Derek Walcott's Tiepolo's Hound
by Michael T. Young

Mark Nickels's Cicada
by Maureen Holm

Reviews in brief:
by Timothy Scannell

Don't Turn Away by Patricia Wellingham-Jones

Hard Bucks by William Hart

Black Mayonnaise by Donna Cartelli

Derek Walcott's Tiepolo's Hound
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000)
"The Painter's Poet"
by Michael T. Young

All poets have a project or an obsession. What separates the good poet from the great poet is the great poet's ability to transpose that single-minded project, that obsession, into various images. This constitutes part of poetic genius. It is not that great poets don't rehash old material, but that they don't seem to be rehashing old material. A great poet poses unity within diversity, synthesis within apparent analysis. The good poet's song drones; the great poet's song modulates.

Derek Walcott is a great poet and his new book, Tiepolo's Hound, confirms it--not that Walcott needed such confirmation after winning the Nobel prize in 1992. Of course, winning prestigious prizes has become notorious as the last gasp of many great voices. But, in Tiepolo's Hound, Walcott has managed to rework his old obsession into something quite fresh. Walcott's talents are diverse. He is a great poet, a prodigious playwright, and an accomplished painter. The covers of all his books are adorned with his own paintings. In addition to the cover, Tiepolo's Hound contains twenty-six paintings by Walcott. This is not a gratuitous gesture.

Tiepolo's Hound is a rough narrative sketch of the painter, Pissarro. A few details--particularly that Pissarro lived on St. Thomas in the Caribbean and then went to Paris to become one of the great Impressionist painters--are used as a springboard to contemplate the problems of an "island" sensibility struggling to affirm itself through artistic creativity. History is seen as a form of inertia that confronts intelligence within the artist's sensibility. "History is insult, energy is intellect." Thus, at the outset, we are confronted with Pissarro on St. Thomas struggling with a conflict between his need to flee to Paris to affirm his talent and his duty to stay on in the family business. However,

Success at home meant nothing, this was the center
of opinion; for a Danish colonial Jew

from a dirty, backward island to enter
the museum's bronzed doors, that would never do.

"Home" is St. Thomas and "this" is Paris. But the assumption is a corruption of history. Pissarro believes he must "enter the museum's bronzed doors," to be confirmed a talented painter. He is continually turned away and laughed at, chastised by the usual rejection that greets innovative artists. Pissarro believes this because he accepted what his colonial culture taught him: that great art is located in the past and not in the present, certainly not in a remote outpost of the British Empire. It is a lesson implicitly taught by every established culture. Walcott faced this corruption as a Caribbean poet educated in a British colony. To guard one's language against corruption is what W.H. Auden called the poet's only political duty. So Walcott asks in the narrative:

Painting releases our benign surprise
at a coal face, while we take a white hound

for granted, but what if among Three Magis
in the rush manger one lifts a black hand?

Under a British educational system, Walcott would have been taught that Jesus and the Magis were white, and not, as in fact they were, of dark complexion.

Walcott moves back and forth between painterly insight and linguistic insight. He moves freely in both worlds because he is both a poet and a painter. The metaphors and similes overlap but the governing symbol is the book's title. Tiepolo's hound is the detail that guides us, Pissarro, and the narrator himself toward understanding the complex relationship between the artist and history.

I painted this fiction
from the hound's arch, because over the strokes and words

of a page, or a primed canvas, there is always the shadow
that stretches its neck like a spectral hound, bending

its curious examining arc over what we do,
both at our work's beginning and at its ending,

a medieval memento mori, or a boy with his arrow
at a dog-eared page or blank canvas, for every artisan

a skull and a pierced heart. This was true of him now, Pissarro,
as it was in the still lifes of his friend Cezanne.

The hound is ominously watching the artist's work, both at its "beginning and at its ending." In this instance, he is the watchdog of authorities who teach history and language. The hound changes from watchdog to remembered detail (the thigh), to spectral hound, to guiding principle. These changes reflect various assertions of the artist's power over the authority of history. It is a struggle both for the poet and for the painter. It is every artist's struggle. If poets can assimilate the traditions they inherit, can embrace them not as histories but as forms of time, as forms of aesthetic identity, they will have conquered history without denying history. If poets approach art historically, they will be defeated. History will dictate what is art and what is not. The various mutations of the Hound represent this struggle. Even though there is the:

. . . outline [that] had been drawn in error
to be repainted by its maker's hand

crouched in a doorway, where, a spectral terror,
it guarded memory like a real hound.

The painter battles to break away from the influences of that history:

I ravaged a volume on Tiepolo later.
I was searching for myself now, and I found

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra,
I was that grey Moor clutching a wolfhound.

Individual identity struggles to define itself in contrast to the British Empire's imposed identity. We are witness to a battle between an artist's search for creative initiative and the inherited values of his colonial island culture, including his chosen art's history, and how it is used as a system for setting boundaries on what art must be. This is the battleground of Walcott's narrative and the battleground of much of his life's work.

What would have been his future had he stayed?
He was Art's subject as much as any empire's.

Pissarro left and became a great artist. Walcott stayed and became a great artist. Finally the story of Pissarro is a contrast for the narrator rather than an analogue for his choices.

Over the years I abandoned the claim
of a passion which, if it existed, naturally faded

from my island Pissarro . . .

The detail of the hound's thigh, its origin, blurs in the minds of both Pissarro and the narrator, so neither can remember if the hound was painted by Tiepolo or Veronese. It is precisely this blurring or blending that is the artist's birth and freedom, "Our characters are blent / not by talent but by climate and calling." This gives the artist power over the history that would deny him entrance into the cannon of "great art." He sees into his past and beyond the assumptions determined by the history he was taught to take as authority:

Because they measure evil by the seasons, the clear
death of October, its massacre of leaves,

my monodic climate has no history. . .

. . .

My fault was ignorance of the History
and my contempt for it, they are my Old Masters,

sunlight and pastures, a tireless sea
with its one tense, one crest where the last was.

No scansion for the season, no epochs
for the fast scumbling surf . . .

Along with Omeros, Tiepolo's Hound is one of Walcott's most formally welluctured works. The couplets of Tiepolo's Hound are loosely disguised quatrains. The rhetorical movement is more quatrain than couplet and the rhyme scheme is almost exclusively ABAB. It seems that as Walcott conquered the problematic history of his country within his inherited English language, he was more able to write a poetry that resembles that tradition and to do so without any compunction or trepidation. He is not controlled by it when he sits to write, either to react against it or to support it. His long efforts toward this freedom have left a body of work that is a major contribution to English poetry. In Tiepolo's Hound, the rhymes and meter are more precise than Walcott's earlier work in his Collected Poems 1948-1984. Perhaps the tension between reading the lines as couplets and reading them as quatrains is a bow to his own constant struggle with the history inherent in English:

a different language for a different light,
more crystalline, more broken like the sea

on island afternoons.

To acknowledge history and to worship it are two very different things. They are as different as the artist who can survive their knowledge and the artist whose ability and vision drowns in that knowledge. Artists must be buoyant. If they carry their knowledge like a weight, they will sink. As Walcott mastered the history embodied in Caribbean English, he became more buoyant. Rather than shouldering that history as an Atlas, he became Poseidon and lost that history, like an Odysseus, in the oceanic sweep of his verse. This was his unique solution to the conditions imposed on his own island sensibility, a solution he hints at in his Nobel Lecture, "The Antilles." Writing of the rampant tourism and how it ravages the identity of the island inhabitants, he says in response:

            There is a territory wider than this—wider than the limits made by
the map of an island—which is the illimitable
            sea and what it remembers.

Maps are made by empires. Thus, it was to the memory of the sea that Walcott turned, the mother of oceanic muses whose territories are delineated by far different authorities than politics or economics. These muses were aesthetics and the creative impulse, energy and intellect. Through devotion to these other authorities, Walcott freed himself from the need to create poetry in reaction to the history of English. His technique has consequently become sharper, more distinct, slowly defining itself like a wave traveling the ocean, growing and gathering force. Tiepolo’s Hound is Walcott's clearest and most accomplished work to date. Happily, the restrictions of the narrative rouse some of Walcott's more unwieldy gifts to a fine focus. Tiepolo’s Hound is a tribute of artistic life to artistic life and one that deserves to be read for a long time to come.

(Michael T. Young's first collection, Transcriptions of Daylight, was published this year by Rattapallax Press.) [Reviewed in the December issue. See Archives. Ed.]

It’s Got Legs:
The Alternating Bow and String of Mark Nickels’s Cicada
(Rattapallax Press, 2000)

by Maureen Holm
Senior Essayist and Articles Editor

In the Budapest of poetry domains, where Billy Collins, the heavy hand of slight verse, trundles up the mounded Citadella bank by riding-mower (Picnic, Lightning, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1998) and pork-pied Bob Holman grades the populist, level one (In With the Out Crowd, on CD from Mouth Almighty/Mercury, 2000), Mark Nickels is Danube, ignoring both, a swift current toward a Transylvania where death affirms death, and hope, like phantom pain, is a gut-twisting reality.

When my father, lowered by a winch into the ground,
was lowered by a winch into the ground,
the others in the family clustered while I stood apart
and dealt myself this little wound.
At least it has not worsened over time.
By indirection I survey dimensions of this spell
of otherness, the sourceless grief, the volume
of the violence there, self-loathing in a short parade
that trails me with its panoply of fireworks.

"By indirection" orients the reader within the slantwise of internal perception; "sourceless grief" is reminiscent of the gegenstandloses Sehnen (object-less, i.e. unspecific longing) of the German Romantics, though free of their petulance; the fireworks surprise makes the reader check aft for his own gaudy flags of private chagrin. Sparks are more familiar as recreational backdrop in "Firecraft", which brought Nickels to the Carnegie Hall stage in April as a finalist at Lyric Recovery Festival™.

With few exceptions, the forty poems in this collection wash long, some very wide, over the page, often at a lyric clip.

where black leaves
gusted toneless in the wind, plangent maybe, under railroad bridges, over
rivers we kept crossing. No, the same river: stars in left hand glass,
heat lightning in the right.
Several, including the remarkable Medici-to-Michiganer generational voice-coil of the 20-page, 588-line title poem, are composed in multiple sections, the pauses white-space portages between streams. The line, typically four stresses, sometimes five (though, if once unfolded, an inherent eight or ten), has the cadent rise-and-fall of phrasal breathing, not syllabic joint-fitting,

Standing on and on, they know
the smell of burning pine and anise,
marzipan and wax, and something louche
about it too, a scent of lately roguering
in winding sheets.

("The Mozart D Minor Piano Concerto")

or of quick pants from an anger-tightened chest that halt, with a shrug, on regret.

. . . You bumped her cigarette,
which made her nylons melt. And he, soon Air Force
classified in Bangkok, let you have it.
And figuratively then, he let them have it.
Then they let us have it. Then I let you have it.
It goes around.
("This is Over")

By turns, nostril-flaring sentient ("The brittle day is kindling."), then spare and sealed ("breath blooms and shrinks"), the poet’s intimacy with, inventive handling of, the elements and their diverse inhabitants impresses, the more so because he never subjugates them in tiresome tribute to The Indomitable Human Spirit.

. . . it is the tenderness
I haven’t stolen for this poem: the griffins
droning after the rain, touching the wood
to make a face in the bole of a tree, another hybrid,
one being falling into someone else.
("This Kindled by Gaude Virgo Salutata")

Most refreshing though is his ability to record the unsounded vibrating ridges between the played-out grooves of contemporary tropers like the complacent Collins. Thus, he is as he describes another, "one voice, not useful for anything, stretched out over imponderables, like sheetwater" (Cicada: 1, at 87), devotee of scored and unscorable "Music you were seeking out, the ice / you broke to wash." (Cicada: 4, at 98), observer of "a knotted snake there regnant, / describing absence, but signifying the whole." (Cicada: 2, at 88). Nubs in all of it, he finds them--along with everything that whirls, spirals or helixes: The cover art depicts not so much insect as the winged, gold-filigreed brooch for a royal, dynastic tunic.

Even before the story begins, you endure
a hundred subtractions not accounted for
in this turning: a grimness coming down
that doesn’t answer to your name, and wayward
urgencies of memory that have you stupefied,
engrossed. I’m thinking you don’t know
how much. What do you know of it,
your spectral, green, small icehouse wound,
and under it, the wounds of others, owned
by a line of hominids with lips compressed,
concealing mossy teeth, and in the DNA,
a quiver of time-defying ecstasies and ailments
gone underground for thirteen generations,
like cicadas, only to surface in you?
(Opening stanza, Cicada: 1)

Flights of reimagination turn on a wealth of internalized predecessor effort, literary and otherwise, random stimuli, and humor. In "Mrs. Onassis is Spying on Patrons in the Temple of Dendur",

Men living and men dead bourrée, brocaded,
in full view, and then recede. They rally at the plinth
behind the Met, where they put on horse’s clothes
and are ridden through the park.

From a museum set piece, he conjures next an 18th Century Venetian who seems a chance composite of the aging cravats from Prufrock, Death in Venice, and Suddenly Last Summer.

Last night I had some cuttlefish in pastry shells,
some roasted meadowlarks, new wine.
Today, a little crowd of pimps and urchins
drift and hover, watch me sashay mirrorwards
with a rococo bounce before I shoo them out,
the offspring of domestics who extol
the virtues of their sisters with an undulating hand.
[ . . . ]
How are you, Signore? the urchins ask.
I’m dying, how are you? -- sweating blood into my silks,
shitting, drooling, spare, like a gisant.
A doctor, Viennese, is cupping me
and always whistling: basset whistling low.
Welts surging on my flesh, like café-table rings,
Der Arzt uncorks a mincemeat of jarred leeches.
[ . . . ]
In dreams I’m walking golden, stunned,
out of the picture, in a delirium for touch:
rind, not essence, the watcher who
remains obscured. Cold news billows
in my arteries.

Disguised as wry, Collins’s contemptuous "wet-thumbing" through the mail-order unmentionables before bedtime is simply creepy ("Victoria’s Secret"). Nickels closes "Dendur" as man half-clad, then semi-disembodied.

Last night, undressing, I saw behind me
her, half curtained in the dark [ . . .]
[. . .] she comes in every night
with grosso hair, in a Cassini winding sheet
with nubby weave, and I see it all
from up there by the gilding, as though
the whole tableau were happening for someone else.
And soundlessly we talk about the ghosts
entwined around our spines in tired clothes.
And we are older than anyone.

While death affirmed may be a mere change in the mode of presence ("The Spiral Maneuver") such that nothing (and no one) is really dead, (Cicada: 2), life’s companions rarely come unbidden.

Of all known wounds, the worst are untold loves.
In dense cities we exhale them, and they open
in the air, like heat blots on a stuttering film. [. . . ]
We could unbind each other, you and I. [. . .] Or not.
Instead, I’ll keep revolving in my ribcage,
where I’m watching you, behind the bars.
("Dusk in Central Park")

I asked to fall asleep beneath her skirts,
and she consented, this while
sitting at piano, pounding out
some piece by Gluck. And it was green
like China,
[ . . . ]
And then we saddled Chinese horses,
little horses, and rode off to the Lake, which was
the China Sea. The Lake was green,
with jesting waves. . . .
[ . . . ]
She said she’d like to wash her hair,
and she did this, by simply diving in, and
then she let it dry out on my face, as I had
requested. I lit my smoke.
[ . . . ]
Pulsing, dry hands together, green colors
coming down, bloodboatcolorloftinglife.
Terrifying peace.

("One Afternoon")

Mark Nickels is one of a crop of seasoned, younger poets brought to market by Rattapallax, itself an emerging, semi-annual journal edited by New Yorker veteran George Dickerson and press published by award-winning filmmaker Ram Devineni (<>). Journal and books come with a CD--no small enhancement since Nickels delivers his work with a trained voice. Also notable are Ron Price, a bold choice of subtle consciousness for Poet-in-Residence at the Juilliard School, and Michael T. Young, whose surface detachment is belied by the visceral integrity of his linebreaks.

[Since this review first appeared, George Dickerson has left Rattapallax and become a contributing editor to this magazine. His successor, Martin Mitchell, contributes to this month's issue. (See Articles.) Michael T. Young's book was reviewed here in December (see Archives), and Young also contributes to this month's issue. See Reviews. Ed.]

Reviews In brief:

Don't Turn Away by Patricia Wellingham-Jones
(PWJ Publishing, 2000, POB 238, Tehama, CA 96090, 22 pp. $4)

The intelligence and sensitivity in these twenty poems about surviving breast cancer (mastectomy) are well beyond the mere words of unalloyed praise this reviewer can give. Chronologically arranged throughout the illness, ever-sensitive fingertips signal the initial horror: "I stared at my fingers / in disbelief / Dozens of times over the weekend / my fingers prodded and poked." Of course, in the hospital, the confirmation will come: "I lie on the gurney, wrapped in blankets / warmed and snuggly, lift my mind / out of the hospital, try to wheel / with hawks in the sky." And in a subsequent poem, in the operating room, "I slid away to her gentle whisper. / Have a pleasant dream. / We'll take good care of you."

Were it all so simple! But it is not. There are the tears. There is the waiting. There is "the fear in my belly // after the knives dance." There are the bad days enduring the effects of chemotherapy: "To cap a day / ending / in vomit and tears, / a skunk / paused / under my window." There are those days of bodily exhaustion, in the rocking chair, under the favorite sycamore, listening to a whole and healthy natural surround: "but this robin, in this moment, / makes my whole body sing. / I lie back, a fragile veil, for the breeze / that wafts through me."

Finally, the cancer-patient's doctor is reading the pathology report, and there is debate and consideration of those "options" to come; but in leaving the office the doctor turns: "he glanced over his shoulder / at my beaming face. / Professional mask split / by a small boy's joyous grin." And so, at this tenth poem--with ten more to go--the reader is simply overwhelmed by the ability of this poet to detail the nuance of life-threatening illness (shock, anxiety, operation, recovery), while simultaneously interweaving the outside world (nature, home, relatives, and the waxing and waning of individual spirit). Don't Turn Away is an amazing chapbook. Its concluding ten poems, as astute as those earlier, treat the joy of rebuilding the body, the guilt of survival (other cancer patients are observed who--the author knows--will not make it); and the anxiety over renewed lovemaking: "when you step back and run your eyes / over my one nipple, across the dented / healing slash, up to my face, / will I see on your skin / the ripple of revulsion, a strained smile?" Well, the purchase of this book will tell you. As for me, a Pushcart Prize is the only possible answer to this wonderful book on illness--and life.

(Timothy Scannell lives in Washington State.)

Hard Bucks by William Hart
(Swan Duckling, 2000, POB 586, Cypress, CA 90630, 40pp. $5)

It is a highly desired but rare pleasure to encounter poetry about work: its effort, danger, satisfaction. When blackberry bushes choke a water main in Oregon, someone must clear them out, a futile effort of clipping and sawing until workers are "issues heavy weapons: / old car tires and gasoline... / underburning the thorny / tendrils at their source / collapsing them helpless / into the belly of the fire." Yet the natural world is so tenacious that, with time, "the bushes [are] back, more / luxuriant than before."

The house painter "circles your proud domicile / clinging to the shade all day / (better for both paint / and painter) / our endless strokes / building wrists / like titanium 2X4s." Two examples, then, of blue-collar vocations, but there is other labor, among these 18 poems, as wonderfully detailed, as carefully considered: moving rocks and boulders from a field, or discovering the efficacy of the steel wedge in splitting various kinds of logs. There is also work simply too revolting to stay with for very long, exemplified by "One Hell I Already Know": "picking up 55 gallon barrels / of rancid kitchen grease / from bowling alleys / nursing homes // the ungodly stench / of molten putrified flesh / choked my brain, lifting puke / to the back of my tongue" (when this fetid gallonage arrives at a rendering plant).

The deft craftsmanship here demonstrates again and again that work is a very worthy, rich topic for poetic exploration and rumination. It is puzzling that poets so often rush to fogbound coasts or garbage-filled urban alleys for inspiration when, in America alone, there are over 50,000 distinct jobs categorized and described in tomes issued by the federal government (e.g., Dictionary of Occupational Titles or Occupational Outlook Handbook). Whether the subject is triple-overtime, workmate loyalty, the perils of spot-welding, or dizzying labor high atop a grain elevator, Hard Bucks is a golden arrow which flies straight to the core of work qua work: its tedium, joy and very often, its genuine metaphysical mystery. The only other chapbook I've encountered on actual work, aproaching the excellence of William Hart's, is The Sisyphean Burden (1996) by Fred Voss and Michael Estabrook (60 poems on aircraft manufacture/white-collar computer salesmen). Any adult reader could justify disappointment--even anger--that poems about jobs and work were never met in the dozens of literary anthologies plowed through in high school, at community college or university. Why were such poems not in them, when 130 million of us end up toiling on field and street, in factory and office? Obviously, there was, and is, no excuse for their omission. Highly recommended.

(Timothy Scannell lives in Washington State.)

Black Mayonnaise by Donna Cartelli
(Ten Pell Books, 303 Park Avenue South #500; NYC, NY 10010; 69 pp., $12; MM).

A praiseworthy first book of 31 poems, often stream-of-consciousness, sometimes surreal - always wryly humorous or acidly penetrating. In "Prospect," the persona guides us through her "studio" in Brooklyn, "no bigger than the half-bath / in my parents’ house," where cleanliness and accumulation reign: "Toilet, litter box, sinks cleaned weekly: that is my cardinal rule." And, "I revel in discoveries and memories. In pictures and words. / Store them in folders, in boxes, my mind. / Make collages, write poems, keep journals." Many poems exquisitely etch the poet’s life. Her superb 10-part "Watery Suite" records water-references from birth onward: avoiding the "brown tide," in the 70’s, "longingly watched / coppery rush hit beach / not daring to let it touch my feet…" or lovemaking, "…his: / sand-breaded fingers // salted lips // melting me // within a fortress of tall / browned beach grass…" or bathing where On Golden Pond was filmed, "honor system: nobody / canoes around the island / before 8 a.m. / biodegradable soap only and no urin- / ating in Lake Winnipesaukee please…".

Black Mayonnaise also includes several astute character and ‘family’ histories, all unfolding in beautifully controlled, poetic, paragraphs: the 3-page "Gemma & Jack"; the 4-page limning of a pathetic family, "The Bloods", whose regrets are "sowed in great satchels and tossed / in the attic and linen closets and in the basement laundry room. / Small regrets are sown in satchels that fit in drawers." The 7-page tour de force, "Making History: A Codex", is thinly-veiled autobiography, a woman who "died pressing the TV remote. A charge of electricity / through her body. An accident, perhaps… // She is said to have taken pleasure in listening to the birds out / her window foraging at dawn, and mimicking her cat’s killing / meow - the stuttering one; the one in which his lower jaw chat- / tered as if he were a battery operated toy." There is no stuttering at all in the poetry of Donna Cartelli. Some poems veer into Dadaist obscurity, but a full score illustrate deep poetic reach, intricate tones of satire, wit, poignancy - even personal nightmare. I reviewed over 100 chapbooks in 2000, and this is only my second recommendation for the Pushcart Prize. Excellence!

(Timothy Scannell lives in Washington State.)