THE QUICK AND THE DEAD: DECIPHERING RALPH ADAMO’S NEW VOLUME, EVER
Louis Gallo • English Dept • Radford University
Bibliography: The Tiger Who Spoke French (New Orleans Press, 1972); Why We Have Friends (Leatherfoot Printers, 1975); Sadness at the Private University (Lost Roads Press, 1978); The End of the World (Lost Roads, 1979); Hanoi Rose (New Orleans Poetry Journal, 1989); Waterblind (Portals Press, 2002); Ever (Lavender Ink, 2014); see also individual poems on Lavender Ink website, poems from New Orleans Elegies (Desire), Memories of Eating, Gift of the Guest, Cantle. As editor: Everette Maddox, American Waste (1994); I Hope It’s Not Over and Goodbye (2009)
Biographical: see website Lavender Ink/Ralph Adamo; Louis Gallo, “The Rise and Fall of the Barataria Review,” Louisiana Literature, (Spring 1991) and Ralph Adamo’s reply in the same issue.
I a shrunken man with an old nose and long eyes
used to the way little becomes less
unprepared for bounty
whittling sorrow down to its toothsome size [italics mine here and hereafter]
I, called since my birth Ralph Adamo, sixty-six years of age and in a state of health yet to be
determined, declare poetry to be what god meant to say before catching the last transport
out of here, the bad with the good, the spoken and what the kids charmingly call ‘page
poetry,’ words layered in music or stark in their subvocalizations.
For many decades Ralph Adamo has published some of the most original, intelligent and rhetorically dazzling poetry in this country. Yet he remains relatively unknown save for pockets of devotees in his native New Orleans and elsewhere in the Deep South. He is not, however, what you might dub a “regional” or “southern” poet; his work is mainstream and universal. And let me add that fretful term “passionate,” which seems anathema today to which much recent, sterile, academic poetry testifies. Adamo’s work is unabashedly, consistently and sometimes recklessly passionate. And bravo for that. I can only hope that this review of his new volume Ever will suddenly change the stakes for Adamo, though one never knows. If it merely increases his readership by a fraction, all the better.
Serious readers of poetry always seek antecedents, and thus I have sought, but in vain, to categorize Adamo’s poetry, to assign him to one of the many “schools” imagined by anthologists and critics. I know of no other similar poetic voice writing now or in the past. Adamo claims he has been influenced by Neruda, Stevens, Rilke, Jack Gilbert and the old Chinese poets, and perhaps so, but his voice and rhetoric remain singular. I also find the concerns but not the style or cadence of Yeats saturating Ever. But seeking anxious influence in the manner of Harold Bloom is perhaps a futile enterprise. Even Bloom admits that genuinely new voices alter the parameters of their predecessors. Adamo is an original, I repeat, and leave it at that.
I have read Adamo’s poetry since the mid-seventies by which time he had produced two or three chapbooks. The first I read was entitled The Tiger Who Spoke French, and I recall at the time that I felt stunned, that I had come across something strange and exciting. The later work has matured into a sophisticated, meditative and difficult body of work. Adamo, at his usual sarcastic best, claims that this probably results from sloppiness. But no, these new poems and those in his unpublished masterpiece New Orleans Elegies (previously Desire)* are anything but sloppy. Carefully constructed and thought out, the poems belong to a continuum, one long, relentless, nuanced life-long poem. Their difficulty lies in their sophisticated intelligence, the refusal to salute linear logic at all times and the pervasive but modest influence (there’s that word again) of surrealism. Adamo is not per se a “surreal” poet, not at least in the manner of a James Tate or Charles Simic; he merely borrows some of the tactics of surrealism when it suits his purpose. The poetry is indeed rational (reflexively) and reflective, and the “feel” of this book is reverie and stream of consciousness. Adamo does not make it easy on readers. He omits much of the “noise” and extraneous redundancy of rational discourse. We readers must work to supply these latter if we so choose. I choose not. I prefer the poems as they are, almost like dreams. Adamo teaches us a new dialect, a new way to think, a new language.
But let us backtrack a bit, to the beginning. The early poems of The Tiger Who Spoke French and Why We Have Friends exude bounteous playful energy and a hefty dose of surrealist tradition (this early surrealism less utilitarian and more gratuitous than the later in Ever). The poems have not yet acquired the momentous, often dolorous passion of Adamo’s later work, though, of course, “dolorous passion” seems a staple of all poets, Keats, at nineteen, a prime exemplar. But the tone of these early poems takes future for granted—and why not? Future seems distant and probably trifling whereas it seems, for the aging, an ever closer horizon. Thus the almost carefree verbal play, the exuberance of language unbound rather than the dire realizations that aging mandates. Consider these lines from the title poem of The Tiger Who Spoke French:
Once upon a time a tiger sat in a tree
and didn’t do anything. Leaves, then blossoms
came. The water hearts of the apples grew. . . .
He read some of my poems. He spoke French with my pretty wife.
Interesting, original, witty, self-assured . . . but nevertheless the pioneering of a young poet still
adjusting his stirrups. ( Of course, a critic might sense something sinister about this seeming
Disney-like tiger.) There is also a conventional if not formal narrative thrust to some of the early
poems—as here from “How I Got the Girl.”
[I] say to the long blond hair, “I was reading the paper,
I wanted to know if you’d be interested in eating
Some fried chicken and hearing a man talk about himself
A little bit down the road there tomorrow.”
We didn’t go but she moved in for twenty days . . . .
Next phase, one of those phenomenal leaps, a C.K. Williams jettisoning his early short, gnomic forms for the sprawling extravaganzas of the later poetry. It is 1978-9 and the late Frank Stanford and C.D. Wright initiate Lost Roads Press, which issues two Adamo volumes consecutively: Sadness at the Private University and The End of the World. We find an immense leap in profundity and sophistication in the craft of these new poems which surely issue from the same voltage, though together they took nearly fifteen years to write and Adamo claims each volume depicts a separate stage in his poetic evolution. You can judge from the excerpts below. (The complete oeuvres of poets always demonstrate an essential voice and form and theme from beginning to end so that, for example, one can recognize a Wallace Stevens poem from any point at all in the chronology. Even when the structure changes dramatically, as in C.K. Williams, the rhetoric, voice and concerns remain steadfast.) The form employed in the two new volumes, a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative, is Adamo’s trademark (though it will loosen in Ever to include a wide range of diverse styles, include prose poetry). Look at these lines from Sadness at the Private University—an entire poem called “Triptych Of The Unattainable Sorrow”:
We are down to the bone, carving cartoons on it.
Extremity and Remorse, what’s left, walk the dog.
We surmise: the gaiety, handmaiden to great defeat,
Will protect us. Its apriority cheating us without mercy.
Let’s go down into our best dreams of the world why not.
And take it down: this is easy. It the only thing so.
Complaint heard against Michelangelo:
if he’s this quiet
he cannot be thinking about us.
A man should sleep in a bed with a woman he loves.
And whether or not he sleeps with her
Is whether or not it is she who sleeps there.
Still a man will have to step
Many miles back on a cold night
To know he knows the temperature for sure.
In this way does doubt change the world.
He returns to find the lights off, the house gone,
And an old woman asleep on a bed of algae.
Must all things be won by a kiss?
In her hair like the moonlight
He plants one question
And her long life comes to an end.
“The gaiety . . . Will protect us.” A common refrain throughout Adamo’s work, though in Ever gaiety loses some of its steam. Again, I think of Yeats—gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
I think Yeats may actually have believed it, but no such magic for Adamo at his later perhaps terminal juncture in world history.
But as always humor, however black, may provide a greater balm than gaiety, that “handmaiden.” Here is an excerpt from “Letter to a Friend”:
In a little while this happens, and in a little while
that happens. And then because what happens is a window in
I see that you are sitting up in bed across the ocean.
Here the awful, idle, windless little hours
push out of the earth like dandelions.
I’d kick them if I could remember what happens next.
The earth is well, see.
But its mouth is just a bruise. . . . .
. . .And
your girlfriend has been raped and killed, your family
was destroyed in a terrible fire, and your friends
have all vamoosed at the first sign of the giant anaconda,
but me, I’m here. What’s new in Paris France?
The End of the World is a volume only peripherally about apocalypse since the world can end at any moment for anyone on any day. Noted: an inordinate number of poems focus happily upon or reference women (some interior paramour we find throughout much of Adamo’s poetry). And we still find the playful, youthful voice of nonchalance:
I have a date for much later
A date to watch the dawn
By levee or by lake
With one who has compared me to the lesbian
Who gave her a poem when she was fourteen
(“I love you the same way) . . . .(from “Lapse”)
But now also a Bukowski-like turn. Bukowki was a major influence on the New Orleans literary scene as most vividly recorded in the volume of correspondence between writer Bill Corrington and Bukowski, no love lost—(see web source myweb.wvnet.edu/”The John William Corrington & Charles Bukowski Correspondence; on Poetry and Writing”). Adamo, a good friend of Corrington, surely noticed. At any rate, here is an excerpt from a Bukowski-like poem by Adamo:
I remember women with sanctions of the eye.
The truth goes in and out of the socket,
a cat at an open door.
I’ve fallen asleep
in the bed of my beloved.
Darkness you can’t dream.
If the world is local let the rivers go the horses.
Won’t nobody come back. (from “The World of the First Day of Creation”)
But toward an aesthetic advance we turn to these lines from “A Kiss Like Crossing the Mississippi”:
The fact is there was a little bit of love in her
And it was for me
In your life (is your name still Reader?) this might be
a trifling matter but not in mine
In mine this is as good as years of income better
And this is not even the night we do it
Drunk and not like lovers really . . .
This is the night when she comes to say
you can’t love me but can’t
And makes me kiss her on the lips
That are too good for any stony eternity
Delicious lips, delicious lines and the meandering toward them.
Move to 1989, the issuance of Hanoi Rose from New Orleans Poetry Journal, edited by the late Maxine Cassin. This volume, comprised of still more poems from the 1970s, stands, until Ever, as Adamo’s major opus. He has come to trust his own rational voice more than ever, so much so that many poems read as “traditional.” Listen to this:
Nobody owns the bright blue dawn for long.
Here is the cardplayer laying his claim,
and there is a woman with expensive cats.
And I, my blood a furious waste of knots,
insisted it had special connection to me;
I went so far twice as to pull a woman’s hair,
so mad and cowardly the claims of ownership.
(from “Missing Z AND NOLA”)
Which does not mean he has abandoned the stream of consciousness/semi-surreal format at all, for we find that familiar voice throughout. The book consists of four sections, and Adamo himself on the dust jacket blurb describes the progress of these sections: “ecstatic foreboding” to “inevitable distortion and lilt toward bitterness” to “almost willful madness” to “firm ground again if not reconciliation or resignation.” Almost as if made to order, section III (almost willful madness), surpasses I suspect even its author’s explosive expectations. This long poem (called “Hydrophobia”) in several sections is majestic, wild, superbly wrought. Some excerpts :
They was roaches in the kitchen
and my love in her big bed. She
making a little old factory
for me when I quit the war.
Say:come on down to my dreams &
get your feet fooled with . . . .
She smell good.
She get dressed.
You lazier, you watch.
Give an end sweet potato
to the abstract suffers
of the overstuffed.
Pull liars out of your heart forever . . . .
I talk a thought
and lay down on the floor
and go to sleep with it
but it won’t sleep so I wake up
and put it back, didn’t like
the bruise it left on my head. . . .
. . .Your words ring true
that called this this.
No more of this.
You always lied
but you were never wrong.
Adamo rarely employs dialect, but it works brilliantly here, reminding readers of the power of Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” The entire work was conceived as a “love poem,” according to the author, and, as usual, a female muse/antagonist/doppelganger(?)/beloved prevails, the narrator constantly under her spell:
Why did he leave her?
So that to him she might do the same?
She come upon him nights in Viet Nam,
she in the chalk he squeak he can’t go on.
Sometimes it’s real & terminal.
Go away little kids, this an ornery time.
Man got to make his soul some kinda star,
can’t have you around no more.
And for a final, beautiful section of “”Hydrophobia”:
In a peculiar light
a light I don’t trust
a light I knew nothing about
in a light I’d have been very smart to know
but was not very
in a light I can’t even remember now
in a light like New Orleans in summer
at dusk with rain just to come or just gone
a color the raw silk of the river
in a light steady as her loneliness:
who I saw not and walked through.
(Complete section, “Cantle, 1969))
But let me conclude these excerpts with these flowing, softly passionate lines from “Memories of Eating”
Now at the end of the natural day
the night won’t fall,
It hangs there
loosely gathered up around the moon.
The lights go on anyway
across a slice of the earth.
Curtains are drawn to distinguish
the light from the light . . .
Accept the gift of the missing day,
or, as you will call it in your histories,
the long day. Sleep if you can.
The night will drop. The moon will grow thinner.
And it won’t work out for you
in this life either.
Waterblind (2002) from Portals Press is a compilation of earlier poems, a thirty-year collection. I have already covered some of these poems above so this volume need not detain us here. Which is not to diminish its power and brilliance in any way. It serves as a kind of “collected poems” from a poet who has not yet stopped writing poetry, a volume that will absorb and dazzle readers.
Thus we transfer attention to the main thrust of this review/essay, the new book Ever.
Adamo conveyed this to me about Ever: “The thing mixes personal and public sort of promiscuously—it’s kids, aging, people dying, once having been drinking too much, work, stuff like that . . . .” In other words, the usual nutrients of poetry over the millennia. Kids, however, are relatively new for Adamo, an older father of two young children by his second wife. And these “kids” have changed not his mode or rhetoric but perhaps his entire world view, of which I shall speak shortly. This may be where Yeats comes in on one level. The epigraph to Ever is simply “a sixty year old smiling public man” with no credit given to Yeats because, as Adamo stated to me, “who wouldn’t know that?” The children figure in, it seems to me, in the manner that Yeats utilizes his child in “Prayer for my Daughter” as it pertains to the “great gloom” in his [Yeats’s] mind that catalyzes the poem (the fears of “The Second Coming.”) And then the summoning of ghosts as Yeats explored in “Among School Children” when the smiling public man inadvertently, or deliberately?, reanimates Maud as a “living” child. These are the two Ur-texts roiling behind Adamo’s Ever though I don’t believe this was conscious on the poet’s part. Adamo writes obviously about his life, about his daughter, about his ghosts (Maxine, Bob, Everette, Susan and a few others). Such concerns are both particular and universal at once. I mention them here merely because the resonance struck me as I read through Ever. We don’t need this Yeatsian sub-echo (Adamo’s poetry is nothing at all like that of Yeats) to grasp the self-same significances.
I fear going under.
that I have done it.
Ever is a protean work of many modes—rhyming lyrics, prose poems, lyrical narratives,
aphoristic sections and often enough just pure wordplay. The at times playful, self-deprecating, ironic, scathing, tender, harsh, mournful and/or dumbfounded voice of the poet knits it all together so that the effect is a long volume-length rumination rather than a series of individual pieces. This, I think, is Adamo’s characteristic mode—the long poem, as in the manuscript New Orleans Elegies. The voice is masterful, an artificer of words, self-assured even when professing ignorance and confusion. It commands us to listen, pay attention, ponder its subtleties and nuances. It is a voice at once freeing itself from the bondage of formal constraint and yet succumbing to the very constraints it ostensibly rejects—the rhymed lyrics, for instance. It is the voice of one who has been around the corner quite a few times, one who has stumbled upon both blisses and much pain, and, as such, the voice of all of us, while at the same time maintaining its unique timbre, rhetoric and vocabulary.
Here are some samples of, first, the musicality of Adamo’s lyrics and, second, the prototypical narrative line he employs most often:
I break the readers’ contract, no?
The universe is useless form
until the black cat comes to rest
upon his long lost lover’s breast—
This too, which is hauntingly beautiful, as Adamo reflects upon his mentally challenged older brother (Sunny Joe) at I presume the race track:
I see him in his porkpie hat,
his form rolled his wallet fat.
He lifts a smoke with elbow bent
from lips that give the slightest vent
to incantations only meant
to stir his nag from third to first
and as she flies he slakes his thirst
with brown beer. His nose pokes over
the finish line as if toward clover,
and when he swallows, Sunny Joe
smiles for all the world to know
he’s handicapped another winner,
will be eating steak for dinner.
And now a more representative narrative line from “After All, a last gasp” :
I go forth to create an old language of lip, tongue bowel, breast and balls—out of which
comes the future past and the next time, all sundered merrily heaping . . . .
The poet wisely begins with two poems about his children, Lily and Jack. These poems serve as assuagement to the sometimes socio-political jeremiads (often evident in Adamo’s work from the beginning, and, as well, in private conversation) and the sweet onus of melancholic sorrow characterizing the book. The children reappear sporadically throughout the volume but the first two (of three) poems set both their magic and limitations. Despite parental joys, the poet cannot escape his long past, nor, would it seem, does he want to, whatever suffering it entails; nor can he avoid the ills of the modern world. In a later poem, ”Eight” (of the greater multi-sectioned “Solecisms’), the poet expresses his grave concern that Lily will grow up in a world of perpetual warfare and inequity. It is a soft-spoken piece, not a turbulence (one of the book’s prose poems)—a parent worried about the future fate of his child and his regret that she will come to such knowledge on her own one day (here Hopkins’ Margaret comes to mind):
. . .My daughter will be born in a spin
of nightmare on a rock where the green grows perversely. She will be herself held to a
cold moon and talked to earnestly far into the night. She will hold if I am to continue this marvelous streak of luck my finger nearly long enough for me to let . . and do I say ‘go? And
do I mean I will not keep her from the horror we have hidden from this long? And in her marvelous life will she wonder how could we have?—these things we do every day this
stuff we are keeping
This is normative parental anxiety of course. While the children are mostly agents of succor, Adamo fears an intersection, their fall from innocence, their entrance into adulthood and the grim knowledge they must acquire in that passage as well as his (our) inability to protect them from ghastly realities and the knowledge of such realities.
Adamo’s sociopolitical critiques emerge haphazardly throughout Ever, often merely implicit, yet often too as sustained rants. One of the most powerful of the latter occurs while the poet remembers his deceased father, a man who worked all of his life for little reward. (And since I seek correspondences, I find Philip Levine’s many tirades against “work,” or rather “employment,” apropos here.) Here is Adamo:
For some reason, my father saw it as fair—
the whole American thing—(or, at least, he didn’t complain)
and if I could visit him right now
that would be the first question I’d
unleash among the many more compelling ones,
because I’d like to know what working every
working day from 14 to 63 did for him,
as it did not produce more than
sometimes adequate income. Was it dignity, for g’d’sake?
Work came first—he was proud of work
(an odd blind spot? a healing compromise? his own
important piece of the ‘truth,’ that damn
intruder on reality . . . How much is the
truth like music? especially song? at all?)
Or these prose lines from the first section of “Solecisms”:
. . .it didn’t have to come to this we could have chosen justice over property, the heart’s idea of what’s right over the idea formed when two heads or more get together and make a plan. We could have all said at once ‘but wait there are people starving and we have silos full of grain’—maybe if we’d all been naēve all at once altogether we could’ve rolled this planet over on its back and tickled its belly till it yelled ‘ok ok stop I’ll confess economics is a vast and complicated excuse for injustice, pride makes fools of us all and moreover love really isn’t that hard once you decide to tell the truth and hang onto it’ damn I mean
there is enough
how many houses do you need how many choices of soap how much of a lead over the rest of us before you feel safe we could just say well, I’m in, what needs to be done
And “Holing Up”:
. . . if I may extrapolate pure experience
as we are wont to do leftover as we are
from the twentieth century, watershed of
shit, beacon anointed by Money
exhausted finally in its craven run, over
out, whatever, compendium of obvious
error, terror, fever, fervor, mother
fucker clump& chimp chump lump
human beings might now disallow.
Such passages scream throughout Ever, sometimes central, sometime peripheral and off the cuff. And, of course, these are the sentiments of Adamo’s after-hours crowd, misfit poets and artists, the down-and-outs, the literary drinking buddies of New Orleans. Adamo has seen up close what economic injustice can do, especially in the case of poet Everette Maddox, who has since his early death acquired legendary status. Maddox lived hand to mouth, slept in bars and on park benches, borrowed money constantly from all of us, and yet he was one of the most brilliant and talented men I have ever known.**
The mere mention of Maddox leads me to the next theme governing Ever, perhaps the one that most interests me as a chronic nostalgician (and Adamo belongs to the club). Aging means, above all, diminishment of the future. One’s life becomes by default one’s past. It is as if we become solidified in the past while somehow still astraddle the brisk arrow of time. These are notoriously Wordsworthian and Proustian issues and they blossom also in Yeats’s summonings of spirits past. Among those beckoned to his present are Adamo’s deceased father, sister and first wife, Susan. Some manifest as traditional elegies, some true summonings (which I take as bringing forth the dead in the manner of séances. Here is a passage pertaining to Susan from “Pluralities”:
I hate that you are on the other side this evening
If I go somewhere to cry for you how will I stop
Listening to you talk
over there is like
listening to water
you are here
music breaking whitely
one track crossing over another
to reach disaster
One of the powerhouse poems of the book, “The Forgetting,” apexes the incantatory mode of summoning, the summation of summoning. The past and the dead live again, here and now. It is the poet’s moral and spiritual obligation to maintain the ledgers. Here are the opening lines:
The forgetting is ferocious and takes
all my time. In the whatevereth year
this is time stands me up as always
with a kick to the groin, as if I’d
made this plan in the beginning:
be lost in fullness, found without—
The words I carry now are so heavy
I fear that I will fall down and—boom!—
will disappear, my moods in wild disorder
staring at the old goddammned moon again an equal . . . .
Ever struggles with constant tension between remembering and forgetting, the past and
future (the new life with children); also, dreams and sleep versus waking consciousness. The poet does not want to forget his rich memories yet fears they may slip away into the lotus-land of oblivion; thus he strains to keep them alive. Sometimes the new-life-with-children and these historical memories intersect, as if Adamo (and we rightly identify the first-person narrator with Ralph Adamo, the man, the writer, for these poems are supremely autobiographical) lives two separate lives which only fuse on occasion.
It is difficult, an agon, to nurture memory against the foe, forgetting. Forgetting is a formidable opponent to those who seek the only possible resurrection of the dead. But there is also joy in memory, and one can recognize the onset of a time/space shift via signs and/or omens:
. . .I read my friend’s book in bed, and
one night woke to a sky-full of geese honking
for the long time of being startled, then
amazed. You ask me even now I’ll
admit I was worried, afraid, dread layer
on the ecstatic idea of happiness sus-
tained my new routines, but my heart
hurt deep in my chest, for real,
so I could feel each breath for weeks.
Thereafter Adamo lures us down into, what?, Hades, Elysium, some Proustian mystical zone?
When S. died I was beside myself,
grieving, amazed, bereft, untouched.
When is it one learns to be careful?
Almost from the first and never.
and now I’ve started repeating the names of the dead
to myself, in my mind, over and again, I think so
I won’t forget which ones are dead and that they are,
not always starting from any beginning or with the same
name, but always a name—the new ones sometimes first, so
Dusty, but then Russ, and Mary my own sister and Susan . . .
Robert who was crazy, Bob Woolf, imagined speaking
in my memory of him, Russ too, speaking, not Bob (Robert, in
this confusion of Bobs) who comes to me gazing,
a little wildly, as if in fatal knowledge sworn to
secrecy, Susan not speaking but always with a start somewhere deeper—
oh, I haven’t run out of them, just sometimes they
repeat—Maxine, and her Joe, wise from having had to let go
so long before, a young soldier in a giant war outliving, outliving—
and so it is sometimes I know there’s one I’m not recalling,
not the past—Frank, or my father (Joe too, Joseph, whose people called
him Joey), go back too far and the other side of death appears, so
maybe I repeat and recall to keep the bloom clear death stalks . . .
did I forget you, Everette whom all call Rhette? who else
out there needs his or her name called? I am on duty until . . .
Brian! I forgot you! Others, speak--
We find this again with less urgency in the following lines from “We Can’t Be Right About Everything”:
. . . this word I left
for the world I had left
Why not sing along? Summon
Maxine, Bob, Bob and Rhett
for their knowledgeable harmony,
the dark drafts their beings
still bang at windows. . . .
Remaining, I am not
sure how to add each loss
to the other, to that one . . . .
But the damage is done.
I have done the damage.
See here, is there nothing
to see here? I imagine
Jack and Lily dancing
in these very breezes
How must we take those last three lines? I pass it to you, reader. They leave me ambiguously chilled and wondrous—children waltzing in the shadows of the dead.
These callings-forth manifest in “Central Time” as inklings of what is to come:
Who is knocking the dear dead door on
So windy many windows falling out
Over nothing shutters like wings
All of us each of us howling . . . .
. . . I climb aboard the moving stage
and wave madly, enunciating names—
yours, oh yours too and surely yours,
especially yours. I reach for the nearest
hand. Won’t somebody help me down?
I cannot seem to find the ground,
the largest round going round wherein
we rest in our time, all done, aching
only in memory . . . .
And there you have it, the dichotomy—two groundings, one in the stolid, mystical (in that it ever seeks to disrupt the present with what can only be called spiritual intrusion), the other in a molten, volatile, immediate present. The tension as they clash or harmoniously merge is what fuels Ever from beginning to end.
Like Huck’s river, place is also an important character in Ever: the city of New Orleans. Some of the most extended meditative poems issue from the city’s annual Jazz Fest. And Katrina, while not elaborated upon, is always in the background. New Orleans, unlike any other city in the country, inspires almost fanatical loyalty among natives. Adamo and I were both born and raised there; he stayed, I moved to South Carolina and Virginia for teaching jobs. He once told me that I was lucky to get out whereas I have always envied his decision to remain. From a unique amalgam ─ Creole, Cajun, black, Catholic, blues, Mardi Gras, Hispanic, native American—emerges a mindset almost medieval in its tolerance of both the sacred and the profane (corner bar rooms adjacent to Gothic churches rising majestically from the squalor of any given neighborhood in older parts of the city). Nor does New Orleans ever forget its history, its founding by French Canadians, the Spanish occupation of Alejandro O’Reilly followed by the “American” onslaught occasioned by the Louisiana Purchase.
Adamo’s obsession with the past on a personal level seems in this light merely a local instance of the greater historicized, collective worldview of New Orleans. Some of the longest and most meditative poems of Ever were written, or at least begun, as the poet assayed crowds at one or another of the city’s annual Jazz Fests. The crowds, the music, the chaos, demand for whatever reason a response. This response usually entails retreat into isolated personal deliberation as we see in these opening lines from “River Rising.” Here, the Fest as kindling for the ensuing fire of contemplation:
We have the lenses, we can hide,
but it is other than hiding
a stepping into the light will confirm.
My own thoughts wander
to wondering why I am here—
not cosmically but in a most
painful local way, it is,
after all, a local question,
I think. Not among the native sons,
that’s for sure, me, anyway,
they are mostly women . . . .
I am living proof
that I don’t belong, even
out here on the edge of things,
and the proof? I am afraid,
my real, first, not-self-induced
being very afraid w/o knowing why.
I sit by some old men for cover. . . .
Nothing new here in this schism between poetic self and the masses. The artist, the thinker, cannot escape his own introspective exile amid the gregarious merriment of the mostly non-thinking thousands who file into the Jazz Fest for fun and games, certainly not to brood and reflect. He may be among but not of the crowd, whatever the context. Nevertheless, the communal “feel” of New Orleans envelopes Ever as does humidity the city itself. I often wonder what and how Adamo might write given any other seedbed than the lascivious, debauched, sacredly profane, sensuous and non-American New Orleans. But it’s something I can’t imagine.
In closing let me present a passage from New Orleans Elegies which has nothing (or everything?) to do with the volume under scrutiny here. I would feel remiss otherwise. These are lines I have loved for many years:
Say I am the King of China
old beyond his years
who is surprised
when a girl (though having the body and form of a serpent, she seems to him still
a girl) walks right up to him and says
arbor poma gerit, arbor ego lumina gesto
(though how the serpent learned a yet unborn language is
anybody’s guess) (we might as well think Orpheus
lifts his head from the cross
and freed from all responsibility to his voice
demands a smoke)
But where were we?
Ah, in a room full of bad light
on the second day of spring, there
awkward but touching
certainly not getting it right
but beginning to learn—
for instance that your sex
looks like a small rose fallen in black snow outside the gate
its smile like all your smiles, ambiguous, bittersweet
(and I am now truly lost in the bitter sweetness of it)
and when you touch my chest
I feel the piercing of the tauroctony—
a blade of longing so deeply put that I cry out (quietly
befitting the bad light) . . .
*That New Orleans Elegies (formerly Desire), a book-length poem about love and love lost has not been picked up by a major publisher testifies to the sad state of the American publishing industry. The work is simply magnificent.
** I too knew many of the named spirits in this passage, but only one haunts me to this day, for reasons mentioned above: Everette Maddox.
Louis Gallo teaches writing at Radford University in Virginia. He has published poems, stories and critical work in journals such as Glimmer Train, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, storySouth, The Ledge, Texas Review, Baltimore Review Oregon Review, Tampa Review, Critique, Rosebud, New Orleans Review, Louisiana Literature and many others. His chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination and Status Updates. He is the founding editor of the now lapsed Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He won the NEA individual artist award for fiction from the South Carolina Commission of the Arts.