The world stripped of false sentiment


Ira Sadoff's fierce view of history and nature is, in a way, anti-poetic

April 06, 2003|By Michael Collier | Michael Collier,Special to the Sun

In his poem "On the Day of Nixon's Funeral," Ira Sadoff looks out his window to "cheer the remaining cedars / that require swampy habitats to survive," but the memory of Nixon and "his pal Kissinger, / who bombed the lush green paddies of Cambodia" interferes with his attempt to create "lyric" moments that might displace the disgust he feels for the "amnesiacs" who "play Beethoven's Eroica by Nixon's casket."

This kind of unwavering stance is characteristic of Sadoff, who has been writing fierce and direct poems for more than 30 years, poems that counter the notion that American poets mostly sleepwalk through history. His poem about the former president's funeral refuses to make nice with the dead and is typical of the rigorous way Sadoff regards the past.

Sadoff, Dana Professor of Poetry at Colby College in Maine, has been awarded Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships as well as the George Bogin Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Jerome J. Shestack Prize by the American Poetry Review for his poetry. He reads in Baltimore this month, which happens to be National Poetry Month.

In his most recent book, Barter (University of Illinois Press, 2003), Sadoff frequently cautions against the habit poets have of using the natural world to affirm human feeling, where bird song is equated with human song or the intricacies of plants and flowers are a reflection of human mystery. In "Honeymoon in Florence," he writes: "we're tired of trekking / through the mimetic woods to find some flower / to represent us, some psychic storm / to vanquish it."

In fact, Sadoff's clear and unsentimental response to experience might best be thought of as anti-poetic. The poem "Jazz" begins: "The slippery elms were statuesque, / one nice way of saying Ohio was a slag heap. / Most were stumps by the time I got there." Elms, statuesque and nice create an ironic contrast with slippery, slag heap and stumps. In this way he shows how the outlines of paradise can still be recognized in the devastation of the fallen world.

One of the many things I admire about Sadoff's poems is the fierce way they praise the world by exploring what he calls the "underneath" and "the shadow part" of existence. I also admire how they want to redefine art and experience by turning away from monumental notions of beauty and truth, as he does near the end of "Honeymoon in Florence": "Statues / die away at a very slow rate. Copperized monuments / are moldy with prattling, pecking sparrows."

In the end, Sadoff claims that love saves us, but "privately." It's a love guarded from the world with its "want want want" (a phrase from another Sadoff poem, "In the Jewish Mystical Tradition") that threatens to degrade and cheapen its meaning.

* Ira Sadoff will read from his work at Loyola College's McManus Theatre on Mon-day, April 14, at 5 p.m., as part of the Modern Masters Writers Series. The reading is free and open to the public. Call 410-617-2528.

Honeymoon in Florence

by Ira Sadoff

As they putty up their frescos,

as they scrape and file, the artisans of Florence

think this church in the Year of Our Lord,

think nature is nature, they think the olive

is an olive. They think the sentence

is an unshamed body part. The sentence

"buried in rubble" does not expect

sex trauma, stretch marks, chest scars,

the quick cut of collage, salutes

to the fractional, where I come from.

In the past we had blue cedars and country roads

with full-throated thrushes

laying down a sound track of pure sentiment.

From here you can see the olive groves of Tuscany,

where a statue can replace a worry,

and idiot savants hold out their arms

as if to receive an angel. What they rescued

was a fallen plaster crucifix

the year opening the door gave me vertigo,

and close friends were coughing away their cancers.

Something about me knocks keys off the vanity,

shouts from our hotel balcony: we're tired of trekking

through the mimetic woods to find some flower

to represent us, some psychic storm

to vanquish it. Underneath, in the shadow part,

the Tiepolos are swirling toward heaven

like a backwards flush of the toilet. Statues

die away at a very slow rate. Copperized monuments

are moldy with prattling pecking sparrows.

Oh, I've been saved by love, but privately.

"Honeymoon in Florence" from Barter: Poems by Ira Sadoff. Reprinted with permission of theUniversity of Illinois Press and the poet.

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