Neighbor and Saber

The February 2013 issue of the Believer features a wonderful new poem by the Indiana-based poet George David Clark. We recently demanded that Clark describe the process behind the poem’s composition; his response follows. (But first: Listen to Clark read “Safari.”)

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Have you heard the one where the poet Richard Wilbur visits a university to give a reading? The school’s tenured authors—I imagine them in turtlenecks and blazers—take him out for dinner at the town’s finest restaurant. They’re a rather gloomy group and for the most part the conversation is limited to politics and literary gossip. Wilbur’s immune to it, though. In fact, he seems much more interested in the meal than he is in his hosts. As the plates are cleared he pushes back from the table and just smiles into space. At this point the department chair has finally had enough and asks him, point-blank, what’s wrong. Wilbur pauses. Then, almost as though he’s letting the group in on some kind of conspiracy, he leans in and says, “Friends, I’ve had the most wonderful afternoon. Today I rhymed neighbor with saber.”

I like that little anecdote as a picture of how distractingly exciting, even to the point of self-indulgence, it can be to feel that you’re on to something meaty at the beginning of a poem. You eat loudly, you’re rude. William Matthews described it something like the aura that precedes a headache, only pleasurable. The point is that body is involved. You feel as though you can’t help yourself and wouldn’t if you could. My poem, “Safari,” began with that kind of pleasure. I was playing around with sounds for another poem-in-progress and the first stanza clicked into place with a rhyme on flamingo and ginkgo.

By the time my speaker showed up in the second stanza, I recognized his voice. Though I don’t call him by name, I was already thinking of him as some incarnation of the prodigal son: young and wealthy and extravagant without much in the way of sophistication or self-awareness. Of course, one dangerous thing about writing a poem on the prodigal son is that there’s such a rich tradition on the subject. Shakespeare, Donne, and Rilke all tackled it, and more recently W.S. Merwin, Theodore Roethke, and Elizabeth Bishop each have excellent prodigals. For that matter, how can you compete with the original story in the words of Christ?

Some of my favorite prodigal poems radically revise the narrative. Kipling’s prodigal returns home only to decide he was better off with the hogs. And in Steven Kowit’s poem the good older brother, seeing the wastrel welcomed with a celebration that is rightly his, decides to rob the revelers blind and make off for the capital to enjoy the lavish life himself. The best though, has got to be Elizabeth Bishop’s. She neither alters the story nor simply retells it. Instead, her poem dramatizes a moment the Biblical text elides. In her version the prodigal still has a bottle stashed behind some two-by-fours in the pig sty, and our interest is focused on the way he fights to delay repentance. It’s not enough to wallow a few nights in the filth. Her prodigal thinks “he almost might endure / his exile yet another year or more.”

I locate my poem somewhat earlier, in that space glossed over by Luke 15:13 which tells us the prodigal “set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in riotous living.” As the poem developed I wanted to slow down the speaker’s profligacy. And of course it’s an awful lot of fun to write debauchery and excess. So I gave him a fetish and I let him try to run with it.

My prodigal seems to be looking back on this portion of his story, but as I hope is clear in his language—the way he relishes the extravagance of certain words, certain sounds—he’s not yet shamed by much. Quite the opposite: he’s singing about it. If he recognizes how total license has transformed him, that perspective is limited by self-love. So to return to my (likely apocryphal) Wilbur story, the prodigal is a speaker so enamored by the music of his own voice, by his personal myth-making, that he is nearly oblivious to the behavior he’s describing.

I think I’m guilty of that myself. And perhaps that’s partly why I’m interested in this young man: his excesses are obvious, but they fail to shock him. Maybe he’s rather American that way. At the pinnacle of hedonism, he dehumanizes himself and those around him.

In an early draft of the poem, my prodigal simply ran out of money and was forced to sell everything, including his normal clothes, to indulge the fantasy of the brothel’s costumes. At the end he was left with only what the pawn shops wouldn’t take.  A friend of mine pointed out that that version of the story misses the damage this speaker inflicts on others. It lets him and his city off too easily, so I rewrote the closing stanzas determined to twist his fetish into as painful a shape as possible, to take him from the jungle to the slaughterhouse.

Like Bishop’s poem, “Safari” ends before repentance and redemption. How far before, I don’t know. I suspect the prodigal gets away with the murders he rhymes.

—George David Clark