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Talking about Hats, and Maybe Goats

By (October 1, 2012) No Comment

Goat in the Snow

Emily Pettit
Birds LLC 2012

Based solely on the title, Goat in the Snow, one might expect pastoral poems and georgic concerns from Emily Pettit’s new book.  However, this is Pettit’s first set-up for redirection.  A more accurate title for this collection might be How to Find a White Goat in the Snow, as playfulness is its most endearing feature.  Playfulness alone, though, tends toward immaturity, and while some poems in the collection compromise themselves because of this, the underlying intelligence of Pettit’s style makes rereading more than a must, and if that doesn’t make sense, do not worry––Pettit instructs us (kind of).

Surrealist techniques inform Pettit’s writing—especially her desire to make the reader uncomfortable.  A main function of surrealist art is to remove oppositions in order to reveal some new insight, and one way to erase opposition is to place the most ridiculous images side by side: think Statue of Liberty eaten by an orangutan. The complex machinery of our rationality attempts to make sense of these juxtapositions, and when we do (or don’t) the experience is enjoyable, new.  So, when we read Benjamin Peret’s line, “The blue asparagus of official ceremonies,” it is both nonsense and sense. We read it again, and it makes us smile; we read it again, and we develop some political interpretation; we read it again and want to write something like that, removed from the binds of the rational mind but able to be understood by it.

Emily Pettit joins a line of American writers who take what is best about surrealism (its ability to reveal what André Breton called “the marvelous”) but defy the surrealist label. John Ashbery and James Tate come to mind quickly, but I do not know if Pettit bristles at the term quite like they have. The technique of unusual juxtaposition to create the surrealist ideal—the experience of “the marvelous”—is key in Goat in the Snow.  Pettit, though, goes beyond simple juxtapositions (blue asparagus/ official ceremonies).  Pettit’s erasure comes through categories.

Twenty-seven poems here can be categorized as “how-to” poems.  This book is really a poetics of imperatives.  However, none really explain how to do anything: “This is no articulation of ethics,” we are told.  Instead, the reader is primed to expect instruction, and Pettit takes advantage.  She knows we have read this type of poem before, and she also knows that we will search within the poem for the lesson the title claims to offer.  As we read, we expect to learn “How To Find Lost Objects,” not to become lost.  We think, “Yes, I have lost many things and found some, and this poem will reflect that.”  However, the “lost object” in Pettit’s poem becomes the category itself… maybe even poetry.  We will get to that.  But this recognition sets off the same enjoyment of Peret’s line.  We read it again, and it makes us smile; we read it again.  Here is the first stanza of “How To Find Lost Objects”:

This is no articulation of ethics.
I’m talking about hats,
and maybe goats.
Steel, a stem,
eyebrows, ivory.
I’m talking about peeling
an avocado.

The movement from elevated to lowered tone within the stanza is typical of the poems in this collection. First, the reader is given a meaty line full of capital “p” Poetry.  “This is no articulation of ethics.”  An articulation of a set of principles is not what Pettit intends—but a reevaluation of poetic moral principles is intended. Can we lie in a poem?  How much?  Can it be categorical?  Pettit answers: Yes.  As much as you want.  And you can label your villanelle “sonnet 47” and no one will die…but they might be a little uncomfortable.

As we move forward through the stanza we realize that the objects within could be lost, even if we do not think about “steel” and “eyebrows” as items that are often misplaced.  However, “peeling/ an avocado” exists outside these categories—how can we lose an action?  What can an avocado bring to this equation?  The simple answer is disruption, and indeed, as the poem develops we find that disruption and subversion of expectation (how do I find lost objects?) continues:

I think chalk is chalk.
This is an opportunity.
Don’t have an epiphany.
Chalk is a moose.

These lines can be read as either a speaker defiantly battling herself—I will not have an epiphany, even a small one—and losing—“Chalk is a moose”—or as a development mirroring the opening stanza, perhaps one that is now undermining the use of metaphor, which is supposedly one of poetry’s strongest devices.  After all, isn’t metaphor the great vehicle for new understanding, new insight, and newfound enjoyment?  Great metaphors equal great poems, right?  Pettit disagrees:

A spoon is a baby.
A creek is a shoe.
A satellite is a banjo.
Eternity is a branch
A barn is yellow.
A puddle, a curtain.

One of poetry’s strengths—the imaginative leap of metaphor—has now become a lost object. It wants to be lost—the repetition makes this clear enough.  Paradoxically, this repetition does not remove metaphor in the way the repetition of a word spoken aloud begins to remove meaning and escape understanding (try it: repeat the word “cucumber” twenty times as fast as you can). The repetition reinforces the role of metaphor; the poem is stuck being a poem, so the reader rereads—“Ah-ha,” the reader thinks, “a poem about poetry…I get it…metaphor is being exposed, maybe, as inessential.”  The next lines solidify the insight: “Things here are uncomfortable / and that’s a good thing.”  Metaphor will not exist the way we expect in this poem.

“How To Find Lost Objects” acts as an ars poetica for Goat in the Snow. In every poem, a combination of these traits appear:  Stuck in the world of poetry, the poem rebels.  We are given a title, but the title purposefully misleads. We are given images, but they are disconnected, random, and occasionally difficult to place in context (“peeling / an avocado; A barn is yellow”). We find mixed tones; we end the poem (or sometimes begin) by reading a reluctant note from the speaker: “The fish in the water / is right there. // No, there.”

This parting line, the answer to the instruction, again subverts expectation.  The fish keeps moving. The poem continues outside itself, presumably forever with the fish becoming lost again and again to the reader. This technique of a final-line semi-payoff is used in other “How To” poems.  Occasionally, though, the technique is flipped.  For example, “How to Find a Robber” begins:

Don’t look.  Don’t look anywhere.
I am behaving like such an animal.
I found a field full of crows.
I am selling people bad transit tickets.
I am sure of it.  Row boat row boat
Brain chemical boat style rocking.
There’s your voice.  There are some
well given instructions…

and ends, “I stand in corners.  I am not corrected.”  The semi-payoff given in the opening keeps the poem active (the poem tells us to do nothing but continues for more than a dozen lines).  Whether in the opening or closing lines, we receive the speaker’s kindness—or pity.

Pettit does not want to give the reader what they want and expect—and that is a good thing. It is also difficult to achieve without making the reading experience too frustrating.  As John Ashbery writes in praise, “[Pettit’s] kindness is always ahead of us,” and Goat in the Snow does lead the unsuspecting reader through the divergent paths of its poetry.  However, one reader’s view of Pettit’s style as kindness can be seen by another as pity—which the reluctant endings lead me to believe.  Without that kindness, or pity, entering in the first or final lines, several poems would not be as successful, and Pettit knows this well—even if she does not like it.   Abandoning the reader to the disorienting effects of erasure through category would produce the same negative reactions surrealist art faced during its fall.  The completely confused reader shuts the book; the reader able to hold onto even the weakest piece of meaning, keeps the book open.  We keep Goat in the Snow open.

Toward the end of “How To Find Lost Objects,” our speaker tells us, “I don’t mean to chivvy.” Chivvy ironically means, in a book of imperative poems, “to tell someone what to do.”  Pettit is not pushy, but this book does challenge “comfortable” poetry.  “Things here are uncomfortable / and that’s a good thing,” she writes, and I agree that to move out of one’s comfort zone is helpful; I read the poem again.  I encourage all readers to find Goat in the Snow, but do not use a “How To” poem from the collection to do so.

Péret’s “Blue asparagus of official ceremonies” takes on a new reading for me now.  The official ceremonies might be capital “p” Poetry… and after reading too much of it, perhaps it does become like blue asparagus, which must be stale, tasteless, and dense as the tree it resembles.  Péret’s surrealist writing beginning in the 1920s onward was a subversive, uncomfortable reaction to the poetry of his day; Goat in the Snow is the first of what I’m sure will be many artifacts from a poet who is reacting to the poetry of her day.  Can this book be subversive in a post-modern world?  Not in the same way Péret could be.  But Goat in the Snow is uniquely challenging, like an orangutan eating the Statue of Liberty, and what more can we ask of a new book of poetry?

Joe Betz teaches composition and creative writing at two community colleges in and around Bloomington, IN, where he lives. Recent poems appear in Hayden’s Ferry Review. In 2009, he was the Laurence Goldstein Prize winner, judged by Paul Muldoon. He is happy you like poetry.