April 24, 2009KR BlogKR

Walking Like an Oak

“A cypress,” wrote a sensible Russian early this century, “streams upward (Gesture), and has a quiet, positive, concentrated character (Quality); whereas, the old, many-branched oak, rising upward and sideways (Gesture), will speak to us of a violent, uncontrolled, broad character (Quality).” This Russian–actor and director Michael Chekhov (Anton’s nephew, if you wondered)–wrote that the actor’s foremost physical discipline must be to observe, and then to inhabit, the forms around him. “Each leaf, stone, rock, remote mountain range, cloud, brook, wave, will speak to us about Gestures and Qualities that are contained in them.”

Should poets, too, inhabit forms? Maybe because it’s harder to score than music, choreography isn’t connected often enough to poetics. (Or maybe it’s that one Victorian who trashed the conversation.) A dancer friend taught me once about proprioception; now I see touch and internal balance–rather than counterpoint and harmony–in my favorite arts.

Have you ever been tempted to dance a poem? Spinoza wrote that the idea of the body is the mind; Claudia Rankine, finding a moral equivalent, quotes Hegel: “Each man hopes and believes he is better than the world which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others.”

Express is a modest-sounding word, but here it suggests less talk than Chekhov’s “gesture,” or sculpture, or dance; there’s a frightening involuntariness to this idea of expression. A poem like a body in motion is more unsettling than a poem like a song you can switch off, for there the body still sits (stands) (gestures [like an oak, arch, cypress, stranger]). Here are, from my favorite-poets-this-week, movements from bigger works, or single shimmies from their unruly long dance:

From C.D. Wright’s Cooling Time: “Antithetical poetries can and should coexist without crippling one another. They not only serve to define their other to a much more exacting degree than would be possible in the absence of the one or the other; they insure the persistence of heterogeneous (albeit discouragingly small) constituencies.” What if contradictory aesthetic practices were simply a pas de deux? The strangeness wouldn’t wrap anything up: the pli?? isn’t explained by the ballerina’s face. (Hey: if you grow an ear in your arm, is it science or art? How will the continents move 50, 100, 200 million years from now?) My bare feet are caked with pollen from walking down my back steps to the mailbox. Music melts out of the air, the heat lays our bodies down. It’s the first day of steady heat in St. Louis, a blue uniform breezeless blanket exhausting the sparrows, the construction workers, and the neighbor slicing invisible golf balls on our lawn.