For the past several weeks, I have struggled to write about Eric Basso’s poetry. At first, I thought it would be a simple affair, comparing the imagery found within his six collections to his prose and drama output, noting how he carefully constructs elaborate narratives with just a few well-chosen words. Yet after beginning a draft several weeks ago, I found myself stuck, unable to get around this nearly inexplicable barrier that barred me from delving to the heart of the matter. While I tried to reason out what it was that I was reacting to, whatever progress I had made at the time toward exploring Basso’s poetry was erased. Ultimately, after my earlier draft and much thought, I have this sense that Basso’s poetry lies at the heart of his weird fictions. When I read The Beak Doctor — both the collection and the eponymous novella — I noticed that Basso uses metaphor and description to describe wonder and alienation. In his poetry collections, beginning with Accidental Monsters (1976), these emotional states are laid bare, bereft of any narrative “cover”; what we are left with is raw expression of these emotions.
This is not to say that Accidental Monsters or his latest collection, Earthworks (1995−2006), cover the same thematic grounds in the same way. Rather, each collection reveals changes in approach. Accidental Monsters, for example, would at first glance be the most “experimental” of the six collections, as Basso here utilizes the physical structure of the poems to convey a sense of separation, with the poem “Resaltz” cited below as an example:
Here, it is the form that matters more than the words alone. There is a sense of strangeness, of wondering about the sleeping gorilla, the man lying in a bathtub full of shaved ice, and the odd ditty being sung, but the weirdness here and in several other of the poems in this collection are confined to external affairs. It is the internal world of conflicting desire and repulsion, of acceptance and alienation, that awaits further exploration.
The Catwalk Watch, Basso’s second collection (1977−1979), delves further into the interior mindscape. While grotesque and odd beings do populate some of the poems here, they are not quite as prominent as they are in Accidental Monsters. There is the sense that the characters in these poems are “caught in a moment,” exploring just what it is about their lives of ritual and custom that have increasingly lost rhyme, reason, or meaning to them. In “LXXII”, as survivors of some unspoken event gather together:
the survivors met at a beer-stained table
under Japanese engravings that hung
in the dark of the tavern
their barman had died during
the long years of the search –
some wondered why
they had ever bothered to return
Basso here is more direct, both with the imagery and with what troubles these survivors. We get descriptions of their gathering place, with the details providing a sense of refinement colliding with a dark, rough décor. Their barman (perhaps their accustomed host?) has somehow perished, with a mystery hinted at with the reference to “the long years of the search,” but what is striking is that lingering question: Why did they bother to return after that?
In The Smoking Mirror (1980−1986), Basso continues to refine this question of why we do the things we do, in a world that is often bitter for us and indifferent to our longing for something different. In “Confusion,” we encounter a woman switching her identity, to the point where her husband, after a rather boorish approach to dining, responds thusly:
and asked her name – he looked her
straight in the face and said
what does this mean? Who are you?
what’s coming off here? It rained and
he pretended not to know her in the rain
to give them both an hour’s grace to think
of her name: the name he too had forgotten
Basso revisits this lack of recognition of what is changing in “Love and the Worm,” where the narrator reveals his growing blindness to the subject of his ruminations, with colorful description contrasting with this obliviousness:
hair three shades from gold to dun
Glüm Jupiter and Omega: he’s blind
to smell you there and speculate on
which is which – three mutes he chooses one
waiting to regret a voice he’d loved and forgotten
blind as the worm
These two poems in particular point the way toward the direction Basso takes in his fourth collection, Catafalques (1987−1989). Here the images of blindness and alienation become even more intimate, more visceral in a way that is discomfiting. Yet this is not to say that Basso eschews symbolic passages that reference shared cultural heritage. In “Villa of the Mysteries,” he combines them to create a very unsettling affect. Below are a few relevant stanzas taken from the middle and end of this poem:
dream of the monster Blindness
that creeps through the pillared halls
stops for the echo of its breath off the walls
to tell the distance it has yet to cross
to find the bleeding core of the Villa
and wipe death’s glaze from its eyelids
Tiresias in rags sifting the volcanic ash
for buried centaurs found a hoof
tugged at the desiccated fetlock
till a flank emerged and the face
came up black its eyes the sightless rubies
he could touch but never see the blindness of
this is not mine but the dream of another
who has never seen my face or heard my voice
but whom the womb separated before birth
when I too was breathing water and mist
gilled for an eternity in the grotto where no sound
could reach him untranslated by these liquid depths.
Throughout “Villa of the Mysteries,” references to “dreams” and “blindness” abound. There are references to dreams that foretell horror and doom, dreams of separation. Blindness lurks in the dark caverns, in the personified monster, in fates that are unseen by others. Both are bound together in the person of Tiresias, whose own fate figures in several Greek poems and myths. “Villa of the Mysteries” grabs attention quickly because it cuts straight to the heart of the matter: we often enter labyrinths that confuse us, upset us, and make us turn our heads away in shame and eagerness to forget what we have just encountered. Yet there is the sense of something looming over us, or lurking just out of sight and hearing, that may be waiting to engulf us, to envelop us again with a cloak of unease. This certainly does not make for easy reading, especially when dealing with issues of loss and grief.
Now to Ghost Light (1990−1994), which is where I began to struggle to re-read these poems. When I first encountered them in June 2011, I thought they were good expressions of how the narrators grieve and perceive absence around them. It was much more difficult trying to re-read them seven months later, two months after the death of my maternal grandmother, with whom I was very close (she is the one who shaped my love of poetry and speculative fictions). I could see in these poems, and in the following collection, Earthworks, strong echoes of my own emotional state as I dealt with the aftermath of her funeral, receiving several books and magazines (and one of her bookcases, made by my deceased grandfather) and watching as my mother stoically forged on from this latest grief (the first being the initial diagnosis of my grandmother’s dementia five years prior). What Basso describes in these two collections resembles elements of what my family has experienced that proved too traumatic to put in words for several weeks. Perhaps it is best just to quote a few relevant passages to clarify this. Take for instance Ghost Light’s “Ice Fields”:
if I could inch it forward
without choking on my own air
like all the others here
less left of me
to make these words
you will never read
For me, this captures a sense I felt (and still feel, to an extent, although it is fading) that there is something suffocating about being alone in times of separation. It is very difficult to describe in prose how keenly one feels the absence of a loved one who will never return, how that person may feel as though he or she is lost unto themselves, that words can never be enough. If others were around, how could they understand the words that would be spoken through this grief?
In this light, it is understandable why there were several years (1998−2003) during which Basso wrote no poetry. It was too painful to contemplate putting in words what he was feeling after he, in a role similar to my mother’s, acted as the caretaker for his mother as she slowly died. Before her death, he wrote this haunting poem, “Moment,” that directly references this:
It must be the Champs Élysées
I told my mother
and wanted to walk into
that tall alley of darkness
before I could take a step
mother’s bell rang in
the sickroom and woke me
In this I heard the echo of my mother receiving phone calls from other relatives asking if she could watch over her (my aunts and one of my cousins were also caretakers during day/night shifts for most of the three years before her death). The world outside, similar to how Basso describes it in the poetry during this period, was cold, dark, indifferent to the sacrifices being made. Watching from a slight remove (which itself was a source of consternation later), I felt something akin to what Basso describes in “Found Objects”:
a border of black spitting snow
the last thing you see
before losing consciousness
a darkness that has no meaning
followed by disintegrating outlines
of leaves or a path beside
a crumbling house.
It is here in Earthworks where the culminated force of the themes previously explored in Basso’s previous collection is felt most. The more abstract and distant motifs from Accidental Monsters are crystallized into much more intimate, direct expressions of grief, alienation, and confusion over the strangeness that exists when the personal meets the global. The weird manifests itself in smaller, more intimate moments, such as in “Meanwhile” when the protagonist stares into a mirror. He does not experience a Borges-like moment of timelessness; instead, he wonders whether he should comb his hair before he returns to his bed, which he reluctantly sleeps on because it is the bed of his conception. There is something strange about life itself, Basso hints here, how we go through it, try to live it, and yet ultimately our experiences of life cannot be distilled into something that we can truly comprehend.
Perhaps that is precisely the point of his poetry. We exist in a world that does not care how we try to quantify it; it is oblivious to our machinations and attempts to rationalize how we relate ourselves to it. The symbols embedded in several of his poems show a careful poet who explores (before often exploding) how we have throughout the centuries tried to understand the mysteries that surround us. Why do we exist? What meanings can be derived from what we experience? Sometimes, the answers to those questions startle us, unseat us from our seemingly secure positions. This is where the weird exists in Basso’s writing, and whereas his prose contains elements of these explorations, it is in his poetry where the fullest expression of his search for understanding and the sometimes disturbing conclusions are reached. Basso’s poetry is often raw, emotional, and searing, and it rarely ever leaves the reader unaffected. It is the key to understanding his prose and dramas. What it unlocks may not be pleasant for some readers, but it certainly provokes and stimulates those who carefully consider those revelations. Few works achieve this effect in any medium and it is a testimony to Basso’s writing that he manages to move readers in each of the three original genres.