What, no one here? No one
around here? No buffalo?
Like sleeping on the toilet bowl...
Drifting toward love...
The dogs are out this morning
jumping on top of each other
Is there a real release with them?
But, no one here.
There's no buffalo, only dogs,
this morning, where dawn
and a wild wild bird fly away.
She wanted to know my thoughts about this poem, and immediately I offered my surface impressions.
Recalling cold mornings in Chicago where I grew up -- and in fact remembering dogs, if not screwing, at least growling at each other in the icy street -- I placed the poem in winter (although there's nothing in it to indicate a season). Perhaps the white of the toilet bowl made me think of snow (and the fact that it was cold outside).
I also knew that Ceravolo lived in New Jersey, but was part of the New York poetry scene from the 60s through the 80s. So I sensed a touch of loneliness in it, as if Ceravolo, comparing NYC to Jersey, felt it to be rather desolate, with a touch a natural wildness to it.
I injected "wildness" into my reading because of the title and the mention of buffalo, but also because of something my Jersey friends have told me about the state: that just 100 miles outside NYC, you can still see bears and coyote (though they may have been pulling my Midwestern leg).
But what interests me, in retrospect, about this unremarkable 30 second interpretation was the paradoxical feeling state that came with it. Even though my reading of the poem was really about me -- assembled more from my personal memories and associations than anything Ceravolo had in mind -- I identified with him.
In fact, I felt I was actually inside his mind -- looking out through his eyes, seeing what he saw on that morning. And therein laid the enjoyment I derived from this poem: the experience of seeing things from the perspective of a poet I admired. (Perhaps a bit of his magic would rub off on me...)
And as I mentioned, all this happened in less than half a minute; my imagined projection into the poet's mind was automatic, instinctual -- I could not not do this.
This reaction brought to mind two books I've been reading that offer interpretations of literature informed by cognitive psychology. The first (covered in a previous post) is by Lisa Zunshine, titled Getting Inside Your Head. Zunshine argues that one of the pleasures literature offers is precisely this feeling that we're really seeing into the minds of others -- observing people's thoughts with a clarity we aren't granted in everyday life.
The second, a book about Shakespeare's Sonnets by Brian Boyd, connects this impulse to what he sees as the raison d'etre of the poetic lyric. As a form, lyric poetry makes us feel not only that we're reading a mind, but doing so in a particularly intimate way. It does this in part because, unlike other genres, it is not hampered by the necessity of telling a story. Stripped of narrative conventions, lyric poems seem to reveal bare thought itself.
Both of these writers argue that our desire to read minds is an evolved trait. As social and political animals, our survival depends upon accurately guessing the intentions of others. So when we're offered an insider's view, it delights us.
Being John Malkovich
The drive to dissolve the barrier between our mind and another's can, of course, get rather obsessive, as the many parodies of fan culture suggest.
Coincidentally, as I was thinking about my experience of this poem, the now classic flick Being John Malkovich aired again on cable.
In it, you may recall, a character discovers a secret portal that allows him to get inside the mind of the actor and experience life as he does. Soon, like a good entrepreneur, he merchandises the portal -- selling tickets to trips inside the Malkovich mindscape.
But even this invasion of privacy isn't enough. Eventually, like a malevolent spirit, he takes over not only the mind, but the life of Malkovich, making him abandon his acting career and become a puppeteer. All of which I take as an allegory of how in popular culture, keeping fans happy can pressure a celebrity to begin living out their projections.
Of course, poets today don't get famous enough to have to worry about such problems; we can fall into and out of identification with our favorite writers without harming anyone.
When it comes to mind reading, the contemporary lyric gives all parties a free ride. No wonder, despite periodic claims of its obsolescence, it persists! Thoughts?