Rebecca Lindenberg: The Magic of Craig Arnold’s Poetry

Love, An Index is the first collection of poems by Rebecca Lindenberg, and it depicts her relationship with another poet, Craig Arnold, who disappeared in 2009 while hiking on the Japanese island of Kuchinoerabujima, where he was conducting research for a book of poems about volcanos. As she told The Believer, Lindenberg was well into the writing of the poems when Arnold vanished, “at that stage, as you can imagine, the direction of the book changed dramatically, as did my feeling of urgency about it.”

Lindenberg’s verse takes on a variety of forms in its encyclopedic examination of the emotional impact of losing a loved one, and of trying to carry on. Private lexicons, footnotes without an anchoring text, collected quotations, Facebook status updates—no one style can contain her grief, or her joy, or her memories. I was so glad when she agreed to be the first poet in far too long to contribute to Beatrice’s “Poets on Poets” series, and the insights she brings to Arnold’s poems in the essay that follows are powerful.

I have, in my life, many vital poetic influences. The effortless, energetic intelligence of Frank O’Hara, who moves so easily between erudition and emotion, between intimacy and spectacle, and who teaches me so much about how poetry—given a certain kind of permission—can play; D.H. Lawrence, who seems to hold a kind of arch lyricism in one hand and an almost grueling candor in the other; Anne Carson, whose writings define and defy genre, steeped equally in the profound mythic resonances of Classical scholarship and the serious whimsy of Gertrude Stein; C.D. Wright, whose infinitely inventive projects include some of the move evocative and muscular writings from a place of female physicality that I’ve ever read; the mad mystical intensity of Hart Crane; the fragmented ecstasies and invocations (and arguments) of Sappho; I feel I could go on and on.

I’m deeply influenced by magnificent teachers, some of whom could twist each other into paroxysms of disagreement, and I am influenced by my own negotiation of their disagreements. But for almost a decade I shared the central conversation about poetry in my life with a man who was first my friend, then my beloved partner, and always my favorite interlocutor on the subject, the late Craig Arnold, and it’s his work I wish to consider for a few moments here.

Craig’s first book, Shells, was chosen by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and Merwin praises Craig’s work, “in [its] unwavering fidelity to pleasure, a kind of affectionate confidence in enjoyment, in both the running chatter and the irrational magnetic rightness of the senses.” And of course, that’s true—Craig was, as a poet, in enduring search of experience, in the most elemental sense you can conjure for that word. And language, for Craig, was a sense as visceral as touch or taste with which to feel the world, and feel himself moving through it.

This place, the border of the self, was where Craig lived and wrote. But it is a place of incandescent hypersensitivity, and so it is a tenuous, dangerous, volatile place. I think in Shells, Craig was trying to understand this place and in so doing, found himself often retreating from it, or trying to raise the poem as a kind of force-field before it. To my mind, one of the great gifts of Shells is the exploration of personae and performance they include—there’s something almost Browning-esque in these pieces.

They are a collection of monologues and soliloquies that perform aspects of the self, each one a little larger than life—the playful bravado of “The Power Grip,” a poem in which a male friend gives the rapt speaker some misguided pointers (literally) for cunnilingus, or the confident imperatives of “Scrubbing Mussels,” or the almost-burlesque confessions of “Why I Skip My High School Reunion” are all Craig, but they are “life plus ten percent,” as George Saunders might say. Poems like “Locker Room Etiquette” and “Great Dark Man” investigate the relationship between gender and performance—when is it masculinity? When is it masculinity plus ten-percent? Even, to some extent, the formal dexterity of these poems puts on a kind of show. It is perhaps in the long, beautifully-wrought narrative couplets of “Hot” that we come closest to understanding and seeing the machinations of this book—a story of a man who wanted so badly to feel more, more, more, he hurt himself beyond the capacity to feel at all.

This is the book’s attendant anxiety, I think, and it is consciously, carefully, elegantly woven throughout. As much as this book is a celebration of sensuality, it is about death, dying, about loss and about losing one’s connection to the world at that tenuous, fragile, border of the body. Elegies to Ian Curtis and Jeff Buckley, and many unnamed characters who people these poems help us to understand a hunger for feeling as a way of staving off a fear of mortality, or perhaps, a determined effort to make the most of what small time any of us has. There are passages of sensual virtuosity in Shells, like “I cross my legs, letting the instep nest/ the swell of your calf…” from the poem “Scheherazade,” and the following lines, from “Artichoke”:

“Under the bamboo steamer there’s a slick
of emerald-green water. I watch you pull
the petals off, each with a warm knot
of paler flesh left hanging at the root.
A “loves me, loves me not” sort of endeavor…”

But fashioning these moments onto others, much more steely and philosophical, is a deep and questioning intelligence that calculated every gesture in this collection, just so. These observations of mine, they are nothing Craig would not readily admit to, though later in his life, he would admit to some of them with a bit of a wince.

When Craig and I met, Shells was published and he was at work on his second book, Made Flesh. We talked about it a lot, by which I mean, every day for almost two-and-a-half years. I remember the first version of the manuscript he showed me—it was operatic and beautiful and rapturous and confusing. After about a year, he went back and reworked some of what was at first a single book-length poem into several long poems, in sections. Some of these he worked into metrical form, many he did not.

But before I describe what these poems mean to me, I’ll let you hear what Craig himself had to say about them. This is from a letter he wrote while he was in Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship in the fall of 2008, right around the time Made Flesh was published:

“As a poet my practice marries a fondness for classical poetry and poetics with a fascination for the more exuberant strains of postmodernism… This new book engages with some commonplaces of archaic mythology—Persephone, Orpheus—in the revisionary tradition of H. D., Robert Duncan and Anne Carson. It reaches for images, emblems and stories that might help reconcile the self to the experience of being mortal, flesh and vulnerable, and to find in that reconciliation not only melancholy but joy. Stylistically the book has been somewhat of a departure, owing as much to Frank O’Hara as to Ovid, his desire above all to communicate the magnetic immediacy of lived experience.”

Almost as the movement from the title Shells to that of Made Flesh suggests, Craig’s work softened, became somehow more humane. The poems are, in scope and substance, more ambitious and yet somehow, at the same time, humbler. In “Couple from Hell”, which begins with similar gestures to some of the poems of Shells, the poet-speaker assumes the persona or character of Hades, the female character in the poem becomes, of course, Persephone, but then there is a turning away, a shedding of persona, an admission of having tried too hard to make a script or story out of something real that is, therefore, unwieldy and unpredictable and in some ways unfinishable, writing into the poem’s final lines:

“…You were never the lord
of a lightless kingdom     any more
than she has ever been its queen
and the world you talked into a prison
suddenly seems to be made of glass
and your eyes see clear to the horizon
and you feel the molecules of air
part like a curtain     as if to let you pass”

Here, in Made Flesh, there’s still something of Robert Browning—but this is not the Browning of “Porphyria’s Lover”—it’s the Browning of “Two in the Campagna”. Consider these lines from earlier in “Couple from Hell”:

“…across the pathway, threads of silk
glint in the sun      at the end of each a spider
still wet from the egg     spins out a dragline
and sails off into the breeze
The air is so bright and busy
your whole body feels it
a puppet weightless on its wires”

Now put that alongside the Browning poem mentioned above, which yes, Craig knew, almost infinitely well-read as he was. The second and final section appear below:

II
For me, I touched a thought, I know
     Has tantalised me many times,
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw
     Mocking across our path) for rhymes
To catch at and let go.

XII
Just when I seemed about to learn!
     Where is the thread now? Off again!
The old trick! Only I discern—
     Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.

In Made Flesh, the same sensual virtuosity that’s visible in Shells comes rapturously into its own, unafraid and audacious. And Craig believed that poets should be audacious—should aspire to move a reader, should aspire to be soulful and memorable and brave, should aspire to write poems worthy of the world they purport to evoke, which (for Craig) was full of wonder and sublimity. And his audacity might be the thing that most influenced me—I am nowhere near as brave, and he would say things like, “Don’t write to publish poems; write to change everything,” that I would almost certainly never feel right saying. I remember asking him once, what was his opinion about those who had a problem with the “lyric I” and he replied, almost without hesitation, and grinning evilly, “I think they’re a bunch of pussies.” I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness,” and I also remember laughing out loud.

Craig did not, I think, imagine he could ever live up to his own aspirations, but he lived by them nonetheless. And in his audacity, I have found permission—to take risks, to make attempts at truths, to trust my instincts, to listen for the language of things, to take on the mysteries that seem too unwieldy, too unmanageable, too impossible to ever hope to language, knowing you’ll never do it, believing that those vast, unlanguage-able things are still worth trying to write about—love, grief, death, gods, loss, the perplexity of trying to language love or grief (or Tuesday), and perhaps above all, the material transcendence of living in the world. And Craig, in all his audacity, always found these immense things in the most startling minutae—artichokes, grapefruits, moths. And he found mystery in a hidden bird, in a train ride, in a phone number. It was—and in his poems, it will always remain—a very powerful kind of magic. I’ll close with a poem in which, I believe, that magic is wholly evident. It is an unpublished poem, from the last collection Craig was working on when he disappeared in 2009—a collection he conceived after D.H. Lawrence’s tremendous Birds, Beasts, and Flowers—a book we both loved.

Very Large Moth
by Craig Arnold
     after DHL

Your first thought when the light snaps on and the black wings
     clatter about the kitchen     is a bat

the clear part of your mind considers rabies     the other part
does not consider     knows only to startle

and cower away from the slap of its wings     though it is soon
clearly not a bat but a moth     and harmless

still you are shy of it     it clings to the hood of the stove
not black but brown     its orange eyes sparkle

like televisions     its leg-joints are large enough to count
how could you kill it     where would you hide the body

a creature so solid must have room for a soul
and if this is so     why not in a creature

half its size     or half its size again     and so on
down to the ants     clearly it must be saved

caught in a shopping bag and rushed to the front door
afraid to crush it     feeling the plastic rattle

loosened into the night air it batters the porch light
throwing fitful shadows around the landing

That was a really big moth     is all you can say to the doorman
who has watched your whole performance with a smile

the half-compassion and half-horror we feel for the creatures
we want not to hurt and prefer not to touch

18 April 2012 | poets on poets |