Dispatches | September 28, 2010

Trying to write a blog about Kent Shaw’s poem feels like trying to fit a mobile in a shoe.  There is no single narrative to trace in the space of two paragraphs.  It is the ballad of the Chase Tower and the Mississippi river.  It is the visiting poet’s manifesto—he who destabilizes “tall” for all children.  It is an ode to America, to Texas, to the current state of our states.  It is a failed children’s story that instills child-like delight.

While these threads dangle through the poem like bits of balanced glass, I am most interested in the supporting structure.  Shaw suspends the incongruent in this poem, as in the lines “Do you understand the anatomy of a crucible? Sculptures of esophagi, diadems,/transistors. Do you understand internal organs in general?” Reading this list, I want to ask where does one find a sculpture of not just one esophagus, but two or more?  While esophagi clearly wear diadems, do they listen to transistors? Which climbing school kids would study internal organs other than intuitively?  One of the great delights of this poem is how words shift (tall becomes a way of describing the feeling of being in love, and a tower of children can be taller than the west), but this technique, like the wild juxtapositions above, is also disorienting.

Why, then, does this poem cohere?  I believe it coheres by cadence—both on the level of Pinsky’s “sound makes sense,” but also because Shaw draws the cadences for this poem from a particular discourse—reading to children in a classroom.  The poem moves forward using the sub-narrative of instruction:  the repeated re-focusing in the repetition of “children,” the enthusiastic, story-telling voice, and the use of questions and answers. Because these rhetorical gestures are familiar, they are stable enough to accommodate the undoing of knowing, so that we can get back to child-like receptivity, and hold onto the possibility that the Chase Building’s need for love is what created the Mississippi.  No wonder the air around is is twirling.

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