David Offutt's Bench Marks

First Principles: Work and Love

Night and Day: George Held reviews a first book by African American poet Lester Graves Lennon

David Offutt's Bench Marks
(Osric, POB 4501, Ann Arbor, MI 48106
24pp.; $3; 2001)

by Tim Scannell

We need the long poem, like the 3000-line masterpiece by Todd Moore (Working on My Duende) [Reviews, Oct'01]. We need the complex, textured lyric, like Alan Catlin's Stop Making Sense. We also need the flashing truth of our usual Hesiodic works and days, offered here in a first 22-poem collection.

Its glint of poetic truth is at a railroad crossing: "He whoops and hollers at the train as it passes… / Man-child…oblivious to CNN… / on his way to Tastee-Freeze, / for a dipped cone on a warm day." A nip of ethical tone is in "Bigot," the narrator handing two cigarettes to a stranger ("ragged and smudged"), '…with one hand, the other in / reserve, / tense. He needs a light, obliging, but / not handing over the Zippo." The modern illness of not accepting a person's plainspoken word is in "Transmutation," the pregnant wife at a mirror, "…swollen breasts / just months removed from pertness. / Areolas now targets for an unborn mouth… [doubting] / when he tells her she is beautiful." Beauty in "Queenie": "Plastic spooning canned peaches, / she's careful not to drip nectar / on her new sweater."

This poet, in an assured voice, details the small event, meeting or conversation of prosaic daylight and evening; no wasted word—clear judgments made. The inferences are sensible, as in the poem "Priorities": a woman gives sandwiches, cigarettes, gloves and coats to the homeless, "…at the entrances of their cardboard condos." A pair of gloves, once given to ward off the cold, were "traded…for a bottle," yet she "…hands over the cellophaned / Roast beef on wheat…" regardless, giving only a smile to the narrator asking "why she does this."

As René Descartes said, "The heart has reasons the mind knows nothing of," and because of that overarching and eternal truth, the reader hopes for many more collections by David Offutt. Heart, alone, is a very good reason for a poem—and another, and another.

~ .


First Principles: Love and Work

by Tim Scannell

The best part of poetry is to know that it is virtually unconscious (therefore fearless and trusting), like sensing God, however inexplicable—however much mere physical life hurts and is bruised and scraped; but as clear and solid as every leaf on every kind of flora, and as much a certainty as reaching for a cup of coffee without looking.

A poem is inside the womb of unconsciousness just as I was as unknowing in my mother's womb, both as perfected as Dinge an sich could be (surprise, surprise), and ever after—of necessity—work, work, work! But not more so than a fawn standing, a baby whale rising beside its mother's flank (up, up, up) for its first breath of…HUH?—air!

But, but, the fawn knows nothing about its fight against gravity, and the calf knows nothing about air, whereas I know about both (and a about good lot more). For instance--and a sufficient example for the parameters of all other phenomena—I'm equipped to differentiate among 250,000 colors. Concomitantly, where even poor ol' Noam Chomsky fell flat on his face, vainly trying to plumb exactitude in his ha-ha grammar, at last letting the word 'mystery' sum things up (realist, indeed!), I admit into all of my life, and extol, great swales of fearlessness, undulant meadows of trust, which is why, I suppose, ol' Noam is still stuck with a very politicized system-baiting—like the moronic Susan Sontag, recently in The New Yorker[1]—while I write poetry (99.44% pure spirit).

The secular world is a sliver to me, truly, and so are ideology, the international corporations producing heavenly macaroni & cheese, Mad magazine, and, most certainly, all the haw-haw art produced by Hollywood, Lincoln Center, and MoMA. Don't get me wrong now: I look, listen, touch, taste, but I also—and as much—infer, discern, adjudge, and conclude.

Why? Why, Jesus H. Particular Christ! It's so simple! I am neither a machine nor a whiplashed ism, nor an apple or a pallet of 2x6 cedar planks. When we allow it—fearless/trusting—we humans are the dialectical[2] maw: pitch, stress, juncture; juxtaposition, nuance, full stop. Which is as clear a definition as I can get toward First Principles—and right onto Aristotle's lap:

The hardest of all definitions to treat in argument are those that employ terms . . . in one sense or several, and, further, whether they are used literally or metaphorically . . . it is impossible to argue upon such terms . . . it is impossible to refute them.

I am not sorry it is so. Furthermore, I accept, as its only amelioration of vicissitude, Sigmund Freud's life-summative advice: Werk und Liebe—boon companions.

Western wind, when will thou blow
That the small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

[1] [Invited, along with many other well-known writers, to comment, Sontag's brief statement is excerpted below. For weeks after, she was called a 'traitor.' Eds.]

The disconnect between [September 11's] monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. . . . Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. (The New Yorker, 9/24/01)

[2] Dialectic: Eight definitions but, here, not that applied to history, asserted as synchronic (the string of pearls viewed head-on); not diachronic (the linear string of pearls viewed face-on, separately). Reports of attentiveness, then, of all interinanimations (cf., Donne's "The Ecstasy") of macro/micro processionals: "Mind is fingertip's fingertip / Softly round the baby's face / In the crib…" (All of the tropes—which are twists of language—probing).