rev. of These People by Lloyd Schwartzby
What a disconcerting book of poems Lloyd Schwartz has written! If Hell, as Hegel said, is Other People, then Schwartz does not even allow us the comfort of such infernal alienation --
These People are among us, the poet himself right on the line, and the sad, the mad, and the had constitute an astonishing set of overheard victimizations, portraits of voices not consigned to claustration, but loose (and tight) in our midst. One feels like Judge Brack after Hedda's final extravagance: people don't do such things, and in well-behaved poetry they certainly don't say them. It is a tonic unsettling to read through Schwartz's gallery -- black humor indeed -- and though there are relations between this poetry and some other overhearings which modern literature since Browning has afforded us (Americans from Robinson to Bidart are accounted for), the book seems to me like no other I know.
Spoon River is too complacent, licked smooth, whereas here the voices espouse so many prosodies, and even a kind of pointed prose to make their points the sharper, that we can never
sink in, as we do in Masters' cemetery. We are kept out, kept up, kept to the surface, where things happen: precisely the things illicit, impolite, uncomfortable which are the entire justice of this poet's prosody; occasional gestures are made in the direction of pentameter, and of rhyme in a derisive sense, but the burden of Schwartz's formal invention is to entrap the voice so that we hear the speech as it is spoken, unmediated by decorum, kept according to its own energies and reservations, beyond mere keeping.
It is a book I should rather recommend than rehearse: the experience of these poems is so much a matter of submission (of expectation, of punctilio) to the brutalities, sterilities, frigidities of "modern life", that I should merely edulcorate Schwartz's ventriloquisms by paraphrase. But there is a structural strength in the series which I discern, and which indeed looms to my sense of it as rather the governing secret of the book, so I must of course spill that. The first poem is a prose text called "Childhood" in which, among a great deal of family history, "Lloyd" aged seven invents, as many children do, a set of imaginary playmates:
There were eight "children" -- four pairs of brothers and sisters, all cousins, the cousins of opposite sex nearest in age in love with each other.
They were gallant, beautiful, intelligent, and deeply moral. Their adventure was to protect the Unknown Castle from danger, advised and protected themselves by the animals, their only other friends . . .
At the end of this piece, the poet betrays himself with "a boy from across the street" -- that is, he begins talking in the various voices of his invisible friends, "talking with a girl's voice -- ; pretending to be an animal -- ; in front of
other people." The children he is playing with neither notice nor fail to notice the fictive universe thus disclosed: "They had begun another game." The poem, studded as it is with the spells of childhood and tribal lore, ends with this terrible abandonment. And the entire book is a working-out of this trauma, the discovery that one's private myths and personal fantasies are somehow inadmissible to the world, unreal and improper. The only way for Schwartz, then, to free himself from his demonic companions henceforth is the way of anamnesis, recital, profanation of the secret heretofore hugged very close to the chest. He suffers (gladly) the complusion to tell other people's secrets at the top of their voices, for they are his own. Every kind of aberration is entertained, provided it is
on its own terms; Schwartz avoids judgment as a special kind of plague. The only cure appears to be rehearsal, often of events so sensational that a stifled laughter is the only alternative to a sob.
Lloyd Schwartz's poems are so convulsive in their embrace of otherness that I should imagine a number of readers perplexed to regard them as poems at all. That is their initial claim upon us, of course -- their refusal to rely on art. Not to embody art, but to
rely on it. These poems are often remarkably skillful, but they go on their nerve, and we watch Schwartz in the act with a certain apprehension that he will not bring his acrobat down safe from the high wires. There are one or two falls here, but for the most part the poems perform, and speakers are saved by our discovery that otherness is identity, difference the means of acknowledging sameness:
Their expressions are unusally clear:
scared, or cynical; alert, or spaced out.
One looks ashamed; another is crying;
One looks "intelligent."
-- Which ones are guilty?
They all look tired . . . and guilty.
In poem after poem incarnated in
These People, Schwartz makes the obsessive discovery that our fantasies -- his since the age of seven --
are the world, and that it is only when we recount them that we can be saved from them. Not saved by "health", of course, but saved by participation in a single community of malady and suffering, which with a little care, a certain sensitivity to the sound of the soul overheard in its neurotic, querulous babble, can be gained for others, rather than merely gainsaid for oneself:
-- In an album I hadn't noticed, I see
my picture . . .
full face, profile; black and white.
I look nervous, "intelligent", ashamed;
I'm not wearing a shirt . . .
Shoplifting? tax evasion? defamation of character?
reckless driving? disturbing the peace? possession of
narcotics? indecent exposure? fraud?
It's too dark to see . . .
Why this is hell, nor am I out of it, the poet discerns, after Marlowe. Other people are these people, we have met the enemy and are no one else.