in an unsentimental use of language to depict what is witnessed and what is reported.