Cadenza

Charles North
Hanging Loose Press
$15 (76 Pages)
September 16, 2007
Reviewed by Thomas Devaney for The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

I have been reading the poet Charles North's illuminating essays No Other Way (Hanging Loose Press) for nearly ten years. North's critical approach is this: he puts the work front and center passionately highlighting such aspects as beauty, surprise, and the many pleasures of language. My two favorite essays by North are on the poems of James Schuyler. North's essays may be the most perceptive and lucid pieces written on Schuyler's work to date. Here is North mid-thought:

But I detect an expansiveness of mood, a willingness to let more, and more kinds of, things into print as if life itself, always highlighted in a Schuyler poem, were now accompanied by a quiet stipulation: Don't exclude. The results include more intimate detail about the self (even the landscapes now seem as much about the self as about the out-of-doors); ... less direct aiming at the sublime (though the poems hit that unfashionable target as much as any being written), and as a corollary a good bit of the unlovely, the ignoble, and downright embarrassing;
 

In many ways, the above comments also provide a window into North's own poetry. Indeed, a central force in North's new collection Cadenza, his eighth book of poems, is a conversational imperative that demonstrates how the act of looking and thinking can be converted into the act of creating a poem via dialogue—and thus further encouraging more looking, thinking, and conversation. In his title poem, North brings us directly into the conversation:

 
Speaking of which, some believe that as a result
Of the current recycling craze
Which it certainly is, the very notion of new
Is acquiring a negative connotation such as plastic once had
And retain in those areas
Where traditional material such as metal and wood
Have demonstrated themselves to be elegant as well as durable
 

North has a rich and finger-tip feel for the spoken music of everyday language. While the most striking aspect of North's poems may be his warm and intelligent voice, there is also the "quiet stipulation," in his new poems, not to "exclude." Again in "Cadenza," he writes:

 
All viewpoints coexist, if not
At precisely the same moment
Then within the same spatial/temporal frame
 

While the concept "Don't exclude," allowing "All viewpoints" to coexist may sound like an appealing aesthetic credo there is one problem: it's impossible to do. To write one must exclude. North knows this and uses the problem to create a fruitful tension between the world, and his teeming ideas of it, and his own colloquial lyric line. Again, another stanza from North's ten page poem "Cadenza," shows, among other things, that he's not afraid to let more things into print "as if life itself." He writes:

 
"Baseballically speaking,"
as former Red Sox Slugger Ted Williams
once began a response to a TV interviewer,
it's as thought the outfield fences have been moved in,
leaving less room to maneuver
but a fortiori more opportunity for transcendence.
 

Speaking of baseball, besides his winning New and Selected Poems published in 1998, North is best known for his modestly brilliant baseball lineup poems. North will write out list of all the baseball positions: 1b, 2b, etc. and then assign quotes from authors he thinks will be apt for his literary all-star teams. Here are three gems from an earlier "A Midwinter Lineup" also published in No Other Way. North writes:

 
ss "A silence seems a solid thing, shot through with wolfish woe"
                                                            —Robert W. Service
3b "To think that, given that we exist, we do not laugh continuously."
                                                            —Arthur Cravan
c "I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it."
                                                            —Gertrude Stein
 

North's work is full of pleasures like these. And part of that pleasure not drawing direct analogies, but allowing dissimilar people and things, such as baseball players and writers, to retain their identity while inhabiting new spaces.

North's poems have tangents, interruptions, plain old funny stories often all intermixed at once, which is strength. But his openness can also lead to moments that don't work as well. Nonetheless, and to his great credit, North never holds back. One new poem where North ventures out into unexplored terrain is "Boul'Mich," (written for his colleague Walter Srebnick at Pace University, and the name is an abbreviation for a bowling alley named "Bowl Mitch"). If Plato's dialogues had taken place in Brooklyn we might come up with something approaching the wiz-bang depth of North's "Boul'Mich." It is perhaps is the greatest bowling poem ever written. Here is the opening stanza:

 
You're in print about the connections between
Poetry and bowling. Perhaps you'd like to comment further
On what you once characterized as "strikes, spares, splits
And the heartbreak of the gutter ball." It was the Boul'Mich,
Wasn't it, where you spent so much time as an 11- and 12-year-old?
I always thought that was a clever name for a bowling alley.
 

Because of his often associative style and rapid shifts and leaps in thought North poems can also be demanding. Yet, despite the demands his poems (even when they are heady) lack pretense. His clarity shines through in nearly every line. North's greatest appeal may be how he gracefully fuses complexity into the warmth of his everyday conversational idiom.

The conversational mode is a striking similarity between James Schuyler and North. But conversations are as different as the people who have them and North's own voice and tone is unmistakable. North's achievement, which is significant in contemporary poetry, is to be open to the endless range and complexity of life and doing so using his distinct relaxed lyric line. The feeling I get from reading his poems and prose is one of having a conversation with a brilliant and generous friend.