Aaron Poochigian. The Cosmic Purr. San Jose, CA: Able Muse Press, 2012. 59 pp. $16.95, paper.
Formal verse today often looks like the spoils of a hunt for the quirkiest subject matter. All the starchy rhyme and meter complement—it is supposed—the untamed subject like a tuxedo on a stand-up comic. And like the entertainment at an award ceremony, these poems mostly disappoint. By lending their zany tedium a finished sound, the form preserves them, sometimes long enough to get them lodged cozily in anthologies. And such tomes, one gathers, are mostly what they’re written for.
The poems in Aaron Poochigian’s The Cosmic Purr, though playful and formally skillful, are of another kind entirely. Poochigian takes little seriously, least of all himself, but his clowning has the dignity of bald despair. When his poems are silly, they’re silly in the way Kees’ were, or Auden’s. Here he is, shrugging consolation in “Reunion Show”:
The blasphemy we hurled
against the world
was out of season.
Now we have damned good reason
To smash things up like ruined men.
And here he lends some sweetness to a one-night stand in “After Bar”:
If the pad was a horror of crumbling plaster
the dimmer respectfully whisked it from sight,
and the windows were pictures some pointillist master
had stippled with infinite twinges of light.
With fewer than sixty pages of poems, The Cosmic Purr makes one wish more poets would spare us their seam-bursting volumes of corpulent blather. All he has to say Poochigian says briefly and well. His topics are varied, but the book is far from a miscellany. The poems speak mostly of marriage and birth and death and thoughts of these. And these are plenty, spoken as they are in a voice like a drunk starlet’s designated driver.
In “The Stage Designer,” as in many poems, the speaker accepts his peripheral role with a good humor that can’t laugh off his loneliness: “And off they drove back to their own routines / and I to mine, and life may well be better / without the drama, the big ugly scenes.” Poochigian’s lyrics have little of the dizzy solipsism so common among those who sing of losing love. The pathos in these poems is no less full for being mingled with self-mockery.
Poochigian is a classicist who has previously published many translations of old Greek poets. A few sharp fragments of Sappho appear in The Cosmic Purr, and he gives us a handful of other shards from myth and antiquity. The expectation one has when meeting Greek myth in contemporary poetry is of brassy deconstruction. Not here. Poochigian’s ancients breathe real air but remain what they are: noble, terrible, and coarse in ways no longer available to us. The speakers’ weary restraint in “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” conceals a bleakness one encounters seldom now, even among the irreligious. As the goddesses bicker over their prize, the mortal women take some small comfort:
But we the drab mothers, the wedding-planners,
stood aloof and shrugged at their bad manners.
The world turned upside-down: though bound for Hades,
we snubbed Heaven’s Empress and the fancy ladies.
Gods were like mortals, mortals like the gods—
we paid them back in condescending nods.
No answers, no solutions, only passing consolations fill these poems. Poochigian is willing to play the fool for a laugh, as in “Places, Places”: “What lines, what cues, what songs? They have equipped me / only with rapier and mustachios.” But there’s no forgetting what his pratfalls are diversions from.
Toward the end of the book, a longish poem called “Antiphon” strikes the ear as a warning, however wryly uttered. In this account, Antiphon is a poet, and his new work is titled, “Horribler, Horribler.” The jeremiad concludes, tremulously, with advice to “Be wise, my comrades, gird / your loins, dig trenches and expect the worst. / It’s late now, and there’s nothing we can do.” Funny as this is, it ought to send a shudder of embarrassment through anyone who’s penned a rant on modern culture. Poochigian knows well what such poetry has to say, but he knows even better how little it’s heard. “Antiphon” ends with a startling picture of joy:
And as the crowd went on by fits and starts
catcalling and extolling Antiphon
a goatherd and a flute-girl (two sweethearts
who never would be rich or mean much harm)
yawned in the face of stylized despair
and, slipping off behind his master’s farm,
lay in a hayloft and were happy there.
By giving up his seriousness, the poet approaches grace.
The poems that dip from lightness into pain do so with clarity. The two quatrains of “The Parlor” make their insistent rhyme in plain speech—unpretentious, unforgiving. No resolution is possible for mass murder, and Poochigian provides none: “Our women—raped not just by anyone. / We never called the couch an ottoman.” Though the event to which the poem refers is unmistakable, the perpetrators are not honored with a name. And names are the only lasting solace in this collection. Immortality through words is an old hope (my wife claims it’s the oldest) and the book’s epigraph is Sappho’s vindication: “I declare / that later on / even in an age unlike our own, / someone will remember who we are.” So we do.
The best poems in The Cosmic Purr look after their subjects with an old friend’s gentle irony. In “Death and the Matron,” the book’s last poem, an actress prolongs her death scene with Zenoic stamina: “God bless the lady—she will go down talking / as if each passage were the last, / a swan singing a filibuster.” Poochigian performs his tricks not for the applause but to keep the whole party going a little longer. To put off the night’s inevitable end. In this slim first collection, too many poems to name are enviably, sickeningly good, but among them is surely “The Vigil,” an elegy no sooner read than known by heart:
Because he was as hard to handle
as truth, which we equate to light,
go somewhere dark and light a candle
for Alan Sullivan tonight.