03 January 2008
Introducing I Have Designed This For You by James Meetze
My title for this review is trying to be clever because it refers to both a great poem in James Meetze’s new book I Have Designed This For You and the ease with which his poems travel between media. The first thing I did when I got the book is read the opening (and most comprehensible) line of Eileen Myles’ blurb, which praises Meetze for his “drawings/poems.” It is Eileen Myles, so I just take that coupling as truth—but I’d like to add another slash with “sculptures” after it.
Designed is not an illustrated pop-up book so words must be doing the work. However, the following segment from the poem “A Hidden Beach” does fold out for the reader: “I am building a bridge of paper cranes.” The words infer an origami multiplication outside the range of the page. Still, Meetze is more directly sculptural in the lines, “I am a risk, proof / a hope that one day we can build / our citizenship by building structures” from “A Model Citizen.” The poet here is risky in that he requires the participation of his fellow citizens, just as sculpture’s three-dimensionality demands that the viewer walk 360˚ for full appreciation. The model citizen of the title is not merely the cliché of respectability—it is the offer to participate in the construction of something upright.
I also have on good authority from a Buddhist poet that James is the reincarnation of Hart Crane so look at this from Allen Tate’s introduction to White Buildings: “The poetry of Hart Crane is ambitious. It is the only poetry I’m acquainted with which is at once contemporary and in the grand manner. It is American poetry.” That’s a fantastic way to begin. I lack Tate’s boldness so I’ll start with something safer: James Meetze is a tall poet. I know this from walking with him through sculptures in the Pacific Northwest and you will be able to tell for yourself from the skinny image on the back of Designed.
Meetze is I think less likely to fling himself over the railing a steamship in a drunken bisexual despair than Crane—the nautical submersion is more likely to occur in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park in the five iterations of hull-like Core-Ten steel that comprise Richard Serra’s Wake. The poems Meetze writes throw light like Serra’s sculpture throws heat, the way you can warm your hands on his burnt orange steel after the sun has gone down (in “The Light of the Boundary” it is “where pink and blue meet” or where, in “An Edge to the World” “the world at bay, allowing a little dusk”). This subtle lushness proves Meetze to be a more restrained reincarnation of Crane, whose well-known “Repose of Rivers” features sulphur-dreaming mammoth turtles rippled asunder by “sun-silt” while the wind is “flaking sapphire.”
Both Crane’s and Meetze’s verse projections follow an internal logic, however, whether metaphorical or synaesthetic. Returning to “A Model Citizen”—the narrator begins his address “I see you in red,” and mentions several lines later “I thought of my favorite blue.” Hence his conclusion—arrived at irrevocably by the color wheel—“I thought of purple. / You are sitting in it.” The poem leads us through an unfamiliar narrative but we are not lost. Color similarly guides us in Crane’s beguiling “Voyages” lines, “As bells off San Salvador / Salute the crocus lustres of the stars, / In these poinsettia meadows of her tides.” Here a violet is mixed in the meeting of red phytoplankton and blue ocean but the overall palette mirrors Meetze’s.
Moving his coloration back to a sculptural space, Meetze mimics the blue and white graffiti present in various stages of fade on Wake with the words “I draw them on my arms Europa, / my arms with U2 bombers and pin-ups and an anchor” from the poem “Curator Passavant.” In this functioning synthesis of Meetze’s work as drawing/poetry/sculpture, the poetry exists in the refracted light between the graffiti and steel. It is delicate as the paper sculpture that textures the cover of Designed.
On then to the brilliant “Light of the Boundary,” “where the answers are, or could be.” This poem is a series of “Todays,” ways to write one line daily to capture a moving life. We see a bluebirdhouse one day, wild mustard another and heart valves from a pig farm still a different day. Then the words that I take as greatness: “Today a poem on the fairway in the form of a divot.” In the act of writing that line I see Meetze swinging a golf club, the poem just one discrete satisfying lump in the expanse of mowed short green (the rest of poetry all around). The unmentioned but necessary golf ball climbs its trajectory in the reader’s mind. And we need not replace the divot—we sit with it in the fairway and watch the light shine around it. The scene is perfected in the poem’s closing line: “The light of the boundary is spring-green-and-pink light, I see it in the people and in the natural world.”
I once made a poem designed to be cut apart and hung in pieces from a mobile. Wind and dust made this a still jellyfish less phosphorescent than a real natural thing like James’ work—I don’t know which way it will move. Consider the switchbacks in just one line, “Believe in life perhaps and not dying for no good reason because a young boy, and because her eyes still haunting even if they see different sunsets, because poetry.”
Because poetry I had notebook in hand on the not quite azure steeps below the sculpture park. I thought of the light on the sea and saw the surprise of “because poetry” as a match to the single reversed S cut like a rudder amidst the other gravel-locked ships in Serra’s Wake. Let’s take in one last view of the water from “To See the Sea”:
A frigate sails alone so that it may bisect the waves, and it is
my ship my morning sails rising into possibility of knowing
one thing in lieu of a collective unconscious.
A final news item from a reading at Village Books in Bellingham, WA: Meetze is buoyant and scary standing at the podium saying that he doesn’t like these “old” poems and is making for new ones—the fresh verse breaking down oceans from his imposing black portfolio. You should hear him speak of bikini bottoms—that certain glee in the glinting sea sand. Yes now I will say it: the poetry of James Meetze is ambitious.