Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Island Road

I started writing poetry in earnest as a teenager (in Hopkins, Minnesota) around 1968.  For my senior year "chapel speech" (a Blake School requirement) I wrote and recited a long narrative poem (titled, I think, simply "Chapel Speech") which followed the narrator from a bus ride to a civil rights march in Washington, to a kind of dream vision featuring a magnetic "dark lady", to an epilogue - with the narrator now an old hippie guru in the mountains, complaining about his shallow, materialistic children.  (The poem, by the way, was printed in the Blake School Yearbook 1970, for which I served, conveniently, as Copy Editor.)

The "dark lady" theme was a little prophetic, considering that a few years later (1972-73), during my final undergraduate years at Brown University, I went through a psychological melt-down, triggered by a very intense response to Shakespeare's Sonnets (and uncanny, liminal encounters with Shakespeare's "ghost", & others).  This spiritual/psychological crisis thoroughly changed my life, leading to a religious (re-)conversion, my withdrawal from college for several years of solitary, meditative wandering (West Coast/New York/London), and my application for a guitar job with the Rolling Stones, among other adventures.  Poetry and poetry-writing during this period receded into the background; Jesus, the Bible, and music were front and center.  It was not until the late 70s that I began to find my footing again as a poet.

So this provides a little bio-background for a sonnet sequence from the late 1990s, Island Road.  What else can I say about it?  Island Road consists of 99 poems.  The central poem (#50) was written in London, in early December, 1996.  When I look back at my development, I see an oscillation between lyric and narrative, song and story.  A sonnet sequence is one way to meld together these tendencies : individual sonnets are songs; their sequence tells a story.  And "Island Road" is obviously a verbal mirror for "Rhode Island"; the sequence is, in one way, a mirror-story.  The series is about sonnets, in part : the poet, Henry, looks in a mirror and sees John Berryman's "Henry" (Berryman also wrote his own sonnet sequence).  Berryman's "Henry" (the poet), in turn, sees himself in the mirror of Shakespeare's sonnets - and goes in search of Shakespeare, by means of sonnets of his own.  (Read the book online, here.)

At the time of writing I was very taken with Alastair Fowler's studies of numerical structure and numerological symbolism in medieval and Renaissance poetry.  Island Road is also structured along these lines.  Roughly, the sequence is seasonal, moving from autumn, aging & death, through winter, night, and masquerade, toward spring and new life.  The motivating spirit is (unsurprisingly) a Muse, a "dark lady" : the aim is to fuse old poetry and new (a Renaissance form and a contemporary idiom), America and Britain, America and Russia (and Rhode Island)... "Henry" and Shakespeare.  The design involves a lot of verbal "mirroring" - both internally, between different sections of the sequence, and externally, with a geometry (or chronology) keyed to the design of Shakespeare's sequence.

In a nutshell, then : Island Road dramatizes a second encounter with the ghost of Shakespeare, a sort of psychological reconciliation with the "spirit of poetry" he represents : mediated by a mysterious "dark lady" of my own.

Island Road ebook @ Lulu

Island Road pbk @ Lulu