"By Humble Garments Deeply Moved"
As I write this, my wife and I are about to celebrate our 43rd wedding anniversary. We will celebrate it on the other side of this continent, on another coast, in a landscape and culture very different from our own, at the wedding of my nephew. I wonder what I can tell him and his bride of the road ahead---the dinner dishes waiting to be washed; the arguments over nothing one can remember and over some things that will cling to the skin like bloated ticks for years; the dreams turned sour like milk left out too long.
Marriage is a tough go. Between those annual celebrations that mark the endurance of a relationship lies so much that can sidetrack it---how mundane and commonplace our lives really are. What I am going to give my nephew and his fiancée for their wedding is a copy of William Minor's Some Grand Dust, for here they can discover not only what they will need to hold their marriage together but what each needs to hold him- or herself together. Some Grand Dust, although it makes no such claims, is a primer on how, despite our "pure pride and pettiness of spirit," to make every day of our lives a celebration. And it does so with some really fine poetry.
At the core of Some Grand Dust are what Minor characterizes as "absurd juxtaposition[s]:" "Lea & Perrins, Proctor/Gamble, Tom and Jerry, Simon/Garfunkel, Yang and Yin." (#38) First, the juxtaposition between the two poem cycles that make up the book, "Our Peasant Life" and "Moker." Second, the juxtapositions within each poem cycle---between, on the one hand, "me and you," or the main figures in the poems; and, on the other, between the real world of "All this insane brushing of teeth/and flossing" ("Moker and Maintenance") and the world of the imagination-"Moker dreams repeatedly about an unborn daughter" (Moker's Unborn Daughter," 36).* The trick is to be able to create a balance in life. Therein lies either our happiness or desolate emptiness.
"Our Peasant Life," the first of the poem cycles, celebrates thirty-eight years of "perfectly ordinary" married life. "This is it, William," the poet tells himself. This kitchen, this cat, these utensils. Iron, copper, other cheap trash: this is it. This rug, this stove, these cups that hang on the wall-colorful reminders all that this is it. (#28)
(*The 42 poems in "Our Peasant Life" are numbered; the poems in "Moker" have titles, and for those poems which have the same title, page numbers are included.)
He is, the poet says, "filled with passion by our perfect commonplace." (#12) To see the extraordinary in the ordinary---that is the key; to see, for example, that the closet that holds their clothing is a "shrine:
You lucky clothes! Here comes Betty, here comes Bill
This is the key---to find joy in the everyday by experiencing it freshly:
When morning comes, how clear our hearts and heads, everything anew
This ordinary life, this peasant life, moves between two poles. The kitchen table and the backyard are the domain of the poet's wife, who has in her eyes, her "mother's obsessional search/ for something more to scour." (#5) The marriage bed is the poet's domain, preoccupied as he is with sexual fantasies and dreams. In response to his son's observation about Betty---"She's out there mowing the lawn and there's nothing to mow"--, the poet responds, "Lucky for me, son, I'm just oversexed." (#6) This juxtaposition produces a certain amount of discord, of "ridiculous quarrels," but it also keeps the relationship in balance or, more precisely, it keeps the poet from losing touch with reality.
When the poet, "the perpetual adolescent," "seventeen years old again," stands on the verge of losing himself in sexual fantasies, his wife is there, "ninety pounds of actuality" (#30) to bring him back to the real world. In a way, William and Betty, the poet and the practical wife, the dreamer and the realist, are the two sides of each of us, and our spiritual health depends upon finding a balance between the two. Drift too far into the world of "This kitchen, this cat, these utensils," and life becomes drudgery. Drift too far into the world of poetry, of the imagination, of sexual fantasy, and you become Moker, the protagonist of the second poem cycle which bears as title his name.
Moker's life sits in juxtaposition to Bill and Betty's peasant life. Although Moker is not the speaker, the persona, he is the center of each poem, a kind of black hole that sucks everything in his consciousness into his egocentric center. "Moker has joyously accepted gravity, his own, and for once is taken seri-/ously, if by no one but himself." ("Moker and Gravity"). Each of the twenty-seven poems in this cycle bears Moker's name in its title, either as proper noun or, significantly, as possessive: "Moker at Six O'Clock," "Moker and the Cats," Moker's Unborn Daughter," "Moker's Heartprints," etc.. He lives in a world of dreams, the most powerful of which is that of his unborn daughter. Five of the poems bear the title "Moker's Unborn Daughter." He dreams about her repeatedly, his feelings at the very edge of incest:
a lifetime behind him, it seems, of watching girls in turquoise prance about rooms with birds on towels draped over their pre-pubescent shoulders. Yet one of those rare, strange creatures now just happens to be his unborn daughter. ("Moker's Daughter," p.36)
What is incest but the ultimate in self-centeredness? Even in the last poem in the cycle, with the possibility of redemption, of spiritual renewal, as "Moker Visits the Shrine of Saint Therese, the Little Flower, in Saint Patrick's Cathedral," he falls prey to this self-centeredness, to his perpetual adolescence, when he sees a "girl in slacks,/fresh white and twenty":
Moker follows her to the door, and dips
While the poet is able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, Moker only finds distaste and disgust: "As for his aging body, Moker/finds mere maintenance despicable" ("Moker and Maintenance"); "He skims the fat from Dinty Moore stew/and plops the residue/of a Swinger cigar in the trash." ("Moker Sweeping Away the Dregs") Instead, "Sick of the small stuff,/Moker is going, again,/for the big one: God." ("Moker in Love: God," 47) All he can do is cry "You!" "over and over and over again." But the void does not speak to him. Only his dreams speak to him, dreams of touching "again, every woman he has ever loved" ("Moker in Love: Nostalgia"), of "naked afternoon love" ("Moker in Love"), of "his incessant dream" for a woman half his age ("Moker in Love: a Woman Half His Age"), and of his unborn daughter.
Moker continually loses himself in the world of his adolescent dream world, in a world of self-deception. And it is here that we realize how much the married world of Bill and Betty has loomed over this poem cycle: while "Moker" stands alone as a poem cycle, it also stands in juxtaposition to "Our Peasant Life," and rather than despise Moker, we simply feel a great sadness for him. He is the dreamer without the realist voice to rein him in, to create a balance in his life. Divorced from his wife, divorced from the real world, Moker floats through life, a lost soul, capable only of "skating on the fine hard surface of a world/where desires fade and comic calm/may serve to keep us warm."
As poem cycles, "Our Peasant Life" and "Moker" work exceptionally well. Thematic elements hold each cycle together; the various thematic juxtapositions produce the tensions which keep the reader interested. Although a number of the poems in "Our Peasant Life" could not stand by themselves---they are the necessary tendons that hold the muscles of the body of the poem cycle together---most of the poems can; all the poems in "Moker" work as individual poems and as part of the cycle. When these poem cycles stand in juxtaposition to each other, each becomes stronger. The worlds of Bill and Betty, and of Moker define each other, talk to us about the difficulty of finding ourselves and happiness in this world and about the emptiness of an unbalanced life.
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Some Grant Dust is its poetics. The poems in "Moker" are either conventional free verse or prose poems; whereas, all the poems in "Our Peasant Life" are...well, it is difficult to define the form precisely. The lines reach across the page the way prose poems do, but very purposefully do not run flush to the right hand margin, rather have the enjambment of free verse. The lines are both poetry and prose, neither one or the other, but both, an amalgam of the two. (The book has been handsomely designed in 6 3/8" x 8" format by Chatoyant publisher Susana Wessling to accommodate these lines.) That poetic form perfectly mirrors the relationship between the poet and his wife, the amalgam necessary for the success of their marriage: the ability to merge these worlds, the poetical and the prosaic; to be able to see, as the poet does in the concluding poem of "Our Peasant Life," that "breath and body, you and me, Kid, are some grand dust." (#42)
Whether my nephew and his bride, still in their youthful bodies and still flushed with love for each other, will want to look ahead to the challenges addressed in Some Grand Dust, I cannot say. I do know I am deeply moved by the joyous acceptance, in "Our Peasant Life," of this "grand dust;" by the recognition, in "Moker," of what my life could so easily have been had my wife and I not toughed it out; and by the wonderful poetry of both poem cycles. For the young married couple, I'll underline these lines: