When you're nothing but motion: Apocalyptic Swing

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I'm trying to work more poetry, non-fiction, and drama into my not-for-work reading.  God knows I read plenty of it for my teaching and research, but it tends to be the same great works, read again and again, deeper and deeper, more and more ornately.

So what better place to start than with the 2009 volume by poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi, whom I first met about a decade and a half ago.  I was a moon-eyed high school student visiting my friend at Sarah Lawrence, and star-struck by her friends, who all seemed to be poets (like Gaby), musicians, and dancers.   Years later I found myself sitting next to her at that friend's highly memorable wedding (it will go down in the annals of my life as the evening I Bollywood-danced with Annette Bening, but the conversation at our table was delightful all 'round) and also teaching her The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart in a course I taught on Document and Reality.  It's a work of brilliance, filled with teachable resonances and infinite pleasures, and my students dug into it like they were ravenous and I'd placed a feast of a thousand courses before them.  In the long poems that are the core of that volume, Calvocoressi takes historical events (Amelia Earhart's last flight or the Hartford circus fire of 1944) and uses a constellation of perspectives on each to triangulate the emotional site of the event.  If you haven't encountered it yet, seek it out.

This volume has a title, Apocalyptic Swing, that's a pleasure to speak and a quicksand of implication to contemplate.  It's main subject is boxing, whose aesthetics and poetics I had never really recognized, I have to admit, tending to view it, like the philistine I am, as rather a bludgeoning, exploitative form of athletics.  If even the rather brilliant documentary about Mike Tyson (which finds him lengthily quoting from Oscar Wilde on the destructiveness of desire) hadn't dissuaded me of this prejudice, I doubted anything would.

But although I did find this volume more elliptical than Amelia Earhart (maybe I need to teach it to feel it unfold for me), it absolutely did convince me of both the dignity of the sport, and its metaphorical richness in describing a world of pride, alienation, and ferocious grace.  "We're all so beautiful / with our face against the mat," says the last line in "Box Fugue," and how Calvocoressi gets away with this portrait of elegant abjection without merely aestheticizing suffering is a matter of admiring mystery to me.  Perhaps it is that there's so much resilience in the people and places she describes, the most in the unlikeliest sources.  In "Blues for Ruby Goldstein," she lays out the strategic (and philosophical) position of a slight and canny welterweight faced with opponents well above his size:

All heart.  That's what most little guys are.  
But that counts for a lot.  In the gym or
the ring all you gotta do is get up
one more time than the other guy thinks you can. 

It's not an elegy but a paean to the quotidian, to the slight who endure, who persevere, who stand in the face of improbable odds and endless punishment.  But that makes it sound more sentimental and abstract than it is.  In many ways it's also an impression of the delicate, almost meditative sensory glories of the physically extreme:

                                  here's something

no fighter will tell you: there's a sound 
you make when you hit and you hit and you're 
nothing but motion.  It's not like sounds 
you make with your wife or a girl, it's rougher

and darker and sometimes it feels better 
and after you feel so relaxed.  You can't
really explain it and make it sound

It's rougher and darker, and you're nothing but motion.  The last thing I'll note is that the erotic and the painful engage in a careful, assessing dance throughout these poems, longing and endurance being two sides of the same coin. I can't help but suspect that this link has its roots in that sense, that almost Dionysian pleasure, of intense dissolution of consciousness, of losing one's awareness of self in the discipline, the endurance, and the sensations of the fight.

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