KINDS OF CAMOUFLAGE
For Robert Philen
1. Déjeuner, with Herbs
Then I am sitting naked on damp grass
(it rained in my yesterday)
while two white gentlemen
in black frock coats share lunch
around me, passing chèvre, cold andouille,
and baguettes, passing bon mots
in French, in someone’s nineteenth century,
my muddled impression of one. I can’t
understand a word. There must be
a picnic basket somewhere, lined with
a red and white checked cloth,
some visual cliché, although
I know the cloth’s pale blue, pale echo
of a sky that isn’t there. They hardly
notice me (two men now passing apples, and
a bottle of medium quality red wine), or no,
I exaggerate, they don’t see me
at all, my body naked to the breeze
too cold for noon although it may
be May; my skin responds
in kind and gets no answer, a situation
I am used to. Browned warmth of my flesh
tones is quickly cooling, and the day
is downcast, overcast: the basket’s
been tipped over, grapes, peaches,
and some fruit I can’t make out
spill over, shadowing green. I hate poems
about food. I am a painting
by now, varnish smudged and darkening
in storage, and getting hungry fast.
2. Field Guide
Above the highway we drove home
between two hills of snow (from one
classical town to another), a bird
you couldn’t recognize at first
when I asked, What is that?.
Something trailing confused you,
threw you off track, a streamer,
scrap of dragon kite, festoon or
crimson plume. Oh, it’s a red-tailed
hawk, with something caught
I can’t make out. Dinner, anyway.
A piece of will defeated
in the wind, some little life’s
fluttered surrender. Perhaps
a red squirrel, rare color
around here (you told me
that), I could have thought
but didn’t. The hawk
won’t be hungry for long, we’re almost
home. It will be again.
“Kinds of Camouflage” has long been one of my favorite poems – by Reginald or anyone. The poem appears in Reginald’s most recent poetry collection, Fata Morgana, published last year, though it was written quite a while earlier, about a year or so after I first met and fell in love with Reginald, sometime during the winter of 2000 – 2001, or perhaps as late as early spring 2001. (I can place its writing in time because Part 2, in addition to being evocative poetry, is a pretty straight description of something we saw and a conversation we had while driving between Syracuse and Ithaca, New York, and that is the possible time range in which we might have made that drive with snow on the ground.)
Here I offer, paralleling the structure of the poem, two commentaries, distinct from one another, but related. Robert Philen
One of the most striking things about Reginald’s poetry is the strength and power of his images.
His images are typically straightforward and clear. In reading his poetry, I’m often reminded of the clarity of imagery in some of the poems of one of Reginald’s favorite modern poets, Williams – the red wheelbarrow (upon which so much depends) beside the white chickens, or “This is just to say”’s plums so cold and so delicious, to reference two famous examples.
Reginald’s imagery is also typically highly evocative. In Part 1 of “Kinds of Camouflage,” there is of course the reference to and evocation of Manet’s painting, but also a sense of the fear of exposure of nakedness (literal and figurative), fear of lack of interest in that nakedness exposed, and perhaps also a bit of a sense of the pomposity in which others are clothed (literally and figuratively).
But as Reginald was often quick to point out, in writing, speaking, or conversation, there are no images in poetry, barring some examples of concrete poetry. An important part the workings of his poetry was the tension between imagery and the fact of the poem as comprised of words.
This tension is often made explicit through calling attention to the “wordiness” of imagery. In Part 1 here, following imagery of food with “I hate poems about food,” followed by a new fiction and image, “I am a painting by now…” Similarly, in “You, Therefore” (posted below, and also published in Fata Morgana), it is made explicit that “you” and imagery of “you” are not the same, though with the ambiguity immediately reintroduced through the use of further imagery in presenting the reality of “you:” “…if I say to you ‘To You I Say,’ you have not been / set to music… you are / a concordance of person, number, voice, / and place, strawberries spread through your name…” Also, in “Kinds of Camouflage,” we encounter the ambiguity of straightforward images misperceived or unperceived (camouflaged), except because marked as camouflaged.
Among other things, Reginald was a poet of landscape and nature, though clearly not in any of the stereotypical sorts of ways.
Again, one (though only one) of the important components of most of his poetry is his striking imagery. This is one of the things that gives his corpus of work a cohesiveness, a style of its own. At the same time, the poems he wrote in different periods, and perhaps more importantly in different places, tend to have their distinct flavors. They’re all markedly “Reginald Shepherd” poems, but his Chicago poems have a different feel from his upstate New York poems from his Pensacola poems.
Much of his imagery he created or drew from subjective or interpersonal experiences or from encountering the poetry and art of others. Part 1 of “Kinds of Camouflage” uses such imagery, and taken in isolation could have been written by Reginald in any of the places he lived. Much of his imagery, though, was drawn from his physical surroundings. In Part 2 of the poem, the imagery is drawn from an incident in upstate New York. He would have emphasized, and I emphasize now, that once placed in the poem, the imagery takes on an existence independent of the occurrence, not at all dependent on the occurrence (which in this particular instance happened to have actually happened), but the imagery did have its initial inspiration in that event and place.
What I’m trying to get across here is really the simple point that he drew great inspiration from and responded to his surroundings. His Chicago poems are often full of the imagery of Lake Michigan, the waterfront, and the industrial trappings of that city – imagery largely absent from later poems. (Other waterfronts are present – but not that one.) I find it virtually impossible to imagine (aside from the fact that I know it was written in Ithaca, NY) Part 2 of “Kinds of Camouflage” having been written in Chicago. It’s possible something somewhat similar could have been written in Pensacola, though without the snow, without the classical towns, without the musing of hypothetical suppositions about whether the hawk’s dinner could have been a red squirrel, i.e. he might have written a poem in Pensacola involving a red-tailed hawk, but the total set of images bears distinct markings as one of his upstate New York poems.