Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On Gillian Conoley

Some Gangster Pain

So, I’ve owned this book, or a copy, anyway, Some Gangster Pain, for some time. Gillian Conoley, the poet, has introduced the entire collection with a quote from Pablo Neruda:

“Where bullets fly on the wind,
I am left in envy of the cowboys,
left admiring even the horses.”

and a line from the bible:

“…the glory of his nostrils is terrible.”

Job 39:20

This makes me wish that I could introduce my poem, Ecstasy, with the very same lines.

But it also makes me want to understand the poetry of Gillian Conoley better than I do. Conoley is a tough poet to crack. She uses words for every known purpose and, maybe, has invented a few new uses. She uses words for whispering. For intimating. For caressing. For hammering. For launching projectiles. Conoley uses words to excavate and to bury. Trying to stay on top of one of Conoley’s poems is like putting in a day riding broncs at a rodeo in Texas, the poet’s home state.

Some Gangster Pain starts off manageable, even for those new to rodeo. I can stay on “The Invention of Texas,” easy. It’s good poetry, clear as a bell, with a moral perspective that makes sense to me. But, compared to the rest of Conoley’s poetry, it’s like riding a pony. I don’t get bucked off, and I end the ride feeling like I just met a poem I can’t help liking and don’t mind liking.

But one poem later, I’m getting up on “Patsy Cline," and it’s suddenly obvious how much I have to learn about Conoley’s poetry and how hard I’m going to have to work to learn it.

The first three lines, I’m all there, all present; I’m up on this ride.

“When I’m alone, I like how my nylons
mesh, the rustle I get
just walking.”

For a ‘50s fetishist like me, this is an open invitation. But just a few lines later:

“…Not like she did
in that yellow skirt,
strolling in
so everyone saw.”

Wait. Just wait. If “I” am Patsy Cline, then who is “she?” But if “I” am Gillian Conoley and “she” is Patsy Cline, then do I want you to know so much about me, Gillian.

I like the image: that yellow skirt swinging so that everyone could see (see what?). And it’s not like I have that many unanswered questions…but then you walk in and I know I don’t have any idea who you are or why there’s money falling out of your pants. Yes, there seems to be more than one voice here. I am barely holding on to this bronc, to this sexy, feisty poem

“But I still see
that bar, the lights
strung bare above every man’s back,
the sticky perfume,
her skirt a breeze you could carry.”

and I just plain forget to hold on. I’m flying skirts up, ass over elbows and I hear the next line (and I can hear it still):

“Once I got home…”

So, even though I have no idea who “I” is, I am so enjoying being “I” that I just may go back to the beginning and start reading the poem all over, again.

(And this, I did. Imagine, if you will, an interlude.
Be mindful that I am half way through the second poem in a book with about 40 poems.)

Ah. That was refreshing. Where were we?

There’s a lot more from the time “I” got home and the end of the poem, but let me jump here to that end. What comes next will in no way spoil the poem for you (I might already have done that). I’m betting, instead, that once you know how it ends, you’ll want to do the hard work of reading the poem yourself. It ends:

“I may be walking backwards onto this plane,
but you’re looking
like some rat-eyed pimp,
some hillside jack on a slide.”

Of course, it ends that way. I always knew there was a guy like you involved. I just didn’t know where in the poem the heel was going to show up, or that the heel would be you. Or, if you prefer, that you would be the heel.

So, without believing for a moment that I actually understand “Patsy Cline,” that’s what I’ve gotten so far out of reading it. If you could have that kind of experience, just for taking a harder look at 33 lines, why would you bother to read anything longer?

On the theory that other doors will open if I read Some Gangster Pain through to the end that’s what I’m going to do.

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