Mar 052017
 

Ruth Lepson
Ruth Lepson

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It was Auden who once declared that “the only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.”[1] It is indeed pointless to invest time and meaningful pages outlining how a work is “bad” when the same resources could be used to promote “good” work. Implied in Auden’s remark is what one might call the social function of criticism which, in today’s world of mass cultural production, is to narrow the reader’s search to a handful of quality texts, works that will endure outside current modalities and antics of marketing, and in the process pave an angle of descent into said texts. With this responsibility comes the added burden of picking a critical trajectory, one that does justice to the work without tangentially downplaying the context within which it came into being.

Striking that balance, between a pure reception of the text and a careful interrogation of its context, can be daunting, especially when the writer deliberately places the self – through the work and paratextual material – as the material for the work itself. Thankfully, Ruth Lepson’s poetry does not plunge the critic into this awkward position. Of her private world we know very little, as all she allows us of herself is a small trace of her childhood, on her website:

Born in New York in 1949; a year later we moved to Princeton, as my father got a post-doc in math at The Institute for Advanced Study. My mother, who lived in Lithuania until she was twenty, became a mathematician, too, and a sculptor, and later wrote a (still unpublished) book on math as an art form. My father had studied music at Juilliard while getting his master’s at Yale in math and physics. He played bassoon and conducted. Any spirituality that developed in me came from my maternal grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi, and I lived on my uncle’s kibbutz for two summers, picking pears in ’67…[2]

She leaves us with her poems and the poems alone. Attempting a thematics-obsessed assessment of her work – holding up tropes and biographical anecdotes – is a futile venture, for her work manages to resist this kind of criticism, though resonant with poignant themes. It however consciously dispels and/or balances resonance and theme with the workings of syntax and the controlled use of aphorisms (that create context). Memory, as a recurring theme, is a prime example. It weaves in and out of her most recent collection, ask anyone, but does not stretch into a confession. Instead, the recollection/memory of love, lost or gained, is swaddled in tense (sometimes philosophical) insights that dissipate the affective possibilities love and its connotations. Consider this passage from ‘knowledge in black’:

I’ll tell you where the ocean ends it ends in
a particular place in space which continues
in blackness until that time
you’re swimming in the ocean when time becomes
space you no longer swim . as a body

are we done[3]

The poem itself will continue, leaving that lone line to simmer subliminally, ambiguously, jarringly, in the reader’s mind. It is almost impossible to contemplate what it might imply – a break up, an exit from a heated fight, an ultimatum – without an equal reflection on the sophisticated beauty of the lines above – the build-up to that lone line.  It becomes more complex, endurably so, when the first seven stanzas, including the one above, appear before that lone line:

the switchmen sleep with newspapers
across their chests

it’s true that in the country questions
are green green as pique as somber
stationary things

even later it’s still true and not true
that in the country questions are green
since in the country no one knows literature

and the wild’s of the lion’s mane are
decked with pleasures of all kinds stemming

from the green questions the questions
that are green

I’ll tell you where the ocean ends it ends in
a particular place in space which continues
in blackness until that time
you’re swimming in the ocean when time becomes
space you no longer swim . as a body

are we done[4]

With such a range of ideas, aphoristically shared, the concreteness of the lived experience suggested by the lone line, intense or fragile, evaporates or refuses to yield to our idea of what it might imply. In other words, “are we done,” and its suggestion of proximity to the self, to a dialogue with another, a gravitation towards a personal event, becomes a shadow of a larger idea of life itself. It is extraordinary how Lepson’s poems manage to achieve this feat, offering us the frightening “wilds of the lion’s mane” contrastingly “decked with pleasures of all kinds” in one helping. Perhaps it is her use of robust imagery, aphoristically rendered yet wary of cliché. Interestingly, those aphorisms, it seems, provide context:

you can sleep in the sun when you love
only the enlightened sleep over the sea
anyone who loves can swim in the sun

we fell on the plumes and the berries fragrances
grand and lilac-filled we rose
and the bowers tossed us all the way into the sun

who can sleep over the sea . no one .. only those
who’ve shed . . .
only they sleep[5]

While the first stanza offers a line of general context, “you can sleep in the sun when you love,” the second departs from that general idea and returns to the self, “we fell on the plumes and the berries fragrances,” and the third jettisons the self, returning to a general idea framed as a question: “who can sleep over the sea…” (26). These multiple transitions, towards and away from the self, are central features in Lepson’s work. When the poem moves away from the self, it does so with the intention of establishing or highlighting a strand of universal truth; and when it returns to the self, it is to apply said truth to an individual experience, without lingering on the experience itself (to the point of becoming overtly confessional).

Where have we seen this before? Creeley, of course, whose poems influenced Lepson’s work. Indeed, at first glance, a Creeley reader would see resemblances here and there, controlled enjambments and syntactic manoeuvrings, what – for most poets – would be a nightmare to accomplish without sounding like ducks playing the harmonica.

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While Lepson’s latest collection is a controlled meditation on the self and its relation to objects, people, and existence, the overall tone is better understood by returning to her first output, Dreaming in Color (1980), where signs of what will eventually become her signature near-rendering of intimacies abound. Near-rendering, because the promise of intimacy is often dispelled by a deflection of said promise with, in most instances, an inserted call for critical inquiry.

Consider “Collage,” from Dreaming in Color:

In a corner of Boston –
a group of buildings,
above another group of buildings,
across the street,
in the distance,
pastel green and blue.
Under the full moon,
they remind me of San Francisco,
which reminds me of you.

Maybe they still are
and do.

I looked around.
No one was watching.
There was the trolley.
I put the moon in a box
and got on it.[6]

There is vulnerability and perceptible loneliness in those lines, but those feelings are not evoked by what is said – “they remind me of San Francisco, / which reminds me of you” – but by the cluster of distances and arrangement of objects that bracket those two lines: the buildings, the moon, the absence of watching eyes. The second stanza, strategically isolated, has a subliminal effect that accentuates the speaker’s own isolation in this collage of objects and distances. What we are therefore left to ponder is the very arrangement that elicits – in the reader – the narrator’s own feeling of isolation, not isolation in itself.

In Lepson’s work, thought reveals itself in the choice and structural placement of words and, in other instances, a reluctance to carry an emotion to an expected end. The goal, it seems, is to create a binary that balances overt emotions with critical deliberations. “Love Poem,” from Dreaming in Color, is a good case in point:

Outside it’s pale blue.
Inside it’s pale green.
There’s white muff
on the beige sofa of roses.
Let me smoothe your forehead.
Let my eyes soften.
Let me stop inquiring of everyone else
if I’m still alive.
I’ve been dulled for too long.
Let me show you
charcoal cats
wandering here,
gold bits of music,
the people of cinnamon and maroon.
Stay here.
Not as a woman would ask a man
I ask this, but as the moon
would ask the night.[7]

The first six lines are, in a sense, true of a love poem, for love evokes an image of tenderness, of vulnerability: “Let my eyes soften.” But then the insertion of “inquiring” temporally deflates the reader’s dreamy ride in a land of “pale blue” colors “on the beige sofa of roses.” To inquire is to actively conceptualize and articulate a question. To “stop inquiring” is even more complex, since it a choice to reverse the process. But then the poem takes us back to a place where “charcoal cats” roam, with “gold bits of music/ the people of cinnamon and maroon.” Soon enough, we return to “inquiry,” this time replaced with the word “ask:” “Not as a woman would ask a man/ I ask this, but as the moon/ would ask the night.” One could argue that Lepson would rather have us thinking than dreaming, or doing both simultaneously. This, perhaps, explains the poems in Morphology (2007), a collection that pairs photographs with poems gleaned from moments in the poet’s own dreams. The book itself is a tangible embodiment of Lepson’s aesthetic, that deliberate urge to strike a balance between what is dreamt and felt with a measure of critical detachment.

The poems in Morphology are dreams rendered in words. A dream, as we know, is an intimate thing, personal, remote and unreal. The telling/sharing of a dream is an intellectual process, an act of translation with a keen eye for the subtleties of narrative. First, the dream is recalled in bits and pieces, sometimes in completely mis-remembered chunks; then the dreamer shops for the right words to communicate her dream. In a sense, therefore, the impact of a dream rendered in words relies on the dreamer’s choice of words. And if dreams are abstract, narrating them to a listener or a reader is, in itself, a balancing act, since the abstract remains what it is in the dreamer’s mind, with a “real” equivalent as rendered in words. This, perhaps, accounts for the opening poem in Morphology:

Concepts and
facts are drifting
around in the
air. One at a time
they sizzle into fireworks.
Then I can’t see them be-
cause they’re inside me.[8]

While the dream remains, “inside” the dreamer, it however appear as “Concepts and/ facts . . . drifting/around in the air.” By employing the words “concepts” and “facts” to narrate a dream – for the poem itself is a description of an actual dream – the dream (an unreal thing) becomes a thought-thing expressed in “Concepts and/ facts.” Within the dream itself, as narrated, a duality is apparent: the free-floating “Concepts and/facts” that, suddenly, “can’t” be seen “be-/ cause they’re inside” the dreamer.

In subsequent pages, the reader is faced with unevenly shaped poems[9] – sometimes with wild, blank spaces – that textually concretize recalled moments from dreams:

Fanny Howe and I are go-
ing to … … … … … … . share a

… … … … … … … … … .. suite
… … … … … … .in a dorm
… … … … … … … … . with
two … … … … … … … … . oth-
er wom-
… … … en.[10]

If the shape of this section of the poem (above) mimics the non-linear, subjective nature of dreams, the poet’s recollection – reliable or not – offers us a rather objective picture of that dream. It is this duality, the non-linear and subjective (frail, intimate, sensitive) paired with, wrapped or rendered in objective terms, that marks Lepson’s poetry as “Fragile and objective,” as Fanny Howe says of Lepson’s work.

There is, therefore, a readily visible intellectual breadth in her poems, as that duality – its creation and intended impact – is in itself a product of the poet’s intellectual process. Most important, however, is the fierce grasp on the function and limits of language, where the poet does not merely play and experiment with language for its own sake but for an intended subliminal effect. That subliminal effect is accentuated by the not-quiteness of her poems, how they leave the reader sandwiched between a climax and a joyous longing for more, practically making us “want to think and dance at the same time” as Betsy Sholl says of Lepson’s poems.

In some instances, that not-quiteness appears in the form of a theme paused abruptly, perhaps for fear of slipping into excess. This is more visible in her new collection, ask anyone, where questions of power, politics, society, and life itself are undramatically presented, parcelled in carefully picked phrases that – in themselves –  dismiss ponderosity and pretension. This, to the critical eye, reveals the poet’s faithfulness to form as content in itself, and as receptacle for subject matter. This duality requires of the reader a fierce attention to the poem’s controlled movements and turns, from a central theme or idea to pure aesthetic preoccupation intended to complement or contextualize said theme or idea. Reading Lepson’s work, one sees how that movement is intertwined and brought to life within individual poems:

a shower of sounds –
missed the mist in the
air there tumbling
over the western sky
lifelong
rush tumbling of
climate end of peace

That last line of that excerpt, “climate end of peace,” is as ambiguous as it is poignant.  The reader can see the poet’s gesture towards political commentary, in the same way that – in other fragments of the same poem – the promise of intimacy is quickly dispelled by the use of open-ended language:

got a cup of coffee
for the pleasure of
keeping up with you
no solemnity
a day
worthy and shopworn

The texture of Lepson’s poems reminds one of Duncan’s spare, sharp lines that release small clusters of thought. It was Duncan who reminded us that poetry itself “feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,” very much like what we see in Lepson’s work, where those strands – thought, feeling, impulse – are readily visible.

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3.

Reading Duncan, Creeley, and – now – Lepson, one is strangely reminded of pointillism. This, of course, raises the question: Can language, poetic language in particular, be equated with pointillism? I leave that for another study. Here my focus is not on the very act/process of creating images from dots, but on the subsequent subliminal impact of said image (as an assemblage of individual dots).

Once complete, a pointillist piece, elegant or not, finds itself competing for attention with the very process that brought it into existence. We are, for me in particular, fascinated by the amalgamation of simple color-dots. To see the image, therefore, is to see the whole dots at once; and to see the whole is to acknowledge the presence of individual dots. And this happens automatically, subliminally.

Consider Morning, Interior, Maximilien Luce’s painting of Gustave Perrot. While you see Perrot getting dressed – the morning light streaming in – you also see the collage of unique dots that form the image. There are, therefore, two images at once, though one stands out as the image. What the neo-impressionist does with colors, dots, and divisions, language poets and their descendants do with words. Lepson finds herself nestled, innovatively, between late modernist and early post-modernist aesthetic, at once accessible yet full of controlled inbetweenness.

Lepson is not an easy poet, I must add. This, however, does not imply complete abstraction or a deliberate obscuration in the name of style. In fact, there are poems where she remains accessible, dwelling on a single theme, nonetheless transitioning between moods. This is more visible in her new collection’s final poem, “we’re all small,” a piece for her dear friend and mentor, Robert Creeley:

really, creeley?

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were you alive

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at one time

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who visits your burial site

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I do so do

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lots of others were you

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merry – impossible query –

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complex as a bee

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and a flower simultaneously

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you had it all still

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lingering in sadness sometimes

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only one eye with it

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saw like a salamander

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with your existential why

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bye bye I say it over and over

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I ask if you enjoy
the english landscape in

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mt auburn cemetery

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where we walk and where

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they put you on tour

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even in death

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you’re on the tour

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my my[11]

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4.

To the newcomer to Lepson’s poetry, I say two things: start from her recent volume, but be sure to read the rest. Then go to Creeley, Duncan, and Levertov.

— Timothy Ogene

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Timothy Ogene
Author photo by Claire MacKenzie

Timothy Ogene was born in Nigeria, but has since lived in Liberia, Germany, the US, and the UK. His poems and stories have appeared in Tincture Journal, Numéro Cinq, One Throne Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Tahoma Literary Review, The Missing Slate, Stirring, Kin Poetry Journal, Mad Swirl, Blue Rock Review, aaduna, and other places. He holds a first degree in English and History from St. Edward’s University and a master’s in World Literatures in English from the University of Oxford, and he is currently completing a master’s in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first novel, The Day Ends Like Any Day, is scheduled for publication in April 2017.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 12.
  2. See http://ruthlepson.com/biography.
  3. Ruth Lepson, ‘knowledge in black,’ ask anyone (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2015), 25.
  4. Ibid. 24-25.
  5. Ibid. 26.
  6. Ruth Lepson, ‘Collage,’ Dreaming in Color (Cambridge: Alice James Books, 1980), 53.
  7. Ruth Lepson, ‘Love Poem,’ Dreaming in Color (Cambridge: Alice James Books, 1980), 25.
  8. Ruth Lepson and Walter Crump, Morphology (New York: BlazeVOX, 2007), 2.
  9. The shapes were arranged in collaboration with Christina Strong.
  10. Op. Cit. Lepson, Morphology 111.
  11. Ruth Lepson, ‘we’re all small,’ ask anyone (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2015), 68.

  One Response to “The Promise of Intimacy | ask anyone: The Poetry of Ruth Lepson — Timothy Ogene”

  1. Reciprocity
    is
    good.

    Reciprocity
    is.

    Reciprocity.

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