St. Paul, Minneapolis: River Otter Press, 2013
Softcover. 41 p. ISBN 978-0983553069. $12.99
Reviewed by Helen Goethals
Université Toulouse – Jean-Jaurès
Almost Rain by Simon Perchik, was published by the River Otter Press in September 2013. It comes as the latest in a long line of poetry books by a writer who ruefully admits that he is “the most-widely published unknown poet” in contemporary America. In fact, much of Simon Perchik’s work can be read in Hands Collected, from Pavement Saw Press, which republished in handsome hardback form the sixteen slim volumes which had appeared between 1964 and 2000. Two other volumes of his poetry also came out at round about that time, which makes Almost Rain the first opportunity we have had in over a decade to hear this singular voice. If we add that it has all the virtues which Edward Said attributed to a “late style”, then we have a literary event which calls as much for celebration as it does for a review.
There are reasons why Simon Perchik’s poetry is not more widely known and, as with all contemporary poetry, they have more to do with the distribution of poems than with their production. Born in in Paterson, New Jersey in 1923, Perchik has been writing poetry – and only poetry – since he returned from service as a bomber pilot in World War 2. After taking a degree in English at New York University he went straight into law school and the career as an attorney which supported his wife and three children. In other words, he did not become part of any of the academic circles which through creative writing courses and poetry readings have launched the fashions that have kept some poetry at least in circulation. It was not until he retired that he found the uninterrupted time required to write, since when the need to write has become, if one can picture such a thing in a café or pizza-parlor, almost a monastic vocation.
Such dedication to the actual writing of poems, to what Dylan Thomas called his “craft and sullen art”, means that there little time left over for its promotion. Simon Perchik is in no way a performance poet and gives very few readings because, as he explains, “I write a poem to be read, not to be heard.” On the other hand, interviews that are available online, particularly the exchanges with poet-editor David Baratier and Susan Tepper, do tell us quite a lot about the slant from which he sees the truths that can only be told in poetry. The comments on his own poetry quoted in this review have all been taken from those interviews.
They remind us that for a writer who has lived in or around New York since 1948, even the margins of the poetry scene teem with life. The distant influence of the view from Black Mountain can be detected in Perchik’s outlook on poetry and, over the years, the encouragement of certain poets has meant a lot to him. Paul Blackburn, Jim Weil, Anselm Parlatore, and Edward Butscher were/are friends whose help he readily acknowledges. His first six collections, for instance, appeared in the beautifully produced poetry collection of the Elizabeth Press (1963-1981).
The interviews also offer us offer insights into his unusual way of working. As he explains to David Baratier, he begins with an urge to write without necessarily knowing what he is going to write. So he uses a photograph as a starting point, prompting him “just enough so I have a manual movement of moving my hand with a pen across the page.” After transcribing pages and pages of simple description of what he sees in the photograph, a new idea-image surfaces which he then abstracts into a poem.
This abstracting process has several interesting consequences. Among other things, it means that, despite their visual beginnings, the poems which emerge from this making-process are in no way ekphrastic. Rather, they owe much of their charm to a lyricism which, collection after collection, has its own distinctive unity of rhythm and interwoven themes. Poetry, according to Perchik, should move us as mysteriously as music: “When a person finished reading, they should say ‘I don’t know what the hell that was all about, but I do know something is there’. Like Mahler’s songs, you don’t know what is there but it runs right through you, tears you apart.” Mahler is not the only composer to inspire Perchik but the mood that runs through Almost Rain is unmistakably akin to that conjured up by Mahler’s powerful tone-painting in Das Lied von der Erde and, for this reviewer at least, its accents are those of Kathleen Ferrier’s plangent alto voice.
Although we do tend to read poems in collections in linear fashion, Perchik is adamant that his poetry is non-narrative. It might be more helpful to read them as they are arranged: a song-cycle, set in no particular order, separated from each other by an asterisk so as not to “lock the reader in to a certain direction or meaning.” They seek neither to tell a story, nor to make a statement. “I’ve always felt that poetry, to have real power, does not depend upon insight: that’s a nice insight, so what – but rather moving the reader in a way where they are unable to say why they are moved, like music.” To understand what Perchik is aiming for and, more importantly, to see why it is worth achieving, it is perhaps helpful to place one of his poems side by side with a comparable one by Clive James. First read “Japanese Maple”, published in the New Yorker of September 15, 2014. Then read this, from p. 13 of Almost Rain:
This pot-luck maple
a baby! and already
leaf by leaf collapsing
and though you bathe in ice water
your only chance
is from the silence
found in absolute zero
whose undermining monotone
is quieted the way a millstone
half streams, half churchyards
half that sweet blossom
every child is born as
carries around on its shoulders
the unfolding whisper
for heavier blankets, woolens – noise
ages everything! This tiny tree
trying to gag the Earth
with dead leaves and hillsides
– with its molten core
Bubbling through the branches
And nothing is cold enough.
A poem like “Japanese Maple”, written in order to share an insight, will tend to be easier to read than one in which the aim is to set up tensions in the reader which will make her “catch a fire”, as a Caribbean poet might put it. Poems take hold of us (or not) as we read them. Each seeks connections with multiple readers’ infinitely various experiences, each offers a radically new way of reading the world. Like all speech acts, poems are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but they are (at a given moment) successful or unsuccessful. The problem for poets is that success is all-too-precariously dependent on the mood of the reader. For the writer, the reception of a poem, much like the maple sapling, relies to a certain extent on pot-luck: “If you’re lucky, you catch someone in the right mood – receptive, fine.”
The reader’s willingness to meet the poet halfway largely depends on what she brings to the meeting. Many readers, used to the novelist’s guiding hand, feel unequal to the task of co-creation on which all poems invite them to embark, and the compressed allusions and erudite references can often seem intimidating. This is emphatically not the case with Simon Perchik’s writing which, here and throughout Almost Rain, has a lightness of touch which overcomes the weight of words and gives that “lift-off” effect” which makes us want to read on. The “unfolding whisper” is there of course but it is held at a distance. “This pot-luck maple” struggling for air and light is rooted in Keats’s axiom, that “if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” And in those three jostling halves (“Half streams, half churchyards / Half that sweet blossom”) we might, as Keats desired and by way of an effect which occurs frequently in Almost Rain, be surprised by a fine excess. And in the nourishing undergrowth, do we not hear the accents of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall” and catch our breath remembering its marvelous first lines:
Margaret, are you grieving.
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts
care for, can you?
Other readers will uncover other meanings with the tools of close reading: the well-crafted effects of punctuation, the series of enjambement and so on. There are as many ways into a poem as there are readers, and I do not think the paths taken matter as long as, in the end, they also lead us out of it, our heads full of “fresh thoughts”.
Some routes are clearly signposted by the poet himself. The cover and first page of Almost Rain showcase the stunning work of New York artist-poet Peter Ciccariello. In the light of what Simon Perchik has said about how he begins his song-cycles, it is pleasing to think that Almost Rain was abstracted from that cover-page, that the firm direction of the painted stripes, the bright, autumnal colors and the juxtaposed textures of the almost-anthropomorphic wooden palings became themes in the poems. The knots in the wood, for example, half-forming an eye, nose and mouth, picture that uncertain area, that flow between the natural world and human perception which the poems try to capture in words. Like a work of art by Barceló, meaning quite literally drips from the surface form of the painting, as it seeps from the accumulated word-undergrowth of the poems.
And there in the midst of that chromatic range of oranges and browns, that luminous black stripe! Instantly, it brings to mind the work of Pierre Soulages. They are of the same generation: both began their work in the late 1940s, and for both their art took on a new direction in the late 1970s. Surely we should read Perchik’s poems as we read Soulages’s paintings? Abstract art, as Soulages explained for his first exhibition in 1948, is an organized whole, a set of forms (lines, colored surfaces …) on which the meanings we lend to the work are made or unmade”. (My translation)
Almost Rain addresses both the darkness and the play of light in that black stripe. Timor mortis conturbat me. There is no getting away from the burden of William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers” or, as Simon Perchik puts it, “No matter how a poem starts out it ends in a cemetery.” And he goes on to add, “A lot of death in the poems. Time has to do with that because there’s nothing that’s going to change that arrow going one way.”
Reading poetry cannot alter the fact of death, but it can change the way we feel about it. One way it does so is by suggesting the possibilities that are opened up by metaphor, all metaphor, including that of time as an arrow. The act of reading a poem brings two people – writer and reader – together in a moment to be seized and cherished. Transporting us out of the tyrannical realm of the predictable and the plotted, every poem offers us an excursion into what Swinburne called Love the Beloved Republic. Whether handled by Simon Perchik or by Philip Larkin, metaphor is both the way and the means that tout court changes the way we feel:
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
John Keats, Letter to John Taylor (February 27, 1818).
Edward Said, “Thoughts on Late Style”. London Review of Books 26-15 (5 August 2004) : 3-7.
Simon Perchik. “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities”. This essay and part of the interview with Susan Tepper are available from his personal website.
—interviewed by David Baratier in Jacket 8 (1994).
—interviewed by Susan Tepper in Pavement Saw Press Literary Journal 8.
Pierre Soulages, Écrits et propos. Paris : Hermann, 2009.
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