It’s hard to know whether the yearning for transcendence is what keeps poets in business or whether it’s exactly the thing that makes their business so marginal to profane, multifarious contemporary life. Variations on the theme “Get over it” are ambient, like those messages encouraging folks to forget God and start enjoying themselves that a group called the British Humanist Association paid to have plastered on the sides of London buses last winter. Employing strikingly different means, a pair of books by two New York–based, very cosmopolitan poets demonstrates an unseemly interest in God. Robert Polito’s title, Hollywood & God, and the title of “Money and God,” a selection from Susan Wheeler’s Assorted Poems (her first retrospective), are just the most obvious references to a desire to commune with the divine. And like any desire, this one also promises to deflect our pain, to inject life with vitality, with juice.
Too often we want juice and instead get ghosts. Hollywood—metonym for all worldly desires—hasn’t replaced God, according to Polito; both are receding into the past at exactly the same velocity. In the opening poem, the ghost of a starlet “keeps returning to the hills above Hollywood” and recalling sex with a “famous addict.” The sex, no matter how depraved, is never exactly soulless—“There were always three of us in bed / him, whatever girl he really wanted, and me.” What should be the most physical acts are haunted by invisible others. And the starlet, never more fully present in her body than when fucking, was always already a stand-in—an abstraction, even when she was alive. Incarnation, or materiality, is temporary; desire is forever.
Alternating dramatic monologues in the voice of celebrity worshippers with prose memoirs about his working-class Catholic upbringing, Polito draws parallels between tribes dedicated to their respective Gods. A child of immigrants, he cobbles together an America he can lay claim to when he speaks through the medium of an Elvis impersonator (“Sister Elvis”) or that of the man who became Priscilla Presley’s lover after Elvis’s death (“Riding with the King”). Polito, too, lives in the shadow of those who came before, impersonating a denizen when he is a mere arriviste. But there’s more: When he imagines a woman who “sells scarves / From her own North Beach shop” and claims that she lives with Bob Dylan (who wrote “Shooting Star” for her), we draw a connection to the missing woman at the center of the Polito-family mythology—the paternal grandmother who fled an abusive household, abandoning her young son:
My father’s earliest memory is
Not the icebox overturning onto him,
But his mother lifting it off;
That was right before she fled alone to New York City;
He told us instead that she died.
If the woman missing from Polito’s father’s life is the poet’s original mystery, he has chosen unknowable celebrities and fans as stand-ins. It’s the reverse of the fungible starlet standing in for her lovers’ fantasy bodies. For Polito, celebrity fantasies stand in for a real, and irreplaceable, person.
Or do they? Polito plays the motif of the missing grandmother against overarching themes of repetition and impersonation—“You open your mouth and a tradition dribbles out. / But that’s mimesis.” He ends the book with an anecdote about collecting tintypes on weekend jaunts upstate. “When I see a photograph of a young woman with dark hair who would have been alive in 1915 . . . I pay whatever it costs. Then I start looking for her all over again.” But even this is the dribbling of tradition, that of the cinephile: Apparently, Hitchcock’s Vertigo is so embedded in Polito’s psyche that even his own family history begins to resemble it. He writes a confessional book that leaves us doubtful of its sincerity.
Polito interviewed Wheeler for Bomb magazine a few years ago, revealing that they’ve been friends since meeting at Warhol’s Factory in the late ’80s. Biographical information about Wheeler is hard to come by; it certainly doesn’t make it into her poems. Like Polito, Wheeler is concerned with mimesis. She expresses that concern, though, by way of vehement rejection:
Sands, similitude, what’s the difference?
I could use a stand-in but even this,
which seems to refer, makes a figure.
Despair does not well take representation.
The work in Assorted Poems recalls the style and method of John Ashbery’s late poems, in which American speech is gamely collaged:
Second time around. Some greyhound, there,
reminds you of the hope you broke.
Becky and Bill filming in 1979, dead
pan. Bill’s thinking and now he says:
Layer that gamelan at Get Ready, ’kay?
A hellish confluence, that’s what it is,
and then it’s up and attem with that
parcel of crackpots, chewing and grinning,
in the hellish breakfast room.
It’s hard not to quote Wheeler liberally. Her poems aren’t meant to be paraphrased so much as enjoyed on their own terms—as performances—or delved into with scholarly spade and pick. As with Ashbery, music becomes an explanatory figure (she is also the author of a novel, Record Palace , about jazz), and for this reason her delightful allegory in couplets, “Benny the Beaver: My Father’s Tale,” organizes the rest of the book around itself like Wallace Stevens’s “jar in Tennessee”: “Benny’s tail would only drum,” it begins, and soon the other beavers are complaining: “Benny’s antics are not fair! / We’d love to lolligag on air, // Drumming for sheer sound alone.” Banished from the beaver camp for not contributing his share to the community, he is recalled posthaste to scare away trappers with a little warpath drumming. Hooray, the camp is saved. The story ends, “The Benjamin School for Drumming // Draws the best of beavers to study / Drums. And Benny? He’s dead.” The tension between the artist’s pleasure in making for its own sake—marching to a different drummer—versus the community’s demand for efficacy finds temporary resolution now and again, Wheeler seems to say, but the aims of the artist and the demands of the audience generally proceed on parallel tracks.
Her last volume, Ledger (2005), was a bid to resolve this issue. Like Polito’s Hollywood & God, it is a book-length project rather than a collection. Such overarching and thematically driven efforts—akin to the concept album in rock—try to serve two masters: the audience’s desire for accessibility (subjects, statements) and the Orphic desire for indeterminacy (transcendence, riddles). The poems in Ledger cry out for CliffsNotes. You just know that with an epigraph from Arnold J. Toynbee, titles like “Loss Lieder” and “Short Shrift,” and big poems on sixteenth-century painter Quentin Massys (“The Debtor in the Convex Mirror”) and late capitalism (“Money and God”), there’s a thesis somewhere—but the reader has to look hard to find it. Critic Stephen Burt has used the term elliptical to refer to works that eschew direct communication for a renewed commitment to negative capability: Elliptical poets “are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory.” (Now that it’s our era’s defining style, ellipticism can make me reach for my Philip Larkin. This oblique manner has turned poets into obscurantists.) Wheeler’s earlier work, while elliptical, is grounded in swinging rhythms and a persona that suggests an Alice in Manhattan’s Wonderland.
Even so, much as I love Wheeler’s wit and rhymes, I start to miss Polito’s narrative momentum. And when he gets tremulous, I want to wash it down with one of her brassy lines. So often we come away from modern poets wanting more; maybe it’s just the blueprint we’ve established, where the yearning for transcendence is the defining characteristic. Well, caveat lector: Every bid for transcendence foregrounds a lack. What would we do without that lack? stop worrying and enjoy your life, enjoined the bus ads; our poets, like the wistful Polito and the fierce Wheeler, suggest it’s not that simple.
Ange Mlinko’s most recent book of poems is Starred Wire (Coffee House, 2005). She is the recipient of the 2009 Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism.