You Never Know

Aug 7, 2002 at 12:00 am

Is there a more insane and sublime poet than Ron Padgett writing in America today? I doubt it. When I’m elected president, I promise to name him to my cabinet as Secretary of Imagination. Because this youthful elder statesman of the New York School of Poetry (the headquarters of which floats in the air above Union Square Park — a translucent orb that you can often see shining on late afternoons) has never let the words “You can’t get there from here” pass his lips. In fact, he’ll often use an image to kick-start a poem, like this sequence from “Bluebird”:


You can’t expect
the milk to be delivered
to your house
by a bluebird
from the picture book
you looked at
at the age of four

That gives you no idea of its final destination:

Let him get
old on his own and
die like a real bluebird
that sat on a branch
in a book, turned his head
toward you, and radiated.


In other words, you can get anywhere from “here” (with Padgett as guide), no matter which life experience he might start from. Many a night, while his fellow creatures are snuggled and snoring warmly in their beds, Padgett toils on in his Greenwich Village garret, concocting weird potions of wisdom that are also word experiments of the most amazing dexterity and wit. In our reverie, he strikes a dashing but spiritual figure, sort of like Cary Grant playing a Buddhist monk in the role of Zeppo, the fourth Marx Brother. And all the while, waiting patiently in his kitchen are his poker buddies ready for a late night of it: Francis Picabia, Max Jacob and Lao-Tze.

Does this mean that Padgett’s poetry is too strange for us mere mortals, too hip for the cerebral ballroom? Not at all. So many of his poems shock us awake with lessons learned through deep caring and paying careful attention:



That was fast.
I mean life.


In this example, he politely amputates a traditional form for his own meaningful purposes. But Padgett often combines a fascination for the abstract beauty of pure forms (as in “A Rude Mechanical” where “blue faces fly/around in the air/and red and green stripes/crisscross the atmosphere”) with the most familiar of emotions: quiet sadness, wild goofiness and tender libido:


The Love Cook

Let me cook you some dinner.
Sit down and take off your shoes
and socks and in fact the rest
of your clothes, have a daiquiri,
turn on some music and dance
around the house, inside and out,
it’s night and the neighbors
are sleeping, those dolts, and
the stars are shining bright,
and I’ve got the burners lit
for you, you hungry thing.


You Never Know, Padgett’s latest collection, puts a friendly arm around the reader’s shoulders (something like the “Hug” he describes in a heart-rending prose poem of the same name) while taking her (or him) on a wonderful series of outings, out beyond the boundaries of common sense to places where images and feelings have their own existence. “There” they endure, because “here” we pass on and feel the difference acutely. Padgett touches that mortal contrast, that place where infinite longing meets the modest pleasures of life, in the most lyrical ways imaginable. He’s the feeling modernist of our time.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].