February 2000

Karen Pepper


need photo Karen Pepper lives in western Massachusetts.

The Daily Mirror
by David Lehman
Scribner, January 2000. 
160 pages. 

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The power of the present moment to distract the poet from his self-imposed discipline is great. The more vibrant the life or the more revved-up the surroundings, the more likely the poet is to be pulled away from the writing and toward what is happening right now. A conversation, a phone call, even a tune that persistently plays itself in the mind—all are mire, all potential quicksand into which the writing can be easily sucked, never to re-emerge. But what if one were to capture that vibrancy, incorporating its exuberant detail—even its seeming irrelevance—into the writing itself, so that the snippets of news and gossip, the weather, the music playing blankly in the background, come to constitute the very substance of which poetry is made? Poetry, in this case, might merge with experience, and the writing of it become an activity frequently indulged in, a manner of preparing oneself to meet the world in all its haphazard glory, a fitness of the mind, inde! ed, a desirable vice.

The Daily Mirror, David Lehman's latest book of poetry, demonstrates by its example the power and fecundity of this approach. Lehman wrote the poems included in this volume at the rate of approximately one a day over a period of several years. The poems were then selected and arranged so that the book spans a single year, starting with January 1 and ending with December 31, and each poem has a yearless date as its title.

The daily poem, as Lehman remarks in his introduction, "allows the poet to talk to the present...(obliging him) to be more attentive to his immediate surroundings... than he might otherwise be." This works in two directions. Just as the poet is more tuned to the moment, the moment seems to be more yielding than it would be had it not been so intently observed, so keenly lived. Because these poems are often occasioned by the sort of chance observation that life in the city so generously affords, there is little time between the experience itself and the writing of the poem. This sets up a current of intimacy that runs back and forth between the poem and the moment of life that it captures. And, as the poet keeps in mind throughout the day his promise to write the poem, experience becomes more poignant, enriched by the need to find in it, or to make of it, something worthy of the poetic page.

Revitalizing the tradition of the urban pastoral, The Daily Mirror picks up where Frank O'Hara left off, and the message is clear. Poetry is not happening elsewhere; it is here, in the daily panorama of our lives, "in the alley out the window" where the view of garbage is "incomparable" (from "April 9") or over lunch, where, "Except for the food this is / a great restaurant" ("February 5").

The Daily Mirror is filled with what are clearly real events and people in the poet's life. Specific names of places, musicians, writers, films and their stars serve as icons for the reader, conjuring a cultural segment, a decade, an ambience: "Jorie Graham is waiting / at the Knickerbocker ... she'll have a gin and tonic / I'll go for a Tanqueray martini" ("April 19"); "A book could be written / on the moment swing turned / into bop" ("May 12").

Throughout, the poet celebrates the joy of place, and the place is unmistakably New York,

... where the sky retains its blue
as darkness descends in the empire of light
on Thirteenth Street and First Avenue

"April 4"

Lehman's view of New York is sentimental, though self-consciously so:

hard as it is to live in
this city I'm still a sucker
for the lights of Amsterdam
Avenue the bright yellow of
taxis in snow

"June 1"

A general gratitude for being alive is closely linked to a specific gratitude for being alive in New York:

Fifty-two degrees light rain
and a thirty-minute delay at
the Midtown Tunnel I'm back
giving thanks

"May 16"

Or, again, in the Whitmanesque lines:

The bridges that make Manhattan an island
and Brooklyn part of another island
I sing
as Joe and I cross the Williamsburg bridge
on the way back from our tour of the Brooklyn Brewery

"November 10"

Many of the poems do not so much praise the New York landscape as incorporate its pulse:

Every minute is vital
I like looking at my watch
in the dark when there are still
thirty minutes before the first
blast of espresso breaks my thirst

"March 12"

Of cities I know New York
wins the paranoia award
the place you'd least like
to be stuck between floors
on a temperamental elevator
on 14th Street

"October 11"

The predominant tone of these poems is one of elation, an elation that comes most often from a deep appreciation of the small things that life presents to us, which may be enlarged if we accord them a particular attention.

... The cabs were
on strike on Broadway so beautiful
a necklace of yellow beads
I breathed in the fumes impossibly happy

"January 24"

am I happy I certainly am
as you would be, my friend, if
the Queen of Sheba returned your calls
as she does mine

"April 15"

Some of the poems remain sequestered within the moment they report. In others, Lehman pierces the surface that he perceives, pinning it to a personal memory or to history or, wonderfully, to both. In "March 5," for example, Lehman starts with a weather report, goes on to announce the murder of a deli owner, and then recalls a scene from early childhood; rather than end there, however, he leaps to a bomb that has gone off in Israel, thus associating the individual murder with a wide-flung net of terrorism that claims Jews as its victims. Here, as elsewhere in Lehman's poetry, time is a traveller's purse, a pouch of worn leather containing two currencies, memory and history; poetry, the string that draws it closed.

Thus, although the poetry is grounded in the whirlwind exterior of what presents itself to the senses, its sources are more complex. For example, historical events may be extracted from chronological time and interleaved with the present:

and the date on the front page changes daily
today is December 16, 1997 yesterday was
December 7, 1941 and tomorrow the treaty
will be signed in a railway car in Versailles

"December 16"

It is perhaps from dreams that Lehman derives his sense of the historical present: "there is no past in a dream / everything is happening now" ("April 3"). In the dreams that are reported in several of the poems, as well as in the drift and stutter of dream-time, which seems to be the setting for others, there is an odd sense of a history still happening:

the door opens but no one walks in
something brushes lightly against his skin
the professor is still talking
but the text has changed

"November 16"

The guy in the gangster suit with the violin case
said "I have something to give you," toothily grinning
It turned out to be an orange pharmaceutical vial
but it contained ashes instead of pills

"September 30"

The implicit message that The Daily Mirror sends forth is that happiness is attainable, but it is transitory. It is so fleeting, in fact, that if we are not keenly alert to it, not sufficiently receptive, we will miss it without knowing that it has come and gone. Happiness is feather-light, ephemeral, a dust that fails to settle. Yet, Lehman suggests, it can nevertheless be deeply experienced. The point is not to ignore its fleeting manifestations, the small kindnesses and gratitudes given and received. It is in the hesitancy with which this fragile thesis is set forth that the full charm of these poems lies:

& here comes a thin old man swaddled in scarves,
he must be seventy-five, walking slowly,
and in his mind there is a young man dancing,
maybe seventeen years old, on a June evening—
he is that young man, I can tell, watching him walk

"January 31"

Love is likewise assured, but likewise momentary, suspended in the present. In lines reminiscent of Paul Reverdy's poem, "Pour le moment" (particularly its final line, "C'est aujourd'hui que je vous aime"—It's today that I love you), Lehman writes:

... a winter storm is coming
midweek I'll worry about it later
for now the only storm I want
to think about is your golden hair

"March 17"

... but we're too busy
kissing to notice or care
failure is not a possibility
I like what's in your basket

"July 11"

The very mode in which these poems were written parallels the thesis that Lehman tentatively proposes. Writing a poem a day is a way of using the material that lies at hand, what the day really consists of; furthermore, the process elicits "a willingness to take chances... You may as well try anything," as Lehman writes in his introduction. Rather than scorn the small, the ordinary, the "everyday," Lehman delves into it, gleaning what there is to be had; in fact, redefining it, so that each day does provide cause for celebration, an occasion for poetry:

Some people confuse inspiration with lightning
not me I know it comes from the lungs and air
you breathe it in you breathe it out it circulates

"January 1"

Finally,The Daily Mirror brings to mind the many meanings of the word "fix": (1.) To tinker with something until it is made right; (2.) to become obsessed or fixated, or (3.) a quantity sufficient to keep one temporarily sated. Each of these meanings is explanatory of The Daily Mirror. The quickness, the alertness, the spur-of-the-moment, "try anything" approach of these poems represents a tinkering with our notion of what the poetic is, where its limits are drawn. And to write a poem a day must surely reflect a state of obsession! Lehman also fixes his attention (and that of his readers) on the immediate, perceivable world, without losing sight, however, of its continuity with what is dreamed, what is remembered. Finally, the "fix" that these poems provide is the enhancement of experience that comes by bringing desire into the same plane of focus as being.




Karen Pepper: Book Review
Copyright � 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 10The Cortland Review