FALL 2009

Mario Petrucci


One forty five afternoon red
car parked left hand si de
of street no distinguishing
feature still wet day a bicycle
across the way a green door-
way with arched upper window
a backyard edge of back wall
to enclosed alley low down small
windows and two other cars green
and blue parked too and miles
and more miles still to go.
From: Selected Poems of Robert Creeley (University of California Press, 1991).
Audio: http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/linebreak/programs/creeley/

There can be something ship-like about a house at night. When a day runs aground, I often turn to poetry then, to get as far beyond my shores as possib le. Which is how – in the small internet-hours, browsing audio clips of the Black Mountain poets – I first heard Creeley recite this poem. He’d written it in a Töölönkatu room whose one window (in his words) “looked out on the central courtyard of this great sort of apartment block… the garbage bins and whatnot.” That window became his “intimate companion and reference, day and night”, its shifting Finnish light flooding his attention. Reflecting the window’s form in nine block-shaped segments – each “almost like a sonnet in its determined compacting” – Creeley developed a mini-album of snapshots of what had framed itself for accidental scrutiny, in all its circumstantial strength.

Why did this shard of Helsinki Window so captivate me? Because I loved the idea of it. It said: the cosmos doesn’t wash its hands – it comes to us raw, wonderfully dirty. For such a seemingly slight piece, I found myself drawn into its moment-to-moment alertness. I can’t honestly associate the poem with any particular trauma, or its resolution; but it did bolster my growing sense of not wanting to be a tourist in my own existence. I admired, too, as a physicist, the dry observation: Creeley’s no-fuss precision, charged so amply with those fracturing line breaks, draws science and poetry much closer together than any poet’s scientific phrase-dropping ever could. And he was reasserting that life mostly happens beyond the spotlight, past the edge of reputation or rhetoric. His focus on process over product, that desire to express without duress, was refreshing. Generously, Creeley was providing me with a humble – yet resonant – inch from which I could take my own particular mile. This was the kind of openness I was beginning to seek in my reading: accessibility without obviousness; completeness which, nevertheless, resists closure. Along with such contemporaries as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, Creeley was taking (or so it seemed, from this side of the pond) a road much less travelled by.

Re-reading One forty five, though, I confess I’m not always as struck as I was initially. I suppose, as with that Töölönkatu window, the light in us constantly shifts. However, Creeley’s “curious parody of Frost” (again, his words) rarely fails to satisfy: the most obvious reference (to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, of course) dominates the last line; but notice how Frost’s snow becomes a more banal “wet day”, the harness-shaking horse an assembly of nondescript parked cars. The presence of those “small/ windows” within Creeley’s window-poem imitates, I feel, the nestling of Frost’s poem within his. There’s much else to savour whenever revisiting: for instance, the internal rhymes stitching everything together (“day : way”, “two : blue : too”, etc.); or the way that one firm end-rhyme (“wall : small”) might have been a touch too strong for the piece, were it not offset by the canny line break between the adjective and its noun. (Yes, “window : go” rhyme too, but are well separated.) All said, within eleven lines Creeley establishes and sustains a mystery of the ordinary, one I never quite manage to herd, wholesale, into any rational paddock.

I recall that anecdote about a composer (was it, perhaps, Chopin, or Schumann?) who, when asked to explain something he’d just played, played it again. If you’re not convinced by Helsinki Window, try playing it on your ear, again, perhaps with the composer himself at the keyboard. Before we agree to differ, soak up that faintly held-back, fatigued intonation, the idiosyncratic way Creeley drops a poem through its line breaks. With his voice in attendance, maybe you’ll catch something of what rose to the surface for me, dim yet muscular, that night I first heard Creeley speak it: a sense of the seamless ‘one-ness’ threading all experience, however unremarkable in kind. Even now, One forty five makes me turn to my own foursquare companion, its modest pentaptych of North London skyline, to look through it a little less lazily. On those wet days of the mind, becalmed among my own half-thoughts, it’s one of the poems I try to lift my face to. Sometimes, by that twilight glow, through its tiny compass, I am led outside.

© Mario Petrucci, 2009 (with acknowledgement to Poetry News, where a version of this article first appeared)



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