Reading Reports

Joanna Fuhrman & John Koethe

[This event took place February 5, 2010]

Report by Lauren Russell

Before introducing Joanna Fuhrman, Stacy Szymaszek called our attention to a “silver three” on the ceiling of the Parish Hall.  Startled, I looked up to find an aluminum balloon of the flower shop variety, mysteriously emblazoned with the number “3.”  The presence of this integer made me think of my high school English teacher, a former radio talk show host who marked me down for including original ideas in my essays and insisted on the intrinsic significance of threes — three witches in Macbeth, three Mary’s at the Resurrection, three parts to any story.

It was a relief then, to listen to Joanna Fuhrman’s poems, which constantly defy any such ordered explication.  Wearing a purple blouse with a gold v-neck embellishment and matching pink and purple stockings, Fuhrman began with a poem from her third book, Moraine.  A moraine, she told us, is the expanse created when a glacier has passed.  As a poetic structure, it’s an excuse to throw all kinds of stuff together, which, she continued, meant that the poem she was about to read was not really a moraine at all.

“Moraine for Bob” is one of my favorite love poems, as it speaks not of what the self and the beloved are, but rather what they are not, through a series of wonderfully strange statements.  If I hadn’t misplaced my copy in a recent move, I would cheat and type the exact lines, but at the reading, I scrawled down a couple: “I was never a paper doll in the pyromaniac sense of a pal” and “You were never a word in the mystic sense of an obstacle.”

Following “Moraine for Bob,” Fuhrman transitioned to poems from her latest book, Pageant — poems, Stacy Szymaszek said in her introduction, that “appreciate elaborate presentation while exposing artifice.”  Fuhrman wrote the poem “You Don’t Mean that Gesture,” she told us, after the second George Bush election (I assume she meant the second election of the second George Bush….too many seconds.).  The poem features a gleefully sadistic house.  “Ha ha ha ha he he he he he, said the bellicose walls as they spun toward the walls of the dictator’s house.”

She followed this up with the poem “On Some Gossip Overheard at the Meritocracy Bar and Grill,” which generated much laughter from the audience. “Now the rich are no more real than the non-rich,” Fuhrman read, “who wait for the F train to take them to their jobs as pedicab drivers or Adjunct Assistant Blindfolded Archery Professors at nomadic colleges.”  Fuhrman read with consideration for pacing and tone, one hip slightly cocked to the side.  By the end of the poem, the rich have “dropped into the muddy puddle they like to call ‘The Soul,’ copyright 2006, patent pending.”  As she read “The Soul,” Fuhrman’s eyes rolled upward, and you could hear the quotation marks in her voice.

Next Fuhrman read “The Summer We Were All Seventeen,” which mixes 1960’s pop culture mythology with 21st century technology in lines like “I illegally downloaded Steal This Book.” Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin make appearances, and so do William Blake and Li Po. Fuhrman snapped her fingers to indicate asterisks, and as her pace slowed for the second half of the poem, I could almost see the words forming in her mouth.  On the page, this poem seems frenetic, almost gleeful, but Fuhrman’s tone while reading it can only be described as resigned.

“In Plain Sight” is a dark list of the hidden.  “I hid my screaming in a poem about a popping toaster….I hid love, hate, happiness, and fear in the words ‘love,’ ‘hate,’ ‘happiness,’ and ‘fear….I hid all the missing bodies in the belly of a sleeping tuba.”  The phrase “French fries and fried idealism” jumped out at me, alliterative sounds detached from their context.

Reading the poem “A Question,” in which the speaker’s mother jokes about an upcoming aortic surgery, Fuhrman emphasized her line breaks, pausing after each word, as the speaker’s heart totters “like a working class / fashionista / fake leather / stilettos / wobbling up / the subway’s / broken / wet / escalator.”

Fuhrman followed this with “For Janet Richmond, Who I Think Hated Elegies.”  Richmond, who died a few years ago, was a student in Fuhrman’s Poetry Project workshop at the same time I was.  For the audience, Fuhrman described her as “an old lady with red boots,” then retracted the adjective “old,” saying instead, “She was…ageless.”  I cannot remember Richmond’s red boots, but I remember that her poems were very fast, nearly breathless, always playing with sounds and composed of wonderfully odd images I could barely grasp before one shifted into another.  “For Janet Richmond” is an obvious imitation of Richmond’s style, and the pace of Fuhrman’s reading sped up accordingly.  As the sounds and images rushed by, I got stuck on the phrase “live action” repeated, perhaps because such vitality is striking in an elegy.

Returning to her previous slow and steady pace, Fuhrman read “For Newlyweds,” which consists of a series of bizarre and sinister pronouncements, like “‘Love,’ you will call your new self, as if it were a stuffed penguin,” and “Write your vows as though they were written in invisible ink.”  Furhman’s voice slowed as she spoke of a city that used to be called by another name, “used to be teeming with houseplants, bursting with rollerblading messengers, brimming with lakes.”

Fuhrman closed her reading with four new poems.  Introducing the first, “A History of Love,” she said, “I used to write political poems.  I’m trying to get over it.”  The soft sounds in this poem contrast with the previous ones, particularly the stark “For Newlyweds.”  I was lulled by the sonorousness of “shimmied,’” “jazz,” “bossa nova,” “lost,” “sleeping,” “folded in the windows,” “ballet;” “an awkward bunny hug.”  The poem continues with names for different kinds of dances — waltz, tango, jitterbug, cha-cha — in a way that reminded me of John Ashbery’s use of river names in “Into the Dusk-Charged Air.”

“The Romantic Sublime for Dummies” is more resonant of Pageant’s cyncisim.  If I remember correctly, the poem begins with an ego dressed up in a black clown suit.  It ends, “So began my life as an idea and yours as a throbbing liver.”  The multi-part “He’s Opening His Mouth So He Can Hear Me” includes similarly grotesque moments, beginning with images of carnivores and “women in yellow nightgowns who erase one another.”

Fuhrman’s reading ended with a poem called “Fortune Cookie Read Under the Light of a Neon ‘Open’ Sign.”  The poem begins with the command “Keep it clear and simple” and continues with strange maxims like “Keep it simple like lipstick on the most beautiful gerbil in the 6th grade genocide.”  (Isn’t that much more interesting than lipstick on a pig?)  The poem ends with an interesting use of tense, reminding us that “you won’t always feel how you already felt.”

During the break between readers, Jean-Paul Pecqueur asked me if the Silver Three on the ceiling had distracted me from my note-taking.  It hadn’t, but the magic number resurfaced later in the evening when John Koethe characterized Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch as the “holy trinity.”

Koethe’s conservative navy blue button-down sweater and collared shirt were a contrast to Fuhrman’s striking ensemble.  Similarly, his poetic style is less dazzling, more meditative.  His images are more realistic than Fuhrman’s highly imaginative ones, and at times the language is flat, almost banal, until he arrives at an unexpected inference or insight.

The first poem Koethe read — called “Chester,” after his late cat, he told us —

was my favorite.  This was partly because I am a cat person and partly because I liked the way time, in this poem, seemed like a travelling presence, not subject to the usual linear constraints but moving back and forth and beside in a way that feels truer, as when the speaker recognizes “the half-concealed life behind the ordinary one.”  The cat is “at the foot of the bed, noncommittal in its blankness of mind.”  The speaker concludes that “the true soul is the one that flickers in the eyes of an animal.”

The next poem, “On Happiness,” begins with a quote from Augustine: “It’s a simple question and I even know what it is until you ask me.”  The speaker goes on to consider different perspectives on happiness — Plato, Freud, Wittgenstein, Mill.  “I realize it feels like a letdown to be told this is what it comes to, a pleasant apartment on a shady street a few miles north of downtown,” Koethe read, beginning what might be characterized as one of the “moments of disarming first person acknowledgment” Stacy Szymaszek mentioned in her introduction.  “It offers concrete satisfactions,” he continued, “in lieu of whatever happiness might be.”  In the end, confronting the possibility of a “deeper kind of happiness,” the speaker opts for a “rain check.”

Koethe continued with the poem “Clouds,” which, he told us, was set in Berlin, “here at the epicenter of three wars.”  The poem is at least partly a meditation on being a foreigner, a traveler.  “I love the insulation of strange cities,” the speaker reveals. Another interesting statement: “Evanescence is a way of seeming free.”

I missed the beginning of “European Love Story,” though I did catch that it was also set in Berlin.  (I think I was too busy trying, unsuccessfully, to transcribe the ending of “Clouds,” but remembering Jean-Paul’s query, I prefer to blame the Silver Three.)  The line “a held breath is everywhere” jumped out at me.

In “These Magic Moments,” the speaker is riding a train, and looking out the window, is overcome by memories, names and snippets connotative of stories in the speaker’s mind that the listener can only guess at.  All that’s magic about these moments, the speaker concludes, “is they’re mine and they’re gone.”

Koethe’s last poem for the evening, “Ninety-Fifth Street,” is also a memory poem.  It is named for the street where Koethe had dinner with John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch in 1966.  The dinner, Koethe told us, left him “starry-eyed.”  The last few lines, he said, are a collage of phrases from Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch poems.

“Ninety-Fifth Street” is composed of several sections, and Koethe adopted Fuhrman’s method of snapping his fingers to indicate a pause.  The poem begins on a philosophical note, with broad statements about life and poetry.  The phrase “like syllables that settle into place” jumped out at me, but with my faulty transcription, I no longer know what the simile describes.  Poetry, the speaker tells us, is “a way to live through time and sometimes to bring it back.”

Stage directions indicate a formal shift, as Koethe describes meeting John Ashbery at a party.  “The party ended.  John and I went off to Max’s, ordered steaks, and talked about our mothers.”   The young Koethe developed a friendship with Ashbery that led to his meeting with “the holy trinity” of Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch.  Commenting on the instability of memory, the speaker tells us of that dinner, “a few moments remain frozen, though the feel of them is lost.”  The three were meeting ostensibly to collaborate on a play that was “never finished, though I thought I saw a fragment of it somewhere.”

Later, when Koethe’s semester had ended and he had left New York to work a summer job, he got a card informing him that Frank O’Hara had been killed.  This memory seems to stand out as singularly as the dinner party.  Upon returning to New York, Koethe continued his friendship with Ashbery as “the center of the conversation moved downtown.”   He felt the restrictions of that scene, as “the laws prescribing what you couldn’t do were clear.”  Eventually Koethe “got tired of writing all those New York School poems, though by then I’d moved to Boston.”  As his poetics shifted, “the night in 1966 seemed more and more remote, and there were new epicenters.”  Koethe married, moved to Milwaukee in the quest for a tenure-track position, and had a son.  On a trip back to New York, “members of the thought police department, who must have gotten tenure, too, turned up everywhere.”   With a sentence, Koethe summarizes years or decades, bringing us up to the current time, “I got divorced and Willy killed himself, and here I am ready to retire.”  He concludes, “Oh brave new world, now old, that had such people in it.”

Snapping his fingers to indicate a section break, Koethe continued, “The tiresome old man is telling his life story.”  Laughter from the audience.  The poem goes on, “I guess I am, but that’s what poets do.”  The speaker is nostalgic for “the day when poems were more like secrets with their own vernacular and you could tell your friends by what they read.”  Since then, John Ashbery has become so popular that he’s “floating in the sky like a Cheshire cat,” and Koethe couldn’t be happier for him.

The poem concludes with the speaker envisioning a house on a meadow and “two versions of myself and of the people that we knew, both another to the other but indelibly there.”  And finally, the self remains with the image of the meadow, “still there when the rain has stopped and the apples are all getting tinted in the cool light.”

Returning to the Silver Three on the ceiling, I wondered how my high school English teacher would have outlined this story, but I am less interested in the poem as autobiography than as what it reveals about the instability of memory — how some moments are exalted, others glossed over or forgotten entirely.  In forty years, I may not remember this reading with the same ardor that Koethe recalls his dinner with “the holy trinity,” but as any in the good-sized crowd could attest, it was an evening well spent — Fuhrman’s startling imagery and Koethe’s subdued meditations heard beneath the shimmer of the Silver Three.