Poetry has a long half-life, and poets keep flourishing, getting older (very slightly) and better. So now that Kathleen Graber has been nominated for a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle award for her amazing collection, The Eternal City, we thought we might extend a low bow in her direction and rustle up her TLRWeb review of Uncontainable Noise, cowboy poet Steve Davenport’s 2006 collection—since he’s another one of our very favorites. In fact, we nominated him for a Pushcart this year.
Columbus, OH: Pavement Saw Press, 2006.
Is it wrong to suggest in early spring, as the lawns around town begin to green, that couch grass is a drunken cowboy in the garden? What would that mean? And what would it have to do with Steve Davenport’s collection of poems Uncontainable Noise?
A more accurate metaphor might be one with a potato or an orchid in it, but we’ll get to that later. First, I want to say that couch grass is a rhizome, which means it has a horizontal, decentralized, subterranean root system which races off in all directions, which makes it, unlike a tree, for instance, not something you can kill by simply cutting it down. A rhizome proliferates in such a way as to make each shoot self-sufficient though the plant itself remains densely and complexly—think of the brain’s matrix of synapses—interwoven. A rhizome is, almost by definition, something uncontainable, which makes it a lot like a cowboy and which also makes it a lot like the poems in this collection, which often turn back on one another, “everything always melting,” dependent and independent, each made of the same stuff (the same words often) and each made in the same way (usually a sonnet) but each different, and the narrative, though at times half-buried, still advancing.
I don’t know enough about Cowboy Poetry to say if what Steve Davenport writes is Cowboy Poetry, but I deeply doubt it, though the speaker in the poems calls himself a cowboy and there is at least one sharp-shooter and a pair of lizard boots and a blue horse. There is the sun-bleached, empty-skull imagery of Georgia O’Keeffe’s West (not to mention O’Keeffe herself) and an aspect to each of us called Tonto, “a name we give to unchecked desire.” And there is certainly plenty of mash to fuel that desire, along with a warning that that liquor, which accompanies so many of the Cowboy’s actions, “keeps a hard ledger.” But, still, there is Wallace Stevens and a system of syllabics. And then there is L’Amour Fou of Breton splashed over the other “sea-smooth bones” of the western cannon, from Berryman to Rimbaud. In the opening poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins meets Adrienne Rich.
What there is though of the cowboy in these poems is an attitude which transcends the simple and violent lexicon of Remingtons and bullets; it is an archetypal outlaw spirit, a resistance and resilience, that passionate, uncontainable style of being in the world that makes the cowboy so very dark, both darkly irresistible and darkly dangerous.
While Davenport employs the hard cowboy nouns and verbs we recognize, some single-syllabled and four-lettered, he shuttles between these and the redemption that a self-conscious self-reflection affords. Caught in a brutal marriage in which each partner seems both perpetrator and victim, the Cowboy speaks in a sonnet that is itself one nearly uncontainable sentence, concluding:
. . . all I mean is too big,
too scattered, so I send this three-word burst, poor ink,
repeating: I want out, I want out, I want out.
One adjective describing the rhizome is expansive, but another, equally apt, is claustrophobic. One of the many recurring images in the collection is the box: the marriage box, the divorce box. We might think, too, of the poem, and even each word, as a box; each stanza, another crash-pad:
Mattress in the middle of the room.
Divorce boxes. Books.
Bottle and glass on the floor.
In this way, form mimics the emotional state of its speaker. Confronted with the limitations of language and the confinement—as though it were an exhausted motel room—of having to work within an inherited tradition (here not only the daunting and deadening expectations set up by the speaker’s obvious awareness of so much of the poetry that has come before, but also those expectations inevitably encoded within language itself, the conventions of masculinity perhaps most of all), the Cowboy breaks the rules. The opening poem of Uncontainable Noise prepares us for “sonnetry/like shrapnel, like bricks through the living room window.” Yet far away from all of this, somewhere, there is “a yonder” in which words break out of the corral of singular definitions and syntactical sense. There is another frontier, the possibility of an expressive “untranslatable something,” noise, Whitman’s yawp, a howl, the yodel. And it is, it seems, only at this extreme, or at this depth, that love finally breaks open, though not as a frail flower into bloom, but as a “Meat-Axe,” which somehow both can and cannot excise from us the weighty baggage of ourselves which threatens to pull us under. This is the gift we must learn to wield—potent and violent and full of sex—in order to turn the wild prairie into a field in which, and upon which, we might hope to live.
Which brings us to potatoes and orchids. To say rhizome around the English Department is not to conjure, as the Cowboy does, Montana, but Gilles Deleuze, the linguistic philosopher who proposed that this is how things are, rhizomic—not just how language is but also systems of power and our sense of ourselves. Almost nothing can be said succinctly about Deleuze’s thinking, though it is important to say that for him couch grass is only one example of the rhizome. The potato, that great, good comfort food, is another, and better yet is the orchid, which actually cannot reproduce itself alone. It needs the wasp, and their interdependence becomes, in his mind, its own rhizome. “There is,” he writes, describing their beautiful and mutually exploitative symbiosis, “neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight . . .” I’m not going to pretend to be able to unpack the dynamic box of that sentence (which is, no doubt, something like the untranslatable nonetheless translated into English from the French), but it seems like the perfect metaphor for the relationships Davenport seeks to cultivate and praise. Not only the “Happy ending” marriage of the Cowboy to a sharp-shooter on a blue horse that brings into being so many daughters but also the way the poems of the past make fertile the soil for the poems of the future:
Cowboy writes another line, something about somewhere over Ohio
or Indiana, corn field this, bean field that, the heart taking on weight,
a torso, then the bodies of poets, living and dead, tucked like books
under the arms it sprouts.
“Drunkenness,” Deleuze writes, though he is himself apparently quoting someone else now, is “a triumphant irruption of the plant in us.” And perhaps it is also a metaphor for some part of the poetic, when creativity seems to manifest itself in an almost green excitation.
Uncontainable Noise has an epigraph from Michael Ondaatje in which Wallace Stevens “in his suit / is thinking chaos is thinking fences.” If, and Steve Davenport seems at times to almost shout it, the chaos of our universe is as undeniable and frightening and blossoming, as receding and alluring, as the myth of the American West, it is all of that because it is the very stuff (the Deleuzian virtual) from which the creative life-urge rises. And if there also must be, simply for our own survival and sanity, fences here—some necessary and potentially wrong-headed brand of order—may they become, finally, for all of us, as they do for this Cowboy, white picket ones.