Richard Meier, Shelley Gave Jane a Guitar
Publisher: Wave Books
2006, 115 pages, paperback, $14
shelley Gave Jane a Guitar is a deeply playful collection that dexterously maneuvers through the difficult music of longing, uncertainty, and tradition. In his second book of poems, Richard Meier’s plentiful sources range from the Pre-Socratics, European Modernists, and aspects of New York School . The main source of the book, however, is lifted from the British Romantics. The title alludes to Percy Blythe Shelley’s “To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling”-a poem written for Jane Williams shortly before the great romantic’s fatal last voyage with her husband. Early in Shelley’s poem, the speaker proclaims “Dear Jane! / The guitar was tinkling, / But the notes were not sweet until you sung them/ Again.” Meier reanimates this haunted melody and through humor, bizarre conceits, and restless innovation-and he does indeed sing again, not only by reconfiguring Shelley, but by delicately anachronistic, erotic, and surreal restringing.
A large part of the book seems insistent on negotiating a surplus of influences – Shelley, Ashbury, even an updated Shepheardes Calendar. The result is less a lonely wandering than it is a carefully crafted free-fall through lyrical wormholes. Often, the speaker of these poems feels as much at the mercy of this terrain, or as astonished by the process, as we as readers may feel in its sensory abundance. Take these lines from “My Summer”:
and wasn’t that a not inaccurate description
of the sudden appearance of leaves that budded
and pushed out over the course of months
consuming time, the primary sequence
leaving us to admire and marvel and love
The voice here is so earnestly close to pastoral sentiment that we can sense the pendulum swinging towards more disjunctive syntax and the reality of what “we planted from our own dumb hands” where “the neighbor leaves his big black truck running.” At certain points where this vacillating approach is less successful, Meier’s aggressive undercutting becomes disruptive.
But ultimately, the comedy of this collection is more suspect than its sincerity. But it’s not an empty jesting, because the poles of absurdity and earnestness consistently interrogate and catalyze one another. Between these qualities lies a transformative capacity not unlike that of Wallace Stevens’ guitarist, who is asked to play “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.” Consider Meier’s poem “Lisa’s Story” quoted here in full:
The horse lets you see
the hole in its side where it’s snowing
and the cart goes free.
There is a tenderness here that strips the hobby from the hobbyhorse, offering instead an instant of liberation, tinged by loss.
In a less charitable light, many of the poems can seem like Oulipian lists of obligatory references, as in the abecedarian “Doing Things” which moves from Lady Chatterley, to Zarathustra, then down the Karl-Marx-Allee, to end with “Zeno and his crate of halves.” “Doing Things” is only one of three name-laden acrostics which employ a technique suggesting that poetry is a recombination of historic influences akin to language’s relationship to the alphabet. The paradox becomes how to recognize the speaker’s unique perspective in the babble of “everyone’s” language. An underlying problem is that these poems mainly respond to a canon, the canon, what Eliot once called “the whole of European literature from Homer” (meaning first and foremost, the venerable dead white guys). Yet, if the book at times makes one want to crawl out from the weight of its references, it also fosters a deep awareness of things handed down to us.
Toward the end of “To Jane: the Keen Stars Were Twinkling,” Shelley addresses the weight of poetry, the cacophony of information in one’s time, as well as our personal sadness. “Though the sound overpowers,” he implores Jane to, “Sing again…” In this second collection, Richard Meier plays the strings of tradition to create a music as much ours as it is recursively, and recognizably, his own.