Lawrence L. White is a writer of idea-governed poetry who never forgets that the particular is paradise (and paradox as well). Influenced by the perhaps unlikely combination of Wallace Stevens, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and especially Allen Grossman (both his vatic poetry and his visionary poetics), White has a remarkable capacity to spin out and sustain imagistic and thematic architectonics over the arc of a longer poem, and to combine a fine-grained lyricism with an expansive meditative pulse. The mythy motions of his large-minded poems always make their way through the real words of a real world. His extended ruminations launch themselves from the particulars of an occasion, seeing the Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s version of Alice in Wonderland, two crows conversing in a sycamore, or a boating trip across a local urban lake. The gesture toward grand statement is tempered by a grounding and grounded irony, thematic and tonal, that is tonic but never evasive, and also by a hearty appetite for the quotidian: “the body keeps whatever it eats./Almost all of it.”
White’s poems search for the place where personal experience and the transcendental meet and mingle: they don’t seek to rise above the world, but rather to go deeper into it, digging into the ground of meaning to discover (as he puts it) what difference poetry can make against the obscene erasures of death and forgetting. But this implies a ponderous solemnity that the poems, sprightly and lively in their utter seriousness, belie. As the poems remind us again and again, the continual realization that failure is to be taken for granted as the price (the proof?) of the striving toward the sublime still leaves us with the rewards of real life, a substantive sustenance: “the slug of what matter words/Would be forged of.”
Lawrence L. White’s poems have appeared in such journals as The Boston Review, Epoch, and The Literary Review. I featured a substantial selection of his work in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries.
The sycamore stretched straight,
Its new skin the color of snow,
In a file of sycamores the color of snow,
Lined against the road.
Up in the sycamore two scrannel crows
Talk, cracking the same word, seed
Of a word, slug of what matter words
Would be forged of.
This road goes around the world.
The headlights thrown across the street,
Pollarded sycamores draw stunted fists
Against the careless inquiry. The woman
At the payphone sees the quick headlamps
Tracing tangents, like capes, like
Oars. Free between stations,
She holds off on the cross-country
Numbers. Her fingers stir the rough
Aggregate air, which slips beneath the shrub,
Waits for thicker shadows in the spring,
The stairs, flight squared against flight,
Rose. I turned. She said, “What you have
Taken, take it for what I give.”
The park of the full moon
Of snow the color of the moon
Of light that smells like menthol, clings
Except to the trees,
Branches etched against the anodyne.
Contour lives on lines.
Inside it’s empty, what daylight fills.
Somewhere these same stairs turn
Endlessly upward. Her words
Rise & fall, what was given
A cardinal on a fence. A black squirrel on snow.
After the thaw two crows on matted grass
Made dialogue of one repeated word.
an essay on Švankmajer’s Alice
I thought this was the one time
I would see the film. The colorless screen
Flowered like smoke over the city.
Where she was sitting by the brook,
Throwing stones into the water,
Where she was sitting in her bedroom,
Throwing stones into the teacup,
Investing the soul in boredom,
Of years, hours & days in the room
Of Alice staring at him inside his case, and him
Resisting her with his glass eye,
His label, Lepus cuniculus.
The drawer is a space inside the desk.
In the playhouse made of wooden blocks
Inside the room with the cucumber frame
With rabbit hutches in that,
She sat at the blue pot and ladled sawdust,
Careful to pick out the screws. She can’t eat
Everything. Even the rabbit picked out the screws
When he ate the shavings, to fill in
Him leaking from the ventral slit.
In the drawer full of pins slithering
Each pin rings when the clasp shuts.
The ring holds a spark inside it.
In the drawer of pins the rabbit finds
The pain to seal his leaking cavity.
From which he pulls a watch, 5 to 12,
And hangs it on one hook
Of several screwed into the door
Hanging watches. 20 to 10.
6 past 9. 17 past 3. One place over!
The hare butters the rabbit’s watch.
Wait. Please sir, said Alice
The one time is all the time.
Sir. Please, said Alice.
She closed each door behind her. Space
Contains more space, in the drawer of pins
Or scissors or sharpened nibs,more
Blood in the scissors, ink on the nib,
The way the body keeps whatever it eats.
Or almost all of it. What I remember
I get to keep, until it digests.
Next time it’s my turn. Eat me, Alice.
On Saturday, the weather separates.
Clouds break east and west.
What remains is bare, and sharp.
The face we could not look on,
The face wrapped in blue silk
So fine it prickles, were it not,
Being a costume of the beloved,
Too far, covers us, this weekend.
We love an atmosphere, a shrilling mantle
Trimmed in cumulus extravagance;
Warm, moist air rises on the mountains
Into colder air and blossoms
Mountains of light. The great lovers
Are everywhere to be seen; sun beloved
Of earth, earth beloved of moon,
The wind against the mountains,
The wind voluptuous
In the cottonwoods. But in the embrace,
The leaf remembers a farther pain,
And turns, exclaiming
The color of the sun, though this affection
Is not tender, nor lush. It is more like
Aluminum than gold or saffron or
The yellow iris bordering the lake,
Not the island of flashing cottonwoods,
Whose other side is someplace to observe,
Somewhere to hide from the sky. This we approach.
Let me include the pair in the rented canoe:
That’s my wife in front, the world before her,
She and the world, arranged in depth, before me.
I am about to ask her about the love
These things have for each other. I will not,
In the end, ask her about it at all.
Perched on the lake’s meniscus, a shallow
Warp toward heaven, we are at hand
To the water, marbled as it is,
With fine, unspeakably intricate lines.
In hundreds of bright spots
They signal this bright occasion
For whom? Evenly spaced across the lake,
The swallows dip and hook in their cavort
Over the water. They thread a net,
This swarm of purposes, this carnival
Arrayed across, to snap and gather sparks.
Those coins are money, or maybe food enough.
A jeweled swallow, cutting over the bow,
Bullets on the wind, then lifts a shoulder
To lever up and slide, crosswind, back down
Close to the water’s face. I look at a point,
And cannot see its prize, if it catches
The light’s liquid reflex, or an insect,
If the bullet bird, pulled down again, would know
What binds the light to the water,
Binds the mind, or even why
It chitters tremolos, as if excited
By the excitement of the beloved’s glance
Upon the water, and how this scatters money.
It’s not a brooch or a clasp on her left hand.
She wears a simple circle of this light,
Which I have taken for my light and food.
When she raises the oar to a particular angle,
Her ring ricochets the sun.
It’s telegraphic, speaking to my eye:
You turn away. When would you ever stop
Turning away and away? What snare would catch,
And fix the line?
Listen. Don’t look. Nothing’s to be seen.
Everything’s to be betrayed, but one; the sun,
The source of aluminum and gold.
I listen, looking at a sky. About this blank
A ghost is floating,
A chip of hardened gel inside my eye,
Made visible against the vacancy,
Some stiff amoeba sliding around,
A crude, transparent coin of my own substance.
When I turn my eye toward it, the floater drifts
Away to the edge. When I give up, and turn back,
The floater follows. This is private genius,
My attention pointing in every direction
From where I’m looking. This is one thing
That cannot attract me. It is inside,
And unlike my wife. If I look away from her,
She looks away. Where the horizon bevels,
There is no seeing. Before that are these things.
When we surrender to the wind, and turn
From the island of flashing cottonwoods,
And the mystery of its unseen other side,
We watch the clouds extend mountains,
And the moon,
A pale kite, haul into the wind.
What I can’t hear is what
She hears in her head:
He’s following me.
Five needle white pine, grackle drilling into.
Art students, lunchboxes in hand, cross the bridge,
In each box one brick. On the cusp of Crandic’s grade
Grackle chirrups a split-song. Professor Prometheus
Teaches how to hovel bricks,
House fire, in which they’ll forge
Fire-drills that feather flame.
Grackle makes an air-plow, into green frill.
An art student puts one brick atop another,
Day-dreaming his fire-drill aglow, plosive,
Useful. Each time he looks up, that
Grackle, which is not fire, plowing into green—
I have slightly reformatted two poems because I could not reproduce the indentations in the original text.