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'The True Poison: Art or Life?'

May 20, 2010 By:
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Turtle Point Press, which I discussed at considerable length in this space several years ago, continues to be a plucky independent publishing venture, one that proceeds at its own pace, follows its own quirky vision and always manages to surprise alert readers with the titles it puts out. Turtle Point is a remarkably small operation run out of a one-room office in Manhattan, pretty much singlehandedly by Jonathan D. Rabinowitz, who may identify himself only as publisher on his business card, yet somehow manages to do just about everything else necessary to keep his extraordinary line of books afloat.

Literature and art form the bedrock of the Turtle Point list, whether that means ambitious novels and verse, along with their necessary accompaniments: essays, journals, memoirs, letters and criticism. It's not surprising then that one of Rabinowitz's recent central titles is a bracing book of poems titled In This House by Howard Altmann, a writer new to me, though his verse has been published in many different journals, both large and small.

I'm not the type who likes to compare one writer to another, but when I first read Altmann's poems, I was struck by the fact that he seemed to be a lovely and quite compatible mixture of Theodore Roethke and Howard Moss -- Roethke because of the preponderance of nature themes and Moss because of the intricate wordplay.

Just think about some of the titles these earlier poets gave to their books and you'll see what I mean. For Roethke, they include Open House, Words for the Wind and The Far Field, while Moss chose The Wound and the Weather, Finding Them Lost, Second Nature and Buried City.

The keys to Roethke's work rest in the fact that his father owned a greenhouse, and that the poet spent much of his childhood there. The source of his literary world is no more complex than that, although his poems could spin intricate variations on what he found in his father's workshop.

For Moss, the central element is language above all else, and how it can fashion a vision of the poet's two favorite subjects -- nature and art. In an interview I did with Moss back in the 1980s for The American Poetry Review, he used two of his poems, "Crossing the Park" and "Painting a Wave" as examples of how he conceived of a poem. What he had to say seems fully applicable to how Altmann constructs his work.

According to Moss, "Crossing the Park" is about nature and art, while "Painting a Wave" is about watching a painter create something which, by the last stanza, becomes the painting itself.

"In 'Crossing the Park,' " said Moss, "the narrator of the poem is in the park and is going to see a painting of the park. Everything in nature is formed. How one creates a form is of importance to me. It seems to me that what art does is add forms to nature rather than imitate the forms of nature.

"What my poems are really about, I think," continued Moss, "is the experience of hovering between the forms of nature and the forms of art. My work is the response of someone who is equally moved by nature and art.

"My poem 'Arsenic,' which everyone seems not to understand, asks the question: 'Which is the true poison: art or life?' "

I don't know if Altmann has ever read these two masters, let alone studied them in depth, so I may be way off the mark making such comparisons. And no matter what may have influenced his vision and style, Altmann brings his own twist to the matters of nature and wordplay.

When I use the term wordplay -- and this holds true for both Moss and Altmann -- I do not mean it in the sense of punning, which is often an effort at being merely droll or humorous. With both poets, the utilization of words has more to do with creating layers of meaning, with words playing off one another in a particularly resonant way so that the experience of the poem is extended and deepened. It is wordplay in a musical sense, as in stating a theme, and then spinning variations upon it.

'The Gravity of It All'
Take the title of Altmann's book. Like Roethke's first title, the house referred to is both the book that the reader holds in his hands, as well as the poet himself, who has confessed his sins and secrets in his work. But for Altmann, the poems are also bits of constructed material, the rooms and vistas of this "house" -- this interior terrain -- all of which, when taken together, add up to a self-portrait.

Like Moss, the material that's being used -- the equivalent of nails and wood -- is language; and these are truly language constructs in the postmodern sense. Where Roethke was looking to reconstruct the natural world so we could see his version of it, Altmann wants to both to construct it and have that construct comment upon reality.

"Gravity," for example, is one of the poems that underscores this point:

The poem breaks down.
The day's architecture collapses.
I am walking over words.
The longing
for a hurricane of emotion
to sweep the mind
frames the body;
I am made of sand.

Neither blue sky nor blue ocean
tells the story
at the end of the horizon
when all that floats
is a fiction of the eye.
Beyond the beyond
imagination and knowledge
finally come to shore.

Identity is a bastard child
the parent of all tides.
It is the color of water
hiding in the rose.

It is time's thorns rounded in the hourglass.
But when I turn it all upside down
I see the gravity of it all;
the sentences that were
once falling down on me.

As "Gravity" demonstrates, one cannot speak of Altmann as a nature poet in the same, fairly traditional mode that Roethke embodied. Altmann's postmodern credentials make him utilize the bits and pieces of the natural world for something far more ironic than what Roethke sought to create.

"Stones" is another good example of how Altmann proceeds in this manner.

I would like to be a stone.
By the side of a road.
On a roadless island.
Of no interest to man.
Of no curiosity to animals.
Invisible to birds.

I would like to step out of my stone.
And be another stone.
On the other side of the road.
Prized by man.
Of solace to animals.
A spot for birds.

And on my stone
both stones, please.

There are, however, times when Altmann's wordplay is just that, a string of ideas and words that are merely clever in their positioning. (One of these instances happens to be in the title poem, which, for some readers may just undo my entire argument.)

But that would be too bad because In This House is much of the time a skillful and tonic meditation on language and life -- in the best sense of both those words. 

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