Well, this is weird. I was asked to close-read this poem, which is dedicated to my close friend, Emily Hunt (“Ehu”). Other close friends appear in it: Francesca Chabrier, Michele Christle, Derek Yorks. Only first names in the poem. Am I violating something by giving last names? Am I violating something?
Brian Foley, I should say, is also a friend—not close-close, perhaps, but we were close for a few years, by which I mean we lived in close proximity and worked and hung out in close quarters sometimes, drinking or reading poems of our own and others. Sometimes poems by Emily Hunt, Francesca Chabrier, Michele Christle. This was in western Massachusetts, during a particular cultural moment known as the MFA. I am not in Brian’s poem, which either adds to or subtracts from my feeling that I might be violating something (but what?) by writing about it here.
I moved away from western Mass as Ehu moved away, as did Fra and Michele, in Brian’s poem and in real life, and Brian too—all moved away. So Brian’s poem has got some of that in it. It’s about the variousness of going, watching others go, thinking about to where, and when might you. In the poem, these thoughts drift into perceptual apercus that gain momentum (“Emotions control so much space”) and then dissipate into mist, itself a form of weather that risks confusion (“We are recency”—huh?). Yet perplexedness is part of the point; nostalgia’s brink generates nothing if not confusion, of time and grammar both. There’s the awkwardness of the lines, which I can now recognize as Brian’s style, his swagger-shuffle, turn, shuffle-swagger, turn. Do people walk the way they lineate?
Guilty admission: I have always been slightly annoyed by the first names of poetry, all the New York/Black Mountain, all the coterie. So often it seems just men hailing men, though that’s probably unfair. Or, I’m thinking about Olson’s letter to Elaine Feinstein which one might read as initiating some great literary friendship but then Feinstein in her memoir admits that Olson’s reply—erudite, rangy, intense—shut her down for weeks. Oh men. So I appreciate the gentle way friendship is figured here. The intimacies and crossed wires of male-female relating are approached, second-guessed, tried anew. “But enough about regret”: shuffle-swagger, turn.
Some last thoughts on proximity, distance, and reading, starting with a lovely line by Brian: “Distance is / somewhere in the empty light / on the moon – you look to it.” All the ways this poem beautifully figures the mysteries of closeness—how it often seems to open just as distance undoes it for good—may seem to have escaped this close reading, but more and more I’m not sure what “close reading” even is, or what it’s for. I recently went to a talk by a very intelligent critic who was upset about our critical descriptive practices. What were we identifying as the criteria on which to judge a poem, and how was that guiding the kinds of judgments we could make? When we reproduce lines from a poem as evidence what are we seeking to prove?
When I talk about knowing Brian Foley and the people in his poem, rather than, say, offer theories on his line breaks or at the least accurate descriptions of them, what am I violating—or better, what is the feeling of violation I endure? The norms governing close reading suggest there’s stuff inside the poem that only wise (but objective!) eyes can discern. We love to discuss a poem’s “layers,” and “unpack” it. I feel increasingly dissatisfied with these metaphors, which turn the poem into luggage, or some kind of taco dip.
I don’t see inside but around this poem: the world from which it came, how it was “born born,” the “people peopling” it—those curious doublings of Brian’s that seem to insist on the really real of this poem’s world and work. And in this way I’m also too close—to the sites and situations of the poem itself. Well good for you, I can hear my poetry superego accuse, that you had those years of drinking with Foley so you don’t need to “figure out” this poem the way the rest of us do.
But from where—or whence (glorious word)—do we read this or any poem? Shouldn’t the poem always be moving? Aren’t we? Isn’t reading? All of which may suggest that distance in literature as in life “is / somewhere,” not a position we can rightfully occupy or assume to assume but, like a friendship you’re always sensing the outlines of, something that must be tested and tenderly gone toward, and toward again.
Hannah Brooks-Motl is the author of the full-length collection The New Years (Rescue Press, 2014) and the chapbook The Montaigne Result (The Song Cave, 2013). Recent work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing, the Cambridge Literary Review, and Prelude. She currently lives in Chicago.