Call It Good

Tessa Rumsey's First Collection Carries The Fresh Scent Of Honesty.

Assembling the Shepherd, by Tessa Rumsey. University of Georgia Press, $15.95.

A FRIEND ASKED me the other day about the criteria for what makes a poem good--"I mean, how can anyone say what good art is?" she asked resentfully, in the tradition of her many precursors who resent the critic for leaving out of the Canon their own style (thorny rose confessional) of poems.

To her and many others' dismay, the discrimination of some poems into art and others into the Middle School Diary Poems Pile persists. In response to their indignation I would ask: Is it appropriate or in any way sensible to question doctors with hostility to verify their status as M.D.s? Is it reasonable to ask them to validate their grueling years of schooling as a substantial system of defining that yes, they are in fact doctors? No, it isn't, because although the systems of measurement are arbitrary (med school doesn't make a doctor a healer, necessarily) they certainly exist, and the possibility of true Doctorhood is there, is perhaps even likely.

Is it as likely that the writing-mills fine arts degree programs will produce as many poets as practicing writers? Who knows? Why question it? That poets have chosen a thankless, endless pursuit of study and solitude and self-discipline makes them at the very least courageous, if not good. And let's face it, all that attention to literature indentures a poet to scrutiny and judgement, as in any profession. (Does anyone know a good lawyer? A good dentist? And so on.)

On that note, does anyone know a good poet? When the friend asked, "What makes a poem good?" what I really said was honesty. Even with bad instincts you can smell insincerity in a poem in an instant--you know. It smells like forgotten pork.

Thankfully, the poems in Tessa Rumsey's first collection, Assembling the Shepherd, are virtually odorless. That is, it is Rumsey's intention, I think, to best represent her sincerity sincerely, without being representative. Not to be coy, but to capture her nonlinear experiences and perceptions in a broken bottle, because life itself is always breaking and cannot be captured:

Fear of the future can cause a Pharaoh to enlist a ladder into his burial chamber, can impel / a boyfriend to kick in a door on Epiphany. The cold planet spinning / at the end of the universe was said to have inspired annihilating powers when discovered, / was said to have spurred the splitting of the atom. A voice whispers imagine me.

In her desire to reassemble the Mess in a juxtaposition of the awkward and evasive, Rumsey is not alone. Although it is a trend to pretend postmodernism is just now happening, Tessa Rumsey and countless other contemporary "experimental poets" may actually pay homage to many narrative deviants of yesteryear, from whom interruptive methods have been assimilated and reassembled again and again. The breakage in content, structure, progression, image, metaphor, line or stanza is evidenced as far back as the Persian religious poets, as soon as Melville or Joyce, and continues in contemporary greats like Anne Carson or Michael Palmer.

Interruptions or digressions are perhaps a signature of poetry itself; in postmodernism occurred the evolution of a new valence of self-referential methods, more than the birthing of a never-discovered element.

So, in the tradition of language-upset, structure-dissolving poetry, Rumsey explores all forms, destroys all forms, makes lists, starts mid-sentence, starts in fits and starts, aborts halfway, repeats and unearths and repeats, all in reverence to her subject: loss. The poems continually till this ground: loss of lover, of containability, of sensibility and sense in all of today's cross-wired chaos.

In the poem "Diagram for Faith," the poet observes a monk unravel his turban in the subway. It grounds us deliciously in detail:

One monk wrapped in cloth the color of a fashionable nuclear sunset / is coming undone on the subway platform, a saffron-tinted Shiva / working myriad limbs around the rush hour of eternal return of eternal / renounce.

Meanwhile, Rumsey also unwinds a fantastic mosaic material that can make the monk's habit leave "cloth" to mean "faith."

There are glorious moments in these poems that earn glorious endings when not leaning on a poet's self-assertive methods just for their own sake:

You use your search engine to look for "shit" and then "Aquinas"; despite this / there is still no equation to make him appear in the station / where an underground hurricane of speed, superconductors, and cerulean / space unravels a holy man's diagram for faith.

While Rumsey's moves are mostly heartfelt, heart-chosen, they are sometimes predictable--calling attention to the poet's poem-making process so that the distance then provided will lend another truth besides the viewer-viewed relationship. In this way the poet is perhaps once removed again from her experience. Isn't just writing the experience down, parsing it into words and sentences and other pesky limiting structures, veil enough?

Maybe not. Maybe that's the point. What I'm wondering is when does a well-adopted method prevent a poet's fresh candor? At what point is influence interference? If we can call it a good move is it time to move on?