From WEST BRANCH, 56 (Spring/Summer 2005), 85-90
Roger Mitchell, in his new volume Delicate Bait, takes on the pleasures, reduced expectations, and losses of late middle age with equanimity and gravity. Polish poet and translator Stanislaw Baranczak once remarked — I do not remember where — that even pure description, if it describes the world faithfully enough, can be a political act. It can be a spiritual act, too, if it helps writer and reader bear losses that initially feel insupportable. Like Elizabeth Bishop, with her extravagant, precisely textured similes, Mitchell uses description more to create reality, to give shape to the inner life, than to reflect it. Indeed, in what we might take as the thesis statement for this book, Mitchell writes in the poem "An Afternoon Walk," "If you must know something, says the tableau / of our days, you may have to make it up." We go to "the supreme fiction," according to Mitchell, not just for the hell of it, but as a means of inquiry. In that inquiry, there is something of Milosz's "archive of existence," a rescuing of things ruined or lost and a reclaiming of people emblematized by these vanished objects. Mitchell takes on shopping malls, a photograph of taxi dancer by Margaret Bourke-White, and a Museum of Local History, all in "plain American which cats and dogs can read," as Marianne Moore would say.
Because the adjective "reticent" so often applied to Bishop could equally pertain to Mitchell, he would no doubt hate for me to slap a word like "heroic" onto his poetic project. So I'll refrain. But if I did, what I would be praising is the virtue of restraint, of surrendering the self (while not abandoning the self altogether) in the service of making and remaking the world. Essential to Mitchell's method is modulation of tone, which he effects by several strategies.
One typical strategy is ironic understatement. In "Why We're Here," for example, Mitchell undercuts his own slight tendency to sermonize with the poem's terse final sentence:
I am getting my mower sharpened
Similarly, Mitchell juxtaposes plain speech with lyric exaltation. For example, in the title poem "Delicate Bait," he delays the predicate in the relative clause to temper the lyric impulse, while still allowing it some rein:
The shell of the meal broken
By piling on prepositional phrases and noun clauses before giving us the predicate, Mitchell is able to place this "simple meal / there by the ocean" not only in history but in geologic time. It manages to be at once "simple" and panoramic.
Elsewhere, too, Mitchell intensifies his typically laconic idiom by permitting himself flashes of lyric beauty, always precisely rendered. About the eccentric Aunt El, Mitchell writes: "She holds / the lantern away from her body, / as though she were paper herself." And his poem "Venice, 1979," which opens with the gorgeous, suggestive phrase "The vaporetto rocked the chocolate water," closes with the tempered "Europe / would collapse, Venice sink another inch. / It seemed important once to go there. Culture, / after all, our dark beginnings. Now, / I mow the lawn another time. Winter / is coming. Winter, that I have always loved." What in a lesser poet might have resulted in querulousness or nostalgia in Mitchell becomes an occasion for the stripping away of illusion. That process might sound grim but it is not, in fact, devoid of joy. The Zen poets throught that tone in poetry should be neither objective nor subjective. Mitchell verges on that ideal here by allowing both the lyric rush and its tempered opposite.
Essential to Mitchell's modulation of tone is also a Bishop-like tendency toward self-interruption or contradiction. For if, as Stevens once said, the aim of poetry is to present "not thought, but the mind thinking," to suggest perception we must allow for the mis-takes and misrememberings of seeing and also the last-minute revisions. Bishop and Mitchell are most inclined to interrupt or contradict when creating an epiphanic moment. Here is Bishop in that familiar vertiginous scene from "In the Waiting Room":
I knew that nothing stranger
Just as Bishop renders the dissolution and merging of the self with hairtrigger precision via interruption and contradiction, so does Mitchell in "Delicate Bait" register similar shifts in perception to describe the speaker, in an island restaurant, merging with his surroundings and becoming, in a way, transubstantiated:
[P]eople stack one rock on another,
The pronoun "it" remains indeterminate because what "it" is cannot be rendered in language. Transformation, maybe, dissolution of the ego. So Mitchell piles on catalogues, keeps the perceptions coming, to get as close to "it" as possible.
Mitchell's method can best be seen to advantage in the poem "Free Coaster." Inspired by one of those cheesy Coco-Cola Santa coasters made in Taiwan, it offers a far-ranging mediation on cultural symbols, ethnic differences, and the ways and means of production in a manner that manages to be both Marxist and Buddhist if the Marxist were Walter Benjamin and the Buddhist were, say, Thich Nhat Hanh. In essence, Mitchell performs a close reading on what might well have been a throwaway freebie, analyzing the symbolism of its colors and its nostalgic iconography ("the refrigerator, with its door flung wide / and its shelves heaped with abundance... / What Santa wouldn't want a Coke on a night / like this? And the little boy finding he hadn't been lied to"). and finally moving from the object itself to the people in Taiwan who made it. Thich Nhat Hanh has written, "If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in [a] sheet of paper"1 because clouds water trees, from which the paper is milled. In a similar vein, Mitchell is able to imagine the chain of interrelation that brought him this "work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction":
the coaster is a marvel of engineering,
What impresses me about Mitchell's treatment of this advertisement is not only his careful and ironoically inflected unpacking of it but also the fact that he leaves room for questioning, for the mysteries lying beneath its glossy, mass-produced surface.
While perhaps not every poem in Delicate Bait lives up to those cited in the review, this is a volume worth reading and rereading. Czeslaw Milosz once said that "only the instant is eternal." Tone is the device that allows that eternal moment to hang in the balance beween ordinary and extraordinary. And Mitchell provides many tonal moments to learn from.
1. The Heart of Understanding (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988:3.