Axon

The travelling monostich

From Michelangelo in Rome to the Leper Colony in Carville, Louisiana—a paper on my writing practice

 

This paper argues that form, particularly the monostich, usually considered part of the conscious aspect of the writing process, is actually an expression of the unconscious. To illustrate, three kinds of ekphrastic poetry, the ‘denotational’, the ‘connotational’ and the ‘associative’ are defined and exemplified by the author’s own poems about Michelangelo’s sculpture. Further illustration of the effects of form in opening new directions in this poet’s work is offered through several poems from his latest project Aftermaths: Louisiana after Katrina and the oil spill.

Keywords: writing process—monostich—ekphrastic poetry—Rome—Michelangelo—Louisiana poetry—documentary poetics—Carville Leper Colony

 

While in Rome last summer, I had a sudden realisation walking through the historic sites of this ancient city. I was not going to write the poems I had received a grant to write. My grant proposal had promised a three-part ekphrasitic book with poem-responses to works by Rembrandt, Rodin and Michelangelo. Earlier trips to Amsterdam and Paris had seen me seated in front of works by my artists, writing a singular poem for a singular painting or piece of sculpture. I still wanted to write poems, but now I wanted to write—well, I didn’t know what I wanted to write. Maybe the influence of the Colosseum, where we can see only part of its former self, or maybe the armless, headless statues in the Vatican Museum, led me to what changed the way I wrote: I began writing one-liners in my notebook. Here are a few of them.


I live inside the light I’ve never seen.
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Then you go on, enter light entirely.
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Never to find the word for the unseen.
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There’s no such man as Michelangelo.
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I know: Michelangelo imagined.
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What was happening? My new writing process was eliminating the necessity to recreate the object seen. I had begun in graduate school writing ‘denotational’ ekphrastic poems: reproducing the object, at first believing I had to bring the represented painting or sculpture to my readers’ eyes, even if that meant rather tediously ‘describing’ it. Over the years I discovered that one cannot make the reader ‘see’ a colour merely by giving its known name; one must find a verbal correlative in imagery. Gradually I was beginning to write ‘connotational’ poems, taking off from the seen object but still maintaining contact with it at definite points of reference.

Finally, with my poems in Rome, I was writing poems using the painting or sculpture as a launching pad for associations in imagery which created a world of their own. In time I have come to call this ‘associational ekphrasis’. The writing process also had forced each one-liner to be a poem in its own right. Poems were coming out as pentameter, and I decided to impose this stricture on my writing as I continued.
 

If you would love a moment of your life.
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Star-hewn: the Michelangelo poems.
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Relentless pentameter, insisting.
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Why can’t I draw, paint, sculpt, just write these poems?
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Sometimes the moment is too beautiful.
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First light in Rome, this morning when you wake.
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A series. Incomplete epiphanies.
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Now, with the freedom of the white page as never before, I could write complete, longer poems more rhetorically, even discursively, with only occasional glances at the object. In place of pentameter, this poem uses five syllable syllabics.


MICHELANGELO’S ‘DAVID’

Because the soul stands in us
hungry for replenishment
we have the world to enter—
those others we can speak to,

men, women, children, beasts, birds,
wind, trees and constellations
answering hungers, partial.

Going out to find myself
never ends in solitude
when I enter a statue.
This is how we, too, might stand,
the muscled air, chest, arms, legs
flexing atmosphere of flesh
aspiring defiance.

Something else had happened as a result of the monostich. I had a new fluidity to encounter subject matter from multiple angles, as if I were walking around the statues and, as a result, could write different versions of the same subject. Monostich had enabled me to break up the ‘stone’ of my poetic conceptions: I had previously thought one-subject/one-poem. Here are two versions of Michelangelo’s famous ‘Pieta’, the statue he finished at age 25 and which brought him his first fame. My first draft of the first stanza poem had begun:
 

MICHELANGELO, ‘PIETA’

I don’t dare to be this God. I have mine
in morning light, in everything I see,
days I live, surrendered to that presence
I see as cloudlessness, a radiance,
a sky I keep inside for other days
when I need to open myself and then let go.


No, no, no, no, no! The stanza was redundant. Writing the monostich, entering the state of mind in which one thinks in abbreviation and living in a city of broken statuary for a week, let me see this. The revised poem begins this way:
 

The habitations of a quiet mind
escape us unless we stay very still,
still as statues a few minutes—one, two.
That’s the duration of concentration.

Mary, dead Christ in her lap: he’s all flesh.
We’re all mother while we’re watching him.
We never wanted to give birth for this.

When I can’t find him, I can remember,
can’t I, the moments I was his mother,
a statue I can turn to in my mind.


Consider next the same subject done—again—in syllabic fives. Why this form? The brevity, economy, and regularity of the monostich had a great deal to do with my returning to the form. Working with it has always felt like chiselling—the closest I can come to being a sculptor. It’s wonderful that ‘Michelangelo’ is itself a five-syllable word, isn’t it?
 

MICHELANGELO, ‘PIETA’

Michelangelo—
they appear doubles,
mother, son, one death.

Mary, suffering
his death till her own:
Why did I bear him?

Christ, his body bent,
broken on her lap,
stretches beyond pain.

But she looks through us:
You who have come from
where the living live,
how can I bear this?

Where can this be mine?
 

Whereas I had previously thought of the lyric as expression of a singular voice, I now found that I was writing a sonnet with two voices: the speaker’s and Mary’s. I had broken up my conception of poetry with a monostich chisel.

On my return from Rome, I was informed that I had received an ATLAS grant from the state of Louisiana which, in combination with a sabbatical, would give me a year off from teaching. My avowed project was to write an epic poem about Louisiana after Katrina and the oil spill. What was I going to do? I was in the confusion of discovery. Why else write—unless to make a discovery?

I returned to the monostich, my poems being about Louisiana indirectly but more directly about the speaker articulating ‘his moments of being’ as he journeyed. In the back of my mind was Williams’ Paterson, one of my favourite place-poems, and CD Wright’s Deep Step Come Shining, a model for the kind of discontinuous journey poem I aspired to.
 

from Aftermaths: Louisiana after Katrina and the oil spill

A terrible new way to see the world
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My lens shattered, only the naked eye
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on naked properties, stripped to nothing
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teach me to sing about such voids and voids
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For the first time, except when I was maybe 14 and thought poetry was cool because it didn’t have to have rules or grammar(!), I was writing without capitalization and punctuation.
 

The polis the southern city city light
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Sometimes the monostichs could be couplets or triplets:
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this is the last poem you will ever write
the page said continuing its writing
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All of the stars I’ve lost inside my eyes
all of the stars I’ve lost inside their scars
all of the stars I’ve  lost defining stars
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Then back to the monostich and pentameter:

This is Louisiana, write it now.
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I’ll sing about the spirit of the place.
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I will not write the single lyric poem.
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When I wrote this last pentameter monostich, I knew I was in new territory, not just in subject matter but beyond the bounds of form and rhythm in any poetry I had ever written. I was free. But in what way I didn’t know. I wanted to write poems about social realities like Muriel Rukeyser; I wanted to do historical research at the Historic New Orleans Collection and in research libraries. To my surprise, the research poems came out as sonnets, but sonnets looser still than nonce sonnets. They might have been close to 14 lines, but they felt no compulsion to conform to traditional stanza forms. I think my two-voiced Michelangelo poems prepared for this poem:
 

SONNET

Begin: here’s Robert Cavalier de La Salle.

Why does this man from a wealthy family
leave Rouen to become a fur trader
in Canada, then claiming the Gulf his,
look out across that silver-gold like me,
then find enough God to plant his own cross,
naming our state for Louis The Fourteenth.

Mind you, the Indians became his friends.
He learned their language, smoked pipes with them.
His own men murdered him. Reasons unknown.

I’ve brought the Gulf into this writing room.
I close my eyes.
                        The room starts to expand.
This is how imagination starts—
and after this, the mind can colonise—


I used my grant money to make road trips. This next poem came out of one such venture. I am still employing one of my armatures from the monostich—pentameter. But I have discovered a way to write a dialogical poem, this time borrowing material from a real person I had talked to. By way of explanation: There is a route in Louisiana called ‘Cancer Alley’ that is entirely composed of oil refineries. The cancer rate in towns along this route is 20 times the national average, and most of the citizens are African-Americans. WFMT is a radio station in New Orleans.
 

DOCUMENTARY POETICS: DRIVING LOUISIANA

This is the road into St. Gabriel,
Cancer Corridor of the USA.
Take I-10 West from Baton Rouge, then turn,
then US 30 west, you’ll be there soon.

The air they’ve set on fire will come to you.
At every side these grey refineries
set in intended rice and cotton fields
rise up like parts from my erector set
I set up to make cities for my cars.

I’m starting to breathe in model car glue
I stuck between pieces of model cars,
I’m gagging as I stick, my nose, my ears,
I’m doubling up. The glue is one with wind,
white fire, blinding. I drive. I have to drive.

The cancer death here twenty times the average
if you need facts. I can’t see past this air …
I-have-to-stop-for-lunch, the only car
among trucks at a restaurant gas station
which sports a dark casino in the back.

‘The poor blacks working the refineries
suffer the cancer most.’ WFMT.
Over my gumbo, jukebox on high
everyone white in workmen’s uniforms,
I quiz the waitress. ‘My daddy-father died
at sixty, working all his life in them plants.’
‘And the black people?’ (She might have preferred ‘negroes.’)

‘They don’t have what it takes to work!
Have you seen one?’ ‘No.’ ‘You won’t see none, either.
They’re back there in the woods. They won’t come out.’

 

My immediate response in my writing notebook was more monostichs.
 

‘And no white is so white as the memory of whiteness.’—William Carlos Williams
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‘And no black is so black as the memory of blackness.’—Peter Cooley
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Then couplets:

What color is: invisibility?
And what race is invisibility?
 

Once I set out in the car, I realised there were places in Louisiana I had always wanted to visit but did not feel ‘belonged to me’. Since I was shedding my preconceptions about form and subject matter at a rapid rate, it was time to visit Carville, the last surviving leper colony in the western world. After my visit to Italy, I was unconsciously drawn to the cemetery of the leper colony where the gravestones were like Roman statues. My conception of narration opened up. I could write from three points of view: the speaker, the guide and, with the dead lepers, a choric voice.
 

CARVILLE LEPER COLONY, CARVILLE, LOUISIANA, THE CEMETERY

Their gravestones stand, monotonous white waves
washed up to wash in place, and then wash back,
always maintaining anonymity.

My guide says residents could take new names
committed to the leprosarium.
But if they’d chosen to keep their birth name
dying they would be given another one.
They could be someone else eternally.

The wind picks at the sleeve of my right arm, pulls cold
around my body. The sky knows its place,
its burden, to remind me who I am,
a man alive! A man who loves naming!

That’s not much of a moral to draw from this,
is it? The white stones crest and break, break, crest.
Late afternoon. It’s high tide for the dead.

And now, the waves stand still. I hear voices –
voices not the wind. They won’t stop singing:
we’d trade eternity for our birth names,

for—even—our—last names—eternity.


Where will these experiments lead me? I had never guessed that Roman ruins would be inspiration for me to write one-line poems that would open up my writing! In my future, I see myself writing a more fluid free verse poetry though in my longer poems—perhaps with sections in variations of received forms. I have certainly not created an ‘epic’ with my Aftermaths Katrina-oil spill project as I promised in my grant application. I have written a poem that so far has no beginning and no end. It is about the state of Louisiana; it is about a made-up character ‘I’; it is about the act of writing poetry. It is propelling me forward, through new discoveries every day as I write. What more could one ask?

 

 

About the author

  • Peter Cooley

Peter Cooley was born in Detroit and graduated from Shimer College, University of Chicago and the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Since 1975 he has lived in New Orleans where he teaches at Tulane University. The author of eight books of poetry, the most recent of which is Divine margins, he recently received an Atlas grant from the state of Louisiana and is the recent winner of the Marble Faun Poetry Prize from the Faulkner Society in New Orleans.