I first encountered Gabriel Gudding's hair-raising work not six months ago in David Lehman's anthology Great American Prose Poems. Lehman included Gudding's stately, footnoted tirade "A Defense of Poetry," in which the poet unleashes what I now know to be very Guddingesque gambits: no-nonsense direct address, Rabelaisian bodily humor; a subtle, defamiliarizing mix of verbal registers, animals, and more animals. It's fair to say this last struck me most. My own writing tends toward animal tropes and fables.
After reading the piece in Lehman's anthology, I had to place an order to Amazon to get Gudding's first book, which I read and reread while waiting for his second book to arrive, his 436-page road poem entitled Rhode Island Notebook. Written between 2002 and 2004, Notebook records the writer's musings as he drove back and forth between his wife and daughter's residence in Rhode Island and his own residence in Normal, Illinois. It's a journal of sorts, written by a brilliant poet working to keep a long-distance marriage together and struggling in particular to stay close to his young daughter even as the marriage finally fails. There's much agonistic battling of heartbreak in its pages, but there is also, all along, a preternatural poetic verve, a new kind of American beauty that is both virile and playful. I've read nothing like it for years. As writer and humane observer of himself and others, Gudding has accomplished something I wouldn't have believed possible: he's written a long poem that is, through most of it, unputdownable.
Aside from the many themes the poet delves into (dung, the life of rivers, the Iraq war, alcohol, American history) Gudding also displays his penchant for animals. There is in effect a kind of Gudding bestiary one can construe across his two books. Rhode Island Notebook contains one of his many poetic epistles to animals, this time a letter to the whole huddling lot of them:
DEAR ANIMALSThe flatness and wonder are characteristic of many of Gudding's most unsettling and effective passages. Elsewhere we find gnomic evocations like the following:
Many of you do not have breasts. This is
undeniable. I think immediately of amphibia,
the reptilians, birds--none of these possess
breasts nor anything upon which a nipple may
be mounted. I for instance have no fur.
. . . Though you and I
have very little in common, and I find your
bodies disturbing, I must say that despite your
biological distance from me, you and I ought
perhaps to have some coffee, should you drink
it--or possess a mouth.
What's more, I know that many of your penises
are odd, your vaginas strange, and your
faces long, flat or otherwise with horns. I
notice none of you wear watches, whereas I
gain distinct pleasure from a new watch . . . .
This is a totally human delight. Yet you must
have your own delights, like honking in a pond
or looking at your hooves for hours.
The chicken will never be let intoThere is the long sequence on "meat bees" which begins on page 123 and is woven into the next dozen pages:
the European union because
it is not only impoverished, it is also not a
European country it is a chicken (47)
Butterflies are the bowties of fairies. (69)
Spiders are held together by very small tendons. (55)
I took the pig's shadow and made a
suit of it. The suit smelled of ham
and slop. A suit of ham shadow. (69)
A substantial portion of a cat's energy
goes into the production of fur.
The mentality of the housecat is principally that
of a decentralized bureaucrat, she is a loose soft
clerk who has lost the hallways. The groin
is full of leaks. (47)
A chicken is a chain of meat and bone
and a two-watt brain. (48)
There was no summer because the memo
ordering it was swallowed by the Gar. Stella
should not have. Who but the fish
can fully know worrisome lilies. (122)
I did not understand the dog, I think
that is why it bit me. (121)
A dog at heart is made of dust
and dust is wind that's mad (122)
Just crossed the Hudson. It isThere are the 70-mph drive-by observations:
caked w/ ice floes. Very deep
snow along hwy
A mammoth cloud is strapped to a bee
who tows it down to make
a slow fog. The meat of
a bee is weak and tastes of egg.
Meat bees are few in the
winters around Birmingham. Yet
here they fly, like flecks & bolts
of squeaking mutton.
. . .
Bees come from a
land of Clocks.
. . .
The face of the puppy was a
bumpy bacon. Yet we did not
skin the dog for its face. Instead we
sought to catch and flay the meated bee.
The beefy bee was like an large airborne pill
but w/ a coating of meat that made it
. . .
If I do so drive my rubber car
through the winds and plains of night
It is for to hunt the bee
and bring my family food.
Illinois State Line 9:52 PM CST
But I do so for the sake of Merica,
to quieten its cloying huzzing.
A bee is a pill between wings.
I am like Cordelia who remaineth
quiet. But the bee is not. The
bumblebee reminds America
of the internal combustion engine
--and therefore all bees
must be suppressed:
bee meat is loud. (123-133)
Intricate nest of dogs and heavy catsThere are many hawks observed as Gudding covers his thousands of miles, many flocks of geese, and two sequences around the eagle, the first beginning:
garnished in a fluttering of Ducks.(69)
We burned the eagle w/ Petroleum, pumpinI quote these animal passages only because they continue what is for me one of the most interesting strands in Gudding's work: his ongoing poetic adjudication of the oddness of animals and the oddness of our sameness/difference from them. Much of the poet's writing on animals is rough and tumble, but there is fellow feeling: a recognition of the importance of animals to any assessment of our own place in the world.
2 bullets into its tiny knees. We took a
nutcracker to its beak. (32)
There's much else in Rhode Island Notebook to slap one awake besides the fragmentary bestiary. Gudding's poetics has in huge measure just the things I most value in literature. Foremost, he has a strong sense of the complex relations of literary humor to both suffering and healing. This is a theoretical or philosophical insight which, for Gudding, is of a piece with his practice as poet. The humor he deploys is not that of the aloof satirist, but rather that of the clown--a clown whose understanding and suffering lead to laughter and who laughs in order to further understand, and perhaps be healed.
Gudding's theory of humor has many antecedents, but I'm guessing one of the more important ones is Rabelais (a writer who, besides, is alluded to in Notebook), particularly in those aspects Bakhtin underlined in his writing on medieval laughter and the carnivalesque.
The poet also has a keen awareness of defamiliarization as one of the essential functions of literary language: namely that literature exists to break the frozen perception of things by exposing it as merely conventional. Literature reawakens the strangeness of all those things we'd come to take for granted. In one interview he puts it thus:
The purpose isn’t to be strange for the sake of strangeness. The point is to slow down the perception of the reader, so that the reader is not experiencing the poem automatically. Once our perceptual habits become automatic, we’ve dampened our innate capacity for wonder. So, one enstranges language not to put on a gratuitous display, but to allow again for wonder, to make, as Shklovsky says, “the stone stony again.”All poets employ defamiliarization to different degrees: strong rhetoric is often a matter of effective defamiliarizing. Strictly speaking, one may say that tropes do double service: in service to the poetic, they defamiliarize; in service to ideology, they are agents of familiarization. It would be interesting, I think, to study Gudding's own arsenal of defamiliarizing moves and to compare them with the similar/different techniques of his contemporaries. There's something in Gudding that stands apart, and it seems to me that this difference is in the way his work defamiliarizes.
Finally, Rhode Island Notebook shows a poet ever aware of how language is used to hoodwink the gullible--aware especially of how depressingly effective official rhetoric is. Part of Gudding's work, then, is ideology critique, and in this vein his essay on dung is a masterpiece, a concise American rejoinder to the psycho-corporal economics of Freud and Bataille. Gudding pinpoints the "prissy" right there in the heart of what many compatriots take to be the most manly segment of the population: the red-state South. In this he is certainly correct. A central point in this road journal is that America is no longer so much the home of the brave as the echo-chamber of the fearful: security obsessed, isolated, prissily afraid both of the other and of its own private dung.
Alan Sondheim has called Rhode Island Notebook "the first 21st century classic." Sondheim also underlines what the book is not: "What could have been an experiment in conceptual writing has emerged into an exhilaration that makes me glad I'm still alive." This is apt. Gabriel Gudding's theoretical sophistication hasn't kept him from writing a brave and hilarious and readable book.
Rhode Island Notebook is published by the Dalkey Archive Press, the same folks who bring us Flann O'Brien.
Check Rhode Island Notebook book at Amazon.com
Links of interest:
"On Kindness and Hipness as They Relate to Cultural Production":
The above-quoted interview on poetry and creative writing:
Gudding takes part in a roundtable discussion on humor in poetry:
Some of my teen students in Taipei try their hand at Guddingesque defense: