Friday, April 1, 2011

Christopher Munde on “Entomology of Exhaustion” and “What Was Gentle Has Turned Careful”

“Entomology of Exhaustion” and “What Was Gentle Has Turned Careful” are my attempts to articulate a father's transformation from victim of circumstance and unfocused aggression to aggressor against order and focused love.

“Entomology . . .”'s narrative premise, which is laid out in the first stanza, was drawn from my own father's experience of having to excavate through the residuum of the World Trade Center to get to his job across the street. In a very physical sense the return path from horror to the boredom of his job was obstructed by the desks and walls and bodies of thousands of his peers. In the poem, this unexpected work sets in motion a psychological change, wherein the father attempts to block out the white-noise political “sense” of the attack by aligning it with his feelings of drowning amid a family and its needs.

I wanted to bear out this progression in the form, with thought's lolling lines repeatedly enjambed to mimic both the systematic repetition of the work and the character's precarious logical leaps. Lines edge forward and draw back in light of the terrible implications leaching into his consciousness, yet the work he is aware of performing (both physical and mental) only distracts him while his values are slowly deformed. The insect similes thread the scene thematically and serve as biological precedents for the gestating ideas.

This biological theme is echoed and further solidified by the body farm scene in “What Was Gentle Has Turned Careful.” The term “body farm,” in my somewhat simplified understanding of the process, refers to land where donated bodies are cast as stand-ins for suspected crime victims by forensic scientists, who track their decomposition with the hope it will reveal clues to a crime. The elements, faceless aggressors, weather the bodies while a detached scientist merely records the decomposition process and its lifelike attributes. By interweaving the parallel narratives of the father acting out his version of a forensic pathologist (clearly a dream) and performing a lonely familial duty (possibly real), I tried to make clear the clinical perspective overtaking all aspects of his life. As the similarities between the threads pile up, distinctions become vaguer, until the father is left as an observer, seated in an auditorium at a work site that is unambiguously real.

Initially, I struggled with the presence of the two narratives in “What Was Gentle . . . ,” and briefly, with my own impulse toward using narrative at all. There followed a shorter version in which the home life thread was excised and the forensic narrative was cyclical and evasive, yet I ultimately chose to go back to the original form, since I feel the details of both scenes are what compel the reader to temporarily share the father's mindset. While the father is only “someone's” in “Entomology . . . ,” here he gains a particular family and enacts the process of willful disassociation. Only after the two threads culminate in the father’s analyzing all bodies as art on a stage did I want the rift between my character and the reader to open.


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  2. Great poems, Mr. Munde. Do you think it's possible for a poem to succeed in 2011 using just one narrative, without any secondary story or conceit to weave through the poem as well? I find when I'm writing if I've got a narrative going for more than five lines some kind of alarm goes off and I feel the need to introduce something else for a while before I come back to it. I mean, I guess if it was just one narrative thread without any additional metaphorization happening, then what good would the poem be? Aren't we told to avoid those sorts of poems? (That's not quite rhetorical)

  3. Christopher MundeApril 8, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    Glenn, thanks for posting. I definitely understand the impulse to have a poem "perform" beyond developing a single narrative, along with the impulse to keep things alive and the reader constantly a bit off-balance. I think a single-narrative poem can still provoke if it aims to use the tension of fiction to develop a subterranean argument. The form serves to organize the physical scene into components of meaning beyond the scene, and, just as the details of a narrative shape what is missing, the focus on odd images (insects, the ritualistic aspects of work)is intended to shape both character and the logical motions of the poem.

  4. But neither of these poems are possessed by a single narrative - "Entomology..." is closest, but the poem is more meditative than narrative, and while there are linear moments it seems like more of an internal, or maybe tonal, poem. That is, the linear/narrative mode is subverted by lyricism and the recurrent insectoid imagery. Maybe that's what you were trying to say is the only way narrative can work, and I think I might agree. I just wonder if a pure story can work in a poem, a hypothetical poem not present here.

    (I certainly didn't mean to imply either of these poems fit the "failure-narrative" mold I was trying to imagine - they're both terrific. What am I thinking of-- I dunno, Richard Cory? There's got to be a newer example than that poem. But let's not name names in a public forum, right?)

  5. Christopher MundeApril 9, 2011 at 4:01 AM

    Upon reading your post, Glenn, I immediately thought of a line from Tony Hoagland's essay "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment," went digging for it, and came to realize the line as I recall it must not exist or be from somewhere else, though he does say that "...the new resistance to order represents a boredom with, and generalized suspicion of, straight-forwardness and orchestration." This definitely articulates the impulse you mention, but I still wonder if single-narrative poetry is intrinsically overwrought. Because form is a poem's (or a poet's, really) armature, the fact of it being entirely narrative would be part of the point it aims to make. In particular, I'm thinking O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died," wherein the physical action is used primarily to have something real to cut off and leave for reflection. So, I feel it's a narrative until it's a poem, if that makes sense. Could this poem be written today and maintain power amid contemporary work? In this case, I think it could while other narrative poems might not, since the fact of the narrative form is deliberately more compelling than the narrative itself; that, in this case, is what makes it trust-worthy. With that said, is this fully an example of narrative poetry; there's no arc, and no conflict, but it is utterly physical (though even that's debatable, given the last line.) Perhaps I shouldn't be trying to work this through with an older poem. How about Frank Bidart's "Phenomenology of the Prick?"

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  7. Christopher,

    Thank you for these two poems. I enjoyed saying them off the page when my BPJ arrived in the mail and I enjoyed even more hearing you say them.

    Could you expand a bit on your comment about form being the poet's armature? By "form" are you referring to narrative versus lyric considerations? How about older notions of form, such as received and free? Mostly, I found the concept of armor intriguing.

    Thanks again for the pieces.


  8. Christopher MundeApril 23, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    Peter, thanks for coming by, and for the kind words. Regarding form as a poet's armature: I meant that it was both his face/physical form and structure, by which he articulates notions to, and disappears before, the reader. Initially, I was thinking more of a sculpture's internal armature, but I think your "armour" interpretation works better here, since it is less the body reformed than the body concealed.
    I was referring to all form, as it always functions as backbone for one's point and as artificially-conceived voice/persona/defense-against-chaos. Whether it succeeds at being its own singular voice, and at carrying, if it strives to, any nuanced persona behind the voice, or not, may minimally be shaped by what the reader knows of your previous work, etc., but is largely dependent upon the manner in which a poet obscures himself.
    I hope this did not seem evasive; I do see free and received forms as armature-like for these reasons. Thank you again for writing, and have an excellent weekend.