BURT KIMMELMAN Reviews
New Orleans Variations and Paris Ouroboros by Paul Pines
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, Ohio)
[First published in Golden Handcuffs Review, Spring-Summer 2014, Editor Lou Rowan]
There is a paradox holding Paul Pines’s new volume of verse together: the persona in these poems is a traveler yet, wherever he goes, he’s at home. The question becomes, what is home? This conceit enables Pines to merge the point of view of a flesh and blood eye witness who, in his later years, has come to possess a measure of wisdom only the experience of living affords, with the subjective yet universally human, timeless lyric voice. Moreover, the voice’s visionary lostness, which reminds us of Odysseus, is singularly affecting—insofar as any understanding of the world, either in the terms of a specific locus or in some purely contemplative, philosophical sense, ultimately provides no solace—only does the wanderer finally long for the return home (“We leave home to find ourselves / says Homer”). The older man who has come back to the haunts he found as a young explorer enjoys the place and time of the present, while understanding something more than this. Here, then, is the conundrum this wonderful book embodies.
Maybe the question being asked simply has to do with whether or not there is a restlessness that can ever be assuaged. At least Pines the traveler is at home in his own thoughts. And these thoughts qualify everything we see through his eyes. The book, for me—aside from the fine craft of the poems, typical of Pines—is essential because of his thinking in itself. Yet we see Pines the man within the scene too. And in the juxtaposing of the two cities the Pines persona revisits in later life, Paris and New Orleans, there emerges a fine balance between seeing and thinking (our seeing and his, his thoughts and ultimately ours), and a meditative consideration of the two—two cities, two modes of being, taken together. Pines was quoted not long ago (in The Somerville News) as saying that his “love of New Orleans” began with his “first sight of it as a twenty-three year old galley man of a freighter on a voyage Gulfwise,” and that he “first felt the mystery of Paris shortly thereafter when [his] sense of time and space collapsed while crossing the Pont L’Archiveche.” He then adds that the “two cities are forever twined in [his] mind by an underlying sense of color and tone […].” (Caveat emptor: when time and space collapse one finds oneself inhabiting the world of the philosophical, Relativity notwithstanding, possibly the mystical.)
Pines’s thinking includes fascinating historical detail showing how these two French cities are inseparable—complementing the juxtaposition we are implicitly being invited to consider, the two cities are alive not just in his mind but also on the page through his graphic descriptions. Here, for instance is an almost direct address to the reader, meant to share a juicy, telling bit of near-original lore involving a hallowed American site that connects the two cities and two continents: “The idea was to rescue / Napoleon from exile.” What’s interesting is how Pines’s recall follows upon a very personal, twenty-first century, and obviously New Orleansesque moment Pines experiences in a café:
a man with a grizzled beard
growls his order in French
Billy Goat Gruff
suddenly becomes a Supreme
singing in falsetto,
“Oh Baby . . .”
before sitting down
to feed multiple personalities [. . .].
Although the Pines persona here is always searching and dissecting to find the real meaning, as it were, in any encounter, simply what we might notice is the poet’s sheer delight at this happenstance, its thrilling urbanity, its jazzy unexpected nature and edginess. So, is this guy, “Billy Goat Gruff,” what Napoleon would have become in future generations? He was to be, Pines tells us,“[brought] back / to Louisiana where // [his followers] gathered in the dark / of what later became // the Napoleon House / in the port of New Orleans[.]”
Yet we are well beyond the historically annotated travelogue. What the encountered experience engenders, the kind of experience that makes these poems really memorable, however, is a greater and ongoing rumination on self and time—which Pines repeatedly establishes within place. To hold even a vague sense of time, moreover, if one is pondering the experience of travel or otherwise being away from home in later life, is unavoidably to contemplate memory and how it might lend all meaning to both ourselves, in other words one’s identity, and also our sense of time. Even the sheer indulgence in sensation for its own sake, at least for Pines, leads him to confront the fact of memory as well as memory’s fragility. Thus he arrives at a cogitation on the mind per se. Standing outside the aptly, allegorically, named “Café du Monde,” the Pines figure reflects on how “we observe // that what is formed / by mind dissolves // into the twilight of / mind-before-thought // a paradoxical curve / of the Mississippi // where the sun / rises over the west bank.” Hence, all mythology and history are ephemeral but that we would hold them to us.
For all the quandaries in which Pines involves himself, and we along with him, we see here a coming to self-knowledge, possibly, or simply a way of being-in-the-world. His carefully wrought, thoughtful poems in this book—distillations of lyric subjectivity, the disembodied voice of the essayist, the rehearsal of an actual historical past, as well as an invocation of the nervous, radiant present—achieve their elegance in the small details that tell us big things. Pines is indeed an astute observer. His chiseled reveries are insightful yet affecting in their sheer presence—written under the sign of Hermes who, in a dream, flies with Pines “over the rooftops / of Paris // an encoded message / of tiles and / chimneys // dome of Sacre Coeur / blinding in / the sun….” We, too, find ourselves beyond gravity in Pines’s delicate remembrances.
Even so, there are weighty moments that comprise a rather grim view of our contemporary civilization. Does he yearn, finally, for an idealized if not naïve youth, such as might be suggested in this passage:
I assumed I would outlive
then watched them grow
that I would fortify myself
against the outrages
of my world then found
I couldn’t live so enclosed
had to come and go [. . .].
Or is this the now wizened, older man talking?
Pines recalls Gracian’s insistence that “’Knowledge without courage / is sterile’” and he contrasts the serene clarity Gracian possessed to his own continuing restive state: “the age of reason / never realized”—Pines admits, maybe with horror—“that the world might become / so crowded with proofs // there’d be nothing left to feed / its hungry mouths // starving for mystery [. . .].” More is less, and yet a less complicated, maybe more nourishing, world is retrieved as he moves through the present. His juxtapositions—not only of the journeys of young and old man, but also of early and late manhood, or alternately of history and the now—are fascinating. And he very well knows they are. In his poem “Entering the Musée d’Orsay,” for example, the poem’s speaker thinks of St. Augustine— whose observation “I see myself seeing / or not seeing // but not what another sees” may be the guiding reflection that engenders the two halves of this book and the book in its entirety—most of all because it is his understanding that adumbrates the figure of the solitary traveler caught in his own thoughts and standing in for the existential aloneness each of us must confront.
Wherever or however the eternal may or may not make itself manifest, it “does not,” Pines decides, “tell us why the stone age // images on the cave walls / of Lascaux will inevitably // be recomposed into / ‘Lush Life’ by Billy Strayhorn[.]” Still, if the world comes together, if there is a unity in life, if an explaining is possible, then it happens only through Pines’s capturing and releasing of the momentary, a transitory present that exists in a world resisting ultimate comprehension. Thus we see the core tension in these poems, as a collection especially. Pines lives in the moment, and I suppose this self-installation is the greatest value of this fine book—as we live in the moment along with him, through his incisive vignettes. He counsels us not to be
[. . .] surprised
to find a voice
in foreign stones
even as we recognize
therein a shape
that calls out
to an unexpected
Nevertheless, even in our later years, possibly most of all then, origin is not the point.
Burt Kimmelman’s eighth collection of poetry is Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2013 (BlazeVOX [books], 2013). In addition to poetry, he has published a number of books of literary criticism as well as scores of essays on medieval, modern or contemporary poetry. Recent interviews of him by Tom Fink in Jacket and Geoffrey Gatza in BlazeVOX (text), and George Spencer at Poetry Thin Air (video, in two parts) can be found online. For more information, visit BurtKimmelman.com