Friday, May 10, 2013



in Tiny Gold Dress by John Godfrey
(Lunar Chandelier Press, Brooklyn, 2012)

In a Jan. 27, 2013 review of John Godfrey’s Tiny Gold Dress (Lunar Chandelier Books, 2012) in Hyperallegenic, John Yau praises the poet’s ability to stay  “open to the minute particularities and imaginative wanderings of everyday life—the multitude of wayward thoughts, musings and associations, the erogenous zone of thinking and looking.” According to Yau, Godfrey’s “compressions of perception slow down the reader, open up spaces of reflection for poems about movement – the fragments of consciousness that come from one’s constantly changing attention, the necessity of staying alive to what the city throws at you.”

“Only to Pry” is a poem in the book that exemplifies this tendency to “slow down the reader.” It opens with language that strains with an abundance of “a” sounds to describe what is elusive in a particular scene: “Except it isn’t silent/ More droplet than drop/ this rain strains its name/ to visualize tinnitus” (22). A “droplet,” more diminutive than a “drop,” is closer to silence than to noise—like “tinnitus,” which is on the border. Perhaps such “rain” barely fits its “name” because it is hardly noticeable. Yet the speaker seems to tell himself: “Choose most repellent coat.” Is he trying to block rain that is deceptively powerful or something else, or is the coat itself repulsive (ugly), and if so, why would he wear such an unappealing garment?

Suddenly, it turns out that this poem, like many in Tiny Gold Dress, wields an apostrophe to a beloved or potential beloved. But this “love poem” does not throw expected linguistic moves; it acutely records the flux of consciousness, and, to re-cite Yau, it bespeaks “the necessity of staying alive to what” both the beloved’s presence and the environment “throw at” the speaker.

Go where nearby women         
shelter in wait of bus             
Whisper the tonality       
and draw you near           
What might I hear as   
one slips in exit door (22)

“Tonality,” not “tone,” is the speaker’s means of communication, perhaps seduction; it sound as formal as the string of prepositional phrases, “in wait of bus.” The man is trying to attract a woman waiting for public transportation and is eavesdropping on her. What is the relationship between the “I” who wants to “hear” what the beloved, now “near,” says and the “one” seemingly escaping? We cannot assume that “one” is the “you of two lines earlier; it could be the “I.” Perhaps the unusual phrases cited earlier and the change of pronouns indicate the speaker’s attempt to reduce his vulnerability to heartbreak by dampening expression of his passion, as well as to keep the beloved somewhat near and to perform surveillance while avoiding her counterespionage. Among the many “s” sounds of the last five lines, “near” is half-neutralized by the slant rhyme with “door.”

One line longer than the first, the second strophe does not return to the distancing “one” and uses “you” four times; Godfrey also includes “you” as a crypt word in “youth”:

To think is to see      
I invite you and       
you only to pry
Sight I wear    
like a poncho
inhales smoke 
Comfort in turmoil
To record posture in youth
What foot traffic is for
To identify you    
and only you (22)

Godfrey tropes on the Cartesian cogito by equating thought and sight. The speaker needs a visual encounter with the other to think about her, and thinking here involves identification and exclusive selection, as in the closure of Dickinson’s “The Soul Selects Her Own Society.” But “sight” is figured as palpable protection from emotional “rain”; the visual experience tied to thought and emotion is at once disquieting and a means of solace (“comfort in turmoil”). And the “smoke” inhaled by thinking suggests that there are a serious side effects to this process.

What would the beloved make of this “confession” if she were to hear it? Ironically, the speaker “pries” into whatever he can fleetingly discern of her, while giving her alone the invitation “to pry,” but into what? Why is further prying necessary or desirable after his admissions? The reduction of “foot traffic’ to surveillance of the beloved and his declaration of his ambition “to record posture in youth” are likely to elicit fear, mistrust, and/or resentment from a woman who can consider herself being objectified and stalked. The man’s bid for identification of her seems to preclude her own ability to articulate her subjectivity. Then again, if the speaker feels vulnerable about the woman being able to reject him, to identify him as unworthy of her proximity and contact, he may be deliberately or unconsciously engineering her rejection of him by making a confession—like donning a “most repellent” (repulsive) “coat”—that would cause her to head for “shelter” or don a “poncho.” Thus, he can perceive himself as the agent of her rejection of him.

The relatively brief final strophe reasserts the speaker’s dominance as perceiver, but with oddities that might “draw [her] near” even as she appropriately kept up her guard:

You lean forward to laugh           
Your face never     
repeats an expression
Tired you appear          
less than your age  
You are beyond you   
and always in my path  (22-23)

The lack of repetition of an “expression” can be construed as sincerely complimentary, as emotional versatility is a positive trait, or else the listener might categorize the observation as a hyperbolic suggestion of flightiness or psychological instability. Since tiredness is generally associated with appearing more than one’s age, Godfrey’s reversal makes us/her wonder whether this is a compliment or a sarcastic attack; the ambiguity gives greater power to its purveyor.

The poem’s final assertions refigure the speaker’s bid for control in the situation—whether or not their encounter is to be presumed as actually occurring, being about to occur, or existing solely in the realm of apostrophe—but in ways that can be taken variously. If the “you” is paradoxically beyond the pronominal identification of her, then it may signify that he constructs an identity for her “beyond” the alleged limits of her self-contemplation and concomitant action. On the other hand, for him to declare that she breaks through her self-assumed limits can indicate that her admirable qualities exceed the bounds of her modest self-perception and can only be given back to her in the “mirror” of others’ subjective interpretation—in this case, his. The last line’s hyperbole seems to disrupt the opening strophe’s concept about the need for the speaker to “draw [her] near,” but the trope of her omnipresence, instead, can reflect his unswerving devotion to (obsession with) seeing her and forming cognitions about her. To be “always in my path” is not to be “on”: his “path” is a mental landscape, so the speaker is either paying tribute to her irresistible force within his field of vision and consciousness, or he is marking her as a figure of his act of will. Maybe Godfrey is rubbing the two ways of thinking/feeling/seeing against each other, and the reader is invited to pry into the double effect.

*   *   *

Yau: “Godfrey understands how people look at each other, as well as how they want to be seen."


Thomas Fink is the author of two books of criticism, including “A Different Sense of Power”: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth-Century U.S. Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001). With Joseph Lease, he is co-editor of “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics  (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007). He has published seven books of poetry, including Peace Conference  (Marsh Hawk Press, 2011)  and Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010), a book of collaborative poetry with Maya Diablo Mason, as well as three chapbooks. Marsh Hawk Press will publish Joyride in late 2013. Fink's poem, “Yinglish Strophes IX,” was selected for The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). His paintings hang in various collections. Fink is Professor of English at City University of New York—LaGuardia.

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