I’ve now recorded each day’s segment for Parts I through III, and am almost to the end of Part IV. There are two parts after that, which will equal, or almost, the same number of recordings that I’ve already done. So, recording-wise, I’m about half-way through. And page-wise, as a single document, the segment I most recently recorded, IV. May 12, is the halfway mark.
Good time, I guess, to take stock of what reading it aloud for digital recording and playback has shown me. For some odd reason, simply working through the document, even with its divisions clearly marked, hasn’t managed to impress much upon me in the way of structure. I think that’s because when I work through the document I am working, trying to weigh each line to see if I still accept it. When I get to the stopping points I simply recognize them as the place to break. This revising mind doesn’t intrude into the recording because if it did the reading would be terrible. Whenever it does, I have to do another take. In other words, I have to read the words as though they’re someone else’s and I can’t change a thing. That kind of insistence makes for an interesting experience, I find.
To say something else about that: to have that experience is one reason why I’m recording the readings. I mean, I’ve read the poem aloud to myself plenty of times but there’s still a provisional aspect to such readings. They don’t have to be “pitch perfect.” Are the recordings? Well, not quite, but close. Occasionally, listening to the playback, I feel I’ve botched the enunciation, and I can imagine an official reading in which I assigned parts to different readers. But that would only work if they were actors; the kind of people who can be coached and directed. Otherwise, I would be even less content, I imagine, with how someone else treats the lines. What I’m listening for in playback is hard for me to name, exactly, but I’d call it “the right tension.”
That’s all that drives the poem, I’m realizing as I record it and listen to it. The great discovery in writing the poem was that that “tension” is potentially endless. It simply became the quality of my life and mind at the time. And not in any burdened way. I was living alone at the time. To see my wife, I made a couple visits to her son’s house in PA, where she was convalescing after an accident. Those visits are very clear to me in breaks in the poem, but they don’t occur till after the semester ends. The poem commences when the semester is almost over but not quite. The end is in sight, and, beyond that, I don’t have any immediate plans. That’s what makes the period of composition so golden. I know I don’t have to do anything except stay “in character,” so to speak. Except for those visits.
I know the catalyst for the day I began—which is to say Part I—was reading a volume of Ashbery. But which one? I’m not sure. In fact, at various points, at least up through Part III, Ashbery remained a catalyst, and it would be interesting to me to know if there are traces in what I write that come from the poems I was reading. It seems certain to me that the intonation of certain sections does. What I’m borrowing from Ashbery, then, isn’t imagery or voice, it's tone. But, obviously, that tone gets distorted when I treat it as “mine.” In part because I’m not consciously sure what any Ashbery poem is talking about. So I’m reading them as a direct, unconscious communication. His poem’s voice is talking to me, internally, and I respond in kind. Simple. But I have no idea where that tone is going to take me and what it will make me say. That’s part of the tension I’m talking about.
Part I is mostly all prologue. It’s taking stock of a situation that makes writing the poem seem “natural.” Something you could easily do. Like anything else you might do that day. But it’s in a defeated tone. It’s almost like a defense mechanism: being as pessimistic as possible so no one can bring you down. It’s not that Ashbery poems ever bring me down, but one does reach a certain saturation point where one says “well, that’s easy for YOU to say, pardner.” At that point you want to shut him up. Just so you can start talking, maybe. And that’s all I’m doing. Introducing my state of mind. Kinda dejected, and if I’m speaking to anyone it’s probably an old friend, someone for whom the details aren’t important—we’ve known each other so long, how could they be—but simply (as Dylan might ask): “how does it feel?” In other words, it’s “confessional” in the sense of revealing how I’m feeling, but without any details specific to my life or events.
Part II, which goes on for some length, is the “fully empowered” part. Now I know I can do this, and I can go wherever I want. That means bringing in absurdist asides and a variety of voices, to have fun. The provocation of Ashbery here becomes more definite. I’m thinking of him in a sort of Proustian way, as this well-to-do aesthete with no end of sophisticated bon mots to shower us with. I’m trying on roles to play that game, and so this part is less confessional, in the sense of my state of mind, because I’m fully engaged by the task at hand. I’m making an open-ended poem with only one imperative: keep writing till you run out of lines. Or until you get to a “finish.” The day before, April 9, that finish came up pretty clearly. What can you say after “now hush”? So, part of the task on Day Two is to avoid a finish. Just keep going. What becomes evident is that I’ll have to cheat. I’ll take breaks—probably to read more Ashbery—and will have to resume, so this Part will have many breaks. The first occurs with “Breaking the reverie” (which is the start of the second recording on the page). The bit about being air-lifted ends a train of thought but it’s not a big finish. You can follow it after a beat…but with something completely different.
At that point—once I admit a break into the text, a break not caused by a new Day—I’m on a path of discovery. What form will this thing take? Why not a series of separate lines? I like the line in a Mekons song “these lines are all individuals and there’s no such thing as a song.” A poem of lines that could all be beginning lines or ending lines. Most of them are cliché, some are a bit esoteric as quotations. The point is only that they come unbidden, immediately to hand. Now the tension is not staying “in character” but losing character. And that means other characters will come forward.
I suspect that there’s a reading break right before the part that starts with “Silence those polite foghorns.” The voice is something out of a Warner Bros. cartoon—specifically Foghorn Leghorn—and I’m probably thinking of Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” one of my favorite poems in Houseboat Days. It could be I glanced through that volume—I have it in the Three Books edition. I like the Three Books volume because those are the books Ashbery published when I was first becoming “a poet,” age 18 to 25. And “A Wave” is one of my favorite poems, and that volume—Three Books—I associate with the final year of my time at Princeton because that’s when I first read it. Anyway.
The voices that come in could have gone on for some time, in any number of small segments divided by asterisks. Because at this point there’s no reason to stop, except I’m getting tired, and probably hungry. I know that the part “True, I don’t like the smell of me” comes after a bathroom break. Maybe something about a “transatlantic flight” makes you feel like you have to piss? Or at least I would definitely want to make sure I go before I went, if you know what I mean. In any case, I came back, ready to go on, but then hit a stopping point. The voice that says “A change is coming” knows that I’ve got to change it up and see if there’s water of a different flavor in the well.
So Part III begins, on that same day, with a game change. Now I’m going to write single-page entries, starting with a letter of the alphabet, in sequence. My only constraint is that the first two words of the first line and the first word of the second line have to begin with the letter. This means that every poem begins with alliteration that “carries over” after the first enjambment or line ending. Simple. Now let’s go.
In some ways I like Part III best, or, put another way, I feel that Part III best justifies the entire project. Someone might ask: well, why not treat it as a stand alone segment? This alphabet thing clearly departs from the rest and so…why is it still Metro Lace? And that’s where the answer to end all questions comes in: It is because I say it is. And here’s why: I would not have done these single-page riffs if I didn’t already know I was in the midst of composing a potentially endless poem. They would seem too arbitrary to me. Like some kind of homework assignment. But they’re not, for the most excellent reason that they’re part of this whole…a whole that is so formless and open-ended that it can include anything.
It might be true to say that Metro Lace is a “book of poems” like any book of poems: a collection of things written around the same time. And that would be true except for certain built-in reference points: I maintain the dates to keep the poem in sequence, and it’s written over a particular period of time. It can be revised, and has been, but it has to remain in the sequence dictated by that succession of days. That is its modus operandi. And within that context, Part III works, for me, like little musical “solos.” If the rest of the poem is the “score”—the context—Part III is where the instrumentalist steps up and shows what he can do for however many bars he’s got. As analogy it doesn’t quite work because we don’t move from the solo back to the song. We have a series of 26 solos. And there are some gaps, in terms of days with no composition, because now I have to be “ready” to write to a certain letter. Where I stop a Day is still determined by hitting a “finish” (I like best the finish on the first day…I was hot on April 10!), but when I resume I’ve got to do the next letter. That made me keep writing but it also started to irk me because it was too “premeditated.” In some cases, I had to think ahead to what words would meet the alphabetical requirement, which is why “x” is “‘xylophone, x-ray of,’ of course.” Because what else could it be? I should mention here that one of my favorite books in grade school—we didn’t have a copy, so I always had to take it out of the library when I needed it—was Dr. Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra. I guess you could say I’ve always had an antagonistic relationship to the alphabet.
When I composed the sentences at the end of “z”—the abcedarian sentences—as prose, I thought that maybe I would switch to prose poems for the next Part. I was consciously at the point of “big finish” and “recommence”—as I’m sure I chose to end Part III on Walpurgis (April 30) and commence the next part on May Day. But May Day is its own poem in a way. It’s not part of any Part. It’s a Side A and a Side B, that I’m pretty sure was written after reading some of the Ashbery books that I had never read before—the three I read during this project that fit that bill are And the Stars Were Shining, Wakefulness, and Your Name Here. I think of Wakefulness as being the one that stimulated me most, but I haven’t gone back to look.
Side A is deliberately of its moment. Already some of that was beginning to happen in Part III, where discrete glimpses of something “real” (something not just in my own mind) was finding its way onto the page—like references to the Housatonic and the bridge over it, or to streets in New Haven—but mostly things are given a distortion that kept “me” out of it. With Side A and Side B, that changes. Having passed through the alphabet, I was now “closer to home,” so to speak. Which is a way of saying that memory would start to be involved more directly. In Side A, there’s a memory of Dublin, and of the Highline in New York (a later addition, I think), and a reference, current in first composition, to watching shows in the Iseman Theatre at Yale, and in Side B, there’s a memory of being in Chicago in 2008. Memory is its own context, we can say, and that means the poem (the “reverie”) is being violated by actual events and places. It’s been happening all along—the close of Part I recalls a specific theatrical event I attended (but I think that came-in as a revision, once such things became admissible in the later going)—but now I have the sense that I might be using the poem for—to use David Byrne’s phrase—“catching up with myself.”
Parts IV, V, and VI will constitute the kind of catching up that has been led to by Parts I, II, and III.