Friday, December 18, 2009

Ted Greenwald's Common Sense

Back in March one early morning during the cold, cold week Temple University calls Spring Break my doorbell rang for, I think, the first time since I’d moved in four months before. We just call each other now, right? “Yo, I’m here, come let me in.” Anyway, it was a delivery. Ted Greenwald’s Common Sense (1978), which I’d ordered from Small Press Distribution after listening to some of his poems on PennSound (esp. “Whiff” from 1979) and reading a selection on EPC. I opened the package and opened the book and read for maybe an hour. Stayed up, starting writing a poem, then returned to the book and read some more. The poems kept me up. I didn’t go back to bed when all else was telling me nothing’s worth getting up for. I was hibernating, depressed. It’s hard to believe I got up in the first place.


picked up
a shovel

and started

pretty soon
I was
in china

and started

I’ve been reading this book all year. I’ll read parts of it several times a week and try to carry its rhythms with me throughout the day. In a letter I wrote Greenwald recently (he doesn’t have email; maybe he listens for the doorbell), I tried to articulate what I like about Common Sense: it’s how the poems unfold from line to line (as if the poem were folded up in the beginning, in the title) and the depiction of a world of fluid objects. That’s what I told him. There’s always a transformation of object or image that pushes the poem, that makes the rhythm. One word leads to another, and the words themselves seem like live objects. (I think some people call that “materiality.”) That’s the sense of the poetry, perhaps. Sometimes the transformation happens through repetition, sometimes rhyme or word association, sometimes narrative. (The book is actually a selection of Greenwald’s first 10 books, I think, which explains the variation in style and its length [195 pages]). Here’s a few:


the piano shivers
someone’s singing through
the radio through
shrugged shoulders
his tongue rolling over black keys
each note like a bone
added one by one to a skeleton
the sky, flesh, brings
the beast back to life
it walks upright
snacking on hedges
low-hanging twigs
low flying planes
the song lands at three points


Martha wears a mu-mu
and Ellen has a boo-boo
Bill has a beautiful b-b
and Morris has everything

Turk has a cigarette
and Michael has Ellen
Zeke has a bandanna
and Martha loves it

Louise has a thought
and Martha’s in it
Zeke has Louise handy
and Bill plays blues

Martha Ellen Bill Morris Turk
Zeke Michael and Louise


clean glass
dark park and buildings
part night
lights clear
and then I look in
to find my weariness
I wear my work and its dust
over my body
passing into a wonderful darkness
on the other side
morning wakes
it is not late it is just right
I wash and shave
smoke a cigarette
have some coffee
my body wakes up
that was a long time ago
my body wakes up
snow turning to rain

In many of the poems the human body is fused with other objects in the cityscape. There’s often an expression of odd, slightly surprised detachment from the self, who is found again and again situated in or linked to a part of the world just now observed. I come away with a sense of human clumsiness, which contrasts with the fluidity. I’m made aware of my own objecthood, physicality and fragility, while my focus on the movement around me is heightened. Neither the thing nor the word right in front of me is overlooked or ignored; rather, it determines what follows, and the effect is a kind of motion I’ve always been after in my own writing. The tone of these poems alternates between a “seamless fatigue”, a phrase I take from the following poem, and a “wonderful darkness” that leaves me feeling “the world wide and awake around me.”


scanning the outer world
with my senses the inner world
bumps against a tree in a park
filled with strollers after rain after hot morning
with a large dog pissing against the bark
a wind so it seems
hot from all the activity
is arriving in a car circling the block’s blood
for the millionth time (it happens so fast)
looking to park and does across from a store
crowded with shoppers entering and leaving
the revolving door revolving charges
plates and kids clutched in the hand in the pocket in the bag
my ear (left) is bumping into a radio
that moves rapidly past in the hand of a stroller
while the other ear barges through two couples
dressed up and looking down the street discussing where to eat
my feet ache from a long walk in the rain and are wet
sogging my legs as my heart coughs through its hangover
a little faster than the cigarette I puff
sidewalk movers-over
a slowing down, all,
to catch up with the hotter parts of nerves
a seamless fatigue
tailored to the city like a flush
a seeing of brain upon the gates
doors and windows open and close to exits and entrances
light travels
shade cools
sound carries
animal vegetable mineral
here and there are heroes and villains

In longer poems small narratives evaporate while the trace of them—their sound (the exhaust, you might say) form the next part of the music. This is most evident in the 26-page poem “The Life.” Below are the first five stanzas and then a few more stanzas that appear a few pages further into the poem.

a boring moment
I pick up a book of poems written by boring poets
the poems aren’t good they aren’t bad

they get jobs
they get wives and children raise families
they write poems
they live interesting lives

I’m getting pissed off
pissed off
I pick up a pen and start to write
I take a break
burn most of my old poems
throw out letters
dump boxes of papers
I get back to work
there are poems and poems

there are limits to what I can put up with
there are those make me want to puke over my shoulder

night steals into afternoon
and mugs one
formal like a dress, the coming of winter
what trees there are
lose leaves and gain edge
while I get my winter nerves
something weird’s going on in my left shoulder
like a crazy parakeet
banging against bars of muscles and bone
whims drive cars into the garage of the blood
there are rush-hours and images of sadness
making the nose flute
there are beer senses searching for a rug to be snug in
the hand turns to winter
and raises a landscape to the nose
and the nose knows

. . . .

isn’t it strange how ambition
takes on a high and bright language
almost rushing into a play with murders
as it crosses the mind like a roach crossing the wall
it’s something I have
and something I admire in others even if
I feel misdirected the energy is terrific
and soothes and rubs like a towel after someone’s bathed
it’s the difference between indifference
loosening furry bonds chomping on the brain
as someone, pressed, says
I’ve lost my train why can’t you be more realistic
and that’s what I am
only I’m making everything up from scratch
and can hear even the tiniest feet strolling along white flat

bundling noises enter my ear
and release a catch to many synapses
something is starting to take place,
I want to tell you, don’t you think you should ask
I’m running out the door
running out of things to say
“stay awhile” I thought and did
and want to say to you “stay awhile”
does this sound like a complaint
vaulting out of the imploring hand over
the bar of the heart
ear of the cup of woes

morning dreams
afternoon dreams
evening dreams
night comes in sits down and dreams
the ashtray dreams the cigarette its smoke
the hand bracing my head dreams of writing down dreams
upstream, a dream starts to take root in the river
as a sliver of light dreams a shiver in my spine
the back waves bye-bye to the brain
a hand writing the dreamy words
“this is them”

smooth and bumpy wonder meet in a tongue
licks the lip of the day
something special (instantly forgotten) brings this on
forms a landscape
adds a little motion makes a scene

[NOTE: Previous posts on this blog labeled "common sense" do not feature Greenwald's poems. "Common Sense" is the working title of a series of poems and letters I have been writing, inspired both by Greenwald's book and Thomas Paine's pamphlet of the same title.]