Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Philip Schultz on Robert Long’s Blue: “Diligent watching and endless surprise”

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Philip Schultz, who published his memoir, My Dyslexia, in 2011, joins our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, history, and essays about works that have influenced them. Schultz revisits the work and achievement of poet and friend Robert Long.

Making claims about the importance of recently deceased poets is tricky, especially if the poet was a friend. Robert Long, who died in 2006, was a friend, a poet friend—and friendships among poets is a subject worthy of its own treatise. It’s impossible for me to be objective about his work without sounding self-serving or distorted by a perverse calculus of grief and identification. But I can say that his poems continue to surprise and delight me and that his work is both original and serendipitously blunt. I like bluntness, especially the indirect, somewhat back-stepping kind, the Frank O’Hara and E. E. Cummings kind.

Robert Long wrote one full book and three chapbooks that were filtered into the collection Blue (Canio’s Editions 2000), and De Kooning’s Bicycle (FSG 2005), the latter a brilliant novelistic prose celebration of the artists and writers who settled in the Hamptons in the ’50s and ’60s. As John Ashbery said of the book, it’s essentially “the history of mid-twentieth-century American art.” Long, who was the art critic for the East Hampton Star for many years, lived most of his life in East Hampton. While this last book is certainly special, it’s his poetry that will and should be remembered.

His poems cut back and forth from image to insight to insinuation like brush strokes off a highly colorful palette, making a provocative collage /parade of the casual and profane: 
It’s like walking into a room
And suddenly realizing you’ve had sex with everyone there
At least once, watching your friends’ lives
Tangling as you all grow somewhat older,
Somehow more resolute. Bookshelves grow, too,
And you notice your handwriting becoming more matter-of-fact;
It’s as if all that comic smartness we glided through in youth
Were somehow desperate. And now we come to terms
With the sidewalk’s coruscating glamour,
The rows of dull but neat garbage cans,
Each with its own painted number,
The poodles and patrol cars, the moon rising high,
Like aspirin, over Eighth Avenue.
(from “Chelsea”) 
Few poets are able to cram so much keen lyrical feeling and diverse imagery into such a small space with such an entertaining sense of urgency. His was a visual virtuosity born of an intense appreciation of his own odd-minded obsessions with, say, the art of De Kooning, Pollock and Tiepolo; Formula One racing cars; and the visual splendors of the East End of Long Island; not to forget Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and Ninth Avenue, among others. The language in his poems whirls, zigzags, and flows erratically, as if uncontrollable, though all by design. His prepossessing emotional dexterity was fashioned over a lifetime of looking at art. There’s something profoundly subliminal, yet at the same time spontaneous and private in his work.

Although his being gay is present in the poems, it’s no more a subject than his politics, or his profound respect for his environment; it was what art turned, agitated, and reconstituted things into that mattered most to him, not ideas in and of themselves. His poetry is, essentially, as introspective and formally causal as he was, proffering an attitude of prepositional forlornness. Even the love poems are addressed to an unnamed anonymous “You,” coloring the intimacy with a second-person sense of privileged familiarity.
                        The other night I could hear

An ordinary car gliding past my house
And your regular breathing all those miles away,
In your room, on the other end of the phone,
Lying on your bed, speechless, receiver

To your ear, both of us not wanting
To hang up. And when we finally did,
You said “Seeya,”
Though you won’t, ever again.
(from “Little Black Dino”) 
His is a world of drugs, booze, fast living, and intimate, resigned reflection—with a coating of nostalgia for Nowhereville, where angels write postcards and talk on the telephone. The lines whiz by on Librium, the images speak to one another in their own whispered jazzy two-tone argot, a disjointed language of self-avowal, diligent watching, and endless surprise.
I’m comfortable here, on 50 mg. of Librium,
Two hundred bucks in my pocket
And a new job just a week away.
I can walk the streets in a calm haze,
My blood pressure down to where I’m almost human,
Make countless pay-phone calls from street corners—
Buzzing, they go by in near-neon trails,
People, people like me, headed for black-bean soup,
For screams in alleyways, for the homey click
Of the front door’s closing, heading home
Past all those faces you know you’ve seen before…
(from “Chelsea”)

I’m playing the dilettante,
But it’s all out of my hands. One time,
I bought a velvet jacket from a speedfreak
on your corner. It was December. It was cold.
We had this great chat about the necessity
Of transacting business politely. We walked to the
Grocery so I could get change of a five, after
I’d tried on the jacket, out on the street.
People walked by. I had my gloves between my teeth.
“Whaddaya think, I said. “Looks good,” he said.
(from “East Ninth Street”) 
The wonderful lack of judgment, explanation, or apology throws the reader headlong into the drama and desperation of the scene. Frank O’Hara, an early influence, did his own version of excited conversational truth-telling celebration, but Robert Long has taken that a step further. In the world of his poems the everyday lives side-by-side with off-kilter, hallowed feeling, a place where “St. Lucy is the patron saint of eyes” and we all get a “package from the Dessert-of-the-Month Club,” whether we subscribe or not.

His finely honed, keen ability to see beyond where he’s looking probably accounts for his brooding sympathetic music, and the high-mindedness of his anxious intelligence. He knew how to mix the high and the low, raw emotion with restraint, in order to register the deeper mysteries in the silence between words. De Kooning rode a bike but Robert preferred Enzo Ferrari’s Dino, a six-cylinder understated miracle that was “more beautiful than most painting, most poetry.” He deserves another look, as he speeds by. Who knows—maybe we’re all a little more ready for him now.

In 1987 Philip Schultz founded The Writers Studio, a private school for fiction and poetry writing in New York City, and he has been its director ever since. He is the author of seven books of poetry and winner of numerous awards and fellowships. Reviewing Failure (2007), co-winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Gerald Stern singled out Schultz’s “heartbreaking tenderness that goes beyond mere pity . . . It’s as if he bears our pain.” In 2010 Houghton Mifflin published The God of Loneliness: New and Selected Poems, which Mark Doty called “a restless, energetic act of inquiry.”

Excerpts from Blue by Robert Long (2000) copyright © 2000 by Robert Long. Reprinted by permission of Canio's Editions.

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