The Great Wave. Ron Slate. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $23.00, 76 pp.
Twentieth-century modernists asked whether the fragmented modern self could ever achieve an enlightened perspective on external things. Ron Slate’s new collection, The Great Wave, demonstrates that, in the face of those worries, he can create psychologically complex and well-crafted poetry that also addresses the realm of objects now increasingly virtualized by technologies of communication. The postmodern subject must contend with a sense of being submerged in the global world of instant communication as well as with the ideological systems lurking within that global world of communication.
Indeed, one of Slate’s themes throughout The Great Wave is how to contend with systems we depend upon for personal stability that are nonetheless generally illusory and, actually, as unstable as we are. Slate’s poetry demonstrates that we are thrown into identities that are masked, even protected, by the mediation of the computer screen. As we become more readily available to others, we are quick to compare ourselves to others: we’ve become a very self-conscious age of dubious Prufrocks, trying to reconcile our own idiosyncratic behaviors with those of society at large. A social poet, Slate is interested in those human connections and reconciling impulses they engender as well as the complex ways individuality differs from the status quo, whether on the small stage of family relationships or on the global stage of international relations.
The Great Wave is divided into two sections, each focusing on a world that is ordinary in the sense that the speaker is moving through family, corporate life, and international travel, yet is extraordinary in the manner in which the poet perceives and presents it. A poem by Slate takes time and history along with it, rather than the other way around. There is enough consistency to the voice as to suggest a novelistic character—a kind of reinvention of an “innocent” trying, and failing, to make meaning out of a hollow world in which communication has been thwarted by misunderstandings between nations and people. Whatever Slate loses in giving up his investment in conventional wisdom is more than regained by his genuine honesty. The result is not only intelligent and entertaining but also deeply moving.
A stunning example of Slate’s ability to shock readers with unconventional psychology is the poem “Cocoanut Grove,” which relays the aftermath of the famous 1942 nightclub fire. The speaker’s grandfather owned the Cocoanut Grove, and the poem shows the family coping with the subsequent trauma. The fire resonates with historical allusions to Holocaust, (ultimately ending with the flames of the crematorium chimneys) and dares to question the value of constant reliving of trauma, even in the service of memorialization:
Corrosive worm of remembrance
allure of the lurid past
. . . adoring the damaged world
we abused it
to let the sea wind clear the smoke.
Defined from birth by the event of that fire, the mature speaker considers the lost opportunity of allowing the “sea wind [to] clear the smoke,” and the poem ends with the boy surrendering to living inside the architectural memory of the night club, only to have it burn down, time after time, until “sleep settled on him like asbestos.” Throughout Slate’s poems, we find a similar psychological formula at work—the speaker chooses to live authentically despite the expectations of others. Throughout Slate’s poems, we find a similar psychological pattern at work—where the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and living that life passionately and sincerely in spite of—or perhaps in conjunction with—a sense of frailty at the very core of self.
The book’s first poem, “To the One Who Hears Me,” reflects our accessibility to others and shows how easy it is to shift blame from ourselves to other people who are willing to hear us. It superbly exemplifies the complicity of the reader’s subjectivity in any reading of a poem. The poem opens in medias res, as if the conversation between these two people has been going on in the background as the reader opened the volume. In this speaker’s world, there are no beginnings or endings, only floating scraps of the mind woven into the situation at hand. It begins:
In the fifth year of friendship
he asked permission to tell his secret,
suggesting we go to a donut shop nearby.
Grand theft, drug dealing, a year on Riker’s Island
Now I have hustled you in this other spot
without even a cup of coffee to offer
nor for that matter to take you
into my confidence.
The great felons exceed the petty thieves
In intuition, the greatness unmeasured
By the size or value of what is removed,
But rather in shuffle and the shift.
The shock was not in the details . . .
The confidence that, in theory, lies at the heart of friendship becomes, in the second stanza, a request for the reader’s confidence. Yet any emotional stake readers have in the speaker’s fate is really uninvited, since the reader can’t be truly taken into the confidence of the speaker anymore than the “he” in the poem can truly take the speaker into his confidence. Judgment can’t be avoided any more than bias can; confidence is a constructed paradigm, and a ploy.
The third stanza establishes yet another rhetorical interloper, beyond the reader. Here is the voice of the speaker cloaked in the language of public discourse, acting as ventriloquist for the world. Here, Slate is questioning tradition, in the sense that literary tradition (with the exception of dramatic monologues) regards a poem as a platform for truth, not prevarication. The poem then expands its reach yet again: the friend (a doppelganger of the “I”), confessing, becomes representative of all transgressions. The speaker can now use him as material for his own fiction, even as he pretends he is shouldering his friend’s burden for his friend’s sake, and not his own.
The speaker and the reader are left to wonder what is to be done with this knowledge. In a sense, the convict gets away with his crimes and goes free—just as for Coleridge’s ancient mariner, the burden of one’s personal guilt is transferred to “the one who hears [him].” “What do we do with poetry?” the speaker seems to ask, since poetry makes nothing happen—it can’t support or deny a person’s innocence. It can only confide something when the actual “crime” or “event” is no longer relevant. The postmodern poem regards the mediating ego as fragmentary and incomplete—necessitating that something outside the self that is itself made of language be added on to create a comprehensible story.
Transgressions, of a more minor sort, also mark Slate’s “Four Roses,” in which he meditates on family relations and the interweaving of natural instinct with values, such as trust and law, jeopardized as they are by human foibles. Irony is the heart of any tragedy, and here Slate pays homage to a father who may resemble Willy Loman more than a son would like to admit; yet this is a father who tries to nurture a son as he would a blossoming yard, knowing that sometimes the best thing a father can do is defer to fate:
So quiet and undeveloped, the sadness of the father,
Like wet porcelain clay in a closet, organic and alert.
He drives to work in the Dodge with the back seat removed
To transport cases of liquor and wine
Between his two stores . . .
A paradigmatic incident is related, in which the son has been stopped by a patrol car and the cop “escorts [him] to [his] father’s store” and turns him in with a conscientious retort: “I figured you’d want to handle this yourself.” Forty years later, the speaker tells us how inconsequential these laws and violations seemed to his father, who had his own way of dealing with indiscretions.
For the son, however, the father has failed to live up to an ideal by allowing external things to undercut his own interests. This is an authority figure who is fatalistic, yet willing to waste time on trivialities: “He kept watering/the one rose bush with the sparse blossoms, adjusting the nozzle to a finer spray.” Slate allows skepticism to float subtly above conventional wisdom. The father does not go out of his way to restore the bush to health but simply lowers his expectations and adjusts the spray to the spareness of the bush. At least in this instance, less growth requires less energy. The chasm between father and son cannot be closed by analysis or by the kind of judgments that the speaker feels society calls on him to make. Instead, he forecloses on his wishes for ideal parents and, without sentimentality or regret, reveals the situation of many adults who are still trying to find loving parents who won’t disappoint them.
In many ways, Slate’s protagonist reminds me of Camus’ Meursault, who can no longer decipher the cues of the ordinary, habitual world in its social forms and thus can no longer participate in its cloying initiations, anniversaries, and memorials. The speaker is an outsider, adrift, interested in impersonal, even encyclopedic, themes, as he or she tries to make sense of the social codes that govern him. Trivial concerns are married to profound discoveries of the world’s “moments” and, to Slate’s credit, such seemingly unconnected “moments” can be assimilated together through the temperance of language and poetry’s music. Slate is indeed endowed with a perfect pitch and a distinguished metric. The very disjunctions of life can make the lines hilarious, when the fractures are set and melded together:
I witnessed the deliverance on a silent television,
my fingers disquieted a bowl of almonds,
a librarian called to say Constantinople was on hold.
If we expect poetry to tell us how the natural world corresponds with our moral world, how the epiphanies of a rose’s opening and closing mirror our own paradoxical existence, we would be unlikely to turn to Slate. If we expect poetry to resemble our psychologies so much that we can identify with a speaker’s emotional life—and somehow breathe through that speaker’s pores—we will be disappointed: Slate offers no glimpses into human interactions that can be practically worked through. Most interactions between human beings in these poems are totemic, conversations between the speaker and the world at large. They offer little or no comforting resolution to our sense of our own fragmentary existence.
But how much of experience is actually intact, coherent, and manageable? Is not our image of ourselves as knowing ourselves that is the most illusory of all? What is left to human territory are the boundaries we form, especially those that distinguish self-presence from the presence of others. We are made out of the social fibers of language that we share. In Slate’s work, there is no secure meta-place where the reader can imagine the speaker at home, or in nature, or interacting with objects. A reader of Slate’s poetry should look instead for the kind of pleasure one finds in exploration and for the insights one gains from being fully immersed in a dramatic monologist, who is, by his very being, a commentator on the social world. He conveys the wisdom it takes to give up one’s easy grasp of the things of the world—what Stevens might consider taking life for granted as a habit, rather than being fully present in it. He is a cerebral poet, and thus he offers readers something most poetry can’t: a means of understanding our human dilemma. If he can’t instruct us on a way out of our paradoxical condition, he can bear it for us.
Judith Harris is the author of two books of poetry from Louisiana State University Press,
Atonement and The Bad Secret, and a critical book from State University of New York Press, Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing. She has published poems in the Atlantic, New Republic, and Slate, and she teaches at George Mason University.
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