Eric Hoffman

A review of Paul Pines' New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros
Dos Madres Press,
2013, 92 pp., $16.00

Prolific poet Paul Pines has seemingly entered the late career status of poetic master. In his previous collection of verse, the sublime Divine Madness (Marsh Hawk Press, 2011), Pines arguably perfected his voice and consortium of themes, devices and lexicon into a constellation of thematically linked yet poetically diverse meditations on the interweavings of history, mythology and the human psyche. While not consistently the cohesive masterpiece that is Divine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros continues Pines’ refining of his remarkably singular voice, and, indeed, includes some of his finest poems.

As the title of this collection indicates, these are poems of place built around two cities, Paris and New Orleans, each culturally rich and historically significant, entirely distinct and separate and yet interconnected by a shared cultural past. A Jungian psychiatrist by trade, Pines’ imagination is excited by the unanticipated cultural frisson experienced by shared mythologies; how specific symbols, modes of behavior and cultural mappings can leap the boundaries of time and place, and how specific echoes can arise in wholly separate spheres of human experience.

Unlike Madness, a profoundly serious investigation of the philosophical and moral underpinnings of poetry throughout human history, there is imaginativeness, playfulness and energy on display here, reminiscent of the best poems of Ed Dorn or the fiction of Barry Gifford; Pines is willing to deflate the potential pretension or preciousness of his chosen theme. In utilizing this playfulness, Pines evokes the carnivalesque character of New Orleans, its festiveness, its color, its rich variety of ethnicities reflected in its architecture, music and food. Pines populates his poems with colorful denizens and their sometimes absurdly surreal surroundings. At the same time, there is an elegiac tone, which suggests the city’s seedy underbelly, its tragedy and desperation, the poverty that often translates into celebration, and a need for psychic release:
Justine Malle regards Christoph

her husband who smiles sadly
because he has recently been bitten

by the buckmoth, a caterpillar
native to New Orleans

and is still on pain killers
and no one knows

if this species turns
into a butterfly at the end

of its poisonous development
or remembers “Pretty Baby”
                                              (“Pretty Baby”)

Henri ushers us
into his rooms

on Gov. Nicholls
one of which

he calls
The Popearium

behind a painted
Victorian screen

displaying figures
in various acts

of “grasping and
groping” are

heraldic Mitres

garments busts
on pedestals

above it all
framed portraits

of robed Pontiffs
gaze down at us

                                              (“Mr. Mardi-Gras Unveils His ‘Popearium’”)

The three-part poem “Hello from Nola” is an uproarious and eminently readable highlight, in which the speaker recounts his experience dressing as Jesus for the Mardi Gras festival, and is mistaken for everyone from a rabbi to Bacchus to Moses. It is also an evocative portrait of the famous parade and its inebriate, decadent participants. Yet perhaps most notable among the New Orleans poems is the short ekphrastic “Whistler’s Blue/A Nocturne,” inspired by Whistler’s series of paintings entitled Nocturnes, which pursue a specific aesthetic purpose rooted in tone, shape and the suggestion of forms through a veil of darkness, by moonlight:

If a man appears alone
on a bridge

on a snowy evening
walking toward

a series of lights
in a row of windows

he doesn’t necessarily
have a future

or a past he is simply
a point on the grid

part of a composition
that tell us

what it is
while implying it is

more than it says
we follow him

into the night
because of the blue

we want to know
from whence

he’s come and where
he’s going

because the blue

everything but is
thin as air

because it’s everywhere
like the nerves

of an acrobat
in pain

and we can hear it
asking us

to shed our skins
and follow

To my mind, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros’ most profound – and eloquently lineated – can be found in the poem “Field from Which Form Arises” (whose title echoes the poetics of Olson and Creeley):
The Venerable Bede
likened the trajectory

of a life to a bird
that flies in through

one window
and out another but

what might be
the foundation of

such a house?
The mind is an idea

known only to itself
which we unreason

in the name of reason.
                                              (“Field from Which Form Arises”)

The Paris section “Paris Ouroboros,” is tonally distinct from the poems set in New Orleans. Here, Pines’ language takes on a shape and weight that is decidedly more solemn. From the inaugural poem, “Voyage,” it is clear that in these poems Pines is seeking out correspondences between present day Paris and this ancient European city’s considerable history. In Paris, Pines finds everywhere echoes of a distant (and not so distant) past (Pines provides a practical catalogue of these echoes in the poem “From Paul’s Place”). Looking into the present, Pines desires to see reflections of the Paris he has come to know via its cultural resonances:
Guilliame Apollinaire
stares from a poster
on the walls
                WWI uniform
                bandaged head
                lungs full of
                mustard gas
the soul of his time
into mine

History crowds this city, in its architecture, but also in the lives of its denizens, as in “Mathilde Comes Home for Lunch”:
Her father Roland points out
the French threw Tom Paine

in the Bastille for objecting
to the wholesale execution

of aristocrats but mark the spot
with a sliver plaque where

Hemingway drank himself silly
at La Closerie de Lilas

Americans in Paris are always
lost (he says) but no worse

than Germans or Spaniards
Once a group from Munich

asked him where he’d learned
to speak their tongue so well

to which Roland replied
                                              (“Mathilde Comes Home for Lunch”)

Pines’ speaker feels the force of history even in a life consisting primarily of a kind of existential contemporaneity:
More and more my life

feels like time at sea
with no land in sight

my consciousness
a ship on its way to

no particular

a kind
of immortality

inside a silent friend

Here, Pines expertly arrests the fleeting elusiveness of life, sets down in lines that which breezes so fleetingly from the everyday. In the third section of the poem “Triptych” Pines gives us these lines, and I think them an excellent summary of the gesture everywhere on display here:
I understand
the Museum as a record
of that which is uniquely seen
by one
                               in what
                               is common to all

each of us a world
that is born and dies
                the sum
of every birth
and death . . .

                even so

                               my morning-star
                               is not
                               your morning-star

and neither exists
as an object
in space
                                              (“Leaving the Musee D’Orsay”)

Pines’ book consists of eminently readable, yet penetrative and subtle, poems, which range over the gamut of human experience, from the momentous to the mundane, from the joyous to the tragic. Each line is skillfully rendered, and carefully exact. They provide a new measure with which to approach this arresting, substantial body of work.

Eric Hoffman is the author of eleven books of poetry, the most recent being By the Hours: Selected Poems, Early and Uncollected (Dos Madres, 2013). Oppen: A Narrative, a critical biography of George Oppen, was published this past October by Shearsman. In 2009, he edited a George Oppen centennial festschrift, All This Strangness: A Garland for George Oppen. Poetry and prose have appeared in Jacket2, Talisman, Rain Taxi, Reconfigurations, Moria, BlazeVOX, Galatea Resurrects, Listenlight, E-Ratio, Otoliths, Smartish Pace, Rattle, Cultural Society and Big Bridge, among many others.
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